bookmark_border“Future of Humanism” on

Patheos is running a series on the future of religion, and this week they feature contributions about the Future of Humanism and nonbelief.

I’ve got a short essay, as well as Ed Buckner, Chris Highland, Hemant Mehta, Ronald Lindsay, David Silverman, and Roy Speckhardt.

In keeping with the demographics of nonbelief, all of the contributors are male, naturally. I’m the most pessimistic of the lot. (That was predictable.)

bookmark_borderA Scientific Question? Part 7

Some thoughts on the relationship between “scientific questions” and “historical questions”…

Is the question “Was Bradley Bowen born on a Wednesday?” a scientific question? Could the answer to this question be discovered and confirmed (in principle if not in practice) purely by the use of scientific methods? I believe the answer to this question is “No”, but because of the qualification “in principle” it is difficult to be certain.

If the answer to this question is “Yes”, then we have found at least one question about a recent historical event that can be resolved (in principle) purely by scientific methods, and that would suggest that other historical questions, perhaps about not-so-recent events, could also be resolved purely by scientific methods (at least in principle). It would suggest, for example, that we could in principle determine whether Socrates was born on a Wednesday by using only scientific methods, and without using any ordinary historical methods.

If “in principle” just means that such scientific confirmation of a claim is a logical possibility, then the claim is a very weak one, and that makes it a difficult claim to disprove.

Consider the following strong claim:

1. There are at least a dozen unicorns in every forest.

Because this is a strong claim, it is easy to disprove. Just find one small forest and search it thoroughly. If you find no unicorns, then the claim is disproved. But weaker claims may not be so easy to disprove. The following claims are in descending order of strength:

2. There is at least one unicorn in every forest.

3. There is at least one unicorn in one forest on the Earth.
4. There has been, at some point in the history of the Earth, at least one unicorn in one forest.
5. There has been, at some point in the history of the universe, at least one unicorn in one forest on some planet or other.
Claim (5) is virtually impossible to disprove, because it is a very weak claim. In general, the weaker a claim is, the more difficult it will be to disprove the claim.

If the claim that one can in principle determine whether “Bradley Bowen was born on a Wednesday” is a true claim using only scientific methods, without using any ordinary historical methods (i.e. critical examination of historical records and documents) is a claim about what is logically possible, then I’m not sure if my imagination and my knowledge of scientific methods is up to the task of disproving this weak claim.

One thing I can do, however, is to try to prove the claim to be true, and if I fail, that will provide at least some reason, though an inconclusive reason, to doubt the weak claim. So, I will try to show that it is possible to determine that a person was born on a Wednesday using only scientific methods to make the determination.

Suppose that my father was a research physicist, and that shortly before I was to be born, he had designed and constructed an atomic clock in the laboratory where he worked. In honor of my impending birth, Dr. Bowen built a remote control to kickoff the atomic clock at the precise moment of my birth. Suppose further that he carries out this plan, and at the precise moment of my birth, Dr. Bowen uses a remote control to start the atomic clock (starting at: 0.000 hours).

Several weeks later, Dr. Doofenshmirtz, a fellow research physicist who works at the lab with my father, asks “Was your son born on a Wednesday?” Dr. Bowen scratches his head, and tries to remember what day of the week I was born, but he cannot recall this. “What is the date of your son’s birth?” asks Dr. Doofenshmirtz. My dad, being a bit of an absent-minded-professor type, is unable to recall the date I was born, so looking at a calendar for the current year will not help determine the day of the week of my birth.

Then my brilliant father comes up with an idea. He can check the atomic clock that was started at the precise moment of my birth, and that will show the exact number of hours, minutes, and seconds that have elapsed since the time of my birth. He can then work backwards from the present day (let’s say it was a Wednesday at noon when he checks the atomic clock), calculating 24 hours per day, and seven days per week (thus 168 hours/week).

Suppose that at noon on a Wednesday, the atomic clock shows that 987.331 hours have elapsed since the moment of my birth. 987 hours is less than six weeks (= 1,008 hours), and more than five weeks (= 840 hours). Exactly five weeks prior it would be noon on Wednesday, so 840 hours prior to reading the atomic clock, it was Wednesday at noon. This means that my birth was 147.331 hours prior to a Wednesday at noon (987.331 – 840 = 147.331). Six days is 144 hours, so I was born a little more than six days prior to Wednesday at noon. Exactly six days prior to a Wednesday at noon, it would be noon on Thursday. So, I was born 3.331 hours prior to noon on a Thursday. Three hours prior to noon on Thursday is 9:00am on Thursday, so I was born 0.331 hours prior to 9:00am on a Thursday, which means I was born about 20 minutes prior to 9:00am on Thursday, which means I was born at about 8:40am on Thursday; thus, I was not born on a Wednesday.

This is an imaginary example, but it is a somewhat realistic one. There are such things as atomic clocks, and I’m sure that they can run for several weeks, if not for several years. Nothing in this example involves the violation of a law of nature. It might be a bit odd for a physicist to use a remote control to start an atomic clock at the precise moment of his son’s birth, but this is not completely absurd. So, this example shows that scientific evidence could be used to determine whether or not a person was born on a Wednesday. However, the question at issue was a bit more specific than that. Does this example show that one can (in principle if not in practice) determine whether a person was born on a Wednesday by using only scientific methods?

bookmark_borderIdiot America

John Loftus has published my review of Charles P. Pierce’s Idiot America on Debunking Christianity:

It has quite a bit of political comment, rather more than I judged would be appropriate here. I think this is an important book and a very enjoyable one. Pierce pulls no punches and I don’t either. Sometimes it is fun to write with the poisoned pen when your target really deserves it, and I think the proponents of militant idiocy deserve all the abuse they get.

bookmark_border“I can draw Mohammed if you can build a mosque”

From the New York Daily News, about the protests concerning the (non)Ground Zero (non)Mosque:

Later a scuffle broke out at the site of the pro-mosque protest a when a mosque opponent held up a sign that read, “I can draw Mohammed if you can build a mosque.”

That seems very reasonable to me. But since this person was protesting the mosque, I presume they want to stop both the mosque and any Muhammad cartoons, perhaps in a spirit of mutual respect.


bookmark_borderCFI needs help

The Center for Inquiry, one of the leading US organizations supporting skepticism about the paranormal and the supernatural, plus secularism and humanism, is in serious financial trouble due to a large donor not being able to contribute as much as usual. Please consider donating a small amount to help.

CFI is the organization behind magazines such as the Skeptical Inquirer and Free Inquiry. (If you are not already subscribed, you may find it worthwhile to do so. They’re much more satisfying than blogs.) And organizations and institutions are important, especially if you care about skepticism and humanism as public presences beyond the academic ghetto. Indeed, one of the enduring weaknesses of skepticism and nonbelief in the US has been its tenuous institutional base. Organizations like CFI are invaluable in this regard.

So, again, please consider donating a small amount.

Disclaimer: I am not associated with CFI. But they have occasionally published my articles, and invited me to give presentations.

bookmark_borderA Scientific Question? Part 6

In Rocks of Ages, Stephen Gould places a heavy emphasis on the fact vs. value distinction. According to Gould, science is concerned with facts, and religion is concerned with values. Values don’t imply facts, and facts don’t imply values, so there can be no conflict between a given set of facts (scientific teachings at a given point in time) and a given set of values (religious teachings at a given point in time). This is how Gould reasons about the relationship of science and religion.

Given the emphasis on the fact-value distinction, it is tempting to take Gould to be using the word “science” in the very broad sense in which a “scientific question” means nothing more than a “factual question”. In this case Gould would be using the word “science” in a broad and loose way that would encompass ordinary historical investigation.

However, when Gould defines or characterizes “science” he uses words and phrases that appear to narrow the scope of this word to something more restricted than just the careful or scholarly investigation of factual questions.

Gould characterizes science as being concerned with the “character of the natural world” which does not seem to aptly describe historical investigations.

Science tries to document the factual character of the natural world, and to develop theories that coordinate and explain these facts. Religion, on the other hand, operates in the equally important, but utterly different, realm of human purposes, meanings, and values –- subjects that the factual domain of science might illuminate, but can never resolve. Similarly, while scientists must operate with ethical principles, some specific to their practice, the validity of these principles can never be inferred from the factual discoveries of science.
(ROA, p.4-5, emphasis added)

Human beings are part of nature, and historians study the actions, events, and experiences of human beings, so strictly speaking, historians do study the character of a portion of “the natural world”.

But the word “natural” has often been contrasted with the word “artificial”, and “nature” is associated with “wilderness” as opposed to “civilization”. In studying human actions, events, and experiences, historians focus on what is artificial and civilized, as opposed to what is natural and wild.

In another characterization of science, Gould focuses in on the question, What is the universe made of?
..the net, or magisterium, of science covers the empirical realm: what is the universe made of (fact) and why does it work this way (theory). The magisterium of religion extends over questions of ultimate meaning and moral value. These two magisteria do not overlap, nor do they encompass all inquiry (consider, for example, the magisterium of art and the meaning of beauty). (ROA, p.6, emphasis added)

This question is a good example of a scientific question in the narrower sense, but it does not reflect, for example, the sort of question that historians deal with. Physicists, chemists, and biologists commonly ask the question “What is this thing made of?” but historians don’t generally ask this sort of question.

Careful observation and experiments are key concepts used to define science in the narrower sense of the word. Thus, the use of the phrase “observational techniques” to characterize science suggests that Gould has in mind something more specific than just any old “factual” investigation:

…an institution that we have named “science”—a teaching authority dedicated to using the mental methods and observational techniques validated by success and experience as particularly well suited for describing, and attempting to explain, the factual construction of nature. (ROA, p.54, emphasis added)

Historians need to read historical documents carefully, and they do so using their eyes, but this is not a matter of employing “observational techniques”, such as the use of a microscope by a biologist to study cells or tiny organisms.

Gould also refers to “scientific methods” and “natural law” in characterizing science, which again, suggests a narrower concept of science than just careful investigation of factual issues:

scientific methods, based on the spatiotemporal invariance of natural law, apply to all potentially resolvable questions about facts of nature…(ROA, p.84, emphasis added)

If Gould was using the word “science” in the more standard narrower sense, which would, for example, exclude ordinary historical investigation, then this is a reason for thinking that Dawkins, who was in large part reacting to Gould’s form of agnosticism (i.e. NOMA) in the early chapters of The God Delusion, was also using the word “science” and the phrase “scientific question” in the more standard, narrower sense, which would, for example, exclude ordinary historical investigation.

On the other hand, it is clear that Huxley, the man who coined the word “agnostic” did use the word “science” in a loose and broad way, meaning something like “the careful and scholarly investigation of factual questions”. Dawkins also criticizes Huxley’s version of agnosticism, so it is possible that Dawkins was following Huxley, rather than Gould, on the use of the word “science”.

bookmark_border“Ground Zero” Islamophobia

Surprising though that may be, I still run into people who think that “Islamophobia” is an illegitimate term. I don’t see how anyone observing right wing politics in the US can seriously say that deep-seated irrational hatred of Islam is not a widespread problem.

Mind you, Islamophobia does get used by Muslim groups and Muslim-majority countries as an excuse to attempt to stifle criticism. But then, every ethnic and religious group does that. To some supporters of Israeli nationalism, every criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic. To some Catholic conservative groups, anti-Catholic bigotry is the source of every negative comment about the Church.

But who cares? Just look at the right-wing furore right now about the so-called “Ground Zero Mosque”—which is not a mosque and is not at “Ground Zero.”

What’s really shameful is that some nonbelievers, who have more at stake than most in avoiding a climate of religious conflict, are likely to follow bigots such as Sam Harris in condemning the non-mosque. This is a time to do just the opposite. If we want to convince people that our criticism of religion really is a civilized disagreement rather than an expression of anti-religious spite, we have to vocally support Muslims who want to do no more than exercise their rights.

Now is a time to say that we think that Islamic beliefs are grossly mistaken, but that we will stand up and defend their freedom to live religiously without being subjected to mindless harassment.

bookmark_borderA Scientific Question? Part 5

More hints about the concept of a “scientific question” from the Charles Simonyi Professor of the Public Understanding of Science …

In The God Delusion, Dawkins gives a couple of hints about what constitutes a scientific hypothesis.

A scientific hypothesis is an idea that is either true or false.
Dawkins is more favorable towards TAP style agnosticism, than PAP style agnosticism:

TAP, or Temporary Agnosticism in Practice, is the legitimate fence-sitting where there really is a definite answer, one way or the other (TGD, p.47, emphasis added)

Dawkins connects the truth-or-falsehood of the idea that “God exists” with the allegedly scientific status of the question:

Either he [God] exists or he doesn’t. It is a scientific question… (TGD, p.48)

Dawkins says something similar in relation to questions about miracles:

…this [the question about whether Jesus’ mother was a virgin at the time of his birth] is still a strictly scientific question with a definite answer in principle: yes or no. (TGD, p.59, emphasis added)

An idea that can be true or false is what philosophers call a proposition. Many philosophers hold that moral and normative judgments are neither true nor false, thus such judgments would not be considered to be propositions. Dawkins’ condition here, would, on this view of the nature of moral judgments, exclude such judgments from being scientific hypotheses, and this would in turn exclude the questions for which those judgments are answers, from being scientific questions.

However, not much else is excluded by this condition. Many historical and mathematical claims and hypotheses, for example, are also either true or false. So this condition only works as a necessary condition for an idea to be a scientific hypothesis, not as a sufficient condition.

Another closely related hint concerns the existence of conflicting alternative ideas.

A scientific hypothesis is a proposed idea that has implications that clearly conflict with the implications of some other alternative idea.

Dawkins thinks that the contrast between atheism and theism is relevant to considering the God hypothesis to be a scientific hypothesis:

…a universe with a supernaturally intelligent creator is a very different kind of universe from one without. (TGD, p.58)

…[the idea of a] non-interventionist…God…is still…a scientific hypothesis. I return to the point: a universe in which we are alone except for other slowly evolved intelligences is a very different universe from one with an original guiding agent whose intelligent design is responsible for its very existence. (TGD, p.61)

Because atheism and theism have very different and conflicting implications, this seems to be a reason, for Dawkins, to consider the belief that “God exists” to be a scientific hypothesis.

Again, this works as a necessary condition, but not as a sufficient condition, for claims and hypotheses in history, mathematics, and logic also can be contrasted with alternative ideas that have very different and conflicting implications.

As far as I can see, Dawkins has hinted at a few necessary conditions for something being a scientific question:

(1) Evidence should be applicable to answering the question.
(2) The question should be answerable in principle, if not in practice.
(3) Some proposed answers to the question should be either true or false.
(4) One proposed answer to the question should have different and conflicting
implications in comparison to some other proposed answer.
Taken individually, each necessary condition encompasses a broad scope of questions that go beyond the narrower scope of questions encompassed by the concept of a “scientific question”.

What if we take all of these conditions together to be a sufficient condition for something being a scientific question? This won’t work, because the same set of counterexamples satisfy all four necessary conditions; many historical, mathematical, and logical hypotheses would satisfy all of these conditions.

There is one more hint from Dawkins that seems to have a bit more substance to it. He sometimes refers to “the scientific method” or “scientific methods” when discussing the nature of religious beliefs. Dawkins quotes Alister McGrath about Huxley (a PAP agnostic, according to Dawkins):

“…Huxley declared that the God question could not be settled on the basis of the scientific method.” (TGD, p.54)

Dawkins also quotes McGrath’s quote of Stephen Gould:

“…science simply cannot (by its legitimate methods) adjudicate the issue of God’s possible superintendence of nature.” (TGD, p.55)

Dawkins himself uses the phrase “scientific methods” when discussing how miracle claims should be evaluated:

There is an answer to every such question, whether or not we can discover it in practice, and it is a strictly scientific answer. The methods we should use to settle the matter, in the unlikely event that relevant evidence ever became available, would be purely and entirely scientific methods. (TGD, p.59, emphasis added)

Dawkins implies that a question is a scientific question if the question can (in principle) be settled by the use of methods that are scientific methods.

Here we finally have what appears to be a sufficient condition, and a plausible one at that. However, although this may truly be a sufficient condition for something to be a scientific question, it is not very helpful or useful as it stands.

We need to have some clear explanation or specification of what methods constitute legitimate scientific methods, and what methods do not. Furthermore, additional guidance might also be required in order for us to be able to determine whether a particular question can “in principle” be settled by the use of such methods.