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

On the Concept That “Science is Just Another Religion”

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Why do people say “Science is just another religion?”  Any time you’re trying to see inside the head of someone who disagrees with you, you’re in dangerous territory.  But two weeks ago we were driving through the mountains of British Columbia, and I’m kind of missing dangerous territory, so here goes.  If this appears to be an attack on a particular individual, I apologize; sometimes the best way to address the general is through the particular.  It isn’t intended to be personal.

There is a lovely bit in Trotsky’s Their Morals And Ours: “…to the Roman pope Freemasons and Darwinists, Marxists and anarchists are twins because all of them sacrilegiously deny the immaculate conception. To Hitler, liberalism and Marxism are twins because they ignore ‘blood and honor’. To a democrat, fascism and Bolshevism are twins because they do not bow before universal suffrage. And so forth.”   When you say X and Y are the same, you are generally saying little about X and Y, and a great deal about your own method and ideology.

When someone says, “Science is just another religion,” it is worth asking, “Of exactly what does this ‘just another’ consist?”

In the previous discussion, one commenter wrote, “Science, whether it falls under a precise definition of religion, certainly has a lot of features of one – including tenets, rituals, and zealots.”  Therefore, we may conclude, the existence of tenets, rituals, and zealots is the most vital matter in analyzing the nature of beliefs.  The question of how well a belief system can be used to explain and consciously change the objective world, its willingness to change itself when contradictory evidence appears, its effort to draw the laws of motion of nature from facts rather than imposing them on facts–none of these, it seems, matter. What matters is that there are tenets, rituals, and zealots.

What does this tell us?  That, to this individual, the search for objective truth is irrelevant–very likely, it indicates a belief that there is no objective truth.  But, if there no objective truth, how do we understand the world? By practical effect.  And practical effects, to a subjectivist, are personal and individual.  This gives the person the freedom to list “bad things” science has done and “good things” religion has done, picking examples that are meaningful to this individual and that just happen to put religion on top.  (Meanwhile, these people merrily use hardware, software, and infrastructure (including electricity and the shelter that, presumably, is over their heads), all of which are the products of science, in order to go onto the internet and explain that science is just another religion.)

Tim Minchin, in “Storm” (which I linked to in my previous post) says, “Every mystery solved so far has turned out to be–not magic.”  Yeah, there are mysteries we haven’t solved yet.  There are whole fields that science is only starting to look at.  And it is quite natural that some people will look at those mysteries and fields and put God there; after all, there isn’t any room for Him in the mysteries we’ve solved.  But to take the next step and use this to dismiss science requires a determined sort of ignorance.

The object of the game, in my opinion, is the creation of a better world.  That means, for starters, one without poverty, without war, with good health care for all, with full access to culture for all, with human liberty and equality for all.  The more we understand the world (both the “natural” world and the social world–two classes of knowledge that can be separated in our minds, but not in reality), the more effectively we can work to accomplish these goals.  There is a name for the effort to understand objective truth: we call it science.  If you believe the methods of science fall short in accomplishing this goal, then it is perfectly fair to propose ways in which science itself can be improved.  This is how the scientific method itself changes and adapts.  But dismissing it by labeling it a religion–that is, a set of beliefs no more or less “valid” than any other–is to work against our ability to understand the world, and thus is, ultimately, to support reaction.

 

skzb

Author: skzb

I play the drum.

94 Comments

  1. Saying “it is just another religion” is for the purpose of saying it is a belief, an opinion. Thus it can be easily dismissed along with all the other religions you don’t support.

    But science has a set of rules. Follow the rules and what you come up with has a really good chance of being true (testable, repeatable and independent of the individual).

    So the purpose of the statement is to dismiss the findings of science because, well, you want to dismiss them.

  2. It is pretty spectacular when people invoke pomo tropes to justify belief-by-authority. It’s like irony or something.

  3. they combined Christian doctrine (particularly the ideas of salvation and apocalypse ) with the concept of evolutionary advancement and elements of science fiction , particularly travel to other worlds and dimensions.

  4. chaos: ‘pomo’ = post-modern?

  5. Science has rituals? Darn, maybe that’s why I had trouble passing Chemistry class. I thought it was the math. Unless all that instrument-washing to prevent contaminating samples was secretly ritual cleanliness…

  6. Sorites:

    1. All complex systems of thought are to some extent belief systems.*

    2. All belief systems are prone to zealotry.

    3. Science is a complex system of thought.

    4. Therefore there can be scientific zealots.

    But

    5. Science is distinguished from almost all religious systems of thought** in that it encourages believers and non-believers alike to attack its theories, and science is also one of the few systems of thought of any kind that accepts its demonstrated mistakes and incorporates a verification procedure into its fabric.

    *Scientists are necessarily believers because it’s not practical for any individual to work through all of scientific theory and to perform all the appropriate verifying experiments on their own, even within a single specialist field. But this style of belief is rather different from religious belief because scientific beliefs can be tested and retested at will, even if any given individual chooses not to do so at the moment.

    **The Dalai Lama, for one, has said that religious beliefs should be tested and verified by individuals, and not accepted as dogma, but I wonder indeed what he means, considering that most Buddhist beliefs — including both the underlying mythos as well as the core beliefs in metempsychosis — appear to be inherently untestable.

  7. There’s a context where it might make sense to say science is just another religion.

    When people use science to say “I know what’s true and I know what’s false because science tells me”, they are using science as just another religion.

    There may be an objective truth, and if there is then science on average gets us closer to it. Sometimes we might find we have to throw away a lot of what previous science taught us and accept very different approaches to get closer. But what we throw away today was probably closer than what it replaced. We can think that we’re getting closer in some sense even if our theories a hundred years from now have no obvious relation to what we believe now, and 200 years from now it might be even more wierdly different.

    Science isn’t about certainty. It’s a collection of methods that give us reproducible results over increasingly wide areas. When people use it for religion then it’s religion, just like when somebody sits on you then you are a chair.

    Science is not very good for some things. Here’s an example:

    You have 10 variables that affect each other in some way. So each of them changes, probably due to itself and the other 9. If we assume the changes are all linear, then we have 10 equations in 10 unknowns. Then we can predict values for all ten variables provided we know the initial state and we also have accurate estimates for 100 parameters. This is not trivial. Showing that each of the 100 interactions is linear is also not trivial. If some of them are not linear, then we have even more parameters to discover.

    It’s just hard. Sometimes we can predict parameters from first principles, from the laws of physics. This is very very risky.

    It takes a tremendous amount of work to do simple problems like this. And how reproducible is it? When you find that it is not very reproducible that’s likely because there is at least one more variable that you don’t know about, which your experimental system has not controlled for. Sometimes that’s something simple, like working before 5 PM or after 5 PM when other users aren’t putting as much modulated noise into the power lines. It isn’t unusual that you look at experimental data and easily extract a 60 hertz cycle from it.

    The usual approach is to start with the interactions you *think* are important. Assume everything else is zero. You predict the result from your JustSo model, and compare those results with experiment. If they look reasonably good, then you publish.

    Imagine how often that happens in economics. You start with a system with hundreds of variables. 100 simultaneous linear equations gives you 10,000 parameters to estimate. You look at the ones you have decided a priori are important and set the rest to zero…. Is this scientific? Hell no. But it’s something we can do, and actual science is something we mostly can’t do in this case.

    Sometimes you can deal with emergent variables. Like, if you look at individual molecular collisions in a gas it very fast gets too complicated. But temperature gives you an important average value you can work with. Things will average out, and when it’s a mole of molecules they’ll average out pretty efficiently.

    Try that approach in economics. You can get emergent variables like inflation and GDP and productivity. But things don’t really average out. Things that don’t average out continually bite you. There is an important difference between a million pounds of flour and a million Pet Rocks, but it’s hard to incorporate that difference into an emergent variable.

    Science as we do it today has some big important limits. It will probably never reach certainty. No matter how much we do, there’s always the chance that later we will find that our eternal truths were only statistical averages that depend on variables we haven’t noticed yet. And just now, we don’t know how to handle complicated things.

    But there’s the chance that new scientific methods will be found which can do better. It isn’t something I’d put religious faith in, but it’s plausible that might happen.

  8. The mountain air must have agreed with you Steve–another good post.

  9. @Emma: Chemistry Profs are ALL a bunch of ritualistic fundies. Just TRY reaching for the potassium metal to put in your beaker of water, instead of the sodium bisulfate, and watch them lose their ever-loving MINDS. That is not SCRIPTURE. That is not HOW IT’S DONE.

    Pffft!

  10. In the area of whether a claim is testable, I will note that my experience with people arguing against atheism have never come back with an answer when I ask them why I shouldn’t believe that Brahma created the world.

    Apparently it isn’t as bad to be a Hindu as it is to be an atheist. I infer this is because the prothlesizer isn’t threatened by Hinduism. But if we can’t come up with arguments or evidence to decide between two very different religions, there is no comparison between that and science.

  11. > But dismissing it by labeling it a religion–that is, a set of beliefs no more or less “valid” than any other–is to work against our ability to understand the world, and thus is, ultimately, to support reaction.

    I think this is where I will most significantly disagree with you. I don’t think religion is a dirty word. The thing for me is that any belief system has its limitations and shortcomings. And cultures who believe in gods or spirits can be very sophisticated and well-developed, despite us thinking them primitive.

    > The object of the game, in my opinion, is the creation of a better world.

    I’m not certain increasing technology is creating a better world without any drawbacks. Again, I think global climate instability is the most obvious example. And, unfortunately, I think the missing piece is a feeling of connection with the larger world. The kind of connection provided by something more like an old-fashioned religion.

    People still have their primate tribal instincts. Whether indulging them to extract profits from the rest of us on Wall Street or having miracle contests in ancient Israel, the tribal dynamics are the same – my tribe is better than yours.

    Science has removed many of the mysteries but I don’t see where it has replaced the sense of common purpose people used to get from religion. Personally, I am not a fan of the way old time religion oppresses people, particularly women, and tribal games certainly continue even with a prayer book, but I do think we need something to encourage people to overcome those primate instincts and start acting like we’re going to be on this planet past the end of the next quarterly report. I’m not sure what that looks like, but I think we ought to start working on it.

    > If this appears to be an attack on a particular individual

    Not at all. I love a good debate.

  12. “Science is just another religion” is a pretty bad way to dismiss science. But it is reasonably accurate when interpreted properly. For one thing, it’s important to distinguish science—the methodology–from belief-in-science-working—the “religion”. We’ve seen science the methodology be very successful. But note that religions can also have methodologies; for example Judaism has a long list of methods for inferring religious rules from the bible, as well as principles for making decisions about new religious questions when they arise (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Talmud#Logic_and_methodology ).

    If instead you want to talk about belief in science working, then it’s not clear that you can really distinguish science from religion in the sense that both rely on axioms that cannot be proven. In particular science relies on axioms like consistency—that what happened yesterday will happen tomorrow. Hume explored this issue. In fact, I’ve seen it written that religions also got their start as attempts to explain the world around them—why rain happened, why people got sick, etc. Just as in science, they formulated hypotheses. They didn’t have the scientific method for testing these hypotheses, but that’s a difference of methodology, not goals.

    Now, if you’re going to claim that the big difference between the science axioms and the religious ones are that the scientific ones work, then that’s just circular: it is an axiom of science that you should test hypotheses and discard the ones that don’t work. You’re basing your argument that science works on a scientific belief system. Religions don’t have that system, so it’s not a contradiction for them to come to other conclusions.

  13. Darn, CaliannG, don’t do that when I’m drinking coffee!

  14. skzb

    Falco: I did not say that “increasing technology is creating a better world.” I said that creating a better world requires scientific understanding of this one. I’m not sure why you’re pulling “increasing technology” into this.

    David Karger: “In fact, I’ve seen it written that religions also got their start as attempts to explain the world around them—why rain happened, why people got sick, etc. Just as in science, they formulated hypotheses. They didn’t have the scientific method for testing these hypotheses, but that’s a difference of methodology, not goals.”

    Yes, the difference is methodology, not goals. That’s why I don’t buy into the stuff about how religion and science have different “spheres.” The methodology of science begins with the objective world and the effort to discover its inner workings; the methodology of religion begins with nature endowed with consciousness–in other words, with ideas. To begin with ideas is inevitably to impose theory on the facts, rather than drawing theory from the facts. This is the essence of the difference in method between science and religion.

  15. But science too is beginning with ideas: the idea that the future is similar to the past, the idea that the universe is (macro scale) deterministic in that effect follows cause, etc. One of its ideas is a particular protocol for testing hypotheses. Why should we “believe” this idea? Because it works! But really what we mean is “because it has worked in the past so we expect it to work in the future”. But that “expect” is how we begin with ideas. The methodology of religion also (probably) began with the objective world. People get sick. This person got sick after refusing to help this other person. Hypothesis: they are being punished by some entity. Once you have that hypothesis you can find lots of “evidence” (people who get sick after being mean) to support your hypothesis. Remember, science far predated statistics (which would have revealed that the evidence was not significant). Early science (e.g. Greek) was actually closer to what we would now think of as religion, e.g. firm positions on the structure of the human body that were in contradiction to what you would find if you opened one up.

  16. skzb

    David Karger: The ideas you claim science is starting with were drawn from the process of investigating objective reality. The “believe it because it works” idea is a particular subset of some approaches to science, and I have a whole set of issues with it that I’ll discuss one of these days. But to claim it IS science is to redefine science in accordance with a pre-set schema: the hallmark of religion, not science.

    However, even if your origin myths (science starts with an idea, religion started with objective reality) were literally and strictly true, it would change nothing; science is the name we give to methods that base themselves on the objective world and attempt to draw our theories from that; religion is the name we give to methods that begin with nature endowed with consciousnesses and attempt to force facts to fit that schema. These are distinctive methods, they are opposites.

    If you want to play with words and redefine them, you may, but it seems like a waste of time, and it then puts the obligation on you to suggest substitutes: what name would you give to the one verses the other?

  17. “But science too is beginning with ideas: the idea that the future is similar to the past, the idea that the universe is (macro scale) deterministic in that effect follows cause, etc. One of its ideas is a particular protocol for testing hypotheses. Why should we “believe” this idea? Because it works! But really what we mean is “because it has worked in the past so we expect it to work in the future”.”

    When you have the idea that the future will be similar in the past, but your experiments stop working, then you look for some uncontrolled variable that has changed and you try to change it back. If you can’t, then you’re stuck. Your science has failed you in this one area, and you must accept that until you find new experiments that are repeatable.

    So it isn’t so much that we believe science because it works. It’s that we believe science WHEN it works. When we don’t find causes that effects follow, we go study something else.

    Some people believe that science must inevitably work everywhere for everything. This is like a religious belief. Scientists don’t need to believe that, they can do science where they get results and worry about everything else later.

  18. I think it is fair to say that science does not settle everything, even contingently. In a way it does not settle anything. Specific scientific questions are settled by specific sciences – organic chemistry or specific branches of physics or whatever. And of course many types of questions can’t be settled by any science. I love garlic and like cilantro – not in anyway scientific. And if you hold the opposite opinion – well not even an argument. Garlic and cilantro don’t objectively taste good or bad. Different people hold different opinions. And not just subjective things. Is love real? Depends upon how you define love. How about romantic love? Some people deny the reality of it. Many cultures believed in the reality of romantic love, but saw it as a disease, a terrifying affliction that inevitably let to tragedy, not as something to be valued. Not just a matter of taste, but not a scientific question either.

    But things like “What makes the sky blue” or “Is there a great invisibile man out there who is omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent is a question about an objective fact, and thus can be addressed by scientific discourse. Of course the question of what is science and what is not is also an interesting one. Sometimes I think people try to equate valid reasoned discourse with science, whereas I think science has to be defined a bit more narrowly, and that arguments that are both valid and true (the distinction between valid and true, I trust being obvious) are not necessarily scientific.

  19. Disclaimer: I didn’t read the whole previous thread. Do I need to?

    I recently wrote an essay for The Atlantic about Jenny McCarthy. I wanted to go at her epistemology as dangerous, but started with faith healers who let their daughter die in a (highly treatable) diabetic coma, while praying. They had an unexamined baseless belief that praying would work. It didn’t work. A child died. I started with it because even the very religious people I know (I work for a university founded by nuns) would agree that the process leading to this child dying was wrong.

    I then pivoted to McCarthy and her unexamined “scientific” intuitions about her son, autism, and how to cure him. I tried to link her way of thinking to the faith healers, and arguing they were equally dangerous.

    As SKZB often notes, writing can be hard. I swung and missed at my transition sentence, my editor didn’t catch it, and plenty of people criticized me for it in comments, emails, reddit, etc. I wrote, “Religion and science equally fuel this kind of fear-mongering and reckless parenting.” I own the mistake. What I should have written was that religion and science CAN equally fuel …

    So I do not think that science is just another religion, but it can function as another religion for lots of people. It’s bad science to just BELIEVE that autism is environmental, so you need to cleanse your child, and the solution to autism is to feed your child bleach (this is a real thing). But isn’t it science operating as faith, as belief, perhaps as religion?

  20. skzb

    David: In my comment to David Karger, above, I mentioned that there is an opposition of methods. We need to not fetishise the words. If you use the method of religion, yet call it science, it is still religion–see Lincoln about a dog’s legs. That is what “creation science” does, as well as the many forms of pseudo-science.

  21. If it were a little earlier, I’d try to address “one verses the other” in poetry; but time pressure forces prose.
    1. I don’t think it’s appropriate to equate religion with a belief in nature being conscious. For example, from my limited knowledge of Buddhism, there is no notion of a conscious divinity; rather there is a belief in the importance of shedding one’s cares (and consciousness?) and ascending to nirvana. Though this may explain why it’s not clear whether Buddhism is a religion: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Buddhism#Is_Buddhism_a_religion.3F .
    2. On the flip side, it is interesting to ask whether Alchemy, or the earlier Greek modeling of matter via the 4 elements, was religion or science. Certainly it was “based on the objective world and attempted to draw out theories from that”; at the same time it was heavily based on received teachings that were not questioned or tested by experiment—no scientific method yet.
    3. Going back to your original post, I see you are unhappy with the idea of “dismissing science as just another religion”. But I think that’s because you have a low opinion of religion. Since I’ve got a high opinion of religion, I don’t need not parse “just another religion” as dismissive. Rather, I can take the point that both science and religion can be aimed at making the world a better place (certainly this is an objective of many religions, as well as science), that both can seek to examine data from the world in order to understand it better (i-ching, astrology, reading entrails, etc), and that both must start with certain axioms/rules for reasoning. I don’t see any of this as denigrating science. Science works great and does let us improve the world, which is why I am a scientist. It isn’t a failure of science that it relies on axioms.
    4. David Perry brings up the vaccination-autism craziness. This highlights a class of religious beliefs (age of earth, evolution, etc.) that are *contrary* to science. When there’s a conflict between science and religion, I choose science. I can’t prove that’s the right thing to do and I don’t care: my axioms say science beats religion any time.
    5. But there are plenty of religious claims that are not contrary to science and that I expect never will be because they cannot be tested. Claims such as the existence of a soul (although Greg Bear’s Psychlone had fun playing with that). And I think that if you dismiss such things as false because they cannot be tested, then you are moving from the realm of science to the realm of religion, applying a particular axiom/rule of reasoning that cannot be *proven* correct but simply reflects the way you want to think. I don’t think that particular position (“things that cannot be falsified are not true”) is any more defensible than others (“things that cannot be falsified might be true”).

  22. In Buddhism there is a great deal of conscious divinity. There are all kinds of divine and semi-divine beings, in both Mahayana and Hinayana branches.

    So for example the Amida Buddha has so much karmic credit from a myriad myriad kalpas worth of virtuous penitence that anyone who says “all praise Amida Buddha” — without even believing in the creed — is guaranteed to have their karmic debt wiped out after death, and will go to a special heaven instead of returning to Earth on the karmic wheel.

    It’s really a very nice myth, but the religion is still festooned with these kind of mythological elements, most of which are taken quite seriously by most of the sects. I think we tend to have a rather warped view of Zen in this country, which is what most people think of when they think of Buddhism. Zen practice is evidently mostly not very tightly bound to divinity. But I think in Japan that Zen monks and priests accept the full range of Mahayana standard beliefs, which includes all those various buddhas and boddhisatvas and angelic and deific beings of various ranks and grades.

  23. No the “just another religion” claim is a putdown of science because it is claiming that there is no more reason to believe in global warming, say, than in an afterlife. Now there might, in fact, be an afterlife and certainly many people believe in it, but there is no way that the real world leads to such a conclusion. But the real world is experiencing global warming.

    Of course, science does not lead to certainty. Apparently, scientific papers rarely cite anything more than about five years old. That’s because all scientific theories are changing. Take evolution. The basic facts are as well established as anything could be. In fact, the idea of evolution was in the air long before Charles Darwin. His grandfather Erasmus Darwin was a strong proponent long before. It was the idea of variation and natural selection as the engine of evolution that Charles contributed. But the details of evolution are extremely complicated and changing all the time. It is now understood, for example, that there is even a kind of Lamarckian aspect to evolution. A child who grows up malnourished will suppress some genes by a process called methylation and this suppression may pass to his well-nourished children. But this doesn’t refute evolution; it only deepens our understanding of it.

    There is no certainty to any of this. Only religion offers certainty. Falsely, in my opinion, but that’s just what I believe. Even mathematics doesn’t offer certainty; Goedel showed that. Of course, I believe mathematics is consistent and that really is a belief. A belief that can potentially be refuted, but a belief for all that. But so far it works.

  24. @SKZB I’m trying to figure out on what basis we judge Science superior other than some people like it better, which is what going on about objective reality sounds like to me. But who picks what is objective reality? Scientists, by deciding what can be tested. Which is the same way reality is validated in a religion, except we call those validators priests.

    Let me give a bit of a personal example. When I was born, my shin was twisted so that one of my feet pointed almost backward. I wore a brace on it from, I guess, the age of two until kindergarten – I quite clearly remember the day the doctor said I could quit wearing it. You couldn’t tell now, except that foot still has a tendency to drift in a bit, and you wouldn’t notice that unless I pointed it out. I am, however, completely capable of doing all the things people normally do with legs and feet. Victory for Science!

    Now, let me posit a hypothetical Amazonian tribe whose only contact with Western Science is the occasional visit by a missionary. A child with a deformed limb is born to them. They perform a ceremony that communicates to that soul that it needs to go back and try again to make a body correctly. They then leave the child for the jaguars to find. Their holy man would insist that he can tell you when that same soul is born into the tribe again.

    Why do we pick the scientific over the holy? I think it’s because we like the result. But you can’t measure like, it’s just an opinion. To me, the most obvious result of Science is technology, so that seems to be the best way to measure whether it improves the world.

  25. skzb

    “But who picks what is objective reality?” No one. It is what exists regardless of what anyone picks. That’s why it’s called objective reality.

  26. “But who picks what is objective reality? Scientists, by deciding what can be tested.”

    Well, kind of. Scientists don’t have to decide what’s objective reality. They can just do science and leave the arguments about what it means to philosophers.

    It’s a game. When you play the game by the rules, with creativity and verve and you score well, the other scientists respect you for it. Ideally you get to go home at the end of each day with the feeling that you’ve done a good day’s work doing science.

    Scientists themselves often don’t understand it all that well. They can sometimes sit around and talk about the burden of proof and falsifiability and Popper and the anthropic principle and get it all wrong. But they instinctively know when they see good science. (Except sometimes they are mistaken.)

    Science is a fun game. And if you play your cards right, you can get paid to play it! But of course, it’s easier to get money when there’s the promise of practical results.

    “Why do we pick the scientific over the holy? I think it’s because we like the result.”

    There is no reason to pick one over the other. That’s like picking the game of bridge over the game of basketball. You can do either or both. It’s hard to play bridge and basketball at the same time, since they make competing demands on your time, but you can do them the same day.

    Some people say “We know religion is wrong because science is right.”. This is an unscientific claim. It isn’t a valid philosophical claim by the logic I use. It’s an OK religious claim.

    Some people say “I choose to base my understanding of the world on science, because I believe that’s the closest I can get to objective reality.”. That’s a fine philosophical stand. You can build a religion on it if you can find followers. You don’t have to do that to play the science game well, but it probably won’t hurt to do it either.

    “To me, the most obvious result of Science is technology, so that seems to be the best way to measure whether it improves the world.”

    Deciding what’s an improvement is mostly not a scientific thing. You can look at the question of what to add to a fish pond to maximize the number of pounds of fish you can extract from it per year, but you have to decide whether maximizing fish is the most improvement.

    Deciding what’s an improvement belongs to economics, which is very hard to do in any scientific way. In general it’s hard to test what will result from given economic actions. We can make up plausible stories about that, but they are hard to test scientificly. Once you think you know what to expect from an action, deciding whether it’s an improvement is also an extremely difficult scientific problem. Generally we figure it’s better that more people are healthy, get adequate nutrition, have an increasing lifespan, feel good about themselves, etc. I’m real unclear how to do science on all that.

    The decisions about whether science improves the world more than religion, or whether atheism improves the world more than religion, etc, do not look to me like scientific questions that we would know how to use science to answer. At least not this year.

  27. Broadly speaking,

    The evidence of How Things Happen presented by religion does not change and cannot change. Eg, in Christianity, the Bible says that the Earth is only a few thousand years old and is only older than humanity by 5 days. In religion you believe that evidence presented based on faith, fear and acceptance. Region in based on absolutes.

    The evidence of How Things Happen presented by science has been changing since our prehistoric ancestors figured out that rocks help you smash things. Magic, faith, God, Spaghetti Monster etc in this context have been placeholders for things that science hasn’t worked out yet. Eg, we thought that the universe revolved around the sun. In science you believe that evidence based on observation and analysis and then sometimes challenging and revising the evidence based on further observation and analysis. Even the methods of observations and analysis are subject to change. Science is based on a point-in-time understanding of things.

  28. thomas. You don’t think picking four valued logic is itself something that you need a burden of proof to justify? If yo want to use multi-valued logic, what about probabilistic logic, which has a spectrum of truth or falsity rather than a finite number of values. 0 false, 1, true any other number in between possible. )

  29. Religions do change. Not only Mormonism, but maybe all religions. Or do you know of any religions that as measured by outsiders are the same today as a few centuries ago?

  30. I never said that religions don’t change. They do. What I should of said is that the evidence presented by their respective scriptures RARELY change. I don’t thing the first 5 or so books of the Old Testiment have changed for a couple of millinea. Or that the structure of the New Testiment as changed much since Constantine facilitated the purging of contradictory texts around 1,700 years ago. Its not like these things go through a peer review every few years or so (eg, “I believe there is evidence to suggest that He created Man on the 7th day, after taking a sabbatical on the 6th”). And why would it, considering religion is based on non-desputible core fundamental (eg God created the Earth, period).

  31. “You don’t think picking four valued logic is itself something that you need a burden of proof to justify?”

    If you want to argue that a particular logic is the right one to use in some particular circumstance, then you need an argument for why it’s the right one to use then.

    I hope I didn’t do that.

    Two-value logic is not appropriate for anything that Godel’s Theorem applies to. Four-value logic is a minimum case then. But that doesn’t mean it’s the best approach. It’s just the one I use.

    “If yo want to use multi-valued logic, what about probabilistic logic, which has a spectrum of truth or falsity rather than a finite number of values. 0 false, 1, true any other number in between possible.”

    That can work. My problem with that is about how to weight the evidence. Actual evidence is important, but how important? What you already believe and your reasons to believe it are also important, but how do you decide how much emphasis to put on your priors? It starts looking very subjective. Which is OK. If you actually try to quantify that you can get it much clearer just what your subjective attitudes are, and that’s a good thing.

    I have a prejudice that probabilistic logic is better for things like gambling or military strategy than for philosophical questions. Like, say we were to consider the question “Assuming God exists, is He a sadistic bastard?”. He puts people into situations where they feel lots of pain. He puts them into morally ambiguous situations where anything they do is wrong. Is that enough to say he’s sadistic? I’d expect people would look at just what they mean by the words, and then decide. They might not all decide the same way, but most people would come down on one side or the other. It just seems strange to decide “The probability that if God exists He is a sadistic bastard is .72.”.

    I guess I could get used to that sort of thing. It just feels strange.

  32. “Eg, in Christianity, the Bible says that the Earth is only a few thousand years old and is only older than humanity by 5 days.”

    I don’t read it that way.

    The biggest part of the dating comes from the genealogy. People lived so long, count the dates, etc. It looks to me like there are two incompatible genealogies there. A whole lot of Genesis is written twice, as if two different documents were spliced together, and to me this looks like an example.

    Maybe more important, God didn’t make the sun until the fourth day. But they called them days before that. “I don’t think that word means what you think it means.”

    There are people who make your interpretation of the Bible. I don’t think it’s necessary to think about it that way.

  33. Science is a creation not an extraction.
    look at any thing physical and determine what shape it has. Then apply the logic of science and realize that it just looks like it has that shape but mathematically speaking and upon inspection with a microscope it doesn’t actually have that shape at all. We impose the idea of the shape on the “object” and give it boarders, Lines. We use Ideas to interpret our reality. I don’t believe we have actually found or made a circle, square, or triangle without the use of some imagination. In fact nature seems to bend around shapes leaving their perfection silhouetted in blankness.

    I have been struggling for sometime to find or create a system of thought that classifies Ideas. “The Idea of Ideas” something like that.

  34. @SKZB So, if everyone in my hypothetical tribe of Amazonians agrees that leaving a deformed child out for the jaguars, after the proper ceremonies, insures that its soul will be reborn in a more fit form, that is objective reality. They would certainly believe that they can prove it to their satisfaction. That this guy over here is called “Charlie Twice-Born” because he was originally born wrong and had to come back again, so it obviously works.

    To me, it sounds like the test for objective reality is that it be proven to our satisfaction or to the satisfaction of the priests, er, scientists (and the methods by which they measure reality) in whom we place our trust. And, again, to me, that seems entirely a value judgment unless you’re one of those scientists (and I’ve known enough scientists to be pretty sure they’re making value judgments, too, by throwing out results that don’t fit the model) Not that I’m saying it is the wrong judgment to make. Leaving babies out to die sounds pretty horrible to me.

    However, my underlying point is this: I am aware that I am horrified by the prospect of abandoning infants because I was born and raised in a culture that is horrified by the prospect. To me, it is important to realize that my objective reality is a product of a specific culture and that every culture, including Science, comes with certain biases and blind spots. How would we run a scientifically valid experiment on whether or not souls of deformed children are reincarnated if the proper ceremony is performed? The mindset of Science cannot conceive of such a thing. I’d be laughed out of the Halls of Science if I proposed it, if they didn’t lock me up as delusional, regardless of how valid the experimental results would be.

  35. @Falco, the jaguars scenario highlights another issue in science vs. religion. Eugenics can be quite scientific, and some budding young scientist might have noticed that leaving the child out for the jaguars reduces the burden on the community and improves the gene pool. This is objective reality, easily proved by scientific methods. Where it breaks down (for me) is in questions of morality–what does the community owe the individual—which science isn’t really equipped to address. For that question, you get your choice of a variety of philosophies and religions, all of which are on pretty common (“not provable from objective reality”) ground.

  36. @Falco: ” So, if everyone in my hypothetical tribe of Amazonians agrees that leaving a deformed child out for the jaguars, after the proper ceremonies, insures that its soul will be reborn in a more fit form, that is objective reality. They would certainly believe that they can prove it to their satisfaction.”

    No, they have agreed upon a subjective reality. Belief and agreement do not define objective reality. For your proposed jaguar experiment, I would first ask you to define your term “soul” and to propose a repeatable, verifiable test that can determine the existence and equivalence of said “soul” between instantiations. What measurements do you propose to determine the validity of your experiment?

  37. skzb

    The struggle for objective truth is a process, not a once-for-ever test. We constantly strive to discover what is objectively true, and bring our thinking in line with it. As we learn more, our understanding changes, and even our understanding of HOW to carry out this struggle. This struggle is known as science.

    Alternately, we can reject the belief in objective truth, believing that ideas (our own, God’s, whatever) are what defines the world. Any system of thought based on this latter belief falls under the heading of what we call “religion.”

  38. But @skzb, many religions (and observers of them) argue that God cannot be known in its entirety by limited human beings, and therefore see religion as an ongoing striving to determine what is true about God—a striving in which it is possible to err, and to correct errors.

    Both cases posit an objective truth while recognizing that our perception of that truth is imperfect and subject to revision. The truths aren’t even necessarily in conflict with one another.

    I think it’s better to characterize science via its focus on experimentation and falsification of hypotheses—ie, the methodology rather than the underpinning philosophy.

  39. Nowadays, religions claim that faith is an important part of their religion. That wasn’t always so. It became important when science showed how effective it is to use evidence in our learning.

    Religions haven’t shown *why* faith is important. Why God would care whether we truly believe correctly. Why an omnipotent, all-loving being would reward those who believe correctly and allow the vast majority to be tortured beyond all understanding forever and ever without hope of parole.

    But it is obvious that my beliefs are correct (not those of my parents’ generation, and certainly not those of my children). And if I’m not being rewarded for them now, the reward must come later.

  40. “So, if everyone in my hypothetical tribe of Amazonians agrees that leaving a deformed child out for the jaguars, after the proper ceremonies, insures that its soul will be reborn in a more fit form, that is objective reality.”

    How do they decide what a soul is, or whether a soul has been reborn, or which soul has been reborn?

    It could be true, but how do you find out whether it’s true or not?

    Something doesn’t become objective reality just because everybody agrees about it. Let’s call the things that most everybody agrees about “consensus reality” and “objective reality” is something else.

  41. “The struggle for objective truth is a process, not a once-for-ever test. We constantly strive to discover what is objectively true, and bring our thinking in line with it. As we learn more, our understanding changes, and even our understanding of HOW to carry out this struggle. This struggle is known as science.”

    I think that’s an OK way to look at science. But other ways to look at science could be just as valid.

    Like, when it was costly to store and transmit data, we had to try to boil the data down into simple concepts. We could do statistics to get the best estimates for the simple numbers that fit our simple models, and assume that data which varied from those simple models had experimental error. So we had theories which were simple enough to store and transmit easily.

    But now if we wanted to, we could keep the raw data from experiments and use that without theories. When we do a new experiment, we predict what results to expect from the new experiment based on our database of old data. We should expect better predictions when we are interpolating — when the new experiment has similar experiments on all sides. When we extrapolate, when the new experiment is less similar to what’s in our database, we are more likely to miss.

    We want our experiments to be reproducible. That doesn’t mean that we understand all the variables that affect the experiment, but if we can make it reproducible then we know how to control all the variables even if we haven’t noticed that they are there, and so variables which don’t vary don’t make our experiments have unexpected results. Variables which do vary without our noticing them, cause “experimental error”.

    Science then could function without any theory about the world, or any assumption that our experiments tell us the truth about everything — not just the experimental conditions we have used — or very much generalization at all. And we would have an idea how bad our predictions should be, given the variation in the actual data.

    When you do an experiment, the more unexpected — but still reproducible — the results you get, the more interesting it is to scientists. If they could already predict the result to high precision and then you get that result, that’s kind of boring. And that’s the game. It’s a fun game to play if you like that kind of thing.

    What does it have to do with objective reality? Not a whole lot. This way to look at science is just as valid as the idea that it approaches objective truth. But it isn’t as much fun to think about, because it sucks the meaning out of the game.

    So for example, you can do experiments with light. Light moves differently through vacuum and air or water, and different when the water is moving relative to you. When you look at light from the stars it is shifted, and it has subtle changes in polarization. Does that come because of relative movement? Is it because of something that happens when light travels very long distances? Is it because things were subtly different when the light was first emitted, and the universe has changed? We have no experiments to tell us. We don’t know how to emit light and see what happens to it after a million years, or a million light-years. If we have theories that we think are true everywhere then we can guess at the whole universe based on those theories. But if we only predict new experiments based on the result of old experiments, then that’s nonsense. It’s a giant extrapolation to assume that the things we have measured are all that matters, that there are no important variables hiding which we have managed to control but not measure. And it’s really only future experiments we can predict, not the whole world.

    “As we learn more, our understanding changes, and even our understanding of HOW to carry out this struggle.”

    Yes! Again, as it gets cheaper to handle data, it makes more practical to base science on experimental results rather than theories that sort of fit experimental results, compared to the old days when we could not do that.

  42. @skzb I will admit that my definition of religion is just about synonymous with belief structure, but that’s part of my attempt to overthrow the oppressors who insist only they can decide which tests determine what is objective and which do not.

    @Steve&J Thomas Yes, there is a well-trained cadre of experts available to verify that souls exist. They can provide evidence that their methods work and are repeatable. They can cite previous experts who also have extensive experience and expertise. If you’re willing to dedicate yourself to many years of training and have the talent for it, they can even teach you to run the tests.

  43. Falco, the spiritualists I’ve read about who did seances etc have been found to fake it. Enough of them have been found faking it that I don’t believe the others.

  44. Falco, there are no “well trained cadre of experts available to verify that souls exist”. To date there has been no evidence, anywhere that souls exist.

  45. How close are political and economic systems to being religions?

  46. @Falco:If you are still referring to the Jaguar priests, then I would say they should be brought forward and their methods studied and tested.
    If you are talking about non thought experiment people, then I would say the same thing.
    I am perfectly willing for their methods to be tested, analyzed and studied like any other. As J Thomas mentions above, to date no such claims have passed any serious studies.

  47. @howardbrazee:On the economic side, we currently have a very good example of that in action. When the Federal Reserve acted to increase the monetary supply, one group of economists predicted that inflation would soar. Another predicted that it would not as we are currently in liquidity trap. The Fed increased the monetary supply and inflation did not soar. The first group’s theory is thus disproven (note that this does not prove group 2, it simply provides evidence that their model worked in this case) and they need to rethink their model.
    Unfortunately, many seem to be blithely ignoring this–this is where they stumble into the realm of religious thinking and out of the realm of science.

  48. “How close are political and economic systems to being religions?”

    Economic schools of thought, definitely.

    There is a problem that experimental macroeconomics is very hard to do. There are a large number of uncontrolled variables, and only a small number of experiments are possible. Also a whole lot of people object to being experimented on. And people who have their own theories will react to the experiment according to their own beliefs about what to expect from it.

    So if one economist predicts inflation while another predicts rising unemployment and a third predicts war, the one who wins is not particularly likely to win the next round. It’s more like betting on horse races than like disproving theories.

  49. @ J Thomas – my experience with things like Astrology is that, in good hands, it serves as a tool to open up intuitive faculties.

    @ Steve Halter – that is exactly the limitation of the scientific mindset – that everything can be reduced to underlying physical phenomena and, if it can’t, it doesn’t exist. It makes it almost impossible to think about anything that might not have a root in something physical. But there are myriad examples, from economics to conscious thought that, when broken down into their smallest physical elements, dissolve into meaningless detail.

  50. @Falco:There are myriad things that we don’t fully understand at this point in time. Neither of the examples you give (economic and conscious thought) dissolve into meaningless detail. Rather, we learn new details all of the time that gradually expose the mechanisms involved. Progress in science is not just a matter of sudden eureka moments but also of long slow incremental progress.
    To date, I haven’t seen anything that would point towards requiring a non material explanation.

  51. “…my experience with things like Astrology is that, in good hands, it serves as a tool to open up intuitive faculties.”

    Yes. Agreed. And yet it gets billed as a method to understand things and to predict the future. Two areas where it gives results no better than random.

    “…that is exactly the limitation of the scientific mindset – that everything can be reduced to underlying physical phenomena and, if it can’t, it doesn’t exist.”

    That isn’t scientific. It’s sciencistic. The scientific approach is to find the underlying patterns when you can, and not worry about the stuff that you don’t understand yet, until you’re ready to explore it. But some people want reassurance that everything is explained, and they imagine that it must be possible to reduce everything to underlying physical phenomena, because believing that makes them feel better.

    Currently we don’t have anything that we can measure using physical phenomena, that we can prove cannot ever be reduced to underlying physical phenomena. So it’s possible that the assumption is right. But it’s also possible it’s wrong.

    Not a problem for science. Use scientific method and explore as far as it goes, and don’t worry about whether it will work everywhere for everything.

  52. In a fantasy world, where magic actually works – it is no longer magic, it is science subject to rules and analysis, even if it is still called magic.

  53. “In a fantasy world, where magic actually works – it is no longer magic, it is science subject to rules and analysis, even if it is still called magic.”

    What if the rules and analyses are really, really, weird?

    Tough. Adapt.

    What if the rules and analyses are so weird that human minds can’t handle them?

    Tough. Do them so abstractly that it doesn’t matter whether you can handle it. Humans can handle abstract symbol manipulation.

    What if the rules and analyses require some sort of inhuman logic that humans don’t know how to do?

    Tough. Learn how to handle the new logic.

    What if the magic is so irreproducible and chaotic that you can’t find any rules or analysis that work?

    Ouch. Then maybe you’d want to go do science on something else, and come back to this when you get inspired. Or give up science and look for something else that lets you handle magic.

  54. @howardbrazee:Very true. For a good example, the Dragaeran magic is fairly clearly based in well understand principles. They have devices that detect souls and devices that destroy souls. The souls in question would thus seem quite attached to the material world.

  55. @Steve Halter – again, that’s my point: Science looks for a material cause, regardless of whether it’s helpful and you end up with someone like Francis Crick saying that people are just an assemblage of neurons. But, breaking people down into just their component neurons doesn’t actually tell you much about them and leads to silliness like people not being responsible for their actions: My neurons did it!

  56. “…you end up with someone like Francis Crick saying that people are just an assemblage of neurons.”

    That’s like saying a nation is just an assemblage of citizens.

    And yet it may be that a person is an assemblage of neurons and a nation is an assemblage of citizens. It’s possible there’s nothing more involved.

    That possibility tells me we need to look very carefully at what we mean by “assemblage”.

  57. @Falco:Looking at isolated neurons doesn’t tell you much about a given assemblage of neurons. It does provide insight into how neurons operate and interconnect. Just like looking at a single transistor on the silicon wafer that comprises the CPU’s upon which we are typing these words does not tell us what operating system is running on the assemblage of electrical components that make up the whole computer. But, it is useful to know how the transistor works and can be assembled into the whole. Note that in the end, nothing mystical is needed to explain the operation of the device.
    The brain is both more complex and less understood than the aforementioned device, but complexity does not equal mystical. The understanding of the brain grows all of the time and so far, no mystical components or mechanisms have been found.
    Does the non-physical that you imagine interact with the physical world in some fashion?

  58. So what is the result of saying “people are just an assemblage of neurons”? Well, we can consider social problems the same as we do medical problems. Some people dislike that because we want to be able to blame problems on someone or something (Satan?).

    I’ve seen that logic in discussing homosexuality – as though it mattered whether it is a choice or not (usually with a two-valued position that people could only be pure straight or pure gay). I reject that logic. Whether or not a behavior is pre-determined should not influence whether it is acceptable. A rabid dog can’t help what it is, and neither can a smiling baby. Religions have argued about predestination for centuries – fun to discuss, but basically my answer is “it doesn’t matter”.

    But I do work on being better at accepting people where they are. It doesn’t make sense to be Mr. Spock, irrationally surprised every time people act like people. (Or someone who is upset that men act like boys instead of like men).

  59. I’m not saying that useful information and understanding cannot come from exploring the underlying mechanisms behind either a neuron or transistor. The point where I think Science becomes religion is where we then conclude that we understand the larger phenomena because we understand the minutia of it’s parts.

    @Steve Halter – What qualifies as a physical effect? What if I’m inspired by some divine energy and I’m better able to tolerate otherwise depressive living conditions? Is that physical? You might be able to measure the change in the neurons involved, but could we prove that it is the result of interaction of the divine energy with the soul? Science tells us that we should take the simpler explanation – that there is no non-physical cause. This is exactly the blind spot I’m talking about, however.

    And, returning to an earlier point, is Science really making the world better? Have we really improved our situation that much in the last couple of centuries? Although there are many benefits to increasing technology, I’m still far from comfortable with how bad we are at addressing global warming, species extinction, nuclear proliferation, and a whole host of other drawbacks to the modern mindset.

  60. Do you have any examples of people claiming that we understand the larger phenomena because we understand the minutia of its parts?

  61. @Howard Brazee: “In a fantasy world, where magic actually works – it is no longer magic, it is science subject to rules and analysis, even if it is still called magic.”

    One of the things I’ve always greatly admired about Peter S. Beagle is that his magic utterly resists this. There is clearly magic in his fiction, and it clearly works, but it is numinous, and it’s workings defy careful, logical analysis. It is clearly not just another form of technology. Lovely to read about.

    In real life, I know of nothing that works like that. I know of no person who can consistently access the numinous and gain something that cannot be clearly explained by a materialistic explanation. It seems possible to me that there is something out there, some other world, magical, numinous, irrational, and powerful. But then, on odd numbered days, I believe in unicorns, too. In some sense, if one can test and measure it, it is probably not magic in the sense I’m talking of. But even if not repeatable, there’s a distinct lack of miracles which don’t have mundane explanations, when looked at and evaluated carefully. Of the people I know who do practice magic, there doesn’t seem to be any particular earthly use for it. Sometimes it makes them feel better, and I’m fine with that, but what I don’t see are physical results which are useful and inexplicable.

  62. @Falco:I don’t know what divine energy as opposed to ordinary energy is, but a physical effect would be some measurable change here in the physical world. You haven’t given any sort of definition for divine energy or soul, you seem to be proposing something like:
    Divine energy -> soul -> physical effect
    If this isn’t what you are proposing, please do say so.
    If it is what you are proposing, then at that soul -> physical effect boundary there should either:
    1) Be a change that is traceable to some other change or
    2) Be a change that appears out of nowhere and for which no cause can be found.
    Which of these do you mean?

    On the Is Science making the world better question, I would answer that science provides a host of answers and tools. What use these tools are put to varies across a spectrum from good to neutral to bad (good and bad are of course arguable terms). The world is a complex place.
    I certainly like the current state of the world better than I would have liked being a feudal serf. I grew up on a couple of farms and didn’t enjoy modern farming practices so I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have enjoyed back breaking forced labor and an early death.
    Now, unfortunately it seems that a large percentage of policy in the modern world is not done at a scientific level but at an ad hoc level in which plans are not made in which the full (or even partial) consequences are realized. This isn’t a failure of science, but of the current political systems.

  63. “Do you have any examples of people claiming that we understand the larger phenomena because we understand the minutia of its parts?”

    The name for this is “reductionism” and it is a prevalent mistake in science. Often it fails to cause the problems it could, though.

    Here is something that could be an extreme case of it, though I am not familiar enough with the topic to be sure I’m right.

    As I understand it (perhaps wrongly), the search for the Higgs boson worked like this: The null hypothesis was that all fundamental physical interactions are understood, without a Higgs boson. So when studying many trillions of interactions, it is predictable how many of each to expect.

    A recently created Higgs boson would produce physical evidence. It would produce multiple decay products which were themselves detectable. Each of them could be produced other ways also. So if they were produced by coincidence at just the right times and places, you could get something that imitated the desired boson.

    So if the right combination happened more often than chance predicted, that meant the boson was real. Because it was assumed that this boson was the only thing happening that was not predicted.

    The detection system used sophisticated computers to check candidate events and store them. But — if I understand it — they had resources only to test the candidate events and not all events. To do the experiment right, they should look for all possible anomalies and not just the one they were interested in. And if they found some other anomaly first, that meant that they did not actually understand the situation well enough to be sure about the Higgs boson. If they proved their null hypothesis wrong with another particle, then they didn’t necessarily know what to compare the experimental result for Higgs bosons against.

    I’ll repeat that.

    Their assumption was that they knew what to expect, and if they looked for a particular deviation from that and found it, that proved the result they had looked so hard and long for was true. They proved that, *if it was true that they knew what to expect.*

    If they found other proof that they did not in fact know what to expect, then their statistics might not show what they wanted to show.

    And — as I read it — they did not look for any deviations except the one they wanted to find. If they had looked and found twenty new particles, or 50, that would have been interesting! But they did not look.

    I may have misunderstood, and maybe that didn’t happen this time. But it happens a whole lot! People assume that what they already know is right. And they look for tiny bits of new knowledge, on the assumption that everything they already have is right and there are only tiny bits of new knowledge available. They do experiments which they can only interpret on the assumption that they already know almost everything there is to know, and they find ways to filter out everything they aren’t interested in. Then they are ready to assume there is nothing more.

  64. Quant. Suf.

    (Somebody had to say it)

  65. @howardbrazee – see aforementioned observation by Francis Crick or any AI enthusiast who thinks they’ll be able to download their consciousness into a computer real soon now. In general, I think that is the attitude of science – if we understand the underlying mechanisms, we understand how it works. If it can’t be broken down into underlying physical mechanisms, it doesn’t actually exist.

    @Steve Halter – this is really my point, again. Trying to quantify inspiration is, I think, bound to end with a meaningless result. Why does skzb write books about assassins and sorcery? Even if we could come up with some physical cause buried way down in his neurons to explain it, I don’t think that would tell us anything meaningful.

    So I’ll go for 3) a change that science can’t understand. Because the paradigms of Science exclude the concepts required to understand something like inspiration. And I think having Forbidden Thoughts is characteristic of a religion.

    In terms of making the world better, Science seems particularly adept at letting people make new things without taking responsibility for them. What if J. Robert Oppenheimer had said, “Hey, look, this nuclear energy thing is really cool and all, but it’s just too dangerous to have around. Let’s shut this Manhattan Project down.”? But he didn’t because he was doing Science and it’s not his responsibility how it gets used. I disagree.

  66. “So I’ll go for 3) a change that science can’t understand. Because the paradigms of Science exclude the concepts required to understand something like inspiration. And I think having Forbidden Thoughts is characteristic of a religion.”

    AI might easily reach the point where AI inspiration can be observed and studied. We might find things that promote it and things that discourage it. I see no reason to assume that this will be forever misunderstood. On the other hand, assuming that we definitely will come to understand it because we know Science can explain everything, is also going beyond the evidence.

    “What if J. Robert Oppenheimer had said, “Hey, look, this nuclear energy thing is really cool and all, but it’s just too dangerous to have around. Let’s shut this Manhattan Project down.”?”

    Then he would have lost his security clearance and lost his access to expensive toys, and he would probably be stuck being a college physics teacher. The FBI would continually investigate him in case he said something leftist.

    First they thought they had to get nukes before Hitler did. Then they thought they had to stay ahead of the USSR. It wasn’t irresponsible scientists, it was patriotism that did it.

  67. And then Teller would propose digging canals with H-bombs. Note that we didn’t actually do that so someone was paying attention to the side results.

    @Falco:I think we have reached the crux of the disagreement.To date we have not found anything that isn’t amenable to investigation via the scientific method. Many things are not yet fully understood, but that is quite different than saying that they cannot be understood. Complexity does not imply magic. By the way, a number of people are investigating inspiration — it is early days, but there are a large number of very interesting results being achieved in the areas of cognitive neuroscience.

  68. “Many things are not yet fully understood, but that is quite different than saying that they cannot be understood.”

    And many things have been understood, and that’s different from saying that we know everything can be understood.

    People want to hold beliefs about this stuff, and that’s separate from doing science to find out whatever we find. There is no need to take a position about whether science can understand everything, until we either get solid evidence that there is something that cannot be understood, or else until we do completely understand everything.

  69. Anyone that thinks that science is a religion is warping the meaning of ‘religion’ to such an extent as to make it meaningless. Religion deals fundamentally with the supernatural and provides a moral/ethical framework to guide individual choices at the many forks in the road along the highway of life. That’s not to say that every believer actually *follows* the guidance provided by their religion – or that the guidance isn’t often imbued with ambiguity if not outright contradiction.

    Science does not offer guidance on moral/ethical issues. Science cannot study the supernatural (once you can measure it – it’s no longer supernatural). Biology has no opinion on abortion. It doesn’t care. It does tell us that neither storks nor cabbage patches are involved in the process of conception, embryonic growth, etc. That’s as far as biology can take us.

    If religion consisted only of moral/ethical statements there would be little or no conflict with science. What causes conflict is when religion tells us something that science disagrees with; e.g., the age of the earth. Who ya gonna believe, the Christian literalists (4004 BC) or geology and physics (4.54 +/- 0.05 billion years) ? One is the divinely inspired word of god, upon belief in which rests the fate of your eternal soul. The other is science.

    A Christian literalist is unlikely to ever change his belief that the earth was created in 4004 BC, but those that believe in science understand that today’s knowledge can be superseded by new theories or better data. Scientific results are not elevated to such a pedestal that they cannot be questioned. Einstein is not a god. His works are not divine. Hundreds, thousands of scientists have spent countless hours trying to prove him wrong – and in some cases succeeded. On the other hand, once you accept that your religious tract is the divine word of god there’s little point in trying to prove it wrong – apparent discrepancies are ‘mysteries’ that those of little faith use to undermine true faith.

    If in these conflicting situations the final arbiter of ‘truth’ is that determined by facts and evidence as opposed to faith in the divine, then I guess in some roundabout way science has become a religion, but only in a very limited sense – since religion deals mainly with morals and ethics and the areas of conflict are rarely moral or ethical questions.

  70. I found something written by a physicist named John Denker which I thought was written very, very clearly about this topic. I don’t often see this level of clarity.

    http://www.av8n.com/physics/truth.htm

  71. @J Thomas:Yes, that was a nice article.

  72. @Steve Halter – it’s hard to find something you aren’t looking for and, if you did find it, will dismiss as experimental error. And what will the people investigating inspiration find? Which area of the brain is involved? I will maintain that this still tells us very little about what inspiration actually is because it doesn’t say anything about the experience.

    @Kevin – Actually, I’d take Science’s lack of morals as a sign that, as a religion, it needs to grow up and take responsibility for what its priests do. Also, Christian belief, to take your example, has undergone a number of outright revolutions in its history and I am fairly certain there are some scientists that have very strongly held beliefs they are unlikely to let go of. Whether or not we say something is divine doesn’t change people’s tendency to stick with what is comfortable for them to believe and we have a remarkable capacity to ignore facts in these circumstances.

    @ J Thomas – I think the catch is that Science is unlikely to uncover truth about things you can’t bring into a lab and, more importantly, I see people dismissing things as non-existent merely because they can’t be brought into a lab.

  73. Certainly Christianity (and other religions) have histories of change in what is considered moral. And there is a wide variety on what adherents believe is moral today. For instance, there are lots of people who believe themselves to be good Christians who are the opposite of many of the examples Jesus Christ gave. (They favor the Righteous Pharisee equivalents, they love the temple moneychangers, they know that it is easy for the wealthy to enter the Kingdom of Heaven, they condemn the Samaritans and the sinners, etc.). It makes it easy to be willing to oppress those who are different, and war with those who disagree.

    So would making science a religion change human nature from this kind of fact manipulation?

  74. I thought I left this message earlier, maybe I didn’t press the right button. But I am reminded of _The Stars My Destination_ (Tiger, Tiger).

    Quant Suff!

  75. @Falco:
    1) For a view of things that are going on in cognitive research, a decent place to start is the blog “thoughts on thoughts” at http://charbonniers.org/ . Read through the posts and the links and papers, … You will see that there is a lot of work going on here. That’s the thing about science, it isn’t just one grand experiment, its lots of experiments from lots of people. These are then discussed and analyzed, flaws may be found, and knowledge expands.

    2) You may have missed it, but J Thomas was noting that Openheimer (and many others in the Manhattan project) did in fact come to regret having unleashed the A-bomb and did feel a responsibility. His career suffered as a result of the political climate of the time. Science is a mechanism for producing knowledge. People perform science and their motives and morals run across the usual spectrum. People who consume science are often not scientists and their morals and motives are also across the spectrum. In other words, people are people.

    3) So far, you haven’t mentioned anything that can’t be brought into a lab or that, at least, can’t have hypotheses made about it such that those hypotheses can’t be tested.

    4)Yes, people have a remarkable ability to ignore facts that they don’t like. The process of science is there as an aid in grinding through that. Sometimes it takes time. Sometimes it doesn’t.

  76. “I think the catch is that Science is unlikely to uncover truth about things you can’t bring into a lab and, more importantly, I see people dismissing things as non-existent merely because they can’t be brought into a lab.”

    Suppose you bring things into labs and you get results.

    Then you apply those results to things that aren’t in labs. You carefully measure the input variables that were important in the lab, and you find that the results out of the lab are just the same as the lab results.

    Then in those particular circumstances, it doesn’t matter that it isn’t in labs any more.

    But there’s always the chance that it will stop working. New variables that weren’t important before could become important. Then it’s time to go back to the lab and study the new variables. I don’t see that this is particularly important in any philosophical sense. We weren’t pretending we understood the whole world.

    Your second part is of course very important. There are silly people who decide that things must not be real if it happens that scientists have not yet found out how to study them in labs.

    Their counterpart believes that real things must be unknowable if scientists have not yet found out how to study them in labs.

    So for example in olden times there were people who believed that living things did not depend on the chemistry that was known at the time, but had some special quality of life that was not susceptible to science. This belief was called “vitalism”. Later organic chemists looked at the chemicals of life. Some people though said that life treated those chemicals in ways that could not be understood by science because life was special. Cellular physiologists learned to study that. Vitalists have had to retreat farther and farther, to the point that now they are mostly restricted to consciousness and evolution. And people who carefully watch patients who have particular forms of brain damage wind up doubtful about consciousness. Specific kinds of damage can cause specific deficits in consciousness in a horribly disturbing way.

    However, the opposing viewpoint to vitalism was called “reductionism”. This approach has failed from its very beginning, but the failures seem smaller since science keeps coming up with explanations for new things.

    See, with a keen eye you can come up with an unlimited number of things that science has not explained. But it’s hard to count them since at any time science might come up with an explanation for a whole collection of things at once.

    Suppose science does come up with an explanation for something new. How it works that the sky is blue or the grass is green, say. That is a tiny insignificant part of all that is unknown, but it is something that’s easy to count. Science is progressing. And we hardly ever prove an established explanation wrong unless we also get a better explanation at the same time.

    So if you try to keep score, at one time the don’t-know versus know side might look like:

    infinity : some large number.

    And at a later time it might look like:

    infinity : that large number + 50.

    Science continually expands its reach, and if you only count the hits….

  77. Had a longer post but it must be in the mod queue for links. But, basically, science continually adds to what we think of as knowledge. It may also subtract from that at times (as something is found to no longer match observations) but is usually replaced with a newer shinier piece of knowledge.

  78. Steve Halter – yeah, it went to the spam folder according to the arcane rituals of whatever thingie determines that. Fixed now.

  79. @howardbrazee – I do see a tendency in Science to believe that it is immune from looking for results that justify conclusions despite ample evidence that scientists are just as human as a Bible-quoting Christian who is doing the same thing.

    Also, although I have read Stars My Destination, I have no idea what you’re referring to with Quant Suff.

    @Steve Halter – 1) that work is fantastic and, for people with malfunctioning brains offers great hope that they might be able to live more normal lives if they can find some way to apply that knowledge. I am also sure that they will find out all kinds of amazing things about the brain but I still don’t think they will uncover anything that tells us what it is like to be human. Mechanism =/= experience.

    2) I think “but it’s pure science” is a crap excuse for bad behavior and shirking responsibility for it by blaming the people that use it is equally crap. If I make the gun, I still bear some responsibility for its use, especially if I invented the gun in the first place and realize how it can be used.

    3) Science is a religion because it demands that reality must be tested according to its tenets. Discovering the mechanism behind inspiration or being able to trace the neurons that are active when the Amazonian soul expert performs his ritual does not mean that the actual experience is understood. It means that we know which neurons fire. Extracting the part of it that can be tested in the lab and then declaring that we understand the whole thing is so similar to religion saying that “it’s all in the book” that I can’t tell the difference.

    4) My experience is that there is a further category of concepts that cannot be constructed within the frame of science. Unfortunately, the closest I’ve been able to get to explaining this on the internet is clearly not nearly close enough. But there has to be a certain amount of experience in common before vocabulary used to describe it has any meaning.

    @J Thomas – Science certainly discovers new things all the time. I still find that there are areas of human experience that it cannot enter and, I suspect, it never will because it just doesn’t think about the world that way.

  80. Remember the “Scientific people” in that Sargasso of space type world made out of abandoned space ships? Where they tattooed Gully’s face? “Quan Suff” was an invocation left over from their scientist ancestors.

  81. “Science certainly discovers new things all the time. I still find that there are areas of human experience that it cannot enter and, I suspect, it never will because it just doesn’t think about the world that way.”

    Falco, I have said this many times before in different words, and I haven’t gotten tired of saying it yet:

    We don’t know how much science will someday be able to describe. We just don’t know.

    People who say that there is nothing science will never be able to describe are going beyond the evidence. They are being unscientific.

    People who say that there is something science will never be able to describe are also going beyond the evidence. They are being unscientific too.

    It’s tempting to consider the advance of science as evidence that there is nothing beyond science. “Science knows more than it did yesterday, and tomorrow it will know more still. So there is nothing that will not be known someday.” This is tempting but the reasoning is wrong. The conclusion could still be right. Just because somebody makes a bad argument doesn’t mean that their conclusion is wrong. Maybe it’s right, maybe it’s wrong. We don’t have sufficient evidence.

  82. Falco – “Science is a religion because it demands that reality must be tested according to its tenets.”

    You have lost me completely. The hallmarks of religion are generally held to be belief in the supernatural, prayer, an ethical or moral code, distinction between the sacred and the profane, etc. I’ve never seen ‘demands that reality must be tested according to its tenets’ in that list. In fact, if we start listing the tenets of various religions, it’s hard to see how we’d test reality accordingly.

    There are square pegs and there are round holes. Apply enough force and you can usually manage to get the peg into the hole, but in the end you’ll no longer have a square peg or round hole – one of them has to give. In other words, you may fashion a definition that allows you to consider science as a religion, but its likely no one will recognize ‘science’ or ‘religion’ in your definition.

  83. There are many common phrases that compare religion and secular activities. If Jane says, Money is their god… we understand Jane to mean they worship money. The subtext is they’ve elevated money to a place it doesn’t belong. We don’t take Jane literally to mean they have services with altars filled with hundred dollar bills or bars of gold, singing odes to currency and Ponzi schemes, overseen by the high priests of finance. It’s just a simile.

    What is religion anyways? There are hundreds of them extant today; thousands throughout history. A simple concise definition that covers each and every one of them is not likely to ever be written. But there are two almost universal components to every religion – belief in the supernatural and faith.

    Science is the polar opposite of religion because belief in the supernatural and faith are precisely *NOT* what science is about. Science is about testable hypotheses and evidence. Some hypotheses aren’t testable. They might be interesting, but they’re not within the purview of science. They might even be true, but science simply does not, cannot have an opinion.

    The idea then, that science is a religion, is not just wrong, but is akin to saying war is peace, freedom is slavery, black is white, etc.

  84. I don’t think religions emphasized faith before science came around demanding evidence. Before that we were expected to accept what authorities told us without question. Much the same as we accept that Saturn has moons without actually looking ourselves. Faith wasn’t an issue.

  85. howardbrazee: Quant. Suff. Thanks! I knew I had heard that somewhere before. Yes, there was a group who had made a religion of something they called science but of course it wasn’t anymore.

  86. @howardbreeze – Actually, I didn’t remember that part. Thanks for an excuse to see if my library has a copy of SMD so I can read it again.

    @J Thomas – Certainly, we have little idea of what our descendants might discover. However, based on the last 100 years of science, I think there is a distinct trend toward disregarding things that can’t be tested on a lab bench. I currently see no indication that this trend is changing and, given the way Science thinks about the world, would be very surprised if it did. It would be fascinating to find out that I’m wrong, but I’m not holding my breath.

    @Kevin – considering that it is Science defining what is and is not supernatural, I think arguing on the basis that Science is natural and religion is supernatural is a bit shaky. I do understand that I’m not using the commonly accepted definition of religion, but that is a deliberate ploy to get people to consider how much the scientific mind-set serves as a set of blinders to the world. Blinders that are, as far as I can see, remarkably similar to those of a religious sect, even if they are pointed in a different direction.

    As far as religion having no testable hypotheses, I actually think we’d have to define hypothesis fairly narrowly to make that true. Most religions that I’m aware of have pretty specific instructions on how to achieve particular results in the form of moral codes and spiritual practices. However, most of those results aren’t the kind of thing that can be verified in a lab. And the ones that can are described in terms of activation of specific areas of the neocortex which, as I’ve been arguing, leaves out the important part – the experience itself.

    Thanks for the debate, y’all. I’m off for vacation now.

  87. Science should not be concerned with stuff that is outside of science (which cannot be observed and tested). Just as basketball should not be concerned with stellar interiors.

  88. “Certainly, we have little idea of what our descendants might discover. However, based on the last 100 years of science, I think there is a distinct trend toward disregarding things that can’t be tested on a lab bench.”

    Consider for example astrophysics, which tries to apply lab results to things we can only observe from a long way away and a long time ago.

    Consider the tremendous amount of speculation about the Big Bang, none of which can be tested in labs.

    Climate science uses lab data plus a lot of theory to predict global phenomena. We still have big questions about the ways that water sloshes around in the oceans — the math is pretty well known but it’s hard to understand and hard to apply, and results are hard to test.

    Ecology in general is not a laboratory science, but there are some results.

    There are people who think of economics as a science, but lab-scale results are hard to come by and are usually considered irrelevant. It can be argued that all of every school of economics is more voodoo than science, but people do a whole lot of it and they at least pretend there’s something scientific about it.

  89. “Certainly, we have little idea of what our descendants might discover. However, based on the last 100 years of science, I think there is a distinct trend toward disregarding things that can’t be tested on a lab bench.”

    I would look at the last 100 years of science and draw exactly the opposite conclusion. J Thomas (above) gave some nice examples of complete events that cannot in themselves be replicated within a lab, but upon which models can be made and checked against what measurements can be done.
    For example, I cannot bring a Falco in for study but based upon evidence I can make a conjecture that it is not a spam bot. This is based upon knowledge of the state of bot technology now existing. Thus, I have a model. It might be wrong, it might not. In this case, if we really wanted, we could add other pieces of evidence to this up to actually finding an example of a Falco. In cases such as the Big Bang, replicating the event are beyond our means at this time but we can reason about the effects and signatures left behind.

  90. skzb

    Political economy is a science, albeit one in its early stages. Bourgeois economics is a pseudo-science.

  91. How do we tell the difference between a science in its early stages and a pseudo-science?

    Astronomy developed out of astrology. Chemistry developed out of alchemy. Direct mail marketing developed out of advertising. Neurosciences developed partly out of psychology.

  92. With a science in its early stages there would need to be some sort of hypotheses that can at some point be tested or at least envisioned to be tested. With a pseudoscience, not so much.
    Also, a pseudoscience will typically keep asserting its position in the face of clear counter evidence.

  93. For economics and its relations to science, Paul Krugman had ainteresting post today: krugman.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/08/27/the-real-trouble-with-economics/?gwh=F57ECA9E883CBB23678F198E177CB0BA

    In it, he muses that:

    “No, the problem lies not in the inherent unsuitability of economics for scientific thinking as in the sociology of the economics profession — a profession that somehow, at least in macro, has ceased rewarding research that produces successful predictions and rewards research that fits preconceptions and uses hard math instead.”

    Very much in line with our conversation so far. He says he’ll talk more about his thought on this later, but it seems fairly clear that there are a number of, as Steve would say, Bourgeois economists who believe that their careers/reputations are harnessed to a particular theory and proclaiming the rightness of that theory is more important than actually following the facts and trying to get useful answers. Then, there are those who actually think that their cause is right and if they just keep asserting it, those inconvenient facts will go away. Both of these modes of thinking could be categorized as non-scientific.

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