Peter Higgs, the Boson Man, takes out after Richard Dawkins for the usual reasons

December 27, 2012 • 1:28 pm

Peter Higgs, the Man who Predicted the Boson, may be a crack physicist, but he’s a rank amateur when it comes to the issue of science and faith.

According to yesterday’s Guardian, Higgs is using his new burst of fame to diss—who else?—fellow scientist Richard Dawkins.

Higgs has chosen to cap his remarkable 2012 with another bang by criticising the “fundamentalist” approach taken by Dawkins in dealing with religious believers.

“What Dawkins does too often is to concentrate his attack on fundamentalists. But there are many believers who are just not fundamentalists,” Higgs said in an interview with the Spanish newspaper El Mundo. “Fundamentalism is another problem. I mean, Dawkins in a way is almost a fundamentalist himself, of another kind.”

And exactly what kind of “fundamentalism” is that? Can you really equate blind adherence to ancient, man-made texts with doubt that those texts prove anything about a divine being? Why is it “fundamentalist” to ask for evidence, and decry those who adhere to dogma in the face of evidence?  Why is it “fundamentalist” to have a scientific, evidence-based attitude toward the claims of religion, but not to the claims of ancient goatherds?

The sad thing is that Higgs has proclaimed himself an atheist. He pays lip service to religion’s inimical effects (“unfortunate consequences,” he calls them, as if the faith itself and not believers were involved), but aims most of his opprobrium at atheists:

He agreed with some of Dawkins’ thoughts on the unfortunate consequences that have resulted from religious belief, but he was unhappy with the evolutionary biologist’s approach to dealing with believers and said he agreed with those who found Dawkins’ approach “embarrassing”.

So tell us, Dr. Higgs, what is “embarrassing”, exactly? I bet I can tell you: it’s “embarrassing” to have a prominent scientist questioning a ubiquitous delusion. We must by all means never exhibit disrepect for the odious claims of faith.

The Guardian continues:

In the El Mundo interview, Higgs argued that although he was not a believer, he thought science and religion were not incompatible. “The growth of our understanding of the world through science weakens some of the motivation which makes people believers. But that’s not the same thing as saying they’re incompatible. It’s just that I think some of the traditional reasons for belief, going back thousands of years, are rather undermined.

“But that doesn’t end the whole thing. Anybody who is a convinced but not a dogmatic believer can continue to hold his belief. It means I think you have to be rather more careful about the whole debate between science and religion than some people have been in the past.”

He said a lot of scientists in his field were religious believers. “I don’t happen to be one myself, but maybe that’s just more a matter of my family background than that there’s any fundamental difficulty about reconciling the two.”

It’s not just some of the traditional reasons for belief that are undermined by science—it’s all of them. Bit by bit, as we understand more about our universe, we find no room for—no evidence of—a God.  What reasons for belief remain? Only wish-thinking, revelation, and tutelage—which are reasons, but not good ones. And if Higgs imputes his atheism to “family background” rather than rationality, he’s making the same mistake that those fundamentalists do: going along with what you were taught instead of thinking for yourself.

I’m calling out Higgs as an intellectually dishonest man. He is a great physicist, and yes, deserves his Nobel Prize, but he doesn’t know squat about accommodationism.  He is going along to get along, knowing that it’s always safer in the eyes of a religious world to coddle the godly.

And here’s another bit of evidence for intellectual dishonesty:

Many scientist believe that the discovery means that Higgs is odds on for a future Nobel prize. He was relieved, however, that the Nobel committee had skipped over the discovery for the physics award this year. “I was relieved, simply because since the beginning of July I’ve been so busy dealing with requests to do this and that, that I was glad not to have that on my schedule as well, so I have described it as a reprieve.”

Now you tell me, what scientist is glad that he didn’t get the Nobel Prize this year?  Come off it, Dr. Higgs!

104 thoughts on “Peter Higgs, the Boson Man, takes out after Richard Dawkins for the usual reasons

  1. “he’s a rank amateur when it comes to the issue of science and faith”

    I guess I missed the qualifications that enable one not to be a ‘rank amateur’ on science and faith. Speaking of which, what pray tell is anyone’s qualifications on the subject such that I can finally determine who is or isn’t a mere amateur?

    1. The “qualifications” are that you’ve read enough about it so you don’t repeat the same inanities that have been refuted over and over again.

      You go by what they say, since there are no degrees in accommodationism.

      1. Right. But that just begs the nub of my question: the conflation ‘x is wrong’ with ‘x is an amateur’. Or is it some kind of fore-drawn conclusion those who disagree are amateurs while those who agree are something otherwise? Have I missed a memo?

        1. It’s not about the conclusion, it’s about the arguments. When somebody is using arguments that that have been refuted again and again, without showing any awareness of the existence of those refutations, I think it’s fair to characterize them as “amateurs”
          on that subject.

        2. As Jerry said, it’s not the fact that he’s wrong or that he disagrees with Jerry that makes him an amateur. It’s the fact that he’s uninformed, and is jumping into the middle of a debate for which he has not bothered to prepare himself.

        3. Your argument, in principle, can be a good one. On the other hand, sometimes you really can say “this person is so out of the loop, it isn’t worth fisking their amateurish arguments”. Case in point: stock creationist nonsense like “Evolution violates the 2nd law of thermodynamics”. There is a potent pragmatic triage argument to be made that all comments from anyone who says this can be provisionally set aside, not because that one particular comment is wrong, but because making such a comment illustrates how deeply disengaged the person is from easily accessible summaries of the creationism “debate”.

          In principle, every argument should be addressed on its own merits and debated separately of other independent arguments and irrespective the person making the argument. However, the reality of finite time intrudes and presents the brute fact that there are far too many people having the same conversation for such charitable interpretations of one’s interlocutors to be practical. So it makes plenty of sense for somebody like Jerry to make a (provisional) assessment based on a particularly egregious amateur move like that evidenced here. Otherwise, the discussion would be even more repetitive fisking of trivial points over and over again than already occurs. This is motivated by a simple desire for effective resource allocation.

  2. “And if Higgs imputes his atheism to “family background” rather than rationality, he’s making the same mistake that those fundamentalists do: going along with what you were taught instead of thinking for yourself.”

    Yep. It seems he’s hardly thought about this at all.

    /@ (ex-physicist)

  3. I don’t know just how intellectually dishonest Peter Higgs is, but his attack on Dawkins was both silly and reckless. Very sad, really.

      1. One of the late, as well as surprising, lessons of my adulthood has been the learning that people who are smart and expert in one area should not be assumed to be smart and expert in others.

        It’s so tempting to think of physicists as the least likely to stick their own elbows in their mouths, but alas.

        1. Higgs will be a horrendous example. He is very private and unassuming, and will be out of his depth wherever he threads.

        2. Jerry himself is proving to be the rare exception.

          While it is true that theology is bullshit founded on lies and not deserving of the respect of being taken seriously, Jerry has gone ahead, taken it seriously, studied it reasonably thoroughly, and demonstrated just why it’s bullshit.

          Had Peter Higgs begun with a similar survey of “Gnu Atheism,” it is unlikely he’d be embarrassing himself in the way he is.


  4. I think you protest too much. It may be a matter of different cultures. I can understand why Higgs would find Dawkins or anyone else who continually goes on about religion “embarrassing”. Higgs is English and quite possibly was brought up in the C of E. In polite society one simply doesn’t rabbit on about religious belief nor indeed anything else which may scare the horses. And, of course, if you do happen to be an adherent of the aforementioned Church then that rule applies just as strongly since “believers” can believe more or less anything they wish to believe.

    1. Then Higgs should be embarrassed by his embarrassment much more than he should be embarrassed by Dawkins pointing out the follies of cherished superstitions.


  5. What a shame that Prof. Higgs confuses the definition of fundamentalism. He does not believe in fundamentalist claims about the structure of the universe, so why bother to pick a fight with Dawkins and the atheist community? He has embarrassed himself.

  6. It would be interesting to know if Higgs has actually read The God Delusion. And if so, could he please tell us exactly where Dawkins goes off the rails?

  7. This Higgs-fellow is now 83 – getting on a bit, close to becoming delusional in his old age – as does tend to happen to some.

    But he could be right that religion and science need not be in conflict. All that is needed is that religions (all of them) adapt their unscientific views and dogmas to fit the facts of life and nature.


    1. An old, rather humorous, assertion of Tarski, roughly that he is the greatest SANE living logician, both showed his own giant ego, and perhaps came close to the truth, in that clearly Godel would have been considered the greatest at that time, perhaps at any time (whatever that’s supposed to mean), and there were few if any besides Godel who anyone would put ahead of Tarski then, though Turing should be, IMHO.

      Unfortunately the same cannot quite work with physics in place of logic, and Higgs in place of Godel, since I don’t think anyone would have trouble finding greater physicists in abundance, if you’re into that kind of thing. But it’s beginning to look like the “sane” part might be relevant, though ad hominem is no argument against Higgs’ apparent silliness, and perhaps senility as opposed to insanity would be a better conjecture.

      Has Higgs been known to similarly pontificate in the past?

    2. If religion adapted to the point that it made no claims refuted by scientific observation or admitted that truth cannot be discerned via faith, I don’t think we could continue to call it religion.

      It’s pretty much a matter of definition that religion is necessarily in conflict with science. Can an individual practice both science and religion? Sure. That doesn’t mean they don’t conflict.

    3. “But he could be right that religion and science need not be in conflict. All that is needed is that religions (all of them) adapt their unscientific views and dogmas to fit the facts of life and nature.”

      Which is why it’s never going to happen. Religion is based on sticking to your ridiculous beliefs in the face of overwhelming evidence. Once you let go of that everything falls apart.

      I appreciate Jerry for responding in a firm & timely manner. Richard Dawkins is not a fundamentalist, all he’s doing is ridiculing baseless religious dogmas by pointing to the evidence. It was totally unfair of Higgs, a noted physicist and atheist, to speak in this manner.

    4. Granted, he is getting along in years. And I agree with Jerry’s statements. But I rather object (as someone who is getting a little long in the tooth myself — maybe I’m a little too sensitive!) to those who automatically assume that someone of advanced years who takes a ridiculous position is likely suffering from dementia or some other form of “senility”. If young men and women often make stupid statements, why are not older people judged by the same yardstick? Who knows? — maybe such an assumption in his case is warranted; but not necessarily.

      Just one old fart’s opinion, for all the two cents it’s worth!

      1. Note that I did not attribute this to either senility or dementia! I had no idea how old Higgs was when I wrote it, but at any rate plenty of old people have perfectly sharp minds, so I’ll give them credit for being compos mentis.

  8. I wonder if Higgs had the same experiences and amount of criticism from the religious fundamentalists as Dawkins (and I assume most biologists) he would feel quite different. Maybe he could feel that way about the new age mystic quantum bollocks, or astrology, as an equivalent of religious fundamentalism? But they are much less threatening.

  9. Now you tell me, what scientist is glad that he didn’t get the Nobel Prize this year? Come off it, Dr. Higgs!

    Sounds like he’d prefer a Templeton.

  10. Dr. Higgs seems to be parroting nonsense from elsewhere. I don’t recall Dawkins going after fundamentalists alone; his audience in the science vs. religion discussions has always been the general public including the religious.

  11. Higgs deserves that, speaking publicly.

    Claiming that some people find Dawkins “embarrassing” is neither substantiated by observation nor lauding the empirical process that makes Dawkins “concentrate his attack on fundamentalists”. That is how science can proceed, by finding _some_ belief incompatible at various stages. Higgs “weakens” and “the whole thing” is rather misunderstanding the particle colliders testing of his theories.

    But remember that Higgs is well known to be private, “shy and unassuming”, “very mild mannered and very gentle”, “modest”, and not known for much else than his early Higgs results and coinciding with 5 other’s similar proposals. He is a convenient flag figure, and today a media figure, but not the authoritative figure that has professional clout.

    I don’t think we can take all what comes out of his interviews as well considered, and he may well experience some unfamiliar and unwanted backlash. Dawkins have laid much more on the line professionally (evolution), and he is the one most deserved to be heard here.

    1. I like that! ‘Sophisticated Atheism’. There should be a discussion about that. I suppose what Higgs means by ‘fundamentalism’ is what I would call just being emphatic.

  12. If you are willing to define a fundamentalist as anyone whose views are founded on a set of fundamentals, including scientific fundamentals, you could call Dawkins a fundamentalist. I consider myself a fundamentalist by this definition.

  13. I hope that Prof. Higgs is aware that the rules of Nobel Prize awards state that they cannot be awarded posthumously. At age 83, there is a finite chance that the good professor might not make it to next September.

    As a side note, I found out a week or two ago that my PhD thesis adviser was one of Higgs’ collaborators. At the time, I was a graduate student and Higgs’ papers didn’t make much of a splash, partly because quantum field theory was in some decline due to it’s apparent inapplicability to strong interaction physics.

    1. I would add that my PhD thesis adviser was also a born again Christian so he might be one of those Christians that Prof. Higgs is referring to.

    1. De Waal seems to employ a separate line of argument: namely, the “vast majority” of believers are not dogmatic and not opposed to science. He also seems to endorse some version of the NOMA position: “They recognizes that science and religion deal with different sets of questions. The two are nonzero sum kinds of knowledge.”

      I suspect both these ideas find wide support in the community of scientists (to the extent they think about religion at all).

  14. This holiday was the first time my brother and I butted heads over his religious faith. It followed from his suggestion that I “should pray about it” (a problem I was having). It got me quite upset and I am saddened more than ever about the chasm between us.

    As I read this post here it reminded me of the whole incident. I makes me sick to read this quote from a renowned scientist,

    “Anybody who is a convinced but not a dogmatic believer can continue to hold his belief. It means I think you have to be rather more careful about the whole debate between science and religion…”

    The comment is sickeningly ignorant. “Convinced but not dogmatic” doesn’t even make sense. Anyone who is convinced is by definition dogmatical. Applying one definition of the word (“based on assumption rather than empirical observation”) all belief in Deities is dogmatic. And its sort of dipshit to say more caution is needed in regards for the debate. Its not care that’s needed, but a complete and ongoing revision of scriptural interpretations that are required for religion to keep itself safe in the face of knowledge provided by science.

    I think my recent experience with my brother has just solidified my absolute intolerance of religion and this accommodating bullshit. The stupidity needs to called out whether its a fundy, a liberal xtian, or an accommodationist. So thanks JC
    No more free passes from me.

    1. I suspect what Higgs meant to say is someone who is (temperamentally) inclined towards religious belief and wishes to take religion as a “working hypothesis”. Had Higgs worded it this way he would have made more sense.

      The key problem with most accommodationism is that it is simply a salvage operation on theism. Always awkward, it works best when the religion being defended is highly generic and non-specific.

  15. “I don’t happen to be a heliocentric man myself, but maybe that’s just more a matter of my family background than that there’s any fundamental difficulty about reconciling astronomical observation with my geocentrism.”

  16. While there are legitimate differences of opinion on whether science and religion are incompatible, calling Dawkins a “fundamentalist” is a misuse of the word, which is not a synonym for strident or outspoken.

    1. A fundamentalist atheist is one who thinks God literally doesn’t exist, as opposed to all those atheists who think he doesn’t exist in a more figurative sense.

  17. It certainly isn’t true that Dawkins only takes on fundamentalist Christians. He has respectfully crossed views with the Archbishop of Canterbury who is certainly not a fundamentalist.

    The atheist attitude I take is that certain forms of religiosity are quite benign while others are quite toxic, but that on the whole having no gods at all is an even better option than believing in the very humane god of the more progressive religions.

    As best as I can tell, this is pretty much also Dawkins’s viewpoint.

  18. Listening to what Peter Higgs says in the interview, I suspect he’s just fallen for the usual lazy trope that believers and believers in belief like to spread about Dawkins (if Higgs has been quoted accurately). As others have pointed out, I doubt he would be so sanguine if believers attacked physics the way they attack biology. In fact, talking about the label the Higgs boson has been given, ‘The God Particle’, he says:

    It’s inviting people to confuse theoretical physics with theology, and that’s not a good thing to do.


    There have been some evangelical protestants who go around trying to convert people…to influence people to follow them, and that I think is a bad consequence.

    …so he thinks it’s a bad thing to mix theoretical physics and theology, which suggests he’s aware they are not compatible, and then he attacks protestants of a more fundamentalist persuasion for exploiting the label. It seems attacking fundamentalists is all right for him but not for Dawkins (although I wouldn’t say that Dawkins particularly concentrates on attacking fundamentalists anyway).

    In my opinion, if what Dawkins says makes him a ‘fundamentalist’, then Higgs would be too by what he says. Of course, neither of them are.

  19. While I agree with the poster above who points out that science is based on certain fundamental principles that one has to take to heart in order to have a scientific world view, there is also (colloquially, at least) a strong connotation that a fundamentalist believes what he or she believes in spite of contrary evidence. In the latter sense, there won’t be any evidence for anyone being a scientific or atheistic fundamenalist until some evidence for supernaturalism comes along to be ignored.

    1. That was in reply to a comment that has seemingly now vanished, perhaps on account of its extreme stupidity. If so, no hard feelings will be felt if it vanishes too.

  20. So Higgs was interviewed by a Spanish newspaper which presumably edited the interview. I’m guessing some parts were taken out of context while others were completely digested and reworded for him, on grounds of brevity, ignoring the personal slants of the editors.

    Then, that article was further edited, digested, and regurgitated by a British paper.

    I’ve not read the articles, but having been interviewed for an article, in the past couple years, I can tell you it was only by outsmarting the reporter that her attention-grabbing, advertisement-selling, downright misleading result was blocked from being printed.

    Perhaps someone wiill approach Dr. Higgs, himself, to see what he thought he said, what he meant to say, and what he really thinks. If all turns out as presented by The Guardian, then we can have an even better go at rebutting him.

  21. Probably worth being a tad more cautious than Jerry is here about what is, after all, an interview, not a piece by Higgs himself. The emphasis that seems to be given to the question is entirely down to the interviewer — we simply don’t know how accurately it reflects the emphasis it received in the original conversation. It’s also quite possible that the positive statements made — e.g. about RD being “fundamentalist” or “embarrassing” — were not formulated by Higgs but offered up by the interviewer for Higgs’s assent, which if given even in the most reserved and contingent way magically transforms them into “his” words in the published interview. Remember the context: virtually any journalist interviewing any scientist where the question of religion arises will try to get the interviewee to say something about Dawkins, and most will try to generate “controversy” by making scientists seem to disagree with each other.

  22. I’ll bet you that nearly every scientist truly believes that science & religion is incompatible. The only difference is that those espousing accommodationism feel that it is not something you talk about in front of the deluded masses.

  23. “Now you tell me, what scientist is glad that he didn’t get the Nobel Prize this year? Come off it, Dr. Higgs!”

    Well, perhaps just a kind of false modesty based on knowing he probably won’t get it this year. After all, does anybody get a Nobel Prize the same year as a breakthrough discovery? Usually the Nobel Committee gives it several years (presumably to have enough time pass for their to be perspective on the relative importance of the discovery) and often well over a decade. I believe the record is the 1966 Physiology/Medicine award to Peyton Rous, for a 1916 discovery.

  24. Perhaps one should point out to Prof Higgs that his boson was not accepted on faith, but that acceptance of his hypothetical particle came with the *evidence*. Surely the godists should only have their idea accepted once the evidence for it gets to similar levels as those for Prof Higgs’ boson.

  25. It is truly disturbing and disgusting to see how an elite Scientist of if his stature would protect a trillion dollar industry of lies, violence and delusion and attack a Scientist in this case Richard who tries to spread reason and Science.
    I admire Richard for his mental strength, he is getting attacks from every side nonstop. I will support him as much as I can.
    Higgs knows how to make progress in particle physics and at the same time he knows how to slow Reason and Social Progress. Congratulations Higgs stay a lab rat and support the billion religious sheep around the world. This huge Behemoth of money and violence apparently needs your support.

  26. Re: And exactly what kind of “fundamentalism” is that?

    It is the claims that all religion is fundamentally in error, and/or that religion is fundamentally evil, and/or that religion and science are fundamentally incompatible.

    Higgs, like any sane person, can see that some religious positions are incompatible with science; but he can also see that many intellectually respectable people (eg Dyson) claim to have a religious position that is compatible with science, and he is not so dim as to be unable to imagine what such a position might be.

    Ironically, the claim that religion and science are fundamentally incompatible often arises from an apparent inability to comprehend any but the most fundamentalist forms of religion, so one might say that a fundamentalist about incompatibility is also a fundamentalist about religion. Those of us who are neither sometimes find this amusing, but more often it is just annoying.

    1. Religion is nothing without faith, and faith is the apportionment of belief other than in proportion with that suggested by a rational analysis of empirical observations.

      Science, on the other hand, is nothing but an effort to apportion belief as precisely as possible in proportion with the most rational analysis of the most rigorously analyzed and objective observations we can muster. We don’t always succeed, of course, but that’s the goal — and we’ve got a damned impressive record, if I may say so myself.

      You truly could not pick to more fundamentally opposed ways of attempting to understand the universe.


      1. Sorry Ben, I don’t really buy either of your premises.

        Religion is often a tool for social cohesion that is based more on practice than belief, and even when it does involve belief that belief is often solely about ethical/aesthetic issues which don’t have observable consequences.

        Science on the other hand is just about making correct predictions and does not require any particular attitude towards beliefs that do not have observable consequences.

          1. I don’t have a problem with the word “faith”, but I used “belief” because unfounded belief about testable propositions is indeed potentially in conflict with science whereas faith is actually *less* challenging in that regard.

              1. No, faith does not actually require belief at all. It is more a matter of giving trust and acting as if one is confident that it is well placed, without necessarily having an explicit belief.

            1. The fact remains that faith is simply pretending to know things you don’t know, which is completely antithetical to science.

              Religion’s endorsement of faith is pernicious because it encourages people to reject what science tells us where it conflict with religion, even when the scientific evidence is clear, from evolution to global warming. Granted this is not true of all religion; the Dalai Lama has said specifically that where religious teaching conflicts withs science, science takes precedence. But it is predominantly true of all theistic, and especially the Abrahamic, religions.


              1. I am also aware of some branches of the Abrahamic tradition which defer to science regarding observable phenomena – and some which even acknowledge the pretense aspect of faith being “pretending to know…”

                Acknowledging these cases does not force us to agree that religion is, on balance, a net positive contributor to human well-being, but it does free us from the label of “fundamentalist” which applies to those who insist that religion per se is always incompatible with science and/or that it never contributes anything of value to the human condition.

              2. Oops! sorry Ant, I think I misread your “it conflicts” as an assertion when it may have just have been a grammatical correction of your previous “*where* it conflict”

              3. “… defer to science regarding observable phenomena” [my emphasis]

                But which of them defer to science full stop/period?

                And which do you have in mind that acknowledge the pretence aspect of faith? Do adherents of those religions tell others how to live their lives based on the adherents’ faith? If not, put them aside. Jerry and others have pointed out that not all religions are equally pernicious.

                It remains that any religion which makes supernatural claims flouting established scientific models is incompatible with science.

                I’d also say that we should be careful to distinguish those valuable contributions to the human condition that necessarily come from religion from those that could as easily come from any naturalistic philosophy or worldview. Perhaps you can think of some examples of the former, because I’m struggling to…


              4. ok Ant if you want to be a fundamentalist I don’t mind. And if you turn out to be smarter than Freeman Dyson and Peter Higgs then maybe I’ll take your unsupported “it conflicts” more seriously. (Or for that matter if you can just convince poor old me that science deals with anything but observable phenomena).

              5. Your last two paragraphs do deserve a more detailed response, but I’m feeling pretty cramped in this 3rd level reply column so I may jump up tot he top level if I want to say more.

  27. I am posting again at the top level in order to have more room for continuing my discussion with Ant.

    Sometimes I think that people leave out quantifiers just for the sake of creating an argument. But although the statement “religion is incompatible with science” could be intended to mean “some religion is incompatible with science” (which I don’t think anyone has ever denied), its more common interpretation is as meaning the fundamentalist proposition “all religion is incompatible with science”. (The latter interpretation is also made more likely because the former is so obviously undeniable as to not be worth making.) In order to support the assertion that all religion is incompatible with science one needs something which does not exist, namely a universally accepted definition of “religion” – and for the purpose of achieving equality before the law I am strongly inclined to accept as “religion” whatever is meant by the person who claims to follow it. That may not be achievable, but there are many who claim to have positions which others *do* accept as religious and which are not incompatible with science. So I do not agree with the fundamentalist position regarding conflict of religion with science.

    With regard to the value of religion, I *am* inclined to agree with the fundamentalist position that all religion (including that which is both compatible with science and benign in its immediate effect) is eventually a net source of harm to the kind of human society I prefer. This is because I suspect that even benign forms of religion lend credibility to, and may even inevitably evolve into, the more pernicious kind. But there are certainly situations where even anti-scientific religion has had a temporary beneficial effect and my belief in the fundamentalist position that over time the net effect is always and unavoidably negative is both weakly held and expressed with only intermittent passion.

    1. It’s not religion per se that’s incompatible with science, but faith. And I’m unaware of a religion that fails to embrace faith in some form, even if it’s only a diluted and wishy-washy type of faith.

      Truly faithless religions are generally known as philosophies, such as stoicism or capitalism or humanism…though they quickly become quasi-religions when they continue to adhere to their principles even when a rational analysis of empirical observations indicates they should be abandoned — that is, when they use faith to support their tenets.


      1. I don’t think faith is incompatible with science because I don’t think faith actually always implies belief, and even when it does I think that the “belief” that is required is often only about untestable propositions (such as value judgements or moral obligations), and I don’t think that belief in an untestable proposition can be in conflict with science.

        1. But that’s precisely the point. Science explicitly rejects untestable assertions as incapable of telling us anything verifiably true about the world. So any system of belief that makes untestable claims about the nature of reality is by definition in conflict with the epistemology of science. It’s claiming to know things it can’t possibly know.

          1. No Greg, that’s just not true. Science only claims to deal with testable things, but does not claim that we can only know testable things.

            I hate the word “scientism” with a passion, but what you call the “epistemology of science” is something that might indeed be described as scientistic. Scientific epistomology does restrict itself to testable propositions, but does not deny the possibility of other truths outside its scope. In particular statements of universal aesthetic value and/or moral obligation are not, as yet, expressible in any testable form. We may suspect that no such propositions are in any worthwhile sense valid, but to deny them any worthwhile sense of validity would itself be a value judgement of the kind whose validity one was denying.

            1. Science only claims to deal with testable things, but does not claim that we can only know testable things.

              Science does not assume a priori that knowledge can only be gained from that which is testable, however it is indeed the overwhelming conclusion of millennia of scientific effort that that which cannot be tested cannot be known.

              Perhaps you might care to offer up an example of something knowable but untestable?

              You suggest aesthetics as one possibility, but that’s rather something of a red herring. Which is higher, Jupiter or Venus? Just because a question has no single universal and eternal answer does not mean it cannot be tested and evaluated in a more restricted context. Given any situation in which an individual is capable of making an aesthetic judgement, it is possible to rationally analyze what led to that judgement and reach some useful conclusions based on that analysis.


              1. I know of no scientific experiment which tests the claim that that which cannot be tested cannot be known, so I don’t know that as a scientific fact. (But I am inclined to believe it as a matter of faith – or more accurately perhaps as a matter of how I choose to define knowledge.)

                Even if I could accurately predict the aesthetic or moral judgements of any particular individual(s) that would not determine the “correctness” of those judgements according to a universal standard which may or may not exist. I do not believe in any such standard, and I have some faith that no such standard exists, but that faith is not supported by any scientific evidence (or valid logical argument) so I don’t claim to know it.

              2. alQpr, it is not the conclusion of a single simple experiment, but rather a meta-observation of sorts.

                There have been innumerable claims over the millennia of that which is off-limits to science for one reason or another, and all such claims have been proven false or incoherent.

                Your own example of aesthetics is proving to be a perfect example. I might just as easily claim that science is incapable of assessing the frenulistic value of a cornisturm. What’s a cornistrm and how might one characterize its frenulistic value, you might ask? Well, I’m not entirely sure, you see — and I don’t even know if they actually exist, myself. But even if I did, I’m still quite sure that science can’t have anything to do with either.

                Ho, hum.

                The only question that really matters is how well your belief is portioned with respect to a rational analysis of empirical observation. If you can point to a class of something and state, “That’s a cornisturm, no doubt, and it’s more frenulistic than this other cornisturm over there!” then we can have a discussion about how likely it is that you’re either on to something or merely on something. Until then, it’s all just so much gobbledy-gook.


              3. But I can and do point to a flower and say ““That’s a cornisturmflower, no doubt, and it’s more frenulisticbeautiful than this other cornisturmflower over there!”

                We might then go on to argue the point, and despite my initial preference, it is possible that by pointing out features and appealing to comparison with other patterns of preference and so on, that you might be able to modify my actual feeling about which is more beautiful. And it is even conceivable (though in my opinion highly doubtful) that there is an ultimate standard of aesthetics to which all such arguments would converge. If such a standard was actually observable then it might reduce aesthetics to a science, but it is also possible that we may never find out whether or not any such limit exists.

                The same applies, I think, to ethics.

                In both cases, having faith that a standard exists and trying to approach it does not put one in conflict with science unless science establishes the existence of a conflicting standard or proves that there is no well defined optimal pattern of judgement.

              4. alQpr, the conflict only arises when “faith” leads you to a more certain belief than a rational analysis of empirical observation would warrant.

                If your faith that such a standard exists is akin to the faith that your favored team will win the championship next year, sure, fine, great, whatever. But if your faith tells you that it’s as certain as the Sun rising tomorrow, then you’ve got a problem.


            2. In particular statements of universal aesthetic value and/or moral obligation are not, as yet, expressible in any testable form.

              What would such a statement look like? If it’s of the form “X is beautiful/moral”, then it’s a statement of opinion, not a fact claim about the world. Such statements have no meaning (let alone objective truth value) outside the context of human culture, and cannot be counted as objectively verifiable knowledge.

              On the other hand, if you’re talking about statements of the form “X is universally held (among human societies) to be beautiful/moral”, then that is an empirically testable claim about the world. And if it proves to be true, then the reasons for its universality are presumably explicable (at least in principle) by evolutionary psychology and allied sciences.

              In other words, the facts of aesthetics and morality are not about the intrinsic beauty or morality of X (which is a nonsensical concept); they’re about human psychology, which is certainly subject to empirical investigation.

              1. Yes, I am inclined to agree with what I think you mean when you say that an assertion of aesthetic or moral value is “a statement of opinion, not a fact claim about the world”.
                And I think that for many people their religious “beliefs” are in the same category. Thus, by not making any claim regarding testable facts, they avoid any conflict with science.

              2. alQpr, the religious like to claim that their beliefs are not testable, but they trivially are.

                For example, many of them like to claim that consciousness survives death, or that a certain zombie terrorized ancient Jerusalem. Both claims are not only testable, but trivially proven false.


              3. I’d take issue on two counts:

                1. For many religious people many of their “beliefs” may be in the same category, but very few theists hold no beliefs that aren’t; eg, that God created the world.

                2. Many religious people treat “beliefs” in this category as if they were not, leading them either to try to impose these beliefs on others or to reject contrary facts, with sub-optimal results for themselves or society.


              4. The key word is “many”.

                My point at the start of this thread is that the unquantified claim “religion is in conflict with science” is unscientific and silly and is an embarrassment to true scientists when put forward by people claiming to represent science. Why? Because with the “some” quantifier it is so trivially true and universally accepted as not to be worth saying, and with the “all” quantifier it is false.

                If you want to say something more specific like “most”, then at the global level I would agree that it is true but not interesting, and restricted to locations where a scientific education is available to all I think it is unscientific to make the claim without a proper scientific study.

              5. Once again, it is faith that is the problem, and only somewhat incidental that religions are so dependent on faith.

                If the religious were to abandon their positions of faith and instead subject all claims to a rational analysis of empirical observations, then’d then be compatible with science.

                But that would also mean giving up their most cherished beliefs, of course.


              6. @ alQpr

                The “key word” is irrelevant, because the proposition is, as you say, “religion* is in conflict with science” not “all religious people are in conflict with science”.

                * which we take to have a supernatural element, usu. theistic; naturalistic religions (eg, some forms of Buddhism) are better regarded as philosophies (see Grayling, Watts, et al.) pace my earlier comments about the Dalai Lama.


              7. You can of course make the proposition true by defining the term “religion” sufficiently restrictively.

                But even among conventionally accepted religions there are many which do not require their members to believe assertions which are scientifically refutable. Some emphasize obligatory behaviour rather than belief as the requirement for membership, and even many of those which do declare fairy stories as part of their “creed” allow members to adopt a merely symbolic interpretation of those stories.

                So even if you are right on your own terms, saying “religion is in conflict with science” without qualification just looks silly to people like Peter Higgs.

              8. You assume Peter Higgs is silly enough to think so. Perhaps the representation of him, in the Spanish and British articles, was merely skewed so as to sell papers (or, rather, the advertisements in the papers).

              9. So tell me, alQpr, which religion (qualified as above) does not privilege faith? I don’t see how “allowing” members to adopt a merely symbolic meaning gets around this; saying some credal thing is symbolic is symbolic of something else (what?) is still pretending to know things that they don’t know.


              10. Ant, you make two good points there, which I will try to address in reverse order:

                (2) Yes, religionists (and others) often pretend to know things they don’t know. Asserting any value judgement other than just as a statement of current opinion is in my opinion a claim to know what you don’t know. But we have to make, and act on, such judgements all the time – even if we don’t have any scientific knowledge that they are right. It is indeed better (in my opinion) to acknowledge our lack of knowledge; but failure to do so is not inconsistent with science. It could only be inconsistent with science if science could *make* value judgements (rather than maybe eventually learning how to predict them – which I see as far more likely).

                (1) Yes, most religions do “privelege faith” and seem to attach some value to irrationality. I too think that there is sometimes wisdom of a kind to be found in the babbling of the insane. But that does not conflict with science unless I interpret the babbling literally, ie as testable statements about the observable physical world. Indeed even the claim that science is evil and we would all be morally better off if insane is not in a logical conflict with science because it is a value judgement with no experimentally testable content. (Such a statement would of course be explicitly in *moral* conflict with science, but most religions don’t actually go that far.)

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