Tag Archives: materialism

Crazy ideas and “supernatural” phenomena


Credit: xkcd

I like this little list because it demonstrates that science doesn’t reject far out ideas, just because they are far out. The decision is made on evidence. Relativity and quantum electrodynamics are far out as far as those of us with ordinary experience are concerned. From my perspective they are as far out as personal gods who forgive sins. But they are well supported by evidence. Tested against reality. The other far out ideas on the list have no evidential support and therefore of no use.

I get annoyed when people lecture me about the “methodological materialism” of science. They want science to be opened up to “supernatural” phenomena.

Well, it doesn’t matter what you call it. In practice science does not ask if an idea or phenomena is “supernatural” – it asks for the evidence. People who ramble on about methodological and philosophical materialism in science are covering up for the fact that their ideas are rejected because they have no evidential support.

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Does science have a cognitive privilege?


Finding “self-evidence” and “self-justification”

You don’t often come across the term “cognitive privilege.” But  I did the other day – and knew immediately what it meant – or what was being implied by the term.

The theologian Brian Mattson used it in his blog post Does Scientific Materialism Deserve a Cognitive Privilege?  Its clear what he means, although his specific use of it is very confused. He accuses someone of, in effect, cognitively privileging “scientific materialism.”

(These theologians love to use words like “materialism” and “naturalism” when they critique science. The rarely bother defining the terms but they are usually stand-ins for scientific method or the implied scientific epistemological process.)

As he says:

“A “privilege” is a “right or immunity granted as a particular benefit, advantage, or favor.” The benefit, advantage, or favor being granted to scientific materialism is that it has the preeminent right to be the baseline. It is what we are to take for granted. There the edifice stands.”

He is supporting the complaints of Alvin Plantinga and Thomas Nagel about modern science:

“Their point (a philosophically ruthless and perhaps uncomfortable one) is that scientific materialism is not entitled to privileged status at all. It is not self-evident, self-justifying, an edifice that must be taken for granted as the baseline. It is precisely this sleight-of-hand they are challenging, a sleight-of-hand so effective it has largely produced the widespread privileging of its construct . . . . . It is simply not the case that scientific materialism must be taken as true and that the burden of proof must be passed on to any and all challengers.”

So these guys are upset by the widespread acceptance that science is generally a reliable way of getting to know reality? They think this reputation is “privileged? That it hasn’t been earned? That we have pulled the wool over the eyes of people all these years? We have an unearned “privilege?”

They obviously haven’t really thought this through, or even looked around at our modern society. At most they will childishly chant “You can’t logically prove scientific method or knowledge is reliable.”

Crickey, do they really think that humanity should have held back. Refused to even contemplate trying to understand its environment or solve the problems it faced until someone had come up with a watertight deductive proof that science would work? Something to make it “self-evident” or “self-justifying?”

And, seriously, do they think that people would have paid any attention to such a deduction? Or taken seriously the philosophers or logicians who has produced it?

The proof of the pudding

We haven’t allowed such mental gymnastics hold us back. Humanity just went ahead and did the best it could. Trial and error has taught us what works best. The proof of the pudding was in the eating.

People respect scientific method and knowledge because of their own experience. They know it works. So they aren’t particularly interested in these complaints of lack of deductive proof.

And guess what – even scientists, those using these methods are not particularly interested in those deductive proofs either. They are practical people – if the methods didn’t work they wouldn’t bother with them. They would look for something else.

So if science has a good reputation it’s well-earned. People know from experience that it works. That’s why it’s respected. That’s why society and governments turn to scientists when there are problems and we are looking for solutions.

Science has cognitive respect – not privilege, and certainly not the unearned privilege suggested by Plantinga, Nagel and Brian Mattson.

An attempt to demand privilege as a right

Mattson’s complaint about the “cognitive privilege” of science is, however, revealing. Both Plantinga and Nagel have been critiquing the high standing of science because they are arguing for an alternative. They are in effect demanding that religious or other “way’s of knowing,” revelation and philosophy of religion, should be more acceptable to humanity. That it should be given the credibility that science gets, perhaps even more. The more honest theologian may admit that there is no obvious reason for accepting religious and similar “ways of knowing,” but because scientific knowledge and method is no more “self-evident” or “self-justifying” than religious knowledge,  the two methods should be treated as “equally valid”

But where science has won cognitive respect through experience, through successful performance, these theologians and philosophers of religion seem to think they can demand cognitive respect as a right. Without earning it through deeds.

Actually they, not science, are the ones demanding cognitive privilege.

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Theistic science? No such thing

I came across this interesting observation in Elaine  Howard Eckland’s book  Science vs. Religion: What Scientists Really Think:

“believers did not consider their traditions and beliefs influential on how they conducted their research. None of the religious scientists I talked to supported the theory of intelligent design”

This conclusion is based on her extensive survey of academic scientists in the USA.

It’s interesting because it confirms that those theologians and “philosophers of religion” who advocate abandonment of “materialism” or “naturalism” by scientists are barking up the wrong tree. Even scientists who have strong god beliefs don’t allow these to interfere with the way they do their science. In fact, if they did they would no longer be doing science.

Mind you, the conclusion is not at all surprising to anyone working in a scientific environment. We know from experience that religious scientists don’t change their methodology because of their ideological beliefs or world view.

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I like this from Jesus and Mo. Especially as I often get criticised for my “materialism” – which seems to be used interchangeably with “scientific naturalism.”

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What is matter? What is materialism?

I have often thought most philosophers vague when they talk about matter. And especially when they use the word “materialism.”And this includes some who call themselves “philosophers of science.”

And try to hunt down the definitions. Answers for example describes matter as “something that has mass and exists as a solid, liquid, gas, or plasma.” In Wikipedia we find: Matter is the substrate from which physical existence is derived, remaining more or less constant amid changes. Anything that occupies space and has mass and weight.” Search for clarification usually produces the circular definitions that matter has substance and substances are matter.

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Atrocious Science Clichés


This article from Wired (5 Atrocious Science Clichés to Throw Down a Black Hole) describes a couple of clichéd terms which sometimes creep into science writing. I can also suggest some others that have crept into the more political writing about science which we should also try to get rid of.

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Dogmatism of the “supernatural”

Because of the summer solstice/New Year holidays I am reposting some older articles. This one from last June.

Do scientists ever concern themselves over terms like ‘materialist,’ ‘natural,’ or ‘supernatural’? I don’t think so – at least those scientists working at the coal face. I have never heard any scientist posing the question – “is this phenomenon ‘natural’ or ’supernatural’?” before investigating something.

dogma-parade-webYet today science is attacked by some people for limiting itself to only ‘natural’ phenomena. Intelligent design (ID) proponents (and they aren’t the only ones) rail against the ‘materialism’ of science. They demand that science should be changed to include ‘supernatural’ explanations.

These are attempts to introduce dogma into science.

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The materialist label

Dale, at fruitful faith.net, has a new post, moral things, with which he hopes to extend recent discussions on morality. Unfortunately he has somehow activated a log-on requirement which I can’t penetrate. Hopefully this is an error and he will correct it soon as I think he makes some interesting points worth discussing.

At this stage (and in the hope he finds this here) I want to comment on the use of labels. Dale is interested in understanding how ‘materialists’ “arrive at their value-judgements.” I think he wishes to call people like me ‘materialists’ although he acknowledges that I do “not accept the label.” Lets clarify this.

I think we can get by without labelling people and I usually resist such temptations. In fact, I don’t think I often feel that temptation. However, I have noticed that several people commenting here wish to apply labels to me and other commenters (I wonder if this is a form of judgmentalism?). The problem, of course, is that people interpret labels like ‘materialist‘ differently. This results in people setting up straw men. It’s best just to discuss the real issues and positions – not the imagined ones.

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Defining oneself negatively

I have been struck lately how some people define themselves negatively – by saying what they are not or criticising the beliefs of other instead of presenting their own beliefs.

A clear example is the use of the word ‘atheist.’ It’s OK as far as it goes – which isn’t very far. It just says ‘I don’t believe in a god.’ It says nothing about what I do believe in. I have made this point before but pointed out then ‘I do have my own beliefs (wider than, but including atheism). They are always evolving (aren’t we all) and they are a source of great spiritual comfort and pride to me. I won’t give them a name but, of course, they are revealed in discussion.’

Intelligent design

I think the intelligent design (ID) proponents are classic examples of people who define their ideas negatively. They will rave on about the real or imagined problems or gaps in evolutionary science and then call their rave ID theory. But notice that they never actually propose a specific ID hypothesis or theory. They define themselves negatively. Christopher Heard gives a typical (and as he says brazen) example of this in his in a book review of Intelligent Design: William A. Dembski and Michael Ruse in Dialogue. Here he quotes ID guru Bill Dembski: Continue reading

Dogmatism around science – the “supernatural.”

Do scientists ever concern themselves over terms like ‘materialist,’ ‘natural,’ or ‘supernatural’? I don’t think so – at least those scientists working at the coal face. I have never heard any scientist posing the question – “is this phenomenon ‘natural’ or ‘supernatural’?” before investigating something.

Yet today science is attacked by some people for limiting itself to only ‘natural’ phenomena. Intelligent design (ID) proponents (and they aren’t the only ones) rail against the ‘materialism’ of science. They demand that science should be changed to include ‘supernatural’ explanations.

These are attempts to introduce dogma into science.

Continue reading