On Seeking Truth

by Luke Muehlhauser on October 26, 2009 in How-To

searching_for_truth

A reader has asked me:

How should I be trying to find truth? What should I be doing and studying to help find it? How can I look at anything independently?

…and maybe most importantly, should I listen to my conscience and emotions?

These are big questions. Philosophers have struggled with these questions for thousands of years, and they still don’t have them figured out. Look at the tables of contents in recent issues of the best philosophy journals like Mind, Noûs, and Australasian Journal of Philosophy, and you will see dozens of articles arguing about these very questions. Scientists, too, are actively researching these problems. These questions also plague the rest of us, who do not spend our careers trying to answer them but would like to know the answers by quicker means if possible.

Literally millions of dense, insightful pages have been written on these questions, and I could barely make a dent in considering them if I wrote an entire book about each one of them.

Besides, I’m certainly no authority. I haven’t spent a lifetime trying to answer these questions. I haven’t read the latest academic books and papers. I haven’t even taken a university course in epistemology (the study of knowledge and how to get it).

So now that you’re prepared to ignore everything I say, let me share my thoughts.

How should I be trying to find truth?

Truth is a difficult thing. Just a few centuries ago, the smartest humans alive were dead wrong about damn near everything.

They were wrong about gods. Wrong about astronomy. Wrong about disease. Wrong about heredity. Wrong about physics. Wrong about racism, sexism, nationalism, governance, and many other moral issues. Wrong about geology. Wrong about cosmology. Wrong about chemistry. Wrong about evolution. Wrong about nearly every subject imaginable.

Or so we believe. We think we are better informed than they were. Are we? Is our truth more reliable than their truth?

If we want to know the truth, we’d better have a good method for finding it. What’s the best method for finding truth? How should we be trying to find truth?1

Here’s how I see humanity’s situation with respect to knowledge. Recently, humanity awoke in a strange and beautiful universe. We did not know where we came from or what we should do, but we did our best to survive. We made some guesses about what things existed and how they worked, and most of those guesses turned out to be wrong. It turned out there was not a magical being that would give us a good harvest if we sacrificed virgins to him every so often. It turned out we were not at the center of a small universe. It turned out disease was the product of microorganisms, not sin or demons. It turned out earthquakes and tsunamis were the product of shifting tectonic plates. The universe was full of surprises.

So how can we figure out what things really exist and how they really work? The answer is important. The answer helps us decide what to do. If disease is the product of microorganisms and not demons, then the best way to heal billions of people is to train more doctors, not more priests and shamans. Knowledge is power; the power to do something about the condition of our universe.

Okay, so which methods give us reliable knowledge? There is no a priori answer. We could have awoken in a universe controlled by a playful demon who always delivered us truth whenever we raped antelope. In that universe, the best way to learn how the real world works would be to rape antelope as often as possible. Or we could have awoken in a universe in which our minds contained a special faculty that could directly detect truths about the universe, and so the most reliable path to knowledge would be to trust our inner sense. Or we could have awoken in a universe where our minds were programmed such that truth was always attached to things that were aesthetically pleasing to us. In such a universe, the best path to truth would have been to look for beauty.

But which universe did we wake up in? Which methods tend to work best for uncovering truth in this universe?

It could have been the case that our inner sense was a reliable guide to truth, but it’s not. Apparently, our inner sense was mankind’s primary (or only) method for finding truth for thousands of years, during which time we were dead wrong about damn near everything. Even today, the natural world continues to confound our most assured intuitions about the nature of space and time (see relativity), identity and causation (see quantum mechanics), and much more. I know that our inner sense delivers to us a sense of assurance along with its hypotheses, but the simple truth is that our inner sense has a horrible track record with the truth.

It could have been the case that mystical experience was a reliable guide to truth, but it’s not. Mystical experience has, over many eons, lead to belief in thousands of absurd and contradictory spiritual realities. Once again, it is the nature of mystical experience to deliver to us a strong assurance of veridicality along with its metaphysical claims, but the simple fact remains that mystical experience has a horrible track record with the truth.

I know the personal sway of mystical experiences. I had many of them myself. It was hard to even consider they might be an illusion. But anyone with a passing knowledge of psychology and neuroscience knows many good reasons to doubt the common metaphysical inferences drawn from mystical experiences. Mystical experience is what I call The Ultimate Bias, since we rarely hold our own mystical experiences to the same standards of proof as we do the bizarre (New Age, Hindu, Zen Buddhist…) mystical experiences of many other people. Mystical experience is another very poor guide to the truth.

It could have been the case that persons who rose to become public authorities were a reliable guide to truth, but they’re not. They’ve been wrong as often a “common” people have, and spouted just as much nonsense. Moreover, authorities constantly disagree with each other. So authority is a poor guide to truth.

It could have been the case that personal desire was a good guide to truth, but it’s not. People often have contradictory desires, and these desires often lead them to support contradictory claims. And many truths are disappointing to nearly all of us. So there seems to be little connection between what we want to be true and what is true.

It could have been the case that that beauty was a good guide to truth, but it’s not. For one thing, different people see different things as beautiful, and contradictory propositions cannot both be true. For another, there are many ugly truths. The atom bomb is very ugly but the nuclear physics behind it is deafeningly true. Suicide terrorism is ugly but it is rising in popularity precisely because its practitioners have realized an important truth: that it successfully coerces democracies to withdraw forces from a people group’s homeland.2

Instead, mankind awoke and tried dozens of different methods and found that one particular set of methods – the ones we call “scientific” – are the ones that work best at uncovering the truth about the world we live in. The proof is in the pudding, as they say: scientific methods probably add a greater number of usable truths to humanity’s stockpile of knowledge than all the other methods had for thousands of years, combined. And that’s exactly why science has the prestige that it has. That’s why it’s “the game to beat.” That’s why theologians and philosophers envy scientists and try to borrow their methods as much as possible into their own practices.

But science is always refining itself. When we find that some new set of tests give us more reliable results, we include them in our scientific practice. When we find that a set of techniques has been giving us unreliable answers, we stop using those methods. (At least, scientists do.)

So it looks to me like we’ve awoken in a universe that obeys natural laws, and that’s why scientific measurement, observation, experiment, and rigorous attempts to disprove hypotheses before they are accepted are such successful guides to the truth, whereas other methods have much higher rates of error, and should not generally be trusted.

How should I be trying to find truth?
> What should I be doing and studying to help find it?
> How can I look at anything independently?
>
> and maybe most importantly,
>
> Should I listen to my conscience and emotions?

  1. Much of this post is cloned from a post I made on Jesus Manifesto. []
  2. See Robert Pape, The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism. []

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{ 41 comments… read them below or add one }

Todd White October 26, 2009 at 6:41 am

This is a pretty good post, Luke – one even I – as a theist – can agree with.

When it comes to discovering “Truth,” I only have 2 axioms.

1) Reality exists

2) Reason is the only way to discover and master Reality.

Everything flows from that.

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Steven October 26, 2009 at 7:02 am

Thoughtful post. I favor science and naturalism as the means to solve our problems and find truth as well.

However, I do not discount the mysticism of direct experience. First of all, it drives science. If it were not fun, enjoyable, challenging, fulfilling, etc. then no one would pursue scientific discovery. So even to embrace the “objective”, we must start with the subjective.

Mystical experience is a deep, raw awareness of direct experience. We get in to trouble whenever we attempt to interpret and translate it into something that can be communicated to others. We tend to mistake the language for the actual experience. Another way to think of it is – the thinking mind takes the raw experience and turns it into a dogma, or an explanation, full of words and mental pictures – because humans have to communicate and “make sense” of things….. even when it doesn’t make sense.

Words and mental pictures are the slaves of spirit. Not the other way around.

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ayer October 26, 2009 at 7:37 am

“That’s why theologians and philosophers envy scientists and try to borrow their methods as much as possible into their own practices.”

That statement is simply absurd. And the entire post’s naive scientism (see http://www.nytimes.com/2006/02/19/books/review/19wieseltier.html?ex=1141880400&en=ea271e1339f7423d&ei=5070)

reads like it written in the 19th century (or maybe by Dennett or Dawkins, throwbacks to that era of scientistic faith).

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Lorkas October 26, 2009 at 8:08 am

“That statement is simply absurd. And the entire post’s naive scientism (see http://www.nytimes.com/2006/02/19/books/review/19wieseltier.html?ex=1141880400&en=ea271e1339f7423d&ei=5070) reads like it written in the 19th century (or maybe by Dennett or Dawkins, throwbacks to that era of scientistic faith).”

Scientism isn’t naive, it’s based on a long history of victories of science over dogma, mysticism, and theology.

Science and people like you, who say “Science can’t explain THIS!” have butted heads hundreds of thousands of times, and science has won every time. Given that track record, I’m just gonna go with science until I see it start to lose a few rounds to lazy naysayers like you.

Of course, that’s beside the point. The question is: do theologians borrow the language and/or practices of scientists in order to lend themselves more credibility? I’d say, read anything written by any creationist from the past 60 years. Listen to Bill Craig talk about why he thinks you should believe in his god. Listen to practically any western theologian who argues for the existence of any god, and I daresay you’ll rethink whether or not it’s absurd to claim that theologians want to get some of the authority that scientists have by making themselves look more like scientists.

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Kip October 26, 2009 at 8:13 am

> Moreover, authorities constantly disagree with each other. So authority is a poor guide to truth.

It is to be noted, that in context, Luke is referring to “public authorities”. There are also “authorities” that are deemed such because they have the most knowledge and experience in a certain field of expertise, vetted by peer-review and the scientific method. Those “authorities” are a good source of true information. When an entire group of these types of “authorities” in a field all agree on something, it’s probably true. E.g. Evolution.

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Reginald Selkirk October 26, 2009 at 8:24 am

Kip: It is to be noted, that in context, Luke is referring to “public authorities”. There are also “authorities” that are deemed such because they have the most knowledge and experience in a certain field of expertise, vetted by peer-review and the scientific method. Those “authorities” are a good source of true information.

An important distinction, which is why I try to use the term “expertise” rather than “authority.” After all, two massive objects do not attract each other gravitationally because Newton said so (authority), but rather their attraction is an intrinsic property of the objects about which Newton acquired some useful insight (expertise.)

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Reginald Selkirk October 26, 2009 at 8:26 am

How should I be trying to find truth?

Look under the sofa cushions. When i need to find something, that’s usually where it turns up.

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Chuck October 26, 2009 at 9:22 am

Kip,

There was a time when everyone (I am only talking about “authorities” here) believed in something called the Luminiferous Aether. Even now, many “authorities” (if not a majority) believe in a magical faster-than-light force called “wave function collapse”.

You are right to accept evolution, but don’t do it because of “authorities”. Do it because of the evidence.

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Kip October 26, 2009 at 10:39 am

Chuck,

I trust the peer-reviewed, scientifically vetted experts on Evolution more than I trust my current understanding of it (which I know is very lacking).

I also trust the peer-reviewed, scientifically vetted experts in Medicine and Surgery to do what is right to make me well when I’m sick, rather than trust my own current understanding of it.

There are many such experts that I trust more than myself. And I am justified in doing so, based on what we have learned is the best way of gaining knowledge. I just know that I don’t have the time or expertise to get all the knowledge in all the fields I rely on all the time. I trust the experts in those fields.

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Luis October 26, 2009 at 12:28 pm

I found the essay very well written and I agree with most of it. However I would have used unfamiliar rather than
“bizarre” for the mystical practices of other cultures.
Otherwise it may sound as if there is some cultural bias in the argument.
Christian practices probably seem bizarre if seen from another culture and I believe that was, in part, your point but in singling out the “other” mysticism it seems culturally insensitive.
I am a practicing zen buddhist. In my practice I am not seeking any “mystical” experience. While I would agree there are people who practice buddhism with a mystical outlook, my practice is of a more “agnostic” flavor.
I do not assume all atheists believe the same thing (I happen to be one) other than sharing a disbelief in a god or gods.
There is a danger of dumping every “spiritual” discipline in the same bag as well.

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Rich October 26, 2009 at 1:39 pm

I try to deal in confidence and certainty rather that ‘truth’.

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Mark H. October 26, 2009 at 1:43 pm

Chuck: There was a time when everyone (I am only talking about “authorities” here) believed in something called the Luminiferous Aether. Even now, many “authorities” (if not a majority) believe in a magical faster-than-light force called “wave function collapse”.

You are right to accept evolution, but don’t do it because of “authorities”. Do it because of the evidence.

Do you think scientists came up with the aether and wave function collapse based on no evidence? I’ll give you the evidence for aether. I would do the same for wavefunction collapse (as I have a degree in physics), but I don’t believe you could actually cite evidence against wavefunction collapse (quoting Eliezer Yudkowsky doesn’t count).

Aether: Every wave observed before Einstein’s time was a traveling disturbance of matter. Sound waves were a disturbance through fluids; water waves are disturbances in water; the Wave at a sports stadium is a traveling disturbance of people out of their seats. Every wave had a medium. When scientists discovered that light was a wave, they looked for the medium that was disturbed to generate the wave effects. As the identity of the medium was unknown, they borrowed an old name for mysterious, all-pervasive substances: aether. It was the failure to show the existence of this substance (and the success of relativity and quantum mechanics) that cause scientists to abandon the aether idea.

Does this mean I believe aether theory? No. The evidence against it overwhelms the evidence for it. It’s just a matter of history that scientists believed in the aether first. At the time, it was less wrong than the particle theory of light. Now, we have better theories than both the wave and particle theories of light known as quantum field theory.

Can we count on scientists to always tell us what the truth of the situation is? No, if science knew everything, it would stop. What we can count on is scientists giving us better information than we had in the past.

Planets moving in circles around the sun was a better explanation for celestial observations than geocentrism.

Planets moving in ellipses around the sun was a better explanation for celestial observations than circular orbits.

Curvature of spacetime caused by mass-energy density is a better explanation for celestial observations than Newtonian gravity.

There is always something wrong with our current theories about how the universe works. If you have something better, bring it forward to be evaluated. There is no conspiracy. Everyone is feeling their way through the dark. Scientists have simply tripped over more furniture than most, so we have a better understanding of the lay of the land.

To those who value direct, mystical experience: what knowledge is gained? Since these experiences are so personal as to be incommunicable, is it more likely to be a consequence of what’s outside a person’s head, or inside?

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Mark H. October 26, 2009 at 1:49 pm

Just in case you still think scientists are untrustworthy due to holding on to ideas without evidence, here’s a sample of the scrap heap.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Superseded_scientific_theory

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Chuck October 26, 2009 at 2:08 pm

Mark,

Do you disagree with me, that trying to understand the evidence is better than merely polling scientists? Because that is all I was trying to say.

Why the long diatribe, friend?

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Pete October 26, 2009 at 2:36 pm

Ayer writes: “That statement is simply absurd. And the entire post’s naive scientism (see http://www.nytimes.com/2006/02/19/books/review/19wieseltier.html?ex=1141880400&en=ea271e1339f7423d&ei=5070)”

wieseltier!? seriously?

you’re quoting a well-known philosophical incompetent (cf. http://leiterreports.typepad.com/blog/2006/02/why_review_a_bo.html) to support your case against “scientism”? good luck, ayer.

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Lee A. P. October 26, 2009 at 4:21 pm

ayer supports reading an ancient book, believing its stories, praying to an invisble father that you accept the supernatural claims about his son, and then waiting for a ghost to posses you and then tell you what is true.

By the way, the father, son and ghost are all God but also there is only one God. It works out, just trust them.

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Jeff H October 26, 2009 at 4:28 pm

Luke, I’ve got a small bone to pick about the terminology you often use here. Really, it’s inconsequential, but I’m going to bring it up anyway :P

You often mention that we’ve been “dead wrong about damn near everything.” But I think that’s being a little bit facetious. To use a common example, Newtonian physics has been (somewhat) replaced by the theory of relativity in physics. Does that mean that Newton was “wrong”? No, of course not. It’s just that relativity gives us a greater degree of accuracy, etc.

I cringe a little bit when people say something about humans before the scientific method being ignorant. Yes, of course, science has made great leaps in knowledge, and opened up new worlds that we never knew existed. But I don’t think that knowledge is always necessarily either “right” or “wrong”, like 1+1=2 is one of the two. There’s also a degree of accuracy in there. Humans, even without the established scientific method, were able to learn migration patterns of animals, blooming times of various fruits and berries, etc. They had a fairly good knowledge about the things that mattered to them. And using science we’ve been able to improve on those even more, but it doesn’t mean they were “wrong”. The elements of everyday experience – moving, collecting/hunting food, building shelters, creating tools and weapons – all these were done fairly well, even without science. So I can’t really agree with you that humans were “wrong about damn near everything.” It seems that they were good at developing strong heuristics that got them by with reasonable accuracy. And that’s no small accomplishment. The fact that they also believed in spirits and gods seems such a small area in comparison. Or maybe not a small part, but certainly not “damn near everything”.

Anyway, that’s it. Like I said…ultimately inconsequential, but I’m picky :P

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Mark H. October 26, 2009 at 4:32 pm

Chuck:

Most likely, I read your post wrong. It sounded to me like you were saying, “Scientists have been wrong in the past, therefore science is useless.” I hear it often enough that any hint of it grates. Perhaps I should stop reading Pharyngula for a while.

A part of me wonders how non-experts should judge evidence if relying on the opinion of scientists is not an option. Perhaps this wondering is also a part of my misreading.

A slightly related note: the Copenhagen interpretation (wavefunction collapse) is no longer the majority view among physicists; Many Worlds seems to be in the lead among physicists.

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Kip October 26, 2009 at 5:28 pm

> A part of me wonders how non-experts should judge evidence if relying on the opinion of scientists is not an option.

And that is why what Chuck said was wrong: “You are right to accept evolution, but don’t do it because of “authorities”. Do it because of the evidence.”

It’s perfectly acceptable, and necessary to trust the experts. I rely on the consensus of the scientific community of experts in all sorts of areas that I don’t have the time, expertise, or inclination to learn myself.

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Kip October 26, 2009 at 5:32 pm

> Do you disagree with me, that trying to understand the evidence is better than merely polling scientists?

It depends what your goal is. If it’s to gain understanding of how something works, then yes. If it’s to make a good, relatively quick decision, then no.

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Thomas Reid October 26, 2009 at 6:17 pm

Think hard, stay humble, and rely on first principles:

The external world is real.

Truths, concepts corresponding to reality, exist.

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Nick Barrowman October 26, 2009 at 7:16 pm

Luke wrote:

Instead, mankind awoke and tried dozens of different methods and found that one particular set of methods – the ones we call “scientific” – are the ones that work best at uncovering the truth about the world we live in.

Science does provide the best methods for uncovering the truth about the physical world. But do we live only in the physical world? For example, what about the world of mathematics? Mathematical truths are not discovered by the methods of science. At the heart of science is empirical observation. And empirical observation only applies to physical phenomena.

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Chuck October 26, 2009 at 8:13 pm

Kip, tell me. When would anyone have to make a “relatively quick decision” about evolution, the Aether, or Many Worlds? These are all things that anyone with a modicum of intelligence should be able to research for themselves and come to an informed decision about.

Now it sounds to me like you think I’m saying that before we can know anything at all about evolution, we should all become paleontologists and go around digging up fossils!

I’m not saying that at all.

What I am saying is that the person who spends a couple of nights reading one of the many popular books out there on evolution and then decides for him or herself based on the EVIDENCE is doing something very different from the person who just says “Many experts believe X is true, therefore, X is true.”

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lukeprog October 26, 2009 at 8:40 pm

Jeff H,

Mankind has indeed been much better with practical knowledge than with other kinds of knowledge. But even still, I stand by my language. Newtonian physics is, as far as I can tell, abnormal in that it is basically right and was merely expanded by future physics. Not so with our earlier theories of almost everything in biology, medicine, astronomy, chemistry, and even psychology. This is really a very, very short list.

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lukeprog October 26, 2009 at 8:42 pm

Nick Barrowman,

I think it’s clear from the way I framed the story that I was talking about the discovery of truth about this universe we find ourselves in. That is, the physical world.

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Mark H. October 26, 2009 at 11:21 pm

Luke,

It depends on what you mean by “basically right.” The Newtonian universe is a very accurate description of the familiar, medium-sized world, but modern theories are by no means mere extensions. Relativity and quantum mechanics are starkly alien to the Newtonian world-view. QM got rid of the notion of particles having individual identities and locations. Relativity got rid of the notion that two observers would ever agree on any measurements of space and time. Newtonian physics has been totally replaced and is only still used today because it is accurate enough and the math is much, much easier.

Like architects designing buildings on top of a flat earth, Newtonian physics is useful but not correct.

I seem to be in an argumentative mood lately. This mood seems to have coincided with going home to visit my parents. Odd coincidence…

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Kiwi Dave October 27, 2009 at 1:53 am

Interesting comment, Mark H. Your explanation of how scientists got the aether wrong by extrapolating from the known to the unknown should be a warning to those who like to speculate from known natural outcomes to unknown supernatural causation. When you don’t have the relevant evidence, you are much more likely to guess a wrong answer, however plausible and apparently logical, than to get the right answer.

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Nick Barrowman October 27, 2009 at 3:21 am

Luke,

It seems to me that your post was talking about more than just the truth about the physical world. Indeed, the use of the unmodified term “truth” as your reader expressed it (“How should I be trying to find truth?”) suggests something much more all-encompassing.

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Kip October 27, 2009 at 5:22 am

> When would anyone have to make a “relatively quick decision” about evolution, the Aether, or Many Worlds?

Oh, how about a member of a school board who is making a decision on whether to include Intelligent Design in the science curriculum? I think it’s perfectly acceptable and necessary for them to trust the experts in this case.

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Kip October 27, 2009 at 5:27 am

> What I am saying is that the person who spends a couple of nights reading one of the many popular books out there on evolution and then decides for him or herself based on the EVIDENCE is doing something very different from the person who just says “Many experts believe X is true, therefore, X is true.”

Spending a couple of nights reading a book about evolution is pretty much trusting the person who wrote that book.

And, honestly, I’d rather have someone on a school board do a poll of all of the scientists with PhDs in Biology to determine whether Evolution is true or not, than to pick up a book by the Discovery Institute and spend a couple of nights reading it and determine based on that EVIDENCE that Evolution may not be true.

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ayer October 27, 2009 at 5:33 am

Lorkas: “Given that track record, I’m just gonna go with science until I see it start to lose a few rounds to lazy naysayers like you.”

Science has already begun to hit its fundamental limits. See: http://www.searchmagazine.org/Archives/full-horgan.html

And then there are those areas which science cannot by definition address (which happen to be the most fundamental questions humanity grapples with); see:
http://undsci.berkeley.edu/article/0_0_0/whatisscience_12

Pete: “you’re quoting a well-known philosophical incompetent (cf. http://leiterreports.typepad.com/blog/2006/02/why_review_a_bo.html) to support your case against “scientism”? good luck, ayer.”

You’re citing a devotee of scientism to judge a dispute between Wieseltier and another devotee of scientism? Good luck, Pete

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lukeprog October 27, 2009 at 6:00 am

Nick,

Hmmm… you’re right. I should write a followup post. Thanks!

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Lorkas October 27, 2009 at 6:35 am

“Science has already begun to hit its fundamental limits. See: http://www.searchmagazine.org/Archives/full-horgan.html

Scientism is the position that science has authority over other domains of inquiry when it comes to explaining the natural world. I also think of it as the position that everything is explained by natural forces. It is not the position that humans will eventually explain everything using science.

To put it another way, even if science gets to its limits in the manner described by your link above, there’s nothing to say that there’s anything to explain beyond those limits. He argues that there are no more great, worldview-changing discoveries left (an bare assertion, first of all), but even if he’s right, you would have to demonstrate that there is something else to explain before you can claim that there’s something science didn’t explain.

It’s always wrong to postulate that there’s a fairy who always stays just out of sight, and it’s always wrong to postulate a deity that always stays just beyond our knowledge of the universe. You have to have positive evidence that there’s something else beyond science before you claim that science failed (for an analogy, if a car runs out of gas as it reaches its final destination, then the car hasn’t failed in any sense: it completed its journey).

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ayer October 27, 2009 at 8:10 am

Lorkas: “You have to have positive evidence that there’s something else beyond science before you claim that science failed”

Don’t you see that your position contains the hidden assumption that the only valid source of knowledge is scientific knowledge? If that is so, then of course there is “nothing left to explain” when the limits of science are hit, but that is just assuming away the issue, not addressing it.

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Josh October 27, 2009 at 8:16 am

Ayer,

If science isn’t the only valid source of knowledge about the world, can you give one example where a nonscientific means has provided information about the world? Religion certainly doesn’t count.

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Pete October 27, 2009 at 2:48 pm

Ayer: “You’re citing a devotee of scientism to judge a dispute between Wieseltier and another devotee of scientism?”

Yes, because this “devotee of scientism” provides compelling evidence that wieseltier is an ignoramus. so what’s wrong with that?

Ayer: “And then there are those areas which science cannot by definition address (which happen to be the most fundamental questions humanity grapples with); see:
http://undsci.berkeley.edu/article/0_0_0/whatisscience_12

This is a more serious issue. But I think that your claim that the supernatural is “by definition” outside the area of science is, at least in its generality, clearly false.

Consider a witch doctor who proposes a supernatural explanation of measles (e.g. “measles are caused by little invisible demons”). Now, if scientists show that measles are caused by a virus, they have – by any reasonable standards – *refuted* the witch doctor’s supernatural claim. Therefore, there are supernatural claims that can be adressed (and refuted) by science.

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Nick Barrowman October 27, 2009 at 6:17 pm

Pete,

The witch doctor’s claim that measles are caused by little invisible demons does not necessarily contradict the scientist’s claim that measles are caused by a virus. The demons are not (I take it) empirically detectable, and are thus scientifically irrelevant. Perhaps the witch doctor would claim that the viruses (the proximate cause of the illness) are under the control of the demons (the ultimate cause of the illness). If this were true, vaccination against the virus would still make sense. But if the witch doctor denies the existence or causal role of the virus, then that claim can be refuted scientifically. If the witch doctor claims that certain ritual practices can ward off the illness then that can also be refuted scientifically.

My point is that strictly supernatural claims can’t be refuted scientifically. It’s only when they impinge on the physical world that they can (and should) be refuted.

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Josh October 27, 2009 at 7:57 pm

Nick,

I guess the issue is that at that point it’s totally useless to even discuss anything with the witch doctor. We have plenty of evidence that scientific inquiry works really well, but that unfounded random claims are useless… so you would be completely justified in not listening to him.

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Pete October 28, 2009 at 8:05 am

Nick,

as I see it, the witch doctor has two options:

(i) He can *modify* his thesis and claim that the demons do not directly cause measles, but cause the viruses to move in certain ways, so that we can still say that demons cause measles *indirectly*. But then, the scientist can point to the natural causes of virus movements, and the initial problem crops up again.

(ii) The witch doctor can maintain that measles are overdetermined: they are caused by viruses *and* demons. this is a logically possibility, and I do not think that we can *prove* that it does not obtain. Nevertheless, we are justified in rejecting it – in the same way that we are justified in rejecting phlogiston theory, once we know that burning is explained by oxidation. Why treat demons differently than phlogiston?

At the end your comment, you say:

“My point is that strictly supernatural claims can’t be refuted scientifically. It’s only when they impinge on the physical world that they can (and should) be refuted.”

I partly agree with that. But only partly, because many supernatural claims *do* imply that supernatural beings affect the physical world in some way. Therefore, many supernatural claims are scientifically refutable.

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Mark November 30, 2009 at 2:38 pm

…and maybe most importantly, should I listen to my conscience and emotions?

Depends. How old are you? Is your conscience WELL FORMED with objective norms, or is it a hodge podge of moral relativism like Luke’s where YOU have decided what is good and bad, right and wrong, etc? If the latter, your conscience is worthless. Only a conscience steeped in OBJECTIVE NORMS (read: 10 Commandments) is a reliable COMPASS to navigate this complicated world we live in. There is a reason GRAY is the devil’s favorite color.

Luke I would say to “come home” to Christianity, but I can now see you were never home to begin with. In order to find Christ you will need to start all over with him. My advice is to look up those two Catholics who departed your church about the same time you did and sit down and talk to them about TRUTH. If you are as open to finding truth as you say you are, then how about hearing what they have to say?

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Kip November 30, 2009 at 3:10 pm

Mark: Only a conscience steeped in OBJECTIVE NORMS (read: 10 Commandments) is a reliable COMPASS to navigate this complicated world we live in.

Why stop with those 10? Why not keep reading the next chapters (Exodus 21-23), and apply the rest of what God told Moses to your life? Probably because it’s a bunch of bollocks, and if you did, you’d be locked up in a mental institute or prison?

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