What Questions Can Science Answer?

One frustrating aspect of our discussion about the compatibility of science and religion was the amount of effort expended arguing about definitions, rather than substance. When I use words like “God” or “religion,” I try to use them in senses that are consistent with how they have been understood (at least in the Western world) through history, by the large majority of contemporary believers, and according to definitions as you would encounter them in a dictionary. It seems clear to me that, by those standards, religious belief typically involves various claims about things that happen in the world — for example, the virgin birth or ultimate resurrection of Jesus. Those claims can be judged by science, and are found wanting.

Some people would prefer to define “religion” so that religious beliefs entail nothing whatsoever about what happens in the world. And that’s fine; definitions are not correct or incorrect, they are simply useful or useless, where usefulness is judged by the clarity of one’s attempts at communication. Personally, I think using “religion” in that way is not very clear. Most Christians would disagree with the claim that Jesus came about because Joseph and Mary had sex and his sperm fertilized her ovum and things proceeded conventionally from there, or that Jesus didn’t really rise from the dead, or that God did not create the universe. The Congregation for the Causes of Saints, whose job it is to judge whether a candidate for canonization has really performed the required number of miracles and so forth, would probably not agree that miracles don’t occur. Francis Collins, recently nominated to direct the NIH, argues that some sort of God hypothesis helps explain the values of the fundamental constants of nature, just like a good Grand Unified Theory would. These views are by no means outliers, even without delving into the more extreme varieties of Biblical literalism.

Furthermore, if a religious person really did believe that nothing ever happened in the world that couldn’t be perfectly well explained by ordinary non-religious means, I would think they would expend their argument-energy engaging with the many millions of people who believe that the virgin birth and the resurrection and the promise of an eternal afterlife and the efficacy of intercessory prayer are all actually literally true, rather than with a handful of atheist bloggers with whom they agree about everything that happens in the world. But it’s a free country, and people are welcome to define words as they like, and argue with whom they wish.

But there was also a more interesting and substantive issue lurking below the surface. I focused in that post on the meaning of “religion,” but did allude to the fact that defenders of Non-Overlapping Magisteria often misrepresent “science” as well. And this, I think, is not just a matter of definitions: we can more or less agree on what “science” means, and still disagree on what questions it has the power to answer. So that’s an issue worth examining more carefully: what does science actually have the power to do?

I can think of one popular but very bad strategy for answering this question: first, attempt to distill the essence of “science” down to some punchy motto, and then ask what questions fall under the purview of that motto. At various points throughout history, popular mottos of choice might have been “the Baconian scientific method” or “logical positivism” or “Popperian falsificationism” or “methodological naturalism.” But this tactic always leads to trouble. Science is a messy human endeavor, notoriously hard to boil down to cut-and-dried procedures. A much better strategy, I think, is to consider specific examples, figure out what kinds of questions science can reasonably address, and compare those to the questions in which we’re interested.

Here is my favorite example question. Alpha Centauri A is a G-type star a little over four light years away. Now pick some very particular moment one billion years ago, and zoom in to the precise center of the star. Protons and electrons are colliding with each other all the time. Consider the collision of two electrons nearest to that exact time and that precise point in space. Now let’s ask: was momentum conserved in that collision? Or, to make it slightly more empirical, was the magnitude of the total momentum after the collision within one percent of the magnitude of the total momentum before the collision?

This isn’t supposed to be a trick question; I don’t have any special knowledge or theories about the interior of Alpha Centauri that you don’t have. The scientific answer to this question is: of course, the momentum was conserved. Conservation of momentum is a principle of science that has been tested to very high accuracy by all sorts of experiments, we have every reason to believe it held true in that particular collision, and absolutely no reason to doubt it; therefore, it’s perfectly reasonable to say that momentum was conserved.

A stickler might argue, well, you shouldn’t be so sure. You didn’t observe that particular event, after all, and more importantly there’s no conceivable way that you could collect data at the present time that would answer the question one way or the other. Science is an empirical endeavor, and should remain silent about things for which no empirical adjudication is possible.

But that’s completely crazy. That’s not how science works. Of course we can say that momentum was conserved. Indeed, if anyone were to take the logic of the previous paragraph seriously, science would be a completely worthless endeavor, because we could never make any statements about the future. Predictions would be impossible, because they haven’t happened yet, so we don’t have any data about them, so science would have to be silent.

All that is completely mixed-up, because science does not proceed phenomenon by phenomenon. Science constructs theories, and then compares them to empirically-collected data, and decides which theories provide better fits to the data. The definition of “better” is notoriously slippery in this case, but one thing is clear: if two theories make the same kinds of predictions for observable phenomena, but one is much simpler, we’re always going to prefer the simpler one. The definition of theory is also occasionally troublesome, but the humble language shouldn’t obscure the potential reach of the idea: whether we call them theories, models, hypotheses, or what have you, science passes judgment on ideas about how the world works.

And that’s the crucial point. Science doesn’t do a bunch of experiments concerning colliding objects, and say “momentum was conserved in that collision, and in that one, and in that one,” and stop there. It does those experiments, and then it also proposes frameworks for understanding how the world works, and then it compares those theoretical frameworks to that experimental data, and — if the data and theories seem good enough — passes judgment. The judgments are necessarily tentative — one should always be open to the possibility of better theories or surprising new data — but are no less useful for that.

Furthermore, these theoretical frameworks come along with appropriate domains of validity, depending both on the kinds of experimental data we have available and on the theoretical framework itself. At the low energies available to us in laboratory experiments, we are very confident that baryon number (the total number of quarks minus antiquarks) is conserved in every collision. But we don’t necessarily extend that to arbitrarily high energies, because it’s easy to think of perfectly sensible extensions of our current theoretical understanding in which baryon number might very well be violated — indeed, it’s extremely likely, since there are a lot more quarks than antiquarks in the observable universe. In contrast, we believe with high confidence that electric charge is conserved at arbitrarily high energies. That’s because the theoretical underpinnings of charge conservation are a lot more robust and inflexible than those of baryon-number conservation. A good theoretical framework can be extremely unforgiving and have tremendous scope, even if we’ve only tested it over a blink of cosmic time here on our tiny speck of a planet.

The same logic applies, for example, to the highly contentious case of the multiverse. The multiverse isn’t, by itself, a theory; it’s a prediction of a certain class of theories. If the idea were simply “Hey, we don’t know what happens outside our observable universe, so maybe all sorts of crazy things happen,” it would be laughably uninteresting. By scientific standards, it would fall woefully short. But the point is that various theoretical attempts to explain phenomena that we directly observe right in front of us — like gravity, and quantum field theory — lead us to predict that our universe should be one of many, and subsequently suggest that we take that situation seriously when we talk about the “naturalness” of various features of our local environment. The point, at the moment, is not whether there really is or is not a multiverse; it’s that the way we think about it and reach conclusions about its plausibility is through exactly the same kind of scientific reasoning we’ve been using for a long time now. Science doesn’t pass judgment on phenomena; it passes judgment on theories.

The reason why we can be confident that momentum was conserved during that particular collision a billion years ago is that science has concluded (beyond reasonable doubt, although not with metaphysical certitude) that the best framework for understanding the world is one in which momentum is conserved in all collisions. It’s certainly possible that this particular collision was an exception; but a framework in which that were true would necessarily be more complicated, without providing any better explanation for the data we do have. We’re comparing two theories: one in which momentum is always conserved, and one in which it occasionally isn’t, including a billion years ago at the center of Alpha Centauri. Science is well equipped to carry out this comparison, and the first theory wins hands-down.

Now let’s turn to a closely analogous question. There is some historical evidence that, about two thousand years ago in Galilee, a person named Jesus was born to a woman named Mary, and later grew up to be a messianic leader and was eventually crucified by the Romans. (Unruly bloke, by the way — tended to be pretty doctrinaire about the number of paths to salvation, and prone to throwing moneychangers out of temples. Not very “accommodating,” if you will.) The question is: how did Mary get pregnant?

One approach would be to say: we just don’t know. We weren’t there, don’t have any reliable data, etc. Should just be quiet.

The scientific approach is very different. We have two theories. One theory is that Mary was a virgin; she had never had sex before becoming pregnant, or encountered sperm in any way. Her pregnancy was a miraculous event, carried out through the intervention of the Holy Ghost, a spiritual manifestation of a triune God. The other theory is that Mary got pregnant through relatively conventional channels, with the help of (one presumes) her husband. According to this theory, claims to the contrary in early (although not contemporary) literature are, simply, erroneous.

There’s no question that these two theories can be judged scientifically. One is conceptually very simple; all it requires is that some ancient texts be mistaken, which we know happens all the time, even with texts that are considerably less ancient and considerably better corroborated. The other is conceptually horrible; it posits an isolated and unpredictable deviation from otherwise universal rules, and invokes a set of vaguely-defined spiritual categories along the way. By all of the standards that scientists have used for hundreds of years, the answer is clear: the sex-and-lies theory is enormously more compelling than the virgin-birth theory.

The same thing is true for various other sorts of miraculous events, or claims for the immortality of the soul, or a divine hand in guiding the evolution of the universe and/or life. These phenomena only make sense within a certain broad framework for understanding how the world works. And that framework can be judged against others in which there are no miracles etc. And, without fail, the scientific judgment comes down in favor of a strictly non-miraculous, non-supernatural view of the universe.

That’s what’s really meant by my claim that science and religion are incompatible. I was referring to the Congregation-for-the-Causes-of-the-Saints interpretation of religion, which entails a variety of claims about things that actually happen in the world; not the it’s-all-in-our-hearts interpretation, where religion makes no such claims. (I have no interest in arguing at this point in time over which interpretation is “right.”) When religion, or anything else, makes claims about things that happen in the world, those claims can in principle be judged by the methods of science. That’s all.

Well, of course, there is one more thing: the judgment has been made, and views that step outside the boundaries of strictly natural explanation come up short. By “natural” I simply mean the view in which everything that happens can be explained in terms of a physical world obeying unambiguous rules, never disturbed by whimsical supernatural interventions from outside nature itself. The preference for a natural explanation is not an a priori assumption made by science; it’s a conclusion of the scientific method. We know enough about the workings of the world to compare two competing big-picture theoretical frameworks: a purely naturalistic one, versus one that incorporates some sort of supernatural component. To explain what we actually see, there’s no question that the naturalistic approach is simply a more compelling fit to the observations.

Could science, through its strategy of judging hypotheses on the basis of comparison with empirical data, ever move beyond naturalism to conclude that some sort of supernatural influence was a necessary feature of explaining what happens in the world? Sure; why not? If supernatural phenomena really did exist, and really did influence things that happened in the world, science would do its best to figure that out.

It’s true that, given the current state of data and scientific theorizing, the vast preponderance of evidence comes down in favor of understanding the world on purely natural terms. But that’s not to say that the situation could not, at least in principle, change. Science adapts to reality, however it presents itself. At the dawn of the 20th century, it would have been hard to find a more firmly accepted pillar of physics than the principle of determinism: the future can, in principle, be predicted from the present state. The experiments that led us to invent quantum mechanics changed all that. Moving from a theory in which the present uniquely determines the future to one where predictions are necessarily probabilistic in nature is an incredible seismic shift in our deep picture of reality. But science made the switch with impressive rapidity, because that’s what the data demanded. Some stubborn folk tried to recover determinism at a deeper level by inventing more clever theories — which is exactly what they should have done. But (to make a complicated story simple) they didn’t succeed, and scientists learned to deal.

It’s not hard to imagine a similar hypothetical scenario playing itself out for the case of supernatural influences. Scientists do experiments that reveal anomalies that can’t be explained by current theories. (These could be subtle things at a microscopic level, or relatively blatant manifestations of angels with wings and flaming swords.) They struggle to come up with new theories that fit the data within the reigning naturalist paradigm, but they don’t succeed. Eventually, they agree that the most compelling and economical theory is one with two parts: a natural part, based on unyielding rules, with a certain well-defined range of applicability, and a supernatural one, for which no rules can be found.

Of course, that phase of understanding might be a temporary one, depending on the future progress of theory and experiment. That’s perfectly okay; scientific understanding is necessarily tentative. In the mid-19th century, before belief in atoms had caught on among physicists, the laws of thermodynamics were thought to be separate, autonomous rules, in addition to the crisp Newtonian laws governing particles. Eventually, through Maxwell and Boltzmann and the other pioneers of kinetic theory, we learned better, and figured out how thermodynamic behavior could be subsumed into the Newtonian paradigm through statistical mechanics. One of the nice things about science is that it’s hard to predict its future course. Likewise, the need for a supernatural component in the best scientific understanding of the universe might evaporate — or it might not. Science doesn’t assume things from the start; it tries to deal with reality as it presents itself, however that may be.

This is where talk of “methodological naturalism” goes astray. Paul Kurtz defines it as the idea that “all hypotheses and events are to be explained and tested by reference to natural causes and events.” That “explained and tested” is an innocent-looking mistake. Science tests things empirically, which is to say by reference to observable events; but it doesn’t have to explain things as by reference to natural causes and events. Science explains what it sees the best way it can — why would it do otherwise? The important thing is to account for the data in the simplest and most useful way possible.

There’s no obstacle in principle to imagining that the normal progress of science could one day conclude that the invocation of a supernatural component was the best way of understanding the universe. Indeed, this scenario is basically the hope of most proponents of Intelligent Design. The point is not that this couldn’t possibly happen — it’s that it hasn’t happened in our actual world. In the real world, by far the most compelling theoretical framework consistent with the data is one in which everything that happens is perfectly accounted for by natural phenomena. No virgin human births, no coming back after being dead for three days, no afterlife in Heaven, no supernatural tinkering with the course of evolution. You can define “religion” however you like, but you can’t deny the power of science to reach far-reaching conclusions about how reality works.

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175 Responses to What Questions Can Science Answer?

  1. George Musser says:

    Point of information: quantum mechanics *is* deterministic; the issue is that a quantum state is a richer concept than the classical one.

    Regarding your substantive point, if you define science as an effort to explain the world which need not confine itself to naturalistic theories, then you should adopt a similarly progressive notion of religion as metaphysics. In that case, there will always be room for both religion and science to co-exist. Physics is not closed system; it cannot help but make metaphysical assumptions. That is how I personally interpret the concept of “non-overlapping magisteria”.

    To put it differently: unless I’m misunderstanding, you seem to define religion as the set of beliefs actually held by the majority of believers — some of which, such as immaculate conception and the efficacy of prayer, clearly fall within the domain of science. But for consistency you should then define science as the practices actually used by the majority of scientists, and those are clearly naturalistic. Papers that posit supernatural causes do not get a welcome reception at leading journals. If you want to adopt a more intellectually consistent view of science, then you should do the same for religion, so that you can compare apples to apples.

    George

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  2. Ali says:

    You talk about the “all in our hearts” version of religion as though our hearts (i.e. our complex emotional and intuitive lives, which shape the ways in which we experience the world around us and choose to respond to it) are not also “things in the world.”

    Take, for instance, the story of Mary. A poor, unwed woman becomes pregnant by someone other than her husband-to-be. It is quite possible, given the culture of the time and her social status, that she was raped, but in any case, the pregnancy is socially unacceptable and she now faces being ostracized from her community, her family and from her husband’s family. And yet, new life is growing inside of her, a new being is taking shape, cells dividing, fingernails and lungs forming… and love of this new creature, this new potential being, quickens in her heart as the being itself quickens in her womb….. and despite the possible horror of its conception and the potential disastrous consequences, she FEELS blessed. She feels as though, despite the biological reality of a broken hymen, her virginity–her self-possession and power to choose her own destiny–has not only not been taken away, but in some way restored to her, perhaps even given to her for the first time. This feeling, in the face of all mere “physical” reality, shapes her experiences of the world, and thus guides the way in which she responds to others and the ways in which they respond to her. She seems to have a peace and confidence about her that only the virginal tend to possess, and she carries her growing belly with a kind of gratitude and love that borders on worship.

    The reason religious myths are powerful is not because they describe things that happened once in history, but because they tell the story of what is happening to us all the time, right here and now. (In some ways, the “truths” of religion can attain a relevance in their predictive capacity that even science can’t rival.) Any woman who has lost her virginity or conceived a child can feel the “truth” of the story of the Virgin Mary, or any number of other myths from other cultures about virgin conceptions. Religion is not about literal facts concerning once-and-done events, it’s about on-going experiential truths that can be shaped and shared within community. But experiential truths are still very much “in the world,” because we ourselves are living in the world not as mere machines, but as self-aware and creative beings who communicate through touch, memory, imagination and story. Because we do not live as though only literal facts were real. Even scientists tell themselves stories about why they love their wives or why they’re moved by art.

    Science is only a recent tool of understanding, born of the rigors of Western philosophy and, yes, very useful as far as it goes. But religion has cropped up in every single human culture there ever was. We can survive without knowing about conserved momentum in an atomic collision within some far away star. What we cannot survive without, are stories about why life has meaning, and how best to live meaningfully.

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  3. Joseph Smidt says:

    Very well written post. I for one welcome some empirical evidence for a multiverse. I am glad that most quantum theories suggest that a multiverse is a real possibility, it makes naturalness of the universe seem so much more a reality.

    “Likewise, the need for a supernatural component in the best scientific understanding of the universe might evaporate — or it might not. Science doesn’t assume things from the start; it tries to deal with reality as it presents itself, however that may be.”

    I always cringe when I hear “science explains all the way up to here, then scientists are baffled. I think this is evidence you need more than science to explain it.” Sort of like Collins’ universal constants: If scientists could just keep the faith, soon science will come through with a scientific explanation. :)

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  4. piscator says:

    so much purple prosing piffle based on good old-fashioned muddle: poor Sean, just think of the time it took to type this…

    The whole point about a virgin birth is that its, um, virgin. And that virgin births do not happen was not unknown to the authors of the Gospels. Believe it or not, it was in fact widely known long before anything
    calling itself science got going. And when the early Christians said that Jesus was born of a virgin, they perhaps meant that it was a miracle. As in, an event not described by the laws of nature (some of which laws were even known to those unfortunate primitives without the benefit of an Ivy League education). Maybe even the virgin birth being a miracle was why they proclaimed it.

    Of course, you’re free to disbelieve them. But dressing this up in high-falutin twaddle about the inner karma of science is baloney (to call a spade a shovel). You’re a naturalist, fine. Lots of scientists aren’t. If you think your naturalism is a necessary consequence of doing science, then publish your `results’ on miracles in a peer-reviewed science journal.

    Science, by its nature, does not test miracles. They have this habit of being one-off. Science deals with predictable and repeatable events. If miracles were predictable and repeatable, they wouldn’t be miracles.

    piscator

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  5. Sigmund says:

    I think there is a problem with the conflation of the terms ‘science’ (a very complicated subject) with ‘the scientific method’ – something that is much simpler to define (I would personally define the scientific method as “the way we determine whether an idea about the natural world is wrong”.)

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  6. Zeb says:

    @George Musser

    Quantum mechanics is *not* deterministic. Bell’s theorem and subsequent experiments confirming the application of that theorem showed that EPR was wrong. The state of the universe at one particular time does not entirely determine subsequent states.

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  7. Kernal says:

    Science does provide an explanation for virgin births. While undocumented in humans (except, perhaps, for Mary’s case), Parthenogenesis has been observed in many species.

    Kernal

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  8. josefjohann says:

    There’s no obstacle in principle to imagining that the normal progress of science could one day conclude that the invocation of a supernatural component was the best way of understanding the universe. Indeed, this scenario is basically the hope of most proponents of Intelligent Design. The point is not that this couldn’t possibly happen — it’s that it hasn’t happened in our actual world. In the real world, by far the most compelling theoretical framework consistent with the data is one in which everything that happens is perfectly accounted for by natural phenomena.

    Considering an event like the above to be supernatural would require not just the absence of an underlying mechanism (the tentative nature of scientific claims let the possibility of natural cause survive this quite well), it would require the extra ingredient of positive evidence that there was no mechanism. Evidence of the supernatural would have to convince us that the thoroughly scientific principle of looking for an underlying explanation was a mistake. I don’t see that there could be an empirical basis for re-writing the rules of empiricism.

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  9. Aaron says:

    Zeb: Just to be clear: Bell’s theorem just rules out _local_ causality, not determinism per se.

    Unitary evolution, what happens between measurements, certainly is deterministic. The only way non-determinism leaks into quantum mechanics is at the measurements. It’s not at all clear that measurements aren’t an approximation to an Everettian like picture. It is, in fact, pretty clear that most macroscopic measurements are not direct, but of a Wigner’s friend type, but get the same results as if we used the approximation that they cause the collapse.

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  10. Low Math, Meekly Interacting says:

    Answerable* ones. The other magisteria get everything else, I guess.

    *(I know, I know…”Define ‘answer’!!” There’s no end to that debate, or philosophers would instantly be out of a job).

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  11. jerry says:

    Religion is just a bunch of fairy tales about angels, demons, heaven, hell,…i.e. complete BULLSHIT. I find it annoying that we have these “dialogues” and “debates” as if religion is something legitimate that can be compared with science. I know we have to do this to win the public relations battle…

    It is unbelievable that in the 21st century we have full grown adults believing in angels, demons, jesus rising from the dead, Eve made from Adams rib, and all such other non-sense…it’s fine to believe in Santa Claus and other fairy tales as children…but not as adults! Why not believe that a pink rubber elephant created the universe?…this belief has the same legitimacy as any religion.
    Grow the f*** up people!

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  12. josefjohann says:

    @George Musser

    A lot of things called metaphysics (e.g. fundamental nature of space and time) have actually turned out to be scientific territory. A large part of what we think are conceptual structures outside science either have the immediate benefit of tautological consistency or of being incredibly useful

    If you want to progressivize religion, you abandon the game of putting forward anything “intrinsically” religious at all and the ballgame is over before it began (which doesn’t turn out to be the case when you do the same for science). Under this view, every religious rumination is only religious to the extent that a sociological/cultural context is needed. The body of religious thought, then, could be reproduced in whole without reference to religion at all, but rather to history, morality, ontology, etc. and would more properly belong to them. I think this is a quite helpful way to understand it all, actually, but probably not the consequence you intended.

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  13. jerry says:

    one more comment…yes, we may never be able answer a question like “How did the universe start?” The undeniable truth is that “we don’t know” how the universe started…this is what science tells us today…that “we don’t know”.

    On the other hand, religion just “MAKES SHIT UP” to answer the question but still doesn’t really answer the question. If God created the universe, then who or what created God?…we are back to square one.

    So, there is no need for religion or equivalently to “make shit up and believe it blindly” just because we don’t know all the answers. We have to admit what we don’t know instead of making shit up and calling it religion.

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  14. ryan says:

    These posts on religion and science are so refreshing after reading things by the likes of Eagleton and Stanley Fish, e.g.:

    http://fish.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/05/03/god-talk/

    and especially

    http://fish.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/05/17/god-talk-part-2/

    If I understand Fish et al.’s critique (and to some degree Ali’s critique, though she nuances it a bit more) of Sean’s position, then they seem to think that “things that happen in the world” are unimportant from a religious standpoint. As Ali says:

    “Religion is not about literal facts concerning once-and-done events, it’s about on-going experiential truths that can be shaped and shared within community.”

    It is precisely this disregard for events that happen in the world that pisses Sean and me off, since we love science, which is about things that happen in the world! Still, I can’t help but wonder where that leaves the humanities folk like (I presume) Ali and my wife (a literature grad student). True, they are using a poetic license with the word “religion,” but what’s so bad about that? Maybe their definition of “religion” will be more transformative for religion than the new atheists attempts at trivializing it.

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  15. It seems clear to me that, by those standards, religious belief typically involves various claims about things that happen in the world — for example, the virgin birth or ultimate resurrection of Jesus. Those claims can be judged by science, and are found wanting.

    If you mean to say that according to our current understanding of scientific theory, which is built upon evidence from reproducible experimental data, then I agree. But these events of ultimate religious significance are one-offs, and cannot be proved impossible — however unlikely — using experimental data which — by definition — arises in a different time and place in the universe.

    This is why religious people look to history as well as science to understand the claims of religion. But history, like science, only overlaps with religious methodology; the three have overlapping but distinct approaches to discovering truth.

    You think that what science says is very, very unlikely must be impossible. Fine. But that is not a proof that the thing is impossible.

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  16. And if you want the best historical argument that something very unusual happened within the first few decades after Jesus’ crucifixion, then let me recommend J.G. Machen’s The Origin of Paul’s Religion.

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  17. Peter Beattie says:

    Sean, with regard to the misrepresentation of science that you mentioned, I posted this over on Chris Mooneys blog, who is co-author of Unscientific America and is an outspoken defender of ‘compatibility’—even if he never really says what that is supposed to mean.

    * * *

    I think what this boils down to is something Sean Carroll recently addressed over at his blog, Cosmic Variance. As I also said over there, philosophy teaches you how to think well. And as per Carl Sagan, that’s actually the better part of science. So yes, philosophy in that sense of course makes you a better scientist. But there’s more.

    One of the first things that philosophy teaches you is to properly define your terms. In this whole compatibility debate, no one who argues for such compatibility has actually taken the trouble to define what they mean by that. Hence Chris can say,

    And I am still mystified as to how this can be so controversial

    Easy, Chris: Because you never say what you mean by the term. (Not to my knowledge, that is; if you did, I’d be glad to see that mistake corrected.) That’s why different people will associate different concepts with the term and, naturally, disagree about it furiously. PZ, among others, has shown that the trivial empirical fact of coexistence in a mind is not what we should mean by ‘compatibility’. In contrast, what we should (and actually do) mean by it is that two things are contradictory, that they come to substantially different conclusions. Genie actually uses that very same concept when she talks about “evidence that is simply incompatible with [an] idea”.

    She even elaborates on that and says that certain things “can’t happen given what we know about modern geology”. That, of course, applies equally to other “fact claims”, like Moses and the parting of the sea, the virgin birth, turning water into wine, transsubstantiation, Jesus’s resurrection, and other reincarnations. Sorry, can’t happen given what we know about modern science.

    Even the claim that intercessory prayer works is plainly a fact claim, as e.g. Jerry Coyne has noted. Of course science would be able to ascertain whether, after a suitable prayer session, there are any statistically significant deviations in how the world works from the way it normally does, when there is (supposedly) no divine intervention. Which pretty ruthlessly undercuts Genie’s argument about how “science can’t test statements having to do with God.” If these statements are connected to a fact claim, science obviously can.

    The only avenue open to one who would propose the existence of a god then is to say that it is completely out of this world. In Richard Dawkins’s phrase, this “epistomological safe zone” is supposed to shield that god from the prying inquisitions of science. Genie says, “Now you’ve stepped outside of science. Science can’t say that’s wrong.” Actually, what you’ve done is you have stepped outside of rational discourse, eschewing even the theoretical possibility of being wrong. Statements, however, that cannot even be wrong are not just deeply unphilosophical. In the words of the most influential philosophers of science of the last century, Karl Popper and Imre Lakatos, such statements are intellectually dishonest.

    [I am] still wholly convinced that it is the commonsense approach that will ultimately win out in the end.

    Speaking of Popper and Lakatos, you should probably be aware that the whole point of rational discourse, especially in a scientific context, is not to try to remain convinced but to try and test your ideas, to specify conditions under which you would be led to change your mind. I have yet to see you do that.

    All in all, this whole compatibility/accomodationism debate has uncovered, more than anything, a deep philosophical illiteracy. Someone should go and write a book about that.

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  18. “Eventually, they agree that the most compelling and economical theory is one with two parts: a natural part, based on unyielding rules, with a certain well-defined range of applicability, and a supernatural one, for which no rules can be found.”

    According to this definition, scientists have already found the “supernatural.”

    In Quantum Mechanics, the between-measurements evolution of the wave function is governed by unyielding rules, but no rules have been found for the “collapse” of the wave function. The collapse is therefore a supernatural event – according to Sean.

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  19. onymous says:

    Nice post. A nitpick:

    But we don’t necessarily extend that to arbitrarily high energies, because it’s easy to think of perfectly sensible extensions of our current theoretical understanding in which baryon number might very well be violated

    No extension whatsoever is required, because baryon number is not conserved in the Standard Model. B-L is, though. (Admittedly, sphaleron processes aren’t very important in the lab, but this is another one of those instances where the theory gives us reason to believe with confidence something that isn’t directly empirically probed.)

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  20. smijer says:

    The reason why we can be confident that momentum was conserved during that particular collision a billion years ago is that science has concluded (beyond reasonable doubt, although not with metaphysical certitude) that the best framework for understanding the world is one in which momentum is conserved in all collisions. It’s certainly possible that this particular collision was an exception; but a framework in which that were true would necessarily be more complicated, without providing any better explanation for the data we do have. We’re comparing two theories: one in which momentum is always conserved, and one in which it occasionally isn’t, including a billion years ago at the center of Alpha Centauri. Science is well equipped to carry out this comparison, and the first theory wins hands-down.

    This is very clever framing, but I’m afraid it jumps the rails to get there. The choice isn’t between two scientific theories. (Just because we wield a hammer, doesn’t make the question a nail!)

    The choice is between a situation where the laws that support our theory are contingent on the will of an intelligent higher power, or a situation where they are completely inviolable.

    If, and only if we choose the later, the question is no longer scientific (except insofar as we have the capacity to make a measurement of the interaction you are talking about), but is purely theological – is our understanding of God such that we would believe a report claiming that he supervened the laws of nature to avoid conservation of momentum in A Centauri a million years ago, or isn’t it?

    Naturally, for most religious believers, the answer is that their understanding of God suggests that he would have no cause to supervene the laws of nature in order to avoid conservation in Centauri a million years ago. Yet, we might imagine that his relationship with humans is such that he would take human flesh, walk among us, be crucified and rise from the dead.

    Obviously, everyone religious or otherwise agrees that this contravenes the laws of nature as understood by science. But only the philosophical materialist must insist that the laws of nature as understood by science are so complete as to rule out any supervening intelligence upon the will of which they may be contingent.

    And so it is that the materialism that supposes there is no resurrection is a philosophical one, not a scientific one.

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  21. smijer says:

    I see #4 piscator beat me to my response. Nevertheless, maybe my angle will help illuminate the position he & I apparently both share wrt NOMA.

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  22. Zeb says:

    @Aaron

    “Just to be clear: Bell’s theorem just rules out _local_ causality, not determinism per se.”

    Okay, fair enough, things like determinism are never ruled out, you just have to accept different assumptions. Accept hidden variables, give up local causality, etc. But it is misleading to say that quantum theories are deterministic, because various schools of thought differ on this, and there isn’t a solid consensus.

    ” It’s not at all clear that measurements aren’t an approximation to an Everettian like picture.”

    It’s not clear that they aren’t, but you do have to give up some assumptions to get there. As an example of what I was talking about before, multiple-universe picture often have problems with probability. I don’t fully understand them, but here’s a short description of them:

    http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/qm-manyworlds/#6.3

    At any rate, even if you end up with an Everett-like picture, your idea of “determinism” is going to be somewhat different from what you normally think of when you think of determinism – the state of the multiverse as a whole is deterministic, but the future state of individual universes is not determinable based on evidence within that universe. You can’t ever make predictions about quantum states.

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  23. thales says:

    Brilliant post. Clear, succinct, and relevant.

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  24. Pieter Kok says:

    At the dawn of the 20th century, it would have been hard to find a more firmly accepted pillar of physics than the principle of determinism…

    The principle of Causality?

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  25. Ali says:

    ryan (comment #14), I appreciate your response, especially when you say, “It is precisely this disregard for events that happen in the world that pisses Sean and me off, since we love science, which is about things that happen in the world!”

    You misunderstand me if you think I would encourage religiousness or spirituality at the expense of historical events and other “things that happen” the world. I see no reason to disregard physical, literal facts for the sake of religious belief; indeed, this is an attitude I see more often in scientific atheists who claim, as Sean has, that science and religion simply are not compatible.

    Here the metaphor of art might be helpful: simply because a person viewing a painting might find certain “truths” of an aesthetic, philosophical or even spiritual nature, does not mean she is utterly disregarding the fact that the painting itself is nothing but pigment on canvas. The rather mundane physical fact of the painting’s make-up might actually increase the viewer’s appreciation, marveling at the artist’s ability to create and communicate meaning in such a medium. It might even inspire her to take up painting herself, to study the physical nature of pigment and canvas, to better understand how it can communicate ideas “beyond” its mere physicality.

    Religion does not (at least not inherently) ask us to ignore “things that happen in the world.” If it really did that, it would soon cease to be relevant and fade away without any help from science. And while you suggest that I’m using “poetic license” to define “religion,” the reality is that the atheist-versus-fundamentalist debate of recent decades have dumbed down the definition of religion to a paltry shadow of its former meaning. As someone with a degree in comparative religious studies, it always astounds me that men like Sean, who have not studied religion from a scholarly perspective in any depth, feel comfortable making vast claims about it based on a few personal confrontations with fundamentalists and the shallow portrayal of religion found in modern television-and-reader’s-digest media. A student of philosophy knows better than to look to the standard dictionary to understand words like “intention,” “world,” “mind” and “being.” A student of comparative religion knows better than to look to a dictionary to define words like “religion,” “god” and “sacred.” These are places to begin, but they cannot possibly be comprehensive, exhaustive or even intellectually subtle.

    Yet Sean, and others who share his views, continue to reject all attempts at subtlety and complexity in discussing religion if it doesn’t fit with the “dictionary definition” and his predetermined views of what religion is or isn’t. And that is what annoys people like me, who think that the world of the human mind, heart and spirit are just as fascinating as the world of quarks and ectoplasm.

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  26. Metre says:

    I say those two electrons in the core of alpha centauri have not yet collided – they are waiting for someone to observe them before they can collide and collapse into a new wave function state. Where is Shroedinger’s cat when you need him?

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  27. George V says:

    I am one of those people who believe in the virgin birth, the resurrection and a whole lot more that seems miraculous. I am also one who very much believes in science and in fact a fan of Sean from his Teaching Company course, have a undergraduate degree in physics and mathematics, and once was in a Ph.D. program in math before deciding the “real world” was more interesting. I am a science junkie and voracious consumer of Teaching Company science courses, books on the history of science etc. It is my love of science that has led me to accept even more these non scientific claims about a specific religion. Not that science can prove the virgin birth or the resurrection, it cannot. But that science is limited the way it is practiced and must always be so.

    Now Sean hints that science could accept things that cannot be explained by naturalistic forces. And it is the obvious failings of science that reinforces for me that there must be another explanation. This does not mean that science should stop or give up but maybe should consider other possible explanations. Science has problems with origins. After things have been set up, it does just fine but it the origin of several things that have left science begging. We are enamored with what science can do but we should also be cognizant of what science has failed to do.

    For example,

    1. Existence – why does anything exist? The most eternal of all questions.

    2. Our magnificent existence and universe that seems so fine tuned for a purpose. If not multiverses then why.

    3. A very rare Earth. There may be 10^20 planets in the universe but this one is quite unique. There may be a large number of planets in the universe just like ours but then again there may not be. We are far from on a mediocre planet in a mediocre solar system in an ordinary part of the galaxy.

    4. How did life arise? Science is nowhere on this. How did the information content necessary in life arise? It is daunting. Just consider the ribosome for starters let alone a working cell. Or if pre cell, a working system.

    5. How did life evolve? What is the origin of species? The conventional wisdom is that Darwinian processes explain it but here too the problem of information raises its ugly head and Darwinian processes can’t dent it. Those who believe that evolution is a done deal are in real denial. In this year of Darwin, there may be the seeds of his demise as a factor in evolution and nothing is on the horizon to replace it. Could there have been some intelligent meddling? Hard to see that getting considered with all the Darwin fawning.

    6. How did consciousness arise and is free will a figment or our determinist illusions? Will your reactions to this post be the result of a deterministic process that started in the Big Bang 13.7 billion years ago.

    And those here who decry the inanity of religion, is there anything that could replace it and maintain a stable society? What ethic would replace it when nihilism and meaningless are all that is left to a world that is no longer a mystery and is awash in all the technology that man has created?

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  28. Jerico says:

    A brief quibble @ Ali:
    (excuse my tag crappiness, please; I can’t seem to find the View Code option in Chrome so I don’t know how you guys do quotes.)

    Quote: Science is only a recent tool of understanding, born of the rigors of Western philosophy and, yes, very useful as far as it goes. But religion has cropped up in every single human culture there ever was. We can survive without knowing about conserved momentum in an atomic collision within some far away star. What we cannot survive without, are stories about why life has meaning, and how best to live meaningfully. /Quote

    I think this is a sort of fallacy, to be honest. Science as a codified system of inquiry is fairly new, but empiricism is not. Just as there seems to be an inbuilt faculty in the human mind for religion, there seems to be one for testing the world outside the head. It may not resemble science (much like early religions don’t particularly resemble modern ones) but there have always been people who try things and test them. Initially crude (example: First cave man: “Does this berry taste good?” *thunk* Second Cave man: “Probably not…”) but increasingly refined. It makes good sense along evolutionary lines because we certainly cannot exist outside our evolved savanna niche if we couldn’t adjust to new ecologies, which is a trial and error process much like a proto-science.

    I think Dennet had something along these lines in Breaking the Spell. I believe he pointed at the same faculty (pattern recognition) leading to both religious and empirical phenomenon.

    It also seems like you’re putting the cart before the horse with the religion thing. Stories about how to live and what makes life meaningful are not exclusively the province of religion unless you’re defining religion that way. And the presence of religion in every society we’ve encountered doesn’t make religion necessary any more than the common cold.

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  29. josefjohann says:

    @ali

    Religion does not (at least not inherently) ask us to ignore “things that happen in the world.” If it really did that, it would soon cease to be relevant and fade away without any help from science.

    Correct, but it does ask for people to draw an erroneous category distinction, saying there is something religious/artistic resting “beyond” science, as you do here:

    simply because a person viewing a painting might find certain “truths” of an aesthetic, philosophical or even spiritual nature, does not mean she is utterly disregarding the fact that the painting itself is nothing but pigment on canvas.

    …as though the cognitive processes by which we comprehend aesthetic truths did not belong to science.

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  30. Jerico says:

    A brief quibble @ Ali:
    (excuse my tag crappiness, please; I can’t seem to find the View Code option in Chrome so I don’t know how you guys do quotes.)

    Quote: Science is only a recent tool of understanding, born of the rigors of Western philosophy and, yes, very useful as far as it goes. But religion has cropped up in every single human culture there ever was. We can survive without knowing about conserved momentum in an atomic collision within some far away star. What we cannot survive without, are stories about why life has meaning, and how best to live meaningfully. /Quote

    I think this is a sort of fallacy, to be honest. Science as a codified system of inquiry is fairly new, but empiricism is not. Just as there seems to be an inbuilt faculty in the human mind for religion, there seems to be one for testing the world outside the head. It may not resemble science (much like early religions don’t particularly resemble modern ones) but there have always been people who try things and test them. Initially crude (example: First cave man: “Does this berry taste good?” *thunk* Second Cave man: “Probably not…”) but increasingly refined. It makes good sense along evolutionary lines because we certainly cannot exist outside our evolved savanna niche if we couldn’t adjust to new ecologies, which is a trial and error process much like a proto-science.

    I think Dennet had something along these lines in Breaking the Spell. I believe he pointed at the same faculty (pattern recognition) leading to both religious and empirical phenomenon.

    It also seems like you’re putting the cart before the horse with the religion thing. Stories about how to live and what makes life meaningful are not exclusively the province of religion unless you’re defining religion that way. And the presence of religion in every society we’ve encountered doesn’t make religion necessary any more than the common cold.

    @George V
    1. Why shouldn’t something exist? Why would the default state be nothing? You can start with one assumption or the other but you’re still just assuming. Its trivially true that something exists, that we can see and understand parts of whatever it is, and that we can reason our way towards an understanding of it. The anthropic principal, while unwieldy, does a reasonable job of explaining why there is something: because we’re here watching it.

    2. The fine tuning argument is essentially trash. The universe we exist has the constraints it does because we’re here to observe it. Check the anthropic principal out. Also there are a wide variety of other values of the 20 or so constants that can support life even better than ours (there’s a program out there that will randomly generate values for these constraints and many of the universes are _more_ welcoming for life than ours). Additionally, this is essentially a warmed over version of the ontological argument, i.e. we live in an ideal world that _couldn’t possibly be better_.

    3. Earth is rare in our locality, or at least it appears to be as we’ve yet to get the extra-solar planet survey going. Even if it is locally rare, its a big, big universe and depending on your Drake Equation values, there are still a _lot_ of Earths out there, just not close by. You’re also assuming that Life is always going to be like Life On Earth. Until we get a much better philosophical handle on what life is we’re shooting blind on this point.

    4. I’m not sure where you’re getting this information conservation idea from, random crossover adds information to the genome all the time and the laws of universe seem to have a faculty for supporting complexity of a type that seems self organizing at a variety of levels. You’re also just pushing back the problem of information if you assume there’s an outside force providing it. Where did the information for it arise from?

    5. Darwinian processes are pretty well established. Going into them here is a waste of everyone’s time. Either you’re convinced in the utility or validity of the theory, you’re ignorant or you’re unconvinced. You do not seem ignorant, so I’ll assume you’ve already heard all the arguments for it and remained unconvinced.

    6. The presence or absence of free will or determinism are not at all helped by the presence of an omniscient interferer. If the OI is capable of tinkering with the universe at the level you’re suggesting, solely for the purpose of creating man and ensuring that man operates along certain principals you’re giving it the ability to see all of the future in such detail that our actions are predicted. If our actions are predicted then we have no free will. Augustine (I think) noted this when he was discussing the philosophy of time.

    In general, none of these questions are in any way helped by the introduction of an OI or supernatural claims. The addition of an OI not only doesn’t help, it hurts the rest of the body of knowledge by poking flaming holes in it.

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  31. Jerico says:

    And the program I referred to is here: http://www.colorado.edu/philosophy/vstenger/Cosmo/monkey.html

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  32. Anthony Rotz says:

    Their is no doubt whatsoever in my mind and my experiences with God and from God that He in fact does exist. I don’t have the intelligence of many of your readers and it seems that the more intelligent seem to have the greatest problem believing, but it’s absolutely true that He does exist, and I in fact know this, by His Grace, not from faith, but from direct knowledge of who He is and what He is, but their is no science in any shape or form that will ever prove His existence, nor will their be any intelligence great enough to conceive of Him never, never, never. I am not lying I have nothing to gain, except perhaps ridicule, and there is a great deal of that I may receive.

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  33. Eric Q says:

    @ George V

    Not to tread on Jerico’s toes in engaging you, but I feel this statement merits its own discussion:

    “And those here who decry the inanity of religion, is there anything that could replace it and maintain a stable society? What ethic would replace it when nihilism and meaningless are all that is left to a world that is no longer a mystery and is awash in all the technology that man has created?”

    Despite your fear of a godless society, a significant population of atheists manage to live their lives while restraining from theft and wanton murder. Why is external morality necessary?

    Also, if our current lives are nothing but the waiting room for final judgment and eternal life, what meaning remains in the comparison of the short to the infinite? What could be more meaningful than what you do with your short time here?

    Why is mystery to be lauded? Should we not question the deeper truths of our universe?

    You say you believe in science, but then suggest that some things require us to simply shrug and say “God did it”. Your opinions seem inconsistent.

    Lastly, and not directed specifically at George V: Others have said this, but tagging the scientific theory of evolution as “Darwinism” is intellectually dishonest. Evolution does not equate to something like General Relativity which was largely developed by one individual. Evolution has been formulated, modified and refined by a whole community. Pinning it to one individual leads to attacks on Darwin, which in truth have no bearing on accepted scientific theory, as well as painting a picture of scientists who are idolizing fanatics with their own dogma.

    Short version: If you use the term “Darwinism”, I am not going to be predisposed to take you too seriously.

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  35. George V says:

    Eric Q Says:

    If you use the term “Darwinism”, I am not going to be predisposed to take you too seriously. Two things:

    1. The term Darwinism is used by people in biology and other places all the time. It has two meanings, one is a science meaning essentially descent with modification, through gradualistic processes and natural selection. The second is a philosophical/metaphysical one implying as Darwin did that there is no need for an outside hand in any of evolution.

    2. I did not use the term.

    I am well aware of nearly all the ideas proposed for evolution and know that Darwinian processes are not the only alternative being considered. As an aside, I believe Stephen Gould once remarked that neo Darwinism is dead.

    I never said that there ever should be any cessation of investigation of anything. I just said that the explanations for certain phenomena may lie outside the natural laws or our universe. By the way the origin in the willful action of an intelligent agent lie outside the natural laws of our universe.

    To argue that you, your friends or prominent atheist live their lives in a desired fashion is extremely short sighted because it is not based on something that is transferable to all of society. At the present moment, atheists and humanist are living off the ethic of Western society which was based on the Judeo Christian tradition and inculcated in our legal system. If that ethic is buried, what make anyone think something similar will prevail or how long it will last. I do not want to get into a debate on this because it could go on forever. So we can agree to disagree.

    As far as Jerico’s response is concerned. I posed 6 major unanswered issues and he ranted. He obviously does not know anything about the origin of life or evolution issues or else he would not have made the responses he did. I have seen his argument for the universe before and the rare earth. The rest was just a rant.

    And to clear things up, I believe that there is at least two concurrent theories of evolution. One is well supported and one is bogus. But again I do not want to get into a debate on this since it could be endless. My main purpose is that what most people here believe is given is not with others who have just as much information on science and belief in it as a very powerful and fruitful activity as do the people here.

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  36. Jerico says:

    @ George

    I’m sorry you consider that ranting. I was under the impression that I was addressing your points and the general naturalistic (you’ll note I did not say atheistic) responses to them. In case you were wondering which ideological badge I have on my sleeve, I’m an agnostic on the idea of a creator but an atheist with respect to a participatory deity. I pointed out:

    1) That you’re assuming that the universe required a start. Our universe almost certainly had a start (the Big Bang singularity) which may or may not have been a branching off from a parent universe. It could, to steal a phrase, be tortoises all the way down, i.e. there could be a series of parent universes which never end. This was a very, very common view of the cosmos when we were still a species primarily tied to the cycle of the world for survival. I note you didn’t address this point at all.

    2) The fine tuning argument is trash. It is not true. It is not the case that we live in the only possible universe capable of supporting (our kind of) life. There are other values for those constants that enable a universe that is MORE hospitable to life. I note you did not address this point at all. (you’re going to see that a lot here)

    3) If I wanted to rant about this point, I could’ve told you that every planet is unique. Each one is a beautiful snowflake. But I wasn’t ranting, so I thought I’d actually make a point or something. We’ve examined (at the resolution necessary to identify earth like traits) a vanishingly small number of local planets. I’m glad you’ve seen this argument before, it is about the most common rationale for the continuation of SETI despite the fact that its been years since we started an nobody is calling us to ask for translations of the Bible. Congratulations, you addressed a point!

    4) Science is not “nowhere” with respect to this problem. Here you’ll see 19 or so ideas on the subject many of which have been discarded due to not fitting the evidence. You’ll note that these theories can _be_ falsified, something that OI theories cannot. You at least mentioned my point here, so I’ll give you full credit.

    5. I don’t really want to get into a real argument over evolution here. If you can’t see that evolution is about as established a theory as say, gravitation or aerodynamics, then you can’t see it. I could point you at all the technology and techniques that have come from evolution, the various fossil records that only make sense if evolution is true, the…well never mind. You mentioned ‘origin of life’ in your response, so I guess I’ll stick with precedent and give you full credit for addressing the point.

    6. You ignored this completely. I don’t think you even read it. Really, how can free will be compatible with a ‘designer’ capable of knowing the necessary information to engineer a universe? Hell, I even mentioned a prominent Christian philosopher right there- he was specificially concerned with an omniscient deity, which I haven’t heard you mention directly, but a being capable of doing what your suggesting would be functionally omniscient. Then of course comes the various problems of evil associated with such a being and the associated theodicies made to excuse its actions.

    Now, lets look at the rest of this post, shall we? I’m assuming you’re pointing at Eric Q’s friends when you say

    Quote: …atheists and humanists are living off the ethic of Western society was was based on the Judeo Christian tradition and inculcated in our legal system. /quote

    This is also not true. Please provide a Judeo-Christian backing for democracy? I think you’ll find that is Greek, from a time before Christ was born and unconnected with Judaism in any form. So not Judeo-Christian at all. I think separation of church and state is also not part of the ethic you’re alluding underlies our society. Equal rights for individuals, freedom of and from religion, free-market economy and a whole list of other integral parts of our society are actively antithetical to the Judeo-Christian ethic.

    Also: living off? That’s some pretty cheap sophistry right there. I wonder what the ratio of believers to unbelievers on unemployment is…See, I can do it too. I’ll point out for other observers that the reason for that ratio has everything to do with socioeconomics and education and nothing to do with whatever qualities one wishes to associate with belief and unbelief.

    And I do believe there is a pretty large world outside of the Judeo-christian tradition that manages to do just fine with respect to ‘law and order’ and that that portion of the world is a) larger than Europe by population and area b) older than Judeo-christianity (I’m sure the proto-Jews and proto-Chinese would love to fight over this). Most of these societies consider Christianity quaint and who are we to tell them they’re wrong? I mean, they have an ancient tradition, we have an ancient tradition, how can we know?

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  38. Brian says:

    Suggesting that we should take claims of the multiverse seriously because the method of reasoning used to infer their existence is the same as is used to infer the conservation of momentum is outright silly. The biggest downside to this blog is that it is so very sympathetic to string theorists. We wouldn’t mind if you were string theorists if you didn’t also try to tell people how to think about life, the universe and everything – particularly why science is right and religion is wrong. You’ve invented an entire class of theories that are downright unscientific and try to peddle them as a plausible scientific alternative to religion. Your particular brand of science leads you to seriously consider outrageous and preposterous theories as the nature of reality. You are willing to seriously consider them merely because your equations – which are highly underconstrained – tell you to. Sounds like you’ve got enough philosophy of science problems to deal with on your own.

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  39. CG says:

    @piscator and @smijer

    I think the two of you have misunderstood Sean. You are saying that an event does not have a scientific explanation iff it’s a miracle. While, I believe Sean is saying that ‘scientific explanation’ is a flexible concept and it is logically possible that an explanation of miracles (which will be necessarily supernatural) may count as a scientific explanation, i.e. miracles can have a scientific explanation.

    I think i’ll also add what I believe is the main point of the post, if for no other reason than for someone to point out that i’m totally clueless.

    Consider two theories that purport to explain some facts: 1) Newton’s three laws of motion and 2) Newston’s laws + violation of F $neq$ ma at arbitrary times due to divine whimsy. We accept #1 over #2 because of Occam’s razor. If we accept #1 (not that #1 is true) then we do not accept #2. And we seek to explain away any violation of F=ma until there is incontrovertible evidence against #1, in which case we would pass on to #1.1 which is the next simplest theory. It may happen that through continual violation we may finally have to adopt #2, which then by necessity would be the simplest theory best fitting the facts.
    Thus, there is no a priori exclusions of any weird form of explanation.

    On a different note, I wonder if Mary gave birth as a virgin to a son who went on to be a regular carpenter and later died of old age. Would the virgin birth still count as a miracle or will it be a highly suspicious case of human parthenogenesis?

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  40. Tom Clark says:

    Following up on Josef Johann’s point in #12:

    Sean writes:

    “Could science, through its strategy of judging hypotheses on the basis of comparison with empirical data, ever move beyond naturalism to conclude that some sort of supernatural influence was a necessary feature of explaining what happens in the world? Sure; why not?…Eventually, [scientists] agree that the most compelling and economical theory is one with two parts: a natural part, based on unyielding rules, with a certain well-defined range of applicability, and a supernatural one, for which no rules can be found.”

    Seems to me that scientists would need some positive evidence for supernatural agency and its specific characteristics and modes of operations to justifiably say that there’s a supernatural component in an explanation. The default position in the absence of actual evidence for supernatural causation, which necessarily involves specifics of some sort, has to be that naturalistic explanations are incomplete, not that the supernatural exists.

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  41. CG says:

    Adding to my previous comment:

    What if Mary gave birth (as a virgin) to a son who then went on to be an influential demagogue and at 34(?) died of consumption. Would the virgin birth still count as a miracle or will it be a highly suspicious case of human parthenogenesis? What if the boy grew up to become a thief who later at age 34 died nailed to the cross? What if the boy grew up to be an influential demagogue and at age 34 died at the cross for his rabble- rousing?..etc

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  42. Sean:

    You specify an exact place, time and two electrons colliding. Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle assures us that under these conditions, the momenta are extremely uncertain, and therefore we can be sure that conservation of momentum in this case is unkowable ;-)

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  43. P says:

    Sean, that was a nice post. I feel one might loosely say that science starts out with the axiom that there are no miracles (or one-off events/phenomenon) while for ‘religion’ it is one of the basic axioms.

    I have a minor point regarding: “… Sure; why not? If supernatural phenomena really did exist, and really did influence things that happened in the world, science would do its best to figure that out.” – What if the anomalous observations were so infrequent that each time they are just ignored?

    Rephrasing the question how do we explain a phenomenon whose timescale is vastly longer than our own life spans. To give you a better idea, imagine a micro-organism, whose life span is about 30 minutes. How can it possibly explain a phenomenon as an eclipse?

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  44. Sean says:

    P, if the anomalies are very frequent and apparently significant, we have to take them seriously. If they are sufficiently infrequent, it might make sense to attribute them to experimental error (of one sort or another). Obviously there is some in-between point where the anomalies are frequent enough to not be dismissed, but too infrequent to be carefully studied; that’s the case where you need more data. Happens all the time in real science.

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  45. Jim Harrison says:

    As I read the evidence, most of the time most Christians, like most Jews, Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists, have been simply superstitious in an uncomplicated sense of the word. That elite opinion has been similarly superstitious is quite a bit less clear, at least to me. That may not matter if you look at religious history under the one-person one-vote rule, but it does matter if your focus is on the comparatively small number of people who put ideas into circulation. In the intellectual tradition of the West I refer to the Origens, Augustines, Anselms, Aquinases, Pascals, Schleiermachers, Kierkegaards, Barths, and Bultmanns and maybe even the Pauls, Luthers, and Calvins. Thing is, I can’t claim to have a terribly clear idea what Hans Kung is up to, but in good light I’m able to distinguish him from Ken Ham.

    It makes a huge difference, or so I claim, if investigate religion–or science for that matter–without polemical intent, but I can’t remember the last time I read a comment on a website about these issues that wasn’t a move in an ideological struggle. I’ve got nothing against verbal warfare, which everybody seems to think is tons of fun, but should we dare to be dull now and then? Bloggers have hitherto sought to change the world. How about understanding it first?

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  46. Albert Bakker says:

    #43/44 Infrequent anomalies? Well, there was an era in which being born from virgins wasn’t so infrequent as it is today. Typically though these were royal virgins, or godesses themselves.

    Amenophis III was born without his mother having sex. Horus was born without Isis having to do the sexy thing. Semele didn’t have to really get dirty with Zeus to get Dionysos, likewise didn’t Leto before Apollo popped out of her, or Coronis to get Asclepios. Over in Italy they too thought it cool idea 2, so Romulus was crafted the immaculate way by Rhea, rumored to have gotten cosy with Mars (the God, not the entire planet). Mithras too was born the virgin way. In Celtic mythology Llew Llawgyffes (who?) mother Arianrhod (uh?) believed herself to be a virgin when giving birth. Zoroaster was after some consideration born of a virgin. All the avatars Vishnu could take were also born the boring way. Plato couldn’t have been born like normal folk either, some say.

    Of course some of these things could also get lost in the translation:
    http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/americas/7800822.stm

    You would expect something like that to be the case if there was more disagreement among early christians about this so boringly unoriginal virgin birth story than there was at (much) later times, that is to say before they were kicked out of christianity, their beliefs became heresy and like the Ebionites were erased from history almost entirely.

    So I gather religious people of different persuasions are going to feel this urge to differentiate between infrequent anomalies that are true (did really happen) and those that aren’t (are just fairy tales.) If so is the burden of proof going to shift accordingly or not?

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  47. bad Jim says:

    Sean Carroll and Jerry Coyne both make the essential point that methodological naturalism is a description of the results of scientific investigation rather than a universally held philosophical assumption. The earliest scientists didn’t start off knowing what did and didn’t work, so they experimented with everything they could, eventually concluding, with Laplace, that they had no need of that hypothesis.

    Chris Mooney has, I think, asserted a philosophical complement to methodological naturalism, that the supernatural is inherently separate from the natural. It’s perhaps reasonable to define as supernatural all phenomena which cannot in principle be observed in any reliable fashion, but perhaps less reasonable to credit their existence.

    In any event, 68% of Americans believe in angels and demons and miracles, so the fraction of the faithful whose notion of the supernatural excludes its practical efficacy is small, and probably already friendly to scientific thinking. The rest need to hear from their ministers that their religion is compatible with science, and unfortunately few are as accommodating as the Dalai Lama.

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  48. Lord says:

    Science flatters itself if it thinks it could ever incorporate the supernatural. Science assumes too much if it assumes the supernatural is natural. Science has to be observable and repeatable. No doubt if it repeatedly observed a collision that did not conserve angular momentum, it would be notable, but none would consider it supernatural, only unknown and it would work to develop theories that could explain it naturally. It may have difficulty doing so but it is not so weak willed that it will posit it supernatural, only that is beyond its current knowledge.

    Science deals with the known and unknown. It has no capacity to deal with the isolated or the unknowable. It may proffer reasonable natural explanations but the choice to believe them is still one of belief even if they believe it more likely. If someone chooses not to, it may be they disregard the evidence or it may be they don’t find it convincing. The evidence of evolution is abundant, the evidence of the absence of a single virgin birth non existent. Barring time travel or an encounter with an alien race that happened to document that distance past or with the divine, both natural and supernatural are only speculation and neither convincing, just the supernatural has one more piece of evidence than the natural, something written. If the omnipotent exists, is there any reason to think it beyond his capability? Occam’s razor is a choice, just as belief is a choice. Evidence may convince, but evidence you must have.

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  49. Serge says:

    What Ali actually saying is that religion is a social virus, which hack into human brain, bypass causality filters and reward host with endorphin outbursts for it’s storage and replication. Because it use lower level brain functions for its’ processing it function as a rootkit and can not be considerably modified or erased by input form such high-level protocol as “scientific reasoning”.

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  50. Some great (unintentional?) puns:

    “The other theory is that Mary got pregnant through relatively conventional channels”

    “One is conceptually very simple”

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  51. RichardW says:

    Ali, you are committing a fallacy of equivocation, conflating “truth” in the usual sense of the word with an alternative sense which means something more like “useful”. You had the sense to put “truth” in scare quotes to indicate you were using the word in an an unusual sense. But then your response becomes irrelevant to Sean’s post, because you are talking about something quite different. No doubt religious myths have their uses, but this is not what Sean’s post was about. It was about whether the myths are true or false. And unlike (presumably) you, the vast majority of religious people do believe in the truth (the factualness) of some religious myths.

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  52. 3. A very rare Earth. There may be 10^20 planets in the universe but this one is quite unique. There may be a large number of planets in the universe just like ours but then again there may not be. We are far from on a mediocre planet in a mediocre solar system in an ordinary part of the galaxy.

    This one is quite unique in our limited experience. As previously mentioned, we are barely able to see into a very local neighborhood of stars’ exoplanets, and through spectroscopy can only manage to learn a tantalizingly minimal description of the exoplanets. So far those planetary systems are quite unlike our own in the sizes of the planets and their orbital periods (which is the main reason that we astronomers have been able to detect them.) There is simply not enough data to make such a sweeping statement.

    We are limited in our reach by the vastness of the galaxy (let alone the universe,) and the slow speed of light to be able to know whether or not our lovely pale blue dot is so unique. It’s a good home, don’t get me wrong. Our biosphere grew up here, even if the source of life may have come from elsewhere.

    The universe is by no means fine-tuned for life, either. We just happened to have found the proper hole to form our puddle.

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  53. Pingback: Sean Carroll on the nature of science « Why Evolution Is True

  54. James says:

    @Lord

    “The evidence of evolution is abundant, the evidence of the absence of a single virgin birth non existent.”

    That way lies chaos. There is no evidence against the existence of a species of flying pigs. We have to deal with the evidence that we actually have, and try to draw conclusions and general models from that. Just saying that we can’t 100% disprove something (which of course we never can) doesn’t make it credible.

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  55. Somite says:

    Oh no! Mooney is going to leave Discover too!

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  57. JoeT says:

    Excellent post, Sean. Let me suggest something that would be a good addition to this discussion and that I have yet to see someone take on directly. Chris Mooney quotes Robert Pennock as saying the following,

    “Experimentation requires observation and control of the variables. We confirm causal laws by performing controlled experiments in which the hypothesized independent variable is made to vary while all other factors are held constant so that we can observe the effect on the dependent variable. But we have no control over supernatural entities or forces; hence these cannot be scientifically studied. (p. 292)”

    This is the starting point of the accomodationist position. I’d like to hear your views on Pennock’s statement — you come close in this essay, but I think it needs to addressed directly.

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  58. James Sweet says:

    Great article, then a lot of really depressing comments that show people still aren’t getting the point.

    My response to those who are saying that miracles are not repeatable, therefore science can’t deal with them: Okay, but the existence of miracles presumably would be repeatable (unless there was only one miracle ever, in which case, you have to pick one and then discard all the others). If we assume for a moment the existence of miracles, then it is true that science could say nothing about individual miracles or make any predictions about future miracles. However, in this hypothetical reality, science would be able to observe that non-repeatable events had occurred. Furthermore, it could make a prediction that non-repeatable events would continue to occur, even though it could make no predictions about when or what those events would be.

    That’s sort of the whole point of Sean’s post, if I understand it: We do not ever observe verifiable non-repeatable events. Or at least, so far, every candidate to be a verifiable non-repeatable event has eventually been shown to have a naturalistic explanation that makes the event theoretically repeatable, assuming the initial conditions were identical.

    Thus, science can say something about the existence of non-repeatable events: They do not ever happen. Note that if you wind back the clock two or three hundred years, this hypothesis was much harder to support, because there were a number of unexplained apparently non-repeatable events, e.g. the evolution of life. In that time, surprise surprise, our greatest scientists tended to be highly religious, because given the available data at the time, science supported a belief in the supernatural. I put this in bold italics because it is a key point. You say science could never endorse the existence of miracles? You are demonstrably wrong, because there was a time when it did.

    Today, the data is a lot different. Another surprise, the majority of modern scientists are nontheists, because given the available data today, science does not support a belief in the supernatural.

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  59. Johan says:

    What is supernatural and what is natural isn’t even apriori clear.

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  60. James Sweet says:

    “Experimentation requires observation and control of the variables. We confirm causal laws by performing controlled experiments in which the hypothesized independent variable is made to vary while all other factors are held constant so that we can observe the effect on the dependent variable. But we have no control over supernatural entities or forces; hence these cannot be scientifically studied. (p. 292)”

    This is only one mode of experimentation. It is the ideal mode, but some things can not be studied in this way — even some things that are firmly within the realm of science.

    For instance, a pretty reasonable cosmology of the solar system has been around for centuries. How do you think Copernicus, Galileo, et al, came to their conclusions? Did they modify one variable (e.g. the distance of the earth to the sun) while holding all others constant (e.g. keeping all other planets stationary)? No, of course not. And yet, somehow, they were still able to use science to sift out a basic model of the solar system.

    How on earth did they do it? Easy: The methodology you quoted is the ideal mode of experimentation, but it is not the only mode of scientific discovery.

    Non-repeatable events (i.e. miracles) would fall in the same category as the motion of the planets. We cannot control it, we cannot deliberately modify one of the variables… but we can still observe it and make predictions about it.

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  62. Sean says:

    Yeah, that quote from Pennock is pretty obviously absurd. So astronomy and paleontology aren’t sciences?

    It’s a perfect example of why it’s not a good idea to first try to whittle down the essence of science to a pithy motto, then apply that indiscriminately. Look at what scientists actually do!

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  63. Tulse says:

    We do observations of the behaviour of intelligences all the time — we call such study “psychology”. Just because a phenomenon arises from agency rather than “natural” forces does not mean we cannot study it. A god that performed miracles could indeed be studied and characterized based on those miracles, and its behaviour could then potentially be predicted based on its past behaviour (e.g., cities that are especially sinful might have a higher probability of suffering smiting). Just because a god does not have physical form does not mean that it cannot be studied by science.

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  64. Stephen Wells says:

    The book of Genesis claims that at some point in the relatively recent past, a god killed everyone on earth except for one small family. Geology and biology concur that this event _never happened_. If there are any gods, they haven’t done any of the things that myths and scriptures claim they did; and, absent myths and scriptures, what kind of a god are you proposing? What is a “god”, anyway?

    If you want your god to be beyond science, you’d better make sure that it never does anything with observable consequences.

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  65. James Sweet says:

    just the supernatural has one more piece of evidence than the natural, something written.

    Two words: Russell’s Teapot.

    By that logic, teapotism has more evidence than ateapotism, because teapotism has something written about.

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  66. Onkel Bob says:

    You can define “religion” however you like, but you can’t deny the power of science to reach far-reaching conclusions about how reality works.

    Therein lies the rub, as science progresses it invariably comes into conflict with well established, albeit erroneous, religious beliefs. We rarely deal with that conflict with using reason, instead selecting an emotional response.
    Oh and kudos on this brilliant post.

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  67. Sam Gralla says:

    This is just as clear and correct as the first seven times you posted it =).

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  68. Michael says:

    If a ‘supernatural’ event actually occurs in our world, then isn’t it part of the natural world automatically even if we have no immediate explanation for it? Doesn’t this make it real and therefore natural? If a supernatural being really exists, and is a part of our world, then isn’t it natural too? If something is called supernatural but is not imaginary, even if it goes against our current ideas of how the universe operates, doesn’t this just imply our understanding of the universe is incorrect? In summary, how can ‘supernatural’ be real? If any ‘supernatural’ idea, phenomenon, or being truly exists, then it isn’t really supernatural at all, it’s now within the realm of the real as soon as it ‘exists’. We would just have to revise our idea of what nature includes, which we do all the time in science.

    Most simply put:

    natural = real; supernatural = imaginary

    “You cannot go against nature
    Because if you do
    Go against nature
    That’s part of nature, too.”

    -From ‘No New Tale to Tell’ by Love and Rockets, a British New Wave/Post-Punk band who apparently had more insight into this ridiculous debate on natural vs. supernatural than most of the posters here

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  69. matt says:

    like a vampire in fear of the sunrise , religious fear the advance of science

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  70. Tim Bartik says:

    I’m afraid that we do have to argue about definitions, because otherwise there is no possibility of mutual understanding.

    It is no doubt true that some people in some religions at some times have defined religion as claims about natural phenomena, and have asserted the truth of these claims despite scientific evidence to the contrary. This “Category 1” of religious belief can pose a problem for science and teaching science.

    Other people may consider religion to in part involving claims about natural phenomena, but they do not make such claims when they can be disproven by science. This “Category 2” of religious believers seems to me like a lesser problem for science, and in any event it seems like a pointless argument: what really happened when no one was looking?

    Still other people define religion very differently. For example, Unitarian minister Forrest Church has defined religion as “ our human response to the dual reality of being alive and having to die.” In other words, it is the set of stories and projects we construct to find meaning in this time-limited existence. For this “Category 3” of religious believers, science and religion are trying to do two different things. Science is trying to find out what is true in the world given a certain set of procedures and empirical data. Religion is trying to determine what meaning we want to attach to our lives. Sean Carroll may consider this philosophy, but many people do consider this religion.

    I believe that many Unitarians, Buddhists, and indeed many people in mainline religious groups, primarily see religion from a Category 3 perspective. And even among those religious believers who make Category 2 or even Category 1 claims, I wonder whether that’s the real attraction of religion to them. Do people primarily join a church because of its claim that the Earth is 6,000 years old? Or do they join it as a way of trying to give meaning to their lives? I’m sure many religious believers have a mixture of motives and a mixture of beliefs.

    In sum, I don’t think Sean Carroll’s definition of religion captures what many people feel is the heart of their religious beliefs, which is the Category 3 role of religion. I don’t know what percentage of religious believers would agree with the following statement: “I am religious primarily as a way to give meaning to my life, not because of any religious claims about natural phenomena that can be contradicted by science.” Perhaps this percentage would be less than 50%, maybe even a lot less than 50%. But this percentage would not be zero.

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  71. RichK says:

    Let’s say that tomorrow the sky opens up and Jesus starts flying around flinging thunderbolds (or whatever the hell he’s ‘supposed’ to do). At what point do scientists become convinced that it’s really supernatural, or do we ever? What sort of proof would we need in order to truly be scientifically convinced of the supernatural?

    Of course, if any of this nonsense were even real, I’m sure religious people would be surprised that “their” Jesus wouldn’t be doing what they had thought he would… I bet it would even make them question it all!

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  72. Michael says:

    If the virgin birth story is true, and not simply a translation mistake (eg. maid versus maiden), I’m curious how it managed to propogate. I can understand some leader, religious or otherwise, proclaiming it to be a miracle and the rest of the sheep accepting it.

    However I find it hard to believe an unwed or wed mother could proclaim that they were a virgin to their neighbours without their neighbours responding “Yeah, right…”. As a friend of mine once wrote “What kind of excuse was that? If I went home and told my mother that an angel made me pregnant, her response would NOT be ‘It’s a miracle!’.” Reminds me of an episode of HOUSE, when a patient turns up pregnant and claims not to have had sex with anyone – so he does a test for the date-rape drug.

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  73. Don Monroe says:

    Sean wrote:

    “The preference for a natural explanation is not an a priori assumption made by science; it’s a conclusion of the scientific method.”

    A quibble, but one that is at the center of the issue: The existence of a natural explanation is the null hypothesis for the scientific method, not a conclusion. It has worked very well for a wide range of phenomena, and a scientist would require extraordinary evidence to overturn it (although as you correctly say, there’s nothing to prevent such evidence from appearing). A religious person’s null hypothesis includes exceptions for the tenets of his or her religion, so the burden of proof for the associated events is much smaller. The same evidence–or lack of it–has very different power, depending on where you start.

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  74. Matt Penfold says:

    Tim Bartik,

    Most religious people will make some kind of claim their god(s) intervene in the Universe. Claiming that Jesus really did rise from the dead, or that Mary really was a virgin, or that praying can heal the sick are all factual claims that can be investigated using science.

    Yes, there are religious people who do not make such claims, and there is a term used to describe them, Deist.

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  75. Giotis says:

    My understanding is simple:

    You can’t prove that God does not exist since you don’t know the true origin of things.

    Thus as a scientist you are not allowed to talk about the existence of God.

    You can say that I’m an atheist but this is a belief itself. It’s the same thing as to say that I believe in God. It’s a different kind of religion i.e. a belief system.

    Also as a scientist you can comment on parts of the Bible but again this is an entire different thing. If you criticize the Bible you criticize the way people understand and think about God i.e. the specific religion.

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  76. Tim Bartik says:

    Mr. Penfold at 74:

    1. Yes, many religious people make some claim that their god or gods intervenes in the Universe. But I wonder whether those claims are the heart of their religious beliefs for many of these people. For some Yes, for others No.

    2. It is also useful to distinguish between people who insist on claims about divine intervention even if such claims are inconsistent with science, and those people who withdraw such claims if inconsistent with science. I think the former is much more of an issue for the role of science in our society.

    3. In addition to Deists, what about the many Buddhists or Unitarians for whom belief in God does not define their religion, or who do not even believe in God? I think the group of religious people who do not make claims about God intervening is broader than Deists.

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  78. Matt Penfold says:

    My understanding is simple:

    You can’t prove that God does not exist since you don’t know the true origin of things.

    Thus as a scientist you are not allowed to talk about the existence of God.

    You can say that I’m an atheist but this is a belief itself. It’s the same thing as to say that I believe in God. It’s a different kind of religion i.e. a belief system.

    Also as a scientist you can comment on parts of the Bible but again this is an entire different thing. If you criticize the Bible you criticize the way people understand and think about God i.e. the specific religion.

    You are correct, your understanding is simple. It is also flawed.

    I suggest you read about Russell’s Teapot to try and understand why belief and non-belief are not the same. Your argument talks of god, but try using invisible pink unicorns. I can claim there is an invisible pink unicorn in my room. Using your argument you would be forced to admit science can say nothing about this invisible pink unicorn which most people would find patently ridiculous. There is no more reason to believe god(s) exist than there is to believe invisible pink unicorns exist.

    More formally the concept I am talking about is known as the null-hypothesis. The burden on proof is on the person making the affirmative claim for the existence on an entity. Thus unless there is evidence that invisible pink unicorns exist it should be assumed they do not. The fact that someone claims they do exist does not shift the burden of proof.

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  79. James Sweet says:

    I don’t know what percentage of religious believers would agree with the following statement: “I am religious primarily as a way to give meaning to my life, not because of any religious claims about natural phenomena that can be contradicted by science.” Perhaps this percentage would be less than 50%, maybe even a lot less than 50%. But this percentage would not be zero.

    The percentage that would agree with that statement is probably fairly high, but the percentage of people who could honestly say that their religious beliefs make no comment about natural phenomena is probably fairly low.

    Believe in the literalness of transubstantiation, virgin birth, or the resurrection? Then you can’t claim the “Category 3″ exemption you propose. Believe that homosexuality is sinful? Bzzzz, “Category 3″ is forbidden to you.

    I recognize there are lots of religious people (you mention Unitarians; I happen to know a Quaker couple who would fit this category) who do get to claim this “category 3″, but they are in the minority. Most people’s religious beliefs make claims about events in the natural world, even if that is not the main reason they hold those beliefs.

    And that contradicts science. Which is fine, I suppose, but let’s not pretend that they don’t. If your religion only says that the stories in your Holy Book are nice allegorical stories (although many many things in the Bible are actually not very nice at all, but I digress…) and that there is nothing literal about it whatsoever, then fine, that is a non-overlapping magisteria. But the minute you say, “Yeah, I think that actually happened…” then you’ve got to acknowledge the scientific ramifications.

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  80. Giotis says:

    I don’t have to read anything.

    What I’ve written holds perfectly well if you read it carefully and you can’t say anything to disprove it.

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  81. James Sweet says:

    Oh, and one more comment about this “Category 3″… I am pretty sure that virtually all of the so-called “New Atheists” would have very little to say if 95+% of religious people fit firmly in your “Category 3″ description. I, for one, would be overjoyed… Religious proselytizaton would effectively cease to exist. Street corner preachers would be a thing of the past. The idea of a Holy Book influencing the political process would be as laughable as basing our foreign policy on the latest Harry Potter.

    Yes, please, bring on this very soft definition of “religion” that doesn’t make any claims that contradict science! That would be great!

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  82. Matt Penfold says:

    I don’t have to read anything.

    What I’ve written holds perfectly well if you read it carefully and you can’t say anything to disprove it.

    Fine. I will let you stew in your ignorance.

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  83. Arun says:

    You neglected a possibility. Parthenogenesis.

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  84. Lord says:

    That is why science cannot study the supernatural because it would cease to be supernatural. It can not study god because it would cease to be god. It would become some alien or someone from the future with knowledge and technology beyond us, not the supernatural. It would become the unknown, not the supernatural. Now if the supernatural produced natural consequences, science could study those consequences. If it communicated with us, science could study those communications. If it could and would, science could study it, but if it couldn’t or wouldn’t, science could not. An isolated fact is experimental error. It is something to be explained by natural causes or ignored as anomalous until repeated and if never repeated science could never learn from it. It would be an error, a mistake, a lie, a tale, or a trick. Science can narrow the field but never eliminate the possibility. It is not surprising the Greek gods arose from chaos. In chaos there is always possibility.

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  85. James Sweet says:

    I don’t have to read anything.

    What I’ve written holds perfectly well if you read it carefully and you can’t say anything to disprove it.

    sigh

    I mean, this is willful ignorance, dude. You realize that, right? “I have made an argument, and because I don’t immediately see any flaws in the argument, I refuse to listen to anyone who thinks there are flaws.”

    For the record:

    You can’t prove that God does not exist since you don’t know the true origin of things.

    Thus as a scientist you are not allowed to talk about the existence of God.

    Um, no.

    You can’t prove that I am not a wooly mammoth, since you don’t truly know who is typing this.

    Thus you are not allowed to say anything about whether or not wooly mammoths are extinct, or whether they are able to post comments on blogs. Right?

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  86. James Sweet says:

    To paraphrase Lord in comment #84: God isn’t real.

    I mean, really, that’s what you’re saying, if you think about it. You’re saying that if God were real, then He wouldn’t be God, he would be “some alien or someone from the future with knowledge and technology beyond us”.

    Fine. I’ll concede the point. Science cannot study something that doesn’t actually exist. We agree!

    Also:

    Science can narrow the field but never eliminate the possibility.

    This is true, and if you read carefully, nobody actually disputes this. Us atheists are just saying that the possibility is vanishingly small.

    Read up on the idea of a “null hypothesis” to understand this. You can’t actual disprove the existence of anything (see also, Russell’s Teapot). But, to roughly quote Dawkins, “I think the existence of a god or gods is extremely unlikely, so much so that I am going to live my life on the assumption that they don’t exist.”

    When we say science contradicts religion, we don’t mean that it is impossible that there might be some data that would eventually expose that contradiction to have been illusory (in fact, Sean explicitly says this in the very blog post on which we are commenting…). We just mean that it contradicts any reasonable interpretation of the data we currently have.

    Eventually, when something reaches a certain point of improbability, we have to make a decision to operate on the assumption that it is false. Otherwise, you’re basically a solipsist, and nothing is real.

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  87. Pingback: Science And Supernatural Hypotheses, Present and Possible Future « Camels With Hammers

  88. Giotis says:

    Yes, I prefer my ignorance than mouthing platitudes like some people.

    God is an unproven hypothesis explaining the origin of things i.e. a belief.
    Science can’t falsify this hypothesis because does not know the origin of things.
    So science has nothing to say about this hypothesis except that it can’t falsify it.

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  89. RichK says:

    >Science cannot study something that doesn’t actually exist. We agree!

    But what if he DID exist? What if Jesus showed up tomorrow morning? I’m not saying that he does or will (I’m an atheist), but here’s a possible limit of science: even if he did show up, would a true scientist accept it? How much evidence does science need in order to concede the supernatural?

    The point I’m trying to make is that there is no amount of evidence that could “prove” the supernatural; there would always be a “well, it COULD be sufficiently advanced technology somewhere somehow…”. Is that a flaw in science?

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  90. James says:

    Tim Bartik’s category 3:

    “I am religious primarily as a way to give meaning to my life, not because of any religious claims about natural phenomena that can be contradicted by science.”

    Clearly cat 3 types are not happy with the world as they see it and feel depressed and under-valued. We all feel like that some times. Somewhat flippantly I suggest they just need some drugs to make them feel better.

    I would add a category 4 (which I’m sure my mother falls into, for example) where religious ritual, procedure, language, and congregation, are regarded as part of your history, and perceived to be a connection to your roots and your ancestors. Certainly my mother goes to church (religiously :) ) but (and I would never do this) if I pressed her on Noah’s ark , Lazarus, or Lotts’s wife, etc, she would be very uncomfortable.

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  91. James Sweet says:

    What if Jesus showed up tomorrow morning?

    Heh, you should check out the short story “Judgment Passed” by Jerry Oltion, in the compilation _Wastelands_. It answers this question from an atheist perspective.

    The point I’m trying to make is that there is no amount of evidence that could “prove” the supernatural; there would always be a “well, it COULD be sufficiently advanced technology somewhere somehow…”. Is that a flaw in science?

    No, because again we come back to the idea that you eventually have to assume a particular thing is false if the probability is sufficiently small — or conversely, you have to assume it is true if the probability is sufficiently high.

    If Jesus came back tomorrow and started performing all sorts of miracles, certainly I — like many others — would be very slow to accept the Christian explanation, because it contradicted so much other previous evidence. Eventually there would come a point, though, when that was the most reasonable explanation.

    In that case, we could always continue to assert, “Well, it could just be malicious aliens who are exploiting our religious myths,” and certainly a number of scientists and skeptics would continue to maintain that view. I might cling to that view myself, as I’m not sure my psyche is capable of dealing with the idea of an omnipotent being who actually cares what people do in their bedrooms.

    But I do think we can envision a Second Coming that would be so convincing that the mainstream scientific view would eventually have to accept literal Christianity as the most reasonable hypothesis. Without any evidence to support it, the “it must be aliens!” hypothesis would eventually start to fail Occam’s Razor.

    Of course, one complication is that Jesus strenuously expounded on the virtues of faith, and if He actually appeared and said, “Hey doods,” then faith wouldn’t really be an option anymore. (You can’t believe in something unseen if you’ve already seen it!) But that’s a problem with Christianity, not with science. The very hypothesis has dug itself a metaphysical hole that may be impossible to overcome from a logical perspective.

    I suppose if you want to say that science is flawed because it can’t fully endorse a hypothesis that is inherently self-contradictory… well, okay, I don’t call it a “flaw”, but to each his own ;) ;)

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  92. Aatish says:

    Sean,

    That was a really interesting post. Your view on these religious matters is always well thought out and refreshing, and a pleasure to read.

    A little while after reading this article, I happened to watch the Feynman Messenger lecture called ‘The Great Conservation Principles’. Here Feynman strongly defends the view that you argued – that science does not proceed on a phenomenon by phenomenon basis. In Feynman’s words “If you will not say that it’s true in a region you haven’t looked yet, you don’t know anything! If the only laws that you find are those which you just finished observing, then you can’t make any predictions.”

    The lecture is available here: http://research.microsoft.com/apps/tools/tuva/
    (see lecture 3, chapter 10 for the relevant bit)
    Enjoy!

    Aatish

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  93. James Sweet says:

    I would add a category 4 (which I’m sure my mother falls into, for example) where religious ritual, procedure, language, and congregation, are regarded as part of your history, and perceived to be a connection to your roots and your ancestors. Certainly my mother goes to church (religiously ) but (and I would never do this) if I pressed her on Noah’s ark , Lazarus, or Lotts’s wife, etc, she would be very uncomfortable.

    As it turns out, my wife and I almost fit this category, despite both being atheists through and through. We don’t go to church(*), but we observe a number of Jewish holidays and traditions. It helps us feel a connection to something, a sense of place and identity, so to speak. My gentile ass even memorized the Channukah prayer! Of course, we’re quite clear about it being all a bunch of tribal mumbo-jumbo… Does this make us “Category 4 religious”?? heh.

    (*)My wife would actually really like to find some sort of “church-esque” community-intensive activity to do once a week, ideally one that would stimulate ethical discussion, and that would also fit in with our values. We tried a Unitarian service once, and while the sermon itself was pretty awesome and mostly fit the bill in regards to her criteria about ethical discussion, the music sucked, and there was still a bit of magical thinking here and there that I didn’t care for. We might still go back, but it’s not really what we’re looking for. If anybody has any suggestions, I’m all ears!

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  94. Peter says:

    Repeatability, repeatability, repeatability. If it’s science, it had better be repeatable. Since nothing ever repeats perfectly, we’d better not take this as a definition. See #60, and Sean’s agreement, at #62. Ah, so we instead look for regularities, in particular for correlations between all the observations we make. We can control some of those observations, others we simply have to wait for the value to change however it will, so that even with no control of the planets’ trajectories we can nonetheless confirm that they move in ellipses (fortunately we can control where we point our telescopes).

    Having retreated to this more careful definition, QM forces us to retreat somewhat further, because there is a point of detail beyond which we cannot make continuous observations, so we can only observe correlations between discrete events [which, furthermore, require the presence of a relatively large-scale thermodynamically nontrivially engineered "measurement apparatus" for any discrete events to happen]. Although we can by a series of systematic experiments observe a continuous, unitary evolution of a relatively theoretical entity, the quantum state, we cannot control the times when the individual discrete events will happen, which together make up the measurement dataset. Thus there is both determinism and indeterminism in the quantum mechanical class of models and experiments. More troubling, we have a concept of causality at the level of the quantum state description that accommodates Sean’s suggestion that “science passes judgment on ideas about how the world works”, but at the level of the individual events in the experimental dataset in someone’s lab note book or computer, there is no concept of causality, or of individual particles, and we have no idea how the world works. [It is possible to introduce something like Bohmian mechanics as a classically causal "idea about how the world works", or Nelson mechanics, or Stochastic Electrodynamics, to name two others, and there are apologias for quantum mechanics such as consistent histories and topos theory, but many physicists have decided that we basically have no idea "how the world works" at the atomic or similar scales that satisfies their preferred ideas, and it's not necessary to have any idea because we can perfectly well use QM as an engineering tool.]

    We are faced with Hume’s problem. Scientists at their most skeptical — scientists are proud of how much more skeptical they are than anyone else — can only say “here is the raw experimental dataset, and here are the regularities we can extract from this experimental dataset, by the following statistical formulae, and here are a few quite accurate formal systematizations of the regularities”. These systematizations give us some warrant to judge ideas about how the world works, if we can prove that there is no system of models of a given theory that accommodates the given experimental datasets, but we also have to make extremely pragmatic decisions as to whether there is *any* modification of the given theory that would have a system of models for the given experimental datasets, and that satisfies our ideas of what a simple and tractable theory should look like. At such points, there is no systematic Methodology of Science, which has been in a mess for 50 years. Yes this blog-comment analysis is confused, but I doubt that others can do better if they start to confront what QM and the critique of positivism have done to the Methodology of Science at a sufficiently detailed level.

    To end with a graphic analogy, the question would be whether scientific knowledge has painted religion into a tiny corner, or whether Scientific knowledge has painted an almost insignificant dot of paint onto an infinite landscape? Religious are sure of the latter opinion, Scientists seem to think that they know a whole lot. To invoke a somewhat exotic mathematical idea, perhaps we should think of the paint as having a fractal dimension that is almost everywhere less than the dimension of all experience? Perhaps either the whole landscape or the painted part may not be measurable. Quantifying the landscape that must be painted may not be easy to do.

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  95. James Sweet says:

    God is an unproven hypothesis explaining the origin of things i.e. a belief.
    Science can’t falsify this hypothesis because does not know the origin of things.
    So science has nothing to say about this hypothesis except that it can’t falsify it.

    If your definition of God is “the currently unknown origin of the universe”, then okay… I grant that the universe exists and that its origin is currently unknown, so if we decide to label that unknown origin with the letters G-O-D, I guess we can do that if you really want… but that’s not really religion.

    As soon as you start saying, “And by the way, this currently unknown origin of the universe also knocked up a virgin 2000 years ago,” or even something as vague as, “And by the way, this currently unknown origin of the universe is a conscious agent who knows us and loves us,” then you are making falsifiable claims and you must be prepared to have science comment about it.

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  96. Lord says:

    From this we should take there are some questions science can answer, the age of the universe and the earth, the evolution of life in outline. There are other questions it can only answer by way of experience, evidence, and simple probability, the applicable boundaries remaining fuzzy; there is no known ordinary natural way of this occurring whether it did or not. And there are other questions it can’t really answer at all. Pretending these questions don’t exist, or pretending we already know the answers is as imaginary as anything else. They may not have answers or the answers may be unaccessible scientifically. They are beyond science, either currently or forever.

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  97. James Sweet says:

    To end with a graphic analogy, the question would be whether scientific knowledge has painted religion into a tiny corner, or whether Scientific knowledge has painted an almost insignificant dot of paint onto an infinite landscape? Religious are sure of the latter opinion, Scientists seem to think that they know a whole lot

    Wait… why does religion get automatic dibs on the unpainted region?

    I am not sure what to make of your comment that “Scientists seem to think that they know a whole lot,” but whether that is true or not is irrelevant. Whether science has explained a lot of reality or a little of reality, religion doesn’t get to just claim the rest of reality carte blanche. Unless of course you make religion a placeholder for the currently inexplicable, which yields the rather pointless and unsatisfying “God of the Gaps”.

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  98. JimV says:

    Thank you. I don’t understand General Relativity or QM very well, so it is nice to read something understandable and clarifying on an issue that I have spent a lot of time thinking about myself.

    GR and QM posts are good too, and perhaps ultimately more important in the scheme of things, but can be confusing without the necessary background. – but that’s my problem.

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  99. Giotis says:

    “then you are making falsifiable claims and you must be prepared to have science comment about it.”

    Yes indeed. Read again the last paragraph of #75.

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  100. James Sweet says:

    From this we should take there are some questions science can answer, the age of the universe and the earth, the evolution of life in outline. There are other questions it can only answer by way of experience, evidence, and simple probability, the applicable boundaries remaining fuzzy

    Um, we only know the age of the universe and the earth as simple probability, dude… We only know anything as a probability. It’s just when the probability gets really really high, we call it true.

    And there are other questions it can’t really answer at all.

    Name one. That’s the big problem with all this. Theists mightily proclaim, “There are some questions science inherently can’t answer!”, but I have yet to hear one actually produce an example that stands up to critical examination.

    I actually think there are some questions that science can’t answer, but I don’t think there are any objective questions science can’t answer. Science can’t tell me what my favorite type of ice cream is (well, okay, maybe it could I guess by modeling all of my neurons, but that’s not really what we mean).

    But you know what? Religion can’t tell me what my favorite type of ice cream is either. Only I get to decide that.

    It’s the same with the meaning of life. By definition, there is no such thing as objective meaning — meaning is what a particular thing signifies to a particular being, so it is inherently subjective. So if the question is, “What is the subjective meaning of life?”, or rather, “What does life mean to me?”, only I get to answer that question. Religion provides no epistemological insight whatsoever into that question. I guess it gives you an arbitrary answer that some crazy dude made up a couple thousand years ago to keep his tribe in line, but uh… yeah, I’ll find my own meaning, thanks.

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  101. James Sweet says:

    Yes indeed. Read again the last paragraph of #75.

    Riiiiight… so what is your point again, then?

    If you actually read what Sean wrote in this blog post, his very second sentence is:

    When I use words like “God” or “religion,” I try to use them in senses that are consistent with how they have been understood (at least in the Western world) through history, by the large majority of contemporary believers, and according to definitions as you would encounter them in a dictionary.

    And, if I understand you correctly, you just acknowledge that “God” and “religion” in that particular sense is something that science can very much comment on! Right?

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  102. John Farrell says:

    Brandon has a good response to Sean, I think.

    Enjoying the discussion.

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  103. Tulse says:

    “You neglected a possibility. Parthenogenesis.”

    In organisms where two like chromosomes determine the female sex, the offspring will always be female. There is no mechanism for, and thus no examples in nature of, females with two like chromosomes (as humans have) producing male offspring. Even if parthenogenesis occurred in humans, it would only produce female babies, and thus parthenogenesis (if it even were possible in humans) will not get you a naturalistic explanation for Jesus’ “virgin birth”.

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  104. Giotis says:

    James,

    Yes. My point is that you shouldn’t in any way imply that your atheism is supported by scientific arguments and use your scientific status to backup this claim.

    You must admit that your atheism is just another belief. Otherwise you mislead people. I’m not refering to Sean specifically.

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  105. Lord says:

    The difference is one of evidence and the likelihood of producing it. The probability of a virgin birth has next to nothing to do with the probability of a virgin birth and everything to do with whether God exists and was involved. Whether he wasn’t involved in any others is immaterial to the question. The number of questions that science can answer about specific history is next to nil and the likelihood of answering them dependent on developing time travel, and those needn’t have anything to do with the supernatural. Consider if God only worked through thought. Science could do no more than suggest delusion or self generation. Then there is the question of what is meant by immaculate conception, artificial insemination?, embryonic implantation?, someone from the 29th century creating history? Talking about probability is a meaningless exercise in the case of the isolated fact.

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  106. Brian English says:

    Nice article.

    Question, this doesn’t seem right to me:

    Or, to make it slightly more empirical, was the magnitude of the total momentum after the collision within one percent of the magnitude of the total momentum after the collision

    Shouldn’t the first after be a before? I’m not out for pedantic points, just quite vague on particle physics.

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  107. James Sweet says:

    My point is that you shouldn’t in any way imply that your atheism is supported by scientific arguments and use your scientific status to backup this claim.
    You must admit that your atheism is just another belief. Otherwise you mislead people. I’m not refering to Sean specifically.

    Bah! No, you miss the point again!

    I acknowledged that the origin of the universe is currently unknown, and that if you want to label that with the letters G-O-D, that is your business. But just because it is unknown, that does not mean we can’t say certain things about this origin.

    One of the things I think science makes quite clear is that the universe was almost certainly not originated by a conscious agent. For one, this is a non-explanation: If I say I cannot accept that a bunch of particles and physical laws sprang causelessly into existence, than I most CERTAINLY cannot accept that agency sprang causelessly into existence!

    For another thing, the cosmological data we have makes the idea of creation by a conscious agent rather implausible. What we do know with a relatively high degree of certainty is that there was some kind of singularity, and that shortly forward in the time axis of this singularity, all the matter in the universe was expanding outward at an incredibly high rate of speed. This does not sound like the action of a conscious agent… where, pray tell, would this conscious agent be while it was making all of this happen? Inside the singularity??? Uh, yeah, now you’ve got some serious ‘splaining to do if I’m going to buy that…. and if this hypothetical agent was somewhere outside of the singularity, well then I really haven’t explained the origin problem at all, have I?

    Now, if you abandon the idea of that which you call “God” being a conscious agent — for example, if you want to refer to the singularity itself as “God” — then that’s all fine and good, but that is not theism, nor is it a belief in the supernatural. You are just using a rather funny three-letter word to describe a physical phenomenon.

    The idea that “God” is not a conscious agent and is merely represented by a quantum singularity at the beginning of time is, when you get right down to it, an atheistic worldview. It does not leave room for theism, hence it is a-theistic.

    (By the way, I have no “scientific status” beyond what any other college-educated adult has. My degree is in engineering, not science. I am not a scientist. It only takes a lay understanding of science to see that it contradicts the vast majority of theistic worldviews, though…)

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  108. Sean says:

    Brian, that was just a mistake; I fixed it.

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  109. James Sweet says:

    The number of questions that science can answer about specific history is next to nil and the likelihood of answering them dependent on developing time travel

    Facepalm!

    That’s what this entire blog post was about. To paraphrase it again: If you insist that science must be mute about specific events in the past and is not allowed to make predictions about their likelihood, then science must also be mute about specific events in the future. In fact, then science would have to remain silent about everything except for specific things that had already been observed.

    That way madness lies. If we accept that interpretation, you could not even say that the acceleration due to gravity at sea level on Earth was approximately 9.8 m/s^2. All you could say would be, “Well, when I dropped this particular rock, it accelerated downwards at approximately 9.8 m/s^2. But if I drop this very similar looking rock over here, who knows what will happen! Certainly not science! Better call a theologian and ask him…”

    Back in the real world, I can safely bet that that other rock will accelerate at approximately 9.8 m/s^2; I can safely bet that if Jesus dropped a rock off the side of the Mount while he was giving his Sermon, it surely accelerated at approximately 9.8 m/s^2; and I can safely bet that Jesus’ mom’s egg was fertilized by a human sperm. To say that science can make no claims on those things would be to castrate science entirely, it would make it nothing but stamp collecting.

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  110. James Sweet says:

    BTW, one theistic worldview that I will acknowledge doesn’t quite contradict science is the one in which God, being the notorious practical joker that He is, magicked all of this contradictory evidence into existence to test our faith. In fact, He specifically laid out the cosmos so that no reasonable person could possibly reconcile His existence with the evidence. Then He decided to take everyone who accepted this evidence at face value, and make them burn in Hell forever. That God, what a joker!

    I find this as implausible as it is repugnant, but I suppose it doesn’t directly contradict science. (Neither does Russell’s Teapot, though…)

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  111. Ben Nelson says:

    Thanks for the posts all. I think Sean and Peter more or less captured what the new atheists refer to as “epistemic compatibility”, albeit at a level of detail and presentation that is uncommon. When Peter talks about philosophical illiteracy, I think he hits it on the head, and I’m encouraged by the sight of some developments here. Peter, like Sean, emphasized cognitive incompatibility, over logical or social incompatibility. Well, those certainly are central issues to the conversation. However, there are other sorts that are central to a cluster of important topics that we might want to consider. So I’d like to pick up on a theme first introduced by Ali in this thread, and then take it in an entirely different direction.

    Some, like Ophelia Benson (echoing, I think, Coyne), have effectively claimed that religion is not cognitively compatible with science — that you cannot hold the one and the other without compartmentalizing them. In other words, science and religion are incompatible, not because they are destined to come to different answers concerning common questions, but because they have to keep each other at arm’s length in order to stay mutually viable.

    If they share the same cognitive functions — i.e., if they are both concerned with arriving at truths about the natural world — then they can’t help but conflict, as Sean remarks. They’re epistemically incompatible. But it seems entirely useful to distinguish religion and science as having different methods by which beliefs are validated, ostensibly to capture different functions (or magesteria), the ethical and the factual; Sean, you do this in a prior post. But the trouble is, to the extent that we rigidly separate the one and the other in practical affairs concerning the lot of our beliefs, they can’t help but be incompatible: for we have willed it to be so!

    NOMA is sometimes able to pass through the conversation as if it were the grand peacemaker, when in fact, it is an entirely adequate exemplar of what it means for two doctrines to be cognitively incompatible. The scientistic magesterians cannot leap over their wall and give their critical assault upon their neighbors, and vice-versa; no interaction, no interpollination. This incompatibility is not an accident; it is the entire point.

    Surely, NOMA aims to produce results in social life that settle things down, a kind of social compatibility. But what kind of peace is this? A peace for whose benefit? Peace in order to fulfill whose needs? Why, for instance, should a social scientist / critical theorist motivated by humanitarian concerns believe that it is a healthy attitude to keep their factual stories and value stories at a distance? And from the other side, how would an ethical consequentialist react when told that rigorous empirical examination is out of their league? Both of these are positive doctrines that happen to take a dim view of NOMA, by design. And both would react negatively to NOMA, since both require a mutual interrogation between the magesteria. Critical theory and ethical consequentialism are examples of compatibilistic doctrines, in the cognitive sense. They make no guarantees about success at achieving every sense of social compatibility.

    Well, maybe that’s just how it ought to be. Maybe they have a different sense of peace in mind. And maybe the kind of Third Culture that has NOMA at its centre is not a Third Culture worth having.

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  112. oriole says:

    That’s probably the best concise explanation of why rational people prefer scientific explanations to supernatural ones that I’ve ever read. Thanks, Sean! I will definitely be using your analysis (with attribution!) in upcoming discussions with Christians, New-Agers, etc.

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  113. Giotis says:

    James have you realized what are you doing?

    You are trying to falsify the notion of God using scientific arguments. Well you just can’t do that.
    No matter how hard you try it’s not a falsifiable hypothesis by any scientific standard and that’s the beauty of it.

    And since you can’t in principle exclude the possibility this hypothesis to be true, then anything goes. Everything is possible.
    There is no place you can hide. You can mumble something about the “laws of nature” but the game is really lost and you know it.

    So let physicists do physics and theologists do theology. It’s that simple.

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  114. James Sweet says:

    You are trying to falsify the notion of God using scientific arguments. Well you just can’t do that.

    Why not?

    No matter how hard you try it’s not a falsifiable hypothesis by any scientific standard and that’s the beauty of it.

    The null hypothesis can never be proven false, but we can establish it is so unlikely as to be effectively impossible. Again, Russell’s Teapot. You cannot prove that there is not a teapot orbiting the sun right now exactly equidistant between the Earth and Mars. But I think we can safely assume (using science!) that there isn’t one.

    And since you can’t in principle exclude the possibility this hypothesis to be true, then anything goes. Everything is possible.

    Um, I suppose, but again, that only leads to solipsism, which is epistemologically useless. It’s also possible that you will burn in Hell forever if you don’t deposit $10 in my PayPal account. It’s not a falsifiable hypothesis, and that’s the beauty of it!

    When you get down to brass tacks, everything is possible, sure. But that’s not a useful statement. Then you can’t make any statements about anything. Hell, you can’t even prove that I am trying to falsify the notion of God. Maybe you are imagining the whole thing! Everything is possible!

    You can mumble something about the “laws of nature” but the game is really lost and you know it.

    I don’t think I mumbled anything about the “laws of nature”…? Yep, just searched for it, I said nothing of the kind. But I do think I quite clearly stated that our best available tools for understanding reality contradict the idea of the universe being originated by a conscious agent. Do you dispute this statement?

    So let physicists do physics and theologists do theology. It’s that simple.

    What, pray tell, qualifies a theologian to “do theology”? The ability to make stuff up? The ability to read old books written by a superstititous sectarian tribe?

    Seriously. I’d like to know. What epistemological advantage do they think they have?

    And what even does it mean to “do theology”??

    Actually, forget all that. Let’s grab the bull by the horns. Tell me exactly where in my argument in post #107 did I go wrong? I assert the following statement: Present scientific knowledge indicates it is extraordinarily improbable that the origin of the universe was initiated by a conscious agent. I believe post #107 supports that statement. Could you tell me where precisely you think my reasoning is flawed?

    If you don’t respond to this particular challenge, I will assume that “the game is really lost and you know it.” :p

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  115. P says:

    Lord, I just happened to visit your blog and saw your post on June 29, 2009. The final paragraph is particularly interesting given the nature of your arguments in the comments here. I would like to quote from that paragraph:

    “… and none of this makes sense, but to make sense of efficient markets one has to theorize investors had expectations … The only way to make sense of it is to assume limited rationality that makes momentum speculation reasonable.” Now my question is this: Why is “limited rationality” the only way to make sense of it; have you considered divine intervention to make sense of it? It could have been the case after all.

    The point is there is no way science or any other system of thought can ‘know’/prove the existence of god. Science is not about “knowing” what is (it can never be known) but rather about providing reasonable explanations based on observations that would help predict certain things, such as the next economic bubble and possibly control or prevent it in future. The divine intervention idea is also a theory to ‘explain’ an economic bubble. But does it help you in predicting the next one? That is the key question.

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  116. Giotis says:

    I don’t accept the challenge because if I do I will implicitly admit that the God hypothesis can be falsified by scientific arguments and this way I would undermine my own argument.

    Of course you can assume what ever you like. It’s free:-)

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  117. P says:

    This Lord guy is cool. Some of his amazing statements in the comments above:

    #48: “Science deals with the known and unknown. It has no capacity to deal with the isolated or the unknowable.” – if something is unknowable what/who/which can know it?

    #48: “… both natural and supernatural are only speculation and neither convincing, just the supernatural has one more piece of evidence than the natural, something written.” – so does this blog post count as a piece of evidence for “natural” or do only clay tablets count?

    #84: “That is why science cannot study the supernatural because it would cease to be supernatural. It can not study god because it would cease to be god.” – So, do you mean to say that if science were to start studying about Jesus, your god would then be satan or something else?

    #96: “From this we should take there are some questions science can answer, the age of the universe and the earth, the evolution of life in outline. There are other questions it can only answer by way of experience, evidence, and simple probability …” – No, anything that science answers is by way of experience, evidence and simple probability.

    #96: “And there are other questions it can’t really answer at all. Pretending these questions don’t exist, or pretending we already know the answers is as imaginary as anything else.” – There are indeed questions science or for that matter any system of thought can’t answer. For example, does god exist? Science doesn’t pretend this question doesn’t exist. Rather it recognizes that the answer can never be known and doesn’t delude itself or others that it does or can know the answer to it, unlike most religions.

    #105: “The probability of a virgin birth has next to nothing to do with the probability of a virgin birth and everything to do with whether God exists and was involved.” – Can someone explain what he means?

    #105: “…likelihood of answering them dependent on developing time travel …” – what is his obsession with time travel. This is the second or third time he mentions it.

    #105: “Then there is the question of what is meant by immaculate conception, artificial insemination?, embryonic implantation?, someone from the 29th century creating history? Talking about probability is a meaningless exercise in the case of the isolated fact.” – Ah, time travel again. I guess artificial insemination and embryonic implantation are not isolated phenomenon. Moreover, they are directly observable.

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  118. articulett says:

    When science cannot answer a question, it’s not like some guru can. There is no way to tell one supernatural explanation from any conflicting supernatural explanation in terms of liklihood.

    I agree with this post. whenever someone appeals to god or some other supernatural explanation, they may as well be saying “it’s magic” to me. It might feel like “an answer” or “an explanation”, but it’s indistinguishable from a delusion.

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  119. Lord says:

    Pray tell, where and when did he drop this stone? How far did it fall? What did it strike? What was it composed of? These are all objective questions. You should have no trouble detailing the answers since you know it all.

    You may offer divine intervention but as with you what would it add in way of explanation? Those involved seem intent on blaming chance or the devil. No doubt it is a tale of exuberance and greed for which religion does have something to say. And that is at least as important.

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  120. articulett says:

    As far as science can tell, believers in gods and souls are identical to believers in demons and fairies. There really is no way to tell one invisible undetectable form of consciousness from any other… You can’t tell the ones people believe in from the ones they don’t… You can’t tell any such entity from a delusion of such an entity.

    To me, consciousness without a material brain is like “sound in a vacuum”– it doesn’t compute.

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  121. P says:

    #119: “Pray tell, where and when did he drop this stone? How far did it fall? What did it strike? What was it composed of? These are all objective questions. You should have no trouble detailing the answers since you know it all.”

    First “where” and “when” are not exactly objective questions. Would you give an example of a question you are interested in? Is the birth of Jesus an example? (By the way to me, it is quite an objective question.)If yes, please consider the some of the hypothesis mentioned in the blog post. To me, based on experience virgin birth is a highly unnatural phenomenon. It is also quite clear that people mislead other people if they have the means and a motive. Hence to explain the birth of Jesus and at the same time continue to make sense of the world I reject the virgin birth hypothesis until I am presented with more evidence in it’s support.

    “No doubt it is a tale of exuberance and greed for which religion does have something to say. And that is at least as important.”

    Let me say this. The collapse of the economy is as much a result of unquestioning nature of many people as it is of greed. And religion has played a major role in promoting this unquestioning nature. In any case, I am not very sure greed is restricted to irreligious people.

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  122. boreds says:

    Wow. I guess what was bugging me last time happened again here. For some reason, Sean’s posts don’t speak to the unconverted.

    If anything, this comment thread seems even less productive than the last one. But again, perhaps someone has learned something from this, and changed their mind. Tell us!

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  123. Bryson Brown says:

    Giotis, explanation isn’t as easy as you seem to think. How does the hypothesis that there is a God ‘explain’ the ‘origin of things’? It seems to be purely stipulative, that is, we simply stipulate that if God exists, then God would create a world (like ours?). Then, from the hypothesis, ‘God exists’, we can infer that a world exists. On the assumption (i.e. further stipulation) that the conditional stipulation is lawlike, we have an old-fashioned deductive-nomological explanation. But we have no basis beyond mere (and ad hoc) stipulation for either the conditional or its lawlike status. Worse, and more famously, declaring God as the explanation of the ‘origin of things’ leads to an obvious question: what explains God? The response seems to be yet another (and all-too convenient) bare stipulation: God is self-explanatory. As Dawkins points out, this seems implausible in the light of our natural understanding of how beings complex enough to have minds and beliefs and desires have actually come to exist. At best, from the scientific point of view this hypothesis is empty (because its explanatory force is stipulative and so untestable) and pointless (because it’s ad hoc at two levels: why should we suppose a God would create a world– on this, by the way, see Spinoza, and why/how are we entitled to say that the demand for explanation stops with the God hypothesis). So science can say a lot more than just that this hypothesis (like many other silly hypotheses) can’t be falsified. In particular, science can say that this hypothesis belongs to a particularly suspicious and useless class of self-indulgent, ad hoc stipulations, and declare (with Laplace), ‘je n’ai accune besoin de cette hypothese’.

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  127. |John R Ramsden says:

    @Tulse [103]

    > There is no mechanism for, and thus no examples in nature of, females with two like chromosomes (as humans have) producing male offspring.

    Some people have unusual combinations of chromosomes, such as XXY or XYY, although I’m not sure if any such anomalous set could be owned by a fertile female:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/XYY_syndrome
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/XY_sex-determination_system

    That said, I don’t believe in the virgin birth of Christ, which seems to me more likely to have been an early addition to Christianity to make it more inviting to pagans some of whose Gods were supposedly born of a virgin.

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  128. I apologize for posting without reading all of the previous comments. I will read them all when I have more time. Right now, I’d just like to share this criticism of Sean Carroll’s piece and invite comments and criticisms:

    http://specterofreason.blogspot.com/2009/07/discovery-demonstration-and-naturalism.html

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  129. Giotis says:

    Bryson,

    It explains the origin of things because God is the end of all “WHYs”. When Moses asked God about his true identity, God replied “I am what I am” and exactly that moment any further question loses its meaning. The chain of sequential WHYs breaks there.

    You can’t ask what was before God or outside God. The only answer is again God. And you can’t ask who is God or why there is a God.
    The answer is “I am what I am” and “I am because I am”.

    With science on the contrary there will always be another “WHY” waiting for you at the corner.

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  130. Stephen Wells says:

    Actually you _can_, obviously, ask those questions about a god. It’s just that people tend to stone you because they don’t have any good answers.

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  131. Tulse says:

    “When Moses asked God about his true identity, God replied “I am what I am” and exactly that moment any further question loses its meaning. ”

    Apparently then Popeye is god…

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  132. Giotis says:

    Don’t be naive.

    I’m not saying that this conversation really happened. It didn’t happen if you like; it’s not my point. I’m just trying to say that you can talk about the existence and the notion of God using only theological terms and within the context of the discipline of theology. Physics has nothing to say about it.

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  133. Sean’s right about this: regarding the causes and consequences of events about which we have no information, it is most reasonable to believe that they are identical with the causes and consequences of equivalent events, provided that we have never known these to be different in any case. But that principle has no application to something like the virgin birth, because it’s not the case that we have no information about the causes and consequences of the birth of Jesus Christ. We have the testimony of the Gospels to which the Spirit bears witness. Sean’s “hypothetical scenario” has already happened.

    I realize that atheist scientists of an empiricist bent won’t recognize the authority of spiritual witness, because they refuse to be persuaded by anything but induction and deduction from “sense data.” But what I want to say to these scientists is that this very refusal is authorized by a spiritual witness: the light of freedom glimmers in the gesture which denies the source of the light.

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  134. Bryson Brown says:

    Giotis:

    You seem to have missed the point altogether. Your declaration that God is the end of why-questions is pure stipulation. Why can’t we stipulate instead that the big bang, or the existence of the multiverse as a whole, is the end of why-questions? You’re trying to end the argument by saying, “I’m right because I’m right”. But my point was that any such stipulation is empty and unconvincing– all the more so in the case of a hypothesis like ‘God’, whose meaning is not clear, specific or informative (unlike the big bang or the multiverse).

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  135. George V says:

    Jason Streitfeld referenced a post on another site that was critical of the short essay by Sean Carroll above. In order to understand the premise of the referenced post, here is my interpretation.

    The post claims it is wrong to distinguish between the supernatural and the natural. If it exists, outside our universe, it is natural if it is demonstrable. This assumes there are means to demonstrate the existence of any entities, whether intelligent or not outside our universe, but if there were the entities are natural. So the distinction between natural and supernatural is not a valid one. If it exists beyond our universe and is not demonstrable, then it is not the realm of science.

    I am not saying that is what the post said, only asking for other’s interpretation of what was said and is similar.

    http://specterofreason.blogspot.com/2009/07/discovery-demonstration-and-naturalism.html

    And then the originator of the post goes on to say that to make the distinction between natural and supernatural is a dangerous idea because it gives those who make the distinction, credence. The post says that supernaturalism is political action and neither a scientific or philosophical point of view.

    “It is a political strategy to corrupt our understanding of the relationship between knowledge and action, and our understanding of science and nature should not be compromised by it”

    So I have a question if my interpretation is correct, is this distinction really meaningful and is not this post just a political statement making a point of view doctrine.

    This is a separate question but related. Are the willful actions of an intelligent agent subject to the same scientific scrutiny as the laws of nature are? Now I understand that willful actions often follow patterns but one time events due to a willful action may not. Would the anomalies that Sean referred to be subject to scientific investigation if these willful actions were one off events? So in other words are there things within our universe that are not demonstrable and as such are not subject to the realm of science.

    Also if something exists outside our universe and is not demonstrable and thus it is not in the realm of science, can we speculate on it? Or how do we approach the consideration of such a thing? Is it by fiat, out of bounds. What would this do to the multiverse hypothesis?

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  136. Tulse says:

    “Are the willful actions of an intelligent agent subject to the same scientific scrutiny as the laws of nature are?”

    We call that discipline “psychology”.

    “Also if something exists outside our universe and is not demonstrable and thus it is not in the realm of science, can we speculate on it? ”

    Of course we can — apparently such ineffable entities really hate gay sex. And shellfish.

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  137. Giotis says:

    Bryson,

    No you can’t do that because then you are within the realm of the physical reality and thus you must give a physical explanation of your claim or stipulation.

    Only with a transcendental entity outside the physical reality you can do that and since science can’t give an answer to people’s “WHYs”, they have every right to make any hypothesis they like and science has nothing to say about it.

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  139. P says:

    Giotis, I often hear such terms as “transcendental”, “outside the physical reality” etc. But aren’t they colorful ways of saying “I don’t know”?

    I can think of a system where there is a “god”. Think of a novel. The world of the novel is filled with characters who act according to the whim of their “god”, the author. The characters may or may not be aware of their “god”, the author, depending on the whim of the “god”. Sure this “god” is outside the physical reality of the novel, he/she is a transcendental entity; but that is so only as long as the characters consider only their “world”, the novel as the universe.

    My main point is that there are many people, including some not so religious people, who hold a parallel notion of the universe. However, to me at least, it seems clear that the universe has to be taken to mean all that there is. So, in the above example the universe is not just the world of the novel but also includes the author and the world he/she exists in and so on.

    With such a notion, which is the most meaningful among several choices, I don’t see what you mean by the terms such as “outside the physical reality”. Would you care to explain. You may also comment on the notion of the universe.

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  140. P says:

    I think Jason Streitfeld has written a very good piece at http://specterofreason.blogspot.com/2009/07/discovery-demonstration-and-naturalism.html .

    I tend to agree with most of his views.

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  141. Giotis says:

    P,

    No I can’t tell you. I can only direct you to the discipline of theology for an answer to your question. Through the centuries, thousands and thousands of pages have been written to answer such questions. This supports my point that you can talk about God using only theological terms.

    Regarding the question for the compatibility between physics and the notion of God. The answer is that the question doesn’t have a meaning.

    If a scientist is asked for his opinion on the notion and existence of God, in my opinion he should simply say ‘No comment’. This notion is completely unknown to me and I have nothing to say about it. I can only tell you about the results of my experiments and about the theories I have constructed, which by definition are referring to the physical reality as I understand it. That’s it.

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  142. P says:

    “If a scientist is asked for his opinion on the notion and existence of God, in my opinion he should simply say ‘No comment’.”

    Exactly my point. The question is meaningless and the right answer for anyone (there is nothing inherently different between a scientist and someone else) is, as you say, “No comments”. But, unfortunately, most religions (Buddhism, for example is a major exception) are based completely on the presumption that the question is completely meaningful and that it has an answer. From there on thousands and thousands of pages have been written (several hundreds are taken by “Hitch hikers guide to the galaxy” itself) to give different notions of god and trying to answer other such meaningless questions, quite often tying themselves in knots.

    “I can only tell you about the results of my experiments and about the theories I have constructed, which by definition are referring to the physical reality as I understand it.”

    Please tell me. And what, according to you, constitutes the physical reality?

    “No I can’t tell you. I can only direct you to the discipline of theology for an answer to your question.”

    I find this quite amusing given one of your earlier comments:

    #80: “I don’t have to read anything. What I’ve written holds perfectly well if you read it carefully and you can’t say anything to disprove it.”

    I wonder what is preventing you from arguing by the same standards that you expect of others. Moreover, there you were asked to look up (after briefly explaining the gist of the idea) a specific argument that is available even on wikipedia while you direct me to a whole discipline in which “thousands and thousands of pages have been written”.

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  143. Giotis says:

    P,

    Let’s leave it here. I have nothing else to add and I think I’ve made my point clear. Anyone can judge for himself.

    As for the quotation:

    “I don’t have to read anything. What I’ve written holds perfectly well if you read it carefully and you can’t say anything to disprove it.”

    I regret saying that. I meant it in a different way than it sounds. I was referring to the consistency of my argument.

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  145. gopher65 says:

    I tend to define the scientific process as “The practice of never making the same mistake twice.”

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  147. greg says:

    All of them.

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  149. Ben says:

    It saddens me that no one here knows how to deal with trolls. A “troll” is a person who enters a given social community and adamantly and inflexibly espouses opinions and methodologies that are antithetical to that community. For example, a troll on a New England Patriots website might say, “Tom Brady sucks”, and when challenged with any number of facts or statistics, will merely maintain his position and make no attempt to defend himself or refute the arguments offered. Giotis is on a science website and is more or less saying “Science sucks”. The only way to win the argument is to not argue.

    As for this conversation, I’m thrilled with the level of discourse. Sean’s original post is a deep and provocative work, and (troublemakers notwithstanding) the discussion has been quite enlightening. I don’t have much to add except, keep it up, and ignore the trolls.

    Addendum: The second rule of trolling is to deny that you’re trolling.

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  150. RobNYNY1957 says:

    There are many, many areas where science and religion overlap: Is mental illness orginic or demonic possession? Is disease a pathology or result of breaking religious rules? Are eclipses alignments of bodies or a diety’s warning? Science has no way to answer these questions without just asking more questions. Only religion can give an answer of absolute certainty and moral clarity.

    Oh, except how to get the demons out, which rules were broken and which deity it is that is giving the warning and why.

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  151. Jacob Gerber says:

    I think you scientific materialists have a pretty weird idea to defend. Let me see if I’ve got your theory straight. A long long time ago something happened, maybe the Big Bang, after a long time stars, planets and galaxies formed, then life arose on at least one planet. Life changed over time until we got humans. Eventually, among other humans, you came along and as a result of this long causal chain of events you had a thought close to, “science is right.”

    But when you consider your position, all you really have is your thoughts. Let me present an alternative hypothesis. You are just a brain in a vat being fed whatever necessary inputs to create just the same thoughts, leading you as a brain in a vat to declare, “science is right.” You have no evidence to privilege the common view over the brain in a vat because both scenarios would produce the same experiences. In this case, the entire scientific structure you’ve built would be directed at a total illusion. What’s more it wouldn’t have any chance at getting things right because it wouldn’t have access to the fully concealed real world – the brain in a vat. (“Brain in a vat” is from Searle, hope I did it justice).

    But we can take it even further. It doesn’t even have to be brain. You could just as well suppose JELLY DONUT! leads to your thought, “science is right.”

    Without a serious change in conception, it seems untenable to claim science has any access to truth.

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  152. RobNYNY1957 says:

    Don’t you wonder what the late Uncle Walter’s ancestors did in the late Middle Ages/early Modern era to get a last name that means “disease” in German?

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  153. Ben says:

    @ Jacob Gerber

    Science is concerned with functional epistemology. You can save the absolute epistemology for your Phil 101 seminar.

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  154. John Merryman says:

    A point which always struck me about the virgin birth is that Jesus is supposedly of the line of David. Through Joseph!
    I think one of the best books on faith was Eric Hoffer’s The True Believer. The function of illogical articles of faith is specifically to create intellectual isolation, in which all information not sanctified by the one true faith is suspect.

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  155. Montjoie says:

    Two problems. First: “The preference for a natural explanation is not an a priori assumption made by science; it’s a conclusion of the scientific method.” No, it’s the inescapable basis of the scientific method. The essay seems to suggest that scientists would be perfectly happy to find supernatural reasons for things, if there were any, but how? Science can test only observable physical nature. If something non-physical is involved, science will never find it. Second, the author seems to think science is far more settled about things like the beginning of the universe and many other questions than it in fact is. I don’t know who Sean is, but I suspect he has a little knowledge about a lot. And as we know, a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.

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  156. Nathanael says:

    There is some definitional trouble with “natural” and “supernatural”, but this article is essentially right, and a rather good philsophy-of-science piece.

    As a really awesome example regarding the “natural”, suppose we take a scientific analysis of certain strange events related to the disappearance of objects. Perhaps the items in the National Museum in Iraq.

    What explanation for their disappearance? Well, human action — theft — will likely turn out to be the scientifically most sound explanation. Is this “natural”? Well, in a certain sense, no.

    The definition of “supernatural” usually involves wilful, humanlike actors doing things which do not follow the behavior of “nature”. The thing is, these days we now tend to include in “natural” anything where such actors are humans or animals, which means that there are no “supernatural” events.

    But that’s a bit arbitrary definitionally, and in other contexts the actions of humans are distinguished from “natural” events. If we find the ruins of an ancient city — science leads us to conclude that people made it, that it didn’t happen “naturally”.

    It is perfectly easy to imagine evidence which shows that a Godlike actor did something — it would be along much the same lines. But there is, in fact, almost no such evidence, and masses of evidence to the contrary. The “Flood” of the Bible made a large number of predictions about what geologists would find — at first they seemed correct, but further research showed that most of the predictions were horribly wrong, and geologists abandoned the global flood hypothesis.

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  157. RandomActsOfReason says:

    @Montjoie says,

    “And, as we know, a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.”

    Indeed. If you wanted to know who Sean is, for example, you could have clicked on his name in the list of blog authors in the sidebar and found this: http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/sean/

    Not that your attack on the messenger is anything but a fallacious bit of rhetoric, as it has no bearing on the validity of his argument – but still, check out the link. And then reread your final sentence. The one I quoted above.

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  158. Cunctator says:

    That ‘definitions’ are only that much important because at the end of the day they do not alter ‘substance’ is an opinion that can probably hold true if talking about science (some would argue not even there) but that definitely does not when talking about ‘religion’.

    ‘how they have been understood (at least in the Western world) through history, by the large majority of contemporary believers, and according to definitions as you would encounter them in a dictionary’ is a definition that is too general and that ignores self-reflexivity on how did we come to this definition in the first place. A biased definition produces a biased argument.

    So, sorry, but time spent ‘arguing about definitions’ is time well spent in this case.

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  159. Mut says:

    Hello, popping in via a link from Daily Kos.

    I’m sort of torn about this article. On the one hand, it’s a very clear, thoughtful explanation of how science helps us understand the world in a consistent, rational way. On the other hand, its chances of changing anyone’s religious beliefs are basically nil. The axioms are just too far apart.

    Oversimplifying wildly (sorry!), the core of the article is that miracles are scientifically impossible — that the laws of nature which we’ve been able to test rigorously and establish in the here and now would exclude the miracles described in more or less any arbitrary religion you care to pick. But that isn’t clinching by itself, or even really controversial — after all, the simplest working definition of a miracle is something that breaks the laws of nature. Crudely:

    Argument against religion:
    * Miracles are scientifically impossible.
    * Therefore any account of them occurring is false.
    * Therefore any non-trivial religion is false.

    Argument for religion:
    * Miracles are scientifically impossible.
    * But some occurred.
    * Therefore there exists something that can break the laws of nature.

    Again, I’m oversimplifying. But I hope you can see what I’m driving at — this is not really a new argument. It could have been made just as well in Newton’s time. What’s changed since then is not the nature of the disagreement but the phase space available for religious belief. It used to be possible for a rational person to believe that the earth was created only a few thousand years ago, or that homo sapiens popped directly into its current form, or that the sun rotated around the earth. Those ideas have been rolled back over time as scientific knowledge advanced, and I’m sure the process will continue — that a bunch of beliefs which could rationally be held in 2009 will be empirically disproved in 2109. Will the phase space ever go to zero? Who knows? I’m not even sure it matters. But that’s the way real progress will be made — not with one zinger argument but with steady filling in of those part of the map still marked “here be dragons”.

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  160. George V says:

    Mut made what I consider a very clear summary of the issue and ended with:

    “Will the phase space ever go to zero? Who knows? I’m not even sure it matters. But that’s the way real progress will be made — not with one zinger argument but with steady filling in of those part of the map still marked ‘here be dragons’.”

    As I said above, there are areas in which science has made little or no headway (and dragons are still roaming) despite its many achievements elsewhere. We tend to get blinded by what science has done and uninformed about what it has not done. It will be interesting what the state of science will be in 2109 when I doubt none of us will be here. But then again maybe that doubt is not warranted.

    Essentially the issue boils down to that the willful actions of an intelligent agent lie outside the natural laws of the universe. And just where or when were there intelligent agents besides ourselves if any?

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  161. James says:

    It’s pointless to argue with religion. 160+ comments and this blog post has got nowhere – what a surprise! Religion is faith based and every day life is reason based: simply incompatible.

    We can argue against the injustices perpetrated in the name of religion (or in the name of science) based on some notion of justice and morality that seems reasonably universal and that pre-dates any of the currently fashionable religions (although no two people quite agree on the details…)

    I love the fact that there seems to be a discussion about the distinction between natural and un-natural, or physical and un-physical. I’m pretty simple minded on this issue: “natural” or “physical” is what occurs in nature. I don’t care whether it’s attributed to quantum electrodynamics or Zeus – if it happens it happens, and it is worthy of question and study. If it doesn’t happen then who cares ? It didn’t happen!

    As for laws of sceince, how about the laws of religions: they don’t seem to be short of them. However, they don’t seem to be put through much testing, and often seem to be ignored by the “faithful”. “Thou shalt not kill” comes to mind – but then, the Christian God was the biggest genocidal maniac of all time (just Noah and his wife left, apparently. But a nice rainbow made it all OK).

    When was the last time there was a news report of a new experimental proof of the efficacy of prayer to cure cancer, or Yogic flying to fix the credit crisis, or rain dances increasing the probability of rain?

    Oh, this is pointless – I’m going down the pub for some sensible conversation!

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  162. g bruno says:

    Miracles: The only miracles that have happened during my lifetime, as recognised by the Pope in Rome, appear to be remissions of various cancers, and some unlikely healings.

    These may be due to Immune system becoming able to recognise tumour cells. Somatic Hypermutation operates by allowing “error prone” DNA replication in B lymphocytes, randomising their antigens.
    This is a nifty way for GOD to intervene in the physical world, no laws of physics broken. The right random mutation heals.
    So maybe Jim Morrison was wrong… perhaps you Can Petition the Lord with Prayer?

    Or possibly the human brain is optimised to see the world as a set of objects with intentions… thunder does sound angry.

    Proof of Gods jokyness?…. it is odd that the moon so closely matches the solar disc during a solar eclipse. But when I witnessed an eclipse, I wasn’t overwhelmed by a sense of god, I was overwhelmed by a sense of the depth of space, the size of the bodies, and the speed of their movements… I recommend being on a hilltop, to see that moon shadow racing towards you at 1700kph… it’ll make an atheist out of you.

    My altarboy career convinced me that insisting on belief in miracles is a technique designed to brainwash, to snap the mind out of the rational into the meekly obedient.

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  164. Loki says:

    George V, re impossibility of society without religion.

    I think someone here once posted a link to a very interesting historical study. It was concerned with the difficulties that Catholic theologians met after discovery of Chinese culture. I recall they had grudginly accept that so evidently well-run society is run thus on Confucian principles, which are not religios however wide you consider the term “religion”. The problem they (theologians) had is exactly that existence of China negated the particluar proof of inevitablity of religion that you’ve raised.

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  165. Cory Lowe says:

    Your choice of using colliding electrons at a specific time and place as an example is horrible. Since electrons exhibit both wave and particle properties, it is uncertain whether electrons would be “colliding.” Additionally, according to the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, if you exactly know the location then you have no idea what the velocity is. That means you could not conduct an experiment under this set of conditions to determine if momentum is conserved. I agree that we can fall back on faith in physical laws (“we have every reason to believe it held true in that particular collision”). It is nice to know that faith is not just for religion.

    We should also understand that conservation of momentum is a scientific law. It is an observation about the way our universe works without offering explanation as to why our universe works that way. Trying to answer why our universe works that way has been exceedingly difficult, except for those who are willing to believe that god made it that way. Science has often struggled to answer “why” questions which helps to explain why religion has remained such an important part of world culture.

    I’m a little confused about what you mean by miracle. If a miracle is a freak event or one that does not normally happen, then quantum mechanics can be used in certain situations to predict the probability of a miracle occurring. Why does a miracle happen at one time and not another? Science could say it is random chance, or we lack enough information to answer that question. Religion could say it is the influence of god choosing that possible outcome to happen now. Perhaps the truest statement is that we just don’t know. If you accept that “we don’t know” is the truest answer, then is it so absurd to have faith that god, who is usually defined to be omniscient, knows and planned it that way?

    Science seems to have done a great job explaining how things work, but it has failed consistently to tell us why. In fact, theories about why things happen are usually the most contested and often changed theories in science. Religion satisfies people’s desire to answer why questions. In the past one hundred years, science has been increasingly successful as it has moved away from trying to answer why questions, the focus of philosophy and religion, and towards how questions. Maybe science and religion are incompatible because science and religion answer different types of questions.

    The ultimate problem is that humans use science and religion to try and answer all types of questions. In the process, humans make mistakes and confuse people. For example, in the original Hebrew versions of the gospels there is no virgin birth. The Hebrew word that is used means young woman. It is when the gospels are translated by people into Greek that the word gets changed and the connotation of virgin is added. (http://accurapid.com/Journal/18review.htm)

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  166. James Sweet says:

    On the off chance that Giotis is still reading, here is my detailed response to his line of thinking.

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  170. Paul Murray says:

    “Science has often struggled to answer “why” questions which helps to explain why religion has remained such an important part of world culture.”

    That’s because “why” questions must be answered with a story, a narrative. (Terry Pratchett is good on this.) Deep down, the only thing that will really satisfy a “why” question is a story *about people*. It’s in our nature to ask “what was he/she feeling/thinking, that led him/her to do that?”. Hence spirits and gods.

    Science is about moving beyond that. Unfortunately, its answers will always be unsatisfying for people who have not.

    Oh, and as to Jesus: I like Earl Doherty – Jesus as a literal walking-and-breathing person was an idea that gained traction some time after chritianity became popular. Doherty is weak on where the gospel of Mark came from, and for that I very much like Dennis R MacDonald – it was written as a deliberate “imatio” of the homeric epics.

    So, you need history, too. Science, history, anthropology – rationalism. The enlightenment. The sciences and the humanities have go to stop squabbling: the dark forces of unreason threaten us all.

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  172. joulesm says:

    Did you see this op-ed in nytimes??
    http://www.nytimes.com/2009/08/23/opinion/23wright.html?em=&pagewanted=all

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  173. cynthia barr says:

    If you dont want no funreral when you die, can a person sell there body to science for them to be able to do with, experiments for further testing for what ever?

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  174. cynthia barr says:

    If you dont want no funeral when you die, can a person sell there body to science for them to be able to do with, experiments for further testing for what ever? If so, to whom?

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  175. anna says:

    what does a nasa do?

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