Evolution’s threat to religion?

James D. Watson, one of the scientists awarded a Nobel Prize for discovering the structure of DNA, makes an interesting comment in his book DNA: The Secret of Life:

“With its direct contradiction of religious accounts of creation, evolution represents science’s most direct incursion into the religious domain and accordingly provokes the acute defensiveness that characterises creationism.”

I have noticed that many religious people are unhappy with evolution. Some go so far as to describe it as atheist, or even see it as a false conspiracy imposed by biased “scientific materialists.” Another view is that it represents an attempt by scientists to undermine religion. Something similar was expressed by mcclaud in the comment:

“. . . for a long time during and after the period when evolution became a popular, well-accepted theory, the scientific community spent some time trying to disprove the literal definitions of the Book of Genesis. So far as to paint the people who did not comprehend (and thus fully accept) evolution as ignorant fools.”

Now, scientists don’t go around trying to prove or disprove all those bronze-age creation myths. Nor are they interested in making members of the general public appear like idiots. They are too busy investigating the real world. If some religious people feel this way it is because of the defensiveness referred to by Watson above. If these people find that their beliefs conflict with the modern accepted knowledge about the world then surely the sensible thing to do is examine those beliefs and consider changing them.

Changing ones beliefs is not something to be ashamed of. Scientists do it all the time – adjusting or even abandoning pet theories because of new evidence which contradict them. This self-correcting mechanism of the scientific method is one of the things which makes it such a powerful way of investigating and understanding reality. (Contrast this with the “proud” claims by some supporters of Biblical creationism who see the fact that their ideas have not changed in 2000 years as some sort of virtue!)

No, there is no attack by the scientific community on Biblical creation myths and their adherents. But there is an attack, and a well funded one, on science by proponents of creationism and intelligent design. Surely the scientific community has a right, in fact an obligation, to defend itself against this attack? Humanity has a right to insist that the ideals of enlightenment prevail over attempts to impose religious mythology on society.

Related Articles:
Should we teach creationism?
Humility of science and the arrogance of religion
Intelligent design/creationism I: What is scientific knowledge?
Intelligent design/creationism II: Is it scientific?
Intelligent design/creationism III: The religious agenda
Intelligent design/creationism IV: The religion – science conflict
Intelligent design/creationism: Postscript

26 responses to “Evolution’s threat to religion?

  1. Ken,

    I agree with some of what you write here. ‘Science’ doesn’t attack faith, it simply tries to understand reality. Agreed. Also, I must admit that many theists indeed end up attacking science – or at least it sure can look that way.

    On the Watson quote, I disagree slightly with his suggestion that evolution is a ‘direct contradiction of religious accounts of creation’. I would say it is a direct contradiction of literal interpretations of religious accounts of creation.

    Just a quick thought…

    -d-

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  2. I suspect though that there are Christians who don’t have a fully literalist interpretation who feel challenged and unhappy about evolution and other well established scientific theories, who would feel happier if scientific investigation produced some evidence of a spiritual “life force” or a “miracle”. I suspect that many religious people do resist changing their cherished beliefs as a result of new knowledge. Perhaps this is just being human, and, yes, I agree that many people hold religious beliefs that have accommodated well to this new knowledge.
    But we do have a problem that these religious beliefs are being used (e.g. intelligent design, wedge strategy, etc) as a basis for attacking and denying established knowledge (and modern society), and presenting untrue and distorted interpretations of this knowledge.
    I personally feel that religious supporters of science have a responsibility to take issue with their co-religionists who do this. Wouldn’t their arguments be more convincing in these situations than those of atheists?

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  3. Yes, Ken, there are Christians (or other theists) that feel serious threat, not so much by science itself, but by scientific opinion that they feel contradicts what they think the Bible forces them to believe about creation. And yes, it’s perfectly normal that any community is likely to recieve any sharpening more gratefully from within (would it not be the same for non-religionists? – Oh, wait. Sorry. They don’t need sharpening, their views are ‘scientific’ and ‘objective’ and ‘established’). 🙂

    In the past, you’ve agreed that evolutionary theory needs to be sharpened, but I percieve (however subjectively) that this sharpening is welcomed as long as it is at the mirco level of the theory, and as long as it affirms the macro-theory. This highlights the difference between how some view/discuss the ‘difficulties’ of evolutionary theory. To some (perhaps both theists and non-theists?), these ‘difficulties’ are admittedly numerous and possibly capable of calling into question the larger ‘macro’ components of the theory. To others, however (likewise perhaps theists and non-theists), these ‘difficulties’ are few in number and low in importance.

    I maintain (trying to be unbiased as I can) that all theories need to be not just challenged, but rigorously challenged. And not just at the minor detail level, but at the major foundational level as well.

    -d-

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  4. Considering the number of researchers working in the various evolutionary disciplines I am sure the theory is constantly being refined, challenged and checked. Most scientists are pretty ambitious (at least for their scientific recognition). Our personal opinions have nothing to do with it.

    This comment (Darwinism and Catholicism should be compatible) is an example of a Christian researcher’s feelings about attempts by religious leaders to proscribe research in this area. It will probably be more convincing to Christian skeptics of evolution than anything I can say.

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  5. What I hear most of the time is along this line…”the ‘majority’ of real scientists affirm evolutionary theory”

    But that statement is more vague than it sounds. I suspect that there is more diversity of scientific opinion than is often given lip service? Also, as you suggest, there are many different categories/fields of evolutionary study, so the affirmations given to the meta-theory are coming from specific places – if that makes any sense at all.

    An imperfect analogy might be this:
    An officer in WWI could be winning or losing the battle he was in directly, and his ‘side’ could be winning or losing the entire war. He wouldn’t know how the entire war was going as objectively as he sensed how his battle was going. (heck, even in a winning battle, there probably could be places where one soldier could sense that they losing it). Now, any army that knew anything at all about morale would not emphasise the lost battles, but would emphasise the victories. More courage for the battlefield, when you think you’re winning the war! Who want’s to fight a battle in a losing war? People might start surrendering – or at least escaping to a ‘neutral’ country – or something.

    My point is that I always seem to hear the same thing all the time – “we’re winning this war.” except phrases such as “overwhelming scientific evidence” is used.

    I guess I’m just too much of a skeptic. I’m not suggesting that there is a ‘conspiracy’ among evolutionary scientists, or anything – that’s ridiculous. But good leaders admit their own weaknesses. When chatting to defenders of evolutionary theory, I rarely hear anyone give much attention to the ‘gaps’ in the theory. It’s always the same “we’re winning the war” attitude. Does this make sense?

    Please understand, I’m currently ‘agnostic’ concerning the HOW of the universe’s origin and the complexity/order of life. I’m not suggesting 6 literal days like the Young-Earth-Creationist crowd. Heck, I’m not suggesting anything, really. Do I believe in Creation? Yes. How did it happen? No idea.

    I guess you could classify me as one who is skeptically interested in evolutionary theory. I’m not skeptical because of the Bible or anything like that, OK? I’m skeptical because I don’t understand the meta-development from not only nothing to something, but simple to complex. Honestly, my failure to understand evolutionary meta-theory is not because of my religion, per se, but because it seems illogical and improbable. What seems more probable? I repeat – No idea.

    -d-

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  6. I agree with much of the article, by the way. I’m wouldn’t criticise his faith in the slightest. But I might criticise his use of the same attitude I mention above… “overwhelming scientific evidence”, etc. “we’re winning the war…” Then why do so many of us just don’t get it? Not because of ‘religious fundamentalism’, but because of basic observational principles of how reality seems to work…

    Technology does indeed stand on the shoulders of the past, but life in general seems to go from order to chaos (erosion, pollution, decay, extinction, energy is used, etc.). I don’t have another suggestion for HOW the universe got to the ‘height’ it seems to be falling from, but however it happened, the process/event is the single most spectacular thing ever to happen, and deserves an explanation.

    Cheers for now,

    -d-

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  7. It’s interesting (or significant) that issues being raised about evolution (gaps, some scientists don’t accept, criticism of overwhelming scientific support, etc., etc.) could be raised about any scientific theory. But there isn’t the same emotional reaction to, for example, continental drift (maybe the young earth people are unhappy), soil evolution and mineralogical transformations, semiconductor theory, etc., etc. And these will all have gaps, dissenting opinions (especially from those not involved in the research), etc. In fact, religious people seem to be completely silent on these issues and quite happy to take advantage of the technology resulting from the research (as they do with modern medicine resulting from evolutionary theory). And meanwhile scientists working in those areas continue with their questioning and refinements – just as do evolutionary scientists.

    It really is just a case of people reacting because of their preconceived philosophical beliefs. Science should (and generally does these days) abhore such an approach. This is what happened to the biological sciences in the USSR under Stalin (Lysenkoism) and people lost their lives because of it (through persecution but also many more through starvation resulting from imposition of incorrect science dictated by the then current communist ideology). That is the danger of dogma – and the approach taken by creationist and IDers is one of dogma. (In contrast scientists working in these areas who are continually questioning and testing are applying methods of critical research – not dogma).
    I think that is why “so many of us just don’t get it? Maybe that is just being human (we all instinctively try to fit our perception of reality into preconceived patterns). But modern science has gone well past that approach – and we all reap the benefits of that.

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  8. Ken,

    Again – repeating myself – my problem with the singularity/big-bang theory is not that it shakes my ‘religion’ or ‘dogma’, but that it seems illogical. And as I answered to Joe on my blog, that’s more than simply to say that we don’t currently understand it. ‘Thought’ isn’t the same thing as ‘logic.’

    And yes, I agree that ALL science (and ALL theology, by the way!) should be vigorously sharpened, scrutinized. I regret that some theists can indeed overly focus on only critiquing evolutionary theory… What a shame. ALL people and ALL ideas need sharpening! That process of growth is one I’m quite committed to! And I suspect you are as well.

    -d-

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  9. Any theory of universe origins is going to have to stretch “logic” for an earth-bound species evolved to deal with its surroundings.
    After all, consider the creation myths which were accepted as factual in their times. How logical is the theory of Rangi & Papa? How logical are the biblical myths? Its the nature of the subject.
    Modern science may well stretch logic but its theories do have the advantage of supporting empirical evidence.
    Personally, I find the mental gymnastics of religious people explaining their “faith” as completely illogical. And without any supporting empirical evidence there is no incentive for me to adjust logic in this situation.

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  10. Good reply, Ken,

    Indeed, questions don’t get much bigger than the question of the universes origin! As you suggest, the nature of the subject makes for interesting theories! And, of course, the mystery and wonder of the ‘how’ question drives us on…

    A few things.
    I don’t think all creation myths were thought of as ‘factual’ in our western rational post-enlightenment sense. For example, I still would say that the biblical creation story, though not cosmologically or chemically ‘factual’ is nonetheless ‘true’ in it’s essense. Don’t bother putting it up against cosmology or physics; it’s a different kind of thing than that. Know what I mean? Anyway, it’s a minor point… not ‘factual’ but ‘true’… 🙂

    I can appreciate your opinion on the ‘mental gymnastics’ (a phrase I often enjoy) performed in religious faith. Call it cognitive dissonance, or what you will, I do think we all have some of it – unless we’re completely all-knowing! Anyway, my response would be that certainly a belief that all of the matter in the universe came from a non-dimensional singularity requires a small degree of such gymnastics, would it not?

    And yes, the ‘faith’ required for belief in a creator is not supported by (some of your favourite words) ’empirical evidence’. God is not to be physically found. Yes. Thanks. But there is other ‘evidence’ available, I suggest. Of course, you will likely give the higest value/objectivity to material evidence (which is really what you mean, by ’empirical evidence’, isn’t it?) though. So why should anyone bother pointing out the other evidence?

    Life in its totality is more complex than simply explaining it in material terms. (even materialists could agree?) I suggest that it’s not a ‘completely illogical’ idea that the existence of such an interesting and complex reality might point to a interesting and complex source of it? I’m not expecting you to easily renounce your atheism, or whatever, but I would hope you could come to a place where you can respect theists (even ones that are skeptical of a few theories) as rational, sane people.

    Cheers,

    -d-

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  11. To me your use of the word “‘true’ but not factual” is an example of the metal gymnastics used in theology which just turns me off – I can’t relate to it. That is not logical to me.

    Material and non-material keeps coming up and I suspect our understandings of these are different, and that the difference is important. So could you give me your definitions of ‘material” and ‘non-material’? I think pondering on these definitions could be quite revealing to both of us.

    Of course I respect people who may be theists – I have worked with theists in both the social and scientific spheres for many years (far more than I like to think of) without any problems whatsoever. I like to think that the respect is mutual – that our different ideologies haven’t tainted that.

    But, I do admit that I can’t respect those people (theists or non-theists) who consciously tell lies about reality (use of pseudoscience for example) or aggressively attack the honesty of humanity’s search to understand reality (the attack on science is disturbingly common). These seem to be common tactics of the major proponents of ID – the Dover trial certainly showed these people to be quite dishonest about even day-to-day happenings. I don’t think I am abnormal in this

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  12. True/factual:
    Yes, the ‘truth’ referred to here is distinguished from (what you would call) ’empirical data’ (or something)… Or in other words, the ‘truth’ of the Gen. 1-2 passage is theological, not cosmological…

    Material:
    Umm… the periodic table comes to mind. Is that a helpful way to define ‘materiality’? By the way, I repeat, I’m not a non-materialist, I just think there’s more to reality than that – perhaps ‘more-than-materialist’? 🙂

    Respect:
    A technicality, for me, would be that you can respect those that trash science, but you shouldn’t respect their ideas… Small point, though. 🙂

    -d-

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  13. Come on! You use the words materialist and non-materialist a lot. What do you mean by them? What, precisely, is ‘more than materialist.’

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  14. 🙂

    Meaning (to me) of ‘material’ things:
    Um… OK. I guess the periodic table suggestion didn’t sit well with you? Not sure what else to say. Material ‘elements’… um… are you kidding me? Surely we are on what physicality is, don’t we?

    Meaning (to me) of ‘more-than-material’ things:
    Because ‘more’ can sometimes imply ‘better’ or ‘more significant’, I might opt of ‘other-than’… OK? A respect thing, I guess… Anyway, because ‘other-than-material’ things would have to be, of course, not located on the periodic table, I’m not exactly expecting you to be all that excited about ideas about what some (myself included) think they are. It will all be, of course, ‘subjective’, with regard to the periodic table.

    I believe in an every-day, ‘normal’ spiritual dimension to life, that ‘over-laps’ with this time-space universe. It’s not that some ‘bits’ of this universe are ‘spiritual’ and others aren’t, it’s that all of it has spiritual potentiality, so to speak. This , as you’ve heard me say before, is not to invoke the language of a nature/super-nature divide. For me, Tom Wright’s ‘3 options’ are quite helpful here…

    Option 1 – Pantheism
    god = everything (and vice-versa). No distinction AT ALL between creaTOR and creaTION. Same thing. This is not your older brother’s (euphemism) monotheism. 🙂

    Option 2 – Deism
    reality is split (sharply) between ‘spirit’ and ‘matter’. see Plato, dualism, primary-reality & everyday-reality, etc. ‘immortal’ (spiritual) soul, and ‘mortal’ (physical) body. spirit-realm = pure/good, matter-realm = corrupt/distored/bad. the ‘god’ in this view perhaps created things, and is now distant, detached, remote and/or doing ‘other things’ at the corner of the universe, or whatever. Much of the Bible has been (wrongly in the view of many – me included!) (re)interpreted through this lens. Shame.

    (My sense is that atheism largely critiques this kind of theism. It’s quite a simple matter (pun intended) of pointing out to the deist that their distant god is not actually there, and that matter is all there is… in other words, dualism minus the primary reality…)

    Option 3 – creational monotheism
    ‘heaven’ is not ‘up in the sky (or universe)’, but rather another dimension of reality altogether. (Time/space/matter/spirit – intertwined and swirling together) The Creator God is not distant and detached, but dwells mysteriously ‘along-side’ the creation, which (unlike in dualism) is the good result of a good creator (humans included). Prayer, then is not trying to ‘access’ or ‘summon’ a distant deity (deism) on one hand, nor ‘getting-in-touch’ with the god inside you (pantheism), but rather is a relational process of ‘tuning’ one’s life to the desire (will) of the good Creator. (many Christians need to learn this, by the way, as much of their talk of prayer is too much like either the pantheist or the deist)

    That is more than I intended to write, but that might help show how I view the distinction between ‘material’ and ‘other-than-material’ things…

    Go on, I know you’re wanting to… tell me how ‘subjective’ it all is… 🙂

    -d-

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  15. Typo above… ‘surely we AGREE on what physicality is, don’t we?’

    -d-

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  16. Still not clear about your concept of the “immaterial” but it seems you identify “material” with “physicality” so that’s a start.
    I see that concept, “material as having substance”, as very outdated. One of the problems of the way this word is used.

    My concept is much wider. To me the periodic table is material – it has no substance or physicality (although it can be presented in a physical form as a poster). It is an idea, a theory, a concept.
    To me the periodic table is a material phenomena describing material substances (elements). “Material” phenomena encompass ideas, mental constructions, the mind, consciousness, spiritual aspects, the “soul”, as well as physical substances.
    “Material” is that which exists independently of the observer, having its own order and ability to interact. In principle then material objects and phenomena can be interacted with, investigated and (potentially) understood or known.
    To me, much of what some people describe as “non-material” are material phenomena or qualities of matter.

    I know, it’s a pretty all-embracing definition, but then reality is all-embracing. I suspect much of what you describe as “non-material” and “spiritual” are to me “material”.
    I think this is how we have to understand the scientific method as using methodological materialism. It approaches reality with this sort of definition (assumption?) and therefore doesn’t assume any of reality should be ring-fenced, ruled “out-of-bounds”. It studies material phenomena like consciousness and the mind, as well as material objects. Humanity may not currently understand or be able to interact with parts of reality. It may never be able to (although we don’t start by assuming that). We may not currently have the mental ability or technology to investigate or understand parts of reality. We may never have this (although we don’t start by assuming that). However, that does not mean that those parts of reality are not material, with their own independent existence, ability to interact, order and potentially able to be investigated and known.
    We should never start by proposing a concept, object, etc., and defining it as being impossible to know, investigate.

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  17. All I can say is, yes, what a conveniently inclusive understanding of material! 🙂

    Let me see if I’ve understood you…

    You’re saying quite literally, that it’s ALL ‘material’, including Chloride and conciousness.

    Two questions:
    1. You make a distinction between material ‘phenomena’ and material ‘substances (elements)’. I’m not with you on the ‘phenomena’. What do you mean?

    2. You say that ‘material’ is that which exists independently of the observer. What then is the observer? The (dare I use the word) logical extention is that the observer would be other-than-material. (or have I mis-understood you?)

    Regarding your last paragraph, a couple of things…
    I don’t think my theism assumes at all that some of reality is ‘ring-fenced’, etc. As I’ve suggested before, we have NO reason to stop questioning anything! By all means, learn, study, test, grow, etc.!

    Also, your next comments are quite interesting regarding parts of reality that we are currently unable to ‘interact with’. If we can’t interact with these parts, how can we know they are there? Which specific ‘parts’ do you have in mind here that we can’t ‘interact with’? I suspect that what you really mean is that our interaction with these things is currently too ‘subjective’, right? And, further, with all the apparent intellectual humility, why could not a god (or similar concept) exist in a part of reality that we are currently unable to ‘interact with’? An atheist may never have the spiritual ability to understand god (although we shouldn’t start by assuming that!)…

    And, also, I never said that god was impossible to know. Quite the contrary. You just don’t investigate god the same way you investigate bacteria!

    Cheers,

    -d-

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  18. Interesting discussion going on here. May I just chip in and mention that not understanding a theory doesn’t make it untrue. Dale, to me, evolution is perfectly logical, even intuitive. Now, this obviously doesn’t make it true, either. I’m just saying that your being skeptical about evolution is a pure argumentum ad ignorantiam. How much evolutionary biology have you studied?

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  19. Thanks Felicia,

    To be sure, my level of ignorance regarding evo-bio is greater than others. Our conversation leaves a trail on several blogs, and I wouldn’t be able to paraphrase it, but it’s not evolution itself that I think is illogical, per se. Yes, there are gaps I don’t understand, but our main conversation is regarding what we’ve called the ‘god hypothesis’, and we’ve discovered that the idea of materiality is at or near the centre of the discussion.

    Cheers,

    -d-

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  20. The inclusiveness is not being cute – it arises from the fact that we do interact with and investigate all of reality. If we are going to use the word we should understand its meaning in the context (here the methodological materialism of modern science).
    It is those who attempt to discredit the scientific method (ID supporters, wedge document, etc.) who dishonestly try to impose a limited meaning. This concerns me because it represents an attack on science and reason.
    “You’re saying quite literally, that it’s ALL ‘material’, including Chloride and consciousness.” Yes
    1: Phenomena are properties of material objects – colours, concepts, music, etc.
    2: The “observer” does raising interesting and difficult philosophical questions which are currently being discussed in the scientific study of consciousness – what is “I”, what is the first person, etc? Some Eastern religions have pondered on this. Perhaps we should say, to avoid some of these issues, that in studying consciousness the observer studies an external (somebody else’s) consciousness – after all, that is generally the case. I attend Buddhist meditation classes and the monk attempts to get us to look at “I” – not very successfully I think. And I am not sure that he has a better understanding of this either. (I suspect his philosophical approach gets in the way).
    No, I don’t think the observer is non-material (how can a non-material observer interact with the object of investigation?)
    “If we can’t interact with these parts, how can we know they are there? “ We can’t.
    “why could not a god (or similar concept) exist in a part of reality that we are currently unable to ‘interact with’? “ There could be – we just can’t say! But if there is an interaction we are, in principle, potentially, capable of investigating and knowing or understanding (potentially).
    Of course this is where belief comes in. Dale, you and I believe different things. That’s OK. It doesn’t worry me.
    Beliefs about reality currently outside our ability to interact with and get to know are, by their nature, going to be wild, speculative, and most probably wrong! I like this comment of Krauss: “What is too often underappreciated about science is that almost all of the ideas it proposes turn out to be wrong! That is something I can strongly confirm from experience in scientific research. That is why a contemplative, passive, understanding just doesn’t work. it requires interaction, testing, etc., to adjust our ideas to give a more accurate reflection of reality. Then we start getting to ideas that are not wrong.
    Now, we can speculate, for example, on that 96% of the universe we don’t understand (dark matter & dark energy) and most of our ideas will be wrong. But, at least in this case we have an interaction which has given us the indication of its existence and more work will produce a better understanding. When we talk about parts of reality which we have absolutely no information on or interaction with (yet) the situation is so much worse.
    I am not aware of a “god hypothesis”, although I’m sure some could be proposed. It’s really just an idea. It isn’t being formulated as a testable hypothesis (that’s how we understand a hypothesis in science). Such a god idea really doesn’t interest me for that reason. That’s why I take a “live and let live” approach to the idea – although I do insist that my rights not be violated because of my particular belief (and this does happen).
    Now, I think there are interesting questions (and possible hypotheses and theories) when we start looking at how people with different beliefs behave socially, why do we have religions, what role does religion play, etc. I think these are important questions worth investigating.

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  21. Thanks for you comment Felicia.
    I suspect that when it comes to attitudes to evolution opponents are driven not so much by lack of understanding, or knowledge, of the theory but by their wish for it not to be true, or desire to discredit it, because of their own religious beliefs. After all, there is so much knowledge out there about all sorts of things. We can’t understand it all yet we don’t oppose it. It’s only when we feel that it attacks our cherished beliefs (I don’t see why it should in this case).

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  22. Ken,

    Great response! You’re agnostic! 🙂

    (Forgive me, as I know that’s like calling a Kiwi an Aussie, but to the idea of god, you did in fact give quite an agnostic sounding comment: “There could be – we just can’t say!”)

    …which, as I said at the very beginning of this long conversation, was the only intellectually ‘safe’ position to take… Of course, not the position I take, though… 🙂

    You’re a bit inconsistent, though…
    You say “we do interact with and investigate all of reality”, but then later you mention, “…reality currently outside our ability to interact with and get to know…”

    Also, I asked for further treatment on material phenomena, and you used the word ‘material’ in the definition! That’s not helpful. I agree with your notion that the topic of ‘material’ is key for us, so could you try again? How can a ‘concept’ of something be a ‘property’ of an object?

    I must, however, thank you for your wonderful comments about all that we still don’t understand. I fully agree not only with those comments, but your previous statements about this not needing to keep us from growing/learning/etc.! This is the kind of talk from scientists that would help many conversations, I think.

    -d-

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  23. “You’re agnostic!” NO! Definitely not. Although this all comes down to how one personally defines words. I disagree with Dawkins’ definition (although it’s an interesting one and well worth reading. Interestingly, Bishop Randerson publicly acknowledged his own agnosticism as a result of reading Dawkins’ latest book.

    My definition? Agnosticism – against knowledge implying it is impossible to know. I certainly don’t think that. After all, we are continually getting to know aspects of reality and I personally don’t say that any of reality is impossible to know (potentially). I don’t think philosophical agnosticism is a defensible position for a scientist (although I am sure there are many post-modernists who claim it is).
    Now, I know that many people use the word only to apply to belief in a god (and very often only because they shy away from the word atheist). But given what I have said about knowing reality surely you can see that I am not into ring-fencing bits and pieces and declaring them unknowable (potentially). No I am an atheist, or non-theist. I don’t believe in any god. But I am quite prepare to change this (or any other) belief given evidence to do so (I am not a dogmatist). And, to me, in itself this specific belief is no big deal.

    Change “we do interact with and investigate all of reality”,, to “we do interact (potentially)with and investigate (potentially)all of reality”. I thought it was implied.

    “How can a ‘concept’ of something be a ‘property’ of an object? The periodic table is a concept, an idea. It’s not a property of chemical elements but is part of our consciousness. This may arise because of activation or formation of particular neural circuitry, the release of particular biochemicals in parts of the brain. It is the movement and organisation of this material, rather than the material itself. It is a property of the material. Current understanding of consciousness, the mind, etc., is that it is a property of highly organised and changing physical and chemical substances.
    This contrasts with the idea that a theory, consciousness, mind, etc., is some sort of “fluid” which moves in and out of a body as some believe. There doesn’t seem to be any real evidence for this, but of course we need to be open to the possibility of some future evidence which may, for example, give some credence to Buddhist concepts of re-birth, “out-of-body” experience, etc. If we do find evidence for this it would still be a material phenomenon (in this case seeing consciousness more as a substance than an emergent property). In other words methodological materialism doesn’t start with assumptions about such things – it starts with evidence.

    “This is the kind of talk from scientists that would help many conversations, I think. But isn’t that the case? I personally feel that scientific research does tend to encourage humility (because you are being forced, by new evidence, to give up on cherished beliefs all the time). There are of course arrogant scientists, and I have met some. It seems, though, to be a quality of youth and inexperience. So many times in lectures and presentations I hear scientists respond to specific questions with “We don’t know.” I think that is the honest position. The healthy follow-up comment though is to say “Let’s find out!”

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  24. Re ‘agnostic’:
    I don’t think your definition of this is shared by many. If you have to have your own definition of it in order to escape wearing the label, that’s fine. I’ve never ever heard agnosticism defined as being AGAINST knowledge ITSELF. Against objectively knowing certain things? Bingo. Agnosticism. I think that’s the definition that will hold for most (and at whatever level of intelligence)… Have it your way on this one, Ken! 🙂

    Re ‘material’ & ideas:
    So. Ideas (like the Per. Table) are part of our conciousness, and “may arise because of activation or formation of particular neural circuitry, the release of particular biochemicals in parts of the brain.”

    So (at a micro level) the release of biochemical elements in neural processes explains how (at the macro level) a person can ‘think’ about the elements of the Periodic Table. Is that what you’re saying?

    To me that explains how the body works, but not where the thoughts come from. What prompts these releases of chemicals?

    I’ve heard that during activities like sexual intercourse or even hugging, certain chemicals are released, which explain the ‘feelings’ one experiences, etc. This is incredible stuff, no doubt. Our bodies are fantastic things to explore and discover what makes what happen. I don’t just move my arm, there are joints and tendons and vessels working, ‘messages’ being sent from my brain, etc. But why do I move my arm? Because I may be painting or playing a piano or gesturing during public speaking…

    Fascinating stuff, but it doesn’t explain ‘ideas’ that we seem to ‘discover’ as if they are ‘out there’ even before we discover them. It doesn’t explain the creation of ideas. New pairings of phrases. New analogies. Creating new stories. New ways of organising things. New recipies for cooking. Creativity! We don’t need to be ‘creative’ to survive! We just need to have and protect our ability to eat, reproduce, etc.

    Must close, I need to finish my talks for this weekend’s camp!

    Cheers,

    -d-

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  25. whoops… must have missed a tag… 🙂

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  26. I will do a separate post on agnosticism. I think it’s important not just because people use it in an apologetic way (when they really mean atheism) but because it amounts to at least ring-fencing part of reality (claiming it is impossible to know about existence of a god) and philosophically it amounts to claiming it is impossible to know reality!

    The question of ideas, etc. Humanity is making huge and exciting progress in this field. There are some great videos on Google (the Grey Matter series) describing this. My point is these areas are able to be investigated using methodological materialist approaches. The so-called “non-materialist” approaches have had no success, although they do form the basis of many superstitious beliefs, and there is a popular resistance to real scientific investigation.

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