The God Meter

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A week or so ago, I attended “Darwinian Evolution in the 21st Century,” the 21st Regional Conference on the History and Philosophy of Science (Friday evening and Saturday, April 7 and 8, 2006) at the University of Colorado. The conference kicked off with talks by Rob Pennock and Betty Smocovitis on Friday night and continued Saturday with eight contributed papers. Anyone who is in the Boulder-Denver area at roughly this time next year will doubtless be rewarded by attending the 22nd conference.

Victor Stenger of the University of Colorado presented a talk called “ Can Science Study the Supernatural?” He concluded, correctly in my opinion, that it can. Indeed, Professor Stenger considers that we are studying claims of the supernatural when we study ESP, near-death experiences, the Shroud of Turin, or religious visions or miracles. Some of these turn out to have plausible natural explanations, but we could not have said a priori that they would necessarily. Many people accept studies of the supernatural when “supernatural” is interpreted to mean ESP or near-death experiences but demur when the question is phrased, “Can Science Study Religion?” or “Can Science Study God?” as opposed to the broader “supernatural.” I will argue, with Professor Stenger, that science can indeed study claims of religion when those claims are factual statements about the natural world or purport to be factual statements about the natural world. But I will take issue with his contention that science has disproved the existence of God and show why I think it is a politically dangerous argument.

Professor Stenger cites several studies of distant intercessory prayer, wherein people prayed for strangers to recover from a disease. He accepts three such studies as being properly blinded and randomized: Mayo Clinic, Duke, and, most recently, Harvard et al. None of these studies yielded a positive result. It is possible that the objects of the prayer had a lot of “unauthorized” people praying for them, so the background noise wholly obscured the effect of the experimental prayer group, but the experiments are sound in principle if not in practice and exemplify a scientific study of religion.

Professor Stenger proposes a brilliant thought experiment: Suppose that a distant intercessory prayer experiment had been conducted, and it turned out that the prayers of Catholics were answered in the affirmative, but the prayers of Jews, Protestants, and Muslims had no effect above the control group (those who were not explicitly prayed for). We would look very hard for natural explanations, examine the experimental protocol in detail, replicate the experiment, and so on. Let us suppose that we could come up with no natural explanation, however improbable. Let us then, for argument’s sake, concede supernatural intervention, presumably by God. Yes, Professor Stenger is proposing a God-of-the-gaps argument. But let us assume that the odds in favor of a natural explanation are so slim that science will have proved the existence of God, perhaps even (according to Professor Stenger) the Catholic conception of God. The point is made: Science can in principle investigate God.

The failure of distant prayer studies and other scientific evidence have led Professor Stenger to conclude that God does not exist. I have examined much of the evidence myself ( www.1stBooks.com/bookview/5559), and I agree with him. (You could argue that empirical evidence is not appropriate inasmuch as a belief in God may properly be based on faith. But religious believers commonly cite evidence, often anecdotal, to support their beliefs, so I take it that evidence really matters, in spite of protestations to the contrary. What is at issue is the kind and quality of evidence.) People have searched high and low for evidence of a deity, and to my mind convincing evidence has not been found. An empiricist is justified in concluding, at least tentatively, that it has not been found because a deity does not exist.

But Professor Stenger goes further and claims that science has conclusively disproved God. His God detector, as he says, is pinned at 0. To paraphrase a questioner, maybe he has it set on an insufficiently sensitive scale. Maybe it is set on the 1-megagod scale, whereas it needs to be set on the 1-god scale.

Professor Stenger did not wholly address the question but responded that he was referring to the benevolent Christian God. Again, I agree with his conclusion, inasmuch as I think that evil and misfortune count decisively against a benevolent and omnipotent God, and any theodicies I have ever read are but lame rationalizations.

The claim that science has conclusively disproved God is what your physician might call a diagnosis of exclusion. That is what she uses when she has no firm idea what you have. Let us say you go to the doc complaining of fatigue, muscle and joint pains, and physical weakness. The doc fails to find anything wrong with you and tells you, by exclusion, that there is indeed nothing wrong with you (or it is all in your head). The next day (or so it seems), medicine discovers a new syndrome, fibromyalgia. The etiology of fibromyalgia is unclear, though it may be related to autoimmune diseases such as lupus and rheumatoid arthritis. Nevertheless, it is a recognized syndrome, and there is after all something wrong with you.

The physician’s diagnosis was justified when she made it, but it was a diagnosis-of-the-gaps argument and promptly disproved. Professor Stenger’s argument is likewise an atheism-of-the-gaps argument, and, whereas I think it is most likely right, I cannot agree that it is conclusive. Indeed, it is the same diagnosis of exclusion that intelligent-design creationists use when they claim that we cannot figure out how the bacterial flagellum has evolved, so therefore it did not.

I am concerned that strident arguments linking science to atheism are counterproductive. Creationists claim that evolution and religion are incompatible (though they usually mean their version of religion). If they ever convince the public to automatically link science with atheism, then evolution is done for, and it will take science down with it. Rightly or wrongly, many people believe in God, and many of those same people support evolution and oppose creationism, whether intelligent-design creationism or other. Force them to choose between their religion and science, and a great many will probably choose religion, to the detriment of science.

The argument that science has disproved God, besides being wrong, puts religious believers who support science into an untenable position and risks alienating precisely those people whose support we desperately need.

Acknowledgement. Glenn Branch read and commented on this article in draft form, but he is not responsible.

481 Comments

I can’t resist challenging you on this.

Your argument goes like this: 1) Science and religion don’t mix, but 2) most people are religious and will choose religion, therefore, 3) we ought to remain silent about fact number 1 so as to fool people into trying somehow to combine both in their heads. That is not logical. It is not we who are putting religious believers who support science in an untenable position, it is the Fact of The Matter that puts them in that position.

It seems to me disingenuous to carefully tiptoe around a conflict that everybody knows about anyway, so as to assure people who believe in untruths that they can still have their untruths and eat them too. If religion and science are incompatible, that is that, and no amount of whispering can or should try to disguise that fact. This seems to me very clumsy politicking.

Those who honestly think that religion and science are compatible–fine. I think they’re wrong, and we can discuss that on those terms. But under no circumstances, I think, should those of us who believe otherwise bite our tongues out of fears of scaring away people who believe in contradictory things. If they’re scared away, then too bad. But we should be honest about what we see as the facts, in either case. As George Washington said, “If to please the people we offer that which we ourselves disapprove, how can we afterwards defend it? Let us raise a standard to which the wise and just can repair.”

Ah me… The good professor fails to understand that science never conclusively ‘proves’ anything whatsoever. After at least 2600 years of study regarding ‘proof’, by now students of deductive logic have quite a good understanding of ‘proof’. It only applies to mathematics and formal logic.

Scientists use inductive logic, Bayesian reasoning, to at least intuitively obtain the probability of hypotheses given the evidence. To pick a favorite example here, SLOT has a probability of very close to, but not equal to, one. Similarly for the essential aspects of the theory of biological evolution. Both of these probabilities are, of course,only intuitive.

In some areas of science the Bayesian reasoning can be done completely quantitatively. See E.T. Jaynes, “Probability Theory: the logic of science”, Cambridge University Press.

Much of this is why I describe myself as an agnostic. I can’t prove that no god(s) exist, though the available evidence certainly points that way, but that doesn’t provide proof. I can show–logically–that some gods as described can not exist, but that doesn’t prove that no god could exist. On the flip side, I have seen no evidence that would compel me to conclude that any god *does* exist.

Matt:

Glenn Branch read and commented on this article in draft form, but he is not responsible.

One assumes this may have been phrased just a bit more broadly than it was meant…

(sigh)

Must be that time again, huh . … . .

I’m sorry, but I think those who try to use science to disprove God are just as bad as those who try to use science to prove God. What’s even worse is those that try to disprove God are usually pretty darn good scientists and it just adds to the image of a science as being anti-God.

oh well, just my 2 pennies.

Hiya, Lenny!

Ah’m sure lookin’ forward to that Vikin’ Piss of yours!

Um, well, at least I think Ah’m lookin’ forward to it…

Uh, that is, Ah’m pretty sure Ah’m willin’ to at least try it.

Nah, Ah’ll definitely try it. Fair warnin’ though–if it’s any good you better have a bunch of it!

:->

Your argument goes like this: 1) Science and religion don’t mix, but 2) most people are religious and will choose religion, therefore, 3) we ought to remain silent about fact number 1 so as to fool people into trying somehow to combine both in their heads.

No, 3) we ought to educate people to the point where they can easily see the difference between “science says there is no god” (erroneous) and “science says nothing about whether or not any sort of god might exist” (correct). This is a complete non-mixing of science and religion. IOW, I’m agreeing with Matt Young in that, while one might conceivably prove that a particular sort of god (e.g. one who lives in a cave on the top of a particular mountain) does not exist, one cannot prove that no god exists. Occam’s Razor might lead one to provisionally so conclude, but that’s not proof.

Let’s face it, if an omnipotent and omniscient god doesn’t want you to find his fingerprints, he’s going to foil your study anyway.

I will repeat that science proves nothing at all! See my previous post.

To eliminate an unnecessary part of a complex hypothesis is considered sensible. This is Ockham’s Razor. Here is an example:

Let S be a scientific hypothesis such as STOL. Let G be the hypothesis of devine intervention. Let E be the evidence. Since the probability of E given S, p(E | S) is equal to the probability of E given both S and G, p(E | S&G), we conclude that G is unnecessary. Ockham’s Razor, otherwise known as parsimony, recommends removing this unnecessary part of the hypothesis.

Suppose that a distant intercessory prayer experiment had been conducted, and it turned out that the prayers of Catholics were answered in the affirmative, but the prayers of Jews, Protestants, and Muslims had no effect above the control group (those who were not explicitly prayed for). We would look very hard for natural explanations, examine the experimental protocol in detail, replicate the experiment, and so on. Let us suppose that we could come up with no natural explanation, however improbable. Let us then, for argument’s sake, concede supernatural intervention, presumably by God. Yes, Professor Stenger is proposing a God-of-the-gaps argument. But let us assume that the odds in favor of a natural explanation are so slim that science will have proved the existence of God, perhaps even (according to Professor Stenger) the Catholic conception of God. The point is made: Science can in principle investigate God.

The problem with the conclusion above is that “God” does not reference anything, or perhaps one might say that it “can reference anything at all.” We may “pray to God”, but we don’t know what we’re doing in this case. This “God” might be Loki, some trickster who is trying to cause a whole lot of trouble in the world, by dissing Jews, etc., and favoring the Catholics. We don’t know. We can’t know. We might think of ways in which we might conceivably come to know what or who is favoring the Catholics in this case, but we have absolutely no capacity for knowing such a thing at this moment and time.

Homer certainly writes about how gods and goddesses muck around in human affairs for unknown reasons and unknown purposes (apparently they were not unknown by the time Homer wrote them–of course Homer himself may not have been a naive religionist, but it appears that many who read him were–and believed Homer’s device of the muses speaking to him). Agamemnon is given a revelation in a dream, only it happens to be faulty, and it nearly leads to the Greeks aborting their long seige of Troy. Who is to know? The gods are not obviously going to tell us the truth, are they?

Of course if the Catholics were decidedly favored by intercessory prayer (and of course I’m not picking on Catholics, just going along with the example) we would have cause to believe that something extraordinary was going on–although I have no reason to think that it could be readily categorized into “natural” or “supernatural”. But if that were all that we knew, we would still know virtually nothing at all, just that it’s time to find a local priest to take advantage of the situation. What else could we know?

And why do we continually deal with these weak posited effects anyhow? I’d like to hear God thundering from Mt. Sinai, performing miracles and generally scaring the hell out of us. Why don’t we ask for that, and not these tepid statistical effects? I know that one reason is that some people have claimed these weak effects, but clearly we might reasonably expect more out of an omnipotent God. Just a leg being restored to a person whose leg was amputated above the knee would be spectacular, but no, God isn’t going to do that, we’re going to the statistical mine to “prove God”.

But let’s give some credit as well to the “God can’t be tested” people. Of course the God who intervenes cannot be tested–what about Spinoza’s (to an extent, also Einstein’s) God? Spinoza rejected miracles (causing problems for him among both Jews and Xians) and believed in an extremely overwhelming God/Nature (Deus sive Natura). It seems that he was following both Descartes (the philosopher’s God, you know) and Maimonides in this, working in a religious/philosophical tradition going back at least to Plato. This kind of metaphysical God was not invented just to explain the dearth of miracles, he was invented in order to explain the universe with its strange and uncounted-for existence. One may certainly attack this vision of God on philosophical grounds, yet clearly there is no “investigation” of God to be done in the minds of anyone adhering to this kind of God. I would also note that this metaphysical God is not only Spinoza’s, rather Spinoza is one of many Platonic derivatives existing throughout the “monotheistic religions” of Judaism, Islam, and Xianity.

We may indeed investigate the “paranormal” and religious claims that predict effects in the perceptual world. However this does leave out the beliefs of many religious folk. And more importantly, finding anomalous events only tells us one thing–that we have anomalous events. It does not give us the author of these events, and if we do not find out about said “author” we only do not know what causes the anomalous events. Certainly we do not have any reason to default to traditional gods and old textual claims about them. And we can never rule out “the natural” (an ambiguous term at best), so we could never claim that there is a God “above nature”, whatever that might mean.

Glen D http://tinyurl.com/b8ykm

Well, this is a great example of why science can’t investigate the supernatural. Of course, it can, and does, investigate the natural manifestations of allegedly supernatural causes, but the causes themselves are forever excluded, because scientists, simply, lack the tools to investigate them. We just simply can’t.

For instance, I would take exception that a positive outcome from the intercessory prayer experiments, as the one suggested by Stenger (prayers by Catholics, but not others, work) would and should lead a scientist to conclude that God existests with any confidence (of course, religious people would take that as a confrmation of their beliefs, but that conclusion would not be scientific). Any scientists would understand that there are an infinite number of alternative explanations, both natural and supernatural, that would account for the same data just as parsimoniously. For instance, could the Catholic prayers work because, say, it’s not God that matters but rosary beads? (Wood beads could have healing powers we don’t know about.) Could it be that ethnic groups that tend to be Catholic (Irish, Italians, Latinos) have some ESP healing power that we don’t know about? Could it be that, for some unexplained reason, people with ESP healing powers tend to gravitate to the Catholic religion? Could it be that the aliens with healing technology just happen to LOVE the sound of Catholic prayers, and reward them by providing healing services to Catholics? You see my point? None of these conclusions is more parsimonious, in scientific terms, than the existence of the all-powerful, all-seeing God of the Catholic tradition.

So, science could safely conclude that intercessory prayers by Catholics simply work, for unknown reasons and by unknown mechanisms. Some of those reasons and mechanisms may be natural (say, electromagnetic beams shooting out of the prayer’s foreheads and interfering with the patient’s physiology), in which case they will be investigatable, while others (God’s actions) will not. Ever.

Similarly, all that the results on interecessory prayers tell us so far is that having a bunch of religious people perform well-wishing rituals does not improve a patient’s health. Whether this is because God does not exist, or does not answer well-wishing rituals, or is just fooling around with scientists, we don’t, and will never, know (scientifically).

So, the reason to interpret these results cautiously is not because we don’t want to offend the sensitivity of religious people (I suspect the raw data themselves are offensive enough to many of them), or because it is not politically savvy, but because it would be bad science to draw from these experiments unwarranted conclusions about supernatural causes, regardless of the experiments’ outcome.

“infinite number of explanations just as parsimoniously” — I fear not. There are several suitable measures for just how parsimonious a formal explanation is. Using whichever measure pleases you, there are only a finite number of explanations at each level of parsimony.

It’s hard to say that God does not exist – particularly when we restrict the definition of God to something like: a powerful entity which created the universe. When you strip God down to those simple attributes, you aren’t really left with any attributes to test. Given that simple definition, we can’t predict that God would ever intervene in the universe. Perhaps God made the universe as a giant ant-farm or a giant 4-dimensional work of art, capable of evolving intelligent life. Perhaps he has no intention or desire to help any of the creatures within that universe. In that view, God does exist, but all our religions are false and all of our tests will fail because they require that God intervene in the present.

I fear not. There are several suitable measures for just how parsimonious a formal explanation is. Using whichever measure pleases you, there are only a finite number of explanations at each level of parsimony.

Uhmmm… why not? Once you are talking undetectable agents with undetectable healing powers, can’t one come up with an infinite number of equivalent Gods, or supernatural, or natural but unknown agents to do the same job? The sky’s the limit (literally). Just asking.

Maybe we need to rethink the relationship between religion and atheism. It’s being described as a black and white issue, but it’s really a spectrum of conceptions of what god is and of how involved God is.

There is far less difference between a deist like Thomas Paine and an atheist like Richard Dawkins than there is between two Christians like Jerry Falwell and Paul Tillich.

On one side of the spectrum we have very involved gods, they answer prayers, talk to people through burning bushes, smite people, flood the world, send human avatars, etc.. In the Bible, when called upon to answer the claims against another religion, God shows and proves himself. On the other side of the spectrum we have less and less involved gods, finally ending at the far end where there is no god at all in evidence and no reason to assume one.

Also note the religions evolve. There are “fossil religions” like the ancient Egyptian religion which shaped a society and motivated the building of the pyramids. No society after that ever devoted so much human effort to their religion. As religion evolves it generally gets smaller. Temples the Romans built, cathedrals, modern churches – less and less a percentage of the overall effort a society puts into its buildings.

Religions are adapting and adjusting to the evidence of modern science and as the god-of-gaps grows smaller with fewer and fewer gaps to hide in people naturally move toward the atheistic end of the spectrum.

The problem is that many get pulled back towards fundamental isms. One of the things that does that is that you can’t divorce some of these religions from the ultimately fundamentalist books they are rooted in; the Bible, the Koran, the Talmud… People could move toward atheism more easily if they didn’t need the revelations of a book to anchor their faith.

God would naturally grow more distant and cold blooded as the gaps are filled by science. Faith would become a mere hope that becomes less and less important as we get our power from science rather than trying superstition. God would gradually recede from view.

What prevents this is the anchor for religious faith – the holy books.

Gods are defined by those books, their level of potential involvement and their desire to be worshiped and obeyed.

Glen Davidson is wrong when he claims that if experiments proving the intercessory prayer of Catholics were answered they would have a “God” that does not reference anything – it references the Catholic conception of God. It touches on a specific claim (a prediction of their religious theory) and the book their faith is anchored in.

The Bible is full of specific claims it’s hard to dance around – many of them now testable.

Andrea, you are correct if you allow an infinite number of ‘causes’, let us call them, and each of these causes are considered to be equally parsimonious. However, in science we are fundamentally limited to our senses and the extensions to our senses, called instruments. Our senses are finite and all of the instruments we currently have or have had are finite. So an explanation based upon our senses and instruments leaves us with only finite explanations. (This is still a bit crude, but surely enough for this wacky thread…)

Andrea, you are correct if you allow an infinite number of ‘causes’, let us call them, and each of these causes are considered to be equally parsimonious. However, in science we are fundamentally limited to our senses and the extensions to our senses, called instruments. Our senses are finite and all of the instruments we currently have or have had are finite. So an explanation based upon our senses and instruments leaves us with only finite explanations. (This is still a bit crude, but surely enough for this wacky thread…)

OK, in that case, that was exactly my point - once you go into supernatural causation, there are infinite numbers of equally parsimonious explanations for any phenomenon, and we have no way to scientifically discriminate between them. You, of course, expressed the concept more parsimoniously. ;-)

I can’t resist: when my students ask me if I believe in “God”, or (even better) if I believe that “God exists” (or doesn’t), I ask them “Does the United States exist?” Almost always someone takes the bait and says “yes”, and then I ask “Where?” Sometimes they describe the geographical boundaries of the USA, but usually at least one realizes what I’m driving at and says “Yes, it exists as an idea in our heads.” And I commend them, and point out that the United States, like God (or, more properly, the “idea” of God) exists exactly where all ideas exist: in (and only in) the human mind.

By this criterion, therefore, God not only exists (in the same way that the United States and the Democratic Party and the state of Minnesota exist), there are quite literally billions of gods living in the minds of the human inhabitants of this planet right now. Indeed, as many people are quite capable of holding more than one idea (even contradictory ones) about the same subject, the number of possible gods is certainly larger than the number of people who have had, have now, and ever will have such ideas. This is “polytheism” with a vengeance…

So, to answer Hans Küng’s question, does God exist, the answer is “yes” and in exactly the same way that the United States, Superman, and Moby Dick exist: as (literally) supernatural ideas in people’s minds.

Notice that, as Richard Weaver once wrote, “ideas have consequences”, and so the “idea of God=God” identity has consequences for people’s behavior, in the same way that other supernatural ideas (such as the United States of America or the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics) have real-world consequences, up to and including killing people in huge, costly, violent, and stupid ways.

So, it is possible to completely disbelieve in the kind of “god” that creationists, most ID theorists, and many mainstream theists believe in (and believe me, I don’t believe in the kinds of “gods” most of them believe in), yet still believe that other people believe in an idea they attach the name of “God” to, and then let that idea actively control their behavior (and let the people who either genuinely or cynically believe in the same idea control their lives for them).

If this be heresy (and I suspect it is), let those who wish to make the most of it. I have but one mind to give for the idea of my country (most days anyway)…

Dr. MacNeill, did you call William Dembski a “bald faced liar”? He says you did.

If not, this wouldn’t be the first time Dembski believed hearsay. Be thankful he didn’t call the Department of Homeland Security on you.

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Allen MacNeill, well stated, indeed! But are you quite sure you are not of two minds about it? ;-)

For a purely naturalistic and anthropological explanation of why people believe in gods, demons, and so forth, check out Pascal Boyer’s Religion Explained: the Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought” ( http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/04[…]ncoding=UTF8 ). I served on a panel at a conference with Boyer and found both his arguments and the evidence supporting them quite convincing.

You might also be interested in my own foray into this morass: http://evolutionlist.blogspot.com/2[…]ence-is.html in which I elaborate on Boyer’s explanation, grounding it in what I believe is the most likely candidate for the EEA in which the capacity for religious belief and experience evolved: chronic, low-level intergroup warfare (which archaeological evidence now indicates has been a feature of human existance since the mid-Pleistocene).

Forget about disproving God. By hypothesis God has the ability to remain scientifically undetectable. Take deism for example.

Humans naturally have complex personalities and are quite capable of being both scientific and religious. Being religious is not limited to obeisance to imperial deities, by the way. Saying as one comment does “science and religion don’t mix” is 1) beside the point since some people do both, but separately, and 2) not true for all people - they are mixed in some people. Arguments against this based on a stereotype of religion are limited to the stereotype.

I would appreciate Prof. MacNeill’s comments on the following:

“Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, does not go away.” PHILIP K. DICK

Pete Dunkelberg wrote:

Arguments against this based on a stereotype of religion are limited to the stereotype.

Is Jerry Falwell a stereotype?

Could it be that ethnic groups that tend to be Catholic (Irish, Italians, Latinos) have some ESP healing power that we don’t know about?

The alternative is the placebo effect has a genetic basis and the genetic contribution varies between populations. The placebo effect may well be a quantative trait with contributions from multiple loci. The apparent effects of intercessory prayer that differed between religious groups was the result of the genetic structure of the different religious groups. A primarily Caucasian heterogeneous religious group might not possess the constellation of alleles at loci required for expression of the placebo effect. Whereas a more racially homogenous religious group might contain a grouping of alleles that allows for an enhanced placebo effect in it’s members. This could be independently verified in other small religious sects, followed by genome wide scan designed to identify loci responsible for the placebo effect. This “don’t worry, be happy” study has possible applications in both the biomedical field and prison systems.

Good luck getting that funding proposal through NIH.

Delta Pi Gamma (Scientia et Fermentum)

Steve S asks:

Dr. MacNeill, did you call William Dembski a “bald faced liar”?

I did indeed, in this post at “Dispatches from the Culture Wars”: http://www.stcynic.com/blog/archive[…]ill_fisk.php

Specifically, I pointed out that when he repeatedly referred to college IDEA clubs as “centers” he was grossly inflating both their size and status in a way that appeared “designed” to deliberately mislead the public. Furthermore, he strongly implied that the Skopes trial was a decisive victory for creationism, and that the Dover verdict was probably a good thing for ID because a victory might have “…convinced people that ID had already won the day…” And, he stated that “…ID still has much to accomplish in developing its scientific and intellectual program.”

Yeah, like actually having a “scientific and intellectual program” rather than a creationist-funded, media-slick PR program designed to mislead the general public about the actual scientific status of “intelligent design theory.” A genuine “scientific and intellectual program” should be able to publish more than four non-empirical “theoretical review” articles per decade, shouldn’t it? IMHO, calling the pitiful quartet of articles (of questionable merit and doubtful applicability) anything like a “scientific and intellectual program” verges awfully close on…well, on lying.

As I have said in other posts, both here and elsewhere, I am not impressed with Dr. Dembski’s veracity, nor his committment to the traditions of empirical science. I’m also not particularly impressed with his grasp of reality either.

As to his accusations that I will be stacking my course this summer against him, I will let the course description and additional explanations posted at my blog ( http://evolutionlist.blogspot.com/2[…]purpose.html and http://evolutionlist.blogspot.com/2[…]-course.html ) speak for themselves. And, since his own book is one of the required readings, his reasoning does seem a little forced…

Creationists claim that evolution and religion are incompatible (though they usually mean their version of religion).

Perhaps it should be rephrased ‘Evolution contradicts their FUNDAMENTALIST interpretation of religion’.

Glen Davidson is wrong when he claims that if experiments proving the intercessory prayer of Catholics were answered they would have a “God” that does not reference anything — it references the Catholic conception of God.

Yes, and only their “conception”. But there is no evident connection between their conception and the hypothetical answers to prayer for Catholics, which means that, as far as we know, the hypothetical answers to prayer would only be coincident with Catholic claims (if we ignore for the moment that Catholic theologians, at least, do not consistently predict that Catholics will benefit more than others from those prayers). There is no entailment between “answered prayer” and the God of St. Thomas, and as I noted (differently), it could be Loki having fun at the expense of those who think that matching up expectations to non-Catholic causation of miracles actually allows God to be referenced.

Norm seems not to understand what “referencing” means in a context such as this one. For our words to have reference beyond our conceptions they must have some causal relationship to our perceptions, or perhaps one might say, to the “perceptual world”. The God of the Catholics is not so referenced, in fact, and a number of Catholics know this. One hopes to get around this inconvenient state of affairs by showing that God exists via metaphysical philosophy, perhaps via panentheism, or by showing that minds must on some level be caused by God. Unfortunately, the old Catholic and other metaphysical philosophies seem not to hold up very well in competition with other philosophies (one Jesuit teacher I had affirmed that Catholic philosophy is dead–other Jesuits might dispute this), and the various “proofs” that minds are forms of God (or whatever) seriously fail the causal tests that we use.

No, the problem of actually referencing anything is not going to be decided by any successful predictions. That is the problem with ascribing the activities in the world to the gods, after all, for while we may even make reference to as abstract and not-directly-perceived force (field, for the purists) like gravity, we do not really reference “Zeus” by invoking his name. We might reference conceptions of Zeus by saying “Zeus”, or his statue, or literary references to Zeus, but there is nothing directly referenced by the mere invocation of “Zeus”. It’s the same with the Catholic God, there are any number of secondary references to “God” that we can make by thinking, saying, or writing “God”, but there is no primary sensory reference to this “God” that can truly be justified (yes, one may argue “subjective experience”, but of course these never resolve onto a universal concept of God).

Now I should say that I really don’t think that “reference” is a philosophical concept that can stand up to rigorous philosophical thinking. I brought up “gravity” in part because of this, since gravity may very well be considered to be a construct. However, it is a very robust construct, not one that may be directly perceived and known like the color “green”, but one that does conceptually coalesce and integrate a number of perceptions that we may directly access, much as another “perceived” person coalesces and integrates perceptions within our cognitive faculties. In the philosophical sense it is probably best not to claim that we directly reference either a person or a “force” when we conceive of these, however we may very well come to a kind of conceptual agreement within ourselves or even “with others” (whatever that means) to reference a relatively stable mental construct when we say “Sheri” or “gravity. I’m afraid that “God” is nothing like such a stable and apparently shared construct, and even the Catholic God shifts meanings and conceptualizations from age to age, culture to culture, and individual to individual (“Sheri” shifts somewhat as well, but this is the crucial factor: we may go back to Sheri the “entity” to check out our meanings and conceptualizations, while with “God” we cannot).

I simply used the term “reference” as a kind of quasi-vernacular term to avoid long drawn-out philosophical writing. Unfortunately it does not appear that I was able to escape it in the end.

It touches on a specific claim (a prediction of their religious theory) and the book their faith is anchored in.

Ah, yes, it does reference claims, conceptions, and the various Catholic sacred writings (Catholics are not bibliolaters to the degree many Protestants are). And? No primary reference to God is possible via our perceptions, and thus God is merely a social construct. I know that many will say that we do “reference” this social construct by writing “God”, but I’m afraid that “God” is not usually said, thought, or written by the devout in order to reference the mere social construct “God”. If Norm means that, well and good, but anyone who does mean to reference a social construct when invoking the God term ought to indicate this in the doing (unless the others already know this about Norm).

Glen D http://tinyurl.com/b8ykm

I still take issue with the “placebo effect.”

Most placebo tests have only two groups: those with the ‘real’ medication and those with a placebo. For a correct test, there should be a third: those with neither.

Closing off old threads, I see this that I stopped responding to because it took to much time at the time.

Aureola, “Concerning “philosophical support”: the two articles use two different meanings of those words.”

You are still dismissing my arguments here and later. But I see that you at least acknowledge that there is no unanimous definition of atheism even by atheists, and that it seems to be your only argument.

I have argued above that a falsifiable case can easily be made that gods doesn’t exist. This means that the burden of proof is on those who claim that they don’t know or that gods exist. You should look at those arguments.

David, The claim that a universal negative can be excluded is different from the claim that a particular one is, and so is the method of doing it.

Jim, I agree that nothing much is at stake by verifying gods doesn’t exist. However, every claim that we can attack with observational methods should be done.

Dualisms have confused our knowledge for a long time, and while it is not the priority of science to kill them it has been a consequence of advancing knowledge.

As I see it the purpose and methods of science are secular, but the consequence is atheism by what we have now learned about natural systems.

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This page contains a single entry by Matt Young published on April 19, 2006 5:41 PM.

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