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How to respond to a young friend who has come under Dawkins’s spell

Neuroscientist Baroness Susan Greenfield makes an interesting critique of “scientism”

By on Friday, 30 November 2012

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I have recently been in email conversation with a young friend. He is a bright chap but to my dismay he seems to have become an ardent disciple of Richard Dawkins and his kind. He has become quite convinced that “science” has solved the question of “God” – that irrational and improbable deity dreamed up by people long before science came along to enlighten them and to explain to them how the brain works. I have tried to get him to see that the (entirely legitimate) pursuit of science is a different activity from that of theology; there is no reason why they should clash rather than offer mutual, though independent support. He is having none of it: it seems the creation of “Hamlet” is simply the result of lots of cells composing the grey matter being in a happy conjunction; indeed, he thinks the sorrows of the great apes are not far removed from our own. I am simplifying his argument but this is the gist of it.

For this reason, it was good to read “What science can’t answer”, an interview in The Tablet last week between Jack Valero, communications director of Opus Dei in Britain (and co-founder of Catholic Voices) and Baroness Susan Greenfield, a neuroscientist at Oxford University. Lady Greenfield is neither an atheist nor a straightforward believer; but she accepts there are questions which are outside the competence of science to answer. She rejects “scientism” which she describes as “this unshakeable belief, which is as strong as any religious belief, that science is the only approach to understanding the world around you.” She recognises that people can have an experience “that is above and beyond the material.”

Greenfield admits that she has not had this experience – yet. “I have a sense of the spiritual and glimmers of it from time to time, but I cannot say I am a believer in the sense of subscribing to any particular religion.” In 2008 she accompanied Valero and a very sick friend and his wife on a pilgrimage to Lourdes. This was Greenfield’s idea, though she is not sure where it came from. Believers might call it the unconscious prompting of the Holy Spirit. At any rate, the experience did not deter her, as it does some outside the Church, who notice all the souvenir shops full of religious kitsch and conclude the whole place is riddled with superstition and mere trade. Greenfield was deeply impressed by the fact that “sick people were the norm and that…everybody was a volunteer.” She adds that she was also greatly moved by, “the amount of love and altruism and removal from the normal things…people being kind to each other, rather than witty or hostile or defensive”.

In general she robustly rejects the idea that science and religion are in contradiction as “intellectually bankrupt”, mentioning scientists such as Francis Collins of genome fame, who “speaks freely and openly…about being a Christian.” She points out that much of science is not strictly logical but is approached by “a hunch and an instinct”. Science answers some questions but not others “such as the meaning of life, or what is love.” Of course, people might describe love as “when you have a rise in the hormone oxytocin ” – but this does not invalidate or detract from the subjective state.

Apart from her pilgrimage to Lourdes, Greenfield has been on a three-day retreat at Ampleforth. She told the monk looking after her that “I truly don’t know why I’m here”. This didn’t bother him; I suspect he might have heard that remark before, even among supposed believers. When she got home Greenfield felt “super-charged and super-detoxed…bursting with energy and positive.”

I am going to refer my young friend to this interview and see what he makes of it. To be or not to be a chimpanzee; that is the question.

  • H Pluckrose

    Stop trying to use reason with the theists – they don’t like it.

  • H Pluckrose

    Agreed. However my personal preferences for people not to starve to death are not the issue – the point is a contradiction between what your God is said to have said and the actual state of things. I don’t come into it at all. I don’t believe bin your God. ( please excuse the capitalising – I know its wrong grammatically but trying to appease hysterical theist to whom this is important)

  • H Pluckrose

    But of course, then we’d need to accept all the religions which have Scriptures as ‘evidence.’ If you claim your scriptures are evidence that Jesus was the son of God, you also have to accept as evidence, the scriptures of the Hindus and Muslims who say he was not. Do you really do this? Or have you decided only yours are evidence?

  • Jonathan West

    Well, let’s look at the case of Savita Halappanavar. I acknowledge that the full facts of the case are not definitively known, so lets consider a hypothetical situation based on the case

    Let us suppose it is known that a mother is in the process of mscarrying, that it is too early for the unborn child to survive outside the womb, that the mother’s life is a grave risk from infection (because her cervix has opened and waters have broken), but the foetus still has a heartbeat.

    An moral absolutist position to the effect that abortion is inadmissible under any circumstanceswhatsoever would place the mother’s life at grave risk and would not save the unborn child. 

    In this situation, harm is far more likely to result than good – the mother’s life is being put in avoidable danger.

    Or a more gruesome case, Peter Sutcliffe was following a form of moral absolutism when he believed he herd God’s voice telling him to kill prostitutes.

    This is a particularly dangerous form or moral absolutism because it is dependent on what Sutcliffe genuinely believed was a personal revelation from God. I’ve tried earlier in this thread to get JabbaPapa to explain in simple terms how true revelation can be distinguished from false revelation f this kind, and he was unable to.

    So truth from personal revelation and moral absolutism are particularly  dangerous partners, which is no doubt why the church goes round declaring most bits of personal revelation to be false if it disagrees with current church teaching.

  • Jonathan West

    But I can’t respond unless I know your meaning, and the terms you have listed have such a wide range of meanings given them by different people that I have no possibility of guessing what you mean by them. Even “Darwinism” is given different meanings by different people, which is why when I answered you on Dawrinism I specified that I mean the modern evolutionary synthesis. (By the way, for you to claim that the modern evolutionary synthesis is 70 years out of date, since it is less than 70 years ago that DNA was discovered!)

    On any of the terms you ave listed, I could pick my chosen meaning and write you an answer. But unless I managed by chance to pick the meaning you have for the term (unlikely) then we would merely be engaging in a dialogue of the deaf. That is why I asked you to specify what you meant, preferably by offering an example of a question of the type so that we could treat it as a exemplar for how we would both go about addressing questions of that type.

    But you didn’t seem to be interested in trying that. I’d still be prepared to give it a go, we might learn something from each other as a result.

  • Jonathan West

    Now you’re just being silly!

    But you don’t way in what way. Curious. I get the feeling you are engaging in the logical gfallacy known as “poisoning the well”. go and look it up. It’s also one of JP’s specialities, which is why I’ve stopped responding to him on this thread.

    You are a naturalist which means you have a methodological commitment to deny anything other than methodology of natural science.

    You might notice that I have asked quite a number of times in this thread what alternatives to the scientific method could as should be used for investigation of the supernatural, I’ve asked what tools theology brings to the “Big Questions” of the multidisciplinary effort they claim to want to participate in which scientists. I think i have been showing the very opposite of a commitment to the methodology of natural science, and yet even after all the questions I’ve been asking, you ignore all that evidence.

    I’d ask you to justify naturalism

    You’re welcome to. I’d first of all distinguish between methodological naturalism and <metaphysical naturalism. To summarise, methodological naturalism doesn’t deny the supernatural, but if a supernatural phenomenon were to occur, it would go about investigating hem in the same way as natural phenomena – i.e. take a look and see what you can learn about it. Metaphysical naturalism goes a ste[p further and basically states that if all phenomena are to be investigated by the same method, then the distinction between natural and supernatural is meaningless and you might as well call it all natural.

    As for the justification for naturalism (of either variety) I would simply say that it seems very much to work as a way of gaining knowledge of the universe around us. For instance, in the 19th century we discovered the mechanism by which the complexity and variety of all life on earth came about, and in the 20th century we traced the history of the universe itself back to a small faction of a second after its origin.

    First Philosophy (ie natural theology) attributes immanent goals to natural substances).

    That seems to be a meaningless phrase, or at the very least a thoroughly misleading one. Are you taking of the natural substances having self-assigned immanent goals, or are you taking of them having immanent goals assigned to them by God?

    If the first, then I would ask how natural substances are able to have self-assigned goals in the absence of a consciousness with which to do the assigning?

    If the second, then I would ask initially for evidence of the existence of God (or whatever other external conscious agent you think is doing the assigning) so that we can ask him or it about his assignments.

    In either case, I would expect you to be able to tell me how you can tell whether your guesses are correct as to what these immanent goals are.

    Note that I’m not saying you are wrong about them, I am merely asking how you can tell you are right. I think that is a reasonable enough question, one which deserves a plain answer.

  • Jonathan West

    However, now that we have discovered that spacetime is not pixellated at the Planck scale, the notion of a holographic universe has receded and the prospect of an originator of actions is back to the fore.

    Do you see any physicists talking in terms of God being the originator of actions? If not, what evidence do you see that they have missed? Have you thought of writing a scientific paper on this? Who knows, you might be up for a Nobel Prize if by this means you can scientifically demonstrate the existence of God!

    Or do you think that there might just possibly bee the teensiest possibility that there are a few gaps in your line of reasoning?

  • JabbaPapa

    There is an intrinsic difference between a theory that has been demonstrated to be false, and a theory that continues to elicit a certain number of counter-theories.

    There is no proof that new species cannot appear suddenly, rather than resulting from a very gradual shift as in Dawkins.

    The existence of gradual shifts does not disprove the possibility of sudden and drastic changes.

    Also, to accuse Lund of an error in his own logic does not demonstrate that Dawkins has not committed the error in question — nor does demonstrating your disagreement with one paragraph invalidate the entirety of the text, in any case.

  • JabbaPapa

    Because of some overwhelming evidence that I was inside this universe 6 minutes ago.

  • Jonathan West

    1. Catholics and Catholic theologians have been questionning their faith for two thousand years: I don’t recognise the version of Christianity that you are referring to in this question.

    Hmmm. Aren’t all Catholics enjoined to accept without question papal declarations made ex cathedra? If so, then it seems to me that at least part of Catholicism requires unquestioning faith in certain propositions, and therefore is as described by Dawkins.

    2. Sola scriptura is a Protestant invention of the sixteenth century. Don’t eyewitness accounts constitute “evidence” in your part of the world?

    You seem to be suggesting (please correct me if I have misunderstood you) that you are claiming that the accounts of the resurrection are eyewitness accounts? That the authors of the gospels personally witnessed the things they wrote about? If so, I’d have to ask on what basis you believe this.

    3. Refer to answer 1 above. I have told you that YOU won’t sway me, because (i) we have never met (ii) your arguments are only repeating atheist commonplaces that I, by my questionning, have already disregarded and (iii) you are not likely to be able to pull together a convincing argument that would fit into a com-box.

    I’d be interested to know why merely not meeting someone renders you immune to their arguments – have you never read a book by an author who moved you deeply even though you had never met him or her? 

    Could you describe what you have disregarded under your point (ii) above, and why?

    As regards point (iii) I have always found arguments to be more persuasive if stated clearly and concisely so that they can easily be compared to reality. I don’t think we are dealing with such complex issues that require more space than a comment box to put a case. Why don’t you give brevity a try, you might find you like it!

  • Jonathan West

    Just one further point here. It is a common mistake, often called “subjective probability analysis” to try and put numbers on probabilities where there isn’t sufficient basis of statistics or theory.

    To put be able to put objective numbers to your question, we would need to do a number of things.

    First we would need to define “some basis of evidence”. We would need to decide what qualify of evidence counts as good enough. Since you are talking about all beliefs, we would need to carry out this process in such a way that we could have a common measure of adequacy of evidence irrespective of the subject matter. I suspect you will agree that this is a difficult task, not least because we would probably hold differing ideas as to what counts as good enough evidence on a number of topics.

    Then we would need to make an assessment of degrees of belief – the strength with which any particular belief is held. And we would similarly need to be able to make this measure sufficiently general that it would apply across subjects.

    Then finally, we would need to be able to conduct surveys across a wide range of people and beliefs in order to assess the strength of various people’s beliefs on a range of topics, and be in a position to know the true answer in each case

    Only once we have all this information could we justifiably produce a number. Even so, it is going to be an arbitrary number because there is no particular reason to select one degree of quality of evidence over another as the threshold, and no reason to select one degree of certainty over another.

    Without the statistical information, we are even worse off. Any number you produce (since I am not going to) reflects your personal preconceptions of the subject more than any measure of the reality of the situation. As such, I found your choice of number very informative – not about the subject, but rather about you and your preconceptions.

  • The Raven

    Perhaps you ought to try reading the Bible if you’re going to make arguments based on it, Jonathan: the passage that you cited comes at the end of forty days temptation in the desert.

  • TreenonPoet

     That same evidence shows just how perfectly the creator has given that impression. You wouldn’t be falling for the misapplication fallacy and suggesting that what applies to the last five minutes must also apply beyond that, would you?

  • The Raven

    1. How often and on what issues has Papal Infallibility been used Jonathan? You’d better look at what infallibility means, while you are at it. Where does Vatican I say that we are unable to probe issues that have been the subject of an infallible teaching?
    I’m calling “strawman”.

    2. It is suggested that The author of Mark is identified in the account of Christ’s arrest; academics also suggest that John was written down by someone who knew the apostle very well. The other two gospels are recounting oral traditions that were widely passed on. That’s as good as you get with ancient history.
    3. I will concede that not having met does not preclude an exchange of ideas, but we hardly get to know each others’ minds in these combox debates. My (ii) related to the objections that you and Treenonpoet raise here: been there done that, came away unconvinced. As for (iii), your comment was longer than mine.

  • Jonathan West

    Re point (i), it’s not a strawman in that I said “in some part” and if the pope has spoken ex cathedra even once. 

    But if you prefer, I can offer a more basic example. Is it a fundamental tenet of Christianity that Christ rose from the dead, even though everything we know about the world is that dead people don’t rise?If the answer to that question is “yes” then your religion is fundamentally based on faith as opposed to reason.On point (ii), what makes you think that the account in Mark is reliable? especially Mark 16:9-20 which appear to be a later addition? Since the gospen, on balance of probability, was written after AD70, there is plenty of time for an oral tradition to have developed. Oran traditions are notoriously unreliable means of transmitting historical facts accurately. It is far more likely that the resurrection is a tale that grew in the telling than that an event you know to be impossible actually occurred.

    On point (iii), unlike some others here, I have no difficulty in explaining my points, including the line of reasoning supporting them, in the space provided here. I find it a useful discipline for making sure i am expressing myself clearly. If you or others find it difficult to do, then you may benefit from the discipline of brevity rather than saying it would take too long to explain it all and so persuade anybody of your view.

    As far as I can tell, you have little or no difficulty understanding my views and my reasoning, even if you continue to disagree with it.

  • Acleron

    Whytheworldisending’s diatribes and your own puerile insults are well recorded, where are the references to Dawkins’ staements?

  • Acleron

    Well I’m sorry it has taken me so long to reply to your posts, other duties call.

    You don’t appear to understand the statistical method, without a means of comparison of your figure then the figure itself is completely meaningless. 
    We already know that there is spontaneous remission from no known cause with the emphasis on the word known. Is the rate of remission any higher by washing in the water at Lourdes than in the general population (for the same conditions, as you insist) is the question that you haven’t answered. You are making the claim, it is up to you to prove it. Until you do, it is no proof of anything.

  • Acleron

    Do I need to? Authors usually put their best evidence first, but TreenonPoet is a sterner man than I and has found other equally egregious errors. If this is the best evidence against Dawkin’s arguments then it isn’t a compelling case at all, wouldn’t you agree?

  • Acleron

    Whytheworldisending used it, ask him, in fact just what do catholics consider evil?

  • Acleron

    You sometimes string together words with no meaning to the topic whatsoever. You certainly and as usual, have no substantive addition to the conversation.

  • Acleron

    No matter how many times you state it, it is wrong, probability theory is a mathematical tool and consists of a number of what are more properly called theorems or laws. Probability is also the measurement of the uncertainty. The chance that an event may occur could be 50%, or have a probability of 0.5. The same value in each case and a value that can be measured. Most of the time we cannot calculate in advance the probability of an event (fortunately not true in quantum physics, but certainly the case in biology). When we cannot calculate the probability we measure it. It’s that simple.

    All quantum events are inherently unpredictable and only a probability or chance value can be assigned. It is fundamental to quantum theory. We can never know combinations of many characteristics of atomic and subatomic particles, the reason being that they can never be determined and not for the reasons of observation you described. You don’t know much about quantum theory if you believe any different.

    And the bit that Einstein regrets is of course calling god into the discussion allowing the many fallacious claims about his beliefs.

  • The Raven

    If you'd read the rest of the article you would know that the author is following a schema (although that should have been clear to you from the first paragraph), which means his arguments were arranged according to the schema, not to his perception of their strength.

  • The Raven


    You're making your argument based on an outlier again – the point about a strawman argument is not so much that it is wholly false, but that it misrepresents your opponent's position. This is what Dawkins is doing.
    Oral histories do get embellished over generations, but the space of time that your talking about is less than a single human lifetime – there would have been plenty of people alive at the time who would have been able to object to the resurrection story had it been untrue (scholarly consensus dates Mark to the period between AD 60 and 80).
    I'd also point out that the last verses of Mark before the parts that are believed to be later also talk about the resurrection: the resurrection was key to the message of the text.
    Reason does not reject the statements of witnesses out of hand and it does not assume that our current state of knowledge is definitive: your statement is just as de fide as my own and certainly no more “reasonable”.

  • TreenonPoet

     1. It seems I was supporting a strawman to some extent because I have located the quotation ”unquestioning faith is a virtue” in my 2006 hardback copy of The God Delusion (page 286) and Lund’s account is misleading. Dawkins is not talking about the ”great majority of Christians” but rather about what religion teaches. Here is the relevant paragraph:

    Fundamentalist religion is hell-bent on ruining the scientific education of countless thousands of innocent, well-meaning, eager young minds. Non-fundamentalist, ‘sensible’ religion may not be doing that. But it is making the world safe for fundamentalism by teaching children, from their earliest years, that unquestioning faith is a virtue.

    This reflects my own experience at school. We were told to worship God, day after day, without the suggestion being made even once that, based on evidence, this was a complete waste of time. (I could never go for it, but as my peers and masters seemed to I thought that it was me who was stupid.) The provision of collective worship is still compulsory in English schools. This is no strawman. Furthermore, Dawkins makes an extremely important point in that paragraph.

    2. Having been misled on item 1, I located the quotation ”truth comes from scripture rather than from evidence” in my copy of The God Delusion (page 337) and again Lund’s account is misleading. Dawkins is not talking about the ”great majority of Christians” but rather about what one particular school teaches, leaving the reader to judge how often similar cases occur. A headmaster approves of the fact that two pupils were arguing about whether the Bible or Qur’an was superior. Here are the relevant two sentences:

    Clare and Shaquille each simply asserted that her or his holy book was superior, and that was that. That is apparently all they said, and that, indeed, is all you can say when you have been taught that truth comes from scripture rather than from evidence.

    The instance itself was not a strawman. To demonstrate that the wider implication is, you would have to show that Religious Education supplies the sort of information that would allow pupils to decide which religious book was superior. I know that CofE schools have a big problem with this. You can probably guess why their Chief Education Officer is evasive about it.

    3. Naturally I looked for Lund’s other quotation ”Religious faith is an especially potent silencer of rational calculation… because it discourages questioning, by its very nature”. This is not quite what Dawkins writes (on page 306 of my copy) as the expansion of the ellipsis reveals that ‘partly’ precedes ‘because’, but that does not profoundly affect my critique. Catholic Christianity may be welcoming of questions, but it looks for answers in its dogma. Some Catholic theologians will bend over backwards to support a literal Adam and Eve; others are more flexible, but their answers are constrained by having to save face. That is not the sort of questioning that Dawkins is referring to. I thought your answer to Jonathan West in response the Bible verses he quoted extolling faith (about the scientific method) was evasive and misleading. You can’t pretend that religion is not religious.

  • Lazarus

    I did explain why you were being silly at reasonable length: in short, you reject the methodology of theology in favour of a simple reliance on naturalism. You might think that charge unfair (your following remarks suggest this) but there was no lack of clarity in the explanation. (I’m tempted to pass the charge of ‘poisoning the well’ back to you, but I’m far too much of a gentleman!)

    On the justification for naturalism (and I note having adduced a distinction between two types, you then fail to use it), I don’t think the enterprise of naturalism in either form contemptible: I merely pointed out that it is far from proven and far from universally accepted among competent philosophers. As a matter of intellectual honesty, you should admit this and stop pretending that God has somehow been disproved because he doesn’t fit into a naturalistic paradigm: he is absent from naturalism, but that absence is a methodological assumption rather than a discovery. (And the methodology of naturalism is, as I’ve noted, highly problematic.)

    On the subject of alternative methodologies, well, I’m fairly catholic on this as on so many other issues! I think it is extremely hard to rule out a methodology, certainly on a priori grounds, and I’d rather (certainly as a first step) want to try and understand that language game (ie way of using language) before critiquing it. (And that Wittgensteinian criticism is essentially the problem with Dawkins and his like: they haven’t taken the trouble to understand whereof they speak.) 

    But as a starting point let’s take the rough and ready traditional distinction between Naturwissenschaft and Geisteswissenschaft on the other (ie natural science vs humanities). The methodology of the humanities is in large part to understand mind and meaning. Take an example of this: say, understanding a literary text. To take the sort of naive naturalism you espouse and apply it to Hamlet would result in crass results. Equally, if the universe is shot through with mind and intentionality, to apply solely the methodologies of Naturwissenschaft (and note that we haven’t even begun to try to pin down what these actually are) would result in crassness. That critique of course applies to a universe created by a God, but it also applies to a universe constructed by human minds. (And one of the regular criticisms of naive naturalists like Dawkins by (non-theists) such as Midgley is that he is blind to the role of symbolic and figurative language in our engagement with the world.)

    In sum, I’m quite happy to admit that I’ve only scratched the surface of the issues regarding naturalism and its rejection: it’s really, really quite impossible to conduct such a discussion in comboxes. But as a rough gesturing to answering an impossible question, theologians (quite apart from any absolute truths established by revelation) would add to a discussion on evolution the insights of a particular form of the humanities. In particular, they would bring richness and depth to an exploration of the way that scientists are often prisoners (or at least recipients) of particular language uses and even theological traditions such as nominalism: sensitive scientists would thus gain a greater insight into their own methodologies. The theologians would also contribute a richer insight into the way that scientific results impact on the Lebenswelt (the lived world) of human beings which, certainly in the West, is a construction  in part made by theology.

    (And on immanent goals -good grief! If you haven’t heard the phrase before, you clearly have absolutely no grasp of Catholic theology and philosophy. Go and read Aristotle or modern metaphysicians like Brian Ellis or David Oderberg. Put simply, such ends are neither the result of ascription by an intelligent agent nor depend on the substance being conscious: they are part of the structure of the world.)

  • Acleron

    As I didn’t claim it showed the modern scientific method with its sophisticated analytical tools for identifying the hypothesis as not being distinct from the null hypothesis (and neither did Bacon) I feel no need to show you that.

    The early scientific method has however obviously evolved from methods depicted in the Ebers papyrus.

    ‘If thou examinest a cystoid enlarged gland on his neck, and thou findest it like the thymus (?) in the body, being soft to feel and its secretion being whitish dgj3), then thou shalt say concerning it: (it is) one suffering from cystoid enlarged gland on his neck; it is a disease which I will treat by an operation that guards the vessels. Thou shalt prepare for it remedies to treat it with a dressing that breaks the suppurating membrane: acacia seyal, tbwj, fruit of rim}, blood of the hwr-bird, fly’s blood, š3š3, honey, ‘maw, spry, northern salt, are ground, mixed together and (it) is bandaged therewith.’

    The author, probably not the writer, demonstrates that they looked for systems that would break the pustule and allow it to drain. Possibly a more primitive method was to cut the pustule but they would have to hypothesise that a preparation would act as poultice and allow the pustule to break and drain in a more controlled fashion. How effective these methods were is hard to say but they were far beyond the incantations  to which you refer.

    The scientific method would have been used at the earliest opportunity and probably not by Homo, even considering if a vegetable is edible, eating it and observing the result is the scientific method. 

    Even more interesting is the almost complete lack of the application of the scientific method in the last 2000 years until the renaissance.

  • Acleron

    The first substantive paragraph demonstrated a complete lack of scholarship and a failure to understand the definition of evidence, are you saying he does study and does know what evidence is? Because if you are, and as he didn’t bother to correct that howler I can then conclude he deliberately left it in to mislead, dishonesty in any language. But as TreenonPoet has shown you, he doesn’t understand evolutionary theory either and is unlikely to either understand or honestly argue against Dawkins more complex arguments.

    But if you still think he has a point, why don’t you summarise such a point and save us the pain of reading something so awful.

  • Paul Thibodeau

    Thank you Jonathan. I am asking the is-ought question because it is one important example and provides the necessary qualification.

    Your earlier posts appeared to me to indicate that either you did not understand the NOMA distinction, did not agree with it, or were articulating your responses poorly:

    I believe there are many strong points against NOMA, I do not find your general statements on this particular post be any of them (I did like your previous remark in another post about respecting the boundaries though, I know lots of posts are rushed). Faith disconnected from evidence vs. skepticism is not a perfect example of NOMA. By saying that some people ‘aren’t prepared … to start applying evidence-based thinking to religious questions’ I assume you mean aren’t prepared to apply evidence-based thinking to evidentiary questions of concern to religion, an important distinction. In your illustrations, while you include (quite rightly) the inappropriate extensions of faith into science, you omit scientism and bizarre metaphysical statements of evolution like Dennett’s. Your characterization of NOMA as unsustainable because of ‘two different and incompatible approaches to obtaining knowledge’ shows a basic lack of understanding or articulation of one of its central ideas, one of which for example is the separation of is and ought questions.

    So what I am asking is if you agree with Dawkins here on the is-ought distinction. We could discuss meaning/purpose/value questions, but I believe this is as good a place to start as any. If you do not, do you believe legitimate categories of questions exist that are not scientifically decidable? If you do agree with this distinction, then I believe I can trivially demonstrate that religion occupies a legitimate magisteria here, along with for example the humanities, philosophy, and literature.

    As for your objection to the dating of the modern synthesis, I am only restating the position you said you would take for the discussion:  “I’ll take Darwinism as meaning the Modern evolutionary synthesis”. On this point also see ‘The Extended Synthesis’ by Pigliucci and Muller.

  • Paul Thibodeau

    What are you talking about?

    Your assertion:

    The scientific approach is basically not to believe any specific proposition unless and until there is evidence for it as provided by observation and experiment.

    My question:

    What I am asking is, what proportion of beliefs that can more or less be justifiably held do you think are left out?

    The criteria is ‘not to believe any specific proposition unless and until there is evidence for it as provided by observation and experiment’. If a justifiable nonarbitrary standard doesn’t exist, on what basis did you make your assertion about the scientific approach? Using the same criteria, what would be your guestimate? It goes without saying we are not talking about what anybody might believe. How can you propose that anyone could, would, or would want to adopt that level of discrimination?

  • Paul Thibodeau

    Now if only we could all always have this level of investigation, nuance, benefit of the doubt, charitableness, earnestness, and empathy for our opponents’ positions, (the golden rule we all proclaim) we could start singing Kumbaya (oops, or maybe Faitheist). It’s a heartbreaking irony.

  • JabbaPapa

    I’ve no idea what tree you’re barking up, but I don’t think I’m up in its boughs.

    I doubt that there is even *one* Young Earth Creationist reading your comments.

  • JabbaPapa

    That seems to be a meaningless phrase

    In fact, it is both precise and clear.

    Are you taking of the natural substances having self-assigned immanent goals, or are you taking of them having immanent goals assigned to them by God?

    … though it seems you’ve understood not a jot of it.

  • JabbaPapa

    Because it resembles Catholic teachings not in the slightest.

  • JabbaPapa

    And the accusation that scientists are closed minded is another one of them.

    … but no such accusation has been made. Dawkins alone has been described as such, not scientists in general.

    Yet when a believer is asked what would disprove the existence of god or
    what would it take to convince them their belief was untrue, there is a
    staggering silence.

    This is because it is not, in fact, possible to disprove the existence of God.

  • JabbaPapa

    The other two gospels are recounting oral traditions that were widely passed on.

    Actually, the latest philological/historical research is suggesting that all four Gospels were written before AD 65 — and possibly as early as AD 35 for Mark.

    This is within a period of about 35 years from the Crucifixion, so that the possibility that these are four eye witness accounts (whether partial or ful witnesses) cannot be denied — but the likelihood that they are written accounts of an oral tradition appears to be far smaller than previously believed.

  • JabbaPapa

    Since the gospen, on balance of probability, was written after AD70

    Wrong — with the probable exception of one of the Epistles, it is most likely that the entirety of the New Testament was written before AD 65.

    traditions are notoriously unreliable means of transmitting historical
    facts accurately.

    Wrong — in fact, research into so-called “oral literature” has demonstrated conclusively that those cultures that rely on oral transmission are extremely faithful to the contents of those traditions, and will pass them on through the generations with only very minor shifts.

  • JabbaPapa

    (scholarly consensus dates Mark to the period between AD 60 and 80).

    More recent historical and philological research dates it to between about AD 35 and 50.

  • JabbaPapa

    Facts should always outweigh even first-hand reports to the contrary,
    let alone reports in scriptures that have proven to be deeply flawed

    With the caveat that I’ve only read a report of the research, but not the research itself, there are apparently about 100 historically verifiable events described in the New Testament — the New Testament gets not a single one of them wrong.

    I would say that the strenghth of your belief is irrational

    Spirituality and God are not strictly defined within the limitations of human rationality, and anyone saying the opposite is wrong. Except that you seem to be implying that they should be.

    This does not mean that such religious quantities are not rationally organised within the mind of the believer — no more than an atheist’s irrational love for his or her young daughter will not be organised in a similar manner.

    In theology, the distinction between revealed theology and natural theology describes those parts of the Revelation that transcend our rational capabilities, and those that do not ; similarly, Science distinguishes between those theories that are empirically or rationally or theoretically verifiable, and those ideas where no evidence either pro or contra can possibly be acquired to either prove or disprove them.

    Irrationality itself is only a negative where it is applied in areas that can be rationally determined — vast areas of human activity exist outside of the strict boundaries of empirical knowledge.

    My hypothesis as to why so many believers regard Dawkins’ criticisms are
    strawmen is that the most successful religious indoctrination is subtle
    enough to persuade its victims that they came to the prescribed
    conclusions through their own reasoning.

    As an ex-agnostic, I disagree by very principle to this characterisation — not only do I find the nature of religious indoctrination, where it exists, to be extremely similar to atheistic indoctrination (but with different contents) ; but I also find your continual characterisations of religious beliefs as being negatively forced upon people to be presumptuous generalisations that are dismissive of people’s general intelligence — and you STILL have not understood that doubt forms an intrinsic part of every mature religious faith.

    As a convert from a personal revelation, that is to say pursuant to direct evidence and experience, I can say that your notion that religion is of an intellectual origin only is wrong. But you refuse to even admit of this possibility.

  • JabbaPapa

    1) So you have been given some extremely bad catechesis as a child.

    Nevertheless, Dawkins’ statement “unquestioning faith is a virtue” is claimed as being true for all religion — which is a direct falsehood.

    As always, false premise > false conclusion ; both in that bad catechesis, and in Dawkins.

    2) No, quite clearly, the following is a strawman : “That is apparently all they said, and that, indeed, is all you can
    say when you have been taught that truth comes from scripture rather
    than from evidence” — not only is Dawkins manipulatively suggesting that what is true of this or that specific case is true of the whole (Socrates is bald ; Socrates is a man ; therefore all men are bald), but the truth of the matter is that Scripture and evidence are not in direct competition as sources of truth. It is a strawman to attack religion on the false notion that they are.

    3) Discuss ellipsis as much as you like, nevertheless the phrase “Religious faith … discourages questioning, by its very nature” would accurately portray Dawkins’ words. This is, however, a lie, a misunderstanding, or an error on his part. In reality, the mainstream religions specifically encourage questioning by their very nature, and they encourage the development of a religious faith that is open-minded and rationally qualified. He’s basically saying that all religious faith is by nature fundamentalist and oppressive, which is just nonsense

  • JabbaPapa

    Good grief, as open-minded as usual, eh ?

  • JabbaPapa

    Note the difference in meaning between “suggest” and “claim”.

    Dawkins certainly *suggests* physical mechanisms similar to those governing evolution as the origin of life.

  • JabbaPapa

    probability theory is a mathematical tool

    You appear to be entertaining a fantasy that I have been describing it as something else. Weird.

    We can never know combinations of many characteristics of atomic and
    subatomic particles, the reason being that they can never be determined
    and not for the reasons of observation you described.

    Wrong, the limitation is strictly observational in nature (in this area of quantum theory, anyway).

    The theory defines them as being unobservable because the reality is that they are unobservable — NOT because they do not have precise location, direction, and velocity in actual fact.

    As you are aware, all theories are strictly limited by the nature of the corresponding physical realities — which prevent the simultaneous observation of the location, direction, and velocity of most quanta.

    Even a quanta of light, a single photon travels as a wave, where in that wave would you suppose the photon sat?

    You are confused — when describing light as photons, it is defined as particles ; when describing light as quanta, it is defined as a wave. I believe that the current theory is that light is composed of particles that exhibit certain wave-like characteristics. Nevertheless, it is technically feasible to discover the location of a single photon — within the limitations of the observational method employed, which may or may not require the use of a statistical analysis. Firing a single photon at a photosensitive surface reveals its location.

    Oh, and unless you have a peer-reviewed unified field theory at your disposal, as well as the associated Nobel Prize for Physics, please refrain from describing your ideas about quantum theory as being factual in nature …

    And the bit that Einstein regrets is of course calling god into the
    discussion allowing the many fallacious claims about his beliefs.

    Only because God is not a topic of study in Physics. But insofar as he may, in this quote, have been referring to the god of the philosophers, his claims about dice are demonstrably wrong. Randomness exists.

    As for Einstein’s beliefs, various self-contradictory quotes exist.

  • JabbaPapa

    I am ignoring any and all posts that appear as blank areas on the website, or as columns of letters and punctuation marks on the right-hand side of it.

  • JabbaPapa

    It is a common mistake, often called “subjective probability analysis”
    to try and put numbers on probabilities where there isn’t sufficient
    basis of statistics or theory.

    A mistake made by Dawkins in his “God probably doesn’t exist”, of course.

  • JabbaPapa

    to explain in simple terms how true revelation can be distinguished from false revelation f this kind, and he was unable to

    Because it cannot be explained in a simple manner.

    Crikey, to start with I’d need to write a theological essay on the nature of Revelation itself, which would likely take months, including the basic research time …

  • Peter

    Given the failed hypotheses of physicists – multiple dimensions, multiple universe, holographic universes etc – the notion of a continuous Creator is the most parsimonious explanation for the universe.

    The stock in trade reply of atheists – who created the Creator – is a ploy to catch out only the superficially-minded.

    The creator of spacetime cannot be part of spacetime, otherwise he would not have existed until spacetime was created, and if he did not exist until spacetime was created, spacetime would not have been created in the first place.  But spacetime exists and therefore the Creator of spacetime is not part of it.

    If the Creator is not part of spacetime, he is not subject to time and space, beginning or end, cause and effect. He is not subject to causation, which renders the question of who created him meaningless.

    Atheists refer to the Creator as the God of the gaps, in the hope that tomorrow they will find the answer to everything and eliminate God. But mankind has had thousands of years to find an alternative for God and has failed, and we are now back where we started with God still remaining as the most parsimonious explanation of our existence.

  • JabbaPapa


    There is evidence that a member of the Royal family was Jack the Ripper. There is evidence to the contrary.

    I have no idea why you imagine that all evidence “must” be accepted — particularly given that all atheists reject the evidence of God’s existence.

  • JabbaPapa

    Some more jolly good old dodging of the “what is the origin of causality ?” question then …

  • The Raven

    So, your definition of the scientific method is “learning from experience”? Your understanding of science is as flaky as your history.

  • The Raven

    Your critique of Lund is worth as much as the effort you put into reading his argument. Zilch.