The Archbishop’s straw man

It has become rather popular for theologians to talk about the ‘limits of science’. That, in itself is not objectionable – after all many scientists also talk about its limitations. The objectionable part is when theologians do this as a criticism of scientists. When they attribute a position to scientists, or at least some scientists, which they actually don’t have.

In other words when they are knocking down straw men.

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, indulged in this form of straw-mannery in an interview about his recent book with The Guardian (see Cross purposes). As the article says:

He also tilts in the book at the pretensions of science, and by extension scientists such as Dawkins: “Science is a set of brilliantly successful methods producing brilliantly successful hypotheses about how things work. What it’s not is a picture of reality. It will give you a very significant purchase on reality. But it’s not an ethic, not a metaphysic. To treat it like that is a kind of idolatry.”

So science can’t give you ‘a picture of reality’ but can ‘give you a significant purchase on reality.’I guess he means that scientific knowledge is not an exact picture of reality. But who said it is?

Why criticise scientists for something they don’t do? Any working scientist will agree with this quote from Albert Einsten:

One thing I have learned in a long life: that all our science, measured against reality, is primitive and childlike – and yet it is the most precious thing we have.

We know scientific knowledge is only an imperfect reflection of reality. But I think most would agree that it is becoming more accurate with time as we interact with, and learn from, reality.

Similarly science is ‘not an ethic, not a metaphysic.’ Who said it is?

Many scientists, including Richard Dawkins, have pointed out that science cannot make value judgements (although scientific information may be useful in making those judgements).

Why commit straw-mannery?

So why this straw-mannery? A straw-mannery committed by many other theologians (and also by some commenters on this blog)?

It seems to me the answer is in what is not said.  Considering that such arguments are most usually perpetrated by people promoting a theist position I think it’s logical to assume that the hidden message is ‘Science can’t do this but religion can!’ I think these statements attempt to convey the message that issues of true reality and ethics are the province of religion, and only religion.

But why indulge in straw-mannery to claim this role for religion? Why not give positive arguments for the position? Why expect to win support for this position by default – to rely on the implication that because science can’t do it therefore religion can?

Might I suggest that there are no positive arguments for a special role for religion in these areas. ‘Revelation’ and theological philosophising cannot produce an exact, complete and true description of reality – far from it. As Einstein points out – science, despite its imperfections, gives us the best picture here.

Nor can religion provide us with a completely reliable morality and ethics. Sure, in the past religion has  played a role in codifying and teaching morality. But history surely shows that it has no special ability to determine morality. We all do our best in determining what is right or wrong. The only role that religion and ideologies seem to play here is in providing a framework to justify the personal decisions.

The point is on questions of ultimate reality and ethics – If science can’t do it there is no reason to believe that religion can. To claim that religion can is surely, to use the Archbishop’s words, ‘a kind of idolatry.’

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42 responses to “The Archbishop’s straw man

  1. The point is on questions of ultimate reality and ethics – If science can’t do it there is no reason to believe that religion can. To claim that religion can is surely, to use the Archbishop’s words, ‘a kind of idolatry.’

    Ok, then ethically and morally we are completely clueless. Nice…

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  2. Might I suggest that there are no positive arguments for a special role for religion in these areas. ‘Revelation’ and theological philosophising cannot produce an exact, complete and true description of reality – far from it. As Einstein points out – science, despite its imperfections, gives us the best picture here.

    Might I point out that this is begging the question. If a all knowing, Creator God did communicate to man then His take on things would be far superior to to ours. For instance – “In the beginning God created the heavens and earth.” If that is a true revelation then it is an exact description of reality.

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  3. @ James:

    Of course we aren’t clueless – society surely shows that. How do you think humanity was able to produce the Universal Declaration on Human Rights?

    My point is that religion plays no special role in this. We all participate in deciding what should be considered as a human rights. Don’t forget that this and similar declarations were determined by and supported by the vast majority of humanity – of various religions, beliefs, ideologies and politics.

    To claim a special role for religion requires making that case on its own capability – not attacking a straw man and then declaring victory be default. That is dishonest.

    @ James:
    Come on! Where is this revelation ‘an exact description of reality.’? An exact description of reality has to be pretty big (can’t think how I could have missed it) – and extremely useful. It would certainly put scientists out of a job. And just imagine the incredible technology we would have!!

    Let us know where we could find it please.

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  4. I think it’s logical to assume that the hidden message is ‘Science can’t do this but religion can!’ I think these statements attempt to convey the message that issues of true reality and ethics are the province of religion, and only religion.

    Not my ‘hidden message’. I’ve NEVER said ‘religion’ has the sole ability or responsibility to describe ‘reality’.
    My view all along has been that because science (wonderfully described by Williams as “a set of brilliantly successful methods producing brilliantly successful hypotheses about how things work”) alone does not ‘get us to ethics’ (a point you seem to agree with consistently), therefore, we all (theists, and non-theists) must be engaging in some “other-than-‘scientific’-way-of-knowing” (regardless of how objective/subjectve) in order to work-out even the most basic principles of value, worth and expected action (i.e. ‘human rights’).

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  5. An exact description of reality has to be pretty big (can’t think how I could have missed it) – and extremely useful. It would certainly put scientists out of a job.

    Ken, reality can be (‘exactly’) described in many wonderfully-different ways. One way of decribing reality (poetry) need not do away with another (science).

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  6. @ Dale Campbell:

    But it’s noticeable that those making the sort of claim that the archbishop does always pick on science. They never make this charge about politicians, gardeners, chefs, bishops, archbishops, popes. Yet neither of these groups ‘get us to ethics.’ And scientists, gardeners and chefs don’t actually make any such claim.

    If members of the other groups want to make this claim – then they should justify it honestly (not knock down straw men).

    @ Dale Campbell:

    I know poets can get very extravagant – but I don’t know any that claim they could provide an exact description of reality – as James does via some sort of ‘revelation’.

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  7. Ken,
    No, of course, poetry by it’s nature is non-technical, non-‘exact’, non-‘empirical’. But not all truth about reality is ‘technical’. The truth that human should have rights, for example, does not have a ‘technical’ flavour to it. This is one ‘non-exact’ description of ‘reality’ (real humans) that is quite worth hanging on to.
    And empirical observations that we are separate, sentient, conscious organisms doesn’t under-write our human rights any more than they would for collective, non-sentient, unconscious organisms. Just because the ‘why’ questions (in this case, the question of ‘why’ humans have unique rights) aren’t answered via empirical knowledge, doesn’t mean a) that they have no meaning, or b) that we don’t each still answer these questions.

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  8. @ Dale Campbell:

    ‘Just because the ‘why’ questions (in this case, the question of ‘why’ humans have unique rights) aren’t answered via empirical knowledge, doesn’t mean a) that they have no meaning, or b) that we don’t each still answer these questions.’

    But who is saying otherwise? Certainly not scientists that I know of. So let’s redirect our attention (and in some cases [not yours] hostility) away from the scientific community.

    These points should be directed at James who claims he can get ‘an exact description of reality’ as well as, presumably, an exact and authoritative answer to all moral questions through some communication he has had with his god.

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  9. “Ok, then ethically and morally we are completely clueless.”

    What a silly conclusion to make.
    Take a good look your local community.
    People don’t go around flinging poo from trees at strangers just because they don’t subscribe to your special blend religion. Honest.

    “If a all knowing, Creator God did communicate to man then His take on things would be far superior to to ours.”

    “If an all stupid, Creator group of Pink Pixies did communicate to man then Their take on things would be far more bizarre than ours.”

    ……………………………………………………………………………………

    Ken replies to James…“Come on! Where is this revelation ‘an exact description of reality.’? An exact description of reality has to be pretty big (can’t think how I could have missed it) – and extremely useful. It would certainly put scientists out of a job. And just imagine the incredible technology we would have!!
    Let us know where we could find it please.”

    Well said.

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  10. I doubt our enthusiastic blogging friend James would claim that kind of ability, but that’s between you and James. :)

    ((Incidentally, as for who is saying otherwise, I have heard (either on this blog or on one of those who comment here) either that ‘why’ questions have no meaning, or that they ‘probably’ have no meaning. Of course, when someone says that ‘why’ questions have no meaning, they are making a philosophical/worldview statement, not a scientific one.))

    We’ve been talking (on this post and another one – and at various points in the past) about ethics/morals and whether or not scientific knowledge can provide a basis for this. Whilst this is an idea with which you, Ken, seem [repeatedly] quite happy to agree with, your immediate rejoinder is usually along the lines of “well, neither can religion or philosophy!”

    Following from this, I’ve been (perhaps unhelpfully and unclearly?) trying to distinguish between different ‘ways of knowing’. Here’s yet another attempt. Let’s call them different ‘layers’ of knowing.

    There are many kinds/spheres/layers/shades/types of ‘knowing’, but perhaps two are immediately relevant to our discussions here:

    Scientific knowing is the understanding of how things work, and is sharpened and refined by way of observations, hypotheses, testing, theories, etc. In one sense, we all engage in ‘science’, ranging from a simple observations by (relatively) un-educated persons, to complex and rigorous testing by professional, working scientists.
    Different ones would make different statements with different emphases about the so-called ‘limits’ and/or ‘strengths’ of scientific knowledge with regard to its scope (will we ever really know how the ‘abiogenesis’ line was crossed, etc.) and it’s application (how scientific knowledge relates to other kinds of knowledge). While scientific knowledge enhances and contributes valuably to various kinds of knowledge, it is proper to note that because it’s descriptive in nature, it cannot provide a basis for prescriptive things.

    Ethical/Moral knowing is vastly different in nature and operation to ‘scientific knowing’. All humans engage in moral knowing. We ‘work it out’ in different ways with different conclusions, but we all have a ‘moral theory’ (not to mention moral practice – which is, of course, equally if not more important as the theory!).
    Ethics are ‘worked’ out (again, by all people) based on a value-system or worldview – whether theistic, pantheistic, atheistic, deistic, or any of the many other more specific versions of these. Worldviews are worked-out (intentionally/unintentionally, casually/deliberately) by way of ‘doing philosophy’. We all have a worldview – and we all ‘do philosophy’. When it comes to ethics/morals, we ‘work-out’ (philosophically) what things have ‘worth/value’ and what doesn’t – or to what degree certain things have worth/value.
    For example, some have philosophical view that values animal life such that killing and eating a chicken is morally less desirable than eating only vegetation.
    (As for someone who might value both plant AND animal life such that eating either is morally wrong – they had better not follow their own morality, or they will die soon. ;) )
    Others (for another example) have a philosophical view that values an ‘after-life’ more than the ‘here-and-now’, such that little or no emphasis is placed on caring for the earth, etc.

    So – if we can agree that scientific knowing does not give us value-judgments (indeed, value-judgments precede science – for we make value decisions as to what is ‘worth’ observing, testing, etc.), then perhaps we can let good scientists get on with their work, and remove the constant mentioning of science from either ‘side’ of various kinds of debates/discussions between people whose difference need not be at all about ‘science’, but rather worldview.

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  11. (and I suggest that Christians – since they are often guilty of starting such things – lead the way by not clogging world-view issues with misguided distractions about ‘science’)

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  12. Of course we aren’t clueless – society surely shows that. How do you think humanity was able to produce the Universal Declaration on Human Rights?

    Human rights came primarily out of the Christian west. And many countries like communist China still do not accept them.

    My point is that religion plays no special role in this. We all participate in deciding what should be considered as a human rights. Don’t forget that this and similar declarations were determined by and supported by the vast majority of humanity – of various religions, beliefs, ideologies and politics.

    Of course religion plays a role in this. Religious beliefs played a key role for these rights. Many may be secular now, but you are not allowed to revise history.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_States_Declaration_of_Independence#External_links

    The history of human rights covers thousands of years and draws upon religious, cultural, philosophical and legal developments throughout recorded history.

    Two major revolutions occurred during the 18th century, in the United States (1776) and in France (1789), leading to the adoption of the United States Declaration of Independence and the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen respectively, both of which established certain legal rights. Additionally, the Virginia Declaration of Rights of 1776 encoded a number of fundamental rights and freedoms into law.

    From the Declaration of Independence We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

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  13. Come on! Where is this revelation ‘an exact description of reality.’? An exact description of reality has to be pretty big (can’t think how I could have missed it) – and extremely useful. It would certainly put scientists out of a job. And just imagine the incredible technology we would have!!

    Ken, you once again missed the point. If a all knowing Creator God did communicate to man then those truths would trump any conclusions we came to. If there was a conflict of understanding, He would be right we would be wrong. In other words “revelation” would trump scientific theories because God is way smarter, and in a better position to know.

    So once again, “In the beginning God created the heavens and earth.” If that is a true revelation then it is an exact description of reality. Of what actually happened. And it would not be necessary for God to explain all things(so scientist can still have fun exploring), but the things He did explain would be absolutely true.

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  14. @10:

    Why are Christians are forever re-defining what ‘scientific knowledge’?! To be more concise: scientific knowledge is defined by how it is obtained, i.e. by the scientific method.

    Complexity itself doesn’t define scientific as done by “professionals”, by the way, its the rigour with which it is done and that with which the conclusions can be drawn. Some of the very best experiments are those that are striking simple, and thus clear. (Susumu Tonegawa’s P.N.A.S. paper that is the basis of his Nobel prize work comes to mind.) The main reason “professionals” tend to be doing complex things are simply that the easy things tend to have already been done!

    Your definition could be read as wanting to include everyday conclusions to be ‘scientific’, when in practice without a framework for them being done (e.g. the scientific method), most of them will be anecdotal, biased or even obscured by instincts, etc., such as Nick and I were discussing in another thread. This is, of course part of the point having some sort of scientific method in the first place, to try avoid these sorts of things misleading the researcher. Without the work being done in this sort of framework, it isn’t really “scientific” in the proper sense of the word. (Its one reason why naïve observation is usually not enough to qualify.)

    “will we ever really know how the ‘abiogenesis’ line was crossed, etc.” Formally no-one can assert this sort of thing either way, but common-sense suggests that those most familiar with the specific field at hand are best placed to judge. Invariably the knowledge of those outside the field lags well behind those within it, etc.

    “it is proper to note that because it’s descriptive in nature, it cannot provide a basis for prescriptive things.” I think you need to clarify what precisely you mean by this, in particular just what you mean by ‘prescriptive’. Are we supposed to take from this that predictions cannot be made? I’m partly confused because I generally would have thought ‘prescriptive’ usually applies to language, e.g. “the writing was prescriptive in nature”. I’d take it that you can’t mean ‘prescriptive’ in the sense of “recipe” as that’s too obviously possible in science, think of chemistry or physics and a prescription as how to create a particular compound or effect. So I’m left wondering what you do mean.

    So – if we can agree that scientific knowing does not give us value-judgments (indeed, value-judgments precede science – for we make value decisions as to what is ‘worth’ observing, testing, etc.), then perhaps we can let good scientists get on with their work, and remove the constant mentioning of science from either ’side’ of various kinds of debates/discussions between people whose difference need not be at all about ’science’, but rather worldview.

    This is setting out to achieve something you want from the onset on the “treat” of continuing to be a nuisance if you don’t get it!! ;-) Doesn’t this belong in the old thread? Whatever, its not my blog… :-/

    More practically, it really wouldn’t matter either way to working scientists, they’re going to go on doing what they are doing anyway what ever philosophical, or even pseudo-philosophical, mutterings happen elsewhere ;-) Many scientists tend to have a more practical orientation in my experience (at odds with the Hollywood stereotype…)

    @11: Hmm, are you saying that maybe you shouldn’t be writing this?! ;-) I might even agree with that! :-)

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  15. @ James:

    ‘Human rights came primarily out of the Christian west.’ - may be partly true to some extent in the modern context. But it is insulting to most of humanity to claim Christianity as a prerequisite. The document would not include ‘universal’ if that were the case. And historically these rights certainly preceded Christianity. Consider Christopher Hitchens’ comment on that attitude:

    “But however, little one thinks of the Jewish tradition, it is surely insulting to the people of Moses to imagine that they had come this far under the impression that murder, adultery, theft, and perjury were permissible.”

    As for your comment ‘Of course religion plays a role in this.’ I actually said ‘religion plays no special role in this.’ It is arrogant to deny persons of other world views a role in deciding on human rights issues. Let’s just accept we all have a role.

    (And James – calm down and actually spend a bit of time actually reading my comments so that you don’t put inappropriate meanings into them).

    I am actually arguing for an inclusive approach (in the spirit of the Universal Declaration) and against the exclusive approach which denies a role for the non-religious (and is certainly against the spirit of the Declaration).

    The latter approach actually violates human rights – as in the case of the New Zealand National Statement of Religious Diversity which grants safety to “faith communities” and ignores that same right for the non-religious.

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  16. But it is insulting to most of humanity to claim Christianity as a prerequisite. The document would not include ‘universal’ if that were the case. And historically these rights certainly preceded Christianity. Consider Christopher Hitchens’ comment on that attitude:

    “But however, little one thinks of the Jewish tradition, it is surely insulting to the people of Moses to imagine that they had come this far under the impression that murder, adultery, theft, and perjury were permissible.”

    First, Hitchens is a fool. For a man who was “trained” in christian doctrine from his youth,he shows little understanding of said doctrine. Of course all socities understand, to degrees, that certain things are wrong and certain things are right. We are all made in the image of a moral God and have His law written on our hearts. But you do not see anything like a general or universal understanding of human rights until christian civilization. I have studied this issue for a while, and if you can produce evidence to the contrary I’ll be happy to check it out. And the first revolution that codified these rights was the American revolution – and they grounded these rights in God. Because they knew very well that if man gave rights, man could just as well take them away.

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  17. @ Dale Campbell:

    I think Heraclides has made some good points in his response to this comment. I was tempted to give a detailed response but actually think there is no point. After all, nothing we say here will change in any way the process science uses or the use of philosophy to justify morality or knowledge.

    I have found science at the level of research to be an incredibly creative process. It doesn’t proceed like an algorithm – any more that the artistic process does. Therefore I think it’s wrong to try and ‘straight-jacket’ science by defining it this sort of way (A habit that some defenders of science have as much as those who desire to undermine science). We wouldn’t do this to artists, would we?

    The one feature I would insist on is the relationship science has to reality. Our knowledge must be continually validated against reality. And that is the main feature that the Wedge ideologists are intent on destroying.

    I also resist straight-jacketing ‘philosophy’ into ethics/morality (or science). This is the path to dogma. And, again, this is the procedure used by the Wedge ideologists as much as the Stalinists and Maoists. (I see these three groups as being on the same dogmatic team).

    In the end dogma is the enemy of both good science and good ethics/morality. And over-defining these areas is the path to dogma.

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  18. Cheers Ken,

    The one feature I would insist on is the relationship science has to reality. Our knowledge must be continually validated against reality.

    If for no other reason than for simple recognition-of and respect-for others of different philosophical persuasions than you, I’d ‘insist’ :) that you use ‘nature’ instead of ‘reality’. Your second sentence can be taken to suggest (implicitly or explicitly) that scientific knowledge (being ‘validated’ against ‘reality’) is the only ‘real’ and ‘valid’ kind of knowledge.

    I agree we don’t need to ‘straight-jacket’ either philosophy or science, but we do need to distinguish appropriately between them, and understand how they relate.

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  19. @18:

    You’re effectively asking that others ascribe to your notion of “reality”, by making a distinction between these two words. You may think there is a difference between these, but I’d say that’s because you insist on considering there is a ‘supernature’ as well. I can’t speak for Ken, but there is no difference between ‘reality’ and ‘nature’ to me.

    You can’t ask others agree to your wanting that to be the case: you are in effect complaining about the very thing you are trying to ask of others.

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  20. I can see what you mean…

    but you tell me…

    which of the two terms is more ‘all-encompassing’?

    nature (i.e. – natural things, etc.)
    or
    reality (i.e. – all real things)

    So, saying nature = reality is going beyond saying that nature is real, but goes on to say that anything that is not nature is not real (which natural methodology cannot demonstrate – call that ‘ring-fencing’ if you must).

    So – again, if for no other reason other than respect – I think ‘nature’ is helpful.

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  21. @20:

    All you’ve done in rephrase the exact some thing again, so you’re at the exact point with the exact same problem. I can’t see that you have advanced anything new.

    But never minding that, your conclusion that “saying nature = reality is going beyond saying that nature is real” is illogical, you’re (literally) writing: if a=b, then a > b.

    To me, this illogical statement is just highlighting the trouble you’re getting yourself into trying to assert two things are different when in practice they aren’t.

    Also, while you claim to “see what I mean”, in persisting to deny my point, I wonder if you really do see what I mean.

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  22. @ Dale Campbell:

    I think the ‘natural’ proposal is an example of the dogmatism of both the opponents and (some) supporters of science that I mentioned.

    The fact is that science has not limited itself to someone’s arbitrary definition of ‘natural’. If it had we would not understand thunder, lightning, etc., etc., or pretty much anything. We often have to confront, investigate and develop an understanding of phenomena defined as not ‘natural’ or even ‘supernatural.’

    I see the ‘natural’ restriction on science as a prime example of ‘straight-jacketing’ which real science will not listen to.

    Take as an example our investigation of consciousness. Many (if not most) modern neuroscientists would define this as based on ‘natural’ or ‘material’ processes and there is (as yet) no convincing evidence of consciousness existing apart from a living body. However, a dualist model is not completely ruled out and what if we do find evidence for it? It would be silly for scientists to say they couldn’t investigate this because it is not ‘natural’ or not ‘material’ (or is ‘supernatural’). Such a discovery would be a real breakthrough – it would open up the possibility of a new form of ‘matter/energy’ which scientists would (and should) rush to investigate. (They would be neglecting their duty to humanity if they didn’t).

    Why should I neglect or ‘ring-fence’ important areas of reality – declare them ‘out-of-bounds’ to scientific investigation out of ‘respect’ for ‘others of different philosophical persuasions’?

    So, no – I’ll stick with ‘reality’. I think we have seen too many examples of humanity being held back (and knowledge being distorted by) those who want to use a straight-jacket.

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  23. Fellas,
    It’s about categories, and there’s none bigger than ‘reality’.

    If one is to talk about a creator of all things, then that’s a pretty good reason to evoke talk of ‘ultimate reality’.
    But science does not need to worry about this distinction! Whether science is observing, testing, or hypothesising about ‘nature’ or ‘reality’, the process (and hopefully outcomes) will be the same. I don’t see how the use of the word ‘nature’ in any way is a ‘straight-jacket’. Using different words does not ‘ring-fence’ anything or declare anything out of bounds. Science just gets on with it regardless.

    Would not the term ‘methodological naturalism’ suggest that the scientific project is concerned with ‘nature’?

    Science does not CARE whether or not there is or isn’t a ‘supernatural’ dimension to reality – it just gets on with its work.

    Therefore, any problems with using ‘nature’ instead of ‘reality’ must be philosophical, not scientific.

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  24. @ Dale Campbell:

    Science does just get on with the job – that’s why this discussion is really irrelevant!

    However, I personally reject terms like ‘methodological naturalism,’ ‘naturalism,’ ‘supernatural’, ‘materialism’ etc. because they do imply that science should check before ‘getting on with the job’ to make sure it doesn’t go outside its ‘limits.’

    That way lies dogmatism!

    It is the Wedge people who most loudly proclaim science is ‘naturalistic’ (and then go on to demand introduction of the ‘supernatural’ – meaning to give up on any validation against reality). I don’t think we should ‘respect’ their position.

    Some supporters of science have retaliated by claiming that science is restricted to the ‘natural’ and uses ‘methodological naturalism’ . I think that is just an opportunist argument. The example I gave on consciousness surely shows this. Anybody who argues that consciousness either doesn’t exist or shouldn’t be investigated is introducing unwarranted (and unwanted) dogma into science.

    It is for these reasons I refuse to use ‘natural’, ‘naturalism’, ‘materialism’, etc. ‘Reality’ works fine for me – and I don’t care who I offend. I especially don’t care that I may offend the Wedge ‘science-bashers.’

    Problems with these terms is philosophical – and I think the dogmatic introduction of philosophy into science is dangerous. This happened with the Stalinists and Maoists. It’s being attempted by the Wedge people. I see them as all on the same dogmatic team

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  25. I think you’ve used ‘methodological naturalism’ before, Ken – though my memory could be wrong.

    Let me ask you a test question: Do you think science has disproved all supernatural beliefs? If so why?

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  26. @23:

    “and there’s none bigger than ‘reality’.” None of us said that there was. You want to reduce “nature” to be smaller than reality to allows you to “add” a category that allows your religion. (You’ve basically admitted as much with your references to ‘supernatural’.) Most of the rest follows from your trying to “create” this extra category.

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  27. @ Dale Campbell:

    Science has pretty well disproved all beliefs, including most ‘scientific beliefs’. That’s what science does.

    But it’s not about belief. Science has certainly investigated and produced an understanding of many phenomena which have been described a ‘supernatural’. After all ‘supernatural’ really just means beyond what is considered normal – which scientists really love to investigate. To describe ‘supernatural’ in some sort of mystical way, as beyond investigation by definition, is a dogmatic ring-fencing of humanity’s desire to understand reality.

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  28. You want to reduce “nature” to be smaller than reality to allows you to “add” a category that allows your religion

    Now… I could accuse you of the opposite – increasing ‘nature’ to be exactly the same as ‘reality’ to prevent any notion of another category…
    But science doesn’t need to be bothered with any notions of ‘boundaries’ or ‘categories’, etc. It just ‘gets on with it’.

    In other words, science needs not be anti-supernatural. Though it’s obvious to see why theists would NOT want it to be, and atheists WOULD want it to be.

    The scientist, however, need not be an atheist or a theist to be a good scientist – he/she need not consider natural/supernatural distinctions or precise ‘reality’ definitions.

    Science has certainly investigated and produced an understanding of many phenomena which have been described a ’supernatural’.

    yes… AN understanding of many phenomena. But natural understandings and supernatural understandings do not (in principle) have to be in competition with one another (a point I truly with the ‘Wedge activists’ would take on board!). Maybe I should have used a different word than ‘proved’…
    Do you think science has ‘invalidated’ supernatural belief?

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  29. You still don’t seem to understand that an actual ‘supernatural’ thing is a misnomer by definition. I tried explain this some time ago.

    I didn’t “accuse” you of anything, so why write “accuse ” in reply? I summarised what you were saying to make it clear to you that your remark “and there’s none bigger than ‘reality’.” is inappropriate. It still is. But you’re so dogmatic about wanting to create a space for “supernatural” that I find it hard to believe you’ll ever be able to see that.

    From your posts it seems clear that your religion hinges on having a ‘supernatural’ and without it, its gone. It seems clear to me that you keep constantly trying to “create” this “supernatural” space/category/whatever to justify your religion to yourself. You’re trapped in your own little circle game. That’s for you to worry about really, not us, but you keep trying to impose this on another group (scientists).

    Just a word about the word ‘supernatural’ being a misnomer: consider what happens when you do demonstrate that something once thought to be “supernatural” is real… Those things that were considered “supernatural” and are subsequently shown to not exist, never did exist; similarly those that are shown to be real, become “natural” and so where never supernatural in the first place. I’ll let you complete the exercise…

    I’m realistic, though, and realise you have a need to invent a supernatural space to justify your religious beliefs, so its much more likely you’ll just come up with another round of silliness to justify “supernatural” to yourself. So, in the end “whatever”, you’re only kidding yourself.

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  30. you keep trying to impose this on another group (scientists).

    Impose? How does a) observing that distinctions and definitions about ‘natural’ or ‘reality’ do not affect the work of science become b) something ‘imposed’ on them?

    …Those things that were considered “supernatural” and are subsequently shown to not exist, never did exist; similarly those that are shown to be real, become “natural” and so where never supernatural in the first place.

    There has been (and continues to be) quite a bit of quite nuanced stuff being said/written/thought-about concerning such things. Heck, I’ve not directly studied/researched the stuff myself, but have seen enough stuff on my way to researching other things to have a very rough idea of the quantity and quality of what is being said at various universities and in various journals. Fair enough if you don’t wish to do research, etc. on such a topic which doesn’t seem to interest you. But if you’re not familiar with even the basic philosophical issues here, the tone of certainty which characterises such comments will seem inappropriate. [Dale sighs and realises he has likely only incited yet another 'whatever'-styled comment]

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  31. Just a word about the word ’supernatural’ being a misnomer: consider what happens when you do demonstrate that something once thought to be “supernatural” is real… Those things that were considered “supernatural” and are subsequently shown to not exist, never did exist; similarly those that are shown to be real, become “natural” and so where never supernatural in the first place. I’ll let you complete the exercise…

    Heraclides, that is just begging the question. And arbitrary. How do you know that these things you now call “natural” are not supernatural?

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  32. Interesting, ignoring the attempts of James to try and muddy and mystify the discussion (as usual), I have a few comments.

    In terms of natural vs supernatural as terminology, I think I agree with Ken and Heraclides here that it is not useful.

    Perhaps you could clarify what encompasses supernatural for you Dale, and how this relates to natural.

    From the discussion so far, I could see the following possible classifications that could fall into your supernatural bucket .1) currently unknown/untested, 2) currently unknowable/untestable and 3) Unknowable/untestable.

    I suspect that you are actually arguing for bucket number 3 for your supernatural concept.

    I think we can all agree about the existence of buckets 1 & 2, and might even agree that a bucket 3 exists, but the problem here however, is as Ken pointed out: The contents of each bucket can be clearly seen to change in time. Please state so if you disagree with that statement, but I think that we can all think of examples that conventional wisdom at some point in the past had put in one of these buckets now lying in a different bucket (or even in the realm of current testable knowledge).

    So this brings me to the point. The natural/ supernatural split is not precise and means different things to different people. Things move from one to other over time and because the definition is not clear, it is not clear why. There is also some sort of inbuilt (loaded perhaps) value statement here with the prefix super implying some sort of overarching or fundamental concept which if we look back at the unknowns classifications (perhaps a little Rumsfieldian for my tastes, but useful nonetheless) is not necessarily so. Even if something falls into bucket three, it does not necessarily follow that this is of any real significance (think of Jame’s morning cup of tea, but I suspect that falls into bucket 1 myself).

    As others have mentioned, I suspect this supernatural term is more useful in specifying a dynamically varying, unchallengeable god shaped bucket. In this case, I would suggest that it might be clearer and less controversial to label this as bucket number 3 as above. If this was the case, then I would have very little problem with this point of view as that will then not be a limiting statement in terms of science or anything else. If however you are uncomfortable with a bucket whose size varies with the state of known knowledge, then you need to exactly define your bucket and the boundaries of what falls inside/outside. I would give warning however, that this is exactly the problem that DTB and perhaps James (who knows what he thinks anyway) have encountered, in that when they choose a size for their bucket/god (for example a YEC 6000 year old earth), science has a nasty habit of coming along and providing a better/testable explanation (as aspects of reality shift from buckets 3->2->1>knowledge) thus undermining the entire concept/wordview. As an observer, this appears to be quite uncomfortable, and in some cases seems to disrupt the ability to form coherent arguments ;-).

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  33. Interesting, ignoring the attempts of James to try and muddy and mystify the discussion (as usual), I have a few comments.

    In terms of natural vs supernatural as terminology, I think I agree with Ken and Heraclides here that it is not useful.

    Perhaps you could clarify what encompasses supernatural for you Dale, and how this relates to natural.

    From the discussion so far, I could see the following possible classifications that could fall into your supernatural bucket .1) currently unknown/untested, 2) currently unknowable/untestable and 3) Unknowable/untestable.

    Well I won’t ignore you Nick. Why would you put the knowable/testable in the “natural” bucket? I’m not trying to muddy anything, just showing how arbitrary this “natural” definition is…

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  34. @33 Once again giving you the benefit of the doubt, read my post through to the end. I am not using a “natural” bucket, that is my whole point, I find natural/supernatural definitions arbitrary as you say. I think natural/supernatural are not useful definitions, this is why I have supplied 3 buckets of unknowns that are in my opinion much clearer and more useful. I have assumed what we could call a bucket 0) as known/tested.

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  35. Once again giving you the benefit of the doubt, read my post through to the end. I am not using a “natural” bucket, that is my whole point, I find natural/supernatural definitions arbitrary as you say. I think natural/supernatural are not useful definitions, this is why I have supplied 3 buckets of unknowns that are in my opinion much clearer and more useful. I have assumed what we could call a bucket 0) as known/tested.

    My problem Nick, is the assumption that testable/knowable things are considered “natural.” Why? If you are not making this assumption then my apology…

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  36. James – forget about ‘natural’, ‘supernatural’ – they are misleading concepts. Just consider ‘reality’. Some of it is known. Most is unknown. We don’t know (and shouldn’t assume) but some of it may well be unknowable for various reasons. But humanity owes it to itself to approach reality as if it is knowable until we find out otherwise.

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  37. James – forget about ‘natural’, ’supernatural’ – they are misleading concepts. Just consider ‘reality’. Some of it is known. Most is unknown. We don’t know (and shouldn’t assume) but some of it may well be unknowable for various reasons. But humanity owes it to itself to approach reality as if it is knowable until we find out otherwise.

    Ok, just so we don’t describe what is known as “natural.”

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  38. Nick,
    First, I agree about the un-helpfulness of natural/supernatural distinctions.
    Second, I again note that scientists need not be bothered by this distinction at all.
    Third, (you asked how I understand ‘supernatural’) I think talk of a ‘natural’/’supernatural’ is philosophical talk, not scientific talk per se. Within this philosophical discussion I would say that ‘natural’ refers to the ‘tendencies’ or ‘normative patterns’ of ‘things’, and that ‘super-natural’ refers to events which are other than the ‘tendency’ or ‘normative pattern’ of things. Differences of perspective here largely have to do with the question of how do we know the ‘tendency’ or ‘normative pattern’ of things?

    (The link here with science is that the scientific method is used based on the assumption that events will be consistent – that ‘things’ will always go/behave as they have always gone/behaved. This is the assumption that Ken refers to when he says that we should “approach reality as if it is knowable until we find out otherwise”.)

    Of course, regarding ‘tested’/’un-tested’/’un-testable’, there are many things that cannot be tested (at least in the same way) that wouldn’t normally be thought of as ‘supernatural’ (or paranormal). It cannot be ‘tested’ that I rhythmically tapped my steering wheel on my way to work this morning. The ‘evidence’ for such a claim would be very different kind than ‘evidence’ for other things ( though both kinds of evidence could – in principle – be just as real).

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  39. @31: No, you’re giving a cop-out instead trying to finished what I started for you. It not arbitrary, it follows from that once you know how something works, its considered “natural”. The last sentence is silly, and tries to evoke a circular argument. I’d challenge you to finish what I started you on. If you genuinely care about that issue, its a good starting point for a few thought experiments.

    @33: “Well I won’t ignore you Nick.” I take it from this that’s you’re being dishonest to me rather than face the argument I’m trying to present to you. Oh, well, OK, I guess you honest about being dishonest :-/

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  40. @ James:

    “Ok, just so we don’t describe what is known as “natural.””

    I’m afraid that’s how dictionaries do describe it – and by implication (and sometimes specifically) ‘supernatural’ is beyond that currently known. It doesn’t necessarily imply that it can’t be known – and my point is that there is no way such an assertion can be justified. In fact I think such assertions are arrogant – especially because people making these claims will sometimes then go on to give us the benefit of their special knowledge they have of ‘supernatural’ phenomena. And isn’t that the whole basis of ‘revelation’ claims?

    Its best (and more honest) to just keep away from using such words.

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  41. Pingback: fruitful faith.net » moral things

  42. It strikes me that religious texts make statements about things that can be measured, and about things that cannot be measured. Science only makes statements about things that can be measured, because that´s part of the method.

    Of course not everything that´s important can be measured. But statements made by religions about things that can be measured seem to have a very low accuracy rate. So I feel justified in giving little credence to religious pronouncements about what cannot be measured.

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