Tuesday, 7 September 2010

Beyond Belief - All in the Mind


On my way home yesterday afternoon, as is customary, I was listening to the radio. The programme I was listening to was 'Beyond Belief', which is concerned with faith and ethics.

The subject under discussion was Catholicism and I was astounded to hear one of the interviewees state that (among other things) Catholics should become less concerned with introspection and more concerned with the Truth.

Given the large number of religions, each professing to be custodians of Truth, these Truths can by definition be no more than opinions – and widely differing opinions to boot.

The only Truth can be that which is indisputable – i.e. scientific truth derived from observation, experimentation and verifiability through repeatability.

I think 'Beyond Belief' should be renamed 'All in the Mind', the name of another BBC Radio 4 programme.


13 comments:

  1. "The only Truth can be that which is indisputable – i.e. scientific truth derived from observation, experimentation and verifiability through repeatability."

    Even empirical observation and scientific theory are not 'indisputable'; paradigmatic frameworks underpin the findings. Dispute the paradigm and you dispute both the findings and the theories. Epistemological conflicts of this kind are rife in academic science, and demonstrate with clarity that there is little that lies unequivocally beyond dispute within science.

    There *might* be a case that *logical* truth has claim to indisputability, though. I'll leave that question to the philosophers of mathematics, though. ;)

    Best wishes!

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  2. Scientific "truths" are provisional this is a strength of the scientific method and not a weakness. It means we can adapt and refine theories as more evidence comes in, debate and skeptical enquiry are core tenants of science so critical questioning is to be expected, however it is important to realise this doesn't mean that superstition and unalterable dogma is any more likely to be true.

    Newton's theories got men to the moon, but Newton's model was not as accurate as Einstein's revisions to it; to paint a picture that science is in a state of large scale disagreement and turmoil is false and a classic tactic of religious apologists everywhere. It is actually very rare that core theories like gravity, evolution or the germ theory of disease are overturned, usually its small revisions that are being debated at the edges of established knowledge.

    On the other hand there is no such thing as “Islamic chemistry” or “Hindu biology”; because science is a coherent process we simply have chemistry and physics! Compared to religion science is as solid as a rock, how many different versions of Christianity are there for example? When you have no independently verifiable mechanism for resolving differences of opinion or errors (like evidence!) then religion seems doomed to a cycle of constant fragmentation and division as the Chairman accurately points out.

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  3. I always feel uneasy when anyone mentions the idea of "truth" in the singular. And I share your unease when the word is given a capital "T".

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  4. Chris: There are fundamental facts of science that all (who are qualified to comment) are indeed agreed upon - for example that colour is not intrinsic to an object or that perpetual motion machines are impossible.

    Yes, there are some areas that remain in dispute, but that is due to the observations showing variances under experimentation and ipso facto they are not scientific truths.

    The scientific method is the best method we have to home in on the ultimate truth. Mere supposition as practiced by religion is not and can never be such.

    Steve: I fully agree with you.

    Alan: Hear hear!

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  5. Chairman: "The scientific method is the best method we have to home in on the ultimate truth. Mere supposition as practiced by religion is not and can never be such."

    I see what you are gesturing at, but you make a lot of assumptions here, including (a) that there is a definitive 'scientific method' that works, rather than a paradigmatic authorisation procedure (b) that science is best understood as a progress towards ultimate truth (which Kuhn has argued convincingly against) (c) that all religion is "mere supposition" and has no other role but speculation, and (d) that nothing in religion can make a claim to truth of any kind.

    But (d) is a severe case of question begging, since if you constrain the term "truth" to apply only to empirical investigation then, sure, you'll reach your conclusion - but it was implicit in the way your question was worded! Is there really nothing in religion that can make some kind of claim to 'truth' (albeit of a different kind to that of science)? Do you want to claim that empirical truth is the *only* kind of truth? What about moral truth? Logical truth? Personal truth?

    If you want to claim that religion is not a viable method for reaching empirical truth then I'll agree with you! But if you want to make empirical truth the only thing that matters, I'll accuse you of substituting your own 'mere supposition' for a balanced view of the world. ;)

    I strongly recommend you read Kuhn's "The Structure of Scientific Revolutions". Here's a relevant quote:

    "We are deeply accustomed to seeing science as the one enterprise that draws constantly nearer to some goal set by nature in advance. But need there be such a goal? Can we not account for both science’s existence and its success in terms of evolution from the community’s state of knowledge at any given time? Does it really help to imagine that there is some one full, objective, true account of nature and that the proper measure of scientific achievement is the extent to which it brings us closer to that ultimate goal?"

    Best wishes!

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  6. Chris: An interesting point and I shall certainly read the book you suggest. I will reply more fully when I have the time (I'm currently both trying to reach my sales targets and look for a new position).

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  7. PS: A few other notes of relevance.

    - Your accusation that each religion professes to be the custodian of truth is in error. You are equating a proportion of Abrahamic faiths with the whole of religion. Plenty of religions make no such claim - in fact, a good number of Dharmic religions, in common with Sufi Islam, deny that any kind of truth can be reached from a single religious perspective. Many Dharmic faiths (e.g. some forms of Hinduism) deny access to objective truth entirely.

    - Steve's claim that "compared to religion science is as solid as a rock" makes an odd kind of comparison - as if one were to claim that "compared to music, cooking is as solid as a rock!" The claims of religion and the claims of science are two totally different domains! True, some fools mistake them as covering the same ground (e.g. Creation Scientists) but one equally risks looking foolish if one is tempted to run this judgement in the other direction. ;)

    - Steve's point about the provisional nature of scientific claims is a good one. But It runs directly contrary to the idea of science as the sole provider of truths since it admits that, if we want to be true empiricists, we must be prepared to give up our 'truths'. And of course, scientists don't do this. Max Planck hit the nail on the head when he said: “a new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it." :)

    - If the scientific method were sufficient to validate empirical truth-claims *on its own*, there would be no disagreements over experiments. Yet there are, particularly (but not exclusively) in the case of psi experiments. I'm agnostic as to the interpretation of the Ganzfeld, but what it does do is invalidate the claim that method *alone* produces objective truth.

    - And further to this, your examples of facts are dependent upon the paradigms of interpretation, e.g. colour is extrinsic to an object in a paradigm that identifies "colour" as a phenomenon of observation. A paradigm that abstracted out the subject would relate the colour to the absorption spectra of the object and *would* make the colour intrinsic to the object.


    My general overall point is that treating science and religion as competitors for the same prize is to misunderstand both, and to justify the validity of science by pointing to things which are less robustly empirical is circular argumentation.

    Science is a useful tool. But a mature culture needs more than one tool. And spending one's time arguing that one tool is better than another is surely not productive. Certain religious folks are deeply confused when they try to fight epistemic battles. But don't lend their arguments force by taking arms against them! The defence of the merit of science cannot rest on comparison with religion. If it does, then it is merely a kind of concealed bigotry, and not a claim of worth at all.

    (Now if you'll excuse me, I *really* should be working!) :)

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  8. PS: A few other notes of relevance.

    - Your accusation that each religion professes to be the custodian of truth is in error. You are equating a proportion of Abrahamic faiths with the whole of religion. Plenty of religions make no such claim - in fact, a good number of Dharmic religions, in common with Sufi Islam, deny that any kind of truth can be reached from a single religious perspective. Many Dharmic faiths (e.g. some forms of Hinduism) deny access to objective truth entirely.

    - Steve's claim that "compared to religion science is as solid as a rock" makes an odd kind of comparison - as if one were to claim that "compared to music, cooking is as solid as a rock!" The claims of religion and the claims of science are two totally different domains! True, some fools mistake them as covering the same ground (e.g. Creation Scientists) but one equally risks looking foolish if one is tempted to run this judgement in the other direction. ;)

    - Steve's point about the provisional nature of scientific claims is a good one. But It runs directly contrary to the idea of science as the sole provider of truths since it admits that, if we want to be true empiricists, we must be prepared to give up our 'truths'. And of course, scientists don't do this. Max Planck hit the nail on the head when he said: “a new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it." :)

    - If the scientific method were sufficient to validate empirical truth-claims *on its own*, there would be no disagreements over experiments. Yet there are, particularly (but not exclusively) in the case of psi experiments. I'm agnostic as to the interpretation of the Ganzfeld, but what it does do is invalidate the claim that method *alone* produces objective truth.

    - And further to this, your examples of facts are dependent upon the paradigms of interpretation, e.g. colour is extrinsic to an object in a paradigm that identifies "colour" as a phenomenon of observation. A paradigm that abstracted out the subject would relate the colour to the absorption spectra of the object and *would* make the colour intrinsic to the object.


    My general overall point is that treating science and religion as competitors for the same prize is to misunderstand both, and to justify the validity of science by pointing to things which are less robustly empirical is circular argumentation.

    Science is a useful tool. But a mature culture needs more than one tool. And spending one's time arguing that one tool is better than another is surely not productive. Certain religious folks are deeply confused when they try to fight epistemic battles. But don't lend their arguments force by taking arms against them! The defence of the merit of science cannot rest on comparison with religion. If it does, then it is merely a kind of concealed bigotry, and not a claim of worth at all.

    (Now if you'll excuse me, I *really* should be working! Hope you don't mind my rambles!) :)

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  9. PS: A few other notes of relevance.

    - Your accusation that each religion professes to be the custodian of truth is in error. You are equating a proportion of Abrahamic faiths with the whole of religion. Plenty of religions make no such claim - in fact, a good number of Dharmic religions, in common with Sufi Islam, deny that any kind of truth can be reached from a single religious perspective. Many Dharmic faiths (e.g. some forms of Hinduism) deny access to objective truth entirely.

    - Steve's claim that "compared to religion science is as solid as a rock" makes an odd kind of comparison - as if one were to claim that "compared to music, cooking is as solid as a rock!" The claims of religion and the claims of science are two totally different domains! True, some fools mistake them as covering the same ground (e.g. Creation Scientists) but one equally risks looking foolish if one is tempted to run this judgement in the other direction. ;)

    - Steve's point about the provisional nature of scientific claims is a good one. But It runs directly contrary to the idea of science as the sole provider of truths since it admits that, if we want to be true empiricists, we must be prepared to give up our 'truths'. And of course, scientists don't do this. Max Planck hit the nail on the head when he said: “a new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it." :)

    - If the scientific method were sufficient to validate empirical truth-claims *on its own*, there would be no disagreements over experiments. Yet there are, particularly (but not exclusively) in the case of psi experiments. I'm agnostic as to the interpretation of the Ganzfeld, but what it does do is invalidate the claim that method *alone* produces objective truth.

    - And further to this, your examples of facts are dependent upon the paradigms of interpretation, e.g. colour is extrinsic to an object in a paradigm that identifies "colour" as a phenomenon of observation. A paradigm that abstracted out the subject would relate the colour to the absorption spectra of the object and *would* make the colour intrinsic to the object.


    My general overall point is that treating science and religion as competitors for the same prize is to misunderstand both, and to justify the validity of science by pointing to things which are less robustly empirical is circular argumentation.

    Science is a useful tool. But a mature culture needs more than one tool. And spending one's time arguing that one tool is better than another is surely not productive. Certain religious folks are deeply confused when they try to fight epistemic battles. But don't lend their arguments force by taking arms against them! The defence of the merit of science cannot rest on comparison with religion. If it does, then it is merely a kind of concealed bigotry, and not a claim of worth at all.

    Now if you'll excuse me, like you I *really* should be working! Please excuse my rambles... :)

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  10. Gah! Please delete those duplicate comments (and this one). Sorry 'bout that - it gave me an error and posted it anyway. The last comment is the "final version".

    Thanks for your patience!

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  11. Chris said "Science and religion are totally different domains", I disagree, (modern) theologians would like us to think this is true because science is so much more successful at describing reality and providing utility. By divorcing itself from any chance of empirical testing or scrutiny, religion can essentially keep on saying anything it likes about reality. Theological snake oil IMO or simply a semantic "trick" in an attempt to remain relevant and hold onto power and influence (now those goals I can understand!)

    People often claim that religion answers the "why" questions when science answer the "how" questions, what a lot of nonsense, some questions are just stupid questions. I would ask "why should there be a reason why?"; "what's the purpose of life?", "what's the purpose of a Tsunami?" - some questions are meaningless in the absence of a purposeful agent like a human brain.

    The Max Planck quote is plain wrong IMO; maybe that was true in his day; a theory rests or falls based on falsifiability, if the evidence shows it to be wrong, then it's wrong or needs to be amended to incorporate that evidence. Sure science is done by Human beings, so it is subject to the same threats to integrity that anything done by human beings is (including religion) however as I said before, science has an objective way of resolving such issues, religion does not.

    PS my point about solidity was regarding levels of agreement among the respective communities about core ideas; I believe this is directly comparable.

    PS. Thanks for the book tip; must look out for that one.

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  12. Chris: I can sum up my position with one word - dogma. While dogma certainly exists in science, it cannot persist, as the scientific method precludes this. If a new paradigm manifests in science, it is debated and argued, not philosophically, but on the basis of evidence. If the evidence is lacking, the argument dies, if it consistently supports the argument, then the dogma dies.

    In religion (and yes, I admit I'm using ther Abrahamic faiths as by yardstick), if someone departs from the established dogma, the religion splits and you end up with two sets of dogma, both of which invariably persist and possibly divide yet again further on.

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  13. Steve: "(modern) theologians would like us to think this is true because science is so much more successful at describing reality and providing utility."

    Out of interest, have you read many modern theologians? They are mostly interested in exploring the relationship of philosophical terms like "Being" and "alterity" to human spiritual experience. Are you judging theology by the nutjobs the news services like to point at? Because one should never judge a domain by the worst examples of the field. :)

    On the question of "describing reality", I don't see this as a central role of religion/mythology. I'd recommend Joseph Campbell on this front. Power of Myth (with Bill Moyers) is highly accessible.

    On the question of utility, I believe that the role of maintaining a repertory of moral concepts via their stories, religion has been tremendously valuable. And the utility of this activity is very different from the utility of technology which emerges from science. You surely wouldn't want to say that technology and morality are equivalent domains? :) (See also Stephen Jay Gould's take on this issue in Rock of Ages).

    If you want to see religion as fighting for science's turf, you're buying into the very nonsense Creation Scientists are selling. I personally find this a very misleading approach.

    Finally, I agree that scientists have "more objective" methods for empirical truth verification than religion, but I deny that empirical truth verification has anything to do with religion (except confused nonsense like Creation Science). But "more objective" is not "objective" in an absolute sense. Read the Kuhn and see what you think.

    Thanks for the sidebar discussion! ;)

    Chairman: I see what you are getting at - but I think you underestimate the role of dogma in science and overestimate the role of dogma in religion (although this is not to deny the existence of dogma in many religious groups, and particularly among the Abrahamic faiths).

    As someone intimately caught up with the academic world, I would say anyone who thinks that we can point to one ontological view of the world "science" that everyone agrees on is completely doolally! :) Theories do not rest and fall on evidence - in fact, theoretical scientists and experimental scientists are absurdly at odds in a surprising number of cases. I definitely recommend the Kuhn as a starting point for this issue.

    What making religion out to be the bad guy has done is allowed the disagreements in science to play second fiddle to finger pointing at the people who are more obviously nuts. But trust me, the dogma is still there in science and its still amazingly entrenched. It's easy to look at the small number of successful scientific instruments (e.g. quantum mechanics, relativity) and trust that everything in the academy reaches this standard... but this just isn't how it is "under the hood", so to speak.

    Anyway, thanks for the chat! Always a pleasure!

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