Good news! »« Iphigenia in America

The not just making it up community

That thing about drawing the boundaries in a different place, again.

Julian drew them as:

  1. science
  2. everything else, especially the humanities and looking at a painting

I want to draw them as:

  1. science and all other kinds of inquiry that are constrained by reality
  2. storytelling
  3. the arts, aesthetic experience, appreciation

I think we both put religion in a separate category, and both think it overlaps with the arts, storytelling and the like. I think we both think it’s in conflict with our respective 1s, but I think Julian muddled the issue by not including all other kinds of inquiry that are constrained by reality in his 1.

I think it’s good to emphasize the fact that many kinds of inquiry that are not strictly science are nevertheless constrained by reality. If they’re not they become pseudo-whatever it is. David Irving, who falsifies his evidence, does pseudo-history.

This is the bit that Rational Inquiry doesn’t name, and the reason I wanted (and still kind of want) a new name. It’s what Ron Susskind pointed up with the famous line from the Bush admin official about not having to bother with “reality-based” thinking. It’s the really important difference between theist thinking and whatever the word is for my 1 – reality-constrained inquiry is what I mean, but it’s a clunker of a phrase. The important difference is (to spell out the obvious) the difference between just making it up and knowing that just making it up won’t do.

Just making it up is fine for some purposes. It’s what my 2 is all about. It’s compatible with my 3. But for my 1, it’s the kiss of death; it’s the one thing you must not do. If you’re trying to find out the truth about anything, including something as trivial as where you put the dog’s leash, just making it up will do you no good. Educated guesses may do you good, intuitions may get you started, but just making it up will thwart your purposes.


  1. says

    I think the phrase you are seeking is “research based community”. The better research is defined, the better other researchers are able to replicate the data which is obtained, and the conclusions which follow.

    For 2. storytelling, you may also use research. But you are allowed to combine research and creativity in pretty much any combination, and we are always surprised when two different storytellers come up with the same story. In 1. you can be creative in the methods you employ, but being creative with your results is always frowned upon.

    Storytellers and artists are engaged in a kind of search for truth, perhaps they have some moral to explain, or have a way of evoking some particular emotion. No one would be particularly offended if the religious just said they belonged to a storytelling club. It is because they blur the boundaries between storytelling and what you can establish by research that they offend the ears of us true blue atheists.

  2. Cuttlefish says

    1) real shit. (most of science, some of arts, lots of human experience)
    2) fictional shit. (understood to be fictional. Some of science, some of arts, lots of human experience).
    3) delusional shit. (fictional, but understood to be real. Religion, paranormal, mentalisms, pseudoscience, lots of human experience)

    The first two are fine, even though the second is “making it up”. It’s when shit is made up, but the making up of shit is denied, that problems arise.

  3. says

    The first two are fine, even though the second is “making it up”.

    Yup. I think storytelling is a great thing. It’s the denial that’s bad.

    Research-based……hmmmmmmmnot really. I mean, yes, but it’s not quite what I mean. It’s the way that reality imposes constraints that I want to emphasize.

  4. Rudi says

    Some theoretical physics is so ‘out there’ it could scarcely be described as “constrained by reality”, and is arguably closer to ‘storytelling’ (accepting that the foundations of this storytelling are usually mathematically rigorous). But it is still, by any reckoning, science.

    Likewise, the picture we paint of our evolutionary history is based on an (understandably) inc

  5. Rudi says

    Some theoretical physics is so ‘out there’ it could scarcely be described as “constrained by reality”, and is arguably closer to ‘storytelling’ (accepting that the foundations of this storytelling are usually mathematically rigorous). But it is still, by any reckoning, science.

    Likewise, PZ has often criticised ‘just so’ stories from ev

  6. josefjohann says

    I’m not sure what’s being distinguished. Ontological categories? It appears that there’s a universe full of stuff, and that all this stuff is natural stuff. Different parts of it are known with different levels of confidence. The parts we know with greater amounts of confidence we call science. The rest we might call by the same name when, if ever, we can.

    Until then, aesthetics/humanities are dealt with from within the space of subjectivity because that’s the most practical way to deal with such stuff, but not because it’s irreducibly different in kind from the rest of the stuff in the natural world.

    In general I think atheists are conceding way too much when they say religion can preside over (or overlap with) aesthetic/humanities stuff but that its beyond the reach of science.

  7. Benjamin O'Donnell says

    I’m late to this discussion so I may have missed the reason why, but what’s wrong with “reality based community”?

  8. says

    Josef – what I’m distinguishing is ways of thinking. Epistemologies, mostly. Expanding on (and/or amending) what Julian said about science and the humanities, which are not ontological categories so much as ways of carving up human thinking.

    Then again maybe I’m confused and doing it all rong.

  9. says

    Oh, blasted iphone, no wonder!

    (I bought a netbook yesterday and unwrapped it today to find that it has no plug. They didn’t bother to tell me that I needed an extra thingy to make a working plug. Since when do shops sell electric devices with no plug?!!)

  10. says

    Nothing wrong with reality-based community, but community isn’t the relevant category. It would have to be reality-based inquiry…which I guess will do, since it is after all what I mean.

    In a way it’s a tautology, because if it’s not reality-based it’s not genuine inquiry…but maybe for this purpose that doesn’t matter.

  11. Benjamin O'Donnell says

    Actually, the more I think about it, teh more I like “reality based community”. Remember what the Bush Adminsitration said that got the whole RBC meme going?

    “The aide said that guys like me were ‘in what we call the reality-based community,’ which he defined as people who ‘believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.’ … ‘That’s not the way the world really works anymore,’ he continued. ‘We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors…and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.’”

    Doesn’t that attitude capture all that we’re against, and doesn’t what the aide disparages as teh RBC represent all that we’re for?

  12. Benjamin O'Donnell says

    Hey Ophelia, our posts crossed in the ether.

    Ok, I take your point. “Reality based inquiry” is, or at least should be, a tautology – like “evidence based medicine” or “evidence based policy”.

  13. josefjohann says

    Ophelia, that makes sense to me, but I make a point of asking because I think people sometimes people talk about aesthetic stuff as if its irreducibly different from the kinds of things science can describe, even in principle. As far as I see, Eric Macdonald believes something like this. It matters to me that we not concede this point because (1) it lets religious people get away with saying “science describes a world devoid of art and feeling; it’s all cold and heartless” and (2) it’s simply not true!

    But back to your #3: there was probably a time when temperature might have fallen in that category. After all, hot/cold are things people can feel and judge subjectively, and there was a time when such experiences could not be accounted for by any science. But we now have a science of temperature that can for the most part explain people’s experiences of hot and cold.

    So I would caution that our “ways of thinking about” the humanities now in 2011 might be different from what they are at some point in the future as neuroscience matures. Sometimes it leads to people talking about “different ways of knowing” as if they are embedded in the laws of the universe, which I think is muddled.

  14. Jim says

    I think #1 would better be called evidence based rather than reality based. It seems to me that you are begging the question if you automatically exclude religion from the reality category, because, to a religious person, god is reality.

    Reality is a slippery thing to define, and one could easily get distracted into arguing about spiritual reality, or if scientific models describe reality itself, or whether our observations reflect the actual reality or just our subjective view of reality. If you debate reality with a religious or spiritual person, you will just go constantly around in circles.

    But evidence is much easier to define. If multiple impartial observers get the same result, then it qualifies as evidence. Even religious people can agree to that concept. For example, this is how we justify teaching evolution rather than creationism in public school: we teach evolution because it is the theory supported by evidence.

  15. says

    Josef, yes…storytelling and some of the arts mix a reality-based (or empirical or inquiring) approach and an appreciative or experiential one. I do think some kinds or parts of religion overlap with some of the arts in pretty obvious ways, but I fer sher didn’t mean they go together the way the BBC sticks religion and ethics together.

  16. says

    Jim – hmm, yes, maybe. I’m extrapolating from phrases like “reality check” and the famous reality-based community.

    I’m not willing to let theists spoil the word for us though. They have no good reason to think god is real, and if they come up with a good reason they can by all means share it with us. Meanwhile – I say reality-based inquiry is constrained by reality in a way that theism is not.

  17. Benjamin O'Donnell says

    But the more I think about it, the more I think that when people use terms like “reality check” what they mean is “evidence check” or “previously well-established by evidence theory check”. Maybe, “evidence based” is what we really mean.

    Or berhaps “evidence constrained”?

    History, for example, is a discipline based on, or at least constrained by, evidece. We use the documents and artifacts and oral accounts we have, compare them, come up with interpretations, “test” them agaisnt any newly available evidence, etc, etc. Sure, interpretation has a LOT to do with it, but it’s still constrained by evidence.

    What about my discipline, the law? Well, in the practice or running trials, it’s very “evidence based”. But law as an academic discipline is mostly about the rules, not the fact finding regarding whether the rules have been obeyed. As an academic discipline the law is an odd amalgam of history (especiall historiography – all those conflicting judicial opinions), philosophy (logic, mostly) and, believe it or not, computer science (dealing with a complex statute often resembles nothing so much as coding). I’m not sure where you’d put it in your proposed scheme.

  18. Jason Dick says

    Love this!

    One thing that I think is silly and ridiculous about Julian’s distinctions is that they are completely and utterly arbitrary. That is to say, why should the exact same kind of investigation be called science when it is performed on dinosaur bones but not be called science when it is performed on historical records? You’re doing the same things, and all of these sorts of rational inquiry share far, far more in common than difference.

    It seems to me that by excluding things like history from the sciences you’re just placing tradition on a pedestal and not bothering to actually understand what is going on, either in science or in the humanities.

  19. sailor1031 says

    “Some theoretical physics is so ‘out there’ it could scarcely be described as “constrained by reality”, and is arguably closer to ‘storytelling’ (accepting that the foundations of this storytelling are usually mathematically rigorous). But it is still, by any reckoning, science”

    Yes, but unless the theories are multiply verified by experiment and observation they won’t make it into ‘reality’

  20. martha says

    I’m very late to this conversation, having sworn off reading blogs on weekdays, but I just wanted to say that when I’m searching for a word for the whole community of people who read and blog on FTB, I usually go with “fans of reason”. “Reality based community engaged in reality based thinking (or inquiry)” works for me too.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>