Science, Atheism, and Overconfidence

Image courtesy of Stockvault.

I recently read this post by Neil Carter over at Godless in Dixie about Marcelo Gleiser, a theoretical physicist at Dartmouth. In it, Mr. Carter covers Dr. Gleiser’s comments regarding the limits of scientific knowledge and atheism. Central to these statements was the idea that, “…[A]theism is inconsistent with the scientific method.” Mr. Carter characterized it more clearly in the article title, “Award-Winning Physicist: Science Doesn’t Support Atheism.” If anything would qualify as secular heresy, I’m pretty sure that would be it.


Don’t get the torches and kindling just yet.
If you haven’t read the article or the interview, the main point Dr. Gleiser makes is correct. He’s talking about the scientific method specifically. Science is a philosophy which deals with nature and natural phenomena. It uses inductive reasoning in the form of the scientific method to get at truths about nature. If the method cannot be applied to an hypothesis, it cannot be tested. And if it can’t be tested, science can’t say anything about it one way or the other. There can be no scientific knowledge of it.*

It’s the equivalent of saying the sky is blue because of how blue is defined. This shouldn’t be remarkable in any way. Dr. Gleiser didn’t have to redefine science to get his result. While he might have played questionable games with some terminology, I don’t think it should be the main criticism of what he had to say. In other words, nothing has actually changed.

But it does raise a bit of a problem. Science is the reason why people know they can’t walk on water, magically create food, or come back from the dead. Does this mean that science can’t justify anything?


The problem, I think, lies in confidence.
If the scientific method was a legal standard, it would be “beyond all doubt.” This is part of the reason why it’s so reliable as a method of acquiring knowledge. Anything not proven 100% by testing is treated with skepticism.

Unfortunately, life doesn’t work that way. I have no clue how my car engine works. This doesn’t stop me from driving my car. Likewise, if people could only be confident in things when it was at 100%, nobody would accomplish anything. What I’m getting at here is the practical limitation of philosophy and argument in the real world.

When people get into discussions about this stuff, there’s a tendency to race towards the morbidly absurd notions of “reliable knowledge.” My experience with religion is mostly rooted in Christianity; Christian versions of this include relying on the Bible for advice on everything. Atheists will sometimes do the equivalent. One comment on Neil’s post included the statement, “…[T]here is real hard evidence that gods do not in fact exist.” Play with certain definitions, she might be right. Just like Christians could be right about the Bible if certain terms and conditions are met.

All of this tends to get around the notion that people who don’t believe in deities can have valid reasons for doing so. I don’t believe in deities because all the evidence for them is testimonial, no religious claim has been verified independent of testimony, and human understanding has debunked many of the hard claims religions have made. On top of that, human understanding is finally starting to get to a point where it can describe a universe without deities.

If I’m being fair, the room for doubt exists only where deities exist which don’t behave like any religion says they do. But this can be hard to admit at times. Especially when some people treat it like it’s a weakness instead of an offer of conversation.


And yeah, it’s a big deal because of double standards and abuse.
Ever since coming out as an atheist on this blog, I’ve been confronted with people who insist I can’t be sure about what I believe. It’s called gaslighting, and it’s a popular thing to do in American Christianity. Also, there are issues of people doubting what science does actually say in favor of something in the Bible. And if that’s not bad enough, I’m constantly getting told to respect the beliefs of others while remaining quiet about my own.

Unfortunately, there are people who aren’t having a good time in their faith. They might have questions their religious peers can’t answer. Or maybe they’re kids who have no one to turn to because their religion controls their social life. These people need welcoming out from where they are to a place where they can be the best versions of themselves. I don’t think everyone needs to be an atheist to achieve that; I do think people need to be able to inquire without ridicule or censure.

That’s a real unicorn. From America.
Photo from Pinterest.


Where should the line get drawn between confidence and overconfidence?
Overconfidence in science does play a part in keeping some people from examining their religious beliefs. It was one of the excuses I used to use when I was religious to just shut down thought on the matter. My assumption was that they overstated their case for the reasons I wanted to avoid overstating mine. I didn’t recognize that it was just an excuse.

Still, I think that Dr. Gleiser’s criticism is fair. I don’t see science as a panacea for everything. It simply pursues knowledge. We as a species are not absolved of figuring out what to do with that knowledge. That last part is difficult, and it’s where we need to evolve.

*This could also have gotten applied to some of the other stuff Dr. Gleiser was saying in his interview. If we’re going to split hairs, then belief in rare Earth, spirituality, and humanity as a moral center of the universe also have to get tossed out. They sound great in an interview, but it’s hard to excuse them when you’re trying to convince people to get back to the fundamental boundaries of scientific inquiry.

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49 thoughts on “Science, Atheism, and Overconfidence

  1. I don’t think it is not so much confidence vs. overconfidence. We rarely are making scientific points that are life threatening, so we have the standing approach of “riding the horse what got us here.” We use scientific theories and approaches because they have worked in the past. If they stop working or show other flaws, then we will consider dumping them or modifying them. This is not overconfidence, it is a weighing the risks and benefits of a particular approach.

    The certainty aspect is correct, to my mind, with regard to the common understand of what it means to “prove” something scientifically. I consider it a lock that “the sun will come up tomorrow,” for example. The reason I do is because of many thousands of years of testimony and decades of my own personal experience. I also know the mechanism for this phenomenon and it would take one hell of an event to stop the Earth from spinning or make the Sun go away. That’s as close to proof as anything in science gets.

    So, what are the odds? Jesus coming back from the dead (again? still? after 2000 years (Egad he must look old!)) or the sun coming up tomorrow?

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  2. Another blog made mention of the article but with a theist spin on it. I posted a reply and figured if it didn’t get posted, I would write my own blog on it. or maybe I’ll just copy it on your blog 🙂

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      • Since the Bible-Science Guy hasn’t gotten around to posting my reply. I will post my response here.
        The Blog is at:
        https://wordpress.com/read/blogs/11160179/posts/27549

        and my response:
        have a bunch of thoughts, hopefully I can format them well.

        I don’t believe in non-belief. I like to describe the difference between theist and atheist this way: Tom comes up to me with an extraordinary claim, he has seen a “spirit” and tells me his story about it. This is something I have never experienced, I’m not sure but he’s the only one around who has seen it. Could he have eaten one of those hallucinogenic mushrooms? Could he have had a dream? Could this all be on the up and up? …I’m not sure. While I find his story to be interesting and maybe keep my eye out for the spirit to return, I’m not going to live my life as his experience was true.

        Atheism is just a rejection of the theist claim. I know many atheists who are open to evidence and will evaluate the claims. [Although, most of the claims are just a rehashed series of arguments]. By the way, Gleiser was referring to “New Atheists”, particularly those who are adamant that there is no god.

        And as Gleiser points out “What god, first of all? The Maori gods, or the Jewish or Christian or Muslim God? [Dave’s note: or any other world religion god] Which god is that?” Should I believe in them all? and by that argument, should all people believe in all gods? Do you have a belief in any other God other than the Christian God?

        What does Gleiser say about people who think the earth was created in 7 days:
        “They position science as the enemy … because they have a very antiquated way of thinking about science and religion in which all scientists try to kill God,”
        Do you agree with this as well?

        Einstein believed in Spinoza’s God. Spinoza didn’t necessarily believe in a god, it was more of an agnostic view. His god was basically the mystery of those things he could not explain [or Einstein’s view that his beliefs are like a child in a huge library]. Gnostic as you know is related to knowledge and I can see how a scientist would want to keep an open mind about what is and is not out there… I mean, Thor might really be on the planet Asgard… we just don’t have the ability or knowledge to find out 🙂 While there may be stories of Thor living on Asgard, we have no actual knowledge of this but there will always be someone who believes it is true. I have always thought that the claim that Atheists must be omniscient to know there is no god but the same argument could be made towards theists. If they are claiming there is a god, they must be omniscient, right?

        If Atheism is inconsistent with science, wouldn’t the same argument hold true? That theism is inconsistent with science? It seems from what Gleiser is claiming, the agnostic view is the correct view, it is taking the middle ground about the existence of a god, we cannot prove or disprove it… but by being open minded, we can continue to search for the truth. So let’s all be agnostic! 🙂

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  3. This goes to my core SB. We’re always given two choices, in this case the scientific method vs religious claims. The most intriguing answers often come from some unorthodox idea or attempt and we wind up with a new and improved model, product, or way of seeing things. Between the two choices most people think of the center, little bits of each side sprinkled in to get consensus. My posit is a new way not even attempted, but here we are, arguing about two incomplete methods that won’t encompass truly new and better ways of searching.

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  4. I found this argument quite silly long before Gleiser. There is no boundry beyond which scientific enquiry cannot go. If it were in fact the case, then humans would never have discovered electromagnetism, or protons, or leptons, or probability fields, or entanglement. Science does not rule anything out.

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      • Lots of ways for example we can only learn from science what we can deduce from observations with our five senses. We seem unable to comprehend the infinite based on science and can not learn what is moral or not entirely from science.

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      • Nonsense. As already stated, if we were ‘limited’ to our five senses we’d never have discovered electromagnetism or quantum entanglement. We’d never have discovered quarks. Hell, we’d never have invented binary code.

        As for our sense of right and wrong, positive and negative behaviour, that is a demonstrable product of evolution. We observe it becoming more pronounced with increasing neurological capacity, and we can even reverse it by decreasing neurological capacity. The two pillars of morality (reciprocity and empathy) are present in highly complex forms in non-human animals. Repeated experiments demonstrate this quite clearly. It is a product of biological/neural complexity sharpened inside social species. The key words here: social species. There is nothing controversial about this. The evidence is unambiguous.

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      • I responded to your first paragraph in my response to Swarn Gill.
        As for your second paragraph it is far from clear what you mean by morality. You say it is a “sense” by this do you mean it is a 6th empirical sense? Or do you mean something else? And after you answer this tell me what science experiment you used to tell me this.

        You say the 2 pillars of morality are reciprocity and empathy. That is wrong, but I wonder what scientific test you did to determine that.

        Just because people or other animals have empathy that does not mean they have morality unless you just want to define morality that way. In which case you are not even talking about the same thing I am or what the Brazilian scientist is.

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      • As for your second paragraph it is far from clear what you mean by morality. You say it is a “sense” by this do you mean it is a 6th empirical sense? Or do you mean something else?

        I said exactly what it is: knowing right and wrong, positive and negative behaviour.

        And after you answer this tell me what science experiment you used to tell me this.

        I’ll point you to decades of animal behavioural research.

        You say the 2 pillars of morality are reciprocity and empathy. That is wrong

        Really? Backing that statement up might be in order.

        Now, has a supernatural explanation ever supplanted a natural one? Ever? So, why should we expect the pattern of natural explanations to suddenly change? Your entire position here rests on nothing but the need to keep some imaginary door open because, I think you believe, it gives some perceived legitimacy to theistic belief systems. Well, luckily for you, the door is not closed to any and all things because there is no door. It doesn’t exist. It has never existed. Nothing is ruled out. All sorts of wonderfully strange ideas have been thoroughly explored and found to have no basis in reality, which is why they’re generally not pursued by those at the spear-tip of human enquiry. The fact that research grants aren’t given out today to ectoplasm and cytoplasm experiments isn’t because dastardly materialists are in on some grand conspiracy. It’s because earlier work revealed that the stuff simply doesn’t exist.

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      • You didn’t answer the question as to whether our moral sense was just like our other 5 senses and is just a 6th empirical sense. Yes or no. I still don’t know what you mean.

        You think we “know” right and wrong? Are you saying you know right and wrong is whatever you mean by positive and negative behavior. What the heck does that mean? You refer to evolution is positive behavior that which makes us more fit and negative behavior that wich makes us less fit in an evolutionary sense. And then are you saying that is what morality is?

        I drafted a blog on empathy shortly. I will post a link when its up.

        Showing animal behavior is proof of what morality is? Is a male lion killing the cubs of a lioness that are not his own proof of what morality is?

        How do you get from what animal behavior is moral to what is not moral? All animals are the product of evolution right?

        “Now, has a supernatural explanation ever supplanted a natural one? Ever?”

        For whom? For you? For others? Sure many people may have thought something had a natural explanation but then determined a miracle seems a more likely explanation. You or I may not agree with them but it happens.

        “So, why should we expect the pattern of natural explanations to suddenly change?”

        I’m not saying I expect it to change.

        “Your entire position here rests on nothing but the need to keep some imaginary door open because, I think you believe, it gives some perceived legitimacy to theistic belief systems.”

        Is all of history theistic belief? I didn’t even respond by talking about any theistic beliefs. Why don’t you just admit some obvious points? Yes we know many things that science did not teach us, such as history, things we directly observe and things we learn through reading or being told. It seems you think these obvious points threaten your worldview. But if your worldview is based on obviously false beliefs then why cling to it?

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      • I did answer. Read again, if it helps.

        Showing animal behavior is proof of what morality is?

        It’s proof that it’s product of evolution. It’s an evolved behavioural meme, with very real evolutionary benefits, made possible by cognitive processing power. Animals understand fair play perfectly.

        The more complex ideas humans broadly call “morality” requires complex language, a greater capacity for abstract and predictive thought, and cultural mechanisms for the transfer of complex information from one generation to the next.

        It seems you think these obvious points threaten your worldview.

        LOL. And my worldview is what, exactly? I believe we were just addressing your absurd claim that science limits itself.

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      • Is our moral “sense” just like our other 5 senses? You said you answered but I must have missed it. Is that a yes or a no. Simply typing yes or no is easier than typing out that “I did answer read again” and it is more helpful.

        “Showing animal behavior is proof of what morality is?”

        Again you are dodging. You say it answers some other question but you do not answer my question. Let me ask it more clearly. Do you think watching animal behavior proves to us what is moral and not moral.

        Showing behavior between monkeys or lions or insects or whatever just shows how they act. If you want to say that proves they evolved that way – I may not agree but it does not answer my yes or no question.

        “The more complex ideas humans broadly call “morality” requires complex language, a greater capacity for abstract and predictive thought, and cultural mechanisms for the transfer of complex information from one generation to the next.”

        Ok this is beside the point of any of the questions you refuse to answer. But you think morality is a set of ideas. Again very vague.

        “LOL. And my worldview is what, exactly?”

        Given how unclear you are about one small aspect of your worldview – morality- I am not surprised you are asking others what you believe.

        ” I believe we were just addressing your absurd claim that science limits itself.”

        I didn’t make that claim. I said Science is limited not that it limits itself. And I gave several large groups of things we know outside of the realm of science as proof of my claim. You have yet to address any of that, other than to continually claim what I say is nonesense and absurd. I think people reading this exchange will know better.

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      • No, it is not a “sense,” rather a behavioural meme.

        Do you think watching animal behavior proves to us what is moral and not moral.

        We experience the actions of others. With enough cognitive processing power we can also observe the non-direct actions of others and make a certain judgement on how we percieve their behaviour.

        Showing behavior between monkeys or lions or insects or whatever just shows how they act.

        Let me fix that for you: shows those in social groups can and do act with a complex awareness of right and wrong behaviour.

        So, let me ask you directly: What does it tell you when see that non-human animals exhibit a highly developed awareness of right and wrong behaviour?

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      • Science is what is not what ought to be. We can’t get from is to ought. This is what you seem to not understand. Maybe we will someday prove that by killing off large parts of the human population we will prevent a disease that will wipe out the rest of the world. Thus we will scientifically know that is how we must act if we don’t wan to go extinct. But that will not prove it is right to kill off that large population.

        Me:
        “Showing behavior between monkeys or lions or insects or whatever just shows how they act.”
        You:
        “Let me fix that for you: shows those in social groups can and do act with a complex awareness of right and wrong behaviour.”

        Do you think lions are social animals? Does that lion act with awareness of right and wrong?

        “So, let me ask you directly: What does it tell you when see that non-human animals exhibit a highly developed awareness of right and wrong behaviour?”

        Are you talking about the lions or the monkeys?

        I don’t think either was very highly developed awareness of right and wrong. I doubt they are even aware of the meaning of what right and wrong are let alone have a highly developed awareness. Whether something is “highly developed” is relative so whatever. What do I think of it? Not much. They both show what they show. What sort of conclusions beyond that do you think we should draw? Do you think I should draw conclusions about what actions are moral and which are immoral from watching from watching non-humans?

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      • Whether something is “highly developed” is relative so whatever. What do I think of it? Not much.

        And right there is an admission of a person who has no intention of actually learning anything.

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      • And a further question which I’m genuinely interested to hear your answer to: Given the enormous body of unambiguous evidence demonstrating that this thing we call “morality” is a product of the evolutionary paradigm, housed entirely in the brain (assessing if a behaviour increases or decreases suffering; is it beneficial or detrimental; is it favourable or unfavourable; is it helpful or harmful), where do you *think* the mystery is?

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      • And a further question which I’m genuinely interested to hear your answer to: Given the enormous body of unambiguous evidence demonstrating that this thing we call “morality” is a product of the evolutionary paradigm, ”

        How are you so certain of this? Do you think other animals are less evolved than we are and they will all eventually evolve to have the same moral views we do? I don’t think either statement is very scientific.

        “housed entirely in the brain (assessing if a behaviour increases or decreases suffering; is it beneficial or detrimental; is it favourable or unfavourable; is it helpful or harmful), where do you *think* the mystery is?”

        Im not sure I said there were any “mysteries.” If by “mysteries” you mean moral questions that reasonable people can disagree on well yes we have those do we not?

        Do you think we just need to put on lab coats and spend long hours watching rats and other animals in lab to answer those questions? Do you think we need to builder a better telescope to answer those questions? Like I said before science can help us live longer but it does not answer what we should do while we are living. You simply misunderstand science if you think it does.

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      • How are you so certain of this?

        Decades of animal behaviour studies together with the combined work of neurologists, behavioural scientists, biologists, psychologists, sociologists, and more recently even economists who’ve all contribute to an enormous body of evidence. I can show you case studies of people’s entire moral compass being turned on its head following stroke or traumatic brain injury.

        Im not sure I said there were any “mysteries.”

        Oh but you did, and you still are by questioning the evidence presented. To-date, however, you’ve presented nothing at all to counter what is being shown to you. You’re just making disagreeable noise.

        So, where is the mystery?

        Morality is a word meaning the subjective judgment of behaviour. That is what it is. It’s not magical. It is a value judgment on a behaviour that can be, and is, made by all organisms with enough cognitive processing power to perform degrees of reflective thought. The more neurons an animal has the more complex its sense of grading behaviour. This is a demonstrable fact of the animal kingdom. Humans are a little different in that we have a colossal frontal lobe capable of abstract and predictive thought. Better than most animals, we can play out a behaviour in our heads, imagining the consequences, and by doing so, grade the behaviour before even performing it. The grading itself is quite simple: Does the behaviour increase or decrease suffering; is it beneficial or detrimental; is it favourable or unfavourable; is it helpful or harmful; is it good or is it bad… I can say the same thing with any number of different words, if you like. And it is demonstrably subjective.

        So, where do you *think* the mystery is?

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      • The studies only show what different people and animals view as being moral or not. It does not prove that morality is subjective or that there is no objective truth to the statement the holocaust was wrong. You seem unable to grasp this distinction.
        Me:
        “Im not sure I said there were any “mysteries.”

        You:
        “Oh but you did, and you still are by questioning the evidence presented. To-date, however, you’ve presented nothing at all to counter what is being shown to you. You’re just making disagreeable noise.”

        I gave plenty of my evidence and examples of my views that science is limited. The fact that you ignored them and want to show videos of monkeys instead doesn’t mean I am only making disagreeable noise.

        “Morality is a word meaning the subjective judgment of behaviour. That is what it is. It’s not magical.”

        That is how some people view morality. I think that is a highly problematic view. But do you think showing a video of lions killing cubs of a different lion so it can mate or of a monkey throwing a fit because its not getting a grape proves that all morality is subjective? Can you spell out the premises that you think logically leads to that conclusion? It seems a complete non-sequitur to me.

        “The more neurons an animal has the more complex its sense of grading behaviour. This is a demonstrable fact of the animal kingdom.”

        https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_animals_by_number_of_neurons

        Its interesting that you say making these gradations is a demonsterable fact but then you say these gradations are subjective. So I guess we can always say well in the whales subjective opinion this isn’t so important that is why we see what we consider more gradations from monkeys.

        Again I am not sure I said there was a mystery but rather there are reasonable disagreements on moral issues. Watching videos of monkeys or lions or wales is not going to help you understand what you should do with your life.

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      • The studies only show what different people and animals view as being moral or not.

        No, the studies (repeated countless times across many species) demonstrate that animals with enough neurological processing power exhibit highly advanced, complex notions of right and wrong behaviour. Just because you want to ignore this enormous body of work doesn’t make it go away. Sorry.

        I gave plenty of my evidence and examples of my views that science is limited.

        Nothing worth much attention. Morality was your principle example, and I have shown you how it is the product of evolution. You have not addressed this recognised fact in any coherent manner.

        As to the lion, it’s scoring of behaviour is not equivalent to ours. Please don’t use absurd conflations. The cub in question was probably from a now defeated pride leader. To the lion it is therefore correct to only promote his genetic line. In the long-run, that will promote strong social cohesion, and the stronger the pride the greater their chances for survival. Creationists often ignore the fact that while mutations are random, selection is not.

        Its interesting that you say making these gradations is a demonsterable fact but then you say these gradations are subjective.

        Not interesting at all. Just a simple, demonstrable fact. Your bible, for example, says animal sacrifice is a moral and necessary act. The god you hope exists loves the smell of burnt sacrificial flesh (Gen 8:21/Lev 1:9/Lev 3:5). Today, we (meaning the majority of people) see animal sacrifice as shockingly immoral. Our moral compass (shared memes) has shifted with increasing knowledge of how the world works. Simply put: our measure of what is right and what is wrong has improved, and those memes are preserved and transmitted through cultural mechanisms. They are not immutable, but always open to reinterpretation and continued improvement as new information comes to hand.

        Another example: the fur trade. Today we have alternative means of producing warm clothing and so it is today considered by most immoral to kill an animal to wear its fur. It is unnecessary and therefore wrong due to the suffering it causes. That was not the value judgment of the Paleolithic man. The paradigm shifts, the moral code shifts with it.

        Again I am not sure I said there was a mystery but rather there are reasonable disagreements on moral issues.

        By ignoring the actual evolutionary facts of the matter, you are implying morality is wrapped in a mystery as per its origins. This, of course, is pure nonsense, but I’m willing to give you a chance to explain yourself.

        So, one last time: where do you think the mystery is?

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      • Im not ignoring anything, I am the one who posted the video of the lion. Lions have substantial number of neurons in the animal kingdom. But none of this means we should act like they do or otherwise inform us on what is and is not moral.

        And now you say the lions scoring of morality is not equivalent to ours. Of course I agree, but you are the one who has to explain the difference. So you say its because we have this or that brain structure. Well so what if we developed this or that brain structure which causes this or that emotional reaction/urge? The lion and the whales have their own urges and they have evolved as well. You are simply choosing certain parts of our brain that lead us to have different moral views and saying “aha these are the important structures!!!” Why? Well because they are the ones that make us view morality different than the lions! In other words you are just question begging.

        Then you completely change topics and what to argue about about a passage from Leviticus claiming it is immoral. And our measure has improved. Of course if there is no objective morality there is no way to say our moral values have improved. If there is no real way we should in fact act then changes in morality are really just changes.
        https://trueandreasonable.co/2015/05/14/naturalism-and-moral-progress/

        You ignored all the points I made about the actual topic – the limits of science – and instead are engaging in a non-sequitur about animals and morality. Whether or not other animals behave in ways we think reflects moral inclinations does not prove anything about the nature of morality.

        You keep saying I think there is some mystery about morality and I don’t understand why.

        In sum you have a very confused view of morality sometimes implying it is completely subjective other times suggesting we make progress and it is therefore objective. Sometimes thinking we should find some big significance in looking at animals and other times saying oh who cares about that animal.

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      • You are simply choosing certain parts of our brain that lead us to have different moral views and saying “aha these are the important structures!!!”

        Critical, yes. Are you aware of what the frontal lobe is and what functions it serves?

        Leviticus only came up to demonstrate the subjective nature of our moral compass. I also gave the example of the fur trade. Feel free to address these examples if you want.

        In sum you have a very confused view of morality sometimes implying it is completely subjective other times suggesting we make progress and it is therefore objective.

        You think I’ve implied objective morality exists? LOL!

        Sometimes thinking we should find some big significance in looking at animals and other times saying oh who cares about that animal.

        We look to animals to demonstrate the evolutionary origin of this thing we call morality. Which part of that is confusing to you?

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      • I’ll answer your questions even though you won’t answer mine.

        Yes I am aware of the frontal lobe and some of its functions.

        Yes when you say something like this “Simply put: our measure of what is right and what is wrong has improved,…”
        you almost certainly imply an objectively real morality.

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      • Nonsense. By adapting behaviour to better reduce suffering does not imply a fixed end beyond that of simply reducing suffering through adaptive behaviour. The fur example demonstrates that point quite effectively. What was absolutely true in one epoch is not true in another.

        So, which part of the evolutionary origin of this thing we call morality is confusing to you?

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      • Reducing suffering and empathy can be at cross purposes. I think this along with the moral hypothetical I presented shows the problems with this view.

        I just did a blog on this:
        https://trueandreasonable.co/2019/04/09/love-versus-selfish-emotional-empathy/

        At the bottom of that blog you will see a link to a counter example that shows the problems with viewing morality solely in terms of reduced suffering here is a link:
        https://trueandreasonable.co/2014/12/19/a-moral-hypothetical/

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      • Ok when people refer to “evolution” they usually are not referring to the evolution of morality. Do you know that?

        I am not sure what theories you are refering to. I am aware of many different and sometimes competing views about how moral views may have developed through evolution. You make it sound like there is only one theory.

        Also I tend to doubt that we are even talking about the same thing when we use the term “morality.” I am a moral realist.

        https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/moral-realism/
        What is your view on what morality is?

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      • Morality is the ability to score a behaviour as being positive or negative. It’s really not complicated. That *ability* is found in evolutionary processes, which is to say, cognitive processing power.

        And just so we’re clear: Do you accept that humans are an entirely unintended product of an entirely unguided process?

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      • I can’t sense any of my neural activity. How is it that we know about neurons and the electronic impulses they send? John gives plenty of examples of things that we can’t detect with our 5 sense, but we have instrumentation that can measure properties of phenomena that are beyond our senses.

        More importantly you’d have to explain what are the other ways we could determine morality. You’d have to explain what there IS to know that science cannot take us. What is the reliable measure, if not the scientific method, in understanding how all this other stuff beyond the limits of science works?

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      • Just because we need devices to detect these things with our senses that does not mean we can’t detect them with out senses. In other words just because we use tools to help us it is still based on our 5 senses.

        “More importantly you’d have to explain what are the other ways we could determine morality. You’d have to explain what there IS to know that science cannot take us. What is the reliable measure, if not the scientific method, in understanding how all this other stuff beyond the limits of science works?”

        In saying science is limited in what we can learn based on our 5 senses I am explaining the limit. Whether or not other methods are available is a separate issue.

        Imagine we only had the sense of touch. Now it seems at least plausible to say that our ability to learn science would be even more restricted than it is now if that were the case. Could someone who only had a sense of touch be able to explain the exact details of that limitation and how if she had sight she would be able to know more? Probably not right because we have trouble imagining new senses.

        But you you might say aha but we have 5 sensees so we can know all there is to know! Well that is the sort of arrogance of science right? I mean why would we think the five senses would tell us all when we know we might be missing so much if we were missing the senses we had? Whether we are atheists or theists we have no reason to think our senses were made so that we can know all there is to know. In evolution our senses are not made for knowledge but at best Knowledge is a byproduct of fitness.

        Are there things we can know past what we can learn from science? Of course. It is based on testimony that I know almost all of the history I know. In fact “pre-history” is basically those times and places before we have an intelligible written account of what happened. I would say testimony is basically how we know most of what we know. Not science.

        My looking at my surroundings and that letting me know I am in a chair is not science. Science is really a creation of late middle ages and early modern period yet people knew all sorts of things before then.

        Like

      • So how am I detecting neural activity with my senses. It took induction to realize that the brain was a place of electronchemical reactions none of which can be detected by senses. The fact that have instruments to make visual displays so that we can read those measurements, doesn’t mean the phenomena itself is detected by our senses.

        Testimony? So what part of testimony is something that is not being detected by the senses. Is spiritual elation not being detected by one’s senses? Since all senses are simply translated into our brain, our brain is what is detected all that we see and feel. This is not beyond any senses. And testimony is flawed. People can lie, people can misinterpret their own senses. ONe person might feel spiritual elation and see Ganesha, one may see Jesus, and the other Mohamed. It certainly doesn’t make any of those visions valid or more valid than the other one. Given our ability to hallucinate we can also sense things that aren’t even there. This is well document.

        The fact that history can’t be scientifically proven is why historical facts are often debated. Unless we have verification of historical events from many independent sources, what we can say about the truth of any historical event is suspect. Until we had the ability to accurately record events, human perspective on events is deeply flawed, which is why eye witness testimony in a case is not nearly as valuable as DNA evidence.

        My looking at my surroundings and that letting me know I am in a chair is not science.

        Who is making such a claim? That formal methodology wasn’t developed until later, but that doesn’t mean that we haven’t been investigating and trying to understand how the world works based on our observations. Trying to explain things. That’s the heart of science. Observing you are sitting in a chair isn’t an explanation. The fact that sitting in chairs might relieve your leg pain, is an explanation to why you might be sitting in a chair. That’s science.

        Liked by 1 person

      • “So how am I detecting neural activity with my senses. It took induction to realize that the brain was a place of electronchemical reactions none of which can be detected by senses. The fact that have instruments to make visual displays so that we can read those measurements, doesn’t mean the phenomena itself is detected by our senses.”

        Thank you for the good discussion. And it is somewhat of an interesting question of how instruments should be used in science.

        Science is empirical. You are using your senses to look at the instruments. If we couldn’t see the instruments we wouldn’t know about this science. If we couldn’t show others the same results with the same instruments it wouldn’t be science. These are all aspects of science.

        But maybe you are making a deeper point that the instruments are a sort of testimony.
        “Testimony? So what part of testimony is something that is not being detected by the senses.”

        “Believing Testimony” is not just believing that you are hearing someone speak but also believing the content their speech. So if I say, “I believe John’s testimony that he saw mike kill Jim,” I am not just saying I believe I heard john *say* mike killed Jim. I am claiming I believe John saw Mike kill Jim. Of course I did not directly sense that myself and John telling me that is not the same as me seeing the killing with my own eyes or otherwise directly observing it. So my basis for my belief that John killed Jim is considered testimonial and different than for things we see directly.

        Now should we say things we see through instruments is different? I think that depends on the instrument. With a telescope or eyeglasses the claim is we are seeing the moon or whatever more clearly. But with other instruments what we are seeing is clearly not the same as the things we are supposedly looking at. We may not be seeing any of the light reflected off the actual item however altered. Instead we may be looking at light from a screen. I think the scientist must always keep this in mind and understand how her actual observations (which are the basis of science) may relate to the world. Maybe testimony is somewhat like these intruments, but it is also different enough from mechanical workings that I think we properly say testimony is not the same as observations aided by mechanical instruments.

        Me:
        “My looking at my surroundings and that letting me know I am in a chair is not science.”
        You:
        “Who is making such a claim?”

        Well You said:
        “What is the reliable measure, if not the scientific method, in understanding how all this other stuff beyond the limits of science works?”

        So that is an example of something I know beyond the limits of science.

        But the question is does science have limits. And I think it does. Is science ever going to be able to prove whether Martin Luther said “here I stand” at the diet of Worms. Is science ever going to be able to prove whether my grandfather coughed 2 times on May 15th 1920 between 11:00 Am and 4:00 pm gmt?

        Like I said much of what happened in the past is not proven by science and it likely never will be proven by science. We don’t know many many things.

        You might say well who cares if your grandfather coughed 2xs during that time? And I would say I agree no one cares and I would also say some pieces of knowledge are much more important than others. IMO the most important knowledge is knowing how we should act. And science can’t directly answer this – it doesn’t even try. And by this I mean yes it can tell us how we can make people live longer but helping people live longer doesn’t answer what we should do when we are alive. So science is always sort of a secondary tool on moral questions. First we need to understand what our goals should be and then science can help us get there. But science won’t prove what those goals are.

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      • “Believing Testimony” is not just believing that you are hearing someone speak but also believing the content their speech. So if I say, “I believe John’s testimony that he saw mike kill Jim,” I am not just saying I believe I heard john *say* mike killed Jim. I am claiming I believe John saw Mike kill Jim. Of course I did not directly sense that myself and John telling me that is not the same as me seeing the killing with my own eyes or otherwise directly observing it. So my basis for my belief that John killed Jim is considered testimonial and different than for things we see directly.

        You are contradicting yourself here. Since you hear testimony with your senses, and to even have testimony, you need your senses, so there is nothing unique about testimony in that sense. Now choosing to believe the testimony is predicated on whether or not there is support for that testimony from others, but also that other evidence supports the testimony. Was there DNA evidence at the seen? Are the witnesses credible? Have the colluded? In the case of testimony about religious experience the fact that such experiences are common to all humans and all religions, tells us nothing about the truth of any one experience. Given that other evidence exists for why we might have such experiences based on what we know about the brain there is a lot of reason for us to doubt the meaning behind such experience as a matter of truth. It doesn’t mean that such experiences aren’t meaningful to the individual. It might be true for them and that’s fine for people to have personal truths, but whether that says something about reality for everybody else is an entirely separate matter.

        “What is the reliable measure, if not the scientific method, in understanding how all this other stuff beyond the limits of science works?”
        So that is an example of something I know beyond the limits of science.

        No I said science explains data. You just give me an example of data. You might as well just have said 7 mph. That’s a data point. Data by itself doesn’t explain anything. It needs to be analyzed both for it’s validity. You making your observation also may be fabricated. Maybe you are sitting on a bench. Maybe you were on your phone. Are other people making similar observations? Are those people credible? But data is not beyond the limits of science, it is part of how science does it’s job. It uses empirical data to explain.

        It terms of historical data, you are missing the point. There really are no historical facts in the same way that we know F = m*a on a non-intertial reference frame. Now with recording devices we can be more sure. They are reliable at capturing what is actually happening. We can do experiments with those devices to know their reliability. If we are relying on testimony for what MLK said there is a good chance you will find variations in what people remember him saying. To what degree of accuracy we could have his speech depends on the reliability of the measures. People are bad measurers compared to recording devices.

        So science is always sort of a secondary tool on moral questions. First we need to understand what our goals should be and then science can help us get there. But science won’t prove what those goals are.

        Can you prove this? Why can’t I derive moral actions simply through testing a hypothesis? Can I not prove that murder is a bad thing by looking at the evidence of how murder impacts a community. And to say we aren’t making decisions about morals based on our own past history and observations would also be incorrect. We form these questions based on data and thus we are making a scientific statement. Hypothesizing what good moral practices should be. We can test those behaviors and then analyze those results.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Me:

        “Believing Testimony” is not just believing that you are hearing someone speak but also believing the content their speech. So if I say, “I believe John’s testimony that he saw mike kill Jim,” I am not just saying I believe I heard john *say* mike killed Jim. I am claiming I believe John saw Mike kill Jim. Of course I did not directly sense that myself and John telling me that is not the same as me seeing the killing with my own eyes or otherwise directly observing it. So my basis for my belief that John killed Jim is considered testimonial and different than for things we see directly.”
        You:
        “You are contradicting yourself here. Since you hear testimony with your senses, and to even have testimony, you need your senses, so there is nothing unique about testimony in that sense.”
        Me:
        I don’t see a contradiction. I know I heard Jim make utterances in a different sense than I know what Jim tried to communicate in those utterances is true. Do you not agree with that? Or do you think your warrant for believing that there was a loud noise is the same whether you heard the loud noise yourself or if someone just told you there was a loud noise? To me they are different.
        You:
        “Now choosing to believe the testimony is predicated on whether or not there is support for that testimony from others, but also that other evidence supports the testimony. Was there DNA evidence at the seen? Are the witnesses credible? Have the colluded?”
        Me:
        I agree we should consider all those factors. I don’t know if it is “predicated” on that. I think in the absence of other factors we tend to believe what others tell us.
        You:
        “In the case of testimony about religious experience the fact that such experiences are common to all humans and all religions, tells us nothing about the truth of any one experience.”
        Me:
        I don’t think they are common to all. I’m not sure what you are saying. Did those following Mohamad claim to experience him as though alive after he died? Peoples experiences are unique. If you want to say others have made miracle claims and have had experiences that seems to support certain religions then I would agree with that.
        You:
        “Given that other evidence exists for why we might have such experiences based on what we know about the brain there is a lot of reason for us to doubt the meaning behind such experience as a matter of truth.”
        Me:
        I am not sure. What we know about the brain suggests that it is very unlikely everyone would have thought they were experiencing a living Jesus at the same time in the same way – unless he was there.

        You (I think but I am not sure who is saying what):
        “It doesn’t mean that such experiences aren’t meaningful to the individual. It might be true for them and that’s fine for people to have personal truths, but whether that says something about reality for everybody else is an entirely separate matter.
        “What is the reliable measure, if not the scientific method, in understanding how all this other stuff beyond the limits of science works?”
        So that is an example of something I know beyond the limits of science.
        No I said science explains data. You just give me an example of data. You might as well just have said 7 mph. That’s a data point. Data by itself doesn’t explain anything. It needs to be analyzed both for it’s validity. You making your observation also may be fabricated. Maybe you are sitting on a bench. Maybe you were on your phone. Are other people making similar observations? Are those people credible? But data is not beyond the limits of science, it is part of how science does it’s job. It uses empirical data to explain.
        It terms of historical data, you are missing the point. There really are no historical facts in the same way that we know F = m*a on a non-intertial reference frame.”
        Me:
        As to all but the last point I am not sure who you were responding to. But as to the last point, yes I agree that we know historical facts in a different way than we know scientific facts.

        You:
        “Now with recording devices we can be more sure. They are reliable at capturing what is actually happening. We can do experiments with those devices to know their reliability. If we are relying on testimony for what MLK said there is a good chance you will find variations in what people remember him saying. To what degree of accuracy we could have his speech depends on the reliability of the measures. People are bad measurers compared to recording devices.”
        Me:
        Sure.

        Me:
        “So science is always sort of a secondary tool on moral questions. First we need to understand what our goals should be and then science can help us get there. But science won’t prove what those goals are.”

        You:
        “Can you prove this?”
        Me:
        Maybe to some people. Many people already understand this to be the case so no proof is necessary.
        You:
        “Why can’t I derive moral actions simply through testing a hypothesis? Can I not prove that murder is a bad thing by looking at the evidence of how murder impacts a community. And to say we aren’t making decisions about morals based on our own past history and observations would also be incorrect. We form these questions based on data and thus we are making a scientific statement. Hypothesizing what good moral practices should be. We can test those behaviors and then analyze those results.”

        Me:
        I think there is problem from going from is to a moral ought. I describe the problem more in depth and use examples in this blog:
        https://trueandreasonable.co/2014/02/24/a-problem-with-the-reliability-of-moral-beliefs/

        Like

  5. Neil Carter banned me from his site so I no longer follow it. His site is (or at least was) explicitly for those who are like minded.

    I’m glad you do not find anything very controversial in what he says about the limits of science. I think often try to claim the prestige of science in making claims that are not actually scientific. I think he is right to be unhappy when that happens.

    “But it does raise a bit of a problem. Science is the reason why people know they can’t walk on water, magically create food, or come back from the dead. Does this mean that science can’t justify anything?”

    I’m not sure I understand this. Do you think people did not know these things before scientific method was devised? Perhaps you define science more broadly.

    I thought the article was interesting because he clearly identified that morality is something science can’t say much about. Again this depends on how broadly we define science.

    One final point:
    “All of this tends to get around the notion that people who don’t believe in deities can have valid reasons for doing so. I don’t believe in deities because all the evidence for them is testimonial,… ”

    Most of history is testimonial. Indeed even much of what we know about science is testimonial – we haven’t personally done most of the experiments we know about.

    Like

    • Hey there.

      First, an answer to this question you had: “Do you think people did not know these things before scientific method was devised?”

      The key word is “know.” I was talking about certain knowledge in the context of knowledge gained in the application of the scientific method, not just knowledge gained from observation. Ancient people could tell some things through seeing them, but they also believed in evil spirits and other unseen forces to explain things they did not understand. While some of them might not have accepted the fact that people can’t walk on water, at least enough of them did to perpetuate at least one famous myth into modern times.

      Second, this statement: “Most of history is testimonial.”

      That’s actually something you might need to provide evidence for. Certainly modern history is dominated by testimony in the form of primary and secondary sources. However, it’s also backed up by independent records and artifacts. People don’t just have to take an historian’s word for it.

      Finally, with regards to scientific knowledge being testimonial, you’re right that some of it is. But I said that knowledge of deities is ALL testimonial. Compare this with at least some historical records backed up by fragments of pottery or arranged stones or burial sites.

      Liked by 1 person

      • As far as history consisting mostly of information based on testimony I am admit I do not have a scientific experiment to prove this. But I still think I know this by reading as much history as I have. I can also provide some testimony from dictionaries that define pre-history as that time before writing. I can also offer other testimony from other sources as well. But I admit that if you are not going to allow that we can know things from testimony then I do not think I will be able to prove it to you.

        If you want to say we don’t know anything about history unless it is also supported by science ok – I find that hard to believe but ok we would still have the question of how much support do we need.

        I mean there is scientific evidence that people were living in the places and at the times described by the gospels. So that supports the gospels. Does that count? I am not trying to create a strawman but I suspect you will say something like well that supports the gospels claim that there were people living there but it doesn’t support anything else. I would disagree and say it generally corroborates the gospels. But let me concede that. As to anything that anyone ever said in history that was not recorded what scientific evidence would we have of it? If someone wrote down what was said that would just be testimony that they said it right? So would you say we don’t “know” that anyone said anything in the past except what was recorded?

        The limits of what we can know through science are quite obvious to many people.

        Like

      • I think it’s important to note that the discussion needs to separate “scientific knowledge” from other uses of “knowledge.” So science can only claim to know that which it can test and get results from. History only supported by testimony is something that would be unknown.

        Anything outside of that doesn’t fall within scientific knowledge. This is true for any assertions people might make about historical records, natural phenomena, or claims of the divine. People might express knowledge of these things, but it’s not the same as having scientific knowledge of them.

        Liked by 2 people

  6. Way I look at it: There is Yin and Yang. Science is part of the Yin. If there is a metaphysics, a place for a “god” (whatever that is; as you say, not likely as religions conceive), that is Yang. (Or if you prefer, physics and metaphysics.)

    So naturally metaphysics is outside the purview of science.

    Like

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