The blog of Dr Glenn Andrew Peoples on Theology, Philosophy, and Social Issues

Dawkins and Scientism


Scientism, as I am using that term here, is an approach to studying an issue that assumes that if something is a question of fact, then it can be answered by science. A very strong form of scientism would be logical positivism. Logical positivism, now a largely abandoned perspective, said that in order for a question to be meaningful it had to be either scientifically verifiable, or else it had to be something that was true by definition (e.g. squares have four sides). Scientism need not go this far.

Richard Dawkins has been accused of employing scientism in his attacks on religious belief. I’ll look directly at the accusation shortly. In a recent blog by Stephen law, he takes issue with this accusation and seeks to exonerate Dawkins from it. Before I get to that, another comment in the same blog entry caught my attention. Law writes: “The God Delusion is a world-wide best-seller that provoked a huge storm of criticism from the religious, who accused Dawkins of all sorts of confusions, muddles and bad arguments.”

I’m in no position to know whether or not the impression that I got from this was due to the intent of the author or not, but the above gives the impression that it is uniquely “the religious” who accuse Dawkins of being the victim of confusions and muddles and of making bad arguments. This is far from being the case, and as someone who moves among philosophers, Law is aware of this (and I am not implying that he would say otherwise). Criticisms of Dawkins’ work in The God Delusion comes predominantly from those involved in philosophy of religion, since that is largely the subject of Dawkins’ book. However, if I were to claim that the Dawkins delusion provoked praise from atheists, I would be at best stating a half-truth. The reality is that a large number of non-believers did not think highly of Dawkins’ book. It’s true that many heaped lavish praise on the work, many show up to his public talks with cheers and whistles, and internet message boards are stuffed to overflowing with fans of Richard Dawkins. However, the fan base is made up mostly of people who have no background in philosophy of religion (and often of philosophy in general) or theology.

Enough about that, let’s get back to the claim that Richard Dawkins employs scientism. It’s a charge that was levelled against Dawkins in response to The God Delusion, but it is a charge that several atheists have claimed is unfair and untrue. I think that the charge has much more merit than Law and others are prepared to acknowledge, and here I want to briefly explain why I say this.

Commenting on Alister McGrath’s book The Dawkins Delusion, here’s why Law says that McGrath’s charge of scientism is false:

MacGrath [sic] then goes on to do several things. First of all, he accuses Dawkins of being ideologically wedded to scientism. Dawkins, claims MacGrath [sic], simply assumes that “science has all the answers” But of course, scientists need to show a little humility. There are questions science cannot answer.

This first line of attack on Dawkins, though very popular among theists, entirely misses its mark. In fact, within the pages of the very book MacGrath [sic] is attacking, Dawkins quite unambiguously acknowledges that, “Perhaps there are some genuinely profound and meaningful questions that are forever beyond the reach of science.” (p XX) Indeed, Dawkins seems happy to concede that moral questions may well fall into this category. Dawkins says: “we can all agree that science’s entitlement to advise us on moral values is problematic to say the least”. (p80).

So McGrath is attacking a position Dawkins does not hold. In fact McGrath is presenting a rather crude caricature of Dawkins’ position. The charge of scientism is unwarranted.

Basically then, Laws argues that since Dawkins made a claim (or made several claims) inconsistent with scientism, it can’t be the case that he employs scientism, and therefore those who accuse him of doing so are attacking a straw man.

The accusation that Dawkins employs scientism is not one that only appears in works of religious apologetics. Chris at the science blog Mixing Memory uses Dawkins’ work as an example of “rampant scientism.” See also Marilynne Robinson, “Hysterical Scientism: The Ecstasy of Richard Dawkins” Harper’s Magazine, November 2006 and Luke Davidson, “Fragilities of Scientism: Richard Dawkins and the Paranoiac Idealization of Science,” Science as Culture 9:2 (2000), 167–199.

In spite of there being a fairly wide variety of accusers, Dawkins has other defenders besides Stephen Law when it comes to the charge of scientism. Bruce over at Thinker’s Podium also defends Dawkins against the charge of scientism. He does this by presenting a clip of Dawkins’ talking, and adding, “Richard Dawkins, as I’ve mentioned, is commonly accused of logical positivism and scientism. I defy you to watch the part from three minutes onward and tell me that Richard Dawkins thinks that science is the best way to explain everything.” His argument appears to be that since, in the clip he presents, Dawkins says some things that are not compatible with scientism, it follows that Richard Dawkins does not employ scientism. This is effectively the same defence of Dawkins that Stephen Law used as well, but it’s obviously not true. It is the logical equivalent of saying that a man could not possibly be racist in spite of the fact that he kills Jews (and only Jews), because he has gone on record stating that all people are equal.

It’s clear enough that a person’s statements that defy a particular outlook do not demonstrate that they never take that outlook for granted in the way they think in another area. The complaint that Dawkins employs scientism is not the same as the claim that he always employs it, or that he consistently employs it, and it’s perfectly compatible with the claim that Dawkins doesn’t even realise that he employs or assumes it. It is merely a complaint that he does in fact employ it. Bruce likens Dawkins’ stance that gets him accused of scientism to the work of Daniel Dennett, “straddling science and philosophy.” This is a fundamental misunderstanding of the complaint about Dawkins and scientism. The complaint is not that Dawkins – a zoologist – comments on philosophical issues. Anyone is entitled to do that, whether they are a zoologist, a pharmacist, a virologist, an art historian, a web programmer or a bricklayer. The problem of scientism that people accuse Dawkins of getting tangled up in is the assumption that the methods of his own field – the physical sciences – are properly suited to answering the questions of another field, like theology or philosophy.

Bruce’s comments that follow, I think, suggest that the real concern is that he feels that Dawkins is so widely regarded as a poor philosopher because there’s actually a prejudice against scientists who get involved in philosophical issues, “As if one can’t be multi-disciplined!” But scientists needn’t have this fear. That is not the reason that philosophers have shown disdain for Dawkins’ endeavours in philosophy of religion. For one, it would be a mistake to call Dawkins multi-disciplined if by that we mean that he’s qualified to talk about religion and philosophy in the same way that he’s qualified to talk about biology. He has higher degrees in biology, but as far as I know he has no qualifications at all in philosophy. A serious concern with Dawkins’ work on religion (and a relevant one here) is the suspicion (given Dawkins’ lack of qualifications in philosophy and theology) is that Dawkins is merely assuming that his success in science somehow qualifies him to address religious questions. This of course is seen as a manifestation of scientism itself, the assumption that as a scientist Dawkins is qualified to address all questions of fact. But setting the question of being multi-disciplined aside, the problem (or at least the one problem that I’m focusing on in this post) really has been that Dawkins has employed something that looks exactly like scientism, even if he has elsewhere decried scientism or not acted consistently with it.

Alister McGrath, the man who raises the ire of so many defenders of Dawkins, describes the practical assumption of scientism thus:

Science is the only reliable tool that we possess to understand the world. It has no limits. We may not know something now – but we will in the future. It is just a matter of time.

The Dawkins Delusion: Atheist Fundamentalism and the Denial of the Divine, 35.

According to the Internet Ecyclopedia of Philosophy, “According to scientism, empirical science is the only source of our knowledge of the world (strong scientism) or, more moderately, the best source of rational belief about the way things are (weak scientism).”

But scientism has got to be wrong. I’m not talking about the fact that there are disciplines where the scientific method can’t help us much because there are no real factual propositions at stake: things like the appreciation of beauty; art, music, drama and the like.1 In particular I’m thinking of philosophy: questions about the legitimate limits of science, questions about logical inference, questions about justice and human rights, questions about metaphysics (philosophical assumptions that often underlie science itself). The sciences don’t supply the answers here, and it’s not because we aren’t very good at science. It’s because the answers to questions in these areas simply don’t lie within the domain of science.

Another such question that people often say is outside of the domain of science is whether or not God exists. There are, of course, arguments for God’s existence that contain elements that do fall within the domain of science; claims about the biological complexity, claims about cosmology that contribute to, say, arguments from the beginning of the universe, arguments about, say, chemical analysis of the Shroud of Turin and probably others. But arguments such as the moral argument for theism, or philosophical arguments about causation and the beginning of the universe, or transcendental arguments for theism; these simply do not intersect with the physical sciences, so it would obviously be a mistake to treat them like arguments with scientific answers.

So is Dawkins guilty of scientism?

Eric over at Dangerous Intersection draws attention to an interview in which Dawkins was asked about instances when science doesn’t seem to be able to provide an answer to a given question of fact. Dawkins says:

There are two ways of responding to mystery. The scientist’s way is to see it as a challenge, something they’ve got to work on, we’re really going to try to crack it. But there are others who revel in mystery, who think we were not meant to understand. There’s something sacred about mystery that positively should not be tackled. Now, suppose science does have limits. What is the value in giving the label “religion” to those limits? If you simply want to define religion as the bits outside of what science can explain, then we’re not really arguing. We’re simply using a word, “God,” for that which science can’t explain.

It should stand out at once that Dawkins is manifesting a basic misunderstanding about religious belief (or at any rate, the religious belief that many of us have). He assumes, it appears, that religious belief is held as a sort of stop-gap; a belief held to explain things that are currently mysterious to us. Doubtless some religious beliefs are of this sort, but to suggest that religious belief per se is all like this is just silly, and an obvious misrepresentation. Dawkins persists elsewhere with an even more ludicrously stated version of this caricature:

Is science having a little difficulty explaining X? No problem. Don’t give X another glance. God’s infinite power is effortlessly wheeled in to explain X (along with everything else), and it is always a supremely simple explanation because, after all, there is only one God. What could be simpler than that?

The God Delusion, 149

Rhetorical balderdash like this is exactly why Dawkins’ forays into philosophy of religion are widely regarded as having more comedic than educational value. But let’s get back to the earlier comment on questions that science cannot answer.

Have a look at what he says about the idea that there are questions of fact that science doesn’t have an answer for. He says that “the scientist’s way is to see it as a challenge, something they’ve got to work on, we’re really going to try to crack it.” The obvious assumption here is that for any question of fact that science does not currently have the answer to, we should assume that it is nonetheless an answer that is within the domain of science. This is scientism.

Scientism is also found peeping through in Dawkins’ various comments on religion in his books. A clear example is to be found in The God Delusion when discussing “the God hypothesis.” First, he distinguishes between two types of agnosticism: Temporary Agnosticism in Practice (TAP) and Permanent Agnosticism in Principle (PAP). His concern is to ask which, if either, of these stances is appropriate when it comes to asking whether or not God exists. The latter stance (PAP) is the kind that we might properly take on issues where the answer cannot be obtained via the scientific method. The former (TAP) applies in cases where the answer is one that science can, in principle, provide, even if scientists don’t yet know what the answer is. For example, once upon a time we couldn’t find out about the chemical composition of stars, but now we can. TAP was thus a sensible stance to take before we obtained this knowledge. Some people have said that on the God question, we can never use the scientific method to know whether or not God exists, and also that PAP is the right stance to take. Dawkins does not share this view. Here is his summary:

The view that I shall defend is very different: agnosticism about the existence of God belongs firmly in the temporary or TAP category. Either he exists or he doesn’t. It is a scientific question; one day we may know the answer, and meanwhile we can say something pretty strong about the probability.

And there it is: God either exists or he does not exist. It is a question of fact and therefore it is a scientific question. This, in spite of the cries of Dawkins’ defenders, is scientism – the assumption that all questions of fact can be arbitrated by science.

Perhaps this is an opportunity for Dawkins’ fans to come to the defence of scientism. I wouldn’t want that task, but it’s a (reasonably) free world. Or perhaps this is an opportunity for Dawkins to simply say “OK look, I misspoke. I renounce scientism, and I was mistaken to suggest that all questions of fact are questions that fall within the domain of the sciences.” That too would be fine. But it is no good – and really only harms Dawkins’ cause – for his supporters to attempt to re-write the record and suggest that Dawkins did not say these things. He did. Richard Dawkins has indeed employed scientism.

Glenn Peoples

  1. Whether or not there really are factual matters at stake in these disciplines is a good question, but I will ignore it here. []


A theological pet peeve


Happy 4th of July 1010


  1. Leonhard

    I agree with you a lot through this, I too think Richard Dawkins supports a form of scientism. He certainly seems to think that science is the best method of gathering information about anything.

    Why does Dawkins treat God as a scientific question? I won’t claim to know exactly why, but… its not like religious people don’t make a lot of scientific statements. Plantinga in his argument against naturalism via evolution, argues that truth generating mental faculties have no survival value over non-truth generating faculties. That is actually a statement of a science fact, namely about what has a better chance of giving offspring, falling within the subject of evolutionary psychology. Then you have the endless scientific statements of the creationism crowd… of course you might favor the ID subsection of that crowd, but they’re nothing but statements about science: The science about fossils, and about microbiology and about computer science and so forth. It seems religious people don’t mind treating God like a scientific question.

    And creationists do throw God in as a stopgap: How did the eye evolve, or the bacterial flagellum, the blod clotting mechanisms and so forth. If we don’t have a naturalistic account of them, then God. Of course when we do have naturalistic account for them, they don’t hesitate to move their goal post and claim something new. Though if I had to defend the theory of evolution here, and why they’re wrong, then because of their ever growing number of claims I’d have to hijack your blog, hehe x3. The point is that God is thrown in to explain an unknown.

    You even raised the discussions about the chemistry and age of the Shroud of Turin. Whenever religious people point to a physical fact which can’t be explained naturally (supposedly) I think it falls within the domain of scientific investigation. What else would you use to investigate it?

    I know that doesn’t exhaust what convinces people. Most people believe in God for entirely irrational reasons, or merely believe in God and don’t feel they have to defend that at all, which Plantinga says they’re perfectly justified in doing so (provided God exists?). You also have the arguments from pure reason for the existence of God, and I agree that’s not the arena of science. However my point is that a very large subsection of religious claims fall within the domain of scientific investigation.

    So God is a scientific question, but it might not be only a scientific question.

  2. Leonhard, as I indicated, a number of arguments that religious people use have components that are within the domain of science. So it is not a correction to point this out, as it’s what I’ve already said – in the paragraph that begins with “Another such question.” (I’m not sure whether you were trying to offer a correction or not.)

    However, many arguments for theism have no parts that are within the domain of science. I don’t see, therefore, why you think it is justified to say that “God is a scientific question.” Even those who do use science to defend part of their arguments do not infer directly from the scientific facts that God exists. Rather, they infer some physical state of affairs from that evidence, and then they argue that the state of affairs in question counts as evidence for the existence of God (for example, ID proponents clearly state that they are only trying to show that certain physical states of affairs exhibit design, and admit that design could – in principle – be explained by aliens, if that’s what actually happened, but as believers in God they infer that the design was God’s work). Maybe some religious people somewhere do state that whether or not God exists is a matter to be settled by the sciences, but that hardly makes it true.

    Perhaps the way to put it is like this: Some people frame the God question as though it is a question for the domain of science to answer for us, but they certainly do not do so merely because it is a question of fact (which is what Dawkins does). Most, however, do not frame it this way at all.

  3. Leonhard

    I think the biggest confusion you and I have is that I’m not sure we agree on what’s inside the scope of scientific investigation.

    A is a natural fact, and is true.
    If A is true, then God exist.
    Since A is true, then God exists.

    Is that a philosophical or scientific statement? If God’s existence can be derived from any natural fact, then I think his existence would be a natural fact as well. Exchange God with this particle, field, or planet. The natural facts being contained within a logical proposition doesn’t render it beyond science does it?

    Take Alvin Plantinga’s evolutionary argument. If evolution is true, then it can’t be by natural (mindless) means. Is that science or philosophy? I’m sure you know the argument way better than I do, so there’s not need to repeat it. His main fact is that truth-generating mental faculties don’t have a higher survivability and therefore chance to generate offspring than nontruth-generating mental faculties. That’s certainly a scientific “component”. It seems all to be a scientific statement about what evolution can or can’t do. So what is it? Philosophy, or science?

    Religious people do make statements when they defend the existence of God which are inside what science investigates. If this is so, then the existence of God is part a scientific question. Since most of the arguments have scientific components. Then its definitely a question of science. As long as God does something in the physical world, he’s potentially a candidate for scientific investigation. Sure you can define a God who is beyond scientific investigation of any sort, but then I doubt that there will exist any arguments for God with a scientific component to them.

    Secondly its simple not true that Science isn’t also a work of philosophy. Scientists aren’t just running around with thermometers and measuring tapes, measuring things and noting things down factoids in ever larger volumes of collected facts. That’s a very naive understanding of science. They build models over the data, models which have statements about the what the nature of reality is. Its not true that the Theory of General Relativity or Quantum Mechanics have nothing to say metaphysically. That is about the nature of the being of universe. The whole concept of mass as it is stated in the Theory of Relativity, is not the same as it is in Newtonianism, even momentum is different. Time isn’t the same in Relativity as it is in Newtonianism. That momentum and position are anti-commutative properties and can therefore not be simultaneously known has deep consequences what it means to know where something is, and what state it in. Philosophy isn’t a task completely isolated away from Science and vice versa. Atleast it doesn’t seem to me that it is.

    As for ID, this can quickly turn into a long discussion about ID and creationism in general. I simple don’t buy that they just wanna prove that a certain concept of design is a valid scientific idea. ID creationists mainly entertain aliens as the creator in order to avoid religious language for legal purposes, which have thankfully failed. If you read their texts its all an attack on what they claim is the presumptions of “naturalism” having a strangle hold on the science department. The Wedge document is the clearest example, the purpose statement of William Dembski’s blog is another, Stephen Meyer’s books repeat the same. Nearly all creationism is an attack on the theory of evolution via natural means. Then God (aka Intelligent Designer formerly referred to as Creator), comes in and creates the things we don’t currently know how arose. For example to explain the bacterial flagellum, or the blod clotting system doesn’t matter.

    I think they’re free game for Dawkins and any other biologists who actually understand how those things work. Whether or not they also say stuff about philosophy.

    Also you didn’t answer my question, what else should we use to figure how old the Shroud is? Whether a person had an illness which would have been terminal if not operated on, and how unlike a recovery was? Whether Plantinga’s statements about the survivability of truth-generating mechanisms are true or not? Aren’t these statements facts that can be determined scientifically? What else would you use? Does there being just a simple component like a logical proposition, which is all the rest of Plantinga’s argument, is that enough to render the question beyond Science? Science can’t answer a logical proposition? Nonsense of course, but I’m not sure I understand you position. What is science in your view?

    The only arguments I don’t know whether can be called scientific are things like… the ontological argument or Aquinas five ways. Things which start with idea that reason exists, or some simple statements about reality and then attempts show by logical argumentation that it leads to God.

  4. Leonhard

    Ugh, pressed Send Comment too quickly. A lot of typos and missings words got through, I hope Glenn will forgive me for those. X_X

  5. Glenn, I assume that you don’t take issue with the proposition that whether or not the Judeo-Christian god exists is a question of fact. Assuming so, surely the scientific method could be used to attempt to answer that question. I am not saying that science can answer it, only that it could answer it.

    Using McGrath’s definition as a template, I would define Dawkin’s view as follows: Science is the only reliable tool that we possess to understand the [natural] world. It has no limits [that we are aware of at present to explain natural phenomenon]. We may not know something now – but we will [may] in the future. It is just a matter of time.

  6. T.A.M. – if I have read you correctly, you think that questions of fact – all of them – can in principle be settled by science. Am I understanding you correctly?

    Leonhard, I think that the hypothetical argument you gave is going to have most of the work done by premise 2 – and also by a lot of argumentation squeezed in between premise 2 and the conclusion. In other words “if A is true then God exists” is the load bearing claim, and it isn’t a scientific claim, and it is also going to draw on a number of philosophical claims that aren’t scientific in nature.

  7. No Glenn, that’s overstating my position. I believe that all questions of fact relating to natural phenomenon (such as what preceded the Big Bang) are the proper subject of scientific inquiry. Science may or may not settle the question.

    I have probably used this analogy here before but, if I believe anything, it’s that some things are likely forever beyond human comprehension in much the same way as the theory of relativity can’t be explained to an insect.

  8. T.A.M., you’ve confused me completely.

    Earlier you said that since the question of “whether or not the Judeo-Christian god exists” is a “question of fact,” it must therefore “surely” be a question that science could answer. The reasoning here is that if something is a matter of fact, it is therefore a question for science to answer. This is quite clearly what you said.

    But now when I’ve asked you if you think that all questions of fact are questions for science to answer, you say that this overstates your position, and that “all questions of fact relating to natural phenomenon” can in principle be answered by science.

    Does this mean that you think the existence of the Judeo Christian God (if such a being exists) is a matter of natural fact? Or did you just say more than you meant when you said that since God’s existence is a matter of fact it must therefore be a matter for science?

  9. Leonhard

    I’m not sure I understand why it is that it couldn’t be scientific proposal.

    A scientist would have to sit down and work out for example why A implies a certain fact. The theory of relativity implies a disagreement between inertial frames about the simultaneity of events. Special relativity together with quantum mechanics implies the existence of antimatter. Common descent implies that we should find the same nested hierarchies of descent between different lines of evidence.

    The Kalam Cosmological argument’s premises being true implies the existence of a cause for the universe that is different than the universe itself. The existence of design implies a designer.

    Why are the former scientific questions, while the latter philosophical questions?

    I don’t know what the exact difference is. If God does something in nature, and he is the best explanation for that fact, then we could elevate his existence to a natural fact if sufficient evidence existed for that. You’d probably have an entire field of study devoted to finding out his properties. ;3

    And a lot of arguments for God makes use of a lot of science. Plantinga has the argument of evolution of from reason, which I think is really a question within the domain of science. Then you have creationist arguments, which are mostly one long critique of the science of evolution. You have the historical arguments about Jesus, which draws on the historical sciences and textual criticism, again science. You have miracle stories, that needs to be investigated scientifically, and whether its the authenticity of the Shroud of turin, near-death experiences, ability to tell future events, miraculous healing like for example Mother Theresa was cannonized to sainthood on the word that a woman had been healed by praying to her… did the woman really suffer from an inoperable brain cancer? Its all something that has very tight connections with scientific investigation. Even morality or the concept of beauty can’t be neatly dissected from the hands of scientists, since both have tight connections to the field neuroscience, psychology and the evolution of man. The Kalam cosmological argument is based on Big Bang cosmology, and Craig Lane goes through a lot of discussions of many different models of that event in order to defend his point, in other words he gets to do some theoretical physics.. or at least he gets to discuss it.

    Science has to check all of those facts and they are vital to the arguments, what else would you use to answer those questions?

    I don’t know if I can defend that science can understand everything, and that there’s no meaningful distinction between science and philosophy in general. I’m just not convinced that God is a question that’s outside of the domain of science.

  10. Leonhard

    Made a mistake, Mother Theresa hasn’t been pronounced a Saint.

  11. Ken

    Ah – another manifestation of the Dawkins’ Delusion! I guess it beats real thinking or analysis. But I can understand it having myself been hostile to Dawkins for most of my life – until I actually broke out of the self-imposed intellectual ghetto and read some of his books.

    Now, come off it Glenn. Dawkins is widely recognised as an excellent science communicator, particularly in evolutionary science. He is a very effective writer and speaker – hence his books sell well and his lectures are always crowded. While being quite a humble man he is a hard worker in the defence of science and reason. People recognise that and look up to him for it. And why shouldn’t they – even if it upsets you?

    But Dawkins is not, neither does he claim to be, a philosopher. Nor is he a theologian (thank goodness) and doesn’t pretend to be. He is actually quite scathing about that discipline. His books and lectures are not perfect or the ultimate in their contents or fields. I enjoy his writing but like any other book I read I find bits of his books I disagree with. I find areas lacking. So what?

    It was telling to me that when A N Wilson criticised his “The God Delusion” because it was lacking in an evolutionary description of religion Dawkins accepted the criticism – saying he didn’t mean to cover that area and couldn’t put everything in. A legitimate defence. I personally also felt this was lacking but I can easily see that Dawkins does not have up-to-date knowledge in that area.

    That book is more about consciousness raising than a definitive treatment of philosophy and theology. And this is probably why it has been so critcised.

    But enough of Dawkins. I disagree with some of your points.

    1: The word “scientism”. I find that whenever people used that word they are usually attempting to discredit science or a scientist without confronting the real issue. And often it is the argument by default. Science can’t answer that question (“because I say so”) and therefore religion must properly answer it. Bloody hell, when are these people going to be honest and argue for religion on its merits – not by default.

    2: Questions that properly belong to philosophy rather than science. Interestingly, three philosophers I have read recently make the opposite point. That the scientific revolution (responsible for such a lot of progress by humanity) really amounts to the breaking away of science from philosophy and religion. That philosophy has had to hand over questions it pretended to answer to science which actually answered them. Alan Chalmers (The Scientist’s Atom and the Philosopher’s Stone: How Science Succeeded and Philosophy Failed to Gain Knowledge of Atoms), Massimo Pigluicci (Nonsense on Stilts: How to Tell Science from Bunk) and Michael Ruse (Science and Spirituality: Making Room for Faith in the Age of Science). In many ways, of course, it is not necessarily a hand over by philosophy, more a development of philosophy to involve a better epistemology.

    3: Science butting in on philosophy. Actually I think it is the exact opposite. Remind me now – who was it that claimed (against common scientific knowledge) that “Galileo was Wrong!” and that we had no way of differentiating between models of the earth orbiting the sun and the sun orbiting the earth? How often do we have to put up with theologians telling us that science is basically flawed, that evolution is a religion rather than a science, etc? A bit like those non-scientists who have been telling climate scientists that they had it all wrong, that they are a pack of liars. (Some of them have been rather quiet lately as all the inquiry reports on “climategate” have rolled in – haven’t they?)

    4: The “god hypothesis”. I think any question about reality is one which science can and should study. Of course we may never be able to find answers – some questions may always be beyond our technological and/or intellectual resources. But humanity doesn’t give up before the game starts, does it?

    I personally think this proving, arguing, for the existence of a real god is a mug’s game – and only a few mugs actually do get into it. Mainly theologians. And there use of science is usually abysmal. You may argue that when they refer to cosmological questions and “fine tuning” they are only using science as part of their argument. But, face up to it. They distort the science to fit their conclusions. So it is not using science correctly and incorrect use of science should always be opposed.

    However, there is a very active area of research into the “god hypothesis.” John Teehan (In the Name of God: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Ethics and Violence) makes the point that this is recent saying “I believe we are living in the midst of perhaps the greatest period of intellectual discovery in the history of religious studies.” He is talking about evolutionary investigations of the origins and role of religion and gods. Gods do exist – no question about it. But they exist in the minds of (some) men. Consequently the most fruitful discipline for investigating the existence and role of gods is cognitive psychology, not theology.

    5: Science actually works in the benefit of humanity and most people recognise that. Consequently most people want science to investigate all of reality. Not to be ring-fenced by prejudice and old myths. You might not like that (many religious people don’t) but using derogatory terms like “scientism” is not going to stop the human desire for discovery.

  12. Ken:

    1. When i use the word “scientism” I am not discrediting science, and in the blog I have explained how this is so. I am following the lead of other people – some religious and some not – by using that word to refer, not to science, but to the view that all questions of fact fall within the domain of science. So it’s certainly not a slur on science.

    2. Are you saying that there really does exist a break betweent he domain of science and philosophy, or are you denying such a distinction? It’s hard to tell with all your talk about a “handover.” As far as I know, there has never been a handover of the questions of philosophy tot he empirical sciences. If you think otherwise, you’ll have to document such a handover.

    3. Your comment on Galileo is a red herring. Arguments concerning linguistic conventions is one thing. Arguments about whether or not every single question of fact is a question of science is very obviously a different question, and what’s more, the former is not a case of philosophy intruding on science. This just shows that you think the physical sciences have a monopoly over dictating how things should be described, which is a case of you incorrectly assuming that science writes the rules of philosophy.

    4. I accept your concession that you do endorse scientism. That’s a pity, because it prevents you from ever knowing the answer to questions that science doesn’t answer.

    5. Yes, science is good. Yay science. But science is not ringfenced by myth. Science is ringfenced by science, since any good science is carried out with the recognition that science has a finite domain. Imagine trying to figure out the scientific answer to whether or not we should be fair to each other. Ridiculous!

    PS. I undestand your love of just being an offensive jerk to religious people with whom you have disagreed with in the past, but the nonsense about “sure beats real thinking and analysis” is childish. If you want to interact with the thinking and analysis here, you’re welcome to. But please, keep your playground trash talk in your own blog. Thanks.

  13. Leonhard: “I’m not sure I understand why it is that it couldn’t be scientific proposal.”

    It could be! As I said, some people may indeed frame it that way.

    (I have assumed that “it” refers to the existence of God.)

  14. Tim

    Leonard said:

    “Plantinga in his argument against naturalism via evolution, argues that truth generating mental faculties have no survival value over non-truth generating faculties. That is actually a statement of a science fact”

    I don’t see how that is a statement of science fact.
    It’s philosophical through and through…. just because their might exist consequences of this position that fall within the realm of science doesn’t mean that the issue (truth vs non-truth generating cog faculties) itself is a scientific issue.

    I don’t think anyone is saying that you can’t employ science.
    But scientism is obviously much more than that.
    A theist appealing to elements of the natural order to buttress the claim that God exists is certainly not the same as saying “theists are just a guilty as employing scientism as Dawkins.”

  15. Leonhard

    Well, then why is Dawkins wrong when he says that the existence of God is a scientific question? Most if not all arguments for the existence of God are connected to science. If that’s true, then the existence of God is a scientific question. At least the kind of God a Christian would worship.

  16. Tim


    I get the sinking feeling while reading your post that you didn’t even take the time to read Glenn’s thread topic.

    “The word “scientism”. I find that whenever people used that word they are usually attempting to discredit science or a scientist without confronting the real issue. And often it is the argument by default. Science can’t answer that question (“because I say so”) and therefore religion must properly answer it. Bloody hell, when are these people going to be honest and argue for religion on its merits – not by default.”

    Wow. This is upsetting, because as much as you appeared to be criticizing people who criticize Dawkins without even reading his work (an assumption of your belief of the situation – not of fact), you then make this point which just drips of ignorance, in the sense that Glenn already addressed this issue in the thread you’re responding to.
    “Science can’t answer therefore religion must” – *cringe* Ken, there are obviously some (many) questions outside the purview of the scientific method.

    “Questions that properly belong to philosophy rather than science. Interestingly, three philosophers I have read recently make the opposite point.”

    Gee, Ken…. all three?
    I mean hell…. if this is the kind of argument you offer let’s see what I can come up with. Okay, here we go: “7 philosophers I have read recently make the congruous point.”

    “Science butting in on philosophy. Actually I think it is the exact opposite. Remind me now – who was it that claimed (against common scientific knowledge) that “Galileo was Wrong!” and that we had no way of differentiating between models of the earth orbiting the sun and the sun orbiting the earth?”

    Now you’re just getting silly – Galileo’s science WAS wrong. Are you kidding me, Ken? This is grade school issue. Galileo’s science behind his theory was wrong.
    Also, science rests on metaphysical assumptions/ foundational beliefs that can’t be proven by the scientific method, but which are needed in order for that method to have any merit.

    “Science actually works in the benefit of humanity and most people recognise that. Consequently most people want science to investigate all of reality. Not to be ring-fenced by prejudice and old myths. You might not like that (many religious people don’t) but using derogatory terms like “scientism” is not going to stop the human desire for discovery.”

    I hope this is just some joke. I really hope someone isn’t as dumb as this to not even read the thread…. and then argue how something isn’t scientism, but then take a position that is more wedded to scientism than the object of Glenn’s thread.
    But more to the point, Ken…. no, people’s lives tend not to be fulfilled by the workings of science. That technological branch off of science has given us weapons that could wipe us out in an instant, modes of communication that have made us more autistic than ever (trapped in our own little world), more medication to treat the muddled human mind.

    But I don’t even know why I took the time.
    You didn’t read Glenn’s post…. that didn’t stop you from spewing.
    You’re not going to read this.

  17. Tim

    “Well, then why is Dawkins wrong when he says that the existence of God is a scientific question?”

    Because obviously the methods of science are spactial-temporal bound.
    God, any ‘transcendent being’ would not be bound by the workings of the created order. How can you not get this, Leo?

    “Most if not all arguments for the existence of God are connected to science.”

    Wrong. This is a stupid comment, Leo.
    And you’re still conflating using the scientific method with scientism. You clearly haven’t read the thread.

    “If that’s true, then the existence of God is a scientific question. At least the kind of God a Christian would worship.”

    This sentence flowed from the misunderstanding in the sentence that preceded it.

    And AGAIN….. no one is saying that the scientific method can’t be employed. It’s like you’re trying to be stupid.

  18. Ken

    The only thing worth responding to, Glenn, is your request for evidence of the change from philosophy/religion to science with the scientific revolution.

    This is not my argument, but having read it I agree. I suggest you have a look at either Chalmers, Pigliucci or Ruse – as I did. Although I imagine any decent book on the history of the philosophy of science should cover it.

    By the way, another interesting thing covered by Teehan is the evolution of emotions and their use in social relations. Really brought home to me as I had often thought women used anger as a manipulative strategy. It doesn’t work so well on the internet, I mam afraid, as people often end up being embarrassed of what they have committed to electrons.

  19. Tim

    “By the way, another interesting thing covered by Teehan is the evolution of emotions and their use in social relations.”

    How do emotions evolved, Ken?
    A naturalist worth his salt should at least take an epiphenomenalist approach – that they’re ultimately meaning by-products of the mechanical workings of the matter contained in the biological organ.
    At least this would be consistent with your worldview.

    “as people often end up being embarrassed of what they have committed to electrons.”

    And how exactly do particles in motion give us emotions?

  20. Well Leonhard, there are two very different issues here:

    First (and this is the issue addressed in the above blog entry), there’s the issue of whether or not something is a question for science just by virtue of the fact that it’s a question fo fact. This is what Dawkins claimed, and this is why he is wrong. Let’s not forget that. I will assume that you intend to reject scientism – as atheist philosophers and scientists intend to reject it also (and perhaps Dawkins intends to reject it. Unfortunately, he also employs it. Ken is an exception.)

    Secondly there’s the question that you raised, which is not the question of whether scientism is good or not, but rather the question of whether or not the question of God’s existence is a question that falls within the domain of science.

    You appealed to questions concerning the cause of the big bang, but actually science, as far as I know, doesn’t extend beyond the universe, so I’m not sure that this is a question within the domain of science. The cosmological argument appeals to certain scientific facts in support of the premise “the universe began to exist,” sure, but that doesn’t make it an attempt to settle the question of whether or not God exists as a scientific question. Science can only be drawn of in support of a premise of the argument. It’s doesn’t answer the question.

    You also appealed to Plantinga, but this was really a mistake. Plantinga never claims that science shows that God exists. He has a number of arguments about God’s existence: An epistemological argument about whether or not belief in God is properly basic, an argument from the philosophy of science (and also metaphysics and epistemology) on whether or not the conjunction of philosophical naturalism and evolutionary biology should lead us to trust our belief forming faculties, but again, the sciences only play a partial role here. The areguments are quite clearly philosophical in nature, as Tim noted.

    It’s a mistake to think that because some arguments that support theism draw on scientific facts in dupport of a premise that they contain, they are therefore making the answer to the God question a scientific answer.

    As I noted earlier, some people might frame the question of God’s existence as a question that falls within the domain of science. But as you must surely see, the fact that some people frame it this way does not, in fact, mean that the question of God’s existence is one that falls within the domain of science.

  21. Ken, I assume you concede all but that one point then.

    Rather than asking me to read a book in order to find the evidence, maybe you could just sum it up in one short sentence: Which subject used to be the domain of philosophy but was excluded from science, and is now the domain of science but not philosophy?

    The fact is, there’s a very real phenomenon of accomplished scientists acting as though their success in science just naturally bleeds through to whatever subject they wish to write about, such as philosophy or theology. This is markedly the case with Dawkins. Reading his fumbling over the philosophical issue of divine simplicity is a classic case in point. If there was ever a case that everyone – regardless of their ideological committments – should recognise that someone is playing the expert in a field not his own, it is Dawkins’ attempt to be a theologian and a philosopher in The God Delusion.

  22. Ken

    Glenn, no concessions, obviously. But I did respond to a specific question. If you want a sentence as an example look at the title of Chalmers’ book. I found his history of attempts to understand matter as atoms and the alternatives fascinating.

    Philosophy attempted, with a number if different snswers. But in the end only science could solve the problem. This has been true of so much else – even concepts of the universe itself, the big bang and what preceded it.

    I think we have every right to expect that philosophical/religious claims denying science a role in understanding consciousness will also prove wrong.

  23. Ken

    Tim. I pick up some anger from you too. Wonder why?

    Do you reject ivolutiomaey science too?

    Looks like the problem is “religionism” rather than “scientism”. Or am I committing a “scientism” sin by daring to suggest that?

  24. Ken, you seem to think that the question of what, ultimately, things are made of, to be a settled question, a question answered by science. But the question of what the smallest physical objects are has always been a scientific one.

    What you need to appreciate, Ken (and I get the impression that you don’t currently), is that the questions of science were once addressed by people that you’d call philosophers. It’s not the case that philosophy surrendered those questions to science. Instead, different branches of philosophy were recognised and classified, and the physical sciences were one such branch (of philosophy).

    What’s more – and I suspect that your ignorance of this is caused by your suspicion of philosophy in general as I’ve observed from time to time – Firstly, atoms were believed in by philosophers many centuries before science discovered them. Leuccippus of Miletus in the 5th Century BC first formulated atomic philosophy. Philosophers came up with that idea.

    Secondly, the question over what objects are basic is not necessarily settled by the discovery of the atom. It is an open question as to whether matter can be further divided.

    However, whether realising it or not (and I suspect not) you’ve picked a rather unfair example, since you’ve picked an example in metaphysics, which has always been a field in which philosophy and science meet. But in any case, there has not really been a handover here.

    Instead of psychoanalysing people from your armchair, maybe you should pause to consider the possibility that scientists, like all people, have a tendency to want to be a know it all. That sounds flippant, but it’s human nature to want to speak with authority whenever you speak, and for people to treat you like an expert – even if your expertise is in a different field. Dawkins is a living example.

  25. Leonhard

    Okay I think I understand Glenn better now, and yes I agree with him about Dawkins. That if Dawkins claimed merely that God existing as a fact, then that automatically made him a subject of Science, then he was wrong to do so. I also agree that Plantinga’s argument, which I’ve reread for the sake of the discussion, was more of an attack on Naturalism. It wasn’t an argument for God. I’m still not sure its purely philosophical. My problem likely stems from an unclear idea of what the proper task of philosophers are, as distinct from scientists.

    And I’ll grant in retrospect I havn’t made it easy for you Glenn and that was foolish of me, I guess I commented without having a clear idea of what kind of response I was seeking. I’m merely just a person who doesn’t quite get what he’s read, and wants to inquiry further about it. About Plantinga, this is the section I’m talking about.

    “What is the probability (on this assumption together with N&E) that their cognitive faculties are reliable; and what is the probability that a belief produced by those faculties will be true? I argued that this probability isn’t nearly as high as one is initially inclined to think. The reason is that if behavior is caused by belief, it is also caused by desire (and other factors–suspicion, doubt, approval and disapproval, fear–that we can here ignore). For any given adaptive action, there will be many belief-desire combinations that could produce that action; and very many of those belief-desire combinations will be such that the belief involved is false. So suppose Paul is a prehistoric hominid; a hungry tiger approaches. Fleeing is perhaps the most appropriate behavior: I pointed out that this behavior could be produced by a large number of different belief-desire pairs. To quote myself: Perhaps Paul very much likes the idea of being eaten, but when he sees a tiger, always runs off looking for a better prospect, because he thinks it unlikely that the tiger he sees will eat him. This will get his body parts in the right place so far as survival is concerned, without involving much by way of true belief. . . . . Or perhaps he thinks the tiger is a large, friendly, cuddly pussycat and wants to pet it; but he also believes that the best way to pet it is to run away from it. . . . or perhaps he thinks the tiger is a regularly recurring illusion, and, hoping to keep his weight down, has formed the resolution to run a mile at top speed whenever presented with such an illusion; or perhaps he thinks he is about to take part in a 1600 meter race, wants to win, and believes the appearance of the tiger is the starting signal; or perhaps . . . . Clearly there are any number of belief-cum-desire systems that equally fit a given bit of behavior (WPF pp. 225-226).”

    That seems to me like a statement about the conditions that a hypothetical creature would be exposed to in order to evolve reason. It also seems pretty central to his argument. His statements about the theory of minds, and the rest of his discussion about some pure abstract objections to his arguments, I could agree that this is pure philosophy. Even if I don’t have a clear idea about what philosophy properly is. However that bit above is the subject of evolutionary psychology. A subject Alvin Plantinga seems surprisingly ignorant of, mainly because there’s no hint of any awareness of it inside the article itself. I do not know if that has changed with his updated arguments, or in his rebuttals to critics, or in his books. I think the argument is wrong, but won’t make that case, that’s not the point here. According to Tim’s demands this is about stuff inside spacetime. Its about the neuroscience of the brain (assuming naturalism is true) and how it evolved. So answering the above, is at the very least the scope of evolutionary biology and neuroscience, perhaps with feedback from philosophers of the mind. The question is if there is any difference between a mind that is delusional in just the right way to produce the right kind of behavior and one were behavior follows from a truth generating mind. Does that sound right?

  26. Leonhard

    I am not a philosopher Ken, I am a simple student in college about to start his Masters on physics. I didn’t come here thinking I’d rule the discussion and throw down Glenn Peoples, a man many years into subjects I haven’t done the nearly same amount of work on. I came here because I read this article and there were things I don’t see how works. And yes I might be saying things that sound obtuse, I’m sorry, maybe I am stupid, but its not stupid asking questions that’s how you stop being stupid.

    “Because obviously the methods of science are spactial-temporal bound.
    God, any ‘transcendent being’ would not be bound by the workings of the created order. How can you not get this, Leo?”

    Because I’m stupid, and not an expert like you.

    Okay here’s the things I think when I read what you said: I don’t think a thing being spatially and temporally bound is sufficient to determine the domain of Science. I can imagine a timeless spaceless field that interacts with this world. It does so in a regular and dependable way, we start seeing these events popping up at regular intervals. We study the events, find patterns in them many models are given, but the model containing something like Tau is the best explanation of the events. And so the properties and nature of Tau are learned, even if imperfectly, despite it not being inside spacetime. Now I agree its possible to postulate an inscrutible Tau where the events are so fleeting, so vague and random that we can’t study them. This is no different though than a law of physics within spacetime which is so complicated that the pattern of its effects are intractable. One could even postulate physical effects so weak that they would be forever beyond the sensitivity of our sensors. Spacetime is a concept that has evolved and changed, its not the same in Newtonianism as it is in Einsteinianism and I wouldn’t be surprised if it will be updated again in the future. Would that mean that Science has changed, because our notions of space and time have changed?

    Looking forward to being skewered, yours truly Leonhard.

  27. Ken

    You are being a little incoherent , Glenn. Calm down.
    You are just reinforcing my point about philosophers, as far back as the Greeks, having philosphical concepts of atoms (as well as non-atomistic orcrven anti-atomistic concepts. However, they could not solve that nature of these atoms or confirm their existence. This was done by science. Rightfully such questions get, and have been historically, handed over by philosophy.

  28. Ken

    Leonhard, I did not say science was spatially and temporlly bound. That was Tim. I disagree with him. I find your ideas closer to mine on this.

    My credentials are scientific. My degrees are in chemistry and I have been involved in scientific research for 40 years – now retired. I have also had a constant interest in the philosophy of science.

    Science us about investigating realty. In primpncple it doesn’t place limits on this, nor should it in the interests if humanity.

    Religion oviously would like to place limits. But they are not going to suffers, short of imposing a theocracy.

  29. Ken

    Sorry about the mistakes, bloody iPod corrections. But I think my meaning is clear.

  30. Leonhard

    Whoops adressed ken instead of Tim.

  31. Ken, please stop psychoanalysing people. Tim’s (probably) not angry, and I am calm (with no need to “calm down”). There is no need for such emotional games. They don’t help you in coming across as serious, and they certainly don’t give anyone else mental fodder to chew over. If you want to discuss matters raised here, I’m here to do so (albeit somewhat busy). Or if you prefer not to discuss anything, that’s fine too. I don’t mind. But please leave such silliness at your own blog. Feel free to use my blog policy as a guide on the purpose of this blog and the type of material that I am (and am not) willing to publish.

  32. Ken

    Here’s a simple question, then, Glenn. In referring to atoms you say it is an open qestion whether matter can be further subdivided.

    Is that your philosophical opinion or us it a scientific judgement? And if the question is really “open” WTF are CERN doing with their Large Hadron Collider? And why have so many governments been prepared to invest in t in the LHC?

  33. Ken, it’s an open question, period. Do you know what an open question is? On a side note – please don’t use profanity.

    I lack the expertise to defend those who defend views one way or the other on that subject, so I can’t pretend to delve into it. I do know that there is serious (i.e. non silly, non trivial) discussion around the possibility of splitting atomic particles like protons, but I’m not in a position to say much about it. That would be about as wise as you or Dawkins arguing at length about metaphysics (please don’t). But I have clearly responded to enough of your claims on your numbered list that if you do want to take up discussion with me on the issues raised, you can probably find something that I know something about.

  34. Ken

    You admit it’s outside your competence and yet you decide the question is still “open”? Isn’t that a bit arrogant?

    The fact us that interestingly the first real scientific evidence for atoms was a subatomic particle – the electron. So that question has been answered ever since.

    But the point is that philosophy could not determine an answer. It could only postulate for or against atoms and almost always as individuble particles. It couldn’t determine if they existed.

    There are questions about reality that philosophy cannot answer but science can – when it is allowed. The later point is why the divergence of science from religion and philosophy was a necessary component of the scientific revolution. And sensible philosophies and philosophers recognise this and no longer try to make claims about fields outside their province.

    In fact, I think philosophy has largely been backward in dealing with the new scientific discoveries. I would love to see a detailed philosophical attempt to come to grips with the modern scientific understanding of matter in it’s broadest sense. There has just been so much progress and our concepts are now so counter intuitive that most philosophers seem completely lost.

    If you disagree please refer me to someone or some writing which you think does handle the modern progress.

  35. Ken, deciding that a question is open ont he grounds that people far more knowledgeable than I on that subject are able to disagree is not arrogant. If anything, firmly declaring that the matter was closed, in my position, would have been the arrogant option.

    The major thing to take away from all this is that science can only talk about things that are, in principle, answerable by science. I think you’re seriously in a muddle about what is science and what is philosophy of science. For example, a question like “what is matter” is clearly as much a philosophical question as a scientific one, yet it looks to me like you’re making an assumption like “well it concerns matter, so it’s science!” This is just naive.

    This is to say nothing about the way that you’re implying a state of affairs that is a mirror imagine (i.e. a total opposite) of reality. In recent years it is the philosophers who have had to tap scientists on the shoulder (and again, Dawkins is the perfect example) and remind them that they passed the boundary quite some time ago, and they’re now assuming that a knowledge of science will suffice to answer questions about theology and metaphysics. It’s all very well to declare that the opposite is happening, but for goodness’ sake just read what Dawkins is doing. Sam Harris is an equally good example (see his appalling material on a scientific basis for morality, for example).

    Sorry Ken, but this really is a case of scientists trying to rope in everything under their own field of study as though being a decent scientist makes one omniscient of all subjects.

  36. Tim

    I was a bit upset because you two are complaining about Glenn’s post on scientism while the content of your posts are just dripping with scientism.
    That science is the only (or only useful or meaningful) endeavor to address any possible question.
    Both of you are making the same mistake that if something utilizes empircal evidence (some arguments for the existence of God) then that too is a case of scientism.

    Neither of you appear to have read Glenn’s post.
    If you would have you certainly wouldn’t have posted comments like this:

    “The word “scientism”. I find that whenever people used that word they are usually attempting to discredit science or a scientist without confronting the real issue. And often it is the argument by default. Science can’t answer that question (“because I say so”) and therefore religion must properly answer it. Bloody hell, when are these people going to be honest and argue for religion on its merits – not by default.”

    Frustrated? Yes.
    Angry? Unless amused is the same as anger…. then sure.

  37. Leonhard

    I don’t believe I said that science was the only way to answer a question. In my prior post I wanted to understand how it is that Plantinga is making purely philosophical statement. That was what you said Tim: “It’s philosophical through and through….”, I protested, gave some questions which I havn’t had answered yet.

    In my prior posts before that I wanted to understand why God isn’t something that science can say anything about? You answered that God is beyond spacetime, and then I responded to that, and I’ve yet to hear anything.

    But where have I said that science can answer everything? I specifically and I’ll repeat it since you obviously haven’t read it “Okay I think I understand Glenn better now, and yes I agree with him about Dawkins. That if Dawkins claimed merely that God existing as a fact, then that automatically made him a subject of Science, then he was wrong to do so.”

    So where’s my scientism Tim?

  38. Leonhard

    And what’s the purpose of calling me an idiot? I’m not dumb, even if I granted that you were right I’d just be ignorant. However here you have a person, who’s asking questions TO LEARN!!!! And the first thing you tell me is “You’re buffoon”. So what? If you came to me and asked me whether light from a would travel at a different speed than light from a source standing still I would say “Oh my God you’re hilariously dumb. I’d say that you had some misconceptions”.

    For the love of… Tim what is your beef with me? What am I doing wrong? Why is asking questions dumb?

  39. Leonhard

    Cursed typos, you’ve really made my blood boil Tim.

    And what’s the purpose of calling me an idiot? I’m not dumb, even if I granted that you were right I’d just be ignorant. However here you have a person, who’s asking questions TO LEARN!!!! And the first thing you tell me is “You’re buffoon”. So what? If you came to me and asked me whether light from a moving vehicle would travel at a different speed than light from a source standing still I wouldn’t say “Oh my God you’re so hilariously dumb. I’d say that you had some misconceptions and explain them.”

    For the love of… Tim what is your beef with me? What have I done to deserve such a treatment?

  40. Tim

    you said:

    “Plantinga in his argument against naturalism via evolution, argues that truth generating mental faculties have no survival value over non-truth generating faculties. That is actually a statement of a science fact.”

    Given a world in which our cognitive faculties generate belief F, in which F isn’t related to the truth of some bit of reality but simply an adaptational belief (it gets our body parts in the right location) it wouldn’t hold that such creatures (ourselves) would be able to employ a systematic method to testing the truth of those beliefs.
    Truth, whatever that would be, would be of no concern.
    Evolution via RM+NS would have no way of ensuring such an outcome: that the thought processes of some bipedal organism far down stream will be able to apprehend the truth of something – only that belief F paired with some behavior ensures survival.

    So if this is the case then it would undercut not only the rationality of the human mind, but products of that mind created by that mind to understand something it never had the ability to do in the first place: apprehend truth of the matter.

    It’s a foundational assumption of science that the human mind is rational (among other assumptions) – it’s not a discovery of science that the mind is indeed rational and therefore up to the task of carrying out the scientific method.

    Also –
    sorry for the name calling.
    I have no excuse for how I acted.
    It’s a short-coming on my behalf and it’s not a reflection of anything you did to deserve being treated like that.
    It’s on me, not on you.

  41. Tim

    “Plantinga in his argument against naturalism via evolution, argues that truth generating mental faculties have no survival value over non-truth generating faculties.”

    Quick clarification:
    Plantinga doesn’t say this.
    I think a better way to put it would be Plantinga says evolution is concerned about the behavior of an organism – whether beliefs that organism has about its behavior are true or not is ultimately irrelevant.

  42. Hi again Leonhard – Before getting into my response, I want to clarify a minor issue: Plantinga’s position is that true beliefs (and hence reliable belief forming structures) do have survival value. He doesn’t deny that they do. He just argues that true beliefs aren’t the only beliefs to have such value, and that a whole variety of belief-cum-desire sets (where the belief is false) have as much survival value. But that’s an aside. I have two main comments, the second of which is really what matters.

    Firstly, yes there are premises in Plantinga’s argument that clearly draw on the natural sciences. In particular he draws on premises regarding how natural selection works. However, in addition to this there’s much to this argument that draws on the relationship between belief and behaviour, which – although obviously of interest to scientists and psychologists – is as much a philosophical argument as anything else. The way that belief causes behaviour is a hot issue in philosophy of cognition and mind. Granted, many scientists and philosophers work in a sort of overlapping field of study here.

    Secondly, and this is the main point: This is not an inference from scientific facts to God’s existence. As you note, it’s an argument against naturalism, but even then, it’s not a simple argument that naturalism is false. Instead, it’s an argument that the conjunction of philosophical naturalism (a metaphysical belief) with evolutionary biology (a scientific belief) – call this conjunction NE – results in a state of affairs where we have an epistemological difficulty, being unable to trust that our belief forming faculties are reliable, which affects the extent to which we can trust our belief in NE. In other words, it’s an argument against the rationality of believing in naturalism, which is not the same as an argument against the truth of naturalism. So the argument certainly doesn’t assume that the existence of God is a matter for science to settle.

  43. Ken


    1: You have acknowledged that your knowledge in this area (the philosophical history of atomism) is weak and I respect you for that acknowledgment. But, really you can’t be allowed to get away with the straw clutcher“people far more knowledgeable than I on that subject are able to disagree”.

    On his subject who disagrees with the fact that the atom is divisible? Come on – you use the authoritative argument but who is your authority? I am afraid this claim is possibly worse than your “Galileo was wrong!” claim.

    However, I will be charitable and accept a possible misunderstanding rather than a childish claim. Just give me a name. Someone I can check out. Give me a chance to elucidate this misunderstanding.

    This is extremely relevant because it is you that are claiming that scientists are stepping outside their domain – and yet here you are stepping well out of your own domain (it is a scientific question) and dogmatically asserting something which one the surface appears so patently stupid. And using subatomic particles to do it!

    2: You say “what is matter” is clearly as much a philosophical question as a scientific one, yet it looks to me like you’re making an assumption like “well it concerns matter, so it’s science!” This is just naive.”. Come on – please give me the respect of reading what I say. I am talking about it as a philosophical category. My desire is for philosophers to get with it in their understanding of the philosophical category of matter. I was not denying philosophy a role at all – far from it. I want them to be clear about, and to talk about, this philosophical category. But not in the current childish way, as something with substance or physicality which doesn’t accord with modern knowledge.

    I am actually asking you if you know of any philosopher who has updated their concepts. The best thing I have read on this was actually Lenin’s “Materialism and Emperio-criticism” which is 100 years old. He did a good job of updating the category of matter and the philosophical description of materialism to include the recent discoveries in physics. But we have gone a long way since then.

    In the three books I mention above Chalmers was best – but I wish he had taken the time to define matter as a philosophical category. I feel he could have made a good job of that and, thinking about it I should actually check his other writings on this.

    Pigliucci uses the word materialism – but never defines it.

    Ruse declares a fear of the word – acknowledging that the old definitions are inadequate. But instead of updating it he chose to stick with metaphors and, I think, made some basic mistakes as a result.

    It seems weird to me that a philosopher should avoid words like matter and materialism – but then again he did acknowledge that current use of these terms in philosophy is just not correct.

    This is a case where philosophers really must learn from science. Current concepts of matter are just so counter-intuitive and yet many people who use the terms matter and materialism are actually stuck with an understanding from the 18th and 19th centuries.

    Theologians and philosophers of religion are worst in this respect – party because they use the words as straw men. Easy to knock down an 18th century understanding, isn’t it?

    3:You are wrong about Dawkins, of course. But a minor point as I am not going to get through to you on that. The old human problem of bias confirmation here.

    He just doesn’t make the claims you suggest. He doesn’t claim to be a philosopher and usually is very tentative about commenting on areas outside his specialties. (Consider his comment on climate change – a few people around here could learn from his humility on that one).

    He is scathing about theology – as I am. I don’t see it as an honest subject. And this is a case in point. You are making claims that science is stepping outside its bounds making claims on morality, theology “metaphysics’ etc. I actually don’t see that happening – quite the opposite. But I do see theologians and religions making claims in these areas – which they have absolutely no more expertise in than the baker down the road.

    Its the old tactic of claiming a magisteria by default. Deny science a role (a straw man because scientists actually are not claiming a role) and then sneak in and plant your own flag without honestly arguing your own case.

    I guess that’s one of the tactics in using the “scientism” slur.

    When it comes to deciding on things like gods we are all at the same level of expertise. They are, after all, figments of our imagination. Theologians have not particular skills in this area – any more than the baker or the scientist. Their skill are more in their ability to use words to confuse (or cover up their own confusion).,

  44. Ken, I do not recall saying that anyone disputed that an atom can be divided, nor did I refer to any such thing. What I referred to is the division of atomic particles such as a proton. There’s no way to interpet that reference as “childish.” I do not know how you could have misunderstood this: “I do know that there is serious (i.e. non silly, non trivial) discussion around the possibility of splitting atomic particles like protons.”

    This occurs int he same comment in which you say “come on, please give me the respect of reading what I say.” I find that ironic, since you are being careless in reading what I say.

    As for Dawkins claiming to be a philosopher, it makes no difference to me if he never said “I am a philosopher.” The fact is that he is presuming to be one when he makes pontifications on philosophical arguments. The fact that he botches them shows that he’s no philosopher.

  45. Ken

    OK shift the goal posts. Who is your authority denying that the proton is divisible?

  46. Tim

    I’m having the hardest time making sense of your posts.
    I’m not saying you don’t have anything cogent to say, but what you are saying comes across so incoherent.

    In your back and forth with Glenn I’m seeing a big disconnect in your responses to him: I don’t get where they are coming from.

    Also, any chance you can stick to one point at a time?
    Firing off quips and jabs in rapid-fire succession isn’t really that impressive. Not that you are muddled…. but it’s hard to not come away from reading them with the thought “muddled mess” firmly stained in my mind.

  47. Ken

    Tim – my only comment to you (I think) was:

    “Tim. I pick up some anger from you too. Wonder why?

    Do you reject evolutionary science too?

    Looks like the problem is “religionism” rather than “scientism”. Or am I committing a “scientism” sin by daring to suggest that?”

    You didn’t respond – but a simple yes or no would have sufficed

    Now, why did you find “the hardest time making sense” of that soimple question?

  48. Ken: You are the authority denying that protons are divisible. You (post 32) maintained that science has shown us that matter is made up of atoms.

    I replied by pointing out that actually it’s an open question as to whether or not matter is made of atoms or something smaller and more basic.

    You rejected this, implying that my openness was arrogant, and asking incredulously, if matter could really be reduced to something smaller then what are people doing with the Large Hadron Collider?

    I replied (comment 35) by saying that people much more knowledgeable than I have had serious discussions about the possibility of further dividing up atomic particles.

    You then replied and moved the goalpost, introducing a new subject, challenging me to find anyone who says blah blah about whether or not atoms can be divided up. This was just silly and hasty. It shifted the goalposts and attributed to me a position that I never said anything about.

    And now you reply in an utterly confused way: “OK shift the goal posts. Who is your authority denying that the proton is divisible?”

    Um, you shifted the goalposts, not I. The issue that you raised is whether or not matter is composed of atoms. I have pointed out that it’s an open question as to whether or not atomic particles might actually be divisible into more basic parts. I have never said that there is someone out there denying this possibility. You have denied it, sure, but I have not attributed the claim to others.

    See, having gotten totally tangled up in confusion about philosophy, you’re now having amnesia about pretty much everything you and I have said about atoms. All you have done is sought to distract from the point that was originally made: Philosophy did not “hand over” the issue to science, as I have explained. What’s more, the problem with Dawkins is that scientists (or at least, a few, such as Dawkins) have incorrectly assumed that their expertise in some fields of science makes them experts in philosophy.

  49. Dear All:

    Is it (a) possible and (b) if possible, likely, that I will continue to be conscious after my bodily death?

    This is a severely practical question, in that my own answer to it affects the way I think, feel and act right now.

    Is it a question which can be approached using scientific method?
    What does everyone think, here?



  50. Leonhard

    Thanks for the clarification those were helpful, and thank for the apology Tim I appreciate it.

    So if I understand you right, Plantinga argues that there doesn’t need to be any connection between mental models and behavior, and from this premiss you can derive a defeater for naturalism&evolution? I could see that as a very philosophical discussion about the nature of the mind, and yes that’s different than what I imagined. It might be that I just don’t see discussions of mentality neatly dissected from neuroscience and evolution. I retract my accusation, at least for now, against Plantinga about the EAAN being a scientific question.

    That being said Plantinga elsewhere does have a tendency to comment on the science of evolution. In my opinion those comments don’t speak well of his ability to comment on scientific subjects.

    I’m still not entirely convinced that God couldn’t be made the subject of scientific inquiry. However Glenn, doesn’t disagree with me here it seems. Another point he makes is that there are arguments that can be made for theism, which are not properly connected with science. I mentioned Aquinas five ways in my beginning, as well as the ontological argument. So I agreed with that as well. However there are still many arguments for God, which are not neutral with respect to scientific investigation. A lot of arguments made for God are dependent of scientific conclusions.

    So I guess my only question now is: If a lot of arguments for God are dependent on scientific inquiry, and if there are things in world supposedly only explainable through agent causation via God, doesn’t that make God at least in part a scientific question?

  51. Glen asked: Does this mean that you think the existence of the Judeo Christian God (if such a being exists) is a matter of natural fact? Yessir. If the existence of a rock is a natural fact, I would think by definition that the existence of its supposed progenitor is a natural fact.

    Glen also asked: Or did you just say more than you meant when you said that since God’s existence is a matter of fact it must therefore be a matter for science? Once again, the scientific method is the only manner that I am aware of that could assist us in this endeavour.

  52. T.A.M., I guess I’m just surprised that you think that if God exists, he must be part of nature. It’s not the way that the word “nature” is historically used, either in science or in philosophy. You basically take “nature” to mean the same as “reality,” revealing that you think that science can (in theory) answer all questions about reality.

    (BTW, the name is Glenn. 🙂 )

  53. My own usages (not definitions) run as follows:

    1. “The universe” : Everything which is known, or theorised, as existing including so-called ‘mulitiple universes’ but specifically excluding any possible creator of such a universe or its components;

    2. “The natural world” : that part of the universe which is held to act wholly according to current physical rules and to which currently defined physical constants and variables are held to apply;

    3. “The non-material world” : consisting of those entities which are known to exist but to which the rules, constants and variables of [2] above have been shown not to apply*; all conscious experience, for example, including dreams.

    [ * NOTE CAREFULLY: Not ‘have not been shown to apply’ : in my usage, for example, a dream is known — or declared — to have no spatial location, rather than merely as ‘not having been shown to have a spatial location.’ ]


    In my view, the domain of scientific inquiry is confined to the natural world as ‘defined’ in [2] above; but I concede that disussion here is hampered by the fact that few, if any, such definitions and usages are anywhere near universally agreed. Certainly the question of whether or not “God” his held to exist, or to be likely or unlikely to exist, is surely answered, entirely, by the definition of such a person or entity?

  54. Ken

    So, after discrediting himself with wild and incorrect statements in the fields of climate science, astronomy and particle physics, Glenn is at it again. He now tells us “confidently” how a word is used on science and what the significance of this is for limiting science.

    No, Glenn. Science doesn’t restrict itself the way you wish it would. Far from it. We investigate reality as it comes, warts and all. “Nature” is just a vague word with no special meaning in scientific epistemology. I can assure you that in 40 years of research I have never experienced it’s use in the way you claim

    We do not claim either that we can or will be able to answer all questions about reality. That assertion is silly. You are just revealing your lack of understanding of science and the scientific process. (Or perhaps confusing science with the hubris of religion which claims to know the one true Truth).

     Obviously there can be, and probably are, aspects of reality which are and may always be beyond our technical and intellectual skill. I have never heard any scientist suggest otherwise.

    But one thing about humans – we are inquisitive and we will give these investigations our best shot.

    Glenn, what about a bit if humility. Take the advice you so freely give to others and stop stepping outside your comfort zone to make arrogant and dogmatic claims about other fields where you have no experience or special knowledge. Stop telling experts in those fields how things are or should be.

  55. OK Ken, thanks for commenting. I disagree with your presumption to comment on philosophy with your level of certainty. I also think you’re intentionally misrepresenting what I am doing, trying to simply make the reverse allegation against me that I have made against Dawkins in a “tit for tat” way as you defend him (perhaps because of his vocal atheism), but still, thanks for commenting.

  56. Glenn, I don’t think it matters if we use the term “nature” or “physical reality”. The scientific method is the only method I am aware of to investigate the origins of this reality. Are you aware of another?

    I just finished listening to Victor Stenger and David Bartholomew discus the issue of whether the existence of the Judeo-Christian god is an empiracally verifiable hypothesis on the Unbelievable podcast. I will let others determine the “winner” for themselves but I think Stenger wiped the floor with Bartholomew on this issue.

  57. T.A.M., let me give you an example of a subject area that I think exists within “all of reality,” and maybe you’ll see why your position seems so remarkable to me:

    That subject is justice. Can the physical sciences (in principle) answer all the questions that you or I might have about matters of justice?

  58. By “justice”, I presume you mean the Rawlsian political conception of justice (i.e. rules that anyone, regardless of their metaphysical or religious views, would accept to regulate the basic structure of society).

    No, science can’t tell us what is “just” any more than it can tell us what “ought” to be in any particular moral situation. However, science can help explain why “tit for tat” behaviors make sense from an evolutionary perspective.

  59. So there’s something in reality that science can’t investigate?

  60. Ken

    Come on, Glenn. You can’t get away with this – a naive argument by default.

    Justice is a property of social species. Objectively existing individuals and societies. These are of course part of reality, and of nature (as normally considered).

    Science does study social species, their societies and their social relations. It does study morality and justice, its evolution, the thinking processes and so on.

    Perfectly correctly this is not the naive concept of science making moral or legal judgments. Those are made by individuals and groups. Science can help us understand how we make these judgments and how these procedures have evolved. it doesn’t make the decisions for us.

    So, yes, justice is part of reality and of nature. It can be and is studied by humanity using scientific methods appropriate to the subject. Clearly scientific processes today can play a very important and crucial role in the justice decisions made by humans.

    It would be silly to expect science to give the moral judgments, or legal judgments – this involves all sorts of objective and subjective factors and is made by the conscious individual and group.

    Having giving that prerogative to society and individual themselves, accepting that while science can inform and help we must make out own judgments (we are on our own) – we don’t then by default say “Oh religion can make those judgments for us.” Religions have no more (and actually a lot less) skill in making moral and legal judgments than the baker down the road (who may also be a scientist or priest).

    So yes, justice is part of reality as a characteristic of social species. (It is also part of nature.) Science can investigate it. But when it comes to making legal and moral judgments, while science and culture can inform, we are, in the end, on our own.

  61. Ken, nobody has said that people who study social species cannot study justice. The question is whether or not justice is a natural property. And to just assume that it obviously is one is naive. You are welcome to direct me or any other reader to a careful argument for that highly contentious claim, but it certainly doesn’t have any prima facie plausibility, and just telling me confidently that it is one is merely a case of you expressing what you currently believe. It requires a lot of work to even offer a case for that claim, let alone a good one.

    Besides, I said nothing about religion making any judgements here. Don’t be so reactionary.

  62. Ken

    Glenn, you referred to justice as “something in reality that science can’t investigate.”

    You seem to have backed away from that – good.

    Re your reference to “natural” – nice fuzzy word interpreted different ways. Pointless debating it – it’s not relevant to scientific investigation.

  63. Ken, nobody has backed away from anything. You’re imagining things. In my last comment I said that people who study sceince can study justice. You’re just not reading anymore.

    I agree about one thing: It would be pointless to argue about. Discussing the philosophical (not scientific) question of justice with someone who thinks that it belongs to the realm of the natural sciences is like discussing origami with somebody who thinks it’s a pizza recipe.

  64. Ken

    Glenn – you actually said “nobody has said that people who study social species cannot study justice”.

    From that I took that you accept that science can study justice. I have described how in fact humanity does. We don’t ring fence those parts of reality from scientific investigation.

    I thought you were now accepting that?

  65. Ken, When I said that people who study science can study justice, that does not mean that I have accepted that justice is withint he domain of science.

    People who study music can study engineering. Does that mean that engineering is a branch of music?

    Ringfencing has nothing to do with it. Ringfencing is when we don’t allow science to study something. I give science free reign to study absolutely everything it can. But science is unable to give us conclusions about justice, so no matter how much freedom science has, it won’t give us deliberations on justice. Ringfencing has nothing to do with it.

    Just imagine if I said “what? You won’t use your pocket knife to build the Eiffel tower? Well, I don’t believe in ring fencing pocket knives!” It would be obviously silly.

  66. Scientists can observe the fact that human individuals in a certain society may act as though a certain action is ‘just’ — that is, commendable by other members of the same societal group — whereas in another society the same action may (against as a factual observation) attract dispproval from that societal group’s members.


    Can ‘science’ explain the observed discrepancy, with regard to what is considered to be just, between individuals who are members of these different groups?

    No. It cannot offer any such explanation. (Unless you can show me differently.)

    Martin Woodhouse

  67. “We do not claim either that we can or will be able to answer all questions about reality.”

    Has no scientist ever made this claim?
    I think it’s been made, you know.
    It’s called ‘scientism’, in fact, and I believe many students of scientific subjects need to be careful that they do not stray into scientism.

    You know, like Richard Dawkins, a person who has allowed himself — quite understandably — to move from being an admirable populiser of science to becoming a kind of high priest of scientism …

    This is no great fault in Dawkins himself. In his acolytes, the twittering Dawkinsians, it has become at first alarmingly foolish and then repellent.

    Martin Woodhouse

  68. Ken

    Martin – you ask:
    “Can ‘science’ explain the observed discrepancy, with regard to what is considered to be just, between individuals who are members of these different groups?

    No. It cannot offer any such explanation. (Unless you can show me differently.)”

    Well read this book – In the Name of God: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Ethics and Violence by John Teehan. I have just finished it – it’s fascinating. (I will be posting a review of the book in the next week or so at Open Parachute if you are interested).

    However, Teehan presents an evolutionary description of religion and morality. In the book he specifically considers several different societies and religious moral codes.

    A close look at Jewish moral code and justice shows it different to Christian morality/justice.

    He shows how this happened. So we have a scientific study of morality and justice and a description of why these were different in different societies (and why they are in inadequate in modern society).

    By the way Martin – why is your given address ( wrong?

    Glenn – your ring-fencing comes with the way you define or allow “domains” Scientists investigate reality – you want to restrict their investigation to “nature” – whatever that means.

    But I assure you that you are a voice in the wilderness on that one.

  69. Ken, I just think it’s an abuse of English language to say that the mere belief that something has limits is the same as ringfencing, implying that I am trying to restrict it.

    Cooking has limits. It cannot tell us how to make statues. But this is not “ringfencing” cookery. It is just to say that some things are cookery and others are not. Cookery can do some things, but it was never intended to do other things. And as for whether or not I am a voice in the wilderness – I can assure you that my view, the view that science cannot tell us everything about everything – is certainly not unique to me. In fact, my view is the normal one.

  70. Ken, I am afraid you are using language incorrectly. I am sure that the book you mention explains how different societies have come to adopt different approaches to justice, morality and religion. Such examination used, in past centuries, to be called ‘science’ – which, in those far-off days, did indeed mean simply ‘study.’

    But that isn’t the way we use the word ‘science’ today — and, in particular, it isn’t the sense in which Richard Dawkins uses it. In these days (that is, ever since the Enlightenment) a scientific explanation of some entity or process has to be set out using the parameters, attributes and variables found in physics; that is to say, in terms of space, time, mass, and their derivatives.

    Otherwise, it may well be an explanation, but not a scientific one.

    We may illustrate this in terms of the entities and processes involved in vision. We can describe the biochemistry and indeed the particle dynamics of rhodopsin and its alteration by the energy input to it via light — that is, by the impingement of photons upon the cells of the retina; and we can describe, in accurate physical detail, the way this results in polarisation of the cell membranes of neurones in those cells and then those of the optic nerve, the subsequent waves of depolarisation which we term ‘nervous impulses’ which travel along that nerve to the optical cortex and are similarly spread to other neurones in other areas of the brain, “resulting in vision.” [ Please note the quotes, here. ]

    All of this incredibly detailed, and magnificently researched, information forms a truly scientific explanation in the sense used by every scientist these days, including Dawkins.

    What remains wholly unexplained is the way in which the neural impulses thus caused result in the conscious experience of ‘somebody seeing something.’

    Our lack of explanation here is total. And unless and until the way the conscious experience of ‘seeing’ results from the firing of neurones in the brain is explained, we don’t have any scientific explanation for one of the most significant aspects of the universe: namely, our conscious apprehension of it.

    There is no question here either or ‘ring-fencing’ nor even of possible idiosyncrasies in our definition of ‘science.’ We have no explanation whatever — none — for the mechanisms, nor even the existence, of a huge chunk of the known universe. End of story, is they say.


    Martin [ — sorry! ]

  71. Hey Martin, just a note: At this blog when you enter your name and website address when posting a comment, you actually create a link so that people can click on your name and visit your site if you want to. I generally frown on overt advertising unless there’s a good reason.

  72. Ken

    Martin – it would of course be simpler if you read the book. It is not an ancient study. It is a modern investigation based on the modern science of evolutionary psychology. (Yes, I am aware this has had some bade press but this is the more respectable end of that discipline).

    This approach to investigation of religion, morality and justice is extremely common now and is enabling some good progress in these investigations.

    At base it relies on our understanding of the evolutionary development of human intuitions and cognitive psychology.

    And Martin – I don’t share you pessimism about the scientific investigation of consciousness either. It is happening. We are making progress. Yes it is a big problem but we wouldn’t be human if we didn’t investigate the phenomenon, especially now with our new tools.

  73. Ken

    Sorry, should have read the whole comment, Martin.

    This is incredible:
    “We have no explanation whatever — none — for the mechanisms, nor even the existence, of a huge chunk of the known universe. End of story, is they say.”

    End of story.?? What’s that if not ring-fencing?

    Humanity doesn’t stop by saying “We don’t know.” (Commonly heard in science).

    We almost always add “Let’s find out.”

    Surely you are aware there is a lot of work going on in investigating and understanding that 96% of the universe we don’t yet understand.


  74. For what it’s worth, and to make sure Ken doesn’t start pretending that I have implied ringfencing on the basis of another person’s comment: Of course the content of the universe – even parts that we’re unlikely to observe for a very long time – is the kind of thing that science is suited to study and arrive at answers about.

    I think martin was merely saying that it’s a brute fact that we haven’t currently done so, which is true. But that doesn’t push such things outside of the proper domain of science!

  75. Ken

    I think “End of Story” is pretty unequivocal.

    Also he is away with the birds to claim “We have no explanation whatever — none — for the mechanisms, nor even the existence, of a huge chunk of the known universe.”

    While Dark Energy is still a mystery there are a few candidates for Dark Matter. It’s likely we will pin that down within the next 5 to 10 years. Current experiments at the LHC provide possibilities. And there is other work both in deep underground detectors and high atmosphere balloon studies which are providing tantalizing information.

    Still, he may not have meant to be so dogmatic. Let’s hear him out.

    There will always be things we don’t know or understand. That is not to say they are therefore u8nknowable or not understandable (although of course that may be the case with some things).

    One of the products of science is ignorance. We get to find out more and more that there are things we still don’t know. Helps keep us in jobs.

  76. The point of my comment was to say that *I* think the unknown parts of the universe are within the domain of the natural sciences. If Martin meant otherwise then obviously I disagree with him. But it’s best not to try to interpret people in the worst way possible. After all, it is true – end of story – that we currently don’t know some things.

  77. All good stuff, and appreciated.

    [ Incidentally: I only added my web address to my post once, and that was in response to a complaint that I had entered it wrongly in my profile. ]


    I am reasonably sure that explanation will emerge for those aspects of the universe which are currently unexplained or even unknown.

    But it won’t be a scientific explanation – which was the point of my admittedly somewhat over-brisk comment: “End of story.” Here’s my reasoning:-

    It is indeed often claimed by supporters of scientism that “there is nothing which science won’t eventually be able to explain, because look at what science has already succeeded in explaining — where no explanation was forthcoming before the Age of Enlightenment.”

    My conclusion is exactly the opposite. Scientists have shown themselves, over the last few centuries, not only to be enormously competent intellectually and observationally, but also imaginitively; witness, for instance, superstring theory which has not arisen from the observation of fact (strings are too small to have been observed) but as an imaginitive leap which says: “if matter were composed of minute one-dimensional physical entities vibrating in an additional ten (or more) dimensions, then mathematics shows that the various modes of vibration of those entitities (the ‘strings’) would be capable of accounting for all the currently observed properties of the various particles we now know about.”

    Now, the truth or otherwise of superstring theory doesn’t concern me here; what interests me is the enormous analytical and imaginationary capability of science and scientists in proposing mechanisms for the way things, large and small, actually work.

    There have been literally hundreds of such mechanical explanations proposed, analysed, criticised and amended or discarded, since Galileo and Newton.

    Here’s an observed fact: No such mechanical explanation has ever been offered — nor even adumbrated — by any scientist, for the interaction of cosncious experience and neural activity. Nobody has even tried to increase, even by a word, the sentence ‘all right, just suppose that . . .” in considering this interface.

    This, then, is a fact; and, in scientific terms, such a fact requires an explanation which must conform with logic.

    The possibilities here seem to be (perhaps not exhaustively):

    (1) No scientist has ever been sufficiently interested in the mind/brain interface to propose any such mechanism;

    (2) Science has been interested in the mind/brain interface all right, but no scientist has had the intellectual capability to make any proposal about a possible mechanism;

    Both of these seem very, very unlikely indeed. Far more likely is:

    (3) No such mechanism exists to be discovered, nor even proposed.


    Note my use of the word ‘mechanism’, here. All proposed scientific explanations are, without exception, mechanical ones; they deal with mass, spatial extent, time, energy, force, momentum, and so forth.

    If anyone here can think of a way of applying any such physical concept to conscious experience or to its complement, intention, please offer it; but I have never come across any such proposal and neither has any writer in the field of consciousness (Chalmers, Ramachandran, Dennett, Humphrey, Nagle, O’Regan, Blackmore, Hameroff et al) that I have come across.


    Hence: if all scientific explanation of the universe is mechanical;
    And if, as I maintain above, no mechanical explanation has been (or can be) put forward for consciousness;
    And if we agree — as, surely, we must — that conscious experience is a part of the universe (of The Way Things Are);

    — then whatever explanation may or may not eventually emerge for the way in which the conscious world and the physical word can interact . . .

    — it won’t be a scientific one.


    All right, I’ll refrain (as you have correctly advised me) from adding ‘End of story’, but I will add:-


    Cheers and love to all,

    Martin Woodhouse

  78. — and hence (to belabour the point almost beyond bearing):

    “Scientism, as I am using that term here, is an approach to studying an issue that assumes that if something is a question of fact, then it can (at least very probably) be answered by science.”

    Then, since we are daily surrounded by undoubted facts — conscious experiences, for a start — and since questions about such facts cannot, as I think I have conclusively shown, be answered by scientific method, the above basic premise of scientism must be entirely false.

    Er . . . end of story?



  79. Martin,

    I think there are questions that science can’t answer. I’m confident that we will learn the physical basis of the moral switches in our brains, and understand the process by which they evolved. But I don’t think that will let us know that a certain action is right or wrong.

    On the other hand, I think you example of consciousness is seriously flawed. I’m not a neuroscientist, but there really are “mechanistic” theories of how consciousness emerges. But much more importantly, there is tonnes of evidence than consciousness if a physical process – you can turn it off by interfering with the brain. Peristant vegetative state, coma, hypnosis, anesthesia and epilepsy are all states in which some or all the phenomena relating to consciousness are lost thanks to physical intervention. I’m sure we will learn a lot about consciousness by learning how those interventions effect the brain.

  80. Ken


    1: Let’s get clear about this word “scientism”. It’s one that I normally would not use as it is commonly a term of abuse. And when used it is a way of actually avoiding the real issues of debate.

    But my dictionary defines it as “the uncritical application of science to inappropriate areas.”

    I reject completely your implication that a claim that science studies reality is “scientism.” If it doesn’t study reality what the hell does it study?

    And, by the way, I have never come across a scientist who does not accept that parts of reality may not ever be amenable to our investigation or understanding becuase of technological or intellectual limitations. None. I just don’t know where you get the idea (although I am aware it is actively promoted by anti-science people).

    You know, I am sure individual scientists sometimes do that – use science uncritically in inappropriate areas. After all we all make mistakes. But the fact is that science is a social process. This helps avoid and correct mistakes. In practice this social process means that science is never uncritical. And if a methodology is being used in an inappropriate area this is usually quickly pointed out.

    Where we could apply this word, I think, it to people like Craig and Ross (and other theologians, who opportunistically use a science argument to “prove” an inappropriate conclusion).

    For example the Kalam cosmological argument and the “fine tuning” argument both are inappropriate to the conclusion desired. They rely on an uncritical and distorted use of science and scientific theory.

    2: re consciousness – I reject your claim “No such mechanical explanation has ever been offered — nor even adumbrated — by any scientist, for the interaction of cosncious experience and neural activity. Nobody has even tried to increase, even by a word, the sentence ‘all right, just suppose that . . .” in considering this interface.”

    A while back I reviewed “The Crucible of Consciousness: An Integrated Theory of Mind and Brain” by Zoltan Torey (see It’s all in the brain). This gave what I though was a very feasible explanation.

    Now, you and I will no doubt have different subjective experiences in listening the Verdi’s Requiem. We may arrive at different moral judgments because of subjective factors. Science may never be able to duplicate this because an essential component of human judgment and appreciation is emotional. And most people would say – so what. Why should we want to duplicate it?

    However, we can still study the processes in individuals and in society. And we are doing that with many things as our tools develop.

    And, you never know. Someday we may actually want to duplicate this subjective experience of things like music and colour. And we may actually have the technology and understanding to do so.

    Only a dogmatist would stand here now and assert such a thing is either completely impossible or not permitted. Haven’t you learned from our history of ring-fencing areas like life, origins and consciousness as out of bounds to science? It doesn’t stop human progress. Nor should it.

    And the fact is we are completely crap at predicting the future!

    3: Re our understanding of the universe. I reject completely your unsubstantiated claim “I am reasonably sure that explanation will emerge for those aspects of the universe which are currently unexplained or even unknown.

    But it won’t be a scientific explanation ”

    (i) the fact is that we are doing this every day, getting a better and better scientific understanding of those aspects of the universe we currently don’t understand or previously didn’t understand.

    (ii) If your predicted understanding of these currently unknown parts isn’t scientific – what the hell is it.? Certainly not religious, magical, etc.? You should front up on that one.

    4: Finally – you do make some extreme statements. For example as evidence of “scientism” you provide a quote: “there is nothing which science won’t eventually be able to explain, because look at what science has already succeeded in explaining — where no explanation was forthcoming before the Age of Enlightenment.” Who is quoted? Where did they say it (link if possible) and what were their qualifications to make that assertion.
    Again “all scientific explanation of the universe is mechanical”. Get with it. That may have been the attitude several centuries ago but certainly not now. We have moved well past mechanical materialism. Again, I discussed this in my recent review of Ruse’s book (see Making room for faith in science?).

    Martin – I think you need to appreciate that science is not an easily defined algorithmic process. It is messy and exciting. Personalities are involved. And it is a social process.

    The best definition I have come across lately is one given by Neil deGrasse Tyson: Something along the lines of “science is doing whatever it takes to avoid being fooled by reality.”

    And this, very definitely,, is not the end of the story. Life and humanity do go on.

  81. Hello All

    I do not claim, and have never claimed, that agreeing the ability of the scientific method to examine reality is scientism. I agree that ability myself, since I have been a scientist for more than sixty years.

    Scientism is the claim that “all aspects of reality are examinable by science”. This is a different claim, is quite untrue and is, indeed, a term of abuse.

    Look. If there exists a plausible mechanical explanation for the production of conscious experience, then my entire argument collapses. All anyone here — or anywhere else — needs to do, then, in order to demolish my argument is to produce, here, so that all of us can see it, such a suggested mechanism.

    Please, therefore, do so. I am currently in the middle of writing a book founded upon the premise that no such mechanism exists, and if I am wrong in this premise then I badly need to know.

    Note, please, though: An assertion that “I am sure I read such a mechanical explanation somewhere”, or suggestions that we should read this book or that book because it contains such an explanation, are insufficient. (There are some two hundred and thirty books which deal with aspects of the philosophy, and the science, of consciousness upon the bookshelves in the room where I am now sitting, and I have read — and, usually, annotated — all of them.)

    That doesn’t mean, of course, that I have read every book which exists on the subject. So, if you have found one which appears to contain a mechanical explanation of the way in which neural activity produces conscious experience or vice versa; and if you have understood such an explanation well enough to summarise or describe it here, so that we may all understand it likewise then please, please do so.

    Otherwise, I repeat — and although I do not necessarily do so simply as a challenge, it is one — that there exists, has never existed, and there is very, very little likelihood of there ever existing, a mechanical account of the way this occurs; that is to say, an account in the same kind of mechanical (or, perhaps, engineering) terms which are used by science to explain other processes in nature — for instance: evolution; the emergence of the physical cosmos from an assumed beginning; the healing of a wound; the elimination of an infection; the falling of an apple from a tree to the ground via a suggested curvature of space by matter; the transmission of information from one region to another; the production of a moving image on a television or computer screen . . . .

    I can describe, and so can you, the mechanical process for each of the above phenomena and many thousands — perhaps even millions — of others.
    All you need to do in order to show that I am wrong with respect to the mind/brain interface is produce, or quote — right here — a similar mechanical process which accounts for the characteristics of that interface.

    It’s my firm belief that you cannot do so, and that no scientist has ever done so; and my consequent conclusion is that no such mechanistic explanation exists to be quoted or examined.

    End of (this particular) story.

    Not “End of the story of the discoveries of science.”

    Just “End of the search for a scientific explanation for consciousness, since this search is bound to fail.”


    ( Also, please note: asserting or showing that the brain is involved in conscious experience, and that interfering with the brain can affect conscious experience, is of course true. But it does not constitute ‘an explanation of the mechanism’ by which this happens — any more than the observation that clouds are involved in the production of rain, while true, provides an explanation of the ‘rain mechanism’. )

    Cheers and love,

    Martin Woodhouse

    (inter alia, creator in 1957 of the first mechanical computer designed to perform logical examination: LETTUCE, or the Logical Truth Computer, for details — and photographs — of which please see my web site . . .)

  82. Ken

    Martin, if you are writing a book on this subject then I think it essential that you do access and comment on the work of Zoltan Torey . His book is a classic in this area and he seems to have approached things from a different direction.

    And, no, this is not the place to give a detailed description of his model – which he takes a book to develop. You will get a much clearer description form the book or the author, than from me. Consult my review if you only want a condensed and laypersons description.

    We are obviously using different definitions of “scientism” – but I think your’s is more a description of hubris, rather than “scientism.” Never, mind – you still have not suggested anyone who either promotes that idea or believes it. What is the point of discussing, or even naming, something which is not an issue.

    I am disappointed that you did not respond to my question re the nature of humanity’s “explanation” for the nature of the currently unknown parts of the universe. You claim we will get this “but it won’t be a scientific explanation. ”

    What sort of explanation will it be?

    I am intrigued because I can’t think of the alternative.

  83. Ken

    The title of this ‘thread’ is — what?

    Do you think that when we eventually reach an explanation of ‘the nature of the curently unknown parts of the universe’ it will be a scientific one?

    I am having genuine difficulty in understanding what point of view yours is? Are you suggesting that any and all knowledge we may achieve about the Way Things Are is — by definition — ‘scientific’?

    If you are, then that’s a permissible definition, of course — any definition, of anything, is permissible; but it just isn’t the sense in which I use the word and is bound to obstruct any understanding we might achieve of one another’s arguments.

    If you would prefer me to give way on this matter, I will substitute the word ‘mechanistic’ for the word ‘scientific’. Would this help?

    Cheers, Martin

  84. Ken

    Martin, I have made my comments on mechanical
    Materialism – it is 200 years out of dare.

    And why refuse to answer my questions? If you haven’t answers why make the claims.

  85. Ken —

    I am not in the business of playing games. I will answer any question you may have once you have answered mine: What are your definitions of the words:-

    scientific (as in ‘scientific explanation’) and

    — otherwise, whatever explanation I may offer and however careful I may be in formulating it — and I have been both careful and comprehensive thus far — you will simply dismiss it as ‘not agreeing with what you know as science’ . . .

    Cheers, Martin

  86. Ken

    I have read Zoltan Torey’s own summary and extract from his book, at fkbyZwF5sGUC&printsec=frontcover&dq=Zoltan+Torey&source=bl&ots=K1FLyiqLqf&sig=SMay HC3VVMH4cFAQ1eYHN5KksBQ&hl=en&ei=_sU6TMz7A4X6lwezzeHVBw&sa=X&oi=



    It seems a very carefully reasoned piece of work and is extremely impressive as a framework for the way the brain handles the world around us (notably through the construction of language).

    His extract contains, however — exactly as I forecast — no attempt whatever to offer a mechanical explanation for the production of conscious experience — for instance, proprioceptive experience — from the (complex) pattern of neural activity which he describes. He simply states that it happens; not how.

    I will now buy his book and read it. I will offer you a prediction, right now:- The book itself will not contain any such proposed explanation, either.

    In other words, Ken, your insistence that “this is not the place to give a detailed description of his model” was not the result of the complexity of Torey’s work, but of the fact that it doesn’t contain any such proposed model, complex or otherwise; as I think you knew quite well.


    All: You must, please, understand that I am not denigrating any of the workers, past and presnt, in the field of consciousness when I point out that “no-one has suggested any mechanism for the generation of consciousness from neural activity.”

    Quite the reverse. My own contenton springs precisely from the fact that all such writers and researchers, including Zoltan Torey, have shown massive intellectual competence in producing their work. Since they are so competent, and since none of them has been able to suggest any such mechanism, my conclusion is that no mechanism exists —- NOT, absolutely NOT, that one exists but they have all been too incompetent to uncover it.



  87. Ken

    Good to see you are getting the book. I am sure you will enjoy it.

    Pity you won’t respond to my questions. However, I have found that to be the usual response with those who claim “other ways of knowing.”

    Looks like we will have to stick with the tried and true methods of science.

  88. Ken,

    Please try not to be clever-clever. You are perfectly well aware that it serves no purpose in argument, merely providing a temporary (and somewhat spurious) boost to the ego.

    Have you no interest whatever in the fact that so many extraordinarily competent scientific and philosophical investigators have, over the course of around two hundred years, found no mechanical explanation whatever for the production of consciousness?

    Does it, genuinely, suggest nothing of importance to you?

    Cheers, Martin

  89. And, by the way, Ken,

    I hope you have read sufficient of what I’ve written to notice that I have neither claimed “other ways of knowing” nor have I said that I intend to propose a method — mechanical or otherwise — for the production of conscious experience from neural activity?

    All I have claimed, and very specifically, is that if and when such an explanation emerges, it won’t be a scientific one.

    In short, Ken, would you please take notice of the fact that I am not a four-year-old indulging in a playground battle of words, but a person in his late seventies who has spent virtually a lifetime in thinking, reading, and indeed directly researching these matters? (including the building of a computer designed to ‘think logically’, and so forth?)

    I don’t object to bright fellow-students throwing the occasional wobbly, you understand — but I do expect them to show that they are bright and not merely discourteous.

    Cheers and love,

    Martin Woodhouse

  90. Ken

    Martin – I have no interest in contributing to a geriatric clash of egos (I am not much younger than you).

    Just don’t think there is anything more to discuss as you didn’t respond to my questions.

  91. ” . . . (I am not much younger than you). . . ”

    And you’re a professional scientist, too. It doubly astounds me, therefore, that you shoul argue in the style of a petulant four-year-old:

    “Nyah Nyah, you didn’t answer my question so I’m not answering yours so boo sucks to you . . .”?

    Is this, Ken, truly the level of discussion which non-theist Antipodean scientists find congenial and to which we are expected to descend?

    [ And to what question of yours haven’t I responded, just as a matter of fact? ]


    “Just don’t think there is anything more to discuss”

    Now there, as between you and me, I agree with you.
    So let’s not discuss, eh?

    Cheers and love,


  92. AgeOfReasonXXI

    “However, the fan base is made up mostly of people who have no background in philosophy of religion (and often of philosophy in general) or theology.”
    you don’t need a background in fairology in order to denounce belief in fairies as delusional, right? All you need is to open your eyes to the realities of the century we’re living in (that would be the 21st, not the 1st). Apparenly the faith-heads have yet to graple with the fact that in the 21st century a belief in talking snakes, illiterate carpenters rising from the dead and walking on water, etc. is not simply disgraceful but an intellectual suicide.

  93. Rahim

    Thanks for the interesting discussion.

    Such strong feelings are aroused around such fundamental questions.

    I believe Richard Dawkins is the scientist identified as expounding a form of scientism, as described above.

    Obviously not all scientists are purveyors of “scientism,” probably only a relative minority (just a guess). At the same time, many scientists may slip into scientism at moments without being fully aware of it, and I think this is implied in Martin Woodhouse’s discussion above. Perhaps because “scientism” appears to be an externally applied label, many people seem to recoil when they are tagged with it. It certainly has acquired a pejorative sense, although really it is just a concept, an analytical category. Someone “accused” of “scientism” should feel free to accept the label, if it applies.

    It is curious, though, that many individuals vehemently reject the “scientism” label…and then proceed to make arguments that sound a lot like scientism (strong or weak form).

    Please allow me to start from first principles. No condescension is intended. As I understand it, the Western scientic method(s) address only falsifiable theories.

    As far as I know, no one has ever been able to prove the non-existence of anything. Logical contradiction can be shown, but non-existence?

    Proposition: “Pink unicorns exist in the material universe. They have mass and physical existence.”

    How could I go about falsifying this theory? I scour the world’s archives and find no mention of (physical) pink unicorns. Surely there are none! But…what if someone is hiding them somewhere? What if they exist on another planet? Dimension?

    A valid scientific report would be: “I find no evidence whatsoever of the existence of pink unicorns. I cannot prove that they do not exist because I (seemingly) cannot be at all places at once.”

    Maybe this all sounds silly, but I hope the point comes across. I am not, nor have I ever advocated the existence of pink unicorns (..they’re so cuddly!…). I just can’t prove that the pesky things don’t exist.

    The same logic applies to God, or anything else.

    There is a Buddhist saying that “God does not belong to the category of things that exist or do not exist.” This statement can be interpreted in a number of ways.

    Ken raises the question of how anyone could develop a theory of consciousness-body (the brain is not the only organ involved in mental activity) interaction, or other unknowns, without using the scientific method.

    I certainly have no definitive answer. I can only share what has been helpful for me.

    The Sufis say that trying to understand Reality (or religion) with the mind is like trying to eat yogurt by pouring it in one’s ear. The mind is just not the proper faculty. This leads one to inquire into one’s own experience. What are thoughts? Do I experience anything other than thoughts? Are feelings the same as thoughts or are they distinct?

    As I learned more about the Sufi system, the centrality of the human heart became clear. The Sufis believe that the heart is (literally) the seat of desire and the basic impulse to life. They claim, and for me it has been true, that as one focuses one’s attention on the heart systematically over time, mental chatter diminishes and calmer sentiments arise. Several recent books as well as a website ( have explored this idea from a scientific perspective. The contributors to Heartmath are examining the organs’ electromagnetic fields and the subjective effects of focusing attention in different ways.

    The Sufis say that it possible to understand Existence as it is through this faculty. They also say that this is a non-conceptual, experiential understanding. It culminates in the end of the dualistic state of human consciousness (internal bickering, divided motives) and entering into a harmonious state of acceptance. This is not a passive state, but includes the full range of human emotion and experience.

    The validity of the Sufi path can be examined scientifically, in the broadest sense. But it can only be examined by carrying out its practices. The experimental unit is one’s own consioussness. And you (one’s own self) are the only one qualified to judge the value of your own experiments in consciousness, because only you know what the results are.

    I have no interest in trying to “convert” anyone to this view. That idea seems pointless. If the ideas I present here are valid, then they should speak for themselves.

    Personally, I believe anger and vitrol comes up around such questions because our desire to know the truth-with-a-capital-T is so strong. It is painful to live without the answers. I know, because I do it every day 🙂

    –rahim d. roper
    PhD (history, economics, religion)

    “The only thing I know is that I know nothing. [And I’m not too sure of that.]–Socrates

  94. Hugh

    [Dawkins] doesn’t claim to be a philosopher and usually is very tentative about commenting on areas outside his specialties.


  95. Indeed Hugh – If only that were close to the truth!

  96. nicky

    hello, i was just wondering if you had the link to the article where McGrath refers to Dawkins as being wedded in scientism, as i am covering him for my essay at uni and would love to use the point you make where he is wrong about making this statement. thank you

    • Hi Nicky – as I mentioned in the article, the book is called “The Dawkins Delusion.” It isn’t online.

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén