Maths, science and abstractions

I attended a forum last week entitled “Is there certainty beyond science?”. As one of the speakers pointed out, perhaps a useful starting question would be, “Is there certainty within science?”, but the title did raise some interesting questions about what we mean by the words “certainty” and “science”.

Certainly (see what I did there?) there seems to be a common assumption that science at least aims to find certainty in the midst of confusion. The general perception is that science rigorously follows a trail of evidence to reach conclusions which can be claimed with a high degree of confidence. And there are even mechanisms to try and assess the degree of uncertainty in a given scientific theorem (although the willingness of adherents to acknowledge that uncertainty may be somewhat hit-and-miss).

What is often missing from the conversation is the impact of methodological assumptions on the usefulness of the conclusions which result from a particular methodology. Let’s look at mathematics as an extreme example.

Maths operates within the ultimate abstraction. It is a realm of pure ideas. This has advantages: because the system is entirely conceptual, the laws can be rigorously defined. This allows us to “prove” mathematical theorems by conclusively demonstrating a logical consistency. But to apply a mathematical concept to anything real, we must project from the abstraction back to the real world, where we cannot rigorously define the laws. Some of the projections are useful: arithmetic operations are easily projected onto everyday objects (so “3 bananas + 4 bananas” can easily be understood as seven actual bananas). Some projections are less straightforward: the relationship between a second-order differential equation and the acceleration of a car under constant force is not quite as intuitive.

Science also operates within an abstraction. The realm of science is limited by its methodological assumptions, such as philosophical naturalism and the regularity of nature. These assumptions are useful in that they allow us to limit the potential interactions that we investigate to those which are amenable to the tools of science. In other words, we limit what we will accept as an explanation of phenomena, and this allows us to define our area of investigation. But in making these assumptions, we have created an abstraction of the real world, and it is this abstraction that we investigate rather than the real world itself. As in the case of mathematics, the conclusions may or may not be readily suited to being projected back into our understanding of the real world.

It is worth noting that any of our abstractions are only definable from outside the system. We say that mathematics operates within a logically consistent and rigorously defined framework, but its logical consistency cannot be proven mathematically. (This isn’t a case of “It hasn’t been done yet”, this is a case of “It’s impossible even in principle”). We make a working assumption of methodological naturalism when we engage in scientific research, but we cannot scientifically demonstrate the validity of such an assumption.

Perhaps more interestingly, this also implies that we cannot fully define the operational parameters of the real world from within the system.

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Related posts:

On Spherical Cows and the Search for Truth

Believing and understanding

Chesterton on Miracles

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40 thoughts on “Maths, science and abstractions

  1. Nicely put!

    In the context of religion, theology too “aims to find certainty amongst confusion.” Hence the decision to admit certain real-world data, usually data already established, historically verified, and applicable as model examples. This provides a framework for admitting data from personal and recent history. Theology, broadly and privately, is build around said use of concrete data.

    From that pov theology is not too dissimilar from science as they share the same methodology (understandably as they share the same worldview).

    An illustration of the difference between the accuracy of “science in a jar” vs “science in reality” is its applicability to, say, climate change. Where broader concerns step into the picture, like financial, economic, moral and ethical concerns, the validity of science becomes questionable as the conclusions vary.

    • Climate change is an interesting case in limiting assumptions. If we set our goal as, say, minimising the extent of anthropogenic climate change, our job becomes relatively straightforward. Run the simulations, work out the emissions reductions needed and just make them happen. Done.

      On the other hand, if we also care about things like short- to medium-term human well-being, legal frameworks, etc., our job becomes considerably less simple. We’ve broadened our objectives, and we now have a whole lot of other issues mixed in with the science.

      • Yup, which is why there’s a similarity with regards to theology. If we’re certain of our sacred text, historical roots, and hermeneutic framework then theoretically we’ll arrive at a consistent theology.

        Mixing in other issues makes for a lot of the tension in religious debates, e.g. the assumption that there’s no such thing as spiritual experience vs the assumption that a particular theological framework is the correct one and then simply needs to find biblical support.

        Mixing science with passion and heart is challenging :)

  2. Mathematics describes abstract relationships taken from the ‘natural’ world. It is not outside this natural world at all (or as you incorrectly imply It is a realm of pure ideas, as if it can exist as a cohesive system of description removed from that which it describes). Math is completely dependent on the natural world for its for conceptual meaning.

    Science and theology not only do NOT share the same methodology, they are in direct competition as ways of knowing. Pretending otherwise is delusional.

    • No, pure mathematics operates with no application in mind. There may incidentally be real-world applicability in what is discovered, but that’s just a bonus. Mathematics is concerned with mathematics, not with trying ro repesent (or even draw from) reality. It does exist as a cohesive system removed from reality – that’s the whole point having a defined and logically consistent system.

      As Einstein phrased it:
      “as far as the laws of mathematics refer to reality, they are not certain; and as far as they are certain, they do not refer to reality.”

      • I didn’t write application; I wrote describes abstract relationships from the natural world. This fact is as simple as numbers themselves, which represent comparative quantities. With no natural world reference but only pure ideas and working with an ultimate abstraction, numbers would be meaningless symbols.

      • Actually, many mathematicians would dispute even that numbers represent anything in reality, and pure mathematicians often don’t care much about them. (I’m not talking about school-level maths here, which is of course presented to be as applicable as possible).

        Numbers are not purely meaningless symbols, but their meaning for mathematicians is not derived from any relationship that they happen to share with the real world: their meaning comes solely from what they represent in the conceptual system.

  3. Very interesting post. This is perhaps one reason to caution against having too much loyalty to a specific system of theology (for instance, Calvinism) because it will cause the observer to throw out any explanations which do not fit into the known system. However, it can also be helpful. As a Christian, if someone says “my sister was murdered, therefore God doesn’t exist,” I would immediately throw out that explanation for suffering because I already know it’s wrong. A tricky business indeed.

  4. You’re right, but your points in no way entail that all ways of knowing are equivalent or that we can’t rank ideas in order of probability. We can and do.

    We all do it in the courtroom. If you were wrongly accused of a crime, you would demand that your accusers produce evidence that conforms to scientific standards. Without this constraint, witnesses could say “I had a dream you’re the killer” or “I wouldn’t want to live in a world where you weren’t the killer” or “My scripture says you did it” or “I’ve had an incommunicable, vital, inner experience that has vouchsafed to me the sure knowledge that you are the killer”. We don’t admit such claims as evidence for obvious reasons. And there is no debate of the type you’ve put forth above. Science wins, period.

    When it really matters, every modern person is a philosophical naturalist. If you also want to hold faith-based, religious beliefs, you can do so, but you can’t be consistent if you do that. Almost everyone believes in science. Religious people also believe in other ways of knowing. I have found no consistent way to do this, so I limit myself to scientifically verifiable claims.

    Instrumentalism is an extremely conservative view of science. It assigns little or no ontological weight to the results of scientific inquiry and treats everything as provisional. Scientific knowledge does change so we have to keep open minds about what reality really is. But again, that doesn’t mean that the Earth might really be flat or that we might survive the death of our bodies. It means that some ideas are better established than others; but scientifically baseless ideas can be discarded until and unless new evidence comes to light.

    If we allow faith as a way of knowing, then we have to open the floodgates to all the world’s mythologies and superstitions. Believers make special pleading for their creeds, but don’t want the same for other religions. The Greek and Roman gods achieved nearly as much cultural penetration as Christianity. Paganism is older than all of them. In science, consensus means nothing. We listen to nature, as best we can.

    • Don Severs :
      there is no debate of the type you’ve put forth above. Science wins, period.

      …not sure what debate you’re referring to, I don’t believe that I’ve mentioned one in the post?

      Don Severs :

      your points in no way entail that all ways of knowing are equivalent or that we can’t rank ideas in order of probability…

      …so I limit myself to scientifically verifiable claims.

      …and that’s great. I’m certainly not claiming here that you need to accept other “ways of knowing” – that’s an entirely separate conversation.

      All I’m doing here is pointing out some of the oft-overlooked limitations of the scientific “way of knowing”, and some of the pitfalls we encounter if we assume that its methodology leads to a complete representation of reality.

    • Don the statement “If we allow faith as a way of knowing” is pretty loaded. I can only assume that this form of faith leans toward imagination and assumption rather than concrete experience. One of the biggest mistakes people make is assuming that there is no real world support for faith positions… kind of like the people I hear arguing that there’s no scientific support for climate change.

      Practically, we do distinguish between, say for illustrative purposes, mythological texts (e.g. Gen 1-3) and historical texts (e.g. the Acts of the Apostles) and direct communication, albeit via human vessel (e.g. Edgar Cayce’s channellings and verified healings).

  5. >assuming that there is no real world support for faith positions…

    I’ll grant that there is support for faith positions. Many people I know consider love, beauty, order and life itself justifications for believing in god. From a scientific standpoint, at a minimum, the god hypothesis violates the principle of parsimony. Proposing a supernatural being is an extravagant move that creates more questions than it answers. Plus there’s no scientific evidence for it. I’d put it in somewhere beyond the Multiverse and Dark Energy hypotheses. Until we have more data, we can’t consider any of those things to be “knowledge”.

    We can use faith and we can use science, but not at the same instant.

    The tipping point I’m highlighting is acceptance of supernaturalism. I take an unapologetic, Scientistic, self-justifying position that scientific naturalism is superior to other ways of knowing.

    [edit: trimmed redundant repetition of a previous comment]

    • Don, as I said in the post, the whole issue is that there are necessary limitations to what science can investigate. Talking about principles of parsimony for scientific hypotheses is irrelevant if we’re referring to the real world.

      The point is that the assumptions of science prohibit direct scientific investigation of anything beyond the limited abstraction of the real world in which science operates. Hypotheses cannot be formed or tested scientifically if we are not within the bounds of the scientific abstraction.

  6. >the assumptions of science prohibit direct scientific investigation of anything beyond the limited abstraction of the real world in which science operates.

    Granted. At issue, then, is how we treat the unknown. To the scientist, faith is just another form of hypothesizing, and not a reasonable one because it leaps to ideas that are staggeringly unlikely, rather than moving from what is known to what is likely to be true.

    Scientists speculate wildly while theorizing, but don’t treat such ideas as knowledge until they are confirmed by nature. To the scientist, it is meaningless to talk about “direct scientific investigation of anything beyond the limited abstraction of the real world in which science operates”. While we don’t deny that there are things outside of science, we are sharply limited in what we can say about them. Without data, making firm assertions is a form of lying. In many cases, religious faith falls into this category.

    If one believer says Shiva is real and another says Shiva is not real, someone is wrong. If they make those statements without good reason, then from a scientific standpoint, they are simply deluded or lying.

    • Don Severs :

      To the scientist, faith is just another form of hypothesizing, and not a reasonable one because it leaps to ideas that are staggeringly unlikely, rather than moving from what is known to what is likely to be true.

      …and yet you are still phrasing your expectations in scientific terms. Your reference to “likelihood” is completely without basis. (If I’m wrong about that, please, I’d love to know your process for assessing the probability of the Divine).

      Don Severs :

      Scientists speculate wildly while theorizing, but don’t treat such ideas as knowledge until they are confirmed by nature. To the scientist, it is meaningless to talk about “direct scientific investigation of anything beyond the limited abstraction of the real world in which science operates”.

      Again, this is precisely the issue addressed in the article. My point is that this “knowledge” which you claim can be attained is not knowledge of the real world, but only acceptance of the best explanation available within the abstraction. (In the second sentence you seem to be following this line of reasoning, but the first runs counter to it).

      Regardless, we can say things with confidence that are scientifically unverifiable. Things like, “I love my wife”. We do this all the time. We may be sharply limited in what we can demostrate scientifically, but those same limits do not also demarcate our ability to claim knowledge of reality.

      Don Severs :
      While we don’t deny that there are things outside of science, we are sharply limited in what we can say about them. Without data, making firm assertions is a form of lying.

      Sorry, but that seems ridiculous. Your perspective seems to be that if something cannot be investigated scientifically, all truth claims about it are automatically lies. Also, it seems that for you, attainment of truth (even in a balance of evidence sense) is only possible through science. But we have already agreed that science has limitations, and the extent of human experience in the real world is larger than the bounds of science. What then, are we to do with the areas in which science is useless?

      Perhaps more importantly, since you claim that science is the only way of attaining knowledge, on what scientific basis is your extreme scientism founded? How can you scientifically prove that only science can lead to truth? Is that not in itself an article of faith?

  7. I like the clarity you bring to these subjects.

    >Is that not in itself an article of faith?

    Yes, we have already agreed that all ways of knowing suffer from this. Philosophically, there is no where to stand from which we can definitively pronounce that reading chicken entrails is more or less reliable than reading the Acts of the Apostles or QED. I have admitted that I am simply an adherent of Scientism and offer no further justification, because I can’t give one without begging the question or using circular reasoning. We are all in the same boat in this regard. I base my loyalty on the fruits and reputation of philosophical naturalism and methodological naturalism.

    So, there is much that we agree about. Here is one area we might not: I am close to being an eliminative materialist, meaning that I think that things like Love, Justice, Left-handedness and math simply are the physical facts about them and nothing more. In this view, “I love my wife” is fully within the purview of science, since it is a rolled-up statement about countless facts about the state of your nervous system, etc.

    So, I think you and I have different things in mind when we say “outside of science”. In my usage, things that are outside of science are things for which we have no data. Anything that is purported to be undetectable, such as some supernatural concepts, is outside of science. Because it is outside of science, Scientism says we should be mute about its traits. If we were to obtain data about it, it would cease to be supernatural and outside of science. The key thing is that, in science, we avoid making things up and saying they are knowledge. The only real authority is nature. We can’t fill in the blanks, except in a provisional way when we hypothesize.

    Quantum mechanics sharply illustrates this approach. As you may know, Einstein resisted the idea that a particle didn’t “really have” both a position and a momentum. He grudgingly admitted we may not be able to measure them simultaneously, but insisted they must be there and thought of them as “hidden variables”. In the 60s, Bell showed that hidden variable theories had to be wrong. So now, almost no one agrees with Einstein. Physicists accept that we just have to content ourselves with probabilities when talking about the momentum and position of particles. Saying any more would be overstepping. This is what I previously called lying. Within a scientific worldview, overstepping is lying when we know we are doing it and persist.

    Of course, I agree that people can step out of the scientific worldview and make any sort of claim they wish. They just can’t claim to be scientific while doing so.

    • Where I’m struggling is that you seem to be constantly overstepping your own self-imposed restrictions.

      Don Severs :
      Because it is outside of science, Scientism says we should be mute about its traits.

      But why, since there is no scientific justification for such an admonition to muteness? More to the point, you’re not being mute: you’re making factual claims. You say that “This particular conjecture is a lie”. But such a statement requires that you have knowledge of the truth, which is the knowledge you claim (solely on the basis of your faith) cannot be attained.

      Don Severs :
      Of course, I agree that people can step out of the scientific worldview and make any sort of claim they wish. They just can’t claim to be scientific while doing so.

      Similarly, you don’t really seem to believe the statement above. Someone who claims to have personal experience of God is not trying to make a scientific claim, but you are still not allowing them the freedom to hold such a belief. According to you, they are lying. That is to say, they know that what they are saying is not true, but they claim it anyway.

      Don Severs :
      The key thing is that, in science, we avoid making things up and saying they are knowledge. The only real authority is nature.

      There are two problems that I see here. Firstly, your suggestion that people are “making stuff up” is blatantly misleading. I believe that you are intending to cover all faiths (other than Scientism) with this broad sweep, so I will simply point out that in the Christian faith in particular (on which I can speak with some familiarity), beliefs are not “made up”. The Christian doctrine is belief based on evidence. You may not like the evidence, you may declare that it does not meet your personal standards of scientific acceptability – that’s fine. But the beliefs are based on experience, observation and the application of reason, not fantasy or baseless conjecture.

      This leads into the larger problem. You state that “the only real authority is nature”, but then you suggest that the abstraction of nature in which science operates should be the proper arena for hearing from said authority. I don’t see the logic in that. Why not inquire into nature from within nature? Our experiences and observations – even our application of reason – all take place within nature, and if that is our one true authority then surely all those avenues of inquiry must be admissible?

  8. >What then, are we to do with the areas in which science is useless?

    We should try to extend science into these areas. We can ponder, wonder and hypothesize, but I think it would be wrong to fill in the blanks and teach our children anything about them. We should admit we don’t know, and say “We’re working on it. Here are some ideas.”

    I said I’m an Instrumentalist regarding science, so I don’t view it as a truth-generator. I love your point about it being an abstraction about reality. This is vital for people to remember, since we are so easily hypnotized by our brains and science itself.

    Nonetheless, science must really be getting at what nature is really like. To explain the massive correlations found between science and nature any other way would require us to be living in an illusion with a likelihood near zero. And even if there were such an illusion fooling us into thinking our science corresponded to nature, we would still have to use science to find out why nature would produce such a massive conspiracy. How else can we investigate nature?

    Introspection has been shown to be unreliable, even for things like “I love my wife”. Kant discussed how we can even be mistaken about our own feelings.

    I am not in love with science. If I find something better, I’ll switch. It is simply the best thing I’m aware of for adjudicating conflicting claims, using nature as a judge.

  9. I have admitted that I am simply an adherent of Scientism and offer no further justification, because I can’t give one without begging the question or using circular reasoning. We are all in the same boat in this regard. I base my loyalty on the fruits and reputation of philosophical naturalism and methodological naturalism.

    Thanks for noting that you’re a man of faith, lending ultimate commitment to your stance. Scientism is one worldview among many, but other worldviews seem more inclusive, e.g. Wesley’s Quad.

    But is your faith position the only valid means of knowing and establishing certainty? Absolutely not. There are many researchers who go beyond baseless claims and actually investigate the data of religious and spiritual experience. Such data is not simply one contradictory claim vs another, or one interpretation of a given data source over another. There are publicly agreed reasons for selecting sources and relevant methodologies for investigating said evidences – and these are “scientific” in every sense of the word, being moulded from within the very same modern paradigm.

    It seem that in every context similar to this post that those who claim the most certainly for their paradigm, i.e. those subscribing to scientism, operate with the greatest assumptions regarding the methodology and verifiability of others’ faiths and deny any possibility of including real world data.

  10. >But why, since there is no scientific justification for such an admonition to muteness?

    I’m not sure what you’re getting at. There is a justification. In my view, we shouldn’t consider hypotheses knowledge. We shouldn’t overstep. From a scientific viewpoint, scriptures, faith, tradition, introspection, personal revelation, etc are not reliable sources of evidence.

    >You say that “This particular conjecture is a lie”. But such a statement requires that you have knowledge of the truth

    I don’t see it that way. My usage of “lie” is not “contrary to truth”. Here, it means “an unjustified assertion”. I could assert that you are 7′ tall. That would be a lie, even if you turn out to be 7′ tall, because I’m unjustified in saying it. You don’t have to accept my usage, but that is what I mean.

    >Someone who claims to have personal experience of God is not trying to make a scientific claim

    Here we disagree. I reject Gould’s NOMA. Claiming that God exists (for many definitions of god) entails many things about the physical world. That it had a creator, that he can intervene and subvert the laws of nature, etc. If your god concept is completely outside space and time and doesn’t interact at all with the universe, then I have no problem with it. To a scientist, for all practical purposes, that’s the same thing as not existing.

    >The Christian doctrine is belief based on evidence. You may not like the evidence, you may declare that it does not meet your personal standards of scientific acceptability – that’s fine. But the beliefs are based on experience, observation and the application of reason, not fantasy or baseless conjecture.

    I like talking with you because you are clearly a smart, disciplined man. I’m fascinated with you the same way I’m fascinated with people who reach different political conclusions.

    In my scientific worldview, the evidence that Christianity is true, that Jesus was divine (or that anything is divine), that he rose from the dead, that hell exists, etc is no better than that for Hinduism. This leads to the religious diversity problem.

    If you admit that the tenets of Christianity are based on acceptable evidence, you have to explain how all other religions fail. You seem willing to acknowledge that scientists may not accept your evidence. But as soon as you step off the shores of scientific rigor, you are adrift in a sea of weak ideas (by scientific standards), including all the world’s religions, superstitions, voodoo, dowsing, crystal healing, psychic and paranormal phenomena, etc. You’re completing your PhD. Is this really the company you want to keep?

    • Don Severs :

      If your god concept is completely outside space and time and doesn’t interact at all with the universe, then I have no problem with it. To a scientist, for all practical purposes, that’s the same thing as not existing.

      I would have to assume that you have any objection to deism, given that an non-participatory creator God would be limited to the Big Bang (beyond which and at which time scientific investigation is impossible).

      Don Severs :

      I like talking with you because you are clearly a smart, disciplined man. I’m fascinated with you the same way I’m fascinated with people who reach different political conclusions.

      Thank you – I appreciate that and I enjoy our exchanges.

      Don Severs :

      In my scientific worldview, the evidence that Christianity is true, that Jesus was divine (or that anything is divine), that he rose from the dead, that hell exists, etc is no better than that for Hinduism. This leads to the religious diversity problem.

      If you admit that the tenets of Christianity are based on acceptable evidence, you have to explain how all other religions fail.

      Not at all, and given your adherence to Scientism, I’m amazed that you can say this. Even in science, an hypothesis need not specifically disprove every alternative. I see writing on a cave wall, I need not disprove the possibility that aliens or random geological forces put it there. I can make my best assessment based on the evidence and – at least provisionally – work with that until new evidence demands an adjustment.

      The evidence of Christianity and the picture that core Christian doctrine paints of the world is the most compelling worldview that I have encountered. It simultaneously makes sense of my personal human experience (including physical, emotional and spiritual), and is utterly convincing to my intellect.

      My reason and soul are both fully satisfied by God. If you can offer something better, I’m willing check out your claims, but an empty nihilism is significantly less convincing that my current paradigm.

  11. If you admit that the tenets of Christianity are based on acceptable evidence, you have to explain how all other religions fail.

    Though an outsider to this blog I’d disagree with this. We don’t have to only accept one religion as true or truthful, but accepting this statement requires a lot more work than merely accepting one and rejecting others…

    IMO, and working with an abstract model of faiths, let’s note 3 diverging faith traditions:

    1. The Brahmanistic Faiths, where Self-Realization is key, i.e. discovering that we are all the one and same Godde
    2. The Atheistic Faiths, embracing dynamic emptiness and no-thing-ness as the underlying reality available for discovery
    3. The Monotheistic Faiths, where there is one true Godde and Creator who also created space and time and hence transcends it while sustaining it and becoming present in it in various ways

    There’s a lot of verificationary evidence for each including support for their sacred texts, historical roots, contemporary experience of followers that both corresponds with and is analogous to past experience reported in sacred texts and stories, etc. The problem of Godde, as it originates from the data of spiritual experience, differs to the same problem as raised in philosophy (usually a challenge to the assertions or underlying assumptions) and theology (usually a single tradition selecting its own data and building its own conclusions).

    When we embrace the data we find good reasons to actually believe each. Dealing with the plurality of faith is a secondary issue, because we’re dealing with more than one religion that is “true” and “verifiable.”

  12. >It simultaneously makes sense of my personal human experience (including physical, emotional and spiritual), and is utterly convincing to my intellect.

    Beliefs are value-laden. We have reached a common endpoint for these discussions. It is the point where good people disagree. We disagree because we have different values and psychologies. When I was young, supernaturalism was acceptable to me. Today, it isn’t. My values and psychology changed.

    My view is that science and supernaturalism are incompatible. I value consistency and want to have a unified worldview, so I have to choose. There are emotional difficulties involved in giving up supernaturalism, but no one I know is willing to discard science. So, I did the work of letting go of god, so that I could keep science and consistency. Most people I know keep god and science, but discard consistency. That is a value-laden decision.

    • Don Severs :

      When I was young, supernaturalism was acceptable to me. Today, it isn’t. My values and psychology changed.

      That’s an interesting statement right there. I note that it’s entirely non-scientific (as supernaturalism by definition is outside of science), and yet you adhere to it as an article of faith. Not a criticism, btw, just an observation.

      Don Severs :

      Most people I know keep god and science, but discard consistency. That is a value-laden decision.

      I value consistency very highly. Indeed, I don’t know how it would be possible to be at peace with a worldview that was fundamentally fractured from personal experience. Where we seem to differ is that I do not a priori declare that science and supernaturalism are incompatible. I recognise that there are limitations to science, and that my personal experience extends beyond those limitations. When I view my extended experience through the Christian paradigm, I find it intellectually coherent. If I then take that Christian paradigm and turn it back towards the limited domain of science, I find that it does not contradict science and that it continues to add depth to my understanding.

      In my experience, science and Christianity are non-contradictory and allow for exactly the unified and consistent worldview which you seek.

  13. >let’s note 3 diverging faith traditions:

    Thanks for your contributions, Tim.

    Your assay of Earth’s religions makes a good point, but in order to have force, it would have to explore not just the religious traditions that have evolved here, but the space of all possible belief systems.

    My concern is that the faith mechanism can make a case for absolutely any belief and we are left with no way to adjudicate conflicting claims. In philosophy, Quine showed this with his web of belief. Given the proper founding assumptions, any claim can be justified. On Earth, we have Mormonism and the South Pacific cargo cults, such as John Frum. These are recently evolved species of the religious virus. Are they true? Sure, if you ask their members.

    I am a scientific naturalist. I think there really is an external world to be discovered. I reject the idea that reality is whatever a human says it is. We know we have big brains which can fool us. Science is the best way I have found to escape its biases and begin to understand the external world.

    • Don Severs :
      These are recently evolved species of the religious virus.

      You know, it’s that sort of grotesquely misleading descriptor that makes me really question your claimed adherence to science. Or are wild and crazy rhetorical flourishes now included under your definition of “science”?

  14. >If you can offer something better, I’m willing check out your claims, but an empty nihilism is significantly less convincing that my current paradigm.

    When you go to the doctor, do you want to be comforted? Or do you want the facts?

    This is another area where our values diverge. Science follows nature, even if it tells us things we don’t like. There is nothing in nature that guarantees that we will be satisfied emotionally by what we find. Science requires a commitment to the truth, no matter what it says about being human.

    I view it as simply a matter of growing up. To me, an adult is someone who faces facts and learns to live with them. If we can live with the facts joyously and effectively, so much the better. But to deny something because it rubs us the wrong way is irresponsible. We need to face facts to live in the world. If we don’t, we are living in our brains. My values say that is unworthy, but most people on Earth disagree with me. There’s nothing wrong with either view in any ultimate sense. It is a matter of one’s personal values.

    Having said that, there is much excitement right now in the field of morality and ethics. It appears that science may have something to contribute in this area after all.

    http://edge.org/3rd_culture/morality10/morality10_index.html#hauser-discussion

    Finally, Scientism is not inherently nihilistic any more than Christianity is inherently joyous; it is neutral. It is like an almanac we can consult. It tells us certain facts about the world, but usually doesn’t tell us how we should feel about them. That is up to us. Nontheists, as a group, are not that different from believers. There are demographic differences, but we aren’t on average less happy or purposeful. Academia has a lower percentage of believers, prison populations higher. The idea that Scientism = nihilism is a baseless canard.

    • Don Severs :

      When you go to the doctor, do you want to be comforted? Or do you want the facts?

      I want the truth. If I’m a hypochondriac, I want to be told that. Your argument seems to be that the most bleak and depressing outlook is necessarily “the truth”. It makes for a great image of an heroic individual bravely facing the darkness with head held high, but it also runs counter to the experience of the majority of humans throughout history. People are overwhelmingly convinced that human life has a higher purpose. I don’t think it’s responsible to automatically disqualify that weight of evidence.

      Sometimes, a more holistic view is required. How to we determine that a duck is a living organism? If we examine it too closely, it’s just a bunch of atoms. Heck, when it’s dead it’s still structurally identical to when it’s alive. If we step futher back and view it holistically, we can identify aspects that we recognise as life, even though physics cannot help us.

      Don Severs :

      Science requires a commitment to the truth, no matter what it says about being human… to deny something because it rubs us the wrong way is irresponsible.

      Do the limitations of science rub you the wrong way?

      Don Severs :

      Finally, Scientism is not inherently nihilistic

      Please, explain to me where your ultimate meaning and value comes from.

      Don Severs :
      …prison populations [have a] higher [percentage of believers].

      We’re drifting substantially off topic, but I just want to make a quick correction to that statement. It’s a claim that manages to be simultaneously irrelevant and grossly misleading:
      1. Christianity is not a self-improvement programme. We’re as flawed and corruptible as any other human.
      2. Responsible use of statistics does not back up this claim.

      Let’s take the UK as an example, as it is a country where prisons customarily record religious affiliation. In the year 2000, there were 38 531 Christians (of various denominations) in English and Welsh prisons, out of a total inmate population of 65 256. The incarcerated non-believers, on the other hand, only totalled 20 823, or 31.9% of the total prisoners. So that’s a clear majority of Christians in the penal system.

      But all of that is irrelevant, because non-believers constitute only 15.1% of the population according to the 2001 national survey (and that includes such responses as “heathen”, “agnostic”, “atheist”, “none”, etc.).

      When you crunch the numbers, it turns out that non-believers are nearly four times more likely to be convicted and imprisoned than Christians.

  15. >Please, explain to me where your ultimate meaning and value comes from.
    Many religious people subscribe to authoritarianism. This can make it hard for them to grasp how a person can have meaning without an authority in their lives. So, I’ll frame my naturalism this way: my authority is nature itself, with an emphasis on human tribal flourishing.

    Even if you can’t understand my source of meaning, that doesn’t mean I don’t have one. And the various theisms give differing answers. They can’t all be right, so there must be something inside you that caused you to choose a Christian worldview. Whatever that is, it didn’t come from Christianity.

    • I guess I just wonder, if you can’t enunciate it any more clearly than “my authority is nature itself, with an emphasis on human tribal flourishing”, whether you actually understand your “source of meaning”.

  16. >Your argument seems to be that the most bleak and depressing outlook is necessarily “the truth”.

    Not at all. I mean only that my values say that I should welcome the facts no matter what they are. I am overjoyed to be alive. I have won the cosmic lottery. I get to be conscious, fall in love, be of service, etc.

  17. Pingback: Hypothetically speaking « Spiritual Meanderings

  18. Sentinel says, “there seems to be a common assumption that science at least aims to find certainty in the midst of confusion.” If so, the common assumption is incorrect. What science attempts to achieve is a justifiable level of confidence in statements that theoretically could be nonetheless falsified.

    Sentinel says, “The general perception is that science rigorously follows a trail of evidence to reach conclusions which can be claimed with a high degree of confidence.” That seems correct to me.

    Sentinel says, “And there are even mechanisms to try and assess the degree of uncertainty in a given scientific theorem”. There is no such thing as a scientific theorem, because theorems are either incorrect or completely correct (even when which any one theorem is is theoretically undecidable), and science is about levels of confidence, not about states of certainty and uncertainty..

    Further about mathematics: “usefulness” is a concept that is irrelevant to mathematics. Mathematics is an aesthetic exercise. Applications of mathematics (situations in which mathematical structures have very close approximations or near-counterparts in the real world) are not mathematics; they are physics, or engineering, or technology. The objects which compose mathematics (the field of the rational numbers, or pi, or an ideal triangle) and to which mathematics, as a subset of logic, applies reasoning, exist non-physically and interact with the human mind in an inexplicable, non-physical way that is analogous to the way that God speaks to human minds by means wholly spiritual and hence wholly non-physical.

  19. Pingback: Scaling the Mountain of Truth « Spiritual Meanderings

  20. Pingback: Grainge Clarke on the assumptions of science « Spiritual Meanderings

  21. Pingback: Faith and rationality: a comic and a quote « Spiritual Meanderings

  22. Pingback: Questions to Nature « Spiritual Meanderings

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