The scientific study of religion

Book Review: The Fracture Of An Illusion: Science And The Dissolution Of Religion by Pascal Boyer, Editors Thomas M. Schmidt and Mi­chael G. Parker

Price: 39.90 EUR [D]; US$58.00; NZ$109.00.
Paperback: 112 pages
Publisher: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht (July 21, 2010)
ISBN-10: 3525569408
ISBN-13: 978-3525569405

I recently saw this quote: In the old days, religion was needed to make sense of the world. These days, the world can’t make sense of religion I don’t know who it’s from but I liked it. Religion is widespread. It can motivate people for good and for bad. So, like it or not, modern societies find it necessary to interact with religion and this is sometimes problematic. This book is helpful for this as it provides an overview of findings from the scientific study of religion

It’s a version of lectures given by Pascal Boyer at the Universities of Frankfurt and Gießen, in May 2008 (as part of the Templeton Research Lectures on science and religion). Boyer explains that “being lectures, these were delivered in the form of sermons – that is, in this case, with greater emphasis on argument than evidence.” Descriptions of experimental studies are minimal but each chapter is well-referenced and there is a 7-page bibliography.

This has the advantage of providing an authoritative overview and access to the literature in a short book (112 pages in total, including a 5-page afterword or critique of the lectures by theologians Elisabeth Gräb-Schmidt and Wolfgang Achtner).

As well as describing conclusions from the scientific study of religious thought Boyer also explores the implications for several questions: “Can there be a free civil society with religions? Does it make sense to talk about religious experience?” And “Do religions make people better? “

Don’t be deluded by “illusion”

If recent theological reviewing practices are anything to go by this word “illusion” is going to be misrepresented. To be clear, Boyer’s book is not about the illusory beliefs common in religions. As he says, that “was conclusively argued more than two centuries ago by Kant and other Auflärung scholars.”

No. He argues “the very existence of something called ‘religion’ is largely an illusion.” That religion as a package, “an integrated set of moral, metaphysical, social and experiential claims . . . .does not really exist as such. Notions of supernatural agents, of morality, of ethnic identity, of ritual requirements and other experience, all appear in human minds independently. They are sustained by faculties or mechanisms in the human mind that are quite independent of each other, and none of which evolved because it could sustain religious notions or behaviours.”

Scientific investigation should not, therefore, concern itself with “religions.” That would be a sidetrack into specific dogma, teachings and histories of institutions. The domain of theology, not science. Rather it should concentrate on religious behaviour, thoughts, ideas and norms and their acquisition. These are accessible to investigation by evolutionary science, anthropology, cognitive science and psychology.

Boyer describes this as the “Kant-Darwin axis.”

Even for most members of organised religions, their religious thoughts have little to do with what their religious institutions profess. And these thoughts and behaviour also occur without religious institutions or theology.

“So that knowing theology, or being conversant with the scriptural traditions, does not, unfortunately, add much to our understanding of religious thought and behaviour, because most human societies throughout history have managed to have religion without theology.” And this appears true even where organised religion exists.

Today it is common to see conflicts between religious institutional doctrine and the beliefs, thoughts and behaviours of members of those institutions. Struggle between the officers of the church and their “flock.” And this is even truer for academic theology. We have the situation described by Karl Krauss – “scholars of religions and their audiences are in complete harmony. The latter do not hear what the former say and the former do not want to say what the latter expect!”

The book has useful discussions on the irrelevance of religious behaviour and thoughts to morality, the nature of “religious experience” and the problems religion presents to freedom and democracy. Here I will concentrate on the discussion more relevant to science and reason.

Escape routes – fundamentalism and “spirituality”

Boyer rejects the idea that religion is the “sleep of reason” Rather is “natural”. “It is quite clear that explicit religious belief requires a suspension of the sound rules according to which most scientists evaluate evidence. But so does most ordinary thinking of the kind that sustains our commonsense intuitions about the surrounding environment.”

“The ‘tweaking’ of ordinary cognition that is required to sustain religious thought is so minimal that one should not be surprised if religious concepts are so widespread and so resistant to argument.”

After all, we know solid objects are largely open space and gravity is a curvature of space-time. However, even scientists in their day-to-day lives intuitively see solid objects as full of matter and objects falling because of their weight. It’s not hard to understand why human ideas of spirits and agency can lead to god ideas or belief in minimally counter-intuitive supernatural agency.

But in modern pluralist, democratic, educated societies, members of religious institutions can nevertheless be effectively living in two different worlds. Their own community with its specific dogmas and beliefs and the world at large where such beliefs are considered strange.  This creates a conflict from which religious people have two “escape routes” – fundamentalism and ‘spirituality.’

Fundamentalists resort to dogmatism to resolve the conflict. They “take the contents of institutional religious messages seriously, as saying what they say and prescribing what they prescribe.”

“Compared to many forms of modern institutional religion, fundamentalism is of course strikingly (indeed stridently) coherent.”

Fundamentalists will often despise the vagueness of other believers. “The desire to ‘return’ to a largely mythical past, where people’s beliefs were not troubled by modern notions of evidence and pragmatic efficacy” usually accompanies their dogmatic search for clarity. Despite this they will make use of modern technology if it helps their purpose. Their presence on the internet shows this.

Fundamentalists are preoccupied with commitment and its signalling, Like all dogmatic institutions (and political parties of the extreme left and right come to mind). They seek to keep their institutions pure and make defection costly for their members.

The opposite escape route is “a retreat into comfortable vagueness.” Confusing terms like “spirituality”, “connectedness” the “sacred source of our being” and “oneness” are bandied around.

“The vagueness here is not just a problem of expression. Far from being the accidental outcome of some author’s particularly poor writing, there is in general a deep reluctance in this field to commit oneself to any specific claim.  . . . The whole point of spirituality-talk, it seems, is to avoid particular topics rather than address them.”

I am sure many readers will recognise this problem. The standard of argument in many modern theological books and debates is relevant. Lacking real evidence or consistent logic these debaters and writers can nevertheless write and speak confidently using weasel words, flowery language and naive logic. I suspect that this vagueness is part of their theological training.

Science and Religion

I found Boyer’s comments on the science vs. religion issue useful and a little sobering. For him the question of a science-religion dialogue just doesn’t arise. It couldn’t. “This very notion of a ‘debate’ or ‘confrontation’ or even comparison is hopelessly confused.”

Firstly there it assumes there is such a thing as religion – concentrating on official doctrines, teachings and institutions rather than religious thought and behaviour. Also such a dialogue and conflict implies a likeness. “But there is none between scientific theories, held and understood by a very small number of people in a small number of human groups, and the religious imagination, easily acquired and maintained by millions of people with no effort. A more sensible comparison would be between scientific activity and theology, or between popular representations of science and popular religiosity on the other.”

It is humbling to be reminded that “scientific research and theorising has appeared only in a very few human societies . . The results of scientific research may be well-known but the whole intellectual style that is required to achieve them is really difficult to acquire. By contrast, religious representations have appeared in all human groups that we know, they are easily acquired, they are maintained effortlessly and they seem accessible to all members of a group, regardless of intelligence or training. . . . . religious representations are highly natural to human beings, while science is quite clearly unnatural. That is the former goes with the grain of our evolved intuitions, while the latter requires that we suspend, or even contradict most of our common ways of thinking. So it makes sense to see these two domains as diametrical examples of cultural transmission, two limiting-cases in the connections between evolved cognition and cultural creations.”

Non-overlapping Magisteria

Boyer describes Stephen J. Gould’s idea of “non-overlapping magisteria” (NOMA) as “rather  misguided in both descriptive and normative terms. . . first, it is not at all clear that issues of values and morality necessarily fall outside the domain of science; second, even when they do, it is not clear at all that religious doctrines are a relevant source to resolve them.”

So, on the one hand religious imagination and science belong to different realms of human knowledge which makes division of labour implied in NOMA meaningless. “Scientific developments have made all religiously inspired pronouncements about the world simply unnecessary.”

On the other hand religious behaviour, thoughts and imagination are widespread, popular and easily maintained and transmitted because they accord with our evolved intuitions.

So much for any naïve atheist confidence that religion will disappear any time soon.

Persistence of religion

Religious notions persist and will continue to do so because “they are firmly rooted in the deepest principles of cognitive activity.” In summary Boyer describes three reasons:

1: Religious ideas violate some of our most basic intuitions (e.g., that agents have a position in space, that live beings grow old and die, etc.). This makes them memorable and easily transferred.

2: Religious ideas conform to many intuitive principles.

3: “Most religious norms and emotions are parasitic on systems creating similar norms (e.g., moral intuitions) and emotions (e.g., a fear of invisible contaminants)  in non-religious context.”

I think, however, that we should recognise these reasons don’t necessarily, or inevitably, lead to religion, or religious beliefs, as commonly understood. They can result in other forms of superstition or magical thinking. They can also contribute to the variety of human personality and thinking styles present in human diversity. Including atheist ones.

Is “New Atheism” naive?

In a sense yes, says Boyer. He comments that modern atheists (“new atheists”?) are, “like their eighteenth-century predecessors” concentrating on critique of religion, rather than understanding “how religions work and what made them culturally successful.”

I agree, having often thought that modern atheist authors spend little time discussing the origins and persuasiveness of religion. However, Boyer’s criticism is a little strong considering that Daniel Dennett’s book Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon does concentrate on this aspect, and makes use of Boyer’s work. Indeed, Dennett’s main message is that the “spell”, the taboo against scientific investigation of religion, must be broken.

However, Boyer sees these objections to “modern militant atheists’ as irrelevant.  After all, their role is advocacy and consciousness-raising, rather than scientific investigation. “Modern atheists are trying to maintain the visibility of a particular intellectual positions (that religion is intrinsically ridiculous) and by implication of a certain kind of discussion (e.g. of moral issues without the help of superhuman agency) and a certain kind of existence (a life without constraints from religious institutions. That, I think, is a positive outcome by itself, and I would claim, it is so even for religious believers, once we consider the modern relations between religious institutions and civil society.”

Conclusion

Pascal Boyer’s previous book Religion Explained has become of a popular classic on the findings of the modern scientific investigation of religion. This present book is much shorter (112 pages compared with 375 pages) but provides a useful, compact and easily accessible overview of the field.

Further, it uses some of these scientific findings to explore issues like the science-religion relationship, the role of (and claims made by) religion in the moral sphere, and the problems religious thinking presents to modern and secular societies.

I think it is a valuable resource. And of use to a wider audience than the academic one its price suggests.

See also: The god gene – or is it a meme?

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60 responses to “The scientific study of religion

  1. Thought I’d focus on this, Ken.
    As someone currently engaged in theological study, I found this curious:

    The standard of argument in many modern theological books and debates is relevant. ….these debaters and writers can nevertheless write and speak confidently using weasel words, flowery language and naive logic.

    I’m curious as to the amount and type of theological works you’ve read? I’m not requiring you to be an ‘expert’ in theology to critique it, but I very much DO think you should refrain from telling people what is ‘standard’ unless you’ve read reasonably widely.

    So what have you read? Theological dictionaries? Encyclopedias? Theology journals? Monographs? Or – my guess – popular books??

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  2. I think he has read Matthew Flannigan’s blog and that’s about it…

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  3. Whoa! … A 112 page paperback for over $100! I was considering buying it until I saw that!

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  4. Ah, now this sounds more my thing. Unlike Harris’ book which a recent review by Massimo Pigliucci totally put me off.

    Now on to where I think there are problems…

    The argument that ‘religion’ is illusory because it’s sustained by faculties that

    are independent, and
    didn’t evolve to sustain religious beliefs

    seems risky to me. Could not the same statement be made about language? Yet I can’t imagine anyone making a good argument that language is illusory. The first statement seems to imply that because religion cannot be completely encapsulated by any one of its component parts it’s illusory which seems problematic as you wouldn’t say a computer is illusory because a transistor and a fan are independent, would you? I particularly dislike the second of the points since the situation that something is co-opted by evolution to do something other than it’s original purpose is common enough to have a name: exaption.

    Saying “Scientific investigation should not, therefore, concern itself with “religions.”” I think is hiding a world of sins. Rather it should be rendered science _cannot_ concern itself (in general, there are certainly sometimes factual claims made that can be addressed) with this level, it’s where philosophy sits.

    In particular I find this comment interesting

    So much for any naïve atheist confidence that religion will disappear any time soon.

    because my impression is that although religious belief is on the decline, spiritual or superstitious belief seems to have held constant.

    In a way the entire article reminds me of a study done about a year ago which was looking at the trolley problem, but more specifically it compared the brain scans of people answering the original formulation to the fat man variation. This study found that completely different parts of the brains were active when answering the two, fairly similar, situations. In that case likewise note that science was investigating the biological basis of the moral questions but was not making comment on which, if either was moral. Returning to my brief comment before about science occasionally being able to answer some specifica religious claims likewise in this example the fate man variation science would be able to determine if the loss of momentum due to the collision would be sufficient to save the other people but still wouldn’t be able to tell you if it was right to do.

    Just felt it was an interesting parallel.

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  5. To clarify. The comment on standard of books and debate was mine. However, Boyer, and others, do make the observation of vagueness, circularity, etc., as one of the “escape routes.” Humpty Dumpty talk, bafflegab, jelly wrestling are all terms that come to mind.

    Matt’s blog does suffer from this to some extent, but he tends towards a dogmatic fundamentalism which makes his writing clearer than what I was referring to. However, in his debating he will often use underhand methods to avoid issues. (eg. arguments by default).

    Karen Armstrong’s writing is a classic type of the vague “spirituality” approach. But she is not at all uncommon. Alex McGrath tends to be the same, although not as bad.

    Max. I agree about the price. However, if you don’t already Boyer’s book “Religion Explained” I recommend it. Dennett covers a lot of this in his “Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon”. Paul Clieur’s book “The Secular Outlook: In Defense of Moral and Political Secularism” (reviewed in Secularism is important), and John Teehan’s “In the Name of God: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Ethics and Violence” (reviewed in Evolution of gods, morals and violence) are also excellent.

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  6. Happy – I don’t know why you should be comparing Sam Harris’s latest book with this one. They are completely different. They don’t even overlap.

    I would not let Massimo’s review put you off. That would be falling into the confirmation bias trap.

    Read it for yourself and make up your own mind.

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  7. The comparison is because of the similar themes. To quote Stefan Banach “Good mathematicians see analogies. Great mathematicians see analogies between analogies.” Why wouldn’t you make the comparison when it’s sitting right in front of you??

    The reason the review put me off is because Massimo pointed out that Harris not only doesn’t address the things I’m interested in (metaethics) but in fact actively avoids them because he finds them “boring”. Given that he avoids what, in my opinion, is by far the most interesting part of the topic I don’t think I’ll get much out of it and my time is limited.

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  8. I will add I also see parallels in the question of where science fits into politics. It all basically comes down to the place science sits with regards to philosophies.

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  9. But Happy – Boyer’s book is an overview of the findings from the scientific study of religion and what they might mean for some common problems in society.

    Harris’s book is not at all about religion, or its scientific study. It is an argument against moral relativism. As such it is really ripping into arguments of some non-religious people – including Massimo. if religion is mentioned it is only in passing – he makes it quite clear that is not his concern here.

    In the process he criticises the abstract approach that many philosophers have taken. And dogmatic approaches by them to. I sympathise with that aspect.

    If you want to restrict yourself to the ivory tower discussion of “metaethics” and philosophical abstractions then of course you won’t like the book. It’s not aimed at you.

    But it is aimed at most people who are concerned about morality “on the ground” – the real issues real people face. he doesn’t supply philosophical answers. Its a beginning, not an end. But it has started a very valuable discussion.

    If you are interested in morality in the real world then i think it is a book you should read – – you don’t have to agree but it is important to be familiar with the debate.

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  10. Richard Christie

    my impression is that although religious belief is on the decline, spiritual or superstitious belief seems to have held constant.

    Hmm, interesting, my personal definition of religious belief is that religion is an organized system of superstition. So is it the cohesion of the organized system that is in decline and we’re just finding other things to be “spiritual” (whatever that is) or superstitious over?

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  11. @Ken:
    Seriously, read my posts. I’m not saying religion = ethics. I’m saying the ideas put forward here about science’s relationship towards religion are analogous, in my opinion, to certain ideas about science’s relationship towards ethics, and also science’s relationship towards politics and probably other things that I guess would traditionally come under the heading ‘arts’.

    I think it’s a shame you dismiss metaethics as an ivory tower subject. If you are going to say what is/is-not ethical and, more than that, run around telling people what they should/shoud-not think ethical then the question of the basis of those ethics, that is metaethics, cannot simply be ignored due to inconvenience. Basically, as I’ve said before, it makes it similar in the way religion conducts itself with regards to ethics.

    @Richard:
    Yeah, so being well connected with arts for some bizarre reason I’ve talked about the definition of religion with a friend who studies RELS (‘religious studies’ at my alma mater). According to her there is not really a good solid definition of religion. There’s some criteria that tend to hold, and the more hold the more comfortably you can say something is a religion, but it gets fuzzy at the edges, sorta like the definition of species I guess. So for example I wouldn’t call the BS that John Edwards does religious, but I would call it superstitious. Also things like some of the eastern philosophies seem to fit in some weird grey area (reincarnation in Taoism for example). If you want to include superstition within religion go for your life, it seems no worse a definition than any other as long as its established prior to conversation to avoid unnecessary debate.😉

    So running with what you said I could totally buy that in fact it’s the organised religions that are destabilising. This would seem to be backed up by the seeming rise of non-centralised religions like the neopagan ones but could just be selective perception on my part.

    I guess I consider this (possible) flaw in reasoning to be connected to the fact that although the skeptical movement may be growing there seems no particular reason to conclude that the percentage of skeptics in the population is also growing. Also if you are looking at census results and concluding rise of atheism is correlated with rise in skepticsm one needs to keep in mind ideas like Goodhart’s law which is basically the idea that if you use a proxy metric it will lose it’s information content as things will be done to alter the metric rather than what it is trying to measure.

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  12. Happy, I don’t know where you get the idea that I accuse you “saying religion = ethics.” That has certainly not been my understanding – so perhaps you ave read me wrong. The interesting thing about the debate sparked by Sam’s book is that religion has opted out. It is on the back foot because things like “divine command ethics” really don’t cut it in a serious discussions.

    My comment on philosophy and metaethics is not meant as a complete disregard for these subjects by any means. Just that the way some of the practitioners approach these subjects is really pathetic and divorced from reality.

    I have a lot of respect for Massimo. But I think he suffers a little from a defensive attitude towards his philosophy ( and I can understand that). He over-reacts to criticisms like Sam’s (and Hawking’s) and he tends to use silly words like “scienticism” rather unwisely. I am also disappointed in the way he used Hume’s quote – it can easily be used against his argument (as other philosophers have pointed out). And with his scientific training I can’t understand why he falls in to the common philosophical trap of taking ancient authorities and their quotes as a dogma. His scientific background should warn him against that.

    I do not “run around telling people what they should/should-not think ethical” – where do you get those ideas? I have argued that part of growing up is to become ethically autonomous. To be able to understand why things are right and wrong. To be able to work these out for oneself. That is why I have critiqued the relative morality of “divi8ne command ethics” and have advance the idea of objectively-based morality. Something we all have access to.

    I am against handing over our moral decisions either to scientists in lab coats or strange and evil men wearing dresses and carrying crosses.

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  13. Richard, it may be true that while organised religion is declining, religious thinking, or superstitious thinking, may not be. The normal surveys don’t really enable us to decide (although I think there are a few reports, and one in NZ, which help).

    Certainly the census shows that the non-religious are increasing. But this should not be extrapolated to mean that atheism or non-superstition is increasing (although they probably are).

    The relevant point from Boyer’s work is that religious thoughts and behaviour are “natural”. They are based on evolved ways of thinking and intuitions.

    My argument is that they “are based on” – not the same thing. That these evolved ways of thinking and intuitions can form the basis for other ways of thinking or behaviour. Some of them superstitious but not necessarily so. That is my point that they could also result in the creativity characteristic of atheist scientists.

    So I don’t think we are a rational species, science and reason doesn’t come naturally to us while superstition does. However, I think we are improving. Our history is showing us the advantages of reason and science. Few people would like to throw these away now. Consequently there is much more acceptance of reason and science. Hopefully this will be accompanied by more suspicion of, and rejection of, magical thinking.

    However, I think this problem will always confront us because emotion is an important part of thinking and making decisions. Without the emotional aspect we probably couldn’t operate.

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  14. I do not “run around telling people what they should/should-not think ethical” – where do you get those ideas?

    Yeah everytime I write ‘you’ you may wish to replace it with the word ‘one’ (which I personally find makes writing a bit stilted) since you seem to have problems distinguishing the two. As to why I say it if you (read as one) writes a book talking about what ethics should and shouldn’t be (i.e., ohhh I dunno, Harris) and where it should or should not come from then you (read as one) are telling people what they should/should-not-think ethical. Note in particular that I’m saying neither that your (read one’s) positions are unconsidered nor that they are immutable.

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  15. Couldn’t understand that happy.

    Best if you use “one” rather than “you” or both.

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  16. As to why I say it if one writes a book talking about what ethics should and shouldn’t be (i.e., ohhh I dunno, Harris) and where it should or should not come from then one is telling people what they should/should-not-think ethical. Note in particular that I’m saying neither that one’s positions are unconsidered nor that they are immutable.

    What I’m trying to get across is the idea that I’d be a lot more symphathetic to Harris’ position if it started ‘my position is informed by science and assumes that well-being of conscious creatures is ‘good'” (the last statement making it relative in the formal sense of the word) rather than a supposedly objective moral system.

    But before this goes too far I really don’t want to get into it again since if I recall correctly you are interested in supporting neither your nor Sam “he’s big enough to look after himself” Harris’ positions thus making any conversation very one-sided. Let’s at least stick with my OP about the analogies between the different subjects.

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  17. I didn’t have any interest in your analogies so won’t comment on them. Really just making the point that people should read Sam’s book before rejecting it. In fact your suggestion of what Sam “should” say seems very similar to what he does say – so perhaps you have the wrong impression.

    The worst thing to do is rely on titles to get a book’s message. But one thing for sure, whatever the good and bad points of Sam’s book he has got people debating the issue. And they aren’t wasting their time on”divine command” arguments.

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  18. Sadly I don’t. More than one critical review has stated he never makes the case that the flourishing of intelligent beings has/is an objective basis and it’s on those grounds I’m griping. It may be similar in syntax but it’s a world apart in semantics.

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  19. Well, happy. You are welcome to your decision not to read the book. But it hardly qualifies you to make a critical analysis of it.

    I myself made a similar criticism after reading the book. but I also note that none of these critics have attempted to provide their own objective basis for morality. I have attempted to do so and I think other commentators (who haven’t reviewed this book) have floated similar ideas, at least in part. Richard Carrier is one who has put a lot more effort into justification of an objective basis for morality.

    In the end I find I never agree completely with all the ideas in a book but nevertheless I can learn from a good book (One of the learning processes is identifying what I don’t agree with). I found Sam’s book very good in this respect as I am sure most of his more sensible critics did also.

    As I said it has sparked a very useful debate. One in which he participates himself which is always good.

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  20. I also note that none of these critics have attempted to provide their own objective basis for morality.

    Perhaps, because like me, they don’t think there is one?😛

    Besides I’m not sure how that addresses the question of whether or not Harris’ statement is objective… bit of a red herring I think.

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  21. In his book Sam doesn’t bother providing a logical or scientific justification for his criteria of human flourishing. He is almost axiomatic about it – and obviously that is good enough for most people. Who is going to stand by when childen are beaten because they can’t justify a objective basis for it being wrong. They know passionately that it is wrong. Only an inhuman automaton (or possibly an ivory tower philosopher or metaethicist?) bothers argueing the case in real situations. And that is the intuitive nature of our morality and values. How could it be otherwise? (It is of course objectively based but as this is not obvious to most they might call their morality relative or intuitive).

    Wielenberg argues for objective moral truths as “brute facts” not requiring justification. (Yet I think he provides enough material for him to justify a material basis. Perhaps as a philosopher he couldn’t recognize it?). Carrier provides a philosophical justification for an objectively based morality in his upcoming book chapter and I believe he provides a more scientific argument in his published book.

    Massimo acknowledges he is a moral realist and is clearly opposed to moral relativism. While he does not justify his moral realism any better than Sam does he points the way with his statement that one can base values on “a basic knowledge of what kinds if things animals are.” This is close to my “human nature” justification.

    I think you are possibly arguing your case “by proxy” using Sam. Better to deal with real examples rather than rumours of reviews of a book you have yet to sight.

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  22. Whoa! Massive strawman! I’m not advocating anyone should just stand by while children are beaten! However there is a difference, much as you seem to fight it, between specific ethical statements and what the basis for those ethical statements are. So you say people passionately know it is wrong, lacking evidence of objective moral truths that is the very definition of a type of relativism known as emotivism. And, I mean I can’t remember if I’ve said this to you specifically or not, but I find it a far more compelling argument that this moral truth is one that has evolved as a belief that is advantageous for a population to have in evolutionary terms. But if you allow that you’ll get into trouble the moment you start to say it has an objective basis, it would be sort of like saying a seagull is a necessary outcome of biological evolution rather than the form that happens to be the most successful in it’s given surroundings and lineage, it’s very platonic-idealish but doesn’t really make a whole lot of sense in light of current knowledge. And I mean if you run with this evolutionary psychology model (problematic to prove) that there are certain ethics that seem to be cross cultural would be evidence of either a trait that has never been selected against or convergent evolution, rather than objective basis.

    Just to pre-answer the statement ‘Aha! But if it helps the population survivability it has an objective basis’ this is only true in the sense of the ethic having an objective basis if you think of population survivability as good, and so you get into a circular definition problem.

    I have to say I was a little disappointed to discover Massimo to be a moral realist but after reading a little more I found something I found weird. He, as far as I’m concerned, incorrectly thinks mathematical proofs are objective facts whereas even a statement like 1+1=2 requires a definition of a set involving at least the numbers 1 and 2, a definition of addition and a definition of equality, not to mention that proving it requires additional definitions regarding provability. That is the statement 1+1=2 is _relative_ to a number of axioms (For example if the set were not N but instead Z2 and addition were defined as addition modulo 2 we would have 1+1=0, it’s even written that way, and 2 doesn’t even exist! Additionally in a sense even the proof that 1+1=2 is about 10 lines long given ZFC axioms, it’s not something that just magically happens to be true). To be honest I found it a weird thing to say on his part. I wonder how e-mailable he is to discuss it…

    If anything what you’ve written here about relativism and ivory towers just emphasises to me the impression that skeptics and athiests are looking for some, any, objective basis for ethics because they feels it weakens their position to say what is right or wrong. Seriously can you tell me the problem with just proceeding from “my ethical system is based on the assumption that the flourishing of human beings is ‘good'”?

    I’m not quite sure what you mean by arguing by proxy. If you would rather critique my position please feel free to do so. I take very few things personally, especially from people I’ve never met (no offense). Rather he’s made a statement I disagree with, not backed it up and to make matters worse a significant number of skeptics seem to turn their skepticism off at just before he makes the claim and on again after they’ve bought into it.

    Also damn you, you’ve sucked me in.😛

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  23. Hmmm actually giving it further thought I’m not sure where I sit on the maths thing. Definitely given the same axioms the same results will occur objectively, but what can you say about the axioms? My take is that since axioms are definied by a person they are for all intensive purposes subjectively true. Thoughts?

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  24. Can’t see in this rather turgid review anywhere that an illusion was fractured, or any dissolution of religion by enlightened scientists. In the “don’t be deluded” section you hinted that religion is an exaptation of existing brain function but never explained why religion should be considered an illusion. You then confusingly suggest that scientists should not concern themselves with theology, but somehow NOMA is misguided/meaningless. It’s a lazy excuse to dismiss theology as unnecessary and pre-judge its academic standard from the perspective of a total outsider. The section on fundamentalism & vague spirituality seems massively oversimplified, is it based on any studies whatsoever?

    For a proper academic review of the science in the book without Ken’s woolly phrasing and philosophical slant, I recommend Michael Blume’s review at scilogs.eu.

    Also here is an interesting snippet from a review of Dennett’s Breaking the spell (which also further explores some of Boyer’s ideas)

    Before I discuss Dennett’s take on religion, let me explain why I think his cultural project is doomed. He wants the religious reader to take his assessment of religion’s causes and effects seriously, and he labors mightily to present himself as fair-minded, if not neutral, about the truth of the central claims of such faiths as Christianity. The smart money is not on him. His intended [American Christian] audience will rightly regard any evolutionary model, indeed any secular model, of religion as essentially corrosive. For the so-called “genetic fallacy” (the erroneous supposition that a defect in the genesis of something is evidence that discredits the thing itself) need be no fallacy. A causal account of the origins and maintenance of belief can undermine that belief’s rational warrant.

    Likewise, secular theories of religion are corrosive. Religious commitment cannot both be the result of natural selection for (for example) enhanced social cohesion and be a response to something that is actually divine. A cohesion-and-cooperation model of religion just says that believers would believe, whether or not there was a divine world to which to respond. If a secular theory of the origin of religious belief is true, such belief is not contingent on the existence of traces of the divine in our world. So although a secular and evolutionary model of religion might be (in a strict sense) neutral on the existence of divine agency, it cannot be neutral on the rationality of religious conviction.

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  25. The foregoing quote pinpoints the difficulty the sciences of cognition, anthropology, etc will have maintaining a default philosophy of naturalism when “non-supernatural” premises lead to (surprise, surprise) a “non-supernatural” conclusion. It’s not warranted, as the existence of God is supposed to be an open question, or not a question that science seeks to answer. Or is that just posturing?

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  26. So we add “turgid” and “confused” to “strident”, “militant,” “angry” etc. These terms say more about those who use the=m than the people the emotional attacks are aimed at. But I am in good company.

    It looks like ropata is still under the “spell” Dennett talks about. The magical thinking that asserts that religion cannot be investigated as a natural phenomenon. That only theologians are allowed to describe the nature, origins and history of religion.

    Yeah, right.

    That’s like saying only Stalinists should study the Stalin Terror or Maoists the “cultural revolution.”

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  27. Any naturalistic explanation for the question:

    “Why does X believe that God is communicating with him/her?”

    Will automatically reject the answer:

    “Because God is indeed communicating with X”

    In this sense the idea that the existence of God is an open question is being rejected as Ropata says. This seems a reasonably uncontroversial claim Ken.

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  28. I dunno that anyone else was interested in the maths thing but on the off chance future people pass by I e-mail a friend who studied philosophy and maths about it and got this reply

    It is a good thought to raise. I would agree with you that while axioms are self evident it seems strong to call them objective truths.

    I recall that Kant had some great things to say on some mathematical truths being synthetic a priori. He believed that it was self evident that 6+6=12 but there was an element of subjectivity involved in that the human mind had to use inherent intuition of sets, addition and products.

    He definitely does discuss the case of 1+1=2 being a prior synthetic in the Critique of Pure Reason, though he doesn’t use those exact numbers. He also discusses the logicalness of the angles of triangles too. I don’t have my copy with me at the moment, but I can hunt down the exact passages in the Critique where he says these things for you tomorrow, as I wrote on it a few years ago in my honours project.

    You should learn one thing, Kant is always the answer to everything Philosophical😛

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  29. Does anyone doubt that gods (spirits, ghosts, etc) exist? I think there existence is an empirical fact recognized by scientists in this work. These things exist in people’s minds. That’s why their existence can be studied by psychologists, anthropologists, etc.

    As for the objective existence of such entities? My impression is that these researchers generally opt out of that one. Seeing it as a personal belief that they are not interested in studying in their work.

    And cosmologists, physicists, biologists, etc., don’t see any point in imvestigating vague claims about objective reality. There is no agreed, structured, god hypothesis do how can such things be investigated?

    That’s not to say that specific “supernatural” claims such as the power of prayer, life after death, etc are immune from scientific investigation. They aren’t. They have been investigated. But believers don’t like the findings. Therefore they attack the science, the messenger.

    Religion is too big and important a topic to be left to theologians. Or to vague debate on the objective existence or otherwise of “sky daddies”, spirits, ghosts, etc. People are dying. Human rights are threatened and viiolated. Our modern pluralist society faces problems in dealing with religious and other ideological believers.

    Surely we should wecome the scientific study of religion as a background to solving these social problems.

    “Supernatural” theologians won’t solve the problems.

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  30. Happy, I have never had any trouble seeing 2+2=4 as having an objective basis. Just imagine the mess we would be in if every relationship like this required an axiomatic expression. And don’t kids these days learn their numbers using objectively existing objects?

    However I like the t-shirt Lawrence Krauss was proudly wearing recently. This said 2+2=5. His explanation was that 2+2=4 except at high values of 2. Large numbers don’t behave intuitively.

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  31. Just imagine the mess we would be in if every relationship like this required an axiomatic expression.

    I hate to be the one to break it to you but in mathematics every relationship like this does have an axiomatic basis. In the case of addition of natural numbers, and this is going from a hazy memory, it involves axioms that define a particular family of sets and then finding a bijection between the sets and a particular operation and the natural numbers and addition.

    And don’t kids these days learn their numbers using objectively existing objects?

    Sure, but that’s maths applied to the real world, it’s basically a mathematical model. I’m talking about maths as a formal science. Saying everytime you’ve done an experiment where you take one object and another and you have two objects is not an adequate proof in mathematics.

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  32. Happy “I hate to be the one to break it to you” but 2+2=4 is maths applied to the real world. Kids don’t learn axioms about this. And teachers who tried to make them would not be doing their job.

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  33. 2+2=4 can be applied to the real world but it doesn’t have to be. And is making the argument that because it isn’t taught in school it isn’t true, which seems to be what you are hinting at, really a good one? It just happens that for most things there’s a particular set of axioms that covers most of what people will come across thus it’s easier to simply teach it as fact, but that doesn’t mean we should be lazy and arbitrarily assume it so.

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  34. Oh, and since you threw an equivalent statement in one other time, I say this as a mathematician.

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  35. So you are saying that “axioms” have an objective basis? We can derive “axioms “from facts?

    That’s not how I learned it!

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  36. No… but… himmm I think you are perhaps not aware of the difference between a scientific proof and a mathematical proof. I’ll outline it just to be on the safe side.

    So just to recap science starts a hypothesis after which you do a collection of experiments to a point where you can be reasonable sure about the truth value of the hypothesis which leads you to a conclusion.

    In the formal sciences (maths, statistics and theoretical computer science) you start with a conjecture. Then using only axioms and logic you arrive at a theorem.

    Moreover at achieving the theorem, assuming the proof is right, there can be no other option. Unlike in natural science where no matter how many experiments you do there’ll always be a non-zero probability you’re wrong.

    As such observing that everytime you take one object and add another you have two objects is not a formal science proof, though it would probably suffice for a natural science one. Rather (and I looked it up) for addition as an example you would use Peano’s axioms. This, or something equivalent, is what underlies a lot of maths everybody does in day to day life. That they are unaware of it is largely irrelevant. Compare it to the idea that you don’t have to be aware of UV radiation or how and why it is to be effected by it.

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  37. To the axiom thing I’m… undecided. I definitely don’t think they are objective truths, but in a sense they aren’t subjective either, because when you assume their truth you needn’t actually believe them as truth… Maybe there’s a third category I don’t know of, or maybe it’s just part of knowing when something is a subjective truth or not.

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  38. Happy, I am retired after a career in scientific research over about 40 years. I don’t need you little lectures on scientific and mathematical methodology. It becomes second nature after a while.

    Besides, it’s an unnecessary and irrelevant diversion on your part.

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  39. If you don’t understand why “I have never had any trouble seeing 2+2=4 as having an objective basis” is nowhere close to a valid mathematical proof and why it might then follow the basis of mathematics is axiomatised you may be getting rusty… Based on my e-stalking it seems you were published in chemistry or agriculture (it was hard to tell, google scholar didn’t throw up many results for your name), it is thus not unreasonable to assume you are unaware of the differences between the two methodologies. Especially given some of your comments.

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  40. I think you are the one having comprehension problems (rather agist to go on about rust – come on be a bit more sensible. research is a career not a university subject. Personal attacks and innuendo weaken your case).

    But enough of this pissing competition.

    Nowhere have I claimed 2+2=4 was “a valid mathematical proof” – it is an accurate description of objectively existing situations. As most kids these days are very aware.

    You said “It just happens that for most things there’s a particular set of axioms that covers most of what people will come across” (in other words you are making the bleeding obvious an axiom – which is silly).

    And “I definitely don’t think they are objective truths, but in a sense they aren’t subjective either” – referring to 1+1=2 point that Massimo made. (And he wasn’t presenting that as “a valid mathematical proof” either. He was presenting it as a philosophical example). You are clearly confused.

    Yes, in mathematics we abstract (and this can involve axiomatic assumptions sometimes) and we define things precisely. This enables us to actually depart from existing situations, into hypothetical or imaginary ones. But 2+2=4 is not an axiom.

    Personally I talk about it being objectively based but I am happy to see it as an objective fact. Even a material one. (This does cause problems for some people though).

    But where does this put you with Sam’s book? You criticise him for adopting a axiomatic approach, assuming that human flourishing is a basis for morality. You demand that he “prove” this.

    Yet you want to hide behind an axiomatic assumption that 2+2=4. (And another one that 1+1=2, and so on). You won’t allow anyone to demand that you prove it.

    To be consistent you should allow Sam to use such a criteria as a reasonable axiom. After all, because our concepts of “right” and “wrong” are strong intuitions, that is the way most people see it. They claim just to “know” that something is “wrong.” Even the god botherers are really only using their “divine commands” and “god did it” as an “explanation” to somehow justify their axiomatic assumptions.

    I am quite happy to allow people to use an axiomatic approach like Sam does. In fact by defining morality in terms of human flourishing he is infinitely more humane than defining it in terms of “divine commands.” And most people who describe their morality as “relativist’ are in fact using a similar axiomatic approach to Sam.

    So Sam’s situation doesn’t worry me one bit and I actually think it is hypocritical for those who criticise him not to offer their own “proofs” they are demanding from him.

    It’s just that I think we can go further and argue the case for an objective basis for our human morality. And this enables us to be clearer about the problems of multi-culturalism. To arrive at some objectively based moral judgements that are a bit like the idea of 2+2=4 that we all have.

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  41. in other words you are making the bleeding obvious an axiom – which is silly

    Yes, it clearly seems silly to you. But it’s a crucial step in mathematics. I’m tempted to call Dunning-Kruger on this. You simply cannot take anything for granted. When you say ‘in the real world 1+1=2’ you are right in general but there are plenty of cases when i doesn’t happen. For example in the bits on your computer 1+1=0 (it’s why I picked the example I did earlier).

    And he wasn’t presenting that as “a valid mathematical proof” either. He was presenting it as a philosophical example).

    I wasn’t under the impression he was presenting it as a proof. However the statement itself is true relative to the axioms you hold true. If he meant it in the sense you seem stuck in then it loses a lot of it’s power and is thus not what I think he meant. Definitely given a set of axioms no other conclusion is possible, so the derivation is an objective fact (which is what I think he was actually getting at), but the statement is not an objective fact in its own right.

    But 2+2=4 is not an axiom.

    No… 2+2=4 is a result of the Peano axioms. Good to see you’re continuing your habit of not following provided links. Here is an example of proving 1+1=2.

    But where does this put you with Sam’s book? You criticise him for adopting a axiomatic approach, assuming that human flourishing is a basis for morality. You demand that he “prove” this.

    Nyah! My complaint isn’t so much with him adopting an axiomatic approach. It’s that he makes the assumption that the flourishing of intelligent being is an objective ethical statement. Nowhere does he say it’s simply an axiom and the latter doesn’t follow from the former.

    Yet you want to hide behind an axiomatic assumption that 2+2=4. (And another one that 1+1=2, and so on). You won’t allow anyone to demand that you prove it.

    Uhhh… prove what? I’m prefectly happy to prove 2+2=4 using Peano arithemetic. It’s not hard to use. If you are trying to say ‘in the real world’ 1+1=2 and it’s obvious I would say you are blurring the distinction between the real world and a model of the real world (= science).

    Sam is quite allowed to use axioms. However, an axiom is just something you assume to be true, what Sam has failed to do is show that his assumption is sound.

    removes plenty of irrelevant stuff

    So Sam’s situation doesn’t worry me one bit and I actually think it is hypocritical for those who criticise him not to offer their own “proofs” they are demanding from him.

    LOL! Cos clearly if I don’t have an alternative my problems with his lack of proof, or proofs if he ever makes them, are wrong. How long did you say you were in science again?

    It’s just that I think we can go further and argue the case for an objective basis for our human morality.

    And this is where I’m disagreeing with you. My problem isn’t with an axiomatic approach, it’s that he thinks is axiom is somehow magically an objective truth but never actually addresses why.

    To arrive at some objectively based moral judgements that are a bit like the idea of 2+2=4 that we all have.

    Just because we all have them doesn’t mean they are objective. As I’ve previously stated it’s just as explainable by an evolutionary model.

    Also you may be interested to know that there are plenty of tribes in South America whos number system doesn’t go above 3 (it is literally 1, 2, 3, many). I’m reasonably sure they won’t have a clue what you mean if you say 2+2=4. Let alone anything bigger.😛

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  42. Ken, I have no problem with scientists investigating anything and everything. And like you I’m hopeful that science can resolve many social problems. But some of the problems people and cultures face are spiritual and philosophical and do not have a technological solution. You clearly have little tolerance or patience to understand the philosophy of religion and that’s why it seems vague and abstract to you. However religious philosophies have a huge impact on society, so rather than attempting to belittle the subject with talk of a “sky daddy” why not just stick to the science.

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  43. Happy – you claim that Sam “makes the assumption that the flourishing of intelligent being is an objective ethical statement.”

    I don’t remember that – can you provide a page reference. I certainly want to follow that up. I would actually like to use it in my own critique.

    Come on Happy “For example in the bits on your computer 1+1=0” that is a rather childish diversion, isn’t it.

    If you can “prove” 2+2=4 (and the kids at school have no problem either) then it is not an axiomatic assumption is it?

    “How long did you say you were in science again?” tsk, tsk – childish. You are letting yourself down.

    By the way – you are falling back into the old misrepresentation again. When I talk about “objectively-based morality” I am not saying “objective morality.” There is a huge difference.

    You could go on with the misrepresentation and get nowhere. Nor would you add anything.

    It’s an import difference to recognise.

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  44. Ropata –“religious philosophies have a huge impact on society” – agreed. Isn’t that exactly what I said?

    We have all become more aware of this since 2001. Look at Egypt – religion is being used to make people afraid of democracy there. To justify autocracy. To raise the spectre of the Muslim Brotherhood and ignore the rights Egyptians. To recognise that the struggle is a secular one.

    Religion creates human rights problems, even in our society.

    It is important for humanity to understand religion, why and how it arose, why it will persist, how to manage it in a pluralist democratic scoeity.

    The philosophers of religion are absolutely useless in this regard. They are part of the problem.

    You now seem to be accepting the scientific investigation of region – which is good. Just don’t expect me to embrace the “philosophy of religion.” My own philosophy is more mature and more satisfying.

    But, in no way am I stopping you. It’s part of the rich diversity of human variation.

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  45. Happy, I majored in pure maths once upon a time (for my sins) and I’ve enjoyed your comments about axioms. A few comments on the philosophy of mathematics (paraphased from here)

    I think it’s important to realise that definitions in maths are just that, they’re definitions and don’t have to apply to the real world … they are sufficiently well-defined in the context of mathematics. I understand that in the context of the real world, people are not very happy with abstractions such as Pi or infinity or limits or noneuclidean geometry, but the beauty of mathematics is that we don’t have to apply this stuff to the real world (as it happens, most of this stuff is hugely helpful when we apply it to the real world, which is a nice bonus), we built this stuff up because it helped solve a problem in maths that in some sense was more contradictory than the invention itself.

    The natural numbers are the simplest patterns and humans have been using them since prehistoric times. But they’re still “just” patterns.

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  46. Sam “makes the assumption that the flourishing of intelligent being is an objective ethical statement.”

    I don’t remember that – can you provide a page reference. I certainly want to follow that up. I would actually like to use it in my own critique.

    Without having the actual text I can take things like (google to the rescue)

    given that there are facts–real facts–to be known about how conscious creatures can experience the worst possible misery and the greatest possible well-being, it is objectively true to say that there are right and wrong answers to moral questions (30)

    together with from

    Harris maintains that a critic who rejects such basic norms of a discussion, [… such as] “morality depends on maximizing flourishing, cannot be taken seriously.”,

    and it then doesn’t take a rocket scientist to put two and two together. Now it’s possible he’s just throwing his statement out as a possible objective truth but it’s clear from the first quoted paragraph and besides that he is a moral realist that he thinks that at least one objective moral truth exists.

    Come on Happy “For example in the bits on your computer 1+1=0″ that is a rather childish diversion, isn’t it.

    Not at all. You made the statement 1+1=2 is an objective fact and I’m pointing out it in fact depends on the situation. How about something else then. 1 unit mass of, oh let’s say matter, and 1 unit mass of, oh let’s say antimatter, will you obtain 2 units of mass at the end? Whether or not 1+1=2 in fact will depend entirely in the situation and as such which mathematical axioms you wish to treat as true will also depend entirely on the situation, hence the comment on the division between the real world and the model thereof.

    If you can “prove” 2+2=4 (and the kids at school have no problem either) then it is not an axiomatic assumption is it?

    *Sigh* No, it depends entirely on axiomatic assumptions however.

    If you look at the pages I’ve linked a proof would go like
    Def: 2=1”
    Def: 4=1””
    Theorem 2+2=4.
    Proof:
    2+2 = (1+2)’ (definition of addition)
    (1+2)’ = ((1+1)’)’ (definition of addition)
    ((1+1)’)’ = ((1′)’)’ (definition of addition)
    ((1′)’)’ = 4 (P4)
    pay careful attention to what I’ve done in the brackets on the right hand side of each equation

    By the way – you are falling back into the old misrepresentation again. When I talk about “objectively-based morality” I am not saying “objective morality.” There is a huge difference.</blockquote.
    Well that depends on what you mean and since you refuse to clarify I've been forced to make guesses. If you mean that moral truths, even if it's only one, can be derived in whole from objective reality then in fact you are talking about objective morality, in the sense that no other conclusion is possible. If, however, you are talking about the only remaining option where science informs your morality, in the sense of what is possible and what is deducible from other statements, then you have a 'scientifically informed morality' but it's likely still to be a relative morality to whichever axioms make up the basis of your moral system. In particular moral statements can either be relatively true or objectively true, there is no middle ground in this case. Should objective ethical truths be possible it would of course be possible to have a mixture within a system.

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  47. Ah bugger sorry, can you delete my previous post. It should’ve been

    Sam “makes the assumption that the flourishing of intelligent being is an objective ethical statement.”

    I don’t remember that – can you provide a page reference. I certainly want to follow that up. I would actually like to use it in my own critique.

    Without having the actual text I can take things like (google to the rescue)

    given that there are facts–real facts–to be known about how conscious creatures can experience the worst possible misery and the greatest possible well-being, it is objectively true to say that there are right and wrong answers to moral questions (30)

    together with

    Harris maintains that a critic who rejects such basic norms of a discussion, [… such as] “morality depends on maximizing flourishing, cannot be taken seriously.”,

    from wiki
    and it then doesn’t take a rocket scientist to put two and two together. Now it’s possible he’s just throwing his statement out as a possible objective truth but it’s clear from the first quoted paragraph and besides that he is a moral realist that he thinks that at least one objective moral truth exists.

    Come on Happy “For example in the bits on your computer 1+1=0″ that is a rather childish diversion, isn’t it.

    Not at all. You made the statement 1+1=2 is an objective fact and I’m pointing out it in fact depends on the situation. How about something else then. 1 unit mass of, oh let’s say matter, and 1 unit mass of, oh let’s say antimatter, will you obtain 2 units of mass at the end? Whether or not 1+1=2 in fact will depend entirely in the situation and as such which mathematical axioms you wish to treat as true will also depend entirely on the situation, hence the comment on the division between the real world and the model thereof.

    If you can “prove” 2+2=4 (and the kids at school have no problem either) then it is not an axiomatic assumption is it?

    *Sigh* No, it depends entirely on axiomatic assumptions however.

    If you look at the pages I’ve linked a proof would go like
    Def: 2=1”
    Def: 4=1””
    Theorem 2+2=4.
    Proof:
    2+2 = (1+2)’ (definition of addition)
    (1+2)’ = ((1+1)’)’ (definition of addition)
    ((1+1)’)’ = ((1′)’)’ (definition of addition)
    ((1′)’)’ = 4 (P4)
    pay careful attention to what I’ve done in the brackets on the right hand side of each equation

    By the way – you are falling back into the old misrepresentation again. When I talk about “objectively-based morality” I am not saying “objective morality.” There is a huge difference.</blockquote.
    Well that depends on what you mean and since you refuse to clarify I've been forced to make guesses. If you mean that moral truths, even if it's only one, can be derived in whole from objective reality then in fact you are talking about objective morality, in the sense that no other conclusion is possible. If, however, you are talking about the only remaining option where science informs your morality, in the sense of what is possible and what is deducible from other statements, then you have a 'scientifically informed morality' but it's likely still to be a relative morality to whichever axioms make up the basis of your moral system. In particular moral statements can either be relatively true or objectively true, there is no middle ground in this case. Should objective ethical truths be possible it would of course be possible to have a mixture within a system.

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  48. Ah bugger sorry, can you delete my previous posts (having quite the fail). It should’ve been

    Sam “makes the assumption that the flourishing of intelligent being is an objective ethical statement.”

    I don’t remember that – can you provide a page reference. I certainly want to follow that up. I would actually like to use it in my own critique.

    Without having the actual text I can take things like (google to the rescue)

    given that there are facts–real facts–to be known about how conscious creatures can experience the worst possible misery and the greatest possible well-being, it is objectively true to say that there are right and wrong answers to moral questions (30)

    together with

    Harris maintains that a critic who rejects such basic norms of a discussion, [… such as] “morality depends on maximizing flourishing, cannot be taken seriously.”,

    from wiki
    and it then doesn’t take a rocket scientist to put two and two together. Now it’s possible he’s just throwing his statement out as a possible objective truth but it’s clear from the first quoted paragraph and besides that he is a moral realist that he thinks that at least one objective moral truth exists.

    Come on Happy “For example in the bits on your computer 1+1=0″ that is a rather childish diversion, isn’t it.

    Not at all. You made the statement 1+1=2 is an objective fact and I’m pointing out it in fact depends on the situation. How about something else then. 1 unit mass of, oh let’s say matter, and 1 unit mass of, oh let’s say antimatter, will you obtain 2 units of mass at the end? Whether or not 1+1=2 in fact will depend entirely in the situation and as such which mathematical axioms you wish to treat as true will also depend entirely on the situation, hence the comment on the division between the real world and the model thereof.

    If you can “prove” 2+2=4 (and the kids at school have no problem either) then it is not an axiomatic assumption is it?

    *Sigh* No, it depends entirely on axiomatic assumptions however.

    If you look at the pages I’ve linked a proof would go like
    Def: 2=1”
    Def: 4=1””
    Theorem 2+2=4.
    Proof:
    2+2 = (1+2)’ (definition of addition)
    (1+2)’ = ((1+1)’)’ (definition of addition)
    ((1+1)’)’ = ((1′)’)’ (definition of addition)
    ((1′)’)’ = 4 (P4)
    pay careful attention to what I’ve done in the brackets on the right hand side of each equation

    By the way – you are falling back into the old misrepresentation again. When I talk about “objectively-based morality” I am not saying “objective morality.” There is a huge difference.

    Well that depends on what you mean and since you refuse to clarify I’ve been forced to make guesses. If you mean that moral truths, even if it’s only one, can be derived in whole from objective reality then in fact you are talking about objective morality, in the sense that no other conclusion is possible. If, however, you are talking about the only remaining option where science informs your morality, in the sense of what is possible and what is deducible from other statements, then you have a ‘scientifically informed morality’ but it’s likely still to be a relative morality to whichever axioms make up the basis of your moral system. In particular moral statements can either be relatively true or objectively true, there is no middle ground in this case. Should objective ethical truths be possible it would of course be possible to have a mixture within a system.

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  49. I should probably clarify to just the 2 previous posts, not all previous ones.😛

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  50. @Ropate: Oh I agree with everything you said. I just got started wondering if there’s anything sensible you can say about the truth status of mathematical axioms. I may well not be asking a sensible question though.

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  51. @Happy, I dunno but I’m going to read ‘Logicomix‘ one of these days, it might help.🙂

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  52. I am searching through my own copy with keywords but may have to reread several of the chapters to find your reference, happy.

    Clearly Sam doesn’t talk about axioms -neither should he. (I suspect I may have been the one to introduce the word). But he does use the word “premis to describe his “assumption”. Sounds tidier to me. Especially as his critics are mainly philosophical rather than mathematical.

    However, this little bit of rereading reminds me that Sam does actually consider the objective basis of both moral decisions and human nature – the “premise” of human flourishing. It’s just that he doesn’t put it together. He doesn’t actually have to present his justification as a premise.

    I don’t think Massimo actually provided any better justification for his moral realism than Sam did. Probably Sam’s was actually better -especially taking the book as a whole.

    I just think critics, if they are going up make this criticism of Sam at all forcefully, are under a moral obligation to provide their own justification. Otherwise they come across as catty.

    If Massimmo and other critics like Caroll and Myers had spent some time justifying their own moral realism their critiques would have really added something to Sam’s arguments.

    I guess most people just haven’t thought through how to justify moral realism.

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  53. As far as I’m aware axiom and premise are interchangeable.

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  54. Richard Christie

    lol, this discussion takes me back, I remember sitting through proofs for
    a+b + b+a
    a=0+a
    etc, etc, etc in stage one Algebra.
    I remember thinking at the time, ‘wow, here we are, tertiary mathematics students and we’ve just spentover an hour proving what they taught me at age 7’.
    Thanks for the memories HES.😉

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  55. Happy, could you define what you mean by a “moral truth?” I don’t think I would actually use this phrase. And nobody who does use it seem to define it.

    Moral decisions are judgements made by humans (and other primates). They rely on objective facts as considered evidence. And they rely on the emotional and value contributions which themselves have an objective basis in our nature as sentient, conscious, intelligent, social and empathetic beings. (These factors also have a material substrate).

    Nowhere do you take the later aspect into account.

    Our moral judmenrs are not actually “truths” – how could they be. But because of their objective basis we can reach a wide agreement on many of them. Nevertheless there can often be more that one “correct” decision (Sam’s landscape) and judgements are often not sharply defined.

    But they can feel like “truths” given the extremely strong nature of our intuitions of “right” and “wrong”.

    But , personally this is not a term o would use.

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  56. By moral truth I’m really refering to any sentence that describes some action as being moral or immoral. A natural question then arises as to whether the sentence is universal/objective (everyone, everywhere at everytime will think likewise) or subjective (it holds for you but may not hold for others). If you allow for the existence of some sort of deity the options become a little more complex but I’ll not deal with that for now.

    The fact that human decisions often, but not always, have an objective basis I don’t think necessarily makes the decision objective. Nor does the fact that most people will follow a statistical distribution in the sort of decisions they make (if anything that just implies that free will doesn’t exist to me, but maybe a topic for another day :P).

    So it’s from this you can consider it related to, for example, politics. In some sense of the word there is no one truely correct political party (or I would say even system cf Arrow’s Impossibility Theorem and related results) however that doesn’t stop science from informing decisions arrived at (as much as National tends to ignore them).

    So let’s take your list of things you don’t think I take into account. Sentience is just the ability to feel or perceive so I don’t know that it’s an improtant one to consider as it’ll probably be covered by others. I think consciousness is illusory (again another day :P), social beings… well ants are social being but it would hard to ascribe them with morality. As for empathy there’s some strong argument that empathy evolved along with escalating size of warfare in which case it wouldn’t be an objective trait.

    That these things have a material substrate is somewhat irrelevant. I’m fine with you saying that it is objectively true that ethical systems exist, or that certain things are considered moral because of certain structures in the brain or certain evolved behaviours. However that is a world apart from saying that ethical systems contain objective truths, which is usually where my problem lies. Anyone why says science can inform ethics is not really saying anything that inflammatory. However if you say science can determine ethics (which is basically the subtitle of Harris’ book) then you are saying that science, as a set of objective truths (or attempt at) force a non-empty set of ethics that therefore must be objectively true, that is true for everyone. If they weren’t it would in turn mean science doesn’t always contain universal truths.

    I don’t disagree that a wide agreement can be met on ethical truths. For example do unto others, thou shalt not kill and a myriad of others tend to pop up again across multiple cultures. These cross cultural ethical truths may indeed be common in helping populations to survive, however to say that they are universal or objective ethical truths implies that you are also saying population survival is good is an ethical truth, and why should that be so?

    I’ve seen Sam occasionally draw comparisons between questions of ethics and questions of health and I think it’s an interesting one to make. In particular because ‘health’ is not really a scientific concept, rather it’s a word that defines a commonly accepted set of traits. It is not sensible to ask ‘how do I scientifically define “healthy”‘ it is to say ‘If I define health as … how does science say I can achieve this?’. Similarly it seems to me nonsensical to say ‘how do I scientifically decide if something is “ethical”‘ comapared to ‘If … is ethical how does science say I can achieve this?’ or ‘If … is ethical logical and scientifical what else is ethical?’. Not then that ethics, like health, is relative to how you define ethical or healthy respectively.

    Sam’s landscape however seems to arise from a position where he thinks some ethics are objectively true and some are relatively true.

    I will say again I’m using relative in the technical sense where it does not mean that every ethical system should be accepted, but rather that it at some leves it ends up depending on a set of things you consider ethical.

    Nowhere do you take the later aspect into account.

    Our moral judmenrs are not actually “truths” – how could they be. But because of their objective basis we can reach a wide agreement on many of them. Nevertheless there can often be more that one “correct” decision (Sam’s landscape) and judgements are often not sharply defined.

    But they can feel like “truths” given the extremely strong nature of our intuitions of “right” and “wrong”.

    But , personally this is not a term o would use.

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  57. Sorry about your little extra blurb at the bottom, I was editing elsewhere and forgot to remove it before my copy paste.

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  58. How are you, Ken? Everything all right? I am quite concern with your well being after reading your post. But I agree your point that such discussions shall invite more participation. [I think it is a valuable resource. And of use to a wider audience than the academic one its price suggests.] Well, now, after almost a year, how many respond? Why? And you? Are you still there?

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  59. Why so quiet till now, Ken? I read your post about Christopher and glad to know that you are well. Why stop responding to the Scientific Study? Seems superstition beats scientific study. It’s a pity to give up like that. I felt a great loss for the World Peace. In the first place why do you want to study religion(s?) scientifically? For what purpose? For me The World Peace.
    I have been trying to find a way to “build love among religions” since last October but get nowhere. I didn’t have the capacity to create a blog of my own. To me, the World seems not ready to accept the true value of “Love among Religions”. May be we should consider Scientific Study of “Building Love” and “Making Love”.
    I found your discussions valuable to read and think but my English and knowledge is not to the standard to understand all the concepts you guys are arguing. But I felt that some don’t want such discussions getting more participants. Scientific Study of Religion. Want it dead young.
    It could be more valuable and useful for me [ and the World Peace] if the discussions concentrate on the origins of some religious thoughts and beliefs[like “Love”], and the religions as the main cause of great conflicts and slaughters.
    Furthermore I would like to point out that my belief about religion is that you won’t need a religion if you have a good enough brain and the heart. If you lack any of the two, you will need religion for you or others.

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  60. Why so quiet till now? No one wanted to discuss about Scientific Study of Religion anymore? No one is interested in the Building of Love among Religions? No one want to discuss Strategy for the World Peace? So sad. So very sad. Do Science or any scientist or mathematician ever study the relationship between “Reality, Truth, Religions, Beliefs” and Peace? I like to read discussions, arguments on that. Anybody can give any information? Please. 09:12 hrs 31-12-11

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