About Rationally Speaking


Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Wednesday, February 05, 2014

On Coyne, Harris, and PZ (with thanks to Dennett)

by Massimo Pigliucci

Oh dear, I pissed off the big shots among the New Atheists — again. If you are on Twitter or happen to have checked a couple of prominent NA blogs recently, you will have noticed a chorus comprised of none other than Jerry Coyne, Sam Harris, PZ Myers and, by way of only a passing snarky comment, Richard Dawkins — all focused on yours truly. I’m flattered, but what could I have possibly done to generate such a concerted reaction all of a sudden?

Two things: I have published this cartoon concerning Sam Harris, just to poke a bit of (I thought harmless, good humored, even!) fun at the guy, and — more substantively — this technical, peer reviewed, paper in a philosophy journal devoted to a conceptual analysis and criticism of the NA movement, from the point of view of a scientist, philosopher, and, incidentally, atheist. (The same issue of that journal carries a number of other commentaries, from theists and atheists alike.)

I watched the Twitter/blog mini-storm with some amusement (decades in the academy have forced me to develop a rather thick skin). The event was characterized by the usual back and forth between people who agreed with me (thank you) and those who don’t (thank you, unless your comments were of the assholic type). I thought there was no point in responding, since there was very little substance to the posts themselves. But then I realized that the mini-storm was making precisely my point: the whole episode seemed to be a huge instance of much ado about nothing, but nasty. So I decided a counter-commentary might be helpful after all. Here it is, organized by the three major authors who have lashed out at me in such an amusing way. I’ll start with a point-by-point response to Coyne’s longest blog post, followed by a more cursory commentary on PZ (who actually makes most sense out of the whole bunch, and indeed was himself mentioned only in passing in my paper), and ending of course with Harris, in whose case I will simply let Dan Dennett (another NA, did you know?) do the job for me. (If, however, you are tired of the somewhat childish back and forth, however, by all means skip to part IV below.)

Part I: Coyne

Jerry begins thus: “when I have read Massimo’s site, Rationally Speaking, I’ve been put off by his arrogance, attack-dogishness (if you want a strident atheist, look no further than Massimo), and his repeated criticisms of New Atheists because We Don’t Know Enough Philosophy.”

While I plead guilty to the latter charge, to be accused of arrogance, attack-dogishness and stridency by Jerry Coyne, of all people, is ironic indeed. Please, go ahead and read my critical paper, compare it with what Jerry wrote, and then measure the two against your own scale of arrogance, attack-dogishness and stridency. Let me know the results.

“He has just published a strong attack on New Atheists (mentioning me, albeit briefly)” — It wasn’t an “attack,” Jerry, it was a criticism, though apparently you and other (though not all) NA's can’t see the difference anymore. And were you disappointed that I mentioned you only briefly? I apologize, I’m trying to make amends now.

“It’s a nasty piece of work: mean-spirited and misguided. It’s also, I suspect, motivated by Pigliucci’s jealousy of how the New Atheists get more attention and sell more books than he does” — First, see my comment above along the lines of the pot calling the kettle black. Second, accusing someone of jealousy is surely a despicable type of ad hominem, and it is easily refuted on empirical grounds. If the motivation for my criticisms truly was jealousy of people who sell more books than I do, why on earth would I praise Dennett, or Sean Carroll, or plenty of other best selling authors I write about on my blog or interview on my podcast? Could it be that my focus on Harris & co. is the result of actual, substantive, disagreements with their positions, and not stemming from personal rancor?

“I have to say that the paper just drips and seethes with jealousy and the feeling that Pigliucci considers himself neglected because philosophy is marginalized by New Atheists.” — Another example of just how dripping and seething Coyne himself can be, though I’m pretty sure he isn’t jealous of me, at least.

Jerry notes that I mention Hitchens, another prominent NA, only in passing, adding “why did he mention Trotsky and Iraq rather than, say, Mother Teresa or the Elgin Marbles? And of course the phrase ‘notoriously excelled’ is simply a gratuitous slur.” I mentioned Trotsky and Iraq because I wanted to make the point that someone who swings that far in opposite directions on political grounds is more of a (incoherent) polemicist than anything else, and Mother Theresa simply had nothing to do with it. As for my phrase being a gratuitous slur, I can certainly see how it could be interpreted that way. Or it could be taken as an accurate description of Hitchens’ writing career.

Commenting on a specific paragraph from my paper Jerry then adds: “it’s simply wrong to claim that a) believers don’t see God as a real entity who interacts with the world in certain ways (making that a hypothesis), and b). that one can’t test the supernatural, an old and false argument often used by Eugenie Scott. In fact, believers are constantly adducing ‘evidence’ for God, be it Alvin Plantinga’s claim that our senses couldn’t detect truth without their having been given us by god.”

But I had made neither claim, as ought to be crystal clear to anyone reading the paragraph that Jerry quoted before proceeding to completely misunderstand it. I had simply said that Dawkins et al. are wrong to consider “the God hypothesis” as anything like a scientific hypothesis (as opposed to a semi-incoherent ensemble of contradictory statements easily failing the test of reason and evidence). That is, my complaint was, and has always been, that NAs simply give too much credit to their opponents when they raise religious talk to the level of science. Coyne simply, willfully it seems to me, misread what I wrote and very plainly intended.

Along the same lines, Jerry later on adds: “they have reasons for being Christians, Jews, etc., even if those reasons are simply ‘I was brought up that way.’” Indeed. And how does that amount to a scientific hypothesis, as opposed to self-evident cultural bias?

More: “If you think the Moral Law is evidence for God, you can examine whether our primate relatives also show evidence for morality, and whether and how much of human morality really is innate. That’s science!” No, it ain’t. Does Jerry truly not see that the believer can simply say that the observation of prosocial behavior in other primates is no contradiction of the statement that God gave us the Moral Law? And does he truly not see the difference between morality (a complex set of behaviors and concepts that require language and cultural evolution) and mere prosociality (which we share with a number of other species, including several non-primates)? Incidentally, the fact that the latter was likely the evolutionary antecedent of the former (which I think is very reasonable to believe) in no way undermines the idea that there is an important distinction between the two.

“Science deals with the supernatural all the time. What else are scientific investigations of ESP and other paranormal phenomena, or studies of ‘spiritual healing’ and intercessory prayer?” Yes and no. First of all, there is nothing inherently supernatural in claims of telepathy and the like. The occurrences, if real, could simply be the result of unknown natural phenomena. Second, yes, we have tested the effects of intercessory prayer, and of course have come up empty-handed. But what always struck me as bizarre about such experiments is how ill-conceived they are. They couldn’t possibly be testing for supernatural effects mediated by a God who would presumably know that we mere mortals are about to test His power. Why would He lend himself to such games? And if we had, in fact, discovered an effect, I bet atheists (myself and Jerry included) would have immediately offered alternative, naturalistic explanations, along the lines of Arthur Clarke’s famous Third Law.

Next: “‘most of the New Atheists haven’t read a philosophy paper’? I seriously doubt that. I won’t defend myself on this count, for I’ve read many, and so, I suspect, have Dawkins, Harris, Stenger, and others seen as important New Atheists.” Well, I take Jerry at his word, though his philosophy readings surely don’t seep through his blog in any clear way. I know Harris has read some philosophy as an undergraduate, but has clearly not understood it (this isn’t a gratuitous statement, just a conclusion derived from having spent far too much time reading what Harris has wrritten. As you’ll see below, Dan Dennett agrees with me, and then some!). As for Dawkins, I’ve met him several times, the last time at the naturalism workshop organized by Sean Carroll and he has plainly told me that he doesn’t read philosophy.

“The charge of anti-intellectualism is snobbish, and what Pigliucci means by it is that New Atheists harbor a ‘lack of respect’ for his field: philosophy.” — This constantly amazes me, especially coming from Jerry, who really ought to know better. I would perhaps understand his comment if I were a philosopher with no science background, presumably just envious of the prestige of science. But I am also a scientist, indeed with a specialization in Jerry’s own discipline of evolutionary biology. How, then, could it possibly make sense to accuse me of wanting to defend “my” field from encroachment from, ahem, “my other” field??

Now, not all this sniping is entirely wasted, for Jerry and I certainly agree on the following: “What’s important is to distinguish those disciplines that enforce reasons for believing in things (disciplines like science, math, and philosophy) from those that don’t (postmodern literary criticism, theology, etc.),” which you would think ought to be more than enough for the two of us to find common ground. It’s really unfortunate that it isn't.

Jerry continues by giving me some credit for a broader view of knowledge — what used to be called scientia, which would actually go a long way toward reconciling our diverging views. But then says: “This is pretty much o.k. except that Pigluicci [sic] includes ‘arts’ and ‘first- person experience,’ with ‘scientia’ as ways of understanding. ‘First-person experience,’ of course, includes the many forms of revelation used to justify the existence of God, and while ‘arts’ are ways of ‘feeling,’ it’s arguable about whether the kind of understanding they yield is equivalent to the kind of understanding produced by physics and philosophy, or, for that matter, by revelation.” Except that I most explicitly do no such thing! In a long essay in Aeon, where I expand on this, I make a distinction between knowledge and understanding, and very clearly say that scientia is about knowledge, while the arts, the humanities and first-person experience — together with knowledge — form understanding. How could Jerry so blatantly confuse the two, or fail to get the not at all subtle distinction I was trying to make?

Toward the end of Jerry’s rant we get to a downright surreal turn: “I was once favorably disposed to Pigliucci.” Seriously? When, exactly? Either Coyne is lying or he has a very short memory. Indeed, our disagreements and discord date from way before either of us started writing publicly about atheism and related matters. It goes back to Jerry’s conservative take on the state of evolutionary theory, where he is a staunch defender of the so-called Modern Synthesis (of the 1920s through ‘40s), while I and others have advocated what we refer to as an Extended Synthesis that takes seriously the many empirical and conceptual advances in biology over the past six decades (instead of treating them as cherries added as decorations onto the already finished cake).

But the problem is that Jerry is obviously just not reading very carefully what I’m writing, reaching for his keyboard instead as a straight result of a knee-jerk reaction. Otherwise he wouldn’t complain: “if New Atheism has been such a miserable failure, why does Pigliucci admit this?” going on to cite me as saying that NA books have been very successful. Does Coyne not realize that number of books sold isn’t the only, or in some cases the most important, measure of “success?” Because if he doesn’t, then he ought to wake up to the realization that Deepak Chopra and Oprah Winfrey have probably outsold all the NAs combined. I was talking about what I see as a conceptual failure of the NA movement (remember, the kerfuffle is about a technical paper published in a somewhat obscure philosophy journal!), not whatever it is Jerry thinks I was talking about.

The last thing to notice is that Jerry managed to misspell my name a whopping eight times. He really doesn’t like me!

Part II: PZ

Let us now turn to the far shorter (and much less nasty) post by PZ, rather amusingly entitled “Philosophism,” which is PZ’s counter to the accusation of scientism. And he is, of course, right. Some philosophers are surely guilty of philosophism, just like some scientists are guilty of scientism. The irony here is that when I got into this business I thought (very naively, as it turned out)  that my new colleagues in philosophy would be glad to have a member of their profession who was also a scientist, and that my colleagues in science would regard me as one of their own who might be a trusty bridge to the “other culture” (as C.P. Snow famously put it). What happened instead, with a few exceptions, is that philosophers tend to consider me too much of a scientist, while scientists consider me too much of a philosopher. Life, don’t talk to me about life

At any rate, on the issue of scientism — and of the role of philosophy — there is much that PZ and I agree on. He correctly notes his criticisms of people like Krauss, Hawking and Pinker, for instance. It is not, however, correct to say that “Krauss has retracted his sentiments,” as anyone can plainly see by reading his non-apology (prompted by Dan Dennett) in Scientific American. PZ also wonders why I don’t mention Pinker in my NA paper, which is strange, since the paper is about the foremost figures who have initiated and defined NA, and Pinker — as brilliant and controversial a writer as he is — is simply not among them.

PZ more generally accuses me of cherry picking, sparing from my criticisms in the paper people like Susan Jacoby, David Silverman, Hemant Mehta, Greta Christina, Ibn Warriq, Ophelia Benson. But, again, with all due respect to all of these people, they aren’t the founding fathers (yeah, they were all old white men) of NA, nor have they been quite as influential in terms of the public face of the movement — at least in terms of the Coynian ultimately meaningful measure of number of books sold.

PZ is correct to point out that there is indeed a range of attitudes toward philosophy among atheists, and he is a prime example. But, again, this is simply not the case, by and large, where my big targets are concerned, despite his contention that Stenger's (again, not one of the founding fathers) work is full of history and philosophy. History yes, philosophy, not really.

Toward the end of his post PZ tells his readers that I have two criteria for criticism in mind: “1) We’re popular. That’s an accusation that has me stumped; would we be more respectable if nobody liked us at all? 2) We’re scientists and take a scientific approach. Well, we’re not all scientists, and what’s wrong with looking at an issue using evidence and reason?”

(1) is, of course, another example of Coyne’s confusion between popularity and soundness of ideas. I’m not accusing the NAs of being popular. They obviously are, and good for them. I’m accusing (some of) them of being sloppy thinkers when it comes to the implications of atheism and of a scientific worldview.

As for (2), I never said that all the NAs are scientists (indeed, my paper explicitly excluded Hitchens from the analysis on precisely those grounds — which as we’ve seen didn’t please Coyne). But a major point of the paper was to discuss what I see as a tendency of NA qua movement (i.e., founding fathers and many followers) toward scientism, a tendency that has been codified precisely by the sciency types among the NA (it surfaces very clearly in the many comments that both Coyne and PZ got to this latest round of posts). Finally, of course there is nothing at all wrong with looking at an issue using evidence or reason, nor am I aware of ever having written anything to that effect.

Part III: Harris

And now let’s get to Sam Harris. Readers of this blog know exactly what I think of him as an intellectual (I have no opinion of him as a person, since I’ve never met him). But what follows is a (long, apologies) list of quotes from a single review of Harris’ latest effort, his booklet on free will, penned by non other than Dan Dennett. While I have to admit to being human and having therefore felt a significant amount of vindication reading what Dan had to say on this, I reprint representative passages below to make three points:

I am clearly not the only one to think that Harris’ philosophical forays are conceptually confused, to say the least. Please notice the mercilessly sarcastic tone adopted by Dennett throughout. This is at least as heavy an attack as anything I’ve written about Harris, and arguably much more so. But, do you think Dennett has therefore been excoriated by Harris, Coyne & co. for his message or the form in which it was delivered? (Yeah, that was a rhetorical question, glad you got it.)

These quotes, of course, do not constitute Dennett’s argument (for that you’ll have to read his full, long, essay). But they are representative of why I think Dan has been much harsher than I have been with Harris (for good reasons, in my mind). Incidentally, Dennett includes the following people as others who hold ideas similar to Harris’ and are equally misguided: Wolf Singer, Chris Frith, Steven Pinker, Paul Bloom, Stephen Hawking, Albert Einstein (!), Jerry Coyne, and Richard Dawkins. Here is the man himself:

I think we have made some progress in philosophy of late, and Harris and others need to do their homework if they want to engage with the best thought on the topic.

I would hope that Harris would pause at this point to wonder—just wonder—whether maybe his philosophical colleagues had seen some points that had somehow escaped him in his canvassing of compatibilism. As I tell my undergraduate students…

There are mad dog reductionist neuroscientists and philosophers who insist that minds are illusions, pains are illusions, dreams are illusions, ideas are illusions—all there is is just neurons and glia and the like.

Again, the popular notion of free will is a mess; we knew that long before Harris sat down to write his book.

These are not new ideas. For instance I have defended them explicitly in 1978, 1984, and 2003. I wish Harris had noticed that he contradicts them here, and I’m curious to learn how he proposes to counter my arguments.

Harris should take more seriously the various tensions he sets up in this passage. It is wise to hold people responsible, he says, even though they are not responsible, not really.

There are complications with all this, but Harris doesn’t even look at the surface of these issues.

The rhetorical move here is well-known, but indefensible.

Even the simplest and most straightforward of Harris’s examples wilt under careful scrutiny.

If this isn’t pure Cartesianism, I don’t know what it is. His prefrontal cortex is part of the I in question. Notice that if we replace the “conscious witness” with “my brain” we turn an apparent truth into an obvious falsehood: “My brain can no more initiate events in my prefrontal cortex than it can cause my heart to beat.”

There are more passages that exhibit this curious tactic of heaping scorn on daft doctrines of his own devising while ignoring reasonable compatibilist versions of the same ideas.

If Harris is arguing against it, he is not finding a “deep” problem with compatibilism but a shallow problem with his incompatibilist vision of free will; he has taken on a straw man, and the straw man is beating him.

Once again, Harris is ignoring a large and distinguished literature that defends this claim.

His book also seems to have influenced his own beliefs and desires: writing it has blinded him to alternatives that he really ought to have considered.

I have thought long and hard about this passage, and I am still not sure I understand it, since it seems to be at war with itself.

Harris notes that the voluntary/involuntary distinction is a valuable one, but doesn’t consider that it might be part of the foundation of our moral and legal understanding of free will. Why not? Because he is so intent on bashing a caricature doctrine.

Here again Harris is taking an everyday, folk notion of authorship and inflating it into metaphysical nonsense.

Entirely missing from Harris’s account—and it is not a lacuna that can be repaired—is any acknowledgment of the morally important difference between normal people (like you and me and Harris, in all likelihood) and people with serious deficiencies in self-control.

I cannot resist ending this catalogue of mistakes with the one that I find most glaring: the cover of Harris’s little book, which shows marionette strings hanging down. … Please, Sam, don’t feed the bugbears.

I think I've made my point. Or, rather, Dennett did.

Part IV: Pars Construens

Francis Bacon, arguably the father of modern philosophy of science, wrote in his New Organum (1620, a polemical response to Aristotle’s famous Organum) that every philosophical project better have two parts: the pars destruens, where you should clearly state what is wrong with some other position you want to overcome, and the pars construens, where you present your own alternative views.

Much of what you’ve read so far is, of course, pars destruens. My pars construens has actually been presented before, in a number of essays on this blog, as well as in a couple of my books, and in the Aeon piece mentioned above. Still, it may be worth summarizing:

On science and/vs philosophy: I consider both science and philosophy to be intellectually serious disciplines, with much to tell to each other. Just in the way I have little patience for scientists who are ignorant and/or dismissive of philosophy, I have little patience for philosophers who are ignorant of and/or dismiss science.

On what counts as knowledge: I distinguish between disciplines / approaches that contribute to our knowledge (in the intellectual sense of the term) and those that contribute to our understanding (both of that knowledge and of life in general). The first group includes science, philosophy, logic and math, and I use the above mentioned umbrella term scientia for it, from the Latin word meaning “knowledge” in the broad sense. The second group includes literature, the arts and other humanities. The relationship between the two groups is helped / mediated by bridge areas, such as history and social science. I don’t pretend this to be the ultimate model of human knowledge / understanding, it is simply my constructive way to push for what I see as a healthy disciplinary pluralism.

On ethics and morality: I think ethics is a branch of philosophy that has to be informed by factual evidence (“science”) as much as possible, but I do think there is a pretty serious distinction between “is” and “ought” (despite some permeability of that famous boundary). I do think science can and does illuminate the origins (evolution) and the material basis (neurobio) of ethical thinking. Just like it can illuminate the origins and neural basis of mathematical thinking, without this resulting in the treatment of mathematics as a branch of evolutionary or neuro-biology.

On the nature of science: I think science is a particular type of historically situated epistemic-social enterprise, and that to attempt to enlarge its domain to encompass  “reason” as a whole is historically, sociologically and intellectually misguided, and it does a disservice to science itself.

On religion and the New Atheism: I am an atheist, and I am not shy about criticizing religion. But I like to do that in what I perceive as an intellectually honest and rigorous way. I am clearly not above harshly criticizing other people’s positions, but I try to do it constructively. My problem with the New Atheism is that there is little new in it, that it tends to be more loud than constructive, and that it has a tendency toward science-worshiping. Oh, and I think I have a right (perhaps even an intellectual duty) to criticize big boys who I think need to be criticized.

On atheism and social issues: I do not believe that atheism entails much else other than a (eminently reasonable!) negative metaphysical position (i.e., the denial of the idea that we have good reasons to believe in supernatural entities). As such, I am skeptical of “Atheism+” sort of efforts when they go beyond the obviously germane issue of separation of Church and State and the like. Of course, I do agree with many of the progressive social goals that are pushed by PZ, Coyne and others. I just think we have already been doing that for a long time under the banner of (the philosophy of) secular humanism — so  it's another example of people appearing to think they’ve come up with something new while they are in fact simply placing their label onto something that others have been doing (quite well) for a long time.

This has been far too long. ‘Till the next one, folks.

94 comments:

  1. All you and your friends really need is truth, it will set you free.
    Free at last... =

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  2. Here's a somewhat related question wrt Science vs. Philosophy:

    When it comes down to issues of ontology (which is effectively what the god question is about), is it safe to say that science has earned a primacy in this area vs. other disciplines?

    I say this because of the success science has had in how much it has advanced our knowledge vs. the kind of metaphysics that existed before it? This seems to be something you've touched on in the metaphysics wars posts you wrote.

    I do think that this is probably the defensible form of what is being reflected in the charges of scientism you're leveling. I won't deny that far too many atheists take the indefensible position of "science is the only path to knowledge", but then so few people in general are philosophically informed. Even theologians lament this sort of phenomenon amongst fundamentalists.

    Still, I think there's something to be said that science, or at least empirical methods, are so far the most reliable source of knowledge that we have access to. I'm not sure if you agree here or not, but I'm curious as to your thoughts.

    Thanks

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    1. >>When it comes down to issues of ontology (which is effectively what the god question is about), is it safe to say that science has earned a primacy in this area vs. other disciplines?

      I don't think science (as it's typically understood) is equipped to settle many questions of ontology. For example, questions about whether there are really "natural kinds", Platonism vs. nominalism, abstract objects (including numbers or Fregean propositions), mind-independent values, etc. Science may have something to contribute to these questions, but answering these questions usually needs to be supplemented by some kind of philosophical argument (see, for example, Quine's naturalism).

      In fact, in my experience, scientific and naturalistically inclined folks tend to think the very enterprise of ontology is a mistake - i.e., that the debates are meaningless or merely verbal confusions. So I don't think many scientists would even *want* to claim that they've earned primacy on these issues.

      >>Still, I think there's something to be said that science, or at least empirical methods, are so far the most reliable source of knowledge that we have access to. I'm not sure if you agree here or not, but I'm curious as to your thoughts.

      I think it's important to distinguish the claim

      (i) "science is the most reliable source of knowledge"

      from the claim

      (ii) "scientific methods are the best methods for any domain of inquiry"

      I think Massimo is usually more interested in the latter claim rather than the former. I'm guessing, for example, that Massimo has more confidence in the best-established scientific theories than he has in his favored philosophical theories (e.g., I assume he's more confident in evolution than he is in virtue ethics). So in that sense, he might agree that science is "more reliable" than other modes of inquiry. However, it doesn't follow that those wonderful scientific methods are great at solving questions about, say, morality, free will, the ontology of mathematical objects, etc. Here you need some support from philosophy. That's not to say that philosophy is great at solving these problems either, but I think Massimo would say it's a necessary tool if we're to have any hope at all.

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    2. >> When it comes down to issues of ontology (which is effectively what the god question is about), is it safe to say that science has earned a primacy in this area vs. other disciplines?

      That's what Ladyman & Ross are claiming in Every Thing Must Go as part of the project of ontic structural realism, for which Massimo has previously shown some sympathy. They think that when it comes to uncovering the most fundamental features of the universe, physics is by far better supported than everyday intuitions, or indeed any other enterprise. You now have to take two ideas aboard to reach their conclusion. Firstly, you have to believe in what Ladyman et al. call the primacy of physics, that is, that there is an asymmetrical relationship between the objects of physics and the special sciences, a relationship which has been variously described as one of reduction, emergence, or some other hierarchical notion. The second idea is that ontology ought to be understood as providing the basic building blocks with which our scientific theories can be constructed. Research in ontology is, in effect, a reverse LEGO situation: we have the finished product and now we have to get the bricks. With that in mind, we are led to an understanding of fundamental ontology as the kind of stuff that is governed by the most fundamental physical laws.

      Ladyman et al.'s idea actually goes further than that, as it allows for non-fundamental ontologies as well: atoms, agents, countries, etc. But it's crucial that many of these ontologies are scientifically motivated, and those that are not presently scientifically motivated could be, in principle.

      It follows that on Ladyman et al.'s understanding of ontology science -is- indeed crucially important for uncovering the ontology. It would then be up to the philosophers to work out how exactly the various elements of the ontology fit together, but at all points their actions ought to be motivated by science.

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  3. Hi Massimo,

    I fully agree that you did nothing to deserve the invective directed against you. The only one of Jerry Coyne's comments that I think might have an element of truth is that you possibly are a little too defensive about the status of philosophy, (and thus a little too gleeful in pointing out various problems in physics particularly).

    For what it's worth, I'm inclined to agree with you on Hitchens. A fantastic deployer of clever rhetoric, but too often went for the witty jabs rather than actually making coherent arguments.

    >First of all, there is nothing inherently supernatural in claims of telepathy and the like. The occurrences, if real, could simply be the result of unknown natural phenomena.<

    I think here you need to define a distinction between natural and supernatural. If natural simply describes that which is real, then a real God would be natural too. If God existed, then the physical laws of the universe would have to be refined include that fact (e.g adding the proviso "except where God wills otherwise" to every existing law).

    I like PZ, but I think your analysis of his post is probably fair. I get the sense that you two could sort out this dispute reasonably successfully over a beer.

    I really did not like Dennett's review of Harris's Free will, because I think that it misses the point of Harris's book. Harris's book is not about Dennett's compatibilist free will at all. It is aimed squarely at libertarianism. Dennett may be right that the majority of people no longer believe in libertarianism, though I think they do. As Dennett says, that's an empirical XPhi question. But it doesn't really matter, because libertarianism is plainly what Harris is writing about.

    This quote of Dennett's is important:

    "Again, the popular notion of free will is a mess; we knew that long before Harris sat down to write his book."

    So why does he have a problem with Harris writing a popular book to explain to the populace what is wrong with the popular notion of free will? Harris never once says that compatibilism is nonsense, instead he argues that it confuses the issue and is simply not required as personal responsibility etc can be justified on consequentialist grounds without needing to invoke free will at all. Harris is aware of all the work philosophers have done to provide a consistent account of free will. He dismisses it not because he thinks it's wrong or because he is ignorant, but because he thinks it is unnecessary.

    I think it's worth pointing out that Dennett is a determinist, which you seem not to be based on your recent comic. As such, Dennett's views on why Harris is wrong are probably not the same as your own.

    I'm inclined to agree with your Pars Construens, although I think it is acceptable for scientists to be ignorant of philosophy as long as they don't pontificate on philosophical issues. Also, I wouldn't focus too much on whether individuals read philosophical papers. I think one can have valuable philosophical insight through introspection, discussion and perhaps occasional forays into Wikipedia. In particular, I think philosophical understanding does not require reading texts from thousands or even hundreds of years ago.

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    1. >>Harris never once says that compatibilism is nonsense, instead he argues that it confuses the issue and is simply not required as personal responsibility etc can be justified on consequentialist grounds without needing to invoke free will at all.

      This doesn't really settle the issue, because lots of people (philosophers and otherwise) don't think it's correct to justify things like personal responsibility, blameworthiness, etc. on consequentialist grounds. They argue that you need some kind of robust notion of free agency or intentional action in order to correctly cash out things like personal responsibility. But not all of these people want to be libertarians. Hence, they need to come up with some kind of compatibilist account of free will.

      Are these people right? I don't know. But the way Harris frames the issue, it makes it seem like your only options for accounting for moral responsibility are (i) libertarianism about free-will, or (ii) consequentialist justifications for holding people morally responsible. A work of philosophy should at the very least open the mind of the reader to new options in logical space - this is especially true for a work aimed at a popular audience who might not be aware of those possibilities.

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    2. Hi C,

      Those are good observations, and I certainly think that there is an interesting discussion to be had around those grounds. I think I can agree with you that it would have been nice to see Harris addressing compatibilism in more detail.

      I'm biased because I do think consequentialism is adequate, and this seems reasonably self-evident to me. As such, the omission did not bother me as much as it obviously did Dennett.

      But that doesn't excuse Dennett for criticising Harris on the basis that Harris's arguments do not apply to compatibilist free will when they were not intended to.

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  4. Massimo, I think Coyne was bitching because you didn't attack him enough and his feelings were hurt. (Waiting for Fugate to now attack me.)

    On Pinker, I somewhat disagree. If he's not an A-level Gnu, he's at the top of the B-level ones. And, as a major over-interpreter of Pop Evolutionary Psych, he's justifiably accusable of scientism.

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    1. I would say Pinker is certainly A-level, but I think he possibly disqualifies himself as a gnu by not being as preoccupied with religion or atheism as those targeted by Massimo.

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    2. I'd buy that argument. That said, PZ totally blew him up.

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  5. I had simply said that Dawkins et al. are wrong to consider “the God hypothesis” as anything like a scientific hypothesis (as opposed to a semi-incoherent ensemble of contradictory statements easily failing the test of reason and evidence).

    I agree with your criticisms of the New Atheists. If anything, I don't think you go far enough. I agree with you about the distinctions between science and philosophy, and the importance of both. But the above leads me to two questions.

    What's 'semi-incoherent' about the existence of a necessary being of moral import and 'mental' characteristic? What is this test of reason and evidence? I'd like to take it.

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    1. HI, I saw your post after I entered mine below and I think we are both saying the same thing.

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    2. Yeah that statement seems contradictory to me. If it fails the test of reason and evidence, can't that mean that it's a failed hypothesis? It's rather captious in my opinion to take issue with this framing of the god question. If anything, Dawkins is charitably vouchsafing the religionists claim the status of a hypothesis.

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    3. If it fails the test of reason and evidence, can't that mean that it's a failed hypothesis?

      No, because not everything that's wrong is shown to be wrong by science.

      2 + 2 = 715 fails the test of reason. Am I doing science by recognizing it's wrong?

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    4. Where did I imply that everything that's wrong is shown to be wrong by science? Hypothetically a god could exist that interacts with the material world, thus subjecting itself to scientific inquiry. If every time you prayed you got what you asked for, then positing a god to account for the regularity could be charitably treated as a scientific hypothesis. I think many believers' concept of god is incoherent but I'm not opposed to asserting that some empirical claims about it are evidentially wrong.

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    5. Hi Jake,

      In what work do you think that Richard Dawkins even addresses the hypothesis stated above? Certainly not in "The God Delusion"

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    6. Where did I imply that everything that's wrong is shown to be wrong by science?

      You implied that God's existence was a scientific hypothesis, and asked how it could be the case that it 'fails the test of reason and evidence' without being shown false by science. I gave one example.

      Hypothetically a god could exist that interacts with the material world, thus subjecting itself to scientific inquiry.

      The interactions could be possibly subject to limited scientific inquiry. There would be no scientific theories. God would not become a scientific theory.

      If every time you prayed you got what you asked for, then positing a god to account for the regularity could be charitably treated as a scientific hypothesis.

      How? Why? This seems to be a classic example of what Massimo is talking about. Why can't it just be 'a reasonable provisional conclusion' yet not "scientific"? Why must that label be there? What makes it scientific?

      I think many believers' concept of god is incoherent but I'm not opposed to asserting that some empirical claims about it are evidentially wrong.

      You're not opposed to arguing that there's evidence against the concept that isn't coherent anyway?

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    7. Hi Robin,

      I haven't read the God Delusion although I've read and heard about it. From what I gathered he mainly addresses ID. I think vestigiality is evidence against a designer. I'm not saying all of God's purported characteristics are amenable to scientific inquiry but some definitely are. That's what I mean by The God Hypothesis. I disagree with the notion that God in general is a hypothesis.

      Crude I'm not proposing God be formalized as a scientific hypothesis. I think it's a rhetorical tactic. And that's why I disagree with Massimo about this. He seems to want to academize public debate. I think that's priggish. Some God claims are empirical, some aren't. Treat them accordingly.

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  6. On Harris, the other problem I have with him is how, even more than other Gnus, he can simply be wrong, wrong, wrong, and refuse to admit it.

    On his Islamophobia and its relation to national security, Bruce Schneier has totally shown him wrong, yet he continues to argue for screening for Mooslims on plane flights and such.

    On his claim that Buddhism is "just a psychology," tosh. From its start, Buddhism was laden with karma, reincarnation, magic and other metaphysical ideas. The "just a psychology" and similar claims were a 19th-century response to Xn missionaries, as Donald Lopez and others have shown, an attempt to claim it was compatible with science, as the Dalai Lama still does (allegedly) today. Folks like Stephen Batchelor (and Harris) are simply wrong.

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    1. Harris does not say Buddhism is just a psychology. He has said there are useful elements of the Buddhist tradition which can be dissected from what is patently superstitious nonsense. He is not quite in the same camp as Stephen Batchelor, since he explicitly considers the notion of a Western Buddhism to be worthless.

      What Harris wants to see is the development of a "contemplative science, a modern approach to exploring the furthest reaches of psychological well-being" and "a discourse on ethics and spirituality that is every bit as unconstrained by dogma and cultural prejudice as the discourse of science is."

      He likens this to the way we can make use of algebra without fixating upon it as Islamic algebra, despite the fact that Muslims developed it. It's an unashamedly salad-bar approach to different traditions. Take the good, toss out the bad. And in that respect, I agree with him.

      http://www.samharris.org/site/full_text/killing-the-buddha/#sthash.TFV6MyAr.dpuf

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    2. Uhh, in End of Faith, he did say what I have him saying. He may have nuanced that later, but he didn't then.

      As for "contemplative science," I have no problem with that. But, given the limits of MRIs, etc. (which he probably ignores), it will be a long time before much happens there.

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  7. Gadfly, you are right, Buddhism is much more than psychology. Just ask practitioners of Buddhism and they will tell you that it has much in common with many religions. There are plenty of non-scientific hypothesis encountered in Buddhism including rebirth, the existence of other realms, and so on.

    However, all that being said, His Holiness the Dalai Lama is correct in saying that Buddhism has great respect for the scientific process. He has even said that where Buddhism and science disagree it is imperative for Buddhists to drop what ever point is in disagreement. For instance, HHDL himself has said that we can drop the idea of Mount Meru for instance. This is quite different from the reactions of most religious leaders to the intersection of science and their adopted religion.

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    1. This is quite different from the reactions of most religious leaders to the intersection of science and their adopted religion.

      How? Wide swaths of Christianity - even conservative Christianity - have been entirely comfortable with changing their minds on everything from geocentrism to otherwise. Sure, you can point at historical resistance, but you can point at historical resistance in buddhism as well - and even in science! - to accepting various scientific ideas.

      Various Popes have said that Christianity has great respect for the scientific process. Heck, various Christians have argued that Christians are responsible for the creation of it in large part.

      But more than that - the Dali Lama has said that if science demonstrates certain understandings of buddhism are false, then buddhists must abandon those claims. The problem is, Ken Ham could probably say the same thing. He'd just argue about whether science has demonstrated what people argue it to have demonstrated.

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    2. I have not seen any religious leader other than HHDL say that if the latest science contradicts a religious teaching that the teaching must go.

      Yes, the relationship between science and Christianity over the last several centuries has been a complex one. Still, where has any Christian leader said anything like what HHDL has said. Perhaps they have and I just have not seen it.

      With regard to Ken Ham saying the same thing.. I don't think he has nor would he. The fact that he *could* and then *could* disingenuously suggest that science is in agreement is not remotely close to what HHDL has said unless you assume that HHDL was being disingenuous.

      We could assume bad faith on anyone's part, but I fail to see how this is important to the conversation.

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    3. I have not seen any religious leader other than HHDL say that if the latest science contradicts a religious teaching that the teaching must go.

      How about you judge by deed as well as word here?

      How many Christian organizations do you know of that accept evolutionary theory and common descent - including the Catholic Church? The rejection of heliocentrism? Etc, etc.

      They regarded science as contradicting that belief - and the belief was sacrificed.

      We could assume bad faith on anyone's part, but I fail to see how this is important to the conversation.

      Because it illustrates the gulf between word and deed here, as well as the complexity of the issue. What's the formula for determining whether given science has gone from 'suggestive' to 'obviously true'?

      Intelligent Design proponents - including Michael Behe - have said that if science were to show that evolutionary processes were capable of producing (for example) irreducible complexity, they'd abandon their views. I recall Behe said this explicitly in an interview. Yet Behe judges the science as not having done that. The thing is, you don't even need to argue bad faith on Behe's part - he can legitimately believe (even if his is a minority view) that the science on that front is not compelling.

      So what's the value of the commitment again, other than the most general and idealized statement of intellectual commitment?

      To compare - I'll bet you the New Atheists agreeing with Massimo would happily grant that if Massimo made a compelling case, they'd concede and drop their scientism. But then there's that gulf between the stated ideal and their perception of a compelling case - it's not the power of Massimo's arguments that matter alone, but their personal judgment of it. You think Coyne will buckle anytime soon?

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    4. How about you judge by deed as well as word here?

      I think both are important in this case. HHDL's words have been backed up by deed:

      * HHDL announcing a new collaboration between buddhist meditators and neuroscientists studying them.

      * HHDL's program to provide monks with a science education as well as a spiritual education

      * Includes HHDL's quote about abandoning specific canonical Buddhist teaching at odds with modern science.

      Because it illustrates the gulf between word and deed here, as well as the complexity of the issue.

      Are you speaking generally now about how easy it is to give lip service to adhering to science? Because that is not what I have been talking about nor was I talking about Ken Ham and creationists.

      Or are you referring to someone or something specific when talking about this bad faith? I was referring to HHDL and Buddhism specifically because Gadfly mentioned it. I don't see the relevance of bringing up bad faith in this context, but if you do please cite some evidence.

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    5. Actually, I've also read the Dalai Lama saying the reverse — that the teaching stays and the science goes, if it comes down to the two core issues, karma and reincarnation.

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    6. I think both are important in this case. HHDL's words have been backed up by deed:

      I'm not sure collaboration with neuroscientists is much of an evidence of 'deed' here, but that's not much of an issue anyway. The track record exists.

      Are you speaking generally now about how easy it is to give lip service to adhering to science?

      It's not even necessarily lip service - that implies a known and active hypocrisy. Plenty of people think that their views, which some may call anti-scientific, are fully scientific.

      Ken Ham is a good example, because he apparently believes that his views are entirely in line with science.

      You keep talking about 'bad faith' as if what's necessary here is some conscious hypocrisy. But it's not needed.

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    7. Owen Flanagan's "The Bodhisattva's Brain" deals with these questions in great depth. Flanagan thinks there can be a naturalized Buddhism, but he's quite clear that Tibetan Buddhism isn't it, and he does a handy job of debunking all the neuroscience collaboration as being philosophically, experimentally and conceptually unfounded. It doesn't show what people claim it shows. Also, while HHDL has made some science friendly comments, his statements are usually rewritten or walked back by the Buddhists clerics.

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    8. Gadfly, I would love to see a quote or link where HHDL says the reverse. Could you please post when you can?

      Crude, When it comes to people who are unconsciously biased towards their own views rather than remaining completely objective towards the scientific evidence I would say this is a problem with all humans religious or not. I don't think it would be hard to produce a record full of atheistic scientists who are biased towards their own pet hypothesis in contradiction to the available evidence.

      What is that old quote that bad theories don't die... the scientists who support them do or something?

      All we can do is remain as diligent and mindful of our own internal biases as possible. Luckily, mindfulness is one of the key practices of the Buddhist practitioner :)

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    9. OneDayMore,

      Owen Flanagan's "The Bodhisattva's Brain" deals with these questions in great depth. Flanagan thinks there can be a naturalized Buddhism, but he's quite clear that Tibetan Buddhism isn't it, and he does a handy job of debunking all the neuroscience collaboration as being philosophically, experimentally and conceptually unfounded. It doesn't show what people claim it shows.

      Thanks for the book reference. I will have to put it on my reading list.

      Also, while HHDL has made some science friendly comments, his statements are usually rewritten or walked back by the Buddhists clerics.

      Do you have examples of this preferably in the form of links? I would like to see an example of a quote from HHDL 'walked back' by a Buddhist cleric.

      To be clear, I acknowledge and I think most Tibetan Buddhists would acknowledge that many facets of our religion are outside the scope of science. Tibetan Buddhism is not science, it is religion and thus it adheres to beliefs that can not be tested aka karma, rebirth and so on. I do not believe HHDL is in any way trying to represent Tibetan Buddhism as a naturalistic view of the world subject to confirmation or negation by science.

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    10. Just one more from HHDL column in the New York Times:

      If science proves some belief of Buddhism wrong, then Buddhism will have to change. In my view, science and Buddhism share a search for the truth and for understanding reality. By learning from science about aspects of reality where its understanding may be more advanced, I believe that Buddhism enriches its own worldview.

      HHDL has spoken in the official "paper of record." :)

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    11. I can invent a "naturalized Christianity," even, pace Harris, a Christianity that's "just a psychology," if I confine myself to, say, Ecclesiastes. Again, this shows Harris as wrong, Harris as refusing to admit he's wrong, and Harris as engaging in "motivated reasoning." When I read his claim in "End of Faith," I stopped taking him seriously in general, and never started again.

      Many, I'm going to have to do a bit of digging ... stand by.

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  8. Given that Dennett and Grayling have been included in the NA movement, the characterization of NA as "criticizing religion relies much more forcefully on science than on philosophy" seems dubious. It is not New Atheism as such, but certain scientists who are promoting atheism. This is my problem with Gadfly, he uses NA to generalize (and therefore conclude guilt by association) about individuals who are very different. I don't see NA is a coherent thing.

    I must admit, I have read neither Harris's "The Moral Landscape" or Dawkins's "The God Delusion"; if I wanted to learn about those subjects, I would read real philosophers and not scientists. There are so many good books on these subjects by individuals who actually study them for a living that it is easy to see why philosophers might be appalled.

    I should admit that Alex Rosenberg was on my orals committee - long ago - and I caught some hell from certain biologists for that inclusion. He had just written, "The Structure of Biological Science" and I was interested in speciation, systematics and the species problem. It seemed like a good fit at the time and I don't regret it. Science PhDs should probably be DScs under most circumstances - the focus is too narrow unless one makes the effort to study outside the box. We are trying to speed up the whole college experience from reducing undergraduate GE requirements to speeding transit through graduate school by limiting support to only a few years. There is neither time for exploration nor reflection - which is what a philosopher should do.

    As I ramble on, I do wonder about what is thought of someone like Ian Barbour and his attempt to point out what he saw as similarities between science and religion. Barbour claimed that "transcendent" experiences were the facts on which theology rests as a knowledge system. I think I am reading him correctly if I say he thought that these experiences of awe, peace, etc. connected us to the divine and since the authors of sacred texts - especially the Bible - also experienced these same feelings, then we can interpret our feelings within the context of the Abrahamic faiths. Are these feelings knowledge? Is there a systematic means of interpreting these unshared facts? I think Barbour was trying to put together a sliding scale of unshared feelings on one end to shared observations of nature on the other. Theology deals solely with one end and science the other. I am not sure how one gets from a feeling to the specificity of a religion telling us what a divine being wants, but perhaps I just lack a "senses divinitatus".


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    1. Actually, from what I've read of Grayling, while he may be a bit less forceful than Myers/Dawkins/Harris, he's certainly more forceful than Dennett, so I'd disagree with your take on him. Certainly, many people understand "The God Argument" to be a deliberate reference to "The God Delusion."

      ===

      As for Dennett? I've already mentioned how, even if he didn't invent the word "Brights," he was its midwife and a leading popularizer.

      Dennett's wrong on other things, too. He has no proof that evolution is algorithmic, nor, in making the claim, did he state any way of testing, falsifying, etc. I started becoming a lot more strongly skeptical of any overarching claims of his after reading "Darwin's Dangerous Idea," including realizing the laugh factor of him talking about "greedy reductionism" when it's clear he's a greedy reductionist himself. (Since then, I've come to guess that this isn't some blind spot he has about himself, but rather, an "insulative" rhetorical device — one which obviously doesn't work, if one looks at him skeptically enough.)

      Overall, let's just say Dennett is more avuncular than some. That doesn't mean he's any less willing to get out the shiv, as Steve Gould well knew. (And, no, that doesn't mean I buy into Gould's non-overlapping magisteria, though I think he was right on many things in the long set of Gould-Dennett discussions/debates.)

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    2. So you claim Grayling is promoting science over philosophy? Forceful on what - criticizing religion?

      Brights, - get over it - its dead - when was the last time Dennett used it?
      I am an evolutionary biologist and I liked DDI - no problems with algorithmic analogy. Why do you think it is wrong?

      You are trying really really hard to smear people and I can't quite figure out why. Are you really the smartest person on earth and the rest of us aren't aware of it? Mensa membership paid up? Or is it because you believe in the supernatural - gods and such? I can't figure out your stance.

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    3. Forceful on how religion is criticized.

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      On Brights, "goes to motive," per the old legal saying. Certainly, I would not forget about it.

      I already said why the algorithmic claim is wrong — it's not falsifiable. Probably never will be. In other words, it's like string theory. Plus, it's Example No. 1 of Dennett being a greedy reductionist when he claims he's not.

      Nothing here is "smearing." Stating facts (Brights, and non-falsifiability) isn't smearing. Stating analysis isn't, either. If it is, then you're guilty of practicing it against me.

      And, on the philosophy side, I'm far from the only person to say the title of "Consciousness Explained" really should be "Dan Dennett's Idea of Consciousness Explained."

      And, I can't figure out why you have such a bee in your bonnet about me. Much of what I've said on Massimo's posts about Gnus is nothing other than what he has said himself.

      Or, if you want "smearing," it's what Dennett does to an unable-to-respond dead man, Gould: http://socraticgadfly.blogspot.com/2013/05/dan-dennett-doug-hofstadter-get-double.html

      Again, the more you make these claims, the more I discount them.

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    4. That is just a dickish review on your part - all piss and no substance. Your claim on algorithms is not an argument - just an assertion. I ask again what is your motivation here - why are you so annoyed by those you label new atheists, I can't understand why they offend you so much? Is it that religion shouldn't be criticized or just not forcefully (whatever that means)? As you say, Massimo criticizes religion this all the time - why the difference? Every time one of these posts goes up you are first in line to gleefully jump in with "those gnus are so awful" - your argument, if you can call it that, is never anything new - just tired accusations going back to the dawn of time - it is Sisyphean. I think it is your dogmatism that bugs the hell out of me - if you want to know.

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    5. I respect both of you and my opinion is probably intermediate between yours so here's my two cents on your dispute.

      I'm inclined to agree with Michael that Gadfly has not really offered much substance to back up his criticisms of Dennett in particular, but I'm inclined to agree with Gadfly that Michael's hostile tone is unwarranted.

      Gadfly: I don't think you are being dogmatic, but it would be great to see some more detailed arguments from you. In particular, what is your understanding of Dennett's claim that evolution is algorithmic and in what sense do you think it is not?

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    6. I just read that Gould review of DDI - whoa, that is some serious nastiness on Gould's part. As a graduate student in the 80s, we read all of those Gould papers and I can see why someone who takes the moniker "gadfly" would feel a comradeship with Gould. I think Gould misrepresented what Dennett was doing with his book, but of course that is just my opinion and I am not in Gould's class as far as biology cajones go. I don't think Gould refuted much of anything in the review - certainly not the 3 points claims he refuted in his equally vituperative reply to Dennett's reply.

      My old advisor always laughed that when Gould gave talks he would often talk geology and paleontology to biology departments and biology to geology and paleontology departments. Good thing when definitions are so fluid. I really like Gould as a essayist and used him often when teaching high school biology - I am just not so sure about his lasting legacy in science.

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    7. Michael, Dennett saying evolution IS algorithmic is just the same: an assertion, nothing more. Period and end of story. Good for the good, good for the gander, if you're going to make that statement about me.

      And, otherwise, who died and appointed you keeper of the Gnu Atheism PR flame? You've still never said why **I** draw your particular ire, when, as I've noted, I'm far from alone in most my observations, albeit approaching them from a different angle at times.

      You know, Michael, this is at the point where, while keeping a certain level of urbane suavity, I actually take delight in how upset I expect you're going to get about a comment of mine.

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      Disagreeable Me: As I said above, his statement is not currently falsifiable, and I'm not sure it ever will be. I mean, look at it yourself; how could you test such a statement, given that our current planet is the only one on which we know life exists, and all the other caveats that follow from that. Given that, here on earth, there's still debates over group selection, that's another falsifiability caveat. As I also said, I consider it an example of greedy reductionism he claims to decry.

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  9. I'd say my major complaint would be you group up New Atheists but you now seem to be now saying the original founders(!?) and their followers - which isnt remotely the same thing. As you should know opinions on Harris have already taken a nose dive with his views on racial profiling, hypothetical torture scenarios and his views on moral philosophy among people who identify as new atheists. The FTB crowd already dislikes Dawkins for Dear Muslima. Hitchens had plenty of detractors for his political views as well as some of his views on women. Each of them has a dedicated set of followers but so what? Why do New atheists, as a group, have to be held liable for the views of these "founders"? New Atheists , in general, don't want any leaders or popes.
    1. Coynes hypocrisy on civility is breathtaking but his substantial point is that while God may be a random, contradictory set of statements, the normal majority of people do have a working definition which includes a God that can and does interact with this world. This does move God into the scientific domain and while it might not cover every conceivable idea of God ,thats fine - new atheists focus on a theistic interfering God. When a philosopher utilizes his imagination to figure out ways how that could be reconciled with the evidence , we do laugh at such philosophers.

    b. For your PZ response
    tendency of NA qua movement (i.e., founding fathers and many followers) toward scientism
    As far as I can tell , most(but not all) new atheists are perfectly fine with philosophy, logic, reason, arts and know what to apply when and where. We do respect science and we think the tools of science (and call that tools of philosophy if you want) are great and a lot of them , can be applied , in general to life.
    c. Harris has had enough scathing reviews from new atheists so we need not look at him. He might be a founder member but he is no longer as popular as he was to be considered a New Atheist representative.

    My problem with the New Atheism is that there is little new in it, that it tends to be more loud than constructive, and that it has a tendency toward science-worshiping.
    new atheists love to complain that there is nothing new about their atheism and its a stupid label we have been stuck with. Some modify it to gnu for a laugh and some say we are stuck with it so embrace it. I don't see why you have a problem with "new". You see science worship - we see a tremendously useful tool that has had a direct impact on the lives of many billions of people , some of whom wouldn't be there without it. So call it worship if you want - but I'd use that word when we are willing to riot against those who don't worship science - not before.

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  10. I am not really sure why you say there is no God Hypothesis as opposed to "a semi-incoherent ensemble of contradictory statements easily failing the test of reason and evidence"

    I would have thought the God hypothesis has been pretty clear for at least centuries, ie "There is a necessarily existing intelligent being who is the ultimate creator of all contingent things".

    The extension of this might be "... and who is the basis of all moral facts".

    Whether or not that is a scientific hypothesis seems to depend entirely on what a scientific hypothesis is decided to be - it seems to be somewhat in flux at the moment.

    But there is nothing incoherent or contradictory about the claim that lies at the base of the largest monotheistic faith even though this may be true of any statement made about particular extra attributes various groups ascribe to it.

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    1. And I mean "faiths" not "faith".

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  11. )))((((((
    (·)...(·)
    ...v...
    [____]

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  12. What would be the difference between making a poor philosophical argument, and diminishing the role of philosophy? One of the things that bugged me about The Moral Landscape is that Harris thought he could overcome the IS/OUGHT distinction by appealing to the fact of how our brains process facts and values. Is this a problem with scientism or shoddy thinking? In any case, I can't imagine that such a statement would be scientific even if it were said to be a scientific view - it sounds like an argument over semantics, while the problem(s) with Harris' assertion remains the same irrespective of whether he's guilty of scientism or not.

    As for the god hypothesis being scientific, would it be unfair to try to take god(s) as they are described by believers and try to work it into a coherent model in order to attack it? Perhaps God is a "semi-incoherent ensemble of contradictory statements", but if that coherence can be cleaned up in such a way that it becomes meaningful (believers certainly make precise claims about God and his interaction in the world), then would it be intellectually dishonest to try to make sense of it to attack? Take, for example, a claim that a god was responsible for the sex of the offspring. The claim on its own is nonsense, but we can make a meaningful claim out of it by applying our understanding of the natural processes of reproduction to it. That way we could formulate several possible meanings by which the believer's statement about the need to sacrifice a goat to appease this event by trying to put forward what such an event would mean. In other words, we could use our scientific understanding as well as making scientific hypothesises to show that the statement would be wrong or "not even wrong".

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  13. C,

    > I'm guessing, for example, that Massimo has more confidence in the best-established scientific theories than he has in his favored philosophical theories <

    That is correct. Indeed, I don’t think of philosophical theories as theories, but rather as accounts, or frameworks. They are just not the same beast as a scientific theory, so even to compare them in relative terms is, I think, misguided.

    > Harris never once says that compatibilism is nonsense, instead he argues that it confuses the issue and is simply not required as personal responsibility etc can be justified on consequentialist grounds without needing to invoke free will at all. <

    This was not your comment, you were responding to it, and I think you got it right. Indeed, it is Harris who confuses things by apparently not distinguishing between meta-ethical issues such as free will and the deployment of specific ethical frameworks such as consequentialism.

    Michael,

    > It is not New Atheism as such, but certain scientists who are promoting atheism. <

    That is correct, but let’s not kid around, those “certain scientists” are by far the most vocal and influential component of the NA movement. You can easily see this also by simply looking at the comments on Coyne’s, Harris’ and PZ’s blogs, as well as just hanging around skeptic / atheist conferences. The number of people who mention Dennett as opposed to Dawkins is minute.

    > I should admit that Alex Rosenberg was on my orals committee - long ago - and I caught some hell from certain biologists for that inclusion. <

    That must have been an interesting experience!

    > Barbour claimed that "transcendent" experiences were the facts on which theology rests as a knowledge system … Are these feelings knowledge? <

    Here I go with Plato and his take on knowledge as justified true belief (yes, I’m aware and I’ve written about recent discussions on Gettier-style exceptions). So no, they don’t count as knowledge. That doesn’t mean they should be discarded. The feeling of transcendence and its connection with religion can and needs to be studied and accounted for. Psychology and cognitive science are best positioned to do so, I think.

    > I am not sure how one gets from a feeling to the specificity of a religion telling us what a divine being wants, but perhaps I just lack a "senses divinitatus”. <

    Perhaps, but my hunch is that you simply don’t get from one to the other, and that people simply make up stories that make sense to them.

    Crude,

    > What's 'semi-incoherent' about the existence of a necessary being of moral import and 'mental' characteristic? <

    Remember, my comment was within the context of some NAs’ suggestion that “God” can be treated as a scientific hypothesis. But the concept of God is so vague, flexible, and culturally varied that it seems to me absurd to treat it as a proper object of science. Does Dawkins seriously think that “God did it” is in any way analogous to, say, scientific explanations given in evolutionary theory, to use his own field of expertise?

    (I missed your second question, I think.)

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    1. Massimo, as I told Michael above, the fact that Dennett is more "avuncular" doesn't mean he can't, or won't, wield a mean shiv himself, and do so readily.

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    2. Massimo,

      But the concept of God is so vague, flexible, and culturally varied that it seems to me absurd to treat it as a proper object of science.

      Well, you said that the claim of God was semi-incoherent. Admittedly, semi-incoherent is an odd thing to say (I'd think it either is coherent or it isn't), but I'm not seeing any incoherence about God in your reply.

      I'm not disagreeing with you about God not being a 'proper object of science'. But I don't think this has anything to do with incoherency. The idea that we live in a simulated universe, the idea that the universe began to exist (complete with a fake-looking history,) solipsism and more strikes me as questions that are not the proper object of science, but still subject to some amount of investigation by reason, etc.

      Does Dawkins seriously think that “God did it” is in any way analogous to, say, scientific explanations given in evolutionary theory, to use his own field of expertise?

      I agree, broadly, with the idea that 'God did it' is not a scientific explanation. Ever. In fact, I think Coyne in particular is bad about this - if you take a look at what Coyne (and other NAs) give to illustrate what would be 'scientific evidence of God's existence', each and every time it's a God of the Gaps example.

      (I missed your second question, I think.)

      You said the existence of God fails the test of reason and evidence. I'd like to know what the test/tests is/are.

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    3. And, again, as I told Michael above, kicking at a dead man shows that Dennett isn't always so suave: http://socraticgadfly.blogspot.com/2013/05/dan-dennett-doug-hofstadter-get-double.html

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    4. I know many people who are frustrated by the commenters at those sites. I have tried to inject some topics to explore from time to time, but it is difficult to get engagement. There are certain directions that just aren't allowed because they will be dismissed or ignored. I really don't understand the anti-philosophy stance of many.I just don't think you can smear the authors of those sites with the brush of their commenters. I am interested in learning something on these sites which is why I asked about thoughts on Barbour. It interests me that really smart people with PhDs in science are so swept up by religion that they spend their lives trying to make it into something resembling science. I am fascinated by people who study theology because it makes so little sense to me; I can't find a method to it or at least one that makes sense to me.

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  14. Deepak,

    > I'd say my major complaint would be you group up New Atheists but you now seem to be now saying the original founders(!?) and their followers - which isnt remotely the same thing. <

    It is not *exactly* the same thing, because no movement is that homogenous. But not even remotely?

    > Why do New atheists, as a group, have to be held liable for the views of these "founders"? New Atheists , in general, don't want any leaders or popes. <

    In answer to the first question, see my comment to Michael above. As for the second one, I beg to differ. Part of the NA movement comes across as a quasi-cult very much in need of popes and leaders. What we are witnessing now, I think, is a splintering of the movement along the lines you suggested, which is an interesting sociological phenomenon of its own. At any rate, I have raised on this blog what I think are thoughtful objections on this blog also to other spin-offs of NA, such as A+ (on this, stay tuned for Julia and yours truly interviewing Greta Christina on the RS podcast, coming out in April).

    > Coynes hypocrisy on civility is breathtaking <

    Thank you.

    > but his substantial point is that while God may be a random, contradictory set of statements, the normal majority of people do have a working definition which includes a God that can and does interact with this world. This does move God into the scientific domain <

    Well, this is a point that can be debated, and my views on it should be clear by now. If by “scientific domain” you mean that one can come up with pretty straightforward reasons why gods likely don’t exist, or don’t do what people think they do, sure. But that is equating reason broadly construed with science, which I resist. If instead you mean that people’s concepts of god come anywhere close to what counts as a reasonably coherent and testable scientific hypothesis, no, that is most definitely not the case.

    > As far as I can tell , most(but not all) new atheists are perfectly fine with philosophy, logic, reason, arts and know what to apply when and where. <

    I’d like to see move evidence of that. The impression I get from reading comments online and going to conferences, as I mentioned above, is quite different. Perhaps it’s time for a serious sociological study of NAs beliefs and attitudes.

    > You see science worship - we see a tremendously useful tool that has had a direct impact on the lives of many billions of people, some of whom wouldn't be there without it <

    I think those are quite different things, and I hope you don’t think I don’t very much respect (and defend, when needed!) science. But science is also responsible for a lot of awful stuff, and to deny it is one of the hallmarks of scientism. In other words, I’m worried about too much science-worshiping and too little science-questioning among the NAs and even the broader skeptical movement.

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    1. Oh, doorknob. I have even less use for the A+ kiddie pool of Gnu Atheism, a kiddie pool with even larger waves of hypocrisy, and much larger waves of martyrdom complexes, than the main part of Atheism Plus.

      Please make sure Julia doesn't go too light and easy in that interview.

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    2. But not even remotely?
      Yes - you are looking at when New Atheists started out where 3-4 names were prominent v/s the reality today - yes your examples have dedicated followers, some of whom behave as cultists but my biased view is that these arent the majority , nor are they leaders in any sense . They were successful pioneers who are still popular today, no more - no less.

      have raised on this blog what I think are thoughtful objections on this blog
      Agreed [that they are thoughtful and constructive, not on the fact that they are right :) ]

      If instead you mean that people’s concepts of god come anywhere close
      No not their entire concept. But there are two specific claims which , if false , makes their concept useless. Did God create the universe? And does he interact with it daily and if so what evidence would we expect. This is mostly a scientific claim + some bits of philosophy and if the answer to both the questions is No then the rest of the God concept is useless anyway.

      I’d like to see move evidence of that.
      I believe PZ gave you examples. The commenters who follow those examples would also *usually* accept those statements(based on the anecdotal evidence that I see since I do follow most of those examples). I'd like to see evidence that a majority of New atheists dont see value in philosophy or arts for you to be able to justify your use of new atheists in general. Im not denying that the type of people that you mention exist, Ive seen them too , just that they are not a majority



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  15. Robin,

    > I would have thought the God hypothesis has been pretty clear for at least centuries, ie "There is a necessarily existing intelligent being who is the ultimate creator of all contingent things”. <

    See my comments above. That is indeed a clear ontological statement, but not a scientific one. To count as a hypothesis we would have to flash out why and how the creator created, and we don’t get that sort of specificity from religionists, at all.

    > Whether or not that is a scientific hypothesis seems to depend entirely on what a scientific hypothesis is decided to be <

    Yes, but my contention is that scientists themselves by and large do not consider that sort of things to raise to the level of a scientific hypothesis. Also, there is a large literature in philosophy of science about hypotheses, standards of evidence, etc. You would think that the NAs would eagerly be digging into it. And you would e sorely disappointed.

    Kel,

    > One of the things that bugged me about The Moral Landscape is that Harris thought he could overcome the IS/OUGHT distinction by appealing to the fact of how our brains process facts and values. Is this a problem with scientism or shoddy thinking? <

    Both. It seems to me to be a very good example (yes, it struck me too as very bizarre!) of shoddy thinking motivated by a scientistic attitude.

    > Perhaps God is a "semi-incoherent ensemble of contradictory statements", but if that coherence can be cleaned up in such a way that it becomes meaningful (believers certainly make precise claims about God and his interaction in the world), then would it be intellectually dishonest to try to make sense of it to attack? <

    First, I have said several times that any specific claim made by a religionist about the world can, in fact, be tested and rejected scientifically. If one thinks the earth is 6000 years old that is simply wrong, scientifically so. My contention is rather that this blatant rejection does little or nothing to falsify the “god hypothesis” precisely because the connection between the concept of god and any allegedly specific claim about the world is loose and extremely plastic (as in “god could have made it look like the earth is billions of years old,” or “the days of scripture are really geological ages,” and so forth).

    Second, I don’t actually think the cleaning up you suggest can be done, but by all means, I’m not against someone giving it a try. Third, I very much suspect that any such cleaning up would be rejected by religionists on the grounds that that’s really not what they meant to begin with. And that’s why it ain’t science.

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    1. Hi Massimo,

      Well let me ask you - do you consider that Max Tegmark's Mathematical Universe Hypothesis or the Computable Universe Hypothesis as scientific hypotheses?

      For the God Hypothesis I am not sure the "why" is important given that an intelligent being might have any number of reasons.

      For the "how" - well let's try a Berkley/Schrodinger approach and say that all that exists is mind and mathematics and that mind is a fundamental agency.

      So there is one mind that is more powerful and create other minds.

      Now how is that worse than the Mathematical Universe Hypothesis or Computable Universe Hypothesis?

      I have pointed out elsewhere that these predict that it is vastly improbable that I am living in a universe that was not created by a digital demigod and it is vastly improbable each second that I do not witness a miracle.

      I can't see how those theories do not predict that.

      I can't see how these can be accepted as scientific theories and "Mind and Mathematics" cannot. Why are MUH and CUH debated soberly by physicists and Idealist concepts not?

      Of course Erwin Schrodinger did not propose a controlling mind, only a sort of participative God.

      And Schrodinger knew well the distinction between science and philosophy and made clear that he offered it as a private philosophic opinion.

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    2. I realise I may have answered my own question. MUH and CUH are falsifiable and I think falsified.

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    3. Perhaps I should take a leaf out of Max Tegmark's book and label this the "Level 0 Multiverse". no Universe at all :)

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    4. And, if you will excuse one more ramble, the "mind and mathematics" hypothesis is, I think, falsifiable (not currently, unfortunately).

      If a complete brain can be simulated on a register machine and can be shown to exhibit the outward behaviour of a human then the "mind and mathematics" hypothesis is falsified. If this proves impossible then his counts as evidence for the "mind and mathematics" hypothesis.

      I would even count this exercise on a mouse simulation as evidence.

      And yet I am happy to say that this is not a scientific hypothesis but a metaphysical one.

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    5. Hi Robin,

      >If this proves impossible then his counts as evidence for the "mind and mathematics" hypothesis.<

      How would you prove it to be impossible? The continued failure to produce such a simulation only shows it to be infeasible or very difficult. To falsify "mind and mathematics" you'd need to show it to be impossible in principle, which is perhaps itself impossible even if "mind and mathematics" is false.

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    6. No, to falsify "mind and mathematics" you would obviously have to prove the ;modelling task possible, not impossible.

      Having it proved impossible (not merely difficult or infeasible) would be evidence for "mind and mathematics" not against.

      Some say that it will be proved possible by 2050, but I think that is wildly optimistic even if it is possible. I doubt a complete C Elegans simulation will be even done before 2025.

      But it can be proved impossible because there is nothing here that ought to be mysterious. It is highly complex and will need a massive amount of computing power that is only a dream today. It will also require a complete reverse engineering of the brain.

      But given sufficient capability to map the brain, sufficient computing power to provide a high resolution model it ought to be possible.

      If all that is done and it is not providing the expected behaviour then we will know there is something missing in the physical model.

      Not infallibly, because we are not infallible beings but pretty surely. And that is why I say "evidence for" and not "verify".

      But I believe I have good reason to think that there will be no successful emulation.

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    7. Hi Robin,

      You're right, I was wrong. Your prediction is indeed falsifiable. Its converse is not. I got confused.

      Delete

    8. >If this proves impossible then his counts as evidence for the "mind and mathematics" hypothesis.<

      What I meant to say was that the evidence for the "mind and mathematics" hypothesis will not be forthcoming because I doubt that it can ever be proved impossible to build a sentient computer, even if it is in fact impossible.

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    9. "Second, I don’t actually think the cleaning up you suggest can be done, but by all means, I’m not against someone giving it a try. Third, I very much suspect that any such cleaning up would be rejected by religionists on the grounds that that’s really not what they meant to begin with."
      I'm not sure it can be done either, and my experience would validate your suspicions. But I'm also not sure whether I'm obligated to at least try to make sense of the claims. In particular, that we use science to understand how the world works, and that theists claim an influence of God in nature, suggests to me that eventually there's going to have to be some sort of coherence made of the statement.

      One of the issues, as far as I can tell, is the very notion of trying to ally statements about God in nature with our understanding of nature is taken to be misguided - an example of scientism, though a scientism quite different to what your article is talking about. It would seem in those cases that the real issue is that one isn't looking to the traditional arguments for God, that God is a "metaphysical" proposition, and as such arguments like the ontological argument and the moral argument are where the real battleground is. And I must admit I cannot make sense of how they could say that at the same time as claiming God answers their prayers or that God intervenes in the world. They seem like empirical problems to me, and no amount of musing over whether existence is a predicate or what the nature of the first cause is will make much of a difference to the validity of such statements. From my layman perspective, it really feels like there is a bait-and-switch going on, where people talk about God as if God is a part of our world, but defend God as a neo-platonic abstraction which can only be assessed a priori through philosophical reflection. None of which is to deny the value of philosophical arguments, but surely I'm not the only one who has noticed a disconnect between the way people talk about God and the way God is rigorously defended. It just seems to me that at one point theists are going to have to front up about what precisely God is and how God works in order to make meaningful their statements about what God does. This is my take of what Michael Martin means when he talks about the gap in theistic arguments.

      So at least in principle, I see the value of reaching for a "scientific hypothesis" purely on the virtue that it's the only way to make sense of certain claims theists make. The difficulty, as you suspect, is getting any theist to see it that way. It's easy just to claim that miracles are beyond science, God deals in miracles, so there is no conflict. But what I suspect is the appeal to the miraculous mean they are equating God with ignorance, and I further suspect that their invocation of miracles make their claims empty. If they don't know what they mean, is that sufficient reason to dismiss the whole enterprise?

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    10. Hi DM,

      I agree that it would be impossible to prove the impossibility of building a sentient computer.

      But I am not concerned with sentience in either case, only external behaviour.

      If the brain is reverse engineered with sufficient accuracy and a computer of sufficient power to model it becomes available then it should be fairly obvious at some stage that there is something missing.

      That missing thing need not be "mind" as I am defining it, but the fact of something missing from the physical picture would certainly count as evidence.

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  16. Massimo,

    >But I had made neither claim, as ought to be crystal clear to anyone reading the paragraph that Jerry quoted before proceeding to completely misunderstand it. I had simply said that Dawkins et al. are wrong to consider “the God hypothesis” as anything like a scientific hypothesis (as opposed to a semi-incoherent ensemble of contradictory statements easily failing the test of reason and evidence). That is, my complaint was, and has always been, that NAs simply give too much credit to their opponents when they raise religious talk to the level of science. Coyne simply, willfully it seems to me, misread what I wrote and very plainly intended.<

    Well, I've read The God Delusion like 3-4 times now, and what you said here is precisely its point: to show why the "god hypothesis" is a bad hypothesis!

    It simply says "oh? you say X exists? And this X interacts with the natural world? Existence of something like that surely is a candidate of study, well call it the "X hypothesis"!" And then starts to demolish the most popular arguments, making them look for what they are: nonsensical.

    Calling it "The God Hypothesis" is merely a rhetorical tool, not that "we take it too serious" or "raise religious talk to the level of science". If that was the case, you'd see Dawkins raising funds for a research center that conducts experiments to disprove God.

    What NA do is trying to make people understand why science isn't a mysterious realm that dictates truths, and instead it's just common sense and logic not much different than plumbing... BUT applied professionally on matters of natural phenomena (and the existence of God would be a natural phenomenom). After people understand that, then comes the issue of making them see why the "arguments for god" are so bad under this light.

    And this approach has worked to some extent, many have been deconverted directly by NA efforts, and the atheist discussion has been made mainstream. In that sense, they're doing it right! I know you say that the goodness of making more atheists is debatble, but that's another story.

    Now, as much as I like philosophy, I don't think NA scientists have the obligation to justify their writings on philosophical grounds. They are attacking religion from their grounds (existence as a natural phenomenom), let the philosophers do it on their own, for example, with "why an omnipotent and omniscient being is a walking (floating?) paradox" type of argument (I guess there are many sophisticated ones I don't know), as well as analyzing the philosophical implications of natural facts, like the unguidedness of evolution - that'd be a fruitful area of cooperation between science and philosophy.

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  17. Gadfly,

    > let's just say Dennett is more avuncular than some. That doesn't mean he's any less willing to get out the shiv <

    Oh, I know. Witness my (long) list of D-citations about Harris. Indeed, part of the post was to make the point that Harris got significantly nastier comments from Dan than from me!

    > Please make sure Julia doesn't go too light and easy in that interview. <

    No worries. Somewhat surprisingly, Julia and I found ourselves on the same page by the end of the interview, and did some significant amount of push back on Greta (while still staying within the boundaries of constructive dialogue, I hope!).

    Crude,

    > I'm not disagreeing with you about God not being a 'proper object of science'. But I don't think this has anything to do with incoherency. <

    But take, for instance, the standard objection that to declare god to be all-good, all-powerful and all-knowing amounts to incoherence in a world faced by evil. Yes, I know there are counter-arguments to that, but they are barely more than special pleading on the part of theologians. Or take more specific Christian notions, such as that of the Trinity, or of transubstantiation. All of these things, especially when cobbled together, do make it to the level of semi-incoherence, I think.

    > You said the existence of God fails the test of reason and evidence. I'd like to know what the test/tests is/are. <

    Ah, yes. I simply meant the Humean test of proportioning one’s beliefs to the evidence. There is, in my mind, neither evidence nor a priori reason to believe in god, so I don’t.

    Deepak,

    > but my biased view is that these arent the majority , nor are they leaders in any sense <

    Well, my biased view says otherwise. As I said, though, it’s time for some serious sociological study of the movement. Does anyone know if anybody has done such thing?

    > Did God create the universe? And does he interact with it daily and if so what evidence would we expect. This is mostly a scientific claim <

    I fail to see how. No matter what scientific explanation we arrive at for those questions, a religionist can always tack on it: “and that’s how god does it,” and be done with it. Of course this is special pleading of the highest degree, but then again so are all religious “explanations.” That’s why they aren’t science.

    > I'd like to see evidence that a majority of New atheists dont see value in philosophy or arts for you to be able to justify your use of new atheists in general. Im not denying that the type of people that you mention exist, Ive seen them too , just that they are not a majority <

    As I said above, we need numbers, not a list of examples and counter-examples. I’m open to the good news that Dawkins, Harris and Coyne are exceptions who are fading away. But something tells me they aren’t.

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    1. I'll look forward to the interview, then!

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    2. There is, in my mind, neither evidence nor a priori reason to believe in god, so I don’t.

      The way this sentence is structured would imply that if existed evidence OR a priori reason, then you would consider believing in god. Let's forget the evidence part of that equation and focus on what you mean by 'a priori reason'... I know you said that no such thing exists, but if it did what would it look like?

      I guess I'm trying to understand your usage of the term 'a priori reason' in that sentence. What would this look like if it *did* exist?

      According to Godel's Incompleteness Theorem the foundational axioms of logic and mathematics can not be proved within the framework they define. You have to *believe* these axioms for some other reason than logic or evidence. I think most mathematicians would say that these axioms are practical - in the sense that they open up a universe of ideas for exploration - and that they jibe with their own intuition. Others would say aesthetics compels them. And so on.

      The question of God in my mind is very similar to these axioms. Whether you believe in it or not is a determination that is arrived at not by evidence or logic, but by other reasons like aesthetics etc.

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    3. Massimo,

      But take, for instance, the standard objection that to declare god to be all-good, all-powerful and all-knowing amounts to incoherence in a world faced by evil. Yes, I know there are counter-arguments to that, but they are barely more than special pleading on the part of theologians.

      There's not just counter-arguments to that, but conceptions of God where He is either not all-powerful, or not all-knowing, or even not all-good. The last one in particular is its own can of worms, since I'm willing to bet what you call 'good' and what theists call 'good' differs drastically. At which point you're going to need incoherency between what they call good and what they say of God - good luck with that.

      What's more - it's not just theologians who disagree with you, but philosophers. They give their own arguments and reasoning, instead of appealing to revelation, etc.

      Or take more specific Christian notions, such as that of the Trinity, or of transubstantiation. All of these things, especially when cobbled together, do make it to the level of semi-incoherence, I think.

      What's incoherent about transubstantiation? Maybe if you tried to turn it into a rapt scientific claim - but then you'd be guilty of the very thing you're accusing atheists of, at least insofar as you'd be trying to call something 'scientific!' when it really isn't.

      Worse, you say 'to take more specific Christian notions' - but by doing that you're just further narrowing the odds of your claim having much application, even if it turned out to be right. As it stands I think you're obviously wrong on transubstantiation, and (not as obviously) wrong on the trinity.

      Even by your own standards, you'd have to concede that there's nothing incoherent about Anthony Flew's deism and a host of other theisms. I think you made a mistake here in going for 'incoherent' as a response to God. Disagreement, thinking they're wrong, is a far easier charge to make and sustain than flat out incoherence, and when the charge you lead with amounts to a charge about morality (which would have to be an internal inconsistency), I don't think you're in good shape.

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    4. Well, my biased view says otherwise.
      So if are views are biased and there is no evidence either way, wouldnt you either a) be charitable or b) reserve judgement?
      No matter what scientific explanation we arrive at for those questions, a religionist can always tack on it: “and that’s how god does it,”
      I did say you need a little bit of philosophy too:). By this token though , no claim is ever scientific!. Any scientific claim (e.g. the age of the earth) cannot be refuted if someone tacks on "but it was made this way by a mysterious entity in mysterious ways for mysterious reasons" - and in that sense science cannot make any conclusion about anything - not just religious claims - trivially true but practically speaking that is not the way humans talk or behave - and we even bet our lives on it.

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  18. Michael,

    > I just don't think you can smear the authors of those sites with the brush of their commenters. <

    Well, yes and no. First off, the tone and content of a lot of comments on Coyne’s, Harris’, and PZ’s blogs do seem to be in synch with the tone and content of the authors of those blogs. Second, blog authors do have responsibility for how discussions unfold on their platforms. That’s why I moderate this blog. As you know, plenty of critical comments make it through, but nasty ones don’t. And since I started moderating (which, admittedly, takes some time that I could devote to other endeavors) the quality of the discussion has gone up, in my opinion.

    > It interests me that really smart people with PhDs in science are so swept up by religion that they spend their lives trying to make it into something resembling science. <

    Me too. Just read an interesting chapter in Dennett’s latest book, on “playing chmess,” which asks the same question about some academic philosophy. I intend to take on the topic next week, though my post will be somewhat tangential to what you are referring to here.

    > I just read that Gould review of DDI - whoa, that is some serious nastiness on Gould's part. <

    To be expected. Did you read Dennett’s chapter on Gould? I never understood why Dan took on Gould so heavily, other than because of Gould’s own criticism of (and, likely, antipathy for) Dawkins’ Selfish Gene. For what is worth, and issues of personality apart, I think Gould was a much deeper thinker than Dawkins has ever been about evolution.

    modvs1,

    > Where's the Tegmark podcast you promised in January? <

    Coming right out, this weekend!

    Robin,

    > Well let me ask you - do you consider that Max Tegmark's Mathematical Universe Hypothesis or the Computable Universe Hypothesis as scientific hypotheses? <

    No, at the moment at least I consider them scientifically-informed metaphysics. But that could change, the boundary between physics and metaphysics is somewhat fluid.

    > For the God Hypothesis I am not sure the "why" is important given that an intelligent being might have any number of reasons. <

    But if we want explanations of phenomena, “why” becomes important whenever we consider intelligent beings. Imagine doing psychological research on human beings without asking about their motivations for what they do.

    > let's try a Berkley/Schrodinger approach and say that all that exists is mind and mathematics and that mind is a fundamental agency. … Now how is that worse than the Mathematical Universe Hypothesis or Computable Universe Hypothesis? <

    It seems to me a bit more arbitrary / out of whole cloth. But see my comment above about the MUH and similar ideas.

    > Why are MUH and CUH debated soberly by physicists and Idealist concepts not? <

    Because many physicists simply don’t realize when it is that they stepped into philosophical territory. To his credit, Tegmark admitted as such during our interview, to be published shortly over at the RS podcast site.

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    1. With PZ, where I've spent the most time in the past, ohh, yes, you can judge him by his Pharyngulac follower-commenters.

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    2. I read DDI some years ago and frankly I don't remember the book as an attack on Gould. Gould obviously felt the whole book was about him. What do you make of Dennett's response? He claims to have met with Gould and tried to work with him - do you think Dennett is fudging this? Or is this just two egos on parade? I never compared Gould to Dawkins, but was thinking of Gould against the field of evolutionary biologists as a whole.

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    3. In any case if they want to treat God as a hypothesis I do wish they would take some care to get it right.

      In The God Delusion, Dawkins argues against the existence of a contingent god.

      That is trivially easy but who is he arguing against, hardly anybody believes in the existence of a contingent god.

      Kind of made the book a wasted opportunity.

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    4. And finally, on the Mind and Mathematics thing, I fear that the scientific world may have unwittingly given it respectability by giving MUH respectability.

      Tegmark says that MUH is a consequence of the External Reality Hypothesis.

      So if this is to be treated as a scientific argument then we have to accept that his argument might be correct but that MUH might be false which would also falsify ERH.

      I would love to know what Tegmark would say to the digital demigod problem.

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    5. I answered your digital demigod problem on the other thread. There is no digital demigod problem.

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    6. I have looked and you don't even appear to.understand what I mean by a digital demigod. Perhaps I will have time later to.respond in detail

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    7. But yes, there is a digital demigod problem with MUH

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    8. Hi DM , I actually thought of a problem with my argument that you didn' argument that you didn't bring up and I.can only claim that the DD problem applies to CUH but more of that later.

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    9. I look forward to your clarification then!

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  19. buttheadrulesagain,

    > Well, I've read The God Delusion like 3-4 times now, and what you said here is precisely its point: to show why the "god hypothesis" is a bad hypothesis! <

    No, I have a different take: to me the GH is not just a bad hypothesis, it isn’t a (scientific) hypothesis at all. It is not even wrong, as they say. So to claim that it can be shown to be wrong on scientific grounds is a mistake.

    > Calling it "The God Hypothesis" is merely a rhetorical tool, not that "we take it too serious" or "raise religious talk to the level of science”. <

    I disagree. Dawkins is very explicit that he thinks *science* can refute the god hypothesis. If all he were doing were to rehash the old (philosophical) arguments against the existence of god, then one would wonder what exactly his novel contribution to the debate would be.

    > If that was the case, you'd see Dawkins raising funds for a research center that conducts experiments to disprove God. <

    No, because — ironically — he thinks such disproof can simply be obtained by armchair scientifizing.

    > What NA do is trying to make people understand why science isn't a mysterious realm that dictates truths, and instead it's just common sense and logic not much different than plumbing <

    But it isn’t. There is *nothing* commonsensical about much modern science, its methods and its results. Just think quantum mechanics and the Hadron Collider. And this point has been made by a number of scientists themselves. Science has left commonsense by the turn of the 20th century.

    > And this approach has worked to some extent, many have been deconverted directly by NA efforts <

    Do we have any non anecdotal evidence for that claim? I’m not saying you are wrong, I just don’t know.

    > as much as I like philosophy, I don't think NA scientists have the obligation to justify their writings on philosophical grounds. <

    They are whenever they enter into philosophical territory, which with atheism happens immediately, since it is a metaphysical / epistemological position. I am *not* saying that scientists should stay away from all this. I’m simply saying that they ought to do their homework or enlist the friendly help of like minded philosophers, like Dennett.

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    1. Massimo,

      >GH is not just a bad hypothesis, it isn’t a (scientific) hypothesis at all. It is not even wrong<

      There are versions of GH that are more nebulous/inespecific than others, your assertion applies to many, but not all of them. And the GH take can be applied to very specific postulates of the religious: take for example, "prayer works": I don't like the experimental praying approach ("God wouldn't participate in such mockery"), but instead we could do a posterior survey on people that had relatives or friends treated in hospitals. If reported level of praying doesn't correlate to the relative getting well, there you have it: at least one notion of god's power gets refuted. Some fundamentalist may say god foresaw this, but many moderates may not buy that, because it implies God screwed up people that didn't mean to "mock him" by responding to a survey they didn't know its purpose.

      >I disagree. Dawkins is very explicit that he thinks *science* can refute the god hypothesis. If all he were doing were to rehash the old (philosophical) arguments against the existence of god, then one would wonder what exactly his novel contribution to the debate would be<

      We could ask him! Thinking again, Dawkins may be serious about GH, but he's clear in that only more concrete GH are treatable as such (i.e. not the God of the Deist, he discards science application to that with straightforward, but valid, philosophy). As I said above, he also talks about specific claims from the religious (for example, Creationism). We can disprove creationism scientifically, and even if the most hard-headed fundamentalists give a made up response (the devil wants to deceive us/God is testing our faith with false evidence), the moderate may not buy it. And many haven't! More on that below.

      >But it isn’t. There is *nothing* commonsensical about much modern science, its methods and its results. Just think quantum mechanics and the Hadron Collider.<

      I have read the article you recommended in your Picks. Besides quantum mechanics, and those Physics that deal with the very "fabric of reality" so to speak, what other science branch has lost "common sense"? Isn't saying that they lost it a bit harsh? I see them proposing multiverses and stuff, but they treat those things as suggestions from the mathematics that arise from their observations... don't they?

      >Do we have any non anecdotal evidence for that claim? I’m not saying you are wrong, I just don’t know.<

      Sadly, not that I'm aware of, just the claims of NA like Coyne and Dawkins that they receive letters from deconverts from time to time. Dawkins' site has a letter section from "converts", which shows a sizeable collection that adds constantly (most recent are from January). http://www.richarddawkins.net/letters?category=Converts&page=1

      >They are whenever they enter into philosophical territory, which with atheism happens immediately, since it is a metaphysical / epistemological position.<

      The existence of a being that interacts with the universe is anything but metaphysical methinks.

      I agree that anyone that dares to do philosophy should do their homework, but at least in the God Delusion I don't see were it is misapplying it.

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  20. Dear M,

    If God is just another name for everything, can science prove everything? =

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  21. Personally, I used to find this whole debate hilarious. But now it has turned ugly and it's not very funny anymore.

    Most of this debate is about talking past each other, and trying to define a word. I mean if Coyne wants to a plumber is a scientist, and you don't want to, can't you say the plumber is a scientist-C, but he's not a scientist-M, and move on?

    Anyway, I think I haven't read God Hypothesis, but wasn't his target the Yahweh/Christian God who created the universe in seven days rather than an abstract idea of a god? You can always come up with trivial arguments like maybe god created the universe 6000 years ago and made it look like we evolved (he also made it look like we need oxygen, even though we really don't), but that is a sufficiently specific idea that can be considered a hypothesis that was falsified.

    If we found one day that all the living beings suddenly appeared 6000 years ago, and it was found that all the things described in the Bible actually happened (the flood, the ark, the apple, the talking snake etc.) I would take the idea of a Christian God much more seriously than I do, which couldn't happen if it wasn't a hypothesis on which evidence had some effect.

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  22. I don't get it, and I read the paper you published as well. Your analysis is more then apt; and what is wrong with being passionate about your field of expertise, which is so generally disregarded by NA's founding fathers to begin with?

    And what is the crime in calling Christopher Hitchens a polemicist? He was one, and a bloody good one at that. I say this with admiration, his gift for language and rhetoric was inspiring. Even if one doesn't agree with all he has said and done, one can admit his talent and guts.

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  23. As far as Dennett v Harris is concerned, Harris just gives a presentation based on prior neural processing, which has been done to death, and Dennett didn't deal with it directly in his reply. Since when was anything known without processing after the relevant event? Libet himself, who started that storm in a teacup, had subjects who only "felt" by processing after an event that was inevitably prior to the experience because the experience requires processing. Processing stands between anatomical event (skin touch) and experience. We are aware of events after they happen, inevitably, but we also plan for events and make them happen to be aware of them as well.

    In a sequence of events done and to be done in a day we can think through them using free will and make adjustable decisions. Processing is of anatomical events that have already happened (and we plan to happen) but of which we are unaware until processing is done. They are ex post and not prior to anatomical events (proprioception included) that create them, and all we have in an evitable delay for processing. It just means awareness is not immediate - it delays for processing, and that has no bearing on free will in adjusting from moment to moment using free will to deal with events.

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  24. My further thoughts on this are to wonder if the God Hypothesis were to be considered a scientific hypothesis to be tested using the methods of science I wonder then if the Naturalism Hypothesis should be treated in a similar fashion and if it would be any less "...semi-incoherent ensemble of contradictory statements easily failing the test of reason and evidence"?

    Could the Naturalism Hypothesis be stated as clearly as I have stated the God Hypothesis?

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  25. Out of all the so-called new atheists, it's Harris' popularity I've found the most baffling. His pronouncements on politics are bad enough, but I'm a lawyer by trade, and I fail to see how anything about his Grand Project to make science the determinant of moral values would have any impact in a practical sense. It might be easy to do a brain scan of someone and determine how much dopamine is released at a given point. But so what?

    This might be a case of me defending my own turf, but it seems to me that we already have a way of using reason to arrive at decisions about practical moral problems, and it's called law. It's obviously possible to use science to inform the outcomes of a decision, but how would you use science to arrive at, say, sentencing guidelines in order to make punishment a deterrent, or whether or not a crime should be one of strict or vicarious liability? What about international laws regarding state sovereignty? Superior responsibility for war crimes?

    Harris' assertion is that everything that contributes to 'the well-being of concious creatures' is morally good, but that just seems to me to be vague and tautological - "what is good is good". Moreover, there are values besides pure hedonism which we might and often do choose to value as conducive to not just human but societal well-being. How would you use science (understanding the natural world by way of the natural world) to determine concepts like justice, liberty, fairness, equity, the right to democratic consultation? It just seems to me that Harris' project is too vague and all-encompassing to be anything of great interest to anyone besides a dilletante.

    It should also be noted that, in my opinion, Harris has shown himself to be in favour of a whole swathe of actions which are pretty much universally considered incompatible with the well-being of concious creatures. Stuff like his garbled and nonsensical defense-that-isn't-a-defense-except-when-it-is of torture, or his support of racial profiling.

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  26. I wish to disagree with you on the impossibility of knowledge as a unified category.
    A good framework to organize and understand various kinds of knowledge is Aristotle's four causes : material, efficient, formal and final. While the first two seem to belong mostly to the 'hard sciences' ,the humanities are mostly concerned with the others.Consider a tiger. It's 'final cause' could be self-preservation. While the tiger itself depends on the laws of physics for its constitution, its 'final cause'-aspect is independent of them .We could not deduce the appearance of such an 'end' from the laws of physics. If the laws of physics were different, the tiger 'as an end' could still exist, only made of different materials to conform to those laws of physics (I use the same argument to those who say doing math is reducible to the laws of physics. As a concrete process, it is dependent on them, but could happen under other laws of physics) .Symmetrically, knowledge of the 'ends' of a tiger does not give you knowledge of the laws of physics. These two types of knowledge are complementary to one another, though people tend to be focused solely on one of the two. Both underdetermine things, but trough their combination, underdetermination is reduced and new knowledge arises. Basing knowledge as a combination of complementary principles may be a solution to epistemic reductionism.

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  27. "I simply meant the Humean test of proportioning one’s beliefs to the evidence"

    Massimo dotes on this mantra but actually it’s more accurate — neuropsychologically speaking — that we proportion the evidence to our beliefs — consequently the New Atheist rabble errs when it invokes evidentiary considerations where purely logical arguments suffice.

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    1. "it’s more accurate — neuropsychologically speaking — that we proportion the evidence to our beliefs — consequently the New Atheist rabble errs when it invokes evidentiary considerations where purely logical arguments suffice."

      I'm going to use this quote :D .... if it's ok with you.

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  28. Massimo,

    Some fascinating reading and analysis in your post, and in various linked articles – your “conceptual analysis and criticism of the NA movement” in particular. Relative to which, since it seems a serious “bone of contention” as well as the source of some amusement, I wonder what you would consider as the essential element of “science” itself, its sine qua non. Relative to which, the British scientist and Nobel Laureate P.B. Medawar, in his Two Conceptions of Science essay in his The Art of the Soluble, argued:

    ” … but the activity that is characteristically scientific begins with an explanatory conjecture which at once becomes the subject of an energetic critical analysis. It is an instance of a far more general stratagem that underlies every enlargement of a general understanding and every new solution of the problem of finding our way about the world.” [pgs 153-154]

    And, arguably, that process seems characteristic of virtually all human cogitation across a great many disciplines and behaviours, from science itself to literature to philosophy – why, even to plumbing. But what actually undergirds that “hypothetico-deductive scheme” is maybe moot – although the phrase itself suggests that it is comprised of both inductive and deductive reasoning, with the former encompassing intuition, and constitutes the major part of our common human “toolkit” with many diverse applications. As for what, in turn, undergirds each of those processes, it would seem that we’re obliged to change our focus from the external to the internal, i.e., to neuroscience; The Cerebral Code by the neuroscientist William H. Calvin I’ve found to be a fascinating exposition of what is largely the digital logic behind much of our perceptions and cognitive abilities. Although how that manifests consciousness is, of course, an entirely different kettle of fish.

    But, as a case in point, you argued that “we do not use science, or any kind of empirical evidence at all, to arrive at agreement about such [facts as the sum of angles in a triangle]”. Yet it seems to me that this YouTube video (1) of the proof of that rather clearly depends on inductive and deductive reasoning, and on “observation and experience” – i.e., “empirical evidence”.

    However, I will agree that there are notable differences in many disciplines, many of which are due to different emphases, and different subject matter – as with the differences between, say, physics and chemistry. But I think it important to try to emphasize and elucidate what we share in common rather than what separates us – including the methodologies and principles that undergird our differing professions.

    ----
    1) “_http://www.khanacademy.org/math/geometry/parallel-and-perpendicular-lines/triang_prop_tut/v/proof---sum-of-measures-of-angles-in-a-triangle-are-180”;

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