I get emails from obscurantists: Is science based on faith?

Well, I’m not sure this person, a professor from Australia (name redacted) is being deliberately obscure, but the email below, which came out of the blue, certainly is a tough read. However, the aim appears to be simple: use a pile of quotes from Karl Popper and other people to refute the claim I made in a 2013 article in Slate (click on screenshot below).


If you haven’t read that piece, I think you should, as it’s a concise refutation of the notion that science is like religion because both depend on faith.  This notion is used by religionists and accommodationists to show that, after all, religion and science aren’t so very different.  (This, in turn, appears to be motivated largely by jealousy: science finds out stuff and religion doesn’t, but rather makes up stuff.) I wrote the piece to emphasize that the word “faith” is used very differently in the two areas. Here’s a short excerpt of my article, with the last paragraph highlighting the crucial difference.

. . . consider the following four statements:

“I have faith that, because I accept Jesus as my personal savior, I will join my friends and family in Heaven.”

“My faith tells me that the Messiah has not yet come, but will someday.”

“I have strep throat, but I have faith that this penicillin will clear it up.”

“I have faith that when I martyr myself for Allah, I will receive 72 virgins in Paradise.”

All of these use the word faith, but one uses it differently. The three religious claims (Christian, Jewish, and Muslim, respectively) represent faith as defined by philosopher Walter Kaufmann: “intense, usually confident, belief that is not based on evidence sufficient to command assent from every reasonable person.” Indeed, there is no evidence beyond revelation, authority, and scripture to support the religious claims above, and most of the world’s believers would reject at least one of them. To state it bluntly, such faith involves pretending to know things you don’t. Behind it is wish-thinking, as clearly expressed in Hebrews 11:1: “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”

In contrast, the third statement relies on evidence: penicillin almost invariably kills streptococcus bacteria. In such cases the word faith doesn’t mean “belief without good evidence,” but “confidence derived from scientific tests and repeated, documented experience.”

The conflation of faith as “unevidenced belief” with faith as “justified confidence” is simply a word trick used to buttress religion. In fact, you’ll never hear a scientist saying, “I have faith in evolution” or “I have faith in electrons.” Not only is such language alien to us, but we know full well how those words can be misused in the name of religion.

You’d think that would be clear, but the email below came from a person who resurrects the old argument that because we can’t prove a priori that the methods of science—which use evidence, reason, predictability, testing, and so on—are the best way to understand the world, then adopting those methods is a form of faith.

And so the sweating professor fired off this email, apparently buttressing the equivalence of “faith” in science with “faith” in religion. Unfortunately, this individual doesn’t seem to grasp the idea of a topic sentence, and so never says explicitly why he’s writing me. Instead, I glean from this bout of logorrhea that the good professor is simply resurrecting the argument that science is based on faith. Read for yourself (if you can; I was exhausted at the end). I’ve put in bold the bits that I see as pivotal in his argument—if it is an argument.

Dear Dr Coyne, re your article from 2013 in Slate Magazine:

I have examined your thesis that faith or belief does not play a role in science in the light of Karl Popper’s remarks about the nature of rationality: “The rationalist attitude is characterized by the importance is attaches to argument and experience. But neither logical argument nor experience can establish the rationalist attitude; for only those who are ready to consider argument or experience, and who have therefore already adopted this attitude will be impressed by them. That is to say, a rationalist attitude must be first adopted if any argument or experience is to be effective, and this rationalist attitude therefore cannot itself be based on argument or experience. . . .We have to conclude from this that no rational argument will have a rational effect on a person who does not want to adopt a rational attitude. Thus a comprehensive rationalism is untenable. But this means that whoever adopts the rationalist attitude, which is the basis of all scientific enquiry, does so because they have adopted, consciously and unconsciously, some proposal, decision, or belief or behaviour; an adoption that because, it is not itself rational, can only be irrational. Whether this adoption is tentative or leads to a settled habit, we may describe it as an irrational faith in reason. So rationalism is necessarily far from comprehensive or self-contained. . . Although an uncritical and comprehensive rationalism is logically untenable, and although comprehensive rationalism is logically tenable, this is no reason why we should adopt the latter. For there are other tenable attitudes, notably that of critical rationalism, which recognizes the fact that the fundamental rationalist attitude results from an at least tentative act of faith – from faith in reason. Accordingly we may choose some form of irrationalism, even some radical or comprehensive form. But we are also free to choose a critical form of rationalism, one which frankly admits its origin in an irrational decision (and which, to that extent, admits a certain priority of irrationalism).” (Karl Popper, The Open Society and Its Enemies, Vol. 2, 230-1, Translation modified).

As mathematical cosmologists George Coyne and Michael Heller suggest, “We can confidently say that the greatest discovery of the [Ancient] Greeks was the discovery that one’s beliefs should be rationally argued for, that is to say, one should seek to ‘solve as many problems as possible by an appeal to reason, i.e., to clear thought and experience, rather than by an appeal to emotions and passions’ (Karl Popper, The Open Society and Its Enemies, Vol. 2, 224). But the question immediately arises as to how to argue rationally that your beliefs should be argued rationally? Karl Popper was a philosopher of science who fully understood the importance of this question. He wrote that ‘neither logical argument nor experience can establish the rationalist attitude; for only those who are ready to consider argument or experience, and who have therefore already adopted this attitude will be impressed by them. That is to say, a rationalist attitude must be first adopted if any argument or experience is to be effective, and this rationalist attitude therefore cannot itself be based on argument or experience . . .So rationalism is necessarily far from comprehensive or self-contained’. Why then should we not adopt irrationalism? Because when one confronts rationalism with irrationalism, one immediately sees that rationalism is a value. Therefore, ‘the choice before us not simply an intellectual affair or a matter of scientific methods or evidence, or a matter of taste. It is a moral decision, a matter of intellectual integrity’. Popper calls this kind of rationalism critical rationalism, the one which ‘recognises the fact that the fundamental rationalist attitude results from an at least tentative act of faith – from faith in reason’” (Coyne and Heller, A Comprehensible Universe, 8-9).

As Karl Popper observed in The Logic of Scientific Discovery, “The empirical basis of objective science is nothing absolute. Science does not rest on a rockbed. Its towering edifice, an amazing bold structure of the theories, rises over a swamp” (quoted in Malachi Haim Hacohen, Karl Popper. The Formative Years, 1902-1945, 34, italics in original text). Science is a working methodology, not a quest for truth. As Hacohen points out, Popper recognized that epistemology, “which is nothing but general scientific methodology”, “did not justify statements, but investigated methods, and criticised procedures, pointing out contradictions and misapplications. It sought to clarify, criticize, and improve practice”. And so, for Popper, “[s]cience progressed not by discovering unshakeable truths but by eliminating errors. Change was its hallmark” (ibid., 229, 230). Cf., also the following remarks of Massimo Cacciari: “European philosophy (which is without doubt the ‘original phenomenon of Europe’, as Husserl remarked), even if based on unquestionable principles (insofar as they are believed to be self-evident), elaborates, interprets, and lives science essentially as an endless search. If the truth of principles is unconditional, science develops and is conceived of as an infinite horizon of tasks. Moreover, science attributes the character of mere approximation to any factual truth each time it touches it. The vocation (beruf) of European science is to stop an impenetrable border being imposed” (Europe and Empire, 60-1).

Popper suggests that the traditional philosophical “problem of the rationality of our beliefs” is a false problem, and that “we may replace the idea of belief by that of action; and we may say that actions (or inactions) are ‘rational’ if they are carried out in accordance with the state, prevailing at the time, of the critical scientific discussion. There is no better synonym for ‘rational’ than ‘critical’” (Karl Popper, Unended Quest, 87). Cf. also the following remarks of Philippe Nemo: “It is important to stress that critical pluralism does not result in either scepticism or relativism. Indeed, there are ideas, propositions, knowledge that resist criticism (in the sense that they cannot be refuted), either because they include faulty reasoning or because available facts disprove them. Therefore, they must be held to be true until such time as they can be refuted . . . Critical rationalism implies that the Cartesian ‘tree of philosophy’ – planted in the soil of certainty, never doubting the old roots, forever growing new branches – is non-existent. It must be rejected. In the present state of science nothing lies a priori outside the bounds of criticism, including its foundations” (What is the West?, 65).

“So-called scientific knowledge is not knowledge, for it consists only of conjectures and hypotheses . . . Although scientific knowledge is not knowledge, it is the best we have in this field. I call it conjectural knowledge” (Karl Popper, All Life is Problem Solving, 37). “The ‘world’ is not rational, but it is the task of science to rationalize it. . . . Ordinary language is not rational, but it is our task to rationalize it, or at least to keep up its standards of clarity. The attitude here could be characterised as ‘pragmatic rationalism’. This pragmatic rationalism is related to uncritical rationalism and to irrationalism in a similar way as critical rationalism is related to these two. For an uncritical rationalism may argue that the world is rational and that the task of science is to discover this rationality, whilst an irrationalist may insist that the world, being fundamentally irrational, should be experienced and exhausted by our emotions and passions (or by our intellectual intuition) rather than by scientific methods. As opposed to this, pragmatic rationalism may recognize that the world is not rational but demand that we submit or subject it to reason, as far as possible. Using Carnap’s words, one could describe what I call ‘pragmatic rationalism’ as ‘the attitude which strives for clarity everywhere but recognizes the never fully understandable or never fully rational entanglement of the events of life’” (ibid., 357, note 19),




Note first of all that the Professor is trying to convince me (of something) using REASON. He is not spewing out irrational thoughts, but ones that, he thinks, will change my mind about the role of faith in science. By so doing, he undercuts his very argument that reason is a faith-based assumption. If it is, why is he using it?

Second, I’ve admitted many times that one cannot make a convincing a priori argument that the methods of science are the best procedure to find out about the world. And you know what? I don’t give a rat’s patootie! What is important is that those methods have been shown to “work”.  What do I mean by “work”? What I mean is that if you want to predict phenomena, or intervene in nature to produce a desired result—whether that result be to get people on the Moon, cure smallpox, or figure out why, in nearly all bird species, if only one sex is ornamented or displays, it’s the male—you are best served by using the methods of science.  Religious faith won’t work, nor will an irrational, willy-nilly approach. Philosophers who try to do down science by making this argument are engaged in navel-gazing rather than doing any useful work. Scientists rightfully pay no attention to this kind of blather.

Re Popper et al.: I haven’t checked to see if the quotes are accurate, but I don’t much care.  For example, consider Popper’s putative claim that “Science does not rest on a rockbed. Its towering edifice, an amazing bold structure of the theories, rises over a swamp”.  I can’t be arsed to look up the context of that claim, but the implication that the foundations of science are shaky is, to be delicate, what comes out of the south end of a bull facing north. And really, am I supposed to prostrate myself before Popper’s words because he’s Popper? Sorry, I won’t. We can judge the solidity of science by seeing whether its accomplishments are solid.

And of course they are. Yes, science is progressive. zeroing in on what’s true about the world (I’m assuming there is a real world with a definite character, and won’t argue about that here), and some of its conclusions have been wrong. Several Nobel Prizes, in fact, have been given for work later shown to be wrong. And there are still many things we don’t understand. Is there a multiverse? Where is all that dark matter, and what is it? What was the earliest form of replicator, and of replicators that could metabolize (“life”)? Some of these we’ll never know. But I’ll tell you one thing: the only way to get answers to these questions—answers on which everyone agrees—is through empirical investigation based on rationality, questioning, hypothesis forming, testing, and so on. In other words, we must use the methods of science, which include rationality.

As for my interlocutor’s argument (or rather Popper’s, for the professor continually osculates Sir Karl’s rump) that“[s]cience progressed not by discovering unshakeable truths but by eliminating errors. Change was its hallmark”, I have two reactions. First, eliminating errors often results in truths that do not change any further. For, as Sherlock Holmes said, “. . . when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” When you have eliminated all the possible causal agents of bubonic plague: bad air, the wrong religion, imbalance of bodily humors, and so on, then what remains—and it is only the bacillus Yersina pestis—is the organism that produces the disease. That hasn’t changed, and I’d bet my house it won’t change. Likewise, DNA in cells will remain a double helix, a molecule of normal water will have two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atoms, and so on. These things are not “absolute truths,” in the sense that we cannot show that they could never be altered by more sophisticated analyses, but they’re close enough to absolute truths that we would be our life savings on them if given the chance.

Finally, the claim that science is somehow fallacious because what we “know” changes over time, well, that is as it should be. And anyway, not everything changes over time: I’ve just given a few examples. It is because we are rational and empirically oriented that what we know is subject to modification by further investigation.

Contrast that with religion, a “way of knowing” that truly is irrational. What theologians claim to be true largely doesn’t change over time (viz., the divinity and resurrection of Jesus, the dictation of the Qur’an to Muhammad, the bestowing of the golden plates on Joseph Smith by an angel). It doesn’t change because it is based not on reason or evidence, but on dogma, superstition, acceptance of what you’re told, scriptures, and revelation. It can be no other way with religious faith. And insofar as change comes (blacks can now be lay priests in Mormonism, you don’t have to eat fish on Friday, and so on), that change doesn’t stem through new observations, but from new revelations.

I’ve dealt with the Professor’s arguments for years, and discuss many of them in my book Faith Versus Fact. They are not new. What’s new to me are all the quotes, but there are no new arguments there. All the piling up of quotes produces is a bigger pile of worthless philosophical dung. In the end, the value of science—a toolkit of ways to understand the Universe—is justified by its results.

I will alert the Professor of this post, so feel free, if you’ve been able to hack your way through the thicket of prose in the email, to address him. (I think it’s a male, but don’t know for sure.)



  1. GBJames
    Posted April 13, 2020 at 9:36 am | Permalink


  2. Posted April 13, 2020 at 9:45 am | Permalink

    Popper died in 1994. That’s a generation ago; moreover his views, while he was alive, on both “antifoundationalism” and on (say) the mind-body problem, both of which might give “comfort” to the religious (inadvertently) were criticized mercilessly by some of his friends and fellow philosophers of science, like M. Bunge and J. Agassi. Sheesh.

  3. ThyroidPlanet
    Posted April 13, 2020 at 9:50 am | Permalink

    Post before reading to subscribe:

    I thought science is based on experiment.

    A good supplemental read on this topic is Peter Atkins’ essay

    • ThyroidPlanet
      Posted April 13, 2020 at 10:01 am | Permalink

      Also Feynman’s bit on this (minus religion) If I get a moment I’ll look it up and post it.

  4. Posted April 13, 2020 at 9:56 am | Permalink

    Hahaha. “Science finds out stuff and religion … makes up stuff.” Nicely put. Reminds me of a short film, “Bukowski’s Last Bet,” where the drunken, gambling Bukoswki-ish character approaches a country store and tells a teenager on the porch, “My wooden leg tells me to bet on horse xxx today.” When the confused kid says, “You ain’t got no wooden leg,” he wheels face-to-face and says, “I am a poet, son, I make shit up.” So that’s one for my brothers and sisters who make shit up.

    • prinzler
      Posted April 13, 2020 at 10:24 am | Permalink

      Great line!

      The real problem is mixing up the two arenas. You can’t, as PCC(E) implies, rationally argue that rationality has no foundation. Your choice is to either adopt empiricism and rationality because you want to discover empirical things and have them make sense (because that works), or go howl at the moon, dance at the beach, or bang on a drum. All of that is eminently respectable, just don’t confuse what you feel with what you know.

  5. Posted April 13, 2020 at 9:58 am | Permalink

    When faced with a wall of text like that I sometimes just read the opening and closing paragraphs, hoping to find a concise summary. In this case I confess I was defeated even in that attempt, but I have faith that PCC(E) has fairly summarized the sweating professor’s… point?

    Richard Carrier has something to say on this topic — apologies if I have used this quote before:

    One should note that even the scientific method itself is an empirically demonstrated normative proposition: from observing the comparative results of following it or not following it, we now know it is an empirical fact of the natural universe that one ought to follow the scientific method as well as one can if one wants to know true facts about the universe (and about us, as occupants of that universe). Science itself is therefore a scientifically proven normative proposition, and that is a natural fact, a fact of the natural universe. Nothing else need be the case but the physical facts of the universe, for that normative proposition to be true. And the only way to make that normative proposition false, would be to change some relevant facts about the physics of the universe.

    — Richard Carrier, Richard Carrier Blogs, February 25, 2016

    • prinzler
      Posted April 13, 2020 at 10:26 am | Permalink

      Richard Carrier to the rescue. His insight far outweighs his occasional over-reach.

    • darrelle
      Posted April 13, 2020 at 2:27 pm | Permalink

      Very good fleshing out of the trite but true statement, “Science, it works Bitches!”

  6. Posted April 13, 2020 at 10:04 am | Permalink

    A guided missile works by continuous correction of error, and frequently succeeds in hitting its target.

    Science is the same, and as has been said many times, its facts are those which have been confirmed to the extent that reasonable people provisionally accept them.

    The notion that we must concern ourselves with absolutes is a hurdle we don’t need to jump, placed there by those who feel the need for certainty so strongly they’ll cling to a worldview that is in all respects LESS likely to be accurate than the outlook they reject.

  7. JohnE
    Posted April 13, 2020 at 10:04 am | Permalink

    I’ve often heard religious people claim that I have “faith” that the sun will come up tomorrow. I don’t have “faith”. I have a reasonable expectation based upon the fact that I have seen the sun rise over 24,000 times in my lifetime (I’m 66), and I am aware of no circumstance that has changed with respect to the existence or positioning of the earth or the sun. In contrast, how many times has any living Christian seen Jesus rise from the dead so as to justify a belief in his resurrection?

    • Posted April 13, 2020 at 11:07 am | Permalink

      I do not mind usurping the word ‘faith’ for science. Religionists use faith to fill in spaces like penicillin’s efficacy, but the outcome of those ‘faith’ events can be measured with evidence.

      So I don’t mind saying ‘I have faith that a medicine will work’. But when I use the word it is because there is evidence for it to work. I could just as well have said ‘I have evidence that the medicine will work’. Herein lies the important bit: there is no evidence for god or heaven. That type of ‘faith’ comes without evidence.

      • Rawandi
        Posted April 14, 2020 at 12:44 pm | Permalink

        Science = rational faith with empirical support.

        Religion = irrational faith without empirical support.

        • Posted April 14, 2020 at 12:57 pm | Permalink

          Let me suggest some improvements:

          Science = faith that is rational because of its empirical support.
          Religion = faith that is irrational because it lacks empirical support.

    • Nicolaas Stempels
      Posted April 13, 2020 at 11:31 am | Permalink

      Your reasonable expectation is built on much more than those empirical 24,000 sunrises, it is also based on the knowledge that the Earth turns, and has been doing that for a few billion years. It is slowing though, but only on the order of a few dozen minutes per 100 millions of years.
      There is no mechanism to stop it (short of an extremely improbable collision with a body with a mass at least of a comparable order of magnitude). Your trust appears warranted (IMMO).

      • Nicolaas Stempels
        Posted April 13, 2020 at 11:37 am | Permalink

        Oops, I see you did mention the movements/positions of the Earth and Sun. My apologies.

      • ThyroidPlanet
        Posted April 13, 2020 at 11:46 am | Permalink

        I think the original confidence trick of sowing such doubt – the sun rising – in the first place is related to the feeling of wondering if some thing will still be doing something even when we aren’t looking directly at it.

  8. Hempenstein
    Posted April 13, 2020 at 10:11 am | Permalink

    The hectoring repetition of “rational” and derivatives thereof suggests mid-stages of dementia.

  9. Matthew
    Posted April 13, 2020 at 10:11 am | Permalink

    Kind of bad timing for the professor, writing a letter like this while the world pours its resources into science to deal with the pandemic. It makes you wonder what this person thinks we should be doing.

    • Ken Phelps
      Posted April 14, 2020 at 12:28 pm | Permalink

      Pouring resources into science to deal with the pandemic, of course. All the sophomoric crap is just a post hoc attempt to justify *his* tribe’s fancy hats and special tom-tom dance around the campfire. When you actually need to build the campfire, you go gather the wood, you don’t dance and pray for it.

      • Mark Joseph
        Posted April 14, 2020 at 9:31 pm | Permalink

        Excellent point!

  10. prinzler
    Posted April 13, 2020 at 10:12 am | Permalink

    The Popper quote about science being in a swamp is no criticism of science as I see it. Here is the entire quotation (if my source is to be believed) and I suspect PCC(E) would agree with it:

    “The empirical basis of objective science has nothing “absolute” about it. Science does not rest upon solid bedrock. The bold structure of its theories rises, as it were, above a swamp. It is like a building erected on piles. The piles are driven down from above into the swamp, but not down to any natural or “given” base; and when we cease our attempts to drive our piles into a deeper layer, it is not because we have reached firm ground. We simply stop when we are satisfied that they are firm enough to carry the structure, at least for the time being.”

    From The Logic of Scientific Discovery: Logik Der Forschung (1959, 2002), 94

    • ThyroidPlanet
      Posted April 13, 2020 at 11:10 am | Permalink

      Interesting! Atkins uses similar imagery to describe science in the easy I have to look up…

    • Nicolaas Stempels
      Posted April 13, 2020 at 11:14 am | Permalink

      I think Popper gives a beautiful illustration of how science works. I think he must have been a great teacher.

      • Jeff
        Posted April 13, 2020 at 2:13 pm | Permalink

        Not a great builder though. What’s the point of piles if they don’t hit anything solid? The building will still sink, piles and all. In Amsterdam, for instance, the piles go down to where they hit the first layer of sand. That may not be not solid bedrock, but it’s good enough for my house…

        • prinzler
          Posted April 14, 2020 at 5:09 pm | Permalink

          I think that was Popper’s point. Even if sand is enough to stabilize the pilings, it’s not bedrock, but the pilings are stable enough to support the structure on top of them. No bedrock needed to get the job done.

  11. Posted April 13, 2020 at 10:14 am | Permalink

    The scientific method is an accumulated structure. It evolved, intellectually, with each change or addition surviving because it worked to help understand nature. It came about through a long process of trial and error. It did not just pop up fully developed for scientists to choose out of faith that it would work.

  12. Historian
    Posted April 13, 2020 at 10:18 am | Permalink

    “I wrote the piece to emphasize that the word ‘faith’ is used very differently in the two areas.”

    This differing definition of the word “faith” is indicative of what seems to me to be a growing problem in discourse about public issues: people talking past each other. How people have defined “socialism” is another example of this. People differ greatly on what the word means. I have suggested half facetiously that authors should be required at the beginning of an article or book to define their terms. This would at least cut down on some of the confusion. But, I doubt we will ever see this.

    • Posted April 13, 2020 at 10:34 am | Permalink

      When you define your terms, you just provide more terms. So that’s a mug’s game.

    • EdwardM
      Posted April 13, 2020 at 10:47 am | Permalink

      Dr PCC(e) and many here have been fighting for years with creationist idgits who dither about the word “theory”. It’s a vapid, frustrating, and pointless semantic game as old as the hills (and courts of law).

    • Posted April 13, 2020 at 10:48 am | Permalink

      However, this argument about scientific “faith” depends wholly on playing games with definitions so your suggestion would have really messed it up.

  13. flutterbymind
    Posted April 13, 2020 at 10:43 am | Permalink

    As it usual in these discussions everything boils down to how you want to define words such as “science” and “faith”.

    Your summary of “the value of science” at the end of the article is pretty much how I approach it.

    > In the end, the value of science — a toolkit of ways to understand
    > the Universe — is justified by its results.

    As a function definition of “science” this requires no more faith than the “belief” in the existence of a hammer.

    As for “faith”, I have to say that I agree with Popper’s ideas in the first bolded section of the argument, that adopting a rational approach to life is, essentially, one’s first and (hopefully last) irrational choice. However, having accepted that, the scientific method is the natural result. So the argument here is one’s “faith” in rationality which, with experience of the world, tends to be supported. If you do not believe your own experiences in the world and also expect the aforementioned hammer to disappear without warning, then I think you have every right to call science “faith based”.

    In the same way that you stated before that if someone can bring proof of existence of God or Gods you’d be happy to sign up (I hope I’m not misrepresenting you here?), if someone can prove the the universe (not humans, the universe!) is irrational then the scientific method would have to collapse. So ultimately science is dependent of the rationality of the universe.

  14. Muffy Ferro
    Posted April 13, 2020 at 10:44 am | Permalink

    As Professor Coyne has said, “All scientific knowledge is provisional,” which is an important reason I have TRUST in the scientific process. Trust is not the same as FAITH. I trust the scientific process because it keeps turning out to be right about things, whereas religion keeps turning out to be wrong.

    When scientists are wrong, scientists are the ones who point it out. When religion is pointed out to be wrong — which is always by science, not by religion itself — they just re-write the rules. Genetics shows that all humans are actually not descended from Noah and 7 other people? Oh well, now it’s an allegory.

  15. Posted April 13, 2020 at 10:44 am | Permalink

    To paraphrase philosopher E J Bond, a statement that automatically convinced everyone who heard it would not be a rational argument, but a magic spell. The Professor seems to equate non-faith with Bond’s magic spell. It’s true that a rational argument will fail to convince anyone who has chosen irrationality, but so what? It doesn’t mean that the argument fails qua rational argument.

    The professor’s cosmologists ask “But the question immediately arises as to how to argue rationally that your beliefs should be argued rationally?” Actually no, that question does not arise, because with enough irrationality, there is no argument at all, just assertion, emotional appeals, or such. To perceive someone as arguing a point, we have to interpret them as attempting to reason with us.

  16. Posted April 13, 2020 at 10:45 am | Permalink

    Those Popper quotes your correspondent gives make him sound like a loquacious loon. However, the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s page, “Karl Popper: Philosophy of Science”, makes him sound much more reasonable:


    As you suggest, it’s not worth investigating though I did a little.

  17. Serendipitydawg
    Posted April 13, 2020 at 10:46 am | Permalink

    Sorry Professor Anonymous, TL;DR – I just ran out of steam around the end of paragraph 2. If you have something important to impart then an avalanche of verbosity (!) is not the best way to do so, especially after two specious paragraphs: that is the way of religion.

    • Posted April 13, 2020 at 12:13 pm | Permalink

      I also apologize to the professor as I was unable to get very far into his loquacious letter. He could definitely take some lessons on writing from PCC(E).

      • Serendipitydawg
        Posted April 13, 2020 at 4:06 pm | Permalink

        I am glad it wasn’t just me 🙂

        He could definitely take some lessons on writing from PCC(E).

        Spot on.

        • Barbara Radcliffe
          Posted April 13, 2020 at 5:23 pm | Permalink

          Agreed, impossible to read! I’m very, very glad that I’ve never run into the esteemed (?) professor. Not all professors of OZ are like that!

  18. ronsch99
    Posted April 13, 2020 at 11:01 am | Permalink

    Someone needs to tell the good Professor to spend more time with John Dewey rather than Karl Popper.

  19. ThyroidPlanet
    Posted April 13, 2020 at 11:26 am | Permalink

    Wikiquote apparently doesn’t have this but here’s Feynman himself delivering his oft-quoted “if it disagrees with experiment it’s wrong” : https://youtu.be/LIxvQMhttq4

    Wikiquote :

  20. Randall Schenck
    Posted April 13, 2020 at 11:39 am | Permalink

    After reading this guy’s letter or email I am pretty sure I am being gas lighted, philosophically speaking.

  21. Posted April 13, 2020 at 11:39 am | Permalink

    I’d make two points. Firstly, Popper is hardly the final word on philosophy of science. Secondly, he is quoting Popper correctly but misusing the quotes. Popper did not argue that science was based on faith. I think you can argue that Popper thought there was a subjective element to science. However, that subjective element comes in the process of hypothesis formation, which for Popper can be a “bold conjecture”. Popper’s method though is an effort to overcome the subjectivity. If the bold conjecture turns out to be false, then you have to reject the theory. That’s the exact opposite of religion and political ideology. None of this is to say that I think Popper’s demarcation criterion is the final word, but this person is definitely misusing Popper.

    • rickflick
      Posted April 13, 2020 at 12:52 pm | Permalink

      Like a cat into a box, I had to look it up:

      “Science does not rest upon solid bedrock. The bold structure of its theories rises, as it were, above a swamp. It is like a building erected on piles. The piles are driven down from above into the swamp, but not down to any natural or ‘given’ base; and if we stop driving the piles deeper, it is not because we have reached firm ground. We simply stop when we are satisfied that the piles are firm enough to carry the structure, at least for the time being.”

      He’s talking in the context of forming bold hypotheses that must be checked out using the scientific toolkit. Not religious faith that my hypothesis must be true. What a moroon.

  22. samoffat@28gmailcom
    Posted April 13, 2020 at 12:11 pm | Permalink

    What a perfect example of MEGO – I could not make it and admire anyone who can plow through it. Don’t forget, as you wade through the mire, that the minutes taken to decipher it will never be returned to you

  23. Charles Jones
    Posted April 13, 2020 at 12:18 pm | Permalink

    I’m always disappointed when the name is redacted. It would be interesting to visit their webpage and see what they teach, what they research. Who is this person who thinks like this?

  24. Posted April 13, 2020 at 12:38 pm | Permalink

    I get so frustrated when people quote people such as Popper (or Hume, or Descartes, or Einstein, or Newton, or anybody) as if because this person said it, it’s true. If the quote, or the argument, or whatever isn’t convincing without attribution, then it’s not convincing. Arguments have to stand on their own.

  25. Roo
    Posted April 13, 2020 at 12:51 pm | Permalink

    While I know it’s somewhat cliche and “Look at me I just took a yoga class!”, ha ha, to do the “Sigh. That’s a Western thing” stance, I am invoking it here because once I started to look at this a different way, I genuinely cannot ‘unsee’ this way. At this point, I cannot figure out why ‘reason vs. emotion’ seemed like a valid distinction to me before. And I think that’s the problem here – it is largely in a Western paradigm that reason is supposed to be ‘opposed’ to some other potential way of being. But what could reason be opposed to? Assuming we live in a deterministic universe, comprised entirely of quantifiable (or hypothetically quantifiable) relationships, there should be nothing there that stand ‘apart’ from reason, as reason is then just a description of ‘what is’. Emotions are deterministic. Appreciation of art is deterministic. Love is deterministic. Etc. This is perhaps not the most poetic view of the universe, but I think it is true.

    Maybe this idea that there is a way of being that stands solidly apart from the conscious observation of determinism is from an earlier time, when our understanding of things like neuroscience was so limited that we assumed some parts of our world were from a sort of mythical realm, vs. a deterministic one. At this point, though, I don’t think this makes any sense. Nor does it make sense to say that people can somehow ‘opt out’ of reason if they choose to. Consider this set of propositions:

    – There is a wall in front of me
    – Walls are solid. I am solid.
    – If I move forward, I will walk into the wall.
    – If I walk into the wall, I will feel pain.

    That’s a silly example to highlight the idea that, of course there is no part of that equation that I can ‘decide’ to undo if I don’t ‘buy in’ to reason. What is the proposed alternative?

  26. Posted April 13, 2020 at 2:12 pm | Permalink

    Science, of course progresses, and religion doesn’t.

    And nor should it. Or would people prefer to argue that Christians today have a better understanding of Jesus’ teachings than the people who heard him (assuming he existed). Or does a Buddhist today have better awareness than Gautama the Buddha?

    I invite any religious person wishing to argue that this is indeed the case, to do so. But first convince your co-religionists of all faiths that you’re right.

    The fact that religion doesn’t (and probably can’t) progress in terms of real knowledge is reflected in the fact that it hasn’t moved a step closer to truth than since Plato kicked off the whole sorry history of theology. Religion just goes around in circles, and each time it meets the latest version of science, it thinks it’s saying something new.

  27. Vaal
    Posted April 13, 2020 at 3:34 pm | Permalink

    Religious apologists like to re-frame their religious faith to be something like plain old induction. “My faith is actually evidence-based. God has provided enough evidence of His caring about human well-being in the past for me to trust he has good reasons in cases like Pandemics etc.”

    So, it’s justified similar to inductive justification.

    But that isn’t how faith is actually used either in every day life, or religiously.

    Inductive beliefs track with the evidence and change with new evidence. I can say I have inductive “trust” that the next swan I see will be white given every previous swan was white. But the moment a black swan shows up, I have to alter my inductive belief and expectations to accommodate.

    “Faith” is what we use in the case of no evidence or especially, in the face of evidence to the contrary of our belief.

    So the religious person who had some “evidence” of God’s benevolence at some point (e.g. biblically, or thinking God answered a prayer), is then presented with contra-evidence like Pandemics that wipe out people indiscriminately. This of course is evidence against a Benevolent God overseeing this suffering, but the religious person doesn’t alter their belief in face of this evidence, but simply sees it as a challenge to overcome, where holding on to their “faith” belief is a virtue instead. Which is why you get religious leaders trying to shore up the “faith” in God in these times. “Things may LOOK bad for the idea God actually cares about us…but KEEP THE FAITH.”

    As to trying to argue a case for “being rational” or using reason:

    On one hand it’s a category error. We can think of “being rational” as descriptive (not normative) like “playing basketball.”

    In this sense you don’t “justify” being rational; reason is that by which you justify. So you are simply “being rational” (e.g. by working through your beliefs seeking consistency, coherence, removing contradictions etc), or you are not, just as you are either “doing the actions we call Playing Basketball or not.”

    You don’t argue for it; you identify it.

    However, in another sense, we can argue for the application of reason/rationality. Of course this means we’d have to assume the rules to do so. But it can be observed that some people, in some instances, do not act reasonably/rationally, and since it’s possible to act without using reason, we can ask “are there reasons to use reason?”
    And, of course….there are. (E.g. desires supply impetus/reasons for action, to get what we value, and employing reason is more likely to get us what we value).

  28. Posted April 13, 2020 at 4:35 pm | Permalink

    I‘m not impressed with Popper‘s scepticism, if quoted accurately. The issue discussed here is the famous problem of induction, of not knowing if the n+1 instance of an observation or experience will maintain continuity to previous instances or suddenly turn out very differently. We should not be concerned with it, as eminent professor Dawkins put it most eloquently, because “it works, bitches”.

    But there are deeper reason than pragmatic “it just works”, too. When people argue about possible sudden changes in nature, such as that the sun might not rise tomorrow, planes stop flying and suchlike, they are creating highly specific counterfactual worlds that are arranged such that somehow everything works as usual, except for aerodynamics. But if laws of nature were to change suddenly, it would be highly unlikely that our cognitive faculties would remain intact to philosophise about it, if we could survive at all.

    But how do I know that the next person I shake hand with, in about two years, will not spontaneously turn into a banana, to name just one (un)likely possibility? Most things including a cognition to recognize bananas and people have an extreme “path dependence”. A banana is not merely a random arrangement of substance or mysterious “fields”, but a fruit that came about because planets form in solar systems, life emerged, billions of years of evolution happened, people emerged and cultivated for hundreds more until a specific fruit could grow.

    Humans, handshakes and so on each have likewise billions of years of path dependence underneath them. To say that reality and the rules governing it are merely a “swamp” is severely underestimating the very deep roots of most things around us that is forming something much like a solid foundation on which everything rests. And of course prodding the roots with a stick to see what they are made of is the only way to find out.

    Our theories or knowledge can change, but we should not confuse a change of appreciation with a change of reality itself (that’s the map-territory distinction yet again). Moving from Newton to Einstein does not make the sky fall down, and I don’t quite understand were “faith” is required anywhere here.

  29. Posted April 13, 2020 at 6:04 pm | Permalink

    Science provides the best wrong answers.Then we find better wrong answers(see David Deutsch).


  30. John Reynolds
    Posted April 13, 2020 at 10:29 pm | Permalink

    “Philoophy asks questions that may never be answered, religion gives answers that may never be questioned.” author unknown

    When people post nonsense about science being a religion I always ask what religion overturns their creation story, and does it in less than one generation? Because science went from an eternal steady state universe to the Big Bang in about that time.

  31. Jim Danielson
    Posted April 13, 2020 at 11:02 pm | Permalink

    I very much doubt our faith professing professor prayed that email into existence using religious faith.

  32. chrism
    Posted April 14, 2020 at 5:53 am | Permalink

    And I feel bad for bothering PCC(E) with a photo or two!

  33. Rawandi
    Posted April 14, 2020 at 11:18 am | Permalink

    Popper is such a bad philosopher of science that he even denied that evolutionary theory was a scientific theory.

  34. Filippo
    Posted April 14, 2020 at 6:05 pm | Permalink


  35. Mark Joseph
    Posted April 14, 2020 at 9:50 pm | Permalink

    I’ve been wanting to post this for some time; this seems like the right place.

    Everyone knows that science and religion teach different things as being true; that is, they have different contents.

    If I’m not mistaken, most everyone, at least here, also knows that science and religion have different way of obtaining that knowledge/content, that is, different epistemologies. I offer this brief précis; more in-depth analyses exist, notably in Carl Sagan’s The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark and our own PCC(E)’s Faith vs. Fact.

    Science finds out about the world by using:
    Agreement. That is, you get the same results whether you are male or female, black or white, Christian, Jew, Hindu, Muslim, atheist, tall or short, blue-eyed or brown-eyed, etc. (I would have said it was culturally context independent, but that doesn’t begin with an “A”)
    Logic. No formal fallacies committed; no informal fallacies indulged in. Especially the argument from authority, so well-commented upon in this thread.

    Religion, on the other hand, gets its content from:
    Faith; in the biblical/traditional sense of believing things based on insufficient evidence
    Authority; whether clerical or scriptural
    Revelation; in supposedly inspired writings and prophets

    So, I conclude that science is REAL whereas religion is an intellectual FART.

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