Weekend Links

Apples and Oranges here.

For all their differences, most philosophers in the Western tradition, and indeed most of the world’s religious traditions, have held that a satisfactory account of the things of greatest concern to human beings requires reference to some transcendent reality. As one the greatest philosophers of the twentieth century, Ludwig Wittgenstein, put it:

“We feel that even if all possible scientific questions be answered, the problems of life have still not been touched at all.”

There are, of course, many different ways of responding to the problems of life. But while there remain such questions – questions to which God provides one possible answer – it is not clear how science could render belief in God obsolete.

Breathing Fire here.

Empirical verification is the touchstone for the sciences. Theory alone is never enough, without the possibility of empirical testing and verification, and indeed possible falsification. No theory, not matter how elegant and mathematically satisfying, is sufficient to convince the sceptical scientist. As Krauss notes,

“a truly open mind means forcing our imaginations to conform to the evidence of reality and not vice versa, whether or not we like the implications.”

Here I find the conclusions of Martin Rees a bit more metaphysically modest:

“Theorists may, some day, be able to write down fundamental equations governing physical reality. But physics can never explain what ‘breathes fire’ into the equations, and actualizes them in a real cosmos.”

Whether or not there is “fire” in the equations demands empirical testing. Science can verify this, but according to Rees, it cannot explain it. Such existence is either given or not given, a contingent “brute fact” of the type the multiverse was designed to escape from.

Rees might be surprised to be told that the distinction he is drawing is nothing less than the scholastic distinction between essence and existence. Aquinas would have been proud. To recognise this distinction is to begin to recognise the difference between a scientific question and a metaphysical one.

Of course, Krauss might have come to know this if he were not so convinced of the intellectual bankruptcy of philosophers and theologians that he did not have to listen to them.

No Shades Needed here.

The New Atheism’s greatest strength was its novelty value. But what was the substance of the movement? Put simply, the New Atheism is increasingly being seen as a one-trick pony. It’s great for its predictable theatrical denunciations of religion, which may explain why the media give it such an easy ride.

Yet many are still wondering what positive ideas the New Atheism represents. The critic David Bentley Hart caustically remarked that the New Atheism is “so intellectually and morally trivial” that it is best classified as merely another “form of light entertainment.”

Will it feature in next season’s schedules? Or will it be dropped for something more interesting? Or is the term “Bright” simply heading for cultural ridicule and decline?

Even one of the leading New Atheists was repulsed: the late Christopher Hitchens openly criticized Dawkins and Dennett for their “cringe-making proposal that atheists should conceitedly nominate themselves to be called ‘Brights’.”

The smart money’s on Hitchens here. Let’s see if the trend continues in Australia in the wake of the Global Atheist Convention.

No Christian Narrative, no Modern Science- and Easter too here.

Melvin Calvin, Nobel Prize-winner in biochemistry, finds the origin of the conviction, basic to science, that nature is ordered in the basic notion:

“that the universe is governed by a single God, and is not the product of the whims of many gods, each governing his own province according to his own laws. This monotheistic view seems to be the historical foundation for modern science.”

Far from belief in God hindering science, it was the motor that drove it. Isaac Newton, when he discovered the law of gravitation, did not make the common mistake of saying, “Now I have a law of gravity, I don’t need God.’ Instead, he wrote Principia Mathematica, the most famous book in the history of science, expressing the hope that it would persuade the thinking man to believe in a Creator.

Failing Grade here.

But despite the fact this book is mainly philosophy (Dawkins is not a philosopher, but a biologist), much of the philosophy he purveys is remarkable jejune. You might say that some of his forays into philosophy are at best undergraduate, but that would be unfair to undergraduates. The fact is many of his arguments would receive a failing grade in a basic philosophy class.

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10 Responses to Weekend Links

  1. Burk Braun says:

    Hi, Darrell-

    I decided to bite on # 2

    “As if sensing the problem, and acknowledging that empty space-time is not what theologians and philosophers mean by nothing, Krauss is forced to …”

    There's a good one.. what theologians mean by nothing. They have no idea what they mean, since they are not dealing with reality. If they were, they would be doing physics, not theology. And you deny that religion advances scientific theories!

    “Some of the popularity of this [multiverse] theory arises from what I would call an 'anxiety over contingency.'”

    There I think he is completely correct. I can't judge the math and other logic that leads physicists to multiverses, but I am profoundly agnostic on the question, and skeptical. As explanations go, it would be quite unsatisfying, unless it somehow gets us closer to the originating conditions that spews all of them forth, which I don't really think it does. In any case, multiverse fig leaf or no, we simply don't know what is going on.

    “Of course, one contingent fact is that the universe seems tailor-made for life …”

    Here I disagree- this as as specious an argument as they come. The brute fact is that we are here. There are many imaginative ways to “explain” that, cosmologically speaking, but none have advanced to the point that they are both factual and provide any background by which to judge whether we are improbable or not. We have zero basis to assert that things could have been different, and if so, by how much.

    A multiverse theory would allow for our existence by a simple anthropic principle, but since it is far from settled fact, it also doesn't constitute an answer.

    “… while a multiverse theory is ruled out in principle for empirical verification.”

    This is unfair. No one will ever see a string, either. Our inability to go to causally unconnected follow-universes or observe them does not in principle bar our ability to develop proofs of their existence from within ours. I have no idea what such a proof would consist of, but if multiverses were absolutely essential to a consistent theory of our own universe's origin, (which I agree, from what I understand, is far from being the case), then it would have evidence in its favor.

    This is naturally completely different from developing evidence for a deity, whose function is to fill in all those (many) blanks which the aforementioned theologians don't understand. There is not even a whisper of empirical engagement, whether travelling to this causally connected deity or observing it from afar. The circumstantial sophistry employed is of the most embarassing sort.

    And there we get to Martin Rees. He may as well have been stating that we will never know what breathes life into animals, separating the quick from the dead. It is his politics talking, not his reason. He seems to have pulled into the Templeton orbit, and is parroting their accomodationism. Well, good for him! But you will note that his point is purely political- that in the fight against extremism and fundamentalism, a little sugar in alliance with religious liberals goes down much better. And bit of polite pablum about how the topic is SO BIG that we should all be a little humble before it .. except for all those theologians who know absolutely nothing about it but are perfectly OK maundering on about it.

    Best wishes…

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  2. Darrell says:

    Burk,

    “There's a good one.. what theologians mean by nothing. They have no idea what they mean, since they are not dealing with reality. If they were, they would be doing physics, not theology. And you deny that religion advances scientific theories!”

    I deny that orthodox Christianity or theologians (I can’t speak to or for “religion” whatever that might mean) are advancing scientific theories when they are speaking philosophically and theologically (which is something one would think common sense would tell us), although neither disparages science or is contrary to anything we know from science (If it does, show us). In fact, it all seems to fit rather nicely. Theologians know exactly what they mean when they speak of these areas. The fact you think they are talking physics is a result of your ignorance, not theirs.

    Beyond that, I have no idea what you think you’re pointing out here. Because you are unable to recognize the distinction (noted below) is sort of your peculiar problem; it is not one that most scientists, philosophers, theologians, or even first year philosophy students have a problem not recognizing.

    I’m curious, do you really believe that every question, every inquiry, every reflection, every conversation, every thought is ultimately scientific or relatable to physics or math where these areas would or should have the last word? Do you think the humanities’, philosophy, religion, political science, and theological departments of every university in the world should simply shut down and we should just create scientific labs in their place? Do you really believe that in all those areas of thought and inquiry there is no truth to be had? Do you really believe that because we cannot prove that torture is wrong in the same way we can prove the sun is a certain distance from the earth, that somehow one makes the other less true?

    I would give you the counsel I give all fundamentalists: Read more. Take some classes. Get out of the echo chamber. Open the mind a little. And I’m not being facetious or sarcastic. Ever try and reason with a 6-day creationist? Welcome then to my world.

    “Rees [and Burk] might be surprised to be told that the distinction he is drawing is nothing less than the scholastic distinction between essence and existence. Aquinas would have been proud. To recognise this distinction is to begin to recognise the difference between a scientific question and a metaphysical one.”

    All the best.

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  3. Burk Braun says:

    Darrell-

    Here is the first link I looked at… page 155 – “Boyle feared that More's 'discourse, if unanswered, might pass for unanswerable.' Whereas Boyle expained the phenomena exhibited by his air pump in terms of the mechanical operation of inert matter, More used the same experiments to promote his theory about the operation of an immaterial Spirit of Nature, acting on behalf of God to perserve universal order.” ,,, etc,

    Your claim of theologians' hands off science (“not contrary to science”) is absurd on its face, with all the history of … the history of the earth, the nature of lightning, of life, etc… the list is endless. Theologians are armchair physicists when they can get away with it, which is increasingly little, thankfully. Yet still they try to put their two cents in about “nothing” and “everything”. I am sure they are only trying to be helpful!

    I appreciate that philosophers have meant any number of dumb things by 'nothing'. But what has that gotten us? Nothing! Who found that the vacuum is full of 'sort-of-something'? It certainly wasn't the theologians.

    “I’m curious, do you really believe that every question, every inquiry, every reflection, every conversation, every thought is ultimately scientific or relatable to physics or math where these areas would or should have the last word? Do you think the humanities’, philosophy, religion, political science, and theological departments of every university in the world should simply shut down and we should just create scientific labs in their place?”

    Ah- there you get to the real issue at hand. I have every respect for the humanities- the study of and being of .. humans. The problem I have is of theology posing as a science (knowing of …. “things”) when it is a humanity- an art of expressing human hope and togetherness. The problem is with the absurd and consistently anti-scientific beliefs that are the entrance ticket through the church door. Sadly, people seem to crave projected, hopeful beliefs, and religions need to create and feed them lest they be shown to be nothing more (scientistic) than arts like pottery, music, and poetry.

    That is the real scientism going on here- the need of theology and religion generally to pose as possessing special knowledge of reality- narratives of human orgins, cosmic origins, miracles, supernatural realms, etc and so on. It is not only wrong but an intellectual travesty, as anyone can see when they look back at, say, the Greek gods and other religions you don't believe any more. Great art, not so great scientistic theology.

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  4. Darrell says:

    Burk,

    “Your claim of theologians' hands off science (“not contrary to science”) is absurd on its face, with all the history of … the history of the earth, the nature of lightning, of life, etc… the list is endless. Theologians are armchair physicists when they can get away with it, which is increasingly little, thankfully. Yet still they try to put their two cents in about “nothing” and “everything”.”

    Whenever there has been a supposed conflict between reputable orthodox Christian scholars and theologians and the findings of science, the conflict has always revolved around meaning and interpretation, not the findings in and of themselves, or the math, or the geometry, or the measurements. How silly to think otherwise.

    And it is perfectly within the realm of philosophy and theology to address the meaning and interpretations of various scientific findings or theories. The truth of the matter is we have the scientist taking on the role of arm-chair philosopher or theologian. What do we get when that happens? We get idiots like Dawkins. Talk about the pot calling the kettle black. His contributions in those areas are not even worth two cents.

    By the way, Boyle was not a theologian. So let’s try again: Tell us what reputable and respected Christian scholar/philosopher/theologian has told us that his work should be considered scientific and not metaphysical? Or that his metaphysical work disparages or contradicts the findings of science and we are, therefore, directed to discard the science?

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  5. Burk Braun says:

    The classic example would be Pope Urban VIII.

    Also, it wasn't Boyle who was the theologian cum philosopher, obviously, but Henry More.

    But the absurdity of this argument begs belief. What are creationists, but busy advocating the replacement of science with theology?

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  6. Darrell says:

    Wow, you are actually going to being up the “religion v. Galileo” myth. That conflict had to do with two enormous egos, not science. Pope Urban actually supported Galileo and his endeavors financially. It’s also important to remember that before the advent of modern science, there were no fast and hard lines between what was once called natural philosophy and science. It is an anachronism to impose the specialization we think of now back on times where really all was thought of as philosophy.

    Again, creationists hardly sum up reputable orthodox Christian scholarship. Your arguments have nothing to do with me, but with your fellow fundamentalists. Wrong conversation.

    Cheers.

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  7. Burk Braun says:

    Very well, if you don't like that, you can refer to the Nicene creed, whose every statement is a scientific proposition. And is false.

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  8. Darrell says:

    Talk about anachronistic. There is not a reputable historian, philosopher, or even scientist who would suggest that the authors of the Nicene Creed were intentionally or even unintentionally making scientific statements as we know them today, as it would have been impossible for them to even know what that meant. Ridiculous.

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  9. Burk Braun says:

    Does that mean that you don't believe in the Nicene creed? Is it no longer true? From what I recall, you took special comfort in its universal subscription among Christians, I believe down to the present day.

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  10. Darrell says:

    So we are back to: “Aquinas would have been proud. To recognise this distinction is to begin to recognise the difference between a scientific question and a metaphysical one.”

    Or scientific assertions and metaphysical ones. If you cannot differentiate between the two, you have no business in conversations like this one.

    And metaphysical statements are as true as scientific ones, only in more important ways. Again, it is as true that torture is evil as it is that the sun is a star, but the first truth is so much more important.

    Cheers.

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