Other Standards of Intellectual Integrity?


‘While it is now a moral necessity for scientists to speak honestly about the conflict between science and religion, even the National Academy of Sciences has declared the conflict illusory:

At the root of the apparent conflict between some religions and evolution is a misunderstanding of the critical difference between religious and scientific ways of knowing. Religions and science answer different questions about the world. Whether there is a purpose to the universe or a purpose for human existence are not questions for science. Religious and scientific ways of knowing have played, and will continue to play, significant roles in human history…. Science is a way of knowing about the natural world. It is limited to explaining the natural world through natural causes. Science can say nothing about the supernatural. Whether God exists or not is a question about which science is neutral.

This statement is stunning for its lack of candor. Of course, scientists live in perpetual fear of losing public funds, so the NAS may have merely been expressing raw terror of the taxpaying mob. The truth, however, is that the conflict between religion and science is unavoidable. The success of science often comes at the expense of religious dogma; the maintenance of religious dogma always comes at the expense of science. Our religions do not simply talk about “a purpose for human existence.” Like science, every religion makes specific claims about the way the world is. These claims purport to be about facts—the creator of the universe can hear (and will occasionally answer) your prayers; the soul enters the zygote at the moment of conception; if you do not believe the right things about God, you will suffer terribly after death. Such claims are intrinsically in conflict with the claims of science, because they are claims made on terrible evidence.

In the broadest sense, “science” (from the Latin scire, “to know”) represents our best efforts to know what is true about our world. We need not distinguish between “hard” and “soft” science here, or between science and a branch of the humanities like history. It is a historical fact, for instance, that the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. Consequently, this fact forms part of the worldview of scientific rationality. Given the evidence that attests to this fact, anyone believing that it happened on another date, or that the Egyptians really dropped those bombs, has a lot of explaining to do. The core of science is not controlled experiment or mathematical modeling; it is intellectual honesty. It is time we acknowledged a basic feature of human discourse: when considering the truth of a proposition, one is either engaged in an honest appraisal of the evidence and logical arguments, or one isn’t. Religion is the one area of our lives where people imagine that some other standard of intellectual integrity applies.’

Harris. S. 2006. Letter To A Christian Nation p. 21

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21 thoughts on “Other Standards of Intellectual Integrity?

  1. The Church says the earth is flat, but I know that it is round, for I have seen the shadow on the moon, and I have more faith in a shadow, than in the church.
    — Ferdinand Magellan —
    (1480 – 1521)

  2. “Everyone is entitled to his own opinions, but not to his own facts.” – Daniel Patrick Moynihan

  3. But it is true that science cannot, in principle, confirm or deny the existence of god. The existence of god is unfalsifiable and, therefore, unscientific question. Any scientist who tries to answer this question using science or believes that science proves one way or the other does not understand the scientific method and its limitations. To say that “science is neutral on the question” is, perhaps, incorrect. The question simply lies outside the competence of science.

    Science also cannot give anyone a purpose in life. Religion can.

  4. ‘But it is true that science cannot, in principle, confirm or deny the existence of god.’
    That seems plausible; consider the article Russell’s Teapot.

    ‘Science also cannot give anyone a purpose in life. Religion can.’
    This is a very odd – if not fallacious – statement for two reasons:
    One, even when religions seem to provide certain people with a certain purpose in life which has no morally questionable effects, they are often very curious purposes which are valued for very curious reasons, and, in time, those curious (i.e. unrealistic, dogmatic, et cetera) reasons may open the door for other effects which are morally questionable.
    Two, the belief that science (the body of knowledge enlarged by the way we acquire knowledge, or as Harris puts it “our best efforts to know what is true about our world”) cannot tell us anything we ought to care about is both misguided and dangerous. Very briefly (too briefly really), it could be said to boil down to this:

    A. “There are truths to be known about how human communities flourish, whether or not we understand these truths.”
    B. “Morality relates to these truths.”
    C. “So, in talking about values we are talking about facts.”

    Consider the article Science Can Answer Moral Questions.

  5. But it is true that science cannot, in principle, confirm or deny the existence of god.

    Absolutely, nor the existence of elves, goblins, Leprechauns, and fuzzy pink unicorns – fortunately, it doesn’t have to, as science is based on the discovery and evaluation of evidence, and when evidence of one of these is discovered, I’ve no doubt it will be adequately evaluated.

    Science also cannot give anyone a purpose in life. Religion can.” – Any religion in particular?

    Religion can only give you another man’s concept of purpose, which may well be his, but not necessarily yours. To this day, I steadfastly decline to stone men for picking up sticks on the Sabbath – rules or no rules, it’s a matter of principle.

  6. There are several important differences between the hypotheses of existence for god and Russel’s teapot. 1) Hypothesis that Russel’s teapot exists is falsifiable because, in principle, it can be confirmed by observing the teapot (the null-hypothesis that it does not exist can be falsified). 2) According to William James’s classification, Russel’s teapot is a “dead” hypothesis because nobody cares. It’s also “avoidable” – I can live without forming an opinion on it either way. Existence of god is “live” and “forced” for many people. So, the analogy does not seem valid to me.

  7. IPUs and FSMs and Russel’s teapots are strawmen. These ideas are not the same as the idea of god for reasons I explained in the other reply.

    I do not say that only religion can provide the purpose in life. Other things can also. Purpose is provided by passions. Religion is only one of possible passions humans may have.

  8. “I do not pretend to be able to prove that there is no God. I equally cannot prove that Satan is a fiction. The Christian god may exist; so may the gods of Olympus, or of ancient Egypt, or of Babylon. But no one of these hypotheses is more probable than any other: they lie outside the region of even probable knowledge, and therefore there is no reason to consider any of them.”
    — Bertrand Russell —

  9. ‘1) Hypothesis that Russel’s teapot exists is falsifiable because, in principle, it can be confirmed by observing the teapot (the null-hypothesis that it does not exist can be falsified).’

    Clumsy. Read the following part of Russell’s statement again please “If I were to suggest that between the Earth and Mars there is a china teapot revolving about the sun in an elliptical orbit, nobody would be able to disprove my assertion provided I were careful to add that the teapot is too small to be revealed even by our most powerful telescopes.”

    ‘2) According to William James’s classification, Russel’s teapot is a “dead” hypothesis because nobody cares. It’s also “avoidable” – I can live without forming an opinion on it either way. Existence of god is “live” and “forced” for many people.’

    Desperate. The fact that [an unspecified amount of] people do not care about Russell’s statement makes the statement invalid? It is almost the Sorites paradox that is being employed here: if ten people, or a hundred, or a thousand people cared about it, would that be enough to “validate” Russell’s statement?
    However, I suspect it has more to do with mindless subjectivism. To quote James: ‘If I say to you: “Be a theosophist or be a Mohammedan,” it is probably a dead option, because for you neither hypothesis is likely to be alive. But if I say: “Be an agnostic or be a Christian,” it is otherwise: trained as you are, each hypothesis makes some appeal, however small, to your belief.’

  10. ‘IPUs and FSMs and Russel’s teapots are strawmen. These ideas are not the same as the idea of god for reasons I explained in the other reply.’

    With all due respect, you did not. Consider my reply.

    ‘I do not say that only religion can provide the purpose in life. Other things can also. Purpose is provided by passions. Religion is only one of possible passions humans may have.’

    Passions are driven by desires and similar psychological causes. Understanding what moves people to behave in certain ways and how their behaviour influences both themselves and others is scientific discourse. Passions do not arise ex nihilo and we are not unable to ascertain anything about them. A sense of purpose may well arise out of a passion, but we are not clueless about their origins.

  11. 2) According to William James’s classification, Russel’s teapot is a “dead” hypothesis because nobody cares. It’s also “avoidable” – I can live without forming an opinion on it either way. Existence of god is “live” and “forced” for many people.’

    But it is also “dead” and “avoidable” for many people, and that number is growing.

    There are simply too many real problems in the world that require resolution for Humankind to continue to cling to childish things.

  12. The problem with those who “push” science is the creation of a counter-push. The “letter to a Christian Nation” does just that, though it remains within the logical context of observable rationality. Religious people do the same thing and bring out the science buffs out of the woodwork to scream at religion as the bane of mankind (which in many cases it is) when they should just ignore religious claims and rely instead on their material evidence to speak for itself. Science people (scientists and supporters) should be smart enough to ignore the claims of religion and carry on – but of course there is the problem of funding, and that’s where “science” falls down into proselytizing on its own behalf. But there is one more, much “bigger” issue at hand leading to the unavoidable conflict: science would force man to become a strictly material being without a spiritual aspect. That will never happen as the part that makes man “human” is not his physical appearance but his awareness of realms beyond the physical. Even if he cannot agree on what that means exactly, that awareness is part of every Earthian ISSA (intelligent, sentient, self aware) being and ever differentiates it from all other forms of life on this world. Scientists should either just mind their own business, or accept this fact about man: that there is, and will remain, for man, a spiritual aspect that no amount of scientific “facts” can reduce to a materialistic common denominator. Man is first and foremost a spiritual being and when that is removed from the creature his civilizations fall accordingly. All of man’s great civilizations were built on his mythologies. Because modern “science” insists on removing the spiritual aspect in man, particularly in “universal” public education, man is witnessing an exponential downfall of his global civilization. Science will not only be of no help in solving Earthian society’s mounting social, population, resource and environmental problems, it will only exacerbate them. In its “mad” quest for superiority in rational thinking, for funding and for power, science increasingly becomes the tool of oppression, serving the military/industrial/big pharma complex and any intelligent person can see where that leads. Religion has no answer either, but there are answers: inside every individual, if she/he cares to look there.

  13. …there is, and will remain, for man, a spiritual aspect that no amount of scientific ‘facts’ can reduce to a materialistic common denominator.

    You and I have agreed on a number of issues in the past Sha’Tara, but it’s too disheartening to accept your above contention, that Humankind will always retain at least a percentage of its delusions.

  14. Yes, this quote shows the difference between dead and alive hypotheses and why the idea of god is not quite the same as the idea of Russell’s teapot, IPU, or FSM.

    As for falsifiability, Russell’s teapot IS falsifiable IN PRINCIPLE. Because it is very clear what would falsify the hypothesis that it does not exist. Which is not the case with God. IPU is, actually, a better analogy, but it also has problems.

  15. As for James’ statement, for now, let’s agree to disagree.

    ‘As for falsifiability, Russell’s teapot IS falsifiable IN PRINCIPLE. Because it is very clear what would falsify the hypothesis that it does not exist. Which is not the case with God.’

    Why would an omniscient entity not be falsifiable in principle? It seems a trick of language: Russell’s Teapot – as you say – is falsifiable in principle because we can imagine a way of observing it – thereby proving its existence within an acceptable margin of error. But why does the same logic not apply to a certain being?

    Surely, a way to prove the existence of a hitherto undiscovered being would be to observe this being and carefully document the observation. (In fact, there are many people who claim to have met all sorts of fascinating beings. They have never provided acceptable proof for any of these meetings of course but that does not mean that any of those meetings are out of the question – unlikely though it is for them to have actually taken place.)

    It seems unreasonable to say we could not think of any ways to prove the existence of something we have not yet proven to exist; it seems equally unreasonable to say we could not think of any ways to prove the nonexistence of something we have not yet proven to not exist.

    It is easy to think of ways to observe the Teapot, Russell briefly covers this in his argument, and it is equally easy to think of ways to observe a certain being.

  16. This does not put passions into the realm of science. Sure, one can study passions, where they come from. One can study patterns in human behavior like Dan Ariely does or any marketing or PR specialist. Politicians, corporations, and religious leaders can then manipulate these passions: create a sudden artificial demand for a product that nobody has heard of before using an advertising campaign or, like it’s happening in Russia now, create a wave of chauvinism and xenophobia using propaganda in media to boost the ratings of certain politicians and they stay at power indefinitely.

    Passions of some people can influence or create passions in others. But the original passions are still irrational. What moves Dan Ariely to study human behavior? What moves people to climb Mount Everest or skydive from stratosphere? Nobody can answer this question including the people who do it. They do it “just because”. Science can provide evidence that one can kill oneself doing these things or can provide technology to do them. But it does not provide the motivation.

    Science to passions is like gardening to plants. It can help to grow the plants, but it does not create them. And even if you know that the plant really grows from the seed, it still does not create the plant.

  17. Why would an omniscient entity not be falsifiable in principle?

    “Omni” things are unfalsifiable. To falsify “A” one has to find, at least, one example of “not A”. E.g. To falsify “All ravens are black” one has to find, at least, one example of a white raven. “Omni” things include everything by definition. By this definition, you won’t find anything that isn’t a part of “everything”. This is why natural sciences cannot find anything that is not a part of nature. The concept of “nature” is as fuzzy as the concept of “god”.

    it is equally easy to think of ways to observe a certain being.

    That’s the thing, god is not a certain being. The concept is deliberately uncertain. This uncertainty does not make the concept totally useless. E.g. infinity does not exist, as you may know. Anything specific that you point to is finite. Even the universe, even time. Nevertheless, the concept of infinity is useful. It’s used in math and physics all the time. Abstract concepts don’t need to be specific or detectable to be useful.

    It’s a mistake to treat god as something physical and detectable by physical means, something you can catch and display in a zoo or see in a telescope. That’s ridiculous. God is an idea.

    As for the invisible and undetectable things, I like this video very much.

  18. As for James’ statement, for now, let’s agree to disagree.

    This seems to be the only thing to do because when you say that the idea of god is the same as the idea of the Russel’s teapot (i.e. that to you it is unimportant whether god exists or not — the idea does not appeal to you) and I say that it does matter to me, the discussion from now on will be irrational. Much like when a woman says to me that she feels depressed because she doesn’t look good on some photographs, and I argue that some photographs should not affect one’s mood and self-esteem at all, this argument turns to be pretty useless. Or try arguing with a philatelist that collecting stamps is a stupid and useless occupation. Where James is correct is that some ideas have greater emotional appeal to some people more than other ideas, for irrational reasons.

    By the way, regarding your “Geocentric Society” example. The name implies that the members of this society make geocentrism a part of their identity. They would likely be rather hostile to the idea of heliocentrism because it would call for their society to be dismissed or renamed, in best case. People don’t like when beliefs they identify with are challenged. I’d be more comfortable introducing heliocentric ideas to geocentrist folks from a society named “Astronomical” or something like that.

    Likewise, challenging the ideas of Christianity present a challenge of personal identity to Christians. They are not likely to agree with you based on any reasoning.

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