How many “ways of knowing” are there?

I’ve become rather ambivalent about Eugenie Scott — and, indeed, about some of the policies of the organization she heads, the National Center for Science Education.  On the one hand, Scott is a really nice person (I used to count her as a friend, though I’m not sure she feels that way about me now!), and, more important, she and the NCSE have done absolutely terrific — and award-winning — work battling creeping creationism in America.  The NCSE’s intercession in the Dover intelligent-design trial, for example, was critical in the victory.

But Scott also travels around giving strongly accommodationist talks, reflecting the NCSE’s policy that science and religion, when properly conceived, are harmonious.  This is, of course, the NOMA stance.  The NCSE has made a tactical decision that selling evolution is most efficacious if you proclaim — never mind what you really think — that religion and science are compatible, occupying their own magisteria.

Over at Metamagician and the Hellfire Club, Russell Blackford reports on a talk Scott gave yesterday at Dragon*Con.  To be fair, Blackford didn’t take notes, and I haven’t heard the talk.  But if his memory is accurate, Scott told the audience that there are many valid “ways of knowing” beyond science.  As Russell reports:

. . . In any event, it was the first part of the speech that worried me. This emphasised the claim that science (Scott said “science”, not “reason”) is only one way of knowing. The others that she mentioned were personal insight and authority (I don’t think she was saying that these three are the only “ways of knowing”). She appeared to be happy to count all sorts of ideas gained from personal insight, perhaps assisted by rituals or drugs, as “knowledge”, which is rather odd, since knowledge is, at the least, justified belief. She counted revelation, including the words of holy books, as a sub-set of authority, and explained that the problem is when empirical claims are based on revelation.

Scott also said that science is a limited way of knowing because it can only investigate natural phenomena and can only offer natural explanations for them, and so cannot deal with supernatural claims. She offered no argument for this claim. Indeed, she gave an example of scientific study of truth claims that appeared to refute it. This was a description of a controlled experiment to see whether people really can perform better than chance at dowsing for water. Clearly, if the claim “I can perform better than chance at dowsing for water” is refuted by scientific investigation, it follows, a fortiori, that the claim “I can perform better than chance at dowsing for water by using supernatural means” is also refuted.

Oh dear dear dear.  Russell, I, and others have addressed the idea of science and the supernatural many times before (see here, here, and here, for example), dispelling the soothing idea that “science has nothing to say about the supernatural.”  That is, of course, hogwash.  Science has plenty to say about the Shroud of Turin, whether faith healing works, whether prayer works, whether God seems to be both beneficent and omnipotent, world without end.  Science can, as we’ve repeated endlessly, address specific claims about the supernatural, though it’s impotent before the idea that behind it all is a hands-off, deistic Transcendent Force.

Scott admits that there is a problem when empirical claims are based on revelation, but seems completely unaware that empirical claims derived from revelation form the basis of nearly every faith.

I am absolutely sure that Scott is aware of these arguments. But she ignores them, and goes around spreading the same old accommodationism.  In this sense she’s like the Twins: she’s heard the counterarguments, but not only has she failed to answer them, she ignores them. What is even more distressing is that Scott is an atheist, so for her, at least, there are no supernatural ways of knowing.  Does she think she’s missing out on a kind of knowledge that only the faithful have? I doubt it.

As for “ways of knowing,” my response is always, “What do you find out? What do you “know”?  And how would you know if you were wrong? Was Jesus the son of God?  Christians’ “way of knowing” tells them, “Yes, of course!” But Islamic “ways of knowing” say, “No, of course not, and you’ll burn in hell if you believe that.”  Revelation, dogma, and scripture are not in fact ways of knowing; they are ways of believing.  There are no “truths” that religion can produce which are independent of truths derived from secular reason.

With his usual acumen, Russell dissects the problem in detail.  Read his post.  And I agree completely with his conclusion:

I am not suggesting that the NCSE enlarge its remit to attack religion more generally. That is not its raison d’etre at all. But it can be neutral about such questions as whether science undermines a large amount of religious thinking, far beyond the claims of creationism and Intelligent Design. It can stop relying on an unnecessarily narrow (and very dubious) view of scientific epistemology, designed to leave as much authority with religion as possible. It can stop selling Gould’s intellectually bankrupt principle of Non-Overlapping Magisteria on its website.

It’s perfectly clear by now that neither Scott nor the NCSE will ever deal with the ideas that 1) the other “ways of knowing” don’t produce truth, 2) science can indeed address the supernatural, at least some aspects of it, and 3) a lot of people DO NOT find science and faith compatible. By enabling superstition, and giving credibility to irrationality, Scott and the NCSE’s NOMA-ism will, I think, hamper the evolution of a rational America.  Yes, we’re on their side vis-a-vis creationism, and yes, I’ll be more than glad to join hands with them in fighting that scourge of rationality.   But so long as our allies keep spouting half-truths and untruths about the relationship between science and religion, we’ll keep calling them to task.

Where's the beef?

Fig. 1. Other ways of knowing: I can’t has cheezburger.

72 thoughts on “How many “ways of knowing” are there?

  1. I wish they would get it.

    Science is simply the “art” of using all of the human senses to understand reality. Sight, hearing, touching, smelling, tasting. And we use our brains to process all of these.

    There may be scientific instruments that help enhance these senses, like microscopes that help us see small things that our naked eye could not – but we’re still using only our five senses.

    So if I God can’t be proven by science, that means there is no way any person could have interacted with God, since this God is outside the comprehension of any of our senses.

    The Merrian-Webster dictionary even defines supernatural as: “of or relating to an order of existence beyond the visible observable universe”. So it’s beyond what we know… currently.

    If it’s beyond the human understanding, than no one who is human can claim they’ve “seen” God, regardless of their definition of “seen” is.

    We may someday understand what is currently supernatural now, but once we know it, it’s a KNOWN, no longer supernatural but NATURAL.

    I just wish people understood this.

      1. Or to put it another way:

        science is just a specialised way of being reasonable

        Can’t remember who said it, though – Richard Feynman, perhaps?

  2. “The effort to reconcile science and religion is almost always made, not by theologians, but by scientists unable to shake off altogether the piety absorbed with their mother’s milk.”

    — H L Mencken, Minority Report (1956), quoted from James A Haught, ed, 2000 Years of Disbelief

  3. How many “ways of knowing” are there?

    This reminds me of an old joke:

    How many lawyers does it take to screw in a light bulb?

    How many can you afford?

  4. The NOMA stance is what the NCSE describes in very uncritical way on its website. It’s the idea that religion is all about guidance on the MORAL realm. That’s its turf and it doesn’t overlap with science’s turf.

    That wasn’t brought up in Scott’s Dragon*Con talk as far as I can recall. The relevant part was about how science can’t deal with the SUPERNATURAL, with the implication that religion can.

    Needless to say, I don’t think that religion is a good guide to either the moral realm or to the (alleged) supernatural. Conversely, I think science has a fair bit to say about both. I agree that it can’t refute deism or anything similar, and nor can it give comprehensive guidance on moral issues, but it can give more useful advice on aspects of the latter than we are likely to get from holy books. Holy books may contain some moral wisdom, but the trouble is that we need to fall back on secular moral reasoning to separate the wise bits from the foolish bits. Even if studying the holy books might yield a few moral insights, we’d get just as many from studying Shakespeare or Tolstoy or, if it comes to that, a great deal of popular culture.

    1. As long as “God” is not actually doing and never did anything to or in our universe, it is inaccessible to science.

      Such a “God”, while logically possible, is completely useless and not worth thinking much about.

      I like how you guys have pointed out that although there may be areas that science cannot illumine, religion is lying in pretending that it can see where science cannot.

  5. Just a minor point, maybe: “Shroud of Turin, whether faith healing works, whether prayer works, whether God seems to be both beneficent and omnipotent, world without end” do not belong to the category of supernatural per se, but to the category of “effect of the supernatural on the natural world”. This way we fall back to the comfortable world science can know. Supernatural is, by its own nature, super (above) and cannot be known in itself; with this I mean it can be safely ignored. And God with it.


  6. I am on-board with 1,2 and 3 above and I also see Scott as doing harm as well as the good.

    I have stated here that Gould also did a lot of harm. When will rational people realize this? Accommodation has not been an effective tactic since there were absolute rulers that required compliance or else death.

    1. Gould’s comments about the lack of transitional fossils have been a continual problem (for me) in newspaper debates about evolution and creationism. His later backtracking statement about being “infuriated” only enhances the creationist idea that Gould adjusted his argument according to his audience. He’s been more of a hindrance than a help.

  7. Religious people don’t believe in NOMA. They believe in SOMA – slightly overlapping magisteria (otherwise there is no room for revelation or miracles).
    I the way accomodationist scientists reconcile their own lack of a belief in theistic Gods with the claim that science and religion are compatible is by using a definition of science as the ‘collection of facts we know about the universe’.
    There is another definition of science as a methodology rather than a collection of facts; ‘Science is the method we use to determine whether a particular idea about the natural world is incorrect’
    The latter definition is definitely NOT compatible with theism although it is possible that the former definition is compatible (if we are willing to accept unfalsifiable notions or as-yet unproven ideas as ‘facts’).

    1. I thought by SOMA you were going to say Strategically Overlapping Magisteria — their religions make all sorts of empirical claims until you start proposing to test them.

      1. Soma in Aldous Huxley’s
        Brave New World:
        “All the advantages of Christianity and alcohol; none of their defects.”

  8. Unquestionably there are other ways of knowing than science. How could we ever develop or learn science without knowing something previous to science? Science is an outgrowth of our legitimate senses and thought processes, a set of methods used to increase reliability above our probabilistic knowledge of the world gained as individuals.

    For instance, how do I know that I am loved by someone? Not by science, and the person loving me would be quite offended if I attempted to utilize science to discover “her love.” We know things “instinctively” or “subjectively” in many cases, in ways that are still murky to science.

    Which helps religion not at all, certainly, since its various versions make claims that can only be verified or rejected by science or by what we would consider to be “science-like” (say, judicial) processes. There is no subject with whom I might have a relationship and come into an “intersubjective” knowledge of that “subject,” and claims to have experienced such a “subject,” god, are as well established as a delusion or hallucination. The senses have to affirm the existence prior to “relationship,” which is why most religions fail.

    However, you’re setting yourself up for a good knockdown by epistemologists if you claim that science is the only means of knowing, Dr. Coyne. Indeed, we have to use what we know about logic even to do science properly, and in a more clear manner we could say that we what we know non-empirically (not entirely non-empirically, understand) about mathematics is absolutely crucial to doing most science.

    So we have other ways of knowing than science. If we didn’t, science would be untrustworthy, because it relies upon these ways of knowing. The trouble for religion is, we have no way of knowing “revelatory knowledge” without science or scientific-like thinking.

    Glen Davidson

    1. “For instance, how do I know that I am loved by someone? Not by science, and the person loving me would be quite offended if I attempted to utilize science to discover “her love.” We know things “instinctively” or “subjectively” in many cases, in ways that are still murky to science.”

      Only if you’re defining “science” to be some kind of formalized process. The question of “does she love me” is still a matter for empirical observation.

      If I claimed that Jessica Alba loves me, you’d be a little suspicious. If I admitted that no, we’ve never actually met, but I still know she loves me through one of those “other ways of knowing,” you’d rightly dismiss me as a kook.

      Similarly, if a woman kept telling me she loved me, but she was constantly stealing from me, cheating on me, and never showed me any affection except when she wanted something, I would reject her claim, too — not based on some mysterious “other way of knowing,” but on plain old empirical observation.

      1. Only if you’re defining “science” to be some kind of formalized process.

        Um, yes, I think that would be the definition in most everybody’s mind. That’s sort of the point of science, to formalize legitimate processes of knowing.

        Another way of putting my point is that cognition comes prior to science. That’s quite a science in itself, discovering the various ways we have of knowing things, of coming to a knowledge of the world quite without a code (for doing so) or whatever else the IDiots think is needed to produce order.

        Naturally empiricism is part of what creates a good cognition, but as I noted, it is hardly entirely empirical (logic, math). We are born with “categories of understanding” or some such thing.

        We know “things outside of us” via empiricism. But if that is what we’re going to call “science” now, then we’ve never been without science, and the IDiots are doing science much as we are (if not as well). Never has science been understood in that way (it’s barely different than cognition then), and there is no reason to try to re-define it to encompass all legitimate ways of knowing.

        Glen Davidson

      2. Glen, it sounds like we don’t really disagree on this. And I’d be surprised if Jerry really means to imply that only formalized processes count and empirical observation doesn’t.

        And Sigmund, it’s ok. I’ve moved on to Scarlett Johannsen.

      3. Yep, as Screechy sez, by “science,” I mean “empirical observation and rationality”.

        So what about the person who just KNOWS that Jesus is divine?

      4. Yep, as Screechy sez, by “science,” I mean “empirical observation and rationality”.

        I didn’t doubt it, but if the wording is ambiguous the DI might pounce.

        Might anyway, of course, only it’s always better when they thereby exhibit the fact that they’re merely flailing.

        Glen Davidson

    2. Glen, don’t we (if we have much sense) come to believe that someone loves us (or not) based on the evidence of that love? His/her behaviour, way of speaking to us, etc.?

      It’s not rigorous science, but it is an evidence-based and reasonable path to knowledge.

    3. I think you are mixing up ‘believing’ in something with ‘knowing’ about something.
      The difference is that things we ‘know’ about have gone through some process of checking to determine if they are wrong.

      1. Not really. I can be quite certain of my knowledge of my brother Mark without some “process of checking.”

        I am not dependent upon some process of checking to know logic, or to be able to grasp mathematical relationships, either.

        I knew many things before I had any idea of what science was.

        Glen Davidson

      2. ‘I can be quite certain of my knowledge of my brother Mark without some “process of checking.”’

        Yes, but not without a lot of background knowledge (of an empirical kind). Your knowledge of your brother is knowledge, it’s not just some wild guess or stab in the dark.

        It’s also worth remembering (I think) that our knowledge of people can always be wrong. Literature and movies and soap operas wouldn’t exist without this fact – we don’t always know each other as well as we think, or hope, we do. So that kind of ‘knowledge’ isn’t really knowledge.

    4. How do you know that some person loves you? By using your senses. You judge the way she looks at you, talks to you, touches you, and myriads of other small and large signs. It’s never easy to judge and you never get absolute certainty. But it is 100% empirical. You are using the principles of science to discover her love. But you are most likely right that saying so directly to her face would not be very romantic. 🙂

      1. And we have “emotion detectors” built into us by evolution, which allow us to quickly form conclusions about other people’s mental states (even if we often make mistakes in this) without having to think about it consciously. But these detectors have been formed by millions of years of empirical “checking” by natural selection, which gives us a kind of shortcut to “knowledge” in the present.

    5. If you’ve tried kissing your wife, that would qualify as experimental testing, and thus within the anthropological practice of science.

      If you haven’t tried kissing your wife, you should shut off the computer now.

  9. I don’t think Jerry is claiming that we obtain all knowledge by distinctively scientific methods. I am certainly not. For example, the current discussion is an attempt to gain information about epistemological issues by methods that involve reason and argument but are not distinctively scientific. So I don’t subscribe to “scientism” in any objectionable sense.

    In fact, the methods that are DISTINCTIVELY scientific, and have helped us to gain reliable knowledge about the very small, the very old, and the very distant didn’t even exist in sophisticated form prior to the late 16th and early 17th centuries.

    But the woolly-sounding “ways of knowing” expression is not needed to make this point.

    Yes, we can obtain information in various ways that are not distinctively scientific, such as by direct evidence of the senses or by reliable testimony from others. If that was all that was being said by people who talk about “ways of knowing” I wouldn’t have a problem with it.

    But it has to be remembered that reason (including science) can draw on all those things in the effort to gain justified beliefs. In doing so, it does have something to say about many supernatural claims. The idea that all supernatural beliefs, per se, are beyond any testing by reason, and the idea that these beliefs can be formed reliably in some other way, are often the implication left in the air when people talk about these “other ways of knowing”.

    Eugenie Scott may not actually believe this, but it’s not the impression you get when you hear her talk. Perhaps she’d say she’s merely simplifying under time pressure, but if so I’d like to hear the more complex version with all the qualifications needed to answer the points that Jerry and I are making.

    1. “So I don’t subscribe to “scientism” in any objectionable sense.”

      Heh, that’s a neat trick I may borrow. As far as I’m concerned, I don’t subscribe to any of my beliefs in an objectionable sense, either!

  10. Ways of knowing is a bad term and that, I think, is the cause of the disagreement here. There is no such thing as “knowing” in an absolute sense, we can only make guesses (some of which are really really good guesses).

    Science happens to be system that comes up with the most accurate guesses BY FAR but they are still just guesses (usually good guesses) and are always subject to change (once of sciences strengths).

    There are other ways of making guesses, as Glen has pointed out, but these ways are less good, and if science contradicted the guesses made by these other ways of knowing I suspect Glen would usually allow science to trump his previously held “knowledge.”

    My point is that calling them “ways of knowing” is the problem because it puts different ways of guessing on an equal playing field where clearly some ways of guessing are better than others.

    1. It’s important to note that science doesn’t come up with the correct answer directly – it merely identifies the incorrect answer so it may be discarded as an option. It is by a process of elimination of many incorrect options that we edge closer and closer to the truth.
      In this way an idea that comes from a non empirical source – say a dream or drug induced state – CAN indeed end up being the correct answer – the classic instance of this is Kekules daydream of a snake seizing its tail inspiring him to think of the structure of benzene. However unless we have a way of checking (the scientific method) then this guess is as good as any other and we have no way of ‘knowing’ that which one is correct.

    1. Well, I think it sucks ass for literature, painting and music, too. What it’s great for is getting tenure.

  11. Long post, my apologies. However, the issue of the “supernatural” and science claims by Coyne and Blackford obviously need to be addressed, yet again.

    Coyne: “Science has plenty to say about the Shroud of Turin, whether faith healing works, whether prayer works, whether God seems to be both beneficent and omnipotent, world without end. Science can, as we’ve repeated endlessly, address specific claims about the supernatural, though it’s impotent before the idea that behind it all is a hands-off, deistic Transcendent Force.”

    Yes, “claims” about the supernatural. What science has to say about the Shroud of Turin, the claim that the earth is 10,000 years old, whether prayer works (the best example we have here was done by the Templeton Foundation), has to do with what is natural. The claim that a “supernatural” event occurred, is just that, a claim, that has never been validated, “God did it” is simply NOT a scientific theory. With the Shroud of Turin scientist discovered a fake, by dating, examining the “paints” used etc. NOMA, or Stephen Gould would claim we could not test the Shroud of Turin, that line of thinking is garbage being forwarded by those that should know better (read Gould’s forward to Shermer’s book ‘Why People Believe Weird Things”. The claim that “god created the world 10,000 years ago”, is NOT a scientific statement. Science can show the statement is wrong by dispelling the so-called evidence for the age of earth, providing positive evidence for an accurate date of the earth etc. What is refuted then is the claim to the age of the earth, science has said nothing on the supposed “supernatural”, doesn’t have to, never has (isn’t reality).

    I have also addressed, as well as others, Coyne’s and Blackford’s claims on the idea that the “supernatural is within the realm of science” or as Coyne said “the supernatural is not completely beyond the realm of science”, which I will post some of below. As to Moral’s, many people claim, including atheist scientist that science can say little on Morality, I believe that is false, I would point to the work of Jonathan Haidt and Steven Pinker as good examples of great work in the field.

    First let me quote Daniel Dennett from: ”Darwin’s ‘strange inversion of reasoning,’” PNAS vol. 106, June 16th, 2009, suppl. 1, pp. 10061-5

    Dennett: “We have excellent internal evidence for believing that science in general is both reliable and a product of naturalistic forces only—natural selection of genes and natural selection of memes. An allegiance to naturalism and to current evolutionary theory not only doesn’t undermine the conviction that our scientific beliefs are reliable; it explains them.”

    That would be wise to keep in mind when you make claims about the nature of science, and I see both Coyne and Blackford have modified slightly their claims.

    Here is one post I wrote on claims made by Coyne on the supernatural and science (It should be noted that the idea that “science can study the supernatural” has been defended many times recently).

    – He [Jerry Coyne] argues from the view of what would convince scientist and himself that a “supernatural force” or God exist. An example is: “if only bad people might get cancer”. This is the type of argument Coyne uses to back up his assertion that “supernatural phenomena” are not “completely” beyond the realm of science.

    There are obviously many things wrong with this approach to make such an assertion, but I want to focus on a few primary points. First, the fact that a scientist, or Coyne himself would become convinced of a “supernatural force” or God based on a natural phenomena simply does not back up any claim that science involves itself in the “supernatural”. That is what it would be, a natural phenomena. That leads to a problem, who is deciding the line in which science identifies a “supernatural force” has been crossed, why would we not first try to provide naturalistic explanations for the phenomena – it simply would not matter what Coyne “believes” unless he can put it to the test. Second, this only works to confuse the nature of science and somewhat paradoxically is done to combat “supernatural beliefs”. However, what science is doing is apart from the “supernatural” belief in that the “theory” (ie – “god is doing it”) is not a scientific theory to begin with, what is being tested is the claims regarding nature. We end up back at the demarcation, and would be left with trying to provide a naturalistic explanation, unless God or the “supernatural force” told us they were creating the phenomena, or it was revealed somehow. Take something like Coyne’s example of bad people getting cancer, would we not look for a naturalistic explanation and would it not be incumbent upon Coyne to provide evidence for the phenomena being caused by a “supernatural force” or God? This of course would get back to; “well, it provides evidence of a God”, well that still doesn’t tell us much, especially with regards to science.

    And also, another of mine which addresses more of the Blackford idea of “science can deal with the supernatural”, i.e. arguments by definition and vagueness.

    – I would like to add briefly, that sure, we can say God is a possibility, but again, that doesn’t tell us much about what science (scientist) is doing. All that does is put God in the range of possible existence, part of reality (though what do we really have to base that on except the claims and beliefs of others which have no bases in reality?). The claims made regarding the nature of God when refuted by science are done through the understanding of natural processes, to science there is no “supernaturalism” or Gods as explanations (at least not yet in any way, shape or form – there is no difference in these debates than saying; ok, it’s possible, so now what do we do about it – you see, we can’t just make up claims regarding the nature of science just because other people want to claim God is acting within nature).

    Blackford Wrote (above): “I agree that it [science] can’t refute deism or anything similar..”


    My post in not a defense of Eugenie, whom I admire and respect a great deal, nor an argument for NOMA, which has been misrepresented numerous times over the last few years.

    However, I would say to someone like NewEnglandBob; when will rational people get it and stop making mainly false claims about the nature of science (with respect to the “supernatural”) to forward an agenda that has obviously created poor reasoning skills on the issue within someone like himself.

  12. I want to clarify a sentence from my previous post.

    That NOMA, or Stephen J. Gould claims (claimed) we could (or should) not test the Shroud of Turin (Because it is religious or claimed to be evidence of the “supernatural”) is completely false, that line of thinking (as well as a host of other examples) is garbage being forwarded by those that should know better (read Gould’s forward to Shermer’s book ‘Why People Believe Weird Things’.)

    1. The idea of ‘Non Overlapping Magisteria’ itself is not really a problem to science. The problem is where Gould chose to place the borders. Having science relevant to everything in the natural world and everything that has contact with the natural world is nothing controversial. The problem is when we admit external influence on the natural world. By definition this is NOT non-overlapping – otherwise there couldn’t be an influence.

      1. Sigmund,

        Ok. However, I would point out that Gould made clear that the border is not clear cut, nor divided by a “no-mans land” (morality obviously a major issue – point being science can inform us, but does not put forth a dogma (nor does nature “give a damn about us”, though as Sam Harris has argued the “is/ought” “problem” is possibly just a myth. However I lean towards those I have mentioned above).

        As I highlighted in my previous post regarding Coyne’s argument that he may come to be convinced in God or a “supernatural force” by for example; “only bad people got sick” – it would be incumbent upon Coyne to show why his belief is reality. Otherwise, his belief in God and his claim that the “supernatural force” is acting within nature is meaningless to science (or me). The observation that only bad people get sick may be real, but his “theory”, that it is an act of God must be testable, Coyne has yet to follow up on his arguments to show how we go the next step to justify his belief in God or a “supernatural force”.

      2. Zarcus, Gould simply surrendered morality and ethics to religion. It wasn’t simply a question of the borders being ill defined, it was a question of a very important element of empirical study being handed to the supernaturalists without even a thought as to reasoning for doing so nor the consequences of this surrender.
        As far as I’m concerned they can have their heaven and hell, valhalla, middle earth, OZ and Lilliput. I don’t, however, see why they should have an exclusive voice on the question of morality and the voice they do have should not be unquestioned.

      3. The problem is when we admit external influence on the natural world.

        There is no such thing as external to the natural world. That is why Gould was wrong about NOMA. There is no magisteria for religion – it is an empty set.

      4. Sigmund,

        Gould certainly questioned religious morality. He also devised his own theory which he called the “Cold Bath”, my quote above; “nature doesn’t give a damn about us” is his (written long before Harris’ “nature is not our friend”). To Gould, humans were simply not inevitable (Dennett had a hard time accepting Gould’s argument, he confused the ideas as laid out in “playing the tape back”). To Gould, there is no divine plan, no forethought in nature for us which obviously includes morality – we are “interlopers of the latest geological microsecond”. Therefore with regards to science, it can inform us on “morality”, we can use what we learn to help guide us. This does not make religious claims to morality right (or exclusive to our discourse), in fact like many claims made to nature, they are often wrong and can be argued as such.

        Also, since this thread appears to be about “ways of knowing”, how about Coyne’s argument about what would convince him that God or a “supernatural force” existed?

        His argument, being he may be convinced by a phenomena to believe in a God, such as only “bad people getting cancer” (laid out in more detail above) and since science could show that this is true (for arguments sake, ignoring the other obvious problems which I have all along) how would Coyne “know” it is an act of the “supernatural” or God. Would his belief be what he “knows” based on the phenomena that only “bad people get cancer”?

        Would it be then that he would believe but not know, but claim it is true? (huh?)

      5. Sigmund,

        I was hoping you would respond to may last questions, it is after all, an important issue.

        However, I would also like to support something else I mentioned and reveal its importance.

        In Stephen J. Gould’s forward to Shermer’s book, ‘Why People Believe Weird Things’ he writes:

        ~ “We really hold only one major weapon against irrationality – reason itself. But the cards are stacked against us in contemporary America… So we have to try harder. We can, we have, we will. We have also won great victories, big and small – from Supreme Court decisions against creationism to local debunkings of phony psychics and faith healers.

        Our best weapons come from the arsenals of basic scientific procedures – for nothing can beat the basic experimental technique of the double-blind procedure and the fundamental observational methods of statistical analysis. Almost every modern irrationalism can be defeated by these most elementary of scientific tools, when well applied.” ~ S.J. Gould

        You see, what someone like Coyne subtly does by invoking NOMA in his way is to say it is telling us science and reason are being restrained to speak against the religiously based irrationality, like the Shroud of Turin, faith healers,even creationism (which is religiously based obviously – it is not science). Stephen certainly wouldn’t agree and would find many statements made by Coyne on “supernaturalism” and what would convince him to believe in God or a “supernatural force” (like “only bad people might get cancer”) as laughable and ultimately silly talk.

      6. Zarcus, your last comment is way off base. Coyne does not invoke NOMA. He does not agree with it.

        Gould made many mistakes. NOMA is a big one, ‘spandrels’ is another and so is his attack on E.O. Wilson. Gould is certainly not an expert on supernaturalism and many people laugh at his pronouncements.

      7. NEB Wrote: – “Coyne does not invoke NOMA. He does not agree with it.”

        When I said: “what someone like Coyne subtly does by invoking NOMA in his way…”

        I am not saying Coyne agrees with NOMA as should be clear by what I have said in that post and elsewhere.

  13. “Eugenie Scott may not actually believe this”

    I think she doesn’t. A previous time this came up, about something in writing as opposed to spoken, she phrased it very carefully – ‘some people think that’ etc – she carefully never said that they were right to think that.

  14. I’m a bit concerned about the distinction that some people are making between non-scientific empirical knowledge, and scientific knowledge. I have knowledge of my brother, because I have spoken with him, lived with him, grew up with him, know his moods and many of his thoughts (some of which are zany!), but I don’t have non-checkable knowledge of my brother in the sense that I know now that he is still alive (right now), that he still holds the beliefs that he expressed to me in an email six months ago to which I took such exception, etc. But, if you were to ask me, I could give you perfectly good reasons for describing my brother in a particular way, and if you checked, you’d see I was right!

    Most of our knowledge is inferential, based on empirical data (and I don’t want to get into a sense-data/external objects debate here). Science is a formalisation of ordinary ways of knowing, and very often serves to correct our less critical inferences about the world. (Of course, it includes a lot of background data as well, into which new scientific inferences must cohere – in fact, Susan Haack’s idea of foundherentism might come to our rescue just about now.) And though scientific knowledge may be ‘unnatural’ in some sense, it’s not so much in the logic of it (so far as I can tell) as in the fact that it is so massively surrounded by confirming mechanisms that, were it required in ordinary life, we would be buried under piles of epistemological fallout before we took our first step in the morning.

    There are, perhaps, more immediate ways of knowing. I might be said to know what I am feeling better than you do, though Wittgenstein would raise the spectre of private languages at this point, and there are probably times when my close friends know what I am feeling better than I do myself. And there are surely other, more intuitive senses of knowing, when I recognise that I am loved, or that what I am looking at is sublime. And while I may be able to build some kind of aesthetic on the basis of such ‘knowing’, it is certainly very complicated and very fragile too.

    Of course, we do know, in some sense, the laws of logic, although even there we do, also in some sense, recognise (intuitively – think of Plato’s Meno here) that certain conclusions follow from given premises, even though we may have never studied logic before. Looking at the square of opposition we can soon see why it all makes perfect sense, even though we may never have thought about it before.

    I suspect the main problem here is not so much with the specific epistemological problems that are raised by different types of discourse, but with the pretence that, in some sense, religion is on the same page with science. That’s the only way that a reasonable accommodation between science and religion could possibly be made, and that’s why Eugenie Scott’s performance is so lacklustre when it comes to discussing these things. In order to accommodate religion, science would have to grant that, in a way similar to science, theology can know things too, but there is simply no basis for making such a claim. Francis Collins tries to provide a basis for this (by quoting CS Lewis of all people!), but makes a complete mess of it, because he doesn’t seem to recognise that he’s dealing with two entirely different realms, one of which we can know, and one of which is only imaginary, so far as anything we can know can tell us, and that’s why there’s something so pathetic about his attachment to faith. Wittgenstein used to talk about beetles in boxes, and if Collins wants to admire his own private beetle, that’s up to him, but he sholdn’t try to blend this in with what he knows as a scientist, because that is a way of knowing, and not just a pretence.

    And we needn’t raise the spectre of scientism either, because that is a peculiar idea, that scientists are scientists all the time, even when they’re admiring a painting, making love, or listening to a late Beethoven string quartet. And that really is beneath contempt.

  15. whether God seems to be both beneficent and omnipotent….

    Isn’t omniscience a necessary part of this argument?

    A benificent, omnipotent, stupid (i.e., unaware of elements of Its creation that are bad) deity can’t be disproven empirically. Right?

    1. I’m not up on my theological word games and abuses of philosophy, but I have trouble conceiving of an omnipotent being that is not simultaneously omniscient. Of course the converse is not true. But then again, these sorts of things are ill-defined to begin with and aren’t very indicative of reality.

      1. But then again, these sorts of things are ill-defined to begin with and aren’t very indicative of reality.

        Word games is exactly correct. Also known as mental masturbation.

      2. “Ill-defined” and not “very indicative of reality,” sure. But I guess I don’t see what’s so hard to conceptualize about a being that’s both vastly powerful and extremely stupid. On our planet, there are all sorts of beings that combine great power with limited intellect; why is that so hard to imagine in deities?

        Omnipotence means the ability to do anything that’s not logically impossible. Why does that imply any necessary knowledge at all?

  16. I was at the talk, and although I found the first part to be a bit squishy I did not get the same impression as Russell. Her main point was simply to contrast different ways of “knowing” in order to argue that Intelligent Design does not fall within the realm of science. Her talk remained agnostic about the validity of these other approaches.

    1. Diego, I agree that that was the main point of her talk, which is why my blog post says: “To be fair to her, the speech consisted mainly of an attack on Intelligent Design theory, claiming that it is not scientific.”

      But the first part struck me as more than “squishy”, much as that’s a nice word. 🙂

  17. I would make the distinction that, to my knowledge, science cannot fully explain the placebo effect, but despite this, the reality of the placebo effect is not dismissed by scientists solely because no good scientific theory has been generated to fully explain it. That said, I agree with Mr. Coyne that the record of non-scientifically based methods of inquiry have an extremely dismal record of success, and “belief,” by its very methodology, is guaranteed to never produce better results than flipping a coin.

  18. There is no such thing as external to the natural world.

    It is perfectly possible that an ultimately undetectable force or set of forces are ultimately responsible for all types of natural phenomena and physical “laws.” I certainly would not want us to be like Lord Kelvin bemoaning that with Maxwell’s equations complete, there is little left to basic physics than just filling in a few details.

    1. You twist what I said into something completely different and irrelevant.

      Show me your undetectable force. Until then, my statement stands.

  19. Other ways of knowing: Can haz not bun that eated cheezburger.

    If knowing is defined as not knowing then there are many ways of knowing.

  20. Why of course there are other ways of knowing. If not, then why would so many good scientists pledge their allegiance to support the validity of the naturalistic fallacy? They draw it like a gun every time someone says let’s get an ought from an is.

  21. I think Eugenie Scott speaks not as a scientist or an epistemologist, but as a lobbyist. Political arguments are designed to influence emotions, and only employ truth as a tool when it’s convenient. Her goal is to influence people to FEEL GOOD about science, and only involves truth indirectly.

  22. Two good articles, thanks! I enjoyed them even if I don’t share the philosophical or scientific basis.

    For example, I would replace knowledge as “justified belief” with science as “tested claims”, tests being narrower than justification in general respectively claims being wider than belief specifically.

    And I would definitely not claim that science can not deal with hands-off deism without trying to test it first. For example by way of hypothesizing that observed processes have all natural mechanisms.

    Back-of-the-envelope calculations gives that 5 years scientific production at the current rate sufficiently tests such a binomial hypothesis. Without any falsifications in evidence such as successful tests of prayers. Or talking Mount Rushmores.

    Being a scientific hypothesis it throws out non-testable alternates such as deism in the process as “inadequate”. Meaning wrong as per the usual way of handling such.

    [I assume the deism claim isn’t based on an analysis of theology but of science. It is however perceived by me as equally founded in summary belief without reasonable justification, I demand testing for obvious reasons.

    And it is then equally annoying. Amending it to “it’s currently impotent” is at least empirically reasonable, though as I argue above probably not a fact.]

    Since I’m late to the party and I can’t make contact with the philosophy espoused in the comments, FWIW I can head on present “my” models of knowledge in short.

    First, science. The basic reason scientific processes works is because they rely on testing claims and throwing out false theories. “Tested claims”.

    Second, learning. The basic reason learning processes (socializing, evolution) works is because they rely on trial-and-error or trial-and-reward on claims (ideas, alleles) to establish contingent models. “Selected claims”.

    To my knowledge [sic!] these are the only two known mechanisms of knowing about (justify) claims. Their difference is in scope.

    For one, learning about a contingent environment doesn’t lend itself to testing non-contingent claims. That knowledge is relative to earlier environment, not absolute to all natural ones. “Relative experience vs absolute facts.”

    For another, learning about a contingent environment doesn’t lend itself to quantifiable uncertainty as in scientific knowledge. There can be statistics, but again the numbers aren’t easily generalized. “Fuzzy knowledge vs quantified facts.”

    1. “knowing about (justify) claims” – knowing about (select) claims.

      It’s just a problem of selecting the correct filter, after all. 😀

      We don’t construct facts from axiomatics, as the term “justify” improperly suggest.

  23. I would agree that Eugenie Scott is confusing “ways of believing” for “ways of knowing”. However, I would draw a hair-thin disagreement through “the other ways of [believing] don’t produce truth”; they can. Or more formally, alternative anthropological practices to the anthropological practice of “science” may arrive at effective description of some portion of “what gives rise to experience”, aka the universe. (For painful rigor: by effective description, I mean a finite length expression on a finite language, which may be taken as program and input for hypercomputer of some ordinal degree such that output recognizably corresponds to experience.)

    However, in so far as any productions are claimed to be true descriptions of the universe, such claims are testable within the philosophical discipline of science for probability relative to alternative descriptions… which was more or less the point Jerry was trying to make.

    I would also suggest that “a lot of people DO NOT find science and faith compatible” is a similar terminology error, by referring to religion as “faith”. To wit: science, as with any other branch of philosophy which purports to connect ideas, itself rests on some minimal assumptions taken without priors, aka “on faith”. While the religious often misidentify particular conclusions as “on faith” what are inferences from these priors, this does not mean there are not ultimate priors. Most of the points taken “on faith” by the philosophical discipline of science are merely those inherited from mathematics (whatever equivalents one prefers for propositional logic, predicate quantification, and Zermelo-Fraenkel axioms). The addition is the assumption (skipping the painful rigor) that Experience has some Pattern. Such tenets are substantially less exciting than what religion usually refers to as “faith”. However, they still must be taken without priors (or from equivalent priors), and thus seem to fall within the philosophical scope of “faith”.

  24. As a couple readers have pointed out, science and supernatural do overlap. In fact, supernaturalists require the supernatural to be, in fact, natural. If the events are strictly in your head, they aren’t as fun as when they make the curtains move, or can change your chances of winning the lottery, etc.

    So what is “Knowing”? It’s that which is backed up by principles of science, such as double blind studies, repeatability, etc. The rest is just in someone’s head.
    What is Faith? That which you want to believe in, but cannot support empirically (scientifically).

    My takes on these topics:

    and sarcastic about “Faith”:


Comments are closed.