Reluctance to Let Go

There’s a movement afoot to frame science/religion discussions in such a way that those of who believe that the two are incompatible are labeled as extremists who can be safely excluded from grownup discussions about the issue. It’s somewhat insulting — to be told that people like you are incapable of conducting thoughtful, productive conversations with others — and certainly blatantly false as an empirical matter — I’ve both participated in and witnessed numerous such conversations that were extremely substantive and well-received. It’s also a bit worrisome, since whether a certain view is “true” or “false” seems to take a back seat to whether it is “moderate” or “extreme.” But people are welcome to engage or not with whatever views they choose.

What troubles me is how much our cultural conversation is being impoverished by a reluctance to face up to reality. In many ways the situation is parallel to the discussion about global climate change. In the real world, our climate is being affected in dramatic ways by things that human beings are doing. We really need to be talking about serious approaches to this problem; there are many factors to be taken into consideration, and the right course of action is far from obvious. Instead, it’s impossible to broach the subject in a public forum without being forced to deal with people who simply refuse to accept the data, and cling desperately to the idea that the Earth’s atmosphere isn’t getting any warmer, or it’s just sunspots, or warmth is a good thing, or whatever. Of course, the real questions are being addressed by some people; but in the public domain the discussion is blatantly distorted by the necessity of dealing with the deniers. As a result, the interested but non-expert public receives a wildly inaccurate impression of what the real issues are.

Over the last four hundred or so years, human beings have achieved something truly amazing: we understand the basic rules governing the operation of the world around us. Everything we see in our everyday lives is simply a combination of three particles — protons, neutrons, and electrons — interacting through three forces — gravity, electromagnetism, and the strong nuclear force. That is it; there are no other forms of matter needed to describe what we see, and no other forces that affect how they interact in any noticeable way. And we know what those interactions are, and how they work. Of course there are plenty of things we don’t know — there are additional elementary particles, dark matter and dark energy, mysteries of quantum gravity, and so on. But none of those is relevant to our everyday lives (unless you happen to be a professional physicist). As far as our immediate world is concerned, we know what the rules are. A staggeringly impressive accomplishment, that somehow remains uncommunicated to the overwhelming majority of educated human beings.

That doesn’t mean that all the interesting questions have been answered; quite the opposite. Knowing the particles and forces that make up our world is completely useless when it comes to curing cancer, buying a new car, or writing a sonnet. (Unless your sonnet is about the laws of physics.) But there’s no question that this knowledge has crucial implications for how we think about our lives. Astrology does not work; there is no such thing as telekinesis; quantum mechanics does not tell you that you can change reality just by thinking about it. There is no life after death; there’s no spiritual essence that can preserve a human consciousness outside its physical body. Life is a chemical reaction; there is no moment at conception or otherwise when a soul is implanted in a body. We evolved as a result of natural processes over the history of the Earth; there is no supernatural intelligence that created us and maintains an interest in our behavior. There is no Natural Law that specifies how human beings should live, including who they should marry. There is no strong conception of free will, in the sense that we are laws unto ourselves over and above the laws of nature. The world follows rules, and we are part of the world.

How great would it be if we could actually have serious, productive public conversations about the implications of these discoveries? For all that we have learned, there’s a tremendous amount yet to be figured out. We know the rules by which the world works, but there’s a lot we have yet to know about how to live within it; it’s the difference between knowing the rules of chess and playing like a grandmaster. What is “life,” anyway? What is consciousness? How should we define who is a human being, and who isn’t? How should we live together in a just and well-ordered society? What are appropriate limits of medicine and biological manipulation? How can we create meaning and purpose in a world where they aren’t handed to us from on high? How should we think about love and friendship, right and wrong, life and death?

These are real questions, hard questions, and we have the tools in front of us to have meaningful discussions about them. And, as with climate change, some people are having such discussions; but the public discourse is so badly distorted that it has little relationship to the real issues. Instead of taking the natural world seriously, we have discussions about “Faith.” We pretend that questions of meaning and purpose and value must be the domain of religion. We are saddled with bizarre, antiquated attitudes toward sex and love, which have terrible consequences for real human beings.

I understand the reluctance to let go of religion as the lens through which we view questions of meaning and morality. For thousands of years it was the best we could do; it provided social structures and a framework for thinking about our place in the world. But that framework turns out not to be right, and it’s time to move on.

Rather than opening our eyes and having the courage and clarity to accept the world as it is, and to tackle some of the real challenges it presents, as a society we insist on clinging to ideas that were once perfectly reasonable, but have long since outlived their usefulness. Nature obeys laws, we are part of nature, and our job is to understand our lives in the context of reality as it really is. Once that attitude goes from being “extremist” to being mainstream, we might start seeing some real progress.

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162 Responses to Reluctance to Let Go

  1. burntloafer says:

    Brilliant.

    The first paragraph alone was well stated, but it just got better.

    Timely post.

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  2. Sam Gralla says:

    Three particles and three forces don’t explain free will, so we definitely do not know how our world works.

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  3. They certainly shouldn’t be chased away from the table. However, in an intellectual debate it can be hard to take someone seriously they live their lives according to what is essentially an emotionally comforting fairy tale.

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  4. @Sam Gralla: since “free will” is just a word, I guess you mean “the perception of decisions not entirely determined by something perceived as outside the ‘me’” – okay? Then my question is, what kind of “explanation” do you expect to be possible? It’s an (easy) exercise in rational thought (so, philosophy), that you can’t be sure about your thoughts – you might be tricked into thinking anything, without noticing it. So it doesn’t make any sense to even think about this possibility, since you can’t test it. Furthermore, the understanding of perception (thus of perception of free will) is deepened every day now by the cognitive sciences, such as quantitative psychology and neuroscience. Both rely heavily on mathematics and physics.

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  5. Now a comment to the nice article: I agree with almost all statements made.

    However, when you say (just to take one example) “Life is a chemical reaction”, you should say instead that modelling life as a chemical reaction is the best theory according to some pragmatic rules governing the selection of theories among various alternatives. These rules are, e.g. Occam’s razor, predictiveness and similar rules to make sure one picks a theory with the most operationalizable predictions.

    I would like to advertise my own text “On Theories and Stories” here (click on my name over this comment to read it, the spam-filter has purged the link). Given the definition of “story” in that text, I would re-phrase your main wish for the future as: “I hope that more people choose stories that are compatible with scientifically chosen theories”.

    It is no problem if people believe in God or in souls or in free will. It is indeed a problem, if they mix up their beliefs with predictions and moral implications on other people. The fundamental arbitrariness of beliefs should teach us to be tolerant.

    Everybody can do something in the right direction: learn science, try to build up a story how the world works that fits in the scientific picture and communicate. Especially to (your) children.

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  6. Matt says:

    Sean, I think Chad Orzel’s point was that to those people who are still interested in the old framework, and are interested in having a discussion about how the old framework might work in harmony with the new framework, then inviting someone like you to that discussion, who then says, “What you want to talk about is boring, oh, and it’s also wrong” would be counterproductive.

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  7. Rob Knop says:

    Just as there is empirical evidence that those who don’t think science and religion are compatible can make reasoned arguments, there is also empirical evidence that science and religion are compatible, in the form of the large number of practicing scientists who are also religious. Why is it you bring forward the empirical evidence of one while dismissing on epistemiolgical grounds the empirical evidence for the other? Isn’t dismissing the empirical evidence for the consistency of science and religion for philosophical reasons just as marginalizing as dismissing the evidence for the possible reasonableness of some those who insist science and religion can’t be compatible?

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  8. CW says:

    Excellent post.

    “There’s a movement afoot to frame science/religion discussions in such a way that those of who believe that the two are incompatible are labeled as extremists who can be safely excluded from grownup discussions about the issue.”

    A thought that popped in my mind is whether this idea subtly/subconsciously stems from examples in which various ‘movements’ in history seem to show preference towards the more passive movement leader Ghandi, Martin Luther King, and others that are celebrated for peaceful/non-violent resistance…perhaps this conception makes people view New Atheists/Evangelicals as the non-preferred voices? They are the more assertive/extreme voices of the ‘movement’?

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  9. Actually, we don’t KNOW any of these things… we THINK we know them, we BELIEVE we know them… we even HAVE FAITH that we know them (based upon constant assumptions we make and think secure), but it is not possible to KNOW that they are true, other than in a highly limited context. You can write that off as a metaphysical problem that we all choose to ignore, but metaphysical problems are ultimately very real and very deep.
    Yeah, our knowledge seems very wondrous (as EVERY generation thinks their knowledge is)… but it is also still hugely primitive.

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  10. Aaron says:

    Unicorns are compatible with horses, too, there are some people who believe in both. The difference being that one is fictional. Just because there are people who can do science and can also believe in magic doesn’t mean that magic exists, it just means that being a scientist doesn’t make you infallible.

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  11. Mike says:

    “Actually, we don’t KNOW any of these things… we THINK we know them, we BELIEVE we know them… we even HAVE FAITH that we know them (based upon constant assumptions we make and think secure), but it is not possible to KNOW that they are true, other than in a highly limited context.”

    No, we TEST our knowledge against the world and the world responds as our best theories predict it should. Can we ever know everything — no, there will always be more to learn. But we can know an ever increasing amount of things with greater and greater certainty. And, compared to the world only several hundred years ago, our ever increasing amount of knowledge is truly “wondrous”.

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  12. Paul says:

    For some reason, I’m having difficulty getting my comment here. I’ll try again.

    “there is no supernatural intelligence”

    But how can knowing the particles and forces tell you that something supernatural doesn’t exist?

    “there is no moment at conception or otherwise when a soul is implanted in a body…. How should we define who is a human being, and who isn’t?”

    But surely the moment of conception is when a new human life begins. Do you agree with that, Sean? That’s the best candidate for when a human being has its beginning. And I say this without any reference to religion, but to observations and facts. At that time, it has its very own complete genome, and it grows from a single cell, to multiple cells, which organize and differentiate themselves to form the more recognizable human form we are familiar with. Do you agree with that, Sean?

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  13. GodzillaRage says:

    And to my right (and top), I see ads for the Templeton Foundation.

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  14. changcho says:

    Excellent post – Summarizes my thoughts very well. The Natural Philsopher’s Manifesto?

    Great response from Aaron to RK.

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  15. Norm says:

    Isn’t the problem (or part of it) that at each “higher” (for lack of a better word) level of complexity there arise completely new and unpredictable properties and rules? I mean, we may know the rules governing sub-atomic particles (for example) but that obviously doesn’t tell us anything about the rules governing human societies.

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  16. Oran Kelley says:

    Ummm. The incompatibility question isn’t resolved by asserting that religion is false or unpleasant. And saying you believe religion is false isn’t the position that’s being painted as “extreme.”

    The whole incompatibility issue was brought up to shut up or marginalize people who were either a) believing scientists or b) tolerant of various religious points of view aside from atheism. It’s actually a rich irony that those same people are now afraid of being marginalized.

    And if you are really concerned about the level of conversation in our culture, the way you rectify it is by engaging in conversation, in give-and-take with others. You don’t rectify that situation by telling people that their belief system is “incompatible” with the conversation itself.

    Those for whom philosophical incompatibility is a big issue–many of whom don’t seem to know what the term means–are only getting what they asked for: to not have to engage religion in conversation. So why should we care?

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  17. Marshall says:

    Well said. Unfortunately as long as kids are taught from birth that there’s a god watching your every move along with Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, and the Great Pumpkin, the vast portion of the population will never cast off the blinders of religion. At least adults tell kids the truth about Santa Claus and the others as the child gets older. If only they did the same thing about their god.

    I doubt we will ever be free of religion until the enlightened can leave this planet and create a sane society elsewhere where we act like adults and take care of ourselves instead of kowtowing to a stern “father” and expecting him to save us when something bad happens.

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  18. smijer says:

    As a so-called “acommodationist” or compatibilist or what-have-ye… I don’t think the anti-compatible position is extreme (though, some pursue it with much less temperance and reason than they apply to their day jobs in the hard sciences – Jerry Coyne comes to mind).

    As to what is more important between an idea’s truth value and its “moderation”-value… I think that’s the wrong distinction. Unless the idea is approached moderately, it is difficult or impossible to have a meaningful discussion about its truth.

    Sean (if you’re reading this far down the comments) – I’ve never seen evidence of any kind of extremism or even any real intemperance from you in this discussion. I see somewhat more from the leading lights of the anti-compatibility crowd. And it’s rare that I will read the comment sections of their blogs at all any more. But you are right – extremism isn’t a feature of anti-compatibility. And I think we all – including other anti-compatibilists – could use more and better examples of a moderated discourse on the issue. So… don’t hide your light under a bushel.

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  19. smijer says:

    Unicorns are compatible with horses, too, there are some people who believe in both. The difference being that one is fictional.

    This is the main thing that I see from anti-compatibilists – the question is rarely answered in terms of whether compatibility is true – only in terms of whether religion is true.

    No, religion isn’t scientific. It cannot be arrived at by the scientific process. *And, for a person who believes that the only means of apprehending the truth is through science, it is therefore false*. The text inside the asterisks is a philosophical position, not a scientific one. It is this philosophy that is incompatible with religion. Not science. I subscribe to that philosophy. But I recognize that my deduction that religion is untrue is a result of my philosophical position, not a result of incompatibility with science.

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  20. Lonely Flower says:

    “There is no life after death; there’s no spiritual essence that can preserve a human consciousness outside its physical body. Life is a chemical reaction; there is no moment at conception or otherwise when a soul is implanted in a body. We evolved as a result of natural processes over the history of the Earth; there is no supernatural intelligence that created us and maintains an interest in our behavior”

    I really wonder, how you became sure of that, isn’t at least, you should say we don’t know! . Is it Dogma?

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  21. Lonely Flower says:

    “There’s a movement afoot to frame science/religion discussions in such a way that those of who believe that the two are incompatible are labeled as extremists who can be safely excluded from grownup discussions about the issue”
    Ok, but “religions should vanish” this sounds dangerous.

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  22. andyo says:

    Oran Kelley,

    This whole argument was not started by the people who think it’s incompatible. It was started by people who thought the so-called “New Atheists” were the ones who should shut up cause they were alienating the religious. It pretty much blew up with Mooney and Kirshenbaum’s book on it, but it had been a smaller argument since before, probably with Nisbet & Mooney vs. PZ Myers as the most visible of the feuds.

    Even the most “strident” (note the scare quotes) like PZ Myers and Dawkins say that they have no problem with scientists believing in religion or being religious, but mixing them is not a good idea. And, no one should be above criticism. So, Francis Collins can publish anything he wants, but if anybody makes a silly argument, they can’t tell their critics to shut up cause they’ll alienate their readers’ fragile little minds.

    I personally haven’t heard anything of substance from the “compatible” side. Every argument of them seems to boil down ultimately to “huh, there are religious scientists, therefore science and religion are compatible” (see #6). Disingenuous. Newton believed in alchemy, therefore, alchemy is compatible with physics?

    The fact is that religion pretends to be a way of knowing. By faith, which is considered a virtue. Science is just the opposite. Why can’t the “compatible” camp get past the simple fact that people can believe two contradicting things and keep them separate, without problem?

    Alas, we will still hear endlessly this argument. For one though, I’d like anyone who makes it to make more than one random post in one of these threads, and engage in a constructive argument, but it’s all they say, always, and never get back to the conversation.

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  23. Stephen P says:

    Rob Knop: “… there is also empirical evidence that science and religion are compatible, in the form of the large number of practicing scientists who are also religious.”

    Rob: what on earth is the point of trotting this out again? Even on the few blogs I follow regularly, it has been claimed and dealt with dozens of times. Yes, everyone knows that there are scientists who are also religious. It is obvious. It is undisputed. Repeating this for the umpteenth time is about as interesting as a creationist repeating that dogs do not give birth to cats.

    But in what sense does this demonstrate compatability? Only in a trivial, utterly uninteresting one. On this form of compatibility, where two things are compatible if someone believes/accepts/does/undergoes them both, then it is to a very good approximation true that EVERYTHING is compatible with EVERYTHING. (Excusez les majuscules.) Being a policeman or judge is compatible with being a criminal. Musical ability is compatible with deafness. Catholicism is compatible with pedophilia. And so on ad infinitum.

    To demonstrate compatibility in an interesting sense, you need to produce a consistent philosophy or rigorous procedure which covers both science and religion. And it is highly unlikely that you will be able to do that.

    All your statement shows is that people can accept things which are mutually incompatible (or at least not necessarily compatible).

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  24. Non-Believer says:

    I though Chad Orzel’s commentary was rather off base. It is belittling to assume that an intelligent and respectful conversation cannot happen on this subject.
    In fact, the more those conversations happen, the better it will be for both sides.
    Conversations and even debates do not have degenerate into the inanity he illustrated.

    I do think we hurt our own when we rant about the foolishness of the “faithful”. I am as guilty on occasion too. Its an easy target. But in the end, we close more doors than we open toward our goal of trying to get people to think rather than fear and react. Labels are attached such as extremist and it makes communication even harder.

    We have entire sites (not this one) where ranting is chief source of entertainment. Those sites are openly saying they are entertainment at the expense of the god fearing. But in the end, however entertaining, the rants are not going to bring anyone into a thoughtful conversation.

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  25. Mike says:

    “I really wonder, how you became sure of that . . .”

    Because there is simply no evidence of any spiritual essence, or soul, or supernatural intelligence that maintains an interest in our behavior. And, there is an increasing amount of evidence that our best theories, which in no way rely on these or other similar assumptions, succeed in explaining the world with greater and greater fidelity. Of course, one can never be “certain” of anything I suppose — but we can get close enough over time to clearly demonstrate that our best theories, and not outmoded myths, deserve to be accorded far, far greater weight.

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  26. Peter Morgan says:

    I suppose that many people will resist the temptation to engage with this.
    “As far as our immediate world is concerned, WE KNOW WHAT THE RULES ARE.” Not sure exactly what version of the Scientific Method this is meant to be. You dismiss by omission — I hope not by ignorance — many alternative accounts of the methodology and epistemology of Science. Realism has too many troubles, delineated already in the 1950s in terms of the critique of Positivism, to be able to make this statement hold absolutely.
    You’re right that to say that a view is “Extreme” or “Moderate” is just as narrow as to say that it is “true” or “false”.
    “we know what those interactions are, and how they work”. Better write the definitive book on quantum field theory right now. Your general approach appears to claim that no theories or models that we will discover in the future will make a difference to our understanding of what happens at human scales.
    “Nature obeys laws, we are part of nature, and our job is to understand our lives in the context of reality as it really is.” Alternatively, our observations can be modeled by mathematics to varying, so far never perfect accuracy. Our job is to improve the accuracy of our models, to construct new types of models (perhaps to cross Lee Smolin’s valleys), to understand the relationships between old theories and new theories.
    The epithet “New Atheist” seems to make a claim to go beyond “Atheism”. The latter is relatively mild-mannered, and usually interestingly nuanced, but it seems that one can only establish one’s New Atheist credentials by asserting and defending statements that are intended to be inflammatory. On this crude characterization, New Atheism is by definition extreme. I find it relatively difficult to find interesting nuance in New Atheist positions.
    I imagine only 144,000 New Atheists will ascend to the higher state of truthiness. I wonder whether the truth will be Complex or Simple.

    Mike@10: “we TEST our knowledge against the world”. Yes, but when a theory can only match empirical results to 14 decimal places, all of them, which parts of the theory do we modify? If we decide, say, to try to use a discrete topology instead of a differentiable manifold, how much difference does such a change to the roots of our theories make to our world-view?

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  27. Arun says:

    Problem is we all have different ideas about what constitutes religion.

    To give a very specific example, e.g., Swami Tadatmananda at Arsha Bodha Center -
    http://www.arshabodha.org/

    the first talk of his I attend, he says, “start with self-observation. For each action you do, ask why you do it. Practice this for a few months”.

    No mention of God, Soul, supernatural intelligence that maintains an interest in our behavior.

    Now, where this practice will lead, Swamiji merely says – most of us are very ignorant about the roots of our behavior.

    Of course, being the Arsha Bodha Center, the ultimate goal is moksha, which to Mike, Sean, etc., is meaningless.

    But the first step above is not meaningless. The only thing you’re accepting on faith is that the effort of self-observation is not a waste of effort and time.

    Are there any commandments here? No, the teaching of this school is that religion is simply not necessary in order to be ethical/moral. Reason and empathy are a sufficient for any human with a normally functioning mind.

    Is this “religion” incompatible with “science”? Or maybe this is not “religion” at all?

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  28. Mike says:

    Peter: “If we decide, say, to try to use a discrete topology instead of a differentiable manifold, how much difference does such a change to the roots of our theories make to our world-view?”

    Yes, but if we decide, say, to modify our theories by using religion, or pagan ritual knowledge instead . . . well, you know where I’m going.

    Arun: “But the first step above is not meaningless. The only thing you’re accepting on faith is that the effort of self-observation is not a waste of effort and time.”

    Agreed, self-observation is not a waste of time. Observation generally is not a waste of time. However, no amount of observation over thousands of years has produced any evidence of any spiritual essence, or soul, or supernatural intelligence that maintains an interest in our behavior.

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  29. blueshifter says:

    Wow. Standing ovation!

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  30. Oran Kelley says:

    Andyo: Of course the general issue is old and pre-dates the whole neo-atheism phenomenon, but where I’ve seen the issue was strongly pushed by folks like Coyne and Benson over the last couple of years as a sort of killer argument against “accommodation.”

    The argument FOR compatibility is pretty simple: science and religion can be distinct, and insofar as religion refrains from making scientific claims, the two things are theoretically compatible.

    This doesn’t mean of course, that religious people never make scientific claims, or that religion is nice or true or anything aside from the bare fact that religion and science aren’t incompatible.

    The incompatibility arguments I’ve seen depend on a fundamental error that smijer spells out well. Believing that science is the only route to truth is not science itself. And, I’d argue that, even if one were to acknowledge that it isn’t science that is incompatible with religion but scientism, that scientism is illusory, since, as psychologists and the like will tell us, NO ONE operates as if this were true. We all accept other kinds of truth all the time.

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  31. But there’s no question that this knowledge has crucial implications for how we think about our lives.

    Allow me to apologize in advance for being pedantic here in light of an otherwise engaging and thoughtful post. That said, can we please stop using the phrase there’s no question that …? Yes, there is a question. Its answer may be obvious, but there’s still a question. Phrases such as there’s no question that …, no one can deny that …, etc. weaselly limit the level of discussion. Why can’t I ask the question? Why can’t I deny it? Again, the question may have an obvious answer and deniers may be crackpots, but use words that honestly reflect this; instead, try using phrases such as it’s obvious that … or only crackpots deny that….

    I think in a meta-level discussion about the negative aspects of limiting discussions, we should be walking the walk. Thank you.

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  32. George Musser says:

    Well put, Sean. But if you feel that incompatibilists are disparaged as extremists, I have a parallel worry: that we compatibilists are said to lack moral fiber or intellectual conviction. I’m an atheist, but I genuinely – not just tactically – feel there is a legitimate metaphysical and social role for religion.

    George

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  34. Wg. says:

    “There’s a movement afoot to frame science/religion discussions in such a way that those of who believe that the two are incompatible are labeled as extremists who can be safely excluded from grownup discussions about the issue.”

    Yes, I believe that’s what you just did.

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  36. Other Sean says:

    Sean:
    I think we can all agree to stand together against irrationality. But what about this “face up to reality” bit? To the extent this means banishing from our ontology things that no longer make sense, that seems reasonable. However, if the implication is that through science we have encapsulated fundamental reality less some minor details-this does seem extreme. Maybe I’m your case in point of a failure to let go, but it seems to work for me.
    Thanks for the post.

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  37. MT-LA says:

    Well put, Peter Morgan.

    The following idea is probably not original. I don’t know whom to credit, and I certainly don’t know the rebuttal. But if this ain’t the place to air it out, then I don’t know what is.

    Every observable interaction between objects is the sum total of the staggering number of sub-atomic interactions between those objects. Conceptually, these sub-atomic interactions cannot be predicted; quantum mechanics works on probability as far as I’ve learned. True, if you drop an object, it WILL fall. But exactly how fast? If you drop a leaf in the river, it WILL move down river. But exactly what path will it take?

    If quantum interactions – by definition – involve some uncertainty, then isn’t this an avenue for a supreme spiritual force to exert influence? You say you KNOW THE RULES, yet you dismiss the minutiae that makes up those rules.

    And the human mind? Well, that place is just a seething cauldron of indeterminable chemical and electrical interactions. But fear not, little-minded religious people…Sean says we KNOW THE RULES.

    I usually have a reflexive urge to fight extreme theological view points, either from the religious or the atheist, since both claim to know the unknowable.

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  38. Mike says:

    “If quantum interactions – by definition – involve some uncertainty, then isn’t this an avenue for a supreme spiritual force to exert influence?”

    Now, there’s an argument for you. If we don’t know everything (or even in principle “can’t” know everything), then any theory one wants to run up the flag pole “could” be right. Why stop at a spiritual force? Why not aliens exerting influence via some advanced technology? Why not . . . oh well, the possibilities are endless aren’t they?

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  39. Mark P says:

    As I said in a comment on Chad’s blog, scientists can be religious because compartmentalization is common for humans. A person is not religious when he’s being a scientist, and he’s not a scientist when he’s being religious.

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  40. MT-LA says:

    Mike – yes the possibilities are endless. Except for one possibility: the possibility that we KNOW the rules.

    Mike, do you have proof that “There is no life after death; there’s no spiritual essence that can preserve a human consciousness outside its physical body… there is no supernatural intelligence that created us and maintains an interest in our behavior.” Claiming to know that belief in a spiritual essence is wrong-headed is equal to claiming that aliens are exerting influence on us.

    This whole article revolves around the premise that science has effectively killed religion, and those who still have faith are reluctant to let go. My question is: When was the frakking funeral?

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  41. Mike says:

    MT-LAP: “When was the frakking funeral?”

    There was no funeral, it was and continues to be death by a thousand cuts. Over the millennium, and more rapidly in recent times, each realm that religion dominated because humans had no better explanation has slowly (and sometimes not so slowly) been revealed to operate according to rules and laws that we can replicate and test everyday. In each and every case religion has been forced to concede ground, albeit reluctantly. Of course, we do not know all of the rules, nor do we know all of the nuances of the rules that we understand fairly well. But we’re making progress and that progress has not come by making extraordinary spiritual claims based on the remaining gaps in our knowledge.

    It’s extraordinary claims that require extraordinary proof. If someone posits the existence of life after death or a spiritual essence that can preserve a human consciousness outside its physical body, or a supernatural intelligence that created us and maintains an interest in our behavior, then in light of our experience and the success of our best theories that do not rely on such extraordinary assumptions, it is incumbent on the one making the claim to provide evidence — any evidence at all — that can be tested and confirmed by others. Simply pointing to the lack of knowledge as a justification of such claims has no basis and should be wholly rejected. Unfortunately, in the real world the possibilities aren’t “endless”.

    As for my “proof,” all I can do is to repeat that there is simply no replicable evidence (none whatsoever) of any spiritual essence, or soul, or supernatural intelligence that maintains an interest in our behavior. At the same time, there is an increasing amount of replicable evidence that our best theories, which in no way rely on these or other similar assumptions, succeed in explaining the world with greater and greater fidelity. Of course, one can never be “absolutely certain” of anything — but we can get close enough over time to clearly demonstrate that our best theories, and not outmoded myths, deserve to be accorded far, far greater weight.

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  42. MT-LA says:

    Mike – Science has made no inroads into morality. As far as I can tell, this is still the exclusive realm of religion. Science has made *some* progress in understanding why we do the things we do, but it has made no progress in describing WHY we should do something (or not do something).

    The claim being made by the author is that there is no god (big G or little g). This claim is extraordinary because, for the entire history of human civilization, man has believed in some form of a supreme being. Therefore, by your own logic “it is incumbent on the one making the claim to provide evidence — any evidence at all — that can be tested and confirmed by others. Simply pointing to the lack of knowledge as a justification of such claims has no basis and should be wholly rejected.”

    I have no proof of God; I have faith, but that is obviously a personal issue. More importantly, I never claimed to have proof, and I never even claimed that God exists. I merely posited the mechanism that a god may use to exert influence. You point to my lack of knowledge as proof that God does not exist, but you give no evidence at all to support your claims. All you do is mention (without enumerating) areas of thought that have been clarified (but I may point out, not EXPLAINED) by science.

    (I hope to continue this conversation, but I fear that my input for today will be finished. I’ll be back on tomorrow, so please don’t take my absence as conceeding the point…eech, even typing the word “concede” leaves a dirty taste in my mouth)

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  43. goldy says:

    Sean said: “As far as our immediate world is concerned, we know what the rules are.” (with the last clause in boldface).

    Sean, if by “the rules”, you mean the standard model and general relativity, then I have an issue in that while we know what the rules of those models are, there is evidence that at least the standard model is incorrect (e.g., recent results from DZero and MINOS). If the models are not correct (and it has been quite a wile since I’ve talked to a practicing physicist who thinks they are completely correct), then we do NOT know the rules. If by “the rules”, you do not mean the standard model and general relativity, then please explain what the rules are.

    Sean says: “there is no supernatural intelligence that created us and maintains an interest in our behavior”

    If science and religion are incompatible, then I assume that this is a scientific statement. If so, please tell us on which experimental evidence you base this assertion. How has this statement been put to the test? If it is not a scientific statement, then it is a religious statement in that it is based on faith and not on experimental evidence. As a matter of fact, this statement mirrors my own beliefs. I BELIEVE that there is no supernatural intelligence that created us and maintains an interest in our behavior, however, as a practicing physicist, I can think of no experimental test which gives this assertion scientific validity. If I am mistaken, please point me to a peer-reviewed publication which I will read in an effort to continue my education.

    andyo Says: “The fact is that religion pretends to be a way of knowing.”
    Do you really speak for all religion? It seems to me that I usually hear (during discussions with the theologically inclined, not from religious zealots on the street) that faith is important precisely because it is different from knowing.

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  44. Tim says:

    I have some reservations about this article.

    First some minor points:
    Any article that says “religion” when they seem to mean “American Christian fundamentalism” is suspect.

    Either the author deliberately trying to paint all religions as being “as bad” as Christian fundamentalism from the perspective of compatibility with science, or the author genuinely cannot recognize the difference between the idea of religion in general and the specific expression by these conservative groups.

    Also any argument that claims that the reason why two groups of people can’t have a dialogue is because one group is just totally wrong is also suspect (if not necessarily incorrect).

    —– But moving on:

    I take the message that the author CLAIMS is the message of his article to be something like:

    “Why can’t we accept what has been proven empirically, and talk about that, instead of denying reality?”

    I can accept and resoundingly endorse that idea, and I’m sure this is the larger part of what most people who enjoyed this article are responding to.

    But then, for some reason, the author goes on to write an article about why religion and science are incompatible. “But Wait!” I cry, “That’s not what this article says it’s ABOUT!”

    That further step doesn’t follow without a certain key assumption

    The problem with the article comes in because of his implicit assumption that religion = denying reality. Further, this assumption is presented, not argued for, as if this equation is somehow uncontroversial even to those who would count themselves religious, or even just those who are willing to consider the idea of religious and scientific compatibility.

    That equation is much, much harder to prove than those in the “New Atheist” camp, to borrow the term, typically acknowledge. The argument typically runs “yeah, those guys are deluding themselves, and any apparently rational person who adheres to religious views is obviously simply compartmentalizing their irrational behaviors” <— Now, this is not an invalid line of reasoning so far is it goes, but it's not a very compelling one. It is a line of argument that depends on impoverishing the mental faculties of your opponent. (Which again, in specific instances, is a completely sound line of argument, as uncharitable as it may be, but when generalized to all religious persons it becomes somewhat suspect).

    So in the end, it seems he is essentially saying, "we should all take the view that science are religion are incompatible, because they're incompatible" which is not exactly the height of argumentative reasoning.

    So I would take and endorse and approve of the message the author claimed to be making, while wholly rejecting the argument he actually made.

    The article that these folks need to write is:

    "Why religion, by necessity, is a denial of empirically provable reality and rational thought."

    If they can manage that, then they'd actually have a reasoned argument for this claim.

    _______________________________

    There is another related class of argument, that he did make claim to within the article that is actually more forceful, related to the last idea above.

    This is the line of argument that goes, "Being scientists, we should reject that which we have no evidence for, and thus, reject the soul, the supernatural, God, etc."

    This is really a more persuasive and difficult argument to be sure, and may ultimately prove to be damning (pardon the pun in parlance).

    However, it does expose, I think, a problem in certain self-conceptions of the scientific project. If the scientific project didn't fundamentally involve and hope for the possibility of proving fantastic, unexpected, and improbable ideas in the pursuit, not only of understanding our world, but bettering it, than it would not be the estimable endeavor that we believe it to be.

    With that in mind, we who consider ourselves rational or scientific should not say "we reject that which we have no proof for"(as correct as that may sound to our ears at first) because then the consideration of new theories and further discovery is preemptively short-circuited, but rather we should say "we will examine our world, and our views, in pursuit of the proof that it is correct."

    – and then the question viz. religion becomes, "When should we reject something we have been unable to prove?"

    Surely, the inability to disprove an idea is no great reason to accept it, but an inability to prove something which is so sought after should lead first to an examination of what elements of it are forceful and whether they might have some evidence, even if it is lesser than their initial formulation, rather than an outright rejection of the whole system.

    _________________________________

    And I think from this you can gather that I have a scientifically reductionist view of religion, but one that hasn't yet turned me off to the idea entirely.

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  45. tumbledried says:

    I do not believe that just because we’ve just started to figure out how to manipulate the fabric of reality, that we should let go of cultural codes of conduct, systems of morality and philosophy that have taken thousands of years to develop. To do otherwise seems slightly like hubris to me.

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  46. onymous says:

    If the models are not correct (and it has been quite a wile since I’ve talked to a practicing physicist who thinks they are completely correct), then we do NOT know the rules.

    There’s a big difference between “we don’t know the rules below .01 femtometer or so” and “we don’t know the rules”. God is a relevant operator.

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  47. Pingback: Arguments like this « A posteriori

  48. Brian137 says:

    …and our job is to….

    Wow – I’ve just been enjoying myself.

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  49. erik says:

    Beautiful Sean. Discussion over. Period.

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  50. DaveH says:

    Excellent post.

    @12 – ‘But surely the moment of conception is when a new human life begins.’

    Maybe just maybe there is no clear dividing line between life and non-life…

    @16 – It isn’t that religious belief systems are incompatible with conversation, but that religious belief systems are incompatible with science.

    -

    @20 – How do you make meringue? Egg whites and sugar. Maybe some cream of tartar. Should we say you might need a magic ingredient to make meringue? Should we say we don’t know we don’t need a magic ingredient?

    Well, it’s the same with living creatures. We know how they are made, and
    there’s no magic ingredient.

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  51. Steve B says:

    Sean,

    Thanks for this post. I think you are most likely posting to the choir, however.

    I can only speak for myself, but I do have a science background (including a Physics PhD). Since I was 14, I’ve never felt the need for religion. For me, it doesn’t explain, enrich or affect my experience.

    But from the neuroscience/psychological side of things, one sees stories in the news or Science News that there may be an evolutionary component to religion and hears stories about deeply religious people having different neurological responses to belief than those of us who don’t feel the same way. (Yes, I realize I’m invoking rather anecdotal evidence instead of hard citations). But if this is indeed true, then this is a fight that can’t be won.

    I don’t understand when people say that they love God or love Jesus, but I don’t doubt that for them it is a real experience. The romantic in me thinks that love trumps rationality every time.

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  52. Paul says:

    DaveH: “Maybe just maybe there is no clear dividing line between life and non-life…”

    Are you saying that a zygote is not alive?

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  53. chemicalscum says:

    @13. GodzillaRage

    “And to my right (and top), I see ads for the Templeton Foundation.” -install Adblocker in Firefox

    @42. MT-LA

    “Science has made no inroads into morality. As far as I can tell, this is still the exclusive realm of religion.”

    Well you obviously know nothing about Secular Humanism. Science itself cannot directly address morality because as we all know, you cannot derive the ought from what is. This does not mean that morality is the exclusive preserve of religion. Secular Humanism addresses the questions of morality from a purely naturalistic standpoint and examines the evolution of moral values over time.

    The question is whether or not one subscribes to E. O. Wilson’s view that it is “the only worldview compatible with science’s growing knowledge of the real world and the laws of nature”. Personally I take a moderately compatabilist approach, but I agree strongly with Sean about the attempt to marginalize incompatiblist “New Atheists” as extremists. Indeed the term “New Atheists” is deliberately used as part of a propaganda campaign by organized religion and its’ supporters to attack any criticism of religion by secular humanists.

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  54. Havok says:

    MT-LA: As far as I can tell, this is still the exclusive realm of religion.

    I think you meant to say Philosophy rather than religion. I’m unsure as to what religion has to teach us about morality, esp given the vastly conflicting moral values espoused by the religous.

    MT-LA: This claim is extraordinary because, for the entire history of human civilization, man has believed in some form of a supreme being.

    The extraordinary evidence would be non-requirement of such a being in the rules which we understand, as many have pointed out.

    MT-LA: I merely posited the mechanism that a god may use to exert influence.
    Paraphrasing someone else concerning this point ( about God being a quantum tinkerer) – “Behold, an omnipotent being, indistinguishable from randomness”.
    Mighty fine surpreme being you’re positing there ;-)

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  55. andyo says:
  56. 30.   Oran Kelley Says:

    June 16th, 2010 at 1:45 pm

    Andyo: Of course the general issue is old and pre-dates the whole neo-atheism phenomenon, but where I’ve seen the issue was strongly pushed by folks like Coyne and Benson over the last couple of years as a sort of killer argument against “accommodation.”

  57. Well yeah, but the accomodationists are the ones who are saying people like Coyne and PZ should shut up. Bear in mind that many accomodationists are atheists themselves. The “New Atheists” are just criticizing, they’re generally not saying people should shut up. Arguments should speak for themselves.

    The argument FOR compatibility is pretty simple: science and religion can be distinct, and insofar as religion refrains from making scientific claims, the two things are theoretically compatible.

    Yeah, but that’s the same argument “sophisticated theologians” will make when pressed about the silliness of an interventionist God, and when one turns away, they’re back at the pulpit preaching about miracles and resurrections. The vast majority of people believe in a religion that makes truth-claims about the universe. As long as a religion pretends to be a source of knowledge about reality, it’s incompatible with science. They’re two completely opposite ways of knowing, and only one actually works.

    This doesn’t mean of course, that religious people never make scientific claims, or that religion is nice or true or anything aside from the bare fact that religion and science aren’t incompatible.

    The methods themselves are opposite to each other, never mind the claims.

    The incompatibility arguments I’ve seen depend on a fundamental error that smijer spells out well. Believing that science is the only route to truth is not science itself. And, I’d argue that, even if one were to acknowledge that it isn’t science that is incompatible with religion but scientism, that scientism is illusory, since, as psychologists and the like will tell us, NO ONE operates as if this were true. We all accept other kinds of truth all the time.

    Of course no one operates like that. But that doesn’t say anything, except that we are good at compartmentalizing. Also, believing that science is the only route to truth is probably not rigorously scientific, but there’s one fundamental hint that it may be: it’s the only method that works.

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  58. Ulrich says:

    Doesn’t the “cosmic religion” of Einstein and Spinoza count as a viable religion in your book, Sean?

    To me it seems that one can have deep spiritual feelings about nature without believing anything unscientific.

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  59. DaveH says:

    “MT-LA: As far as I can tell, [morality] is still the exclusive realm of religion.

    - I think you meant to say Philosophy rather than religion”

    I think you meant to say Philosophy, bad US sitcoms, Saturday morning cartoons, everyone and everything. But mainly Saturday morning cartoons. Particularly He-Man.

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  60. Adam says:

    Interesting perspectives.

    The relevant bits I’d like to add to the discussion are:

    “Absence of proof is not proof of absence.”

    Also, I wonder what the scientific explanations are for (per Plato) “Beauty” and “Good”. I wonder if they’re some combination of neurology, game theory, or something ineffable? Of course, “ineffable” doesn’t lend itself to “Truth”, or the scientific method.

    By the way, I’ve personally witnessed non-replicable instances of things not explicable by monistic theories of the mind. Since it involves one-time events (e.g. deaths of particular people), I can’t present it as anything more than apocryphal, but I can state it as a claim for observations of one-time events (which you’re free to discount, of course).

    [BTW, if you care, it involves someone seeing and describing a deceased co-worker to me whom they'd never met, late at night in a particular place which no longer exists (because it's been torn down for new construction). They described details they couldn't have known even seeing a photo of the deceased, and in fact they didn't even know the person had passed until I told them. I see no possible way of replicating this experiment, so it seems to fall outside the boundaries of science.]

    In my perhaps naive view, I don’t think science will be able to explain things that are not subject to the scientific method.

    Did we really detect a magnetic monopole on Valentine’s day in 1982? Or an ET signal on August 15th of 1977?

    Am I naive to think these are still open questions?

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  61. DaveH says:

    @ Paul #52,

    Is it not clear that I reject the notion of an objectively fixed beginning to a “new human life”?

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  62. Evan says:

    Great post Sean! Thank you!

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  63. Lonely Flower says:

    @50. DaveH Says:
    “How do you make meringue? Egg whites and sugar. Maybe some cream of tartar. Should we say you might need a magic ingredient to make meringue? Should we say we don’t know we don’t need a magic ingredient?

    Well, it’s the same with living creatures. We know how they are made, and
    there’s no magic ingredient.”

    Well, you forgot very important thing, that you are the one who make meringue, without you, they are not going to be done, and you are not an ingredient for meringue.

    The same for God, he is not an ingredient for the universe, he is the one who made or created the universe
    I don’t see any scientific evidence that contradict there is a creator for our universe, on the opposite the fine tuning of constants to produce our universe and our life call for his existence, I don’t know how some people call believing in him is a myth.

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  64. ray says:

    @61
    the meringue argument given byDaveH was about conscious experience after physical death, not God.

    Since you mention it, though, let me rephrase the argument in a way that applies to both:

    Thoughts, whether yours or God’s, are a complicated and very specific sort of thing. As such, if you posit the existence of thoughts in situations where there is no evidence for it, you are almost certainly wrong. There is no evidence that thoughts exist outside of physical brains. In particular there is no evidence for thoughts associated with the origin of the universe or with people who have died.

    Lack of parsimony is a valid scientific reason for rejecting a hypothesis.

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  65. Ellipsis says:

    I think that we don’t know why there are three dimensions of space and one of time is relevant to our everyday lives. (The question certainly has some possibility of being connected with quantum gravity, so quantum gravity might be more relevant to our everyday lives than we expect.)

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  66. Mantis says:

    Why drag global warming into it? Especially since you can’t tell science from politics.

    Yes, the global climate keeps warming slightly, it has been warming since the last ice age and it’s nothing unusual. Climate always changes. There is no solid evidence to back the assertion that humans are the primary drive behind this particular change, there is no evidence that current change is in any way unprecedented and no evidence that we can meaningfully affect climate even if we halted all CO2 emissions.

    All the evidence for climate hysteria is based on climate models which have never been proven to correctly predict climate. And on top of that all the catastrophic predictions require positive feedback which is also just a hypothesis.

    No one should take climate models seriously until they are shown to correctly and reliably predict climate on the timescale of decades. So for not a single climate model has passed such a test, they cannot even postdict past climate!

    From scientific point of view global warming is nothing but a plausible hypothesis.

    Here is an excellent summary by William Happer, professor of physics at Princeton discussing it in more details:
    http://globalwarming.house.gov/files/HRG/052010SciencePolicy/happer.pdf

    Sean you are overestimating your own capacity for rational thinking, you attack religious people but at the same time your global warming stance clearly shows that you are just like them a member of a faith based enterprise. There is simply no solid evidence behind climate models just as there is no solid evidence behind bible. None of the models correctly predicted past climate or almost zero warming in the last decade just as none of the bible prophecies came true. Yet your belief is unshaken, you are a sheep manipulated by Al Gore and the likes just as religious people are manipulated by clergy.

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  67. Bee says:

    I think part of the problem is that it’s impossible to address the question whether science and religion are incompatible unless you’ve explained what you mean with religion (I assume that everybody agrees on what science is). I am one of those folks who think they are compatible in the sense that there’ll always be things we can’t explain with what we know, so you can put your god into what we don’t know. Consequently, god’s place has become a little tighter in the last 2000 years. Clearly, stuff of the heaven/hell, god-works-wonders-if-you-pray-hard-enough etc is nonsense. It’s somewhat of a mystery to me how people can bring themselves to believe these things. It is also abundantly clear that people who shift their god into the unknown are sitting on a sinking boat and their god is getting more and more useless every day. But if they’re willing to confine their believes to where there’s still places for believes, that’s for all I can say compatible with science.

    In any case, I think one of the main reasons why people join religions is social cohesion. Church members care for each other, they organize events, they have shared traditions and – if you belong to a widespread religion – you’ll find people you have something in common with easily and all over the world. Especially in countries where the government’s social support is poor, people turn to churches for charity and support. That’s no surprise, and there isn’t anything wrong with it. It’s actually very beneficial for the society. Problem is of course that more often than not it comes with missionary fever and fundamentalist arguments. I think if you want people to let go of religions you’ll have to offer them some alternative to what churches offer today.

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  68. Janne says:

    Knowing the rules doesn’t automatically mean that you know the implications of those rules. As far as I know, we are nowhere near of understanding the complete dynamics of our little planet. Correct me if I’m wrong. Did I miss that memo?

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  69. Ian says:

    Sean you say … “I understand the reluctance to let go of religion as the lens through which we view questions of meaning and morality. For thousands of years it was the best we could do; it provided social structures and a framework for thinking about our place in the world. But that framework turns out not to be right, and it’s time to move on.”

    You have this tendancy to lump all religions together. Not all religions are the same, they follow different creeds, codes and cults. You need to examine each one and determine what is right and wrong about each of them before you can make statements like that.

    But then I would like to challenge this view you have from a Catholic perspective. Don’t you find it remotely odd that the four warnings against adopting contraception as published in Humanae Vitae and re-iterated in John Paul II’s Theology of the Body, namely a lowering of moral standards, increase in infidelity, lowering of respect for women and government coercion to use reproductive technologies, have all come true?

    This is just one example. In my opinion the moral guidance offered by the Catholic Church works.

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  70. Tim says:

    A sonnet on physics? how about this?

    Existence Extant

    We are merely a shower,
    Condensed creation unclouded.
    Hundred thirty seventh’s power
    Foaming structure enshrouded.

    Entropic decision,
    Magic fractional form.
    Constructs to precision,
    Planks of relative norm.

    Hottest heat from sublime,
    Cooled now coldest of cold!
    Gritty sand flows of time,
    Now forever grow old.

    Seen seer of sight,
    Thinker entire from thought.
    A consciousness borne,
    Existence from naught.

    Humanism unleashed,
    Skeptics wink and then nod.
    With knowledge increased,
    We’ll be good without god.

    Outbreak of creativity?
    Innocently derived?
    Just a silly soliloquy?
    Or, finally, wisdom arrived!

    a humble attempt to merge cosmology and consciousness in an ode to relative reality

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  71. Tom says:

    Seems to me that those who try to hold onto both science and religion at the same time tread a fine line. Anyone who has tried this runs into the situations where there is something that can’t be true in both realms.
    When that happens, faith usually trumps science. Or more commonly, eyes are closed and we move onto an easier topic.
    To me, what camp you belong to is almost entirely determined by which side you choose when there is uncomfortable disagreement.

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  72. Chris says:

    Great post Sean. Despite your disagreement with Sam Harris about “ought” and “is”, I think you are basically making the same point he is, about approaching these hard questions with reason, not faith. So maybe you and he are not so far apart.

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  73. I love that the argument in favor of religion immediately pushes itself to the limits of our knowledge regardless of where those limits are. Something’s making a noise and I can’t see it?
    Must be God.
    No, turns out it’s a cat.
    Oh, well then that volcano blowing up is God.
    No, turns out it’s just seismic pressure and plate tectonics.
    Ok, but where did the volcano come from? Hm? Yeah, that’s God.
    Sorry, turns out it formed billions of years ago with our solar system according to the rules of physics we’ve discovered.
    Damn… But, but what about all this life? Surely it’s too complex and mysterious to have been without a heavenly design–
    I’m gonna stop you right there; we found out species change according to natural selection as a process of evolution. Also, amino acids and basic RNA can come together randomly with the introduction of energy. Sorry man, I know it must be hard to—
    Hold on Heathen! If the universe started, who started it?!?!
    Well, we don’t know yet.
    Ha! Proof that God exists!
    No, clearly if all these things you’ve claimed to be God haven’t been God, you must realize that the likelihood that there is a God is incredibly small. You have to… Don’t you?
    PROOF THAT GOD EXISTS! *end scene*

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  74. Mark P says:

    Ian, are you saying that non-Catholics have all succumbed (and just recently, too) to all the ills brought on by contraception, but that all Catholics have not? Or are you just succumbing to the recency illusion?

    And I have a little trouble with “the moral guidance offered by the Catholic Church works.” It seems to me, given the well-known moral problems within the church hierarchy itself, that that statement is very hard to defend. I also have a little problem with the idea that Catholic policies have anything to do with preventing a lowering of respect for women; indeed, just the opposite appears more accurate to me.

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  75. Andy H says:

    As many have said, all religions aren’t the same (though I disagree with Havok who says various world religions have “vastly conflicting moral values”), so I can speak only about Christianity.

    In #41, Mike says “In each and every case religion has been forced to concede ground, albeit reluctantly.” I disagree. Take one of the great Creeds, the Apostle’s Creed (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Apostles_Creed) or the Nicene Creed (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nicene_creed). These statements of belief have not changed in nearly 1,700 years (or more). Where are the scientific experiments which have, or can, disprove these beliefs? How has science disprove that God is the “maker of heaven and earth?” Explaining how the universe works doesn’t say anything about how it was created. How has science disproven that on “the third day he rose from the dead?” This is a historical statement, not a scientific one. Saying that we have no evidence that people rise from the dead now doesn’t answer the question of whether one person rose from the dead 2000 years ago. Are the statements in the Bible unreliable? Only if you start from the position that miracles don’t happen, therefore anyone who says they saw one is either delusional or lying.

    Finally, some have said that the ‘appeals to authority’ be reference to many believing scientists don’t prove anything. I agree that the fact that some scientists are religious doesn’t prove that science and religion are compatible. But I think it is pretty good evidence that it’s an open question on which reasonable people can disagree. I’ve recently read Sean’s book, and he is careful to explain situations where there are competing views among scientists. Why not do the same here?

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  76. Ben says:

    The trouble is it’s all just wasted breath isn’t it? – Those that think science and religion are compatible generally think this because they themselves are religious, and want to be able to justify their beliefs.
    This is typically the situation with scientists that are religious. I would imagine in most cases they will have inherited their religion from their parents, and thus will have been religious prior to being scientific. Later, having acquired a scientific background they are faced with a choice:

    (i) Reject their religion on the basis of their scientific understanding
    (ii) Try to reconcile their religious beliefs with their scientific understanding
    (iii) Compartmentalise the 2 and forget about the fact that they are contradictory viewpoints

    In my experience, nobody that has gone for options (ii) or (iii) can subsequently be persuaded to go for option (i). There’s simply no point talking to them about it.

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  77. Ray says:

    “Don’t you find it remotely odd that the four warnings against adopting contraception as published in Humanae Vitae and re-iterated in John Paul II’s Theology of the Body, namely a lowering of moral standards, increase in infidelity, lowering of respect for women and government coercion to use reproductive technologies, have all come true?”

    I find it odd that anyone would claim this:
    1) lowering of moral standards is poorly defined: that said, most statistics I’ve seen indicate crime rates in the US and violence worldwide are down since the widespread introduction of birth control in the 60s. The same years have seen the end of segregation in the US, the end of apartheid in south africa, and the fall of the berlin wall.

    2)Statistics on this one are hard to collect, but rest assured infidelity is nothing new.

    3)This one is so obviously false I won’t even bother with it.

    4)Government coercion against reproduction dates back at least to ancient Sparta, where city elders threw unhealthy male infants off of a cliff. The natural method for controlling population (famine) was extremely common until recently. Most modern developed countries already have a low birth rate with no government coercion in this regard anyway.

    Basically, the pope named a bunch of bad things that have always happened and predicted that they would continue to exist after the introduction of birth control. As far as prophecy goes, that’s right up there with “there will be turmoil in the middle east.”

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  78. Mike says:

    Andy H: “Only if you start from the position that miracles don’t happen, therefore anyone who says they saw one is either delusional or lying.”

    ” I’ve recently read Sean’s book, and he is careful to explain situations where there are competing views among scientists. Why not do the same here?”

    Just because someone sincerely believes something doesn’t make it true. These types of assertions, however, need to be supported by evidence that can be repeated and tested or they can not in the long run be taken very seriously. Assertions regarding miracles have never met this criteria and never will. Contrast this to your comment about competing views among scientists regarding theories of the natural world. Eventually, one is proven to be better than another precisely through such testing against the real world.

    Janna: “Knowing the rules doesn’t automatically mean that you know the implications of those rules. As far as I know, we are nowhere near of understanding the complete dynamics of our little planet. Correct me if I’m wrong. Did I miss that memo?”

    No you didn’t miss the memo; you are correct, we don’t know all of the nuances of our best theories and some of our theories will inevitably turn out to be wrong to some degree or another. The question is: how to we arrive at better theories? We don’t achieve this by using gaps in our knowledge to posit theories that explain everything (and nothing)and that apply equally as well whether the theory assumes a god, or alien creatures or whatever else one can think of. We have steadily achieved progress by proposing new theories that can be tested and provide explanations that are hard to vary. See David Deutsch’s video in this regard:
    http://www.ted.com/talks/david_deutsch_a_new_way_to_explain_explanation.html

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  79. Tim says:

    @ DaveH #59

    So you’re saying that such a beginning is subjective rather than objective? OK, in that case, someone, or some government can come along and say that a newborn baby, or a fetus which is 8 months old is not yet a “new human life”. Now suppose a vast majority of the people in this country think the same way, and a law gets passed that says such “beings” can be killed if they get to be too inconvenient.

    Is that OK with you?

    Why do you think the notion of an objectively fixed beginning to a “new human life” does not exist? Let’s reason one out, shall we? No religious references or references to God, etc.

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  80. Jason A. says:

    Probably some 80% of the comments here are ignoring things Sean said in his post in order to make some objection or other that was specifically addressed by Sean. Example: all the ‘we don’t really know the rules’ referencing some minutia about the standard model or quantum gravity, when Sean clearly stated that ‘we know the rules’ applied to the realm of everyday human experience. We’re either talking widespread failure in reading comprehension, or widespread disingeniousness.

    Oh, and the numerous claims of ‘you can’t disprove X!’ cited as a reason that X and science are compatible. Disproving X is beside the point, a major part of science is rejection of unparsimonious hypotheses. If X is superfluous as an explanation, then it is incompatible with science. That is where ‘we know the rules’ is applying to things like life after death, which some people are objecting to because they want to know the experiment that disproves an afterlife. No experiment needed to claim the afterlife has been ruled out, at least until the afterlife hypothesis becomes non-superfluous.
    It seems a lot of the accomodationists, when they aren’t restating the lame old ‘some scientists are religious’ (#6), want to conflate ‘compatible with science’ and ‘compatible with particular scientific discoveries’.

    I love that we even got a climate denier in here (#64). “All the evidence for climate hysteria is based on climate models” – lolwut? James Hansen, for one example, makes his entire case from paleoclimate data, experimental data, and basic physics, specifically because he knows people object to the models.

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  81. James Sweet says:

    But if you feel that incompatibilists are disparaged as extremists, I have a parallel worry: that we compatibilists are said to lack moral fiber or intellectual conviction.

    I think this is a fair concern, though for me personally I think there is an important difference between those who simply believe there is compatibility, and those who believe it so strongly that they think us incompatibilists are just being dicks. And in addition, I get incredibly irritated at those who argue for compatibility on empirical grounds when us incompatibilists have made it abundantly clear that we are making a philosophical claim.

    But your point is well-taken: Honest compatibilists — in the sense that they do not distort the claims of those who disagree — do not deserve overmuch disparagement. I may think you are wrong on this point, but it would be inappropriate to extend that to an inference about your personality.

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  82. Mike says:

    Andy H: “Take one of the great Creeds, the Apostle’s Creed [translated below] . . .” These statements of belief have not changed in nearly 1,700 years (or more). Where are the scientific experiments which have, or can, disprove these beliefs?”

    Here is the translation (via your link to Wiki) of the Apostle’s Creed:

    1. I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth.
    2. I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord.
    3. He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary.
    4. He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried.
    5. He descended into hell. On the third day he rose again.
    6. He ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
    7. He will come again to judge the living and the dead.
    8. I believe in the Holy Spirit,
    9. The Holy Catholic Church, the communion of saints,
    10. the forgiveness of sins,
    11. the resurrection of the body,
    12. and life everlasting.

    You are correct. There is no experiment or scientific test or any argument of any kind whatsoever that can disprove these beliefs — just as there is no test that disprove that garden fairies cause plants to be greener than they otherwise would. This does not make such beliefs true, and it is not any kind of support for the view that they should inform our understanding of the world. You can substitute garden fairies for god and make virtually the same exact assertions — and they can’t be disproved either. These types of assertions explain everything and nothing at the same time.

    However, the church did make any number of assertions that could be tested (e.g. the sun revolves around earth) — and please don’t make me research and list the countless claims that every religion, myth, etc. has made about the natural world that have systematically been refuted by science.

    As Bee said, the realm in which myth and religion has to operate is steadily shrinking and I think the best example of this is that the most up-to-date defenders of religion, myth, etc., have been forced to fall back to “quantum uncertainty” as the latest justification. Not much room left to maneuver at the planck scale.

    Will this be the last redoubt and is the victory of reason near? No, I suspect this debate will last as long as there are still things we don’t fully understand. Why, because that’s the way this type of thinking works. Can’t explain X, then insert god or Zeus or garden fairies and move on. Which is to say, there is no end in sight.

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  83. Andy H says:

    Mike (#76): “These types of assertions, however, need to be supported by evidence that can be repeated and tested or they can not in the long run be taken very seriously. Assertions regarding miracles have never met this criteria and never will.”

    But miracles are by definition* things that aren’t repeatable and testable. Christians don’t claim that blind people routinely get their sight back today, they claim that in a few specific instances a long time ago, some blind people were healed. There a lots of things that aren’t provable by scientific method (i.e., repeatable testing), but that doesn’t mean they can’t be true (See Adam’s post in #58).

    Jason A. (#78): I think what Sean is saying is that science has disproved religion (“But that framework turns out not to be right . . . .”). Therefore, whether science has or has not “disproved X” is entirely relevant. You seem to be saying that religion isn’t necessary to explain the world, which I think is a somewhat different argument.

    *There are, of course, broader definitions of miracle (“the birth of every child is a miracle!”)

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  84. DaveH says:

    @ Lonely Flowers, #61,

    “you are not an ingredient for meringue.”

    Very astute. Although, Soylent meringue is yum.

    Anyhow, robots can make meringue, as natural processes can make fruit. And alcohol, and trees, and living creatures…

    I am not necessary to make meringue. In fact, given the right set of circumstances, meringue could arise naturally. Eggs, sugar and heat are easy to come by in the natural world, as is a willing “whisk”. The major obstacle (unlikelihood) there is getting from natural sugar to refined caster sugar.

    To reiterate the original point: Magic ingredients are not necessary to make meringue, just as “the soul” is not necessary to make living creatures. Vitalism is not an active area of research – It’s just that it (always) takes religion an age to catch up.

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  85. Mike says:

    Andy H: “There a lots of things that aren’t provable by scientific method (i.e., repeatable testing), but that doesn’t mean they can’t be true.”

    This is an argument that any assertion one wants to make, however outlandish, in connection with some “current” gap is our ability to test and replicate must be taken seriously. I respectfully disagree, as I’ve already pointed out far too often above.

    To be taken seriously, even in the absence of the current ability to test and verify, an assertion must have some shred of explanatory power in terms of what we already do know. Miracles (i.e. violations of the known laws of physics) simply do not.

    As I noted earlier, this short video clip of David Deutsch addresses this point directly and persuasively:

    http://www.ted.com/talks/david_deutsch_a_new_way_to_explain_explanation.html

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  86. steve says:

    Paul H

    But surely the moment of conception is when a new human life begins. Do you agree with that, Sean? That’s the best candidate for when a human being has its beginning. And I say this without any reference to religion, but to observations and facts. At that time, it has its very own complete genome, and it grows from a single cell, to multiple cells, which organize and differentiate themselves to form the more recognizable human form we are familiar with. Do you agree with that, Sean?

    Do human zygotes have a special place in your belief system ?

    Do the same questions apply to non human zygotes, or do they lack some essence that does not appear to exist in nature ?

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  87. ObsessiveMathsFreak says:

    Personally, I think the whole science/religion debate is an absurdly American spat. Unfortunately, by the nature of the modern world, whatsoever Americans find worthy of debate the rest of the world must subscribe to. Unfortunately this process never goes the other way.

    My point is this: the science/religion debate is in truth inextricably linked with the notion of the so called American “culture wars” and cannot be honestly “framed”, discussed or understood outside of that context. As such all discussion of the debate outside of this context—particularly by non-Americans—is abstract philosophy at best, and utter intellectual dishonesty at worst. There is virtually no merit to discussing this issue outside of the culture wars context except for a very small community of philosophers who were probably discussing it anyway.

    Basically, almost all the “debates” and discussions on this issue talk about anything except the elephant in the room, and as a result have very little in the way of real substance. Serious people should decline the opportunity to add to the farce.

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  88. DaveH says:

    Personally, I think the whole science/religion debate is an absurdly American spat.

    If only.

    At UK universities for example, there are a large number of Muslims, many of whom have opinions, which are collectively and individually voiced, and some of these Muslim students are biology students, and yet more ARE NOT biology students.

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  89. Andy H says:

    Mike (#79 & 82): I’ve bookmarked your video and hope to watch it soon when I have 15 minutes.

    I think there are two questions: (1) Does modern science disprove the existence of (the Christian) God? I think this was Sean’s main point (“that framework turns out not to be right”); and (2) is there any affirmative evidence to believe in the existence of God?

    I think the answer to the first question is “No” and I take it that you don’t really disagree. I think the answer to the second question is “Yes” and recognize that you do disagree. But I think they are different questions. I believe that there is affirmative evidence for God and that it has significant explanatory power, but that it is not the type of evidence subject to the scientific method. I also recognize that reasonable people may disagree about the weight to give such evidence. I don’t know that I am equipped to give a full explanation of this, certainly not in the space of a blog comment, and instead would refer to you somewhere like Amazon to search for the wealth of material on Christian Theology and apologetics (and ask you to note, of course, the relative lack of material on the existence of garden fairies, tea cups, and spaghetti monsters. ;) )

    That the “church” has been incorrect as to matters of science in the past does not mean that it has also been incorrect as to matters of faith. Even scientists have been incorrect about matters of science. But my point in referring you to the creeds is to show that, as to matters of faith, Christian beliefs have not really changed in two millenia.

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  90. Mark P says:

    Science might or might not be able to prove or disprove the existence of things like a god or a soul. The Michelson-Morley experiment didn’t disprove the existence of the aether (at least within experimental limits) but it started a journey that demonstrated that the aether was irrelevant; if you can’t detect a thing or measure any effect from a thing, then for all practical purposes, that thing does not exist. Anyone is certainly free to imagine the existence of all sorts of things that can’t be proven, like god, a soul or an afterlife, at least as long as it doesn’t cause harm to someone else. But don’t try to convince me that the things you imagine actually exist. That sort of thing is not worth talking about outside a book discussion club.

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  91. DaveH says:

    Andy,

    There is also a “wealth” of material on Astrology.

    “as to matters of faith, Christian beliefs have not really changed in two millenia.”

    Wrong, and I refer to you somewhere like Amazon to search for the wealth of material on Christian Theology and apologetics.

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  92. Belizean says:

    Sean,

    The problem isn’t your belief in the incompatibility of science and religion (a belief that I share but express more precisely as an incompatibility in their supporting epistemologies).

    The problem is your view – please correct me if I’m getting your position wrong — that Western Civilization is best served by abandoning its current religious underpinning without first replacing it.

    Even I, as a long-time atheist, find that to be an utterly puerile position, the sort of thing one expects from a precocious 15-year old. That civilization can function indefinitely without some sort of religious basis, that we are not in the West currently surviving on hundreds of years of cultural capital built up by our Christian predecessors, that the problem is not to improve religion but to abandon it, these are all ideas that are just silly. They belong in a dormitory bull session, not in a constructive panel on the relationship between science and religion.

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  93. Signal says:

    It seems to me that those who believe that science and religion are incompatible are making two essential claims. The primary claim is that science and religion are somehow inherently or philosophically incompatible. I think that claim is clearly and demonstrably false. Science is not a philosophy and demands no particular philosophy.

    Looking at the incompatibility claim in the most generous possible light, science is incompatible with a significant number of religious claims (e.g., a 6,000 year-old earth). Moreover, religious claims have been limited dramatically by science (e.g., we can now explain thunder and no longer need to postulate some divine action to account for it). There is no doubt that religious claims have entailed egregious overreaching throughout history in terms of what it can and does explain. But I think the incompatibilists are engaging in similar overreaching now. Incompatibilists cannot rightly claim that religious views cannot logically and philosophically be consistent with what is presumed to be known by science at any particular point in history. They *can* rightly claim that a simplistic claim of “science and religion are compatible” is misleading because so many religious claims can be shown to be false by scientific means. But a claim of “science and religion are incompatible” is as simplistic and misleading in that it has not (and cannot) be philosophically demonstrated. In no way is a claim of epistemic incompatibility justified. At most, it’s a shorthand device to try to divide and conquer within its constituency.

    “It’s not strictly true, but it’s *useful*.”

    The secondary claim seems to be that science and faith are methodologically incompatible. I think this claim is perhaps trivially true but utterly beside the point. The best that can be said (from the incompatibilist viewpoint) about this question is that there has been a historical disconnect between the scientific approach to the world and the religious approach, which follows in that religion’s methods for attempting to discover the truth have so often failed when testable by science. Accordingly, some have concluded, perhaps understandably, that all religious claims are probably false.

    Yet even if one grants that the methodologies are different (and perhaps even incompatible, whatever that means in this sense), so what? Science has no means to tell us what we ought to do, how we ought to live and what we ought to value. At best, science can inform those questions. Science surely works is the sense that its methodology is able tell us what is and, using this method to accumulate a body of knowledge, it is highly useful for us as we navigate our world. But to what *end* will it be put to work? As Werner von Braun’s life story aptly demonstrated, that always remains an open question.

    That questions of meaning, purpose and value must not be the exclusive domain of religion is something with which I can wholeheartedly agree. However, Gould’s NOMA is correct in the sense that science — both philosophically and methodologically — is not even equipped to deal with (much less answer) those types of questions. Those who oppose religion can (and should) propose alternative philosophies to deal with and answer these questions. They, like the religious, can and should use the best available facts to inform that process. The days are long past when religion could claim to control the whole field with respect to these questions. But the claim that science pushes religion off the field entirely is just plain wrong.

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  94. Mark P says:

    Belizean, my standard for whether a belief, and specifically a religious belief, is acceptable is that it provide a net objective benefit. I would like to see anyone prove that the christian religion has done so. Add it all up, the pros and cons, the good and bad, and show me that there has been a net objective benefit. I don’t mean making someone feel better about a hope to see a dead relative in an afterlife, or comforting someone with the idea that god must have a plan despite all the horrible things that happen. I mean objective; a benefit that can be shown. One benefit could be something like Habitat for Humanity. One bad point might be the forced conversions and deaths of thousands of American Indians. Add it up honestly and let’s see whether the net is good or bad.

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  95. Pingback: The Signal in the Noise

  96. Blake Stacey says:

    Apropos the first paragraph of the original post: I like the idea that Paul Dirac, for example, was an uninteresting extremist whose views on science are no more informative to us than the opinions of a young-earth creationist.

    If we are honest — and scientists have to be — we must admit that religion is a jumble of false assertions, with no basis in reality. The very idea of God is a product of the human imagination. It is quite understandable why primitive people, who were so much more exposed to the overpowering forces of nature than we are today, should have personified these forces in fear and trembling. But nowadays, when we understand so many natural processes, we have no need for such solutions. I can’t for the life of me see how the postulate of an Almighty God helps us in any way.

    Just as a “militant” atheist is one who admits their godlessness in public, a “New” atheist is one who basically agrees with what the guy was saying in 1927.

    Incidentally, the remarks quoted above, which Dirac made at the fifth Solvay Conference, were what prompted Wolfgang Pauli to say, “Our friend Dirac, too, has a religion, and its guiding principle is, There is no God and Dirac is His prophet.” So, Gentle Reader: all these complaints about shrillness and stridency were made long ago, and with more style to boot.

    “Is there any thing whereof it may be said, See, this is new? it hath been already of old time, which was before us. . . .” Or, in a newer translation:

    All tingz has DO NOT WANT, more den werdz sez. Lolrus never sez “enuf bucket, kthnx” or kitteh sez “dats good, enuff cheezburger.” Has happen? Gunna be agin. Nuthing new undur teh sunz. Kitteh can not sez “OMFGZ sumthing new!” is jus REPOST!. New kittahz 4gitz old kittahz, new kittahz 4gitd bai even newer kittahz.

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  97. jesterjester says:

    Sean, I think you mixed up two different things together. You argued that new atheist movement were being considered as extremism by the religious people and ones who believe religion and science are compatible. In USA the former is a minority and the latter is the mainstream. For the issue of global warming this is not so. I do not think the global warming deniers are the mainstream here in USA. Maybe the opposite is true. If you deny the global warming you tend to be considered as a crackpotor an extremist at best. When one view is eligible for extremism, a (pseudo-)necessary condition is that it should be a minority view. After I read your article, I didn’t know how I should categorize Freeman Dyson who cannot let go religion and doubts the certainty of global warming.

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  98. Len Ornstein says:

    Sean:

    Following up in support of comments like those of Shecky Riemann (9), and
    to clarify an important part of the problem, I’ll address your climate example:

    What are the roots of the divide between the AGW “consensus” and the skeptical “deniers”? Can the divide be bridged?

    Beginning near the turn of the 20th century, with the theoretical studies of Svante Arrhenius about how infrared absorbing gases help determine the surface temperature of the earth; then spurred by the reexamination of those models in the 1950’s, by Roger Revelle, and in the 1960’s, by Jule Charney; and then James Hansen’s modeling of the unique green-house-gas (GHG) induced forcing of the atmospheric temperature of Venus – climatologists and geophysicists began to further reexamine such models in greater detail. This was also strongly stimulated by Charles Keeling’s accumulating data of the steadily increasing concentration of well-mixed atmospheric CO2 at the Mauna Loa Observatory, beginning in 1958, at about 317 ppm (presently at about 390 ppm). It was quite clear that the CO2 concentration had been flat, at about 280 ppm for centuries (if not millennia) prior to the growing use of fossil carbon (coal, petroleum and natural gas) to fuel the industrial revolution. That CO2 record was the prototypical – and almost ‘noiseless’ – “hockey stick”.

    Although the theoretical models still leave uncertainty, particularly about the sign and magnitudes of the effects, on GHG feedbacks, of some low- and high-clouds, a consensus began to develop that risks of resulting increases in global temperature – and the risks associated with their possible consequences – deserved substantial increase in attention.

    Large efforts ensued to TRY to collect sufficiently unbiased, and statistically significant ‘other’ proxies for the hockey stick; global mean surface temperatures (GMST), ocean heat content (OHC), seal level rise (SLR), glacial ice-cores, sediment cores, tree-ring dendrology, etc. – all much noisier than the Keeling curve. The GMST trend for the last 40 or so years has converged to something like a mean of +0.2C/century, with considerable spread to the associated ‘95% confidence interval’. The others are not too out of line. And the increasingly more realistic (and more complicated) climate models are not ‘too’ far off either.

    There’s a general ‘feeling’ that such correlation of very different ‘kinds observations’ and models SHOULD help to build confidence above the level provided by each ‘independent’ data set, but so far, no good ‘statistical’ tools exist for ‘averaging’ such diverse results to get a ‘net mean and confidence interval’. In the breach, the current paradigm (both within – and outside of science) has developed to rely on the collective intuitions and confidence of those ‘experts’ who are judged to be most familiar with the data sets and with their relevance to related physical models (theories).

    But even if the GMST trend were ‘only’ +0.1C/century, the associated risks would be only delayed by a ‘blink’ of geologic time – still demanding to be taken quite seriously!

    This certainly over simplifies things, but probably describes the root of the origins of the mainstream AGW “consensus”– and of the current position of many ‘warmists’ – and why they believe we must begin to seriously plan for the risks.

    Why is this so inimical to most skeptical “deniers’?

    Well, we have the record of ‘failed jeremiahs’:

    1) Robert Malthus, who at the end of the 18th century, published his simple but penetrating theoretical econometric model, “An Essay on the Principle of Population”, that has turned out to have been ‘off’ in the timing of its predictions (but I believe, probably is about ‘correct’ in predicting what we must expect, if some appropriate changes in human behavior fail to accommodate – ‘in time’ – to the reality of the finite resources of our planet); and

    2) the predictions of the Club of Rome’s 1972, “The Limits to Growth”, that also have proven to have been somewhat premature.

    And the IPCC was supposed to adhere closely to the (impossible?) charge to be “policy relevant” rather than “policy prescriptive”!

    The perceptions of just where science fits – in the spectrum of beliefs – DIFFER among policy makers, the general public – and, to some extent, even among scientists – and this has to contribute a great deal to the resulting dissonance.

    Further, it certainly doesn’t help that many believe motivation for science, does and should stem from values derived from Golden Rules, while others, e.g., Positivists, insist (incorrectly, as I have argued below) that science can, and should, be freed from ALL such metaphysical baggage ;-)

    I believe these unpleasant pieces of the puzzle need to be fit in place in order to understand the apparent irrationality of the position of many ‘honest’ “deniers”, and some of the ‘incompatibilites’ of atheistic/religious/ideological antagonisms.

    For further ‘clarification’ of these latter points, see:

    “The Sceptical Scientific Mind-Set in the Spectrum of Belief: It’s about models of ‘reality’ – and the unavoidable incompleteness of evidence, for – or against – any model”.

    http://www.pipeline.com/~lenornst/ScienceInTheSpectrumOfBelief.pdf

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  99. Mike says:

    Andy H: “That the “church” has been incorrect as to matters of science in the past does not mean that it has also been incorrect as to matters of faith.”

    The problem with this position is that one of the main differences between science and faith is that prior to science wresting control of some area from the grasp of “faith”, that belief was itself a matter of faith. The church’s defense of the sun revolving around the earth was based on and justified by faith. Simply because “common sense” seemed to support the position only made the struggle more difficult. So, something is a matter of faith, but when science succeeds in providing an acceptable explanation, it becomes a matter of science. And, no matter how many times this happens, faith remains undiminished? Again, what this argument boils down to is the fallacy that all one needs to do is point to some area where science can not yet provide a definitive answer, and then insert whatever theory one likes — whether or not it meshes with everything we’ve learned and know, and regardless of its lack of explanatory power.

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  100. Giotis says:

    Spirituality, faith or the quest of the divine on one hand and the search of truth and reason on the other, are aspects of human nature. This duality is a truly fascinating characteristic of human beings. Why anyone would want to mutilate human nature and mutate people to something different from what they really are?

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  101. Mike says:

    Giotis: “Why anyone would want to . . . mutate people to something different from what they really are?”

    Human beings are in large measure a product of mutation. We are much different and dare I say, better, today than our very distant ancestors several millions of years ago. I’ll I’m saying is, let’s keep the ball rolling. :)

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  102. Caruso says:

    I think the problem is that, especially in the USA, religion, through politics, dwells too much in the domain of science instead of keeping their focus into the moral aspects of life.
    Also, some people (not you mr. Carroll, of course) spend too much time and effort treating religion as silly fairy tales and religious people as mentally challenged cows. These guys know nothing about marketing and how to bring people to a better understanding of the mechanisms and the beauty of science.
    What would have happened if Georges Lemâitre were to be cast into oblivion for his religious beliefs? As well put by pope John Paul the second: “Religion tell us how to go to heaven, not how the heavens go”.
    My personal opinion is that religion can even motivate people to discover and enjoy the world of science, given the so many wonders it unravels to the human mind. (forgive my bad english)

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  103. Belizean says:

    “Belizean, my standard for whether a belief, and specifically a religious belief, is acceptable is that it provide a net objective benefit.”

    Mark P,

    I suspect that the net benefits of Christianity aren’t obvious to you, because you’ve probably yet to appreciate that civilization is impossible without some means of suppressing the inherent human tendency to commit violence against strangers for personal gain or for the benefit of one’s kin or close associates.

    This means of violence-suppression occurs through the induced absorption of religious ethical taboos by youth. It was formerly better known as civilizing one’s children. [Note: You cannot build a civilization (large-scale cooperation between strangers) on a tribal religion. Tribal religions do not suppress violence against strangers.]

    Christianity Pros:
    Western civilization.

    Christianity Cons:
    Pogroms, forced conversions, debauched clerisy, child molestation, persecution of adulterers and homosexuals, retardation of the growth of science (but less than in any competing religion), oppression of women (but also less than in competing religions), etc.

    For comparison, consider the pros and cons of having a nervous system.

    Nervous System Pros:
    Your life.

    Nervous System Cons:
    Headaches, toothaches, burn pains, cancer pain, back pain, muscle pain, various persistent injury pains, etc.

    If both cases, the pros far outweigh the cons.

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  104. Paul says:

    @ DaveH #59

    So you’re saying that such a beginning is subjective rather than objective? OK, in that case, someone, or some government can come along and say that a newborn baby, or a fetus which is 8 months old is not yet a “new human life”. Now suppose a vast majority of the people in this country think the same way, and a law gets passed that says such “beings” can be killed if they get to be too inconvenient.

    Is that OK with you?

    Why do you think the notion of an objectively fixed beginning to a “new human life” does not exist? Let’s reason one out, shall we? No religious references or reference to God.

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  105. Paul says:

    @ Steve #84

    “Do human zygotes have a special place in your belief system ?”

    It’s not my “belief system”. What is a zygote? It’s a living cell with its own complete human genome, and will continue to grow, from that point on (under the right conditions) into a baby ready to be born. I say that’s pretty special.

    “Do the same questions apply to non human zygotes, or do they lack some essence that does not appear to exist in nature?”

    Non human zygotes are not human beings. They will not grow to a human baby ready to be born. Only a human zygote will. That’s why I think a human being has their start at conception.

    When do you think a human being has their start? What is your evidence?

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  106. Mark P says:

    “…civilization is impossible without some means of suppressing the inherent human tendency to commit violence against strangers for personal gain or for the benefit of one’s kin or close associates.”

    That’s begging the question. There is no evidence that religion suppresses the dark side of human nature. In fact, there is ample evidence that religion simply institutionalizes it and supports the power structure that carries it out. Sometimes religion is directly involved, and sometimes it is simply used as another weapon in the arsenal. Second, and most important, there is no evidence that the premise (human nature must be suppressed in order for civilization to exist) is true. And there is absolutely no evidence whatsoever that the western religious practices (Greco-Roman-Christianity) are any better at it than any other religion, including the native American religions as practiced before Western christians committed genocide against the natives.

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  107. DaveH says:

    @ Paul #102,

    If we were naive, we might take the concept of an organism being “alive” as it applies to Biology, which even there is very difficult to pin down, and try to thread it across other domains, through and beyond our ‘folk biology’, into the moral domain, to guide us authoritatively on the very difficult issue of abortion. Even a brief consideration of the various states of health, ages, social conditions, and physical and emotional circumstances under which a person can become the carrier of a fertilized zygote would tell us that “human zygote is a living organism” is obviously insufficient.

    There isn’t that much special about a fertilized zygote, no. Far more zygotes have been aborted naturally without the woman even being aware than have ever been born. If there were a god who valued the zygote, they would be curiously wasteful.

    An arbitrary cut off point for termination would be morally abhorrent, indeed. The issue of a potential life is worth some consideration, but the inflexible slavery of a human adult to a dumb ball of cells would also be abhorrent. Which is why we must take the issue seriously and consider it deeply rather than, for example, cobbling together some quaint folk biology notion of vitalism with a definition of organism with theological pronouncements from an ignorant age and deluding ourselves that that monstrous failure of imagination and empathy has anything to do with Love.

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  108. Paul says:

    @ DaveH #105

    You mentioned abortion. I wasn’t talking about abortion. All I was trying to argue for was that human life begins at conception. Abortion and whether it should be legal is another matter. Although I think abortion is wrong (because I think human life begins at conception), lots of wrong things are not illegal (eg., being unfaithful to your spouse).

    True, lots of zygotes are aborted naturally without the mother ever knowing. But that doesn’t imply that human life does not begin at conception. Many fully adult people die naturally without us knowing about it. Also, if I suddenly get propelled into outer space without a suit, I will surely die because the conditions were not right for me to continue living. Similarly, if conditions aren’t right, a human zygote will die as well. But in either case, that tells us nothing about the humanity of the fully adult human propelled into space, or the zygote. You mentioned God in your reply to me. Why? Do you think that holding the view that human life begins at conceptions is a religious one? It’s not, as I am trying to explain.

    You referred to “a dumb ball of cells”, presumably about a very young fetus. Well, what if a fully adult human were unconscious. In a coma. Would you also consider that a dumb ball of cells? The “dumb ball of cells”, although not intelligent, is an organism continually growing and organizing itself into a baby ready to be born. That tells me that the “ball of cells” is alive and a growing organism. What KIND of organism? A human, of course. What other possible organism could it be?

    I never mentioned any notion of “vitalism” or anything theological. I don’t know if a precise definition of “living” exists, but I find it obviously that a zygote (a cell) is definitely living. Just as one of my skin cells is living. But my skin cell will never grow into a baby unless you drastically alter its genetic makeup. A zygote will (under the right conditions in the mother’s womb), just as a human newborn will continue to grow under the right conditions (i.e. having people around to feed him/her and generally care for him/her).

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  109. DaveH says:

    Paul, it’s utterly possible that you spew out this stuff reflexively due to an emotional attachment to the whole shebang, so you might not even be aware of your own lies. Still, I have little patience for it. Yes, in #102 you were talking about abortion.

    The assertion that “human life begins at conception” trivially conflates the moral with the biological. It is implicit in the statement.

    Well, what if a fully adult human were unconscious. In a coma. Would you also consider that a dumb ball of cells?

    Having been party to the decision to turn my father’s life support off, that is a difficult reality I have had to face.

    I never mentioned any notion of “vitalism” or anything theological.

    No, but it’s amazing – I know what you are thinking before you do.

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  110. Paul says:

    DaveH,

    Fine, if you don’t want to have a civil conversation about this, then I’ll stop. You don’t know me, and I wasn’t talking about abortion. I was trying to have a conversation about when human life begins. If you don’t have patience to talk about this then there’s no sense in continuing.

    I am sorry about your past experience with your father.

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  111. Paul says:

    DaveH

    I looked at my comment #102 and, in all honesty, I did not have abortion in mind. I was trying, in the style of physics, to give a sort of “thought experiment”. Although it sounds like I was talking to or alluding to abortion, the similarly really was not intended.

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  112. DaveH says:

    I was trying to have a conversation about when human life begins.

    Of course. The theme of the blog post being “Where human life begins” and your point of insertion being neither the soul nor anything else from theology…

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  113. Paul says:

    Oh well, it was good talking with you, DaveH! Take care!

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  114. DaveH says:

    there is no moment at conception or otherwise when a soul is implanted in a body.

    Indeed, and that’s an interesting link!

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  115. Gordon says:

    Caruso: “…Also, some people (not you mr. Carroll, of course) spend too much time and effort treating religion as silly fairy tales and religious people as mentally challenged cows.’
    Hmmm, its tempting :)

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  116. Pingback: New Atheists: old hat - blog by Gurdur - Blogs on the Heathen Hub

  117. Pingback: Sean Carroll says goodbye « Why Evolution Is True

  118. Paul Wright says:

    @Peter Morgan, 26: You dismiss by omission — I hope not by ignorance — many alternative accounts of the methodology and epistemology of Science. Realism has too many troubles, delineated already in the 1950s in terms of the critique of Positivism, to be able to make this statement hold absolutely.

    I’m confused. Positivism is not a realist account of science. How does a critique of positivism demonstrate the problems of realism?

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  119. Alan says:

    I think you should read this before making any comments about life after death. Many academics including several NASA scientists witnessed these phenomena. This is a dense report of scholarship. Read about the remarkable light phenomena if nothing else. Perhaps these phenomena can be explained by taking multiple dimensions seriously. Life finds a way, perhaps?

    You may know that here in the UK several universities teach parapsychology as a research subject and Ph.D’s are regularly awarded. Come on guys wise up!

    The Scole Report, by Montague Keen, Arthur Ellison & David Fontana, Society for Psychical Research (SPR), 1999.
    Abstract. This report is the outcome of a three-year investigation of a Group claiming to receive both messages and materialised or physical objects from a number of collaborative spirit communicators. It has been conducted principally by three senior members of the Society for Psychical Research. In the course of over 20 sittings the investigators were unable to detect any direct indication of fraud or deception, and encountered evidence favouring the hypothesis of intelligent forces, whether originating in the human psyche or from discarnate sources, able to influence material objects and to convey associated meaningful messages, both visual and aural.

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  120. fred g says:

    Sean states that not to believe that human cause global warming is not to face reality. It is well known that CO2 at 4/10,000 of the atmosphere cannot by itself cause harmful warming even if its concentration doubles. Believers in global warming have posited that CO2 has positive feedback effects on more powerful drivers of climate such as water vapor. However Richard Lindzen’s (MIT) research has demonstrated that there are NO positive feedback effects of CO2 on major greenhouse gasses like water vapor. Lindzen’s data shows such feedback effects are actually NEGATIVE. Without positive feedbacks to the effect of CO2 on the major greenhouse gasses there absolutely is no harmful warming from increases in CO2 levels. Listen to this talk by Lindzen to get the reality on “global warming:”

    http://www.heartland.org/bin/media/dc09/audio/Richard_Lindzen.mp3

    Lindzen is widely regarded as one of it not the top atmospheric scientist on the globe.

    In addition, believers in global warming have consistently denied the role of changes in solar activity on climate, saying that CO2 overrode any such effects. This view has also been proven wrong. Listen to this great talk by Willie Soon (Harvard):

    http://www.itsrainmakingtime.com/_recent/climate_part2.html

    Bills in Congress that push our carbon emissions per person to 1867 levels will do nothing but collapse our civilization and put us all in poverty.

    As Sean sees as irrefutable “reality” things which are completely unsupportable and ludicrous, why trust his perspective on religion or anything else?

    Sean greatly overestimates the scope of human knowledge (“we know what the rules are.”) This may be true for simple physical processes. There are many, many areas where our knowledge is sketchy, at best.

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  121. Adam says:

    Re: #91: “Science is not a philosophy and demands no particular philosophy.”

    I think this is at the heart of this misunderstanding.

    In fact, science does require a particular philosophy — empirical rationalism.

    The scientific method depends upon empiricism:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Empiricism

    The conclusions drawn from the scientific method depend on Rationalism:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rationalism

    Another philosophy, for example, solipsism, would be at odds with science. More importantly, empirical rationalism would be unable to disprove solipsism since both philosophies are, essentially, mutually exclusive.

    If we don’t believe in the same set of axioms, the proofs we construct for each other are meaningless.

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  122. Belizean says:

    Mark P.:

    “There is no evidence that religion suppresses the dark side of human nature.”

    Hundreds of billions of dollars are spent on advertising each year, because it’s known to affect adult behavior. But somehow religious indoctrination from infancy does not even slightly reduce a person’s tendency to murder or rape?

    “…there is no evidence that the premise (human nature must be suppressed in order for civilization to exist) is true.”

    If you’ve ever raised a child, you know that they don’t emerge from the womb fully versed in our cultural taboos. Killing an animal or murdering a stranger for personal gain is not only perfectly natural for an uncivilized human being, it’s completely rational. Study the habits of any primitive tribe with regard to out-groups.

    “…there is absolutely no evidence whatsoever that the western religious practices (Greco-Roman-Christianity) are any better at it than any other religion…”

    So science developed in the West by sheer chance. It had nothing whatever to do with Greco-Roman-Christianity being less oppressive than other religions. All religions are equally oppressive. Just like all political ideologies. Nazism, libertarianism, Islam, Unitarianism – makes no difference. Why don’t you try to do some cutting-edge scientific research in Saudi Arabia, and get back to me.

    “…native American religions [are no better than that of the] Western christians [who] committed genocide against the natives…”

    Except that Christianity was one of the religions capable of supporting a large-scale civilization (which enabled a vast division of labor that supported technological advances that allowed the Europeans to cross an ocean and conquer the aboriginal Americans). One of the numerous tribal religions indigenous to current U.S. territory could have eventually evolved into a civilization-supporting religion (as indeed happened for the young civilizations of the Aztecs, Mayans, Incans, and, to a lesser extent, the Chaco Canyon dwellers). Even if one these had evolved (by shedding its provincial tribalism to become more inclusive), it — like the Aztecs, Mayans, etc — would probably have been more oppressive than Christianity and therefore less technologically advanced. It would still likely have been conquered.

    The properties of religions matter. You don’t have to believe in Christianity to acknowledge that there are other religions that have been far more inimical to the growth of human knowledge.

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  123. Pingback: The physical and the spiritual « Living Questions

  124. DaveH says:

    religious indoctrination from infancy does not even slightly reduce a person’s tendency to murder or rape?

    data

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  125. DaveH says:

    Why don’t you try to do some cutting-edge scientific research in Saudi Arabia, and get back to me.

    Of all the places to pick. An architecture, engineering and petroleum technology hotspot, to begin with.

    You might check out this too:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/King_Abdullah_University_of_Science_and_Technology

    But really, there’s no place like home, as Dorothy said. Did Kansas pass you by?

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  126. VB says:

    Perfect. Should be made mandatory reading for everybody by the time they reach 15, so that a great deal of the misery they would otherwise visit upon themselves and others in later life, owing to their irrational beliefs and superstitions and shibboleths, could be avoided. Unfortunately, there are no limits or geographical boundaries to human gullibility.

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  127. lcdlover says:

    Would it help to reconceptualize religion as a mental disorder? At its mildest, religious thought is defective and irrational. As the disease progresses it veers toward obsession/compulsion before becoming full blown psychosis. “Pious” folks are usually just out-and-out nuts. Those who characterize themselves as devout whatever (Jew Muslim Christian etc) are either terribly sick or, worse, self-righteous phonies. That goes for the namby-pamby new-agers who try to get away with saying they are not religious, but “spiritual”. I would only allow for exceptions in the case of funerals and the occasional Bar-Mitzvah I guess, but for the most part, trying to reconcile science with religion is like trying to ask can one be healthy and sick at the same time.
    I know this view is insulting to most people, but why is there so much emphasis on “respect” to the point where there are riots over perceived slights such as Danish cartoons?
    Kudos to those who don’t want to waste time trying to assuage peoples’ mentally ill delusions.

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  128. Alan says:

    Alan, 117 above, to VB, 124.

    I would be very interested to hear how any of the phenomena in my post above, especially the light phenomena, all detailed in the Scole Report (1999) above could be reproduced without coming to the conclusion that consciousness can exist without physicality and that this points to evidence for life after death. Any takers?

    This implies that there something missing in the above article. Please (and everyone else, I hasten) do not launch into such appraisals until all data have been considered.

    Also these posts tend to talk past each other when this kind of challenge is given. This suggests that there is a psychological difficulty here. The evidence here is so shocking that many academics are unable to reverse their present positions, some of whom post here. But academics took part in this study, to a great depth. So, a problem and one for science.

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  129. nanook the eskimo says:

    #64 Mantis — Very well stated, thank you. Hysteria about man-made global warming fills the void in atheists like Sean formerly occupied by Christianity, and Algore is their high priest offering indulgences — and the price is oh so reasonable.

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  130. DaveH says:

    @126,

    Academic participation far from guarantees the production of facts.

    If those Scole phenomena can be reproduced under proper controlled conditions (That means, for example, there is no excuse for researchers not using thermal imaging or IR, or just having flashlights to at least be able to check no-one has moved!)…

    It’s easy for individuals to get excited about strange phenomena, but that isn’t going to make me believe in ghosts any more than it makes me believe in Cold fusion.

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  131. Katharine says:

    Belizean, have you forgotten what happened before the Enlightenment?

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  132. Katharine says:

    You know, it’s funny that the world still sucks so much arse after a consistent pattern of getting better every decade/century/millennium.

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  133. Alan says:

    Hi DaveH @ 128

    The Scole phenomena have been reproduced by other groups set up after the original studies were done and I believe have been witnessed (the lights) years before. But you have to appreciate that the scientists were witnesses to other intelligences coming in from “somewhere else”, a statement many here would positively baulk at. But NOT if you “take the physics seriously”, i.e. higher dimensions and perhaps an informational character to space. Well, why not? Here’s the data, so what is the theory?

    I also have the report and spoke to some of the scientists involved. You have to read it in its entirety to fully appreciate the scholarly nature of the study. Scientists from NASA also saw these phenomena when the sitters flew at their own expense to the US. The authors also give a highly detailed reply to ALL criticisms. One observer was Prof. Bernard Carr, a leading UK cosmologist and past president of the SPR (Society for Psychical Research) and editor of Universe or Multiverse?, an excellent compilation from leading physicists/cosmologists (well known to readers of this blog). He has presented a model which tries to explain these and other paranormal phenomena.

    I just do not understand why other physicists do not form a collaboration, look at the data and follow Professor Carr’s bold lead (BTW I did a couple of physics degrees in the UK in the past and try a little to follow-but it’s been a while!)

    Follow the data, gentleman/ladies!

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  134. Alan says:

    DaveH @ 128 and anyone else?

    Try this for starters!

    http://www.scientificexploration.org/journal/jse_15_2_keen.pdf

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  135. DaveH says:

    But NOT if you “take the physics seriously”, i.e. higher dimensions

    We must shrink somewhat in the afterlife.

    I also have the report and spoke to some of the scientists involved. You have to read it in its entirety to fully appreciate the scholarly nature of the study.

    That’s dandy, and the SAME applies to those papers documenting Cold fusion.

    Until the phenomena are reproduced in properly controlled conditions i.e using some kind of IR/thermal imaging, there’s nothing doing.

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  136. Alan says:

    Hi again DaveH

    Best to read it in it’s entirety, look at the full range of the light phenomena observed (in particular the lights), which means the full display(s) of what was seen by multiple witnesses under the controlled conditions as discussed in detail in the report. Get back then, I suggest.

    And yeah I know about squashed up dimensions too!

    You are also criticising by comparison, an interesting position and subtlely ignoring parts of my post. To turn this around, I would like you to offer some suggestions as to how ALL the light phenomena, under the conditions set by the authors, could be reproduced. But you can’t cheat (!), you gotta read it first.

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  137. DaveH says:

    Alan,

    From the Monty Keen journal entry you linked to :

    “It is quite legitimate to make much of the fact that most events described occurred
    in darkness, that mediums as well as the conscious members of the Group
    were not kept under physical restraint or subject to bodily examinations, that
    the use of infrared photography or thermal imaging devices was not acceptable
    and that we did not get a series of similar productions (e.g., of the films)
    under precisely determined and wholly satisfactory evidential conditions.”

    Then, as his “but”, he appeals to some rather naive speculation as to lack of motive for cheating.

    You are also criticising by comparison

    No, I am explaining why your smoking gun aint smoking, via comparison. The cold fusion saga provides interesting insight as to the value (and, ultimately, inevitable success) of skepticism in science.

    To turn this around-

    Sorry, no.

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  138. Alan says:

    Dave

    You are a very fast reader! But perhaps not at all. Your post does not even begin to discuss what is in the complete study. You have merely taken a comment from Montague Keen. The FULL context must be appreciated. No reading, careful analysis or suggestions of reproduction of the complete range of light phenomena at all or discussion of the full report.

    The cellar (at Scole) was underground (as cellars are!), very sparse, thoroughly searched each time by experienced investigators, would have required highly sophisticated electrical equipment to produce the light phenomena seen (as testified by Prof. Arthur Ellison, an electrical engineering professor at London University) and the sitters lightly clothed (shirt sleeves, light dresses etc.). And remember many related phenomena were seen in the US by NASA scientists too.

    And, as I said, no suggestions of reproduction of the phenomena? Not surprising. It would be nigh impossible under the conditions detailed.

    Believe me, I am as baffled as you, but one may have to consider the possibility that intelligence can exist without “physicality”. Philip Goff (philosopher) is musing on this. Is space structured so that this is possible? This is a fair question.

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  139. DaveH says:

    Alan,

    I am skeptical rather than baffled, but if my inability to adequately explain phenomena, let alone localized phenomena, were an indication of life after death, then you could count a range of EM phenomena as positive evidence. Magic shows, lightning, cosmic rays and pulsars would all count.

    See comments 128 and 133. I feel no compunction to spend any more time on this. If you have a genuine curiosity to explore it further you’ll find willing souls to help you get to the bottom of it at:

    http://forums.randi.org/showthread.php?t=5997

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  140. Alan says:

    Cheers (?) Dave

    (But you notedly did not answer my points!) Randi is one place one should seriously avoid. He has created a rabbit hole well left alone.

    Prof. Bernard Carr’s modelling, Philip Goff’s and perhaps Prof. David Chalmers ideas are the place to be on this journey and, as I said above, solid mathematical/physics based enquiry on the nature of space (some deep information ideas?) which may explain this. “Irreducible Mind” by Profs. Kelly et.al. is also a mighty tomb I am slowly perusing. If this is real (you know I think it is) science should be in there.

    I don’t suppose anyone could persuade Ed Witten to get on board…

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  141. Paul says:

    Hey, look at the product description of this book:

    http://www.amazon.com/Miracles-C-S-Lewis/dp/0060653019/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1277235357&sr=1-1

    Well, I guess with a great book like this, we should have more reluctance to let go. :)

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  142. Brian137 says:

    Well, I guess with a great book like this, we should have more reluctance to let go.

    Actually, C. S. Lewis is totally cool. Go to a bookstore and read “Out of the Silent Planet.”

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  143. Gary says:

    Reluctance to Let Go

    by Sean

    “What troubles me is how much our cultural conversation is being impoverished by a reluctance to face up to reality.”

    I’m an atheist retired science educator troubled by your impoverished troubled conversation about your reluctance to face up to reality not of your own definition.

    You are not a god, and selling books to acolytes is like selling circus tickets to rubes.

    $$$

    Being an evil capitalist myself, go for it.

    You being something other, well….

    …not much reluctance there. ;)

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  144. Gary says:

    If it were primarily about the socially justified education of the masses down-trodden by an over-lording elite, your book should be free — excerpts are cheese in the $$$ mouse trap.

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  145. In response to Sean on the question of Faith versus science, I see that religion is full of inconsistencies and bizarre concepts but it seems to me that some aspects of spirituality may be just as much part of the natural laws of the Universe as, say, dark matter. No one has yet detected or measured dark matter; its existence is only inferred from observations and mathematics, it is not absolutely proven to be real. The existence of the soul may turn out to be no less real. There exists a huge body of data concerning near death experiences and out of body experiences that infer the existence of a soul. The existence of multiple dimensions has already been predicted by physicists so it seems entirely reasonable that when the life force leaves the body at death it moves to some other, unseen, realm. Only science could prove this so there may, after all, be common ground between spirituality and science.

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  146. Kevin says:

    There exists a huge body of anecdotes about near death and out of body experiences, which is nowhere close to sufficient to imply the existence of a soul. Further, there is no scientifically recognized or empirically supported entity that could be described as “life force,” so postulating about its actions after it “leaves” the body is utterly worthless (especially given that, even if its existence were supported, the idea that it “leaves” at death would not necessarily be).

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  147. Alan says:

    Kevin

    Best to wait until the results of this study comes out (and read a little of my above comments – thrashed out a bit with Dave!). It is a very extensive medical experiment.

    The AWARE study

    http://www.mindbodysymposium.com/Human-Consciousness-Project/the-AWARE-study.html

    Preliminary results out in 2011 I believe (and later a peer-reviewed publication) but these studies are the latest of a long line by Drs. Peter Fenwick, Bruce Greyson, Penny Sartori, Jeffrey Long…

    There is also a well known quantum physicist on board Prof. Henry Stapp, who is trying to model all this, and working closely with the team. Very, very interesting.

    Interesting comment John @ 143!

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  148. Kevin 144, I agree that the current data concerning near death and out of body experiences is largely anecdotal but surely it’s a bit too soon to be labeling it as utterly worthless. The concept of a life force seems pretty reasonable. One moment a person is a living, breathing, conscious entity, the next, at death, the body is just a collection of trillions of slowly decaying cells; all bio-electric processes have ceased. Were a life time of memories erased in that moment? If we counter this thought with the analogy of unplugging a computer, without first saving work on the desk top, my intuition tells me this doesn’t come close to being a worthwhile model of life, mainly because computers don’t have consciousness to begin with. I will keep an open mind on this subject, pending evidence.
    Alan 145, thanks for the link to the AWARE study. I have met Peter Fenwick and look forward to reading his team’s results.

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  149. Alan says:

    John

    I’ve met him as well at some lectures in London. They are an interesting and professional group. If they get some powerful veridical data from the hidden target studies, consciousness/mind studies will fairly open up. Would also make meaning central in the sense that something doesn’t get lost, rather countering Steven Weinberg’s and others comments on the meaninglessness of life. I believe they simply do not know about this kind of data. Super-intelligent but ignorant in the sense they simply do not read any of the relevant medical literature. Anyway, wait and see.

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  150. I think that we are not automatons and that free-will can be described by stochastic fundamental laws as the developed for the study of complex systems in recent years by the Brussels-Austin School and by other researchers in the world. In this new picture of Nature, deterministic laws (as those by Newton and Schrödinger) arise only as approximations.

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  152. Gustaaf says:

    Not really convincing article, probably less applicable to discussion in Western Europe (Amsterdam, Netherlands in my case.)

    Although some scientists might think philosophy is a lot of blabla, there are interesting statements done, rejected, revised, etc, about the status of ‘laws of nature’ and what they actually do describe. The relation between religion and science has already been extensively discussed from pioneers as Diderot and especialy since the rise of positivism in the 19th century. I think some key remarks were made in 1920s by the ‘Wiener Kreis’ (=’Vienna Circle’) and the logical empirists. They mainly argumented that to do a meaningfull statement, it has be to be verification possible. This is of course only the case for statements describing matter, not statements about immaterial souls etc, therefore metaphysics can only produce useless statements. The logic and mathematics is left outside here, because they were considered different statements, so-called a priori, analytical statements, but that becomes to technical for now.
    There has been loads of counter-arguments against this verification and the idea that statements only descibe, and not give a morel judgement or such. Still I think their ideas are in the heart of this discussion concerning religion and science. Science is best described by science, metaphysics can be verified and is just a believe. How believe and empirical verification are connected is complicated philophical question, but in common sense the difference is quite clear. But one is quite clear. SCIENCE CANNOT DISPROVE THE EXISTANCE OF INMATERIAL SHAPES, like gods, angles or whatever.
    Now religion is not only metaphysics, but also largely ethics, rules of society. But in different areas with the same religion (e.g. Islam) the ethics are quite different (compare Shariah in Nigeria, with Pakistan, with Somalia, with Saoudi-Arabia or with Indonesia.)
    So to me it seems the ethics is more due to the society than to the religion.
    Still a lot of people do believe, and I cannot prove they are wrong. I can only argument that their ethics are not mine.
    I know agnosticm or ignosticm is not the most popular side one can choose out loud in the media, but bloody hell, it is the most rationable one, better than hide behind thick walls of burroughs of religion and atheism.
    SCIENCE IS NOT HELPED A BIT, when it is used for or against religion, only honest and open discussions should count. So the standard model should stay were it belongs, under the category of science, and yes, it would fantastic if it could be popularised the a big audience, but not against religion, that would make nobody happier.

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  153. Mike Cope says:

    What a condescending piece! Why would anyone engage with someone who says, in effect, “I will dispute with you if you are prepared to concede up front that your position is bollocks.” Instead of posing as the Thought Police, perhaps the Sean Carroll ought to read William James.

    Sean, why do people have religious experiences? These experiences are no doubt based in neurology (even ‘out of body experiences’ have a body to be out of) but this in no way alters the profound effect that the experiences usually have on those who undergo them. Yet you missionary atheists have steered away from engaging with this mystical aspect of religion. There are more ways of apprehending the world than merely the subjectivity of the Western individual.

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  154. addicted says:

    Religion has been around for at least 10 times as long as science (Christianity has been around for at least 5 times as long).

    The best cure religions has found for diseases is to bleed the patient.

    Do I really need to mention Science’s contribution in this regard?

    This should be enough to give you an idea about how “real” each is.

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  155. Ron Ringsrud says:

    You seem to have a problem letting go of your old-fashioned attachment to scientific deconstructionism. You proclaim that the universe is just like a big clock and that we have now figured out all the wheels and gears and know how they work together. But the learned philosopher of science, Dr. Karl Popper points out that the universe is not like a clock that can be taken apart piece by piece.

    Buckminster Fuller announced in 1939 that all 92 elements of nature were now discovered and we are entering a steep period of technological change. Nobody paid much attention to that announcement either. However, quantum physics has shown, without a doubt, that the universe id NOT like a clock – it is, like Poppers points out, like a cloud; that is to say, it is non-localized and unquantifiable. In fact, the quantum description seems to match the description given by mystics and seers from all ancient cultures.

    So this is a time that we should be celebrating subjectivity and the human side of nature; its everywhere. Intelligence and consciousness did not just show up when man’s brain stem developed; it was there all the time waiting for us to recognize it. And by the way, astrology works (http://www.emeraldmine.com/jyotish2.htm).

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  156. Robert Tobin says:

    The problem is that the minds of Religious Believers have been Poisoned by Religion.
    “Religion Poisons Everything”: Christpopher Hitchens
    “Religion is a Mental Health Hazard” : Me.

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  159. Robert O'Brien says:

    “There is no life after death; there’s no spiritual essence that can preserve a human consciousness outside its physical body. Life is a chemical reaction; there is no moment at conception or otherwise when a soul is implanted in a body. We evolved as a result of natural processes over the history of the Earth; there is no supernatural intelligence that created us and maintains an interest in our behavior. There is no Natural Law that specifies how human beings should live, including who they should marry. There is no strong conception of free will, in the sense that we are laws unto ourselves over and above the laws of nature.”

    Your mere assertions are noted and discarded; they are no more intrinsically valuable coming from you than if they had come from a plumber or a pizza delivery guy. You might as well be a Mormon missionary bearing your testimony of Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon.

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  160. Robert O'Brien says:

    “The problem is that the minds of Religious Believers have been Poisoned by Religion.
    ‘Religion Poisons Everything’: Christpopher Hitchens
    ‘Religion is a Mental Health Hazard’ : Me.”

    “Hitchens is a pretentious moron and so is Tobin.”–R O’Brien

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  161. David Mebane says:

    One definition of extremism is the refusal to acknowledge the challenges faced by your own professed philosophy. One challenge that uncompromising atheists have trouble acknowledging is the free will paradox. If there’s no “strong conception of free will,” then I’m afraid that there’s no strong conception of science — the possession of a free will by persons is a built-in assumption of the scientific method. If there’s no free will, then all of our hypotheses and judgments about those hypotheses based on evidence are pre-ordained, and therefore meaningless in a truly objective sense. But if there is free will — then, well, things are more complicated that just a set of laws that we already know.

    Although one thing is completely predictable: no strident atheist posting here, including the author of this blog, will be given pause by this simple, fundamental and inescapable paradox. (Which, incidentally, is not resolved by quantum mechanics — which has uncertainty but fixed probabilities — nor chaos theory, which is ultimately deterministic.)

    And another thing. I’ll tell you what’s even worse than extremism. Internet extremism.

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  162. raziela says:

    mmm HELLO ALL,

    I must disagree. There is a soul, there is a God. Science deals very much with nature and physical reality. God is above the natural world. A totally separate reality. Let us not forget Egypt when God destroyed Egypt by altering all the natural laws. Just as you can not find the soul in the body through surgery you can not discover a spiritual God through science. God will show Himself when the time is right and all mankind will believe.

    I can out argue any of you atheists but I don’t have time or inclination to prove to you how non sensical your arguments are.

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  163. assman says:

    This argument is funny. Religion does not pose any threat to science.

    But left wingers do! An enormous threat. Environmentalism, feminism and all manner of ism have done enormous damage to good science. But you won’t hear from Sean about any of those things because he happens to agree with them. When are we going to have a discussion of how feminism and marxism have distorted social science research. Or how environmentalist beliefs have brought idiotic notions like Teleological notions back into science (Gaia hypothesis). Group selectionism anyone. Are those crickets I hear.

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