Tag Archives: science

Having Your Head in the Scientific Sand

aristotle_teaching_alexanderExperience the horror of this very crudely paraphrased argument I had with someone on the IMDB message boards. I searched my darndest to find the original but it’s been lost in the black hole of Internet history, possibly for the sake of its participants’ sanity.

When you are raised in a philosophical climate—the techno-Enlightened West—that tries to reduce every epistemic phenomenon to Science, Baby!™, this is the result: an equivocation fallacy (I think) of the highest order.

[A bunch of posts about science vs. religion, Galileo, spherical vs. flat earth theory, etc.]

Guy: Well, the church taught everyone that the earth was flat, so there ya go…

Me: There were different theories but the Church went with the prevailing opinion of a spherical earth from what they got from the Greeks. There was always a little debate. You don’t need science to know the earth is round anyways. You can just look at it.

Guy: How is that?

Me: Well, find the nearest spaceship, climb in, go into orbit (or further), and look at the earth. Bam. If there’s no spaceship available you can climb on top of a mountain and observe the curve of the earth and reasonably conclude a spherical form. Or you can induce it by looking at the spherical shape of other planets. Probably other ways, but those are pretty much nearing science anyways.

Guy: That makes sense. But going into space…you need science for that.

Me: Yes, but the science of shooting into space isn’t going to tell you the earth is round*. It’s your sensory input concluding it, not the scientific method. Sphericity is primarily a sensed thing. You can theorize with a blind man that the object in front of him is a ball but he can’t really understand sphericity until he touches it with his hands.

Guy: I disagree. There would be no conclusion that the earth was a sphere if science didn’t make the orbiting aircraft possible.

Me: Again, in this example, orbiting didn’t prove sphericity*, someone observing the earth’s sphericity from space did. If I were born on a space station, I would know the earth is round as a toddler by looking at it, long before I knew the any formal geometric proofs.

[Guy continues to reinforce science as the only way of knowing earth’s sphericity. Conversation disintegrates.]

* I actually think I was wrong on this point. Is it possible to orbit around non-round objects?

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Religion and Science Blah Blah Blah

Below is a comment I posted on a blog post written by a Facebook friend of mine, Jason (from Becoming the Archetype—a reference point for those of you who are familiar). The post was a response to a video titled “My Question For Theists,” which I haven’t watched yet—my comments were general and more in response to the blog post than the video.

I don’t know what Jason’s nor the1janitor’s knowledge background is, but I thought it was good to do a level set on some things. There was really no reason for me to comment other than I’ve been reading on the philosophy of science lately and I wanted to commit something in pixel while it was fresh in my mind. It’s purely self-interest as motivation.


A couple of things to keep in mind, not necessarily directed at either of you but it bears some weight on the discussion.

1) Science is hardly the only way we can know things about the universe. We can know via the senses, like how I know I am at a computer right now because of my sight and tactility. We can also know via experience. I know that my lawnmower’s engine is hot because I burned myself on it a few weekends ago. We also validly know things through authority (I know I was born on August 31st through the authority of my parents and my birth certificate) and memory (I remember my birth certificate saying I was born on August 31st). That religious belief is unscientific (I would call it a-scientific to strip the derogatoriness of the term) should hardly be a surprise but it’s a misapplication of the methodology.

2) Science suffers from what philosopher David Hume called the problem of induction. Generally this means that it arrives at conclusions using inductive logic, which goes from particular instances (in this case, through experimentation) into general ideas. We know that gasoline is combustible because it has been tested and concluded as such. The problem with this is that there’s no reason for us to believe that the next experiment with gasoline will produce the same results. In broader terms, we don’t know that the universe will act the same way tomorrow as it does today. It is an assumption based on prior experience, but it cannot be conclusive the way other methods of knowledge-acquisition are. There is a way to kind of jerry-rig scientific inquiry by the falsification method, but there is still an element of assumption with that.

3) Unless you’re a scientist who has conducted a experiment that arrived at a particular conclusion, every scientific fact has to be taken on authority–often by three or four degrees of separation from the scientist.

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I F*cking Love the Universe!

Not pictured: science.

Not pictured: science.

There’s a Facebook group called “I fucking love science“, which basically posts science-lite factoids, mostly by way of photos of astronomy- and zoology-oriented things, and quotes from scientists.

But why love science? It’s a method and process of uncovering facts and collecting data about material, observable phenomena. I’ve said it before on here, but science is a mixture of sense perception (usually aided by instruments) and inductive logic, along with mountains and mountains of a priori knowledge going into it.

When people say they love science, I don’t think they really do love the process of scientific inquiry. They are affected towards the objects towards which people aim their sense and induction: star clusters, liquid density comparisons, the physiology of deep sea creatures. It’s these physical things for which our affections are aroused, not the process of uncovering the data about them.

When I listen to Cynic’s “Textures“, I don’t say “I fucking love my ears!”, nor do I say something like “I fucking love the air between my ears and the speakers!”, and it’s not because I’m not inclined to swearing. My affections aren’t drawn towards the apparatus through which I sense the vibrations, nor the medium that activates my sense perception. They’re directed at the actual thing itself: the sound of the music.

I may say something like, “I fucking love Chapman sticks!” because they are an unusual instrument and the song utilizes it rather well, but Chapman sticks by themselves do nothing and the novelty of interesting objects eventually fades away. It’s the agency (people) behind them that I appreciate in this context, and even then it’s not the final object of affection. I wouldn’t really care for members of Cynic (how much empathy can someone feel for people they would not even heard of?) unless they were musicians. Thus, my epistemological conclusion is honest (and accurate) when I exclaim “I fucking love this song!”

Most of us would probably consider the scientific process dry and grueling, certainly rewarding if successful but heartbreaking if a failure. This not even including the soul-killing experience of having to deal with uncooperative academic bureaucracies, pandering to and placating two-faced politicians for funding, or dodging jealous and vengeful colleagues. There is just a danger when conflating the object itself with the process of data collection, especially within the highly reified realm of modern science.

Photo by NASA Marshall.

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About Religious Beliefs Being A-Rational

beetlejuice_hammer_handsI left this comment on Mike Duran’s blog post/sort of review of A Shot of Faith (to the Head): Be a Confident Believer in an Age of Cranky Atheists. The comment has some weird [sic] moments but you should understand what I was getting at.

Basically, it doesn’t follow that religious presuppositions should be thrown on top of the “evidence* or GTFO” pile while sense and memory data are not and cannot be treated with the same epistemological gloves. In that sense, religious faith is a-rational (I call it “pre-rational”, because I don’t know) because it’s taken as true without it being subject to the two forms of logic*.

This obsession with requiring externalized, material evidences for non-material presuppositions is reaching damned-near critical mass, but the theist’s philosophy-lite “science is faith too!” is a response so involuntary it’s maddening. It’s just two hammer-handed people seeing everything as nails.

I’ve probably said it before on here, Mike, but I believe belief in god to be a presupposition, not a conclusion we reach based on evidence. Evidence can remove barriers to accepting the presupposition but the belief itself doesn’t come from the evidence. In that way it can be said that belief (or non-belief) in god is a-rational. It might be more accurate to call it pre-rational, in that we accept it before the rationalizing starts.

For instance, my memory (memory being one of the ways we know things) tells me that yesterday at around 4 PM I blew my nose. No one else saw (or heard) me do it so people can believe I blew my nose only on my authority, another legitimate way of knowing things. This is possible if they trust me, don’t think I have a reason to lie, is a reasonable action to take, etc.

However, if they doubt me for some reason I can present material evidence: the used tissue in the trash, the fact that I’ve been blowing my nose often lately…indicating that it’s not unusual for me to do it, demonstrating that it’s not out of character for me or that I stand to gain from lying about it.

All of these may remove barriers to this nose blowing belief but they aren’t conclusive. They can all reasonably be falsified evidences, but that is up to the determinations of the individual. All of those reasons could exist *without* me blowing my nose at 4 PM yesterday, so in the end all other people have my authority *only* as a basis for their belief, nothing else.

So in that case, some things are pre-rational but very reasonable to believe. Belief in supernatural things can follow suit in a similar fashion.

* I’m assuming “evidence” to mean some sort of raw, probably physical, data that we can input into our logicizing. I’m equating “rationalizing” with “logicizing”. But I don’t know if people define these terms as such when talking epistemology or science-religion dichotomies.

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The Downfall of Western Civilzation: Omegle, Part 1

On Omegle you can chat anonymously with another anonymous user, but you can also ask questions and watch two users discuss it, or stand on the other side and discuss a question with someone else. In between disturbingly sexual questions about the My Little Pony reboot and disturbingly sexual questions about everything else, you can stumble on an actual decent question.

Here’s one I asked in a bunch of sessions, just to see if I could get people to discuss it. Not just discuss it, but talk about it without getting into an insult match.

What are your beliefs on the origins of the universe? Be more specific than “God did it”/Big Bang one liners.

Omegle attracts a lot of people worldwide, so there’s an opportunity to reach people of varying belief systems beyond the nominal theist/skeptic dichotomy in America. Kind of like this:
Omegle Cosmology Question 1

Most of the time you will get goofball/stoner-inspired responses like this, if neither of the strangers disconnects right away:

Sometimes people confuse the question as concerning the origin of life on earth, not the cosmological angle:

I think Stranger 2 here tried to type out “Allahu Ackbar“, but embraced total failure in trying to type it phonetically:

I’m always suspicious of people like Stranger 2 here, who is just streaming theoretical physics-babble. How can someone come to these conclusions with an amount of certainty? The “spy” Stranger 1 refers to is the questioner (me):

I have no idea why Stranger 2 is so amazed at the “intelligence” of a 14 year old typed that out an incoherent non-sentence. Maybe there’s a film reference I’m not getting. They reference Mean Girls and Big Bang Theory*, so their intellectual reach might not be that extensive:

Speaking of not answering the question, Stranger 2 here answered immediately (probably cut and pasted) and coolly trolled Stranger 1 pretty hard. There’s nothing of value here other than seeing Stranger 1 jump on the bait.

I’m going to do another post further down the road with some hopefully more meaty responses. Given the nature of Omegle I don’t know how much better they’ll be.

* Nice try, but liking a show about smart people does not mean you like “smart” things nor does it make you smart.

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A Quick Thought on Non-Aristotelian Epistemology

Flowin’ straight from the survival scrolls.

I’ve mentioned a few times on here, and in a roundabout way in the review of Alvin Plantinga’s Warranted Christian Belief, about non-Aristotelian epistemology. This is sometimes called Middle Eastern (ME) or Hebraic epistemology. ME epistemology utilizes divine revelation as a legitimate, basic form of knowledge, the same way we accept sense perception or memory or logic, etc., as presupposed methods of knowing things.

Plantinga, armed with some Aquinas and Calvin ordinance, called the working apparatus that utilizes this epistemology the sensus divinatus; our “sense of the divine”. I’m not aware of how much Plantinga knew of ME epistemology but from what I know of his ideas and the ME method, he seems to describe some version of it. If you are a Christian or any kind of religious person you accept the ME method of knowing things of the supernatural even if you don’t name it as such.

The other side of that coin is that, if someone makes any statement at all concerning the metaphysical realm, he uses the ME epistemological method to induce this. In other words, a definitive statement about metaphysical things is intrinsically a-rational, because it does not involve the Aristotelian faculties. This includes claims of atheists, who have the tendency, de rigueur, to claim religious belief as irrational. All of the philosophical dodges involving withheld judgments of God’s existence until “scientific proof” is presented are incoherent because science is unable to measure anything metaphysical. Those who maintain a “scientific, rational” mind while at the same time insist on God’s nonexistence are using non-scientific, non-rational methods to conclude it.

It’s easy if we think of ME epistemology as a sense, like sight. There are people who look and see a tree outside of the window and maybe determine some of its qualities, and there are people who look and see no tree. Both are using their eyes, even if the latter claim that eyes do not exist in the first place and that trees do not exist because they conclude that trees must be, say, felt in order to really exist.

Looking at it this way, the only ones who can legitimately claim non-use of the ME method are strong agnostics (“No one has eyes to see this concept of the tree, so we cannot say whether or not they exist.”), and possibly weak ones (“I don’t know if we have eyes or not, but if we do we may be able to figure out if tree exist.”). If one claims Aristotelian epistemological methods are the only valid ones, then a statement about the supernatural cannot be made. Such a statement would be considered incoherent. There are no eyes to determine if the tree is not there.

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Rollicking Good Times with the Kalām Cosmological Argument

If only it were this easy.

Most of us have heard of the various “God started the universe” arguments but haven’t known what exactly the formal name of it was. Well, they are generally called cosmological arguments, which isn’t too obscure, but the specific one apologists invoke unknowingly is the Kalām Cosmological argument. I never knew the name until I landed on that Stanford page through an uncountable string of link-clicking. Sometimes this link-travelling can land you in the weird part of Youtube, but the gods shewed favor upon me this one time.

The bare bones of the argument, shamelessly lifted from Wikipedia:
1. Everything that has a beginning of its existence has a cause of its existence;
2. The universe has a beginning of its existence;
3. Therefore, the universe has a cause of its existence.

I’m not going expound on it too much about all of this—you can just hit that Stanford link for a good round up. But be sure to read up on the refutations of it. The first link there on the search, the post author posits the idea of a “yniverse”, which gives birth to our own universe, God unneeded. Well, that was easy.

There’s some good back and forth in the comments section, but supposing this yniverse exists, it says nothing about the God creating the universe, or even that God exists; you’ve only succeeded in pushing the question back another universe-unit. It only works as a non-theistic explanation if you are already presupposing atheism. The same goes for the Kalām argument itself, but that one seems to receive the brunt of the circular fallacy accusations.

In a related incident, Jill had posted a quote from Michael Shermer on her facebook:

Even if God is hypothesized as the creator of the laws of nature that caused the universe (or multiverse) to pop into existence out of nothing—if such laws are deterministic—then God had no choice in the creation of the universe and thus was not needed.

Eh? All Shermer did was switcheroo the property of determinism from God to the universe. God is not immutable, the universe is. Therefore, God is not really a god but a lesser being of undisclosed origin subject to the superiority of physical laws. The universe’s laws are deterministic because God, if He exists, is not. Theism isn’t true because atheism is.

But really, this illustrates the subtle philosophical dodging that atheists can do: that the universe/yniverse model, sans God, accepts certain properties of God, like perhaps His infinity or His creative capacities, and attributes them to the an x-verse. You have some the properties of God that you have to accept and applies them to the universe—no outlying messy beliefs of the supernatural to deal with. It’s the perfect crime.

It goes back to what I mentioned before about atheism needing to find divine qualities somewhere. If you’re of the scientism bent you’ll find it in the universe. Or if you’re the humanist type you will find it in the spirit of man; the political type, the state. The need for the supernatural seems inescapable.

Closing thought on a semantic issue: though some skeptics rightly state if you’re an atheist there was no “science” at the beginning of the universe, because science as a process needs rational actors to sensually perceive and apply inductive logic, the two building blocks of the process. If you’re a theist (and not a pantheist) you can easily say, in a rather crude manner, that science did exist and even was used to create the universe if presuppose God a sensually perceiving and logicizing agent.

Photo of the Flammarion woodcut ripped from a post on the Commonsense Atheism site, the author of which may or may not have ripped it from somewhere else.

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Neil Degrasse Tyson Doesn’t Know What Science Is

"Do the one about black holes!"

I don’t mean, of course, that he doesn’t really know what science is. If someone were to prod him to unpack what he thinks I’m sure he could make a coherent case, but the quote is nonsensical.

Science is a method and a process that’s neither true nor false. There’s nothing about it to “believe” in, unless maybe you’re talking about what a subset of a subset of Christianity thinks of the scientific conclusions concerning evolution, or what an academic with a chip on his shoulder thinks of a colleague’s methodology.

Science isn’t, by itself, a proposition that can be labelled true or false, but it does yield propositions which have been determined to be true, i.e., the freezing point of water is 32 degrees Fahrenheit. Substitute the word “fact” in this quote and now we’re cooking with gasoline.

Epistemically, science is not a category of basic knowledge by itself (I don’t think, at least), but a combination of inductive logic and sense perception, two basic building blocks of knowledge-gathering. There’s no way one could not believe in science because by doing so one will end up using induction and sense perception to get there. We all do “science” in little spats every day in this sense, but most of what we call “scientific knowledge” cannot be taken as such by 99% of us. It’s taken on reliable authority since we do not conduct the experiments ourselves. And, unless you have a scientist you can talk to directly, you’re getting this knowledge 3rd or 4th hand.

But arriving at true propositions—”facts”—are not the sole domain of science, or this one-two punch of induction and the senses. We know things legitimately through memory, deduction, reliable authority, sympathy (pdf link). These things aren’t scientific ways of knowing things but they are very rational. The fact that I ate bacon this morning is true whether you accept it or not (for me it’s memory, for my wife it’s sense perception, for everyone else it’s reliable authority), but we would hardly call it “scientific”.

Tyson, for all his good qualities, fast approaches the Saganite trap of making statements outside of his expertise (Sagan’s grasp of religious history wasn’t strong). In Tyson’s case it’s epistemology, but most anything a pop scientist will say outside of their profession will get a free pass by uncritical “freethinkers”.

Some homework: an interesting thing about modern science. We use instruments created by others who have used the scientific method to create them, who used other instruments used by others to create them. Modern science utilizes a many-generational result of the scientific process, and if this isn’t circular reasoning it comes very close to it. How can something like this reconciled, epistemically?

Edit for crowdsourcing: was trying find the origin of this quote. Was it from one of Tyson’s books?

Edit two: it was said on Bill Maher’s show. Can’t find another source. Eh.

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An Inexhaustive, Scatterbrained Post on Atheism and Science Fiction

Only non-believers believe in atoms.

I’ve thought before that, sociologically speaking, people look to attribute God’s qualities to other phenomena, like the universe, politics, aesthetics/art, or science. People much smarter than me have undoubtedly come across this before, like Voltaire when he said that if God didn’t exist it would be necessary to invent him.

I like that quote because it can stoke paranoid atheist fervor and gets religious people who are too stupid to entertain hypotheticals in a huffy, but the ingenious thing is that it’s an assertion, not an opinion. If someone doesn’t believe in God, then either because of our sensus divinitatis or because of humanity has been culturally entrenched with religious belief, the non-believer has to find the qualities of the divine we “sense” epistemically and apply them to something else. It’s not just a new morality from the demise of Christianity that Nietzsche described that we can reconstruct. It can be everything else.

The archetypal elements of all religions—flawed human existence, salvation, eternal life, a transcendant being—leak out and find their way into the cracks of some other construct. The more religion-minded of us might apply it to the atheism of Buddhism while the more secularized of us have an array of choices, one them being scientism.

Idolizing unscientific phenomena—even the morality found in natural law, if it impedes advancement—is mortal sin, religion is the devil, the apotheosis of the human soul (the Judeo-Christian soul or the classical Greek version, it’s sometimes hard to tell) is reached through arcane hypercomputerization, academics are the priests and the classroom is the temple. The paradox of induction, the dilemma of direct and indirect realism, for starters, which are written into the scientific method are articles of faith for scientists.

Just read Clarke’s Odyessey series, or Ghost in the Shell, Asimov, Disch, Ellison, Heinlein, Wells. I haven’t touched all of those but what I have so far is very telling.

For further, more organized, reading:
Atheism and Science Fiction at the Science Fiction Observer
Science fiction author asks, why are atheists who write space operas supposed to know best whether God exists? at Uncommon Descent
Does reading science fiction predispose people to atheism? at Wintery Knight
Why Reading Fiction Should Matter to Atheists at Friendly Atheist
Richard Dawkins Is Killing SF! at Jack of Ravens

Atom doodle by tonybaize.

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A Very Clear Post About the Definition of Religious Faith

"Knowledge? Alls I know is that I'm skeptical of it."

Whenever you want to get a lot of response from religious people, ask something basic yet broadly-defined and colored by perspective. At the Christian Libertarians group on facebook, someone asked what faith was. The responses were varied as you’d expect with such a word with varied usage. I was surprised there wasn’t the guy that said, “Anything other than what the Bible says is wrong!”, but if you read carefully someone came close.

Here was my response to the question:

‎”Faith” is any a priori proposition, something we use as a premise for inferences. Other people have mentioned something similar. “Religious faith” is an assumption about truth concerning the supernatural, i.e., “God exists”, “God is a blue octopus”, or “God doesn’t exist”.

Usually these assumptions cannot be proofed true or false (else they would be conclusions and not assumptions); they are subject to a rational actor’s internal epistemological workings and not demonstrable.

Of course, now I that I read it, I’m second guessing it. Religious faith can be demonstrably true or false but that is dependent on another actor’s “internal epistemological workings”. Person A can demonstrate—through, say, the presentation of evidence via reliable authority—that a defeating belief for Person’s B belief in God is wrong. To wit, if Person B disbelieves in God primarily because they believe Christians killed millions of witches in the Medieval period, though it is a non-sequitur, Person B might come to a belief if Person A presents them with evidence by authority that the “9 million women” belief is out-of-this-world untrue.

In this scenario, Person A isn’t dissolving a belief about God and replacing it with another belief about God, Person A is removing a barrier to further epistemic action such that Person B, believing God doesn’t exist because of an historical mass murder, is now able to exercise better epistemic due diligence concerning God’s existence.

I still somewhat maintain, as Plantinga does, that beliefs about God—any belief save for maybe strong agnosticism— is a priori, like sense perception or the rules of logic, unable to be arrived to rationally (or scientifically, if you really want to shoehorn the religion vs. science dichotomy). In this way, most beliefs about God are unscientific* yet not in the way skeptics like to frame the debate.

*An interesting note about unscientific belief. 99% of what we believe about what science has taught humanity is taken a priori (faithfully), via the reliable authority of scientists and journalists. Unless we do the (instrument aided) sense perception and inductive logic** that entails experiments ourselves, reliable authority is as close as we’ll ever be.

**Don’t forget Hume’s infamous problem of induction, a further element of faith involved with knowledge brought about by the scientific method.

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