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CAM and Creationism: Separated at Birth?

Over the past weekend, I had the opportunity to attend CSICon in Nashville, Tennessee. The Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (“CSI”) combats all sorts of pseudoscience, including creationism/creation science/intelligent design and alternative/complementary/integrative medicine. Our own Team SBM was ably represented by Harriet Hall, David Gorski and Kimball Atwood, whose presentation highlighted the credulous acceptance of CAM in some medical schools, and by Steve Novella, who gave a talk on the placebo effect and its exploitation by CAM proponents. Among many other presentations were those on the Mayan calendar and the end of the world, unmasking of (supposedly) paranormal events, and the neurobiology of memory. Pseudoscience was given a well-deserved thrashing by rational minds.

On Saturday, I once again had the pleasure of hearing Eugenie Scott ,Ph.D., the virtually one-woman anti-creationism campaign who founded and heads the National Center for Science Education (NCSE). As I listened to her talk I couldn’t help but being struck by a number of similarities in the weaknesses apparent in arguments for creationism/ creation science/intelligent design (or “ID”)and those for alternative/complementary/integrative medicine (or “CAM”). I doubt the two groups like to think of themselves as ideological twins, but gosh, they sure do look alike.

CAM and creationism

Of course, CAM is not monolithic. I imagine some of those who promote CAM diagnostic methods and treatments would be perfectly happy being associated with Intelligent Design or any of its previous iterations, such as creationism. After all, if you think all interpretations of how the world works are equally valid you are not likely to quibble with the idea that God created the earth in 6 days any more than you would argue with acupuncture’s meridians and qi. And some CAM providers are so deficient in scientific training we can well imagine they might view the creation of man from clay as a plausible explanation of human evolution. On the other hand, if you are in, say, academic medicine, you would likely bristle at the idea that you have anything in common with an ID proponent. Even some of those in the Health Care Freedom movement, who endorse the concept that all treatments, no matter how implausible or ineffective, should be available to anyone who wants them, would probably draw the line at the notion that their arguments are no better than those which supposedly support ID.

ID, on the other hand, is exclusively a fundamentalist Christian concept, although with variations within that single ideology. (Mainstream Christianity does not reject evolution as an explanation for the origins of life.) As explained on the NCSE website, which I highly recommend, there are several types of anti-evolution creationists with differing points of view. (Below is but a rough summary and may somewhat conflate the various subtypes in the interest of brevity.)

Originally, anti-evolution creationists argued that the Bible is the inerrant word of God. Thus, if the Bible says that God created the sun, moon and stars on day four of creation, then that is exactly what happened. That was fine as long as those views were confined to religious settings. But the creationists wanted to go further by banning the teaching of evolution and teaching creationism in public schools. Here they ran into trouble in the form of the First Amendment and courts consistently held that creationism is religion, not science, and could not be taught in science classes. The creationists regrouped and invented “creation science,” which argued that the creation story is actually supported by good science. That didn’t fly as an end-run around the Constitution so they came up with Intelligent Design, which attempts to expurgate creationism of all religious language. ID argues, as the name suggests, that science supports the existence of an Intelligent Designer (code for God) and that Darwinian evolution (which is, after all, “just a theory”) is full of holes so, by default, ID correctly explains the origin of life.

It is my impression that CAM concepts such as vitalism will pass muster with IDers as long as the “life force” underlying it is understood as God. I know anecdotally of Christian chiropractors who claim that what was originally known in chiropractic as “Innate Intelligence” is actually God at work. However, to the extent that any CAM is inconsistent with Christian theology it cannot be accepted because of the exclusivity of Christian principles. Thus one cannot accept both that qi and meridians exist if one is loyal to Christianity. Although not an example from fundamentalist Christianity, this inconsistency with Christian doctrine is why reiki was condemned as a belief in the supernatural by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in 2009.

I find there are remarkable parallels between the logical fallacies and sub-par thinking committed in typical arguments made in favor of CAM and those in favor of ID. So if you are offended by the lack of good science behind one it is hard to be logically consistent in supporting the other. Let’s look at my list, which I set out with brief comments. Perhaps you can think of others.

Argument from antiquity

One of the well-worn arguments in favor of acupuncture is that it has been used for 2000 years (or 5000 years or “thousands of years”) so there “must be something to it.” (Actually, the acupuncture of today dates from the middle of the last century.) A similar argument is made for Ayurveda, Traditional Chinese Medicine (which incorporates acupuncture) and herbal medicine. As David Gorski pointed out in his talk at CSICon, this argument from antiquity could be made for humoural medicine, the concept that bodily function is governed by the four humours and the source of the “science” behind bloodletting. Fortunately, it’s one ancient therapy that didn’t survive.

The Christian fundamentalist theology behind creationism also relies on the Bible’s antiquity as support for its inerrancy. When they sing “that ole time religion . . . is good enough for me,” they really mean “ole.” This is no more persuasive than the antiquity (real or invented) behind CAM diagnostic methods and treatments. There is nothing wrong, of course, with ancient peoples attempting to interpret their world as best they could with the tools at hand, but their views of biology and physiology should no longer hold sway when surpassed by scientific discovery.

Argument from ignorance

As Irish comedian and CAM critic Dara O’Briain famously said:

Science knows it doesn’t know everything; otherwise, it’d stop. But just because science doesn’t know everything doesn’t mean you can fill in the gaps with whatever fairy tale most appeals to you.

NCSE echoes this thought in discussing ID:

ID has been called an argument from ignorance, as it relies upon a lack of knowledge for its conclusion: Lacking a natural explanation, we assume intelligent cause. Most scientists would reply that unexplained is not unexplainable, and that ‘we don’t know yet’ is a more appropriate response than invoking a cause outside of science.

Bad science

What we might collectively (and colloquially) refer to as “bad science” is the sine qua non of CAM. Without bad science CAM cannot exist and thus we find it across the full spectrum of CAM promotion. Whether cherry-picking the evidence, tooth fairy science, lack of plausibility, making inappropriate conclusions from studies, or other insufficiently rigorous methodology, bad science can be found at all levels of CAM. At the lower reaches, go to any CAM organization or practitioner website and I defy you to find a complete explication of the scientific evidence for or against a CAM treatment (that is, real CAM, not treatments rebranded as CAM.) At the higher levels of CAM apologists and promoters, such as NCCAM, hospitals, medical organizations and otherwise respectable medical schools, you’ll find plenty of examples of bad science harnessed in the service of CAM.

While I do not understand evolutionary biology (or any kind of biology for that matter) well enough to list the many examples of bad science in ID, fortunately Eugenie Scott does. An article she and Nicholas J. Matzke authored and published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (2007) gives a brief explanation and supplies references to scholarly critiques of ID and its predecessors. Those criticisms were brought to bear on ID in the landmark case Kitzmiller v. Dover, in which a federal district court judge found that ID was simply a form of creationism and its teaching in public schools a violation of the First Amendment.

(As an aside, I have often wished for a similar opportunity to put CAM, or any of its iterations, on trial. Unfortunately, there is no constitutional prohibition against bad science. Perhaps there should be.)

Keeping an open mind

Although years of research have failed to uncover a single CAM treatment that is better than placebo, proponents claim that we should “keep an open mind.” As David Gorski pointed out in his CSICon presentation on CAM in medical schools, it’s not a good idea to keep one’s mind open to the extent that one’s brains fall out.

Likewise, ID proponents attempt to dress up teaching the pseudoscience of ID in the classroom as “teaching the controversy” and an issue of “academic freedom:”

Although in the 1990s IDC [Intelligent Design/Creationism] advocates had encouraged the teaching of ID in public school science classes as an alternative to evolution, in the early 2000s they shifted their strategy. IDCs currently concentrate their efforts on attacking evolution. Under innocuous-sounding guises such as ‘academic freedom,’ ‘critical analysis of evolution,’ or ‘teaching the strengths and weaknesses of evolution,’ IDCs attempt to encourage teachers to teach students wrongly that there is a ‘controversy’ among scientists over whether evolution has occurred. So-called ‘evidence against evolution’ or ‘weaknesses of evolution’ consist of the same sorts of long-discredited arguments against evolution which have been a staple of creationism since the 1920s and earlier.

Moving the goalposts

Steve Novella’s CSICon presentation on the placebo effect noted that originally CAM proponents claimed they would show that CAM treatments had real physiological effects. But after a billion or so dollars of taxpayer funded research that didn’t pan out so they switched claims. Now they are “harnessing the power of the placebo” and physiological effects have been exchanged for “healing” (whatever that means).

Likewise, creationists originally sought to ban the teaching of evolution in public schools. They succeeded early in the last century, hence the Scopes trial in the 1920s, in which a teacher was convicted of defying the Tennessee ban on teaching evolution. However, when a series of federal court cases decided that creationism was pure religion, not science, tactics shifted to teaching creationism, later rebranded as ID, along with the science of evolution. When ID was exposed as creationism, the tactics shifted again to the “academic freedom” argument mentioned above.

Legislative alchemy

If science doesn’t support you, make sure the state legislature does. In a process I call “legislative alchemy” implausible and unproven treatments such as subluxation-based chiropractic, homeopathy and acupuncture are transformed into licensed health care practices.

IDers use the same approach. As mentioned, early on they were able to simply ban the teaching of evolution. Now, they take a different tack in the form of so-called academic freedom laws.

There are two main strains of ‘academic freedom’ bills. The first mandates that teachers be able to discuss ‘the full range of scientific views regarding biological and chemical evolution,’ and offers students ‘protection for subscribing to a particular position on views regarding biological or chemical evolution.’ Bills of this strain typically also include unsubstantiated claims of widespread persecution of teachers and students who criticize evolution. The Discovery Institute’s ‘Model Academic Freedom Statute on Evolution’ is of this form.

The second strain does not purport to be concerned with student rights, and cites the need to help students develop ‘critical thinking skills’ on ‘controversial issues.’ To this end, it permits teachers to discuss ‘the scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses of existing scientific theories.’ The listed ‘theories’ often cover several topics of concern to the religious right: primarily evolution and abiogenesis, but also global warming, human cloning and stem cell research. One example of this strain is 2008’s Louisiana Science Education Act.

From 2004 to spring 2011, at least forty such bills have been filed in 13 states.

To date, these bills have become law in Louisiana and Tennessee.

Conclusion

So where does all of this get us? I do not argue that if one believes that CAM should be a part of medicine in particular or health care in general then one necessarily believes in ID, or vice versa. But I do believe that the arguments for CAM are based on the same logical fallacies and fuzzy thinking that the ID movement uses. And if the thought that their arguments are cut from the same cloth as creationists makes CAM proponents queasy then perhaps it is time they reexamine their beliefs.

Posted in: Evolution, History, Religion, Science and Medicine

Leave a Comment (107) ↓

107 thoughts on “CAM and Creationism: Separated at Birth?

  1. Jann, I believe that the universe was designed and created by an supernatural entity. Note my use of “believe,” not “know.” If you believe otherwise, that’s your prerogative. You can’t prove me wrong, and I couldn’t prove you wrong. For both of us, this issue would be a matter of faith.

    On the other hand, I agree that most, perhaps all, CAM therapies are ineffective except as placebos. This can be proven by logic and experimentation.

    So I don’t see the parallels you do between CAM and Intelligent Design.

    -Steve

  2. BillyJoe says:

    Steve,

    Your faith is blinding you.
    Giving Jann one example of where CAM and IDC are not parallel, doesn’t negate Jann’s six examples where they are parallel.
    You must argue against Jann’s six examples to establish your case.

    In any case, it seems crazy to believe in something without a shred of evidence.
    Is there anything else you believe in without a shred of evidence?
    If not, why the exception?

  3. kathy says:

    Steve Parker – I am also a Christian, but I can definitely see the similarity in both the (il)logic and the tactics used by CAM and ID/creationism. Both want to win at any (!!?) cost, and don’t mind moving the goalposts or telling lies to do so.

    What’s more, as a Christian, it makes me sick to the stomach to see such “reasoning” and tactics used by the Christian community. It is distinctly anti whatever makes Christianity a good religion, as were the Crusades to force “infidels” to become “believers”, and the Inquisition to root out anyone who did not toe the official line. We condemn those now, but at the time I’m sure the preachers cozened people into thinking they were a good thing. So how will history judge the creationists and their tactics five hundred years from now?

    Those who use ugly methods and preach falsities to force/decieve other people into doing what they want, only show they have no idea what Christianity is all about. They have the chutzpah and brazeness to set themselves up as leaders, but they are the worst possible people to lead. Same applies to CAM and real medicine … I get pretty nervous thinking these types are aiming to lead in matters of government, law or academia.

  4. mcthfg says:

    kathy –

    “Those who use ugly methods and preach falsities to force/decieve other people into doing what they want, only show they have no idea what Christianity is all about.”

    Methinks I see a “No true Scotsman” in the making. I find many examples of the leaders and followers of Christianity “preaching falsities to force/deceive other people into doing what they want” – and they are the epitome of what is defined as “Christian” – such as the child rape scandel that has enveloped the Catholic church. And the Bible, the original guide to being a Christian, is full of examples of god lying, god’s followers lying, theft, adultery, incest, slavery, and a plethora of other immoral acts, justified because the actors were doing their deeds in the service of god, often at the behest of god.

    Perhaps you should read that book again…

  5. BillyJoe says:

    kathy,

    I’m paying you a big compliment when I say this:
    Those “no true Scotsman” Christians you condemn are truer to biblical concept of Christians than you’ll ever be.

  6. David Gorski says:

    It is my impression that CAM concepts such as vitalism will pass muster with IDers as long as the “life force” underlying it is understood as God. I know anecdotally of Christian chiropractors who claim that what was originally known in chiropractic as “Innate Intelligence” is actually God at work.

    This is truer than most might realize. For example, many forms of “energy healing” show strong parallels to Christian faith healing. Proponents just rename the various components and/or rely on Eastern mysticism as the religious basis for the healing. For example, reiki involves the “healer” channeling energy from the “universal source” through the healer into the patient. How is this any different from a faith healer channeling the “healing power of God” into a patient through the laying on of hands? At its core, it isn’t. Indeed, this resemblance has led to some amusing consequences, such as when the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops condemned the proliferation of reiki use in Catholic hospitals as being incompatible with Catholic teaching and when a fundamentalist preacher characterized reiki as a “sin.” Christians recognize a competing religious doctrine when they see it. Therapeutic touch (which is a lot like reiki) is very similar in in its close resemblance to faith healing. I sometimes think that this parallel is part of the reason for the credulous acceptance of charlatans like John of God among so many physicians. CAM has opened the door, and, when you boil it down to its essence, what John of God does is really no different from what reiki masters do, except that John of God does it with theatrical flourishes stolen from ancient carnival sideshow tricks. On the other hand, a depressingly large number of physicians accept ID as being valid science.

    On the other hand, perhaps none of this should be such a surprise, given that, in a marked contrast to scientists, physicians as a group tend to be at least as religious as the general population and might even be more so.

    But back to the CAM-ID analogy. As Eugenie mentioned in her talk, the analogy only goes so far. For one thing, ID is not a serious threat to education past high school. Other than in religious institutions, it is not taught as science in universities, although it might sometimes be taught as philosophy or religion. ID advocates are focusing on K-12 schools, particularly junior high and high school, because biology faculty at universities recognize ID as pseudoscience. This means that the situation is actually much worse in medical school for CAM teaching than it is in any postgraduate educational institution for ID. ID proponents are properly viewed with disdain in pretty much every non-sectarian university and college. CAM proponents are welcomed with open arms and allowed to set up centers, divisions, and departments of “integrative medicine” in medical schools, which teach that “treatments” such as channeling the energy from the “universal source, diluting substances to nonexistence, and realigning a person’s flow of “life energy” are legitimate therapeutic modalities. In other words, biology departments eschew the pseudoscience that is ID; medical schools enthusiastically embrace the pseudoscience that is the vast majority of CAM.

  7. windriven says:

    @Steve Parker, MD and kathy

    I would be interested to know how you reconcile critical thinking, “logic and experimentation”, with belief in a god in general and one or another variant of the Abrahamic god in particular. I am not asking this in a snarky way. This has been a lifelong preoccupation.

  8. windriven says:

    ” For one thing, ID is not a serious threat to education past high school.”

    Recall the Jesuit maxim, “Give me the child till the age of seven and I will give you the man.”

    It seems to me not an accident that most religions begin inculcating their theologies at an early age.

  9. Jann Bellamy says:

    @ Steve Parker, M.D.

    ID is not just the belief in an Intelligent Designer:

    “ID argues, as the name suggests, that science supports the existence of an Intelligent Designer (code for God) and that Darwinian evolution (which is, after all, “just a theory”) is full of holes so, by default, ID correctly explains the origin of life.”

    ID is the corruption of science and the scientific method to fit a preconceived notion of causation. Proponents want to teach Biblical creationism as a substitute for science in public schools. I do not argue that one is not entitled to believe as one wishes. You are certainly free to believe whatever you want. But I do argue that no one is entitled to substitute a belief system for science in education, in law, or in medicine.

  10. Janet says:

    Every altie I know (and my life is filled with them) used to be a churchgoer (weren’t we all if you are over 50?). They take great pride in “leaving” the church. Trouble is they only got to the first fork in the road when they left and it was marked SCAM–church without the building and no nuns to rap your knuckles. A lot of them say the church just “wanted my money”. This is a hoot as these same people give hundreds of dollars a month to various SCAM products and practitioners.

  11. cervantes says:

    I always find it discouraging when people who are generally reality-based and think critically assert that there is some sort of exception for religious doctrine. The concept of God is usually fuzzily defined and means different things to different people, but the Christian God is clearly both internally contradictory and inconsistent with observable reality. Dr. Parker chooses to “believe” that the universe was designed and created by a “supernatural entity.” That is indistinguishable from believing in the Tooth Fairy. What does he even mean by a “supernatural entity”? That is semantically nonsense. If something exists, it is part of nature. We continue to learn more and more about the universe by the methods of science. Nowhere do we find God. While nature often seems puzzling to our intuitions, it is what it is.

    The only reason he believes in this unspecified and nonsensical “supernatural entity” is because he was thoroughly indoctrinated as a child and he hasn’t been able to free himself from the prison of unreason.

  12. WilliamLawrenceUtridge says:

    No discussion of creationism and intelligent design would be complete without reference to the excellent talk.origins archive, in particular their superb, comprehensive and growing index to creationist claims which is worth reading through completely in my mind (particularly if you are ever going to encounter a creationist). The galling this about most creationist claims is that literally every single one has been addressed, often decades ago, and they are still bleated today as if they held weight. Creationism is a fundamentally dishonest lie, and I am surprised more congregations are not outraged that they are being lied to so comprehensively whenever this comes up. Intelligent design is just as bad, if not worse, and the entirety rests on a claim refuted by Darwin himself more than a century ago (the watchmaker analogy, but on a molecular rather than gear-and-spring level).

    If anyone is looking for a good book on, partiuclarly, the recent Dover trial, I can’t recommend Edward Humes’ Monkey Girl highly enough. Not only is it thorough, it is extremely readable, and almost has the pacing of a novel. Also has a brief overview of the history of creationism and why it’s wrong.

  13. DugganSC says:

    :) Eh, for all the negativity, I’m personally proud of my religion and I feel that religion is no more incompatible with science than you can state that being a [political party] member and a thinking individual is incompatible. You can always cherry-pick examples for or against. There was a line from Snow Crash that I liked, which pointed out that 90% of religion is eminently either untrue or unnecessary, but rejecting it all as invalid before you realize the 10% is as irrational as declaring the 100% valid.

    But ultimately, religion is like politics. You can readily hold your view and defend your view, but there’s really no way to force others to believe it.

  14. Harriet Hall says:

    @windriven,

    “I would be interested to know how you reconcile critical thinking, “logic and experimentation”, with belief in a god”

    We have no evidence for the existence of a personal god who answers prayers and intervenes in our lives. In fact, there is much evidence against it. Belief in that kind of god is incompatible with critical thinking.

    But many good skeptics choose to believe in a Deist type of god who created the world and then left it alone. There is no way to test that belief; and no explanation of the origin of the Universe is logically acceptable, since nothing explains how a creator could have originated, and the scientific explanation that “something is more stable than nothing” also fails to explain why reality works that way and how that reality originated.

    Some people convince themselves that they have “evidence” (usually anecdotal) for the existence of god; some convince themselves that a fallacious line of reasoning is irrefutable; others accept that there is no evidence but they choose to believe without evidence, for emotional reasons. They exempt this one subject from their usual skeptical approach to questions. I respect them far more than I respect skeptics who exempt CAM from their usual skeptical approach – and there are a great many of them!

  15. cervantes says:

    The definition of religion is belief without evidence, or contrary to evidence. 100% of that is irrational, by definition. I don’t fill in my lack of knowledge with imaginary beings, and it is preposterous to argue that doing so is somehow compatible with rationality. Either you’re rational or you aren’t.

  16. nybgrus says:

    Steve Parker says:

    You can’t prove me wrong, and I couldn’t prove you wrong. For both of us, this issue would be a matter of faith

    However, that is itself a fallacious argument – one that had repeatedly (and often comically) refuted quite thoroughly. The burden of proof is on the one making the claim. You are correct that I cannot prove some nebulously defined “supernatural being” did not create the universe and then decide it had better things to do for the last 14 billion years. But in the absence of evidence, one cannot assert it to be true and demand I prove you wrong. If you disagree with the fundamental principle of burden of proof then you are not amenable to the scientific process. If this its how you live your life – as most young earth creationists do – then the conversation is over. There is nearly nothing that can be said to convince someone to value evidence and the scientific process if they inherently don’t value the principles that get you there in the first place. But of you are suspending standard critical thought for only your particular religion then you should explore the utility of that.

    I have a friend who is very Jewish – he even doesn’t work on Saturday. But he recognizes that it is an irrational belief, one that he had purely because of his childhood, but enjoys the culture, find comfort in the traditions, and that’s it. He knowingly isolated that aspect of his life from everything else. The problem is most people don’t do that – they let these unverifiable or proven wing ideas rule their lives and make them demand others life the same way (eg marriage equality, abortion, contraception). Of you want to believe a blastocyst stage zygote is just add much a person add me, by all means. But you have no right to impose that belief on me.

    I personally believe that there is extra solar intelligent life. I have no direct proof, but at least some prior probability on my side. But truly this is a belief – one which does not tike how I live my life or how I expect others to lead theirs.

    For Steve Parker, he is right that I cannot prove his nebulous deity does not exist. However, all the evidence shows it likely doesn’t, and that clearly the specific gods of the greeks, the Hindi, and Abraham certainly do not exist. And parsimony with some logic would also dictate that the notion of a deistic good who got the ball rolling and left the picture its not only a mildly ridiculous claim, but also entirely not useful.

    Apologies for errors. I am on my phone writing this.

    PS – I’ve long drawn the same conclusions Jann has, and even called out
    pmoran on similar thinking just recently. Of course, my undergrad study included a lot of evolutionary biology and I have spent years understanding .
    Apologies for sperling errors

  17. Harriet Hall says:

    @cervantes,

    “Either you’re rational or you aren’t.”

    I disagree. I think we try very hard to be rational but we all fail at times because of the way evolution shaped our brains. I readily admit that sometimes I do irrational things. Humans are more like Capt. Kirk than Mr. Spock.

    There’s a difference between recognizing that we are choosing to do something irrational and doing it because we falsely believe it is rational.

  18. The Dave says:

    I’ll admit that my skeptism ends at my particular church/religion. I don’t have evidence, just the (unacceptable to skeptics) belief in a personal God that has answered my prayers and confirmed it to be true.

    (I guess let the ridicule begin)

  19. WilliamLawrenceUtridge says:

    As long as you own the fact that you are basing your belief on essentially unscientific, often irrational precepts (and your beliefs don’t lead to the suffering of other), there’s no reason to ridicule. As I believe Dr. Hall said, anyone who admits to religious faith on purely irrational grounds and doesn’t try to bring proof into the equation has my respect (I still think your beliefs are silly and unfounded, but at least you aren’t trying to shoehorn them into science, or vice-versa). I would venture that many religious people haven’t thought it through or questioned the rationality or irrationality of their beliefs, let alone challenged them. 50 Reasons People Give for Believing in a God does a pretty good job of going over most of the reasons and pointing out why they’re fundamentally (ahahaha) flawed.

    So believe in your God, be honest that it’s for irrational reasons, and don’t be embarassed.

  20. David Gorski says:

    “Either you’re rational or you aren’t.”
    I disagree. I think we try very hard to be rational but we all fail at times because of the way evolution shaped our brains. I readily admit that sometimes I do irrational things. Humans are more like Capt. Kirk than Mr. Spock.

    I’m with Harriet. In fact, I’d go even further, to say that we are all irrational. It’s just that some of us are more irrational about more things than others. But we’re all irrational about something. It’s quite easy to find self-styled skeptics who cling to irrational beliefs in specific areas. Alt-med is a good example. So is antivax, as is anthropogenic global warming denialism. At one time or another, I’ve come across people active in the skeptic movement who are at least sympathetic to one or more of these antiscience views, in some cases going beyond just being sympathetic and into the realm of buying into the denialism at the heart of these views. Often they cloak their antiscience with the mantle of skepticism. People don’t buy into pseudoscience and quackery because they’r stupid. They buy into them because of cognitive quirks all humans share. The difference is that skeptics know they have those cognitive quirks and try to correct for them. They don’t always succeed, because it’s really hard because skepticism is not the natural state of affairs for human thinking.

    To me, true skepticism involves accepting that I am in many ways irrational and recognizing my weak spots when it comes to that. One might even say that accepting one’s own biases and irrationality is part and parcel of the scientific method. If we didn’t tend to filter our observations through the lens of our own biases, it wouldn’t be nearly as important to line up the proper controls, to blind observers to experimental group, taking care not to confuse correlation with causation, etc. Indeed, I look at the scientific method as a means of protecting ourselves against our own irrationality when making observations and inferences about how nature works. In one of the Dirty Harry movies, the tagline was, “A man’s got to know his limitations.” I look at science, skepticism, and critical thinking as a way of knowing our own limitations and trying to keep them from leading us astray.

  21. nybgrus says:

    @The Dave:

    Some may find this perhaps surprising, but I actually agree with WLU, Dr. Hall, and Dr. Gorski.

    As I described in my anecdote about my Jewish friend, I find no reason to ridicule you. I ridicule the theists who try to re-write history, change the teaching of scientific fact, or attempt to force their beliefs on others. And even then I don’t ridicule the theist so much as I ridicule the theism.

    I also believe that people aren’t theistic or buy into other patently silly ideas because they are stupid (though being “stupid” whatever that really means certainly wouldn’t help matters much) but because they have not had the impetus and/or opportunity to apply the same scrutiny to those questions as they do to others. I have met many people that some would consider “stupid” who had theistic or otherwise silly ideas and when I spoke with them were very nice and amenable and genuinely intrigued at the questions I posed.

    My only “ridiculue” at you would come from Socrates himself: “The unexamined life is not worth living.” If you are willing to apply skepticism and the rules of evidence to all other claims, why not to your theism as well? I would argue that in most cases doing so would be incredibly liberating and fascinating. But I readily recognize there are circumstances where that wouldn’t be the case. As WLU said, knowing it is an irrational belief you keep for reasons that are important to you is perfectly respectable. Just please don’t force other people to be limited by your beliefs.

  22. windriven says:

    @Dr. Hall

    “But many good skeptics choose to believe in a Deist type of god”

    It still leaves me with an aching case of cognitive dissonance. The best I’ve been able to figure is that they hold the belief independent of, to abuse Laplace, the need for that hypothesis.

  23. UncleHoot says:

    “But I do argue that no one is entitled to substitute a belief system for science in education, in law, or in medicine.”

    Finally, something that I can agree with 100%. But sadly, it is done all too often. Established dogma, in both law and medicine, is exceedingly difficult to eradicate.

  24. Calli Arcale says:

    This really should come as no surprise. This is an example of “crank magnetism”. You see the same sorts of reasoning because it takes the same sort of mindset to get into either.

    To Steve Parker . . .

    I’m not sure we’re talking about the same thing when you say Intelligent Design. I am a Christian, and i believe God created the universe, and also that He sent Jesus into the world. However, I do not believe in Intelligent Design. Intelligent Design was developed consciously as a wedge by the Creationists. It’s not a skeptical variation of Creationism; it is, at best, syncretism between belief in evolution and believe in divine creation of a perfect universe. Intelligent Design generally holds that speciation cannot occur without divine intervention, and that everything in the Universe is as it is because God willed it.

    Me, I don’t believe that. Firstly, because the scientific evidence is against it, unless God’s a merry prankster with at definite malicious streak. Secondly, because I’m not a Calvinist; I believe our future is not preordained and that we have free will. Evolution, to me, makes sense not only scientifically but also as the logical conclusion of all organisms possessing free will. They can choose their future, therefore their progeny may be different from them, therefore evolution is not only philosophically/theologically acceptable to me, it’s *inevitable*.

  25. Quill says:

    This is a very interesting thread to me and I would like to thank everyone for their comments. I would agree with the Socratic way nygbrus quoted, as until you have looked at absolutely everything you can in your own life you won’t know what things you’ve accepted from someone else and whether it’s true or useful. After my own examinations I realized I am not a theist, deist or believer in cosmic watchmakers. I’ve also always liked the various versions of what were reported to be Shakyamuni Buddha’s final words. Here is a version:

    “Do not accept any of my words on faith,
    Believing them just because I said them.
    Be like an analyst buying gold, who cuts, burns,
    And critically examines his product for authenticity.
    Only accept what passes the test
    By proving useful and beneficial in your life.”

  26. Quill says:

    nybgrus noted: “The burden of proof is on the one making the claim.”

    Here, yes, but kindly recall that this assertion is one that is accepted in science but not in other places. For instance, in certain civil law countries, a person is charged with a crime and presumed guilty until he or she proves otherwise. The claim is made but it’s up to anyone else but the claimant to disprove it. Also in Abrahamic religions, if a claim is made on the basis on accepted scriptures then it is considered valid unless demonstrated to be in error by reference to those same scriptures.

    I mention all of that because it’s one of those situations where common assumptions often separate meaningful discourse. To the science-minded, of course the burden of proof is on the one making a claim — how could it be otherwise? But in other circles, no such base standard exists. This is where I think Socratic or skeptical thought processes offer practical hope for everyone as the base assumptions made about reality can be discovered, tested and talked about.

  27. Narad says:

    When they sing “that ole time religion . . . is good enough for me,” they really mean “ole.”

    As they used to teach it (in part) at the Old Town School of Folk Music,

    I’m a Zarathustra boosta
    I’m a Zarathustra boosta
    I’m a Zarathustra boosta
    He’s good enough for me!

    Anyway, I’m not so sure about the following:

    Thus one cannot accept both that qi and meridians exist if one is loyal to Christianity.

    The rejection of reiki by the Catholic Church is obvious: you cannot appoint yourself, by way of a weekend seminar, to a “special charism of healing so as to make manifest the power of the grace of the risen [L-rd],” which, although totally legit in and of itself, is entirely up to the Holy Spirit. (Making magic hand symbols doesn’t help, either.) The only way this could work is demonically.

    The Catholic position, as I understand it, on “qi” is much more slippery. The practice of acupuncture is fine, so long as the Daoism is stripped out. So long as it’s entirely internal, hydraulic, and does not encroach on the soul, “qi” seems to become more of a nomenclatural problem.

  28. WilliamLawrenceUtridge says:

    @Dr. Gorski

    So is antivax, as is anthropogenic global warming denialism. At one time or another, I’ve come across people active in the skeptic movement who are at least sympathetic to one or more of these antiscience views, in some cases going beyond just being sympathetic and into the realm of buying into the denialism at the heart of these views.

    James Randi was, possibly still is, a global warming skeptic if not outright denialist. Michael Shermer was a skeptic until 2006 when he publically announced he had changed his mind. This was well-past the time at which most genuine experts had already changed their minds. Penn Jillette is apparently still a skeptic, but less so (link for all three). “Skeptics”, even the most famous ones, appear just as prone to partitioning their skepticism as anyone else. The NCSE itself has expanded its focus recently to climate change as well as evolution/creationism (and hosts what looks like a post similar to this one).

    Skeptics aren’t perfect, and it’d be nice if skeptics themselves recognized that fact and called each other on it. But we’re all human (except Orac of course) so we can’t be perfect. Which is too bad.

  29. jdl83 says:

    I’ve read and heard* that the Naturalist is actually more limited in their ability to “follow the evidence where ever it goes” than is the Christian. Dr. William Lane Craig and Dr. Craig Hazen have both said this (both prominent Christian apologists). To my lay understanding, the thought is that the Naturalist (which many skeptics appear to be) must, at all costs, find a natural cause to everything.

    If one accepts that there are more “ways of knowing” than just the empirical (the realm of science) then the door is at least open to consider the above.

    Have any of you that would define yourselves as being a Naturalist (philosophically, not in the SCAM sense) ever given thought to this statement (beyond a knee-jerk reaction)? This is meant as an honest question. I’d really like to know. I don’t exactly have Dr. Hall in my pocket to respond to some of the lectures I’ve heard over the years from these guys.

    *I’ve read and heard a lot of Christian Apologetics-type of material over the last few years to see if it is reasonable to hold my faith. I am by no means an expert in any particular science, branch of philosophy, nor all of Christian theology. I’m just another fellow human being seeking answers to the Big Questions as best as my God-given faculties will allow. ;)

  30. Narad says:

    If one accepts that there are more “ways of knowing” than just the empirical (the realm of science) then the door is at least open to consider the above.

    One runs the risk of falling afoul of rank gnosticism with this approach.

  31. David Gorski says:

    James Randi was, possibly still is, a global warming skeptic if not outright denialist. Michael Shermer was a skeptic until 2006 when he publically announced he had changed his mind. This was well-past the time at which most genuine experts had already changed their minds. Penn Jillette is apparently still a skeptic, but less so (link for all three). “Skeptics”, even the most famous ones, appear just as prone to partitioning their skepticism as anyone else. The NCSE itself has expanded its focus recently to climate change as well as evolution/creationism (and hosts what looks like a post similar to this one).

    I think James Randi made the mistake of wading into an area of science about which he knew next to nothing and then pontificating on it, something one might think he would have learned not to do after so many decades as a skeptic. Although disappointing, it’s probably not surprising that he was quickly taken in by AGW denialist canards, given that he clearly had no clue why they were wrong. It might also just be my irrational wishful thinking to seize on this, but I seem to recall that Randi also wrote that infamous post for JREF back when he was still sick and undergoing chemotherapy; so I like to think he wasn’t at his best then. I could be completely wrong, but it’s a thought I find comforting.

    Penn is definitely still an AGW denialist, although at TAM a few years ago I saw him on a panel about AGW and he came closer than I’ve ever seen him come to admitting that he might have been wrong. Unfortunately, he retreated to the “We just don’t know” gambit. I actually spoke with Michael Shermer about AGW (among several other topics) back when we were speakers at the Trottier Symposium in Montreal in 2010. Although he says he has accepted that AGW is happening, he still sounded to me not entirely convinced, although my interpretation might have been colored by my knowledge of his previous stance.

  32. jdl83 says:

    @Narad

    I was referring to Morality. We “know” what is right and wrong. There are a couple other ways of knowing depending upon whose Theory of Knowledge you subscribe to.

  33. Harriet Hall says:

    @jdl83,

    I think we must always seek natural explanations on purely logical grounds. If something is “supernatural,” it is by definition outside the observable natural world. If it could cause observable effects, those effects would be part of the natural world. If something supernatural exists but doesn’t have any measurable effects on the natural world, it is undetectable, untestable, and ultimately irrelevant to our lives.

  34. NYUDDS says:

    First, if you are a religious person looking for some common ground leading to a peaceful, thoughtful and ongoing co-existence between religion and science, this is a good place to start. Here’s the link to the monograph. It’s short and very readable. Note the author:
    http://www.stephenjaygould.org/library/gould_noma.html

    I also would have appreciated more info on why CAM is so entrenched in med schools, to the point of having a formal curriculum leading to a degree.

    I also want to be repititiously boring, stating again what Jann Bellamy has written about legislative alchemy as it relates to professional practice: If the legislature says it’s so, it is. Period.

  35. BillyJoe says:

    jdl83,

    ” the Naturalist must, at all costs, find a natural cause to everything.”

    Not at all costs.
    But you have to look at history to see where science is coming from:

    Before science, there was only religion and philosophy. The problem was that there were 10,000 religions, each with their own philosophy, and no way to tell which one was true or which parts of which were true. There were as many philosophies as there were philosophers. The realisation of this fact amongst philosophers gave birth to science. Science is essentially hypothesis testing, and a method to do that reliably. But science is a faltering enterprise. In fact, it has been said that science is the worst way of finding out the truth…except for all the other ways! Science does make mistakes. In fact, science is wrong most of the time. But its virtue lies in its ability to self-correct so that, over time, it staggers falteringly towards the truth.

    But, despite its faltering progress, 400 years of science has gradually and inexorably expunged the universe of the old supernatural “solutions” of religion to the mysteries contained within it. In fact, religion does not actually find “solutions” to mysteries, it exhalts mystery. But, one by one, these mysteries have fallen to natural explanations. In over 400 years there has not been a single example of a supernatural “solution” that has not fallen to natural explanation. The only possible exception is the concept of a deistic god. But,as nybgrus said, such a god is both not necessary (Ockham’s razor) and not useful (no answered prayers and no afterlife).

    It seems reasonable to expect that this state of affairs will continue into the future.
    And look at what science has achieved in our understanding of the universe and life within it, and the technological advances it has spawned. Science works. Compare that with what religion has acheived.

  36. BillyJoe says:

    NYUDDS,

    “First, if you are a religious person looking for some common ground leading to a peaceful, thoughtful and ongoing co-existence between religion and science, this is a good place to start. Here’s the link to the monograph. It’s short and very readable. Note the author:
    http://www.stephenjaygould.org/library/gould_noma.html

    You have to be kidding.
    This has been so thoroughly debunked that I’m suprised anyone still pays it any credence.
    Unfortunately (for religious people), science provides no solace whatsoever for religion.
    The fact is that science has unintentionally launched a full scale invasion into the territory previous occupied by religion and unceremoniously toppled it off its self appointed pedestal.
    There is no denying that fact.

  37. WilliamLawrenceUtridge says:

    I think James Randi made the mistake of wading into an area of science about which he knew next to nothing and then pontificating on it.

    That’s the essential failure of creationists, CAM-sters who criticize real medicine, climate change deniers, Fox news watchers, Tom Coburn and pretty much anyone who has ever ventured an opinion without becoming informed first. People are pretty smart these days, collectively. It really doesn’t matter what you are talking about, there is someone in the world who can venture an educated guess, and you can be sure that their guess is better than a random Senator or preacher’s opinion. I have a friend who is a climate change denier, and I refuse to engage on specific points unless I have a reference, but I always repeat a consistent point – real scientists, whose job it is to study this stuff, think it is happening. They are, in fact, essentially convinced. So I’m going to take their word over yours.

    Randi, Jillette and Shermer, for all that they are arch-skeptics, critics of religion and call bullshit on vaccination deniers, were/are not skeptical on this and they did not trust the experts. To their detriment. Always trust the real experts, or at least find out what their fellow scientist critics are saying.

    I think we must always seek natural explanations on purely logical grounds.

    Not just logical, technological. If something is supernatural, it is by default completely worthless in terms of an explanation that can be turned into technology – and most science leads to technology in some way, and improved technology is responsible for our standard of living. Saying “God did it” stalls not only science, it stalls the ability for humans to live longer, healthier, happier lives, to live, laugh, share, eat, breed, etc.

    Saying “God did it” means you HAVE TO stop trying, and frankly I want my giant mecha and praying ain’t gonna get me one.

  38. Jann Bellamy says:

    @WLU:

    “The NCSE itself has expanded its focus recently to climate change as well as evolution/creationism (and hosts what looks like a post similar to this one).”

    Yikes! I promise I didn’t read NCSE’s post before I wrote this. Actually, I still haven’t read it, but I would be interested in a link to see what they have to say about the parallels between CAM and ID, if that is what you meant.

  39. jdl83 says:

    @DrHall

    What about your own conscious will? How does Naturalism explain that? How do you explain it? My will is undetectable and untestable (as far as I’m aware empiricism is capable), but it is far from irrelevant to my life (as yours is to yours). I understand that you were presenting the dichotomy of “natural” versus “supernatural,” but you’re doing so from the limited lense of Science. So, am I just playing “word games” by bringing up the “will?” Or, the “me?” I know that I exist. Science can’t tell me that because I already know it (and it is a philosophical question; not a science one). Nothing outside of myself has informed me of my existence.

    Thanks for taking the time to respond! I’ve read your posts for the last two years, and I’m a great admirer of your critical thinking skills. You set the bar really high, to say the least.

    @BillyJoe

    I understand the trajectory of your argument. Science, as we know it today, has indeed brought about incredible technological progress. But, I believe it is important to also realize what it has not done, and ultimately cannot do. It cannot provide meaning. It is itself anchored in philosophy. Indeed, one’s definition of Science depends completely upon one’s philosophical foundation (I’m currently reading a book by J.P. Moreland on this very topic, “Christianity and the Nature of Science”).

    The “at all costs” phrase is intentional, because if a “cause” is discovered to not be strictly “naturalistic” then Naturalism itself is no longer an adequate philosophy to accurately describe reality. To date, I’ve believed that “Morality” serves as an example of a non-natural way of knowing; independent of the empirical and the rational.

    Before modern science, we still had logic to help us weed out bad/wrong philosophical and religious systems. Most proved to be either illogical, or incompatible with reality (science helped with this last one).

    Thanks for taking the time to respond.

  40. VinceD says:

    Dear BillyJoe,

    We find religion and science get along just fine, thank you.

    Signed,

    William of Ockham, Gregor Mendel, Roger Bacon, Rene Descartes, Georges LeMaitre

  41. nybgrus says:

    @Quill:

    Here, yes, but kindly recall that this assertion is one that is accepted in science but not in other places.

    Indeed, which is why I said if you don’t accept that fundamental premise then that is a conversation stopper. Until it is resolved (and the adage “I’d agree with you but then we’d both be wrong” comes to mind) further conversation is futile.

    Enaging in a Socratic method approach is potentially worthwhile, but takes a lot of time, can be easily stalled out along the way, is not particularly good at reaching large groups of people at once, and generally requires both sides be actively involved in the conversation (i.e. books can work but if the argument is lost early on there is simply no way to recover it and the reader chucks the book).

    @WLU/Dr. Gorski:

    Indeed, it was gaff on Randi’s part, one he copped to a mere two days after the original post:

    As I’ve indicated, I do not deny the finding of GW. AGW, to me, is less clear, though I accept that it is likely true… Again, the importance and the impact of this phenomenon is well beyond my grasp

    He admitted he was not educated enough on the topic, was skeptical of parts of it, and hedged his words incorrectly in the initial post.

    Being a good skeptic is not synonymous with being right. It means questioning things to the best of your ability based on the knowledge you have (which is imperfect and incomplete) and most importantly admitting when you are wrong and being willing to change your mind based on the evidence.

    @jdl83:

    If one accepts that there are more “ways of knowing” than just the empirical (the realm of science) then the door is at least open to consider the above.

    Have any of you that would define yourselves as being a Naturalist (philosophically, not in the SCAM sense) ever given thought to this statement (beyond a knee-jerk reaction)?

    I am, as much as one can be, the “Naturalist” you are alluding to. I am completely open to any idea which has merit. I am not, however, open to magic. Being a naturalist, as you say, means that the more “magic” necessary to explain something, the more evidence I need of it to accept it.

    You are correct that this limits your options and follow the evidence where ever it goes (if WLC said this, it is one of the few things he is correct about. I have read and listened to way to much of him and he is consistently extremely poorly argued and chock full of logical fallacy obfuscated in flowery language and linguistic gymnastics). But the point is that is not necessarily a bad thing. The idea here is that you are limiting your options to follow the evidence to the confines of reality. So if an experiment shows me that fMRI data indicates that sticking a needle in the ocular acupoint of the foot lights up the occiptal lobe whereas a needle 1cm away does not, it is correct that I do not blindly follow that “evidence” to whereever it leads, because that simply makes no sense. And in thoroughly analyzing that study, I demonstrated exactly why that was (I can link you to the comment I made on the NCCAM blog if you care to read it). So yes, my options were constrained, but I was able to discern the signal from the noise.

    The other option – to employ “other ways of knowing” – while opening up more “possibilities” must ultimately render you incapacitated. There are literally limitless “ways of knowing” and “things to know” that we can make up. How can we possibly decide which to actually abide by? Obviously certain things are outlandish (though I think a rib woman and a talking snake are pretty outlandish…) and dismissed easily. But where does one draw a line? How can you look at a CAM apologist and say “You think that raw food has a “vital energy” that heals cancer if you think hard enough about it? That is ludicrous” and at the same time believe that you are born into sin and must atone because of the actions of people 2000 years ago and that a god decided the best way to fix the problem was impregnate a virgin to give birth to himself to sacrifice to himself and thus enslave the entirety of humanity to atone for the sins for the rest of eternity? If I can’t call one belief and “way of knowing” ridiculous then how can you call something else ridiculous? At that point everything goes.

    Being constrained by reality is not a bad thing.

    I was referring to Morality. We “know” what is right and wrong.

    No we don’t. As above, we have a rough barometer, but it varies widely. I think discrimination against homosexuals is completely amoral. Others (often those who claim those “other ways of knowing” and are thus less constrained than I) disagree. I think that denying women education is amoral. The Taliban disagrees. I also think that telling my patient not to pray because it is useless and a waste of time is amoral (even though I think I am correct in my assessment).

    We don’t just “know” what is moral. We work hard to define, redefine, amend, improve, and update it. Otherwise there wouldn’t be ethics boards and IRBs. And we would still be doing experiments like Tuskeegee.

    And of course, Dr. Hall’s comment is absolutely correct as well. That is what I mean by magic. If something has an effect we can measure (say prayer curing cancer) then there must be a natural explanation since we are part of the natural world. If it literally “just happened” as the will of god, suspending all natural order to effect a change, then the universe would be completely unpredictable and we would by stymied. Yet we find order and predictability, and every effect that has been thoroughly investigated has been demonstrated to have a natural effect. One that does not require the intervention of a god, though you can always argue further and further back as to how a god must have started that chain reaction leading to the outcome. Seems like kind of a useless god to me if all it can do is act through the natural order of rules that we’ve come to discover. For the things we haven’t evinced as of yet, “we don’t know” is a better answer than “I have this other way of knowing that cannot be established beyond me saying so.” It is like every episode of Scooby-Doo – there is always a crook under that ghost costume.

    @NYUDDS:

    First, if you are a religious person looking for some common ground leading to a peaceful, thoughtful and ongoing co-existence between religion and science, this is a good place to start. Here’s the link to the monograph. It’s short and very readable. Note the author

    Note the appeal to authority.

    NOMA is a bankrupt idea. It is merely another way of saying ignore things until you simply can’t anymore. Religion is left the magisteria as yet unexplored by science and nothing else. To paraphrase Dawkins, if there was scientifically emprically verifiable, repeatable, obectively agreed upon data that proved Jesus existed and he was actually born of a virgin mother, would the church wave it off and say “That’s nice, not part of our magisteria?” No, they would jump all over it.

    Science and religion are fundamentally and irreconcilably incompatible. The basis of gathering and accepting knowledge is different, and religion has demonstrated its vast inferiority to science in this realm. A culturally defined and politically motivated guessing game is not compatible with systematic and careful observation.

  42. jdl83 said,

    “What about your own conscious will? How does Naturalism explain that? How do you explain it? My will is undetectable and untestable (as far as I’m aware empiricism is capable), but it is far from irrelevant to my life (as yours is to yours). ”

    This assumes you have an actual contra causal free will, independent of naturalistic causes. It’s really hard to support this notion without invoking dualism. I tend to agree with Jerry Coyne on free will. You should check his site, Why Evolution is True on his thoughts on contra causal free will.

    http://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2012/10/29/my-presentation-on-free-will/

  43. Harriet Hall says:

    @jdl83,

    “What about your own conscious will? How does Naturalism explain that? How do you explain it?”

    Conscious will is an illusion manufactured by our brain. Studies have shown that our brain subconsciously decides to act before we are consciously aware that we have decided to act. It is a useful illusion that permits choices, enables actions, and has survival value. Please read “The Illusion of Conscious Will” by Daniel Wegner. He makes the point that when we ask if we have free will we are really asking the wrong question, a meaningless question.

    The self, the “me” is another illusion. One of the alleged benefits of meditation is that the sense of self is dissolved and one feels at one with the cosmos. Science has made it clear that the self is a conscious story created by our brain out of a number of subconscious processes. Since I learned about this from neurophysiology, I have enjoyed thinking of my decisions as a committee effort. Now I can wonder what “we” are going to do next. It feels sort of cozy.

  44. jdl83 says:

    @nybgrus

    I appreciate your thorough reply. You’ve given me some food for thought. You brought a host of issues, and I’m running out of time for today. However, I wanted to address one the one that means the most to me.

    “That is ludicrous” and at the same time believe that you are born into sin and must atone because of the actions of people 2000 years ago and that a god decided the best way to fix the problem was impregnate a virgin to give birth to himself to sacrifice to himself and thus enslave the entirety of humanity to atone for the sins for the rest of eternity?”

    I will give you the benefit of the doubt that you meant well when summing up Christian doctrine in this way. But, you’ve made a serious error in your characterization. I’ll try to correct the doctrinal issue as I don’t have to spend time researching it.

    Sin is a moral wrong committed against an infinite God. We are finite beings. The penalty for any sin against God is death because God requires an infinite justice. Jesus (Son of God, God in the flesh) paid the penalty for all of sin by conquering death. He fulfilled the demand for infinite justice on our behalf. This didn’t “enslave the entirety of humanity to atone for the sins for the rest of eternity.” This liberated it. The bible is an epic love story between God and Man. Sure, there are difficult parts, but if Jesus is the picture of perfection, and I implore anyone to find fault with him, then surely Christianity is worthy of your consideration. In fact, it is because of Jesus that Christianity is testable. It is the only religion in the world that invites its followers to test its claims. If Jesus didn’t rise from the dead then Christians are to be pitied above all others.

  45. nybgrus says:

    seems some posts came up while I was writing:

    What about your own conscious will? How does Naturalism explain that?

    Sam Harris himself will be the first to say… we don’t yet know. However, a reasonable tentative explanation is an epiphenomenon of massively parralel logic circuits (aka our brains). There is evidence for this by looking at the various levels of consciousness throughout animal (and plant) kingdom, corresponding quite well to the complexity of the logic circuits (nerves/neurons/neural nets) in place.

    But the real point is simply because we don’t yet have the explanation does not mean a specific Abrahamic god imbuing magical properties on only our gray matter is the answer.

    So, am I just playing “word games” by bringing up the “will?” Or, the “me?” I know that I exist. Science can’t tell me that because I already know it (and it is a philosophical question; not a science one). Nothing outside of myself has informed me of my existence.

    True. But now you are implying the “brain in a vat” scenario. You also can’t prove you aren’t a computer program, just a series of data bits on the iPad20, who thinks you are conscious and exist. But if you try and go down that road, solipsism awaits. We must make some basic assumptions about how to proceed – you are correct that this is the philosophical underpinning of science. But those assumptions are made and demonstrated over and over and over again to be correct. Every time someone is less than pleased with the assumptions and tries their own, they fail miserable or in a rare circumstance get quite lucky. So as I said above, you can claim all sorts of “other ways of knowing” but then you are left with too many possibilities to consider, an inability to test them all, and the inevitable need to rely on a lack of knowledge to cling to your “other ways.”

    But, I believe it is important to also realize what it has not done, and ultimately cannot do. It cannot provide meaning.

    Bollocks. It provides me meaning. Maybe that “meaning” isn’t enough for you. But as Sagan once said, science is like making love. Sure there are practical reasons to do it, but that isn’t the real reason we do. The only way science doesn’t give us meaning is if we – for no rational reason – demand more meaning than exists. If you demand that there be some grander, universal, eternal “reason” for us to be here, then yes you will find science gives you little solace. Because the reality is that we are here without design or intent. Which to me is really cool, because I get to make my own meaning – my own reasons for being a physician and scientist and helping people, not god’s reason that I have to do good works to get into heaven or some such silliness. And even then you are left without meaning – what is the “meaning” of doing good works here to go chill with god in heaven for eternity? Do you have an answer for that? Well? Then why is it that you are willing to accept “I’ll find out when I die and talk to the big man” but you won’t accept “I’ll find out when science and technology progresses enough to give me an answer (if I am lucky enough to live long enough)?”

    The “at all costs” phrase is intentional, because if a “cause” is discovered to not be strictly “naturalistic” then Naturalism itself is no longer an adequate philosophy to accurately describe reality.

    Yet, as Dr. Hall said… how can we detect it if it isn’t “natural?” Just like CAM, how do we define it as being part of our universe yet simultaneously not? Can you define something that would be “not strictly naturalistic” and yet be detectable? If not, why are you content to use that as the platform for your argument when you yourself can’t even adequately describe it and utilize it?

    To date, I’ve believed that “Morality” serves as an example of a non-natural way of knowing; independent of the empirical and the rational.

    Which is a common trope of WLC. I won’t belabor it here, but I encourage you to read elsewhere since that notion is quite well debunked. Morality is asbolutely not a “non-natural” way of knowing (see my above post as well).

    Before modern science, we still had logic to help us weed out bad/wrong philosophical and religious systems.

    And look at how much of our history as a species is rife with war, disease, famine, pestilence, and bloodshed to weed that all out, and how much science has brought is in such a breathtakingly short amount of time. I mean really, think about it. Just 50 years ago, the things I do and use every single day without thinking twice would have been downright magic.

    Yes, religion/philosophy did play a role and certainly had its positives (something my equally anti-theist philosopher friend and I argued about for some time before I grudgingly accepted his premise). But it has been replaced with something vastly better. Maybe science itself will be replaced with something vastly better as well (though I would say it would evolve into better forms, rather than a wholesale replacement). But going backwards to beseech religion to deliver something it cannot is nonsensical when we have our lumbering and oafish yet always good meaning and steadily advancing friend science.

    We find religion and science get along just fine, thank you.

    Signed,

    William of Ockham, Gregor Mendel, Roger Bacon, Rene Descartes, Georges LeMaitre

    Oh dear. Old canards never do die, do they? Lets list a bunch of scientists who lived in an era where atheists were literally tortured and burned at the stake and had to do science in fields that didn’t conflict with dogma to try and prove a point.

    How about this:

    Dear VinceD,

    Science and religion never got along,

    Signed,

    Galileo Galilei, Nicolas Copernicus, Giordano Bruno, Tycho Brahe, Johannes Kepler, Edmond Halley, William Buckland, Charles Lyell, Louis Agassiz, Adam Sedgewick,

  46. David Gorski says:

    Personally, I tend to think that Hawking’s view of free will is probably closest to reality, namely that free will as such probably doesn’t truly exist, but that the functioning of the brain and body is so incredibly complex that it’s impossible to predict thoughts and behaviors with any degree of accuracy:

    It is hard to imagine how free will can operate if our behavior is determined by physical law, so it seems we are no more than biological machines and that free will is just an illusion.

    While conceding that human behavior is indeed determined by the laws of nature, it also seems reasonable to conclude that the outcome is determined in such a complicated way and with so many variables as to make it impossible in practice to predict. For that one would need knowledge of the initial state of each of the thousand trillion trillion molecules in the human body and to solve something like that number of equations. That would take a few billion years, which would be a bit late to duck when the peron opposite aimed a blow.

    Because it is so impractical to use the underlying physical laws to predict human behavior, we adopt what is called an effective theory. In physics, an effective theory is a framework created to model certain observed phenomena without describing in detail all of the underlying processes.

    In other words, free will is that “effective theory.” It might not truly exist if one could precisely know what is necessary about these trillion trillion molecules to be able to make precise predictions of their behavior, but in the real world the illusion of free will is such a good approximation that it, for all practical purposes, it suffices. This is a lot different than claiming that human beings are nothing more than deterministic robots, utterly devoid of consciousness, mind, and free will. These sorts of arguments are also the kind that make my brain hurt. To me, for all practical intents and purposes, it doesn’t matter whether we actually have free will or not, because to all intents and appearances we do, whether it’s illusion or not, and there’s no real way to prove it one way or the other, at least not now.

    Of course, the question of whether we have free will or not is also irrelevant to the question of whether the mind is the product of the brain. It clearly is. Mind-body dualism is nonsense. As Steve put it during his talk at CSICon, the mind is the body.

  47. nybgrus says:

    @jdl83:

    I appreciate time constraints. Take some time to read and consider and reply whenever ready.

    However, besides the fact that you clearly take your talking points primarily from WLC, you made an interesting and telling error and assumption.

    You assumed I was describing your Christian narrative. You took it personally and immediately felt the need to defend it, because you saw similarities in what you believe to the ludicrous story I told. Yet you cannot deny that my story does accurately (if not fully) sum up at least some of the myriad Christian narratives. Yes, I was more crude for brevity, but the fundamental notion really is not wrong and it is ludicrous.

    But what if I had said it is ludicrous to think that we are reincarnated over and over again, trying to remove karma stuck to our souls so that one day we may achieve samsarra and end the cyle of rebirth, finally uniting fully with god in nirvana? Is that idea ludicrous to you? How did you decide it was ludicrous? If not, why aren’t you of the Hindu religion?

    I can re-iterate this endlessly with the thousands of current and historic religions. And you would unequivocally say that each one is ludicrous. But then suspend your assessment for the specific one that appeals to you. And although you claim (by parroting WLC) that Christianity is the “only religion in the world that invites its followers to test its claims” and “in fact, it is because of Jesus that Christianity is testable” I would argue – with evidence – that this is patently false. The first claim most easily dismissed as the Dalai Lama claims divinity and urges everyone to test the claims of Buddhism.

  48. pmoran says:

    CAM may well be defended post-hoc with such a variety of spurious arguments, but there is also a case for regarding it as a primitive version of medical science, that persists into the modern era largely because medical needs are not yet capable of being fully satisfied by modern medical science (the uncomfortable truth).

    “Primitive medical science” (PMS) is experimental. The medical need comes first. There is an accompanying compulsion to take action. From somewhere comes the idea to “try this”, historically perhaps the nearest berry-bearing bush.

    From here on in, not only is the notion established that “when sick you can try this”, certain illusions of everyday medical practice and quirks of the pattern-seeking human mind ensure that the method will gain a reputation for being effective. The testimonial is born. It follows as night follows day.

    It may be that no one is really sure whether the treatment works or not, but what else is there to do when there is nothing obviously better?

    Historically also thinkers have tried to define universal principles which might guide more effective medical treatment and this continues to this day within CAM (homeopathy, chiropractic, “natural” medicine). But the unsatisfied medical needs come first.

    This explains the amazing diversity of PMS/CAM — how various cultures at various times have credited almost anything with healing powers, everything from crocodile dung to spending the night in the temple of Asclepius wherein mysterious voices would whisper “– you will get weeelll —” through holes in the wall .

  49. jdl83 says:

    @DrHall

    “Science has made it clear that the self is a conscious story created by our brain out of a number of subconscious processes. Since I learned about this from neurophysiology, I have enjoyed thinking of my decisions as a committee effort. Now I can wonder what “we” are going to do next. It feels sort of cozy.”

    I can’t help but notice a funny similarity between this description of consciousness, and the modern description of the “Triune God” (the Trinity, God in Three Persons). You know…Man is made in the image of God. ;)

    I’d be interested in reading more about these studies. Again, I appreciate your time.

    @Karl

    Thanks for the link. I’ll have to pour over the material once I get home today.

    @ToTheBothOfYou

    Thank you for being respectful to my worldview, and for politely indulging my questions. I’m still trying to get a handle on the roles of Science within the context of Philosophy. It is why I continue to read this blog every day.

  50. wdygyp says:

    BillyJoe wrote:
    “In any case, it seems crazy to believe in something without a shred of evidence.
    Is there anything else you believe in without a shred of evidence?”

    Do you believe that the universe objectively, independent of your own mind, exists (philosophical realism), or that the universe is merely a projection of one or more minds (idealism, anti-realism)? Either way, both positions are epistemologically unverifiable and therefore beliefs.

    I’m an absurdist, but the kind of theism I find the most credible would be pantheism, i.e., that god is the universe (or perhaps multiverse). According to this view, conscious entities would be the universe observing itself from different perspectives.

    nybgrus wrote:
    “Yet we find order and predictability, and every effect that has been thoroughly investigated has been demonstrated to have a natural effect.”

    Doesn’t quantum mechanics claim the existence of true randomness, i.e., indeterminism? Doesn’t this contradict “order and predictability”?

    By the way, “amoral” and “unmoral” are not the same. For instance, one may consider Islamic militants unmoral, but certainly not amoral, i.e., lacking any moral ideology or guidance.

    Harriet Hall wrote:
    “Conscious will is an illusion manufactured by our brain.”

    What I find strange about this position is that without conscious/free will, there is no usefulness for consciousness in the first place. Why would the neurosystem waste energy on a consciousness if it had no control anyway? And furthermore, why would the neurosystem then delude it, effectively a part of itself, into thinking it had?

  51. WilliamLawrenceUtridge says:

    So sorry Jann, my bad! I wasn’t clear that it was a comparison between creationism and climate change denial, I’d thought I linked it (here’s the article I was talking about). Ultimately you can link all three of them through tactics, illustrating a larger point – areas that can’t use facts to argue for their cause will instead rely on a common set of fallacious tactics to do so. I bet the Greeks said something about this at some point in time.

    My will is undetectable and untestable (as far as I’m aware empiricism is capable)

    Not really. You can scientifically and empirically test “will” (depending on how you define it) in a variety of ways and using a variety of proxies. Your ability to choose between alternatives for instance. Which can be removed by surgically or chemically ablating parts of the brain as just a single extreme example. I think Sam Harris wrote about this as well, his training was as a neuroscientist. Assuming say, you define “will” as the ability to take action is the result of a brain capable of controlling muscles, “Naturalism” would explain your “will”, as a complex interconnection of neurons developed over millions of years within a specific sub-species of ape in an environment that favoured greater and greater levels of complexity. Science doesn’t have to be able to test things directly to draw conclusions.

    Science, as we know it today, has indeed brought about incredible technological progress [but it] cannot provide meaning.

    Science doesn’t try to, that’s a purely societal construct. It does, however, provide certainty and truth – something religion does not. All religious statements are essentially arbitrary, and no religion is more “true” than any other. Dawkins once said that if all memories were lost, humans would eventually rediscover the laws of physics and the theory of evolution, but never again would Jesus’ name be mentioned. Claiming religion provides any sort of universal meaning is one of the absurd statements atheists tend to mock. If there were a “true” religion with anything approaching proof, it would be the only one. You may find the meaning you find in religion comforting, but that doesn’t mean any of it is true. And as an atheist, I find meaning without religion, and without any of its arbitrary restrictions. In fact, science can be helpful in this regard as well by revealing the neurological and ultimately genetic underpinnings of human unhappiness, recognition of which could lead to better structured, happier societies.

    Sin is a moral wrong committed against an infinite God.

    Sin and morality are human inventions which have no objective basis in any reality. Even the morality of religions are subjective and based on a specific time and culture, since I assume you do not currently own slaves, but do cut your hair and wear garments of two cloths joined together. The sins of the ancient Hebrews aren’t even the sins of their descendants, the Jews, let alone Christians, let alone atheists. Give me a well thought out code of jurisprudence over imaginary and arbitrary sins any day.

  52. Quill says:

    I find it interesting that in terms of a Christian-Scientist worldview, both consider the other to be trapped in something like Plato’s Cave. The former have been given revelation which allows them to perceive the truth while the latter have examined the cave, found the exit and proceeded to understand the entire natural world.

    The Christian believes that the Scientist is denied a certain grace to truly see while the Scientist is equally convinced that revelation either does not exist or even if it does is not a sufficient guide to reality.

    The difference in result, though, is equally interesting. Two Scientists can arrive at the same results while two Christians usually go off to form separate denominations. ;-)

    In terms of Jann’s good article, it is clear that CAM and ID belong to religion as they both claim special knowledge revealed and not knowable to others unless you accept certain untestable premises.

  53. Robb says:

    I love how comments go off topic in interesting ways here…
    Harriet, your most recent post above is thought-provoking. The studies you mention sound interesting but I don’t understand how they would prove there is no conscious will. What is subconscious for some people is conscious for others. People are just sometimes less aware of what is motivating their decisions to act (will) than others. Plus, if a subconscious direction to act is influencing my will/decision making, surely I can still pause, reflect on it, make myself aware of it, and decide to change course? The way you present it sounds like determinism, where our “will” is simply the dictates of subconcious drives or instinct, much the way certain animals or other life forms are thought to function. Or am I misunderstanding the determinism aspect?

    As far as the self as illusion part, I think it is best explained as what we usually describe as the self is an observer with some degree of executive control, but really this observer is simply another image or thought itself and does not exist independently or outside of the process of thoughts and images. The “self” is more like a clot of memory and thoughts and images. Meditation, despite all the Western stereotypes about it, is not primarily about relaxation, it is about clarity of mind and awareness in which the duality of thought and thinker disappears. The relaxation part is more a “happy byproduct” of a natural silence and clarity of mind that emerges while meditating.

    As far as religion, at best I think of it as stories people have passed down through the ages and ritualized as part of culture in order to help explain life the best they could and create community. Like many rituals and beliefs and cultural practices though, they become antiquated and anachronistic with time and tend to resist change. At worst, religion has been a force for oppression and colonialism and has often repressed advancement of human potential.

  54. Quill says:

    In response to jdl83 nybgrus wrote in part:

    …And although you claim (by parroting WLC) that Christianity is the “only religion in the world that invites its followers to test its claims” and “in fact, it is because of Jesus that Christianity is testable” I would argue – with evidence – that this is patently false. The first claim most easily dismissed as the Dalai Lama claims divinity and urges everyone to test the claims of Buddhism.

    I’ll argue right along with you and help with the evidence. :-) It is especially easy with Buddhism as there are the Sutra accounts in two languages contemporary with Shakyamuni Buddha that say his own words were to test everything. (I already quoted one version.) It’s amazing to me that those (especially in the US) that claim to be one with the incarnation of god are so amazingly ignorant of other parts of religion, philosophy and history. One would think that establishing a personal relationship with god would at least impart some basic knowledge of the other parts of creation.

    One minor thing: the Dalai Lama doesn’t claim divinity. Others have claimed it for him but the current one has insisted like the historical Buddha that he is simply a man.

  55. nybgrus says:

    Doesn’t quantum mechanics claim the existence of true randomness, i.e., indeterminism? Doesn’t this contradict “order and predictability”?

    Quite simply and accurately, no.

    Randomness does no mean a lack of order, it merely means the universe is statistical in nature. I can still make predictions, I just can’t say they will be 100% accurate (but I’ll take 99.9% any day). Furthermore, we are learning more and more how to harness that randomness in terms of quantum computing, faster than light communication at a distance, etc.

    But even taken at face value, your argument doesn’t mean that the universe is completely unpredictable. Nor does it invoke a need for a deity.

    By the way, “amoral” and “unmoral” are not the same. For instance, one may consider Islamic militants unmoral, but certainly not amoral, i.e., lacking any moral ideology or guidance.

    You are correct. I used my terms loosely. Hopefully the point was still understandable.

    <blockquote.What I find strange about this position is that without conscious/free will, there is no usefulness for consciousness in the first place.

    You are begging the question. Why would consciousness be completely useless without free will? A lack of, or rather illusion of as Dr. Hall correctly stated, free will does not mean that there is not utility to conscious abilities to modify actions and behaviours.

    Why would the neurosystem waste energy on a consciousness if it had no control anyway?

    Another question begged. Why does consciousness require more energy? As I postulated above, the simplest – though as of yet not fully and empirically verified, though supported – explanation is that consciousness is an epi-phenomenon of complex massively parralel logic circuits. Simple circuits (sunflowers moving with the sun) became more complex to allow more freedom of movement in the environment (jellyfish) which became more complex to actively evade predation (nematodes) which became more complex etc etc, imparting selective advantage with the new abilities. Add enough complexity and the emergent phenomenon of consciousness arises.

    But even if you don’t accept that, the argument still begs the question. Why would we have evolved complex physiology when we could have not “wasted energy” and been an insect – the most succesful and prolific group of life on earth? Because there are ecological niches. Why don’t beetles start cooking food? They don’t need to. That is how the diversity of life works. Species that can branch off and populate and ecological niche – even if that means climbing a steep slope on a fitness landscape – will do so, complexity and energy wasted or not. Remember, evolution is not about efficiency it is about doing whatever works (which, after billions of years, tends to become more efficient).

    And furthermore, why would the neurosystem then delude it, effectively a part of itself, into thinking it had?

    And now you are imparting reason to an aimless process. Why did we evolve to percieve EM radiation of 500ish nanometers are green? There is no why. That is the way it came about.

    @quill:

    I’ll agree to abstain from comment on that one. I think his stance has changed on a number of issues and I am not versed well enough to fully comment. In any event, I think we agree that my point stands.

  56. Harriet Hall says:

    @Robb,

    The absence of conscious will is demonstrated by ingenious brain imaging studies where the decision of when to move a finger is shown by brain activity a fraction of a second before the individual is consciously aware of deciding. There is no way you can deliberately make yourself aware of a subconscious process and decide to change course. In fact, it is well established that we decide, then act, and only afterwards do we try to retrofit a reasonable explanation of why we did what we did, an explanation that may be completely wrong. The split brain experiments elucidate this phenomenon: one side of the brain reacts to an object that the other hemisphere can’t see, and the “blind” hemisphere confabulates a bogus reason for the reaction.

    As David explained, we are not talking “determinism.” The reality is complex. Clearly, our decisions are affected by our environment and our thoughts, and we do make choices.

  57. nybgrus says:

    @Robb:

    What is subconscious for some people is conscious for others. People are just sometimes less aware of what is motivating their decisions to act (will) than others.

    That is not what the data says and it also doesn’t even make sense on a superficial level. Are you aware of every bit of proprioception going on in your body? Are you conscious of every neural firing that occurs in order to move your hand and type? Are you aware of the process used to call up a word or does it simply appear in your mind?

    That is what is meant by a lack of conscious will. The parts that must come together to form a conscious thought/action must, by definition, be below the level of conscioussness until it crosses that threshold (I know that sounds like a tautology, but bear with me a second). The key here is that studies demonstrate that we can measure those individual parts and use that to determine the “choice” a person will make hundreds of milliseconds before the person is aware of the choice. So clearly, things outside our conscious control are working to create conscious thought/actions. If it is out of our conscious control then it cannot be a conscious will making the decision.

    The analogy I like to use is a car without a steering wheel and a really twitchy and unpredictable gas and brake pedal. Our conscious actions are the car. And depending on exactly how twitchy the gas and brakes are, that determines the amount of action that will be had. We can’t actively steer the car, but we can change the road it drives on to force directions for it to take.

    Our brain is the road the car drives on. We create roadblocks and barriers for our unconscious actions to be funneled through (some people don’t, obviously). Just think about 2 examples we all have personally experienced:

    1) Have you ever said a word or did something, and had absolutely no idea why you did that and then just wrote it off as an oddity?

    2) Have you ever tried to break a really ingrained habit, and found that you need to consciously think about it to be successful and over time it gets less and less but when otherwise disinhibited you can fall right back into old habits?

    1 is the example of those unconscious processes and a direct demonstration of the lack of free will. 2 is a demonstration of the road blocks/barriers analogy I used above, with your lack of free will trying to break past it.

    None of this is determinism – we must still take action and we have higher order executive function to help us do so in productive and meaningful ways. But think about the reflex actions of a fly cleaning its wings, to a dog tearing up a couch – do we claim they had conscious will to avoid doing that? Not really – and we have direct evidence of the hard wired neural circuit that controls Drosophila wing cleaning and it part of the evidence that we are all just a conglomeration of myriad neural algorithms. Well, we evolved from the same common ancestors and retain the same primitive brains… we just have that handy neocortex on top to exert (some) control over our lack of free will.

  58. VinceD says:

    nybrgrus said, Science and religion are fundamentally and irreconcilably incompatible.

    I posted 4 examples of religious individuals who made great contributions to science and you call it a canard? That’s funny, but it doesn’t make it false.

    nybrgrus said, Lets list a bunch of scientists who lived in an era where atheists were literally tortured and burned at the stake and had to do science in fields that didn’t conflict with dogma to try and prove a point.

    Ok, I’ll give you the first three (even though they were religious and made major contributions to the field of science), but you really have absolutely no idea who Georges LeMaitre is, do you? The fact that you wrote what you did, when I used him as an example, makes you look like you don’t know what you are talking about.

    nybrgus said, Yes, religion/philosophy did play a role and certainly had its positives (something my equally anti-theist philosopher friend and I argued about for some time before I grudgingly accepted his premise). But it has been replaced with something vastly better.

    Why do you assume that science and religion must be in competition? Is it because some creationist told you that they are?

  59. Narad says:

    The first claim most easily dismissed as the Dalai Lama claims divinity and urges everyone to test the claims of Buddhism.

    As this is entirely tangential to the actual post, I will only note that taking the Dalai Lama to be representative of Buddhism is a really bad idea. It wasn’t called “Lamaism” for nothing.

  60. windriven says:

    @VinceD

    ” The fact that you wrote what you did, when I used him as an example, makes you look like you don’t know what you are talking about. ”

    Perhaps in your eyes and those of others clinging desperately to fear and superstition. nybgrus has demonstrated sufficient erudition over a long period of time in these pages to not deserve your snarky crap.

    Lemaitre was a Catholic priest; also an astronomer, physicist and mathematician. So what? The fact that one can be a scientist and delusional comes as a surprise to whom? Linus Pauling (to roll out a hoary example) was a Nobel laureate … and an arm flapping, spittle-flinging quack when it came to vitamin C. Thomas Jefferson argued vociferously against slavery but owned slaves (and likely fathered a few) throughout his life.

    The issue is whether or not theism is consistent with science. It is arguable that they can coexist. It is not arguable that science requires the existence of a god.

  61. nybgrus says:

    @ VinceD:

    It is a canard. You argue that just because a religious person can do science that means religion and science are compatible. It is, at best a non-sequiter. I never said it was false that these religious people contributed to science. I said it is a canard that this demonstrates compatability of the two.

    You conveniently completely ignored my rebuttal – you want to toss up anecdotes of religious people who can still do science but ignore mine of scientists squelched by religion.

    The issue at hand is not whether an individual person can be a scientist and a theist at the same time. We know that humans can hold amazing amounts of cognitive dissonance in their heads. The question is whether religion and science are fundamentally compatible as constructs.

    Since one is based on faith and belief in the absence (and often presence of contrary) evidence, whereas the other is based on empirically verifiable and repeatable testing, yes, they are fundamentally incompatible.

    Why do I assume they are in competition? Because religion always makes it clear. Science doesn’t care. It finds answers where ever they are. But every time that answer doesn’t agree with a religion, it loudly clamors and complains, tries to cry NOMA! NOMA! and eventually, when the evidence is so insurmountably obvious finally accepts it and makes up whatever it needs to fit it into the pre-existing narrative.

  62. ConspicuousCarl says:

    For all of their gullible failures regarding global warming on their TV show, here is what Penn actually said about global warming at TAM:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xE0UkL4tjpg

    Yes, he sounds like an idiot on this issue, but he also says that people smarter than him disagree with him.

  63. ConspicuousCarl says:

    DugganSC on 01 Nov 2012 at 11:37 am

    Eh, for all the negativity, I’m personally proud of my religion and I feel that religion is no more incompatible with science than you can state that being a [political party] member and a thinking individual is incompatible.

    Inconsistent comparison. Your compare “religion” collectively and generally to a single unspecified political party. One could most definitely invent or possibly find a political party which has no conflict with science, but religion as a whole is loaded with anti-scientific members.

    You can always cherry-pick examples for or against.

    Of course, with either science or religion. The problem with nearly all religions (qualified for the sake of humility–I don’t actually know of an exception) is not just their specific conclusions, but their method for reaching those conclusions and the haste with which they accept those conclusions. That’s what generally makes religions incompatible with science. Even if a religious belief happens to be true, the fact that it must be categorized as a religious belief is what makes it incompatible.

    But ultimately, religion is like politics. You can readily hold your view and defend your view, but there’s really no way to force others to believe it.

    You could say that about making a choice amongst religions, if indeed you were convinced that such a choice was required in order to control your position in the afterlife. But very few people doubt the existence of the US government, for example. Even those who hate the US government don’t doubt that it exists, and I don’t think it is a matter of faith.

  64. wdygyp says:

    nybgrus wrote:

    Randomness does no mean a lack of order, it merely means the universe is statistical in nature. I can still make predictions, I just can’t say they will be 100% accurate (but I’ll take 99.9% any day).

    This may be true on a greater scale, but it is currently considered impossible to predict the state of a quantum system before observing it, without altering its state by observing it. This is the reason why quantum teleportation cannot be used for “faster than light communication”.
    Also, it is currently considered impossible (not just infeasible) to predict the radioactive decay of individual atomic nuclei.
    In general, the closer you get to the Planck length, the less “order and predictability” you seem to find (vacuum fluctuations, quantum foam).

    But even taken at face value, your argument doesn’t mean that the universe is completely unpredictable. Nor does it invoke a need for a deity.

    Yes, but that wasn’t part of my argument.

    You are correct. I used my terms loosely. Hopefully the point was still understandable.

    The proper term is, of course, “immoral”, not “unmoral”. English’s not my native language.

    You are begging the question. Why would consciousness be completely useless without free will?

    Because I couldn’t think of any other purpose than eventually making conscious decisions and trying to act upon them. If you know more, I’d be interested to read them.

    A lack of, or rather illusion of as Dr. Hall correctly stated, free will does not mean that there is not utility to conscious abilities to modify actions and behaviours.

    Perhaps our definitions of “free will” are different, but according to my understanding, the consciousness could not “modify actions and behaviours” if it didn’t have free will. Everything, including what thoughts to think, would be determined by the subconscious (or elsewhere). Unfree consciousness would therefore be a wasteful dead end, from an evolutionary perspective, and yet it was apparently conserved over many generations in humans and probably other “higher” animals.

    Another question begged. Why does consciousness require more energy? As I postulated above, the simplest – though as of yet not fully and empirically verified, though supported – explanation is that consciousness is an epi-phenomenon of complex massively parralel logic circuits

    This may be your position, but Harriet’s sentence to which I was referring is: “Conscious will is an illusion _manufactured_ by our brain.”
    “Manufactured” does not mean epiphenomenon and since perfect energy efficiency is impossible, anything “manufactured” incurs energy expenditure. If she had stated your position, I would not have responded.

    Species that can branch off and populate and ecological niche – even if that means climbing a steep slope on a fitness landscape – will do so, complexity and energy wasted or not. Remember, evolution is not about efficiency it is about doing whatever works (which, after billions of years, tends to become more efficient).

    In an environment of scarcity, evolution selects for conservation of energy, and while it is true that biological niches exist and complexity is no necessity for evolutionary fitness, great intelligence, which is considered energetically expensive, is advantageous in K-selected species like humans to facilitate behavioural adaptation. So if consciousness had, because of lack of free will, no purpose and was, because of being actively “manufactured”, to some degree expensive, it would have been a disadvantageous trait to be selected away. Being intelligent, but unconscious (comparable to a hypothetical highly advanced AI) would have been more efficient, thereby increasing evolutionary fitness in an environment of scarcity.

    And now you are imparting reason to an aimless process.

    Yes, I may be guilty of teleological reasoning here, but I just find the notion of the neurosystem “deluding” itself, as I wrote, “strange”, but not necessarily impossible.

    1. Harriet Hall says:

      When I said the illusion of conscious will was manufactured, I meant that it was produced by the neurologic processes in the brain. I did not mean that it was not an epiphenomenon. I don’t think of it as something special or “extra” that uses up energy, but as a inherent property of the way the brain functions. I don’t think it would be possible to have human-level intelligence without consciousness. And even if consciousness did increase energy expenditure, the loss would be more than outweighed by the survival benefits derived from consciousness (for instance, the ability to plan ahead).

  65. I’m an atheist, but I am surprised this debate has turned into a discussion on the incompatibility between religion (more precisely Christianity) and science, when the discussion started on the similar ideological foundations between Creationism/Intelligent Design and CAMs. I don’t see religion and science as being necessarily incompatible. Religion provides a narrative, which might explain its more comforting aspect. It provides a purpose, for lack of a better term. Science does not. And it is not its function anyway. But this does not explain the origins of creationism or CAMs.

    I’m going to paraphrase here Kenneth Miller’s Finding Darwin’s God. Miller is a cell biologist, science advocate, a critic of Creationism and Intelligent Design, and a Catholic. Basically, C/ID is bad science and bad religion. It’s based on a very literalist/fundamentalist view of the Bible, which is why C/ID will not have a footing in mainstream Catholicism or Orthodoxy. Which might also explain why it seems to have more success in the United States (your country was after all founded by a bunch of religious extremists).

    Miller’s conclusion could be equally applied to the foundations of CAMs (at least “Ayurvedic Medicine,” “Traditional Chinese Medicine” and acupuncture for starters. I’m not going to talk other CAMs). Bad science and Orientalist interpretation of probably mistranslated text. I think most notably about the notion of qi. A cursory examination of pre-Ming acupuncture text will show you that it all corresponds to the circulatory system (but it’s still the Chinese equivalent of astrological medicine and pre-modern bloodletting). The ideogram itself just means ‘health’ or ‘steam’ (as in Japanese, where 「お元気ですか?」just means “How are you?”; The last kanji is the same ideogram as “qi”, in its simplified form). For some reason (mistranslation), that ideogram was translated into our understanding of the word, that is to say a mystical energy that governs the wellbeing of a body. That mistranslation was taken up by those responsible for the subtitling of Chinese kung-fu movies (the ones made in the 1970s and 1980s, before they received better distribution and therefore better translations).

    So yes, I am equating some of the foundations of 3 CAMs (“Traditional Chinese Medicine,” “Ayurvedic Medicine” and acupuncture) to the bad subtitling of old kung fu movies. It’s a reductive and essentialist interpretation of outdated text disseminated by equally reductive pop culture artifacts that even the Chinese (and probably the Hindu) had abandoned long ago.

  66. And I forgot: the notion of qi has as much truth as the Force in Star Wars.

  67. windriven says:

    “But ultimately, religion is like politics. You can readily hold your view and defend your view, but there’s really no way to force others to believe it.”

    And therein lies the crux of the matter. Religion requires “belief”, accepting as certain something totally unsupported by evidence. Science is an edifice built entirely on evidence, tested and retested, refined and attacked and refined some more. Belief has no place there.

    “but there’s really no way to force others to believe it.”

    Hmmm…that doesn’t seem to stop them from trying. Religious zealots have often gleefully slaughtered one another because they believed in a slightly different version of god (consider if you will the internecine bloodletting between Sunnis and Shia as a current example). Scientists sometimes get pissy with one another but I’m at a loss to remember the last time a group of string theorists got together to annihilate a competing group.

  68. @windriven: I think religion is more like fiction (well, it is, after all), or Star Wars/Star Trek/Harry Potter/Twilight fandom. It provides a nice comforting spectacle. Some people are more into it than others (I’m not into any of the examples I’ve provided), but some others are just not going to buy into it. Because you know, the world in itself is interesting enough.

  69. Quill says:

    François Luong wrote:

    I’m an atheist, but I am surprised this debate has turned into a discussion on the incompatibility between religion (more precisely Christianity) and science, when the discussion started on the similar ideological foundations between Creationism/Intelligent Design and CAMs.

    I am similarly surprised and appreciate your mentioning that the discussion isn’t about religion in general but actually about Christianity in particular, and even more particularly the understanding of it in largely Protestant America. Most of the comments that say “religion” really are using the term in a too broad sense that makes any validity suspect. Dr. Gorski noted that it is common for people to have waded “into an area of science about which” they “knew next to nothing and then pontificating on it” so it is equally common for people to talk about non-science subjects they clearly know nothing about.

    Which is one reason why when narad writes

    As this is entirely tangential to the actual post, I will only note that taking the Dalai Lama to be representative of Buddhism is a really bad idea. It wasn’t called “Lamaism” for nothing.

    I must ask why he or she brought it up at all since by the comment it is clear they have no understanding of the subject. “Lamaism” was a late 19th century term coined by early western Orientalists (itself a suspect term) operating from deep-set theistic bias and speculating in ignorance. It was completely discredited as a term of any meaning by the mid 20th century.

    All these points are in the public domain and I urge, in the spirit of the thread, not to take my word for it but to find out for yourselves. :-) Even though I have graduate degrees in this field I promote this message: figure it out for yourself if it matters to you.

  70. Narad says:

    I must ask why he or she brought it up at all since by the comment it is clear they have no understanding of the subject.

    Tibetan Buddhism is a syncretism with Bon, that’s all. It’s a poor exemplar.

  71. Most religions are syncretic. There are no “pure” religions (unless they are extremely recent, and even so). I mean, just have a look at the origins of Christmas.

  72. BillyJoe says:

    Francois: “I am surprised this debate has turned into a discussion on the incompatibility between religion and science”

    It occurred in the very first sentence of the very first comment:

    Steve Parker: “I believe that the universe was designed and created by an supernatural entity.”

    With that we all got sucked in.
    I’m not sure why you are surprised.

  73. BillyJoe says:

    jdl83

    “@BillyJoe: I believe it is important to also realize what it has not done, and ultimately cannot do. It cannot provide meaning.”

    Firstly, I would rather my life had no meaning than meaning based on lies and faery tales.
    Secondly, science can indeed provide meaning. How do I know? Because it has provided meaning to my life. For a start, evidence and truth mean a great deal to me. The realisation of the vast expanse of the universe, the possibility of a vaster multiverse, the evolution of life, and the probable evolution of life from non life, the world of quantum physics, spacetime, curved space and the explanation for the precession of the perihelion of murcury. All these things give meaning to my life where gods just leave me cold.

    “It is itself anchored in philosophy.”

    I have already said so. Science arose out of philosophy when philosophers realised that for every philosopher there is a different philosophy spawning ten thousand different and incompatible religions. How to sift the wheat from the chaff? The answer was science.
    And, yes, science is based on the assumption of monism /materialism/physicalism/naturalism, and every success of science under that assumption is evidence that the philosophical basis of science is correct. And every success for science was a failure of dualism/immaterialism/nonphysicalism/supernaturalism.

    “if a “cause” is discovered to not be strictly “naturalistic” then Naturalism itself is no longer an adequate philosophy to accurately describe reality.”

    Throughout the 400 year history of science, there has never been any need to invoke supernatural/nonphysical/immaterial entities.

    “To date, I’ve believed that “Morality” serves as an example of a non-natural way of knowing; independent of the empirical and the rational.”

    Your belief is not based on evidence and therefore is blind.
    There is no absolute morality. Do not look at the so called holy books like the bible, the qu’ran, or the torah to find morality. You will be absolutely horrified at what you find. There are only things worth doing and things worth not doing and the test is to consider the consequences of doing or not doing those things. This is clearly a secular exercise informed by science, and arrived at through observation, experimentation, logic, and reason. Morality evolves just like life evolves. It is not handed down by a 2000 year old book. Otherwise we would still be owning slaves, subjucating women, descriminating against homosexuals, stoning adulterers, putting to death children who disobey their parents.

  74. BillyJoe says:

    VinceD

    “Dear BillyJoe…we find religion and science get along just fine, thank you.”

    You are deluded if you think so.
    Biologos was set up to promote the compatibility between science and religion, especially in terms of evolution. It has been a complete failure. Most of the scientists on the evolution side have left as, one by one, they realised that it is impossible for the two sides to find common ground. Christians who gave a little were roundly condemned by fellow christians. The turning point came when studies in genetics proved that Adam and Eve could not have been contemporaneous. Biologos is now essentially dead in the water.
    Science and religion get along like a master and his dog.

  75. BillyJoe says:

    “Thank you for being respectful to my worldview, and for politely indulging my questions.”

    There is no reason for us to be respectful and polite towards your worldview.
    Why would we be respectful and polite towards views based on the circumstances of your birth and devoid of evidence, logic and reason.

  76. nybgrus says:

    Indeed the conversation has taken some interesting turns. I am also to blame for this, since this is something I have read and written about extensively and find I am passionate about (primarily since I don’t want my country rivaling the theocracies of the middle east).

    BJ and CC have some very good and solid points on the matter, particularly the incompatability of science and religion. And for the record, I genuinely make every attempt I can to use religion in the generic sense since they all reduce down to the same basic ideas and principles – which is essentially what this post by Jann is all about… that the bad thinking, poor logic, repeated-though-refuted canards, pseudoscience trappings, and claim to “other ways of knowing” is shared by CAM proponents, religions, and conspiracy theorists.

    Inevitably (as we have seen) the push back is that my religion is fundamentally and unquestionably different from that religion.* Well, of course you would think so. Otherwise you wouldn’t be able to actually believe in your religion. The moment one admits that Christianity, in all of its 41,000 denominations is fundamentally no different than Islam or Buddhism or Sikhism or Hinduism or Raw Foodism (ok, maybe a little stretch but not too far), then you cannot possibly cling onto your belief and the whole of it crumbles around you. As jdl38 said, if the resurrection of Jesus is a myth, then Christians are to be pitied the most.

    And that is the rub – the central reason why religion and science are incompatible. [Please note that I never said that the couldn't coexist. I mean, at base that is a ridiculous claim to make. Christianity and Islam are mutually exclusive. By definition every Christian must believe that every Muslim is going to hell, and vice versa. How much more "incompatible" can you get? Yet obviously they coexist.] But the reason science and religion are incompatible is because as aspects of religion are proven wrong, the edifice crumbles, the religion fractionates, and eventually disappears. Thus it always seeks to maintain its tenets are correct, no matter the cost, until the cost is either disappear or adapt somehow to attempt staying relevent. The reason science and religion are currently “at war” is because we know enough now – for the first time in history – to truly make religion irrelevant. Just look at the polls and demographics, even in the US. Just look at Malala Yousuf.

    Science, on the other hand, does not crumble when parts of it are proven wrong. Built into the very foundations of science is the expectation that things will be proven wrong, refined, better understood. And thus is adapts, evolves, and moves on. Religions actually do the same – except they do it as a response to scientific understand, not of their own volition. And the evolution means more and more liberal interpretations of scripture and less and less mysticism and magic.

    VinceD made the common canard of listing religious people who did good science. I challenge anyone to demonstrate to me a religious person who did good science on a topic that directly contradicted his/her religion. I can name one off the top of my head – Kurt Wise. Imagine, a young earth creationist doing doctoral work in geology at Harvard! Anyone want to guess the outcome? (Hint: there is a reason I raise the example).

    I’ll close by addressing the last comment BJ made in response to jdl83:

    I am respectful of you because you have been respectful in your questions and to us. I am not respectful of your worldview, which I think is genuinely ludicrous for a thinking adult to have.

  77. nybgrus says:

    @wdygyp:

    This may be true on a greater scale, but it is currently considered impossible to predict the state of a quantum system before observing it,

    Correct. But this does not mean that the universe is inherently unpredictable. We are not at a loss for predicting outcomes, even on very technical and quantum level things. Saying we cannot predict when a single uranium atom will decay does not mean we cannot predict the decay of uranium. Obviously not, since it is one of the hundreds of radiodating methods we use.

    This is the reason why quantum teleportation cannot be used for “faster than light communication”.

    Yet. The theory is there, initial tests are sound, and we have in fact used entanglement for faster than light communication already. Currently there are experiments to expand the capacity for it.

    Because I couldn’t think of any other purpose than eventually making conscious decisions and trying to act upon them. If you know more, I’d be interested to read them.

    Argument from personal incredulity. Just because you can’t think of something does not mean nobody can. Even if nobody can, doesn’t mean the reason doesn’t exist.

    Hopefully it has become apparent, but the point of a lack of free will is that at base we have no free will. We have, however, evolved post hoc ways of exerting control and direction to our lack of free will. As I said above, this is why we look differently upon a dog who chews up a couch and poops on it and a teenager who does the same (though think about a severely mentally handicapped teenager who does the same). We, at base, recognize a lack of free will and understand that we need higher order executive function to modulate this.

    Everything, including what thoughts to think, would be determined by the subconscious (or elsewhere).

    That is where you are incorrect with what we are saying. Not everything is determined at a subconscious level. But the basis of everything is.

    Unfree consciousness would therefore be a wasteful dead end, from an evolutionary perspective,

    Would you argue that a dolphin has no conscioussness? How about a shark? A dog? A bird? A centipede? How much “free will” does each one have? Conscioussness, whether partially free or wholly not, does confer a selective advantage.

    This may be your position, but Harriet’s sentence to which I was referring is: “Conscious will is an illusion _manufactured_ by our brain.”
    “Manufactured” does not mean epiphenomenon and since perfect energy efficiency is impossible, anything “manufactured” incurs energy expenditure. If she had stated your position, I would not have responded.

    Dr. Hall addressed this and is exactly what I would have said and exactly what I expected her to say.

    In an environment of scarcity, evolution selects for conservation of energy,

    No, actually it doesn’t. It selects for the best way to proliferate. Even if that means more energy spent. I would get more into it but I have to leave very soon for clinic. For now, suffice it to say that this is not a fundamental principle of evolutionary selection.

    Yes, I may be guilty of teleological reasoning here, but I just find the notion of the neurosystem “deluding” itself, as I wrote, “strange”, but not necessarily impossible.

    It only seems “strange” if you insist on a teleological understanding of the issue. For me, it makes perfect sense.

  78. tgobbi says:

    nybgrus states: “I have a friend who is very Jewish – he even doesn’t work on Saturday. But he recognizes that it is an irrational belief, one that he had purely because of his childhood, but enjoys the culture, find comfort in the traditions, and that’s it. He knowingly isolated that aspect of his life from everything else.”

    I believe that this type of behavior is the same thing as OCD. It’s something you need to cling to simply because you need to cling to it. Doesn’t logic define this as a tautology?

    We all know many folks who do things simply to maintain tradition. Usually it doesn’t interfere with our lives but, when it does, it’s a very negative influence. Avoiding black cats, walking around rather than under a ladder, making the sign of the cross to avoid responsibility for saying or doing something, saying “God forbid” to keep something bad from happening.

    This last example reminds me of working with a lawyer to update my will. He kept repeating “God forbid *something* should happen to you. Of course he meant “if you die…” I finally reminded him that the reason my wife and I were there with him is that we know we’re going to die and we want to make sure that our estate is properly disposed of.

    Just rambling about a subject that fascinates and confuses me…

    Oh, and one more thing. Years ago a Jewish family I knew sorta kept kosher; they had one set of dishes for meat and another for dairy. That’s one of the principles of keeping kosher. The kicker is that they had a third set of dishes – one that they could use to serve carry-out (pork!) sausage pizza! If I were a cynic (perish the thought) I’d say this was self-delusional or, perhaps, hypocrisy. Fortunately science doesn’t work that way.

  79. David Gorski says:

    For all of their gullible failures regarding global warming on their TV show, here is what Penn actually said about global warming at TAM:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xE0UkL4tjpg

    That’s actually not the TAM I attended or was talking about. I think it was TAM7 where Penn said something like (and I paraphrase from memory, probably not entirely accurately except for the “we just don’t know” part):

    Is the planet getting warmer? Yes. Are we putting more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere by burning fossil fuels Is human activity causing this warming? Most scientists think so, but WE JUST DON’T KNOW.

  80. David Gorski says:

    And I forgot: the notion of qi has as much truth as the Force in Star Wars.

    Hey, midchlorians could exist! :-)

  81. marcus welby says:

    Dr. Gorski:

    We DO know that we are putting massively more CO2 into the atmosphere from human activities, primarily burning fossil fuels but also deforestation, some of which is to plant more crops to feed our growing population, and some unfortunately to convert to fuel. We can measure what part of CO2 is due to burning fossil fuels and what originates in natural sources, since the former has no mixed C14 isotope but the natural sources does. The American Meteorological Society has an August position statement and addresses causes of global warming.

    http://www.ametsoc.org/policy/2012climatechange.html

    Statement of AAAS from 2009:

    http://www.aaas.org/news/releases/2009/1204climate_statement.shtml

    Virtually every nation’s science association has a similar position with no exceptions. Over 97% of climate scientists agree, and that paper was published before Sandy. Sandy was likely not appreciably due to global warming but was made worse by the massive amount of moisture in the air due to warming (1 degree rise in temperature results in 4% more moisture in the air).

  82. Robb says:

    @ Harriet and nybgrus,
    Re: no conscious will

    OK, I’m a little late in responding but still don’t grok what you’re saying. You’ll have to better define what sort of actions we are talking about here. The decision of when to move a finger is fairly trivial. It would in most cases be happening subconsciously. I do not think about the actions needed to ride a bicycle. If I want to, I can, but it isn’t necessary. I don’t need to be aware of the actions to breathe, but I can step in and alter them if I want to.

    There are also purely autonomic functions, reflex actions, instincts, muscle memory, etc. where there is no conscious need for decision making and really it would only slow down and hinder the response (or be completely impossible to influence consciously at all). Is that “all” that you are talking about? If so, it seems fairly obvious but I thought you were referring to the totality of our life actions/decisions. The decision to move my finger in response to a door closing on top of it luckily does not depend on my conscious will, but the decision to cheat on my spouse, take a vacation in NYC or not, or quit my job is entirely different.

    So, I would say I do have conscious will, but in some cases my physiology beats me to the need to exercise it. Some people do not exercise their neo-cortex enough or abdicate use of conscious will, I’ll grant you that – and a dog tearing up a couch, well, I don’t know if we know the degree to which a dog can or can’t exercise conscious will, but obviously it would be much less than us. Maybe more dog MRIs will tell us: http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0038027

    I’m still not sure what to say to your example, nybgrus, of “have you ever said a word or did something you had no idea why and wrote it off as an oddity” = there is no conscious free will. How does this make any sense? Since blurting out odd phrases or having no idea why I do something is not my general modus operandi, why would I assume it to be anything other than oddity and an exception or a few drinks too many?

    In later posts you both seem to be saying that the impulse to act occurs subconsciously, outside of conscious awareness, but we’ve evolved a certain degree of control via the neocortex that can change course, resist impulses, etc. I guess I don’t understand how that function of the neocortex would not be considered exercising one’s will.

  83. David Gorski says:

    @marcus welby

    I was quoting Penn from memory, not agreeing with him. If you noticed my previous comment, I disparaged his response as the “we just don’t know” gambit. The implication, of course, is that we do know.

  84. ConspicuousCarl says:

    Welby:

    Gorski was just paraphrasing Penn, you don’t need to convince him. :)

    Gorski:

    I think he has gone from the general “we” used in the TV show (we don’t know = nobody knows) to what I think is more clearly the literal me-and-teller “we” in the video I found (since he contrasts his opinion vs. everyone else). Based on what he said at TAM6, I doubt that he is reverting to speaking for others. The capital letters are probably accurate.

  85. ConspicuousCarl says:

    Hmmm… global warming, quantum physics, free will, alt-med… all we need is for one of the anti-vaxers to show up and mention nazis, and then we can go home for the week.

  86. Harriet Hall says:

    @Robb,

    As I said, these concepts are very difficult to understand, and I think the very idea of “free will” leads to a flawed approach. Conscious will is an illusion, similar to the illusion of the “self,” but that doesn’t mean we have no control over our lives. I urge you to read Wegner’s book “The Illusion of Conscious Will.”

  87. Quill says:

    I think Wegner’s book is a great read. He makes a good case that the mind continuously manufactures an illusion. Which brings up numerous problems especially since the mind can’t “get outside itself” to know what is going on elsewhere or even if there is an elsewhere. (Mathematically, a system can’t prove itself.) We -think- we read studies about various things and understand something, but it is all part of that continuous illusion we reinforce everyday by its continuous, uninterrupted production. And the only way we have to try to work it out is the exchange of words, all of which are as firm as jello when it comes to trying to talk about things like “free will” and “consciousness.”

    @ConspicuousCarl: I look forward to their visit! Although if they don’t show up it won’t matter as several have already expresses opinions congruent with authoritarian ignorance. ;-)

  88. Free will, science vs. religion. I thought you had all followed me to the philosophy blogs I read every now and then until I rechecked the URL.

    @Dr. Gorski: When are we going to see vitalists use midichlorian-like structures to explain their woo? And George Lucas never explained if midichlorians were the Force itself or if they were conducive to the Force.

  89. Robb says:

    @Harriet,
    Yes, I will check his book out. His wiki page summarizes it this way: “He argues that, although people may feel that conscious intentions drive much of their behavior, in reality both behavior and intentions are the product of other, unconscious mental processes.”

    I don’t think there’s anything controversial there – decisions and actions can easily be seen as the end result of sometimes competing processes, impulses, or parts of the brain. My point before about some people being more aware of these processes than others had nothing to do with impossible awareness of minutiae like synapses firing but more along the lines of awareness of mental processes, emotions, thought patterns, etc. “After the fact” justification of intent to avoid cognitive dissonance of course can happen but I don’t think it can be generalized from this that all “free will” is an illusion. It is definitely complex though – our “free” will is only as free as far as the confines of our various internal and external influences allow. Having a human brain definitely allows us a lot more potential latitude than other life forms though.

  90. BillyJoe says:

    Robb,

    “we’ve evolved a certain degree of control via the neocortex that can change course, resist impulses, etc. I guess I don’t understand how that function of the neocortex would not be considered exercising one’s will.”

    Freewill is actually an incoherent concept. It actually cannot exist. Think about it. First of all, you already agree – as you must – that freewill is not totally free:

    “our “free” will is only as free as far as the confines of our various internal and external influences allow.”

    Okay, so for a start you ackowlegde that freewill is not totally free, but is constrained by input into the brain through sensory nerves, as well as input into certain modules of the brain from other modules or parts of the brain such as those involved in memory and emotion.
    But where is the “free” part? Where does that come from? It can’t be “based” on anything mentioned in the above paragraph, otherwise it wouldn’t be “free”. So is it a coin toss? Heads I go left, tails I go right? Is tossing a coin the basis of freewill. It would certainly be “free”, but where does “will” come into a coin toss?
    So the whole idea of “freewill” is incoherent from the get go.
    If you don’t think so, please explain to me how “freewill” can be both “free” and “willed”.

    “we’ve evolved a certain degree of control via the neocortex that can change course, resist impulses, etc. I guess I don’t understand how that function of the neocortex would not be considered exercising one’s will.”

    Is it “control” via the neocortex or “influence” by the neocortex. Just like all other areas of the brain, the neocortex processes input from other areas of the brain and, like all other areas of the brain, it influences the output of the brain. But those processes within the neocortex, just like the processes in other parts of the brain, consist of cause and effect relationships between molecules and neurons.
    If you are inclined to posit a “soul” or “spirit”, then that concept suffers the same fate as “freewill”. It is incoherent as explained above.

  91. mousethatroared says:

    Nazi!?! – you know I hear one of the guys running for president is almost a Nazi.

    There. Happy week-end.

  92. Scott says:

    @ mousethatroared:

    I hear they both are. Depending on who you ask.

  93. mousethatroared says:

    None, one, both…It’s all just a matter of perspective, right? ;)

  94. Robb says:

    Billy Joe,
    The “free” part comes from choice. Relative as it is and constrained as it might be by the information available and how you respond to that information.
    As far as the neo-cortex as “control” or just “influence” – it all depends on the action or choice. Want to shoot up some heroin? “I” can exert control and say no. Want to keep my hand in a burning flame against my instinct to immediately remove it? Its control diminishes to almost no influence at all (I’m not a yogi who can walk on burning coals at this point).

  95. Narad says:

    we have in fact used entanglement for faster than light communication already

    Um, no.

  96. BillyJoe says:

    Robb,

    All you have done is swap the word “choice” for “will” and pronounced that “choice” is “free”.
    Subsitute “choice” for “will” in my post and you now have “freechoice” instead of “freewill” as an incoherent concept:

    Okay, so for a start you ackowledge that freechoice is not totally free, but is constrained by input into the brain through sensory nerves, as well as input into certain modules of the brain from other modules or parts of the brain such as those involved in memory and emotion.
    But where is the “free” part? Where does that come from? It can’t be based on anything mentioned in the above paragraph, otherwise it wouldn’t be “free”. So is it a coin toss? Heads I go left, tails I go right? Is tossing a coin the basis of freechoice. It would certainly be “free”, but where does “choice” come into a coin toss?
    So the whole idea of “freechoice” is incoherent from the get go.
    If you don’t think so, please explain to me how “freechoice” can be both “free” and a “choice”.

  97. BillyJoe says:

    nybgrus,

    “Indeed, it was gaff on Randi’s part, one he copped to a mere two days after the original post:”
    http://www.randi.org/site/index.php/swift-blog/806-i-am-not-qdenyingq-anything.html

    I just re-read that article and my numerous comments in it. My comments there sound like the knowledgable comments you make here. There is stuff in there that I don’t even remember writing. And stuff I don’t even remember knowing. I know I spent about half a year of my spare time during 2009 researching AGW, but where has all that knowledge gone. It’s depressing. Maybe Mr. L. Zheimer is paying a visit.

  98. wdygyp says:

    Harriet Hall wrote:

    I don’t think it would be possible to have human-level intelligence without consciousness. And even if consciousness did increase energy expenditure, the loss would be more than outweighed by the survival benefits derived from consciousness (for instance, the ability to plan ahead).

    Whatever the speculative advantages of a consciousness without real will may be, I doubt the ability to plan (“plan ahead” is redundant) as even relatively primitive, probably unconscious AIs, such as chess computers, can already do or at least mimic* this.

    * How to define the difference?

    nybgrus wrote:

    We are not at a loss for predicting outcomes, even on very technical and quantum level things.

    How can you state this when I just gave examples of how it is currently considered fundamentally impossible to predict some quantum mechanical outcomes?

    Yet. The theory is there, initial tests are sound, and we have in fact used entanglement for faster than light communication already.

    Your “Yet.” is speculative and unfounded, and furthermore contradicts your subsequent sentence (quantum teleportation relies on entanglement). The current model explicitly forbids faster-than-light communication by means of quantum teleportation/entanglement. It has never been achieved, so if you think otherwise, prove it. Your link doesn’t claim this either.

    Argument from personal incredulity. Just because you can’t think of something does not mean nobody can. Even if nobody can, doesn’t mean the reason doesn’t exist.

    Well, you seem to be unwilling to elucidate me. I was merely trying to explain my personal incredulity, not use it as a logical proof.

    Hopefully it has become apparent, but the point of a lack of free will is that at base we have no free will. We have, however, evolved post hoc ways of exerting control and direction to our lack of free will. [...] We, at base, recognize a lack of free will and understand that we need higher order executive function to modulate this.

    Straw man; Harriet’s claim was absolute that “[c]onscious will [was] an illusion”, whereas you now allow the consciousness at least some real will (the capability to modulate). If you are an adherent of epiphenomenalism, you should at least understand its consequences, namely that “mental events [...] have no effects upon any physical events”*, so you can’t deny true conscious will one hand and then grant some of it back by phrasing it differently (“exerting control and direction to our lack of free will”).

    * http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/epiphenomenalism/

    Not everything is determined at a subconscious level. But the basis of everything is.

    See above. I also left open the possibility of “elsewhere”.

    Would you argue that a dolphin has no conscioussness? How about a shark? A dog? A bird? A centipede? How much “free will” does each one have? Conscioussness, whether partially free or wholly not, does confer a selective advantage.

    I don’t understand your analogies. The answer is that I have beliefs, but I do not know (see “philosophical zombie”). You do not give reason for your last claim, and if consciousness was only an epiphenomenon, it wouldn’t necessarily have to be advantageous.

    Dr. Hall addressed this and is exactly what I would have said and exactly what I expected her to say.

    I am not at fault for Harriet’s unclear phrasing. Surely it would be misleading to write that the Moon “manufactured” tides when tides are merely a side effect (epiphenomenon) of its presence (among other things).

    No, actually it doesn’t. It selects for the best way to proliferate. Even if that means more energy spent. [...] For now, suffice it to say that this is not a fundamental principle of evolutionary selection.

    Straw men; I already gave the example of great intelligence to show that, yes, greater energy expenditure can be advantageous if the return of investment outweighs its cost, and I never claimed that conservation of energy* was a “fundamental principle of evolutionary selection” as I made clear that it was relative to an environment of scarcity.

    * If this is unclearly phrased, I meant energy efficiency.

    It only seems “strange” if you insist on a teleological understanding of the issue. For me, it makes perfect sense.

    So you can’t explain why the neurosystem would delude its unfree consciousness into thinking it had free will, and you don’t have to because that would be teleological, but you nevertheless come to the conclusion that “it makes perfect sense”?

  99. BillyJoe says:

    wdygyp,

    ” If you are an adherent of epiphenomenalism, you should at least understand its consequences, namely that “mental events [...] have no effects upon any physical events””

    To say that consciousness is an epiphenomenon of the brain can mean merely that you are rejecting dualism, not necessarily that you are rejecting a role for consciousness in brain function. In the second context, consciousness can be described as an emergent property of the brain rather than an epiphenomenon of the brain. In other words, epiphenomenon can have different meanings in different contexts.

    “you now allow the consciousness at least some real will (the capability to modulate).”

    The capacity to modulate is not free will.
    Various modules in the occipital cortex modulate raw input from the optic nerves to descriminate colour, contrast, and boundaries. No free will there. There is no reason that the areas of the brain involved in consciousness cannot similarly modulate input without having to posit free will. This can be achieved by straight forward cause and effect relationships between molecules and neurones. Where is the necessity for free will. Indeed, where is free will.

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