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Atheists are skeptics

There is hope! Steven Novella has replied to my reply to his original disagreement (making this a reply to a reply to a reply to a blog article…I take it back, maybe there is no hope.) But no, there is a light at the end of the tunnel, and I don’t have to be as long-winded as last time. Let’s jump right to his new conclusion:

I think it would be helpful to critically examine our own narratives about what the rationalist, skeptical, and atheists movements are, what different groups believe, and what motivates them. I see many straw men that persist despite the evidence and despite numerous attempts at correction.

Exactly! That’s what I’ve been saying! Now in my last post, I provided lots of evidence that my characterization of a skeptical movement rife with bias and stereotypes against atheists and other non-traditional (for skeptics) causes was valid; now I just have to ask Novella one more time to critically examine his own narrative, and because he’s a good guy dedicated to the evidence, he’ll recognize the problem. And what do you know, his argument is based on kicking the stuffing out of a straw man atheist.

We seem to disagree on the underlying philosophy. I have essentially taken the position that scientific skepticism (like science) requires methodological naturalism, while atheism is a belief in philosophical naturalism.These are compatible but distinct positions. Methodological naturalism is more narrow. It is my understanding that this is the consensus of opinion among philosophers (feel free to correct me if you think I’m wrong).

Is atheism a belief in philosophical naturalism? I suppose for some, it is, just as some skeptics base their position on a desire to feel superior to stupid people. But it is an incorrect description of most atheists, and especially of most prominent atheists.

I have to assume that Novella has not read The God Delusion — no worries if he hasn’t, it’s not holy writ that everyone is required to appreciate — or he wouldn’t be making this claim. Dawkins is about as close to being the atheist authority as we can get, and his views reflect, and in many cases have inspired, what is really the mainstream atheist position. And really, his position is simply not an a priori commitment to the nonexistence of gods, but is a product of entirely scientific examination of the evidence. He even comes right out and plainly says that his disbelief is not absolute, but that he could change his mind if adequate evidence were presented. It is a position arrived at entirely by the process of skeptical scientific inquiry.

And this has always been the case in modern times. Robert Ingersoll, in the 19th century, was frequently praising the advantages of science and demanding that religion substantiate their claims with evidence. Atheism has a long tradition of historical, not just scientific, inquiry, and those people, like Richard Carrier and Hector Avalos, are rejecting god-belief because they have looked at the historical and archaeological evidence, have analysed the logic of religious documents for contradictions and fallacies, and encourage the use of science to resolve difficult questions…applied skepticism, in other words.

I’ll also recommend Victor Stenger’s God & the Atom — this has been the attitude since ancient times, too. He traces Greek atheism right back to the earliest efforts to understand the nature of the universe, the foundations of modern physics.

Atheists do the same thing to religion that Novella does to quack medicine. We look at the evidence, or the absence thereof in the work of proponents, we look at the historical roots of truth claims, we examine arguments for fallacies or inconsistencies, we promote science as a better tool for understanding what’s going on in the universe. That’s what we find galling, actually: that there can be absolutely nothing different in the process of critical inquiry, but because our target is religion rather than quackery or UFOs or the Loch Ness monster, the gatekeepers of the skeptical movement will declare it Not True Skepticism — sometimes as something lesser, deserving of scorn, sometimes as just something different.

Novella tries to treat it as some different category.

For the purpose of convenience, and wanting to avoid getting bogged down in semantics, I am going to define (for this post) three terms: scientific skepticism deals with empirical claims and the promotion of science, atheism focuses on opposing religion and faith, and rationalism seeks to apply reason and skepticism to all areas. This does not capture all the complexity of our movement, but I will use it, again, for convenience.

Stop right there! That’s exactly what I mean! Atheism deals with empirical claims and the promotion of science. It’s what we do. Look at Richard Dawkins and Dan Dennett and Lawrence Krauss and Sam Harris and even me, although I’m not trying to rank myself in their same category: we talk and write about how religious claims fail to meet even the most minimal standards of evidence, how they fail to support their grandiose promises, how they cause harm and suffering to people. Seriously, you could take my last sentence and replace “religious claims” with “alt-med claims”, and you should be able to see that we’re doing exactly the same thing with different targets.

Try another substitution to see what I mean: “scientific skepticism deals with empirical claims and the promotion of science, alt-med opponents focus on opposing quackery and pseudoscience, and rationalism seeks to apply reason and skepticism to all areas.” That sounds as if I’m trying to imply that, because of their choice of focus, people like Novella are doing something different from dealing with empirical claims and the promotion of science.

So I reject his partitioning of scientific skepticism. I think it is completely invalid. If, as he argues in his first post, skepticism is a high-minded collection of principles of rational thought, that it is a process for arriving at a provisional truth with a solid foundation and evidence, then it is an error to split it into those kinds of categories. Do I also need to point out that his categories are 1) a process of evidence based thinking, 2) one specific area to which that thinking can be applied, and 3) a claim of universality of that process? These are not even distinctions on the same dimension, and they are not mutually exclusive. Someone can easily fit into all three categories with no contradiction or conflict. Although, for someone to fit into #1 and #3 while rejecting #2 would require some serious internal contradictions: why do you think skepticism is so important while refusing to apply it to religion?

But now Novella needs to resolve something. Further down in the comments, he says this:

I have spoken to many activist skeptics on this issue – almost all of them are atheists. They think atheism is a legitimate part of critical thinking and the broader rationalist agenda. They think that skeptical inquiry should be applied to everything, including religion and faith. I am trying to correct the false impression by activist atheists that we think otherwise. They seem to vacillate between saying that we think atheism is not skepticism, or that we know that it is but are too cowardly to confront it. Neither is correct.

What is correct is that there is a philosophically different approach between empirical claims and faith-based claims and it is necessary to acknowledge this.

As I documented last time, there is a widespread assumption in the skeptical community that atheism is The Other; you cannot listen to Jamie Ian Swiss’s obvious anger in his 2012 TAM talk without realizing that there is a strong strain of bias against including religious claims on the skeptical agenda. I know most skeptics are atheists, but there is this extraordinarily peculiar attitude that disbelief in god is something they somehow arrived at by a completely different path than their disbelief in acupuncture.

I really don’t get it.

Novella’s post doesn’t help, either, it just reinforces my body of evidence that establishment skeptics have a lot invested in fence-building. What philosophical difference? I can say over and over again that most atheists have arrived at their disbelief by the process of scientific skepticism, and it just doesn’t sink in: we will just get the magical handwave that there are “philosophically different approaches”.

And then there’s this distinction between empirical claims and faith-based claims, which I simply don’t see. “Faith” is not a magic get-out-of-jail-free word; I don’t think Novella would be stopped cold in his tracks if a homeopath invoked faith and god as a mechanism behind succussed water. Faith-based claims are empirical claims! When someone claims a vast cosmic intelligence named Jesus created the universe, I’m going to ask for their evidence for that claim; it is an empirical claim not just about how the universe works, but about how they arrive at their conclusions and what the chain of evidence that led them to that assertion is.

If they openly admit that their beliefs are not based on empirical knowledge, that does not mean we retreat; it means we present the evidence for how the universe actually works and was created. Faith does not insulate a claim from skepticism as Novella argues; there is still a body of evidence that may contradict their claims, and it does as no service to simply throw up our hands and declare their arguments out of bounds for skepticism.

I suspect this argument will march on. But I hope Novella can get beyond the argument from fiat and stereotype to actually comprehend how atheists think. It shouldn’t be hard — my point is that they are thinking exactly as he does, with the very same philosophical guide.

Comments

  1. Gnumann+,with no bloody irony at all (just a radfem with a shotgun) says

    What philosophical difference?

    “Don’t get between me and [insert rich donor with a huge irrational streak on religion/economics/gender relations here]‘s monies?”

  2. redmcwilliams says

    Does Novella have any big donors, religious or otherwise? What I took from his responses was that he felt like PZ was calling out ‘traditional skeptics’ and telling them that they should be more atheist activist-minded. And PZ is feeling (more understandably) that he and other atheist activists were being called out for not being Real Skeptics.

  3. Randide, O che sciagὺra d'essere scenza coglioni! says

    Look at Richard Dawkins and Dan Dennett and Lawrence Krauss and Sam Harris and even me, although I’m trying to rank myself in their same category:

    I believe you intended to put the word “not” in that last clause.

    I more-so believe that the sentence is much more accurate as written.

  4. Gnumann+,with no bloody irony at all (just a radfem with a shotgun) says

    Does Novella have any big donors, religious or otherwise? What I took from his responses was that he felt like PZ was calling out ‘traditional skeptics’ and telling them that they should be more atheist activist-minded. And PZ is feeling (more understandably) that he and other atheist activists were being called out for not being Real Skeptics.

    I should clairfy: My comment was aimed at the phenomenon at large and not Novella in particular.

    And partly snarky.

    I have no insight in Novellas finances. And if I was more interested in being correct and less in being snarky I would probably aimed it at support in general and not monies in particular.

    I still would like to know if JREF would tolerate Penn Jillette if he was poor though…

  5. Ing:Intellectual Terrorist "Starting Tonight, People will Whine" says

    so soon he’s writing a letter to Penn explaining why imigration, economics, tax denial, global warming denial, cripple bashing, gun rights, prostitution, etc are not acceptable skeptical topics right?

  6. says

    Right, I am NOT expecting Steven Novella to jump on the atheist bandwagon — he’s got his own area of expertise and interest, and it’s perfectly reasonable for him to specialize in that. It’s just annoying that so many skeptics single out atheism as somehow being something different to be set aside.

    Ing: you are very, very naughty.

  7. says

    How I would love to be able to draw Venn diagrams here!

    Skeptical atheists, or as I like to call them, normal people, are those who don’t have shutters in front of their eyes that come down everytime a topic is mentioned that requires them to show a modicum of introspection and at least a basic lack of conformation bias. Clearly for most movement skeptics, this is asking too much already.

  8. consciousness razor says

    Is atheism a belief in philosophical naturalism?

    That’s easy: no. You could be an atheist and not even be a naturalist of any kind. You could believe someone has psychic powers, for example, and not call that person a “god.”

    The way I interpret it, the difference between “philosophical” (aka “ontological”) and “methodological” naturalism, is that methodological naturalism isn’t an ontological position. (Obvious, right?) It doesn’t say anything about what there is or isn’t. It’s just an epistemology, which means that even if it’s the very best epistemology we could ever hope for, it’s missing the point when the question is whether or not gods, etc., exist.

  9. feedmybrain says

    It’s not often I disagree with Steve Novella but I think he’s got this one wrong. Faith isn’t a get out of jail free card. It doesn’t exist in a vacuum and causes far too much immorality to be excused as un-testable.

  10. Kelsey Logas says

    I think ultimately the value of Swiss’ talk was that there can be religious people that are skeptics much like there can be atheists that are credulous. I also agree with his assessment that the liberally religious person who is a scientist is more likely to be doing good for society than an atheist that actively promotes antivaccine and quackery viewpoints. I know this is likely to be called accomodationism, but if the ultimate goal of being a skeptic is to protect people from predators, quacks, and scammers by educating them, one might argue that there is a hierarchy of who is most vulnerable.

    This kind of goes back to the observation of Neil Degrasse Tyson who suggests that we find out why 7% of the National Academy of Scientists is still religious. Are they not helping society and science with their research and work?

    Cognitive dissonance is apparent everywhere.

  11. redmcwilliams says

    Very well, Gnumann, I don’t want to get shotgunned. *winking smiley*

    In case anyone cares, in legal parlance it would go: blog post->response->reply->sur-reply->response to sur-reply. And the judge would have sanctioned everyone and dismissed the case by this point.

  12. Gnumann+,with no bloody irony at all (just a radfem with a shotgun) says

    Very well, Gnumann, I don’t want to get shotgunned. *winking smiley*

    Unless you’re patriarchy, you’re pretty safe.

  13. Sastra says

    What’s ironic is that Dr. Novella has just HAD to deal with an argument from Dr. Oz which tried to set alternative medicine aside as a “faith.”

    This is not about where different groups place the focus. A skeptic convention might decide it’s not going to deal with alternative medicine. It’s done to death; they can’t find the right speaker; it’s not a popular topic; there was just a SBM convention. Okay.

    Dr. Novella would accept all this in a way he would NOT accept the claim that alternative medicine is really an area science can’t go. It involves faith.

    Dr. Oz:

    “Medicine is a very religious experience. I have my religion and you have yours. It becomes difficult for us to agree on what we think works, since so much of it is in the eye of the beholder. Data is rarely clean. You find the arguments that support your data, and it’s my fact versus your fact.”

    Doesn’t involve science? That argument would drive Dr. Novella nuts.

    It’s what is driving PZ nuts and the rest of us nuts, and in the same way. Only for the word “medicine,” substitute “religion.” And put this argument in the mouths of people who are otherwise excellent skeptics.

    The underlying problem ALL skeptics have is with the idea that, when the science fails, then faith is a virtue and it legitimizes unsupported hypotheses. As I said over at Neurologica, religion is the Big Enchilada. It’s the point of reference for testable supernatural, paranormal, and pseudoscientific claims.

  14. eric says

    What is correct is that there is a philosophically different approach between empirical claims and faith-based claims and it is necessary to acknowledge this.

    Okay, I’ll bite. Steve – what philosophical approach should we take to the failth-based claim that a human being walked on water and rose from the dead? How about the faith-based claim that prayer heals? How about the faith-based claim that aliens in DC-10-looking spacecraft deposited criminal souls in Earth volcanos?

  15. says

    Although I agree with Steve that “bigfoot skeptic” is a bit of an unfair characterization (skeptics seem willing to examine religious claims et al to some extent), PZ is much closer to what I think is right. To the extent that there is an atheist movement it is driven by skeptical principles and tools. The existence of non skeptical atheists no more makes atheism not part of skepticism then the existence of non skeptical bigfoot/moonhoax/altmed opponents makes those ideas outside of skepticism. Would

    Tangentially, I’d love to hear a good definition of supernatural. The more I think about it in terms of naturalism the less meaning the word seems to have.

  16. says

    The underlying problem ALL skeptics have is with the idea that, when the science fails, then faith is a virtue and it legitimizes unsupported hypotheses.

    But the science doesn’t fail! Even the most semantically advanced argument for religion can be examined employing basic parsimony. Laplace’s “I have no need of that hypothesis” was 200 years ago.

  17. Rob Grigjanis says

    Faith-based claims are empirical claims!

    Sorry, I don’t get that. They can start out looking that way (“The Earth is 6,000 years old”), but the underlying claim is “I believe it because I believe it” (the definition of faith-based), which is not empirical at all. Once you get to the root claim, it’s a question of what you do about it.

  18. says

    Atheists are skeptics like tigers are a felid. It isn’t logical to exclude a tiger from the family because it has a different prey it specializes in like swine for example. Whereas as a house cat would prey primarily on rodents. Both tigers and domestic cats are felids. They both use pretty much the same tools.

  19. says

    @Rob Grigjanis in #19:
    The underlying claim is usually closer to “I have a reliable mode of communication with a divine being”. Which is a factual claim. “I believe it because I believe it” is not an underlying claim, but an excuse when you can’t demonstrate in any other way why you believe what you believe.

  20. Sastra says

    Here is one of my favorite arguments against “methodological naturalism:”

    “Do mainstream scientists have as their goal “to infer only natural and material causes … for all events and phenomena?” No, what scientists actually do is seek the best explanation according to widely accepted explanatory criteria, none of which invoke the natural/supernatural distinction. These criteria, among which are ontological conservatism, mechanistic transparency, observational support, experimental replicability, predictive success, connection between wide classes of phenomena, and theoretical productivity, have yielded the most reliable and unifying sorts of knowledge we possess. Science as a method has itself evolved under the selective pressure of the demand for dependable and comprehensible understanding, and these criteria are the winnowed out result. But it does not, and never has, specified in advance of its explanations what’s natural and what’s supernatural.” (Tom Clark)

    What is the difference between the paranormal and the supernatural? None, really. Only convention. If good skeptics who believed in the paranormal were claiming that, by definition, science can’t examine the paranormal or say anything one way or other (unless it’s positive!), Novella would see right through that dodge.

    I’m a fan of Dr. Novella. I have no problem with the fact that he usually stays away from atheism. But I do disagree with what I see as his unjustified division of “faith beliefs” from others. Almost everything skeptics go after drags in faith, implies a choice based on other factors, and tries to set itself above just criticism. They’re all empirical claims, even when the believer really identifies with them.

  21. Gnumann+,with no bloody irony at all (just a radfem with a shotgun) says

    Rob G:

    Sorry, I don’t get that. They can start out looking that way (“The Earth is 6,000 years old”), but the underlying claim is “I believe it because I believe it” (the definition of faith-based), which is not empirical at all. Once you get to the root claim, it’s a question of what you do about it.

    It might be the context. In this context I read “empirical claim” as shorthand for “a claim that is measurable empirically” not “a claim that is based in empiry”.

    And if you apply the other understanding, homeopathy and other forms of faith-healing isn’t exactly making empirical claims either. So there goes most of skeptisim except possibly the bigfoot-hunter-hunters.

  22. Sastra says

    Rob Grigjanis #19 wrote:

    They can start out looking that way (“The Earth is 6,000 years old”), but the underlying claim is “I believe it because I believe it” (the definition of faith-based), which is not empirical at all. Once you get to the root claim, it’s a question of what you do about it.

    “Faith” is still an attempt at justification, though, and includes a lot of different ideas jumbled up. It’s category error mixed up with ESP mixed up with tribal identity mixed up with fallacies mixed up with a plea that the questioner shut up along with an insistence that the questioner does not deserve to ask. They blur these concepts together and leap from one to the other.

  23. Feats of Cats says

    Does this mean Steven Novella can’t take on the claims of faith healing? Because I’m pretty sure he has.

  24. Sastra says

    Dr. Novella has taken on many religious claims. That’s not the argument.

    The argument is that there are people in the skeptical movement who think that religious assertions which do NOT make specific testable claims are outside of what skeptics can deal with. Sure, you can test the power of prayer, you can test faith healing, you can test whether a statue weeps. But they say that there is no experiment which will conclusively demonstrate that God does not exist: therefore, it’s not a proper topic for skeptical analysis.

    And we’re saying no — this is special pleading. When you take apart what people mean by God the supernatural is all fair game.

  25. Thomathy, Gay Where it Counts says

    Steven Novella wrote, in response to me, over at his blog:

    Thomathy -I don’t see atheists as a subset of skeptics. I see skeptics and atheists as overlapping circles. Not all atheists are skeptics, and not all skeptics are atheists.

    That first sentence caused me some apprehension. I believe he very genuinely believes that atheists are doing something different and are different. I think he’s totally wrong.

  26. says

    @Sastra 22
    On supernatural/paranormal I agree entirely. The more we learn about an existent “supernatural” thing the more we adapt our natural laws and discover it’s laws. Ultimately it as we learn more it becomes part of nature. Supernatural/paranormal has to have no evidence of existence because the more we would learn about them the further they’d slip into our definition of naturalism.

  27. says

    I see skeptics and atheists as overlapping circles. Not all atheists are skeptics, and not all skeptics are atheists.

    Overlapping circles… Sort of like magisteria?

    Not all atheists are skeptics; some of them are mistaken. Not all skeptics are atheists; some of them choose to compartmentalize and only be skeptical about a handful of topics. But it’s best not to describe someone like that as a “skeptic” – skepticism is a broad term. If you’re a creo who believes in everything except bigfoot then it’s best to say you “don’t believe in bigfoot” and not that you’re a “skeptic.” Because skepticism is a result of applying a method of reasoning and if you only apply that method in a limited way, you can hardly claim to be applying that method.

  28. unclefrogy says

    PZ is correct here it is irrational to make these distinctions with skepticism and make some subjects “of limits”
    The only way you can even say that is to invent arbitrary categories and arguments and pile on jargon.

    The basis for the argument I think is really an emotional one. Religion is different in that it is more often deeply involved with identity than other things and criticism or questioning of some ones religion is often seen as a personal attack. I do not see anyway around that either it is just the nature of the beast.

    uncle frogy

  29. says

    @17: I’m going to continue your tangent. I really dislike the natural/supernatural dichotomy. The latter seems in practice to be a trash-can category into which we throw “weird things”, many but not all of which go back to substance dualism, or violation of known laws of physics. But we do so inconsistently: perpetual motion machines are not considered supernatural (merely bogus), while levitation and teleportation are — except in SF, where it’s assumed we’ve figured out how to manipulate physics in the necessary ways (see also: Clarke’s Law). All of which shows that these are not ontologically distinct categories. The only criterion that matters is: Does your claim have observable effects? If so, then we investigate and find that either: 1) the effect disappears under controlled conditions, 2) the effect occurs, but is explicable by already-known mechanisms, or 3) we discovered something new and cool about the universe. Note that the forgoing sentence applies equally well to claims about gods, homeopathy, supra-luminal neutrinos, or candidate therapies for Alzheimers (to pick four examples at random).

    And claims gerrymandered (I continue to use the term to emphasize that the formulation of such claims is usually deliberate, strategic and disingenuous) to avoid such investigation are to be dismissed as meaningless noise, not valorized as precious stuff we all have to take Very Seriously and tip-toe around.

  30. Nick Gotts (formerly KG) says

    michaeld,

    She can and probalby will respond for herself, but I’m pretty sure Sastra doesn’t share your take on the supernatural. IIRC, like me she finds Richard Carrier’s definition of the supernatural – that it involves mind or intention not dependent on the physical world – fairly satisfactory, and considers its non-existence to be a confident but still potentially falsifiable empirical conclusion, drawn from a couple of centuries of investigation.

  31. says

    “I believe it because I believe it” (the definition of faith-based), which is not empirical at all.

    Sure it is! Because you don’t get to just say “I believe it because I believe it” and have the discussion end there. The follow up questions are the killers: “What is it you believe? And why?” Then suddenly there are unavoidable objective claims about divinely inspired books and jewish zombies and 3 who are one, etc. Those claims are objective and all can be subjected to further skeptical enquiry. “How is it you know that there was a jewish zombie god?”

    I actually think it’s pretty reasonable to say that the existence of god is disproven, for all intents and purposs. Why? Because all of the paths that get us to the “god” that people believe in are pretty well disproven. Let’s just use the christian god as an example: by the time you subtract the fact that the bible is obviously not inerrant (thanks, Bart Ehrman!) and is a human artifact, then the theory it’s divinely inspired is trashed, and everything in it is trashed, too. What’s left? The believer no longer has a path to get from “I feel this vague sense that there is a god” to “I believe because: ” since all their “because:” just got binned. It’s very frustrating when I talk to woowoos who have claim to believe in the ineffable god of the gaps (e.g.: deists) – they think that making god a nebulous assumption protects it somehow from enquiry. But I ask them “where did the idea of god come from?” Because the idea of god comes from sources that are laughable. Their claims amount to: “I believe the universe was created by an unknowable all powerful thing that bears no resemblance to the god of the jews that nobody in their right mind believes in but which served as the source for my belief in an unknowable but all powerful thing.” In other words the god of the woowoos is the god of the jews with all the claims of fact removed to protect it. But removing all the claims of fact renders it completely pointless. Where did you get that bit about your woowoo god loving us? Oh, that came from the stuff the christians made up? So, it’s made up? Now, please resume telling me how you know your woowoo god loves you.

    The entire epistemology of god – the basis upon which anyone can claim to know anything about god – has been gutted, stomped, and burned to a cinder. Claims about god that are in any way inspired by those beliefs (i.e.: all of them) shouldn’t be allowed to continue to stand. It’s more a case of: “everything you claim to know about god has been demolished. Now, you gotta start at square one: why do you believe there’s a god at all?” Once you acknowledge that the bible is conclusively discredited, where does the concept of god come from? “It’s just a nice idea” doesn’t cut it. I mean, Star Trek transporter beams are a nice idea, too, but there’s no sign that they’re real. Unicorns are a nice idea but there’s no sign that they’re real.

  32. consciousness razor says

    Sorry, I don’t get that. They can start out looking that way (“The Earth is 6,000 years old”), but the underlying claim is “I believe it because I believe it” (the definition of faith-based), which is not empirical at all.

    If that were the case, then what is “it”? They believe what because they believe it? Because circular reasoning by itself doesn’t underlie or root a single damn thing.

    Once you get to the root claim, it’s a question of what you do about it.

    Indeed, and if for example, the claim has something to do about the age of the Earth, then in that case, we’ve established that it is something which can be settled by empirical methods. So what you should do about it is not just accept at face value that their circular reasoning is actually the only relevant or important content of the claim.

    Besides, if someone only wanders around aimlessly, claiming “I believe because I believe” and nothing else, I can’t think of any reason why I’d want to talk to them about anything. Maybe I’d listen to it one or two more times just for a laugh, but that’s it.

  33. Sastra says

    No, not all atheists are skeptics — but all the gnu atheists are. And this is the group which considers atheism to be a rational conclusion informed in light of modern science and the application of skeptical inquiry. Dr. Novella does not have to deal with or consider those atheists who consult astrologers.

    michaeld #28 wrote:

    Supernatural/paranormal has to have no evidence of existence because the more we would learn about them the further they’d slip into our definition of naturalism.

    The particular definition of “supernatural/paranormal” you’re using — and how it contrasts with “naturalism” — is a controversial one. I don’t use it, partly because it has the consequence you demonstrate here : it makes the category of “supernatural” empty and thus makes naturalism — and supernaturalism — unfalsifiable. Shifting terms and categories doesn’t address what really makes supernatural claims distinct from natural ones.

    I think a much more useful and scientific definition is found here. The basic divide between what is “supernatural” and what is “natural” is always going to come down to the position of Mind and its products. In naturalism, everything mental is derivable from the nonmental: in supernaturalism, at least one thing isn’t.

    If we find out God exists, then I would rather say I am no longer an atheist than insist that no, if we find out it exists then it can’t be God. The same argument applies with the supernatural. Too many problems otherwise, including making it look like we’re intractable.

  34. says

    Also, the atheists the skeptics have to consider are a self-selected population who already share common cause with skeptics — I don’t identify as a skeptic because I’m an atheist who believes in astrology and sees a backdoor strategy for undermining skepticism, I’m a skeptic who shares their values.

    We’re participating in skepticism because we’re skeptics, same as all the others who don’t see religion as quite so prominent a problem.

  35. consciousness razor says

    The latter seems in practice to be a trash-can category into which we throw “weird things”, many but not all of which go back to substance dualism, or violation of known laws of physics.

    I can’t think of anything I’d consider “supernatural” that doesn’t meet Richard Carrier’s definition, which does make them distinct ontological categories.

    The only criterion that matters is: Does your claim have observable effects?

    That’s an epistemological category, not an ontological one. Some effect must exist to have some way of knowing about it (if that’s how your epistemology works), but the effect doesn’t need to be the thing the claim is about.

  36. says

    So there goes most of skeptisim except possibly the bigfoot-hunter-hunters.

    If you’re willing to say, “god hasn’t been disproven, therefore it’s reasonable to believe”
    there can be no skepticism at all. Watch this:
    “bigfoot hasn’t been disproven, therefore it’s reasonable to believe”

    After all, you can present as many guys with foot prosthetics in fur suits that you like, but that doesn’t prove bigfoot isn’t real. What proves bigfoot isn’t real is asking the believers what evidence they have and challenging it. This is exactly the same as religion, I’m sorry to say, Dr. Novella. “Oh, you believe god loves us, because that’s what John wrote in one of his letters?” But since we know John didn’t actually write that and it’s a forgery, can we discard the claim of divine inspiration? And since the guy who wrote that “as ‘John'” simply asserts that god loves us and doesn’t even present an argument defending that case, can’t we discard that, as well? If you look at all the truth claims and the evidence supporting them, do they justify our accepting them as truth? If you think so, you don’t know what truth is.

  37. Sastra says

    Heh, Nick at #32 is psychic.

    From what I’ve seen, by the time someone resorts to defending their belief (in God, ghosts, magic, or homeopathy) with “I believe it because I believe it” they are not really trying to answer an objection: they are trying to make the objection go away. “Shut up, that’s why. Shut up, shut up, shut up!”

    Nobody really thinks they believe something because they believe it and they’re a vacuous idiot who never really thinks about what they believe or why they believe things. When they say “I believe it because I believe it” they are probably simply clearing their throat before they change the subject to something that makes them feel more comfortable.

    (Ok, sometimes the “I believe it because I believe it!” ploy may be part of a larger argument having to do with how they have a disposition which just can’t help the fact that they respond to God at a level below that of rational thought — ‘heart knowledge.’ This is a claim.)

  38. Rob Grigjanis says

    Gnumann @23:

    In this context I read “empirical claim” as shorthand for “a claim that is measurable empirically” not “a claim that is based in empiry”.

    Fair enough. Sorry for the distraction.

  39. says

    it makes the category of “supernatural” empty and thus makes naturalism — and supernaturalism — unfalsifiable

    You’re giving too much away. It makes that category empty, which means it’s your interlocutor’s problem to explain why whatever it is they are claiming belongs in that category. They don’t automatically get a free pass to put whatever they want into that category to protect it. You can tell me there’s a teapot in orbit around Mars and I don’t have to engage with your argument, I can simply dismiss it by saying, “there’s no possible way you could know that. Therefore, you don’t.”

    Something supernatural is unknowable because we can only know about things that are in the natural world. For example: we know about Dark Matter because of its gravitational effect, even though we can’t detect it first-hand, we know it’s there because there is actual observable fact that leads us to that inescapable conclusion. Of course Dark Matter gets more challenges against it that a 50-ton diesel locomotive sitting on your foot because our interactions with it are more subtle and require a lot more background knowledge to appreciate.

    But when someone says there’s a supernatural entity that they cannot possibly know anything about, we don’t give them the leeway and grant them that knowledge in the firstplace. There’s no possible way they could know that, therefore their claims to that knowledge are at best delusion and at worse mendacity.

  40. screechymonkey says

    I’m detecting a strong whiff of the tired old debates about atheist/agnostic or hard/soft atheism.

    Novella seems to be saying that, because some believers can cast their claims in unfalsifiable form, “scientific skepticism” has nothing to say, and atheists are stepping outside the bounds of scientific skepticism (and invoking “philosophical naturalism”) to reject those claims.

    But even areas that are traditional topics for “scientific skepticism” can be phrased in unfalsifiable ways. “Homeopathy is an effective medical treatment for some ailments” is, for all practical purposes, unfalsifiable. You can’t test every single possible remedy, at every single possible homeopathic dilution, on every single ailment.

    And yet traditional skeptics don’t freeze up and insist that such claims are beyond skepticism. Instead, they invoke one of the pillars of skepticism: the burden of proof is on the claimant. Atheists just apply that same, time-honored principle to religious claims. If you claim there’s an intelligent deity, but it only influences the world in non-detectable ways, well, maybe we can’t falsify that claim, but until you can substantiate it we consider the claim invalid.

    Many paranormal claimants have insisted that they failed a test such as the JREF’s million dollar challenge because James Randi (or whoever) has paranormal abilities that he uses to block the claimant’s ability. Or there was something else interfering with their abilities that day. Randi refers to these people and their claims as “unsinkable rubber ducks,” which is just a more colorful way of calling them unfalsifiable.

  41. says

    This methodological naturalism drives me nuts.

    Novella claims that religious propositions are untestable, but in doing so, he necessarily redefines testability so much that every statement about everything becomes untestable.

    No, I can’t prove with absolute certainty that there is no god, but that doesn’t mean I can’t test the proposition. I can’t prove absolutely the existence of atoms either. Both statements (about gods & about atoms) are susceptible to empirical investigation, though. In both cases, there are potential observations that would make the proposition more or less probable. Negative observations also count: if I’ve searched my house for 4 hours and not found my keys, chances are, they are not in my house.

    Unless my keys are invisible, but then they fail the empirical test in another way. Suppose we want to assess whether there is an afterlife – we know we can’t possibly observe it, because it occupies a purely spiritual domain. The proposition, therefore, relates to something that vastly increases the complexity of reality, but produces no observable consequences. Ockham’s razor, has been known for about 8 centuries. It can be formally mathematized using Bayes’ theorem, and it tells us that there is no rational basis for believing such propositions.

    Every scientific theory explains some set of data. In order to confirm a theory we accumulate evidence, which just means we accrue observations that make the theory more probable. This can only happen at the expense of other potential explanations, including ‘supernatural’ ones, e.g. the prevailing wind is caused by invisible fairies farting. If the farting fairy theory is untestable, then there is no basis for stating any confidence in any more scientific theory, as the number of potential ‘supernatural’ explanations is infinite, and none of them is susceptible to empirical falsification.

  42. Sastra says

    Eamon Knight #31 wrote:

    I really dislike the natural/supernatural dichotomy. The latter seems in practice to be a trash-can category into which we throw “weird things”, many but not all of which go back to substance dualism, or violation of known laws of physics. But we do so inconsistently: perpetual motion machines are not considered supernatural (merely bogus), while levitation and teleportation are — except in SF, where it’s assumed we’ve figured out how to manipulate physics in the necessary ways (see also: Clarke’s Law). All of which shows that these are not ontologically distinct categories.

    From what I can tell your examples undermine your argument. In order to be considered “supernatural,” it is not enough that something violate known physics: it has to violate known physics in the right way (involving some form of dualism.) Perpetual motion machines are not supernatural, they’re pseudoscience. Ditto for a levitation or teleportation device which doesn’t work.

    When pseudoscience includes some sort of mental magic — a machine or device which only operates through tapping into “the power of the mind,” say — then it’s supernatural, or at least related to it.The supernatural is an ontologically distinct category from stuff that’s natural but wrong (like free energy devices, UFOs, and Bigfoot.)

  43. consciousness razor says

    It makes that category empty, which means it’s your interlocutor’s problem to explain why whatever it is they are claiming belongs in that category. They don’t automatically get a free pass to put whatever they want into that category to protect it.

    The problem is that you could pull that same trick with either “natural” or “supernatural.” It’s sounds absurd, but you could claim Allah is natural because existence means being natural. So you say, perhaps.* But why can’t a (slightly different?) sort of absurd presuppositionalist claim everything is supernatural?

    *That’s a generic “you,” not you, Marcus.

    Something supernatural is unknowable because we can only know about things that are in the natural world.

    How do you know that we can only know about things that are in the natural world?

    But when someone says there’s a supernatural entity that they cannot possibly know anything about

    Are they claiming they can’t know about it, or are you? Is being unknowable what they mean by “supernatural,” or are those two different claims in an argument?

  44. says

    I forgot an important point when I wrote:
    You can tell me there’s a teapot in orbit around Mars and I don’t have to engage with your argument, I can simply dismiss it by saying, “there’s no possible way you could know that. Therefore, you don’t.”

    You can tell me “there could be a teapot in orbit around Mars” and I can say “Yup.Might be.”

    What we need to do is grant the hypotheticals but challenge attempts to place an idea in the supernatural realm to protect it. It’s not a “category error” it’s a “you can’t get there from where you are” kind of thing.

  45. consciousness razor says

    But why can’t a (slightly different?) sort of absurd presuppositionalist claim everything is supernatural?

    Or how about “everything is water”? I don’t know how vacuous we want to get, but I’m sure we could get there if we tried.

  46. Sastra says

    Marcus Ranum #41 wrote:

    You’re giving too much away. It makes that category empty, which means it’s your interlocutor’s problem to explain why whatever it is they are claiming belongs in that category.

    No, you’re not giving them a chance. Using your definition, the claimant can’t even begin to put anything into a category which you’ve defined as forever empty. They’ve lost before they began. No fair.

    Consider again my analogy with atheism. Assume for the moment a hypothetical: through a series of remarkable but convincing evidence, you come to the conclusion that God exists. Would you say “I used to be an atheist, but not any more?”

    Or would you say “I am still an atheist, because any entity which is overwhelmingly shown to be real can’t be “God.” I’ll always be an atheist and God can’t be real, by definition. So I’ve got to think of some other term to call it?”

    Words, words, words.

    But when someone says there’s a supernatural entity that they cannot possibly know anything about, we don’t give them the leeway and grant them that knowledge in the firstplace.

    I don’t give them the leeway and grant that they really do believe “there’s a supernatural entity that they cannot possibly know anything about.” Theists don’t really mean this, you know. They can burble on and on about an indescribable, transcendent mystery beyond the human capacity to understand, but they at least know enough about it to call it “God.” They “sense” it. That eventually slips out.

    Apophasism is a trick.

  47. says

    @Sastra/nick

    Interesting though I’m not sure that entirely escapes my root problem with the concept of supernatural. I admit my position can seem stubborn or intractable but I care less about appearances then what seems to be true.

    If there was a dualistic mind that wasn’t dependent on the physical world I’m not sure that as we learn more about it and it’s abilities it couldn’t be shown to comport to some sort of laws (even if the only law was that this dualistic mind is an exception to the other existing laws). You might have to qualify where these laws are useful/true but there could at least be some testing in some way as this non materially contingent thing interacts with the material world. I don’t know that that would make the supernatural usefully distinct from the natural once we start understanding more and maybe questioning other kinds of energy/matter.

    I’m also not sure that it’s not in a sense of redefining of supernatural to exclude some of the more material things often included (vampires, zombies, a blob like monster that can gain size and maintain density without consuming matter). I suppose an argument could be made that the mind non contingent on the physical could either not interact with the physical or interact in ways indistinguishable from the physical. In either case I think it would raise questions about what the word existence means (similar to those raised in tracieh’s transcendental dice experiment). If there was evidence for the supernatural as it seems to strictly be defined here was shown… I’m not sure I wouldn’t just relabel that the new natural (at least based on how I conceive such a concept).

    cough ending this bit of brain dump train of though… I admit I’ve only begun to read the Carrier article linked… and it links to even more articles and books to understand why he makes some of his definitions etc so this will probably involve more reading on my part. Something to consider anyway though I’m not sure if I agree as of yet.

    Thank you ^.^

  48. blbt5 says

    There is a lot of wasted energy in building fences between skeptics and atheists. Theists are the bullies on the intellectual playground where atheists are just trying to mind their own business and skeptics hide behind the fences or try to blend in so the bully won’t pick on them so much. Novella describes aheists as opposed to faith, but this is incorrect – atheists would ignore faith except for all the conflict faith engenders. Dawkins is the classic exposition of methodological naturalism by maintaining a limited atheism subject to proof, but he has also espoused the classic philosophical naturalism by comparing theisms to absurd beliefs, such as the Flying Spaghetti Monster, so rather sayinhg there are two distinct brands of atheism, he is merely being coy. methodological naturalism is merely an analytical variation of a principle common to both, which is the linguistic expression of the inherent contradiction between existence and non-existence. In the equation of God and reality, neither sharing any elements philosophically or naturally, the only relationship is a completely separate one, i.e., God (or the supernatural) does not exist.

  49. Sastra says

    consciousness razor #48 wrote:

    I don’t know how vacuous we want to get, but I’m sure we could get there if we tried.

    Oh, I don’t have to try. I encounter “Everything is Consciousness” from friends who were into The Secret before it was The Secret. Idealistic monism. “Western science is dualistic.” And so forth…

    Their Achilles’ heel, though, is all their paranormal evidence for naturalism being false. Can’t have it both ways.

  50. joao says

    I agree completly with this post, but I know what Steven Novella will answer because he has already given such answer to me.

    Dr Novella argues that science cant adress untestable claims because science is empirical and testing is a empirical process.

    This leads to a valid argument that if you claim a untestable being you will not be able to adress it scientificaly. Because it is not possible for its permisses to be true and the conclusion false. So it is valid, but is it sound? Meaning, are the premisses true?

    Can you claim it is true that such entities or processes exist? How? Just because you believe it? Because many believe it? No, we learned that believing does not guarantee truthfullness. Its just an ad populum.

    So we got to turn to inductive arguments to adress this claims. What have we learn about knowing? And then inductive arguments are never valid. But they are very usefull, even though you can never be sure. And even Dawkins acknowledges this. And Science is not about SURE THINGS.

    So what does science says about this claims? Does it assume a universe populated with untestable things, but things that can be called into explanations nonetheless? No. No at all.

    Science says that what is not necessary in a explanation weakens such explanation. It makes effective use of ontologic simplicity – entities must not be replicated beyond necessity. So science does reject claims that have no justification. And believing is not a justification.

    Furthermore, science says that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.

    And so, claims of untestable processes or entities are considered very weak claims in science, for they present themselfs has saying that they have and never will have, any evidence. Even very indirect evidence.

    And this we know to have been extremely productive, and has given explanations for things that were once thought unexplanable.

    And now, is this just phylosophy? No, it is just as phylosophy as it is science, because it is how science works. This principles have brought us here, and there is no better way of knowing things then the scintific way. Most good phylosophy, if not all, is very compatible with science, and sometimes hardly distinct. There is good speculation. But good speculation has been proven to have some empirical proof somewhere.

    Claims to have untestable knowledge are rather weird claims. Rejected by the scientific thinking as very, very weak claims. They might be true. But the probabilities are infinitly small. Because if they have no justification besides comon belief they are just as plausible as any other afirmation you can make (in infinite number) about anything, in wich you can allways get someone to belief.

  51. consciousness razor says

    I’m also not sure that it’s not in a sense of redefining of supernatural to exclude some of the more material things often included (vampires, zombies, a blob like monster that can gain size and maintain density without consuming matter).

    Do you think it might depend on how much glitter the vampires have? I mean, what sort of information are we supposed to have about these vampires? Do they exist in a book Bram Stoker wrote, or do they really exist? Is it supposed to be sciencey: are they infected with a physical virus which makes them that way, sort of like lycanthropes?

    As for zombies, if the idea is that there is some sort of “life force” which keeps them ambulatory and brain-eating even though they have an “undead” corpse, then they would be supernatural because that sort of life force would be supernatural.

    I’d say the blob monster would just be an error on a physics 101 test. I don’t see what would make that “supernatural.” Is there some immaterial thing which wants the blob to grow?

    I suppose an argument could be made that the mind non contingent on the physical could either not interact with the physical or interact in ways indistinguishable from the physical.

    The interaction problem is an old problem and a real one. But why think it would it be indistinguishable?

    Oh, I don’t have to try. I encounter “Everything is Consciousness” from friends who were into The Secret before it was The Secret. Idealistic monism. “Western science is dualistic.” And so forth…

    Their Achilles’ heel, though, is all their paranormal evidence for naturalism being false. Can’t have it both ways.

    Evidence? Who needs that? We have words. Words have power. Let’s call everything “everything” and be done with it. I am an Everythingist.

  52. MKandefer says

    @aggressivePerfector

    Novella claims that religious propositions are untestable, but in doing so, he necessarily redefines testability so much that every statement about everything becomes untestable.

    Actually, he thinks some religious propositions are untestable. He’s correct, but falisifiability isn’t the only thing one includes in the scientific/rational/skeptic (insert favorite word here for trying to be less wrong). Other useful tools are parsimony and logic. I’m not yet sure what he considers the tools in the scientific toolset.

    No, I can’t prove with absolute certainty that there is no god, but that doesn’t mean I can’t test the proposition. [...]

    Try steel manning his position. He definitely is not of this mindset about whether or not one must do this to accept a claim. He’s against alternative medicine and doesn’t believe in god. He thinks to be rational positions. He hold them despite not achieving absolute certainty, whatever that might be.

  53. says

    Steven Novella says:

    We should avoid, however, letting political differences that are tangential to skepticism divide us (and I outlined what I think they are).

    It seems clear to me that one such tangential difference is the distinction between methodological and philosophical naturalism. I’m not here to split philosophical hairs. Steven Novella believes that the correct response when someone retreats to untestable claims is “that belief is not science-based. It is faith. … You don’t get to teach such belief in the public school classroom, and you don’t get funding for scientific research”. PZ believes the correct response is to go further on the attack.

    Who cares? They both sound like fine and useful responses to me.

  54. Josh, Official SpokesGay says

    I think the “supernatural” is a fundamentally irrational concept and that no such thing exists. Anything observable is part of the natural world, even if we don’t understand the mechanism (yet) by which it occurs. If telepathy were real, for example, we would expect to find its mechanism somewhere in the laws of nature, perhaps as yet unrevealed. If we say there is no mechanism we’re making a nonsense statement.

  55. says

    @Consciousness razor

    Re monsters

    Depends on the definition of supernatural being used, kind of the whole thing being discussed/considered. Colloquial definitions of supernatural are very broad and poorly defined. My very point by mentioning the monsters was that they would not be supernatural under RC’s definition but are often included in more colloquial ones. I’m not sure yet if I consider RC’s definitions ones I would use (still reading/thinking). And if you don’t like my blob there’s always Spriggans ;p.

    Re interaction problem
    No need to say it would be though it could be. Still very much brain dumpy thinking out loud..

  56. benking says

    Couldn’t agree more PZ.

    Incidentally, regarding the mention of alt-med… what is the inherent difference between the potential for objectively studying politics and epidemiology?

    Both are complex systems (with all the inherent problems that represents), it is just that one has factors more data to draw on… oh, and many skeptics are doctors.

    But seriously… no inherent difference. Really, given the suffering involved, the single loudest cry from the skeptical community should be that behind Mark Hendersons Geek Manifesto. “WE NEED MORE POLITICAL ECONOMY DATA!!!!!”

  57. says

    They’ve lost before they began. No fair.

    I thought we were talking about arguing about reality versus bullshit. That’s inherently unfair.

    Or, if you want a different take on it, it’s unfair to argue using bullshit against someone relying on reality, because you’ve got an unusually flexible set of arguments. No fair.

    What’s “fair” got to do with it?

  58. Scientismist says

    Hmph. I started writing this 50 posts ago; if I continue to try to catch up, I won’t ever post it. So:
    PZ says:

    I can say over and over again that most atheists have arrived at their disbelief by the process of scientific skepticism, and it just doesn’t sink in: we will just get the magical handwave that there are “philosophically different approaches”.

    Most atheists? Some atheists, certainly; but it’s been nearly 40 years since I began to realize that there are an awful lot of atheists who don’t know why they are atheists. Or at least I can’t figure them out (and apparently PZ can’t either). I lost track of how many times, after giving a talk about some aspect of how science was chipping away at the foundations of faith, I was told that Humanism should be wary of hitching its wagon to the false hope of science.

    The popularization of the notion of “methodological naturalism” in recent years has been of no help at all. I’ll take that seriously only when its supporters start talking about “methodological” evolution and “methodological” quantum physics. Scientific naturalism is neither methodological nor philosophical, but an empirical understanding of the coherence of all observed (and, in theory, observable) phenomena, and a caution against a too-easy acceptance of incoherent claims (Sastra’s definition involving the nature of mind covers it pretty well). It is as much a tested part of science as is any other basic theory, and like other theories, is refined and evolves over time (along with our understanding of the idea of mind). The only thing the “methodological” epithet does is to imply that naturalism of any kind does not and should not inform the direction of future research, as it is entirely optional, like a lab coat: it may be customary to employ an assumption of naturalism, but your experimental success does nothing to suggest that it should now be considered more likely to be an essential part of the real world outside the lab. Unlike every other theory in science, its successes are not supposed to be taken as evidence of the probable truth of the naturalistic theory’s current formulation, just of its methodological prudence for scientists in a world of research that is disconnected from our common probable reality.

    The problem is that theists, and many atheists and skeptics still want to believe in human access to absolute truth, even if it is only the solipsistic truth of faith. It is a very good thing that “new atheism” has emphasized empirical epistemology and the provisional nature of all knowledge; but it is worrisome that so many atheists and skeptics still don’t seem to get that, and try to leave room for an absolute supernatural faith position, perhaps to counter their own absolute rejection of the supernatural based on those “philosophically different approaches”.

    Thomathy reports that Steven Novella wrote at his blog:

    Thomathy -I don’t see atheists as a subset of skeptics. I see skeptics and atheists as overlapping circles. Not all atheists are skeptics, and not all skeptics are atheists.

    I think what Novella says is most likely true; but describes, IMHO, two kinds of incoherence I find troublesome, but fascinating. What I suspect they have in common (the non-atheist skeptics, and the atheist non-skeptics) is a yearning for absolute truth. Anybody have any ideas about how to research that conjecture?

  59. texasaggie says

    Whenever I see “methodological naturalism” and “philosophical naturalism,” I get ready to hear someone claiming that we need to change our definition of science to include supernatural causes as possible causes. This is one of the favorite tricks of the IDers and it has no validity with them nor with Novella in this case.

  60. gussnarp says

    It pains me to watch this argument play out between you and Steve. I know you’re both big boys and hardened and practiced in the art of argument, and I expect that you’ll still be quite friendly next time you see each other, but I just feel like I’m watching a train wreck. So yeah, I only read the beginning of this one, because I just can’t take it. Ultimately, I have seen Steve take his scientific skepticism ™ too far in it’s exclusion of certain kinds of issues, but I honestly feel like you guys are awfully close together in reality. Maybe I’m wrong.

  61. hexidecima says

    “What is correct is that there is a philosophically different approach between empirical claims and faith-based claims and it is necessary to acknowledge this.”

    NOMA in another form which fails since theists consistently claim their gods are affecting the real world in what should be very testable ways.

  62. eric says

    Sastra @26 (characterizing the argument):

    The argument is that there are people in the skeptical movement who think that religious assertions which do NOT make specific testable claims are outside of what skeptics can deal with.

    I agree with your characterization, but I find that a very strange opinion (recognizing that it isn’t yours; maybe its Dr. Novella’s but I’d be hesitant to even say that). For example, such people would have to count Sagan as not doing skepticism when he gave his dragon-in-the-garage example. He and that example was clearly targeting religious assertions which do not make testable claims. But its also very clearly a form of mainstream skepticism. Sagan is pretty much an exemplar of the skeptical movement.

    I’d say that if one is defining skepticism in a way that excludes classic anti-religious arguments made by Sagan, one needs to really think about why one is doing such a redefinition. Because the obvious explanation is that defining the skeptical movement to exclude some of its most classic 20th century pieces and speakers is a fairly obvious attempt to protect certain beliefs from skeptical enquiry.

  63. Muz says

    Call me crazy, but this seems like such a sane and reasonable talking out of disagreements and perspectives. Isn’t this supposed to turn into a gigantic shitfit of finger pointing and bile and somehow blaming it all on feminism soon?
    That’s how this works right? (We have always been at war with Eastasia, haven’t we?)

  64. Sastra says

    marcus Ranum #60 wrote:

    What’s “fair” got to do with it?

    The fairness is involved in the method. Science is impartial: it doesn’t rule out what it can discover upfront.

    Thought experiment for illustrative purposes:
    Let’s say someone believes in the supernatural, and you demand convincing evidence for that. Fair enough demand. He provides you with convincing evidence for ghosts. Okay, you say: then ghosts are natural. What else you got? So he provides you with convincing evidence for souls surviving death. Okay, you say; then souls and an afterlife are natural. What else you got? So he provides you with convincing evidence for God. Okay, you say; then God is natural. So what else you got? And on and on it goes.

    The poor guy trots out every supernatural claim in the book: ESP, psychokenesis, magical correspondences, “luck,” precognition, vitalism, karma, prana, God, cosmic consciousness, mind as “energy force,” a universal tendency towards the harmonic balance of Good and Evil, progressive evolution towards Higher States, mind/body substance dualism, holistic nonmaterialistic monism, dual-aspect monism. He gives you convincing evidence for each and every one all the way down the line. You agree it’s real. It’s not bullshit. All of them. Yes, your world view has changed drastically. This is a dramatic shift. Indeed.

    But HAHAHA! They were all natural! He couldn’t provide any evidence for the supernatural!

    He lost. You won. Take that, supernaturalist!

    Come on. Do you see no problem here? At some point “the natural universe” would be stretched sooo far out of shape from the current scientific model that there seems to be no other honest or scientific option but to admit defeat and reject naturalism.

    The argument is whether science can rule on the supernatural. One way is to say science CAN examine the supernatural and it turned out to be bullshit. The other way is to redefine everything that science could ever examine as “natural” (methodological naturalism) and the supernatural starts out as bullshit. I understand that second approach, but think it scientifically suspect, philosophically weak, and easy for the religious to exploit. Science deals with reality. It’s focus isn’t limited to ‘nature.’ Saying otherwise grants the religious their supernatural special snowflake status and makes the naturalist closed-minded.

    “Methodological naturalism” is what liberal religionists and accomodationists invoke to protect religion from falsification. It’s what they do when they secretly fear that maybe science never WILL show they’re right — or maybe reality plays favorites — so let’s head off the science-based objections in advance.

  65. says

    Ah, PZ, it was ever thus! An experiment with peer-reviewed papers found that if the conclusions fit mainstream scientific thinking, it would be accepted, but a paper with conclusions that went against current theory, with the same methods, would be criticized on the grounds of poor methodology.

  66. says

    Hmm… I think I largely like what RC has done. He certainly does give the first good set of definitions of natural and supernatural I have seen. Though I admit I’m still unsure if the words are worth defining this way given their muddled more colloquial usage. To try to repair or melt down and start over that is the question…

  67. notsont says

    “Ah, PZ, it was ever thus! An experiment with peer-reviewed papers found that if the conclusions fit mainstream scientific thinking, it would be accepted, but a paper with conclusions that went against current theory, with the same methods, would be criticized on the grounds of poor methodology.”

    When something contradicts piles and piles of evidence or years of established scientific thinking then it gets a lot more scrutiny, this is obvious, and its a good thing.

  68. says

    MKandefer,

    Some theories are indeed unfalsifiable, but science has other tests it can apply. Unfalsifiability only comes about by a theory being consistent with all possible observations, in which case scientific method (a.k.a. probability theory) chews it to bits: Ockham’s razor ensures such theories get zero prior probability.

    Unfalsifiable means the posterior can’t differ from the prior, but this doesn’t matter if the prior is nil.

    I don’t believe either that Novella adheres to that absolute understanding of testability, but I wanted to show that his insistence that classes of phenomena are untestable is inconsistent. Refusal, for example, to identify as irrational beliefs that come with automatically zero probability is anti scientific and anti-sceptical. If a phenomenon has measurable consequences, then crack out the science kit and lets examine it, if it has none, then why are we talking about it?

  69. Sastra says

    michaeld #69 wrote:

    Though I admit I’m still unsure if the words are worth defining this way given their muddled more colloquial usage.

    I think one of Richard’s points is that defining the supernatural this way actually tracks better with colloquial usage. And he’s far from the only philosopher to approach it this way: Daniel Dennett also comes to minds.

    There are gray areas where it gets fuzzy. Every definition suffers from this problem on the edges.

  70. notsont says

    The problem with supernatural is that its a nonsense word it has no definition and in order to define it you have to resort to other nonsense words or things that we can’t even properly theorize the existence of a a “non-material mental” entity what does that even really mean?

  71. consciousness razor says

    My very point by mentioning the monsters was that they would not be supernatural under RC’s definition but are often included in more colloquial ones.

    Says who? You could have a supernatural zombie by R.C.’s definition, just as I described, unless you insist there are very specific criteria for zombiehood which preclude that, though I see no reason why that would be necessary.

    (But whatever you do, please do not even mention p-zombies.)

    And if you don’t like my blob there’s always Spriggans ;p.

    Doesn’t sound so different from witches to me; they just happen not to be human. If they have magic powers which help them do … whatever it is they’re supposed to do … then it’s fairly uncontroversial to say magic is supernatural, so they would be too. If not, then if they existed, they would be weird natural critters no one has any evidence for, like Nessie or Bigfoot.

  72. stevem says

    Sastra wrote:

    … religious assertions which do NOT make specific testable claims …

    Sorry to interject this deep conversation re natural v. supernatural, but if you’ll excuse me a moment, I just wanted to interject an example of one of religion’s untestable claims, that may well be true regardless. People often, when highly stressed, resort to prayer, which then calms them, makes them more peaceful. I think this is true; prayer calms the anxious mind. I accept that as true but dispute the cause. The prayer-sayer may say that God calmed oneself, but I say that is just an illusion (delusion?). The mind (brain) calmed itself during the act of prayer; as meditation might have done the same.

    Sorry to ramble, not sure how this is meant to add to the conversation, just thought I could say it anyway. Please, continue… [the ongoing discussion is most interesting, and educational]

  73. echidna says

    Novella claims that skepticism is about protecting people from scams, where atheism is opposed to religion. Religion is a scam. Hubbard made that abundantly clear.

  74. John Morales says

    stevem,

    I accept that as true but dispute the cause.

    But that’s part of the claim; since you dispute that part, you dispute the claim.

  75. Gnumann+,with no bloody irony at all (just a radfem with a shotgun) says

    Rob G:

    Fair enough. Sorry for the distraction.

    Nae worries! At least in my book, an opertunity for clarification is always welcome. If you read it that way, someone else will most likely do it too. If no-one voices it, there’s no opertunity to avoid misunderstandings. In other words: as long as they are in good faith (and you never came of as not in good faith), discussions like this should never be apologised for. They are of the good.

  76. says

    @ consciousness Razor

    re magic

    Actually RC’s definitions leave room for natural magic and supernatural magic dependent on the source and method of action.

  77. Denverly says

    The only thing I can say is that I became an atheist through the application of skepticism. Skeptic first, then atheist second. It was a natural application of method to my entire worldview. I couldn’t restrict my skepticism to everything except religion without considering myself a hypocrite.

  78. says

    Let’s say someone believes in the supernatural, and you demand convincing evidence for that. Fair enough demand. He provides you with convincing evidence for ghosts. Okay, you say: then ghosts are natural. What else you got? So he provides you with convincing evidence for souls surviving death. Okay, you say; then souls and an afterlife are natural. What else you got? So he provides you with convincing evidence for God. Okay, you say; then God is natural. So what else you got? And on and on it goes.

    That’s right. It’s his problem if he has mistaken a bunch of natural things for “supernatural” – unless all you’re saying is that “supernatural” is shorthand for “something natural that isn’t understood yet” but then we’re left with Dark Matter being “supernatural” (which it clearly cannot be, because anything that has enough gravity to bend light is “natural” not “supernatural”

    I really am genuinely puzzled by your apparent need for these things to somehow be “fair”. We’re talking about reality and whether it’s “fair” or not is a side-effect of our individual interpretations of it. But whether we think it’s “fair” or not is completely irrelevant to how reality is going to be, anyway.

    So, yeah, if some guy demonstrates that there really are ghosts, then they have to be part of the natural world because that’s what “existence” means so if there are ghosts, they exist, and therefore they are natural. And, yeah, by definition if it’s “supernatural” that means it “does not exist in nature” which is a longer way of saying “does not exist” (or more to the point – impossible for you to learn that it exists) if you see a ghost you’re either seeing matter (i.e.: it exists and is material) because that’s how “seeing” works, or you’ve got a whole new form of seeing in which case it’s probably not “seeing” it’s something else. “Seeing” a ghost requires that a photon be absorbed/released by the matter the ghost is comprised of, then interacting with the rods and cones in your eyes. That’s the only possible way you can “see” a ghost. Unless the ghost is a figment of your imagination or you’re dreaming it, in which case you can’t honestly say it exists. (You can say you believe it exists. But that’s OK because it is easy to refute that, “yeah? So?”)

    The definitions many appear to want to use for “supernatural” is not really “supernatural” at all – it’s “natural but apparently unexplained” which is just another way of describing sincere ignorance. if someone projects some image and I think I’ve seen a ghost, I may think it’s supernatural but if I pause to think I ought to realize that it cannot be, because seeing is a natural process. There are no magic get out of jail free cards that allow photons to interact with your eye so that you see something that’s not there unless there’s some other explanation of how your eye/brain naturally produced a situation that fooled themselves.

    I understand that second approach, but think it scientifically suspect, philosophically weak, and easy for the religious to exploit.

    Obviously, I don’t agree. In fact I think it’s much stronger because it forces an immediate epistemological challenge, and those tend to be devastating in terms of separating faith from knowledge. And scientists/skeptics need only concern ourselves with knowledge – we spend far too much time slogging through the augean stables of halfassed explanation.

    A dozen years ago a former friend got involved in selling some goofy ass energy healing device. He told me it healed using an energy that was undetectable and unknown to science. I immediately responded, “if it’s undetectable, how do you know it’s there?” Oops. So much for a friendship. But, I’m sorry, this stuff we’re talking about is reality. There’s no need to be fair or nice or argue gently with other people’s delusions. And if you’re worried that we’re adopting a weaker position – we’re actually adopting a weaker position when we countenance ridiculous claims as much as we do. You say you saw a ghost but there was nothing material there? Cool. Come back to me with a new physics for how photons would interact with something immaterial and we can talk, but otherwise why should I assume you ‘saw’ something when a much simpler explanation is you’re delusional, you were dreaming, someone fooled you, or you’re lying. Is that unnecessarily tough? No. Unnecessarily tough is expecting me to legitimately assume that some woowoo has come up with a whole new physics of ghosts. Because to see a ghost, that’s what you need. The adjustment to conservation laws would be pretty interesting, for that to work…

  79. Minestuck says

    One thing I don’t understand about this is that Novella is, by all accounts, an atheist. He says he doesn’t believe in god. Or is he someone who doesn’t believe in god who claims not to be an atheist? I have to wonder because of his absurd straw atheist. Is he projecting himself, or simply projecting what he perceives atheists are? I believe that whatever the case may be, it may be why he’s unable to concede that atheism is a subset of skepticism if he believes that his atheism, or the broad atheism of others, is essentially a faith-based position in philosophical naturalism and thus an exception according to his own skeptical principals. I wonder how he would characterize his position towards god and religion. I imagine it would be quite skeptical.

  80. John Morales says

    Minestuck, he’s a self-described agnostic; he really doesn’t want to call himself an atheist.

  81. says

    @John Morales

    O.O Umm don’t look at me Richard Carrier said it.

    Supernatural magic would be directly caused by a deulistic mind where as natural magic would be something like the brain interacting with an as of yet unknown energy particle which then affects the change. Obviously I don’t think either exist, and I’m not even sure how much I like RC’s definitions of supernatural and natural (though they are the best described definitions I’ve yet seen). This does not change the fact that using his definitions there could conceivably be natural magic or supernatural magic.

  82. alwayscurious says

    @38: My previous post on the subject almost was something similar:

    Proposition (no evidence for any point):
    1) Bigfoot exists
    2) I believe Bigfoot created the world
    3) I believe Bigfoot created the world and can become invisible at will

    Skepticism is only allowed to challenge 1) and not 2) or 3)? There should be nothing wrong with demanding lots of evidence for any of those points from anyone that believes them to be true. And we should not have to wait for someone to ask our opinion before stating that points 1-3 are completely baseless.

  83. Gnumann+,with no bloody irony at all (just a radfem with a shotgun) says

    Stevem
    You attempt to exemplify an untestable claim failed. The claim you provided (prayer calms, no matter the cause) is indeed testable.

    Don’t worry about it. Untestable claims are usually incoherent or undefined, usually by design. It takes either a certain kind of idiot or rank dishonesty to provide them in cold blood. That you are unable to even when you try says good things about you.

    Untestable claims fall generally into two categories: the meaningless (including the tautological) – for example “god is love” or unnecessary complications – for example “what if it all is just a computer simulation like the matrix”. The first kind is meaningless, the second is occhammed away for good reason.

  84. consciousness razor says

    Actually RC’s definitions leave room for natural magic and supernatural magic dependent on the source and method of action.

    I haven’t read it again recently, but I don’t think he’d say it’s actually “magic” when there’s some naturalistic mechanism making it happen. It might seem like magic if we don’t know, but knowing or not knowing is irrelevant to what the thing actually is (which is really the entire point a lot of people seem to have a problem with). Anyway, that sort of thing isn’t what I mean by “magic,” and Carrier could mean whatever he wants.

    For anyone who still wants to insist it’s some quirky academic definition which doesn’t fit standard usage, think about the word “nature” for a second. If someone says, “It’s a nice day, so let’s go out and enjoy nature for a while,” it’d be awfully daft to interpret that as “let’s go out and enjoy things we can know about for a while.” When they go back indoors, presumably they would enter somewhere mysterious and unknowable.

    Or if they think something to themselves (indoors, perhaps) and never share it with anyone, I guess somehow that’s supposed to be supernatural, because no one could ever know. Would it become more or less “natural” depending on how many people know or how much they know? What’s the point of making it this complicated anyway?

  85. Sastra says

    Marcus Ranum #82 wrote:

    I really am genuinely puzzled by your apparent need for these things to somehow be “fair”.

    Not the things — the method should play fair. When you define nature as “all that exists” then by definition the supernatural does not. So what? It’s a word trick which looks like it’s saying something when it’s not. It would be like a theist defining God as “the universe” and getting an atheist to agree that God exists. Okay. But nobody moved. Only the lines on definitions moved. A good definition of X should have something to do with content, and allow you to tell X apart from not-X.

    What if the supernatural is not outside of nature, but a realm or area or level OF nature? Plenty of theists and spiritual folks would be happy with this compromise. Don’t be distracted so much by the actual term.

    String Theory is not supernatural. It may be untestable, it may be wrong, it may be dealing with outside the universe, it may be something natural which is not understood yet.

    Now I am going to turn it into woo:
    “String Theory is a mathematical theory for describing the properties of fundamental particles, which represents the particles as composed of the non-dimensional vibrations of Pure Love, which exist in the normal four dimensions of space-time plus additional dimensions of higher and higher consciousness, culminating in the essential nature of Being.”

    Woo = supernatural. It shares certain elements, and it’s not just about testability or what we can observe or infer. Skyhooks. The supernatural uses skyhooks.

  86. John Morales says

    [meta]

    michaeld, I don’t care who said it; bullshit is bullshit and oxymorons are oxymoronic.

    (And tautologies are tautological ;) )

    PS This has episodically been a subject of discussion here for years.

    (For example, here)

  87. says

    @Consciousness razor

    Don’t look at me ;p I started using a colloquial definition and then people showed me towards Richard Carrier’s more academic definition of natural and supernatural and started talking about that and it’s increasingly hard to carry on conversations because different people are using one or the other.

    Feel free to add ” ” to either naturalistic “magic” and supernatural “magic”. RC discusses possible natural and supernatural gods so assuming a loose definition of magic (say the paranormal ability to create a fireball in your hand and throw it without aditional technology) it is possible to at least create a fictional world with either supernatural or natural “magic” using my example of “magic” and RC’s definitions of Natural and supernatural.

    I’d say your example of the usage of nature verges on equivocation as nature could have multiple uses silimar to say hot (sexy, warm and spicy). Just look at natural sugar for example ;p

  88. lancelotgobbo says

    I feel rather bewildered as I watch a perfectly good non-hobby fragment into competing groups of collectors of different stamps. I see previously honest atheist writers imply that we have to believe as they do or be banished to the outer darkness. I see my only holy book (all 24 volumes of the full edition) being used as a pejorative adjective for some kinds of atheist and I recoil. Fortunately this evening I read the first intelligent summary of the Great Schism here. Apologies if any unsuspecting readers don’t like being exposed to properly (I never said I was perfect and wouldn’t try to influence you, did I?) socialist writings!

  89. says

    Sastra

    Consider again my analogy with atheism. Assume for the moment a hypothetical: through a series of remarkable but convincing evidence, you come to the conclusion that God exists. Would you say “I used to be an atheist, but not any more?”

    Or would you say “I am still an atheist, because any entity which is overwhelmingly shown to be real can’t be “God.” I’ll always be an atheist and God can’t be real, by definition. So I’ve got to think of some other term to call it?”

    No, I would say “God, having been proven to exist, is part of the natural world.” Carrier’s definition is effectively useless, since if e.g. Jedi existed they would also be a part of nature. Yes, it would mean that our current understanding of the laws of nature is deeply flawed, but not that there was suddenly something around that wouldn’t be ‘nature.’ The entire concept of supernatural is incoherent unless it means ‘Empirically verifiable phenomenon not explicable by current understanding of natural law,’ but in that case it’s your understanding of natural law that’s flawed, it’s not that something can violate it. Basically the inverse of Clarke’s Law: Whatever we don’t understand is magic. In other words, a working perpetual motion machine would, at this time, be supernatural, since it violates our current understanding of the laws of physics. A claimed perpetual motion machine that didn’t work, like all the ones anyone’s demonstrated, is simply a false claim; in the same way, a claim that God healed someone’s cancer is not a supernatural claim, it is a false one. There is no meaningful categorical difference between them.

    Science deals with reality. It’s focus isn’t limited to ‘nature.’

    What is the distinction you’re making between reality and nature? Why are you making it?

  90. John Morales says

    [meta]

    lancelotgobbo, your apology is meritorious, since your link is entirely out of topic.

  91. consciousness razor says

    RC discusses possible natural and supernatural gods so assuming a loose definition of magic (say the paranormal ability to create a fireball in your hand and throw it without aditional technology) it is possible to at least create a fictional world with either supernatural or natural “magic” using my example of “magic” and RC’s definitions of Natural and supernatural.

    Okay, I meant to ask where you got that idea, but I get what you’re saying. He talked about a naturalistic Stoic “god.” I’d agree that it should work similarly for “naturalistic magic” if there were such a thing, though I have a hard time thinking of what that would be like. What work would the word “magic” be doing exactly? I assume it would be some special power someone has, which non-magical people don’t have? In the way rich people have more power than not-rich people? I mean, is it supposed to be that mundane?

    I’d say your example of the usage of nature verges on equivocation as nature could have multiple uses silimar to say hot (sexy, warm and spicy).

    I don’t dispute that it can and does have several meanings, but the “knowable” one in particular is not at all typical. Anyway, someone claiming that’s what natural means in this case, when the subject is metaphysics not epistemology, is simply mistaken or else they’re intentionally avoiding the issue by taking an invalid position.

  92. says

    Actually my star wars EU knowledge is limited but the force is fairly close at least to a naturalistic magic.

    Messages from the brain to the medi-chlorians which interact with an energy field called the force that creates the macroscopic effects of telepathy, telekinesis and electrical discharge etc.

  93. says

    Marcus Ranum

    “Seeing” a ghost requires that a photon be absorbed/released by the matter the ghost is comprised of, then interacting with the rods and cones in your eyes. That’s the only possible way you can “see” a ghost. Unless the ghost is a figment of your imagination or you’re dreaming it, in which case you can’t honestly say it exists.

    This is not strictly true, although it’s broadly true; technically, something would be using a very finly tuned magnetic field to excite your visual cortex directly, which doesn’t require photons to strike your eyes. You’re still generally right, of course, because what’s happening is still a physical process.

    Sastra

    What if the supernatural is not outside of nature, but a realm or area or level OF nature? Plenty of theists and spiritual folks would be happy with this compromise. Don’t be distracted so much by the actual term.

    That definition doesn’t change mine at all; if there’s a ‘higher level’ of reality, that’s bloody well part of nature too. If the Many Worlds hypothsis turned out to be true, and there were loads of alternate dimensions, they wouldn’t be supernatural. If it turns out that the laws of nature we know of only apply in our little corner of reality and there are higher dimensions where the laws are different, that’s still part of nature, we just don’t know those laws yet. If those laws supersede the laws of nature that apply here that we thought were universal…guess what? It’s still a part of reality, which is to say nature.

  94. says

    @consciousness Razor

    I wrote the force example before seeing your question but it could be seen as an example. Actually (the reason I’m posting again) I have mass effect 3 on near by and the biotics in that would be another example of what I would call magic.

    In that case if you are unfamiliar an unknown to us element can cause a change in human development in the womb leading to organelles that with cybernetic enhancements allow for a mental control of gravity fields to create potential barriers, causes changes to the potential/kinetic energy of an object, move objects etc. To my mind jedi and biotics have the feel, the qualia (?) of magic and would be naturalistic under RC’s definitions.

  95. John Morales says

    [OT]

    michaeld @99, what the hey? Our brains do interact with ‘energy fields’* to cause physical actions — you did just that when you typed out your comment — but we don’t call that ‘magic’.

    (So why is this fictional interaction with a fictional field supposedly magical, again?)

    After refreshing, I see your #101. I can tell you right now that these things seem magical to your mind because they exist in a fictional reality and you live in a non-fictional reality.

    (When you need to appeal to fiction to sustain your conceits, you’re doing skepticism RONG)

    * Electromagnetic fields, in this case.

  96. cubist says

    Personally, I think the word “supernatural” has no intrinsic meaning of its own; it’s basically a placeholder, a code-word that translates to “I don’t understand whatever-it-is”, commonly with a platter of “and what’s more, nobody else is ever going to understand whatever-it-is, either” on the side. Sastra’s notion that the word “supernatural” is an implicit reference to the concept of a disembodied Mind is overthinking it, IMAO; the word “supernatural” just isn’t an actual claim of any sort. Rather, the word is a way of spackling over its user’s ignorance so that nobody (least of all the word’s user!) will have to acknowledge the user’s ignorance.

  97. says

    @ john Morales

    Umm… yes and? I probably should have added paranormal actions. To my mind and I freely admit I approach the idea of magic from the colloquial fictional use of it, magic would be:

    The control of one or more nature laws (ex gravity) as we currently understand them through at the will/command of a person through a non traditional sense. Preferably without technology although I’m ok with a device to applify the effect.

    I would be fine calling a psychic power a type of “magic” for example. Again from a fictional point of view I’m fine with funcational magic with rules and laws that can be tested and understoof. Obviously since I don’t think magic exists it currently qualifies as paranormal.

    I honestly have no idea what conceit you think I have or how my concept of what magic could be is doing skepticism wrong. I don’t think any of this exists, I won’t hold my breath that we will discover it any time soon. I do have some qualities in mind of what I would call magic if I saw it. Similarly I have a concept of the kind of entity I would be willing to call a god. Doesn’t mean I think it exists, is likely to exist, or that it would be worthy of worship if it existed.

  98. brive1987 says

    Dr Novella would have been clearer if he had said there is “broad based scientific scepticism” (bigfoot. alt-med, water divining, ESP, spoon bending etc), a distinct sub-genre of which has developed into “scientific atheism” (crackers, Noah’s Ark, intelligent design etc ) and then there is atheism based on philosophical naturalism (sadly under-represented in the popular discourse).

    I think Novella would agree that the practice and tool sets of scientific scepticism and scientific atheism are the same. The problems PZ has encountered relate more to responses to the tone of Scientific Atheistic activism and attendant value statements.

    PZ’s response did seem to have an overly narrow view of what is required to effectively rebut religion.

    Krauss, Dawkins and PZ are good at scientifically devouring the low hanging fruit of Christian/Islamic claims of specific intersections with the naturalistic world. But they have not “disproved” religion.

    I would however argue that Dawkins veers to the circular with the “remove the naturalistic knowledge gaps and god disappears” argument as this has as a premise a naturalist world without a transcendent dimension, but whatever.]

    Ever since the 17th century “intellectual religion” has as its basis complex philosophical arguments that seek to require a god. You could strip every naturalistic argument away from religion and still conceivably have a strong philosophical basis to believe in “a god”.

    Frequently scientists over-reach themselves when they progress from say “Christian claims are bunk” to non-agnostic atheism. (note Krauss’s recent apology to the field of philosophy).

    Dawkins treatment of the ontological argument was embarrassingly vacuous – as you would expect from a non-philosopher. In a similar vein proponents of the natural sciences rarely come off well when engaging in philosophical based “God” debates with WLC – much as I detest the man. Dawkins was quite right in not debating – and not just for the “CV” argument.

    A fully fleshed atheism – which confronts both the basis and claims of religion, requires both the PZs and the Ray Bradleys of this world.

  99. consciousness razor says

    I wrote the force example before seeing your question but it could be seen as an example. Actually (the reason I’m posting again) I have mass effect 3 on near by and the biotics in that would be another example of what I would call magic.

    Sure… I don’t know about Mass Effect, but the Force could be natural (especially if midi-chlorians are canonical). The thing is that the characters talk a lot as if the Force itself has a will of its own, like it isn’t just a bunch of nifty tricks you can do if you have the right parasites, which suggests it’s supernatural. Of course, you can say the Jedi/Sith exist right there in the (fictional) natural world with all the ordinary folk, and that’s true. You wouldn’t need to claim they’re somewhere else, just because they have superpowers.

    To give a real-world example, a lot of people think we all have souls. So what are people? What these believers are saying is that in an important sense we’re all supernatural (like Jebus, but of lesser quality), while rocks, plants, non-human animals, etc. are not (maybe dogs too, if they go to heaven). You can’t boil that down to something as simple as “we’re all unknowable,” because it’s clearly tied up with all sorts of claims about what there actually is, what happens in our lives and what happens when we die, what our origins are, what makes us morally significant, and so on.

  100. John Morales says

    brive1987:

    You could strip every naturalistic argument away from religion and still conceivably have a strong philosophical basis to believe in “a god”.

    Rubbish. Hume and Kant dealt with those philosophical claims long ago.

    Dawkins treatment of the ontological argument was embarrassingly vacuous – as you would expect from a non-philosopher.

    So you assert.

    A fully fleshed atheism – which confronts both the basis and claims of religion, requires both the PZs and the Ray Bradleys of this world.

    Rubbish. All it requires is scepticism about both the basis and claims of religion.

  101. notsont says

    brive1987 Sure you can have a philosophical belief in god right up until the point where you say you know he exists or that he wants anything from you. Once you get to that point and suggest he doesn’t want you wearing a cotton-poly blend shirt your now in the realm of science.

  102. says

    @ consciousness razor

    I admit I’d adapting from fictional examples but few tweaks maybe to Jedi maybe remove the will of the force just medi-chlorians, jedis control them to do force power. Then have them land in time square spend a few months with Randi, and a group of scientists to prove what they say is true works. That would more or less fit my current definition of what I would accept as a “natural” “magic” could “exist” (assuming some potentially very strange workings around of our natural laws that are very unlikely and considering this is more of a mental exercise then any thing remotely practical)*.

    *yes lots of qualifications

    Hmm… Actually thinking about your souls example under RC’s definition you could have natural and supernatural souls **. Depending on whether or not they were subdivisible into components with actions essentially a second brain of soul stuff or a more traditional supernatural view of the soul (indivisible disembodied mind).

    **look away John LOOK AWAY!!!! ;p

    “we’re all unknowable,”

    Possibly more accuratly stated “we all have part of us that is unknowable”. Wording aside I do see what you are trying to say and I think I agree.

  103. anchor says

    For the purpose of convenience, and wanting to avoid getting bogged down in semantics, I am going to define (for this post) three terms: scientific skepticism deals with empirical claims and the promotion of science, atheism focuses on opposing religion and faith, and rationalism seeks to apply reason and skepticism to all areas.

    So what else could atheists possibly employ to “focus” with upon its particular concern, if not with ‘empiricism’, ‘promotion of science’, and the application of ‘reason and skepticism’???

    With the lens of divine guidance? With tea leaves? A whim dictated by throwing dice?

    Man. Evidently Novella’s mind is so inextricably welded to the preconception that atheism is so very different from other forms of skepticism that he must really really believe that atheism is that very different.

    What is the matter with him?*

    Well, at least he allows it has “focus”. I’ll allow it is spelled very differently.

    *It looks very much like he’s selectively suspended his skepticism and ability to reason in favor of cleaving to a belief, a preconceived and strongly held conviction, and fabricated a difference to support that belief, to demonstrate that there is a difference, you know, in tidy little circular terms, “for the purpose of convenience”. To be sure, he is most careful to supply a disclaimer for that collection of definitions he offers in reiterating his claim of a distinction, that it “does not capture all the complexity of our movement, but I will use it, again, for convenience”, for the sake of skeptical appearance, in case anyone has any doubts. He props these definitions onto the equally convenient identification of distinct brands of naturalism – “methodological” and “philosophical”- which he previously manufactures to serve as the foundation for his position…because he wants “to avoid getting bogged down in semantics”. The man is obviously very keen on distinction and definition and category. They so suggest the presence of difference. Pointing them out is so easy; Its all so clear, so simple, so natural; it must be, it looks so authentic, it feels so right.

  104. brive1987 says

    @John 108

    1. The Philosophy of religion did not stop at Kant and Hume even if your thinking did.

    2. Skepticism about the claims of religion is called … Philosophy, a tool kit and discipline PZ and Dawkins haven’t earned (skilled as they are in their areas)

    3:
    Dawkins: “A pig that can fly, is surely better than a normal pig. It is possible to conceive, of a flying pig- everyone can, just that we would deny its existence. But, goes the argument, a pig capable of flying but does not exist in the real world is, by that very fact, even worse than a normal pig. Therefore we have a contradiction and, hey presto, pigs can fly!” If only philosophy was so simple and Dawkins had been around earlier to set things right! :-) This is like listening to Ham on biology.

  105. brive1987 says

    Correction “Skepticism about the basis [not claims] of religion is called … Philosophy,

  106. notsont says

    “Correction “Skepticism about the basis [not claims] of religion is called … Philosophy,” Sure define “basis of religion” without making a claim please.

  107. kosk11348 says

    Krauss, Dawkins and PZ are good at scientifically devouring the low hanging fruit of Christian/Islamic claims of specific intersections with the naturalistic world. But they have not “disproved” religion.

    Perhaps not, but what has been accomplished is no small thing. I am content to see religion driven off the grounds of evidence and into the attic of philosophy, for there it shall surely starve.

  108. John Morales says

    [OT]

    brive1987:

    The Philosophy of religion did not stop at Kant and Hume even if your thinking did.

    The philosophy (it ain’t a proper noun nor an ideology) of religion is not religion, O dolt.

    Skepticism about the claims of religion is called … Philosophy, a tool kit and discipline PZ and Dawkins haven’t earned (skilled as they are in their areas)

    Your naked assertion is that his “treatment of the ontological argument was embarrassingly vacuous”.

    (You are free to attempt to justify that, or to admit it’s merely an assertion)

    This is like listening to Ham on biology.

    It’s a perfect summation of the ontological argument. :)

  109. brive1987 says

    There are positions supporting the need for a transcended being that rely on philosophical rather than physical underpinnings. I don’t agree with them but not because of *god help me* “naturalistic methodologies”.

    This discussion will quickly evolve into a philosophical debate – or a semantic debate about philosophy. But do we have common ground that “informed” religious belief in a non denominational way ultimately rests on a philosophical construct (which maybe needs further clarification) – or are we separate even on that?

  110. consciousness razor says

    1. The Philosophy of religion did not stop at Kant and Hume even if your thinking did.

    For some reason, you failed to mention that the situation for religion hasn’t improved since, but has only gotten worse.

    I wonder why that is. Cut to the chase, already!

    Skepticism about the claims of religion is called … Philosophy,

    A whole lot of what is called “philosophy”* is concerned with things other than religion. Skepticism is just skepticism.

    *There’s no need for a capital “p,” not even to make it seem like an Extra Super-Duper Important Grade-A #1 Thing You Should Know About But You Don’t.

    a tool kit and discipline PZ and Dawkins haven’t earned (skilled as they are in their areas)

    It’s true that they’re ignorant about a great many philosophical subjects, but which degrees they’ve earned isn’t enough to establish that, if that’s your implication…. What is your point exactly?

    If only philosophy was so simple and Dawkins had been around earlier to set things right!

    The ontological “argument” is merely a repeated assertion, and in most places, it’s no longer backed up with threats of death or torture, so you shouldn’t be afraid of thinking it doesn’t work anymore. All you have to do is make an assertion to “refute” it, so this shouldn’t take you too long.

    This is like listening to Ham on biology.

    You must not have listened closely, or you’re ignorant of biology. You could just be trolling too.

  111. consciousness razor says

    But do we have common ground that “informed” religious belief in a non denominational way ultimately rests on a philosophical construct (which maybe needs further clarification) – or are we separate even on that?

    What the hell is “informed” religious belief? Who informed these believers of what?

    Every believer is “denominational,” or else they wouldn’t have beliefs because they wouldn’t be about anything.

  112. John Morales says

    [OT]

    brive1987:

    But do we have common ground that “informed” religious belief in a non denominational way ultimately rests on a philosophical construct (which maybe needs further clarification) – or are we separate even on that?

    Note that religious belief need not be theistic (or even deistic).

    But yeah, we’re separate on that; so far as I can tell, religious belief is just a crutch those people use to cope with life and justify their inclinations, and its basis is but wishful thinking.

  113. says

    something would be using a very finly tuned magnetic field to excite your visual cortex directly, which doesn’t require photons to strike your eyes

    OK. That’s an alternative theory. But someone who tells me they saw a ghost has to have an explanation for how their visual apparatus convinced them they “saw” something, or it’s fair to reject their claim out of hand. Or they’re delusional, which is another option. I once had a fascinating conversation with a guy who claimed to have seen a ghost and when I asked him, “are you familiar with the feeling of being wrong? as in believing something, but then realizing later that you had dreamt it and confabulated it?” he admitted that it did (now that I mentioned it) feel really dream-like and it might have been a dream. That’s perfectly reasonable, then. I can easily imagine dreaming I saw a ghost and then not being sure if I did a few days later, especially if it was a memorable dream.

    And, yeah, there are scenarios that can cause us to “see” something without our eyes doing normal eye stuff. So I could eat a bunch of ‘shrooms and “see a ghost” but I’m really, again, dealing with what’s close to a dream-state. And maybe a space alien is hitting me with an illuso-magnetic-manipulo gun for their own nefarious purposes. But the person claiming to “see a ghost” needs to offer those theories for exploration, not me. It’s not my job to make their case for them. Besides if I claimed to “see a ghost” because of space alien magnetic manipulation, then I’m actually not claiming to have seen a ghost, I am claiming to have been fooled by space aliens. All of that is in the realm of the natural and we’re just left with the matter of examining the evidence for the aliens and their magnetic-manipulo gun.

  114. John Morales says

    [meta]

    CR, I’m pretty sure “non denominational” in this context means outside of organised religion — that is, personal religion.

    Anyway, the topic has sure been derailed; the OP is about the intersection of skepticism with atheism, where PZ holds that they’re both in the same category and SN holds otherwise.

  115. says

    brive1987
    The ontological argument boils down to “I can imagine something, therefore it must exist.” It is trivially dismissed by any thinking person when they imagine something that doesn’t exist, and find that the thing they imagined continues to not exists. *Pop* goes the ontological argument. The other philosophical arguments for god(s) are equally trivial: Is the premis backed up by empirical evidence? It’s not? Then it has no place being used as a premise for any discussion about reality. End of philosophy, end of argument. Also, as others have asked, what the hell do you mean by ‘informed’ religious belief?

  116. consciousness razor says

    CR, I’m pretty sure “non denominational” in this context means outside of organised religion — that is, personal religion.

    If so, that’s not terribly specific.

    They have their own personal belief about some religious thing, but it’s no religious thing in particular? It might be about a witch, maybe Vishnu, maybe Quetzalcoatl, maybe the Tao; and they’re not “in” a religion (or they’re in sufficiently disorganized one), so they’re not swayed one way or another?

    They definitely don’t sound “informed.”

  117. John Morales says

    [meta]

    CR, I think the point there is that they have supposedly reasoned themselves into their religiosity after due diligence, not just blindly accepted others’ claims.

  118. brive1987 says

    @razer 118

    My point is pretty clear and isn’t controversial enough to for anything other than polite discourse.

    The question remains “does so called informed religious belief in a non denominational way ultimately rest on a philosophical construct?” If so doesn’t it follow that we need additional fit for purpose resources and disciplines to combat it. That is the toolset of the Philosophy of Religion – which I will proper noun as a defined school within the broader discipline of philosophy – or have I offended you now with my verbing as well? :-)

    That PZ and Dawkins are good in one area and not in another (relevant to “the cause”) is no insult. There are good arguments against the ontological – but the pig example isn’t one of them as it actually doesn’t logically deconstruct the position at all. It is pure ridicule. We could spend a week on this though.

    I won’t bore you by explaining what was to me an obvious if extreme analogy of Ham speaking in an area of which he has no knowledge and [insert name of scientist] discussing philosophy in an authoritative fashion. At the time I thought it too obvious to be of additional value but I seem to have upset you so lets let it drop.

    And if we accept for a moment there is an (albeit highly debatable) philosophical basis underpinning base religious belief then the only controversial statement I’ve made is that sometimes scientists without a philosophical grounding either cross the line into this other department (Dawkins), underplay the other department (Krauss) or pretty much ignore its existence (PZ). Wow. Fire away at this trolling.

    So pick a word or phrase you can quibble over or assume I’m attacking something you need to defend … but I would prefer you explored my over all position politely and with cold rationality so the conversation has some value to us both.

  119. brive1987 says

    By non-denominational I meant a belief in the transcendent on a philosophical basis with that transcendent being called God. Then the fun starts with the different flavours of belief to define this being. We have to shaft the philosophical arguments not just the intersection of the flavours with the real world. The philosophical argument may be just as dumb as the young earth or ID ones – but they are a different sort of argument.

    That (to bring the topic back on topic) is why we can define both scientific-atheism and philosophical naturalism as separate allied forces and place PZ in the former camp with all its linkages to the broader (ie less focussed) scientific-skepticism.

    And to full circle to post 105 there really is no schism between the practise of Novella and PZ. The angst in the broader sceptical community is in my opinion based on the polemic of atheistic activism which rightly or wrongly they believe places A+ outside the tent.

    Like I said I don’t think anything here is heresy or even overly controversial until and unless we start discussing my last para above.

  120. consciousness razor says

    The question remains “does so called informed religious belief in a non denominational way ultimately rest on a philosophical construct?”

    Yes, it remains because you haven’t explained what it’s supposed to mean. There are a half-dozen terms there that need a fuckload of unpacking before anyone could answer that.

    There are good arguments against the ontological – but the pig example isn’t one of them as it actually doesn’t logically deconstruct the position at all.

    What would that have to do with the topic of this thread? Are you suggesting either Myers or Novella are actually Dawkins in disguise? Has anyone seen all three of them in the same room together?

    There are good arguments against the ontological

    You only need one. But unless the ontological argument must exist, we really don’t even need that many.

    – but the pig example isn’t one of them as it actually doesn’t logically deconstruct the position at all. It is pure ridicule. We could spend a week on this though.

    I’m not sure if spending a week on it would be more or less painful than spending a week on Pascal’s wager. But I’ll bite. Do you think it was supposed to be a rigorous logical counter-argument, or a summary of key points of a version of the argument, in terms which show how ridiculous it is?

    And if we accept for a moment there is an (albeit highly debatable) philosophical basis underpinning base religious belief

    Again, what do you mean by saying there is a philosophical basis? What is that supposed to say about religious beliefs?

    then the only controversial statement I’ve made is that sometimes scientists without a philosophical grounding either cross the line into this other department (Dawkins), underplay the other department (Krauss) or pretty much ignore its existence (PZ). Wow. Fire away at this trolling.

    Here’s my opening shot: PZ doesn’t “pretty much ignore its existence.” Enough said.

    So pick a word or phrase you can quibble over or assume I’m attacking something you need to defend … but I would prefer you explored my over all position politely and with cold rationality so the conversation has some value to us both.

    It’ll only be valuable to you if I’m not just fucking polite, but stick with using cold rationality? Don’t be such a fucking ass. I’ll be as boring as I like as often as I like, but no more than that.

  121. John Morales says

    [still OT]

    brive1987:

    That PZ and Dawkins are good in one area and not in another (relevant to “the cause”) is no insult. There are good arguments against the ontological – but the pig example isn’t one of them as it actually doesn’t logically deconstruct the position at all. It is pure ridicule. We could spend a week on this though.

    You really should use citations; but granting arguendo that the pig claim is unvarnished Dawkins, it’s a parody of the general form of the ontological argument:
    0. Some greatest thing must exist.
    1. Things that exist for real are greater than things only exist in imagination.
    2. I can imagine X as the greatest thing.
    3. But X cannot be the greatest thing unless it’s also real.
    4. Therefore X is real.

  122. John Morales says

    [OT]

    I once used Plantinga’s modal version to show that God is the necessary maximally stinkiest being. :)

  123. brive1987 says

    @129 John, You are quite right. Dawkins in the GD mentioned in Chapter 3 that he had disproved the argument by using a pig based parody. It was reversed engineered here: http://visionperspective.wordpress.com/2008/09/19/pigs-can-fly/

    He also mentioned that Bertrand Russell “no fool” was “briefly convinced by it” and said ” It is easier to feel convinced that the ontological argument must be fallacious than it is to find out precisely where the fallacy lies” .

    So I should have been clearer. The point stands though that there are circular arguments and unstated premises that are the real problem to the argument and a biologist by definition is not the best placed authority to comment on philosophical cul-de-sacs. Have a go – but how much better to get an expert in?

    BTW in my mind for the OA (and similar arguments) to mind f**k so many intelligent people like Russell places it well above the normal low hanging fruit scientific-atheism deals with (Noah’s Ark and all) so yes I really do think naturalistic-philosophy has a major, possibly equal place at the atheist table.

    And thank you for your polite input.

  124. brive1987 says

    Ha! Just to clarify para 2 post 131 – Bertrand Russell was briefly convinced by the OA not RD pig version!

  125. brive1987 says

    @consciousness razor 128.

    Thanks for your reply. I’m afraid I do not have time to fully define each term and idea and we are clearly on a different wavelength – stopping worthwhile discussion. I fear my posts merely upset you – so feel free to skip future ones as I will with you.

    Naturally if the venting serves another beneficial purpose, feel free to continue.

  126. says

    brive1987

    BTW in my mind for the OA (and similar arguments) to mind f**k so many intelligent people like Russell places it well above the normal low hanging fruit scientific-atheism deals with (Noah’s Ark and all) so yes I really do think naturalistic-philosophy has a major, possibly equal place at the atheist table.

    Why? Otherwise intelligent people have been convinced of those things too. Indeed, Russel is probably less competent to deal with the likes of the OA than Dawkins; being trained as a philosopher, he, like you, is inclined to give far more weight to unevidenced precepts than someone who’s training is in science. As I pointed out earlier (and you have failed to respond to ) simple empiricism is more than sufficient to entirely dismiss the ontological argument. Russel was likely temporarily convinced precisely because he was a philosopher, and a large part of the study of philosophy involves treating patent nonsense as though it had genuine epistemological weight.

  127. consciousness razor says

    It was reversed engineered here: http://visionperspective.wordpress.com/2008/09/19/pigs-can-fly/

    So it was a “Dawkins quote,” in the sense that it was manufactured by someone else?

    BTW in my mind for the OA (and similar arguments) to mind f**k so many intelligent people like Russell places it well above the normal low hanging fruit scientific-atheism deals with (Noah’s Ark and all) so yes I really do think naturalistic-philosophy has a major, possibly equal place at the atheist table.

    You picked the worst possible example with the ontological argument, if you wanted to make an issue of how important philosophy is to atheism or skepticism. Or anything at all, really. That’s as low hanging as it gets. And since it was a teenage Bertrand Russell who was briefly convinced by it, I’m not impressed. Ignorant people are ignorant.

  128. consciousness razor says

    Indeed, Russel is probably less competent to deal with the likes of the OA than Dawkins; being trained as a philosopher, he, like you, is inclined to give far more weight to unevidenced precepts than someone who’s training is in science.

    This is a misunderstanding. Russell was an atheist before he became a philosopher. He mentioned thinking about it as a fucking kid and dismissing it after “briefly” considering it as a fucking kid. He was probably a very smart and thoughtful kid; but as I said, it’s still not terribly impressive that a brief “mind fuck” of actually thinking about it occurred at some point.

    And philosophers in general aren’t so inclined. (Russell definitely wasn’t.) In fact, I’m sure you don’t have evidence for that claim.

  129. notsont says

    Why in these discussions about religion do people always put up some sofistimacated theology that no one really believes in, and then expect people to have to have philosophy degrees to disprove it. When was the last time PZ or anyone else really had a problem with deism? Does anyone besides philosophers and atheists even care about deism?

  130. John Morales says

    brive1987:

    The point stands though that there are circular arguments and unstated premises that are the real problem to the argument and a biologist by definition is not the best placed authority to comment on philosophical cul-de-sacs. Have a go – but how much better to get an expert in?

    It’s a fallacious point* which you used it to justify the claim that Dawkins made an incompetent claim.

    (It didn’t work)

    <refreshes>

    theophontes, the original is lost in the old SB comments, but here.

    * The refutation merely needs to be sufficient; your implication that only an expert could possibly manage it is an argumentum ad verecundiam.

  131. says

    Consciousness razor

    This is a misunderstanding.

    I stand corrected.

    And philosophers in general aren’t so inclined.

    Virtually every philosopher I’ve ever read anything by (Russell is actually an exception here; I was making some assumptions that I shouldn’t have regarding his relationship to the OA) has started in talking about patent nonsense that has no relationship to reality within a maximum of 10 pages. Less for bloggers.

  132. brive1987 says

    @Dalillama, Schmott Guy 135

    The OA only really “works” even barely, at an abstract non material world philosophical level – and yes it does suck, although it is a good puzzle to actually work out why. A better puzzle than say the shape of a banana. But that is a personal bias :-)

    And yet theists use the OA and can convince cleaver people with it at a philosophical level…… Which is not good.

    I fear we are about to go off topic on a Krauss style philosophy bash.

    All I am saying is that if religion uses or is based on philosophy then give philosophical-naturalists a place at the table. You don’t have to like philosophy to see the value in a bizzaro-world rationalist WLC philosophical activist knocking the guy down. Well actually lets forget the WLC bit!

    This isn’t a big deal. It just all feeds into Novella’s original post which was mostly mistaken in not properly delimiting atheistic scepticism into scientific and philosophic. He annoyed a lot of people by conflating atheism with just the latter – but I am dismayed that the backlash is now taking philosophy down with it.

  133. says

    brive1987

    yes it does suck, although it is a good puzzle to actually work out why

    No, it really isn’t. It took me all of thirty seconds to do so when it was first presented to me, and the only way to make it more complex is to engage in all kinds of mental masturbation about it. As I said, it boils down to “I can imagine it, so it must be so,” and since imagining something doesn’t make it so, that’s the problem with it. Bam! Done.

    And yet theists use the OA and can convince cleaver people with it at a philosophical level

    This is actually unevidenced; Russell was briefly convinced as a teen, but then rejected it, so that doesn’t really count as convincing’ in my book. Everyone else I’ve seen or heard of using it has used it to bolster an existing faith, rather than being convinced by it. Have you any counterexamples?

    You don’t have to like philosophy to see the value in a bizzaro-world rationalist WLC philosophical activist knocking the guy down.

    This is nonsense. WLC’s arguments are based entirely on intellectual dishonesty and the Gish Gallop. I would want nothing to do with anyon who used such argumentative techniques, nor would I consider such a person to be on my side (or, for that matter, a ‘rationalist’ in any meaningful sense). Demolishing WLC certainly doesn’t require any philosophical training; it’s trivially easy to do if you ignore the Gish Galloping. Can he provide evidence? He cannot. Therefore, all of his arguments can be dismissed instantly.There’s neither need nor point to deconstructing the logic, because the problem is his premises. Those are demonstrably wrong, and therefore the output of any logic based on them is intrinsically wrong, regardless of its rigor.

  134. brive1987 says

    &John 139

    The term I used was “vacuous” not incompetent. I would rather be told why something doesn’t work than be told its stupid and that other people agree. But if you are happy with philosophic lessons from a biologist that’s fine. Its a bit of a slippery slope though…

    And @notsont 138 its a bit extreme to claim I said you have to have a philosophy degree to engage but yep you are probably right that hard core philosophy is best done by experts – otherwise you end up with Sam Harris style theory plucked from no-where. I can have an informed view on biology but I wouldn’t try “disproving” a biological or mathematical or archaeological theory!

    I am detecting a view that philosophy is a soft discipline without a robust (and learned) scaffold.

  135. John Morales says

    brive1987:

    It just all feeds into Novella’s original post which was mostly mistaken in not properly delimiting atheistic scepticism into scientific and philosophic. He annoyed a lot of people by conflating atheism with just the latter – but I am dismayed that the backlash is now taking philosophy down with it.

    It’s worse than that, Jim: he’s being disingenuous on at least two levels.

    Here is the crux (from the OP) “I have essentially taken the position that scientific skepticism (like science) requires methodological naturalism, while atheism is a belief in philosophical naturalism.”

    Leaving aside that he is implicitly acknowledging that non-scientific skepticism exists, note that had he compared “scientific skepticism” with ‘scientific atheism’, he’d have had no case; also, note that ‘scientific’ already incorporates ‘skepticism’ — that is, for any X, the “scientific X” is necessarily a skeptical enterprise.

  136. brive1987 says

    @Dalillama, Schmott Guy 143

    Why did you leave out my bit about ” ..Well actually lets forget the WLC bit!”

    Especially in a post suggesting MY view endorsed intellectual dishonesty! :-)

    But seriously scads of sceptics have taken on WLC and his crap but have had philosophical rings run around them. Too simplistic to say its a gish gallop – he only has a handful of premises. Rather its a clash of disciplines. The only time WLC has been owned at the debate rather than in posthoc deconstructions has been by philosophers who know how to call him out there and there.

    Bart Ehrman was actually a good exception – but that debate on the resurrection was fairly tangential to base philosophy.

  137. John Morales says

    [meta]

    brive1987:

    The term I used was “vacuous” not incompetent.

    Since the enterprise was philosophy, you are here suggesting that vacuous philosophy can be competent philosophy, no? ;)

  138. says

    brive1987
    Because the senctence was about WLC. Ignoring the bit about WLC would mean ignoring the whole sentence. I was not able to parse any additional meaning out of the added on bit.

    But seriously scads of sceptics have taken on WLC and his crap but have had philosophical rings run around them.

    No, he has ignored when his arguments are demolished, instead shifting rapidly to a different argument (a form of Gish Gallop). He then proceeds to reuse the same demolished arguments again in his next debate, never acknowledging that they have been falsified. If that’s ‘running philosophical rings’ around someone, then that’s merely further evidence for my contention that philosophy is nothing but competitive mental masturbation, and utterly useless for dealing with the real world.

  139. brive1987 says

    &John 146

    Agreed. He appears to have consumed scientific-atheism within scientific-skepticism.

    I think by scientific skepticism he actually means “skepticism focussed on science based claims”. It is all a bit messy.

    But I really do think he values

    1. skepticism focussed on general science based claims
    >> 1a. skepticism focussed on science based claims that relate to religion

    2. skepticism focussed on naturalistic philosophy

    plus more ….

    ………..

    AND …

    4. Activism around religious intrusions into secular issue
    5. Activism around sexism

    plus more ….

    ___________________________________________

    And he probably then sees Atheism as a movement combining 2. 3. and 4.
    And hopes alt-med becomes 1b (ie more than just floating with Bigfoot) That’s why he said Alt-Med should be a movement too.

  140. brive1987 says

    Hmm my numbering is very poor. And he probably then sees Atheism as a movement combining 2. 3. and 4. should read

    And he probably then sees Atheism as a movement combining 1a. 2. and 4.

  141. consciousness razor says

    That’s it in a nutshell. It’s right up there with theology in that regard.

    Is there any reason for this? It takes no effort to say philosophy can be very rigorous, which is the truth, and more importantly that might actually give brive1987 a reason to shut up.

    ———

    brive1987, you are awful at this. You want to defend philosophy? Show us by doing some real philosophizing here, rather than making fallacies, making false claims, backpeddling, tone trolling and evasive tactics like saying “I won’t bore you” with what would be an actual fucking argument with actual fucking content that someone other than you could sink their teeth into. If you take that route, this time, try to make it not shit which is totally irrelevant to the topic of the OP.

  142. says

    It takes no effort to say philosophy can be very rigorous,

    It takes no effort, but I don’t care to say things that I don’t think are true; since I have not seen any evidence favoring such a claim, I see no reason I should make it.

  143. consciousness razor says

    It takes no effort, but I don’t care to say things that I don’t think are true; since I have not seen any evidence favoring such a claim, I see no reason I should make it.

    That can’t be the case. You said “Virtually every philosopher I’ve ever read” talks nonsense, which implies you’ve read some who don’t, which implies philosophy can be rigorous. For the sake of argument, let’s assume you’ve actually read some and your claim about it is accurate. If so, then you already have your evidence. The alternative is that you aren’t being rigorous, because you’re just making up these half-assed claims as you go along to make sure someone is going to find some part of it agreeable.

  144. says

    brive1987
    I read it. Krauss says that he thinks that philosophers might have something to add to some conversations, but not ones about physics. He specifically mentions Plato (garbage based on no empirical premises), Descartes (same), Dennett (a cognitive scientist who has made contributions in that field; I am unconvinced that his philosophy degree contributed in a meaningful way to his contributions to cognitive science, and when he’s not talking about cognitive science he hasn’t got much coherent to say). Singer (Whatever Krauss sees in him, I don’t) along with a couple other names I’m not familiar with; based on the other names he dropped, I’m not seeing why I should be, either. Krauss then goes on to say that just because a philosopher said something, that doesn’t make it true or meaningful, and quoting a philosopher doesn’t constitute an argument. I’m afraid I didn’t find it terribly interesting or surprising.

  145. brive1987 says

    @Dalillama, Schmott Guy #149

    Thanks, I just don’t see WLC philosophy being surgically dismembered as it should be. Anyway post #150 is probably where I need to leave this until next time, the far more boring real world demands attention.

    If our closing position remains that philosophy is bunk, especially with regards to addressing the premises underlying theology then I am afraid we may not have much in common on this question and by extension the Novella post.

    But, seriously. Thanks everyone for listening and taking the time to provide me your thoughts.

  146. says

    Conciousness Razor
    Russell was a mathematician. Dennett is a cognitive scientist. The fact that they are able to display rigor does not imply that the discipline of philosophy contains such, but that people trained in rigorous disciplines retain that habit of thought even outside of that. Also, I suppose it’s partially a matter of definitions; Specifically, if you hold that ethicists, for instance, are intrinsically a subcategory of philosophers then my case is much weaker. I would argue, however, that ethics is a fundamentally empirical field, in that the outcomes of applying different ethical systems can be measured and the systems can be compared to one another thereby. Given that, determining the better system of those proposed is equivalent to determining the best type of engine for a given machine; i.e. science or engineering.

  147. consciousness razor says

    Dennett (a cognitive scientist who has made contributions in that field; I am unconvinced that his philosophy degree contributed in a meaningful way to his contributions to cognitive science, and when he’s not talking about cognitive science he hasn’t got much coherent to say).

    Seriously? So do you think studying under Quine and Ryle didn’t have much of an influence, or are you unconvinced in the sense that you just don’t know what you’re talking about? Did his non-existent cognitive science degree have more of an impact? If not that, then what did? And what other than philosophy of mind does he talk about (incoherently or not)?

  148. says

    consciousness razor

    Did his non-existent cognitive science degree have more of an impact? If not that, then what did?

    The whole actually doing science thing. You know, with the experiments and the empirical data and all? If that’s not science then the term has no meaning, and the scientific method requires rigor.

    And what other than philosophy of mind does he talk about (incoherently or not)?

    I honestly don’t know; I couldn’t make anything meaningful of it.

     
    That said, on reflection philosophy could be considered rigorous, but only for values of rigorous that include theology, or for that matter Dungeons and Dragons. There’s a complex set of rules that you’re expected to follow strictly if you want fellow aficionados to take you seriously. All that it gets you, though, is the respect of fellow aficionados; merely having a complex and strictly followed set of rules does not comprise a “robust (and learned) scaffold” for anything. That is the claim to which I was responding when you changed the terminology to ‘rigorous.’ So, I acknowledge that you are technically correct in calling philosophy a rigorous discipline, that fact alone does not make it any good for talking about the real world, nor does it form a robust and learned scaffold for one’s worldview.

  149. John Morales says

    [OT]

    Dalillama:

    So, I acknowledge that you are technically correct in calling philosophy a rigorous discipline, that fact alone does not make it any good for talking about the real world, nor does it form a robust and learned scaffold for one’s worldview.

    Science was once natural philosophy, and similarly so were logic and semantics and jurisprudence and politics and other disciplines part of philosophy.

    (That they’ve become their own disciplines doesn’t mean they don’t remain as part of philosophy, but that they’re applied philosophy rather than abstract philosophy)

  150. says

    Yes, thank you John. I had absolutely no idea whatsoever about the history of science and terminology that was used in the past until you so kindly enlightened me. /sarcasm
    The most common usage of the term today, and the one relevant here, is Merriam-Websters #2 definition, “Investigation of the nature, causes, or principles of reality, knowledge, or values, based on logical reasoning rather than empirical methods.” (Emphasis mine)

  151. brive1987 says

    Oh, just a quick addition about the OA:

    It really isn’t “mental masturbation” to combat this argument, and the reason Dawkins’s refutation is incorrect and John Morales’ stinky argument (#130) disingenuous is due to the opening premise of the OA. The argument can ONLY be used to prove the existence of a maximally great being – otherwise you can’t make the 3rd step (i.e. if it exists in a possible world, it exists in all worlds).

    Under modal logic, given the premise, it actually follows smoothly: turns out, with maximally great beings, you really can imagine them into existence! As such, the counter-argument is *actually* to do with the logical inconsistency of “maximal greatness”.

    But see? The problem is deeper than just “I can imagine it => it exists”. And it takes people with the proper philosophical toolset (e.g. philosophers) to combat this sort of thing; indeed, these people can do just as good a job of this as PZ, Dawkins, Krauss, etc. do in combatting empirical claims – it’s just a “different” battle, that’s all. :-)

  152. says

    maximally great being

    Which is a meaningless concept. Literally: it cannot be defined in a manner that has a real-world referent.

    Under modal logic, given the premise, it actually follows smoothly: turns out, with maximally great beings, you really can imagine them into existence!

    Then this is a place where modal logic fails to model reality accurately. Any logical system can be used to construct false propositions. This is why we test the propositions empirically.

    given the premise

    And there’s the problem: the premise is absurd and completely lacking in evidence. Why would it be a given?

    But see? The problem is deeper than just “I can imagine it => it exists”.

    No, the bottom line is “I can imagine it, therefore it exists.” That is the core of the argument. “I can imagine x, therefore x exists” remains patently false for any value of x. ‘It exists’ simply does not follow from ‘I imagine it” no matter what you claim ‘it’ to be.

  153. brive1987 says

    Agreed: the argument is patently false. As I said, there is a way to show that it, in fact, does not prove the existence of a god. My point, however, was that the very way in which you show that it’s false is more complicated than first meets the eye.

    The point is that modal logic works fine, it’s the premise that’s false. WLC has said (on occasion) that it is impossible to get around his logic, its the premise that’s up for grabs. As I said, the actual imagining bit isn’t the problem, its the maximally great being bit: as you said “The premise is absurd and completely lacking in evidence. Why would it be a given?” I agree! But what I *am* saying, is that most people who see the argument assume immediately that the imagining bit is the major flaw; they assume that God (maximally great being) is logically coherent, by which point, its already too late.

  154. says

    The point is that modal logic works fine, it’s the premise that’s false.

    Yes, that’s what I’ve been saying. The other point is that you can’t just logic something into existence; you have to start with some kind of empirical information about what exists before you can start applying logic to it. Basically, if you find that logic is returning absurd results, you either have bad data or you’re using the wrong system of logic for the current purpose. However, the fact that modal logic says you can imagine a maximally great being into existence is a flaw in modal logic. That doesn’t invalidate its use, there are flaws in all systems of logic; things they either can’t handle or return nonsense for. That’s why there are multiple systems of logic.

  155. brive1987 says

    I think we’re essentially in agreement: I just see that the problem with the OA is the faulty input data (God is logically incoherent) not the logic itself – even if you apply perfect logic to a bad premise, you’ll get the wrong answer.

    But this is tangential to what I’m saying, if not indicative of it: you would never see this level of philosophical discussion in the normal WLC debate! The right reply to the OA is what we’re saying – faulty premise, iffy logic, etc. – and not a plea to some form of empiricism or just pure ridicule. And that’s my point: get a philosopher to correctly deal with the philosophical claims of religion, and a scientist to deal with the empirical ones.

  156. says

    and not a plea to some form of empiricism or just pure ridicule. And that’s my point: get a philosopher to correctly deal with the philosophical claims of religion, and a scientist to deal with the empirical ones.

    Then we don’t agree at all. My appeal is entirely to empiricism. If you can’t even define something, you can’t possibly empirically test it. If you can’t test it, you can’t meaningfully talk about it as a part of the real world, and certainly can’t prove its existence. Claims about the real world are by definition empirical claims, and the claim that something exists is a claim about the real world. Since that claim can’t provide a definition, let alone empirical evidence, it goes fffft and collapses under a demand for same. There’s no need or use for a philosopher there.

  157. brive1987 says

    Okay, here’s my point rephrased: religious claims of a dual nature, physical and spiritual/supernatural. Science can test the physical ones, no problem there. However, the spiritual ones can be dealt with in two ways: first, by simply defining them out of the debate. This is what you’re saying, I think, in saying that claims about the real world must be empirically testable: the world is physical, full stop, and anything else is irrelevant.

    But this is a bit presumptive: this comes back to the old line that science can’t disprove faith, but indeed, it can’t even show its wrong, Carl Sagan’s old dragon in my garage. Therefore, so we’re not going around in circles (“I say the world is physical, you claim there’s a god, but I just said the world is physical, so there isn’t”) without ever engaging with the actual claims, we need a second way: meeting these claims head-on. And that’s what philosophers would achieve in the atheistic community.

    So, what I guess I’m saying, is that, in a physicalist worldview, there is no room for musings about God in the first place – this is your point. However, if we want to fully engage with faith claims, we can believe this, but also meet their logical/philosophical claims on their own turf. I really don’t think we’re coming from diametrically opposed positions.

  158. says

    What I’m saying is that there is no way to distinguish faith claims from shit that someone made up on the spot. Until those making the claims can provide some way to distinguish their claims from those of e.g. Pastafarianism, it is not really possible to discuss them in the context of things that are real. There’s no difference at all in claiming “I have faith that the greatest possible being exists, and loves me” vs claiming “I have faith that Elvis didn’t really die, he was kidnapped by time traveling Vulcans and is now serving on the Enterprise.” Since that is the case, there’s really no grounds for taking any of their arguments seriously, anymore than you would take seriously someone arguing that Elvis is on the Enterprise in interstellar space, rather than decomposing quietly at Graceland.

  159. says

    It’s weird that this “atheism isn’t really skepticism/atheism shouldn’t be included in skepticism” argument is still going on almost 3 years after Jeff Wagg put his foot in it and got it really really wrong. If skepticism doesn’t lead you to atheism or agnosticism then you’re doing it wrong.

    I put my thoughts down about this back then and re-reading them today don’t think they’ve changed much. I don’t think you can honestly call yourself a skeptic and still hold religious beliefs.

    Longer version of this comment:
    http://terribletruth-beautifullie.blogspot.com/2010/11/how-can-you-call-yourself-skeptic-if.html

    Religion makes scientifically verifiable claims, I don’t see how you can dismiss atheism as only a philosophical position given that.

  160. consciousness razor says

    The argument can ONLY be used to prove the existence of a maximally great being – otherwise you can’t make the 3rd step (i.e. if it exists in a possible world, it exists in all worlds).

    Under modal logic, given the premise, it actually follows smoothly: turns out, with maximally great beings, you really can imagine them into existence!

    Some versions have nothing to do with “maximal greatness,” just the claim that “necessary existence” is a property. Indeed, when you get down to it, cosmological arguments reduce to being a reformulation of ontological arguments.

    My maximally great, necessarily existent unicorn and I agree that either way, it doesn’t prove any such thing. To be honest, my maximally great, necessarily existent unicorn doesn’t exist; but I’m sure it would agree with me if it did that there can’t be a contradiction in saying “X exists/doesn’t exist” no matter what X is, so likewise there can’t be any such proof. X might itself be contradictory, but that would be an issue with X’s internal consistency, not with the claim about it.

    As such, the counter-argument is *actually* to do with the logical inconsistency of “maximal greatness”.

    That wasn’t Kant’s, Hume’s or Mackie’s counter-argument, for example. Those are philosophers who did just fine arguing against it.

    The problem is deeper than just “I can imagine it => it exists”.

    It’s an entirely different problem in some cases. “Something must exist => It is that thing => It exists.”

  161. Sophia, Michelin-starred General of the First Mediterranean Iron Chef Batallion says

    Is anyone else here getting the feeling from reading brive1987’s comments that yes, science is wonderful and all and the ontological argument is bunk, but unless we pretend it’s a lot more complex than it actually is and dress it up in all sorts of word-flummery it’s just not philosophy?

    So… philosophy is basic logic dressed in an overly elaborate fancy hat, yes?*

    *This is not a philosophical statement by these standards. I’d need a paragraph of fluff and deepity, at least.

  162. says

    Sophia,

    I agree. It is as if there is some sort of (un)holy hand grenade that can be tossed at the OA of WLC that will make it go poof! CR and Dalillama (and I) recognize that all that is necessary is to pull the pin and lob(beth) the grenade. brive1987 seems to think that first one must consult ‘the Book of Armaments, chapter 2, verses 9 through 21′ etc… etc… when really, any old grenade will do.

  163. Sophia, Michelin-starred General of the First Mediterranean Iron Chef Batallion says

    Just remember to count, first.

    One, two, five. THREE. (/digression)

  164. Sophia, Michelin-starred General of the First Mediterranean Iron Chef Batallion says

    Speaking somewhat on topic, the ontological argument has a lot of holes in, none of which require any particular philosophical depth of understanding to use to sink it.

    You’ve got the fact that existence isn’t simply a thing you can ascribe to stuff or we’d all be very happy, at the expense of the laws of physics.
    You’ve got the fact that “perfect” or “greatest concievable” is going to be a drastically different thing to each person, resulting in a different god concept for each imaginer.
    You’ve got the simplest possible interpretation – that you do create something by imagine it – an idea. Sure, imagining a greatest concievable thing creates it, in your head. Saying it creates it anywhere else is hilariously stupid and fallacious, and demonstrably false – see point 1.

    Those are just my pet three, expanded upon slightly in the thunderdome with some slight ranting at objectivity.

  165. neutrinosarecool says

    Philosophy is a dead subject, at least as it relates to the real world as we understand it today, a world in which all predictions are stated as probabilities, not as deterministic certainties.

    For example, basic logic would dictate that an object takes either this path or that path through space-time, but quantum mechanics has shown that objects take many paths all at once, a concept that defies classical philosophy. People like Kant claimed that all natural laws shared certain fundamental properties, chiefly determinism, and that was the basis of Kant’s ‘empirical order of nature’, but modern scientific discoveries show that claim to be false.

    So what is classically known as philosophy today is just another metaphysical topic, as divorced from science as any religion is. Plenty of people have pointed this out, for example:

    “Physicist Stephen Hawking has told Google’s Zeitgeist conference that philosophers have not kept up with science and their art is dead”, May 2011

    http://www.telegraph.co.uk/technology/google/8520033/Stephen-Hawking-tells-Google-philosophy-is-dead.html

  166. Rob Grigjanis says

    neutrino @177: Wouldn’t this talk by Lenny Suskind qualify as philosophy? Not that I care much; Suskind is always worth listening to.

  167. says

    the method should play fair

    I don’t see why. But I don’t really think it’s unfair, either. The other way of looking at the problem (from what I understand your perspective to be) is that once someone presents evidence enough to bring an unknown from the supernatural (i.e.: imaginary) realm into the natural – what bigger compliment do we now need to pay it than to acknowlege it as real?? Was not science’s acknowledging the Higgs Boson as pretty much darned certainly nearly completely likely existing one of the great triumphs of science, won by dint of tremendous effort? So the upside of this balance is that if someone is able to demonstrate the existence of ghosts, we’re not being unfair to them when we say “right-o, ghosts are now part of the natural world!” and establish a department of ghost studies and the physicists and philosophers can fight over it? Accepting a new thing into reality is the hightest compliment we can pay it!

    It’s not our fault that woowoos have never managed to measure or detect a “soul” – and I’m sure scientists would be fascinated to explore it, if they did. What sucks is that the woowoos not only want to have us treat the “soul” (I just picked that as an example out of many) as a meaningful concept, something we need to worry about, and save, etc – but none of them are willing to get their asses off the couch and into a lab and try to detect the damn thing. Wanna talk about unfair? They want all the privileges of having a dragon in their garage, without even lifting a finger so much as to open the door and look. It’s almost as if they know what they’ll find if they do, isn’t it? ;)

  168. consciousness razor says

    what bigger compliment do we now need to pay it than to acknowlege it as real??

    “Real” and “natural” don’t have the same meaning. So if you wanted to make that “compliment,” you could do it without equivocating and obfuscating.

    You are not conceding a single thing to woo-woo bullshitters by recognizing that to say something is natural (or supernatural) is to say it’s a type of thing. It is not a way of knowing. It’s not the only logically possible type of thing. It just so happens that as far anyone can tell, it’s true that only natural things exist. The reason we know that is because countless people have looked at all sorts of evidence and because we’ve honestly tried to reason our way through this mess as far as it goes, not because we feel like playing word games with definitions or thought it was “fair” to bullshit right back at the bullshitters to give them a taste of their own medicine.

  169. brive1987 says

    Okay, we could discuss the OA all day long, and the conclusion will still be “It’s bunk”. No argument there. My point, though, going back to Sophia’s (#173 & #176) and razor’s (#172) comments, is that the very way in which you show its bunk is a little more tricky.

    I absolutely agree that in most cases philosophy is, what did Dawkins call it, “dialectical prestidigitation”. HOWEVER, the problem is that this prestidigitation is (unfortunately) logically water-tight with apparently coherent premises, but the answers you get out of it appear nonsensical.

    So there are two approaches: just say “That conclusion is nonsensical” and walk away, which I think is fairly intellectually dishonest, or to actually poke holes in the logic and premises to *show* it’s nonsensical. But to poke holes in linguistic fluff, you need EXPERTS in linguistic fluff, otherwise you end up, perhaps making legitimate points, but in a way that’s not academically rigorous, which is what was happening in the above comments.

    Just as we use the evidence collected by geologists with all their experience to provide categorical proof that Young-earthers are wrong, even though we already know it, we should have experienced philosophers provide similarly rigorous refutations of philosophical arguments, even if we think we can already show theyr’e bunk.

  170. says

    But to poke holes in linguistic fluff, you need EXPERTS in linguistic fluff, otherwise you end up, perhaps making legitimate points, but in a way that’s not academically rigorous, which is what was happening in the above comments.

    Not rigorous according to the rules of philosophy, but he problem is that the rules of philosophy are arbitrary and pointless, and do not serve to derive conclusion about the real world. If I argue that by tossing a pinch of bat guano and sulfur in the air and recite the correct incantation I can generate a massive ball of flame that I can direct where I want it, that claim is rigorous according to the rules of D&D, but that has no bearing whatsoever on the real world or what is true here. Philosophical rigor is pointless and meaningless from a standpoint of discussing reality. The dishonesty occurs when they try to compare their thought experiments on an equal basis to actual experiments, and though the two should be taken equally seriously.

  171. Sophia, Michelin-starred General of the First Mediterranean Iron Chef Batallion says

    “But it’s more complex than that!”

    No, it really isn’t. If you like obfuscating points with a cloud of word soufflé when those points are almost universally simple and easily to understand, that doesn’t make you a philosopher, that makes you someone who wants to appear smart but really just sounds like a word fountain.
    Accuracy in language can be had with very few words, you just need to choose them carefully.

    To poke holes in linguistic fluff, you need to remove the fluff, not use it. Boil the point back down to its core idea, clarify to the other party you’ve understood*

    The WLC tactic is doing pretty much exactly what you’re suggesting about fluff – Knowing that the person does understand but saying they don’t (“it’s more complicated than that”) because they want to move the goalposts to stop their arguments being refuted. The tactic is dishonest argument, not that the point is actually more complex.
    It is possible for someone to misunderstand a point due to nuance and complexity (usually just context and for social issues involving real people, logic puzzles and exercises in sophistry are almost always incredibly simple), but that’s not the tactic we see in the vast majority of cases. We see goal-post moving and obfuscation through pointless addition of words, talking circles around the point rather than engaging with it. That’s useless and dishonest.

    To pull this back to the OP a bit, the way I’ve boiled down the conversation is that Novella sees atheists as a group separate from skeptics due to differences in focus, whilst PZ says that for a large number of atheists, skepticism is what caused them to arrive at atheism and the method is the link, not the focus. A venn diagram would explain it nicely. There are more words to it than that, and neither is trying to deliberately argue with obfuscation as far as I can see, but that seems to be the nub of it to me.

  172. John Morales says

    brive1987:

    Just as we use the evidence collected by geologists with all their experience to provide categorical proof that Young-earthers are wrong, even though we already know it, we should have experienced philosophers provide similarly rigorous refutations of philosophical arguments, even if we think we can already show theyr’e bunk.

    Rubbish.

    Whatever made you imagine any significant portion of goddists believe on the basis on sophisticated philosophical arguments that require rigorous refutations from experienced philosophers?

    Here is a little test for you: Can you adduce or cite any such argument that hasn’t been refuted hundreds of years ago?

    (And let’s face, they’re ostensibly arguments, but in fact they’re rationalisations)

  173. unclefrogy says

    ghosts, magic, esp, supernatural beings, supernatural acts, spirits, eternal souls, life after death, gods, demons all that “stuff” that has not been proved to exist in the only space-time we know of here and now.
    all the “speculation” all the philosophical discussion do not change any thing. The point of this post is the complaint that we should confine any skeptical thinking or questioning to certain defined areas. I have only one question. Why?
    If any of that above stuff has an existence it is in the human mind only which from my understanding of current observation is an emerging property of the complexity of the human brain.

    I do grow tired of the back and forth of some of the discussion here on this subject just too detailed and complicated for my tastes. It does though highlight that there is no subject that can not be talked to death or none that are off limits here.
    thanks it has been a work out just trying to understand what the hell some were saying. ;-)

    to those who are made uncomfortable by the constant questioning do not try to answer if it bothers you but do not tell me that the questions should not be asked.
    If we do not ask questions how will we ever find out anything.
    questioning things just might be the most important things we have ever learned to do.
    If you can’t get any answers to the questions you are asking try questions that it might be possible to find answers for instead.
    uncle frogy

  174. Ichthyic says

    This is what you’re saying, I think, in saying that claims about the real world must be empirically testable: the world is physical, full stop, and anything else is irrelevant.

    But this is a bit presumptive:

    perhaps, but it’s also deductive.

    show me how something is relevant that is not part of the physical world.

    show me how, exactly anything is NOT part of the physical world.

    good luck.

    this is why philosophy of metaphysics is simply a dead issue; it leads to nothing productive, nothing useful, does not advance our thinking, does not advance our knowledge.

  175. brive1987 says

    I notice that PZ has addressed a “new” WLC argument based around consciousness and intentionality.

    http://freethoughtblogs.com/pharyngula/2013/02/03/another-really-stupid-argument-from-william-lane-craig/

    I also note he found it valuable and worthwhile linking to a philosophical take down and mentioned “serious non-superficial philosophers”. Yes plural used.

    I also note he did not dismiss the value of the philosopher in pointing out “the obvious fallacies and some of the more subtle arguments against it”.Not even a hint of sarcasm there.

    PZ then briefly outlined the naturalistic view (also covered in Case 2 of the philosophic take down).

    You may like to contrast his tone and implied position to that of our discussion above.

    Feel free to maintain your blanket anti-philosophy line (ie disclaiming the study of the underlying logic underpinning the values we assign to empirical facts).

    But at least one person on this board can see the value of an atheistic philosopher in fully and robustly countering WLC and his pro theistic “arguments”.

  176. consciousness razor says

    show me how, exactly anything is NOT part of the physical world.

    good luck.

    Are numbers ‘part of the physical world’? Is there no such thing as a number? I don’t know how I’m supposed to “show” you that (or what I’d show), if it’s indeed the case, but I guess answering my questions would be one way to start.

    Also, if you thought numbers were non-physical, is that in any way threatening to atheism/naturalism/skepticism/whatever, or would it just be kind of a pain in the ass because it’s a distraction from the issues with theism and because theists will latch onto any distraction they can find?

    this is why philosophy of metaphysics is simply a dead issue; it leads to nothing productive, nothing useful, does not advance our thinking, does not advance our knowledge.

    I get the impression you think the only “metaphysics” there is to do is answer the question “is everything physical, or is there anything else?” Your challenge above certainly seems to imply it. Do you think that’s true?

    ———

    I also note he found it valuable and worthwhile linking to a philosophical take down and mentioned “serious non-superficial philosophers”. Yes plural used.

    Did you not notice when I flatly rejected your earlier claim that PZ “pretty much ignore[s] its existence.” Why are you just now coming to terms with the fact it isn’t true?

  177. brive1987 says

    The overwhelming consensus of comments to this post is that philosophy has no place at the atheistic table.

    I maintain that PZ “pretty much ignore[s] philosophy’s existence” in his materialistic position. That’s OK as long as he doesn’t entirely discount it like Dawkins or Krauss. My main point that you referred to was that scientists who are not “serious philosophers” should not think their physics or biology degrees provide them a philosophical authority beyond a laymans opinion.

    Kudos to PZ that he has the common sense and courtesy to refer us to the serious philosophical field for the “subtle arguments” and comments on his undoubted field of empirical science.

    The delicious irony here is that when he doesn’t ignore philosophy (done well), he supports my position – that the discipline has value in the debate and there are experts to whom we can turn for serious atheistic philosophy.

    This point was never conceded in this discussion and therefore my greater argument’s central premise was always rejected.

    I *will* revel in the moment even if it is short lived. :-)

  178. consciousness razor says

    I maintain that PZ “pretty much ignore[s] philosophy’s existence” in his materialistic position.

    Could this mean anything at all? Never mind whether you actually know or understand what PZ’s position is — do you understand that materialism is a philosophical position?

    That’s OK as long as he doesn’t entirely discount it like Dawkins or Krauss.

    Which, once again, is not the subject of this thread. You could take this to the Thunderdome, if you feel like railing on Dawkins or Krauss. I’m sure I wouldn’t be the only one who’d want to join you (since there are lots of reasons to do so).

    My main point that you referred to was that scientists who are not “serious philosophers” should not think their physics or biology degrees provide them a philosophical authority beyond a laymans opinion.

    It’s certainly beyond a layman’s, because scientific methods, along with knowledge about scientific theories and evidence, give a much stronger philosophical foundation than some random jackass’ ignorant opinion. (By the way, where is “philosophical opinion” in this scheme, or is it all authoritative if you know the secret handshake?) Is this just your opinion?

    The delicious irony here is that when he doesn’t ignore philosophy (done well), he supports my position – that the discipline has value in the debate and there are experts to whom we can turn for serious atheistic philosophy.

    This point was never conceded in this discussion and therefore my greater argument’s central premise was always rejected.

    Did you just stop reading my comments at some point? Perhaps after I refused to be polite to you?

  179. brive1987 says

    I *will* revel in the moment even if it is short lived. See #190

    @consciousness razor #193

    Ah, I remember the issue and ultimately it wasn’t politeness that was the problem.

    It appears you and I cannot communicate as my complete lack of clarity (from your perspective) causes great upset and forces you to query (seemingly) my every word and sentence.

    If below doesn’t help then I must retreat from causing you more concern by imploring you to ignore my ramblings..

    Point 1 Yes materialism is a philosophical position (though it is not clear to me exactly what brand of materialism PZ espouses) The charitable view of my point is that PZ ignores the wider and complementary field of philosophy in favour of his specific brand of materialism. And as I mentioned, this is fine as long as …. See #192.

    Point 2 The thread has turned to philosophy and the role of philosophy in science and atheism and the wider debate of who gets a seat at the table and why. This issue was the lynchpin of my original argument about PZ vs Novella’s skeptic worldviews. The 193 posts by interested parties suggest a momentum has formed around this debate.

    Point 3 Again you have seemingly failed to apply the principle of charity to my comment. I am clearly saying that philosophy has a methodological toolset as specific and rigorous as any other discipline. A chemist waxing lyrical about (say) the philosophy of consciousness is treading as dangerous a path as a philosopher discussing (with authority rather than offering an informed opinion) the underlying science of redox reactions or whatever. If this is unclear then I really cannot guide you to greater clarity.

    Point 4 I have not yet seen a direct response to my post showing an apparent convergence in my views on the role of philosophy at the atheism table and PZ’s recent post which implicly supports my contentions vs the differing consensus of this thread.

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

    “ The principle of charity is a methodological presumption made in seeking to understand a point of view whereby we seek to understand that view in its strongest, most persuasive form before subjecting the view to evaluation.

    In philosophy and rhetoric, the principle of charity requires interpreting a speaker’s statements to be rational and, in the case of any argument, considering its best, strongest possible interpretation. In its narrowest sense, the goal of this methodological principle is to avoid attributing irrationality, logical fallacies or falsehoods to the others’ statements, when a coherent, rational interpretation of the statements is available ”

  180. brive1987 says

    Sigh – I guess I have to clarify that:

    “The charitable view of my point is that PZ ignores the wider and complementary field of philosophy in favour of his specific brand of materialism. And as I mentioned, this is fine as long as …. See #192.”

    Means PZ tends to “ignore the wider field of philosophy …… with regards to his atheist worldview and arguments”. “And that is fine ….” etc