Saturday, January 30, 2016

Debased Coynage


I had a lot to say about Jerry Coyne’s Faith versus Fact in my First Things review of the book, but much more could be said.  The reason is not that there is so much of interest in Coyne’s book, but rather because there is so little.  I was not being rhetorical when I said in my review that it might be the worst book yet published in the New Atheist genre.  It really is that awful, and goes wrong so thoroughly and so frequently that it would take a much longer review than I had space for fully to catalog its foibles.  An especially egregious example is Coyne’s treatment of Alvin Plantinga’s “evolutionary argument against naturalism” (or EAAN).

Keep in mind that I have myself been critical of Plantinga’s argument.  To be sure, I think that the general style of argument of which Plantinga’s is an instance -- what Victor Reppert calls the “argument from reason,” and which has been defended in different versions by thinkers as diverse as C. S. Lewis and Karl Popper -- is very good, and very important.  But I am not a fan of Plantinga’s way of stating it.  His emphasis on the weighing of probabilities is completely irrelevant to the main point of an “argument from reason,” and muddies the waters.  He conflates teleology and design in a way no Aristotelian or Thomist would.  And the argument is not as directly relevant to defending theism (as opposed to critiquing naturalism, which is a different issue) as Plantinga implies.  (See my discussion of the EAAN in a post from a few years ago and in my First Things review of Plantinga’s book Where the Conflict Really Lies.) 

All the same, Coyne’s criticisms are cringe-makingly incompetent.  Plantinga argues that natural selection will favor adaptive behavior whether or not it stems from true beliefs, so that evolution cannot by itself account for the reliability of our cognitive faculties.  (Again, see the articles linked to for more detailed discussion of Plantinga’s argument.)  One problem with Coyne’s discussion is that he characterizes the EAAN as a “god of the gaps” argument (Faith versus Fact, p. 178).  But it is not that at all.  It would be a “god of the gaps” argument if Plantinga were claiming that some purely naturalistic process might in principle account for the reliability of our cognitive faculties, but that it is more probable that God created them.  But that is not his argument.  His argument is precisely that a purely naturalistic process cannot even in principle account for the reliability of our cognitive faculties.  (True, Plantinga speaks of probabilities, but he is not saying that it is merely probable that naturalism cannot account for the reliability of our cognitive faculties.  Rather, he is saying that naturalistic processes cannot in principle by themselves give any of our beliefs more than a fifty-fifty chance of being true.) 

Whether or not one agrees that Plantinga has really shown this, Coyne doesn’t even understand the nature of Plantinga’s reasoning.  Like other philosophically unsophisticated New Atheist types, he seems to think that every anti-atheist argument simply must be a lame “god of the gaps” argument, and thus reads that style of reasoning into Plantinga.

Second, Coyne claims that Plantinga’s position is that “humans could never have true beliefs about anything without God’s intervention” (p. 177, emphasis in the original).  But that is not what Plantinga says.  He never denies that we might have some true beliefs if naturalism were true.  Indeed, he doesn’t deny that we might have many true beliefs, maybe even mostly true beliefs, if naturalism were true.  What he says is rather that if naturalism is true, then we cannot have any reason to believe that our beliefs are true.  They may or may not be true, but we could never be justified in thinking that they are.  He isn’t saying: “Naturalism entails that all our beliefs are false.”  Rather, he is saying: “Naturalism entails that we cannot know whether any of our beliefs are true.”  The reason is that neither their truth nor their falsity would be relevant to the behavior associated with them, and it is the behavior alone which (Plantinga argues) natural selection can mold.

Third, Coyne thinks it a serious criticism to point out that even if the EAAN works, it wouldn’t establish “Plantinga’s Christian God as opposed to any other god” (p. 179).  This is a silly objection for two reasons.  First, it is an attack upon a straw man, since Plantinga does not claim that the EAAN establishes Christianity, specifically.  Second, if the EAAN works and thereby establishes the existence of some god or other, that would be sufficient to refute Coyne’s atheism.  It would be quite ridiculous for an atheist to say: “Sure, you’ve shown that a deity exists, but how does that refute atheism?  You haven’t proven that Jesus is divine, that the Bible is inspired, etc!”

Fourth, for some bizarre reason, Coyne seems to think that the EAAN is related to Calvin’s notion of a sensus divinitatis or innate awareness of God (pp. 178f.).  He quotes a line about the sensus divinitatis from a passage from Plantinga that has nothing to do with the EAAN, runs it together with material that is concerned with the EAAN, and presents Plantinga’s argument as if it were fundamentally concerned to show that our cognitive faculties can be reliable only if Calvin’s sensus divinitatis thesis is correct.  This is either embarrassingly dishonest or (more charitably) embarrassingly incompetent.  Either way, it is a travesty of Plantinga’s position.  Imagine someone first quoting a few lines from a speech on health care given by President Obama, then quoting a line or two from an Obama speech on gun control, and then claiming on the basis of this textual “evidence” that one of the central components of Obamacare is gun control.  That’s about the level of scholarship Coyne exhibits.

Fifth, Coyne spills a lot of ink arguing that many of our beliefs are false and that there are certain errors to which we are constitutionally prone -- “probably,” Coyne says, because of the way we evolved (pp. 179-80).  How this is supposed to be a problem for the EAAN, I have no idea.  For one thing, Plantinga would take the considerations cited by Coyne to be confirming evidence that naturalism cannot account for the reliability of our cognitive faculties.  But even Coyne insists (as he would have to if he is going to trust his own cognitive faculties) that they are at the end of the day “fairly reliable” (emphasis added).  For another thing, Plantinga never claims in the first place (contrary to the impression Coyne gives) that we are not prone to errors.  His point is precisely rather that naturalism cannot even account for the fact that our cognitive faculties are at least “fairly reliable.”  Plantinga isn’t saying: “Naturalism cannot account for our cognitive faculties’ being perfectly reliable.”  He is saying: “Naturalism cannot account for our cognitive faculties’ being reliable at all.”

Sixth, in attempting to defend the claim that natural selection can account for the reliability of our cognitive faculties, Coyne cites a number of tendencies we exhibit that are adaptive (pp. 181-2).  The trouble, though, is that his examples have nothing at all to do with our beliefs as opposed to our behavior; indeed, Coyne himself admits that some of what he describes are “not beliefs, really, but adaptive behaviors.”  But this misses the entire point of Plantinga’s argument, which is precisely that there is nothing for which natural selection can account that goes beyond our behavior.  The behavior will be either adaptive or maladaptive whatever beliefs happen to be associated with it, so that natural selection can only ever operate on the former and not the latter.  Hence while Coyne goes on to suggest that because the former are adaptive, the latter must be too, he has given no reason whatsoever to think so, but merely ignored, rather than answered, Plantinga’s argument, the whole point of which is to show that such an inference is a non sequitur. 

So, those are six major problems just with Coyne’s brief treatment of a single argument.  Another example of Coyne’s laughable standards of scholarship is his method of repeatedly citing the Oxford English Dictionary whenever he needs to define some key term (“religion,” “supernatural,” etc.).  The absurdity of this procedure can be seen by imagining someone writing a book on chemistry (say) and relying on OED or some other dictionary of everyday usage in order to define the key terms.  Hence suppose that he defines a chemical element as “a part or aspect of something abstract, especially one that is essential or characteristic”; that he defines a bond as a “physical restraint used to hold someone or something prisoner, especially ropes or chains”; and so forth.  Obviously this would be a ridiculous procedure, since such terms have a technical meaning in chemistry that corresponds only loosely at best to the ordinary usage captured in the usual dictionary definitions.  Now, philosophy and theology too use many terms in technical senses that do not closely correspond to ordinary usage.  Hence it is no less absurd to write on those subjects while relying on a dictionary of ordinary usage for one’s characterization of the key ideas of those fields.  But that is exactly what Coyne does.

Then there is Coyne’s account of scientific method.  He writes:

Science comprises an exquisitely refined set of tools designed to find out what is real and to prevent confirmation bias. Science prizes doubt and iconoclasm, rejects absolute authority, and relies on testing one’s ideas with experiments and observations of nature.  Its sine qua non is evidence -- evidence that can be inspected and adjudicated by any trained and rational observer.  And it depends largely on falsification.  Nearly every scientific truth comes with an implicit rider: “Evidence X would show this to be wrong.” (p. 65)

Even the most militantly atheist philosopher of science would regard this as laughably naïve and dated.  You’d never know from Coyne’s circa-1955 Children’s Encyclopedia conception of science that Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Feyerabend’s Against Method, etc. had ever been written.  You don’t need to be a relativist or anti-realist about science (and I certainly am not) to know that things are much more complicated than the long-exploded myth of the Dispassionate Men in White Lab Coats would have it.

In other ways too, Coyne’s knowledge of the philosophy of science is staggering in its nonexistence.  His glib appeal to “laws of nature” manifests little awareness of how philosophically problematic the notion is, and zero awareness of the debate over the issue that has been conducted in contemporary metaphysics and philosophy of science.  (Readers interested in finding out what the debate is about can’t do better than to start with Stephen Mumford’s Laws in Nature.) 

Coyne asserts in passing that laws are “simply observed regularities that hold in our universe” (p. 158) -- completely oblivious to the problem that this sort of account of laws threatens to strip them of the explanatory power that he needs for them to have if they are to count as even a prima facie alternative to theism.  (Suppose there is a regular correlation in nature between phenomenon A and phenomenon B and you ask for an explanation of it.  If laws just are observed regularities, then to say that it is a “law” that A is correlated with B is in no way to explain the correlation, but merely to re-label it.)  Moreover, on one page Coyne acknowledges that “the laws of physics… needs [sic] explanation” (p. 158) , but then, on the very next page, after arguing that all laws can be taken down to some level of “fundamental laws,” suddenly dismisses the claim that those fundamental laws need any explanation.  How this can be anything other than the fallacy of special pleading, he does not tell us.

Note that what Coyne is doing here is exactly what he, like other New Atheists, falsely accuses First Cause arguments of doing.  Their stock accusation is that First Cause arguments rest on the premise that “everything has a cause,” but then suddenly make an arbitrary exception when it comes to God.  As I have shown many times, that is nothing more than an urban legend.  No philosopher has ever given such an argument or made such an arbitrary exception.  But Coyne, like so many other New Atheists, is taking a position that commits an exactly parallel fallacy.  They are saying that all natural laws require an explanation in terms of more fundamental laws, but suddenly make an arbitrary exception when they get to whatever the most fundamental laws of physics turn out to be.

(In response to those who would appeal to God in order to explain the fundamental laws, Coyne trots out, as if on cue… wait for it… the usual amateur atheist retort “where did that God come from?” (p. 159) -- the point-missing stupidity of which Coyne has had personally explained to him many times now, most recently here.)

I could very easily go on -- Coyne’s writings are the gift-to-bloggers that keeps giving -- but bouncing rubble gets boring after a while.  We have, many times now -- e.g. here, here, here, here, and here -- seen how preternaturally bad Coyne’s musings on philosophy and religion can be when he wings it for the blog post du jour.  It turns out that he’s not one whit better when he’s got space, time, and a cash incentive to produce something more serious at book-length.  If Darwin’s Origin of Species was One Long Argument, Faith versus Fact is essentially One Long Dashed-Off Blog Post.  It adds absolutely nothing to the New Atheist literature except a further 311 pages.

518 comments:

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Anonymous said...

Yes, but philosophers of science aren't scientists; they have never done anything useful like make scientific discoveries so what do they know about how science works? <----Waiting for that standard response from the scientist who knows thinks philosophy is useless.

Edward Feser said...

Yeah, of course. I suppose I could have added some preemptive response to that (inevitable) "objection." But if I tried preemptively to answer every question-begging, point-missing, fallacious, or otherwise clueless thing New Atheist types are likely to say, every post would be 100 pages long!

(Having said that, Coyne does pay lip service in the book to the value of philosophy to scientists, so it would be inconsistent of him if he were to give such a response. Though why would a little thing like inconsistency ever stop Jerry Coyne?)

Anonymous said...

That im-skeptical poster in the other thread should be happy now. You "finally" replied and gave a "real review" of the book's contents.

laubadetriste said...

↑Fun, lucid post. :)

A point of clarification: Since you ridicule "Coyne’s laughable standards of scholarship" in "repeatedly citing the Oxford English Dictionary whenever he needs to define some key term" *because* "such terms have a technical meaning... that corresponds only loosely at best to the ordinary usage captured in the usual dictionary definitions", therefore I presume that you object, not really to citing the OED (or any other general dictionary), but to the drawing of definitions of technical terms from the *ordinary* definitions contained in a dictionary; and further that your stricture would not apply to the drawing of technical definitions of technical terms from a dictionary (whether the OED or otherwise). Do I presume correctly?

(I ask because of course a few of us had that dust-up with the assertion weasel the other day, and employed Webster's, the OED, RationalWiki, etc., I think to good effect. And I would dislike being put in the odd position of having to defend the OED [Webster's, etc.] as monuments too of technical scholarship. E.g., "chemical bond": "A strong force of attraction holding atoms together in a molecule or crystal, resulting from the sharing or transfer of electrons."--the Oxford Dictionaries Online, sense 3. "A strong force of attraction holding atoms together in a molecule or crystal."--Oxford Dictionary of Chemistry, 6th ed. No sunlight between them, although the Dictionary of Chemistry goes on to ennumerate types of chemical bonds.)

Craig Payne said...

"Coyne asserts in passing that laws are 'simply observed regularities that hold in our universe' (p. 158) -- completely oblivious to the problem that this sort of account of laws threatens to strip them of the explanatory power that he needs for them to have if they are to count as even a prima facie alternative to theism."

By coincidence, on the same day I read Dr. Feser's article, I read part of a chapter by Chesterton, in which he points out that the word "law" can only apply (outside of its use incorporating a law-giver) to instances of mathematical sequence or logical necessity. He writes of "this sharp distinction between the science of mental relations, in which there really are laws, and the science of physical facts, in which there are no laws, but only weird repetitions." Written in 1908 and ignored ever since.

Edward Feser said...

Hi laubadetriste,

I'm not objecting to citing dictionaries as such, not even Webster's, OED, or the like. Sure, they can have their uses in some contexts. And as you say, sometimes they even cite technical usages.

The problem is when someone who has little or no knowledge of some discipline or its technical terminology relies on such definitions either quickly to "bone up" on the subject or to make a sweeping claim about concepts or arguments which make use of the terminology. E.g., terms like "faith," "supernatural," "cause," etc. have precise meanings in theology that don't match up very well with what you're likely to get in Websters or even one of the more technical entries listed under the word in OED. And even if they did, or even if one consults a technical theological dictionary instead, this cannot replace the understanding that can be acquired only by serious reading of some of the literature in the field.

Hence, if someone who has little knowledge of chemistry but for some bizarre reason thinks himself qualified to dismiss the whole field as BS tries to make a point by citing even one of the more technical senses cited in OED, he's bound to make a complete hash of things. He just doesn't know what he doesn't know and isn't interested in finding out, and isn't going to remedy the problem by looking for the most technical sounding entry in OED. Citing OED would just make him look stupid -- like he thinks thumbing through OED somehow transforms him into someone who knows what the hell he is talking about.

That's exactly the situation Coyne is in with respect to theology and philosophy.

laubadetriste said...

Ah. Now I get it.

Vaal said...

Prof Feser,

I enjoy both your writing and Jerry Coyne's. I certainly wouldn't defend every argument Coyne makes to be sure; I've argued against some of them myself (I'm an atheist). But if there is one constant I've found, even between intelligent dissenters, it's never to trust the characterization a dissenter gives of the other side's argument. Especially in the blogosphere. It's very likely to contain straw men, mischaracterization, and the most uncharitable reading.

Upon reading your post and double checking my copy of Faith vs Fact, I see this principle holds true yet again.

Some objections to your post follow.

Cheers,

Vaal

Vaal said...

Feser: One problem with Coyne’s discussion is that he characterizes the EAAN as a “god of the gaps” argument (Faith versus Fact, p. 178). 

That is a very misleading (false, actually) characterization of what Coyne wrote.
Coyne did not refer to EEAN as "god of the gaps." In that chapter Coyne insn't strictly addressing the EEAN; he's also addressing explanations like Sensus Divinitatis. That is: alternative-to-naturalism explanation for why we would be able to form generally true beliefs.

Of course Plantinga's EEAN isn't, in of itself, a "God of the gaps" argument. Coyne characterizes Plantinga's EEAN this way (on the very same page you referenced):

"Plantinga argues that the naturalistic process of evolution is incapable of producing a brain that apprehends the truth of evolution, much less of any other idea."

Surely this isn't an unreasonable description, given you just wrote of Plantinga:

Feser: "His argument is precisely that a purely naturalistic process cannot even in principle account for the reliability of our cognitive faculties. "

"Reliability" there has to equate essentially to " truth-apprehending" because of course if you meant "reliability" in terms of promoting survival, Plantinga's EEAN obviously doesn't argue against that. In other words, Coyne has reasonably summed up a central point of Plantinga's EEAN. And he did not refer to it as "god of the gaps."

So, with that mischaracterization dealt with, on to whether Coyne is justified in applying the term "god of the gaps" to Plantinga at all.

Vaal said...

Coyne actually invokes "god of the gaps" in reference to Plantinga's explanation for the reliability of our cognition: Sensus Divinitatis! And he makes that reference several times. Remember, the part of the book we are discussing is under the subtitle "The Argument For God From True Beliefs And Rationality." So Coyne has made clear his object of criticism is the appeal to God to explain such things!

Plantinga's EEAN does not exist in a vacuum; we all know it serves a greater purpose. Plantinga is known for defending theism against atheism/naturalism/materialism, and defending Theism in place. One of his main goals in the EEAN is to put theism on a better footing than pure naturalism, by undermining the former and, in adducing other arguments, providing the latter as the more coherent alternative. Plantinga may try to undersell this, that he's making a very modest claim - not arguing for the truth of theism, but simply that the conjoining of Evolution and Naturalism contains a self-defeating contradiction and theism/Sensus Divinitatis, does not feature this contradiction. (And hence, at least in that sense, T&E is to be favored over N&E).

But anyone paying attention, including Coyne, knows that would be too coy.
Plantinga usually starts off his EEAN lectures by pointing out the general reliability of our senses and cognitive faculties is a prima facie assumption we all share. Plantinga doesn't invoke Sensus Divinitatis as some happy accident - but as an EXPLANATION for our cognitive reliability.

In adducing his EEAN as *part* of his argument to defend theism, Plantinga can reasonably be seen as stating a problem inherent in a naturalistic scientific theory "Naturalism does not explain X" and bringing in God to the rescue: ….surprise….invoking God DOES explain X! " So it's more rational to believe theism.

Just like Intelligent Design - the poster boy for god of the gaps - Plantinga isn't making a logical argument but a probability argument - that X is purportedly extremely improbable on E and more probable on T. Invoking God to explain something "naturalism can not explain" certainly IS stepping into the territory of the god-of-the-gaps.

In critiquing god of the gaps atheists generally mean to point out how facile and empty appealing to "God did it" is as an explanation. Coyne points out specific problems with Plantinga's explanation, including alluding to it's emptiness by pointing out Plantinga's "Sensus Divinitatis" is an "untestable explanation for an unsupportable thesis." (And before someone says that somehow begs the question…much of Coyne's book is argument for WHY we should prefer scientific demands on our explanations!)

Again, I believe you haven't accurately characterized Coyne's writing on the above, nor refuted it in your criticism.

Vaal said...

Another example I'd disagree with:

Feser: "Fifth, Coyne spills a lot of ink arguing that many of our beliefs are false and that there are certain errors to which we are constitutionally prone -- “probably,” Coyne says, because of the way we evolved (pp. 179-80).  How this is supposed to be a problem for the EAAN, I have no idea." 

This reads like you have "no idea" because you are straining for the most uncharitable reading, to miss the point.

Again…that chapter is not strictly concerned with just the EAAN, but with theistic explanations for our cognitive reliability, including Plantinga's claim about Sensus Divinitatis. He is comparing the nature of explanations. Addressing EAAN Coyne gives reasons why we would expect on a naturalistic evolutionary perspective we would have evolved generally reliable (for acquiring true beliefs) cognitive faculties but ALSO why we could expect to be susceptible to error as well. As he says in that chapter: "To sum up, our brains are FAIRLY RELIABLE, but hardly perfect organs for detecting truth. And many of these imperfections, pervasive in people of all faiths, can plausibly be understood as products of natural selection."

He points out how points out problems with Plantinga's Sensus Divinitatis as an explanation for both our purported reliability and our tendency to error. Then gets back to saying: "humans are good at detecting some truths and poor at detecting others. Some of our beliefs are rationally supported by evidence, while others are not. Can we plausibly explain this naturalism alone, including evolution? Indeed we can."

And he goes on to explain the implication of how evolution works, how reliably apprehending truths would be an advantage for a cognitive system, and also, importunity, how our evolution would ALSO explain the types of errors we are prone to. It should be obvious to anyone reading this passage, especially if you've been reading the rest of the book, that Coyne's making the point blind/naturalistic evolution BETTER EXPLAINS why we would be BOTH capable of generally forming true beliefs about the world AND experience the errors in our beliefs that we do. Plantinga's Sensus Divinitiatus is just a terrible alternative "explanation" - ad hoc, empty of detail and applicability, predictability, plausibility…you name it.

Vaal said...

Feser: "Coyne asserts in passing that laws are “simply observed regularities that hold in our universe” (p. 158) -- completely oblivious to the problem that this sort of account of laws threatens to strip them of the explanatory power that he needs for them to have if they are to count as even a prima facie alternative to theism. "

How does that follow? Coyne was simply making the point that the word "law" is "tendentious" insofar as merely using the word implies to many people there must be a "law-giver." To use "law" to refer to the observed regularities that hold in our universe
does nothing to undermine atheism or Coyne's position. He was making an anthropic argument, and also one for why math would be useful (if the universe consisted of observable regularities, math is our way to "handle, describe and encapsulate" regularities. Of course there's lots of argument about the nature of math, it's relationship to the empirical world etc, but it's not so obvious that Coyne is wrong that one need take your criticism as grounded.

(I don't find A-T metaphysics convincing, so I'm not going along with the idea Coyne has some unexplored viable theistic alternative on this).


Feser: Moreover, on one page Coyne acknowledges that “the laws of physics… needs [sic] explanation” (p. 158) , but then, on the very next page, after arguing that all laws can be taken down to some level of “fundamental laws,” suddenly dismisses the claim that those fundamental laws need any explanation. "

But this again is misleading. Reading that chapter, Coyne had laid out the challenges he was referring to. He listed new arguments from "new natural theology" including "The fine-tuning of the physical constants that allow our universe (and our species) to exist."

It's clear that the "problems" of the laws of physics to which he was referring were those of the Fine Tuning argument, which is to say the "problem" of explaining how the universe seems fine tuned ultimately for us to exist. He then goes on to build an anthropic principle argument. That argument can certainly be disputed, but he's not making the incoherent move you imply. He's explaining why we would come to be in what looks like a universe tuned for our the possibility of life, he's not trying to explain the fundamental laws of physics themselves. He leaves that for physicists…and points out that, though we are not there now, we may eventually arrive at a point where our descriptions can be reduced no further and "These are, as far as we know, the irreducible laws of our universe."

There is nothing so obviously unreasonable about the position he takes there.

Feser: ?How this can be anything other than the fallacy of special pleading, he does not tell us."

Yes he does! He points out that once we've hit a rock bottom description of how the universe works, saying "and these laws are God's creation" adds nothing to the explanation.
It's gratuitous. Of course you would dispute his claim. But Jerry HAS given his reasons -defended in various ways through ought the book - for dismissing God as an explanation, hence it's no mystery, nor special pleading on his part.

It's not that New Atheists always make cogent arguments, of course. But I often find that some of the most dubious critiques come from those most venomous towards them - apparently because of the desire to read them in the most uncharitable or mischaracterized way possible, impatient to show they are wrong.

Cheers,

Vaal

Jimmy James said...

Vaal...
your very first few sentences show that you're being disingenuous.

You say that Feser is "false, actually" in saying that Coyne characterizes the EAAN as a God of the Gaps argument. But in your very-next-breath you concede the point by saying that (paraphrased) "it's not ONLY the EAAN he's criticizing".

How on earth would you even take, from what you admit yourself, to Feser being "false, actually".

Also.... flooding a combox is pretty damn annoying. It's a combox tactic that is beyond frustrating to wade through.

Vaal said...

In reference to the above chapter and the EAAN in general:

In that chapter Coyne makes the very important point that many other atheists and philosophers have made, in relation to evolution and the EAAN: "Natural selection doesn't mold true beliefs; it holds the sensory and neural apparatus that, in general, promotes the formation of true beliefs."

This gets at the fundamental weakness of Plantinga' EAAN. Plantinga's EAAN relies on the claim it raises a "defeater" for the belief in E&N. But his defeater only works insofar as it is PLAUSIBLE given the beliefs the naturalist holds, and hence can act to undermine the confidence the naturalist has in the proposition that is supposed to be defeated. But Plantinga's "defeater" scenarios are, as has been pointed out often, wildly improbable and hence fail as defeaters.

First, as even Plantinga often points out, its prima facie reasonable/plausible to think true beliefs are an advantage to our survival - that is after all essentially the type of assumption we all operate on - apprehending the truth of whether that food is poisonous or good to eat is going to be an advantage. So right from the start Plantinga has some prima facie reasonable beliefs held by naturalists (and everyone else) to defeat.

Add evolution theory to the mix. Has this undermined the naturalists case? Not in any obvious way. Again, it's reasonable to assume true beliefs would give those creatures who held them advantages in the world for survival, vs those who suffered false beliefs.
But whoa, hold on Mr. Naturalist, says Plantinga, you can't be so confident of that! Plantinga points out that evolution doesn't "care" about the truth of beliefs, it only cares about adaptive behavior. Yes, beliefs and desires can guide our action, but Plantinga says: the problem is that clearly there will be any number of different patterns of belief and desire that would issue in the same action; and among those there will be many in which the beliefs are wildly false. "

Well, yes that is indeed ALSO a proposition that the naturalist can hold to be true. But it doesn't act as a defeater. Why? Because mere (logical) possibility doesn't entail probability or plausibility, and we hold most of our reasonable beliefs on the grounds of probability/plausibility. If you have a belief that is plausible, a mere logical possibility doesn't "defeat" it: you have to show alternatives beliefs that are EQUALLY or more plausible to defeat the confidence one has in the first belief.

Vaal said...

The naturalist holds that our cognitive faculties would have been built incrementally from entities that reliably perceived the relevant changes in environment along the way in order to survive. All our senses are derived from "getting it right" to a large degree, in previous versions. And that an ever more complex and competent method of modelling the world would be adaptive - i.e. of devising accurate models, predicting our environment, and using logic to devise plausible plans of action to get what we need, would be one way of having a fitness advantage.

An important point being that, in evolution terms, it does not make sense to expect complex cognitive systems could store in their genome hardwired and adaptive response sets to every specific situation. If they did, they would fail in novel situations.
Rather, they must possess a general mechanism for producing adaptive responses by LEARNING which would require accurate modelling of the world. It is THIS aspect of intelligent cognitive system - being able to apprehend accurate impressions of the world, storing multiple past experiences, being able to access them and employing logic/reason to both make accurate associations to what we are seeing now, or likely to encounter in the future - that would produce the fitness advantage. It is how a cognitive system would meet the challenges adapting to novel situations, changes in environment, and various challenges to our survival.

So, when asked what he offers as a plausible alternative given evolution theory, what does Plantinga come up with? Examples like his infamous Paul and the tiger:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Evolutionary_argument_against_naturalism

In other words, various alternative belief/desire combinations that are false, but which get Paul moving in a way to survive confronting a tiger.

Note just how incredibly flimsy and facile this is on Plantinga's part. Yes, its logically POSSIBLE for such different combination of beliefs/desires to produce those false but adaptive behaviours. But as an indication of how a creature would operate successfully in the world…is it plausible? Are you kidding? Of course not.

Note that Plantinga produces no details, no understanding of the way Paul's cognitive system would work! Evolution doesn't select for beliefs - that would be mostly impossible. So how does one false belief arising with fortunate consequences in one situation…end up aiding survival in anything but that situation for that one individual?

How does it aid his survival elsewhere? What type of "advantage" is passed on in this model, to confer survival advantage to the species? Plantinga's creatures can't pass the beliefs on genetically, so they are of no use to the next generation. Worse: Since in Plantinga's example Paul's cognitive apparatus seems to generate beliefs unrelated to the truth, the only possible link to adaptive behaviour seems to be LUCK. So any new situation should be expected to produce disastrously maladaptive behaviour.

And, given evolution can't pass on beliefs, and communication would also be an adaptive advantage….how would people communicate given Plantinga's alternative cognition model? If I want to say to you "Watch out there's a tiger over that hill!" and your cognitive system generates inaccurate beliefs from your senses, you could believe I have just said any number of wildly different things, including "Go over that hill, there's food there." In Plantinga's scenario, he offers no reason to think it would be anything other than pure luck that someone's communication would be helpful to us, let alone even make cooperation/communication possible.

So there is no reason for the naturalist to take Plantinga has having provided some plausible alternative to the typically held evolutionary account for the reliability of our cognitive system. He's offered no such sensible defeater.

Jimmy James said...

Vaal, you say

"This reads like you have "no idea" because you are straining for the most uncharitable reading, to miss the point"

....
are you kidding me? I hate the phrase "concern trolling".... but that's exactly what this is. The bulk of all of your posts are 'uncharitable readings' towards Feser. I showed you how in your 2nd post, in the first few sentences you do the exact same damn thing.

So, save the "uncharitable" BS. I'm fine with anyone being uncharitable. But, when you piss and moan about it.... and then act as uncharitable towards Feser (but maybe it's just your ignorance), it's odd.

Edward Feser said...

Vaal,

Just to reply to the first of your several posts here -- I'll look at the others as time permits -- the only "misleading characterization" here is on Coyne's part, not mine. The whole point, as I made clear in the original post, is that Coyne runs together the EAAN and the sensus divinitatis thesis as if the latter were part of the former. It's the whole bogus mashup that he calls a "god of the gaps" argument.

Vaal said...

Jimmy James,

First...my apologies. Looking at it all, that WAS a flooding of the come box!
My reason was mostly: I found a lot to contend in Prof Feser's critique of Coyne, which would inevitably come up if I stayed here for a while. But since I don't have time to continually come back to do so (or a blog) I would at least have provided some response to Feser's critiques.

As to your comment...you don't seem to have understood what I wrote.

As I said, it's wrong to say Coyne characterized the EAAN as "god of the gaps" because, as I pointed out, he was not referring simply to the EAAN, but to Plantinga's EXPLANATION for our cognitive reliability. That is the "god" part that Coyne's statement is referring to, and what the chapter is about!


Vaal said...

Oh, and further apologies - I see my fingers going too fast there and sometimes Plantinga's "EAAN" came out as "EEAN."

Billy said...

Vaal,

""Reliability" there has to equate essentially to " truth-apprehending"

Coyne and Feser's use of these words in their very quick descriptions of Plantinga's argument do not equate. Coyne is describing the argument as saying that evolution cannot produce brains with true beliefs, which is not at all what the argument says. The argument, as Feser correctly puts, is saying that evolution can produce brains could have true beliefs, but whether they are true or not is not something that this brain can confirm.

The reason why is that evolution would 'care' more about a false belief that promotes survival and reproduction than a true belief that discourages survival and reproduction. A true belief could possibly promote survival and reproduction, both Feser and Plantinga accept this, but the fact that it is true is not what evolution 'cares' about.

To adjust Coyne's description so that it is correct: "Plantinga argues that the naturalistic process of evolution is incapable of producing a brain that can reliably confirm that it apprehends the truth of evolution, much less of any other idea."

laubadetriste said...

Hi, Vaal. Welcome back. :)

Edward Feser said...

Vaal,

OK, so I read a little more. Please. This is beyond silly. From p. 177 to the middle of p. 178 Coyne quotes and discusses passages from Plantinga’s Where the Conflict Really Lies which are concerned with the question of the reliability of our cognitive faculties. Then, suddenly, in the middle of p. 178, Coyne drops in a quote from a different book, Warranted Christian Belief, a quote from a passage which is concerned with the sensus divinitatis thesis and not with the question of the reliability of our cognitive faculties. Then in the very next paragraph Coyne returns to the question of whether evolution can account for the reliability of our cognitive faculties and quotes from yet another book (the one with Plantinga’s exchange with Dennett) where Plantinga addresses that specific question. Then at the bottom of p. 178 Coyne says that Plantinga “claims that a critical part of human cognition can’t be explained by naturalistic evolution. Plantinga argues that our real truth detector is a ‘sensus divinitatis.’” And that’s when he makes the “god of the gaps” accusation. The discussion that follows on the next few pages freely jumps between the issue of the reliability of our cognitive faculties and the sensus divinitatis thesis. Coyne nowhere distinguishes these, nowhere suggests that he is addressing two different theses from Plantinga, nowhere says that it is only the sensus divinitatis claim and not Plantinga’s stuff about the reliability of our cognitive faculties that is a “god of the gaps” explanation.

The reason is that Coyne obviously thinks they are part of one and the same view. He obviously thinks that the sensus divinitatis claim is Plantigna’s solution to the problem the EAAN poses for naturalism. No one who reads these pages in Coyne could come away reasonably doubting that that’s what Coyne thinks. And I do believe that’s what he thinks. I don’t think he’s deliberately trying to misrepresent Plantinga. I think he’s just extremely sloppy and really just doesn’t have the faintest clue what Plantinga is saying.

You, on the other hand, are straining to try to find some way to see in Coyne’s incompetent attack on a ridiculous mishmash of passages and theses plucked here and there from Plantinga something coherent. It can’t be done, but you’re welcome to try. It is dishonest, though, to pretend that those of us who are just responding to what Coyne actually put on the page are the ones doing the misrepresenting.

Edward Feser said...

Anyway, I'm not gonna spend my Saturday night re-reading Coyne's book. Been there, done that, got the time off in purgatory for it. Your shtick, Vaal, seems to be: "But Ed, if you squint real hard and stand on your head and spin around three times and then translate what he wrote into Etruscan and then back into English, then Coyne might seem kinda sorta to have been saying something slightly less half-assed than what you actually saw there on the page. Ergo, you are being uncharitable in not reading him that way!"

Got dinner and a flick and a wife waiting. I'll get back to the rest time and patience permitting.

daurio said...

Why do I cringe every time I hear Jerry Coyne's name?
The guy's a scientist who can write, but he's not a philosopher in even the loosest sense of the word.

Brandon said...

As I said, it's wrong to say Coyne characterized the EAAN as "god of the gaps" because, as I pointed out, he was not referring simply to the EAAN, but to Plantinga's EXPLANATION for our cognitive reliability. That is the "god" part that Coyne's statement is referring to, and what the chapter is about!

In other words, you just conceded the whole point to Ed, since the sensus divinitatis is not Plantinga's explanation for cognitive reliability.

Stephen Krogh said...

Vaal,

There are a few difficulties in pinning down precisely what Plantinga's position is, at least if we're looking for textual evidence on a particular claim. His first published account of EAAN in "Warrant and Proper Function" was an aside to the larger epistemological project of the work, and was thereby not a fully worked out (or perhaps, better, not a fully explicated) position. He's worked out the argument several times in several different places in the last 23 years, and given the fairly quick initial treatment in WPF, it isn't clear whether his position has developed, or perhaps changed in some ways, so it is difficult to say precisely what his position is, given that any particular text leaves something important out, introduces something that is seemingly novel to the argument, etc. I present this as a caveat to what follows; my understanding of his argument is culled from several different places in his (and others') work, many whose primary concerns aren't necessarily concerned with theism itself, but with broader epistemological concerns raised by various arguments claiming that evolution undercuts justification for a target domain, whether that domain is theistic belief, moral realism, or knowledge claims more broadly, i.e., arguments entailing global skepticism.

Having offered that preface, I think Plantinga's claim is, as Ed suggests above, that evolution raises the specter of global skepticism, i.e., the theory undercuts justification for any given belief by making possible that our belief forming mechanisms could have evolved despite not being truth tracking. Because Plantinga's argument is broad in scope, whether his examples are plausible given our understanding of evolutionary processes, e.g., Paul and the Tiger, is beside the point. If it is broadly possible that our belief forming mechanisms could have evolved despite not being truth tracking, then whether we think we have more reason to accept one theory, such as the manifold goings-on of the evolutionary processes as we understand them than to accept another, e.g., Paul and the Tiger, couldn't in principle be used as evidence for or against one proposition over the other, because, if these sorts of skeptical arguments go through, then any justification for a belief, however well justified it seems, would ultimately be undermined by the possibility that we could just as well have evolved to think that our beliefs are justified, that we have means of adjudicating among them, separating wheat from chaff, and so on . . . (cont.)

Stephen Krogh said...

. . . (cont.) Atran, Dawkins, Dennett, and Hume make arguments whose form are essentially the same as Plantinga's, but whose target domain is less universal in scope; rather than arguing for global skepticism, they argue that various evolutionary processes would explain the persistence of religious belief, as well as its tenacity. They claim that we have natural disposition towards religious experiences, beliefs, and so on, developed through and promulgated by evolutionary processes. The thrust of these sorts of arguments is that, they claim, we could account for all the phenomena through evolutionary explanation, thereby undercutting any justification a theist would adduce for her belief. We could simply show why it is that she would think as she does, accept what she does, and so on, with recourse only to natural explanations, and that any attempt to justify her belief, whether by argument, regardless of its sophistication, or religious experience, or anything of the like fails in principle and before she would ever have adduced them.

The key similarity between these arguments against theism, and Plantinga's argument against naturalism, is to offer a proposed framework whose force undermines justification such that any given defense or justification for a belief falls victim if the mere possibility of the skeptical hypothesis, whether the target domain is theism, or knowledge more generally, is accepted. And, because the hypothesis, the arguments go, is broadly possible, i.e., not incoherent, then it seems that we must accept its possibility, regardless of its plausibility, which, thereby, undercuts justification offered for any belief in the target domain.

In this case, Plantinga would accept that if naturalism and evolutionary theory were true, then he wouldn't have any reason to justify his belief in the objection. The skepticism would be sufficiently broad that we just couldn't justifiably claim to know anything (regardless of whether our beliefs were true; we might have true beliefs, but they wouldn't be justified, and absent justification, a necessary condition for knowledge, we just couldn't claim to know anything). We would, as it were, have to follow Hume's prescriptions to live life as though the world were as we generally believe, despite the fact that in principle we can never know that it is, and never have justification to claim that it is.

Regardless of whether any of these arguments go through—for what it's worth, I'm disinclined to think any of these debunking arguments work, regardless of the target domain—I think it is important to see precisely what they're trying to do, and to see why offering proposed counterexamples or counterarguments, however sophisticated, are nonstarters, provided that the initial assumptions, which those offering the arguments take to be intuitive, hold.

I hope I haven't side tracked things too much here, Ed. And Vaal, if you'd be interested, I'd be happy to continue this conversation, perhaps through email, so that we not bog down the combox too much. I'm sure I could have done better here, but don't want to annoy others too much. If you're interested, my email address is

stephenkrogh@gmail.com

If you're uninterested, then no worries.

Cheers!

Stephen

Mr. Green said...

Vaal: It should be obvious to anyone reading this passage, especially if you've been reading the rest of the book, that Coyne's making the point blind/naturalistic evolution BETTER EXPLAINS why we would be BOTH capable of generally forming true beliefs about the world AND experience the errors in our beliefs that we do.

...which completely sidesteps Plantinga's argument, thus showing how Coyne misses the point. Which is what Ed said, so since you apparently agree, Ed's reading can hardly be uncharitable.

If you have a belief that is plausible, a mere logical possibility doesn't "defeat" it

This indicates that you have missed Plantinga's point, including the explanation Ed gave of this very distinction. I've seen it before — possibly as a result of anticipating a certain kind of argument from Plantinga (maybe something along the lines of ID, say), but he's approaching the matter from a different level, and it's necessary to step back and figure out where he's coming from to see why his challenge is a genuine difficulty.

Mr. Green said...

Daurio: Why do I cringe every time I hear Jerry Coyne's name?

Clearly the only explanation is an evolutionary development: the cringing is a vestigial response from your ancestors' reacting to such harmful stimuli by quickly jerking theirs heads away to bury them in their hands and block out the sound. Primitive creatures that did not muffle the cries went extinct from bashing their heads against the rocky walls of their cave-dwellings, leaving the populations dominated by those who inherited this defensive reflex-action as an innate instinct.

Edward Feser said...

Vaal,

Oh brother. Having now read a bit further on in your massive string of comments, I see that you write:

Coyne actually invokes "god of the gaps" in reference to Plantinga's explanation for the reliability of our cognition: Sensus Divinitatis

And then in later comments you keep repeating this idea that "Plantinga's Sensus Divinitatis [is] an explanation for both our purported reliability..." etc.

The problem with this, of course, is that you are simply making exactly the same mistake Coyne makes, viz. wrongly assuming that the sensus divinitatis thesis has anything to do with the EAAN. It doesn't. It isn't Plantinga's "explanation for the reliability of our cognition," any more than gun control is part of Obamacare (to cite my analogy from the main post). Coyne has simply ripped the sensus divinitatis stuff entirely out of context and assumed it has something to do with what is in fact a completely different issue and line of argument in Plantinga.

As Brandon says above, in saying all this you've just inadvertently conceded the whole point, which is that Coyne's characterization of Plantinga -- on which you uncritically rely in order to try to defend Coyne -- simply gets Plantinga badly wrong. And at the same time you accuse me of somehow "mischaracterizing" Coyne. It's Orwellian! And it also makes me doubt it's worth the time reading through the rest of your long series of remarks here, sorry.

im-skeptical said...

Glad to see your acknowledgement that your original review left much to be desired.

Craig Payne said...

Here are the opening two sentences of Feser's posting: "I had a lot to say about Jerry Coyne’s Faith versus Fact in my First Things review of the book, but much more could be said. The reason is not that there is so much of interest in Coyne’s book, but rather because there is so little."

Dear im-skeptical: Here is your take on that: "Glad to see your acknowledgement that your original review left much to be desired."

Before making any comment on this, I would ask: Are you a native speaker of English? If not, I will cut you some slack here. If you are, however, then of all the misleading mis-characterizations I've ever read...

I'm starting to froth on the keyboard. Gotta go.

Edward Feser said...

i-see-what-i-want-to-see wrote:

Glad to see your acknowledgement that your original review left much to be desired.

What Craig Payne said. Where on earth did I say anything remotely like that? What are you smoking?

I could have typed four pages of nothing but random emoticons, and guys like you and Vaal would proclaim "Aha!" and see in them all sorts of damning admissions, mischaracterizations, etc. etc.

It's an amazing psychological phenomenon, and perfectly illustrates what I described in my "Walter Mitty atheism" post.

Anonymous said...

Ed,

You sure know how to rile up the New Atheist types. Wow, these guys are desperate.

Timocrates said...

@ Anonymous,

Anonymous wrote,

"Yes, but philosophers of science aren't scientists; they have never done anything useful like make scientific discoveries so what do they know about how science works?"

This is ridiculous. You like so many others magically produce men in white lab coats called "scientists" to take credit for practical discoveries and inventions. Was Christopher Columbus, then, a scientist? The engineers who perfected the art of skyscraper building - are these "scientists"?

Pray tell, what practical benefit have we directly acquired from, say, Darwin's musings about how species develop? Perhaps you can point to some actual cure for some disease we have derived from his pet theory? Indeed, what has Newton's theory of gravity even contributed to man's practical benefit? Or do you seriously believe that men weren't aware that massy things tend downward or to fall until an apple landed on Newton's head? Was Thomas Edison really a "scientist"? Were any number of practical men working on inventions really "scientists" or were they not more properly and accurately labelled as inventors?

Scientific meta-theories usually just provide a rationalistic explanation for things already known and observed. Hence they are constantly needing to be modified with time and new observations and discoveries, which are made by any number of men and women from all walks of life, even from time to time just by happenchance.

But perhaps for you Einstein's mental experiments are specially worthy of being called "science"? How do you overcome the infamous clock paradox, something necessary for Einstein's theory that cannot even in principle be either empirically confirmed or denied because it is a rank violation of the principle of non-contradiction?

Scientism is just a vague (and often contradictory, as above shown) underlying metaphysical belief system. Its strength rests merely in its pragmatism, which apes the more rationally sound metaphysics of moderate realism.

Edward Feser said...

You sure know how to rile up the New Atheist types. Wow, these guys are desperate.

Yes. And it would be so easy for them just to admit the obvious -- that Coyne, Krauss, et al. are cranks -- and then say "So let's leave those guys behind and focus on more serious atheists like Mackie, Sobel, Oppy, et al." So why don't they do that?

The reason, I think, is in part because some of these New Atheist readers just aren't familiar with anything more sophisticated than the New Atheist literature. But the main reason, I conjecture, is that they'd have to give up their dismissive attitude, take the opposing side's arguments seriously, actually do some homework, etc. And they don't want to do that, for two reasons. First, it's work, and the New Atheism (as I argued in the Walter Mitty post) is largely about attitude and feelings, not about actually thinking seriously about the issues. Second, they'd be giving up a powerful rhetorical weapon -- they could no longer keep up the pretense that anti-atheist arguments all just reflect ignorance of science, fideist appeals to scripture, etc. -- and the New Atheism is also a political program, in which that rhetorical device plays a key role.

So, they'd rather die in a ditch defending cranks like Coyne no matter how overwhelming is the evidence of their crankiness. Pathetic.

Edward Feser said...

Timocrates, go back and read Anonymous's entire comment again -- he wasn't endorsing that claim himself, but just noting what some scientism-minded critics are likely to say.

Timocrates said...

@ Anonymous and Ed,

My sincere apologies, Anonymous; and thank you for correcting me, Ed. I have been just personally growing so much sicker with the double-standards so many moderns tend to afford themselves.

Indeed, I personally believe we are witnessing an increasing collapse even in the distinctions between science, imagination and art altogether. Arguably this had its roots even in the Galileo case, where the controversy in my mind really actually centered on the differences between theory and fact, evidence and proof.

Again, Anonymous, my apologies.

Edward Feser said...

So, a peek over at Coyne's blog shows that our pal Vaal has there called attention to his comments here about my "traw-men/mischaracterisations" etc.:

https://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2016/01/31/i-get-email-a-believer-tells-me-science-is-no-better-than-faith/#comment-1295434

Vaal says he hasn't yet looked at the responses to his comments. Wonder if he'll race back to Coyne's place to correct the record once he does so...

Chris Lansdown said...

Professor Feser, I think that there is an interesting problem with the nature of intelligibility to someone of low intellect. How can they tell the difference on their own between something which makes sense that they can't understand and something which is actually nonsense? Further, in cases of partial intelligibility, given their limited horizons and consequent lack of knowledge of what else something could mean, why would they think the extra words change the meaning from what they can understand into something which they can't? What could the extra words signify besides incompetence at communicating?

I think that this is what reputation is for - it is the thing in a properly functioning hierarchy of being allows a limited intellect to know that a less limited intellect can in fact grasp things which the more limited intellect cannot, and consequently the less limited should trust it. Further, it seems this relationship will get especially badly subverted in a fallen world where potential authorities (i.e. less limited intellects) conflict with each other. Since a putative authority conflicting with an accepted authority is evidence the putative authority is delusional, and consequently that anything said by the putative authority should be evaluated with a presumption of nonsense.

Do you think that there's anything to this, as an explanation of the apparent delusional nature of some of the less impressive critics of your criticism of Coyne?

Timocrates said...

@ Chris,

I think what we observe is just a powerful confirmation prejudice as a result of increasingly less vigorous popular materialistic education. The reasoning is basically that they taught it to us in school therefore it must be correct/true (note that they are blinded to the consequence of this for their alleged belief that there are no absolute authorities). They very much believe whatever the (ultimately political) deciders of curriculum tell them to believe. This is probably part of the reason, I think, that the Church during the hyper Rationalistic 19th century was so willing to let the State monopolize the education of Catholics (or even Christians generally) and wished to retain at least some control.

We are inundated with materialism from the cradle to the grave these days and that materialistic presumption is everywhere promoted and confirmed even in adult life. It is one way even Conservatives can be very critical of Capitalism say, insofar as it breeds a materialistic consumerist mania which cannot, of course, but lead to misery and disappointment. Indeed, the dog-eat-dogism of Capitalism can also lend itself to atheism as it gives the impression of a mercilessly cruel and unforgiving world, making reconciliation with a belief in a divine Creator and Overlord of the universe rather difficult.

But that's just my two cents on what we are seeing increasingly these days.

Timocrates said...

Correction of above:

"This is probably part of the reason, I think, that the Church during the hyper Rationalistic 19th century was so unwilling to let the State monopolize the education of Catholics..."

Gottfried said...

Mr. Green,

Clearly the only explanation is an evolutionary development: the cringing is a vestigial response from your ancestors' reacting to such harmful stimuli by quickly jerking theirs heads away to bury them in their hands and block out the sound. Primitive creatures that did not muffle the cries went extinct from bashing their heads against the rocky walls of their cave-dwellings, leaving the populations dominated by those who inherited this defensive reflex-action as an innate instinct.

Now that is some sciencey goodness. You should do a TED talk!

Edward Feser said...

Hi Chris,

Hard to say. im-skeptical is obviously no giant brain, but if memory serves, Vaal has in the past shown a bit more intelligence, knowledge, and fair-mindedness than other Coyne readers.

Here's my guess: Vaal is fairly intelligent and does at least want to try to be fair-minded, but for whatever reason he also really, really likes Coyne (perhaps on the basis of Coyne's other, more serious, scientific work), is temperamentally put off by theism, would like to try to make something of value out of the New Atheist stuff, etc. Plus he doesn't really know much about philosophy, what theists actually say, etc.

Hence, when he reads Coyne's anti-theistic junk he tries to find some way, any way, of seeing something of value in it, even if that requires ignoring its most glaring defects, reading into it something more serious than is really there, unwittingly making the same mistakes Coyne himself is making, unconsciously putting an uncharitable spin on what Coyne's critics themselves say, etc. He reads Coyne as saying what he wishes Coyne had said or what Coyne should have said. Then he thinks that gives him a basis for accusing Coyne's critics of being "uncharitable" and of "mischaracterizing" Coyne because they aren't willing to deal with his imaginary Coyne rather than the real Coyne. (im-skeptical does the same thing but in a less intelligent and more obnoxious way.)

(I've seen this with a certain other writer who has a very fervent cult following and of whom I've sometimes been critical. His fans sometimes complain: "That's no fair, Ed, you're attacking what he actually wrote rather than what he should have said or what I wish he had said!" It's weird.)

So I don't think it's necessarily a matter of low intellect and reliance on authority, but of sloppiness, wishful thinking, and partisanship. In im-skeptical that's pretty obvious, but in Vaal it's maybe a bit more subtle because I think he does try harder to be fair, even if he sometimes fails.

Anyway, that would be my own off-the-cuff armchair psychoanalysis.

daurio said...

@ Mr Green

Of course! Evolution: the Alpha and the Omega.

im-skeptical said...

"im-skeptical does the same thing but in a less intelligent and more obnoxious way."

Says the guy who addresses me with childish name-calling.

Edward Feser said...

Says the guy who addresses me with childish name-calling.

Nope, "i-see-what-i-want-to-see" is dead-on-accurate, adult name-calling.

Martin said...

Ugh, im-skeptical is infecting this blog now? This guy used to hang out at Victor Reppert's blog and drive everyone nuts. I've attempted over and over again to explain the simplest concepts to him, and he is always obtuse about them, no matter what it is. Watch me here attempt to explain the difference between essentially and accidentally ordered series, for multiple comments. When he finally started to actually understand what is a very simple concept, he stopped responding. Over the years, I've tried again and again to get him to even just understand James Ross' argument about the indeterminacy of the physical, to no avail. For example, one time on Vic Reppert's blog (I think) I was explaining how physical things don't have any meaning unless that meaning is assigned. He just couldn't understand what I was saying. This went on for hundreds and hundreds of comments. He kept thinking that the word "meaning" the way I was using it meant something like "meaning within a larger context" or the "theme" of something. Like the meaning or theme of a novel.

It would be one thing if he and I just disagreed on some philosophical concept, but it isn't even that. He doesn't even understand the concepts he addresses, so gung ho is he to oppose them. I've lost many many bandages to my poor forehead from banging it against the keyboard. It's pointless to engage in conversation with him.

Needless to say Dr. Feser's use of the term "i-see-what-i-want-to-see" is completely correct. One of the least skeptical people I've ever known on the Internet.

Taylor Weaver said...

I suppose name-calling is only egregious in certain circumstances. If Ed never addressed anything you said, and was re-naming your (self-serving) screen name as a part of (or foundation of) an argument, then that's one thing.

If Ed is being playfully harsh, but also pointing to the ridiculousness of your name (as, even from a non-Thomist [ya know, like myself, or laubadetriste, or like anyone who even skimmed what you wrote on some of these past posts] the silliness is apparent), then that is completely different.

Eh, but let's bluster and handwave instead of addressing what Ed says. That way you can pretend you have 'won' and are the representative of truth, or whatever.

Edward Feser said...

He doesn't even understand the concepts he addresses, so gung ho is he to oppose them.

That's it exactly. There are certain people who only ever think, not "What exactly is the claim being made here? How is this argument supposed to work? Am I misunderstanding something?" but rather "What would be a good way to object to this, justify dismissing it as stupid, etc.?" In online discussions you can usually find out whether you're dealing with that sort of person within two or three exchanges, and when you do, you know it's a waste of time to take him seriously again. im-skeptical showed his hand long ago. The laughably delusional screen name is just icing on the cake, and -- taken together with the bad faith behind every one of im-skeptical's comments --essentially begs for mockery (which is why, as Taylor says, such mockery is not egregious under current circumstances).

Craig Payne said...

"There are certain people who only ever think, not 'What exactly is the claim being made here? How is this argument supposed to work? Am I misunderstanding something?' but rather 'What would be a good way to object to this, justify dismissing it as stupid, etc.?'"

I remember from years ago, when I had written something I thought was pretty clever about Peter Singer in my dissertation, my supervisor told me to cut it. He said, more or less, "Even if you think Singer is obnoxious--and I agree--he is a scholar and a philosopher, and you engage his argument, not him, if you want people to respect your argument."

The internet does encourage some folks to jump straight to the attack mode without even making a game attempt to understand what is being presented. This is especially a problem in philosophical discussions, when often understanding an argument depends on understanding the fine points and distinctions it contains. The New Atheist napalm-strafing approach is simply neither rational nor thoughtful, and to the extent it is neither of those things, it is only persuasive to certain personality types who delight in conflict for its own sake.

Chris Lansdown said...

Professor Feser,
(To give context, this is a subject I'm generally interested in, and relatedly it is more charitable—I'm starting to think—to explain not understanding something simple as a lack of ability rather than a lack of honesty.)

Something I've noticed about about modern educational systems—particularly the American ones with which I am most familiar—is that with their purported testing of understanding but need for a bell-shaped grade distribution, the solution in general is to substitute tests of memorization for understanding in a way that requires the cooperation of the student. In effect, the teacher offers the student, "I will teach you how to pretend to learn if you agree to use those techniques to pretend to have learned when test-time comes." This is especially true wherever standardized tests are used, since everyone involved will pay a significant price if students don't wind up with a bell-shaped grade distribution.

The result is that for a large portion of the formative part of people's lives, they are literally trained in the art of pretending that they are more intelligent than they are. This habit, I believe, tends to stick with people, and consequently in low-context situations (e.g. the internet) most people, and especially most average people, will appear to be significantly more intelligent than they in fact are, because they are unconsciously doing the things which they've been trained to do to simulate greater understanding than they have. The result for people who do really understand subjects is a great deal of confusion and frustration. It is only natural to tailor explanations and arguments to the audience, and to interpret responses according to one's guess as to where the problem is likely to be. Average people will have different problems with understanding an argument than moderately intelligent people will, and if a person who is apparently of moderately high intelligence has the problems one would expect of a person with only average intelligence, this seems suspicious, i.e. like perhaps deliberately missing the point to gain rhetorical advantage. (There is also an analogous effect to a person seeming better educated than they in fact are.)

Basically, modern education trains people to give off miscues as to their actual intelligence and education, which results in a great deal of misunderstanding when they are treated according to the cues they give off and it doesn't work.

I'm tentatively referring to this idea as the Theory of Unbelievable Stupidity. I'm curious if you think it has merit in your experience.

Chris Lansdown said...

What if they just can't understand the more sophisticated atheists, or at least found them too much work to be enjoyable? Atheists like Coyne are angry - which is entertaining - and accessible to people of any intelligence and any educational background. The bottom 50% of the population contains more than zero atheists, after all.

moduspownens said...

@Martin

Yeah, I just actually took the time to read your exchange with him that occurred over a year ago on his blog. The phrase pulling teeth comes to mind.

Like many New Atheists, he has no understanding of what is philosophy and what is science and just conflates the two as the latter, "reason," "evidence," "reality" or whatever self-serving, question-begging term he thinks fit.

Now, I'm very much an amateur philosopher with much to learn about technical jargon of Thomism, a view I find attractive, but it seems to me Gnu cultists just use philosophy, specifically scientism and a naive naturalism as it pertains to the purely physical and material, as a blunt instrument to deny theism. That, for them, philosophy is just a means to an end, namely a way to uphold and confirm their own preconceived prejudices. Not to reify too much, they abuse philosophy like she's a mistress to do with as they please and not as a fine woman to court, spend time with, get to know, pursue, love and cherish.

I don't know what's worse: 1)They misuse her by flippantly adopting positions that in nearly any other circumstances outside of the God-question and politics they're not likely to maintain. 2)They often lack the introspective integrity to recognize the problems entailed within these positions they "commit" themselves to often negates what they profess to hold so dear. 3) They are too intellectually inept to observe and are therefore completely oblivious to 1), 2) and 3).

Timocrates said...

@ Chris,

So if I am understanding you correctly, what we are effectively experiencing is people shouting what they have been taught to say as being the right answer as opposed to actually independently scrutinizing or criticizing the actual strength, weight or veracity of those answers/responses? I definitely would agree that's a dangerous temptation to deal with standardized testing in schools; that it's the easiest path for the greatest 'success' under those conditions. Sort of like a Pavlonian conditioning where Johnny throws his hand up to answer the question not because of any consideration of its actual truthfulness but in anticipation of being given the candy or peer-approval that expects from just regurgitating what he had heard or been told.

Timocrates said...

Hmm, for some reason according to my browser my above post was cut off near the end.

It should finish with:

Sort of like a Pavlonian conditioning where Johnny throws his hand up to answer the question immediately to provide what he has been told is the right answer without any independent consideration of its merit in anticipation of the candy he hopes to get or of the peer-approval he expects.

Indeed, on the internet simply 'googling' a question for the answer or skimming a Wikipedia article might count for 'the right answer.' A rather horrible appeal to authority, in the same vein as Professor Feser's point about just plucking a definition from a standard usage dictionary.

Timocrates said...

@moduspownens,

"Not to reify too much, they abuse philosophy like she's a mistress to do with as they please and not as a fine woman to court, spend time with, get to know, pursue, love and cherish.
"


Eerily reminiscent for me of much of the modern project as that is exactly how they tend to view Nature or the natural world also: something to be used and exploited - indeed outright horribly violated - as a mere means to an end. Reading some Bacon on his attitude for how the modern, scientific man should use, view and treat nature would substantiate this. Basically, carve her open like a Turkey and squeeze out of her everything and anything you can get. That this necessarily also tended to creep up and imperil man's own dignity certainly increasingly manifested itself over the centuries, as ideologies and the States based on them became more (as it were) teetotal so to did human beings become increasingly expendable - to today's reduction to being the mere, mindless 'masses' - and so, not surprisingly, warfare also became more ferocious and pitched as the values and dignity of people, strong or weak, became increasingly threatened and diminished under such world-views. Mere means to ends and meat for the grinder, so to speak.

I've thought about writing a kind of history of the modern, revolutionary scientific project with an explanatory narrative (and title) of the Rape of the Nature; because with the moderns lining up, in train fashion, to increasingly subject mother nature to their own increasing depravities and her deprivation.

Anonymous said...

Off-topic i'm afraid, but has Pr. Feser commented on WLC's Kalam Cosmological Argument before ?

I'd be curious to know what's his opinion about it and - if he does indeed have an opinion about the KCA, why it is as it is.

Chris Lansdown said...

Timocrates,
Actually, I meant something fairly different. I don't mean that people are trained into giving worse answer than they otherwise would give. Instead, I mean that they are trained into giving better-sounding answers that are just as bad as they would naturally give.

Contrast the following two sentences:
(1) I don't believe in no magic sky fairie.
(2) I can see no better evidence for the Christian God than I can for the olympic gods.

They mean the exact same thing, yet I think that most people would assume that the person who said #2 had at least 20 more IQ points than does the person who said #1. (Just pretend for the sake of argument that IQ is a meaningful and accurate measure of intelligence.) In a system where only intelligent people receive extensive education, that might be a reasonable assumption. But in the present environment, it's simply misleading. The person who said #2 might be no more intelligent than the person who said #1, he might just be more extensively schooled. He probably does have 1d4 more diplomas than does the person who said #1.

The problem comes in when both #1 and #2 have an IQ of 100, but we assume that #2 has an IQ of 120. So we explain things at a 120 level, in a manner suitable for comfortable and rapid understanding of someone with an IQ of 120, and moreover who has read and understood things we'd expect someone with an IQ of 120 to have read and learned during the earning of those 1d4 degrees. Yet he might have a master's degree in biology and never read a book written before 1850 nor ever taken even an introductory philosophy class. In short, he might be of average intelligence and in most subjects completely uneducated, but you wouldn't know it without talking with him extensively. The natural result is that we go about assuming he knows all sorts of things which he doesn't, will recognize references he won't, and explain things to him skipping over intermediary steps we consider insultingly easy but he finds hard and their omission bewildering.

Mr. Green said...

The imskeptical hulk: Glad to see your acknowledgement that your original review left much to be desired.
Ed: Where on earth did I say anything remotely like that?

Well, the fact that you wrote more implicitly indicates that more was desired — otherwise, why post it?

And of course, it is quite true: I desired additional smacking-down of Coyne's brazen silliness... and you delivered. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

I imagine there'll be a quick'n'easy answer to the following, so forgive what may be a stupid question. But why couldn't the opponent of EAAN argue that an organism being in possession of a true belief (e.g. that one had better not walk through that nearby pride of lions) increases the chances (versus the belief-less situation) that the organism in question will perform pro-selection behaviors and avoid anti-selection ones?

For example, I believe (without ever having tried it) that running across a busy highway is likely to get me killed, and as a result of that belief I use the walk-bridge. That is unlike my poor zombie counterpart who made the attempt, got flattened by a truck, and so is not here to participate in the discussion.

TIA.

Timocrates said...

@ Chris,

"I don't mean that people are trained into giving worse answer than they otherwise would give."

Well, I wouldn't look too much into what some parents and papers are reporting about Common Core then if you think that's bad. But in case you wonder whether or not students "are trained into giving worse answers than they otherwise would give":

http://dailycaller.com/2014/03/25/this-common-core-math-problem-asks-kids-to-write-the-friendly-answer-instead-of-the-correct-one/

Anonymous said...

Anonymous, I think a defender of the EAAN would argue that it doesn't have to be a true belief that allows you to survive. It could be a completely false belief that results in just as much success surviving. For example, imagine a group of people had developed the false belief that walking near a group of lions displeases the gods and, if you do walk too close to the lions, the result is a sure death by the lions killing you for displeasing the gods.

Completely fallacious belief resulting in just the same outcome as a true belief.

Anonymous said...

"The reason, I think, is in part because some of these New Atheist readers just aren't familiar with anything more sophisticated than the New Atheist literature. But the main reason, I conjecture, is that they'd have to give up their dismissive attitude, take the opposing side's arguments seriously, actually do some homework, etc. "

I'd offer an additional reason, perhaps a corollary to your first. Philosophy itself appears to be, unlike most other scholarly disciplines, one which every man in the street and his dog thinks he understands enough to make a serious contribution. No Joe Average of any sense would dare challenge Andrew Wiles on Number Theory, or Hawking on Cosmology, or, even, Dawkins on Evolutionary Biology (or whatever the hell it was he actually did as a day job before he became a rant-filled embarrassment). But with Philosophy people just wade in with half-thought-out (that's probably generous) arguments, and straw men a-go-go. Politics suffers from it a little too, as does, to a lesser extent, Economics.

Anonymous said...

From one Anonymous to another:

"Completely fallacious belief resulting in just the same outcome as a true belief."

Maybe the "true" in my "true belief" was superfluous. The point is that, in both cases, a belief was behind the behavior.

I was guessing that the answer to my question was something like "The EAAN opponent would then have to explain *why* belief increases the chances of pro-selective behavior". But I'm not sure.

Edward Feser said...

Well, the fact that you wrote more implicitly indicates that more was desired — otherwise, why post it? And of course, it is quite true: I desired additional smacking-down of Coyne's brazen silliness... and you delivered. Thanks!

Thank you, Mr. Green. As I was making notes reading through Coyne's book, I realized there was much more material to cover than could be fitted into the review. (In fact, I said a little about the Plantinga stuff in the original draft but it got trimmed.) So, I knew I'd make blog fodder out of some of the rest of it later -- hate to let material go to waste, or to have had to slog through the unpleasant thing without at least getting as much value out of it as possible.

laubadetriste said...

@Timocrates: "Pray tell, what practical benefit have we directly acquired from, say, Darwin's musings about how species develop? Perhaps you can point to some actual cure for some disease we have derived from his pet theory? Indeed, what has Newton's theory of gravity even contributed to man's practical benefit?"

Well. I realize your comment started with a misreading, and I don't want to get too deep into a NASA-gave-us-Tang kinda discussion, but that seems either to be a very eccentric opinion, or else a very narrow point about the meaning of such terms as "scientist," "engineer," "inventor," etc. I mean, e.g., do I read you correctly in implying that "Darwin's musings" have had *no* practical benefit? (even in, say, virology?)

@Dr. Feser: "...if memory serves, Vaal has in the past shown a bit more intelligence, knowledge, and fair-mindedness than other Coyne readers. [...] ...I think he does try harder to be fair..."

I too was going to point that out, so... ↑yeah.

(Some have expressed the wish to build bridges with atheists of good will. Vaal would be one of them. Of course, I mean nothing here one way or another about the truth of what he said.)

@moduspownens: "Not to reify too much, they abuse philosophy like she's a mistress to do with as they please and not as a fine woman to court, spend time with, get to know, pursue, love and cherish."

David Bentley Hart wrote a fine fantasia on that theme.

@Timocrates: "Eerily reminiscent for me of much of the modern project as that is exactly how they tend to view Nature or the natural world also: something to be used and exploited - indeed outright horribly violated - as a mere means to an end. Reading some Bacon on his attitude for how the modern, scientific man should use, view and treat nature would substantiate this. Basically, carve her open like a Turkey and squeeze out of her everything and anything you can get. That this necessarily also tended to creep up and imperil man's own dignity certainly increasingly manifested itself over the centuries, as ideologies and the States based on them became more (as it were) teetotal so to did human beings become increasingly expendable - to today's reduction to being the mere, mindless 'masses' - and so, not surprisingly, warfare also became more ferocious and pitched as the values and dignity of people, strong or weak, became increasingly threatened and diminished under such world-views. Mere means to ends and meat for the grinder, so to speak. / I've thought about writing a kind of history of the modern, revolutionary scientific project with an explanatory narrative (and title) of the Rape of the Nature; because with the moderns lining up, in train fashion, to increasingly subject mother nature to their own increasing depravities and her deprivation."

laubadetriste said...

The "modern project" really is a very exceedingly large topic.

Likewise too with "the masses" and war.

@Chris Landsdown: "(Just pretend for the sake of argument that IQ is a meaningful and accurate measure of intelligence.)"

Yeah, not gonna do that.

"IQ is what my test measures."

There are the makings of better accounts.

@Taylor Weaver: "I suppose name-calling is only egregious in certain circumstances. If Ed never addressed anything you said, and was re-naming your (self-serving) screen name as a part of (or foundation of) an argument, then that's one thing. / If Ed is being playfully harsh, but also pointing to the ridiculousness of your name (as, even from a non-Thomist [ya know, like myself, or laubadetriste, or like anyone who even skimmed what you wrote on some of these past posts] the silliness is apparent), then that is completely different."

Heartily agreed. Dr. Feser explained his own approach last time Vaal was here.

Personally, I would cut Vaal some slack.

But im-skeptical? That dissembling, fetid comedone should hoist his flatulent carriage high to allow his oxygen-starved microcephalus to pop free of his bandy thighs and dry in the sun.

Billy said...

Anon,

" But why couldn't the opponent of EAAN argue that an organism being in possession of a true belief (e.g. that one had better not walk through that nearby pride of lions) increases the chances (versus the belief-less situation) that the organism in question will perform pro-selection behaviors and avoid anti-selection ones?"

Because you are still assuming the exact thing that the EAAN is bringing in to question, namely that behaviour that promotes survival and beliefs that promote survival are linked. Remember that the EAAN is an argument against the naturalist conception of evolution. Under this conception, the world is, at bottom, a physical system that operates governed by the laws of nature as discovered in science. Beliefs are merely baggage that is carried along with some physical state (of the brain for example), or as some would put it, simply a meaningless term that is either illusory or just a vague term for the physical state itself. Basically, the belief is not governed by the laws, only the physical state accompanying it is. As a result, beliefs themselves have no role to play in any evolutionary process, since these processes are at bottom physical processes. They simply go along with the ride.

One way to possibly think about it is like a roller coaster. Everyone is strapped in, and the roller coaster is going through its twists and turns. Now, say that some are believing they are having lots of fun, others believe they are going to get hurt, some believe they have been on this ride too many times, some believe they need to start saving for a house, some believe they forgot to turn the oven off, etc. Tell me, is any of these beliefs going to have any effect on how the roller coaster operates? Not at all, the roller coaster will operate as per the laws governing the kinds of processes involved. That is essentially how the naturalist conception, at least in terms of the EAAN, see us. Our physical selves are the roller coaster, and our mental selves are simply there for the ride.

To bring it back to your example, you really could have the belief "that one had better not walk through that nearby pride of lions", you could also add a belief that you are at the given moment actively avoiding the pride of lions. All the while, the physical states that these beliefs accompany could be the behaviour of seemingly trying to sneak up to the lions and pull their tails. What reason is there for the beliefs having anything to do with how you behave?

The EAAN forces the naturalist to explain how beliefs about survival that may be correct have any role to play in actually promoting survival, given that they do not govern how the physical operates at all (only the laws of nature govern the physical), but merely just tag along. True beliefs and behaviour of survival could actually, by some incredible coincidence, be linked together, but then the argument goes further and points out that even if this is the case, how would be able to confirm that, since we can't point to the apparent obviousness of our beliefs and behaviour today to make that judgement, because the evolutionary development that gave us our current behaviour and beliefs is what is in question.

Anyone can correct me if I am wrong, btw, but this is my understanding.

Anonymous said...

Dr Feser: "As I was making notes reading through Coyne's book, I realized there was much more material to cover than could be fitted into the review. (In fact, I said a little about the Plantinga stuff in the original draft but it got trimmed.) So, I knew I'd make blog fodder out of some of the rest of it later -- hate to let material go to waste, or to have had to slog through the unpleasant thing without at least getting as much value out of it as possible.


Over at his blog, im-skeptical's account of your post is a little different:


"It looks like Feser took to heart my comment that his review didn't cover much of the book's content. He read another chapter, and posted a supplemental review of it here."


In his mind, he caused you to not only feel insecure about your original review, but also to "read another chapter." You know, one of those chapters you hadn't read before.

Tom Larsen said...

Vaal,

// Plantinga doesn't invoke Sensus Divinitatis as some happy accident - but as an EXPLANATION for our cognitive reliability. //

No, he doesn’t, and hasn’t. What made you think that?

Scott said...

"Bring me a Coyne and let me look at it.…Render…to God the things that are God's."

In that not at all off-topic spirit, I'd like to let the Fesersphere know that tomorrow I'm consecrating myself to the Blessed Virgin. Please don't reply in this thread, lest we really do take it off-topic; if you want to respond (and please don't feel obliged to do so!), go here. But I didn't want to let the occasion pass without letting you know, as I know I've been in the prayers of many of you.

TheOFloinn said...

"Darwin's musings" have had *no* practical benefit? (even in, say, virology?)

In what way are random mutations followed by natural selection relevant, as opposed to, say, horizontal transference and fundamental chemical/physical processes?

Taylor said...

I am honestly surprised that this combox hasn't been flooded by people from Coyne's blog, since Vaal mentioned it over there.

I am also eager to see the continued conversation with Vaal, as I have enjoyed his posts on here usually (as Ed mentioned, Vaal is respectful. And, he seems to take criticism to heart, from what I have seen).

Timocrates said...

@ lauda,

"...I don't want to get too deep into a NASA-gave-us-Tang kinda discussion,"

I thought it was Velcro.

" I mean, e.g., do I read you correctly in implying that "Darwin's musings" have had *no* practical benefit? (even in, say, virology?)"

I have no idea where you got the idea that evolutionary theory or Darwin's Origin of Species resulted in Germ Theory. As far as I know Germ Theory developed quite independently of evolutionary biology and theory in its own situation and circumstances. Did evolutionary theory influence it? How could it possibly have not once it was established as the foundation and received into the canon of biology? Everything subsequent would of course be colored in its light. But I think that would be rather like showing off rocketry, Tang or Velcro as a practical benefit of Copernicus's heliocentric theory.

laubadetriste said...

@TheOFloinn:

Hi. You have a really cool blog, BTW. (I remember especially liking Adam and Eve and Ted and Alice.)

"In what way are random mutations followed by natural selection relevant, as opposed to, say, horizontal transference and fundamental chemical/physical processes?"

Random mutations followed by natural selection *versus* horizontal transference and fundamental chemical/physical processes? I'm sure I don't know.

But if you know in such a way as to elucidate Timocrates' distinction between "men in white lab coats called 'scientists'" and "practical discover[ers] and invent[ors]" (with Columbus, Darwin, Newton, Edison, and Einstein dropped some on the one side of that distinction, some on the other, and some, perhaps, on neither side), then please do tell. Because as I said, "[his] seems either to be a very eccentric opinion, or else a very narrow point about the meaning of such terms as 'scientist,' 'engineer,' 'inventor,' etc." By which I mean (to attempt further clarity) that one frequently hears purported examples of science having practical benefit. One ("e.g.," I said) that I've heard often is the benefit to virology of its being understood sub specie evolutionis. And virology would be a nice test case, as it clearly has immense practical benefit. (Why, just yesterday I listened to a good interview on the the spread of Zika.) (If it would be better to depart Darwin and use one of Timocrates' other mentioned figures--say, Newton--that would be fine, too. But I am somewhat bored of hearing about moonshots.) Now it seems, either Timocrates thinks that "scientists" should not get credit for "practical discoveries and inventions" (for *any* of them?), which would be a very eccentric (="unconventional") opinion; or, alternatively, that is not what he thinks, and instead he is making a stricture on who fits in which box ("scientist," "engineer," "inventor," etc.). And I would like him to spell that out, and asked whether I read him correctly ("...do I read you correctly in implying that 'Darwin's musings' have had *no* practical benefit?").

@Timocrates: "I thought it was Velcro."

Heh. :) There used to be lists of such things. And then one day they just stopped being bandied about. Why, I haven't heard them mentioned since I think the 90s.

"I have no idea where you got the idea that evolutionary theory or Darwin's Origin of Species resulted in Germ Theory."

I am afraid I do not labor under the impression that evolutionary theory or Darwin's *Origin of Species* resulted in the germ theory of disease. I *am* under the impression that the discovery of viruses postdates the formulation of the germ theory of disease, and further I have often heard ("e.g.") that their study is immensely aided by evolutionary theory.

Chad Handley said...

Timocrates:

So if I am understanding you correctly, what we are effectively experiencing is people shouting what they have been taught to say as being the right answer as opposed to actually independently scrutinizing or criticizing the actual strength, weight or veracity of those answers/responses? I definitely would agree that's a dangerous temptation to deal with standardized testing in schools; that it's the easiest path for the greatest 'success' under those conditions.

I've worked in standardized testing in one form or another off and on for over a decade, and I have to say you guys are mischaracterizing what those tests require. A person who thinks he will sail through on a modern standardized test just by memorizing facts is going to be in for a shock. (Not to say things are better than that, I'd argue they're much worse.)

"Teaching to the test" doesn't really involve memorization of facts but memorization of techniques that are likely to be rewarded by test administrators. So, for example, kids get the classic five paragraph essay format drilled into their heads, because that's an almost guaranteed technique to get at least a decent score on persuasive writing essay tests. The end result is that kids stick to that technique even when writing essays in high school and college, when they should have learned more sophisticated procedures for writing persuasively.

So, it's not quite right to say that standardized testing teaches students to memorize rather than think. It can actually be more insidious than that, in my opinion. Standardized testing trains students to think only in ways that are rewarded by state-administered standardized tests. Professional test preppers will steer all but the most stellar students into these safe techniques, as more sophisticated approaches are considered too risky when class placement and college admissions are on the line. Sadly, some kids, particularly the young ones, begin to equate intelligence with the ability to adhere to state-sponsored standardized testing requirements. In the course of my career, I've had to give very bad scores to children who were obviously very intelligent but who did not respond in a state-approved manner, and that's always kind of soul-crushing (to me and the kid.)

(To be fair, some tests are administered very well and reward innovation, risk-taking, and sophistication. With some states, displaying one or all of these traits is the only way to get into the higher score points. But states (and here I mean actual, US states) are not all equal in their ability to create and administer tests. And as someone who has worked in the field, I can tell you that Jon Oliver was way off to blame test-administering companies for the current mess in standardized testing. It's up to the states to approve the test which is to be administered, and up to the teachers in the state to set the standards for grading the test. Being educators not test administrators, they sometimes struggle to clearly establish criteria for success, and this can and has ended very badly.)

Sorry to rant, but that old canard that standardized testing only encourages memorization sets me off.

Kyle said...

@Taylor: "I am honestly surprised that this combox hasn't been flooded by people from Coyne's blog, since Vaal mentioned it over there."

I imagine Coyne's combox has been similarly un-flooded by people from here, and for the same reason. Most from each side appear to consider most if not all from the other side to be foolish by virtue of an unwillingness to come to terms with what their opponents' positions actually are.

There are a few brave bridge-builders (e.g. Vaal?), but they need to be exceedingly pachydermatous if they are to persist with their forays into enemy territory. Here they can be torn down like a fawn that's wandered into a pack of wolves. Over in Coynesville, it's similar although, to borrow from Denis Healey's comments on Geoffrey Howe, being attacked by a Coyne crony can be like being savaged by a dead sheep.

Chris Lansdown said...

Chad,

What you describe is (mostly) what I meant. I don't mean that standardized tests grade based on memorization of raw facts, but on the memorization of techniques. Memorization might not be quite the right word for a technique, but it's not very far off; techniques are learned through repetition.

The reliable way to distinguish what is being tested is the resulting grade distribution: if you truly test understanding of material (on the general population) you will get a highly bi-modal grade distribution. Some people will understand the material pretty well, and most people will barely understand it at all, with not very many people falling halfway in the middle. Understanding, being the ability to distinguish parts and recognize their relationships, does not cluster around the middle. Many people can't distinguish the parts at all and consequently can't see any relationships between the parts. They will all fail. The more parts of a subject one can distinguish, the easier it is to distinguish the rest, and so the more likely one is to see relationships between the distinguished parts. Thus if a person can understand somewhat, they will likely understand reasonably well (again, when comparing to the general population). You can see this basic phenomenon if you were to put everyone in a town through a college course on some subject and test them all. The people who would never make it in college, and most of the people who would never major in that subject, would cluster around failing. The subject majors would all cluster around strongly passing. (This is part of why graduate-level courses tend to informally consider C a failing grade.)

So when we consider standardized tests, and see that they produce a bell-shaped grade distribution from among the general population, we know that they're not testing understanding. Whatever they are testing, it is something which *is* distributed like a bell-curve. The best candidate is memory, though not just factual memory. Learned techniques rely on the memory, as do the "correct" things to say. A great many people who've never given the play Hamlet any thought can still tell you that Hamlet's tragic flaw was being indecisive. Why? Because he didn't kill Claudius when he had the chance. If he had, then Ophelia wouldn't have died, and neither would he. Etc. Now, those are not memorized facts in the sense that the Norman Conquest was in 1066 is a fact, but it is still simply memorized without understanding.

It's almost worse in math where people learn to pattern-match problems to techniques, often based on keywords. If you see "area under the curve" that "means" integrate. If you see "rate of change" that "means" you take the derivative. All memorized, not understood.

(continued.)

Chris Lansdown said...


But to get back to my central contention, this is the very sort of training which conditions people to give off incorrect signals about how intelligent and educated they are. If you mention Hamlet, they can sound like they've actually thought about the play (though not very deeply). But if you were to argue about whether Hamlet's tragic flaw was wrath (refusing to kill the king right after the king repented, because then the king wouldn't go to hell), you will get some very odd responses not at all consonant with the intelligence and erudition you expected. Vary the subject slightly and ask whether Qui-Gon Jinn's tragic flaw was a simplistic devotion to prophecy and you'll just be asked why on earth you're applying the idea of a tragic flaw outside of school. Assuming that you will get an answer even so good as what you heard about Hamlet will result in a surprise.

(continued) This is what I mean by people being conditioned to pretend to know what they're talking about. I don't mean that they're deceitful, or intentionally pretending. I mean that they've been trained in very specific pretenses (such as discussing Hamlet's tragic flaw in, as you point out, a five-paragraph essay) which give off false signals as to how intelligent and well-educated the person actually is.

The Honduran milk Snake has no idea that it looks like a coral snake, or that people stay away because they think it's venomous. So too, the subjects of modern education (and I think this goes back at least 30 years, if not far longer) don't realize they're misleading people. They live their lives as they were taught to, and for the most part deceive by accident and in ignorance that they are deceiving.

Dennis said...

It really upsets me to see this type of atheism being the 'default' position for almost every person I encounter online. Most of my conversations with atheists as such end up with incredibly derogatory remarks being hurled at me, and sometimes things escalate to the point where my life is threatened. What causes all of this? "Let me try to present a demonstration of God's existence."


As much as I want Dr. Feser to write on topics as such as Underdetermination, modality, contingency, et al., and dream of him writing a manual or two as a Scholastic in due time(since I think he's up to it!)...I just hope that the massive workload the doctor has due to dealing with such kind of a cultural wave as atheism just leaves him with enough time to answer every metaphysical question I can think of! I know I'm a bit selfish, but that is what I wish. And if Dr. Feser will not do it. . .I hope someday someone equally capable or more would do so(Not that it hasn't been done, but I want more).

Unfortunately, here we have Coyne and the like-drones who simply have no care for philosophy at all but want to run unendingly run their mouths off. As I see it, there is no other way to best deal with them than how Dr. Feser does. I'm frankly annoyed to no ends when I hear this sort of nonsense. But above all, I dislike the incredibly uncharitable attitude most people have. It really upsets me. Here's to hoping things get better as people like Feser advance upon the horde of New Atheism and anti-Intellectual attitudes when necessary. And it is certainly necessary as of now. No doubt.

With that said, thank you for being so charitable laubadetriste. You have no idea how much I appreciate your cordial manner of speaking and ability to address points, I hope no one ever compares you to the likes of most uncharitable readers online.

On another note, Martin, could you please come to the Classical Theism forums? I want to hear what you have to say on a variety of different threads in that forum.You had posted a compendium of theology on this blog, I would like to have the link for it again if you don't mind.

laubadetriste said...

@Kyle: "There are a few brave bridge-builders (e.g. Vaal?), but they need to be exceedingly pachydermatous if they are to persist with their forays into enemy territory. Here they can be torn down like a fawn that's wandered into a pack of wolves. Over in Coynesville, it's similar although, to borrow from Denis Healey's comments on Geoffrey Howe, being attacked by a Coyne crony can be like being savaged by a dead sheep."

"Pachydermatous." Heh. :) What a fun word.

That seems accurate. I would add that, for at least some of those in "enemy territory," it is not so much that they are pachydermatous, as that they have a knack (prevalent, but clearly not universal) for knowing when they are about to say something egregiously foolish, and then just keeping it to themselves.

So, for example, witness my ↑example of "virology." There was a time when I was fairly conversant with evolutionary biology--but that was perhaps twenty years ago. And I know from reading his blog regularly that TheOFloinn knows more about biology than I now do. So, chances are good that on such matters I would have to defer to him. He saw something in my remarks that intrigued him, and asked a deceptively simple question which would allow me either to demonstrate something which would satisfy his curiosity (if I know what I'm talking about), or else to hang myself with my own rope (if I don't). Luckily, also from reading his comments here, I know that he is also a close reader, and will follow without difficulty my clarification, and is unlikely to tear me "down like a fawn that's wandered into a pack of wolves" (besides which, that is not his habit). We'll see. :)

Meanwhile, that is similar to ↑what I did with Timocrates regarding his extraordinary paragraph about "the modern project," "the masses," and "war" (and was going to do too with "man's own dignity" and "ideologies and the States based on them"); which is to say, I merely mentioned some works I am aware of, by serious scholars and learned amateurs both, addressing the topics he alluded to, and noted also that those are very exceedingly large topics. If he wishes, he can choose to demonstrate that his paragraph is the fruit of much thought and reading; or else (to mix metaphors) he can step down off his ledge.

I think you will find that around here (I do not know about Coynesville), people tend to "be torn down like a fawn that's wandered into a pack of wolves" only after being given several chances to escape. So, for example, my ↑comment about im-skeptical follows repeated invitations for him to explain himself, much tedious refutation, and demonstrations of bad faith on his part.

I *have* sometimes mused about mounting a sort of expedition over to Coynesville.

TheOFloinn said...

In re Darwin and viruses: It would be valuable to know what is meant by "practical effects (even in virology)" before claiming that the gradual accumulation of mutations filtered by natural selection is or is not responsible for those effects. My impression is that genetics and molecular biology has been far more important in securing benefits (and whatever the opposite is: malefits?) After all, farmers and breeders were altering species long before Darwin's theories. In fact, his theory came from generalizing the activities of breeders.

There are some thoughts along those lines here:
http://www.huffingtonpost.com/james-a-shapiro/what-is-the-key-to-a-real_b_1280685.html

And more Coyningly relevant, here:
http://www.huffingtonpost.com/james-a-shapiro/inconvenient-truths-why-a_b_2228277.html

It may well be that "natural genetic engineering" matters more than "natural selection." Selection by its very nature can only select from what is already there. Genetic engineering can innovate new things.

Which brings us to the age old war between science and engineering.

Science is the attempt to create explanations for observed (and induced) phenomena. Its proper product is a "theory." Engineering tries to imitate those effects through artifice. Because the Baconian/Cartesian Revolution directed science to "extend man's dominion over the universe" through the production of useful and profitable products, Science became the Handmaid of Engineering.

Consequently, science ("know what"), engineering ("know how"), and even mathematics have been lumped together -- and often with medical doctors, too! But not everyone who wears a white lab coat is actually doing the same kind of thing. Quite often, the sequence has been that an engineer or inventor creates a device and then the scientist tries to explain why it works. Sometimes, the scientist provides only a mathematical model, as if that explained anything.

In any case, to come full circle, the point that evolution ensures only survivability and not truth is clear: a model that correctly predicts outcomes need not be a true representation of physical reality. The Tychonic model made all the same predictions as the Copernican model and matched observations excellently well. That is, the model may survive (by making correct predictions) without being true (by matching physical reality). Furthermore, in any physical theory expressed in mathematical language, Goedel kicks in: it is possible to formulate a true "theory of everything" but it is not possible to be certain that you have done so. These seem intriguingly parallel to the EAAN problem.

Daniel Joachim said...

@Taylor: "I am honestly surprised that this combox hasn't been flooded by people from Coyne's blog, since Vaal mentioned it over there."

@Kyle: "I imagine Coyne's combox has been similarly un-flooded by people from here, and for the same reason. Most from each side appear to consider most if not all from the other side to be foolish by virtue of an unwillingness to come to terms with what their opponents' positions actually are."

I would still point to a slight distinction, in that Coynesville is known to block much content that are even mildly critical (like my own) to the opinions of its founder and ruler, along with other informed critique. As far as I know, no one has been banned from this combox just for being critical. As much recent empirical evidence shows, the tolerance rate for both rudeness, irrelevance and even obscenity is impressively high. So you would expect much more Coynesians here than Feserites over there, as the latter nation seems to have much stricter immigration laws in action.

Daniel Joachim said...

@Billy

I think that's an interesting take on the EAAN. But I wonder why the naturalist should accept that beliefs don't influence actual behavior. Even though they perhaps must view beliefs as only expressions of physical states, I think you could see a naturalist explain certain beliefs as encoded in structures á lá e.g. corresponding neural pattern, and therefore really impacting behavior, as in, say, a functionalist account or something like Searle's biological naturalism.

But perhaps all of this is leading up to the point that there's no way for the naturalist to "break out of his own circle of thought" to verify whether his belief was really corresponding to truth or not, as that would imply a knowing third-person perspective? The beliefs could be true, but only if one were fortunate enough to stand in just the right causal nexus, leading one's belief to the completely accidental status of true. Of course, one would never know for oneself whether that was the case or not.

Am I understanding you correctly?

At least that would be a parallell to my own critique of the possibility of denying libertarian free will, as that seem to require a third-person perspective to verify one's own chain of reasoning, since there's no longer a "free agent" present to verify the truth content of premises and validity of the logical structure leading one to the conclusion of denied free will.

laubadetriste said...

@TheOFloinn:

By "practical effects" I will presume you meant "practical benefit," as that is what I said because that is what Timocrates said. More of what I meant by "practical benefit? (even in, say, virology?)" is that according to what I have often heard, the benefit to virology of being understood sub specie evolutionis is that viruses are better understood in their origin from *other* viruses; and better understood in why they do what they do, and what they need in order to do that; and better predicted *before* they are well-understood, based upon their evolutionary relationships. To give a concrete example, take that radio interview I already linked to. It's short--only 18 minutes--and the relevant parts are mostly between the 8-minute mark and the 17-minute mark. That interview is only very tangentially to do with the evolution of viruses, but it seems clear that the interviewee, at least, finds evolutionary theory to be of practical benefit.

(I guess that that *does* depend on just what Timocrates meant by "practical.")

(I would multiply examples, but I suggest we just stick with that interview as an instance of what I mean. If I am wrong in some important way about it, then I will concede the virology example.)

You do address my point in your paragraphs 6-8. I have no objection to anything you say there. If *that* is what Timocrates meant, then it seems he would incline to say my second alternative ("a stricture on who fits in which box ['scientist,' 'engineer,' 'inventor,' etc.]") is closer to what he was saying.

Perhaps I miss something, but I do not see how your otherwise interesting two articles address the credit that Darwin (or "scientists"--which would seem to include later Darwinians) may or may not deserve for "practical discoveries and inventions." For in them James A. Shapiro seems to object primarily to gradualism, and to random mutation being the prime fodder for natural selection, which as he says are tenets of an "orthodox neo-Darwinian theory". But Darwin was in the dark about the molecular mechanisms of evolution; and gradualism has been disputed between Darwinians; and that "natural genetic engineering [perhaps plays] a more important role than natural selection," as Shapiro says and as you quote, is an important point relative to the prevailing privileging of the mechanism over the fodder: switch them around in importance and you have merely... switched them around in importance. (An important count against Ben Goren and Torbjörn Larsson, maybe, but not against my example or my point.)

TheOFloinn said...

viruses are better understood in their origin from *other* viruses

But do they originate via random mutation followed by natural selection? Or do they originate from horizontal transmission of genetic material, with no 'fitness' beyond 'this alteration does not kill me.' Remember, the contention was that the Darwinian hypothesis as such led to important effects.

It is quite common for Late Moderns to confuse facts with theories, and thus to suppose any evolution at all is somehow "Darwinian." But evolution is a fact, and new kinds either originate from existing kinds, as Augustine suggested, or they "poof!" into existence. And they don't "poof!" Evolution as such is a fact, and facts don't need science so much as they need simple observation. We can't really say that the fact that cannonballs fall to the ground is a discovery of science.

Science's contribution was to propose a theory as to how one thing can emerge from another; viz., natural selection. Empedocles of Akragas proposed natural selection in the fifth cent. BC. Blythe proposed it as a mechanism for maintenance of type (the very opposite of evolution!) And Patrick Matthews worked out the whole Darwinian system a generation before the Origin was published. The contention was that this scientific explanation of the mechanism of evolution provided some useful effect (or not). But cultivation of useful traits by selection, carried out by breeders and farmers, had been in use for millennia. It was the pragmatists who came first.

The purported benefits of Darwin's theory are due to genetic engineering and other such pursuits, and genetics and microbiology would have gotten along quite well without mixing it with natural selection. And it may be that this "selection" other than for the culling of the unfit is not an explanation at all.

In 1976, conservationists established the endangered Devils Hole pupfishin in other pools in case Devil's Hole dried up. "But the refuge-bred fish began to look different, with deeper bodies and smaller heads, although all the fish [were] pretty much the same genetically." They looked indeed like Amargosa pupfish.

So scientists reared a related but unthreatened species, the Amargosa pupfish, in the lab on a restricted diet and with slight changes in water temperature. The Amargosa pupfish began to look more like the wild Devils Hole pupfish.

This is much like what happened with the Mediterranean wall lizard, with the helmeted water fleas, the finches transplanted to Hawaii, and so on. It was not a case of differential survival/reproduction, but a direct epigenetic effect of the environment on the species.

http://tofspot.blogspot.com/2016/01/the-pupfish-of-nevada.html

Regarding the distinction between Truth (a metaphysical concept) and evolution by natural selection (a scientific theory), we might ask in what way believing the scientific theory enhances the reproductive success of its believers.

Timocrates said...

@ lauba,

I'm sorry but when you mentioned virology when I asked for practical benefits that have actually resulted from evolutionary theory (I know of exactly zero) I thought you meant vaccinations, which in fact came from Germ Theory (after not a few souls were sacrificed in tests and experiments first and, possibly, large amounts of farmers' livestock at the time too, until they eventually got it down).

I'm not personally aware of how virology followed from evolutionary theory or how it otherwise resulted from it. But if by virology you meant the practical benefit of vaccinations, I stress again that vaccinations largely came out of Germ Theory which, as far as I know, has virtually no relation to Darwin or evolutionary theory as such.

Timocrates said...

@ TOF,

That's interesting (and I fear we might be derailing a bit though) because when I was looking at the development of Germ Theory in France in the 19th century, one of Pasteur's eminent colleagues (who Pasteur has been accused of plagiarizing) had an interesting theory of his own about how at least some germs and diseases originate; namely, basically already existing organisms adapting themselves to changes in their environment and thus giving off new or different by-products. In the case of human health it was thought by him that at least some diseases were basically mutated organisms that were otherwise good and normal for the body but, because of bad living conditions in the body (caused by whatever) were now changing and possibly overproducing and also releasing large amounts of byproduct that the body couldn't handle, further exasperating the situation (and perhaps maybe even triggering other organisms in the body to also change).

I thought his theory was at least interesting and, coupled with what you said happens when animals are merely relocated or have their living conditions altered somewhat, it sounds like he was on to something fairly credible (for we are today well aware that no shortage of organisms live in our bodies and typically do us plenty of favors).

Vaal said...


Prof Feser, it was fun reading your psychoanalysis. I don't mind, given atheists engage in similar psychoanalyzing of why otherwise intelligent people fall for religion. Turnabout is fair play ;-)

I do honestly try to be fair. About this though:

" Plus he doesn't really know much about philosophy, what theists actually say, etc."

Well that depends I guess on what kind of bar you'd be setting. I am certainly no professional philosopher, but I have had an interest in reading about and discussing philosophy, science and religion for getting close to 3 decades now. The result is that I have a decent familiarity with the major issues within those three subjects as well as their interplay, the well known arguments etc.

So...I'm not a pro, but I've thought fairly long about the reasons for what I believe, and my B.S. detector is pretty well honed. As a Philosophy Prof, hopefully you appreciate people with an interest in the field, even a com-box heathen like me.

As to not knowing what Christians believe, I don't only discuss religion, but nonetheless since the 80's I've engaged in discussion and debate with more Christians, of various denominations than most Christians themselves have with one another. I got used to the fact very quickly that you can take the words of one Christian explaining Christianity, repeat it verbatim to another Christian, and inevitably receive the reply "Well, there's your problem dear boy, you've misunderstood Christianity!"

It's not for nothing there are thousands of sects arising out of competing interpretations. It's like having a conversation with a Hydra that never stops sprouting heads - and often enough I have to remind one head about what the other heads believe (or even, sometimes, what their own sect believes!).


BTW, I have mentioned your review and blog posts at Coyne's site. Not just for some side-against-side action; but if any of your criticisms are on the mark, I think honest folk will want to know it as well.

FWIW, I hope to drop in a reply tomorrow.

Stephen Krogh, your reply interests me too - I've followed the debate over Plantinga's EAAN for decades, the between Plantinga and other philosophers, reading the various scientific replies, have engaged in debate about it myself, so it's a conversation I have some familiarity with. Though I don't know we can get into it here.

Cheerio.










Brandon said...

I got used to the fact very quickly that you can take the words of one Christian explaining Christianity, repeat it verbatim to another Christian, and inevitably receive the reply "Well, there's your problem dear boy, you've misunderstood Christianity!"

Well, yes, if you attempt to treat Christians as fungible like that, this is the response you would and should receive; the very attempt to do so is a misunderstanding of Christianity and would be of anything involving a large number of people. Individual variability is one of the things a reasonable person will have to take into account in such situations, and understanding Christianity, or any large-scale movement, requires it.

Son of Ya'Kov said...

Vaal is the false Alien god from classic Star Trek.

So someone who takes that moniker can't be all bad even if he
hangs out at Coyne's blog.

Skepo OTOH.........

There is no hope for him. He wants to be a Gnue on purpose.


Why????

Alan Fox said...

I would still point to a slight distinction, in that Coynesville is known to block much content that are even mildly critical (like my own) to the opinions of its founder and ruler, along with other informed critique. As far as I know, no one has been banned from this combox just for being critical. As much recent empirical evidence shows, the tolerance rate for both rudeness, irrelevance and even obscenity is impressively high. So you would expect much more Coynesians here than Feserites over there, as the latter nation seems to have much stricter immigration laws in action.

Just putting that to the test.

Alan Fox said...

Having read Jerry Coyne's book and Ed Feser's review of it at First Things, I can't say the review was very accurate or informative about the book, though it was quite revealing about Feser's opinion of Coyne.

Let's hope Dr Feser gets to grips with the contents in his follow-up.

Alan Fox said...

This may be off-topic but as Plantinga and his EAAN has cropped up, like Michael Ruse, I'm wondering where it and other such logical (?) arguments get you.

As Ruse says (if Wikipedia is accurate):

To be honest, even if Plantinga's argument [the EAAN] worked, I would still want to know where theism ends (and what form this theism must take) and where science can take over. Is it the case that evolution necessarily cannot function, or it is merely false and in another God-created world it might have held in some way — and if so, in what way? Plantinga has certainly not shown that the theist must be a creationist, even though his own form of theism is creationism.

Assume EAAN is true, assume Aquinas was right, Craig's Kalam cosmological argument is true...

How do derive your attributes? Which manifestation, which version, of God to you pick?

Alan Fox said...

Excuse typo!

Should be "...which... ...God to pick" or "...which God... ... do you pick". Take your pick.

Daniel Joachim said...

@Alan

"Assume EAAN is true, assume Aquinas was right, Craig's Kalam cosmological argument is true...

How do derive your attributes? Which manifestation, which version, of God to you pick?"

Better address one of those argument at a time, as those belong to very distinct traditions.

The short answer in a place like this, I guess is to locate the process of evolution into a framework of teleology with formal-cum-final causation and virtual potentials being actualized (which takes us beyond EAAN). From an A-T perspective, for human rationality to be possible, you also need a rational soul. And from the existence of teleology, you get Aquinas' fifth way to the God of Classical Theism. I seem to remember that you have been venturing this blog before, so I guess these terms are familiar to you without in-depth explanation.

A label of creationism on Plantinga can easily be misinterpreted, as that term carries much baggage. Phrasing such as "where theism ends and where science can take over" seems similarly misguided, and too much reliant both on such thinking that informs Gould's NOMA and on the modern mechanistic vision of God as an external "divine tinkerer". Plantinga probably have no issue with the process of evolution per se, only that the coupling of evolution with naturalism is an unlikely path to where we find ourselves today.

TheOFloinn said...

you can take the words of one Christian explaining Christianity, repeat it verbatim to another Christian, and inevitably receive the reply "Well, there's your problem dear boy, you've misunderstood Christianity!"

Well, there's your problem, Vaal, you've misunderstood misunderstanding!"
You can take the words of one auto driver explaining auto mechanics, repeat it verbatim to another driver, and inevitably receive the reply "Well, there's your problem dear boy, you've misunderstood auto mechanics!"

The thing is, very few people have the time, skills, and interest to delve deeply into any subject, whether science, evolution, theology, or French cuisine. They will tend to simply repeat what revered teachers have told them, what they learned in school, and accept the rules or recipes that have been laid down. Who's got time to build a particle accelerator in his basement just to find his own dang quarks? Or futz around with the recipe for chicken breasts a la Russe?

However, two-thirds of all Christians are Catholic or Orthodox, and those two lobes of the Church have an interesting feature: the beliefs they preach are not decided by popular vote, but by a magisterium that has been handed down from of old. Thus, unlike Bill and Ted's Excellent Bible Shack, differences among members denotes either deliberate self-deception or incomplete catechesis. Whereas, among the others you are likely to find people crafting their religion to suit their own a priori personal preferences.

TheOFloinn said...

Alan Fox asked where theism ends ... and where science can take over.

The question implicitly assumes that "science" and "theism" are both doing the same thing, only "science" picks up what's left over after "theism" gets done. (Or vice versa.) But it's a bit like asking where east ends and north can take over. Or perhaps where haute cuisine ends and grand ballet takes over.

Assume EAAN is true, assume Aquinas was right, Craig's Kalam cosmological argument is true...

How do derive your attributes? Which manifestation, which version, of God to you pick?


See Contra gentiles for details:
http://dhspriory.org/thomas/ContraGentiles.htm

Or the Compendium for a digest:
http://dhspriory.org/thomas/Compendium.htm

Both give an account of what propositions follow from the "existence proofs." (Note: Aquinas does not accept the kalam argument, since he did not think it could be shown in philosophy that the world had a beginning in time; and by his rules you could not cite scripture to resolve a philosophical question.)

Is it the case that evolution necessarily cannot function, or it is merely false

Evolution is a fact, and therefore cannot be false. Only theories (such as natural selection or Newtonian gravitation) can be false. That is, that species change is one thing, but the mechanism by which they change is a different matter.

Hope this helps.

Brandon said...

Alan Fox,

EAAN is not an argument for theism; it's an argument that naturalism, understood in the usual way, if combined with a theory of evolution understood as explaining things wholly in terms of chance and adaptation for survival and reproduction, undercuts the reasons for holding it. At least some kinds of theism avoid the problem, but there are, by the very structure of the argument, other positions that could in principle do so as well -- naturalism with a much less restrictive evolutionary theory, for instance, or some kind of a non-theistic non-naturalism. Determining which is best would require further, and somewhat different, inquiry. Thus you get from it, if it were to work, only what you get from any argument if it works: an opportunity to be more rational, or at least less irrational, as the case may be.

Ruse's comment as you quote it is quite odd, and seems to be conflating a number of different issues as if they were the same; I would have to see the full context to make much sense of it.

Having read Jerry Coyne's book and Ed Feser's review of it at First Things, I can't say the review was very accurate or informative about the book, though it was quite revealing about Feser's opinion of Coyne.

Well, that was extraordinarily vague.

David T said...

"Alan Fox asked where theism ends ... and where science can take over.

The question implicitly assumes that "science" and "theism" are both doing the same thing, only "science" picks up what's left over after "theism" gets done. (Or vice versa.) But it's a bit like asking where east ends and north can take over. Or perhaps where haute cuisine ends and grand ballet takes over. "

Or perhaps where math ends and science can take over, or where geography ends and roadbuilding can begin. The philosophy that leads to Thomistic theistic conclusions is the same philosophy that makes science possible, so science can never "take over
" in the intended sense.

Don Jindra said...

Vaal,

"I got used to the fact very quickly that you can take the words of one Christian explaining Christianity, repeat it verbatim to another Christian, and inevitably receive the reply 'Well, there's your problem dear boy, you've misunderstood Christianity!'"

Exactly.

Anonymous said...

I wonder if that doofus Coyne would consent to a public debate with Feser?

rufusdog said...

Mankind agrees on virtually nothing. I can think on any number of disagreements Atheists have among themselves about their own world view.

If all of Christianity was in agreement on all points that would act as a proof against the scriptures, man is just not built that way.

“The heart is deceitful” “lean not on your own understanding” “my thoughts are not your thoughts, my ways are not your ways” “all have sinned” and on and on and on.

There is very little disagreement among Christians about what the core of Christianity is.

DDT said...

I wonder if that doofus Coyne would consent to a public debate with Feser?

The man cannot tolerate relatively minimal dissent on his blog. He's not going to accept an intellectual asskicking in public, with cameras.

William McEnaney said...

Anonymous, Fr. Stanley Jaki was a Catholic priest, a philosopher of science, and a physicist.

http://www.sljaki.com/

Anonymous said...

@TheOFloinn: "Evolution is a fact, and therefore cannot be false."

That's an interesting theory.

(A) Facts cannot be false
(B) Evolution is a fact
(Z) Evolution cannot be false

But is it true? :-)

laubadetriste said...

@Timocrates: "I'm sorry but when you mentioned virology when I asked for practical benefits that have actually resulted from evolutionary theory (I know of exactly zero) I thought you meant vaccinations... [..] But if by virology you meant the practical benefit of vaccinations, I stress again that vaccinations largely came out of Germ Theory which, as far as I know, has virtually no relation to Darwin or evolutionary theory as such."

No worries. Understandable misunderstanding. But no, that is not what I meant. (I do not deny that it might be highly relevant. Perhaps someone around here is knowledgeable about the connections between the two.)

"I'm not personally aware of how virology followed from evolutionary theory or how it otherwise resulted from it."

Nor did I say that "virology followed from evolutionary theory or... otherwise resulted from it." I very specifically queried your seeming denial (my paragraph the second), not that the one followed or resulted from the other, but that the one had "practical benefit" of *any sort at all,* including for the other as an example. In doing so, let me emphasize, I have now used those exact words ("practical benefit") a full *eight times*; and that was after you used them twice (you picked them!), and then used them three more times (!), and then used them again in the very next sentence after ↑the one I just quoted; and too that was after I very gently corrected TheOFloinn on the exact same matter. So, unless there is something which does not rise to the level of argument, which is incontrovertibly pulling you away from them, I am afraid at this point I really must insist on those words. (I will accept also "practical discoveries and inventions," which you picked at the same time, which we have used between us four times, and which I take to be specific types of "practical benefit.")

@TheOFloinn: "But do they originate via random mutation followed by natural selection? Or do they originate from horizontal transmission of genetic material, with no 'fitness' beyond 'this alteration does not kill me.' Remember, the contention was that the *Darwinian hypothesis* as such led to important effects."

First, no, that was not the contention. I already corrected you on this point in the post immediately before yours. What hall of mirrors is this? Having already quoted my own full point before (bare of prefatory matter), let me quote my own full point again: "...but that seems either to be a very eccentric opinion, or else a very narrow point about the meaning of such terms as 'scientist,' 'engineer,' 'inventor,' etc. I mean, e.g., do I read you correctly in implying that 'Darwin's musings' have had *no* practical benefit? (even in, say, virology?)"

There. Now, can the very *sixteenth time* please be the charm?

laubadetriste said...

Second, "Darwin's musings" contained nothing about "random mutation" (as I already pointed out when I said, "But Darwin was in the dark about the molecular mechanisms of evolution..."); and the figure of *Darwin* himself was a figure chosen by Timocrates as an example of "scientists". And so *your bugaboo* about random mutation is irrelevant both to my example, and to my broader ↑point. ("[R]andom mutation followed by natural selection" is *a* Darwinian hypothesis, not *the* Darwinian hypothesis, as I already pointed out when I said, "James A. Shapiro seems to object primarily to gradualism, and to random mutation being the prime fodder for natural selection, which as he says are tenets of an 'orthodox neo-Darwinian theory.'")

At this point you *could* say, like Timocrates did (although not in so many words), that the purported benefit under discussion is at a great remove from Darwin and therefore attenuated, and therefore that my example is trivial.

I suppose now I must ask you, what *you* mean by the "Darwinian hypothesis," keeping in mind that if you care to specify, it must be with what is a) essential to the hypothesis being Darwinian; and b) distinctive from what are non-Darwinian hypotheses.

"It is quite common for Late Moderns to confuse facts with theories, and thus to suppose any evolution at all is somehow 'Darwinian.' But evolution is a fact, and new kinds either originate from existing kinds, as Augustine suggested, or they 'poof!' into existence. And they don't 'poof!' Evolution as such is a fact, and facts don't need science so much as they need simple observation. We can't really say that the fact that cannonballs fall to the ground is a discovery of science."

Your point in that first sentence is a good one. It is true that all virologists are Late Moderns, including the interviewee I twice linked to, and therefore all of them, or some relevantly large portion of them, may in fact be benefiting (with eo ipso *virology* benefiting) from an understanding of evolution (virology "understood sub specie evolutionis," I said), but mistaken in thinking that that understanding is *Darwinian.* If they are so mistaken, then I would have to concede my example. I am afraid I have no way of discovering whether they are so mistaken. Perhaps you have such a way.

laubadetriste said...

We agree that new kinds do not go "poof!" (I presume you make a distinction there between "kind" and "species". I am aware of that distinction among creationists. I do not know what you mean by it.) But of course, that is merely a caricature. And whether or not facts "need" science is beside the point.

"The contention was that this scientific explanation of the mechanism of evolution provided some useful effect (or not). But cultivation of useful traits by selection, carried out by breeders and farmers, had been in use for millennia. It was the pragmatists who came first. "

The priority of "pragmatists" in the "cultivation of useful traits by selection" is beside the point in deciding whether the "scientific explanation of the mechanism of evolution provided some useful effect (or not)", for of course there could be some benefit *subsequent* to the first "cultivation of useful traits by selection"--like in, say, *virology,* which came to be (e.g.) an estimated 13,000-30,000 years after the domestication of what was likely the first domesticated animal, the dog...

"The purported benefits of Darwin's theory are due to genetic engineering and other such pursuits..."

Unless you implicitly mean James A Shapiro's "*natural* genetic engineering," which would be both begging the question (as again, I already addressed him), and also an idiosyncratic use of the phrase "genetic engineering," then you are begging the question in another way, for I have in fact already linked. (that makes three times now) to a purported example of practical benefit that is *not* from "genetic engineering and other such pursuits."

I *did* make things easier for you by saying that, "If I am wrong in some important way about [the interview], then I will concede the virology example." Now, I presume that you did not listen to those 9 minutes. (Pardon me if I am mistaken.) To be fair, I know we're all busy. I *can* transcribe the few key sentences here for you, but I would rather not clog up the combox more than I must.

"And it may be that this 'selection' other than for the culling of the unfit is not an explanation at all."

If you mean *natural selection,* then I would concede that. That was in fact my last reading of the *Origin* (in 2011). You make "culling of the unfit" sound like a trivial explanation. Perhaps if you elaborated on that possible claim, you would address either my example, or my point. Of course--as you yourself note in your post about the Pupfish--there are *other* sorts of selection contained within "Darwin's musings."

Re the Pupfish of Nevada post: setting aside your seeming bugaboos (gradualism, random mutation, perhaps the fossil record), if you can either expand the scope of *phenotype plasticity* beyond what is plausibly Darwinian (he himself, as you pointed out, was a breeder, and no doubt would have found great interest in your dog chart), or establish that all seeming origins of species (or merely all seeming origins of virus species) were likely instances of phenotype plasticity, then you will have negated my example.

(Yes, I realize that the concept of a "virus species" is somewhat analogical.)

Apologies for the long comment. Here's a potato.

TheOFloinn said...

@Anon.

Facts are neither true nor false. They simply are. A theory may be true or not, i.e., 'true to the facts'. Similarly, a novel may be true, i.e., true to life. You may be, as the Beach Boys prophesied 'true to your school.' You and your gspusi may pledge to be true to each other. The key thing is that one must always be true to something. That is why 'truth' is simply the Saxon version of the Latinate 'faith.'

Hence, evolution is a fact.
Natural selection may or may not be true to those facts.

Alan Fox said...

Daniel Joachim kindly responds:

The short answer in a place like this, I guess is to locate the process of evolution into a framework of teleology with formal-cum-final causation and virtual potentials being actualized (which takes us beyond EAAN). From an A-T perspective, for human rationality to be possible, you also need a rational soul.

Not sure why you mention "evolution".

And from the existence of teleology, you get Aquinas' fifth way to the God of Classical Theism. I seem to remember that you have been venturing this blog before, so I guess these terms are familiar to you without in-depth explanation.

Take that as a given, for the sake of argument.

A label of creationism on Plantinga can easily be misinterpreted, as that term carries much baggage. Phrasing such as "where theism ends and where science can take over" seems similarly misguided, and too much reliant both on such thinking that informs Gould's NOMA and on the modern mechanistic vision of God as an external "divine tinkerer". Plantinga probably have no issue with the process of evolution per se, only that the coupling of evolution with naturalism is an unlikely path to where we find ourselves today.

Fine. My question was, assuming the various arguments for a prime mover, supreme being, creator of the universe are valid, what attributes do you assign and what is the justification?

Chris Lansdown said...

Alan,
Are you looking for someone to type out the first part of the summa theologica into a combox for you? Why not just read the summa for yourself and save them the trouble?

laubadetriste said...

Oh, and Timocrates, to be clear, by "virology" I meant the study of viruses.

Anonymous said...

@TheOFloinn:

I suspect you may have missed my grin, and my Carroll reference :-)

Billy said...

@Daniel Jaochim

"Am I understanding you correctly?

Yea pretty much correct.

I don't think even functionalism or anything like it could really bring belief to that status needed to solve this problem, or to really say it has an impact on behaviour.

As long as naturalists consider the physical world as the only fundamental aspect of nature and beholden to and governed by the physical laws they won't even get past the very first part of the argument, let alone the rest.

Anonymous said...

Religion has its origins in the right brain, or the understanding that the Cosmos and the World Process is a psycho-physical Unity.
Scientism or scientific materialism is the now world dominant "religion" of the left brain. The root meaning of the word science is to separate.

In this time and place the human world is ruled by the separative point of view of scientific materialism, which has deprived humankind of all profundity of view, relative to the nature and significance of what we are as human beings, relative to the Cosmos and the World Process, and relative to the Divine Nature of the Reality in which human beings and the Cosmos is are spontaneously and mysteriously arising.

Scientific materialism is a global cultural program which has effectively supported the ego's motive to achieve a perfectly independent state of self-sufficiency that, as a result, the human collective has brought itself to the point of global destruction and universal despair.
It has created a situation in which humankind has been reduced to a state of universal fragmentation, very much like the countless numbers of shattered pieces of Humpty Dumpty broken shell lying on the ground.

And as we all know from the parable of Humpty Dumpty, all of the kings horses and all of the kings men can never ever put Humpty back together again. This very much applies to any kind of "traditional" or modern religious philosophy and "theology", including speculative Thomistic metaphyics.

Scientific materialism has created a world-wide "culture" of death, the leading-edge vector of which is the Pentagon based death machine, or the military-industrial-propaganda complex, the "values" of which now pattern every minute fraction of USA "culture", and by extension the entire world.

Daniel Joachim said...

@Alan Fox

Not sure why you mention "evolution".

Well, my most charitable reading of your initial question suggested that you wanted to know how Theism is supposed to be a better alternative, even if Plantinga's EAAN were to be successful, or at least probable. For A-T and Etienne Gilson, we could get some Aristotle into that Darwin, and we've come a long way giving a better explanation of how we've possibly could have ended up in our current situation.

Take that as a given, for the sake of argument.

And you should, since I gave an overview, and not an argument. :)

Fine. My question was, assuming the various arguments for a prime mover, supreme being, creator of the universe are valid, what attributes do you assign and what is the justification?

As Chris says, that would be to spell out at length both the traditional arguments for God, the necessary metaphysical framework to understand the distinctions being made and the consecutive examination of necessary attributes. That is pretty much what books like this and this are for, to explain these, even in a way accessible at a popular level. Then we conclude with something like Subsequent Being without restrictions from being quantifiable, extended in time and space, therefore eternal and immaterial, omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent, metaphysically ultimate, more than a person, necessarily perfectly good, etc.

grodrigues said...

@Daniel Joachim:

" I seem to remember that you have been venturing this blog before, so I guess these terms are familiar to you without in-depth explanation."

And you remember right. Here is one example of Alan Fox's earlier participation.

grodrigues said...

Hmm, not seeing the link in my post. Here it is without the tags:

http://edwardfeser.blogspot.pt/2014/08/carroll-on-scholastic-metaphysics.html

Mikael said...

Hi.I'm new to Aristotelian-Thomistic Metaphysics.With respect to God,can we say that it is metaphysically impossible for God to do evil?

Craig Payne said...

Dear Mikael: Yes. See the further response:

Dear Alan Fox: As Daniel Joachim points out, if God is that than which nothing greater can be conceived, Supreme, absolutely perfect, and so on, then God's attributes would include all perfections, such as perfection of strength (omnipotence), of knowledge (omniscience), of presence, and so on. Once we understand the identification of absolute Being with absolute Goodness, we could also maintain that God is perfectly Good (or perfect Goodness) with no admixture of evil. Perfection would also be eternal and have no potential for change or loss, which would further rule out God's being able to commit evil. And so on. All of these are discussed by Anselm, along with other philosophers through the years.

pck said...

I got used to the fact very quickly that you can take the words of one Christian explaining Christianity, repeat it verbatim to another Christian, and inevitably receive the reply "Well, there's your problem dear boy, you've misunderstood Christianity!

Shocker. Ask ten physicists what the m in E=mc^2 means. You'll get 11 different answers, all pairwise incompatible with each other. The same happens if you ask 10 mathematicians about the role, truth or importance of the Axiom of Choice, set theory, the law of the excluded middle, higher order cardinals, etc.

The fact that different people have different takes on the same subject, culture, scientific theory or abstract formalism can only be surprising to the most narrow minded and the least experienced among us.

Craig Payne said...

I had a related thought, which is not really new, but struck me afresh: When we consider Being and Goodness, we can see that NOTHING THAT EXISTS CAN BE ABSOLUTELY EVIL. Kind of a nice thought to start the day. "Everything that exists is good insofar as it [actually] exists."--Aquinas

Daniel Joachim said...

Then we conclude with something like Subsequent Being

Oh, heavens. Of course I meant *Subsistent Being Itself - ipsum esse subsistens. Subsequent Being would pretty much destroy the entire meaning of what we call God.

Sorry. I'm a non-native English speaker with a non-subsistent autocorrect. :)

pck said...

Re: Random mutations/Shapiro

This article by Stephen Talbott tracks the meaning of "randomness" in certain biological contexts and how randomness figures in the subsequent stories told by biologists:

Evolution and the Illusion of Randomness

(Richard Lewontin's criticism of the concept of fitness is also discussed. Lewontin was Coyne's doctoral advisor and is eminently saner than Coyne. Which is also true for H. Allen Orr, who studied under Coyne. Apparently the intelligence gene likes to skip a generation.)

Shapiro is discussed in the follow-up piece

Natural Genome Remodeling

Mikael said...

Thanks for your thoughts Craig.I think I agree with you that absolute evil does not exist.It is metaphysically impossible for absolute evil to exist.Since evil is the privation of something,absolute evil would be the absolute privation of something,and that's nothing.But nothing cannot exist since nothing hasn't the potential to exist.I still have some concerns:is God obliged to maintain in existence the essences He creates?I'm asking this because even if God would annihilate the essences He once created,He would still remain Goodness Itself.Maybe this is a stupid question,but as I previously said,I'm new to A-T Metaphysics.Since for Classical Theists,God Hasn't moral responsibility,can it be said that it's impossible for God to destroy the essences He previously created?And why?Thanks in advance.

TheOFloinn said...

assuming the various arguments for a prime mover, supreme being, creator of the universe are valid, what attributes do you assign and what is the justification?

If we assume the argument for the primary mover -- this means something different to Aristotle than to Thomas -- then we conclude that the primary mover PM must be purely actual:
1. Suppose PM were not purely actual. Then it would be in potency in some regard.
2. But that which is in potency toward X can be moved toward X, and this movement must originate outside of the PM.
3. But this contradicts the assumption that PM is the primary mover. Modus tollens.
We may now call PM the BPA (Being of Pure Act).
From this follows a host of attributes. One example:
There can be only one BPA
1. Suppose there were two distinct BPAs, call them A and B.
2. To be distinct, A would have to possess an attribute (such as being here) that B (being there) does not.
3. But then A is in potency to being there. (And likewise, B to being here.)
4. But then A is not a being of pure act. Modus tollens.
And so on and so forth: immaterial, eternal, all-power full, etc. etc. Cumulatively, they add up to God, and not to "god."

Notice that these attributes are not "assigned" to the BPA. They are deduced from its nature.

Hope this helps.

Jeremy Taylor said...

Kyle,

Kudos for managing to include a quip against Geoffrey Howe, by the way.

Jay said...

Regarding the attributes of God, how are we to conceive him as being everywhere, the creator and sustainer of everything that exists, the container of the universe, and yet not lapse into Pantheism?

BenYachov said...

Jay

How can something cause itself? If God is the cause of everything but himself(ie. He is uncaused) then why must I conclude God's substance and that of the Universe are identical?

Thus I don't get how this is an argument for Pantheism. Omnipresence yes but that goes with the territory.

Don Jindra said...

Pck,

"Ask ten physicists what the m in E=mc^2 means. You'll get 11 different answers, all pairwise incompatible with each other."

False.


rufusdog,

"There is very little disagreement among Christians about what the core of Christianity is."

When pressed, that core turns out to be trivial. On the things in life that matter (the focus of religion in the first place) there is wide disparity.

laubadetriste said...

@Don Jindra: "Pck, 'Ask ten physicists what the m in E=mc^2 means. You'll get 11 different answers, all pairwise incompatible with each other."' / False."

I'm sure I haven't talked to as many physicists as pck has, but there does seem to have been some dispute...

Billy said...

"Ask ten physicists what the m in E=mc^2 means. You'll get 11 different answers, all pairwise incompatible with each other."

Just ask a scientists what science is.

pck said...

"Ask ten physicists what the m in E=mc^2 means. You'll get 11 different answers, all pairwise incompatible with each other."

This is a quote from one of my theoretical physics profs. I have lots of experimental evidence for it. In fact it suffices to ask whether one should write m or m_0 (rest mass). To anyone who knows a little about the conceptual difficulties associated with the term "mass" in physics (and in relativity theory in particular) this will not come as a surprise (we can of course safely exclude Don "blind faith" Jindra from this circle). It gets worse when you ask about the Higgs particle (or more precisely the Higgs mechanism).

11 different replies doesn't mean that there aren't right and wrong answers. It just means that even for trained professionals whose calculations are almost always right, the conceptual side can and does remain difficult to explain.

The book by Max Jammer which laubadetriste has linked to is a very good place to start.

TheOFloinn said...

how are we to conceive him as being everywhere... and yet not lapse into Pantheism?

Surely, it is possible for you to be in a supermarket without the supermarket being you.

Anonymous said...

As someone currently trying to research classical theistic metaphysics I have my own issue I would like to clarify.
In the First Way the reason why the unmoved mover cannot be immaterial according to classical theistic metaphysics is because all material things are composed of matter and form. Since matter unless conjoined to form is merely potential this indicates that all these things due to being made of matter are having potentials that are being actualized when conjoined to forms in order to exist. But in order to join with the forms something outside of the form/matter composite must be actualizing/sustaining this union into existence as matter cannot account for the union due to being potentially while form cannot as without matter it is mere abstraction and cannot cause anything, leaving the only candidate that is something that is onto logically prior to the form/matter composite in terms of actuality or in other words something outside the composite. It derives its actuality and is being sustained into existence by this outside force. If this outside force is itself made of form and matter we are back to square one and the cycle repeats. An infinite series of this cannot go on forever because each form/matter composite derives its actuality from another and in this series there would no true source of actuality and thus no actuality at all, but since there is actuality this idea is false, thus the only way this series can terminate if their is a 1st source of actuality. It must be immaterial as matter is either pure potency or with form which requires an outside actualizer and thus has no source of actuality
Does this account accurately sum up why the unmoved mover cannot be material and must be immaterial as I'm a bit confused if matter is only pure potency unless conjoined with form which actualizes it doesn't the form due to doing so serve as an actualizer or sustainer for the composite instead of the outside force due to having the capacity to actualize something, which is matter? Furthermore if the unmoved mover is immaterial does that make it like forms which are also immaterial but forms can't cause anything on their own so how does the unmoved mover cause anything if it is immaterial?

laubadetriste said...

@The OFloinn: "Surely, it is possible for you to be in a supermarket without the supermarket being you."

Heh. :) You do have a way with illuminating counterexamples.

Craig Payne said...

Dear Jay: You wrote, "Regarding the attributes of God, how are we to conceive him as being everywhere, the creator and sustainer of everything that exists, the container of the universe, and yet not lapse into Pantheism?"

I am not sure what is meant by "container." God's omnipresence entails a causal presence behind everything that is, not a physical presence--much less a physical presence "around" the universe, like a container. So we could worship the God Who is the constant cause of the universe, without worshiping the universe in any way.

Brandon said...

Anonymous,

Assuming I didn't overlook or misread anything, that looks like it's about right. It's more common to go straight to act/potency, but you can go the longer way around through the form/matter distinction.

There is a sense in which form is the actualizer for matter; but this sense is not going to explain change ('motion' as it's often translated) -- the form's actualizing matter is not an explanation for change at all, because what you need to know for change is how the form was introduced in the first place. (The form's actualizing matter is the explanation for composition rather than change.) Since the matter cannot introduce the form, and the previous composite had a different form, and this new form didn't exist before it began to be, the new form must be due to the action of something else.

The unmoved mover in itself is indeed like an immaterial form, or, to be more exact, immaterial forms are the things that are most like the unmoved mover, precisely because they are immaterial. Aquinas actually wouldn't agree that immaterial forms can't be causes, because he thinks there's an entire class of causes that are -- angels or planetary intelligences. But, of course, in saying that they are immaterial forms, we're not saying that their material forms floating free of their matter; they're just forms that actually exist without having to exist in matter, which is in principle possible. Forms like those of a dog or a tree require some kind of matter to exist, but that doesn't mean that every form requires some kind of matter to exist.

Anonymous said...

Who knows more about philosophy: Krauss, Dawkins, or Coyne?

Craig Payne said...

Yikes. Now that right there is a question.

I do know that Dawkins has declared that he doesn't need to know any philosophy or theology, as one would not really need to know about leprechauns. So even if they are equally ignorant, Dawkins might be the only one who is proud of it.

TheOFloinn said...

The priority of "pragmatists" in the "cultivation of useful traits by selection" is beside the point in deciding whether the "scientific explanation of the mechanism of evolution provided some useful effect (or not)", for of course there could be some benefit *subsequent* to the first "cultivation of useful traits by selection"--like in, say, *virology,*

Sure. What was that useful effect?

I presume you make a distinction there between "kind" and "species". I am aware of that distinction among creationists. I do not know what you mean by it.)

Able: I don't know what you mean by "kind"?
Baker: Really?
Able: Yes, how is it different from "species"?
Baker: What kind of chair are you sitting in?
Able: What? It's a recliner. Why?
Baker: So, a recliner is a kind of chair, different from a wing chair, a straight-back, and so on. Your pet, Fido, what kind of dog is he?
Able: He's a poodle.
Baker: I thought poodles were larger.
Able: Well, a miniature poodle.
Baker: So Fido is a kind of miniature poodle, and a miniature poodle is a kind of poodle, and a poodle is a kind of dog.
Able: Now, wait a minute...
Baker: What kind of music is that you are playing.
Able: Perry Como.
Baker: Perry Como is a kind of music?
Able: OK, it's soft jazz, of the sort called "crooner."
Baker: So crooning is a kind of soft jazz, which is in turn a kind of jazz. I thought you said you didn't know what a "kind" is. Yet every time I ask you about a kind, you can answer easily enough. What kind of animal is that out the back window?
Able (sighs): A horse.
Baker: And what kind of cloud is that in the sky?
Able: I don't know the name for it.
Baker: But it is clearly a different kind of cloud than that other one up there? They are called cumulus and cirrus, by the way. So it seems you can recognize different kinds of things even when you don't know their names.
By the way, what species is it?
Able: Equus something. That is much more scientific.
Baker: But what is a species?
Able: A population that is interfertile.
Baker: Like horses and donkeys?
Able: Okay, the offspring must also be fertile.
Baker: Like polar bears and grizzlies? Or the Northern Spotted Owl and the California Spotted Owl?
Able: Okay, unless they live in different habitats or possess behavioral traits that naturally keep them separate.
Baker: Like Eskimos and Aborigines?
Able: Well, no. All humans are the same species.
Baker: Because they are interfertile.
Able: Yes.
Baker: But polar bears and grizzlies are separate species.
Able: Yes...
Baker: Even though they are also interfertile.
Able: Umm.
Baker: And how does this apply to plants which can be viably grafted, to asexual species, or to those fungi that alternate between sexual and asexual generations? My son-in-law's uncle had a tree that bore several kinds of fruit: peaches, pears, and so on, because he had grafted the branches to the same trunk. What species was that tree?
Able: Beats me.
Baker: But it was clearly a different kind of tree. It seems to me that you are not as clear about species as you are about kinds. By the way, Fido is a specific kind of poodle, and the poodle is a specific kind of dog. So species and genus, at least in the original meanings, are also clear. Fido is a species; that is, a specific instance of a poodle, which is the generic.
Able: My head hurts.
Baker: That's what happens when you conflate the specific terminology used in a technical field with the generic terminology used in ordinary discourse.

Anonymous said...

@Brandon
Thanks for your response but regarding what you said about form needing an outside force to explain the change would this still apply in the case of an eternal composite of matter and form as due to being eternal and not losing its form the form could be the actualizer for the substance matter and thus there would be no need of an outside force to explain the change? Or would there still need to be an outside force as even thought it was eternally composite and if so how come in this case the form still could not provide the ultimate explanation for the composite on its own.

Mr. Green said...

Anonymous: Who knows more about philosophy: Krauss, Dawkins, or Coyne?

The answer would have to be: all of the above.
After all, it's impossible to know less about philosophy than any or all of them put together, so the converse must be the case.

Brandon said...

Thanks for your response but regarding what you said about form needing an outside force to explain the change would this still apply in the case of an eternal composite of matter and form as due to being eternal and not losing its form the form could be the actualizer for the substance matter and thus there would be no need of an outside force to explain the change?

If it's an eternal form in eternal matter, and there is no form lost or gained, in what sense would there be a change in need of explanation?

(If one wants to explain unchanging composites, rather than changes, one would talk in terms of efficient causes instead of in terms of movers, since efficient causes are causes of existence rather than change as such.)

pck said...

Anonymous: Who knows more about philosophy: Krauss, Dawkins, or Coyne?

This should be decided live on TV in a game show called "Masters of Intransigence".

Don Jindra said...

pck,

"To anyone who knows a little about the conceptual difficulties associated with the term "mass" in physics (and in relativity theory in particular) this will not come as a surprise (we can of course safely exclude Don "blind faith" Jindra from this circle)."

When people want to separate themselves from others, or make a point, or even entertain, they tend to exaggerate differences. Your theoretical physics professor didn't go so far as to say E=mc^2 should drop the m because of conceptual difficulties. He didn't suggest c^2 should be replaced by c^3 because a voice on the road to Damascus told him so. He didn't suggest the speed of light should be replaced by the speed of sound because it sounds better. Only then will we be in the realm of theology.The difference between science and theology is the direction. Science narrows uncertainty. It reduces conceptual difficulties. Neither theology nor speculative metaphysics can do that.

Craig Payne said...

"Neither theology nor speculative metaphysics can do that."

Dear Don Jindra: So you have absolutely no confidence in the power of logic or critical reasoning?

Anonymous said...

@Brandon,
If in the case of eternal form and matter not having change as you stated wouldn't this mean that the 1st way saying the unmoved mover is immaterial is false and thus the prime mover could be material? But Aristotle though the universe was eternal, so do you know he or future thinkers got past this objection.

Brandon said...

If it's assumed actually to be completely unchanging, I imagine it just wouldn't come up as part of the argument at all, although I suppose there's a question of how you would establish such a thing existed at all. In the case of Aristotle, while Aristotle thought the world was eternal, he didn't think it was unchanging -- the world was eternal in the sense that every generation is out of previous matter, so the world, while in a sense a necessary being, has always been changing. I'm not sure he would be able to make much sense of a form-matter composite that had no change at all -- composition is usually seen as at least allowing the possibility of change, even if only minor change. But I'd have to look a bit more closely at what Aristotle and other Aristotelians said about the matter of heavenly bodies, which would probably be relevant here.

Son of Ya'Kov said...

>Anonymous: Who knows more about philosophy: Krauss, Dawkins, or Coyne?

I don't know? Who knows more about Evolution: Kirk Cameron, Ray Comfort or Pat Robertson?

Yeh.....it's that bad.

Anonymous said...

Yes, but Kirk Cameron, Ray Comfort and Pat Robertson aren't writing books on evolution and pretending to have answers to ancient questions. Krauss, Dawkins, and Coyne have the guts to provide answers to questions in philosophy while at the same time saying that they don't need philosophy.

DNW said...

Don Jindra said...

pck,

"To anyone who knows a little about the conceptual difficulties associated with the term "mass" in physics (and in relativity theory in particular) this will not come as a surprise (we can of course safely exclude Don "blind faith" Jindra from this circle)."

When people want to separate themselves from others, or make a point, or even entertain, they tend to exaggerate differences. Your theoretical physics professor didn't go so far as to say E=mc^2 should drop the m because of conceptual difficulties. He didn't suggest c^2 should be replaced by c^3 because a voice on the road to Damascus told him so. He didn't suggest the speed of light should be replaced by the speed of sound because it sounds better. Only then will we be in the realm of theology.The difference between science and theology is the direction. Science narrows uncertainty. It reduces conceptual difficulties. Neither theology nor speculative metaphysics can do that.

February 4, 2016 at 7:06 AM "


Don,

What would you say if everything you thought you knew from materialist science, turned out to be radically wrong, and was demonstrated to be wrong by an outsider.

If, say, (as some of the amusing and thought provoking links contributed here from time to time purport) reality were shown to be in a different format, so to speak, on the physics level,(not necessarily the subjective everyday experiential level) from what had been heretofore supposed and taught. If it were shown for example that "science" had in fact been dealing with shadows on a wall; and only worked in the way it did as a result of a series of heretofore inexplicable interfaces ... or something.

Perhaps such a hypothetical is even "impermissible" as an exploratory exercise?

But if not, what would be the subsequent status of science and the social dogmas which cascaded from its adepts, after this?

Again, it's just an exercise, and I am not in any way suggesting that such a completely radical paradigm shift is in the offing or even likely. Just posing a hypothetical to see how someone with your views would accommodate or integrate the information relative the historic practice and authority of "science".

My bet is that you would find a way to integrate the new information and view the old doctrines as provisionally correct and the overflow dogmas of the most adept practitioners of the old knowledge, justified nonetheless. But maybe not.

laubadetriste said...

@Don Jindra: "Your theoretical physics professor didn't go so far as to say E=mc^2 should drop the m because of conceptual difficulties. He didn't suggest c^2 should be replaced by c^3 because a voice on the road to Damascus told him so. He didn't suggest the speed of light should be replaced by the speed of sound because it sounds better. Only then will we be in the realm of theology.The difference between science and theology is the direction. Science narrows uncertainty. It reduces conceptual difficulties. Neither theology nor speculative metaphysics can do that."

You would seem to have returned to your claim about the "direction" of religious disputes, about which I expressed some reservations before passing out. But beyond there, I admit I have not the doctrinal history to say much of interest about that. I suspect some folks around here do.

Billy said...

"The difference between science and theology is the direction. Science narrows uncertainty. It reduces conceptual difficulties. Neither theology nor speculative metaphysics can do that."

Metaphysics does reduce conceptual difficulties, especially in science itself. Scientists are not necessarily experts on science itself, they simply use it as a tool. Philosophers of science, who generally are scientists as well, are the ones who investigate science itself.

Science itself cannot answer: What does science inquire about?

As soon as you say that it inquires about how the physical world operates, you are not making a scientific conclusion there.

As for theology, of course it reduces conceptual difficulties. Theologians are working very hard to organise and structure religious doctrines to remove and clarify what seem to be contradictions between passages and between religious teachings.

TheOFloinn said...

Actually physics (not "science") and metaphysics (not "theology") do work in opposite directions.

Both start with experienced reality, a/k/a "facts" or (more precisely) "observations."

Physics reasons upward by induction to formulate physical theories.

Metaphysics argues downward by deduction to consequences.

laubadetriste said...

Don, what more precisely do you mean? Last time it seemed you had a historical contention. But now it may be that yours is methodological. (Or something else, I suppose.)

pck said...

Don "track and field" Jindra:
"When people want to separate themselves from others, or make a point, or even entertain, they tend to exaggerate differences."

It's the job of philosophy to emphasize differences. What your blunt mind through the filter of its ineradicable scientism perceives as exaggeration is in fact elucidation.

My prof's remark was not about the validity of Einstein's formula. As it quite clearly states, it is about what the m in E=mc^2 means, not about whether it is correct to put m there. The correctness was never in question. He pointed out a conceptual difficulty in relativity theory.

Your theoretical physics professor didn't go so far as to say E=mc^2 should drop the m because of conceptual difficulties.

Which nothing in what he said indicated or implied. And which nothing I said indicated or implied. Your response is unwarranted and irrational, a mere display of pet peeves being set off by a key word.

Science narrows uncertainty. It reduces conceptual difficulties.

[Gnu trigger warning: The following paragraph requires an understanding of the difference between empirical and conceptual knowledge.]

Science creates concepts, philosophy elucidates them. Science is thus a source of conceptual difficulties, not of their remedy. Bringing a diversity of observed phenomena P_i under one umbrella is a reduction of complexity, not a reduction of conceptual difficulties. If a theory which formerly used 10 concepts to describe the P_i can be reformulated to now use only 5, this is achieved by reworking the conceptual framework -- how we think about the P_i -- not by obtaining new empirical data about them.

If you had ever given proper thought to what actually happens in the formation of scientific theories you would know all this, or at least not give such horrendously uneducated responses. I recommend studying science instead of worshipping it.

pck said...

Science narrows uncertainty. It reduces conceptual difficulties.

Two words for you: Quantum physics.

TheOFloinn said...

In his essay on the nature of physical theories, physicist Pierre Duhem about a century ago gave an example of two physicists testing the same hypothesis involving pressure and obtaining the same results, but one claimed the results proved the hypothesis false and the other claimed they proved the hypothesis true. This was because one accepted the ideas of pressure promoted by Laplace and the other accepted the ideas promoted by Lagrange and Poisson. No amount of empirical evidence can decide which of two definitions is better.

Also Poisson formulated a relationship that e=mc^2, but it meant something different than what Einstein meant.

pck said...

DNW:
[...]
Don,

What would you say if everything you thought you knew from materialist science, turned out to be radically wrong, and was demonstrated to be wrong by an outsider.

If, say, (as some of the amusing and thought provoking links contributed here from time to time purport) reality were shown to be in a different format, so to speak, on the physics level, (not necessarily the subjective everyday experiential level) from what had been heretofore supposed and taught.

If it were shown for example that "science" had in fact been dealing with shadows on a wall; and only worked in the way it did as a result of a series of heretofore inexplicable interfaces ... or something.


All of this has happened, relativity theory and quantum physics being standard examples. Physicists have had to reevaluate their concepts of space, time and matter -- the format of physical reality. Newtonian point masses, Rutherford atoms, absolute time and space, etc., are shadows of the concepts of advanced theories. The interface between, say, special relativity and Newton is the restriction to only look at phenomena involving speeds significantly smaller than c. The interfaces between classical space/time and Einstein's spacetime or classical and quantum particles are much more difficult to assess. There are real conceptual gaps there which cannot be smoothly interpolated. There are contributions to the mass of a particle in RT which simply have no conceptual equivalent in Newtonian mechanics. Similar problems exist regarding the concept of force. (See e.g. here: "[...] there is unfortunately no single definitive way to interpret the space-time curvature caused by a moving mass as a Newtonian force [...]".)

The fact that new empirical research has forced scientists to change their views of metaphysical concepts like causality, event, space, time, matter and reality will not irritate DJ, because he can always look right past the conceptual issues and rave about how science avoids dogma, always improves, and just works.

Intransigence like Jindra's may be to some extent due to the fact that the "formats" of science are ours, not reality's. Language casts shadows on reality and there is probably no way to avoid that. Science only ever deals in appearances. Reality on the other hand is metaphysical work and gnus don't like metaphysics, or work. Dogma number one in gnu land is that reality is whatever works.

Gnus pride themselves on being non-dogmatic but always cite the latest science (which best fits the facts) as everything there "really" is to know. Thus they can always be "right" and label themselves "skeptics" at the same time. This shell-game of relative absolutism can only be maintained with the eye on reason permanently half-closed.

Perhaps such a hypothetical is even "impermissible" as an exploratory exercise?

But if not, what would be the subsequent status of science and the social dogmas which cascaded from its adepts, after this?


The social dogmas are inspired by scientific results, but not logically derived from them. Gnus are blind to this distinction. So you won't get a coherent answer out of DJ, just more evasion and braggadocio.

My bet is that you would find a way to integrate the new information and view the old doctrines as provisionally correct and the overflow dogmas of the most adept practitioners of the old knowledge, justified nonetheless.

He'd just shove a USB stick in your face: "See this? It works!" He likes to keep things simple. Which in whatever-works-land is almost a coherent response. All one has to do is to ignore the non-pragmatic uses of "reality" and turn a blind eye on conceptual thought and all other preconditions of scientific knowledge.

TheOFloinn said...

My bet is that you would find a way to integrate the new information and view the old doctrines as provisionally correct

One of the dogmas of scientism is that whatever the heck it is that other people are doing, they must be trying to do Science!™ And of course doing it badly. This is akin to the way in which Renaissance aficionados viewed Gothic architecture as a failed attempt to imitate Greco-Roman architecture; the French Revolution viewed stained glass windows as "irrational"; and Darwinian fanboys logically deduced eugenics as a necessary "scientific" conclusion.

Hey, whatever works.

DNW said...

"He'd just shove a USB stick in your face: "See this? It works!"


Yeah, that is pretty much where I would expect to wind up at the end of the day: with a what is truly, an almost overtly behaviorist, mind-free, kind of pragmatism which defined knowledge as bumping into the maze walls. Not that Don would necessarily represent that view himself.

But I don't really see another route for someone with such a general stance, if they wish to be intellectually consistent.

But then consistency, and worries about "truth" may be no part of serious pragmatism. As it clearly was not in the case of Rorty. (Along with Ayer cheerfully admitting to Bryan Magee that Logical Positivism was false, this has to be one of the best moments ever recorded during conversations about philosophy)

Which I guess is why they take it for granted that moral language is simply, and must be, a kind of huckstering.

"Step into my parlour said the spider to the fly ..."

Don Jindra said...

pck,

RE: "Science narrows uncertainty. It reduces conceptual difficulties."

Your response: "Two words for you: Quantum physics."

Two words for you: The Trinity.

The conceptual difficulties of Quantum physics come from nature. Humans didn't invent the difficulties. We discovered things in nature we don't understand. Physicists do not cover up that difficulty. They don't pretend to understand exactly what's going on. They don't say we must have faith in their explanations or risk eternal damnation or cultural suicide.

Let's compare this to the conceptual difficulty of The Trinity. Early Christians tried to weave together a theology based on texts written by many authors. There's no reason to believe those original texts are based on more than the imagination of man. Theology, like the Trinity, based on those texts is likewise merely the product of human imagination. The conceptual difficulty called the Trinity was invented by humans.

In the first case we are presented with physical facts that confuse us. In the second case we create the confusion ourselves. In the first case there is a short but abundant history of confusions being beautifully clarified. In the second case there is little to no such history of clarification over thousands of years of practice.

If science was to adopt the methods of theology, we might say Quantum physics is the work of the Author of Confusion, and the two slit experiment is a tool of Satan. Light is really a wave, and all of its particle-like behavior is the work of demons with pea shooters. If we pray a lot they'll stop interfering with our holy experiments. (Some might interpret my ridicule as a "hatred" of religion. That's a whole other issue. I only ask that those people not be so quick to judge.)

"My prof's remark was not about the validity of Einstein's formula. As it quite clearly states, it is about what the m in E=mc^2 means, not about whether it is correct to put m there. The correctness was never in question. He pointed out a conceptual difficulty in relativity theory."

I got that. My meaning was to suggest that your professor was talking about something different. His "conceptual difficulty" doesn't actually doubt the correctness of the formula. It's more like, "Where do we go from here?" It's not a backward move. I'm saying theology has nothing like that. There is no forward or backward. There's a randomness controlled to some degree by limits of human nature and imagination.

"Science creates concepts, philosophy elucidates them."

Was Plato elucidating concepts or merely pointing out their many weaknesses? IMO, bringing a diversity of observed phenomena P_i under one umbrella *is* a reduction of conceptual difficulties. When you say, "Science only ever deals in appearances. Reality on the other hand is metaphysical work" -- it looks like you're spouting mystical dogma. It's convenient that you setup your dogma in a manner that it never has to confront reality head-on, and therefore avoids grounding itself.

"Gnus pride themselves on being non-dogmatic but always cite the latest science (which best fits the facts) as everything there "really" is to know."

That's a straw man. It's definitely not me.

Don Jindra said...

laubadetriste,

Yes my complaint is both historical and methodological. And probably something else too. :) Btw, thanks for your links to the David Bentley Hart and John Hick books. I'll get copies eventually. I doubt they'll convince me that religion is converging, though. There's too much contrary evidence.

Craig Payne asks --

Do I have no confidence in the power of logic or critical reasoning? Well, I have some. I have to, since I apply both in my real world engineering job. But logic and critical reasoning are only as good as first assumptions. Experience has made it perfectly clear that my first assumptions are often wrong. I don't have any more confidence in your (collective) assumptions than I do in mine. So my confidence in logic and critical reasoning is a lot more limited than is usually expressed here. IMO, the ultimate truth of a matter is discovered empirically; if it's reached by reason, it's likely reached by accident.


So when TheOFloinn says,

"Metaphysics argues downward by deduction to consequences."

-- I agree. That's the problem. We cannot have confidence when we argue downward by deduction. The consequences reached by that manner should always be considered our best guess. IOW, the consequence may lead credibility to our assumptions. Our assumptions cannot affirm the consequences, no matter how beautiful our logic. If our reasoning leads to dubious claims, it's time to re-examine the assumptions that led us there. It's an abuse of metaphysics to profess solidity of conclusions drawn from shaky assumptions.


DNW,

"If it were shown for example that 'science' had in fact been dealing with shadows on a wall; and only worked in the way it did as a result of a series of heretofore inexplicable interfaces ... or something."

This wouldn't surprise or alarm me. As pck said, it's happened in the past. It's almost inevitable to happen again. Quantum physics is mysterious precisely because we expect reality to be different than it is. That's the strength and beauty of modern science. It's allowed, and even encouraged, to challenge the conventional wisdom. They give Nobel prizes for it. The methodology is not rocked to its core because of it. In fact, it's strengthened by it. Yes, I would expect science to integrate the new information with the old "doctrines." Not only is the old provisionally corrected, but even the new is provisional -- until the next 'interface' is explained by a better model. It's not that the old knowledge is justified nonetheless. It's that the new knowledge will always have to give us a better, more complete understanding of the old.

Billy,

I agree theologians are working hard to "organise and structure religious doctrines to remove and clarify what seem to be contradictions between passages and between religious teachings." I disagree that all that hard work shows progress.

Jason said...

@Don Jindra

There's no reason to believe those original texts are based on more than the imagination of man. Theology, like the Trinity, based on those texts is likewise merely the product of human imagination. The conceptual difficulty called the Trinity was invented by humans.

Can you please give your reasons to believe so?

DNW said...

" The methodology is not rocked to its core because of it. In fact, it's strengthened by it."


Yes, well, I think I was positing something somewhat more radical than Kepler vs Copernicus, or Newton v Einstein.


A universe of harmonic "vibrations" and "electricity" had no doubt amused literary journal readers of the early 19th century, and recall that even in the case of the cosmological revolution of the late middle ages, there had been non-geocentric ideas floating about - at least in certain circles and periods - since Aristarchus.

In any event, the line I was pursuing, is probably pointless. Since the method is not identical to the doctrine for the most part, when the authority of a substantive doctrine is dis-confirmed, it is the method itself which supposedly both issues the disconfirmation and subsequently rides to the rescue of the authority of the next doctrine. And epistemic humility and provisionality are reshelved until the next public faith crisis.

Of course if there were a narrower range of putative social "oughts" supposedly derived from the always humbly provisional "is-es" revealed by sheer method, this kind of question would never rise to a problematic in the first place.


The question becomes, can one have an authoritative method free of any commitment to certain content; and how does the changing of the content affect the status of the method especially insofar as an expectation of social allegiance to the content provided by the method is concerned.

Now, if one strips out all social claims made in the name of the content as "knowledge" and just focuses on what seems works to a particular end at the moment, then we are back to a kind of pragmatism that does not really bother itself with ideas like "truth".

And that is fair enough ... abandoning science as providing "knowledge" or "truth".

But that act - on one level of humility - somewhat of tarnishes the luster of the brand, and reduces it to a kind of techne', no matter how abstruse.

pck said...

Don:
Two words for you: The Trinity.

I was talking about physics, not religon. Your off-topic rant is yet another irrational response, trying to derail the discussion by randomly inserting your pet peeves.

The conceptual difficulties of Quantum physics come from nature. Humans didn't invent the difficulties. We discovered things in nature we don't understand. Physicists do not cover up that difficulty.

I pointed out that your claim that "science reduces conceptual difficulties" is nonsense. I gave a concrete example, quantum physics. You chose not to address that. Instead you try to evade the issue by stating unrelated trivialities about physicists.

If science was to adopt the methods of theology [...]

Never has, never will. Nobody said it does or would. Another attempt to derail. Who exactly do you imagine you are talking to, except yourself? You're certainly not replying to anything I or anybody else said. Do you hear voices in your head, making crazy claims about science going the way of theology?

Me: The correctness was never in question. He pointed out a conceptual difficulty in relativity theory.

DJ: I got that. My meaning was to suggest that your professor was talking about something different. His "conceptual difficulty" doesn't actually doubt the correctness of the formula.


I say "the correctness was never in question". You say you "got that". Then you suggest that my prof was talking about "something different". That "something different" then turns out to be exactly what I said. Your reading comprehension apparently ranks below that of a fifth grader.

It's more like, "Where do we go from here?" It's not a backward move. I'm saying theology has nothing like that.

It's not "where do we go from here". It's about what does m mean in E=mc^2. It's about what a working theory we already have means. The helpless attempt to tie this to theology again only brings the red herring count further up.

I'm saying theology has nothing like that.

And again you're the only one. Seriously, who are you talking to? Certainly not me or anyone else here. Because no one said anything about theology being in any way like physics. It can only be the voices in your head again. Those buggers seem to be really teasing you.

IMO, bringing a diversity of observed phenomena P_i under one umbrella *is* a reduction of conceptual difficulties.

Phenomena are not concepts. Therefore, diversity of phenomena is not the same as complexity of concepts. Please consult a dictionary if you are unfamiliar with these basic terms or if you're having trouble keeping them apart.

When you say, "Science only ever deals in appearances. Reality on the other hand is metaphysical work" -- it looks like you're spouting mystical dogma.

Science deals in observations, models and theories, in other words in appearances and their formal descriptions. There is not a single textbook of physics (or any other science) that contains the term "reality" as a technical concept within any theory. "Reality" is a meta-term, which is, beside other uses, employed to talk about the relationship between theories and the world. This often calls for conceptual clarification. Which is the domain of philosophy.

Was Plato elucidating concepts or merely pointing out their many weaknesses?

The former. Pointing out weaknesses in certain kinds of arguments is part of conceptual clarification.

Mr. Green said...

Don Jindra: So my confidence in logic and critical reasoning is a lot more limited than is usually expressed here. IMO, the ultimate truth of a matter is discovered empirically; if it's reached by reason, it's likely reached by accident.

Oh, dear. There is no such thing as this magical Empiricking!™ that bequeaths us truths unreasoningly. (First hint: that's why "empiricking" isn't a real word.) There is only reason, some of which is an empirical kind of reasoning, or reasoning about or applied to empirical data. If your reasoning is so limited (and if you insist that in your particular case it is, far be it from me to contradict you), then your "empiricking" is just as much in jeopardy. Conversely, if you can in fact successfully reason about empirical matters, then reason is perforce not so unreliable after all.

pck said...

DNW:
The question becomes, can one have an authoritative method free of any commitment to certain content; and how does the changing of the content affect the status of the method especially insofar as an expectation of social allegiance to the content provided by the method is concerned.

Are you asking for descriptions of the world which are free of any input that is due or related to the human perspective? "The view from nowhere" as Thomas Nagel called it?

Or are you asking for a universal method of inquiry, like the gnus believe "the scienctific method" to be?

pck said...

Mr. Green:
Oh, dear. There is no such thing as this magical Empiricking!™ that bequeaths us truths unreasoningly.

Jindra is clearly another "the facts speak for themselves" gnu. I know a Dutch pop science dabbler who thinks along similar primitive lines. IT people seem to be greatly susceptible to this particular type of irrationality.

The child-like shortsightedness of ultra naive empiricist dogmas, which are refuted by scientists all over the world a thousand times on a daily basis, never ceases to amaze.

DNW said...

Anonymous pck said...

DNW:

'The question becomes, can one have an authoritative method free of any commitment to certain content; and how does the changing of the content affect the status of the method especially insofar as an expectation of social allegiance to the content provided by the method is concerned.'

Are you asking for descriptions of the world which are free of any input that is due or related to the human perspective? "The view from nowhere" as Thomas Nagel called it?

Or are you asking for a universal method of inquiry, like the gnus believe "the scienctific method" to be?

February 5, 2016 at 4:17 PM"



I'm asking about the latter - more or less - in the following regard.


The sheer method, provides ostensible results. The results become (to everyday appearance) the content of the method. It is "science" that there are 9 planets. Until there are not.

Thus, according to dogma, any given "findings" are just that and the content is always provisional; except for the fact that it is presented for public consumption as "truth". Truth which it may be socially dangerous to "deny".

So there are two issues (at least).

What game is really being played in the public square, when it comes to what we call science? Is "science" the method, or the findings?

And given the provisional nature of the findings I am calling "content", what moral status in terms of social allegiance can advocates of scientism actually imagine that they have?

We grant that the method, epistemically modest as it officially is, is auto-immunized from the failures of its content to resist the ravages of time and better instrumentation. And, if we want, we can step back from even claiming that science provides truth.

Let's do so, for the sake of argument.

What in so doing, is left of the science project and its status as a valid polemical instrument?

DNW said...



Ok . Leaving the office. Later ...

TheOFloinn said...

The conceptual difficulties of Quantum physics come from nature.

Actually, they arise from the theories (interpretations) laid across the quantum mechanics. For example, the double slit experiment is problematical under the Copenhagen interpretation, but not under the Standing Wave interpretation, where it has been duplicated on the macro-scale. Nature is what she is, but the angle we take in observing her and distort the picture. It is easy to forget that most models of reality are only approximations, subject to boundary conditions and the like.

There is often confusion about the three levels of science: fact, law, and theory. Facts are measured and may be off due to imperfect precision or accuracy of the measurement process. Laws are simple descriptions of regularities among the facts, preferably in the privileged language of mathematics. With this much, you may pragmatically construct rules of thumb that "save the appearances." That is, the laws will enable you to calculate tolerably accurate results. Tne equations of quantum mechanics work out nicely regardless which of the interpretations you adopt.

But if you are not satisfied with this sort of rule-of-thumb pragmatism, you then develop a physical theory. This theory is a narrative that explains the phenomena under study and gives a rationale for them. From the theory, you can derive the (mathematical) laws and predict the (observable) facts. But there are always (as in always) multiple theories that account for the selfsame body of facts.

It is at the level of physical theory that the conceptual difficulties set in. The facts are measurement problems; the laws may be approximate or apply only within specific domains. But theories can get messed up conceptually, for example by proposing probability to be an actual physical state.

TheOFloinn said...

We cannot have confidence when we argue downward by deduction. The consequences reached by that manner should always be considered our best guess.

There goes all of mathematics out the window.

pck said...

DJ: The conceptual difficulties of Quantum physics come from nature.

TOF: Actually, they arise from the theories (interpretations) laid across the quantum mechanics.

Precisely. "Nature" as comprehended by the physical sciences does not come with ready-made concepts attached. The framework of quantum physics, as devised by humans, requires us to operate inside a conceptual space very far removed from everyday human life. Even the most elementary uses of language ("that thing over there") no longer work as we expect them to.

As TOF has pointed out, when science takes the step from blunt fact and phenomenological law (appearances) to theory, it adds something, a rationalising narrative (e.g. Newton's laws of motion), that must fit the observations but cannot be derived from them. Rather, the observations must be derivable from the theory. The upside of this is that we gain epistemic content, understanding, that we cannot get from mere descriptions of phenomena and their regularities alone. At the same time we may become confused by unintended or unforseen side effects of the concepts employed by the theory. Those concepts are of human origin, which is why it makes no sense for DJ to say that "the conceptual difficulties of Quantum physics come from nature".

DJ: We cannot have confidence when we argue downward by deduction. The consequences reached by that manner should always be considered our best guess

TOF: There goes all of mathematics out the window.

DJ is conflating the validity of the business of logical deduction with the validity of the results of such deductions. Rules of inference can be changed, but cannot be doubted (because they are part of the theoretical framework which makes judgements like "true" and "false", and thus by extension, certainty and doubt, possible in the first place). When DJ is told that a scheme of inference "A => B" is beyond doubt, what he hears is that B is beyond doubt. Of course B is only beyond doubt if A is beyond doubt.

I pointed out the same issue to Santi here. (If that link does not work (there seems to be a problem with the "showComment" parameter), it's at pck, February 3, 2016 at 8:53 AM, here.)

pck said...

pck: a scheme of inference "A => B"

Correction: "an inference", not "a scheme of inference".

Don Jindra said...

pck,

"I was talking about physics, not religion. Your off-topic rant is yet another irrational response, trying to derail the discussion by randomly inserting your pet peeves."

When Vaal mentioned: "It's not for nothing there are thousands of sects arising out of competing interpretations. It's like having a conversation with a Hydra that never stops sprouting heads." -- he wasn't referring to Christian physicists. But you jumped in with your assertion that physicists have just as many disagreements among themselves. You added science to Vaal's observation about Christians. From my POV, if anyone derailed the discussion it was you.

"I pointed out that your claim that 'science reduces conceptual difficulties' is nonsense. I gave a concrete example, quantum physics. You chose not to address that."

I addressed it. But I'll elaborate. You brought up mass. We have an equation which relates energy and mass. If you admit the equation itself is not in question, you're admitting the 'conceptual difficulties' concerning mass make no difference. IOW, the supposed disagreements about m have no noticeable effect on the truth of a equation including m. So I have to ask what you're talking about? It's not what Vaal was talking about. Those disagreements among Christians have a dramatic effect. One may be a pacifist, another may arm himself for Armageddon.

Suppose we have a law against porn. A judge says there are conceptual difficulties with porn. So he strikes the law because it's too vague. I understand that usage of 'conceptual difficulties.' IMO, if physicists truly believe m is vague in the way porn is vague, they have only one choice. But since they don't exercise that choice, I have to conclude the 'conceptual difficulty' you speak of is surely somewhere between very narrow to very vague.

"Phenomena are not concepts. Therefore, diversity of phenomena is not the same as complexity of concepts. Please consult a dictionary if you are unfamiliar with these basic terms or if you're having trouble keeping them apart.

Phenomenon: the object of a person's perception; what the senses or the mind notice. Concept: an abstract idea; a general notion.

So, bringing a diversity of observed phenomena (what the scientist senses or his mind notices) under one umbrella (a theory) transforms those phenomena into a general notion or abstract idea. I see this as a reduction of conceptual difficulties. So again, maybe you need to explain what you mean by a conceptual difficulty.

"Science deals in observations, models and theories, in other words in appearances and their formal descriptions."

Yes, models are formal descriptions. They are not reality. Observations are not descriptions. They *are* (hopefully) reality.

'Reality' is a meta-term, which is, beside other uses, employed to talk about the relationship between theories and the world. This often calls for conceptual clarification. Which is the domain of philosophy."

This is strained, to say the least. Philosophy is practiced through words, sentences and essays. These human inventions are not 'reality.' They are no less models of the world than anything in science. There is no reason to believe a philosopher's models are more reflective of reality than scientific models. There is no reason to believe their models clear up 'conceptual difficulties' more than scientific models.

"Pointing out weaknesses in certain kinds of arguments is part of conceptual clarification."

And that is precisely what science does.

Don Jindra said...

Mr. Green,

"There is no such thing as this magical Empiricking!™ that bequeaths us truths unreasoningly.... if you can in fact successfully reason about empirical matters, then reason is perforce not so unreliable after all.

A ship with no rudder is pretty useless. This is the way I see reason detached from empiricism. Empiricism keeps us from drifting wildly off course. To carry this further, A ship named Empiricism with no reason will never leave port, while a ship named Reason with no empiricism will reach the Outer Limits.


TheOFloinn,

"There goes all of mathematics out the window."

Not descriptive mathematics.


DNW,

"Of course if there were a narrower range of putative social "oughts" supposedly derived from the always humbly provisional "is-es" revealed by sheer method, this kind of question would never rise to a problematic in the first place."

Maybe I'm not understanding you, but you appear to be saying 'truth' itself is a slippery concept, or could become one. I admit I see truth in terms of observation or of 'what works' in the material world no matter how some disparage that POV. If you're saying that 'truth' may not be about that at all, then it's an interesting concept for a novel, maybe sci-fi, maybe horror. I already fear for the hard-boiled anti-hero who insists on keeping his feet on the ground.

Glenn said...

Don Jindra stated: We cannot have confidence when we argue downward by deduction.

Since what DJ stated was stated confidently, it may be presumed that the statement he made was made without the debilitating assistance of thoughtful deduction.

Regardless, his statement seems to imply that we can have confidence when we don't argue downward by deduction.

Now, the statement's claim is interesting, and, in conjunction with its implication, leads to an interesting consequence:

1. To argue 'downward' by deduction is to argue from the general to the specific.

2. But to argue from the general to the specific is to argue from that which is more general to that which is less general.

3. And to argue from that which is more general to that which is less general is to argue from that which is less specific to that which is more specific.

4. According to the opinion of one man, then, there is a kind of inverse relationship between confidence and specificity.

5. But that is to state the matter in a general way.

6. More specifically, i.e., less generally, it is according to the opinion of one man that -- in those cases where deduction is or might be used to move from the general to the specific, i.e., in those case where deduction is or might be used to move from what which is less specific to that which is more specific -- confidence is or ought to be high prior to the deductive movement, i.e., when specificity is low, and confidence is or ought to be low subsequent to the deductive movement, i.e., when specificity is high.

7. Now, that position would be interesting only in a general way were it to be held by some man; but it is held by a specific man -- to wit, our visiting Impresario of Empiricism -- and so that position is mighty interesting in a specific way.

8. And that is to say that that position suggests that our visiting Impresario of Empiricism may be chomping at the bit for an opportunity for his knowledge to be elevated into that realm wherein things are less specific and more general -- in order, no doubt, that his confidence may be thereby increased.

Don Jindra said...

pck,

"Those concepts are of human origin, which is why it makes no sense for DJ to say that 'the conceptual difficulties of Quantum physics come from nature.'"

At the quantum level it's not clear what's happening. We find it difficult to collect observation under the umbrella of one elegant theory. The difficulty springs from the difficulty of understanding nature. We have difficulty creating *any* single model. This is entirely different than the difficulties created by textual analysis of a collection of ancient texts, all of which are created by man in the first place. That difficulty comes from convention. Both you and TOF are conflating convention and nature.

Furthermore, philosophical concepts are of human origin too (Act/potency, etc.). Yet you seem to think those conceptual models are of higher quality than scientific ones. There's no reason to think this is the case.

"Of course B is only beyond doubt if A is beyond doubt."

-- which is what I said. (Read above: But logic and critical reasoning are only as good as first assumptions.) For years I've said the "A"s around here are false.


Glenn said...

I admit I see truth in terms of observation or of 'what works' in the material world[.]

Which is to admit that you see specific truths as working by downward deduction from (what you hold to be) a general truth, which general truth is that truth is to be viewed in terms of 'what works' in the material world.

But according to your earlier claim (which, let it be noted, has only recently been properly mocked) -- "We cannot have confidence when we argue downward by deduction." -- you cannot have confidence that you're seeing (some semblance of) a specific truth when you observe that a particular something 'works' in the material world.

Glenn said...

"...has only recently been properly mocked..." Well, I don't know if it was propely mocked; but it does seem clear that it was soundly mocked.)

pck said...

DJ:
At the quantum level it's not clear what's happening.

Concepts do not come from nature but from us. Quantum physics was just an example. One could have used any scientifc theory to illustrate the point. You claimed that "science reduces conceptual difficulties". This is nonsense. You're trying to cover up your error by derailing the discussion into unrelated tangents. (And incidentally, the conceptual troubles with QM run far deeper than the fact that there are multiple formalisms to consider.)

This is entirely different than the difficulties created by textual analysis of a collection of ancient texts

Nobody is saying otherwise. Again, who are you talking to?

Both you and TOF are conflating convention and nature.

It's no more logically possible to conflate convention and nature than it is possible to conflate one's envy and one's left arm.

Yet you seem to think those conceptual models are of higher quality than scientific ones

Not higher. Different. And it's not "conceptual models", it's conceptual knowledge (vis-a-vis empirical knowledge). The conceptual and the empirical are complementary. On their own, neither accomplishes much, if anything at all.

For years I've said the "A"s around here are false.

Saying it isn't enough.

TheOFloinn said...

"There goes all of mathematics out the window."

Not descriptive mathematics.


Whatever that means. But you are prepared then to toss out number theory, abstract algebra, topology, complex analysis, tensor calculus, and all the rest of it? Even Euclidean geometry, which is entirely deductive?

DNW said...

"pck said... DNW:

'The question becomes, can one have an authoritative method free of any commitment to certain content; and how does the changing of the content affect the status of the method especially insofar as an expectation of social allegiance to the content provided by the method is concerned.'

Are you asking for descriptions of the world which are free of any input that is due or related to the human perspective? "The view from nowhere" as Thomas Nagel called it?

Or are you asking for a universal method of inquiry, like the gnus believe "the scienctific method" to be?


Well, I see my "Going home" message, but not the earlier reply. Too bad. It was really really good; and would have really really impressed everyone who would have found it really really enlightening. Unfortunately the gist of it escapes me at the moment.

Basically I'm considering the latter point with regard to its unchallenged credentials as a social arbitration tool ... and presumed by some as you know, at least in practice and effect, to be the universal multi-tool; good for all and any application or problem; with none others good for much at all.

So when I look at the credentials of science to dictate how we shall live, I wish to know just what is included as "science" and what if any are the limits to its sway.

And of course I have to note, because it has been pointed out to me, that the project of science is not just a method, but has some content as well.

And it is obvious that respecting that content, those protocol derived conclusions and propositions which I guess we call "knowledge", becomes part of "being down with science", and has in fact pretty obvious social consequences. For it is critical for a student to agree that there are nine planets because science says so, until it becomes critical to agree that there are not nine anymore.

But is this really "knowledge", (much less "truth") and if so, of what exactly?

Of course we want to know who is doing authorized science as well, so we know who to obey.

The metallurgist who makes a new observation regarding an alloy based on his testing procedures specifically tailored to confirm or dis-confirm a suspected phenomenon, is not generally thought of as a scientist. The technician, measuring an artifact with a laser interferometer based system, and confronted with a repeatability problem, suspects contamination, cleans the artifact and gets repeatability readings in the millionths. But he is not a scientist either. But I am not exactly sure why. ...

DNW said...

Cont @ "pck ...


... Let's suppose that we have a meter to measure one's commitment to science as a universal explanatory system. What does the meter actually measure? Not your actual personal knowledge or mastery of information.

Speaking of Nagel [Ernest, not Thomas] I pull out an old book and turn up a chapter titled "Hypotheses and Scientific Method". After five pages or so on Herodotus, I reach a section called "Facts, Hypotheses, and Crucial Experiments" whereupon I encounter a rambling catalog of observations about observations, "facts" and crucial experiments.

What seems to be crucial is the definition of a "fact". And after reading through 4 numbered paragraphs I learn that, "Finally, 'fact' denotes those things existing in space or time, together with the relations between them in virtue of which a proposition is true. Facts in this sense are neither true nor false"

It's all so clear to me now how the results of a method which produces provisional output in the form of propositions which are facts - and simply are, being neither true nor false - has such a compelling case for our unconditional intellectual and moral allegiance. This elaboration makes it even better: " Consequently the distinction between fact and hypothesis is never sharp when by "fact" is understood a proposition which may be true, but for which the evidence can never be complete."

This is a laudable example of epistemic humility, don't you think? Especially when chapters later, it is stated in the context of the self-corrective nature of the scientific method that "The method of science is thus essentially circular".

Facts are neither true or false. What is considered as fact one day, and demanding of our allegiance, may not be fact the next. But this is ok because science is a project of self-correction and epistemic humility in which social dogmas pay no role.

Except when it isn't, and they do. I guess.

pck said...

DJ:
But you jumped in with your assertion that physicists have just as many disagreements among themselves. You added science to Vaal's observation about Christians. From my POV, if anyone derailed the discussion it was you.

The point of "11 answers from physicists about m" was of course not to claim that theology and science use the same methods or are or are not in any way comparable. The point was that disagreement among practitioners or supporters of X (whatever X is) does not auto-magically discredit X. The content of X plays no role in this argument. Your problem is that your POV cannot detach itself from your emotions and so you feel compelled to insert your pet peeves where they don't belong. And this is what does the derailing. If you want to claim that internal disagreements destroy Christianity, you'll either have to do a lot better than that or admit that competing interpretations of scientific theories likewise destroy science.

You brought up mass. We have an equation which relates energy and mass. If you admit the equation itself is not in question, you're admitting the 'conceptual difficulties' concerning mass make no difference.

Wrong. One's interpretation of m has implications on how one goes about solving problems in relativity theory. The right answer to a problem in RT crucially depends on your understanding of m, not just on you knowing an equation. Which is of course the whole reason my prof brought it up. The course was called "relativity theory", not "memorizing equations". There are tons of incorrect answers to RT problems which are perfectly formally correct. Entire books have been written about such disagreements.

Knowing equations isn't enough. One also has to know where and when it makes sense to apply them. And where and when not. Science, narrowly conceived as mere empiricism, is not enough to solve problems. If you had ever actually practiced science, you'd know that. The cure for your affliction is to do actual scientific work (it's humbling and thus good for the soul) instead of preaching from the pulpit of scientism.

bringing a diversity of observed phenomena (what the scientist senses or his mind notices) under one umbrella (a theory) transforms those phenomena into a general notion or abstract idea. I see this as a reduction of conceptual difficulties.

You're putting the cart before the horse. We first notice that on a literal reading one would have to conclude that your story is not even coherent, since phenomena cannot literally be transformed into ideas. Unfortunately it is this nonsensical literal reading which is required to arrive at your conclusion.

Being more charitable we can make the actually correct claim that scientists create general notions and abstract ideas, let's call them N_i, on the basis of observing phenomena P_j. Observing the P_j comes before the creation of the N_i. Trivially, a reduction of conceptual difficulties arising from the N_i cannot occur until after the P_j have been observed. At the time of the observation of the P_j, there were no conceptual difficulties to be reduced, since there were no N_i yet.

pck said...

DJ:
Observations are not descriptions. They *are* (hopefully) reality.

This is a bit muddled. An observation of X is a reality. We cannot doubt our own experiences. Whether X "itself" is a reality is to be determined empirically (did I see a mirage or an actual oasis on the horizon) or philosophically (is that wall actually red or not (= does is make sense to ascribe colour to the wall or should I say that colour is a phenomenon of my mind/perception)). The two examples given are categorially distinct questions which once more display the difference between the conceptual and the empirical (which you are so hopelessly blind to).

Philosophy is practiced through words, sentences and essays. These human inventions are not 'reality.' They are no less models of the world than anything in science. There is no reason to believe a philosopher's models are more reflective of reality than scientific models.

First of all, philosophy is not practiced through words, but expressed through them.

Second, philosophy is not a "mere words" enterprise. (Although there are philosophers who have, unsuccessfully, tried to turn it into that.)

Third, philosophy is not concerned with making "models of reality", it is (sometimes, not always) concerned with elucidating the relationship between models and what they are models of. (Whether one wants to call that which is at the other end of this relation "reality" is itself a philosophical question and not presupposed by philosophy. And whether it even makes sense to subscribe to a correspondence theory of language and truth/reality like you do here is yet another conceptual puzzle not open to empirical answers.)

Fourth, whenever philosophy "models" anything it does not so in the same way science does. Even in science there are different uses of the term "model". A model of an airplane is not conceptually equal to a model of an electron. (Your homework is to determine why.) Non-material phenomena like visual perception are undeniably a part of reality and cannot be captured using scientific models. (I'm not talking about brains, but about experiences, which are made possible by brain processes but are not equal to them.) Philosophy has no "models" for visual perception in a scientific sense. Nevertheless philosophy has made important contributions to the clarification of what we can say about visual perception. (The fact that you do not value or understand these contributions does nothing to diminish them.)

DJ: Was Plato elucidating concepts or merely pointing out their many weaknesses?
Me: "The former. Pointing out weaknesses in certain kinds of arguments is part of conceptual clarification."
DJ: And that is precisely what science does.


So you're saying that Plato was a scientist. Interesting.

laubadetriste said...

@TheOFloinn: re: Able and Baker, etc.

I think I take your point, in at least a zetetic sort of way. Seems fair.

"Sure. What was that useful effect?"

The benefit, I have often heard, is that being understood sub specie evolutionis, "viruses are better understood in their origin from *other* viruses; and better understood in why they do what they do, and what they need in order to do that; and better predicted *before* they are well-understood, based upon their evolutionary relationships".

That is still vague. More concretely, I stood on the case of the interview with Dr. Ian Lipkin, who mentioned in passing (the interview was about Zika, not evolution) the ongoing study of the evolution of Zika. He sure seemed to find it "useful" (as you say), and of course if the Zika virus were better understood in such a way as to stop it or slow it down, that would undoubtedly be beneficial. To that extent, of course, my example relied upon his authority, and we all know that "'authority is the weakest kind of proof,' as Boethius says,"; but given Aquinas's seeming tongue in cheek, and also the fact that that mention was coming from Dr. Lipkin, John Snow Professor of Epidemiology at Columbia, Mendel Medal winner, Simonyi lecturer, the guy who fingered West Nile virus in New York, adviser to Saudi Arabia on MERS, “World’s Greatest Virus Hunter” (Discover Magazine)--well, I figured that was sufficient.

You did already make your point about Late Moderns. I have no way of finding out whether Dr. Lipkin's understanding of evolution is in fact Darwinian. And so beyond that, unless someone around here turns out to know more about virology, I suppose my example (of my broader point) is a dead end.

laubadetriste said...

@pck : "I pointed out the same issue to Santi here. (If that link does not work [there seems to be a problem with the 'showComment' parameter], it's at pck, February 3, 2016 at 8:53 AM, here.)"

Yeah, I noticed that problem too with linking to some comments. My own most recent two comment links fail. I thought it was a matter of the comments being on pages beyond the first, but after fiddling with the URL to indicate later pages, now I don't think so. Maybe the Captains Computer know what we're doing wrong.

@Scott:

So I thought, reading some of the dust-up we're in the middle of, that it was high time I got around to reading a book I heard of years ago that is highly relevant. I had found it once in a college library, but didn't get around to reading it, and then couldn't track it down thereafter. But I figured that now it might very well be on the Internet Archive, under its original title, in the collected works of its author.

I first heard of it when, in the flush of a book-collecting enthusiasm, I was following the tracks of some folks who seemed to have superb libraries. I don't remember exactly when this was, but looking at some dates, it must have been some time between 2002 and 2007. I followed behind Clive James, and the "Manual for Apprentice Book Burners," and pomonomo2003. And there was this one guy who had these wonderful lists. So I go looking for his lists again to find out what may have been the original title of that book, and I'll be damned if his profile pic didn't look awfully familiar. That was *you*! What a small world.

@Don Jindra: "A ship with no rudder is pretty useless. This is the way I see reason detached from empiricism. Empiricism keeps us from drifting wildly off course. To carry this further, A ship named Empiricism with no reason will never leave port, while a ship named Reason with no empiricism will reach the Outer Limits."

C.S. Lewis tells the story somewhere about how, when he was sent with some non-academic folk to be on the lookout for German bombers, he found himself in an hour-long argument with a farmer, at the end of which he discovered that the two of them actually agreed, but had used the word "devil" differently.

When folks around here hear the word "empiricism," they think of its proper meaning, which is a sort of philosophy. I think you mean something like "empirical evidence," or what have you.

Scott said...

laubadetriste:

Small world indeed! What was the book you were looking for? And did you find a copy of it?

laubadetriste said...

@Scott:

I did find it, so I guess... thank you for philosophical idealism, perhaps a decade ago. :)

pck said...

laubadetriste:
My own most recent two comment links fail. I thought it was a matter of the comments being on pages beyond the first, but after fiddling with the URL to indicate later pages, now I don't think so.

Thanks for the confirmation. The later pages theory had occured to me but I didn't actually test it. I thought it might be my browser but the problem persisted after switching from Firefox to Google Chrome. Has anyone tried IE? (Yet another possible meaning of "the devil".)

Scott said...

lauberdetriste:

Ah, good; glad you found it. I regarded myself as an idealist for quite a time (and, in a fairly specific sense, still do). At any rate I still think there's a good deal to learn from at least "classical" British Idealism, on the very good grounds that I seem to have learned some of it.

You might also like to check out Brand Blanshard if you haven't done so already. (See also [modest cough] this, which you can read for free here. I wouldn't now defend everything I wrote there and in fact I think I was positively wrong on some important points. I mention it because it was very influenced by Green, Bradley, Bosanquet, Royce, Sprigge, and the rest of the Idealist crew.)

Scott said...

The "fairly specific sense," by the way, is what that article calls "immanent idealism," in combination with the Neoplatonic/Augustinian view of Platonic "ideas" as subsisting in the divine intellect.

laubadetriste said...

@Scott:

I've read some Blanshard, but not enough. I'll take a look at your book when I can. :)

Re Green, here's what recalled him to me: "In his great _Introduction_ to the works of David Hume, Thomas Hill Green found that he had to subject the entire tradition of British empiricism to close scrutiny beginning with the doctrines of John Locke. The result is a swingeing critique of empiricist epistemology... And in the present essay, he turns a hawklike eye on the imprecisions that made empiricism seem plausible to begin with. [...] Any number of modern readers might profit from this now apparently seldom-opened work, but it should be of particular interest to readers of philosophers who wish to locate the origins of all knowledge in purely sensory perception. Green's great work is a sustained argument that this project is doomed to failure, and as far as I know his argument has not yet been successfully met."

laubadetriste said...

@pck:

I don't have IE, since I switched to Windows 10 (which I quite like, actually). But I tried Edge and Opera, and the comment links failed in them, too.

TheOFloinn said...

Dr. Ian Lipkin, who mentioned in passing ... the ongoing study of the evolution of Zika. He sure seemed to find it "useful" ...

The problem, as I've already mentioned, is not evolution per se but the scientific theory of how it takes place: viz., natural selection and sexual selection. This theory can be summarized as:
1) Species always overbreed the number of available niches
2) Therefore the vast majority die.
3) Since the lesser fit are more likely to die, the survivors are better fit
4) Occasional random changes that make the species better fit are thus preferentially selected.

The original question was how this scientific theory was beneficial to mankind. (Or indeed whether it is a scientific theory at all, rather than metaphysical musings or even a sheer tautology: survivors survive.) Evolution is a fact, but facts have no meaning in themselves, only in light of some explanatory theory.

The benefits of "evolution" that Dr. Lipkin elucidates may be very real, but may be due more to the genetic theory than to Darwin's natural selection. The distinction is akin to the question whether some mechanical success owes its success to Newton's theory or to the simple facts of gravity itself.

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