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May 09 2013

Progress in fundamental ontology

Hey remember the Templeton Foundation? Sean Carroll says (not for the first time, but perhaps hoping it will be for the last) what he thinks of it.

I don’t think that science and religion are reconciling or can be reconciled in any meaningful sense, and I believe that it does a great disservice to the world to suggest otherwise.

That’s all I need to know. Next subject?

No seriously. There’s more. The question is just how nefarious Templeton is.

I don’t see much evidence that the JTF is actively evil, in (say) the way the Discovery Institute is evil, actively lying in order to advance an anti-science agenda. The JTF is quite pro-science, in its own way; it’s just that I think their views on science are very wrong.

There is (at least) one thing they do that I think is deceptive: it’s their habit of setting up “institutes” and similar in places like Oxford and Cambridge and next door to the NIH so that they can use the names Oxford and Cambridge and thus trick people into thinking they’re part of the eponymous universities. It’s their habit of making their stuff sound sciencey when it isn’t. The Faraday Institute, for example – does that sound sciencey or does it not? Well then.

Any time respectable scientists take money from Templeton, they lend their respectability—even if only implicitly—to the idea that science and religion are just different paths to the same ultimate truth. That’s not something I want to do. If other people feel differently, that’s for them and their consciences, not something that is going to cause me to shun them.

But I will try to explain to them why it’s important. Think of it this way. The kinds of questions I think about—origin of the universe, fundamental laws of physics, that kind of thing—for the most part have no direct impact on how ordinary people live their lives. No jet packs are forthcoming, as the saying goes. But there is one exception to this, so obvious that it goes unnoticed: belief in God. Due to the efforts of many smart people over the course of many years, scholars who are experts in the fundamental nature of reality have by a wide majority concluded that God does not exist. We have better explanations for how things work. The shift in perspective from theism to atheism is arguably the single most important bit of progress in fundamental ontology over the last 500 years. And it matters to people … a lot.

Or at least, it would matter, if we made it more widely known. It’s the one piece of scientific/philosophical knowledge that could really change people’s lives. So in my view, we have a responsibility to get the word out—to not be wishy-washy on the question of religion as a way of knowing, but to be clear and direct and loud about how reality really works. And when we blur the lines between science and religion, or seem to contribute to their blurring, or even just not minding very much when other people blur them, we do the world a grave disservice.

Yes.

Can I help in any way?

9 comments

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  1. 1
    Sastra

    I think the blurriest blur is the line between science and “spirituality” — and Templeton kicks at that one with soft-soled slippers. What does it mean to be “spiritual?” Is it like “transcendence?” What does that mean?

    As I recall you once asked an online group of the spiritual-but-not-religious what they meant by those terms and the answers you got were a study in glittering generalities and incoherence. It just means wonder and joy and a sense of connection. Like Carl Sagan marveling at the pale blue dot or Richard Dawkins unweaving the rainbow.

    BUT — if you’d rather — then it means quantum consciousness and teleological principles driving evolution and souls transporting themselves through many lives and the truth of the paranormal and the sort of stuff you find at the bookstore under the label “Spiritual.”

    It can be either. Or. Both. Whatever floats your boat. Whatever scuffs and shuffles at that blurry line. Let’s be non-dualistic. It’s a mystery you can’t explain but know is true. My, but can’t we all relate to THAT. If we try hard.

    Sean Carroll is so wise to stay away from the Templeton money. Now, if the Templeton Foundation is wise they will offer him the Templeton Prize and save their million and their reputation.

  2. 2
    jonathangray

    Sean Carroll:

    the idea that science and religion are just different paths to the same ultimate truth

    Nobody claims that. The religious claim is that science provides certain truths about the natural world, while religion provides higher truths about a supernatural world.

    Due to the efforts of many smart people over the course of many years, scholars who are experts in the fundamental nature of reality have by a wide majority concluded that God does not exist.

    (´o`) y~

    We have better explanations for how things work.

    By which he means scientific explanations. The problem is, there are a number of things which scientific method cannot demonstrate to be true — but which we either know to be true with absolute certainty or which can be reasonably assumed to be true. Consider the propositions:

    “Two plus two equals four.”
    “The world exists independently of my consciousness.”
    “Mozart was a great composer.”
    “Torturing babies to death is wrong.”

    So,, the truths of mathematics and logic; metaphysical truths; the truths of aesthetic judgement; and ethical truths. That’s a pretty thick slice of “fundamental reality” which science is incompetent to verify.

  3. 3
    aziraphale

    “Two plus two equals four.”
    “The world exists independently of my consciousness.”
    “Mozart was a great composer.”
    “Torturing babies to death is wrong.”

    Johnathangray, how does religion support or verify those propositions?

    Considering that at least one religion says the world is an illusion.

  4. 4
    Argle Bargle

    Considering that certain religions have made a fetish of torturing babies to death, it appears at least one of Jonathan Gray’s claims about religion is true. Gray’s god likes torturing and killing babies. See the Noachian Flood, Sodom & Gomorrah, and the Exodus killing of the first born for examples.

  5. 5
    jonathangray

    I’m not making any claims about religion. As aziraphale rightly points out, not all religions would affirm all of my propositions in any case.

    All I’m saying is that if there are propositions which cannot be demonstrated by scientific method but which we nevertheless know to be true, or at least hold it rational to accept, then one cannot a priori dismiss the claims of religion on the grounds that they are not verifiable by scientific method.

    The question is whether it is ever reasonable to believe in something for which no scientific evidence can or could be produced. The atheist insists: “No proposition should be believed if it is not supported by scientific evidence and if it cannot be tested by scientific method.” But if that proposition is true, it must – according to its own criteria – be supported by scientific evidence and testable by scientific method! So refer me to the experimental data and I’ll accept it as true, otherwise you’re just begging the question.

  6. 6
    hjhornbeck

    jonathangray @5:

    All I’m saying is that if there are propositions which cannot be demonstrated by scientific method but which we nevertheless know to be true, or at least hold it rational to accept, then one cannot a priori dismiss the claims of religion on the grounds that they are not verifiable by scientific method.

    You’re missing something: all the core premises of epistemologies are axioms, they are held to be true by definition. The scientific method incorporates Bayesian inference as a core premise, and that bundles in the basic rules of logic. As the scientific method is an epistemology, then it follows that all basic logic propositions can be demonstrated by the scientific method.

    The independence of the world and your consciousness is easily handled as well. We observe there are other conscious beings like ourselves out there, and that the world continues to exist before and after they do. Repeated observation pushes this proposition beyond the reasonable doubt threshold, and thus we take it as accepted truth.

    The remainder of your propositions are too ill-defined. Provide better definitions for “great” and “wrong,” and it should be trivial to show they are measurable and thus those propositions can be falsified.

  7. 7
    Ophelia Benson

    Sigh. Jonathan Gray, I’m pretty sure I’ve pointed out to you before that aesthetic claims and moral claims don’t belong with factual claims in that kind of argument. You just made the same move all over again. I wish you would stop doing that.

  8. 8
    andrewkiener

    @ jonathangray,

    Following up on hjhornbeck’s thoughts: Your “propositions” are not propositions, they’re meaningless word games.

    “Two plus two equals four.”
    “The world exists independently of my consciousness.”
    These are essentially the same argument – “Whoa, man, maybe logic is meaningless and reality is just an illusion…” An argument that cancels out the possibility of its own existence is simply useless. So, yes, one must accept the existence of some independent reality in order to think about such reality. To do otherwise is simply to say that there’s no point in ever thinking or doing anything at all, ever. This is significantly different from the religious argument that existence is real but certain ideas cannot be studied.

    “Mozart was a great composer”
    “Torturing babies to death is wrong.”

    These are simply statements of widely-held opinions. Questions as to why such opinions are widely held are completely amenable to scientific study. Why does the torture of babies produce feelings of revulsion in most humans? Why are certain combinations of sounds more appealing to humans? People study this stuff all the time.

    Then to the big cliffhanger finish, “No proposition should be believed if it is not supported by scientific evidence and if it cannot be tested by scientific method. But if that proposition is true, it must – according to its own criteria – be supported by scientific evidence and testable by scientific method!” Exclamation point and everything! In order to discuss this in any sense beyond the reductio ad sophomorum, we can look at, say, all of human history. We have exactly zero reliable knowledge of the universe that came from any source other than careful observation and logic. Everything from how to catch a fish, to how to measure the expansion of the universe – it’s all due to paying attention to the physical world around us. In every single case in which information from some proposed alternate source of information (revealed books, prophecies, etc.) has conflicted with initial observations, further study has established the observations and logic to be reliable and the alternate-source information to be unreliable. This is as close to the sort of proof you’re requesting as it is logically possible to provide. Unless some truly new data presents itself, accepting the proposition is the only supportable decision.

  9. 9
    jonathangray

    hjhornbeck:

    You’re missing something: all the core premises of epistemologies are axioms, they are held to be true by definition. The scientific method incorporates Bayesian inference as a core premise, and that bundles in the basic rules of logic. As the scientific method is an epistemology, then it follows that all basic logic propositions can be demonstrated by the scientific method.

    When it comes to philosophy, science and the philosophy of science I don’t pretend to be anything more than an interested layman, but it seems to me that scientific method is not so much an epistemology as a procedure that makes certain epistemological presuppositions. Of course science accepts the core axioms of logic and mathematics to be true by definition; otherwise it would be dysfunctional.

    But scientific method only “demonstrates” the truth of such propositions in the sense that it instantiates them, not in the sense that it provides evidence that leads us to accept them as most likely true. We know with absolute certainty that 2+2=4 or that the interior angles of a triangle always add up to 180° because they are axiomatic (true by definition), not because the lab results are in. We don’t see teams of white-coated researchers armed with protractors checking large numbers of triangles to see if the ‘Euclidean hypothesis’ can be upgraded to the ‘Euclidean theory’. An anomalous fossil could falsify the theory of evolution tomorrow; there could never be an anomalous result that would falsify 2+2=4.

    So we’re back where we started. If science accepts the core axioms of logic and mathematics, then it accepts the existence of a part of reality that is not grasped by the application of scientific method. Therefore, I don’t see how it can go on to dogmatically assert the omnicompetence of scientific method and reject religious claims on the ground that there is no scientific evidence for them. That’s like someone with a metal detector asserting wood does not exist because his device cannot detect any wooden artifacts.

    The independence of the world and your consciousness is easily handled as well. We observe there are other conscious beings like ourselves out there, and that the world continues to exist before and after they do. Repeated observation pushes this proposition beyond the reasonable doubt threshold, and thus we take it as accepted truth.

    Repeated observation doesn’t get us anywhere because there is no way of knowing that these “other conscious beings like ourselves” that “we observe out there” have any existence independent of our consciousness. Any data that could be subjected to scientific analysis would be part of the ‘illusion’. Of course we can reject philosophical solipsism on purely pragmatic grounds as something neither provable nor disprovable, and ‘bracket’ it as having no real bearing on the practical business of everyday life. We can then get on with eating, sleeping, making babies, doing science etc. That’s 100% reasonable behaviour for anyone not confined to a rubber room, but it’s not a conclusion arrived at via scientific method. It’s another presupposition that science makes in order to function.

    andrewkiener:

    “Two plus two equals four.”
    “The world exists independently of my consciousness.”
    These are essentially the same argument – “Whoa, man, maybe logic is meaningless and reality is just an illusion…” An argument that cancels out the possibility of its own existence is simply useless. So, yes, one must accept the existence of some independent reality in order to think about such reality. To do otherwise is simply to say that there’s no point in ever thinking or doing anything at all, ever.

    I’m not arguing that “maybe logic is meaningless and reality is just an illusion”. I’m saying our grounds for rejecting those arguments are not arrived at via scientific methodologies.

    We have exactly zero reliable knowledge of the universe that came from any source other than careful observation and logic. Everything from how to catch a fish, to how to measure the expansion of the universe – it’s all due to paying attention to the physical world around us. In every single case in which information from some proposed alternate source of information (revealed books, prophecies, etc.) has conflicted with initial observations, further study has established the observations and logic to be reliable and the alternate-source information to be unreliable.

    One might reply that religion doesn’t claim to provide accurate data about the constitution of the physical universe; it claims to provide accurate data about a spiritual universe. Granted, it is claimed that the supernatural interacts with the natural in a number of ways. But there are no conflicts between religious dogma on the one hand and observed fact and/or logical deduction on the other. Do astrophysics and cosmology disprove the dogma that an immaterial omnipotent intelligence brought the universe (including the laws of physics) into being ex nihilo? Does the theory of evolution by natural selection refute the dogma that God formed the first humans (in some unspecified way)? Do the discoveries of neuroscience render the dogma of the immortal soul redundant? The answer in every case is no.

    hjhornbeck:

    Provide better definitions for “great” and “wrong,” and it should be trivial to show they are measurable and thus those propositions can be falsified.

    By “great” I mean aesthetically great and by “wrong” I mean morally wrong.

    OB:

    aesthetic claims and moral claims don’t belong with factual claims

    Well they’re claims of a different order to the facts derived from science and logic, certainly. That in itself doesn’t necessarily mean they’re not facts — any more than a statement like “evolution is true” is factually incorrect because it is a claim of a different order to “2+2=4”. Or any more than a statement like “racial and gender discrimination are social evils that all right-thinking people should deplore” is factually incorrect because it is a claim of a different order to both “evolution is true” and “2+2=4”.

    andrewkiener:

    “Mozart was a great composer”
    “Torturing babies to death is wrong.”

    These are simply statements of widely-held opinions. Questions as to why such opinions are widely held are completely amenable to scientific study. Why does the torture of babies produce feelings of revulsion in most humans? Why are certain combinations of sounds more appealing to humans? People study this stuff all the time.

    That’s a perfectly coherent position and I would say it’s the only coherent position a scientifically-minded atheist can take. In this view, an ethical judgement like “torturing babies to death is wrong” is strictly meaningless unless understood as merely conventional shorthand for “most humans experience feelings of revulsion at the prospect of torturing babies to death”. This psychological response would be ultimately explicable in physical terms, presumably as the result of an interplay of genetic and environmental factors.

    Fine. But to be consistent you must then acknowledge that, say, a Catholic bishop who refuses to permit a woman to procure an abortion or impedes the distribution of condoms in Africa or indulges in pederasty is not “wrong”, “bad” or “evil” according to some absolute transcendent standard of moral judgement. Such actions merely happen to trigger an unpleasant emotional state in many people.

    The problem is that at various times in human history, sophisticated civilisations have had no problem with exposing sickly infants on mountainsides; forcing men to fight to the death as a mass spectator sport; hacking the still-beating hearts out of living victims as offerings to the sun god; burning heretics at the stake; and indulging in pederasty. There was no widespread emotional revulsion at these practices among the populace of the time, who regarded them as innocuous, entertaining or positively praiseworthy. Clearly, then, humans’ psychological reaction to such extreme stimuli is mutable. There is no reason why any one, some or even all of these practices might not once again become socially respectable — and if they did, you would have no grounds on which to condemn them.

    Just sayin’.

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