evolution & metaphysics

evolution & metaphysicsI appreciate Tim Kowal’s long, thoughtful response to my post on Ben Stein and intelligent design, but after reading and re-reading it I’m afraid it misses the mark.  Lines like “Strictly speaking, natural selection is not a scientific theory” only help to harden that impression. They don’t call it the Theory of Evolution for nothing.

Science, as I see it, is the process by which we as humans attempt to better understand the natural world.  Whether we want to phrase this as “God’s creation” or merely as “the natural world” is unimportant.  When it comes to actually taking apart the radio and figuring out how it works, we don’t need to ask whether it was made by hand or by a machine, in America or overseas. All we need to do is take it apart and then put it back together.  Similarly, with science – whether it is biology or geology or physics – all we need to do is ask the question “how?”

How does it all tick?

That, to me, is science.  The exploration of how the natural world ticks.  To me, as a person of faith, I think of this as a way to better understand God also, to understand how creation ticks. I find the anthropomorphizing of God in “theories” like Intelligent Design to be insulting both to God and to my intelligence.

Let me explain.  Let’s take, for example, the rock cycle.  This is the natural cycle whereby rock is pressed down into the earth and then reemerges as magma.  That rock – now igneous rock – is  pressed slowly down into the earth, turns into sedimentary and then metamorphic rock, and finally is melted down once again into magma.  It is a process which takes millions upon millions of years.  Understanding this process helps us understand the earth beneath our feet (and a great deal more) and it is entirely irrelevant to our understanding of this process whether or not it was created or designed by God.  If a group of Intelligent Rock Cycle Designers came around arguing that instead of this being a natural process it was instead one guided by some other Intelligence, I simply fail to see how their alternative theory would be at all useful to our understanding of the rock cycle.

But does it diminish from it?

I think it does.  Because the rock cycle is nothing more than an observation of what is happening.  It carries no metaphysical weight.  It doesn’t posit that an intelligent designer, an alien overlord, or a giant deific infant is responsible (or not responsible) for anything.  It doesn’t ask why or who – just as no other scientific process asks why or who (except perhaps in the initial exploration of the idea, i.e. “Why are plants green?” not “Why do we exist?”  “Why do rocks change the deeper into the earth we travel? not “Who created rocks?”)  Once we start changing the scientific process to include “who” as an integral part of the discussion, we change the very nature of science from one of observation and theory to one of metaphysical inquiry – which it is not.

Besides, this idea of design betrays the need for an anthropomorphic God, one who could not possibly think big enough to design the process of natural selection and so must “guide” that process step by step.  Intelligent design detracts not only from the hard science and from understanding that science fully, but from a deeper, more reverent belief in God – who surely is more clever than any of us, and who just might have come up with evolution and natural selection and genetics and astrophysics and all of this (without terming them such). We are, with a tool we call science, only barely scratching the surface of the cleverness which is creation/the natural world/the giant deific baby’s playground….

That we are scratching that surface does not diminish God in any way, but attributing our own human concepts of design to his far more clever biological processes, I would argue, certainly does.  That we have a mind and can use it and can use it to explore the natural world, and that we term that exploration “science” does not diminish God.  We don’t need to talk about intelligent design to be in awe when we study the natural world – from the infinitesimal to the vast, it is awe-inspiring.  Natural selection is more awe-inspiring, more clever, and more intuitive than some endlessly tinkering deity who must forever shape and shift his creation.  Even if God is endlessly shaping, perhaps he has utilized natural selection as one in a larger array of tools.  This is God we’re talking about, no?  Perhaps he is beyond any stretch of our imagination.

Intelligent Design no more helps us understand biology than it does the rock cycle or the death of a star.  We still have to take the radio apart and put it back together.  Figure out how it ticks.  We still have to understand how it is that some species survive while others fail, how traits are passed on from one generation to the next, how our genetic composition can effect what diseases we’re prone to, and on and on and on.  If there is an intelligent designer I suspect he is far more intelligent than the ID proponents give him credit for.  Hard science will do a better job of convincing me of his existence and omnipotence than any snake oil salesman, pushing pseudo-science for political points, as a cultural battlefield in a larger, ultimately pointless war.

All that being said, if schools would like to teach theology of science classes, or philosophy of science classes, or whatever, that’s great.  Kids can learn about ID or creationism or young-earth creationism or Scientology or deific-babyism there.  The more the better.  Metaphysics and philosophy and all of that are good for young minds. We just need to teach them biology when they’re in biology class.

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170 thoughts on “evolution & metaphysics

  1. Thanks, E.D. Normally when I post here, it’s to disagree, or suggest a clarification I think needs to be added, or some such thing.

    In this case, though, I’m just going to waste everyone’s time be saying “Hear, hear!” The ID debate has long since aggravated me, since most of the ink (pixels?) seem devoted to either supporting ID to push a cultural agenda on one side, or be held up for ridicule as a way to score cultural points on the other. I rarely see anyone defend, and explain, science in a way that keeps it out of the God Exists/No He Doesn’t realm.

    Nicely done.

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  2. “Once we start changing the scientific process to include “who” as an integral part of the discussion, we change the very nature of science from one of observation and theory to one of metaphysical inquiry – which it is not.”

    Exactly. But, we shouldn’t delude ourselves that the results of the scientific process somehow have a monopoly on the truth.

    “Besides, this idea of design betrays the need for an anthropomorphic God, one who could not possibly think big enough to design the process of natural selection and so must “guide” that process step by step.”

    The “need” for a designer doesn’t come from theological necessity but the evidence itself, and the shakiness of neo-Darwinism in the light of modern genetics.

    “Intelligent design detracts not only from the hard science and from understanding that science fully, but from a deeper, more reverent belief in God – who surely is more clever than any of us, and who just might have come up with evolution and natural selection and genetics and astrophysics and all of this (without terming them such).”

    Yes, but did He? Does the evidence support that?

    Let’s also note that you’re conflating Intelligent Design with general opposition to neo-Darwinism, which aren’t exactly the same thing (but often close enough). The idea that some species are more closely related to each other than others does not require Darwinism, in fact it predates Darwin. What Darwin theorized is that the development of biological history occurred because various species morphed from one into another through natural selection. That is a very dubious (and difficult to test) theory. It is also the best we have, if we insist on naturalistic explanations.

    Intelligent Design is a particular alternative to Darwinism, where the requirement for naturalism is discarded but preserving scientific rigorousness (testability, public dissemination and so on). Frankly, it hasn’t accomplished very much. But, the most important thing to understand about ID is, that aside from its pseudoscientific gloss, it is intended to be a statement of the obvious. On the other hand, it is very difficult to state the obvious in a scientific paradigm. The proponents of ID might have a chance to do it if they were allowed to work in peace.

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    • The “need” for a designer doesn’t come from theological necessity but the evidence itself, and the shakiness of neo-Darwinism in the light of modern genetics.

      I didn’t say the “need for a designer.” I said this particular concept of design betrayed a tendency toward (or need for) anthropomorphizing God.

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      • Well then that’s just not right. What the “need” or motivation for ID comes from, in general, the desire to assert the fact that we don’t have to turn our rational brains off to consider non-naturalistic phenomena or explanations, and in particular the weakness of Darwinism on its own terms.

        It’s actually pretty agnostic about the nature of God, something that some theologians have criticized it for (and which you hinted at yourself).

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    • “we shouldn’t delude ourselves that the results of the scientific process somehow have a monopoly on the truth.”

      But I think the point here is that science does not claim to have a monopoly on the truth, and in fact doesn’t even have any skin in the game on what “truth” might be. All science is is the objective method of inquiry on how the physical world works. All that scientific knowledge is is a series of facts and observations, and testable theories that (to this point in time) hold up against those facts and observations. Claiming otherwise seems a straw man argument.

      Political and cultural-war spheres aside, I have never heard anyone argue that Darwinism shows that the belief in a creator is impossible, and therefore God does not exist, or some other type of nonsense. Rather, I see people saying that there may or may not have been a creator, but that question is by definition out of the realm of science, and therefore ID should not be put forth as a scientific theory. I thought E.D. nailed it when he said these things should be discussed in schools — in religious study, theology or philosophy classes. Not in science classes.

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      • “But I think the point here is that science does not claim to have a monopoly on the truth, and in fact doesn’t even have any skin in the game on what “truth” might be.”

        That is quite true, however, quite a few people do assert that proposition. That only science is the truth and that what we know, is in fact what there is. You may not have heard people assert that Darwinism is proof positive that God does not exist, demonstrates not that people don’t use the argument, but I have, as I’m sure others have as well.

        Before the Texas-related brouhaha this was discussed following Mark’s post last week on cultural markers and how acceptance of evolution (or skepticism of it) was such a marker. In that thread, a number of people made the claim that not only was evolution proven fact but skepticism of that proposition warranted mistrust of or dismissing the skeptic.

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        • Well personally, and in general as I understand it, the objection is not to questioning evolution. The question is what the alternative hypothesis is. If the alternative is some form of scientific hypothesis then it’d certainly be giving a respectful hearing. Hell the young pup scientists would be on it like Oprah on a baked ham. Can you imagine the fame and fortune that would lie in store for the man who disproved Darwin? It’d be the wet dream of bio-anythingists the world over.
          But if the alternative to the theory is either “God dun it. (Creationism)” or “Someone dun it. (Intelligent Design)” then obviously that’s not going to get the same level of respect. Because it isn’t science.

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  3. Kowal betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of his subject as early as the first paragraph, when he refers to Christopher Hitchens and Daniel Dennet as scientists. Science, it would seem, is nothing more than a faction. Hitchens and Dennet belong, no matter that neither actually practices any science.

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      • Of course. Furthermore, and people who don’t get the difference right away are either stupid or obstinate. Like Jaybird hinted on the other thread, this severely undermines their credibility to speak authoritatively in name of science or anything else.

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      • My mistake. He called them “scienceists”–I initially read that as scientists. But while Kowal doesn’t actually define Hitchens and Dennet as scientists, he still uses them to define the position of mainstream scientists in this debate. The real scientific position on evolution isn’t “Your god is dead and the universe is cold and uncaring”. It’s “Please get your metaphysics out of my classroom, I’m trying to teach biology.”

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        • That’s right. But also let it be noted that Hitchens, Dennett and the sort will assert themselves as representing overwhelming scientific consensus whenever they get the chance, so it’s not completely ridiculous for Kowal to take them that way.

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          • Agreed, both with Alan and Koz.

            In either case, I dislike this equating Hitchens or any person with the voice off science, as it makes scientific findings easier to persuade against, since you end up arguing that Hitchen’s has a huge ego and ignoring the data.

            Which, I think, was exactly the point you were trying to make, Alan.

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  4. I think you are attributing more intellectual integrity to proponents of so-called “Intelligent Design” than they have. You post presupposes that ID is a legitimate, sincere approach to a scientific question. From my perspective, ID is simply creationism in scientific drag, dressed thusly so creationists can get their viewpoint shoehorned into science curricula. I have a hard time believing that people who are pushing ID are doing so because they have any interest at all in the philosophy of science, or metaphysics, or what have you. I think they do so because they want to make sure nobody forces their kids to question their belief system.

    The problem stems, of course, from the particular way of believing that creationists have. The role of reason or inquiry is small or absent. (Thomas is, after all, generally viewed as a weak or flawed disciple, with his need to see Christ’s wounds with his own eyes.) Genesis says “six days,” and thus six 24-hour time spans it must be. It says “dust,” so dry dirt it must be. Interpretation of Genesis as metaphor = dangerous questioning of the inerrant Word of God, and is a step on the road to perdition.

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    • My post never presupposed that ID was a legitimate, sincere approach to a scientific question. Where does it do that? I have said before and continue to assert that ID is often little more than a front for the culture wars. It’s not scientific nor does it help answer (for me at least) theological questions. I find it to be both insulting to my reason and my religion.

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      • Perhaps I was reading that into the post. Your discussion was very measured and respectful, which was probably simple courtesy. By discussing it in those terms, I got the impression that you were treating those who advocate for ID as though they were interested in legitimate scientific inquiry or the philosophy of science.

        Sorry for the wrong inference.

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    • “I have a hard time believing that people who are pushing ID are doing so because they have any interest at all in the philosophy of science, or metaphysics, or what have you.”

      I’m afraid that you might be right on that. Where’s there’s smoke there’s fire and all that.

      Let’s just say that what ID should be is a very valuable thing, worthy of being taught in the public schools even. I don’t know the proponents of ID well enough to know whether they actually live up to that.

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  5. But to extend the metaphor, lets say there was a substantial minority of people in the country who disagreed, vehemently, with ED’s account of the rock cycle. Let’s say they thought the rock cycle was caused by gremlins from Mars. And that many of the people who disagreed in this fashion were in positions of real power. Say, the person who was president of the United States less than a year ago believed in this gremlin theory. Several extremely powerful senators believed it, too. If that’s the case, should it be illegal for a teacher to mention this fact when teaching the the rock cycle?

    What if you live in a school district where a MAJORITY of people believe the gremlin theory? And this majority includes many of the children sitting in the classroom? Should it be viewed as unconstitutional to mention that?

    I recall that my fifth grade science teacher spent about four minutes explaining the American Indian theory about why the sun moves across the sky. My physics teacher detailed the religious resistance Copernicus and others faced. If these teachers persist in doing this, should they be arrested? Fired?

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    • “I recall that my fifth grade science teacher spent about four minutes explaining the American Indian theory about why the sun moves across the sky.”

      Is this really an apples-to-apples comparison to teaching ID in biology classes? Did your 5th grade teacher really suggest that the Indian theory off how the sun moved across the sky was a scientifically legitimate alternative to Newtonian physics? I don’t know what the deal in your class was, but this seems more off a culture-wars argument than an ID legitimacy argument.

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      • I think what Sam was saying wasn’t that they’re perfectly equivalent but questioning whether they should be perfectly discrete with the threat of punitive action. Or rather, while teaching ID may not be appropriate in a science curriculum, mentioning it as culturally relevant within the context of evolutionary theory might be. Discuss.

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        • I’d submit that it’s moot. ID proponents aren’t asking that ID be presented as a discredited faith based thesis like the catholic fiasco with Galileo. They’re advocating that it be presented as something it is not; a testable verifiable hypothesis. I personally have no objection to ID being presented as Sam is describing it; I doubt many would. But since that’s not the issue it’s somewhat beside the point.

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          • Well, your submission is rejected on the grounds that it is factually incorrect. The case in Dover, PA, arose from an effort to send a letter home, mentioning that ID is an alternative to evolution. No discussion of equal weight or any of that stuff.

            the case might have started with something more ambitious, but in the end, ID proponents had settled on a letter sent to the homes of students. Mentioning ID.

            The ACLU and the Supreme Court declared that to be unconstitutional.

            So it is the issue. And is therefor not beside the point. So I guess you can go ahead and address it now?

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            • Actually, the main reason that Dover lost was due to notes from the Dover School Board, prior to the suite, declaring that they were using ID as a step toward creationism with an assumption of duty toward moving the community to a more Christian-centric viewpoint.

              Because it was so blatant, most ID proponents around the country had been urging the Dover School Board to acquiesce to the plaintiffs before it got to federal court. They had another suite lined up, in Kansas, that they thought would have a better chance of being upheld. Because of the sloppiness (or honesty, depending upon your point of view) of the Dover Board, ID proponents knew that should it get to court first it would make it harder for ID cases in the future. (They appear to have been right about that.)

              I strongly recommend Monkey Girl by Edward Hume, journalist that covered the Dover trial. Whichever side you fall on the ID issue, it’s a fascinating story that sheds great insight into how politics through the court system works behind the scenes.

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            • I was going to reply to ya Sam but frankly I’d just be better off saving my time and copy/pasting Rtod and Pirateguy. That again brings me back to the point that ID proponents aren’t trying to behave in the innocous manner that you describe and that I have no objection to.

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              • So you would have no objection to a letter sent home saying, “some people believe that evolution is wrong, but the vast majority of scientists believe in it, and seeing that this is a science class, that’s what we’re going to teach”?

                Or to a teacher saying that in class?

                Look. I agree with you that there are tons of people trying to use ID as a way to indoctrinate kids to a religious view of science. I don’t believe what they are saying.

                At the same time, I do not believe the vast majority of people who say, “Well, we can’t teach that in school for even three seconds because time is so valuable that I can’t countenance my children losing that much instructional time.”

                I believe that if they were honest, they would say, “I object to it because I am actively hostile the the theory itself,” or, “I object to it because it is a slippery slope argument from ID to any other kinds of theories that are out there.” And again, I base this on years of observations, and that fact that I have never, ever, seen a parent complain about any other wastes of time in this fashion. Not once.

                It is a salvo in the cultural war, all right. But it’s not just one side firing.

                Seriously. If I lived in a majority Jewish neighborhood, or even a neighborhood with a strong Jewish minority, I would expect the question of keeping kosher or other practices to come up in all sorts of classes. Even science classes! And I would not object at all to the teacher discussing it. Similarly, if I lived in a town with a substantial number oif Inuits or coal miners or paragliders, I would expect THOSE issues to come up in all kinds of classes.

                Now, if someone proposed teaching talmudic law as equal in some way to, say, physics, I would object. I would say no way. Then I would back off a bit and agree to letting the local synagogue draft a letter saying whatever they wanted it to say, and working with the teacher to address these local concerns for half a class.

                You know why? Because I simply don’t care. I don’t think it would make my kids turn Jewish. I don’t think it would doom America to economic servitude because of a lack of focus on science. And I am CERTAIN that the time wasted would amount to nil compared to the time wasted on birthday parties, discussions of football scores, bra-strap snapping, self-esteem massaging and a host of other time-wasters that happen in the classroom on a regular basis with nary a federal lawsuit to oppose them.

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                • Would you have a problem with the school sending letters home to the children in history classes:

                  “some people believe the holocaust wasn’t real, but the vast majority of historians believe in it, and seeing that this is a history class, that’s what we’re going to teach”

                  Just like history… most people don’t have first hand knowledge about science. They take what the experts tell them and trust the majority’s conclusion on the matter.

                  Like holocaust-deniers… biology-deniers don’t have anything besides their politics to stand on. It’s kind of hard to “teach the debate” when there isn’t anything to debate (among the experts). Not to say the details of modern scientific theories aren’t under debate… I was of course making a reference to the creationist/ID mantra.

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                  • “Would you have a problem with the school sending letters home to the children in history classes:

                    ‘some people believe the holocaust wasn’t real, but the vast majority of historians believe in it, and seeing that this is a history class, that’s what we’re going to teach’

                    No. I would have no objection to that.

                    I would also not object to someone actually delving in to the denial theory as a part of a history class.

                    Similarly, when it came time to learn that we landed on the moon, I would have no objection, whatsoever, to the school inviting that dude who’s SURE we never did to present his side of the story.

                    I would have no problem inviting a native American to school to discuss their culture’s views on the origins of life, the gods they worhip, or anything of the sort.

                    If a chemistry teacher knew that there was a local quack who still believed in alchemy and was sure he was just a few weeks from discovering the real way to turn lead into gold, I would encourage that teacher to invite the alchemist to school to give a presentionation.

                    In no case can I envision how this would damage my kid. And in acll cases, the amount of time wasted would be less that the time wasted discussing reality TV, boobs and other elements of teenage concern.

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                    • A couple things… ID does not want to be presented in classrooms as a special one day freak show event. They want their textbooks used in US science classrooms, or at least have their share in the “secular” science books.

                      I think there is clear difference between the tactics (and they are tactics) of ID and those of other fringe ideas out there.

                      An article at AiG on genetics: http://www.answersingenesis.org/creation/v20/i2/genetics.asp

                      And someone who thinks the Apollo landing was a fraud: http://www.ufos-aliens.co.uk/cosmicapollo.html

                      There are a lot of people that stand behind creationism, and despite the fact that most do not have scientific credentials the sheer number of them working at this battle for well over a century has produced content and tactics that are effective against the layperson. It certainly worked on me (until college when I started researching on my own).

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                • Sam, the letter wouldn’t bother me. I guess I come at it from the other side. After Scopes creationism pretty much vanished from the science classroom. So the addition of ID or objections to evolution based on ID are the change. Keeping ID out of the classroom would be preserving the status quoe. I don’t have kids myself. I’m agnostic, not militant atheist. I object to it because I see zero value in adding ID to the science curricula. If it’s a passing mention, as you describe, than it adds nothing and probably subtracts nothing. If it’s added and treated like some kind of respectable scientific alternative to evolution (which it is not) then it adds no value and it actively subtracts value because it’s a waste of time and it’s a deception. It isn’t science. It shouldn’t be in the science class.

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                  • I guess what the “ultimate goals” are matter. Sure, this started somewhere else, with people demanding that ID get equal treatment, or exclusive treatment. And this says a lot about ID proponents. But lots of things say say a lot of things about a lot of people. And the fact that ID opponents opposed equal treatment, then opposed lesser treatment, then opposed everything including a letter home says a lot about them. Andf what I think it says is that the real issue is not precious minutes being wasted in science class. If that were the case, we would see a whole bunch of parents filing federal law suits to prevent kids being taken out of science (and other classes) for pep rallies and chess club and leaving school early to get to a track meet, etc. But we don’t see those kinds of lawsuits. Is it because I am wrong, and precious minutes are not being wasted on these things? Or because the minutes wasted are not really what’s driving the objection to mentioning ID in science class?

                    Lots of slopes are slippery.

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                    • North: “…it adds no value and it actively subtracts value because it’s a waste of time and it’s a deception…”

                      Sam M: “…And what I think it says is that the real issue is not precious minutes being wasted in science class…”

                      Have you guys heard of the wedge strategy? Link: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wedge_strategy

                      I ask because both of you speak about ID as if it’s benign. You’re right in saying it’s not about minutes being wasted… it’s about confusing children. Adults are confused as it is, certainly nobody can expect children to wade through the issues.

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                    • Yes Sam, I think I am getting your point that ID is inconsequential and a waste of time in class just like teenage texting and gossip and general teenagery. But my question is why would we be mandating adding something to science class that has no value? That is the point. That is the reason this thread/subject came up. ID is not generally in the science class curriculum now and ID proponents are trying to have it inserted in some form or another. Saying “it’s only a minor waste of time” is not an argument for allowing it to be added to the curriculum. It might be an argument for not bothering to remove it but it’s not in the curriculum yet. So frankly I’m having difficulty seeing your position. You admit it’s not science, you admit it doesn’t add anything useful to a science class, you say it’s a waste of time just like all kinds of other minor wastes of time that teenagers indulge in then you allude to ID opponents not opposing it because of the first two reasons but instead for some other darker motives due to the fact that they’re not crusading again the other wastes of student time. What darker motive are you ascribing to them here? Is the fact that ID is fake science with a zero to negative value to a student not enough reason to oppose adding it to the curriculum?

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      • No. They did not TEACH us the theory that the Indians employed to explain the movement of the sun. And nobody in the class converted to paganizm, or whatever else it is you might call it. And I suspect that knowing some very rudimentary things about how our understanding of the solar system has… evolved… made our understanding of the science more complete.

        I have said it on other threads. I would be extremely worried if if my school district were to propose teaching ID instead of evolution. Because I see the latter as correct, the former as so much hocus pocus. But good heavens. If my kid goes into an intellectual tails spin because someone mentions what Jerry Falwell thinks about Adam and Eve, my kid is a complete idiot anyway.

        Come one. Does it REALLY hurt to preface a discussion about force and momentum with what the ancient Greeks thought? Does it REALLY amount to religious indoctrination to mention, however briefly, that some cultures think eating certain kinds of fungus lets them see god, and perhaps even chat with him?

        And these are views held by a miniscule percentage of the population, if any at all.

        I cannot fathom what DAMAGE it does to spend five minutes telling people, hey, you know what… what we are about to talk about here… it’s kind of controversial in some quarters. But to the vast majority of scientists in the world, it’s settled, and this is how the field of science explains these matters. For an alternative view, please talk to your parents, your teacher, or Ms. Smith in world cultures class.

        In all seriousness. That is going to doom America to economic servitude?

        No. That won’t satisfy the ID crowd. Which says something about them. But it also says something about their opponents that even the slightest whiff of a MENTION of ID results in an honest-to-goodness federal case.

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  6. “But I think the point here is that science does not claim to have a monopoly on the truth, and in fact doesn’t even have any skin in the game on what “truth” might be.”

    Well yes and no. Dogmatic Dawkins-style atheists assert that it does. But the Dawkins school does not represent 99 or whatever percent of working scientists, even though some people like Ebert tend to get a little sloppy and assert or imply that it does. What is the case is that the overwhelming majority of working scientists have no use for ID because ID abandons philosophical naturalism, which so far the scientific community doesn’t know how to work without. But it needs to figure it out if it wants to work on the things where philosophical naturalism makes research untenable (that last part is completely independent of ID btw).

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    • Sorry for being dim, but I’m not understanding. What does science and scientific inquiry not do that you think it needs to do in the future? Is it in fact address metaphysical questions? If so, I’d say that then it isn’t (and shouldn’t be) science, but I’m not sure that that is what you’re saying.

      Could I ask you to clarify? (Thanks in advance for your patience with me.)

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      • Sorry for being vague. I was actually thinking more about the human consciousness, which science doesn’t understand very well but is starting to work harder on.

        Philosophical naturalism tends to try explain consciousness as a product of a complicated chemical machine. Of course, we don’t experience our own consciousness that way. Somehow if we are going to do rigorous work in this area (and I for one believe we can), we are going to have to consider ways to allow for the possibility that things like the soul or the spirit are fundamental realities.

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        • Thanks for the clarification. Intriguing notion, working on human consciousness. And I think you’re right, it does seem like an area that I have a hard time thinking of as either being a legitimate science issue or and illegitimate one.

          It makes my brain hurt.

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        • How would someone experience consciousness such that they would know their consciousness is not a “chemical machine”?

          In fact the opposite is experienced… people can know their consciousness emerges from the physical because what you do to the brain affects the consciousness, and what you experience (aka what goes into the ‘mind’) affects the brain. Examples… I can invoke memories and emotions in you by applying voltages at various places in your brain… or an easier and less intrusive route, apply drugs to your brain to do anything under the sun… from making you drunk or high, to changing your attention span or even your personality.

          Let’s say that for some (unexplainable as far as I can see) reason your brain and consciousness have a tight correlation that is reciprocal.. but *still* the real “you” is from somewhere else. Two things…

          1) On a personal level, it seems this pursuit almost always comes from a religious push for the notion that humans are above and beyond the mere ‘tainted’ physical world we’re currently bound to… and the idea of being a machine revolts these people because it’s the complete opposite of being a god (or an immortal child of a god anyway)… not to mention things like morality get muddled, and we all know how religion loves the black and white. So central to the issue is escaping the material cause-effect machine view of the mind. But I’m curious about potential alternatives… I’m curious.. how would one propose the “mind” be a causeless cause? How can actions/events come from literally nothing? Merely retreating to a soul-based mind doesn’t answer the question of where or how those thoughts/desires form in the first place.

          2) How might scientists know when they’ve reached the end of the observable and the beginning of the unobservable? As far as I can tell, there is no way… it seems scientists would have to spin their wheels for countless years making zero progress on decoding the happenings of the brains before they could even start to consider that maybe there is no physical answer.

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          • “In fact the opposite is experienced… people can know their consciousness emerges from the physical because what you do to the brain affects the consciousness, and what you experience (aka what goes into the ‘mind’) affects the brain. Examples…”

            Well yes, but that doesn’t really settle anything. Because even though the physical environment can affect the mind and the brain, our minds can mold the physical environment as well, and more readily.

            The question is which is more fundamental. I don’t think we can scientifically come to a definitive answer because of infinite regress problems, but my guess is that we will see evidence leaning in the direction of the spiritual. That’s how we experience our own lives. “I am going to Turkey Hill” is a very banal statement as a practical matter but actually profound philosophically. There’s an “I”, a unitary being, and I have some intent regarding the future, and I am capable of realizing that intent by my own self-directed actions. That doesn’t work if “I” were a car or a computer or any other machine.

            I don’t think the rest of your post is all that clear. I don’t think the religious influence you suppose makes that much difference. And it’s not clear which way the influence is supposed to go anyway. It could just as easily be the case that we create religion to rationalize our own consciousness, and there is at least one atheist argument that says that’s exactly what happens.

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            • Thank you for your response.

              “Because even though the physical environment can affect the mind and the brain, our minds can mold the physical environment as well, and more readily.”

              I’m not entirely sure how to respond to that because I’m not sure what you think the brain does.. or what you mean by the environment affecting a metaphysical entity (mind).

              I mean to argue that if personhood was from a non-physical source, then it’s contradictory that the things we point to when we talk about personhood (ie personality, memories, emotions, etc) can be easily affected by chemicals, electricity, or mechanical manipulation of the brain.

              “…but actually profound philosophically”

              I understand that you’d feel that way. If I were to give you my explanation of why it’s not, I’m pretty sure I’d get the same reaction that I’ve received before, even from self-declared atheists. That is.. that I think little of humanity and personhood (which is not the case – in fact I am quite the humanist!). I think for many people the materialistic view of the mind is simply too disgusting for them to even give it consideration.

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  7. Personally, I’ve “got no use for ID” because science, in my view, is concerned primarily with the “how”. ID, like other religious/philosophical arm-waving beer-fests, tries to determine the “why” based on a devout conviction that there must be a “who”. The “how” is little more than an afterthought. The auto mechanic doesn’t need to care about the car designer or the assembly-line worker; he just wants to understand how the car works. Speculation without facts is fantasy, not science. And beliefs are not facts no matter how strongly you believe.

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    • Well I think you’re wrong on that score. AFAIK ID doesn’t attempt to answer why God or the intelligent designer or whoever created the various species, only that an intelligent agent created them by design, ie, “how” they came into being.

      As far as the arm-waving goes, Darwinism is at least as bad or worse. In particular, there have been several assertions on the other thread (and other forums where the issue comes up) about all the various and wonderful things that are logically dependent on Darwinism. Not only is that not the case, but the substantial majority of people who write that wouldn’t be able to make an argument for it if they tried.

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      • “..that an intelligent agent created them by design, ie, “how” they came into being.”

        That’s a how? Reminds me of that old cartoon of a couple lab-coated men in front of a blackboard with a complicated set of steps, the middle one of which is “Then a miracle occurs”. The one fellow says to the other “I think you need to be more specific at step two.”
        Sure, different branches of science wonder about the “why”s (I left out a few steps myself), but they approach them from the “hows” (ie the mechanisms of coevolution), while vinous philosophies like ID approach everything from the “who”s. You may feel that evolutionary theorists are being just as beery as any Flying Spaghetti Monster adherent – that’s your option – but at least scientists generally try to avoid the “step two” trap.
        Also,
        “..things that are logically dependent on Darwinism. Not only is that not the case,”

        why not?

        “but the substantial majority of people who write that wouldn’t be able to make an argument for it if they tried.”

        positing a set of things that are logically dependant on Darwinism sounds rather like an argument to me. You may feel it’s a poor argument, but airily dismissing it out of hand is only allowed us rationalists….

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        • That cartoon gets to a lot of what’s going on in this whole business.

          About the “logical dependencies”, you see something asserted (like on the other thread, eg) that modern gene therapy or something somehow comes from evolution. Whenever you see that, there is never an explanation of that logical relationship. I assert that whoever wrote that couldn’t come up with one if he tried. If you think you can, you’re welcome to try.

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          • Well as one of the asserters from the other thread I feel it’s incumbent on me to try and address your concern.

            Now of course I’m no scientist so my expertise is limited to only what I can look up and what I remember picking up here and there. This is not complicated stuff and you obviously could easily find it yourself but since I’m feeling charitable I’ll share some of it with you Koz.

            Now we will have to set aside first the fact that Darwin and evolution are one of the foundations of modern biology because as you very pointedly indicated you want very specific logical connections but let’s keep in mind that we’re setting this 800 lb gorilla aside for the time being.

            Understanding the changes that have occurred during an organism’s evolution can reveal the genes needed to construct parts of the body, genes which may be involved in human genetic disorders. To be specific as you requested, the Mexican tetra is an albino cavefish that lost its eyesight during evolution. Breeding together different populations of this blind fish produced some offspring with functional eyes, since different mutations had occurred in the isolated populations that had evolved in different caves. This helped identify genes required for vision and pigmentation, such as crystallins and the melanocortin 1 receptor. This of course would be utterly impossible without the understanding of how genes tend to get laid out and when we track all that understanding to it’s’ foundation? Darwin.

            Don’t like the biology? Let’s wing ourselves off to computer sciences then. As evolution can produce highly optimized processes and networks, it has many applications in computer science. Here, simulations of evolution using evolutionary algorithms and artificial life started with the work of Nils Aall Barricelli in the 1960s, and was extended by Alex Fraser, who published a series of papers on simulation of artificial selection. Artificial evolution became a widely recognized optimization method as a result of the research and computer modeling of natural selection and led to using evolution strategies to solve complex engineering problems. As academic interest grew, dramatic increases in the power of computers allowed practical applications, including the automatic evolution of computer programs. Evolutionary algorithms are now used to solve multi-dimensional problems more efficiently than software produced by human designers, and also to optimize the design of systems. Again, all of this traces its intellectual pedigree very specifically to Darwin and the Theory of Evolution.

            So is that specific enough for you? More generally on the subject of drugs It is also common to use repeated rounds of mutation and selection to evolve proteins with particular properties, such as modified enzymes or new antibodies, in a process called directed evolution. Of course the concept of directed evolution was itself intellectually evolved the principles of the theory of natural selection.

            Now perhaps the “competing theory” of intelligent design has some predictions, some explanations and some practical applications in this material world we dwell within. But if it does I haven’t heard of it. Have you? Is ID good for anything other than making Richard Dawkins huff and puff like Michael Moore on a Stairmaster? Be specific.

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            • Well here’s my question then, where is the line between the explanatory theory of evolution and Mendelian genetics? They aren’t unrelated, surely, but my understanding is that the history of and present state of genetics finds its modern-day origin in Mendel, not Darwin.

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              • Mendel tells you about heritability of properties and evolution tells you about changing properties. Darwin has thought about the results of random mutations (heritable changes in properties of a single organism) combined with selection (survival of the fittest). That result is evolution.

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                • No, no, no. Darwin predates Mendel, imo the most important historical fact in this debate. Darwin didn’t have a clear theory of (pre-)genetics, to the extent that he thought about it he was essentially Lamarckist. And if Lamarck was right btw, Darwin’s theory is much, much stronger than it is. Of course Lamarck wasn’t right, which is why they had to come up with neo-Darwinism, which came together in the 1940s IIRC, and is the current consensus.

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                • I only raised the point because I misread your original comment, I thought you wrote that Darwin and evolution were the foundation of modern biology and not one of the foundations. Of course my concern about the hyperbole of such a statement is allayed by the mere fact that you did not make it in the first place.

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            • Well what Kyle wrote was the short answer, but let me just elaborate on a few things.

              First of all, let me commend you for your response. It’s about what I expected if an intelligent person tried to answer the question, but frankly I wasn’t expecting any takers so I commend you for that.

              But, you are gravely misunderstanding the relationship between modern genetics and speciation through evolution. The old pre-ID creationists used to do a lot of Biblethumping about the difference between difference in degree versus difference in kind, and for whatever faults they had, modern genetics essentially confirms that. Genetics is a very good science that does many powerful things, and from genetics we know that the barrier to creating new species is very rigid. IIRC it’s been done exactly once in a lab, with fruit flies.

              Nothing about cavefish or evolutionary algorithms or pharmaceutical research creates new species. Either by chance or by design, the genetic code for cavefish can be changed and you go from blind cavefish to sighted cavefish or vice versa, but you still have cavefish. In fact you have to have cavefish because cavefish ribosomes interpret cavefish nucleic acids to build cavefish tissue.

              In other words, the genetic diversity implicit in a single species is very wide. And in some circumstances you can “borrow” gene expressions from one species and put them in another, but you can’t make new species, or at least we don’t know how to do it for anything more genetically complicated than fruit flies, ie, everything.

              This is why Darwinian evolution is not the foundation of anything. It’s closer to phogiston or ether or something. Neo-Darwinism is a more plausible explanation of speciation, but it has no explanatory power for anything except itself.

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              • Thanks, a few things…
                What measurable functions, predictions, explanations or applications are currently posited or in existence from ID if I may inquire? Does intelligent design have any peer reviewed papers or experiments or well, anything that doesn’t come from a Christian Science department?
                As I said before I’m not a biologist or scientist or even in the field so my ability to debate your particulars is limited. Still even to my amateur eye they seem like quibbling. These applications and fields didn’t spring wholesale from the forehead of Zeus. My understanding is that evolution is one of the integral foundation points of modern biology from which many of these fields were developed. Without the lines of thinking that Darwin developed these developments either would not have occurred or would have occurred later once someone else came up with what Darwin posited.
                As such evolution is science with a place in a science classroom and ID is pseudoscience and belongs on a shelf next to heliocentrism in a history of science class.

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  8. If the fundamentals were taught, and taught rigorously, ID would not even have to be argued or debated. “Is it testable?”, the teacher could ask when that one kid, you know the one, brought up Ahura Mazda *AGAIN* when discussing the Krebs Cycle. “How would you test for Ahura Mazda? How would you control for Ahura Mazda? How would you lay your experiment out so that we could duplicate it and make sure that we get just as much Ahura Mazda in our ketones as you got in yours? Until you can answer those questions, please wait until Biology Club to explain Ahura Mazdan influence upon the Krebs Cycle!” Surely the Zoroastrian SOB would learn to stop bringing Ahura Mazda up until he could answer such questions.

    Given that teaching the fundamentals is difficult, and that the fundamentals are difficult to grasp even by those with decades of experience in the field, it’s easier to teach factoids in such a way that they’re easily regurgitated. “Here’s a mnemonic!”, the teacher could say. “King Phillip Came Over From Great Spain!”

    The test is passed, the child goes on to not grasp why Brutus is not, in fact, an honorable man… not that s/he needs to, of course. Who needs to read that ancient crap anyway?

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    • Et tu, Jaybird?

      But really, don’t you think schools start running into some problems when they start asking kids to scientifically prove the existence of God? Don’t you think there would be some serious backlash if ID were taught and then science teachers made it their goal to show how completely un-scientific it was and then suddenly you have kids coming home showing their parents how an intelligent designer is in fact not verifiable through scientific methodology?

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      • Hey, I’m only suggesting that the fundamentals be brought up in response to kids throwing out untestable theories. We’re talking about the Krebs Cycle, after all, and how it was observed, tested, peer reviewed, and the best theory we now have when it comes to that whole aerobic usable energy thing.

        If the kid brings up Ahura Mazda, then bust out Laplace: Je n’avais pas besoin de cette hypothèse-là.

        We’re talking about the Krebs Cycle, after all.

        If the kid knows his fundamentals, he won’t have to even ask about Ahura Mazda. He will instead ask: “Can Intelligent Karen Solve Some Foreign Mafia Operations?”

        Because he will know, beforehand, that Ahura Mazda is outside of the scope of the Krebs Cycle.

        If, however, the fundamentals are not taught and science becomes little more than liturgical repetition of factoids, then children (and parents, for that matter) cannot be blamed for not seeing a difference between science class and a reading from the book of common prayer.

        (By the way, the “Et tu?” thing? Brilliantly done. I love it.)

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      • I’m sure there would be a backlash, but oh, I wish science teachers could show students, without such a backlash occurring, how some non-scientific theory claiming scientific validity was in fact not scientific. But, alas, teaching kids to think critically doesn’t play well in circles marked by dogmatism.

        Truth is that the collective knowledge taught at school isn’t some purely objective set of true propositions discovered by those before us. Our knowledge is something we arrive at through unique methodologies that in a sense produce what we know; hence the necessity of distinguishing and understanding those methodologies. Kids should learn not only facts arrived at through methodology, but how to think using those methodologies, e.g., how to think scientifically, historically, mathematically, philosophically, and also how to think different ways within those separate disciples, e.g., how to think like Aristotle and Plato and Kant and Cupp.

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  9. Wow, I’m impressed.. a religious person with possible creationist tendencies who is also able to see why the scientific method is important and why haphazard insertions of religion into scientific inquiry is ultimately destructive to *both* parties. Thanks for this article… I will try to remember to reference it in discussions with “militant creationists” :)

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  10. “Natural selection is more awe-inspiring, more clever, and more intuitive than some endlessly tinkering deity who must forever shape and shift his creation. Even if God is endlessly shaping, perhaps he has utilized natural selection as one in a larger array of tools. This is God we’re talking about, no? Perhaps he is beyond any stretch of our imagination.”

    I couldn’t have said it better myself. It seems to me that proponents of ID lack a very strong faith if they need scientific validation of their beliefs. As a scientist who also happens to be religious (yes, that’s possible) I find ID kind of like trying to use a saw to hit in a nail when you need a hammer. It’s just the wrong philosophical tool for the job of explaining the physical process by which life changes. (here’s where calling science by its old name ‘natural philosophy’ comes in handy) Furthermore, I feel like something like ID will do more to undermine people’s faith than any scientific theory because it implies that the existence of a creator IS falsifiable by the scientific method when it certainly is not.

    The very fact that ID proponents mention “Darwinism” and “Darwin” constantly as if the theory of evolution were some kind of religion and Darwin its patron saint is somewhat troubling as well. (Not to mention somewhat disrespectful to the hundreds of thousands of scientists who have studied the phenomenon) Perhaps someone like Dawkins thinks that way, but I wouldn’t call that ‘mainstream’ by any stretch. The fact that your commenter mentions the names of new atheists as scientists (!) tells me that this is his impression of who scientists are. Just as proponents of ID are misappropriating the language of science to support their own religious beliefs, so too are the new atheists misusing science to support their religious beliefs! Science is only a tool to answer a limited set of questions about the physical processes underlying the natural world; it is not some religion nor should it be viewed as such. Just as religion can’t tell you much about how an electron might interact with an atom, science can’t tell you much about whether it’s right or wrong to kill a man or why we’re here and so on.

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    • Furthermore, I feel like something like ID will do more to undermine people’s faith than any scientific theory because it implies that the existence of a creator IS falsifiable by the scientific method when it certainly is not.

      This is a very good point, and something I’ve been trying to say regarding the culture wars more broadly and this subject more narrowly. I do believe it will have a backlash in the long run, and this gets to the heart of that very thing.

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      • This reminds me of a J.G. Ballard short story in which a computer proved conclusively the existence of God. The punchline was that people stopped going to church altogether, and so the major religions pushed for a reconsideration of the data. There’s something uniquely depressing about the thought of faith being reduced to something like our “faith” that gravity will still act upon us. I’d rather there was something absurd, and thus meaningful, about religious belief.

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      • One of my friends who teaches about the relationship between science and religion at a Baptist seminary pointed out this lecture that he was using as material for his class.

        It’s kind of long, but I think it really gets at the heart of this ‘debate’ (and the culture war more generally) in a kind of fun and creative way.

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    • “science can’t tell you much about whether it’s right or wrong to kill a man or why we’re here and so on.”

      Certainly true, and science does not claim to be able to do that. However, religion doesn’t tell you much about that either, and they are full of claims that they can. All religion tells you is what their god posits (talking about Abrahamitic religions here). That is neither an explanation nor an answer. That somebody more powerful than you can define right and wrong is usually resisted, and rightly so. It is just the same with somebody immensely more powerful than you.

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  11. Let me applaud Koz and Kowal in this discussion, singularly objective and most informative.
    “Evolution” devolving into a ‘political science,’ preaching her dogma and pointing down the imaginary road to perfectibility. Where Turgot, then Condorcet posit the new class of men “who (are) less interested in the discovery of truth than in its propagation.” From Turgot’s “masse totale” to Comte’s “Grand-Etre” the positivist intellectuals now emphasize the “science” of evolution which appears little more than a tool for the gnostic empire builders of the present working assiduously for the great reduction of man.

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    • ““Evolution” devolving into a ‘political science,’ preaching her dogma and pointing down the imaginary road to perfectibility.”

      Oh, poo! Where on Earth do you get this from? Evolution is change; change driven by unstable environments. “Perfection” is not the goal, survival is. Whatever trait benefits the individual will spread throughout the population. The rest is details…

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    • This, too, seems a straw man argument. People who use the word “science” to further a social or political argument may indeed be using the word improperly (or even scurrilously). That does not change the validity of science as a way to measure and predict things in the natural world.

      Evolution is a scientific theory, and like any other theory in science it may be disproved. It states, simply, that life is not immutable and changes, and that those species who are most adept to survive in their environment survive at a greater rate. That’s all. The reason that evolution is commonly accepted by the scientific community has nothing to do with Hitchens, or Condorcet, or God. It is because the predictions it makes actually happen. (e.g.: viruses, bacteria, and other studied life forms for which we can witness tens of thousands of generations) You can make all the social, cultural or pithy observations you want… it doesn’t change the fact that life is not, by all observation, immutable.

      It’s like old chestnut used with French postmodernists: You can believe that the theory of gravity is an artificial construct my mind is creating if you want, but you still shouldn’t step out of a tenth story window.

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  12. “We just need to teach them biology when they’re in biology class.”

    Yes!

    “The reason that evolution is commonly accepted by the scientific community has nothing to do with Hitchens, or Condorcet, or God. It is because the predictions it makes actually happen.”

    Precisely!

    Postmodernists and Fundamentalists align when they think they’ve scored a point by saying “science doesn’t know everything” and pointing to gaps in our knowledge. Scientists NEVER claim to know everything.

    The effectiveness of the theories or conclusions of science is found in the power of those theories to make successful predictions. It takes awesome predictive power (in other words, a high degree of reliability) to put a probe in orbit around Saturn, or to turn out millions of wide screen active matrix displays with a tiny fraction of imperfections, or to keep time accurately to a millionth of a second, or to build a reliable worldwide digital communication network.

    And here’s a prediction, based on 1000 years of evidence. Many, if not all, things that we currently think transcend the physical universe or have divine causes (e.g. the origin of life, the complexity of life, the soul, the spirit, etc.) will turn out to have natural, physical explanations. This prediction is based on a LOT of evidence, for example:

    The Sun – was a god, now explained by science
    The Moon – was a god(dess), now understood by science
    The stars – were gods or spirits, now science
    The tides – were attributed to gods, now science
    The seasons – attributed to gods, now science
    Earthquakes – were caused by gods, now science
    Lightning – was thrown by a god, now science
    Rain & drought – was God, now science
    Health & disease – was God, now science
    Schizophrenia – was demonic possession, now science
    Epilepsy – was divine possession, now science
    Origin of species – was God, now science (evolution)
    Identity & personality – was the soul, now neuroscience

    “To surrender to ignorance and call it God has always been premature, and it remains premature today.”
    — Isaac Asimov

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  13. Jaybird kind of gets at what was going to be my main question about this post, namely the testable hypothesis problem. Evolution as a theory of the relatively recent origins of man and life on earth may make sense but just how testable is it?

    The geology example is interesting, if not slightly misleading. We can measure the age of rocks, among other qualities and observe lava flows today. We can take core samples and even compare rock here to extraterrestrial rock. I’m not so certain (and would appreciate your thoughts on the matter e.d.) that skeletal reconstruction and genetic comparisons with existing animals amount to a similar level of hypothesis testing.

    On the point of what ought or ought not to be taught in science classes, wouldn’t an acceptible compromise be that we limit biology to the exploration of what the human body is and how it works. If genetics or the history of it is pertinent, is any discussion beyond the context of Mendelian genetics even germane, it’s not as though people didn’t understand the cardiovascular system before Darwin?

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    • There are things that we can look for *IN THEORY* with evolution. As we get better equipment and, one hopes, longer civilizations we might be able to start conducting experiments that can lead us places.

      Einstein wasn’t able to test out his theories but he was able to tell people things that they would eventually be able to look for.

      I’m pretty sure that there are things, in theory, that we could look for wrt evolution… even if we don’t yet know how to look for them, they might be things that we tell our descendants to start looking for thousands of years from now.

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      • There are many experiments with evolution done, particularly with bacteria, who have very fast generation times. One famous example is reviewed in the article cited below:
        Bioessays. 2007 Sep;29(9):846-60.
        Evolution of global regulatory networks during a long-term experiment with Escherichia coli.
        Philippe N, Crozat E, Lenski RE, Schneider D.
        Evolution has shaped all living organisms on Earth, although many details of this process are shrouded in time. However, it is possible to see, with one’s own eyes, evolution as it happens by performing experiments in defined laboratory conditions with microbes that have suitably fast generations. The longest-running microbial evolution experiment was started in 1988….”

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    • The universality of the genetic code is the strongest argument for a common origin of all life forms on earth, from the lowliest bacteria to squid, mice and men. The code is both accidental and the same for bacteria and man. Which very near proves that it has developed once, and then propagated. Fossils are a nice confirmation but not necessary. And the >95% sequence similarity between chimps and man is the icing on the cake.

      If you want to become metaphysical about it, it is very deep that you are connected to EVERY living being on this planet via a common ancestor. Awesomely so.

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    • Kyle,

      There have been many many tests of evolution. No theory could have grown so strong over 150 years, and could have withstood such organized and well-funded assault without passing many tests and making many successful predictions.

      A VAST amount of work in genetics is about understanding various elements of common descent. And there are many tests of hypotheses based on evolutionary theory.

      The search for Tiktaalik was just such a test. Using evolutionary theory, scientists identified a large and critical gap in the fossil record between lobe-finned fish and tetrapod amphibians. Geology and dating showed them when one such transition should have happened, and where they could dig today to find fossils to fill in this gap. Sure enough, they dug there and found several specimens. Evolutionary theory told paleontologist Robert Bakker (also a Pentecostal preacher) that we should find dinosaurs with feathers, and we did.

      In genetics, an interesting study looked at endogenous retrovirus insertions, which are unique DNA sequences added when, for example, your reproductive cells become infected with a DNA-modifying virus, and then you have offspring which carry the virus marker in their DNA. A study with the great ape species found that we share a couple ERV markers with New World monkeys, those plus a few more with Old World monkeys, those plus a few more with orangutans, all those plus a few more with gorillas and the most with chimps – EXACTLY what evolution would predict given our estimates on when we shared common ancestry with each of those species.

      The list goes on and on. The information is all out there. The only reason to think evolution is “untestable” is simple ignorance of the topic.
      Here is a LONG list of evidences for evolution, predictions the theory makes, and ways those predictions can be tested and falsified:
      http://www.talkorigins.org/faqs/comdesc/

      There is also Jerry Coyne’s book “Why Evolution is True” written for someone new to the topic.

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      • Rick, there have been innumerable flight tests but that doesn’t prove that anything with wings is flight worthy. Thousands of rocket tests, yet not all conical shaped objects with propellant will successfully launch. The number of tests is irrelevant.

        Of course I never said nor insinuated that evolution was untestable. My question was how testable is it? How hot is the fire, is not an existential question but one of degree.

        What is the degree of certainty that can be attained given our observable limits? There is an objective answer to that and than normative evaluation of whether that answer is acceptable or not.

        You write, “we should find dinosaurs with feathers, and we did.” Except, that’s demonstrably false. We did not find a dinosaur with feathers, dinosaurs have been extinct for some time now. We found fossilized remains that we presume – with a strong degree of certainty – to have belonged to a dinosaur that we think had wings.

        That distinction, however slight, is the difference between religion and science. Between dogma and inquiry. Our understanding of the past is limited by our ability to observe what is left of it. That is my contribution to this tiresome thread, theories are very useful, often highly probable educated guesses. To recognize that fact does not diminish their usefulness or authority but to deny it – I maintain – is imprudent and frankly bad science.

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        • “You write, “we should find dinosaurs with feathers, and we did.” Except, that’s demonstrably false. We did not find a dinosaur with feathers, dinosaurs have been extinct for some time now. We found fossilized remains that we presume – with a strong degree of certainty – to have belonged to a dinosaur that we think had wings.”

          An historian writes, we now see George Washington crossing the Delaware. Except that is demonstrably false. None of us saw Washington cross the Delaware, he’s been dead for some time. We have historical records that we presume–with a strong degree of certainty–to show that Washington did cross the Delaware.

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          • And that’s the difference between science and religion right there.

            I am reasonably certain that other people have dreams when they sleep, sometimes.

            I know for a fact that Jesus loves me and has a wonderful plan for my life.

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            • Almost, but not quite:

              Science says it can predict the movement of planets, the arc of a baseball, and and even what matter will do at a sub-atomic level… and in fact that there is a sub atomic level, or even an atom, even though they cannot be seen. And it does.

              Religion says that Jesus loves you, has a plan, and that after you die will go to a better place. And while that maybe true, must be taken on faith.

              THAT’S the difference between science and religion.

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              • And when science, say, fails to predict the movement of planets, the arc of a baseball, and and even what matter will do at a sub-atomic level, the problem is *NOT* with science. It’s with the hypothesis that is now, one hopes, abandoned and replaced with a new hypothesis.

                And, 100 years from now, when we find that we had a bad assumption that allowed this theory to work in the arena of Newtonian Middle-sized Dry Goods but the theory does not work in the arena of the very, very big or the very, very small, we can abandon that old theory and hammer out a new hypothesis.

                Which can then be abandoned 100 years after that.

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          • That is correct, except no historian would use the present tense to describe a historical action.

            My point is that when we look at the letters and accounts of Washington’s crossing the Delaware, none of which we have reason to suspect of being forged or particularly inaccurate, we can be reasonably confident that a stated action actually occurred.

            When we collect a pile of bones that have been lying around for 100+ million years, there is a significant degree of guesswork as to figuring out where everything goes, why, and how the skeletal structure related to long sense destroyed organs, muscles, tissues, etc… The history of paleontology is littered with incorrect assumptions about dinosaurs, and even today there are quite a few mysteries as to how certain animals, like the apatosaurus even moved and breathed.

            As my co-commenters have stated below, that does not detract from science at all. We have many reasons to consider evolution to be accurate and true. Debating whether or not evolution is or is not true is a red herring. The only real question is how certain are we that evolution is accurate and the only incorrect answer to that question is 100%.

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        • Kyle, most would agree with you on that… 100% certainty is dogma and a religion. Science by its very nature will never have 100% certainty. No problem… unless of course you’re accustomed to dogma and only accept dogma (which sounds nuts to me but I see this in people every day).

          Concerning evolution, scientists have a very high level of certainty, every bit of which is justified. If you’re unsure of that, do read up.

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          • I agree with A’G, Kyle, and would add this:

            What makes the scientific method so revered by those who use it is the very fact that science is be definition not dogma. That doesn’t mean that some scientists aren’t (very) dogmatic, but science isn’t.

            For example, early proponents of plate teutonics were generally jeered at by most geologists for a long, long time. When plate teutonics eventually became accepted it wasn’t because some guy was promoted to a scientific equivalent of the DNC a la Howard Dean and declared it to be Canon. It won the day, over time, because it was demonstrably correct with all the data and observations available. Unlike, say, politics, or religion, or philosophy, should new data and observations come to light that discredit plat teutonics, it too will fall to the rubbish heaps of failed scientific theory.

            For we proponents of science, this IS it’s beauty. It is why it remains the best available measuring stick of any or process in the natural world, and why we get antsy when people decide it and it’s results need to be politically or culturally correct (from the right or the left).

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            • A’G and RTod, obviously I agree.

              I just take issue with the science boosters who indignantly state that evolution has been proven beyond a doubt and either state or imply that anyone who doesn’t agree is either stupid or compromised by their faith. As someone who both appreciates science and its limits, I’d prefer not to have their so-called support. It’s both alienating and incorrect.

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  14. Science is not itself an inquiry into metaphysical truth, it is true, but the findings and observations given by science in no way can be excluded from any honest such inquiry, nor can it be insulated from them.

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  15. Lest I get too far into this debate without defining my actual position on intelligent design, I am at best a faint of heart supporter. I recognize that science, by definition, must assume a purely naturalistic order of the universe. Positing the supernatural when happening upon inexplicable observations puts an end to scientific inquiry. I want to be on record as saying this is a bad thing (though I don’t believe this is what serious advocates of intelligent design support).

    Part of the reason I am only a faint of heart supporter of ID is because I am not a trained scientist or even an enthusiast. I have no more than a cursory familiarity with the work of folks such as those at the Discovery Institute. I’m even agnostic on how we got here. I’m a Christian, but as far as God’s interaction in human affairs, I tend toward the deistic position—i.e., that God “wound up” the universe and let it go its course. Maybe we came from monkeys. Maybe God made each of us and the whole universe a half an hour ago, complete with memories about the past and fossils laying around everywhere so that we believe the universe is billions of years old. Maybe we’re in The Matrix. Who can say?

    The reason I give any support to intelligent design at all is not so much because I think it’s a swell theory. It’s instead because I see science-ists pushing the bounds of science beyond its proper limits and shrinking the bounds of human knowledge in an effort to fit all of one within the other. My position is not a cheer for intelligent design but a “boo” to folks like Ed Brayton, who say things like “there is no such thing as a ‘scientific fact’, there are just facts.” This attitude hurts both science and human inquiry.

    I agree with E.D. when he says that science is “[t]he exploration of how the natural world ticks.” Zeal for science is a good thing when we want to build a better toaster oven or an MP3 player or a spaceship. And insofar as intelligent design means positing God as soon as we get stuck, again, that would be bad.

    But what happens when we approach the limits of science? Dinesh D’Souza has pointed that the likelihood of the Big Bang and the subsequent chain of events that occurred to make human life possible is even less than the odds of buying a lottery ticket in all 50 states and winning every time. These odds are not lost on scientists, who account for this infinitesimal likelihood of our existing by borrowing a page out of Leibnitz and positing multiple universes—there are trillions of universes in which life as we know it did not occur until, finally, chance got things “right” and here we are. In this way, say the scientists, it’s not so unlikely at all that we got here—we just got to spin the really big roulette wheel a trillion times.

    The point is, at the outer reaches of human knowledge, science starts to get really silly. So silly, in fact, that the argument can be made that the explanations offered by science actually seem less likely than alternatives. When I was thinking about this problem on the drive home from work this evening, I thought about the movie The Matrix—that wonderful Cartesian playground that provides endless examples for philosophical discussions. I wondered whether science, strictly adhered to, could have ever led Neo out of the matrix. How would one account for the “déjà vu” experience with the black cat? The scientific explanation would have dismissed out of hand the possibility of an embedded reality, which in fact was the case. Science would only have allowed one to posit explanations that could be tested by empirically observable facts. Rightly so?

    Perhaps. But science is permitted to make hypotheses that posit all kinds of data that are unobservable, but which scientists hope one day can be observed. This goes for 95% of our universe, which scientists believe is composed of what they call “dark matter.” It’s called “dark” precisely because it’s not observable in any way. Same thing with all the “dark energy” in the universe we can’t detect. After wading around in all this dark stuff and the trillions of universes in our “multiverse,” it shouldn’t be any wonder that there are serious scientists who are eager to re-engage the discussion about the limits of scientific inquiry.

    Unfortunately, my time this evening prohibits me from discussing my position on teaching ID in schools. I will try to tackle that tomorrow. Thanks for the discussion, E.D.

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    • A couple things Tim. Quoting Dinesh D’Souza on the likelihood of the Big Bang is just plain silly. Why do we care about his calculations? Why should we give him any credence regarding cosmology?

      Second I think the notion that science is going past its bounds is misguided. Science ,as you state, is a process of describing the natural world. That some of those descriptions sound silly is irrelevant to whether they are correct or not. Plenty of things we take for granted now, would seem outrageous just decades ago. Scientists are usually quite up front about how much evidence there is for any particular theory. Gravity is pretty well proven. Continental drift, yup that sucker is proven. Dark matter/energy are still vague concepts. Given the scale involved in understanding things like the Big Bang and the short time we have been trying to figure it out , it doesn’t seem surprising we don’t have all the answers and are still groping around for good theories.

      But where in any of that is some limit that science is overstepping. There is this huge physical universe we are trying to figure out, that is the purpose of science. What people don’t like are some of the implications there they perceive from various theories. You note your deistic belief that God could have just set the universe in motion. Science can never prove or disprove that, so that belief is safe. What ID proponents are pushing against is the base concept that science offers an explanation they find inimical to their reading of the bible. Their problem is with their reading, not with anything science is doing, since science only operates in the observable world. And they want their reading to rule.

      FWIW IMHO Evolution is a beautiful concept. Stephen Jay Gould is well known as a elegant proponent and explainer of the ideas in evo. Your friendly neighborhood library likely has some of his books.

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      • I meant to note that D’Souza was pointing to the observations of scientists who recognized this problem, including Brandon Carter and Leonard Susskind.

        Your second point is happily granted, for it was my point to begin with. Science itself says things that are “silly” in light of the available evidence. So what is it that makes it still “science”? Would you say that the theories of “dark matter” and “dark energy” are “science”? I gather you would. Would you say that the theory that there may be evidence of purposive direction in evolution is “science”? I gather not. Why the latter and not the former?

        To pose the question in a different way, following my earlier suggestion, would “science” be available to Neo if he wished to prove his notion that there was something beyond the reality of the matrix around him? Could he posit that the black cat might be explained by a theory involving some purposive direction of his reality? Or are the metaphysical limits of “science” bar such inquiry? Has the metaphysical rule underlying natural selection—that nature has no purposive direction—transcended beyond the “theory” of natural selection into a rule that governs all legitimate scientific inquiry?

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        • “Would you say that the theory that there may be evidence of purposive direction in evolution is “science”?

          You misunderstand the word ‘theory’. There is no theory involved with ID and similar attempts. The way proponents of ID should go about it, if they wish to be taken seriously, is as follows:

          1. State the hypothesis.
          And it better be somewhat more specific than ‘can we really exclude there is a designer at work’. It needs to be testable, and it needs to be falsifiable. There is a saying in my native language ‘when the cock calls on the dung heap, the weather will change or it will remain the same.’ Perfectly true prediction and perfectly useless.

          2. Design the experiments to test the hypothesis.

          3. Carry out the experiments. Repeatedly. Think about the statistics involved. Check for possible sources of error. Try to disprove your theory by finding alternative explanations for the results.

          4. Draw the conclusion

          All ID and other similar attempts ever do is going from vague ideas directly to 4. That is not a scientific theory, it is wishful thinking.

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          • Interestingly enough – since all my comments have focused on the evolution side of the question – this is precisely why I don’t think ID is appropriate for biology classrooms (in the context of “here’s a competing alternative).

            Ala Sam’s concerns I think it’s perfectly fine to bring them up in the context of hey this stuff is still controversial today and here’s why….

            However, as science proper, ID is heavy on the fantastical wondering and not so heavy on applying the scientific method and frankly that’s not an artificially high bar to surpass to be considered “science.”

            Thanks for the comments Sophie, they’ve been much appreciated.

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            • Thanks for the clarification, Kyle. I agree that looking at societal acceptance (or lack thereof) of scientifically well-grounded theories is in itself a fascinating topic. Obviously ID and creationism are part of the current culture, and it is interesting to think about why that might be.

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    • “It’s instead because I see science-ists pushing the bounds of science beyond its proper limits ”

      There are *no* limits to science except that the stuff has to work. Four hundred years ago science was heavy on mechanics, because that could be analysed with the technical knowledge of the time. You could only make advances in e.g. optics, because people started to be able to make good lenses, prisms and such. The mind has long been out of reach of natural scientists, because the instruments you need to study it, are much more refined than simple lenses. Hundred years ago nobody would have had an idea how to analyse consciousness on a biological level, and so nobody did. Currently we have tools that allow to address the question and so it gets addressed.

      By definition the natural world is all there is. If God would exist, He would be part of the natural world (possibly its outermost shell:-). The concept of transcendence has been developed as a protection against inquiry. It does not hold water.

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      • “The concept of transcendence has been developed as a protection against inquiry. It does not hold water.”

        I’m a practicing scientist who has agreed with everything you said up to now. Arguing against transcendence depends on your definition of the term. A cell transcends its component molecules; an organism transcends its component cells. Transcendence in this sense can be defined quite precisely: the cell is not dependent on any of its individual molecules (it would continue to exist in the same manner if any one of them were removed), an organism is not dependent on any of its cells.

        In the same manner, the earth transcends its component forms of life. It may be that there is a higher consciousness associated with the earth (or beginning to be associated; evolution of the earth in this sense is at the stage that evolution of cells was around a billion years ago). One might call such a consciousness, your “outermost shell”, God, though it would certainly be a substantially different God from that described by traditional religions.

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        • Andy, dude, you get so close then you loose it. How frustrating…all that edumacation…for what?
          The tension of existence is bracketed between immanence and transcendence…its where we exist as humans…you can pervert it, deny it, hypostatize it, but its where your at…And God, my friend, is exactly like Christianity says He is..but you don’t have to love him.
          I’ll pray for you.

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              • Methinks, you trust your thought processes to much. The brain is made to quickly jump to conclusions. Not because they are necessarily true, but because on average such humans survive better than those of the Hamlet persuasion.

                If you have experiences of mystical transcendence, you should be deeply suspicuous of them. Anytime you notice a deep certainty in your convictions without being able to account for the evidence which should support them, you should be very mistrustful. It is probably just your brain playing tricks on you (you know, just like optical illusions).

                With respect to God seeking. If He is in any way interested in myself finding him, it is certainly within the means of an omnipotent being to make sure that happens. As far as I am concerned, my interest is in my fellow species and, to a somewhat lesser extent, the rest of the biosphere.

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                • “If He is in any way interested in myself finding him, it is certainly within the means of an omnipotent being to make sure that happens.”

                  And what if you stumble across a mystical experience for which the best explanation is the Divine making It/Himself manifest?

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                  • As I said above to Bob:
                    If you have experiences of mystical transcendence, you should be deeply suspicuous of them. Anytime you notice a deep certainty in your convictions without being able to account for the evidence which should support them, you should be very mistrustful. It is probably just your brain playing tricks on you (you know, just like optical illusions).
                    But there are actually many ways He could make me believe in Him. Easy, straightforward stuff like commandeering a radio station and telling people things nobody knows, for example would certainly draw my attention.

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                    • Sophie, in recovering the mystery that engenders the experiences of transcendence your life ‘changes’, it moves toward God both in love and freedom. But this tension, this movement in existence, is a choice we all must make. I am saddened that you have rejected the mystery of the divine, that you embrace the derailment of empricism but it is your choice…one that God freely gives.

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                    • Fair enough. I’m a pretty hardcore atheist myself.

                      I wonder and trouble at the whole “what if I’m wrong” and “how could I tell if I was?” problem from time to time. I’m pretty sure that evil exists, for example. How to reconcile that with a universe that seems to be a rudderless void?

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                    • To Jaybird, January 14th, 2010 at 9:34 am
                      Evil and good come into the universe with people. They do not exist outside our frame of reference. The mountain does not care and is not responsible for the avalanche that sends the mountaineer to a slow death. A human being doing the same thing would be evil indeed.

                      Actually I always felt the noun ‘evil’ was a misnomer. There are evil deeds and probably also evil people, but there is no “evil” as a stand-alone entity.
                      (Same for the noun ‘truth’, btw)

                      With respect to “what if I am wrong?” My answer is: It does not matter.
                      All gods I know well enough, are evil (with the possible exception of Prometheus), but including Odin, Jupiter and all Abrahamitic versions, i.e. also the new testament version (who invented eternal torture). You should not worship an evil one, IMHO. If the real god would be different from the descriptions and be benevolent then he/she/it will not care about worship, probably not even appreciate it. Could you appreciate an ant worshipping you? Say, because you did not step on the anthill? It does not feel right, does it?

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                    • I’m not sure that my understanding of evil is yours. Fair enough.

                      Indeed, I am not talking about “worship” at all. The gods I know are not the ones that make me purse my lips and wonder at three in the morning if, maybe, I’ve overlooked something.

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        • “Arguing against transcendence depends on your definition of the term. A cell transcends its component molecules; an organism transcends its component cells.”
          I agree completely. But I understand the term in the religious sense, where it is usually used as: ‘something/somebody which/who cannot be studied, but which/who can influence everything – down to the falling sparrows on the field.’

          “It may be that there is a higher consciousness associated with the earth (or beginning to be associated; evolution of the earth in this sense is at the stage that evolution of cells was around a billion years ago).”
          Interesting thought. But you would need to find some way of describing this consciousness to be able to find out whether it is more than an interesting thought.

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        • “Please do explain. ”
          My pleasure to oblige.
          There are *no* a priori limits to what science can investigate except that science has to have methods suited to study the particular topic. As I explained above, the arsenal of scientific methods is continuously growing. In recent decades methods for studying the mind, both of humans and animals, have improved much (still much room for further improvement, of course). For example, religious convictions can now be studied from a psychologic and a neurobiological point of view.

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        • “I call shenanigans.”
          I said: By definition the natural world is all there is. Let me try to clarify that point also.

          There is the universe. That is all there is. If you think of something or somebody outside you have just changed the meaning of the word ‘universe’ to imply a part of the universe, not the whole.

          To be more specific: The universe contains lots of elementary particles (around 10^80). Most of them in the form of hydrogen atoms and photons. Some as heavier elements. Some of these make up more or less complicated compounds (molecules). Some of these molecules make up living beings, e.g. bacteria. At that level purpose enters the world. Because only bacteria with properties suited to surviving and procreating will survive and procreate and therefore be around in the long run, it looks AS IF these bacteria strive to be alive. It is a logical fallacy though.

          Probably the same holds true for much more complicated higher organisms such as ants. They do have purpose, they bring the eggs out to dry, they harvest the plants as food for their mold cultures etc, but all these activities are hard-wired and acquired by random mutation followed by selection by the environment. Natural selection has weeded out ants with damaging mutations and also less efficient ants. Thus it looks like nature strives to increase complexity. Again, a logical fallacy.

          At some point during evolution you get animals with a mind, animals that make representations of the surroundings, make plans, etc. That property of the nervous system, has evolved several times independently, in invertebrates (octopus), in birds, and in mammals.

          But evolution never stops. Remember, it is just random mutations and selection of the fittest. So it does not stop with animals with a mind. Nervous systems get more complicated and at some point consciousness arises as a property. Again, several times independently during evolution, in dolphins, elephants, the great apes (which include us), and probably also in birds (crows). The common ancestors of any pair of two of these do NOT show this property, therefore it has to be independent evolution. A famous experiment is the mirror test. If you put a paint dot on a chimps face, when he is asleep, and you let him look in the mirror, when he is awake, he will scrub his forehead trying to remove the paint. Which means he recognizes that it is him in the mirror, which means he has some concept of ‘I’. Another hallmark of consciousness is being able to ascribe mental states to other animals. I recall offhand that crows and nonhuman great apes are able to do that.

          As I mentioned we are one of the great apes, with a much larger, but not immensely larger degree of sophistication, helped along greatly by our verbal abilities. So we can conceive imaginary things much more extensively than othe species. If we think them, they do exist in our brains. Our brains and the thoughts they have are components of the natural world, not external to it.

          Sometimes imaginary things may become real, like the architects plan which translates into a physical building. Sometimes imaginary things are borne out of our need to be comforted. Kids have imaginary friends, but the comfort they derive from them is real. People have imaginary gods, but the comfort they derive from them can be real (and the hurt, in all fairness). However I assume that not even religious people believe that gods would acquire an external existence, once they are borne in the mind of the believer (fantasy writers, e.g. Pratchett, have toyed with that idea, though).

          So the remaining question is: do gods (n?1) have an existence external to the brains of the people thinking about them? If yes, they/he/she would still be part of the universe, btw. All the evidence at my disposal (including not only natural sciences, but also the widespread occurrence of religion, the various revelations, miracles, etc) does not point to the existence of gods/lifeforces external to the human minds conceiving them. So I would argue with Laplace that the external existence of a god is an unnecessary hypothesis. And I would add that it also does not explain anything, which makes it a useless hypothesis, as far as science is concerned (nonscientific uses do occur as mentioned above).

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          • > So the remaining question is: do gods (n?1) have
            > an existence external to the brains of the people
            > thinking about them?

            This is, indeed, a question.

            > If yes, they/he/she would still be part of the
            > universe, btw.

            Why do you presuppose that this is the case? (This is a tautology, you’re making “existence” dependent upon something being expressible in the Universe). It is clear that “the Universe” is itself just a container with fuzzy boundaries; weird shit happens as you approach a black hole, for example.

            > All the evidence at my disposal (including not
            > only natural sciences, but also the widespread
            > occurrence of religion, the various revelations,
            > miracles, etc) does not point to the existence
            > of gods/lifeforces external to the human
            > minds conceiving them.

            You are making the same error I allude to lower in the post. You’re taking absence of evidence as evidence. You can’t do that in science, m’friend.

            There are a number of possibilities:

            (a) God does not exist
            (b) If God does exist, he/she/it does not interact with the physical world.
            (c) If God does exist, he/she/it interacts with the physical world, but only in ways we cannot observe.
            (d) If God does exist, he/she/it interacts with the physical world.

            You cannot attach a probability to any of those cases (although a great number of philosophers have amusingly attempted to do so).

            If (d) is the case, using any classical definition of “God”, we would not necessarily have empirical evidence of that interaction. If God can bend the rules, God can do so without anyone being able to notice. Moreover, if God does bend the rules, and we *were* to observe it, we could not discount the probability of a natural explanation.

            If a figure shrouded in light comes down from the sky and touches me on the head and makes me taller, I can’t say for certain that’s a paranormal event (it certainly would be unusual). It could be an advanced being using advanced technology. Miracles, by definition, are things we can’t explain, but that doesn’t mean they have an inexplicable cause.

            All of the evidence you cite here isn’t sufficient to pass any reasonable burden of proof. The preponderance of religions on the Earth could very well be attributed to the fact that humans have a wide variety of reactions to things they can’t explain, and those reactions are colored with their own cultural biases.

            Of course, the flip side (which is often used by Deists as “proof”) isn’t evidence either. For example, the fact that in general most of the cultures in the world have a recognition that murder is bad doesn’t mean that God has engineered us to think that way… what about cannibalistic cultures? What about sociopaths?

            You cannot prove any statements about a system using the tools included in the system itself. Mathematicians have known this for a while. There will always be questions that are unanswerable using any formal methodology.

            That doesn’t mean that it’s a legitimate response to say, “Because this thing doesn’t fit in a formal methodology, it can’t exist in any sense”. The only real answer is, “We can’t answer that question using the tools at our disposal.”

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            • “You are making the same error I allude to lower in the post. You’re taking absence of evidence as evidence. You can’t do that in science, m’friend.”
              I am not sure we are friends. I do recognize you as a learned person, though. Nevertheless you have not read carefully, since I said:
              “All the evidence at my disposal… does not point to the existence of gods/lifeforces external to the human minds conceiving them. So I would argue with Laplace that the external existence of a god is an unnecessary hypothesis. And I would add that it also does not explain anything, which makes it a useless hypothesis, as far as science is concerned.”

              With respect to miracles and revelations I wasn’t clear enough. I agree with your points, which are the reason why miracles etc do not prove the existence of god.

              With respect to your points a-d:
              (a) God does not exist
              (b) If God does exist, he/she/it does not interact with the physical world.
              (c) If God does exist, he/she/it interacts with the physical world, but only in ways we cannot observe.
              (d) If God does exist, he/she/it interacts with the physical world.

              A) and b) are for all practical purposes identical (maybe a little to learned, eh?)
              Even c) is nothing a believer or a nonbeliever would find exciting.

              The only point of contention is d) because it affects answers to questions such as:
              Is there somebody checking whether I eat meat on fridays? Or pork on any days? Will I go to hell for loving one of my own gender? Should I kill the non-believers?

              And my answer to d) is, to repeat myself:
              All the evidence at my disposal does not point to the existence of gods/lifeforces external to the human minds conceiving them. I cannot prove the non-existence of god in a formal way (in that we agree, it is also trivial) but I do not have to, since the burden of proof lies with the person making the assumption.

              And this affects the four questions above, which then can be answered no, no, no, and no.

              Which leaves us more time and energy to improve this earthly place while we are living on it.

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              • > Nevertheless you have not read carefully, since I said

                Actually, I read quite carefully :)

                > … which makes it a useless hypothesis, as far as
                > science is concerned.”

                … and I agree with this statement. But you go farther than that.

                > A) and b) are for all practical purposes identical

                If your definition of “practical” is contained inside the observable Universe, sure. If it isn’t (if you accept the existence of non-corporeal souls or whathaveyou), these are vastly different on a very practical level.

                > (maybe a little to learned, eh?)

                Usually when people claim someone is “too learned”, it’s because they’re not learned enough and don’t want to be “bothered with all that jazz”. If you don’t want to be a philosopher, don’t be a philosopher. If you don’t want to be a theologian, don’t read theology. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that.

                But then don’t go pokin’ your nose into a philosophical discussion and start making declarative sentences about philosophy. It’s just as rude as a Creationist arguing about science.

                > Even c) is nothing a believer or a nonbeliever would
                > find exciting.

                That’s odd, I suppose I must therefore belong to some null set of neither believers nor non-believers.

                > The only point of contention is d) because it affects
                > answers to questions such as…

                … interesting that all the questions you pose as examples are trivial, banal, or represent the worst of religious dogma. Liberal Episcopalians, for example, use precisely their belief in God to justify *supporting* same-sex marriage. Not that I’d claim, in ANY way, that deism or more specifically monotheism or more specifically any organized religion is misunderstood or vastly more good than bad, but neither is it *only* banal, trivial, and repressive.

                > I cannot prove the non-existence of god in a
                > formal way (in that we agree, it is also trivial)

                … good so far…

                > but I do not have to, since the burden of proof lies
                > with the person making the assumption.

                … brrp! No, it doesn’t, necessarily. It depends upon the framework of formal thought you’re using.

                In the law, for example, the burden of proof lies on the prosecution.

                In mathematics, the burden of correctness depends upon the person proposing the theorem, but ontologically speaking existence claims require no proof.

                In science, or in empirical realism, yes, the supposition is that only real world things exist; there is no reality beyond that which can be measured in some way. But you can’t prove that empirical realism is true using that standard of evidence.

                Allow me to illustrate with a slightly absurdist example:

                Mathematican Bob: “Okay, let us take a random element from the set of real numbers between zero and one, and…”

                Empiricist Sam: “… wait, stop right there. You can’t have a set of real numbers between zero and one. Even if you could, you can’t choose anything randomly. Prove it. Where does it come from?”

                Mathematician Bob: “… what? What do you mean, where does it come from?”

                Empiricist Sam: “You can’t show me a physical expression of a real number, so those don’t exist. And you can’t create a truly random number generator, I know that from talking to computational theorists, so you can’t have randomness either, because you can’t prove to me that these things exist. Ergo, wherever you’re going with this, it has to be trivial, or banal, or boring… let’s go do something useful in the world.”

                Mathematician Bob: “Well, I was about to explain the bedrock of probability theory, upon which all statistics and by extension the entire body of mathematical tools we use to measure our existence…”

                > Which leaves us more time and energy to improve
                > this earthly place while we are living on it.

                You’re certainly welcome to *be* an empirical realist. I’m not saying that it’s going to lead to moral bankruptcy or any of the other garbage conclusions that evangelicals claim it will.

                But you can’t state “God doesn’t exist because I can’t measure him.” You’re granting an ontological power to your philosophy that it doesn’t have. Empirical realism can only deal with measurable things. You can’t study theoretical math using the methods of empirical realism. You *can* say, “I don’t BELIEVE that God exists because I can’t measure him,” absolutely… but you cannot make a negative existence claim to truth.

                Put another way, the you can believe in God or not, but don’t kid yourself that your negative believe is qualitatively different from a deist’s positive belief. It’s not. Empirical realism can’t claim a higher truth than any other formal thought process, it only works inside its boundary conditions.

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                • Hi Pat,
                  thanks for another thoughtful reply. It is a pleasure to be able to actually discuss stuff on a blog.

                  “if you accept the existence of non-corporeal souls or whathaveyou), these are vastly different on a very practical level.”
                  There is no evidence whatsoever for the existence of non-corporeal souls, so there is no practical level on which to discuss them (unless you count the practical effects of people killing over questions of non-corporeal souls:-)

                  “Usually when people claim someone is “too learned”, it’s because they’re not learned enough and don’t want to be “bothered with all that jazz”. If you don’t want to be a philosopher, don’t be a philosopher. If you don’t want to be a theologian, don’t read theology. … But then don’t go pokin’ your nose into a philosophical discussion and start making declarative sentences about philosophy. It’s just as rude as a Creationist arguing about science.”
                  Methinks you are a little sensitive here. If I would get upset every time a non-biologist talks about biological questions, f.e. evolution, my blood pressure would be real bad. And in a sense, you do make my point for me with your reply.

                  “I must therefore belong to some null set”
                  I admit that I was wrong and that I did underestimate the propensity of philosophers to take interest in questions of neither practical importance nor furthering a deeper understanding of the universe.

                  “interesting that all the questions you pose as examples are trivial, banal, or represent the worst of religious dogma.”
                  I agree with you that there are many good and decent religious people, who indeed base their ethics on their religious convictions (mostly erroneously, though IMHO). But these people are not the problem, the other guys are.

                  “ontologically speaking existence claims require no proof”
                  Come again?

                  “In science,… yes, the supposition is that … there is no reality beyond that which can be measured in some way.”
                  Not true. In science the supposition is that it is only useful to think, discuss, and experiment on stuff that can be measured in some way. If something (or somebody:-) has no interactions with the observable world, there is no point in thinking about that entity, for a scientist, that is. Experiments are hard to do properly and take lots of time. As a scientist you tend to avoid losing some of that precious time over pointless arguments (from the scientists POV) about nonobservable things (unless you get drawn into blog discussions about it:-)

                  “Allow me to illustrate with a slightly absurdist example”
                  I will have to see whether I can comment something useful after I stop laughing.

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                  • > There is no evidence whatsoever for the existence
                    > of non-corporeal souls, so there is no practical level
                    > on which to discuss them (unless you count the
                    > practical effects of people killing over questions of
                    > non-corporeal souls:-)

                    That’s a subset of the practical questions of what soul-believers do as a consequence of believing in a soul (and another case of you choosing a very negative example I might add). Look, it’s evident from the discussion that you don’t have much use for comparative theology, but I doubt highly that you’ve read much of it. You’re not required to come to the conclusion that you don’t want to mess with that stuff by any means, but at the same time it makes it hard for you to reasonably critique Deists. You look at the question of God, and decide you have no use for the question. So far, so good, no problem. But you’ve also decided that *because you have no use for the question, the question is by extension useless*, so investigating it is a waste of time. This is precisely the thought mode that Deists often fall back on, like Bob does elsewhere on this thread, ignoring all philosophy that came after Aquinas. “I’ve got what I need to answer all my questions, right here in this bag.” Bob’s bag is religion, your bag is science, my bag used to be logic and math and science before I realized all those bags have holes in ’em. They have to, by design. And we know that because of the tools in one of those bags.

                    Now, if you’re not going to trouble yourself with existential questions, you probably don’t need to carry around the philosopher’s bag or the deist’s bag or even bother to carry the atheist’s bag. But this comment thread is *about* existential questions.

                    See, what I’m trying to point out to you here is that the question of existence, in a philosophical sense, has a particular meaning inside the framework of science. But it doesn’t have that same meaning *outside* the framework of science. Science is limited, just like mathematics is limited.

                    Which you yourself admitted when you responded to this:

                    > “In science,… yes, the supposition is that … there is no
                    > reality beyond that which can be measured in some way.”

                    With this…

                    > Not true. In science the supposition is that it is only
                    > useful to think, discuss, and experiment on stuff
                    > that can be measured in some way.

                    (which is actually close to what I’m saying, I just phrased it badly)

                    I absolutely agree that ID isn’t science. I’m not a Creationist by any means. I’m a scientist myself. I don’t believe God fiddles with the Universe, it seems an odd conjecture to me – the inevitable corollary is that the Creator built something that’s broken from the get-go and needs tinkering. That’s a pretty limited omnipotent being, right there. It also seems odd that (should He/She/It exist) they’d bother to make all of Creation so horrendously big that it is literally impossible for us to explore it all, iff’n we’re such the central object of creation. Most Deists make my teeth ache, they assume the answer to everything is simple, “God did it” and when asked why, they pull out the “It’s ineffable”.

                    But *scientists* don’t actually think *at all* the way you state here; they think about and discuss all sorts of stuff that can’t be measured in any way, the same way every human being does, and they certainly consider it useful and meaningful. They just usually recognize that when they do that, they’re not doing *science* :)

                    Stroll by the Red Door at Caltech some time and you’ll hear loud arguments about all sorts of non-sciencey topics ranging from Objectivism to who can devise the best prank. The people arguing those things definitely do *not* consider what they’re talking about unimportant. Some of the student population do skew a bit OCD and they *are* concerned only with the measurable world, but TV and movie stereotypes aside, they’re the exception not the rule.

                    I know enough about formal logic to know that no structured system can answer questions about itself, nor can they be both complete and consistent. Science is a great tool, just like logic is a great tool and mathematics is a great tool and philosophy is a great tool, but they all have limitations.

                    The example of the mathematician was intended to be humorous, but it illustrates the point. Mathematicians make existence claims all the time without empirical proof *of existence*; basically all of mathematics is a gigantic thought experiment that happens to yield as a byproduct really useful tools when the suppositions of those thought experiments align with our empirical universe :) But you can’t tell ahead of time which ones of those thought experiments is going to turn out to be useful, the ancient Greeks would have thought you were barmy if you started talking about complex numbers.

                    Note: we know that there exist physical phenomena that cannot be observed directly. We are never going to be able to test, empirically, the conditions inside the event horizon of a black hole. What goes on there will always be a theoretical question. Hawking & Preskill’s recent conjecture that black holes evaporate is wildly accepted by astronomers, but it can never be empirically observed, the timescale alone makes it impossible.

                    Hell, the timescale of 99.999% of astronomy makes it, by your terms, largely useless. Why study GRBs? They’re either too far away or too infrequent to ever matter to us in any practical way at all, or there’s one about to kick off right now (astronomically speaking) that’s pointed our way, and we’re all toast and it doesn’t matter. Practicality is not limited to what you can taste and see and hear and touch, even in science.

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                    • “but I doubt highly that you’ve read much of it.” Guilty as charged.

                      “You look at the question of God, and decide you have no use for the question.”
                      Not true. I would look with interest at any study showing any evidence of interaction of some god with the rest of the universe. To my knowledge there isn’t one. I have no use for asking questions about undefined entities, which so clearly serve to fulfil the psychological needs of their followers. You should remember that gods used to be very physical, they impregnated females, smote enemies, controlled the weather and so forth. The current anemic form of gods is the results of many lost fights about what the god(s) have control over. If you remember how this current version evolved, it is hard to take it seriously.

                      “basically all of mathematics is a gigantic thought experiment that happens to yield as a byproduct really useful tools when the suppositions of those thought experiments align with our empirical universe :)”
                      Well said, I agree completely.

                      ” But you can’t tell ahead of time which ones of those thought experiments is going to turn out to be useful,”
                      Also true. But math is of course a special case. It is not considered a natural science for a reason. Math objects (perfect circle etc) exist only in the mind, and on the other hand, claiming the existence of a mathematical object brings it into existence. You don’t expect that for souls or gods to happen.

                      “Hell, the timescale of 99.999% of astronomy makes it, by your terms, largely useless. ”
                      Not true. I should have phrased my comment ‘I did underestimate the propensity of philosophers to take interest in questions of neither practical importance nor furthering a deeper understanding of the universe.’ in a positive way, then you maybe would not have gotten that impression. Both questions of practical importance or furthering a deeper understanding of the universe are relevant IMHO.

                      “Practicality is not limited to what you can taste and see and hear and touch, even in science.” True and trivial. You fight a ghost here, I never claimed that. I did say: ‘If something (or somebody:-) has no interactions with the observable world, there is no point in thinking about that entity, for a scientist, that is.’
                      In the interest of full accuracy I should have added ‘as long as they are doing science.’ I thought that to be obvious that scientists are also human beings with the full range of human behaviors:-) Btw, do they still throw the frozen melons from the Millikan library?

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                    • > Not true. I would look with interest at any study
                      > showing any evidence of interaction of some god
                      > with the rest of the universe. To my knowledge
                      > there isn’t one.

                      Well, pretty much by definition there can’t be one; if someone told me that they had performed such a study I’d only read their research if I was in the mood for a few hours of uncontrollable laughter. Which was pretty much my reaction when I first heard about the ID movement, until I realized these people were actually serious.

                      > I have no use for asking questions about undefined
                      > entities, which so clearly serve to fulfill the psycho-
                      > logical needs of their followers.

                      I think you’ve done a cart before the horse, here. By your own admission, you haven’t read much theology, right? So your understanding of organized religion is based on your non-rigorous evaluation. A social scientist who studies anthropological belief systems would hand you your head on a platter for saying, “so clearly serve to fulfill the psychological needs of their followers.” without studying the phenomena. You clearly have a bias against religion (which is fine), but you have made no attempt to control for it.

                      Now, as a scientist, you *could* say, “I have no interest in studying theology or religion; however, as a social phenomena I believe its existence is explained entirely as a psychological security blanket, and I believe this because I’ve read several scientific studies of religion done by anthropologist Foo, Bar, FooBar, and BarFoo, here’s the citations.”

                      But you’re not doing that; you’re making a declarative statement without having done any research. That’s a no-no in science… you have disclaimed yourself any expert and informed opinion, so it behooves you to either cite an expert or avoid statements of certain conclusions. Right?

                      > But math is of course a special case. It is not
                      > considered a natural science for a reason.

                      For several reasons. I wrote an entire screed on that a while back when I was trying to explain to someone that mathematics and science aren’t the same thing. (http://padraic2112.wordpress.com/2007/09/28/mathematics-is-not-a-science/). Looking back, it’s a little clunky, but it does the job.

                      > Math objects (perfect circle etc) exist only in
                      > the mind, and on the other hand, claiming the
                      > existence of a mathematical object brings it
                      > into existence. You don’t expect that for souls
                      > or gods to happen.

                      Perhaps I don’t :) But an expectation isn’t certainty. If claiming the existence of certain types of objects brings them into existence is acceptable in some cases but not others, you have to have a framework for justifying why it is or isn’t acceptable for which cases. That’s ontology, right there, in a nutshell. If it’s okay to consider mindstuff “real” in one case, it may be considered okay to consider mindstuff “real” in other cases. You have to explain why or why not.

                      > If you remember how this current version evolved,
                      > it is hard to take it seriously.

                      Yes, that is a very interesting bit. That means that one’s confirmation bias is going to be horribly bad, and to properly study the phenomena you have to read *a lot* of it and be very rigorous about your investigation methodology or you’re going to corrupt your results horribly from the get go.

                      > I should have phrased my comment ‘I did under-
                      > estimate the propensity of philosophers to take
                      > interest in questions of neither practical importance
                      > nor furthering a deeper understanding of the
                      > universe.’

                      Philosophy 101 professor would pounce on that with, “Philosophy is the study of how intelligent beings actually do think, and intelligent beings are part of the universe, so a deeper understanding of them is hardly impractical or unimportant”.

                      > Btw, do they still throw the frozen melons from
                      > the Millikan library?

                      Liquid-nitrogen frozen pumpkins filled with alcohol, to be precise, but yeah, every year. Anyone interested in the “why” of that crazy aside, see here: http://www.ugcs.caltech.edu/~dabneyvp/Pumpkin%20Drop.htm

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                    • “you haven’t read much theology, right? So your understanding of organized religion is based on your non-rigorous evaluation.”
                      Where do you get the idea that one will acquire an understanding of organized religion by reading the theologians? Do you read all Central Committee declarations before you form an opinion about the communist rule in the Soviet Union? Some observations are very easy to make in both cases.

                      “You clearly have a bias against religion”
                      I would call it a judgement:-) It is the end result of my thoughts in this field, not the beginning.

                      “If it’s okay to consider mindstuff “real” in one case, it may be considered okay to consider mindstuff “real” in other cases. ”
                      Gods are as real as the perfect circle. Both exist in the mind, as thought processes, but not outside.

                      “But an expectation isn’t certainty”
                      True enough. True certainty cannot be achieved (as I believe you yourself pointed out). We have to make do with reasonably plausible szenarios. And gods materializing because somebody thought of them, do not belong in this category.

                      “Philosophy 101 professor would pounce on that”
                      Hardly an unbiased person in this context:-)

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                    • > Where do you get the idea that one will acquire
                      > an understanding of organized religion by reading
                      > the theologians? Do you read all Central Committee
                      > declarations before you form an opinion about
                      > the communist rule in the Soviet Union? Some
                      > observations are very easy to make in both cases.

                      Regarding the Central Committee, no. However, I also didn’t form my opinion on Communism by only listening to American politicians either, I read The Communist Manifesto and a few other landmark publications in the political philosophy.

                      And while Marx has some great ideas that empirically work in certain types of scenarios, it’s failed a few empirical tests when deployed in large human societies. Quite likely because Karl overestimated people’s desire for equality and underestimated their greed.

                      Of course, capitalism has failed a few large empirical tests itself, but comparing economic theories is well outside the bounds of this conversation :)

                      However, the declarations of the Central Committee are largely documents produced by members of the ruling oligarchy for the purposes of furthering the control of itself. In most religions, the landmark theologians have very little prominence in their organizations’ structure when they wrote their major theological works. Aquinas wasn’t writing about establishing the pope’s primacy. Luther was a priest and an academic and his thesis got him excommunicated. Your analogy to the Central Committee is poor :) There are certainly large swaths of most religions’ dogma that are codified for the sake of the formal organization, but most people who study comparative theology don’t regard those as theological works.

                      > I would call it a judgement:-) It is the end result of
                      > my thoughts in this field, not the beginning.

                      Fair enough, I’d only say that from what you’ve posted here that it appears you may have not really done enough research on this topic to have a well-informed opinion. You don’t have to change your mind, though.

                      > We have to make do with reasonably plausible scenarios.
                      > And gods materializing because somebody thought of
                      > them, do not belong in this category.

                      That’s not the only possibility in a logic tree, but if you don’t want to concern yourself with the question, that’s not a problem :)

                      >> “Philosophy 101 professor would pounce on that”

                      > Hardly an unbiased person in this context:-)

                      Point of fact, my undergraduate work was in Mathematics, my professional experience is in computer operations, my Master’s degree is in Information Science, and my current research focus for the doctorate is in information systems to assist in crisis management and disaster recovery. I had a long exposure to Jesuit (Catholic) education, which is why I’m probably a little more well-read on theology than the average U.S. citizen, but I’m not a churchgoer or even properly a practicing member of the church anymore. I only took one class in philosophy as an undergraduate, all the rest of my readings have been for my own edification.

                      I consider myself a logician first, a scientist second, a mathematician third, and only an armchair philosopher. But that’s less due to inclination and more due to practicality (it’s kinda hard to eat on a philosopher’s salary).

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          • Sophie, the Greeks long ago told us of the “pull (helkein)” in the tension of existence toward the transcendent pole. Without the “non-existent” reality structured as a process where the tension lies between the poles of “world’ and “Beyond” we could not understand our existence symbolized in the language of myth (Greeks) or faith (Christians). The revelation of the divine ground is experienced by you daily in the divine ordering presence in your soul. It is an expression of God’s love for you personally, conceived in freedom and freely given, that you reject.

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            • Bob, you are aware that Greek philosophy is over 2,000 years old, right?

              I mean, it’s great reading and all, but there *have* been a number of philosophers who wrote a few interesting things just between 1850 and 1950 alone, positing some interesting questions that the Greeks weren’t even capable of framing, let alone answering.

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              • Patrick, my palsy, sometimes wisdom is very much like a fine wine, the longer it ages the better it is. Without any intended snark allow me to recommend Voegelin’s Vol. 16, CW, Order and History, Vol. III, Plato and Aristotle. You’ll love it, a real page turner.
                Also, there’s the Bible, in some parts a bit older, and there we here the music of the Logos. Dude, I’m gettin’ choked.

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                • Whyever would you assume I haven’t read some or all of those? I’ve read all of The Republic, Sophist, Statesman, and Laws, everything Aristotle wrote except Topics and On Sophistical Refutations (yes, including the amusingly wrong naturalism books, which were still fascinating for the time they were written) – wait, only parts of The Athenian Constitution, sorry – the KJ and Jerusalem editions of The Bible (skipping the genealogy sections), the KJV Apocrypha, the Koran, Augustine’s On Christian Doctrine, about half of Aquinas’s Summa Theologica.

                  … now, have you read Kant, Popper, Hume, Hegel, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, or Heidegger? How about Descartes, Poincaré, Newton, Planck, Heisenberg, Gödel, Maxwell, Cantor? Locke? Rousseau? Anything by Maxwell, Zermelo? Tesla? Ohm?

                  If not, how can you compare what you have read to what you have not?

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                  • Patrick, I wasn’t challenging what you’ve read, I was recommending one, single title in a series totaling 34 volumes (a collected works of Eric Voegelin, Univ. of Missouri Press). I’ve read some but not all of your suggestions and thank you. I’m currently reading Schelling (at Voegelin’s recommendation) and hope to do a paper on the questions of freedom, free will, metalepsis. Also, Edith Stein’s Finite and Infinite Being. Schelling is an underrated corrective to the Enlightenment Project and Dr./St. Edith spent a great deal of her short life in the bosom of the Lord God of the Universe…her profound insights are found on each and every page.
                    To be honest it’s difficult for me to tolerate a philosopher who participates in a closed existence and though he/she may be brilliant, life is just to short to put up with that nonsense.
                    So my favorite is Voegelin and I can’t recommend anything by him enough…have you read him? And, who do you recommend?

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                • Bob, we have a saying ‘good intentions are the opposite of well done’ that seems to apply here:-)

                  Also you do know that your god is ineffable, yes? So how come you know so exactly, what His plans and intentions concerning my humble self are? Isn’t that rather … arrogant on your part? The word hubris comes to mind.

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                  • My dear Sophie, I don’t know God’s “plans and intentions” for you. I do know He loves you, he seeks the metalepsis, the union of the finite and Infinite, He calls to you (Logos).
                    Yet, as His love is freely given, all He seeks from you (us) is to choose to love Him…amazing!
                    It’s not arrogance young lady, nor hubris. I am bowed before my God, I have surrendered my will to Him, I have returned His love.
                    Yet, I am flawed…alas, the mystery!
                    And, this poem from George Santayana for you:
                    “Yet the profane have marveled at my prayer,
                    And cried: When did he love, or when believe?
                    They little know that in my soul I bear
                    The God they prattle of, and not perceive.”
                    Peace!

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                    • Bob, one of our literats once said: Oh that humility could be so arrogant:-)

                      Also you do know that your god is ineffable, yes? So how come you know so exactly, whether He loves my humble self? Isn’t that rather … arrogant on your part? There was a point where He did not love the whole of mankind sans a single family. You consider yourself a Christian. Do the Holy Scriptures have no meaning for you?

                      And finally I beg you to consider whether a decent Higher Being would either ask or appreciate you surrendering your will to Him.

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          • Sophie:

            Arguing about higher consciousness in a forum like this means working with both hands tied behind the back. If people have experienced it, they know what I’m talking about. If they haven’t, they will demand empirical proof, which I can’t provide. (And I’m a strong critic of scientists who think that such proof can be provided, e.g., by studies of meditators that claim to show that experience of higher consciousness is correlated with activity in certain parts of the brain). I can only point out that just as a single neuron in the brain hasn’t a clue about human consciousness of the world, a single human in the ordinary state of consciousness may not have a clue about a higher state of consciousness beyond that. We only have to look at other forms of life to be very clear that they are very much unaware of phenomena that are beyond them, then apply a little humility to accept the possibility that we, too, may be in the same position. We do know that there are forms of life beyond individual humans—namely, our societies, which can do and know things no individual can—it’s not so much of a jump to imagine there may be an emerging consciousness associated with these forms of life.

            With regard to lower, animal consciousness, the mirror test that you cite only reveals a certain kind of consciousness, not all consciousness. It’s quite conceivable that there are organisms that are conscious of their environment yet are unable to recognize themselves in a mirror (even discounting that the mirror test is biassed towards animals with a strong visual sense). To argue that the very large number of organisms that can’t pass the mirror test (or theory of mind, Piaget’s stage 6, etc.) are completely unconscious is to say that they are zombies, able to capture prey, flee from predators, find mates, care for their young, and so on, without any experience at all of what they’re doing. Possible, but very far from being proven. The idea that consciousness emerged at a certain point with the evolution of highly complex brains is probably the mainstream view, but of course no more capable of being proven than the existence of higher consciousness. We can’t access what if anything is going on inside the brains of other organisms.

            IOW, if discussion of higher consciousness is to be regarded in this thread as no more than an uninteresting but unproven idea—and I’m completely comfortable with that if that’s the framework you and others want to work within—then to be consistent, any discussion of how lower organisms are not conscious (“at some point consciousness arises as a property”) also has to be regarded as an interesting but unproven idea. Speaking as a practicing neuroscientist, I find this notion a highly biassed one, certainly deserving a place in the market of ideas, but not to be proposed as anything approaching scientific fact.

            As an aside, consciousness and recognition of individuality need to be clearly separated. Probably most vertebrates, and at least a few invertebrates (the paper wasp, the queen in a species of ant, perhaps some crabs), can recognize other individual members of their species, and thus almost certainly recognize themselves as individuals, too.. This has been clearly documented, and stands regardless of whether they are conscious of this recognition, or if it’s a zombie, hard-wired type of process. Conversely, there are organisms, such as most arthropods, that seem to recognize others of their species not as individuals, but only as members of a group or class. They could be conscious of this; it’s quite possible to be conscious without being conscious of individuality.

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            • Hi Andy,
              I agree with most of your points. You took up the discussion at higher level, whereas I gave a cursory summary, which inevitably will not be fully accurate. With respect to higher consciousness, your analogy with neuron and brain is a good one, but it IS an analogy. There may be meaning to it and there might be not.

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    • “The reason I give any support to intelligent design at all is not so much because I think it’s a swell theory. It’s instead because I see science-ists pushing the bounds of science beyond its proper limits and shrinking the bounds of human knowledge in an effort to fit all of one within the other.”

      And I think this is where the disconnect comes from, really. You seem to be allowing something that is not a scientific theory to be taught as science on the basis that some people who talk about science bug the shit out of you.

      Am I missing something?

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        • I can see how I gave that impression, but that is not my position. As I said, I am a faint of heart supporter, and by that I mean there is at least a kernel of scientific legitimacy to ID. Sadly, another reason I am “Faint of heart” in my support is because of the reactionary and emotional nature of ID’s opponents. All the overheated scienceniks really come out over this issue.

          My real point is that were scientists quietly doing their work and otherwise staying out of culture and law and politics, I wouldn’t have much motive to support ID at all. I already made clear my position against positing some supernatural designer to the extent it would end inquiry on any question. But I think this is an egregious straw man that has sadly made its way into the common understanding of what ID is. At its essence, it simply questions the assumption that all natural forces are guided by nothing. Even Richard Dawkins admits that it is indeed a valid scientific approach to merely suggest that there may be a purposive signature to natural phenomena. He just attributes the purposive force to aliens—who must have evolved through unguided, nonpurposive natural selection. Whatever sustains the buoyancy of one’s water vessel, I say.

          Anyway, ID’s kind of an interesting theory in my book, were I a science enthusiast. But I’m not interested enough in science to seriously advocate it. Generally I try to stay out of the path of overzealous science ambassadors, but when I come across a post like E.D.’s, I feel some sort of civic duty to push back a bit.

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    • Tim, you harped on cosmological concepts and ‘greginak’ kind of addressed it but I don’t think he went far enough… The concepts of dark energy and dark matter are still speculative and there certainly isn’t a complete (or remotely complete) Theory of Dark Energy.

      It’s flat out false however to say that it’s nonscientific to talk about, or that it’s “not observable in any way”. Whether the “dark” parts of current cosmology refer to something that is actually revealing itself through missing mass, or if our current physics are simply wrong… either way there are observations that are currently not accounted for.

      I would like to know how you intend to demonstrate the validity or usefulness of ID by pointing at modern cosmology. Modern cosmology is speculative, and I agree that sometimes it steps outside scientific bounds (by postulating things that cannot be tested – in those cases it renders itself useless as a scientific theory)… however it’s not comparable to ID, which postulates things that cannot be tested despite having a good and testable alternative that is overwhelmingly supported by many diverse lines of evidence.

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      • AG- Yeah i didn’t quite go far enough. what i thought of adding later, which i think you have covered, was explaining a bit more about dark matter/energy. The ideas of dark matter/ energy are entirely scientific in that they are theories based on observations which offer testable hypotheses. Critics like to point out things that sounds silly or strange or weird as a way of argument through ridicule

        Tim- This sounds harsher then i mean, but i couldn’t think of a better way of saying it. It seems like you are just taking an adolescent rebellion posture regarding science. Sort of “your not the boss of me. i can like ID if i want to and i don’t have to go to school or listen to you.” We have all been at that stage when we were teens.

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      • “I would like to know how you intend to demonstrate the validity or usefulness of ID by pointing at modern cosmology.”

        There’s a softball. To use Richard Dawkins, perhaps our universe was created by some highly intelligent alien race. Under this hypothesis, we might look for traces of their design in our own universe. Sounds nutty, but not qualitatively nuttier than the idea of an infinitely oscillating universe. Or even the concept of infinite to start with.

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        • “…under this hypothesis, we might look for traces of their design in our own universe. Sounds nutty…”

          I don’t think you’d have to intentionally look for it, and if you devoted your life to a fervent search for it, you may very well be a nut… but I don’t see why considering and looking for it is nutty per se.

          Why is infinity nutty? I think both theists and atheists alike would agree it’s necessary logically and/or ‘physically’. As for Hilbert’s “paradox”, I never understood why it was a paradox. Hilbert basically says: “isn’t it weird that you can always fit infinitely more people into an infinite space?!” That is, by definition, not a paradox.

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  16. What is the scientific that tells us that species evolved into other species and that we all share a common ancestor?

    I have yet to see that evidence.

    Thats why IDers are gaining ground because the science behinh evolutionary is not there. maybe IDers have their own agenda but in the end thay are only able to do so and create all this splash because they know there is no evidence to support it yet found and most off all there is no explanation how it could have happened scientifically.

    How can u explain the human cell evolving from a “natural”process by random mutation. Anyways if you look carefully science uses major religious theme like “be and it is”.

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    • “I have yet to see that evidence.”

      Do you mean “no one has ever presented anything that they have claimed is evidence for evolution”? Or are you saying that “I reject claim X which has been offered as evidence”?

      If it’s the former – well, you need to read a bit more.
      If it’s the latter, what specific evidence do you reject, and why do you reject it?

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  17. Intelligent Design (which are fancy words for supernatural magic) is an idiotic childish idea and it’s a waste of time to talk about it.

    Evolution is an established truth and it does not need defending. And if somebody doesn’t like evolution, he’s a waste of time.

    What’s interesting to me are the religious implications of evolution. Apparently a few million Christians (and all Muslim terrorists) have a big problem with evolutionary biology for religious reasons.

    Well, if Christians want to continue living in their childish everything-is-magic fantasy world, they should have a problem with evolution, because this branch of science pretty much leaves their magic god fairy with nothing to do. I talk about this in my new blog: http://darwin-killed-god.blogspot.com/

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    • I don’t find it useful to go on Dawkins-style crusades declaring modern biology is the end of religion. It only leads to what we see in the USA today – a majority of people clinging even harder to creationism and rejecting science. Literally, the majority. Actually among US Republicans those that reject modern biology is now over 75%…

      Can you name one good reason that anybody should tell others that science shows their god to be unnecessary? Is it helpful in any way at all?

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  18. Please do not confuse the lack of an understanding of the philosophy of science by some scientists as a problem with science, in general.

    A great number of the comments on this thread have been answered, time and again, by different scientific philosophers.

    Science, as a formal method of thinking, relies upon axioms, just like any other formal method of thinking. Most scientists don’t think about these axioms, except as an afterthought.

    * The Universe operates according to a set of laws
    * These laws are immutable
    * These laws can be exposed to empirical observation

    Thus, we can make predictable claims, based upon our current understanding of the laws of the Universe (within that understanding’s boundary conditions), by the analysis of empirical evidence.

    Note these axioms aren’t the same as the axioms of any particular branch of mathematics. I can create all sorts of topological entities that can’t exist in our physical world. In fact, *basic geometric shapes* can’t exist in our physical world, they can only be approximately created within some degree of error.

    You can’t make a perfect circle in the real world, because space doesn’t scale; you get screwed well before you get to quantum space by physical imperfections.

    Thus, things can be said to exist that cannot be observed empirically. It’s sort of the foundation of formal logic, without which we wouldn’t have science. Funny, huh?

    Science is not concerned with the “Truth”, any more than mathematics is. Mathematicians are concerned with correctness, but the correctness depends upon the truth of the axioms of your particular branch of mathematics, and the truth of the axioms is assumed. Scientists are concerned with *what is*, *why it is that way*, and *knowing what we know about what it and why it is, what happens if this independent variable changes?*.

    Intelligent Design presupposes the existence of an entity that can violate causality; it can act outside the rules of the Universe. The “aliens could be the Designer” claim offered by IDers is a red herring: if the “aliens” are the Designers of life on Earth… who designed the “aliens”? It can’t be turtles all the way down, at some point you are at a Primal Mover, which would be an entity capable of violating several of the laws of the Universe that we have already accepted to be true.

    Now, this doesn’t mean that such a Primal Mover can’t exist. We can’t prove that something exists, or does not exist, using science if that thing exists with the ability to defy empirical evidence. But the existence of the Primal Mover is *not* a question for science, because we cannot make any testable hyopthesis. We cannot have any sort of predictable hypothesis, as we cannot determine what the Primal Mover is going to do ahead of time by observing it.

    Again, a lot of scientists are empirical realists; they believe that God doesn’t exist because they can’t “prove it so” by empiricism. But that’s not, in and of itself, **a scientific question**, it’s a philosophical one. I agree that claiming that “God can’t exist because I can’t measure him” is a statement that doesn’t belong in the science classroom, except as a clearly defined OPINION.

    All that said, ID doesn’t even qualify as a formal method of thinking, as it’s absurdly self-contradictory, so I wouldn’t even teach it in a philosophy classroom, except to ridicule the self-contradictory nature of itself. Some theologies aren’t empirically consistent, but they can still be non-contradictory (as they’re modal), but ID is just a bunch of shit with a ribbon on it.

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    • Patrick, I enjoyed this, excellent!
      History shows us that one constant we share among the sundry civilizations is the quest for the ground. Liebniz captured the essential nature of his search when he wrote the two principle questions of metaphysics: “Why is there something; why not nothing?” And, the second; “Why is there something as it is, and not different?” The questions of existence and essence!
      The great derailment of modernity is in large measure the result of loss of the meaning of the ground of existence (aition) where reason (nous) has been limited/reduced to a closed existence defined by the terms: empiricism, reductionism, and positivism.
      In denying the ground of existence we end up through a rather circuitous logic in arriving at a state of reality that excludes the “non-existent.” In order to answer those inquiries that constitute the essence and nature of man, to engage in the “ultimate science of action,” we must have some knowledge of the “ultimate ground.” And, while scientific empiricism has deformed human existence the truth is that those who refuse and deny God act as if they had an ultimate purpose, as if God existed, as if their lives made some “sort of sense immortally,” which, ironically, reveals the open existent nature of man.

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      • “And, while scientific empiricism has deformed human existence”
        to the point where they live twice as long and several times healthier than at the time when your religion had control over human affairs.

        “the truth is that those who refuse and deny God act as if they had an ultimate purpose, as if God existed,”
        A logical fallacy, if I ever saw one! In your closed system God provides purpose, thus purposeful atheists contradict their atheism. Outside of your closed system, purpose/intentions/goals are properties of persons, i.e. entities with conscious minds. As soon as you can consider choices you need to have a yardstick by which to decide what to do. There is nothing metaphysical about it, it is just evolution (to come bac to the original theme:-)

        “as if their lives made some “sort of sense immortally,”
        I do not understand why religious people are so keen on immortality and eternity. You seem to degrade the importance of your brief mortal life that way, IMHO.

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  19. The ‘Is DI Science?’ question seems to have morphed into ‘Is Science Better than Religion’ thread. Being an agnostic and therefore not having a dog spelled backwards in the fight, I was just going to leave all of that to Bob, Sophia, et al, but after reading about Pat Robertson’s brilliant insight today couldn’t resist:

    Science: Knowledge about how earthquakes happen, constant study to see how we might better predict them in the future so as to be better prepared, advances in engineering that allow us to build dwellings and workplaces that can better withstand future earthquakes, medical practices and techniques that allow us to bring death tolls of disasters significantly down, and transportation and infrastructures that allow us to get supplies and help where there are needed from all over the world quickly.

    Religion: Prayers and good wishes, philosophical arguments among the intellectuals on how a loving God and events like this to co-exist, and a reminder that if the Haitians had not made a pact with the devil to overthrow their French masters and be freed from slavery over a hundred years ago, God would never have had to punish them like this.

    Sorry to be so ham handed, but Pat Robertson makes me snarky.

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