What is the sweating professor trying to say?

August 6, 2010 • 9:16 am

The title is taken from from a wonderfully derisive analysis of Thorstein Veblen’s pompous pishposh by H. L. Mencken. (I had to read The Theory of the Leisure Class as a teenager, and still haven’t gotten the bad taste out of my mouth.) Mencken’s line is still one of the funniest bits of a book review I’ve ever seen, and applies as well to another professor, one Dr. Massimo Pigliucci.  Once again Pigliucci has taken up the cudgels against me on his website Rationally Speaking, and I swear that I can’t find anything new in his complaints.  In fact, after poring over his boobish persiflage several times, I conclude that his real issues are these:

1.  He doesn’t like me

2.  He thinks I don’t know anything about philosophy and therefore I—and most other scientists—should shut up about it.

Pigliucci’s beef is a quotation of mine (which, by the way, I stand by completely): “Anybody doing any kind of science should abandon his or her faith if they wish to become a philosophically consistent scientist.”  He characterizes this as “philosophically very naive and pretentious,” asserting that I have no fricking idea what “philosophically consistent” means.  He then makes a lot of other assertions, all of which boil down to saying that scientists should keep their noses out of philosophy because it’s simply too hard for us.

I have just arisen from the sickbed. I am lightheaded, spots dance before my eyes, and I’d rather do anything than answer the sweating professor. But duty calls.  I’ll address Pigliucci’s claims, but may in this instance be unduly petulant.

“Conceptions of gods. . . are simply not falsifiable.” Sweet Jebus, I have dealt with this before, and Pigliucci knows it.  Once again:  yes, one cannot falsify the idea that there is a transcendent being.  But one can falsify the idea that there is a transcendent being who, it is claimed, does specific things.  If you think that God answers prayers, heals the sick, created life de novo, and so on, then aspects of your God—which, after all, are parts of your conception of a God—are testable and falsifiable.  I freely admit that a watery deism, embracing a God who doesn’t do anything tangible, is not a hypothesis that can be falsified by science.  I really don’t know why Pigliucci, who so loudly proclaims his philosophical sophistication, can’t grasp this simple distinction.

It seems to elude others, too.  A while back I argued this point with Eugenie Scott, who told me that “Science can’t test the supernatural.” I told her that it could test claims about the supernatural: if native Americans believed that dancing to propitiate the gods brings rain, then you could in principle test this.  Just set up an experiment in which believers either dance or refrain from dancing at particular times of drought, and correlate that with the arrival of rain.  For some reason Scott didn’t see this as a test of the supernatural. I will say it once again:  you cannot test the mere existence of gods, but you can test claims that your gods do something, that is, interact with the world.

I’d be delighted to hear why this simple point escapes so many.

“It unnecessarily flatters and elevates religious belief to treat it as a science.” On this point atheists like Pigliucci agree with “sophisticated” theologians.  But who ever said that Christianity or Mormonism or Islam were sciences? They’re not—they’re religions.  But they make empirical claims that are testable (see above), and so can enter the bailiwick of science.

“Indeed, even science itself is far from being an activity rooted in reason alone.” This took me aback.  What Pigliucci means here is that new theories don’t always arise from rational contemplation: they may have sources in intuition, the unconscious or even—as in the case of Kekulé’s discovery of the benzene ring—in a daydream. So what?  Ideas can come from anywhere, but only a subset of ideas are scientific ones, and only a subset of those pass empirical muster and become accepted science. I have no idea why Pigliucci brings up this point except, as he says because it “would make Coyne and colleagues even more unhappy, because it goes in the direction of further reducing the relevance of reason to the scientific enterprise.” This seems to be part of Pigliucci’s campaign to inflate philosophy at the expense of science.

It is naive and pretentious to claim that a religious scientist is not “philosophically consistent.” I’m still not clear why Pigliucci finds this claim naive.  What I mean by “philosophical consistency” is that one’s philosophies are consistent.  In the case of a scientist, one’s scientific philosophy is that you don’t accept the existence of things for which there is no evidence.  In the case of a religious person, your philosophy requires you to believe in things for which there is either no evidence or counterevidence.  It’s just that simple.

Further inconsistency comes from the fact that science and faith find out things in different ways: scientific knowledge is attained through observation, experimentation, and agreement among practitioners. “Religious knowledge” (and I put it in quotes because it’s an oxymoron) comes from dogma, authority, and personal revelation.  This leads to the final inconsistency: the stuff that religion “finds out” contradicts what science finds out.  As Russell Blackford has pointed out, in principle there’s no reason why God (or religious faith) couldn’t have led us to the truth about the universe. The Bible, after all, could have been full of stuff that was true, even telling us about evolution or the age of the universe.  But it doesn’t.  Large swathes of the American public still think that the Earth is a few thousand years old and that life did not evolve.  More sophisticated swathes think that, well, maybe life evolved but humans were designed, complete with a soul.  The inefficacy of faith in understanding the world is, of course, the reason why all those faiths come up with mutually contradictory “truths.”

I’m not saying anything new here, and God knows I’m tired of saying it again and again.  Perhaps the sweating professor will let me rest at last and start in on his co-blogger Julia Galef, who also sees the philosophical contradiction involved in being a religious scientist.

Oh, and as for “pretentious”, I’d respectfully ask Pigliucci to look in the mirror, since his whole post is marinated in arrogance and contempt for those who, without the proper Ph.D. in hand, dare say anything that he construes as “philosophy”:

But when it comes to writing for the general public, I suggest that scientists stick to what they know best, unless they are willing to engage the literature of the field(s) that they wish to comment upon. When Coyne makes statements of the type “anybody doing any kind of science should abandon his or her faith if they wish to become a philosophically consistent scientist”, he literally does not know what he is talking about because he does not have a grasp of what it means to be “philosophically consistent” in this context. He has of course no obligation to study philosophy, but then he should refrain from writing about it as a matter of intellectual honesty toward his readers.

151 thoughts on “What is the sweating professor trying to say?

  1. I like the cranky Coyne at least as much as the non-cranky Coyne.

    Unfortunately, Pigluicci will not “get” this post. Because it’s way too clearly written.

    Philosophy is the art of taking a simple concept and making it as obtuse as possible.

    You simply don’t pass muster in this regard.

    1. I can understand you feeling that way after reading poor philosophy like Massimo’s. And unfortunately, there’s a lot of poor philosophy around. But don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.

      I think Massimo is doing genuinely sophistacted philosophy a disservice by throwing around accusations of philosophical naivety in an attempt to add weight to his own bad (and naive) arguments.

      1. Pardon the snark, but I think I’ve found a new oxymoron…genuinely sophisticated philosophy.

        The problem I have with philosophy in general is its refusal to do anything to actually prove itself.

        And so you constantly are presented with a rational, logically consistent, even coherent argument that finds itself completely at odds with the facts on the ground.

        Also, for every well-grounded, rational, coherent argument in favor of one position, you have an equivalently finely crafted argument holding precisely the opposite position. Heck, even Nietzsche and Kierkegaard battled — and they were ostensibly on the same side!

        Really: name a single philosophical position that is universally held by all philosophers. Perhaps the only one I can think of is their belief in the value of philosophy as a discipline.

        Then show me a physicist who will disagree that F=ma.

        1. That’s because physicists are, for the most part, “realists”…which is a philosophical position about the natural world.

        2. Then show me a physicist who will disagree that F=ma

          Prior to the demonstration that dark matter was a very good explanation for phenomena like the Bullet Cluster, there was a family of alternatives known as MOND (Modified Newtonian Dynamics), originated by Mordehai Milgrom. One memmber of this family was the idea that F = ma was an approximation which failed for very small a.

          1. Everything we measure is an approximation. All there are is statistical distributions. Absolutes only exist in minds. In real life, 2+2 does not =4. It equals 3.99965423 or 4.000035476. The only questions are: What’s your tolerance? What’s your confidence and reliability? How did you determine them? What is good enough [for your application]?

            Reminds me of an incident in a mechanical engineering final: The student asks the professor, “Can we assume zero friction in the bearings?” And the professor answers, “No. All the zero friction bearings are in the physics department.” [Or philosophy department.]

            Philosophy never proves anything because it does not submit to evidence. The best philosophical arguments can do is to be consistent with their premises.

  2. “He has of course no obligation to study SCIENCE, but then he should refrain from writing about it as a matter of intellectual honesty toward his readers.”

    Why is it that when this (amended) statement is lobbed at philosophers and theologians it becomes strident and indicative of scientists overstepping their bounds?

  3. “…..I’m tired of saying it again and again.”

    You’d be weel advised to take a fistful of strengthening vitamins…. and keep the bottle close by. Saying something over and again is what you must expect when discussing or debating anything with a cocksure halfwit.
    ~Rev. El

    1. WTF “strengthening vitamins”? Ahem

      In addition to the fact that there is little evidence to support the use of these supplements in most people, there is the question of safety. Again – there is the common assumption that supplements can do no harm, so even if the evidence for efficacy is weak there is nothing to lose from taking supplement for nutritional “insurance.” This is not a good assumption.

    1. Then they should write something that isn’t a pile of gobshyte! Or if it is, don’t pretend it’s got answers.

      Just write another stupid spy book and call it “The Omega Conspiracy” and add a bunch of weapons (with complete technical details), a sarcastic anti-hero hero and a babe with big boobs who needs periodic rescuing and can engage in some sort of titillating sex acts.

      You can see a ton of that shit, nobody believes it (so you’re not poisoning the human mind, except those who are already suffering from testosterone poisoning) and have done with it. Science can continue on with another windbag trying to derail the train and the windbag can make a ton more money.

  4. I actually appreciate Dr. Pigliucci and enjoy listening to him talk about science and skepticism. I even picked up his book “Nonsense.” But I must admit that when I read his post, it did seem a little like he was picking a new fight with Dr. Coyne.

    Maybe I missed some kind of recent exchange that preceded the post, but it seems to me that the delineation between what is testable and not testable is pretty well-established. You can’t test existence of God or supernatural after-life, but any interaction between God and the natural world is testable.

    At this point, ss there anyone amongst the New Atheists, Old Atheists, New Agnostics that disagree? If so, I’d like to read hear their arguments.

    1. “You can’t test existence of God or supernatural after-life, but any interaction between God and the natural world is testable.”

      Bingo! Going back to Max Weber, sociologists have thought of these interactions between gods and the real world as “magic”. Durkheim be damned, philosophically, at least.

      I tried to read Massimo, and got to “epistemic domain of science” and decided to feed the cats instead.

    2. Which goes back to the “God answers all prayers, He just sometimes says no” excuse for failed prayer (etc). I think that is the sticking point – we can test possible interactions between supposed deities and the world, but that still can’t tell us if this immaterial whatsit actually exists…but it can tell us that, even if they do exist, these gods apparently don’t interact with the world. And that brings us back to the question of why believe in them if there is no evidence?

    3. Testable in practice or in principle? Of course you’re right that it’s not verifiable in practice except by inference from observables.

      But pretty much anything is directly testable in principle, including this. Say, if we found a way to decisively prove the First Cause was not God.

      Yes, somebody would probably just redefine God to withstand that critique. But this reformulation would abandon the omniscience claim, and so it would be significantly unlike the one we’re supposed to be presently wrangling with.

    4. At this point, ss there anyone amongst the New Atheists, Old Atheists, New Agnostics that disagree? If so, I’d like to read hear their arguments.

      Sure, I disagree, and recently here on WEIT. Though instead of linking, it may be a good time to sum up my current analysis.

      Part of what I will do is rejecting the terminology of Pigliucci and others, because they don’t fit the subject. (So using them would be “philosophistry”, perhaps.) It is my understanding that terms like “philosophical and methodological naturalism” as well as “inductionism” was made, or made popular, in theology btw.

      Instead I will use terms within their definitional range. Coyne frown on that, since it is a way to skate around a subject, compare the “free will” discussion. But it is also a way to connect with prior art.

      – I contend that atheism is falsifiable, so I’m not satisfied with observations that convince of gods but with observations that falsify atheism.

      – Further, I contend that this is quantifiable, i.e. testable “beyond reasonable doubt”.

      * First we test for naturalism. Given a few years of current scientific production we can see that testing is used and advance science. We need that later.

      From this follows some immediate results:

      – We use science because we have observed that it works. Similarly we go on to find that it works best as pertaining facts. This is expressible as scientism.

      – A predictive and falsifiable hypothesis based on the observation of having naturalism is that: whenever we don’t have falsification we aren’t assured of facts and theories. This is expressible as positivism.

      Now is that “later”:
      * Second we test for materialism. Same papers and same test as above, which we now know works, but with the condition that they all are mutually consistent. (In our physics that is energy, causality, et cetera; but it could be anything.)

      From this follows some immediate results:

      – We use science because we have observed that it works. Similarly we go on to find that it works so well because nature is monistic. This is expressible as science is atheistic… no, I’m joking. There doesn’t seem to be a term as of yet.

      But at least we can leave with a quote:

      “Science is the record of dead religions.” ~The Oscariana of Oscar Fingall O’Flaherty Will Wilde [1856-1900] for George Bernard Shaw

      Now we can make some lists pertaining to this:

      – 1st we list everything that falsifies naturalism. According to above we weren’t dependent on that physics is fully lawful or not, but that it is sufficiently lawful and testing is sufficiently good.

      * No laws at all and no way of telling that an observation or a theory is wrong would do us in.*

      This list would not constitute evidence _for_ gods however.

      – 2nd we list everything that falsifies materialism.

      * Having one set of laws in our living room and another set in our bed room would do us in.*

      Obviously this list can be made very long along the lines of many commenters. Specifically it means that arguments like “solipsism is indistinguishable from observation” or “Last Thursdayism is indistinguishable from science” or “magic is indistinguishable from technology” are void, we aren’t depending on those to falsify atheism.

      This list would not constitute evidence _for_ gods however. It tests for dualism, not supernaturalism specifically. In short, it is one thing to falsify atheism as in “no supernaturalism/dualism”, another to test against specific gods.

  5. Great write-up!

    I come across this lack of distinction myself, though I often don’t articulate the correction as clear as you have here.

  6. To view his argument in the best possible light I got the impression that he was suggesting that the term “philosophically consistent” is too vague (for philosophers!) and is open to too many interpretations of the ‘sophisticated’ variety to have a clear and unambiguous meaning (although the meaning is clear and unambiguous to me – a non-philosopher!)
    Apart from that his post seemed an exercise in semantic wankery and arrogant pretentiousness.

  7. Wassa brother gotta do to get a hat-tip in hee-ya?

    Someone made you read Leisure Class as a teenager? I hope it was your late teens, but still. Talk about punitive education! And I’m saying this as a co-ethnic and co-alum of Veblen. Also, here’s a clear example of bad Wikipedia writing and no citation: “he was a popular and witty critic of capitalism, as shown by his best known book The Theory of the Leisure Class.” This from the first paragraph!

    PS Massimo’s website is Rationally Speaking.

  8. I think that while science can have meaningful things to say to the human condition, I don’t think that any philosopher, sitting in a chair thinking, can necessarily do the same. They sit about and think, but no philosophy is ever really disproven, its just falls out of fashion (unless its really contradictory). If they cannot figure out how to prove that the world we live in is real, what good are they? Its like asking advise from people that can’t even figure out how to get out of bed.
    Thinking is never enough, since one is thinking with an imperfect instrument which cannot have all the data. You need tests, observations, and analysis to show what is true or not. Even mathematics is born out in the real world when you draw a circle and measure its radius.

    1. Wait a minute. Does that mean that scientists necessarily have something meaningful to say about the human condition? Almost all of the Ig Nobel Prize winners seem to disconfirm that particular hypothesis.

      1. “While science can have meaningful things to say…” does NOT mean that scientists necessarily have something meaningful to say. Being able to do so is not the same as always doing so.

        And I disagree about the Ig Nobles– Dunning-Kruger won an ignoble for example.

        The Ig Nobel Prizes honor achievements that first make people laugh, and then make them think. The prizes are intended to celebrate the unusual, honor the imaginative — and spur people’s interest in science, medicine, and technology.

        Even when it’s ignoble, science is more useful than philosophy.

  9. Not bad, considering that you are fresh out of the sick bed.

    Pigluicci sounds like he wants to set up philosophers, or at least himself, as the priestly authority on these matters.

    1. And, speaking of “priestly,” using the exact same argument the theologians use to (they think) discredit scientists–“they haven’t read all our literature!!!”

      Philosophy–philosophically consistent with theology.

  10. Well, part of my Doctor of Philosophy degree was in Philosophy! Well, kind of. It was mediaeval philosophy and the history of science in the 14th C. Anyhow, I have read Hume and Nietsche and St. Augustine, and William James, and Anselm, and Dewey, and Seneca,and on and on for about 20 other good philosophers and I will flatly state that your statement is absolutely consistent with the best philosophers (the non-psychic ones), and as a piece of logic (I am really good at Aristotle’s logic and the later rhetoricians who developed the field — even teaching it in a major state university) your statement is impeccable and if I were still teaching I would certainly use it as an example of clear-headed reason.
    I am sure this will encourage you to go back to bed and get some rest for your disease. Get well!

    1. Too bad they didn’t teach you how to spell Nietzsche when you got your “Doctor of Philosophy” degree.

      1. Sorry about that. I have to type one finger/key at a time. Hands don’t work good. I dint learn no english neither.

        But thanks for the correction. I stand (slowly) corrected nearly every time I speak because my wife has been a copy editor/writer for thirty years and can’t forbear editing whatever I say. She didn’t see this, so thanks for the help.

  11. Dr. Pigliuicci spoke last month at James Randi’s TAM in Las Vegas.
    I was in the audience, and I was wondering if I was at the right convention!
    Here I am at a conference for people whose common denominator is ‘Critical Thinking’ and Dr. Pigliuicci (his MANY Ph.D.-s were pointed out to us) gives a talk that I can compress, without losing much substance, in two brief statements:
    1. You guys are NOT scientists, let ALONE philosophers, so you have NO RIGHT whatsoever to be critical of ANYthing. Stay out of this.
    2. Buy my book.

    I couldn’t believe he wasn’t boo-ed off the stage after 5 minutes! I guess we critical thinkers are a more polite bunch than we usually get credit for. Either that, or it was the early hour and not everybody was awake yet.

    (In all fairness, I think we WERE allowed to dabble a bit in debunking spoon-benders and UFO-sighting, but NOT to take ourselves too serious doing even that).

      1. To be fair to Massimo, I think is point at TAM (I was also in the audience) was broader and different than the point he is badly trying to make in this post attacking Jerry Coyne.

        At TAM he was advising everyone to differ to scientists when it comes to scientific matters, in particular he was focused on Climate Change and his criticisms were aimed at Penn Jillette and other skeptics who are doubters of AGW. I thought it was on balance an interesting talk and he made a lot of good points.

        I think the problem is that climate science does require a lot of expertise to really understand the evidence. Massimo has not made the case that philosophy of science and the existence of God requires an equal level of expertise to discuss intelligently.

          1. He really does seem super hung-up on a minor point and is holding onto it as a way to bash on Coyne and Dawkins because he doesn’t like them for some reason.

            Time and again he says something along the lines of “science can’t speak to religion but it can disprove specific religious claims” as if 99% of the religions people actually practice were something besides a discrete set or specific religious claims.

            Just last night I had a long debate over beers with someone whose entire faith rested on his belief that the gospels are reliable ancient texts – more reliable than the Koran or any Hindu texts or the Book of Mormon. He was making specific claims about the gospels that were very much in the realm of rational inquiry.

            1. “someone whose entire faith rested on his belief that the gospels are reliable ancient texts”

              Then I can REALLY recommend trying to make that person read Bart Ehrman’s “Misquoting Jesus” http://tinyurl.com/2egs2ue

            2. That is in fact exactly what I did! I recommended both Ehrman’s books to him. Since the words “manuscript tradition” were utterly foreign to him, he might learn a lot if he dares to read them.

          2. Pigliucci (or whatever) has had his moments, but for some years now he has repeated this supercilious ‘you are an philoshophically unsophisticated naif’ refrain against the atheist views of people like Dawkins and Coyne. I have read his stuff to try and understand whether he has a defensible argument and I haven’t found one.

        1. I got the distinct impression (from his TAM talk) that his examples (climate change doubter Penn Jillette, etc) were simply just that: examples for his, fairly arrogantly presented, theme of ‘Non-cooks should stay out of the kitchen’.
          But you’re right, it WAS a bit broader: here it’s mostly about “You’re not a philosopher, so shut up”, as where at TAM, he ‘broadened’ that to “You guys are not philosophers, not even scientists, so shut up”.
          Borrowing parts from elsewhere: he struck me as a ‘shrill, militant, arrogant’ philosopher.
          I liked him better, YEARS ago, when he was still ‘just’ a scientist. It sure looks like this whole ‘philosophy’ thing has gone to his head: he sounds too much as a teenager shouting at his former play-mates “I’m with the BIG guys now!” (while confusing ‘with’ with ‘one of’): it’s just all very, and needlessly, unpleasant.

          1. I used to like him too, but in the last year, I’ve come to think of him as an pedantic blowhard. I wonder if he’s aiming for Templeton money?

          2. Yes. It’s annoying and depressing. I wish he’d just stop. I mean…it’s just gauche, for one thing! And it’s pointlessly territorial for another, and it’s senseless for another. He doesn’t go around shouting at theist scientists for being philosophically naive, so why keep shouting at atheist scientists for that?

  12. Not my most intelligent or mature comment ever, I know, but: Pigliuicci, considered yourself PWNED. kthxbye.


    I’d be delighted to hear why this simple point escapes so many.

    Me too. I just don’t get it.

  13. “sophisticated” theologians is an oxymoron, – no?
    Or is that theologians who admit their religion is purely superstition and mythology?

  14. What Pigluicci means here is that new theories don’t always arise from rational contemplation: they may have sources in intuition, the unconscious or even—as in the case of Kekulé’s discovery of the benzene ring—in a daydream. So what?

    Indeed, “so what?” This point is so elementary that I was taught the distinction between “context of discovery” and “context of justification” as an undergrad. You can come up with a scientific idea any way you want, but what matters to science is how it is justified, and that requires the methodology and tools of standard scientific practice.

    1. I’m afraid I must stand in defence of the lovely Italian language, which so many posters insist on mangling. “Pigliucci”, not “Pigluicci”, please! Except for a few words like “gladiolo”, “gli” is a fixed sequence in Italian: Pi – gli – ucci. Capito?

      So yes, “Pigliucci-Pagliacci” is a god pun. “Pigluicci-Pagliacci” is not.

      1. Ah, I now see the source of my error. Dr. Coyne spells today’s adversary’s name at least three different ways:


        Jumping over to the “Rationally Speaking” site, Dr.x3 Pigliucci spells his name as you insist.

        But all of this loses sight of what’s really important here: my awesome pun! 😛

  15. Strange character, Massimo. Overladen with doctorates seems to make him a bit querulous. Perhaps he thinks that, since he took the trouble to get a couple doctorates in science and one in philosophy, that everyone must have these qualifications in order to speak intelligibly across disciplines.

    But Hume, as I recall, never took a degree, and was not given a position at either Edinburgh or Glasgow because of his lack of religious belief, yet he wrote profoundly in philosophy, morality, economics, history, ethics, was reasonably knowledgeable about the sciences (though he was convinced by his friends not to publish an essay in mathematics), and wrote some really terrific stuff about religious belief. Seems to have made a real dog’s breakfast of the idea of god. Pointed out in particular that the existing world seems to contradict belief in a transcendent creator, or an immanent one, if it comes to that. There’s nothing for it but to resort to authority. That’s the way Hume saw it. I wonder if Hume would have measured up to Dr. Dr. Dr. Pigliucci’s standards for writing about religion, morality, science and economics, and even religious belief? And not even a doctorate! Of course Dr. Dr. Dr. Pigliucci doesn’t have a doctorate in theology either, I notice. Perhaps he should recuse himself.

    Failing that, he might just read with some attention, and then he would see — would he not? — that the horrid crime that Professor Coyne has been tried, sentenced and hanged for, is not, actually, the horrendous contradiction he takes it to be. Perhaps Dr. Dr. Dr. Pigliucci’s holiday in Iceland will help to restore his intellectual balance. Or, just possibly, he’s gone there to take his fourth doctorate. Vulcanology, perhaps? Something to do with having your fingers burnt?

    1. I fear to mention Hume too loudly in this context (although I know it can be done quite legitimately — it is just too hard to explain to people who already don’t get it) because Hume pretty well proves that what we take to be “physical” truth has no more actual substance (as far as we can tell directly) than “mystical” truth (or “ancient philosophy i.e. religion). We can only know what our perception of it is. See how much trouble I already got in and I didn’t even get to the “sophisticated” non-naive stuff.

      1. Well of course, but Hume’s view is simply a ‘truism’, isn’t it. Though it is perhaps why we now prefer to speak about ‘inter-subjectivity’ and not about ‘objectivity’ (you may even refer to the Logical Positivists and their failed attempts to show how to convert an ‘observation’ into an ‘observation statement’).

        The simple fact is that whether or not we perceive and/or apprehend ‘truth’, we still have to act in accordance with whatever it is we perceive – and even if that isn’t ‘absolute truth’ (whatever you consider that may be), if what we perceive is repeatable and consistent, than that’s the best we’re ever going to do. And it has been the great success of science to achieve repeatable and consist inter-subjectivity (excepting psychology, but of course).

        Besides, I wouldn’t pay too much attention to an endeavour – philosophy – which after 2500+ years of increasing sophistication, still can’t refute solipsism.

    2. Of course Dr. Dr. Dr. Pigliucci doesn’t have a doctorate in theology either, I notice. Perhaps he should recuse himself.

      @ Eric McDonald: Good point, considering that MP is so often castigating scientists for opining on philosophical matters…

      1. MP’s screed is the philosophical equivalent of the “courtier’s reply”. It’s all smoke and mirrors to hide the truth of a rather obvious observation.

    3. [Hume] Seems to have made a real dog’s breakfast of the idea of god.

      Actually, Hume merely showed that the idea of god was already a dog’s breakfast.

  16. Oh, and as for “pretentious”, I’d respectfully ask Pigluicci to look in the mirror, since his whole post is marinated in arrogance and contempt for those who, without the proper Ph.D. in hand, dare say anything that he construes as “philosophy”.

    Quite. I really, really hate this whole “keep off the grass” thing that he keeps doing. It’s public grass! God is public! We all get to decide whether we believe in it or not, and we all get to offer our reasons. We’re not trespassing on philosophy’s grass when we do that. Massimo does not have a monopoly on reasons for belief or non-belief.

  17. Well, what a sad spectacle! I approach these battlefields from the misty swamps of philosophy, Massimo is my FB-friend and all that…Yet I cannot really understand what is the point of his complaint. I wish I did, but I do not. Maybe it is because I have not yet read the relevant texts, but I cannot redress that problem now. Anyway, as far as I can see, through my prism of philosophical refraction, what Jerry said was simply this:

    ‘The argument is, and always has been, about whether science and faith are philosophically compatible.  Do they clash because they deal with “data” in disparate ways? Do they have completely different standards for judging “truth”?  I say “yes,” and assert that religious scientists exist in a state of cognitive dissonance.

    What we say is that anybody doing any kind of science should abandon his or her faith if they wish become a philosophically consistent scientist.’

    So, Jerry was saying that while both epistemic attitudes, i.e. those of science and faith, can coexist in one and same persons, the attitudes are philosophically incompatible and hence a person who tries to understand the universe both by faith and by science is guilty of philosophical incoherence or inconsistency.

    Which is correct, although I will add a sort of caveat later.

    Of course, a more detailed analysis of “faith-based intelligence” (just could not resist the temptation) will show that faith cannot be completely independent of our commonsense and everyday activities: to know what the Bible or whatever says, you need to use your sensory apparatus in rather normal ways, you need to be able to make some correct inferences, need to be able to have some semantic understanding etc. etc. and relate what you have read and heard from others to some observable phenomena.

    Conversely, science is extremely rich and complicated process and even a cursory glance at the most important changes in the history of science (the Copernican Revolution, the theory of evolution, the story of geology leading to the theory of plate tectonics, the theory of special relativity, quantum theory (old and new) etc. etc. shows that simple-minded ideas of scientific rationality will not cast much light on those histories.

    No, careful and detailed studies of these deep changes in scientific understanding will reveal histories that are full of surprising twists and turns and show that the growth of scientific knowledge needs to be approached by more subtle instruments that pay full heed to the detailed problems that vexed the scientists, whatever their nature.

    All this is true, but does not eliminate the opposition between the ways of science and religion. Sure, there is more to reason than natural sciences and not all natural sciences are similar. But it does not matter here as the question at hand concerns precisely the ways of science and religion.

    Epistemically the ways of science and religion can be “reconciled” only in the rather Pickwickian way Einstein did it, i.e. by defining “religiousness” as pretty much same as the “sense of wonder”, associated with the beliefs that the world is a Cosmos and that yet the human mind is somehow capable of comprehending some of its beautiful laws.

    So be it, but it needs to be said that this attitude is indistinguishable from the basic attitude of science and philosophy. Religion does not give us any instruments to turn that expectation into real knowledge. far from that, as we all know.

    If religion were “just” ways to give poetic and metaphoric expressions to that Einsteinian (Spinozan) vision, we would not be talking and debating here. We are debating here because various religions make scientifically false claims on their power to give answers to questions concerning Cosmos. That is why hundreds of millions of people are “religious”, they yearn from religion simple answers, not simply some lofty Einsteinian sense of wonder. So, anyone who insists on the compatibility of religious faith and scientific reason has got it wrong, philosophically wrong – simple as that?

    Time for the caveat of sorts. There was a time, not so far in history, in fact, when many scholars and scientists believed that the use of our ”natural reason” would independently confirm and further illuminate what religious ”revelation” had told us. Subjectively, there was no incompatibility between their religious beliefs and their scientific pursuits. Alas, as the great historical changes in our scientific understanding clearly show, they were wrong. The growth of scientific knowledge led to a view of world which is radically different from religious world views. And it led to an understanding of scientific research, i.e. ”methodological naturalism”, that is incompatible with religious attempts to understand reality.

    Modern science is not philosophically compatible with religions making factual claims based on religious faith. Simple as that.

    P.S. I do have one philosophical complaint on Jerry´s writing. I do think the title of his book and the name of this blog should be ”Why Evolution is Real” because evolution is not ”truth taker”, it is ”truth maker”!

  18. I made two attempts to comment, both were eaten (or for some other reason fail to show up). Maybe it was the link. Pigliucci is making a reputation for himself as a builder of strawmen for his misrepresentation of the views of others. So at least you can be thankful that he quoted you correctly.

    1. My post just disappeared there too. So I wondered if I was black listed or something. (The same thing happens at the Intersection.)

      But there were so many good posts in response to MP that I’m sure someone made the point that I was trying to make even better than I could.

      1. Hey, I’m Massimo’s co-blogger. Just wanted to clarify that comments on Rationally Speaking usually don’t appear immediately, because we have comment moderation turned on. (Massimo had been having problems with frequent spam and death threats.)

        But we do publish all genuine comments, as quickly as we can, so anything you submitted should be there now.

        Thanks for visiting and joining the discussion.

        1. Thanks Julia,

          I thought your replies were excellent and would have put mine to shame anyhow.

          I wanted to ask Massimo what sort of philosophy would someone use to rationalize belief in some immeasurable entities while dismissing others as myth, misperceptions, and imagination? And would such a philosophy be “scientifically compatible” according to Massimo’s view? What if the philosophy was used to justify Scientology type beliefs rather than Christian type beliefs… is that still “compatible” with science so long as no unfalsifiable claims were made?

          Is MP just saying that he finds supernatural beliefs compatible with science so long as they don’t involve testable claims?

          And isn’t the claim, “god exists” a testable claim? Shouldn’t any god be distinguishable from the non existence of such a god in order to be “scientifically compatible”? and not an incoherent concept?

          I’m sorry about the spam and death threats… If it’s Dennis Markuse (DM… David Mabus… “goats on fire”) he is well known for attacking atheists everywhere he can.

        2. Just wanted to clarify that comments on Rationally Speaking usually don’t appear immediately…

          Thanks. I was referring to comments posted here on WEIT though.

  19. Some years back, in his website (when he was ‘only’ a biologist and not yet a supreme ‘lover of wisdom’), Massimo pontificated that the American turkey evolved to lose the ability to fly (actually, they roost in trees — perhaps they climb up, like telephone line servicemen, using their spurs). On another occasion, he stated that blood vessels in the brain were part of the neural system (again, as a ‘mere’ Ph.D. level biologist) — I guess putting one’s foot in one’s mouth makes the foot part of the alimentary system; and, it there’s a doctorate for that, you can bet Massimo either has it or is working on it.

    1. MP must be very flexible to put his foot in the entry to the alimentary canal (considering his head’s placement up the exit.)

  20. I would emphasize the combination of a couple points you made. First, “a watery deism, embracing a God who doesn’t do anything tangible, is not a hypothesis that can be falsified by science.” The other, “scientific knowledge is attained through observation, experimentation.” In other words you have to have observable evidence about a belief (hypothesis) in order to accept it.

    The combination of these two ideas means that we can securely say that science and religion are incompatible even in the case of a “watery deism”. If there is no evidence for a proposition then scientific thinking says we must not accept it. Not that we must reject it with 100% certainty but we certainly shouldn’t be accepting it as true. It doesn’t make it a 50-50 proposition either. We should simply accept it to the degree that we have evidence in its favor.

    Now Massimo and others can call this a philosophical position if they want, but, if so, it is a philosophical position that is a core part of what it means to engage in scientific thinking and practice. What Massimo and others seem to want to do is to claim that this attitude towards evidence is somehow outside of science (at least in some special cases). This is simply wrong and I believe it to be very harmful to people trying to communicate the nature of science to the public.

    1. This is indeed Massimo’s position, as I’ve had clarified for me in previous iterations of this pet peeve of his on his website. According to him, when a practicing scientist applies the principle of maximum parsimony in restricting the range of possible hypotheses, he doing philosophy (and without a license).

    2. Thassa very good point. And MP surely must be familiar with it himself from his days as a, you know, scientist. It’s weird that now he has two, two, TWO PhDs in one, he goes all territorial about it.

      1. I thought it was three(?) Wikipedia (not linked due to the comment-eating problem) says, “He has a doctorate in genetics from the University of Ferrara, Italy, a Ph.D. in botany from the University of Connecticut, and a Ph.D. in philosophy of science from the University of Tennessee.

        That adds up to 3 by my count, unless there’s some minor objection such as the European degree being a Ph.D. equivalent rather than strictly speaking a Ph.D.

        1. 🙂

          I loved the “Dr. Dr. Dr. Pigliucci” format Eric McDonald was using in a comment here. That seems to cry out for wider use.

  21. Pigliuicci: “But when it comes to writing for the general public, I suggest that scientists stick to what they know best, unless they are willing to engage the literature of the field(s) that they wish to comment upon.”

    OK, this is pretty ironic for a guy who just wrote a book telling biologists that they completely misunderstood evolution.

    The tard is strong in this one.

  22. There are so many crap ‘philosophers’ out there, I was reluctant about a year ago to read his blog. I made the effort because I do recognize philosophy’s value in ascertaining the rightness of the thinking process, it is like a kind of quality control and is related to all other academic disciplines for that reason. And we do think, there is evidence for that!

    I was crushed to find out in a few months time that Pigliucci is your ordinary inflated jackass who thinks his academic credentials equate to a real grasp on the topics about which he is idiotic and about which he claims that he can’t be because he has the degrees to prove his dubious mastery.

    Philosophy is in the dog house enough, we don’t need another barking philosopher loose on the net, but we do in the mangy form of Pigliucci.

    If it is not tone, that the accommodationists in their desperation to never really focus on our objections, then it is our lack of credentials.

    Only philosophers who have degrees coming out of the gazoo can know what it is. Therefore, if philosophy is so hard to get, then why does he even bother to teach it? The snobbery of this one particular academic ahole is overwhelming.

  23. Yeah!

    Science works. Wherever religion intersects with science, science wins hands down. Where there is a testable claim about the power of religion or religious figures over the real world, science spanks religion and religious figures.

    Someone is going to have to explain why a philosophy that isn’t based on science should carry any weight. Where philosophy works, it works alongside science. Where it fails, it fails in the same way as religion fails. As near as I can tell, philosophy is only useful when it mirrors science, which means that philosophy is inherently superfluous and can be rightly absorbed into science.

  24. Well, no Doctor of Philosophy should ever mention philosophy unless they’re a card-carrying Philosopher, like Plato and Aristotle … after all, Philosophy is an art to be practiced only by the elite.

    Then again, according to Rene Descartes, “La bonne chance est la chose du monde la mieux partagee …” – but he was French, so his insinuations that anyone can engage in philosophy is clearly nonsense.

  25. You just can’t beat Cicero on this one; as he wrote: “I know of nothing that can be said so absurd that some philosopher hasn’t already said it.”

    1. That’s funny.

      “Philosophy is questions that may never be answered. Religion is answers that may never be questioned.” –anonymous source in Dennett’s Breaking the Spell

      Dennett is a philosopher I can make sense of.

  26. Dr. Pigliucci may be contradicting himself. Dr. Pigliucci seems to assert asserts that god-concepts are not falsifiable yet in the 1999 debate with Dr. Craig, Dr. Pigliucci used the evidential argument from evil and the argument from bad design. Now, if these arguments are valid and sound they may be empirical falsifications of the god concept against which they are leveled.

    Even if we grant that god-concepts are not empirically falsifiable, but that they are have self-contradictory properties, then this implies strong atheism and the claim that god exist is false. This may be one form of falsification. Even if we grant that god-concepts are not empirically falsifiable or self-contradictory, but meaningless, then this implies theological noncognitivism. If it is the case god-concepts cannot refer to anything that exists, then nothing that exists is “god” or equivalently, “god” does not exist, which lands us back into strong atheism. This may be one form of falsification.

    Also, Dr. Pigliucci may believe that astrology is falsifiable, yet you can make as many ad hoc hypothesis with astrology as you can with theism, so he may be contradicting himself, yet again.

    Dr. Pigliucci may even believe that astrology is more scientific than string theory. What was that again about not spewing nonsense in a field where you do not have any knowledge or training?

    forgoodreason org/massimo_pigliucci_nonsense_on_stilts

    Just because someone has a PhD in a certain field does not mean that he is rational in that field. To take two extreme examples: Creationist Jonathan Wells and AIDS denialist Peter Duesberg both have PhDs in biology, yet they are hardly rational in their fields.

  27. I am so glad that I read this discussion thread. What Massimo wrote seemed idiotic to me but because he is a philosophy professor, I worried that I might be too stupid to pick up the more subtle points. Now I am quite convinced that he is a troll.

    Philosophy is like religion in this aspect: somehow it commands more respect than it deserves. Scientists call each other idiot all the time. But most of us think twice or many more times before we call a philosopher an idiot, fearing that they might actually make sense in some subtle way.

  28. @Articulett, but also @anyone who’s interested:

    This debate over whether science can reject “supernatural” claims has been going on intermittently for months — on our blog, on our podcast, and in private. And we are no closer to resolving our disagreement than when we started, alas.

    Massimo has argued that even empirical claims made by religion cannot be disproved by science; in an older post he said, “science technically cannot even reject young earth creationism because of an escape clause known in some circles as ‘last Thursdaysm’… The idea is that… the world was created by god last Thursday (or whenever), and he arranged it this way just to test our faith.”

    In response to this line of argument I tend to say two things:

    (1) First, the words “reject” or “disprove” are generally shorthand for “disprove, conditional on the our current body of scientific knowledge being true.” I’m pretty sure that’s the sense in which Coyne was using the word, and it’s certainly a more sensible way to define “disprove” than Massimo’s definition, which seems so strict as to be essentially useless. By the standard meaning of “disprove,” science certainly can disprove young-Earth creationism.

    And (2), I don’t see what makes so-called supernatural claims special in being technically unfalsifiable — you could come up with some similarly elaborate excuse to protect any claim from being disproved by science (e.g., “The psychic powers shut off in the presence of tests!”) I don’t understand why Massimo allows so-called “supernatural” claims to invoke such a loophole, rendering them immune to scientific disproof, when he doesn’t allow other claims immunity via equivalent loopholes. The only difference seems to be the presence of the label “supernatural” and I don’t see why that’s a relevant difference.

    1. Yes, I see the point. I’m aware of Last Thursdayism and, as you said, it can be used to justify any woo since “magical beings” can make it so they aren’t detected –or we could be in a Matrix, etc.

      Religions, like other pseudosciences, are in the business of making unfalsifiable claims and leaping to conclusions from the evidence that exists. (e.g. People who speak in tongues assume this is evidence that there is a holy spirit that is speaking through them.)

      And this is a problem I have with accommodationism. Where do you draw the line once you say that the supernatural is compatible with science? If god exists and reveals himself to some people who are we to tell someone that he gave them a wrong message or that the voice wasn’t god? What criteria can anyone use to tell them that god didn’t tell the hijackers to fly into buildings or tell parents to pray harder instead of taking their kid to a doctor?

      Science can’t prove that “magic” doesn’t exist. But that’s not a reason to conclude that it does.

      Scientists don’t apriori reject the supernatural; it’s just that there is no evidence to test and so there is no more reason to ACCEPT it then there is to accept any other unfalsifiable woo. Moreover, since science can’t test it or access information about it to refine our knowledge on the subject, we can conclude that it’s unlikely that anyone else can either. If there were evidence for the supernatural, then scientists would be refining that information and building upon it. Anything that is said to affect the real world or to exist should have measurable/testable qualities– something to distinguishes it from the known ways humans full themselves… if not, then a scientist should treat supernatural “things” as non-existent things until the evidence suggests otherwise– just like we don’t assume that the voices in peoples heads come from god, demons, or whatever other invisible sources they might believe they come from. Things that are indistinguishable from things that don’t exist should be treated as things that don’t exist! I get so tired of this claim that scientists reject the supernatural apriori.

      To avoid the argument, I’ll just state this idea as a comparison– “there is no more evidence for god than there is for gremlins” or “There is no more scientific evidence for bodily resurrection than there is for a donkey that flew Mohummed to the sky or the notion that Zeus is responsible for lightening.” These beliefs are equally “scientifically compatible” (or incompatible). This way, I don’t have to worry about proving something false nor do I have to worry about a person’s “philosophy”.

      It seems like with Massimo’s narrow definition, every woo is “philosophically” compatible with science. I don’t think any scientists will buy that… The believers may think their OWN supernatural beliefs are compatible with science– but they sure don’t think all that “other” woo is compatible.

      For myself, unless there’s testable evidence, I don’t think ANY supernatural claims are compatible with science.

    2. Not only is the “last Thursdayism” argument studiously avoided by almost every serious apologist for theism but it’s about one step in terms of philosophical arguments away from “but what if we are all part of the matrix, dude!”

    3. Thanks Julia (if I may). I spotted your comment on this post of Massimo’s when it was newish and immediately sent it to Jerry – inadvertently hassling him while he was dealing with the flu. It’s good to see that Massimo gets an argument from allies as well as the naughty gnus.

      I don’t understand why Massimo allows so-called “supernatural” claims to invoke such a loophole, rendering them immune to scientific disproof, when he doesn’t allow other claims immunity via equivalent loopholes.

      Precisely; same here; and it’s not just dispute for the sake of dispute: it really puzzles me. Since Massimo has just published a whole book on nonsense…I don’t at all see how he arranges this in his head.

    4. in an older post he said, “science technically cannot even reject young earth creationism because of an escape clause known in some circles as ‘last Thursdaysm’

      But science can reject forms of Young earth Creationism which do not include the Omphalos argument (i.e. last Thursdayism). This seems obvious to me. But then, I don’t have a Ph.D. in philosophy, so who am I to say.

      1. On further thought: not only can science reject YEC claims that do not include Omphalos, but Omphalos itself does not qualify as science, because it is untestable.

    5. @Julia,

      I rather think that the “debate over whether science can reject “supernatural” claims” has actually been going on for centuries. P H Gosse published ‘Omphalos’ in 1857, and even then it was not the first occurrence of such thinking (the basic Adam’s navel debate is older)

      So that’s really not much of an advertisement for “philosophy”, is it ? But then, what can be said for an endeavour that is wholly dependent on ‘a priori’ reasoning in which anybody can make up a (set of) axioms and ‘reason’ from them to any conclusion they wish to hold. Because as soon as one steps away from ‘a priori’ into ‘a posteriori’ then, despite Quine, one is clearly in the field of scientific epistemology and not philosophy.

      Though why people who do construct sets of ‘a priori’ axioms can’t recognise that they are all subject to ‘Goedel failure’ (viz, either incompleteness or inconsistency), I simply don’t know. Perhaps Massimo needs to get a doctorate in mathematics ?

      Anyway, here’s an idea for “philosophy” to pursue which I call the Pluribus unumverse: what if there are more than one ‘family’ of forces and particles (ie quite distinct from our ‘standard model’ set such as the strong, weak, electro and gravitation forces and bosons and fermions), but the members of each such ‘family’ do not ‘feel’ the forces that members of the other families do.

      Thus there would be many (possibly even infinite numbers) of coexisting ‘universes, all doomed to be totally unable to interact with each other.

      Now ‘science’ – at least as practised by entities wholly contained in ‘our family’ of forces and particles – can tell us absolutely nothing about such an idea. So what can philosophy tell us about it – anything at all ?

      1. I like this comment, clear and well argued.

        Except for the problem in the end:

        Now ‘science’ – at least as practised by entities wholly contained in ‘our family’ of forces and particles – can tell us absolutely nothing about such an idea.

        But it tells us everything.

        First, such sets of particle parallel universes are predicted by physics theories like inflation. It is in itself falsifiable, and its environmental predictions that directly depend on the existence of multiverses too (see for example Boussou et al work on that), independent on the possibilities of universe interaction (say, through bubble universe collisions).

        Second, even if we discuss something else than cosmological processes (and the argument implicitly wants to and perhaps explicitly says so in the form of “no inflation” cosmology), it will be under scrutiny.

        It isn’t an isolated theory, which would have floundered on the positivism problem while not affecting atheism by being of the form of “Last Thursdayism is indistinguishable from science”, see my comment above. It is a “today’s cosmology + something” theory, which theories are excluded by parsimony while we wait for further predictions or paring down to a final theory.

        The later is no different from supernaturalism, except that they claim to be outside materialism in the first place.

        Actually, since it is a quantum mechanic theory (by being on particles), I rather suspect it is outright excluded by QM. It would be a hidden variable theory by way of its compositeness with the existing particle set even if making the same predictions.

  29. George Lyman Kittredge was the grand old man of English literature at Harvard in the early/mid previous century. He had come thru academia at a time that preceded the awarding of PhD’s in English, and so in his advanced years (as I heard the story) he became somewhat noteworthy for being a Harvard professor without a PhD. The story (which may be apocryphal) goes that when asked how it happened that he had never been awarded a doctorate, he replied, “Who would examine me?”

    Pigliucci might take that to heart before further braying about the presence of a degree or lack thereof.

  30. In some way I can see where Massimo is coming from, epistemology doesn’t dictate ontology and thus the compatibility issue is averted. The weaker epistemic statement about natural forces doesn’t necessarily imply the ontological statement that natural forces are all there is.

    What I think is neglected is that this line of argument only says “they aren’t logically incompatible” without actually giving a substantive argument for why they are compatible. It’s the easy way out to just ignore having to answer the question and why the compatibility issue doesn’t go away.

    One parallel was a debate I heard between a homoeopath and a sceptic on NZ radio where the homoeopath was able to turn around the lack of causal ingredient by saying that the sceptic was a “materialist” and homoeopathy works on the immaterial. In other words, it doesn’t matter that X doesn’t fit in with science because X is supernatural. You make it a philosophical issue and avoid the tricky issue of lack of evidence.

    This is why I feel that Massimo’s objections (however philosophically sound) fly right past those who claim an incompatibility, because theists continually make claims about the world that simply cannot be true scientifically then revert back to saying it’s a philosophical issue. How can a deity be interventionist without any means to know whether there has been intervening? You can’t demonstrate an interventionist deity philosophically!

    1. Even if epistemology and metaphysics/ontology are like Kel mentions, this gets us no further ahead, as there are epistemological components to the incompatibility, too. I am as much a realist as Aquinas was, but I do not think revelation is a legitimate source of knowledge (as opposed to experience, reason, action, etc.)

    2. In other words, the homeopath was declaring himself to be a magician or a shaman…

      No better than the first witch doctor who threw the first bones to guess at the weather.

      1. No, you’re completely misunderstanding. The homoeopath was grasping the true nature of nature, it’s those darn materialists who can’t see how homoeopathy works because they won’t admit there’s anything more to reality than interacting particles wrapped up in space-time. 😉

  31. “a limited inventory of philosophical knowledge”

    He’s calling you a noob in his own pompous way.

  32. Quite agreed until the end :

    “It is naive and pretentious to claim that a religious scientist is not “philosophically consistent.””

    This one is true.

    Noone, not even scientists, can believe only in proven things. Life would be impossible otherwise.

    Someone can believe in god and be a scientist, as long as it remains compatible with the scientific knowledge. For example, theism is compatible with our scientific knowledge : god created the big bang and then he went away…

    Science does not tell us what things are, only how they appear to us. There are lots of different ways to understand the world and existence beyond science, including religious ones.

    1. You are wrong about the latter. Science tells us that the earth is round and spinning even though it appears flat and unmoving to us. Science tells us that our perception of the sun moving across the sky is an illusion produced by our earth rotating towards the sun, etc. No holy books mentioned these facts.

      Religion really doesn’t tell us anything like that.

      Just because science can’t prove something wrong doesn’t mean it has a chance in hell of being correct. People forget this when it comes to their favorite delusions… even though they understand it when they reject belief in muses, gremlins, rain dances, etc.

      Yeah, weak deism may be compatible with science, but I think Russel covered that one pretty well here: http://metamagician3000.blogspot.com/2010/06/sciencereligion-compatibility-yet-again.html

      There is no evidence that religion adds any actual understanding of the real world. This includes your religion as well as all the myths and cults you reject.

      1. The flat aspect of earth is a superficial appearence which is very approximative (it is true at our scale), but science always deals (in a more sophisticated way) with the empirical world = how things appear to us. What things really are is a philosophical question.

        Religions do add understanding to the world, when it comes to metaphysical questions (why are we here ? why such natural laws ? etc.).

        I am not saying it is the only answer (in fact as an atheist, I don’t think so) but you must acknowledge that naturalism is a metaphysical choice, and that other choices, including some religious ones, are still compatible with our scientific knowledge, as long as they are restricted to metaphysics. Of course I am not talking about flat earth or creationnism…

        1. I have a hard time to see anything else than a Gish gallop in this thread.

          Science does not tell us what things are, only how they appear to us.

          As for realism, I don’t think it is pertinent at all to the question of atheism, see my comment to CW above.

          But as it happens, it is a perfectly falsifiable theory. It wins out on parsimony against contenders such as mathematical platonism, and because QM tells us there are aspects of reality to variables (as we can’t use hidden such).

          Religions do add understanding to the world, when it comes to metaphysical questions (why are we here ? why such natural laws ? etc.).

          Questions in themselves doesn’t add understanding. More pertinent, those questions are both older and younger than religion, and certainly not something that has been “added”.

          That is it for Gish Gallump. Pertinent discussion is welcome though.

  33. Jerry: “If you think that God answers prayers, heals the sick, created life de novo, and so on, then aspects of your God—which, after all, are parts of your conception of a God—are testable and falsifiable.

    I do not entirely agree. Some claims may be testable; others may not. You are making the assumption that supernatural causes/events are strictly mechanical processes that are completely amenable to the scientific method. But why should spiritual phenomena behave like materialistic ones? I would argue that they do not. This is one of the problems with parapsychology. Psi phenomena are notoriously elusive. However, this should not be misconstrued to mean that there is no evidence whatsoever for psychic phenomena (although the skeptics will no doubt pounce on this in order to support their position). It might simply suggest that we cannot manipulate ESP for our own selfish interests. Certainly, it would stand to reason (from a religious perspective), if there is a divine or spiritual reality, then we should not be able to control it and manipulate it.

    Jerry: ““Indeed, even science itself is far from being an activity rooted in reason alone.” This took me aback. What Pigliucci means here is that new theories don’t always arise from rational contemplation: they may have sources in intuition, the unconscious or even—as in the case of Kekulé’s discovery of the benzene ring—in a daydream. So what?

    I would argue that divine interaction arises from the intuitive aspect (as opposed to the analytical aspect) of the mind. The intuition is the source for creativity and inspiration (a term which literally means “in the spirit”). That’s the “so what?” Again, this is not something that is wholly amenable to the scientific method. Although, Jungian psychology has provided us with valuable insights into how the “collective unconsiousness” may function in our lives.

    Jerry: “But they make empirical claims that are testable (see above), and so can enter the bailiwick of science.

    Well, there have been some aspects of religion that have been corroborated by science – e.g. the claim that “faith heals” has scientific support.

    1. Yeah, so it all boils down to granting supernatural phenomena the arbitrary privilege of not having to be testable in the same way as all other claims. You only have to believe in your intuition. Normally it should not be necessary to mention that, but with that logic you will have to accept that the foaming guy in the straight-jacket claiming to be the reincarnation of Napoleon should be crowned emperor of France. His intuition is pretty strong, after all.

      1. Heck, we can’t prove that Paisley is not the reincarnation of the three stooges… nor that she doesn’t have an unnatural fondness for soap-on-a-rope. We can’t prove that her problems aren’t caused by body Thetans or engrams. However, this should not be misconstrued to mean that there is no evidence whatsoever for these potential truths. It might simply suggest that we cannot manipulate Paisley to reveal this information. Or maybe she is unaware of it herself.

        Many people claim to have gotten off drugs thanks to Scientology’s Narcanon… so I guess maybe there IS some evidence that faith can heal.

        (I do get tired of the “science can’t prove me wrong; therefore, my woo is true” people. They spend so much time trying to convince themselves (and others) that their magical beliefs are “scientifically compatible” even though they don’t believe this when it comes to other non-falsifiable claims. They really only want to allow the exception for their own preferred delusions.)

        1. I am a “he,” not a “she.” (“Paisley” is a surname). Also, make a relveant point and maybe I’ll respond to it.

      2. We don’t hold the social sciences to the same standards as the natural sciences. (Parapsychology is a social science.)

    2. I have a hard time to see anything else than a Gish gallop in this thread, combined with some hefty goalpost moving (“Parapsychology is a social science”). Take that out and nothing remains of actual discussion.

  34. basnight: “Philosophy is like religion in this aspect: somehow it commands more respect than it deserves. Scientists call each other idiot all the time. But most of us think twice or many more times before we call a philosopher an idiot, fearing that they might actually make sense in some subtle way.

    Science itself was historically considered to be part of philosophy – namely, “natural philosophy.” So, a direct attack on philosophy is an indirect attack on science.

      1. I suggest you educate yourself on the history of science.

        Forms of science historically developed out of philosophy or more specifically natural philosophy.

        (source: Wikipedia: “Natural philosophy“)

        1. It still isn’t. At least, I interpret articullet answering your 2nd part, and today attacking philosophy does nothing to attack the factual success of science.

          But as per above, you answered with some hefty goalpost moving, on top of your Gish gallop. Again, no actual discussion here.

  35. Julia Galef (another RS blogger) said on MP’s post:


    even if we allow Massimo his claim that supernatural beliefs are untestable, his argument in this post can still be challenged, by arguing that scientists who hold untestable beliefs are being philosophically inconsistent.

    Of course, there are different plausible definitions of what constitutes “philosophical consistency” for a scientist, as we’ve discovered in this thread — Massimo’s definition of “philosophical consistency” for scientists seems to allow belief in the existence of untestable entities, and Coyne’s doesn’t.

    And I’m not arguing Coyne’s definition is THE only way one could define philosophical consistency for a scientist, but it does seem clear that it’s one reasonable definition, reasonable enough that it doesn’t deserve to be called “pretentious and naive.”

    Quite. It would be nice if MP would stop doing that.

  36. I wonder why Professor Coyne even bothers replying to Massimo. Clearly he (MP) is trying to punch way above his weight.

        1. AS a means for thinking about thinking, it is a wonderful tool. As Dan Dennett says: “There is no such thing as philosophy-free science; there is only science whose philosophical baggage is taken on board without examination.”

          1. Yes, I like Dennett a lot. I like reading Bertrand Russel too. And Russel Blackford has philosophy degree.

            So you think that philosophy helps people, in general, think about thinking? It seems that for every philosopher I enjoy reading, there’s at least 3 who seem like a waste of time. I’m not sure that most philosophers are particularly good at thinking about thinking. I just wondered if there was any tangible benefits to trying to understand what the hell Massimo is talking about.

            I guess his position is that as long as a claim is unfalsifiable, it’s perfectly “compatible” with science.

        2. As an academic program it prepared me very well for law school.

          In life, philosophy equipped me with the requisite skills to rid myself of certain forms of dogma. It exposed me to new and interesting ways of thinking about reality. I have found it exceptionally useful for moral decision making.

    1. Philosophy as it should be is immensely useful. It is essentially about how to think.

      Philosophy as it is actually practiced is much less impressive. A lot of it seems to be esoteric quibbling, and a lot of it seems to be sophistry.

      1. But it isn’t about how to think about facts (and theories).

        That, to me, disqualifies it from rational discussion.

  37. I quite enjoy Professor Pigliucci’s books and his blog (indeed, I read his blog everyday—as I do Professor Coyne’s). I also agree with Professor Coyne, that there are a) testable god claims, and, b) they all fail. But I don’t think that was Professor Pigliucci’s concern in his otherwise unnecessary attack on Professor Coyne’s position regarding accomodationism.

    Rather, he was reacting to an assumed claim of philosophical incoherence, when Professor Coyne was merely claiming one of logical incoherence. You can’t (logically? philosophically?) believe both A and not-A.

    Remember, Professor Pigliucci is a long-standing, published atheist, with scientific credentials in spades (only his third Ph.D. is in philosophy, and that is a good thing: I admire him for his intellectual paths).

    Like Professor Coyne, I have little tolerance for silly (religiously-derived) claims. But, I don’t think that was Professor Pigliucci’s real concern. He seemed to be trying to mark out a space (as he has done in numerous publications) for Deism (or some equivalent position)as *philosophically* compatible with science. Not that he himself believes it, but that it is NOT philosophically absurd.

    Of course, as with Professor Coyne, if that position makes any real-world claims, we are on it like flies on shit: so, it is at best a claim of no consequence: yes, there can be philosophically consistent scientists of some extremely rarefied and empty deism. I, as with Professor Coyne think that is an empty set. But Professor Pigliucci is right in the sense that it may (there is no logical restriction) exist.

    1. Rather, he was reacting to an assumed claim of philosophical incoherence, when Professor Coyne was merely claiming one of logical incoherence.

      Ergo, philosophical = illogical. Got it. 😀

      He seemed to be trying…

      Well, and there’s the problem. See title of this post. One more PhD & Pigliucci’s going to have to take an interpreter with him wherever he goes.

      (And btw, if your point is correct, talk about much ado about nothing…)

  38. I happened to have stumbled on Massimo’s post before you responded. I got the distinct impression that he actually agrees with what he thinks you were trying to say, but that he has a semantic disagreement on the definition of “philosophically consistent”. He may well be right — as Massimo arrogantly points out, us non-philosophers probably do not know the preferred terminology as well as those trained in the art — but if I understood him correctly, it seems like a rather inane and tedious sticking point, especially for a whole blog post.

    The only other beef I could discern is that Massimo seems to be bothered by your assertions that religion is “wrong”, because in his opinion it is “not even wrong”. Which I suppose is fine, but… again, it seems a rather tedentious topic to have devoted a whole blog post to.

    Even still, I think Massimo could have redeemed the post quite a bit if he had just included a sentence along the lines of “I see what Jerry is trying to say by the phrase ‘philosophically inconsistent'” — at least I get the impression he does! — “but what Jerry really means is <insert proper philosophy terminology here>”.

  39. According to Massimo Pigliucci, God is not a hypothesis and the mistake that Jerry Coyne supposedly makes is to treat him as one. Pigliucci is wrong. God is ,supposedly, a being who can think, decide and act. That makes the existence of God a scientific hypothesis. The ability to think, decide and act is very much the business of science. The idea that God is the ground of being or pure essence is irrelevant. We can still ask how God can formulate thoughts and make decisions.

      1. By the way, I wasn’t mocking philosophers. Is there something like Science or Nature in humanities? It’s kind of interesting that in science, journals like Science exist at all.

  40. My Dear Jerry,

    in answer to your two proposed hypotheses to explain my “sweaty” behavior:

    > 1. He doesn’t like me

    I’ve met you exactly once. I have no personal opinion about you, so there is no reason to wine about imaginary personal dislikes.

    > 2. He thinks I don’t know anything about philosophy and therefore I — and most other scientists — should shut up about it.

    That’s exactly on the mark, unless you are willing to do your homework seriously. I’m sure you would say the same to anyone who started writing about speciation without knowing the basics, yes?

    1. Massimo, I am quite willing to do some homework for my own edification. Is there a philosophy textbook where “philosophical consistency” (in the context of Jerry’s post) is clearly defined? If that is the case, I think you are right that Jerry needs to read up before using that term. Abusing philosophical jargons certainly is as bad as abusing scientific jargons.

      Please correct me if I am wrong, but I doubt that “philosophical consistency” is a well-defined jargon. If Jerry hasn’t used a well-defined term incorrectly, I think he is entitled to use that term as long as he makes it clear what he means. And he was very clear about the semantics of the term (ie. there is no alternative ways of knowing). If you disagree with that, why not present an argument? You’re writing as if all philosophers are on your side, which clearly is not true.

    2. Pigliucci’s reply doesn’t warrant any more discussion. I hope Professor Coyne doesn’t waste his valuable time responding to this cheap affront.

      1. Cheap is exactly the word that came to my mind (and that I applied on the more recent post). Cheap is exactly what it is. No effort, no argument, no substance, just a rude repetition of a rude initial claim.

        I have zero respect left for MP.

        And by the way the claim to have no personal dislike is simply not credible, given how regularly MP does this “Jerry Coyne iz not a fillosofer” thing.

  41. Gnu Atheist sez:

    “Gnu Accommodationist knows philosophy can’t tell facts from fantasy.

    But he likes to say “de-moo-rcation”.”

  42. While I have a diametrically opposite view of philosophy than Coyne*, I’m as much taken back by Pigliucci’s claims.

    Putting The Courtier’s Reply aside, Pigliucci makes some remarkable claims that belies his Dr Dr Dr.

    Pigliucci claims that scientists are outdated, perhaps fools, that relies on testing. (Or, in other words, what is modeled as falsification.) But that is what many scientists use – because it works! We can tell when something not works, and so pare down a set of theories. Further, statistical testing was a successful method in science long before (Fisher) it was a successful theory on science (Popper).

    Pigliucci claims that testing is threatened by a successful rejection leaving a set of non-rejected theories that may be larger than one (Duhem-Quine under-determination). But a process is not quenched by not having terminated, in fact it is predictive (testable) evidence that it is on its pathway!

    Or in other words, scientists have long known that “we don’t know yet” is a functional state. And paring down a finite set will eventually converge. Non-naive falsification works, that is why we have uniquely quantum mechanics and not classical mechanics, say.

    Pigliucci claims that testing is threatened by that testing isn’t applicable outside of predictive hypotheses. *head desk*. … or better, see above (Fisher).

    Finally, despite all this showing us that scientists de facto and theoretically knows more about how science actually works than philosophers unwarranted threading on their turf, and that it is philosophers that use a naive (and falsified) model of falsification, Pigliucci claims that “the business of scientists is to do science, not to spend time thinking about its history and methods.” Again terribly wrong as per the facts, scientists have been spending a lot of effort on both, especially the last because it is vital.

    I’m the first that would say that we should do more science on science, but then again we should do more biology too. And the fully terribly confused diatribe of Pigliucci _is not helping_ (to use a New Accommodationist term in a proper manner).

    [* But it may be, which now seems more likely reading this post, what Coyne mean with a philosophy is not an actual all encompassing consistent philosophy (say, a “philosophy of science” consistent with other rational ones) but a context consistent philosophy, a “folk philosophy” if you will, on what an area consist of.

    That is more like a systematic science program writ large, and I can have no beef with that.]

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