How and Why: questions for scientists and philosophers?

The late John Davison often remarked that science could only answer “how” questions, not “why”. It seems to me philosophers, perhaps I’m really thinking of philosophers of religion rather than in general, attempt to find answers to “why” questions without always having a firm grasp on how reality works. Perhaps this is why there is so much talking past each other when the explanatory power of science vs other ways of knowing enters a discussion.

I’ve not been particularly motivated to read the anti-religious output of the “Gnu” atheists. I’ve not read Dawkins’ The God Delusion or any of Sam Harris’ output. I did read God is Not Great because someone lent me a copy which I found an entertaining polemic against some sacred cows (not the least being Mother Theresa) but I doubt I would have considered buying Jerry Coyne’s Faith vs. Fact: Why Science and Religion Are Incompatible as I have no need of such arguments being already convinced that no religious dogma has ever yet provided an answer to a “how” question.

But my eye was caught by a post at Uncommon Descent perhaps hopefully entitled “Feser Demolishes Coyne“. I’ve mentioned Edward Feser before (he teaches religious studies at Pasadena City College in California). He’s an outspoken right-wing Catholic blogger with a loyal following and a seemingly intense dislike of Jerry Coyne. The article applauded by Barry Arrington at Uncommon Descent is published at “First Things” (America’s Most Influential Journal of Religion & Public Life ). Feser writes confidently and pejoritavely, finishing with a final barb:

For considered as an omnibus of concrete examples of elementary logical fallacies, Faith versus Fact is invaluable.

By Feser’s standards, the review is brief. Feser lambasts Coyne for choosing to direct his fire on the poster child of anti-science and anti-evolution, US-style Creationism, complains that Coyne defines science too broadly and that Coyne equivocates on the description scientism by embracing it. So I bought the book.

Regarding Feser’s complaint that Coyne focuses on US Creationism, in his first chapter, Coyne goes to some length to explain why he is most concerned with the US and Creationism. Creationism is rife in the US where he teaches, it is anti-evolution, a discipline that he teaches and holds dear and it is the area of scientific/religious conflict that he is familiar with.

As to defining science, Coyne writes (p 39):

In fact, I see science, conceived broadly, as any endeavour that tries to find the truth about nature using the tools of reason, observation and experiment.

Seems reasonable to me. A scientific approach is starting with some observation, some phenomenon, and moving through “that’s interesting” to “what’s going on” to hypothesis testing. But surviving everyday life relies on accepting and working with the regularities we find in the real world around us. Water won’t run uphill without a source of energy, and water running downhill can produce large and useful amounts of energy.

As to the charge of scientism, Coyne tackles this in some detail (according to Kindle, Coyne uses the word 43 times in the book). He points out “scientism” is invariably a pejorative term used to denigrate the idea of scientific endeavour as the only way to know anything about the external world. He demonstrates the equivocal meaning of scientism by suggesting four shades of meaning and embraces the first – that science is “the sole source of reliable facts about the universe.” By that definition, Coyne cheerfully admits:

…most of my colleagues and I are  indeed guilty of scientism. But in that sense scientism is a virtue -the virtue of holding convictions with a tenacity proportional to the evidence supporting them.

I propose Feser’s review as evidence supporting my hypothesis that scientists concern themselves with how things really are and religious philosophers seem to ignore reality when clinging on to their rationalisations of why things are how they assume them to be.

Incidentally, I find Coyne’s book well-written and not at all polemical as might be expected if one assumed Feser’s review was at all accurate.

 

319 Replies to “How and Why: questions for scientists and philosophers?”

  1. Alan Fox Alan Fox
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    CharlieM: I’m sure Alan can answer for himself.

    See above. 🙂

    It doesn’t matter if you are unconscious during sleep or through a general anaesthetic, your ego returns when you wake up. It is not renewed as a blank slate every morning, it is a constant thread running through your life from the time when you first became self-conscious as a child. You do not remember all of your experiences throughout this time, but, barring abnormalities, you know it was you who had these experiences.

    Having had surgery a while ago under general anaesthesia, my experience is of no time whatsoever passing from becoming unconscious to waking up; the experience was indeed like being switched on and off. Sure our experience is not necessarily reliable but the impression that no time had passed (when in reality I’d been in surgery for a few hours) was unsettling.

  2. Kantian Naturalist Kantian Naturalist
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    keiths: No, I think they’re equally real — hence my “two sides of the same coin” analogy.

    However, I do see the physical as being more fundamental. Teleology supervenes on physics, not the other way around.

    I have some technical reservations about the term “supervenes” here, but I don’t think our views are at all far apart.

  3. keiths keiths
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    keiths:

    If you see the will as separate from the body, how does it “reach in” and twiddle with the neurons, causing you to get up from the couch?

    CharlieM:

    I don’t see the will as separate from the body.

    Sure you do. You stressed it, in fact:

    I believe that when I decide to move, the process is initiated by my ego and my brain activity is a consequence of this not a cause.

    CharlieM:

    I see myself as a unified whole; body, soul and spirit.

    You regard them as distinct parts that interact with each other to form a unified whole. My question is about one particular aspect of that interaction.

    Look at your statement again:

    I believe that when I decide to move, the process is initiated by my ego and my brain activity is a consequence of this not a cause.

    How does your ego reach into the brain and cause or alter brain activity so that you end up moving?

  4. keiths keiths
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    keiths:

    However, I do see the physical as being more fundamental. Teleology supervenes on physics, not the other way around.

    KN:

    I have some technical reservations about the term “supervenes” here, but I don’t think our views are at all far apart.

    This is a pretty big difference:

    This is what I’m not a materialist or a physicalist. I don’t think it makes sense to say that the entities characterized by fundamental physics are “more real” or “more basic” than the entities characterized by ecology or by neuroscience. That is, I don’t think that “more basic” or “more real” or “emergent” is a philosophically adequate way of understanding how the different sciences are related to one another.

    My view is that reality is physics. The sciences differ in a) what part(s) of physical reality they focus on, and b) what level of abstraction they apply, but it’s all physics in the end.

  5. petrushka
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    keiths: My view is that reality is physics. The sciences differ in a) what part(s) of physical reality they focus on, and b) what level of abstraction they apply, but it’s all physics in the end.

    I would prefer to say what level of behavior. My thinking on this is admittedly rather sloppy, but the basic unit of science is the regular phenomenon.

    We treat quarks as a regular phenomenon, and the math is rather nice. Not easy, but clean.

    We treat people as unified phenomena, “things” that can be distinguished from the background and counted and described, but the math is awkward.

    As complex properties emerge, science gets less mathematical. Or less predictive.

  6. keiths keiths
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    petrushka,

    My thinking on this is admittedly rather sloppy, but the basic unit of science is the regular phenomenon.

    Science seeks out regularities, but the regularities discovered so far are all ultimately physical regularities, whether we are studying quarks, personalities, economies, or galaxies.

    We treat people as unified phenomena, “things” that can be distinguished from the background and counted and described, but the math is awkward.

    And in so doing we abstract away most of the physical details. That makes our models tractable but less accurate.

    In an economic model, Uncle Joe might be treated as just one more nameless rational agent, whereas in the real world he develops a brain tumor that causes him to blow all his money on hookers. Neglecting the possible effects of quantum randomness, a sufficiently detailed physical model of Uncle Joe and his environs could in principle predict the debauchery.

    It’s all physics in the end.

  7. Neil Rickert
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    keiths: My view is that reality is physics.

    I can go 2/3 of the way with that.

    Instead of: Reality is physics

    I will just go with: Reality is.

  8. petrushka
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    keiths: It’s all physics in the end.

    Phenomena don’t cease to be phenomena simply because they are emergent.

    Physics sets the baseline for possibility. Nothing emergent can violate physics. But physics can’t predict what is possible.

    Or maybe I should say, physicists can’t.

  9. Neil Rickert
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    Alan Fox: A quote from his book seems to bear somewhat upon the subject of the OP:

    It is interesting to note that the creation of computing came from a question in philosophy. Many are eager to dismiss the role of philosophy in academics as being impractical or unimportant. But, as we see here, like all truths, philosophical truths have a way of leading to things of deep practical importance.

    I’m a bit skeptical of that viewpoint. It more-or-less gives credit to Turing for the computer.

    I’m more inclined to give credit to von Neuman. As I understand it, he was concerned with engineering type problems rather than philosophical problems. By putting the program into the computer memory, he could access one element of a matrix, and then repeatedly modify that part of the program so that it could iterate through the matrix.

    The truth is probably that the ideas came from several directions at roughly the same time, with perhaps a kind of “Horizontal Good-idea Transfer”.

  10. Kantian Naturalist Kantian Naturalist
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    keiths: My view is that reality is physics. The sciences differ in a) what part(s) of physical reality they focus on, and b) what level of abstraction they apply, but it’s all physics in the end.

    I think the following are all true:

    (a) all phenomena disclosed from the teleological stance are spatially and temporally co-extensive with a range of phenomena disclosed from the physical (or mechanistic) stance;

    (b) the phenomena disclosed from the teleological stance are spatially and temporally much more restricted than phenomena disclosed from the physical stance;

    (dc all phenomena disclosed from the intentional stance are spatially and temporally co-extensive with a range of phenomena disclosed from the teleological stance;

    (d) the phenomena disclosed from the intentional stance are spatially and temporally much more restricted than phenomena disclosed from the teleological stance.

    What I don’t think is that the physical stance is more real or more fundamental than the other stances. Rather, what is real is patterns: an indefinite and open-ended multiplicity of processes, of becomings, of infinitely many spatio-temporal scales from quantum to cosmic. Some of those patterns are disclosed from the teleological stance as well, and a few of those patterns are also disclosed from the intentional stance in addition to the teleological stance. But it’s patterns and processes all the way down.

  11. Erik
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    keiths: Science seeks out regularities, but the regularities discovered so far are all ultimately physical regularities, whether we are studying quarks, personalities, economies, or galaxies.

    On your list, at least personalities and economies are not physical. Is there a good reason why your category errors should be the norm?

  12. Erik
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    Kantian Naturalist: I think the following are all true:

    (a) all phenomena disclosed from the teleological stance are spatially and temporally co-extensive with a range of phenomena disclosed from the physical (or mechanistic) stance;

    (b) the phenomena disclosed from the teleological stance are spatially and temporally much more restricted than phenomena disclosed from the physical stance;

    (dc all phenomena disclosed from the intentional stance are spatially and temporally co-extensive with a range of phenomena disclosed from the teleological stance;

    (d) the phenomena disclosed from the intentional stance are spatially and temporally much more restricted than phenomena disclosed from the teleological stance.

    What would be your example of phenomena not disclosed from the teleological stance? And phenomena not disclosed from intentional stance?

  13. Alan Fox Alan Fox
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    Had this response from Vincent Torley over at Professor Larry Moran’s blog Sandwalk and rather than clutter his comment section I’ve reposted it here and I’ll respond below. Here’s Vincent:

    Hi Alan,

    I read your post over at the Skeptical Zone. If you want a brief answer to what’s wrong with Coyne’s definitions of scientism, it’s this: his attempt to draw a sharp line between science and religion completely fails. The following paragraphs, which are taken from my review, explain the problem in more detail.

    Let’s return to Coyne’s definition of science: “a methodology that relies on doubt, replication, being subject to the review of your peers, logic, reason and prediction.” We saw above that Coyne himself admits that replication is not an essential feature of science; rather, what matters is that a scientific hypothesis should make striking predictions (about what happened in the past or will happen in the future), which are testable and publicly falsifiable. However, a definition of science which makes testable predictions its hallmark feature is too broad for Coyne’s purposes, for it could encompass religion as well – which would negate Coyne’s central thesis that science offers us a reliable way of knowing, while religion does not. After all, Deuteronomy 18:22 explicitly admonishes us to test prophesies: “If what a prophet proclaims in the name of the Lord does not take place or come true, that is a message the Lord has not spoken.” And while many religious claims – e.g. about what will happen when we die – are untestable on this side of eternity, a believer might argue that they could be falsified in the hereafter: if, for instance, we were to discover after our deaths that reincarnation is true, that would falsify Christianity and lend support to Hinduism, Buddhism and/or Jainism.

    Coyne might reply that even if religious claims are testable in the grand scheme of things, religion does not possess the other marks of science: religion does not resort to logic, reason, doubt and peer review. Again, this is simply not the case: St. Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica is rigorously logical, and its author addresses every question – including the question of whether God exists – by marshaling all the arguments he is aware of which seem to contradict the conclusion that he argues for, before proceeding to refute those arguments. Doubt is part and parcel of Aquinas’ approach to philosophy. As for peer review: once again, has Coyne never heard of ecumenical councils, where proposed theological formulations are subjected to open and at times fierce debate, before being finally adopted by a vote?

    If testable predictions, logic, debate and doubt aren’t enough to distinguish science from religion, then it seems that science’s subject matter must be what makes it distinct from religion: science deals with empirical phenomena, while religion deals with the transcendent. But it is noteworthy that Coyne himself rejects this view: he asserts that many religious statements are empirically falsifiable, and he even claims in his posts that some (e.g. the dogma that humanity is descended from a single couple, Adam and Eve) have already been falsified. Coyne also contends that science could provide at least tentative evidence for the existence of a transcendent, supernatural Deity, if the Deity left visible signs of its existence.

    The upshot of all this is that Coyne’s attempt to draw a sharp line between science and religion fails, and that his definition of science is too broad to do the job.

  14. petrushka
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    Neil Rickert: The truth is probably that the ideas came from several directions at roughly the same time, with perhaps a kind of “Horizontal Good-idea Transfer”.

    There’s Babbage and Jacquard.

  15. keiths keiths
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    Erik,

    On your list, at least personalities and economies are not physical.

    They aren’t physical objects, but they are ultimately physical phenomena. Both depend on the interactions of physical human brains with their environments.

    Same thing with intangibles like money. The $6,300.51 in your checking account isn’t a physical object, but it is instantiated in the physical state of your brain and the physical state of the bank’s computer. The value of money is a collective agreement, instantiated in the brain states of members of society.

  16. keiths keiths
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    KN,

    What I don’t think is that the physical stance is more real or more fundamental than the other stances.

    Physics is more fundamental than, say, psychology, because psychology can (in principle) be explained in terms of physics, but not vice-versa.

  17. Neil Rickert
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    Alan Fox: The upshot of all this is that Coyne’s attempt to draw a sharp line between science and religion fails, and that his definition of science is too broad to do the job.

    Alan is quoting vjtorley.

    I mostly agree with vjtorley on this. I see Coyne’s view of science as too broad and I see his view of religion as too narrow.

  18. petrushka
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    says:

    keiths: Physics is more fundamental than, say, psychology, because psychology can (in principle) be explained in terms of physics, but not vice-versa.

    I assume you are excluding creationist physics.

  19. Alan Fox Alan Fox
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    Vincent Torley: If you want a brief answer to what’s wrong with Coyne’s definitions of scientism, it’s this: his attempt to draw a sharp line between science and religion completely fails. The following paragraphs, which are taken from my review, explain the problem in more detail.

    OK

    Let’s return to Coyne’s definition of science: “a methodology that relies on doubt, replication, being subject to the review of your peers, logic, reason and prediction.” We saw above that Coyne himself admits that replication is not an essential feature of science; rather, what matters is that a scientific hypothesis should make striking predictions (about what happened in the past or will happen in the future), which are testable and publicly falsifiable.

    I’d disagree to some extent (if Jerry Coyne indeed thinks this) that is repeatability is not an essential safeguard for scientific endeavour. Testability is, for me, a paramount ingredient of a definition of science.

    However, a definition of science which makes testable predictions its hallmark feature is too broad for Coyne’s purposes, for it could encompass religion as well – which would negate Coyne’s central thesis that science offers us a reliable way of knowing, while religion does not.

    Well, that assumes that religious dogma makes positive testable claims. This is true for some sects. YEC makes testable claims about human descent from Adam and Eve, a bottleneck of an Ark-full of animals and a 6,000 year old Earth, all failing when subjected to testing.

    After all, Deuteronomy 18:22 explicitly admonishes us to test prophesies: “If what a prophet proclaims in the name of the Lord does not take place or come true, that is a message the Lord has not spoken.”

    That damns quite a few religious claims, doesn’t it?

    And while many religious claims – e.g. about what will happen when we die – are untestable on this side of eternity, a believer might argue that they could be falsified in the hereafter…

    Not sure how that message is going to reach is in the here-ad-now.

    …if, for instance, we were to discover after our deaths that reincarnation is true, that would falsify Christianity and lend support to Hinduism, Buddhism and/or Jainism.

    I wonder how you would establish an instance “reincarnation” from one of delusion.

    Coyne might reply that even if religious claims are testable in the grand scheme of things, religion does not possess the other marks of science: religion does not resort to logic, reason, doubt and peer review.

    Not sure if that is Coyne’ view. Mine is that no religious claim that can be tested has turned out other than false.

    Again, this is simply not the case: St. Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica is rigorously logical, and its author addresses every question – including the question of whether God exists – by marshaling all the arguments he is aware of which seem to contradict the conclusion that he argues for, before proceeding to refute those arguments. Doubt is part and parcel of Aquinas’ approach to philosophy.

    Aquinas died in 1274. I don’t dispute he was one of the most outstanding thinkers of his day. I’m not aware of any scientific studies he conducted. He does not compare with Aristotle’s biological investigations on cuttlefish etc.

    As for peer review: once again, has Coyne never heard of ecumenical councils, where proposed theological formulations are subjected to open and at times fierce debate, before being finally adopted by a vote?

    Scientific discoveries aren’t voted on. They are found by experiment to be useful at predicting aspects of reality and retained, or not and discarded.

    If testable predictions, logic, debate and doubt aren’t enough to distinguish science from religion,

    You’ve failed to show this. I think testability is the key to differentiating science from not science.

    …then it seems that science’s subject matter must be what makes it distinct from religion: science deals with empirical phenomena, while religion deals with the transcendent.

    I’d put it in a similar way. Science deals with reality and religion deals with imagination. I don’t mean this particularly pejoratively. I think imagination and emotion are indispensable aspects of what make us human.

    But it is noteworthy that Coyne himself rejects this view: he asserts that many religious statements are empirically falsifiable, and he even claims in his posts that some (e.g. the dogma that humanity is descended from a single couple, Adam and Eve) have already been falsified.

    That all humanity descends from one woman and one man who lived 6,000 years ago is falsifiable and I’m pretty sure phylogenetics falsifies it.

    Coyne also contends that science could provide at least tentative evidence for the existence of a transcendent, supernatural Deity, if the Deity left visible signs of its existence.

    Jerry Coyne and PZ Myers disagreed over the 9000 ft Jesus as evidence of God and I lean towards PZ on that one. You have to rule out hallucination and delusion before jumping to conclusions. Ditto Joseph of Cupertino.

    The upshot of all this is that Coyne’s attempt to draw a sharp line between science and religion fails, and that his definition of science is too broad to do the job.

    I disagree as you might have guessed. I think Coyne’s idea of science “broadly conceived” as “trying to find out the truth about nature using the tools of reason, observation and experiment” a perfectly justifiable statement.

  20. Alan Fox Alan Fox
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    Neil Rickert: I mostly agree with vjtorley on this. I see Coyne’s view of science as too broad and I see his view of religion as too narrow.

    Ah! Something we disagree on, Neil. I think science can be broadly described as the study and investigation of any real phenomenon. I can’t really define religion but the sphere of human imagination and emotion is available for philosophical study and I’m certanly not objecting to philosophers entering the sphere of reality – quite the reverse.

    ETA I don’t se why these “magisteria” can’t overlap.

  21. petrushka
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    Deuteronomy 18:22 : “If what a prophet proclaims in the name of the Lord does not take place or come true, that is a message the Lord has not spoken.”

    Matthew 16:28: “Verily I say unto you, There be some standing here, which shall not taste of death, till they see the Son of man coming in his kingdom.”

  22. Neil Rickert
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    Alan Fox: ETA I don’t se why these “magisteria” can’t overlap.

    Yes, I agree that they can overlap.

    The reason I see Coyne as having too narrow a view of religion, is that he often asserts that science and religion are incompatible. Yet there are many religious scientists who have found them sufficiently compatible to allow them to do some good science.

  23. petrushka
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    They are compatible in places where they don’t disagree.

    I think, for example, that just about any flavor of pantheism is compatible with science. I have been something of a pantheist since about age 12.

    But pantheism seems a bit like homeopathic medicine.

    In fact, most religious ideas that are compatible with science seem to me to be homeopathic religion.

  24. keiths keiths
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    Neil,

    The reason I see Coyne as having too narrow a view of religion, is that he often asserts that science and religion are incompatible. Yet there are many religious scientists who have found them sufficiently compatible to allow them to do some good science.

    They are compatible in the sense that they can coexist in the same brain, but the approach to truth taken by most religions is incompatible with the approach taken by science.

    Most religious claims don’t hold up to rigorous scrutiny.

  25. petrushka
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    keiths: Most religious claims don’t hold up to rigorous scrutiny.

    Unless they are vacuous.

    I will say that meditation seems to be effective in some ways, but it doesn’t require faith.

    Jerry’s book is called Faith vs Fact, not religion vs fact. I don’t think he cares one way or another about religious mysticism or feel-goodism.

    I think he argues correctly that most religious believe stuff that either isn’t true, or is highly dubious. The incompatible part is not awe, but faith.

  26. Alan Fox Alan Fox
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    Neil Rickert: The reason I see Coyne as having too narrow a view of religion, is that he often asserts that science and religion are incompatible. Yet there are many religious scientists who have found them sufficiently compatible to allow them to do some good science.

    The trouble starts with received dogma. If a religion stands by some ancient text or some not-so-ancient gold tablet then it is going to come into conflict with science and reality. It seems to me it is to modify the dogma according to new facts rather than trying to deny them or contort them. The YEC stance seems the most bizarre of all. Todd Wood, for instance, seems a perfectly sensible guy apart from this one area of lunacy.

  27. Kantian Naturalist Kantian Naturalist
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    Erik: What would be your example of phenomena not disclosed from the teleological stance? And phenomena not disclosed from intentional stance?

    When I say “phenomena disclosed from ____ stance”, I mean that the stance in question consists of the norms and habits required for using the concepts that track the real patterns brought into view by that stance, by characterizing those patterns in some specific way.

    Thus, the teleological stance allows us to characterize some real patterns (but not others) in terms of what an organism’s goals and purposes are, how it tries to satisfy those goals, and how different biological functions contribute to satisfying those goals.

    Likewise the intentional stance allows us to characterize some real patterns (but not others) in terms of what an agent’s beliefs and desires are, how he or she acts on the basis of those beliefs and desires, and how different actions contribute to the satisfaction of desires in light of beliefs.

    But other real patterns do not require either the teleological or intentional stances: how salt dissolves in water, or how the mechanics of planetary orbits. Those can be understood in entirely mechanistic terms.

    Keiths and I are arguing about whether the mechanistic stance (my term) is more real, or more fundamental, than the other stances. I am not sure that we are limited to those three, since ultimately any embodied strategy that allows us to effectively cope with phenomena will count as a stance.

    As for the real patterns themselves, I myself could not express the point better than Evan Thompson:
    ——————————————————–
    In the context of contemporary science, as we have seen, ‘nature’ does not consist of basic particulars, but fields and processes, and this difference between a process viewpoint and an elementary-particle version of Cartesian substance metaphysics does make a difference to the philosophical issues about emergence. In the former [process-oriented] view, there is no bottom level of basic particulars with intrinsic properties that upwardly determines everything else. Everything is process all the way ‘down’ and all the way ‘up’, and processes are irreducibly relational — they exist only in patterns, networks, organizations, configurations, or webs. For the part/whole reductionist, ‘down’ and ‘up’ describe the more and less fundamental levels of reality. Higher levels are realized by and determined by the lower levels (the “layered model of reality”). In the process view, ‘up’ and ‘down’ are context-relative terms used to describe phenomena of various scale and complexity. There is no base level of elementary entities to serve as the ultimate ’emergence base’ on which to ground everything. Phenomena at all scales are not entities or substances but relatively stable processes, and since processes achieve stability at different levels of complexity, while still interacting with processes at other levels, all are equally real and none has ultimate ontological primacy. (Mind in Life, pp. 440-441)
    —————————————————

    On the process metaphysics that Thompson puts forth here — indebted to Kaufmann, Prigogine, Deleuze, and to some extent Simondon — there is no ontologically basic or primary “level” to reality.

    I’m bringing that process metaphysics into conversation with Dennet’s notion of “stances” (actually, Kukla’s more embodiment-focused version of that notion). The result is that we can think of the different stances — the mechanistic, the teleological, and the intentional or discursive — as different embodied coping strategies for characterizing processes of different spatio-temporal scales and degrees of complexity.

    My affinity for this kind of process metaphysics should also explain why I am neither a reductive materialist nor a non-reductive materialist, since both positions assume the layered model of reality that I reject.

  28. CharlieM CharlieM
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    Alan Fox: I think (heh) that the structure and function of the brain would need to be fully explored and understood before we need to start looking elsewhere for explanations of human cognition. Progress is being made both from bottom-up (biochemistry of neurons etc) and top-down (MRI scanning etc). As Flint remarks, there is an undeniable link between brain activity and cognition so speculation about the brain being not sufficient as the organ containing our cognitive abilities and positing immaterial “mind” is premature.

    The brain is the organ by which we think, but we must never lose sight of the fact that there is no such thing as a brain in isolation. It makes no sense to say that the brain thinks. It is the individual who thinks.

    Life will never be understood by simply applying the laws of physics to living substance. Reductive thinking comes into its own when we re dealing with the inorganic material world, but understanding living form requires us to have mobile, holistic thinking.

  29. llanitedave llanitedave
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    Neil Rickert: Yes, I agree that they can overlap.

    The reason I see Coyne as having too narrow a view of religion, is that he often asserts that science and religion are incompatible.Yet there are many religious scientists who have found them sufficiently compatible to allow them to do some good science.

    In my experience those tend to be more examples of compartmentalization than fundamental compatibility.

  30. Flint
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    CharlieM:
    The brain is the organ by which we think, but we must never lose sight of the fact that there is no such thing as a brain in isolation. It makes no sense to say that the brain thinks. It is the individual who thinks.

    Life will never be understood by simply applying the laws of physics to living substance. Reductive thinking comes into its own when we re dealing with the inorganic material world, but understanding living form requires us to have mobile, holistic thinking.

    ??? Of course it is the brain that thinks, and the “me” is the subjective appreciation of that thinking. It’s what thinking looks like to itself. Now, if you mean that the brain “in isolation” means without the rest of the nervous system, I’d be inclined to agree. Being a person is a whole-body experience.

    I think it’s an error to confuse extreme complexity with some sort of woo. Yes, the human brain has an estimated 100 trillion connections. Probably the level of abstraction required for self-awareness is impossible without some very huge number of connections. But the individual is more than a brain only in the sense that the individual is a whole body.

  31. Flint
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    says:

    Neil Rickert: Yes, I agree that they can overlap.

    The reason I see Coyne as having too narrow a view of religion, is that he often asserts that science and religion are incompatible.Yet there are many religious scientists who have found them sufficiently compatible to allow them to do some good science.

    Compartmentalization is not evidence of compatibility, it’s evidence of exactly the opposite. Yes, there are religious scientists, but they do not let their religious beliefs corrupt their science.

    Petrushka is correct here, I think. NOMA might be true in principle, but in practice ALL religions make testable claims, and any religion that did not would be entirely vacuous, and have no believers because it would have nothing to say about the world we live in.

    (I did enjoy vjtorley’s idea that a bunch of theologists arguing about angels on pinheads is “peer review”. So OK, let’s say they vote, and the winning number is 42. Now, what does this MEAN? If we agree not to ask, are we doing “religious science”?)

  32. phoodoo
    Ignored
    says:

    Flint,

    If being a person is a whole body experience, if you lose part of that body, or you add part of someone else’s are you still you?

    We already can add and subtract many body parts. how many can we add or subtract from you, and it still be you?

    If what we are is a state of various chemicals, then when we change that state, like eat something, does the “you” change?

    Science can’t answer this question, and I believe never will be able. And it is why we can never really create artificial life. If we could take every chemical in your body, and see exactly the state each one is in, could we make “you”? Would you agree its you?

  33. Mung Mung
    Ignored
    says:

    petrushka: Deuteronomy 18:22 : “If what a prophet proclaims in the name of the Lord does not take place or come true, that is a message the Lord has not spoken.”

    Matthew 16:28: “Verily I say unto you, There be some standing here, which shall not taste of death, till they see the Son of man coming in his kingdom.”

    And what makes you think this did not come to pass?

    Jerusalem was destroyed in AD 70. It put an end to second temple Judaism. No Temple. No Priests. No Sacrifices.

  34. Flint
    Ignored
    says:

    phoodoo:
    Flint,

    If being a person is a whole body experience, if you lose part of that body, or you add part of someone else’s are you still you?

    We already can add and subtract many body parts.how many can we add or subtract from you, and it still be you?

    I would suppose this is an arbitrary determination. Some people with prosthetics feel incomplete, and some with transplants feel conflicted.

    If what we are is a state of various chemicals, then when we change that state, like eat something, does the “you” change?

    Yes, often it does, again depending on how you wish to see it. Surely we all know people who change their nature significantly when drunk, or on some medications, or even when under extreme stress.

    Science can’t answer this question, and I believe never will be able.

    But I just DID answer. I suspect you are equivocating on exactly what “you” means in these questions. I’ve had the unpleasant experience of watching people I knew very well most of their lives, slowly succumb to Alzheimer’s. They reached the point where they could no longer recognize me (or anyone else). Would you say that their “you” degenerated away somewhere along that path?

    And it is why we can never really create artificial life.If we could take every chemical in your body, and see exactly the state each one is in, could we make “you”?Would you agree its you?

    And while we’re at it, was the “me” of 50 years ago the same as the “me” today? My perception is that I have changed almost beyond recognition, mentally and physically. And my risk of Alzheimer’s is considered quite high – how much longer do I have before I’m not me anymore?

  35. petrushka
    Ignored
    says:

    KN: I really like the layered model.

  36. CharlieM CharlieM
    Ignored
    says:

    keiths:
    keiths:

    CharlieM:
    I don’t see the will as separate from the body.

    Sure you do.You stressed it, in fact:

    I believe that when I decide to move, the process is initiated by my ego and my brain activity is a consequence of this not a cause.

    This does not make it separate. As I see it the essential difference between a living organism and dead matter is that the latter obeys Newtons 1st Law whereas the former can move without having an external force applied to it. Our activity is initiated from within.

    CharlieM:
    I see myself as a unified whole; body, soul and spirit.

    You regard them as distinct parts that interact with each other to form a unified whole. My question is about one particular aspect of that interaction.

    We can regard our nervous system and our cardio-vascular system as distinct parts, but in reality they are co-dependent, interpenetrating systems and you can’t have one without the other. The ego, which I regard as spirit has its bodily expression in the blood. Just look what happens when we become acutely aware of our self, the blood rushes to our face and we blush. This is a demonstration of the self-conscious ego having an effect on the body.

    Look at your statement again:

    CharlieM:
    I believe that when I decide to move, the process is initiated by my ego and my brain activity is a consequence of this not a cause.

    How does your ego reach into the brain and cause or alter brain activity so that you end up moving?

    I exercise my will and my fingers move. During this process I have no experience of chemical activity in my brain. In fact I have had no direct perception of my brain, let alone any processes within it. The only reason that I have any knowledge of this process is because I have read about it. However I am conscious of my desire to type these words and that I have willed my fingers to do the typing.

    Are you telling me that the “I” that experiences is an illusion? One set of brain activities is telling another set of brain activities that the “I” is just an effect of its action. Should this set of brain activities feel embarrassed for being so gullable as to fall for such an illusion?

    No, my “I” is real and it partakes of a higher reality than the transitory activities in my brain.

  37. phoodoo
    Ignored
    says:

    Flint,

    But that’s just it Flint; you have acknowledged that people change all the time, whether through chemicals, or time, and yet, you would still call yourself “you” yes? No one lives as if the changed person is another person. We don’t put someone in jail for something, and then the next day, say, well, this is not that person, why is he here?

    We don’t marry someone, and then after some time say, well, I am not married to you. We don’t say, well, that child is not my child. My child used to look different than this. We all behave as if there is a core “you” inside all of these changes. Why is that? Why do we continue to see one’s identity as persisting throughout a lifetime?

    I say the answer is because deep down we know that what we see as the person, goes beyond the bag of chemicals, and what state they are in at any time. Each person has a fundamental ‘them” to them, that can not be separated no matter how much we change them.

    Do you think people who have parents that have Alzhemiers switch and say, that is not my parent? Do they say, well, I am not going to pay for that persons care, it is not my parent? Do they say, go ahead, kill them, I don’t mind why should it matter to me, they have no relation to me? Of course not.

    We live with the belief that the person, no matter what physical changes they go through, retains the one thing they are.

    Now, if we made artificial life with a computer, and we could change out the hard drive when we wanted, or the body shell, I don’t think we would have any qualms about dissembling that AI, and reassembling it into something else. We will never overcome that difference.

    If we are only chemicals, which are the chemicals that are us, and which are the ones that aren’t? We can never answer this fundamental question.

  38. keiths keiths
    Ignored
    says:

    CharlieM,

    The ego, which I regard as spirit has its bodily expression in the blood. Just look what happens when we become acutely aware of our self, the blood rushes to our face and we blush. This is a demonstration of the self-conscious ego having an effect on the body.

    How does it achieve that effect? How does the ego — a spiritual entity, in your account — alter the behavior of the body, a physical entity?

    The laws of physics, applied to the body, predict one chain of events. The ego causes a different chain of events to occur. How did it “persuade” the body to violate the laws of physics? If our bodies routinely violate the laws of physics, why has science been unable to detect those violations?

  39. keiths keiths
    Ignored
    says:

    phoodoo,

    Something I wrote in an old thread on the afterlife:

    I think I am the body. The body changes over time, and so do I. Your mistake is in thinking that if I am my body, and my body changes, then I am no longer me. That’s not true. The Mississippi River remains the Mississippi even if every water molecule in it flows out into the Gulf or evaporates and is replaced by others. It’s the same with me.

    And:

    The river is a physical thing — a bunch of water molecules flowing toward the sea. Yet even when all the molecules are replaced, it is still the same river. This doesn’t mean that there is some kind of “river soul” that continually inhabits the Mississippi — it just means that “the Mississippi River” does not merely name a static entity, it names a “flow”. If the flow ends — say, if the river dries up permanently — then the Mississippi River no longer exists.

    See this beautiful video of a lenticular cloud over New Zealand. The cloud remains, even though air and water are constantly flowing through it. When the weather changes, the cloud vanishes. The continuity is broken.

    Likewise, “keiths” is the name of a living process, an evolving being, not a static entity. Even when all the molecules of keiths have been replaced, he is still keiths. However, if the process ends — say, by a grand piano falling on keiths from a great height — then keiths no longer exists. The continuity is broken.

  40. Kantian Naturalist Kantian Naturalist
    Ignored
    says:

    petrushka:
    KN: I really like the layered model.

    Yes. As does Keiths. My worry is that the layered model of reality is an outdated conception of both science and philosophy of science.

  41. keiths keiths
    Ignored
    says:

    KN,

    How do you address the following asymmetries, which seem obvious and inescapable to me?

    1. Organisms are composed of atoms, but not vice-versa.

    2. The behavior of organisms is determined by the behavior of their constituent atoms, but not vice-versa.

  42. keiths keiths
    Ignored
    says:

    Neil:

    The reason I see Coyne as having too narrow a view of religion, is that he often asserts that science and religion are incompatible.Yet there are many religious scientists who have found them sufficiently compatible to allow them to do some good science.

    llanitedave:

    In my experience those tend to be more examples of compartmentalization than fundamental compatibility.

    Yes. The scientists who pull it off tend to have an impressive ability to tolerate cognitive dissonance, without which the compartmentalization would be hard to maintain.

  43. CharlieM CharlieM
    Ignored
    says:

    Flint: ??? Of course it is the brain that thinks, and the “me” is the subjective appreciation of that thinking. It’s what thinking looks like to itself.

    You have it backwards. I think by means of the brain.

    If you are sitting debating a man across a table, do you believe that in front of you there sits a brain and that is what constitutes an objective fact? But the person you are arguing with? Well he is just a subjective effect produced by that brain.

    I love my wife for what she is. Are you trying to tell me that I am in love with an illusion and what I have in reality fallen for is a conglomeration of brain processes?

    Now, if you mean that the brain “in isolation” means without the rest of the nervous system, I’d be inclined to agree. Being a person is a whole-body experience.

    No I don’t mean without the rest of the nervous system, because even with the spinal cord and the periphery nerves this system taken in isolation separate from the organism as a whole is an abstraction. I agree, being a person is a whole-body experience and more.

    I think it’s an error to confuse extreme complexity with some sort of woo. Yes, the human brain has an estimated 100 trillion connections. Probably the level of abstraction required for self-awareness is impossible without some very huge number of connections. But the individual is more than a brain only in the sense that the individual is a whole body.

    You also have this backwards. The abstactions are the single, simple impressions received by the senses. Only through thinking are we able to correctly arrange and order these abstract entities into a meaningful whole. Self awareness is a journey towards reality not abstraction.

  44. Alan Fox Alan Fox
    Ignored
    says:

    CharlieM: No I don’t mean without the rest of the nervous system, because even with the spinal cord and the periphery nerves this system taken in isolation separate from the organism as a whole is an abstraction. I agree, being a person is a whole-body experience and more.

    I’d agree with that too.

  45. vjtorley
    Ignored
    says:

    Hi Alan Fox,

    Evidently you agree with Jerry Coyne’s characterization of science as “trying to find out the truth about nature using the tools of reason, observation and experiment.” But regardless of whether it succeeds or not, it seems to me that religion uses these same tools to try and find out the truth, at least sometimes. Neil Rickert is therefore correct in concluding that science and religion can overlap.

    You might argue that religious claims, when tested, invariably turn out to be false. First of all, that’s not true: the religious claim that the world had a beginning is correct, as is the claim that humans appeared after the other animals. But even if it were true, the vast majority of scientific hypotheses end up being falsified. All your definition would entail is that religion, insofar as it is science, is bad science. But that’s very different from claiming that religion is fundamentally different from science in its approach to truth.

  46. Alan Fox Alan Fox
    Ignored
    says:

    vjtorley,

    Hi Vincent, welcome back to TSZ.

  47. Alan Fox Alan Fox
    Ignored
    says:

    vjtorley:
    Evidently you agree with Jerry Coyne’s characterization of science as“trying to find out the truth about nature using the tools of reason, observation and experiment.”

    Yes. In the past, I’ve had a similar discussion with Mike Gene where I suggested that all real phenomena were amenable to scientific study and he thought that made for a “wishy-washy” definition of science. I still don’t see what was wrong with my suggestion.

    But regardless of whether it succeeds or not, it seems to me that religion uses these same tools to try and find out the truth, at least sometimes. Neil Rickert is therefore correct in concluding that science and religion can overlap.

    And I agree with Neil as well. Science can of course examine testable religious claims and if there is some other way of finding out about reality other than observing, measuring and experimenting, then I’m all ears.

    You might argue that religious claims, when tested, invariably turn out to be false.

    I do indeed.

    First of all, that’s not true: the religious claim that the world had a beginning is correct, as is the claim that humans appeared after the other animals. But even if it were true, the vast majority of scientific hypotheses end up being falsified. All your definition would entail is that religion, insofar as it is science, is bad science. But that’s very different from claiming that religion is fundamentally different from science in its approach to truth.

    Well, I’m not standing in anyone’s way. I just don’t see any tangible results so far informing us about reality. I’ve made the reality/imagination distinction before and to grant religious thought the realm of imagination is generous enough. If you want more, take it. But you need to deal in real evidence.

  48. petrushka
    Ignored
    says:

    I tend to think of religion as pre science rather than bad or non science.

    I think the religious way of looking at the world stand to science in much the same way as astrology stands to astronomy and alchemy stands to chemistry.

    I have little interest in and no particular opposition to religion as a mode of speculating about the mysteries of existence.

    I oppose religion as an authority on history, and specifically as the purveyor of messages from gods or God, or Xenu or whatever.

    Religion can be historically accurate to the extent it is consilient with other means of determining history. There may be stories that are unique to scriptural narratives, but to be accepted as history, they need to be consistent with history derived from archaeology, biology, geology, astronomy, and other texts.

    There are also what I would call Bayesian problems with claims of revealed religion. How likely is it that the Hebrew and Christian and Muslim scriptures are authoritative, when there are older narratives having much the same content and structure? I’m not convinced. It just doesn’t seem likely.

  49. vjtorley
    Ignored
    says:

    KeithS;

    I would disagree with your claim #2 in post #40 above. I’ve described how a top-down model of free will might work, here:

    http://www.uncommondescent.com/intelligent-design/physicist-tells-people-to-stop-saying-they-have-free-will/

  50. Kantian Naturalist Kantian Naturalist
    Ignored
    says:

    keiths: How do you address the following asymmetries, which seem obvious and inescapable to me?

    1. Organisms are composed of atoms, but not vice-versa.

    2. The behavior of organisms is determined by the behavior of their constituent atoms, but not vice-versa.

    I think the first one is true, but the second one is not.

    Here’s my worry about (2): it’s a metaphysical claim. Now, as a good pragmatist, I have a methodological principle that metaphysics must always be grounded in epistemology. (And, of course, conversely.) That means that we’re not entitled to assert any claim about reality unless we’re also entitled to assert some claim about how we know that reality is as it is asserted to be.

    Our knowledge of the behavior of organisms comes from many different kinds of observations and experiments, both in the lab and in the field, using specialized equipment and specific methods. We learn how to capture, tag, and release individual birds so we can record their migration, or construct a map of dominance/submission and alliances in a chimpanzee troop, or determine succession in an forest after a fire. Ethologists and ecologists know a lot about how organisms behave.

    Likewise, our knowledge of the behavior of atoms comes from the use of specialized equipment and specific methods. These days it’s mostly a matter of particle accelerators, but we’ve also learned things about atoms from the experiments of Dalton, Millikan, and Rutherford. And so we we know a lot about how atoms (and their constituent particles) behave.

    But what we don’t seem to have is a theory that unifies particle physics and cognitive ethology. One can assert that particles determine organisms “in principle”, but that’s just a blank check. We don’t have what we need: an empirically confirmed model of the relationship between the models that explain the phenomena that we characterize as particles and the models that explain the phenomena that we characterize as organism.

    That’s a tall order, but as I see it, the criterion for unifying the sciences has to be very high if the unity of science thesis is not going to be just another bit of “God’s-eye view” secularized theology.

    To be clear: I am not advocating any supernaturalism, vitalism, panpsychism, etc. — I am not raising any objections about metaphysics. I am raising objections to the unity of science, which are ultimately epistemological objections. I am effectively saying — along with philosophers of science like John Dupre and Nancy Cartwright — that the sciences are not unified into a single comprehensive picture of the world. (Sellars was wrong: there is no “scientific image”. There also is no “manifest image,” for quite different reasons.)

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