The unhealthy synergy between methodological naturalism and accommodationism

Many critics of Intelligent Design and creationism are methodological naturalists – that is, they believe that supernatural topics are off-limits to science, and that science is inherently unable to pass judgment on religious claims.

Many of these same critics are also accommodationists, meaning they believe that there is no real conflict between science and religion, and that believers should not feel threatened by evolution or any other area of modern science.

Methodological naturalism and accommodationism reinforce each other.  By separating science and religion into “non-overlapping magisteria”, to borrow Stephen Jay Gould’s phrase, each side is reassured that its own “turf” is protected from the other.  Science classes are off-limits to religious ideas, and the faithful can rest assured that science will not overturn their cherished beliefs.

I think that methodological naturalism and accommodationism are both untenable.  Religious claims, such as those regarding young-earth creationism and the efficacy of prayer, can easily be investigated (and falsified) using the methods of science, provided that they make testable predictions.

The magisteria are not separate.  They overlap considerably, and in the areas of overlap, science has the formidable advantage of being both rational and empirical, and not faith-based.

Religion is fighting a losing battle. It is giving up ground as science advances.

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196 thoughts on “The unhealthy synergy between methodological naturalism and accommodationism

  1. There are some Wittgensteinians who hold this “entirely-separate-realm” theory. But they generally take the Tractarian “nothing can be said” tact. On that view there can be no religious “knowledge” because there’s nothing propositional going on there at all. I suppose on that view, religion collapses into a kind of Sadhana.

    I don’t know exactly what is meant by “religion” in this post, but my own (non-Quinean) view, as I’ve already indicated here, is that metaphysical claims, though possibly true, are not subject to scientific verification or disconfirmation. To the extent that they are confirmable, they aren’t entirely metaphysical. I guess such views could be thought to be “religious” in the sense that they aren’t subject to proof, but I’m not a positivist,so I don’t make such claims necessarily nonsensical. OTOH, what most people call religious tenets seem pretty ridiculous to me–if I can make sense of them at all.

  2. I think the issue many people in science – not just methodological naturalists – have with many religious claims is that they specifically dismiss testable predictions. Prayer is a great example; most theists hold that God or the gods address prayer on His (their, Its) terms, not the prayer’s terms. I’ve had oodles of believers (my mom included) “pray for my health” and most feel that their prayers have been answered regardless of any particular medical or health outcome. In other words, the basis of success is wide open. I think that’s rather silly and I really don’t see any of that as a testable claim.

    For me, methodological naturalism is a practical consideration as I feel science is about explaining how nature operates. If one wants to study how God operates, either one has to show that God is in fact natural or propose a method for studying that which is not natural. I don’t see how one can about thing any other way.

  3. keiths said:

    They overlap considerably, and in the areas of overlap, science has the formidable advantage of being both rational and empirical, and not faith-based.

    In the first place, the concept that all things are explicable in terms of “naturalism” is faith based; and logic is ultimately based on faith in the unprovable axioms of logic. There is no way to avoid one’s perspective on such matters from being – ultimately – faith-based; there is only a plethora of ways to hide this fact from oneself.

    I think you’re setting up a false dichotomy based upon the hidden assumption of consensus. Empiricism doesn’t necessarily imply consensus; manyt religious believers certainly have their own empirical experiences to draw rational conclusions from. Reason can as easily be applied using religious premises as scientific. Religious or spiritual belief can certain be both empirical (based on actual, personal experience) and rational (rational conclusions drawn from that experience).

    Methodological naturalism, suffers from a potential deficit that cannot be overcome that lies in the term “natural”. It doesn’t seem to have any well-defined meaning or value, other than as a placeholder for a hidden ideological bias against some potentially true causes.

    Let’s take, for example, the idea of a multiverse; what does “naturalism” mean when considering other universes? If there is another universe that is ordered and arranged by a superpowerful intelligence that spontaneously appeared at its origin, is whatever that being does, and how it arranges that universe, “natural”? Is the existence of an aircraft carrier explicable through methodological naturalism? If so, wouldn’t that require deliberate, intelligent agency to be an acceptable natural agency available under the terms of “methodological naturalism”?

  4. Is the existence of an aircraft carrier explicable through methodological naturalism? If so, wouldn’t that require deliberate, intelligent agency to be an acceptable natural agency available under the terms of “methodological naturalism”?

    But of course it is acceptable, and I don’t know who said it wasn’t, other than IDists and the like who constantly misrepresent the issues. You just need the evidence. Real evidence based upon real entailments.

    Anyway, I’ve never understood why science is ever portrayed as involving “naturalism” of any kind, since the real issue is epistemology. If you have an amorphous claim about astral bodies or whatever that is protected from any contrary evidence by noting that, well, maybe this or that just doesn’t happen under such amorphous claims, it’s just possible that it’s true. It’s also impossible to distinguish such a claim from the well-known processes of special pleading.and of confirmation bias. Likewise with ID, which always relies on the unknown nature of the “designer” to excuse its failure to explain anything about patterns and limitations found in nature.

    We have rather better explanations for unscientific claims about reality than that these are actually true, mainly because such claims are protected from discovery, rather than facilitating it.

    Glen Davidson

  5. Methodological naturalism and accommodationism reinforce each other.

    The whole split between “supernatural” and “natural” was a means of protecting religion from the emergence of modern science.. I’m not saying that it was a new concept or any such thing, since “natural” versus “supernatural” is a long-term distinction, but religion had made claims about the “natural world,” and there was no obvious reason why science couldn’t deal with the “supernatural” either, although the abode of God wasn’t really accessible.

    The decisions made to let religion have a separate realm untouchable by science, while mainline religion wouldn’t gainsay science, appear to have been politically accommodating, with little other reason for them. What is ironic is that now “naturalism” of whatever kind is accused by many theists of existing in order to define religion out of science, when it primarily exists in order to keep religion from any sort of rigor or testing.

    Glen Davidson

  6. William J. Murray: Let’s take, for example, the idea of a multiverse; what does “naturalism” mean when considering other universes?

    It’s more productive to discuss regularity than to argue about what is natural or unnatural.

    Multiverses are conjectured as an extension of certain models of physics. The conjecture is in the time-honored tradition of projecting the entailments of models. Sometimes such conjectures are difficult or impossible to test. Sometimes they remain difficult until someone figures out how to build an appropriate instrument.

  7. walto,

    I don’t know exactly what is meant by “religion” in this post, but my own (non-Quinean) view, as I’ve already indicated here, is that metaphysical claims, though possibly true, are not subject to scientific verification or disconfirmation. To the extent that they are confirmable, they aren’t entirely metaphysical.

    I’m speaking of religion in the ordinary sense of the word. People make a lot of untestable religious claims, but they also make testable ones.

    We can’t test the claim that God has forgiven our sins (except by dying and seeing which of the H-places we get sent to 🙂 ), but we can test other religious claims, such as whether God wiped out the world in a global flood and placed the rainbow in the sky to remind himself not to do it again.

    Science can’t adjudicate the forgiveness claim, but it can adjudicate the flood claim, because the latter is testable. It’s testability that matters. Whether supernatural causes are involved is irrelevant as long as the claims are testable.

  8. More difficult and problematic, but I think you can test claims of cultural benefits from religion.

    There is something to be said for having religion in one’s past (art, music and such), and perhaps religion is an improvement over some previous thought system, but the current question is whether it is useful going into the future.

    Unfortunately we do not get to choose between atheism and enlightened, accommodationist religion. what we have is a choice between a scientific outlook and a gaggle of warring bronze age tribalisms.

  9. Robin,

    For me, methodological naturalism is a practical consideration as I feel science is about explaining how nature operates. If one wants to study how God operates, either one has to show that God is in fact natural or propose a method for studying that which is not natural.

    Would you agree that science can test the existence of a YEC God who created the universe 6,000 years ago and wiped out all but a favored few in a global flood?

  10. William,

    In the first place, the concept that all things are explicable in terms of “naturalism” is faith based;

    I don’t assert that they are, but I also haven’t seen any phenomena that appear to require a supernatural explanation.

    …and logic is ultimately based on faith in the unprovable axioms of logic. There is no way to avoid one’s perspective on such matters from being – ultimately – faith-based; there is only a plethora of ways to hide this fact from oneself.

    That’s not correct, and I’ve been meaning to do an OP on that subject. Faith is not required. We can accept things provisionally, without faith, including the rules of logic themselves. If we run into trouble at some point we’ll reconsider, just as geometers did when they found out that the parallel postulate wasn’t a “self-evident truth” and that entirely new geometries were possible in which the parallel postulate did not hold.

    I think you’re setting up a false dichotomy based upon the hidden assumption of consensus. Empiricism doesn’t necessarily imply consensus; manyt religious believers certainly have their own empirical experiences to draw rational conclusions from.

    Private religious or mystical experiences are notoriously untrustworthy and contradictory. They simply cannot be taken at face value. There are thousands (and probably millions) of people who have had religious experiences that conflict with your model.

    Reason can as easily be applied using religious premises as scientific.

    Sure, but if the premises are untrue, then it’s garbage in, garbage out.

    Methodological naturalism, suffers from a potential deficit that cannot be overcome that lies in the term “natural”. It doesn’t seem to have any well-defined meaning or value, other than as a placeholder for a hidden ideological bias against some potentially true causes.

    Precise demarcation isn’t needed. Most people will agree that frogs are natural, and God is supernatural. Antibiotics are natural, and prayer is supernatural.

    Is the existence of an aircraft carrier explicable through methodological naturalism?

    Sure, because humans are natural beings.

    If so, wouldn’t that require deliberate, intelligent agency to be an acceptable natural agency available under the terms of “methodological naturalism”?

    Yes, intelligent natural agents (such as humans) are acceptable under the terms of MN. Intelligent supernatural agents (such as God) are not, however.

    That’s exactly why I think MN is a mistake. There is no reason why science cannot investigate the supernatural, provided that the supernatural hypotheses in question have testable entailments.

  11. Glen,

    What is ironic is that now “naturalism” of whatever kind is accused by many theists of existing in order to define religion out of science, when it primarily exists in order to keep religion from any sort of rigor or testing.

    True, but I think it’s only fair to acknowledge that the theists have a legitimate gripe when it comes to methodological naturalism. Science should not be artificially limited to considering only natural causes.

    There is no reason, for example, that science cannot consider the possibility that evolution is guided. I think it already has, with devastating consequences for the supernatural hypothesis.

  12. petrushka,

    Multiverses are conjectured as an extension of certain models of physics. The conjecture is in the time-honored tradition of projecting the entailments of models.

    That’s right, and it’s telling that so few ID proponents understand that the multiverse is a prediction, not a theory in its own right.

  13. I don’t know if I’m a methodological naturalist or an accommodationist. But I suspect I’m both, or close enough to both as makes no difference So I’d like to hear more about the criticism of those positions.

    I’m an accommodationist in the following sense: I don’t think there is any essential conflict between “science” and “religion” because I don’t think it is essential to religion to make objective assertions about the actual, spatio-temporal world of causal happenings. (Though this may be essential to particular kinds of religion, I don’t even think it is essential to Christianity — though Christianity is more prone to this problem than other religions.)

    And I’m a ‘methodological naturalist’ insofar as I’m a pragmatist and empiricist — I think that the scientific methods that allow for reliable detection and correction of cognitive biases endow the results of empirical inquiry with epistemic authority distinct from that of beliefs based on assumptions, prejudices, traditions, intuitions, and so on.

  14. Kantian Naturalist: I don’t know if I’m a methodological naturalist or an accommodationist.

    That’s pretty much where I stand. I not convinced that “methodological naturalism” means anything. Sure, I use evidence in making decisions. But the question of whether or not it is natural never comes up as far as I can tell. It is hard to see how mathematics could count as natural, except in the sense that it is an activity of humans who are part of nature. If “natural” is broad enough to encompass mathematics, then it would seem to be broad enough to encompass religion.

    I’m confused about accomodationism. The OP defines it in terms of a “real conflict between science and religion”. Sure, there’s a real conflict. But I don’t think there’s an essential conflict. I see arguments that seem to suggest that accomodationism is weak science that bends to religion. But, in my experience, it is more a matter of thinking that religion should be able to bend a little to accomodate science. And that seems fine with me.

    I really don’t know what all the arguing is about, regarding either methodological naturalism or accomodationism. And I have no idea as to what is the point of this thread.

  15. KN,

    I’m an accommodationist in the following sense: I don’t think there is any essential conflict between “science” and “religion” because I don’t think it is essential to religion to make objective assertions about the actual, spatio-temporal world of causal happenings. (Though this may be essential to particular kinds of religion, I don’t even think it is essential to Christianity — though Christianity is more prone to this problem than other religions.)

    I think practically everyone is an accommodationist in that sense. All that’s required is to believe that there is at least one set of possible religious beliefs, no matter how rare and unpopular, that lacks empirical consequences. Who could doubt that?

    In the OP, I am speaking of “accommodationism” as it is typically used in the science vs. religion debates. Accommodationism in this sense is the idea that believers in general should not feel that their beliefs are threatened by science.

    Anyone who believes in an immaterial soul, or that God guided evolution so as to produce humans, should feel that their beliefs are threatened by science, because they are.

    And I’m a ‘methodological naturalist’ insofar as I’m a pragmatist and empiricist — I think that the scientific methods that allow for reliable detection and correction of cognitive biases endow the results of empirical inquiry with epistemic authority distinct from that of beliefs based on assumptions, prejudices, traditions, intuitions, and so on.

    That doesn’t resemble any definition of methodological naturalism that I’ve seen. Again, I am using the term as it is typically used in the science vs. religion debate. For example, Robert Pennock (who testified on this topic at the Dover trial) describes MN this way:

    Similarly, science does not have a special rule just to keep out divine interventions, but rather a general rule that it does not handle any supernatural agents or powers. That is what it means to hold methodological naturalism…

  16. Neil,

    I not convinced that “methodological naturalism” means anything.

    It definitely means something. Try Googling it, or read Pennock’s description above.

    Sure, I use evidence in making decisions. But the question of whether or not it is natural never comes up as far as I can tell. It is hard to see how mathematics could count as natural, except in the sense that it is an activity of humans who are part of nature.

    Methodological naturalism has nothing to do with whether science is natural or whether mathematics is natural. It concerns the acceptability of supernatural causes in scientific hypotheses and explanations.

    If “natural” is broad enough to encompass mathematics, then it would seem to be broad enough to encompass religion.

    Again, the question isn’t whether science, mathematics, or religion are natural phenomena. It’s whether supernatural hypotheses are allowable in science.

    I’m confused about accomodationism. The OP defines it in terms of a “real conflict between science and religion”. Sure, there’s a real conflict. But I don’t think there’s an essential conflict.

    As I said to KN above:

    I think practically everyone is an accommodationist in that sense. All that’s required is to believe that there is at least one set of possible religious beliefs, no matter how rare and unpopular, that lacks empirical consequences. Who could doubt that?

    In the OP, I am speaking of “accommodationism” as it is typically used in the science vs. religion debates. Accommodationism in this sense is the idea that believers in general should not feel that their beliefs are threatened by science.

    Neil:

    I really don’t know what all the arguing is about, regarding either methodological naturalism or accomodationism. And I have no idea as to what is the point of this thread.

    The point of the OP is to argue that both MN and accommodationism are bad ideas, for the reasons I’ve given.

  17. keiths: Anyone who believes in an immaterial soul, or that God guided evolution so as to produce humans, should feel that their beliefs are threatened by science, because they are.

    I believe, rather strongly — more strongly than I would have thought, actually — that this is not quite right. The correct version would be:

    Anyone who believes in an immaterial soul, or that God guided evolution so as to produce humans, and who also believes that there is strong evidence for their beliefs, should feel that their beliefs are threatened by science, because they are.

    The difference may appear overly subtle but I believe it is quite decisive.

  18. keiths: Methodological naturalism has nothing to do with whether science is natural or whether mathematics is natural. It concerns the acceptability of supernatural causes in scientific hypotheses and explanations.

    Then I repeat that it doesn’t mean anything.

    Supernatural hypotheses are fine if well supported by evidence. Of course we are likely to then declare them natural, rather than supernatural. But the distinction is whether there is sufficient supporting evidence.

    My history is shaky. But I seem to remember that Descartes criticized Newton’s theory of gravity for depending on occult causes. However, that objection was ignored and Newtonian gravity was accepted as natural, and not occult because of the strong evidential support.

  19. keiths:

    Anyone who believes in an immaterial soul, or that God guided evolution so as to produce humans, should feel that their beliefs are threatened by science, because they are.

    KN,

    I believe, rather strongly — more strongly than I would have thought, actually — that this is not quite right. The correct version would be:

    Anyone who believes in an immaterial soul, or that God guided evolution so as to produce humans, and who also believes that there is strong evidence for their beliefs, should feel that their beliefs are threatened by science, because they are.

    The difference may appear overly subtle but I believe it is quite decisive.

    I think you actually meant something like this:

    Anyone who believes in an immaterial soul, or that God guided evolution so as to produce humans, and who also believes that strong evidence is a necessary basis for such beliefs, should feel that their beliefs are threatened by science, because they are.

    But I would argue that both of the altered versions miss the point. The accommodationists aren’t saying to believers “don’t worry about science if your beliefs are faith-based”; they’re saying, “don’t worry about science, because it is confined to its own magisterium and cannot even deal with the subject matter of your religious beliefs.”

  20. keiths:

    Methodological naturalism has nothing to do with whether science is natural or whether mathematics is natural. It concerns the acceptability of supernatural causes in scientific hypotheses and explanations.

    Neil:

    Then I repeat that it doesn’t mean anything.

    That’s silly. The fact that you disagree with something doesn’t render it meaningless.

    Supernatural hypotheses are fine if well supported by evidence. Of course we are likely to then declare them natural, rather than supernatural. But the distinction is whether there is sufficient supporting evidence.

    Then it sounds like you agree with me:

    It’s testability that matters. Whether supernatural causes are involved is irrelevant as long as the claims are testable.

    Neil:

    My history is shaky. But I seem to remember that Descartes criticized Newton’s theory of gravity for depending on occult causes. However, that objection was ignored and Newtonian gravity was accepted as natural, and not occult because of the strong evidential support.

    Its true that the boundary between natural and supernatural can shift over time, but that doesn’t negate the fact that there is a boundary. As I explained to William:

    Precise demarcation isn’t needed. Most people will agree that frogs are natural, and God is supernatural. Antibiotics are natural, and prayer is supernatural.

  21. The true religion is not losing ground and evolution and company have lost ground every year.
    This forum exists because of this losing ground. It never would of existed 30 or 20 years ago.
    Where has science proven YEC wrong or where has science proved evolution right.
    There have been threads on this forum about evolutions claims to being scientific.
    yet I have never seen, just watched the inner fis/reptile on PBS, any scientific biological evidence for evolution.
    I see instead lines of reasoning, extrapolation(same thing) , and pure speculation.
    I see foreign subjects like geology etc used to back up a biology subject on biology evidence but no biological evidence.
    its all about the merits of methodology. its all about proof. its all about science as a method to establish proof.
    Somebody is wrong!! could it be us/me???

  22. keiths:
    Robin,

    Would you agree that science can test the existence of a YEC God who created the universe 6,000 years ago and wiped out all but a favored few in a global flood?

    I don’t think so. I think science could test some of the related/associated conclusions drawn from the inherent parameters associated with such a system – such as the universe being 6000 years old, but I don’t see science actually providing much information on the god of such a belief system directly. Philosophy might however.

    But then I suppose it would depend on how specific the adherents defined such a god. Most adherents define gods as being inscrutable. As such, I don’t see science offering much of a rebuttal.

  23. Robin: I don’t think so. I think science could test some of the related/associated conclusions drawn from the inherent parameters associated with such a system – such as the universe being 6000 years old, but I don’t see science actually providing much information on the god of such a belief system directly.

    Abrahamic religions are based on history and on claims of direct communication with God. Science impeaches this witness. It’s that simple.

    What you have left is a mystical shell. A set of discredited and dubious historical claims, and a set of mystical claims about the afterlife. Most churchgoers want to believe that the important communications with God are historically true. Hence the conflict.

  24. I used to have a lot invested in the notion of “naturalism” (hence the pseudonym). I now think that I’m much more strongly committed to scientific realism. I don’t think the distinction between “natural’ and “supernatural” is terribly useful, either methodologically or metaphysically. Scientific realism is where it’s at.

    At any rate, I need to think about what I’d be getting from any kind of naturalism that I wouldn’t be getting from scientific realism.

  25. petrushka: Abrahamic religions are based on history and on claims of direct communication with God. Science impeaches this witness. It’s that simple.

    I’m not so sure about this. Does science show that local suspensions of the laws of nature are impossible?

    I do think that part of the real problem here lies with how we think about scientific explanations, and in particular, about the nature of causation. On a Humean conception of causation, where causation is counterfactual generalizations holding over events, we get a different picture than the neo-Aristotelian conception of causation in terms of intrinsic powers or capacities of the things themselves.

    Would it be helpful to think about Hume on miracles here, or would that be a red herring to this discussion?

  26. Robin,

    I think science could test some of the related/associated conclusions drawn from the inherent parameters associated with such a system – such as the universe being 6000 years old, but I don’t see science actually providing much information on the god of such a belief system directly.

    Here’s an analogy:

    The Higgs boson was a prediction of the Standard Model of particle physics. It was supposed to have certain properties, and a particle with those properties was expected to produce certain experimental results. The experiments were performed, the results matched expectations, and the existence of the Higgs boson was established.

    Had the experiments failed, the Higgs would have been disconfirmed. Other particles might still have awaited discovery, but not the Higgs.

    YECs claim the existence of a particular God. This God created the universe around 6000 years ago, wiped out all but a few people in a global flood, and created rainbows as a reminder to himself. If this God were real, we would observe certain things. We look for those things and don’t find them. Instead, the evidence gives us a completely different view of the world. We conclude that the God of the YECs doesn’t exist.

    Other gods might exist, but not the YEC God.

    But then I suppose it would depend on how specific the adherents defined such a god. Most adherents define gods as being inscrutable. As such, I don’t see science offering much of a rebuttal.

    Believers may think that God is beyond our comprehension, but they don’t think that he’s completely unknowable. Most Christians won’t hesitate to tell you that God exists, that he’s loving, and that he gave his son for our salvation.

  27. Kantian Naturalist: I used to have a lot invested in the notion of “naturalism” (hence the pseudonym). I now think that I’m much more strongly committed to scientific realism. I don’t think the distinction between “natural’ and “supernatural” is terribly useful, either methodologically or metaphysically. Scientific realism is where it’s at.

    Scientific realism? What other ways of realism are there?

    Agreed “naturalism” is an annoying word because it so easily leads to the long grass of confusing antonyms: unnatural, supernatural, artificial etc. Much clearer to talk about reality and imagination. Stuff is either real, subject to some form of detection, however indirect: – or it’s imaginary.

  28. Kantian Naturalist: I’m not so sure about this. Does science show that local suspensions of the laws of nature are impossible?

    Of course not, but of what use is this in any rational discussion?

    It is possible that my reality is being continuously altered by some master programmer, and my past, present and future are being continuously tweaked in such a way that I cannot perceive the change.

    So what?

    I see no reason (using the word colloquially) to treat the history recorded in scripture any differently from secular history, or to apply any different standards to evaluate its accuracy and authenticity.

    My personal standard is, would it stand in court? More specifically, would it engender faith if the characters were altered that we were asked to change teams, so to speak? Is the narrative convincing enough that people would believe it even if it led to radically different conclusions about who or what to worship and how to behave?

    What, for example, keeps the Gospel of Thomas out of the canon.

  29. keiths:
    Robin,

    Here’s an analogy:

    The Higgs boson was a prediction of the Standard Model of particle physics.It was supposed to have certain properties, and a particle with those properties was expected to produce certain experimental results.The experiments were performed, the results matched expectations, and the existence of the Higgs boson was established.

    Had the experiments failed, the Higgs would have been disconfirmed.Other particles might still have awaited discovery, but not the Higgs.

    I totally agree with this description. Spot on.

    YECs claim the existence of a particular God.This God created the universe around 6000 years ago, wiped out all but a few people in a global flood, and created rainbows as a reminder to himself.If this God were real, we would observe certain things.We look for those things and don’t find them.Instead, the evidence gives us a completely different view of the world.We conclude that the God of the YECs doesn’t exist.

    The difference, at least as I see it, is none of the items you describe are characteristics of the alleged God Itself, but rather supposed actions said God supposedly took. As such, from my perspective, assuming one could demonstrate that each and every action is impossible does not then extend to making the God Itself impossible. It would simply mean that the stories about said God were false. It doesn’t even, as far as I can tell, make questionable the claim that the God has the power to engage in all those activities; it simply renders the accounts of those actions false.

    Other gods might exist, but not the YEC God.

    I disagree given the above. I just can’t accept an associative conclusion. This isn’t to say I believe in such a God of course, but I just can’t dismiss said God based on the impossibility of Its actions.

    Believers may think that God is beyond our comprehension, but they don’t think that he’s completely unknowable.Most Christians won’t hesitate to tell you that God exists, that he’s loving, and that he gave his son for our salvation.

    All very true, but even claiming It’s a loving God does not really define God in any meaningful way. Most of the more conservative Christians I know readily admit that they don’t think God is all that knowable in any kind of familiar sense. Most do not believe It has any specific characteristics to latch onto.

  30. petrushka: Abrahamic religions are based on history and on claims of direct communication with God. Science impeaches this witness. It’s that simple.

    What you have left is a mystical shell. A set of discredited and dubious historical claims, and a set of mystical claims about the afterlife. Most churchgoers want to believe that the important communications with God are historically true. Hence the conflict.

    I agree Petrushka, but I don’t see that impeachment and hollow history as disproving their God. It certainly creates a questionable basis of faith and worship, but I don’t see it as having any actual effect on the question of the actuality of the God Itself.

  31. Robin: I agree Petrushka, but I don’t see that impeachment and hollow history as disproving their God. It certainly creates a questionable basis of faith and worship, but I don’t see it as having any actual effect on the question of the actuality of the God Itself.

    Your logic is correct, but irrelevant. We are Bayesian creatures. When you start with a story that includes extraordinary and inexpiable events, and you impeach the storytellers, you impeach their authority on all their assertions.

    Science does not try to prove negatives, but it can certainly discredit witnesses.

    And it has done so, which is why the conflict.

  32. petrushka: Your logic is correct, but irrelevant. We are Bayesian creatures. When you start with a story that includes extraordinary and inexpiable events, and you impeach the storytellers, you impeach their authority on all their assertions.

    Science does not try to prove negatives, but it can certainly discredit witnesses.

    And it has done so, which is why the conflict.

    Yes, I’m right there with you on all these points. The small distinction I am raising is the difference between whether science can address such entailments as the efficacy of prayer (per Keith’s OP) and whether science can address deities. The latter, in my experience, is usually to vague to pin down.

  33. Robin,

    If the entailments of the Higgs model had been disconfirmed, physicists would have conceded that the Higgs boson did not exist. There might be other particles waiting to be discovered, but not the Higgs.

    The same reasoning works with the YEC God. If the entailments of the YEC God model are disconfirmed, then the YEC God doesn’t exist. There might be other gods waiting to be discovered, but not the YEC God.

  34. You can say the YEC story isn’t true, and that is certailnly relevant to belief or disbelief, but says nothing about the existence of any gods.

  35. petrushka,

    You can say the YEC story isn’t true, and that is certailnly relevant to belief or disbelief, but says nothing about the existence of any gods.

    Sure it does. If the YEC story is false (and it is), it means that the YEC God doesn’t exist. There might still be a god, but if there is, he isn’t the YEC god.

    Suppose I claim that every night a certain stranger breaks into my house and steals toothpaste from my tube. You put sensors on all my doors and windows, and you carefully measure the weight of my toothpaste tube at night and in the morning. You conclude that no one is breaking in, that no one is stealing my toothpaste, and that I am batshit crazy.

    Would it be fair to say that the stranger doesn’t exist, or would you argue that the evidence “says nothing about the existence of any strangers”?

  36. You can conclude the story is untrue, but you cannot conclude that the stranger does not exist. You may justifiably believe the stranger does not exist, but you haven’t proved anything about his existence.

  37. petrushka,

    You can conclude the story is untrue, but you cannot conclude that the stranger does not exist.

    What stranger? We’ve concluded that no one is breaking into my house and stealing my toothpaste, so what stranger are you referring to?

  38. Your test only demonstrates that no one is currently breaking in. It says nothing about the past.

  39. You’re missing the point. Suppose I’ve always had window and door sensors, and that surveillance cameras monitor the premises 24/7. The sensors have never tripped, and the cameras show that no one has ever broken in.

    Would you still disagree with someone who argued that the stranger was a figment of my imagination?

  40. Th story is untrue. Nothing can logically be said about the existence of the alleged person.

    I could make up false stories about my father (and many people have made up stories about their ancestors). the falseness of the stories says nothing about the existence of the people.

    The historical falseness of Genesis may discredit YEC history, bit says nothing about the existence of God. I do not deny that once a storyteller is discredited, one tends to disbelieve everything he says. But you haven’t proved it.

  41. petrushka,

    Th story is untrue. Nothing can logically be said about the existence of the alleged person.

    We’ve been talking about the person who is breaking into my house and stealing my toothpaste. We’ve established that no one is actually doing that. So who is this ‘alleged person’ you’re referring to?

    There are other people who aren’t stealing my toothpaste, but “the person who is breaking into my house and stealing my toothpaste” does not exist.

    Likewise, suppose someone asks you “What is the name of the woman who taught your father the Macarena in Istanbul in 1941?”

    The correct answer is NOT “I don’t know”. The correct answer is “There is no such person.”

    What do we know about the God who created the universe 6000 years ago, wiped out almost everything in a global flood, and placed the rainbow in the sky to remind himself not to do it again? We know that he doesn’t exist. There might be another God, but it ain’t the YEC God.

  42. But that is not relevant.

    What we have in the Bible is in the form:

    The person who is my father and who married my mother and who died in 2006 and who walked on the moon.

    It is trivally true that this is a null set, but that isn’t the way ordinary people talk or think.

  43. If a biography contains an incorrect quotation, are you going to assert that “the person who said “xyz” does not exist?

    It may be a true statement, but is is disconnected from the way the talk and think about biographies.

  44. William J. Murray–“Reason can as easily be applied using religious premises as scientific.”
    keiths–“Sure, but if the premises are untrue, then it’s garbage in, garbage out.”

    I think there is a point here that is more important than at first blush and doesn’t get enough play time in discussions anywhere.
    Science isn’t just the process of going from premises to conclusions. I imagine Murray draws the diagram like this–
    premises–>process*–>conclusions

    *aka science

    Murray is making the mistake of limiting science this way and we let him do it by not calling him on it.

    Science does something that is altogether too rare, though I am not claiming completely absent, in any other human endeavor. It is willing to question its own premises and subject them to testing too. Religion is entirely missing this aspect. I think this is the biggest, most important distinction between science and religion.

    Murray, show us that our premises are wanting and how and we will gladly put them to the test, provided a test can be devised. Constructing the test would seem to be the only limiting factor, and I would guess a limitation striclty of imagination, though that is only my guess.

    And to give proper credit, keiths already said exactly this, though, I think, not quite as explicitly.

    keiths–“That’s not correct, and I’ve been meaning to do an OP on that subject. Faith is not required. We can accept things provisionally, without faith, including the rules of logic themselves. If we run into trouble at some point we’ll reconsider, just as geometers did when they found out that the parallel postulate wasn’t a “self-evident truth” and that entirely new geometries were possible in which the parallel postulate did not hold.”

  45. Aardvark: Science does something that is altogether too rare, though I am not claiming completely absent, in any other human endeavor. It is willing to question its own premises and subject them to testing too. Religion is entirely missing this aspect. I think this is the biggest, most important distinction between science and religion.

    I do think that this is an important distinction, though I don’t think it’s the difference between religion and science. It’s the difference between a priori knowledge and a posteriori knowledge. And of course both a priori and a posteriori knowledge are indispensable — without the former, you don’t have anything to be tested by experience, and without the latter, you don’t have anything that has been tested by experience.

    Here’s the point — unless Plato was right all along and we have some capacity for “intellectual intuition” (the term used by the German Idealists), i.e. the capacity to have the understanding directly and immediately affected by objects — then the understanding can only operate on the materials provided to it by sense-perception.

    Without the information coming into the cognitive system through the senses, the cognitive system is only processing itself, and that’s not going to tell you anything at all about the world. (Actually, it’s even worse than that — since we have no a priori reason to believe that introspection is reliable, we have no reason to believe our cognitive system is able to construct reliable models of itself!)

    The difference between science and empirical knowledge generally is that the former is systematic and disciplinized, and that’s both good and bad. Although the results of scientific inquiry are often “counter-intuitive” (which is a good thing!), we can still tell a historical story about the emergence of the methods and techniques of science from those of so-called “common sense”.

    In a related vein: a few days ago I finished reading Dynamics of Reason. Among other things, Friedman draws heavily on Einstein’s knowledge of the debate between Helmholz and Poincare on the foundations of geometry, and Reichenbach’s and Carnap’s work on special and general relativity, to propose a new account of the relativized and historicized a priori that meets the challenges posed by Quine and by Kuhn.

  46. petrushka,

    If a biography contains an incorrect quotation, are you going to assert that “the person who said “xyz” does not exist?

    Not if there’s persuasive evidence for the existence of the person in question.

    But that gets us back to my question for you.

    You wrote:

    Th story is untrue. Nothing can logically be said about the existence of the alleged person.

    I responded:

    We’ve been talking about the person who is breaking into my house and stealing my toothpaste. We’ve established that no one is actually doing that. So who is this ‘alleged person’ you’re referring to?

    The phrase “the person who is breaking into my house and stealing my toothpaste” refers to a person who is breaking into my house and stealing my toothpaste. There is no such person.

  47. The phrase “the person who is breaking into my house and stealing my toothpaste” refers to a person who is breaking into my house and stealing my toothpaste.There is no such person.

    Probably more conventional to say in such a case that that definite description DOESN’T actually refer at all. That’s what most philosophers would mean when they say, that there is no X such that…..

    It’s confusing to say of some singular term both that it refers and that there’s nothing that it refers to.

  48. Given a choice, I’d prefer talking about non-referring expressions over talking about referring to non-existent objects. Next thing, we’ll find ourselves saying that “square circle” successfully refers to an impossible object!

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