Tuesday, 3 November 2009

Michael Ruse and Faitheism

Michael Ruse is doing his faitheist thing again - saying that atheists are right about God but really ought to shut up about it lest they frighten the horses.

He doesn't start well.

As a professional philosopher my first question naturally is: "What or who is an atheist?" If you mean someone who absolutely and utterly does not believe there is any God or meaning then I doubt there are many in this group.

As I pointed out in I'm an atheist, OK?, that definition of atheism is mainly used by theists who want to find ways of minimising the impact of atheism. For Michael to start out with that definition does not augur well.

The body of his argument starts with this

First, non-believer though I may be, I do not think (as do the new atheists) that all religion is necessarily evil and corrupting.

I'm rather struck by the insertion of the word "necessarily" there, given the direction his argument takes later. Of course, its insertion allows for the possibility that all religion is in fact evil and corrupting, even if there isn't anything that makes it necessarily so. But even so, he is constructing a strawman. New atheists don't take the view that he is ascribing to them. They merely believe that (almost all) religion is based on a premise that is false, specifically the existence of a supernatural God. That belief without evidence has certain consequences, including a greater susceptibility to the calls of moral absolutism, which means that in practice some religion is evil and corrupting. I've described the New Atheist position as I understand it in Six atheist theses for light, not heat, so I shan't repeat it all here. Most atheists commenting on that article seemed to be broadly in agreement with it.

Ruse goes on with his second point.
Second, unlike the new atheists, I take scholarship seriously. I have written that The God Delusion made me ashamed to be an atheist and I meant it. Trying to understand how God could need no cause, Christians claim that God exists necessarily. I have taken the effort to try to understand what that means. Dawkins and company are ignorant of such claims and positively contemptuous of those who even try to understand them, let alone believe them. Thus, like a first-year undergraduate, he can happily go around asking loudly, "What caused God?" as though he had made some momentous philosophical discovery.

There's that word "necessarily" again! I have taken the trouble to read a fair bit of theology and philosophy, especially the philosophy of religion, and I have also read the God Delusion. There is always the danger of regarding somebody as being wise and learned if they say something you already happen to agree with, and to regard somebody as ignorant and foolish if they say something you disagree with. It takes a great deal of detachment to set that aside and to see whether there might in fact be something in the opposing view. To do that, you need to look at the evidence.

So let us do that, and examine the Christian claim that God exists necessarily, and understand what it fact it means. I've been reviewing Richard Swinburne's "The Existence of God", and Swinburne does have quite a bit on the necessary existence of God, God's necessity is a central plank of his argument. Swinburne's version of the God proposition is this:

There exists necessarily a person without a body (i.e. a spirit) who necessarily is eternal, perfectly free, omnipotent, omniscient , perfectly good, and the creator of all things.

He goes on to describe "necessarily" at greater length.

The theist holds that God possesses the properties described in some sense necessarily, and that he is in some sense a necessary being. That is to say, God could not suddenly cease to be (for example) omnipotent. While God is God, he is omnipotent; nor could he cease to be God while remaining the same individual (as for example, the Prime Minister can cease to be Prime Minister while remaining the same person).

Further on he says

To say that some being necessarily or essentially has certain properties is to say that without these properties he could not exist. ... To use Kripke's well-discussed example, a person is an essential kind. If John is a person he could not be anything else; because if John ceases to be a person, he ceases to be. Let us call a person who is omnipotent, omniscient, perfectly free, perfectly good and the creator of all things a divine being. The theist must claim that God is a being who belongs to the essential kind of divine being.

That deals with the necessity of God's properties, if he exists. If he isn't all that is described above, then he isn't God. All of the above consists of an extended definition of what God would be, if he exists. It doesn't make his existence inevitable, and so none of the above explains Ruse's view that Dawkins is fatuous in asking "What caused God?" Swinburne is obviously aware of this, and goes on as follows.
To say that 'God exists' necessarily is, I believe, to say that the existence of God is a brute fact that is inexplicable - not in the sense that we do not know the explanation, but in the sense that it does not have one.
So, according to Swinburne, there is no answer to Dawkins' question - you just have to accept the fact of God's existence, if in fact he does exist. Swinburne, throughout the whole of his book, does not claim that there is a valid deductive argument for the existence of God. So by Swinburne's definition, although God's existence and properties are both necessary, this does not mean that God's existence is real, i.e. that on the available evidence it is inevitable that God does in fact exist. Swinburne spends the rest of the book looking at various bits of evidence for and against God's existence and comes up with his view on the balance of probability of God's existence.

Now, in my view, to say that God's existence is inexplicable and expect people to leave it at that is just the sort of call to ignorance I described in the 4th point of Six atheist theses for light, not heat. Swinburne's account of "necessary existence" is quite different from that which you might imagine from Ruse's throwaway use of the phrase, which one might take to be synonymous with "inevitable". It isn't, but you would never know from Ruse's article. Ruse claims that he has gone to the trouble of understanding what "necessary existence" means. Maybe so, maybe not - but we cannot tell, because he hasn't gone to the the trouble of explaining to us what he understands by it.

Ruse continues.
Third, how dare we be so condescending? I don't have faith. I really don't. Rowan Williams does as do many of my fellow philosophers like Alvin Plantinga (a Protestant) and Ernan McMullin (a Catholic). I think they are wrong; they think I am wrong. But they are not stupid or bad or whatever.
Another strawman. Nobody denies that there are some very good people who have faith, and nobody denies that there are some very clever people who have faith. But the only way by which we can decide whether atheists or theists are correct in their beliefs is (as I described in The cosmic detective) to have a look at the evidence, and see what it tells us. And Ruse, since he thinks that Williams, McMullin, Plantigna et al are wrong, has presumably concluded that the balance of the evidence points to the nonexistence of God.

Ruse finishes with this point.
Fourth and finally, I live in the American South, surrounded by ardent Christians. I want evolution taught in the schools and I can think of no way better designed to make that impossible than to spout on about religion, from ignorance and with contempt. And especially to make unsubstantiated arguments that science refutes religion.
Nobody says science refutes religion. Dawkins certainly doesn't. As I understand it, the New Atheists take a view encapsulated by Laplace. On being asked by Napoleon "they tell me you have written this large book on the system of the universe, and have never even mentioned its Creator", he replied "I had no need of that hypothesis.". (Of course, this rather gives the lie to the use of the word "new" in the name "New Atheists". Although I don't have an exact date for the comment, Laplace probably made it in the first decade of the 19th century.)

Scientific evidence does demonstrate that various factual claims in the Bible interpreted literally (such as the 6-day creation) are false. But that is not quite the same as saying that science refutes religion, and Ruse as a philosopher ought to know better than to suggest that it does.


  1. Great post. This is the best rebuttal of Ruse's article I have read.

  2. Stefan Puchowski3 November 2009 at 13:16

    Jonathan, I disagree with a couple of points you make.

    1) "Nobody says science refutes religion"
    I've heard quite a few atheists, these days, say that Science and Religion overlap and cannot coexist. Gould might talk about NOMA, but the new guys give this short shrift. The new guys say that the scientific method is the correct approach and that religion cannot exist as a valid concept alongside this. Science (scientific thinking) is the only show in town. That is why I have seen very many people cry out in horror at the appointment of Francis Collins to lead the NIH. Quite a few atheists these days claim that Francis cannot be a "proper" scientist whilst also following his faith.

    2) I would follow this by saying that quite a few atheists these days are willing to claim that even people like the Rowan Williams are either stupid, deceitful or maybe even malicious. There do exist atheists these days who are more than willing to point to badness in the world that results from allowing mild-mannered religious viewpoints to be promoted in the outside world.

    I'm not even saying that the "New Atheists" are wrong on these 2 points. I'm just pointing out that you are incorrect. So perhaps Ruse should be allowed to state these claims and be allowed to worry about the approach that some people take.

  3. Stefan
    No, science doesn't refute religion, but as I described in The conflict between science and religion, science and religion are conflicting ways of looking at the world. There is a distinction and I am careful to make it, and so are Dawkins, Dennett etc.

    As for mild-mannered religious viewpoints allowing badness in the world, this is an arguable and justifiable criticism. It is arguable on the grounds of the "call to ignorance" I descrived in Six Atheist Theses, and otjhers have argued elsewhere. But it is not the same as claiming that all religion is corrupt and evil, which is the view ascribed by Ruse to the New Atheists.

    Of course, just as in almost any other substantial category of people, there are atheists who are impolitic and spoil their case by overstatement and by unjustified claims of bad faith on the part of their opponents. But those specifically named by Ruse do not fall into that category.

  4. I am an atheist who "who absolutely and utterly does not believe there is any God or meaning."

    What's wrong with that?

    I feel the same way about Santa Claus and the tooth fairy. Am I a "bad" atheist?

  5. Hi Larry
    Since you are scientist, I presume that if some evidence were to turn up which demonstrates God's existence, you would change your mind.

    The form of words used by Ruse, and others similar to it, is usually intended to portray atheism as a faith position, arrived at by thought-processes comparable to those of any religion. It is implausible that Ruse is unaware of this, and so the formulation and its association with atheism-as-faith must have been deliberate.

    Do you appreciate being characterised this way? I don't. My atheism is the result of my evaluation of the evidence.

  6. If there's no Santa Claus, then where does coal come from, huh?

  7. Stefan Puchowski3 November 2009 at 16:20

    Jonathan, to refute something is to show that it is wrong. I cannot show that something is wrong unless we both start to accept some basic ideas. The basic ideas we both accept is that the scientific method, backed up by consistently repeatable observations, is the best way of knowing. The moment we insist that the scientific method is the best way of knowing then we are establishing that all other ways of knowing are wrong. People can make lucky guesses and sometimes be wrong, but science will always show in the end that the lucky guesser isn't right all of the time and that their way of "knowing" is wrong. Science refutes homeopathy. Scientific thinking and flat-earthism are simply conflicting ways of looking at the world, but the minute you start to establish scientific thinking then you are refuting flat-earthism because it does not fit with all the observations. Scientific heliocentrism is an example of a good scientific model. Geocentrism is an alternative, conflicting view of how the universe works and it's difficult to show that it is wrong. But once you've established the laws of mass-energy, motion and gravity (which are scientifically established) then the best and simplest model is the helicentric one. There's only one winner. Science refutes geocentrism.

    You know where I'm going with this. By establishing science as correct it is possible to pull Rowan Williams and Francis Collins in all sorts of directions and to make it awkward for them to allow for the possibility of Virgin Births and other supernatural events whilst also embracing the whole of science. Most "everyday" religious people won't be able to twist and turn so well and their claims of healed missing limbs are unscientific. Science refutes their crass claims. Furthermore, science refutes even the sophisticated claims of Francis Collins. Ultimately, the burden of proof for the almost-imperceptible God is on the person who postulates its existence. Science refutes religious claims.

    Maybe I am in fact missing some subtlety in how Science only conflicts with Religious viewpoints, and maybe Dawkins and Dennett are careful about exactly what they say about religion and science, but I assure you that they have played a part in emboldening many atheists today to say some pretty straightforward things in pretty straightforward ways. Many "New Atheists" are taking their opportunities to announce that Science refutes Religion. Ruse is correct to point out that atheists today are doing this. Ruse is correct. You are wrong to say that "nobody says that science refutes religion"

    Now that this has been corrected, people can discuss whether there are any problems with the way some atheists tackle religion.

  8. @Larry Moran

    Mee too. I think what Ruse wanted to say is "who absolutely and utterly believes that there isn't any kind of god (or gods) and any meaning to life". And even if he had said that, he would be probably wrong about their nonexistence. I'm pretty sure that there are a couple of "strong" and completely nihilistic atheists. Why not, and what's wrong with that position? Even if it's not the most "sophisticated" phylosophical stance, it still makes much more sense, than belief in any kind of supernatural entity for which there is no evidence whatsoever.

  9. @Stefan Puchowski
    "Ruse is correct. You are wrong to say that "nobody says that science refutes religion""

    Ruse, in his article, is talking in the context of the "new atheists", aka Dawkins, Dennett et al. So it's only fair to assume, that he attributes the assertion "science refutes religion" to them.

    But that's the beauty of the slur "new atheist". It simply doesn't tell you who it refers to, so its meaning can change from sentence to sentence in the same article (or at least the author (or his apologists) can claim that s/he meant something else, when challenged).

    The point is, that even if there are some random internet atheists, who believe that science refutes religion (which is, btw, not far from the truth, it has definitely refuted a long list of literal interpretations of the "holy books"), why would Ruse mention them? What effect do they have on anything, especially on the teaching of evolution in the US? Also, if Dawkins and co don't say that "science refutes religion", then they are not responsible for any random internet atheist, who does, even if he was influenced by their works, the same way as Darwin wasn't responsible for the ideas of Social Darwinists, who misunderstood him completely. And if you think they are, then you are basically saying, that nobody should say anything, because someone somewhere may misunderstand it, and have some bad ideas. That would be silly.

  10. stefan
    Science doesn't refute unfalsifiable propositions, and those theists who somewhat truculently and desperately say "you can't disprove God's existence" are quite right if (as often happens with them) they have chosen to define God in such away that his existence is untestable by definition.

    But as I previously said and you agree, science does refute certain testable claims of fact made by religions.

    So ultimately, it comes down to what you define as "religion", and it seems to me that Ruse is being deliberately unclear on this point.

  11. Stefan Puchowski3 November 2009 at 18:10

    Ok Wice and Jonathan. If it is the case that the more officially known atheists out there are careful "not" to say that Science refutes Religion, then would any of them have any problem with Francis Collins heading the NIH? Or would some say that, no matter how subtle Francis' version of God, religion prevents him from doing a proper scientific job?

    If Science doesn't refute religion then it should be possible for religious scientists to do a scientists job. But Sam Harris is highly critical of Francis' appointment. This always sounded to me like a call to atheists that Science refutes Religion (all religion, even religion where a god almost imperceptibly nudges the "dice")

  12. I don't speak for them.

    Personally, I do have a problem with Collins as head of the NIH.

    The problem is not that he is religious. We have freedom of religion, it is good that we have it, and that freedom applies to scientists just as much as to anybody else.

    My problem is that he has spoken as a scientist when claiming that there is evidence for God that he finds persuasive, and then in doing so he cherry-picked the evidence is a most unscientific way, avoiding making any mention of the naturalistic explanations for the phenomena he claims are evidence of God.

    In other words, he allows his religious beliefs to undermine the standing as a scientist. If he had instead said something to the effect of "I'm a Christian. I don't claim any scientific validation for my religious beliefs, I just believe in God." then I would have had little or no reason to be concerned about his appointment.

  13. Stefan Puchowski3 November 2009 at 22:23

    The point is that Collins is "wrong". There is no god. Neither he or I have any need for that hypothesis. God is just the unneccessary frills on his trousers serving no purpose, adding nothing useful at all. Yet, like some weird security blanket, Collins feels the need to postulate the frills on his model of the universe. His model of the universe is like a geocentric model of the Solar System. Science refutes his religion. If any god is nudging any dice then we should be able to observe even these miniscule interactions. The interactions must be perceptible (Collins is not a Deist).

    This is what Sam Harris said when discussing Collins:
    "The fact that intellectual honesty can be confined to a ghetto—in a single brain, in an institution, in a culture, etc—does not mean that there isn’t a perfect contradiction between reason and faith, or between the worldview of science taken as a whole and those advanced by the world’s “great,” and greatly discrepant, religions"

    Science refutes religion.

    However, I could think of worse people to head the NIH. I see it as a potentially politically shrewd appointment. It definitely won't please everyone. But Obama shows himself as pro-science and not anti-religion. Not being anti-religious is important in the USA. We may not want political appointments. We want the best. An honest unpolitical person probably wouldn't have appointed Francis. But we should accept that this is the world we live in.

    In a way, part of your argument against his appointment is that "Francis started it". Francis should never have tried to explain how he reconciled his religion with his science. If Francis had kept stum then in some form of gentlemanly agreement, so would we have done. Or would we? It's not like I haven't seen Richard Dawkins ask Rowan Williams how he explains Virgin Birth. It seems likely that many others would have been willing to ask Francis, somewhere along the way, how he was able to juggle his conflicting ideas in his poor confused mind.

    It seems harsh to demand that someone keep their religious beliefs to themselves, like some dirty little secret. Especially someone who lives in a religious country, who would have been surrounded by "accepted" confused thinking their whole life.

    It is worth noting that Francis is not the only prominent religious scientist that discusses his faith. Abdus Salam was one of 3 who won the Nobel Prize in physics in 1979. He is also a devout Muslim who sees religion as integral to his scientific work.

    Should we really muzzle them all? We know that Science and Religion are in direct conflict. Should we point this out to all religious people at every opportunity? Some say yes. Ruse says no. I'm not totally sure.

  14. Stefan

    I wouldn't put it so. There is no worthwhile evidence suggesting that Collins is right. Even so, he has a perfect right to hold his views, with or without evidence.

    The question is whether believing in something without evidence, and doing unscientific cherry-picking on this subject, makes him unfitted for that particular job.

    And that is not a trivial question. There are jobs which one's views essentially disqualify you. For instance, I don't imagine that you would think that Richard Dawkins could possibly be regarded as a fit person to be the next Archbishop of Canterbury. His views disqualify him from consideration for that specific post. That disqualification isn't however any restriction at all on Dawkins' rights of free speech. The same applies to Collins.

    Clearly the President thinks Collins is fit for the job. Fine - the decision is his after all. But there would have been a terrible storm had any president attempted to appoint Michael Behe. Behe's unscientific ideas disqualify him from the job. But that isn't any constraint on Behe's rights to free speech either.

  15. Jonathan-

    I do believe that science (and philosophy) both refute theism.

    First, the supposed properties of God (include supernaturalism) and not coherent. There can be no "being" outside of spacetime that interacts with the world.

    Second, science has shown that "persons" require a physical framework. That is, unfortunately, testable (when people die, their interaction with the world stops). So the idea of a disembodied person has been shown to be dismissable by science.

    God can be defined so as not to be testable, but in doing that you lose any idea of that God being theistic.

  16. Steve, I'm going to be a bit of a pedant in disagreeing with you, but I think there is a distinction to be made between knowing that God doesn't exist and not having any evidence that he does.

    Your first point is simply a matter of definitions, and if atheists and theists are going to throw competing and mutually contradictory definitions at each other, nobody will learn anything.

    Your second point is claiming more than science shows us. All we can say is that all the persons we have so far come across are in a physical framework. That doesn't rule out the possible future discovery of some mechanism for "persons" without a physical framework. But I accept that I'm not holding my breath waiting for a discovery along these lines!

    Your third point is incorrect. If the theistic god is omnipotent, he can intervene in the world all he wants, and remain hidden by altering our minds so we have no realisation of the fact. Such a hypothesis fully meets the definition of a theistic God as described by Swinburne, and is entirely untestable.

  17. Most believers seem to believe in a God who does intervene and is known to intervene. Answer prayers for example. It would seem that Swinburne's god isn't the god of many folks.

  18. Hi Brian
    Swinburne believes in the intervening God of theism. In that he is perfectly orthodox and mainstream. I was just pointing out in response to Steve Zara that this isn't necessarily incompatible with a definition of God which is unfalsifiable, in that God can choose to hide his interventions to whatever extent is necessary to prevent us having certainty about his existence. If you frame the hypothesis in those terms, you can have an occasional visible miracle provided not too many people are looking.

  19. I'm coming a little late to this, but I'll comment anyway.

    Stefan Puchowski wrote:

    The basic ideas we both accept is that the scientific method, backed up by consistently repeatable observations, is the best way of knowing. The moment we insist that the scientific method is the best way of knowing then we are establishing that all other ways of knowing are wrong.

    There are (at least) two problems in that quotation. First, I would replace "best" with "most reliable." And that is because in science there are mutually agreed ways of resolving conflicts. For the most part scientists engaged in disputes nevertheless agree on the kind of evidence that would settle the dispute, and (some human foibles aside) over the years scientific disagreements get settled by the weight of accumulating evidence. There is no such process in religion/theology, and as a consequence the only method of resolving religious disputes is schism or (in the extreme) killing the other side.

    Second, that one way is "best" does not imply that all other ways are "wrong." "Best" is one end of a continuum. You'd be well served to read Isaac Asimov's The Relativity of Wrong.

    Given those misapprehensions at the heart of Stefan's argument, I am disinclined to follow it further.

    I agree with other commenters that the locution "science refutes religion" is fatuous. Science refutes -- in the sense of 'shows to be factually false' -- various of the fact claims about the world made by various religions. The earth really is approximately 4.5 billion years old. Life on earth really is related via common descent. And so on. To the extent that a particular religious belief system depends on demonstrably (by science) false claims and to the extent that a particular set of religious beliefs require that those demonstrably false claims to be true, then yes, science refutes (that particular) religion. But the general statement can't be established, I think.

  20. Stefan Puchowski4 November 2009 at 20:55


    My primary point was that Jonathan was wrong when he said "Nobody says science refutes religion". Jonathan was wrong and Ruse was correct when he said that atheists these days were making this claim. Any religious person who claims to be a scientist could well be told by many atheists that it really ought to be impossible to hold 2 such mutually exclusive ways of thinking about the world. The religious scientist will be told that they are delusional, compartmentalising, mad. Either that or they are lying (to themselves at least).

    The moment that Steve Zara said, "I do believe that science (and philosophy) both refute theism" the point I was making was proven.

    Whether I agree with the statement that Science refutes Religion is irrelevant, but I do tend to agree with Sam Harris when he suggests that the worldview of science directly contradicts the views of this world's many religions.

    You may be willing to cut Rowan Williams and Francis Collins some slack, but many other atheists will have none of it.

    As to whether "science is best and other ways of knowing are wrong" I will return you back to my discussion of the model of the Solar System. In many ways you cannot really say that the geocentric model is wrong. Who is to say what is at the centre? Who is to say what is standing still and what is dancing around in space? Is the bucket of water spinning or are all the stars rotating around it? The geocentric model of the Solar System "works". It makes predictions about where the other planets will be later. If there is a lack of accuracy at first then just add in another fiddle factor. The geocentric model with its thousands of parameters to twiddle seems like a valid model. It's just that it's, well, crap! So the scientific method and its best way of knowing provides the best theories and the best models of the universe. Other ways of knowing about the physical universe might tickle your interest, but what they provide is crap. They are wrong.

    Now back to the point. Do you think that Ruse is correct to cut the religious some slack, or are the other atheists correct - the ones that chase the religious down and give them no rest when they mention their sloppy ways of thinking?

  21. And my point is that the simple-minded assertion that "Science refutes religion" is just that: simple minded.

    I cut Collins, et al, no slack. Shortly after Collins' book came out I had an exchange (in person) with him about his so-called "evidence" for belief, pointing out that his book was essentially an argument from ignorance, and he conceded that he did not have evidence as such, but only what he called 'indicators."

    There are several senses in which one might talk about the 'science refutes religion' claim. Briefly, three are

    1. What I described above: science refutes (many? most? all?) of the fact claims about the world that people have made on the basis of religion, and to the extent that some relious belief system depends on the truth of those claims, science refutes that belief system. This I think is incontrovertible unless one descends into post-modernist or social constructivist gibberish.

    2. Science shows that a supernatural god/deity doesn't exist. That's impossible to evaluate without a clear and detailed specification of the properties of the putative deity. Dawkins, in The God Delusion, is quite specific about the kind of deity he is considering.

    3. The epistemology of science and religion are incompatible. Well, they're sure different. What "incompatible" means requires unpacking, which I have not (yet) done.

    My point here is that there's a whole lot of confusion among the several senses, and it's at best careless to talk about it without being very clear about which sense the alleged opposition is being discussed.

    Briefly, Ruse has acquired a severe case of fuzzy brain over the last 10 years or so.

    Finally, I am a 6.5 on the Dawkins scale. But I am also an activist on the local and state levels in the evolution/creationism wars and have some awareness of the political nature of that conflict and the utility of theists as allies. Incidentally, I'll be doing an "Ask an atheist" forum at a local church this winter. I'm looking forward to that in a conservative rural Ohio county :)

  22. Stefan Puchowski4 November 2009 at 21:47


    Ok, the assertion "science refutes religion" is simple minded. Ruse would rather people didn't shove that message incessantly down the throats of the religious.

    But let me ask you this: "Do you think that some atheists today are saying that it is impossible to be a true scientist (devoted to the scientific method of knowing) and also religious (believing in an interventionist god)?"

    That's all I'm asking. Are some atheists saying that?

  23. Stefan
    No, its not impossible for a scientist to be religious, in that it is possible for anyone to operate two conflicting thought systems at the same time. Collins is an example of just such a person - he is clearly religious and equally clearly he has done some good science in his time.

    But let us make no bones about the fact that science and religion are two mutually conflicting ways of thinking, as I described some time ago in The conflict between science and religion.

  24. Stefan Puchowski4 November 2009 at 23:16


    You're sidestepping. Yes, we know because they exist, that there are religious scientists. But are the religious scientists truly scientists who are devoted to using the scientific method for building a better understanding of the world we live in without a bias for including some unsubstantiated frills that their parents or friends told them about. It's not just religion. If someone's parent told them about some fabric / wave-carrying "ether" of the universe and a scientist insisted on tweaking their theories to try to include such a discredited idea, then they too are not true scientists. They are biased people, insistent on including their passionate-needs rather than discovering the truth.

    But the the real side-step is that you are not acknowledging that there is a form of atheism promoted by the likes of Sam Harris and Jerry Coyne, etc. that encourage people to say that it is impossible for a "true" scientist to be religious. See my question in my previous post above.

  25. Stefan
    I am not going to debate the application of the "No True Scotsman" fallacy with you. You can define a "true scientist" in any way you wish to, and I will leave you to it.

    What scientists do in their spare time when not doing their science is none of my business. We have freedom of religion and that applies to scientists just as much as it does to anybody else.

    But if somebody speaking as a scientist starts spouting off unscientific (usually though not necessarily religious) ideas not based on evidence, then I will have something to say about it. And indeed I have. When Professor Thomas Crowley wrote a piece in the Guardian espousing a softer definition of creationism I wrote to the Vice-Chancellor of his university to complain, not that he was being religious (I was very careful to make it clear I had no objection to that), but that he was using his name and reputation as a scientist and teacher of science - including his post, academic title and university email address - to put about unscientific ideas without any basis in evidence.

    Now, if you regard the scientific approach, which can be characterised as the evidence-based development of hypotheses, as the best way of discerning the truth about any factual question, then one could hope that everybody could be encouraged to take this approach to all questions concerning their lives, and that includes scientists even when they are not acting in their professional capacity.

    But we are not perfectly rational beings, and even scientists need to be cut some slack and be allowed to be a bit irrational in their spare time.

  26. Jonathan-

    I'm going to have to disagree with you!

    God is defined as being both outside of space and time, and yet interfering within spacetime. That is simply not coherent philosophically. It is just words strung together in a meaningless way, as when analysed the concept falls apart (there can be no causal connection between such a God and our reality).

    And the idea of a God operating in a non-material framework just makes no philosophical sense at all.

    The problem for conversations about Gods as I see it is that we start from long-established yet quite nonsensical traditions of thought: the idea of some supernatural/natural divide (which Hume pretty much dealt with centuries ago), the idea that some kind of separate mind or soul hovers around in our brain.

    So we start within a framework of thought that biases discussion, taking us already much of the way to a theistic position.

    It may have made sense to talk about disembodied minds centuries ago, but we know it really is nonsense now.

    So the idea of God - the supernatural "ground of reality" being of theism - really is utterly smashed by a combination of modern philosophy and the overwhelming evidence of science.

    All that the theologians are left with is some attempt to re-define the word 'God' in some way so as to escape all these logical and evidential fallacies.

    To me, Science unquestionably refutes religion; because if it didn't there would not be all this desperate moving of the goalposts to try and avoid the consequences of scientific discoveries.

    Religion when reduced to theological arguments which reduce to nothing more than: "you can absolutely prove I am wrong, therefore I will say I am right" is basically dead intellectually.

    So, I take a far stronger atheist position than Dawkins. God isn't a matter of probability, as theism doesn't even hold together as a concept.

    Anyway, thank you for the discussion. I have no problems at all with pedantry! Also, I would like to say again that I think your post is the best response to Ruse I have read, and there are quite a few out there.

  27. Hi Steve
    I'll never get upset over a difference of opinion, where (as you have done) the reason for holding the different opinion is given. It enables us to learn from each other.

    God is defined as being both outside of space and time, and yet interfering within spacetime. That is simply not coherent philosophically. It is just words strung together in a meaningless way, as when analysed the concept falls apart (there can be no causal connection between such a God and our reality).

    One of the problems with definitions of God is that there are so many of them. That is one. There are others. To claim that this particular definition is incoherent (in that it contains internal logical contradictions) is something you would need to back up with more than mere assertion. I wouldn't like to make such a claim. Of course, not every coherent idea is reflected in reality, and there is no evidence, and therefore no reason to believe that this particular idea has any basis in fact.

    And of course, ideas of God have changed, from the Old Testament angry father to the New Testament loving father, to Newton's concept of the divine person setting the universe in motion, through the Victorian God-of-the-Gaps to Tillich and Bonhoeffer's Ground of all Being. This is in essence a progressive retreat of theological thought and argument into untestable propositions.

    Now, untestable propositions cannot be refuted by science, all science (in partnership with mathematics and philosophy) can do is demonstrate their untestability. But it can't refute them, and in so far as religion includes a degree of reliance on untestable propositions, then it cannot be formally refuted.

    What science can do and has done repeatedly, is to demonstrate that phenomena previously thought to be God acting within the world are in fact the result of the consistent operation of unchanging natural laws. Darwin's discovery was probably the greatest single event in this long process. He did not disprove the existence of God, but he undermined the initial premise of the teleological argument, by showing how natural processes, given time, could result in organisms that have the most amazing appearance of design, without any need for a designer.

  28. Steve
    Just a further thought to encapsulate and clarify my position. I think that God's existence is implausible. But implausibility shouldn't be confused with impossibility or logical incoherence. Claiming that God is impossible or logically incoherent is further than I want or need to go.

    Concluding that God's is implausible is enough for me to be an atheist and to remove the possibility of God's existence from any of my life decisions.

  29. Jonathan-

    I understand what you are saying about the definitions of Gods. Gods in Buddhism are nothing much really. But if we talk of the normal understanding of the monotheistic God, the nature of that God has been pretty well established for a long time: a Creator, some Ultimate Being, not just some minor local power within the universe. A doer of magic from beyond the bounds of human reality (which has progressed over the centuries from the Earth, to the Universe)

    I have no problem at all with saying that such an entity does not exist, if only because, as Hume said, there can be no acceptable evidence for miracles as reported by others. And, with recent advances in the understanding of neuroscience and psychology, I would extend Hume's principle and say there can be no acceptable first-hand experience of miracles.

    There are an infinite number of logical/philosophical statements which remain unfalsified no matter what evidence we get about reality - what I see as a problem in the discussion of theism is that there seems to be a privilege for the idea of the monotheistic God because it is a widely held philosophical idea. Therefore, we let theists off lightly by agreeing that their beliefs can't be disproven.

    If Abrahamic Monotheism were a new idea, I have little doubt that there would be no hesitation about saying that it is clearly false.

    I don't know how we get around this cultural bias. Perhaps Dawkins' idea of 'theorums' is useful: a scientific idea that is so well backed by evidence that it is just unreasonable not to consider it true, even though no ultimate logic-style proof is possible.

    So, I am a supporter of the Atheist Theorum! It just isn't reasonable to concede non-atheism as a rational worldview because the evidence for atheism is so overwhelming.

  30. Hi Steve
    If you read my chapter-by-chapter review of Richard Swinburne's "The Existence of God" on this blog, I think you'll find that my opinion of the God hypothesis and the arguments advanced in its favour treats them as being no more rational than you do!

    I just think that if we are going to do good philosophy here, then we need to avoid making greater claims than we can properly justify. Therefore, all I claim is that on the available evidence, there is no reason to believe in God's existence.

    I like that formulation, not only because it avoids overclaiming, but it also make it clear that my atheism is not a faith position, it is based on my evaluation of the evidence. Finally, it puts the onus back on theists to produce some evidence that would give people like me a reason to change our minds.

    The fact is that if the belief were not already well-established culturally, we wouldn't have to put such effort into addressing it. We don't have to make similar efforts at demonstrating the non-existence of Russell's Teapot, but is because there aren't well-established and amply-funded organisations dedicated to belief in the proposition.

  31. Jonathan-

    I do understand your position, but I am concerned that by doing the philosophy, we are in some way conceding territory to the religious in discussions.

    Don't get me wrong; I am a huge fan of good philosophy. But we would surely not get involved in any kind of philosophy at all about the existence of fairies.

    I also don't think that by allowing opponents to raise the issue of the non-falsifiability of God we are effectively demonstrating non-existence. We are, in fact, conceding the possibility of existence. I accept that to be honest, we have to concede that, but there has to be a level of unlikelihood above which an idea is simply put into the wastebin.

    Basically, my position is that we really can fully justify a claim that the monotheistic God as currently proposed by Christianity and Islam does not exist. We can justify it in terms of philosophy (the idea is incoherent), in terms of psychology and neuroscience (we can understand where beliefs in Gods come from), and in other scientific ways (none of the supposed phenomena, such as life, which are supposed to have been a result of Gods can be explained).

    As I said, I think Atheism is a Theorum!



  32. Anyway, I suspect we will just have to agree to disagree.

    Thank you for the discussion.

  33. Stefan Puchowski5 November 2009 at 18:11

    D'oh! When I wrote my final comment last night I was satisfied with what I'd put. But as I went to bed I realised that I'd used the same words as "No true Scotsman". As my head hit the the pillow, I thought, "Oh bugger!"

    To be fair to myself, I don't think it's identical to the "No true Scotsman" fallacy, but at this point I am willing to concede some ground which will show we are not so dis-similar in our views. You say, "But we are not perfectly rational beings, and even scientists need to be cut some slack and be allowed to be a bit irrational in their spare time." I agree with this statement. It is a point I've tried to make myself on RD.net.
    (where were you a couple of months ago when religious scientists were being discussed?

    I think your statement means that no "ideal" scientists exist. Moments of irrationality occur in all of us. There will be times when all of us (maybe only subconsciously) want the experimental observations to turn out a particular way and show a favoured idea to be correct. I'm willing to accept this and that is part of the reason why I would cut Collins some slack and suggest that he might not be worse than some other fairly good scientists who happen to be atheist.

    There. We agree that some religious people can do science well. Sometimese better than "proper" atheist scientists. But you should know that some atheists would disagree with us. Some atheists would feel confident that there are some scientists out there that hit the ideal of pretty-much perfect rationality. For some, the "True Scotsman" scientists actually exist. I'm not sure.

    The reason why my statement was not really a "No true Scotsman" statement is because it is possible to define the ideal scientist. The point about "No true Scotsman" is that the True Scotsman is never really defined. The idea of the True Scotsman is constantly refined. The definition of a Scotsman keeps changing. But we don't have to change the definition of our ideal scientist at all. In the same way we don't have to change the definition of a vegetarian. There is absolutely nothing wrong with saying that "No true vegetarian eats meat". In the same way there is nothing wrong with saying "A true scientist follows the repeatably observable evidence to the truth - whereever that may lead. They do not let their favourite ideas and personal bias get in the way of a genuine understanding of the world we live in". Such true scientists may be hard to find, but there's nothing wrong with defining such things.

    People like Collins (maybe Newton too) are compartmentalising their conflicting worldviews. To do science really well they have to park their religious thinking and think like a proper scientist. When they go to church and pray for God-intervention they are parking their scientific thinking. I think it's possible to do this, but it's part-time science, and many atheists are wary of how a religious scientist will let their religious ideas influence the science they do (and these atheists are wary of them whether they are publicly religious or more secretive about their faith).

    Now, do you reckon that there are some atheists that say that science refutes religion?

  34. Stefan
    Quite clearly, to say there are absolutely no atheists who say that science refutes religion is to leave a hostage to fortune - all you need do is find one atheist with an insufficient understanding of what science is and does, and who genuinely believes science does refute religion, and you have proved the statement false.

    But Michael Ruse's claim was that the specific prominent New Atheist writers he mentioned by name made this claim - and I think that his specific claim really is not borne out by evidence. It was an exaggeration brought about (I suspect) by dislike of those he was writing against.

    I think that you have to make a distinction between past scientists of the pre-Darwinian era such as Newton, and modern scientists such as Collins. Darwin's discovery really was epochal in our understanding of the world. Until Darwin, there was no plausible alternative to the teleological argument as an explanation for the existence and variety of life in general and the existence of humanity in particular. Quite apart from being a major scientific breakthrough (it is not every day that a whole major field's ultimate organising principle is discovered - for instance we have yet to achieve that for physics), Darwin's discovery was a philosophical breakthrough of shattering magnitude. It displaced us from our comfortable assumption that we are God's finest creation, that the whole of the rest of the universe was created by God specifically for our benefit. It defeated the teleological argument by undermining its principle premise. This was an even more fundamental discovery than that of Copernicus, who discovered that the earth is not the centre of the universe, but instead revolves around the sun.

    So it is not fair to compare Newton with Collins, they come from entirely different worldviews.

    Collins of course has available to him all the discoveries of modern biology, and has himself participated in making those discoveries. He knows about evolution and genetics just as well as Dawkins does.

    Dawkins looks at the discovery of how life is as it is, and how although it was previously thought to be God's work, has been shown to be the result of an entirely natural process. He takes the view that although we have not yet made the equivalent discovery in physics to explain the fundamental organising principle of the universe as a whole, so many discoveries have been made of natural processes that were previously thought to be God's work, that it would be extremely unwise to assume that the origin of the universe is an exception. And broadly I agree with him. Collins does not. From what I have read of Collins' line of reasoning, he is choosing to take a theistic explanation of certain phenomena when a naturalistic explanation is already available.

    Provided he does that in his own time and does not use his reputation as an eminent scientist in order to lend greater authority to such stuff, then I have no problem with him. But it happens sometimes that he doesn't restrict himself in that way. Then I do have a problem, not because he is being religious, but because he, speaking as a scientist, is saying unscientific things. Big no-no.

    Also, your dichotomy doesn't recognise what I suspect is quite a large class of religious scientists: those who are churchgoers (perhaps partly out of sense of social and charitable obligation), who are able to pick what they will from scripture in terms of the moral and ethical lessons it provides, but who in practice believe little or nothing of all the supernatural stuff. Although I'm not a professional scientist, I was in this category for quite some time. Eventually I decided that I was no longer prepared to do this. But having been there, I'm not going to demand that all scientists in this category instantly "come out" as de facto atheists.

  35. Stefan Puchowski6 November 2009 at 07:13

    I haven't put forward the case of the non-religious religious because they are exactly that - they are not religious. Dawkins is keen to point out that there are a class of people who have belief in belief. I'm sure he would point out Robert Winston (and the like) and say he simply isn't religious. I tend to agree. Unless such people actually believe that there is a super-being who can intervene in the happenings of the universe then I don't class them as religious. Most watchers of Richard know that he has no problem with Deists.

    I, and many others, accept that Steve Zara knows his science. He's thought it through. He is convinced that science refutees religion. There are many others over at RD.net who make very similar claims.

    I didn't really want to make a comparison with Newton and Collins, and so apologise for unintentionally misleading you. I just wanted to state that there are religious people who can do perfectly good science, but my assumption is that they park their belief.

    Sam Harris and Jerry Coyne have been voicing that it is impossible to be genuinely religious (believeing in and interventionist god) and at the same time be a genuine scientist.

    I think you're right. In the future religious people might be allowed to do serious science, but they're going to have to keep their mouths shut or come under severe criticism from atheists.

  36. Stefan
    Sam Harris and Jerry Coyne have been voicing that it is impossible to be genuinely religious (believing in an interventionist god) and at the same time be a genuine scientist.

    I haven't read anything by Sam Harris on this specific topic, but Jerry Coyne has been saying the precise opposite of what you ascribe to him. Here are some short excepts from Jerry Coyne's initial reaction to Collins' appointment

    "I guess my first reaction would be to give the guy a break, and take a wait-and-see attitude towards his stewardship of the NIH. After all, he doesn’t seem to have let his superstition get in the way of his other administrative tasks, and he doesn’t seem to be the vindictive type, either. ... private expressions of faith are absolutely fine, but Collins has chosen to make his views public, and discuss their relationship to science."

    That seems to me to be precisely the line I have been describing - you can have as much faith as you want, but when you talk as a scientist about empirical evidence for God you had better be prepared to back that with evidence to the same standard as required for other scientific claims.

  37. Stefan Puchowski6 November 2009 at 15:08


    Thanks for that. I was wrong. You've put me straight there. I think I jumped the gun in my haste to put Coyne in that camp. Although in a recent post:
    He says:
    "I see faith and science as epistemically incompatible, though of course some religious people can accept evolution and some scientists can be religious. This cognitive dissonance does not, however, show anything more than that people can simultaneously hold in their heads two philosophically incompatible approaches to the world."
    And he goes on to say that if the NCSE suggest any compatibility between science and religion then they are theologising and they should not do it. Adding, "let them recognize that a large fraction of scientists see science and faith as `incompatible`"

    It seems like a lot of atheists are still feeling their way and adjusting their views. I haven't followed events that closely, but it seems to me that Richard has been moving to a harder line about making it clear that you can't hold religious thoughts whilst simultaneously adhering to proper scientific thinking. To give a religious "scientist" a break can be viewed as accommodationism.

    Part of me wants to argue against Steve Zara (and I have). But I cannot argue against the facts. Steve makes a good case, which is why I accept that religious "scientists" are, at best, confused. I too want to cut Francis Collins some slack, but that puts me in the accommodationist camp. Accommodationism is a dirty word amongst today's atheists.

    We do know that there are a lot of atheists who are happy to let sleeping dogs lie. But some will want to question any prominent scientist where it slips out that they are religious. You can't expect a scientist to say nothing when questioned about their belief. They'll have no choice but to try to explain how both ideas work in their head. And when that happens others will condemn the lack of clear thinking.

    Sam Harris has not taken a soft approach on Collins appointment. And I think points made in this article explain that Harris would frown on any religious "scientist":
    "Finally, we come to the kernel of confusion that has been the subject of this essay - the irrelevant claim that “a great many scientists believe in God with no sense of internal contradiction.” The fact that certain people can reason poorly with a clear conscience - or can do so while saying that they have a clear conscience - proves absolutely nothing about the compatibility of specific ideas, goals, and modes of thought. It is possible to be wrong and to not know it (we call this “ignorance”). It is possible to be wrong and to know it, but to be reluctant to incur the social cost of admitting this publicly (we call this “hypocrisy”). And it may also be possible to be wrong, to dimly glimpse this fact, but to allow the fear of being wrong to increase one’s commitment to one’s erroneous beliefs (we call this “self-deception”). It seems clear that these frames of mind do an unusual amount of work in the service of religion."

  38. Stefan
    I'll return to my earlier point - do you think it is possible for an outspoken atheist to be a bishop? Somebody who would declare his atheism from the pulpit and say that all this God talk is bunkum, that all the church rules are man-made and that it is hypocritical to claim otherwise.

    I think you would not. But you could probably tolerate somebody like Bishop John Shelby Spong who appears to me to be an atheist for all practical purposes, but who nevertheless finds ways of expressing himself within the Christian tradition.

    The same applies to prominent scientists. It is possible for a scientist to hold non-scientific ideas provided that he puts them to one side when acting in a professional capacity.

    The reservations both Coyne and Harris have expressed about Collins are in terms of the degree of success with Collins achieves this. They have both provided indications that Collins has real difficulty with the idea that when he speaks in a professional capacity on any subject, including religion, then what he says has to be as well justified as if it were a scientific claim. I think they have a point about that fact that he allows himself to lapse into being a bad scientist when talking about certain subjects.

  39. Sorry I had to leave this conversation abruptly. Real life intruded.

    Jonathan wrote

    The reservations both Coyne and Harris have expressed about Collins are in terms of the degree of success with Collins achieves this. They have both provided indications that Collins has real difficulty with the idea that when he speaks in a professional capacity on any subject, including religion, then what he says has to be as well justified as if it were a scientific claim. I think they have a point about that fact that he allows himself to lapse into being a bad scientist when talking about certain subjects.

    That's exactly my beef with Collins. His book is subtitled "A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief." That at least implies that he will produce scientific evidence; after all, it's a self-styled scientist who is presenting the evidence.

    But the book contains no scientific evidence for Collins' belief It is at best an argument from ignorance. Evolution, Collins claims, cannot account for "Moral Law," which he habitually capitalizes, or for the origin of the universe. Therefore God.

    Pressed on it in person by me, he retreated from the "evidence" claim and said they are merely "indicators," and that even if science eventually explained the existence of "Moral Law" his faith would be unaffected.

    If showing that the claimed evidence for a proposition doesn't affect one's confidence in the proposition one is not operating as a scientist. Hence his claim in the subtitle is at deceptive.

  40. Stefan Puchowski6 November 2009 at 21:47

    I'm not sure if you're backing up your point or backing me up. You want me to focus on your reverse version of the problem: "Can an atheist be a religious preacher (such a s a bishop)?"

    The answer really is "no". But you then expain that some priests might well be atheists. They can maintain their senior religious position as long as they keep the truth "secret". They can never actually let on that they no longer believe in god. Me suspecting they are atheist is not good enough. They will wrap up their unbelief in clever twisting philosophical phrases that don't quite say that god doesn't exist. But if they actually don't believe that any god exists then they are in fact atheists and by never admitting they no longer believe they are actually lying. Should anyone persist in probing the lies and asking them whether they no longer believe, then if they admit the truth the religious should rightly insist that they be removed from their senior religious position.

    Similarly, one day a few prominent scientists might be seen occasionally reading religious texts, attending group-meetings, and seen meditating and praying. When asked by a colleague if they are religious the scientists will deny the truth and insist they are atheists. Other atheists will sigh with relief. But then a persistent scientist-journalist keeps asking them if they are in fact religious. "Why read religious texts? Why do they appear to pray?" The scientists insist for some time that they are just interested in stories and gain inner calm from atheist prayer for peace and hope (but not praying to god). "Phew!" say the other atheists. But the questions get more awkward until one prominent scientist eventually admits that they had not been entirely truthful. She says she does believe in God, but it's a very moderate form of religion. She doesn't believe in extreme forms of miracles. It's a sophisticated and subtle form of religion. Nothing that could interfere with her science. But then the questions keep coming. "What are you really praying for? Is this an interventionist god or is it just Deism?" She admits that it is not Deism. She thinks her God cares about humanity and can intervene in the universe to help matters. At this point our quiet religious "scientist" is screwed! She will try to explain why, for her, there is a neccessity for a god and god-intervention. People will demand that she explains why she needs to have this god-hypothesis. She might talk about first causes and explain how the intervention is so subtle as to be imperceptible to even the most delicate and accurate experiments. She might even say how much her God cares, how much God wants to help, how God hopes that other people might come to know God, but that God sometimes fixes things for us, but wipes our memory of any evidence we might have noticed - but I really doubt that! And then atheists will point out that the hypothesis is completely superfluous and that any intervention will leave traces, no matter how small, which must be observable. It will be pointed out that this religious "scientist" is suffering cognitive dissonance, that they may be compartmentalising their conflicting ideas, but that no-one can be absolutely sure that their bias for allowing god-intervention might interfere with their expectations and conclusions.

    It's not looking good for any prominent scientist that happens to be religious. Even for the poor blighters hiding in secrecy.

  41. Stefan
    There is nothing preventing somebody from operating in the evidence-based world in their professional life and having evidence-free beliefs that they act on in their spare time. Unlike the church, science is profession, not an all-encompassing moral framework and way of life. Unlike clergy, scientists can have beliefs that go against their profession, and even act on them in a personal capacity.

    Collins can do that if he wants to, and nobody would complain. The complaints and doubts as to his fitness for the job only arise when he starts bringing unscientific ideas into what he says and does in his professional and public capacity as a scientist.

    It is perfectly clear that you are trying to propagate the idea that the profession of science is engaged in some horrible witch-hunt with the aim of drumming out of the profession anybody who shows any signs of religion. Your last post has pretty much outed you there, though I had realised it before. Sorry to disappoint you, but it isn't so.

  42. Stefan Puchowski7 November 2009 at 00:47

    I don't think science has any such witch-hunt aim. Science is pretty emotionally aimless. It's a voyage of discovery. On that road to discovery there are people who cling on to ideas like the "luminiferous aether" and there are scientists who find it difficult to relinquish their ideas of continuous (rather than discrete) energy. But there comes a time when such ideas are discredited and discarded by the scientific community. Those that continue to cling on to such discredited ideas without offering any new information are no longer considered to be part of mainstream "proper" science. The longer this goes on the more we can expect flat-earthers and aether-believers to become disenfranchised (and rightly so). What we do during the "transitional" period is all important, and I think you display a compassionate concern for religious scientists, which I applaud.

    Where you and I differ (and where I and many other atheists differ) is that I find it hard to see Collins as a special case in these circumstances. I cannot see how any prominent scientist who is known to be religious (interventionist god) can escape criticism.

    As I said almost from the outset, it hardly matters how I would address the Collins question (and I would personally would address the Collins question the same as you - he needs to be watched critically, but given a chance with "wait-and-see") there are plenty of people I've spoken with who would like to give him very little benefit of doubt.

    I'm really not trying to hide anything that needs "outing" so if you want to ask me anything about myself then I'm more than happy to give a straightforward answer. At the same time, I do appreciate that you've spent a long time on this thread and give a robust debate, of which I am appreciative.

    Thankyou for all the time you have given to this.

  43. JW says: "My atheism is the result of my evaluation of the evidence."

    As far as I can honestly tell (about both of us) I can equally say "My christianity is the result of my evaluation of the evidence."

    I recognise and accept that truth about you. I wonder whether you will accord me the same privilege?

  44. unkle e
    You are most welcome to describe the evidence that has convinced you, and we can examine it together and see what it consists of. Who knows? You might convince me if you have something I haven't come across before. I'll be surprised if that is the case, but I never rule out the possibility.

  45. Hi Jon

    Thanks for friendly response. Do I take it, then, that you don't automatically rule out the possibility that a theist/christian might base their beliefs on evaluation of the evidence?

    A second question. I only mentioned evidence, not convincing you. Does this mean you think evidence is only evidence if it convinces you?


  46. unkle e
    No, I don't automatically rule out anything. If I did, I would be taking a faith position. However, I suspect that many Christians believe in the existence of God on the basis of evidence that is in fact flawed. I don't doubt their honesty, I do doubt the rigour with which they have thought things through.

    Evidence is only evidence if it can be presented to others foe them to look at. Therefore, if you don't have something you can present to me that describes the basis of your belief and the reasons for holding it, then by definition you have no evidence. If you do have something, we can examine it and see what hypotheses the evidence supports.

    I've written quite extensively, here on my blog and in a series of articles on the Guardian website, both in articles and in comments, so my evidence and line of reasoning is available for all to see.

    You're welcome to present yours.

  47. Jonathan West wrote

    Evidence is only evidence if it can be presented to others for them to look at.

    I'd go just a bit further: It can be presented to others for them to look at, and both parties agree on a description of what's being presented. Given agreement on a description of what's being looked at, then one can assess hypotheses in the light of the evidence presented.

    I say this because, for example, some creationists argue that there are no transitional fossils, and when presented with something like Tiktaalik they deny that it can be described as a transitional fossil because it doesn't correspond to their naive or mistaken notion of what evolutionary theory says a transitional fossil between two lineages should look like. For an extreme example see Ray Comfort and Kirk Cameron's Crocoduck. As far as I can tell, they really think that's what a reptile/bird transitional should look like.

  48. Thanks again Jon.

    Your first answer appears (to me, at least) to mean you wouldn't agree with those who say believers are inevitably irrational and should be treated as such. For example, in a recent interview, Victor Stenger said: " New atheists .... regard all faith as folly since it is not based on evidence", plus "for the good of society irrational faith should hot be tolerated". (He then went on to say, somewhat inconsistently: "Freedom of thought is the easiest aspect of atheism to embrace." but that's another story.)

    Thus, despite your other differences with Ruse, you seem to be agreeing with him on this significant point.

    But I'm still unsure about your views on evidence.

    You say "I suspect that many Christians believe in the existence of God on the basis of evidence that is in fact flawed". Now obviously you disagree with the conclusions they have drawn from the evidence, but I can hardly think you believe all the evidence christians point to is false facts - e.g. the familiar cosmological argument for the existence of God is based on the fact of the universe existing, a fact you obviously wouldn't contest!

    Of course there would be other claimed facts you may contest (e.g. that the Gospels are reliable as historical documents), but I am trying to establish if you truly believe that christian belief is based on nil evidence, and 100% faith, or not.

    So I think you may be blurring the line between facts, which almost everyone would agree on (call that evidence), and conclusions we might each draw from those facts (call that argument).

    As for your re-stated offer to put my evidence on the table, I would have no objection to doing that, but I'm sure you've seen it all before, I doubt we would make much progress, and it would be pointless until and if we can agree on what constitutes evidence.

    Thanks again.

  49. Stefan Puchowski8 November 2009 at 21:48


    Had to come back to this topic. Quick google of "science refutes religion" gives this discussion between Jonathan Miller and John Gray, which I've just listened to: H

    I was hoping to hear them argue their opposing opinions, but they simply didn't disagree! Both of them clearly state their view that science does "not" refute religion.

    1 - 0 to you Jonathan.

    It's long! Both of these people set themselves apart, like Michael Ruse does, from Dawkins and Dennett. John Gray says, "In Dawkins and Dennett I think there is a relentless attack on religion as a sort of primitive scientific theory in which many of the worst intellectual habits of christian theology are reproduced". Gray talks about "Hard Atheists" and Miller refers to Richard as a born-again-atheist (after reading Darwin). Miller simply doesn't see a conflict between science and religion, but he says Dawkins is barking up the wrong tree.

    How do they allow for both worldviews? Gray is comparing secular myths with religious myths - both being stories to inform and be part of our progress. Both are dangerous and can allow progress to be lost. One secular myth is that science will marginalise religion, growing forms of thinking that will exclude religion. Gray sees no evidence for this myth, but he says that Dawkins obviously does. Miller allows for things that we will "never know" and that religion exploits. He puts religion alongside poetry and other art-forms, and so we can have a scientist who also says ideas from poetry are "true".

    Interesting, but I didn't agree with everything. I just cannot see what they're describing as religion. Poetry, myths and stories are all wonderful. But if that's all - then I am religious! It sounds similar to listening to Karen Armstrong. And Richard Dawkins has no problem branding Armstrong an atheist:
    "If sophisticated theologians or postmodern relativists think they are rescuing God from the redundancy scrap-heap by downplaying the importance of existence, they should think again. Tell the congregation of a church or mosque that existence is too vulgar an attribute to fasten onto their God, and they will brand you an atheist. They'll be right."

    Jonathan, you seem to god can be a non-scientific hypothesis. But Dawkins sees an interventionist god as a scientific principle. The direct conflict between science and religion was supposed to be solved when Gould proposed NOMA. Wikipedia "NOMA" to see Dawkins' criticism:
    "[a] universe with a supernatural presence would be a fundamentally and qualitatively different kind of universe from one without. [...] Religions make existence claims, and this means scientific claims"

    On Collins, Richard makes it clear that it "is" disturbing that a scientist accepts science-conflicting ideas, even if they leave their science-conflicting thoughts at home!

    Ruse's sees a line. Some accept the moderately religious as sane, acceptably intelligent, knowledgeable people. Some say people who claim to understand science whilst remaining religious are at best still ignorant. The latter group would not want any prominent religious scientist to be claimed by the religious community as an example of why it is sensible to be religious (interventionist god).

    Again: Where were you when religious scientists were being discussed a couple of months ago on RD.net? Have you lost track of what Dawkins has been saying recently? Or have you just about crossed the line into accomodationism - like me?

    As "unkle e" has just said, you are agreeing with Ruse on a significant point!

  50. Let us be clear. I do not agree with Ruse. He is wrong on all four of the key points in his article in the Guardian, and wrong on the more general issue of confronting false and unscientific ideas.

    I maintain the right of people to hold whatever mistaken beliefs they wish to hold. But the fact that someone has the right to hold a belief does not make the belief right. The fact that a prominent scientist can hold such evidence-free beliefs is disturbing, and for a prominent scientist speaking in his professional capacity as a scientist to claim scientific evidence for religious beliefs is nothing short of a disgrace, unless he actually has scientific evidence.

    Stefan, as to whether God is a scientific hypothesis, the fact is that either (if God exists), God intervenes in the universe or he doesn't.

    If he doesn't, you have the Unfalsifiable God, for which no evidence can ever possibly be mustered. If God is of this kind, then all the claims of all religions are false, because they all claim an intervening God.

    If God does intervene, then in principle those interventions are detectable scientifically, in which case you have a scientific hypothesis.

    unkle e, science involves working out what generalisations can be made from the available evidence. I agree that we probably draw different conclusions from the available facts. I think that even the differing interpretations might result in some degree of mutual education provided we explain our line of reasoning.

  51. jw said: "The fact that a prominent scientist can hold such evidence-free beliefs is disturbing"

    Do you know the beliefs are "evidence free"? Can you demonstrate that beyond reasonable doubt? Or is this just an assertion which may appear to be true by confident and repeated statement?

    If the person in question is a good scientist, isn't it possible they do indeed have evidence they believe is strong, even if you judge it to be weak?

    "If God does intervene, then in principle those interventions are detectable scientifically, in which case you have a scientific hypothesis."

    Can you construct an experiment that could possibly succeed both if (a) no interventionist god exists, and (b) an interventionist god exists? And which accounts for the fact that God (if he exists) is not nature which is regular and repeatable, but is personal and not so predictable? I don't think so. Until and if you can, the hypothesis remains untestable by strictly scientific means. In which case, if we want to know the truth, we'll either have to come up with a valid experiment or think of another way to obtain truth (not too hard).

    And if you believe Hume on miracles (these days his views are much more in doubt, statistically, than they once were), then you are already armoured against seeing the evidence by epistemology - even if the miracle occurred you would be "forced" by Hume to disbelieve it.

    I think that way is a dead end.

    I note your comment "I think that even the differing interpretations might result in some degree of mutual education provided we explain our line of reasoning." I'm willing to try, but are you assuming "science" will answer the question?

  52. unkle e
    Do you know the beliefs are "evidence free"?
    In that Collins has not offered any evidence for them, yes, I know that the beliefs are evidence free.

    Can you construct an experiment that could possibly succeed both if (a) no interventionist god exists, and (b) an interventionist god exists?
    Easy. Decide on a miracle that an interventionist God would be expected to perform (e.g. answering prayers). make lots of prayers. See whether they are answered. Conclude accordingly. As it happens, this experiment has in fact been done, using a million pounds of Templeton Foundation money, and has even been formally written up and published in Pubmed.

    I note your comment "I think that even the differing interpretations might result in some degree of mutual education provided we explain our line of reasoning." I'm willing to try, but are you assuming "science" will answer the question?
    In The cosmic detective I described why I think the scientific method is a good approach to discovering with the greatest possible certainty the answers to questions of fact about the world around us, because it has been found to work. I also pointed out that if there is a question of fact which you believe the scientific method id not best fitted for, then it is incumbent on you to explain why, to propose a better alternative, and explain its advantages relative to the scientific method.

    I'm perfectly prepared to consider other methods, provided that they can be shown to meet these criteria. Would you like to offer one?

  53. Stefan Puchowski9 November 2009 at 12:17

    Thanks for your patience and for clarifying your position. A position I can only agree with. My own mild accomodationism only stretches to an acceptance of Obama's appointment of Collins and a willingness to give him the benefit of doubt for now. In addition to this I accept that people will hold irrational beliefs and I will give moderately religious people plenty of respect (but their actual beliefs are up for criticism and even perhaps some ridicule).

    Since I think we are in significant agreement, it's best I leave it there. I had minor points that I wanted to make and you have responded to these.

    Congratulations on a very good blog site.

  54. Hi Jon, I think we are getting close to the reason I joined this discussion. I have three questions for you.

    "In that Collins has not offered any evidence for them, yes, I know that the beliefs are evidence free."
    Can you please show us the logic that has led you from {1. You are not aware of any evidence Collins has offered.} to {2. You know that his beliefs are evidence free.}?

    "Decide on a miracle that an interventionist God would be expected to perform (e.g. answering prayers). make lots of prayers. See whether they are answered. Conclude accordingly."
    How would you rule out the hypothesis that God, as a free and personal being, had decided not to perform to your expectation for your experiment?

    "if there is a question of fact which you believe the scientific method id not best fitted for"
    I presume by "scientific method" you are referring to the process of hypothesis, experimental design, replicated experiment, statistical analysis of results, etc?

    I suggest it is quite clear that this method is suitable for obtaining knowledge about some things, but that many other things require a different approach. For example, particle physicist John Polkinghorne wrote: "science describes .... the impersonal and general, and [not] the personal and unique." Thus the scientific method is well suited to investigating those aspects of the physical world that are ordered by natural laws. But it cannot so easily investigate single events (because they are not repeatable nor susceptible to statistical analysis), the personal (e.g. personal feelings or whether I can trust a friend), important aspects of life such as aesthetics, ethics and politics, or an alleged being living "outside" the physical world.

    So let me be sure I understand you: Are you saying that the only way to obtain knowledge or come to a valid conclusion is via the scientific method? Or do you agree with me that other means are required for many questions?


  55. unkle e
    Can you please show us the logic that has led you from {1. You are not aware of any evidence Collins has offered.} to {2. You know that his beliefs are evidence free.}?
    Simple. Collins has been questioned and has retreated from his claims to have evidence. See for instance rbh's comment above.

    How would you rule out the hypothesis that God, as a free and personal being, had decided not to perform to your expectation for your experiment?
    1. The experiment was testing whether prayers are effective when on a specific subject which scripture and Christian tradition tells us we should pray for i.e. healing the sick.

    2. There were a very large number of prayers for a very large number of patients. Within the limits of statistical significance, they did no better than a control group which received no prayers.

    3. In such circumstances, the correct scientific approach is to adopt the null hypothesis. i.e. if there is no measured effect, then there is nothing causing any effect.

    4. If you choose to define your God and the way he works in unfalsifiable terms, then no evidence can possibly be adduced in either direction that would distinguish his existence from his nonexistence, and science ceases to have anything to say on the matter. It then become a philosophical matter to state "That which can be asserted without evidence can also be dismissed without evidence. In other words, if there s no possible evidence that can be obtained for God's existence, then there is no reason to believe it, and we can continue to extend our understanding of the universe entirely safe in the knowledge that no evidence will appear that will demonstrate the existence of God.

    I presume by "scientific method" you are referring to the process of hypothesis, experimental design, replicated experiment, statistical analysis of results, etc?
    That and observation and the various other elements of the scientific method, yes.

    Are you saying that the only way to obtain knowledge or come to a valid conclusion is via the scientific method?
    Applied in its widest possible sense of basing conclusions on evidence, and being a conservative as possible in terms of working out what (if any) conclusions can be drawn from any particular piece of evidence, then yes. In "The cosmic detective" which I referred you to earlier, I invited anybody who thought that there was another better method for learning about God to state what that method was, why the scientific method was inadequate, and what advantages the alternative has in terms of acquiring knowledge with a higher degree of justified certainty than the scientific method.

    Just calling some fields of knowledge "personal" by itself is not sufficient. While humans have a degree of variability between them which makes scientific approaches more problematic, that doesn't remove the need to justify and explain why other approaches are better.

    Or do you agree with me that other means are required for many questions?
    I am open to the possibility that other methods may be demonstrated to be superior. In "The cosmic detective" I invited anybody who has a better method and who can demonstrate its superiority to do so. That invitation still stands, and you are welcome to take it up. Nobody has done so up to now, and therefore I maintain that the scientific method is the best available approach.

  56. By the way, for those interested, Collins' retreat is here. The question I asked him begins at 51:50. I see that I mis-recalled him above. He didn't call things like the origin of the universe and Moral Law as "indicators," but rather "pointers."

    Note also that in search of evidence he slides off into anecdote and his own subjective feelings. Not what one would normally call "evidence."

    (BTW, the captcha word for this comment is "disign." Surely evidence of divine intent!)

  57. Jon

    Thanks for your reply. I have tried to be brief, mostly asking questions, but this response must unfortunately be a little longer. My apologies, together with my thanks for participating in this discussion and remaining so courteous.

    "Collins has been questioned and has retreated from his claims to have evidence..... Collins' retreat is here. The question I asked him begins at 51:50."

    I have listened to the question and answer, and I'm afraid your claim is not supported by the recording. (I have made quick transcripts of the relevant bits, my apologies if I have recorded any words inaccurately, but you and readers can verify for themselves that I have quoted them fairly.)

    The key part of your question was: "Can you provide evidence in the absence of identifying a gap in the naturalistic explanation?"

    Frances Collins spent a large part of his answer discussing the idea of gaps, but he did make the following statements:

    "None of the arguments .... ought to be considered proofs of God's existence - they're interesting observations .... that I found .... helpful."
    The universe had a beginning, there was a big bang and .... arguing from that to the feasibility, the plausibility, of a creator outside nature ...."
    "I have lots of other evidence .... in terms of my personal life .... harder to defend on strict intellectual grounds."

    Now I make the following points from this:

    1. All this is consistent with Collins' book, which (as you commented) claims evidence in its subtitle, and Collins' interviews since writing the book, where he has always said the arguments are not "proofs". I can see nothing new here.

    2. He clearly states that he sees evidence in the "moral law" and the beginning of the universe, then goes on to add that he has other, more personal, evidence.

    3. The only thing that he said that could be construed as a "retreat" was his statement" "None of the arguments .... ought to be ones upon which one rests one's faith.". But that is consistent with his statement about proofs, and in no way says what you have claimed for it.

    4. So your claim "Collins ..... has retreated from his claims to have evidence" is not supported by the recording you have referenced - in fact the opposite is true, he claims quite clearly to have evidence.

    So Collins does claim to have evidence and presents a little of it. Instead of claim he retreated from saying he had evidence, I suggest you should have said "he agreed that his evidence was not proof". I hope you are willing to concede this point, and we can move on, because (a) I am not an apologist for Collins' book (although I enjoyed it and learnt from it), (b) you seem to be using "evidence" to mean "scientific evidence" suitable for testing scientific hypotheses about God, and I think that is what Collins means by "proof", so I doubt he would argue on those terms. And mostly, I hope you can agree because I have bigger fish to fry.

    More in a subsequent comment. Best wishes.

  58. Jon, my reply part 2:

    You give an outline of an experiment that was apparently conducted to test whether God answered prayer, but again, you haven't answered my question.

    I asked: "How would you rule out the hypothesis that God, as a free and personal being, had decided not to perform to your expectation for your experiment?" But the experimental design you have offered can, at most, only demonstrate that on this occasion, God did not answer those prayers, and thus didn't fulfil the expectations of those praying, or those conducting the experiment, or (apparently) you.

    The question remains unanswered, how would you rule out the possibility that God didn't perform to expectations? And there is no answer to this!

    You go on to say: "If you choose to define your God and the way he works in unfalsifiable terms, then no evidence can possibly be adduced in either direction that would distinguish his existence from his nonexistence". But I don't choose to define God that way, in fact so far in this discussion I haven't chosen to define God at all. You have made an invalid generalisation from a specific instance.

    What you should have said (I suggest) is that this prayer experiment is inconclusive for the reasons I have given, and if that was the only evidence someone was adducing for God, then we couldn't distinguish his existence from his non-existence.

    Which, you will recall, is what I said earlier on.

    Again I'm hoping you will concede that this experiment proves very little about God in general, although it may prove something about a "mechanical prayer-answering" god, because, again, it matters little to me now we have arrived at this point, and I have bigger fish to fry. (Notice how I'm building expectation? Let's hope it isn't false advertising!)

    Best wishes.

  59. Jon, here's #3 in this marathon. Hopefully we can finish up soon, so we can get on with our lives!

    I want to address what now becomes clear is the main unresolved issue in this discussion - the nature of "evidence". You agreed with the statement "the only way to obtain knowledge or come to a valid conclusion is via the scientific method?" and then asked if I could think of other methods. I want to make two points.

    1. There are some well-known "other methods" for knowing truth and drawing valid conclusions, including about God. Here are a couple:

    History. The analysis of documentary and archaeological sources provides us with much knowledge, such as of Egyptian history, the Roman Empire, Julius Caesar, Alexander the Great and ... Jesus. The consensus of the "best" scholars is that Jesus lived and we can know a lot about him. From that conclusion arguments can be made about whether Jesus revealed God.

    For example, Gary Habermas debated Antony Flew (when he was still a strong atheist) on the resurrection, and I understand Habermas won the debate (and Flew subsequently described the resurrection as "the best attested miracle claim in history". WL Craig regularly includes an argument from accepted historical facts to the truth of the resurrection, and is successful in either holding his own or winning the debate,

    It doesn't matter whether you think these and other historical arguments are persuasive or not, the fact is they can be argued and they are based on historical evidence. And if successful, they demonstrate the probability of the existence of the christian God.

    So history is one way of knowing things and of (perhaps) knowing God. It doesn't give as much certainty as science, but then some science uses similarly uncertain methods. And maths gives greater certainty than science too. We just have to be content with the level of certainty we can get.

    Reason. People make decisions all the time based on reason - starting with what they know and concluding who to marry, how to vote, ethical matters, etc. You have done it too, as we'll see in a moment. And we can often come to conclusions we believe are valid enough on which to base our lives.

    Philosophers take known facts about the universe and humanity to construct "arguments to the best explanation" (a standard and valid form of philosophical argument) which point to God's existence. You know all these of course. And it is interesting to note that atheist thinkers also use arguments to the best explanation to throw doubt on the existence of God. You know them too, and have probably used some of them.

    So reason can be used to draw conclusions (we do it every day), including conclusions about God. Again, not as certain as science, far less certain than maths, but adequate for life.

    Experience. We build our life on experience. "I'll never trust that person again." It's pretty unreliable, but sometimes it's all we have to go on.

    People have experiences they believe are of God. That's a fact, even if we think they are mistaken. But can we be sure they are all, 100%, wrong? For atheism to be true, they all have to be wrong; for theism to be known to be true, only one or two need to be true. And if God exists, he could give people an experience that they would know to be true.

    So sometimes experience can lead us to valid conclusions, perhaps even about God. It's a very uncertain method, I'd agree, but it would be foolish to totally ignore it.

    Now please don't spend time arguing these arguments with me now - that would consume too much time, and would miss the point. My simple point is this - these are ways we might possibly know God, and they can only be dismissed if we can be sure that the scientific method is the only way to draw valid conclusions. So let's look at that (in my last and final comment).

    Best wishes

  60. unkle e
    I think we need to come to a common understanding of what we mean by "evidence", and whether something can be regarded as evidence for or against a hypothesis.

    For a phenomenon to be regarded is evidence for or against a hypothesis, it isn't sufficient merely to be able to claim that the phenomenon "is consistent with" the hypothesis. The fact that you speak English is consistent with the hypothesis that the moon is made of green cheese. But it isn't evidence for that hypothesis, because the fact that you speak English is equally consistent with the hypothesis that the moon isn't made of green cheese. The phenomenon has no bearing on the hypothesis at all.

    Unless you are prepared to accept this understanding of evidence, then there is little more we can say to each other, since in essence we are talking a different language.

    Taking Collins' "evidence", nothing he has said is anything more than descriptions of phenomena for which there is a perfectly good naturalistic explanation. Since just about any phenomenon can be claimed to be caused ultimately by God if you define God the right way, nothing he has provided is evidence in the way I have described it, either for or against God's existence. Therefore, by my understanding of the meaning of the word, he has provided none.

    Collins is a scientist, he knows perfectly well what scientific evidence is. He was trying it on, and when rbh questioned him, he rowed back on his claims to have scientific evidence.

    If we can come to an agreement on the meaning of "evidence", then I will carry on and address your other points. But this is sufficiently fundamental that we need to get it sorted first, otherwise we will have no common understanding of the rest.

  61. Jon, at last the end! I'm sorry to be so long, but you posed me some questions, and I didn't want to leave them unanswered. (I prepared this before I saw your recent response.)

    2. Is the scientific method the only way to draw valid conclusions?

    You have said that it is. My response is simply this - you have presented on this blog and elsewhere conclusions you have presented to us as true. On your own admission, this can only be the case if you can show using the scientific method that they are true. Here are a few examples:

    (i) You have urged upon me the conclusions: "the only way to obtain knowledge or come to a valid conclusion is via the scientific method" . How would you demonstrate that conclusion using the scientific method?

    (ii) In your article "Miracles Great and Small" you state a clear probabilistic conclusion: "It is far more likely that Biblical miracles are tall tales." How would you demonstrate that conclusion using the scientific method?

    (iii) In your article "Moral Arguments for God" you make the statement: " hardly need to catalogue all the great crimes committed in the name of religions – Christianity and others – in order to point out that religion can't be regarded as an unequivocal force for good, and that believing in God is not a guarantee of good behaviour." I agree with that statement, but it wasn't a conclusion either of us arrived at through the scientific method, but through history.

    (iv) In the post above, you spend some time discussing Swinburne's writings about God. You use reason to do this and draw different conclusions than he does, you don't use the scientific method.

    I could go on, but you get the idea. You are quite happy with using history and reason to justify atheistic conclusions, but you baulk at theists using the same methods for their conclusions.

    So I want to ask you. Can you provide scientific method justification for the above statements you have made, or are you willing to modify your claims that the scientific method is the only way to draw valid conclusions? Or are you willing to limit your articles and blog to matters that can be demonstrated by the scientific method?

    Like I said way back, discussion of actual reasons why I believe would have been pointless until we could agree on what constitutes "evidence". I believe your position is inconsistent, and makes discussion of these issues difficult. I hope we can reach some agreement here.

    Thanks, here endeth the diatribe. Best wishes.

  62. Jon, this will be brief - I'm pooped and need to go to bed.

    "I think we need to come to a common understanding of what we mean by "evidence", and whether something can be regarded as evidence for or against a hypothesis.
    I agree.

    For a phenomenon to be regarded is evidence for or against a hypothesis, it isn't sufficient merely to be able to claim that the phenomenon "is consistent with" the hypothesis."
    I am using evidence to mean facts which can form the basis of an argument. You seem to be using it to mean both the facts and the argument.

    If this is so, then it isn't fair to then just consider the phenomenon, you must consider the argument made about the phenomenon also.

    I don't know any christian who argues that a phenomenon (e.g. the apparent cosmic design of the universe, recognised even by atheist cosmologists) "is consistent with" the hypothesis of God. What they attempt to argue is that God is a more reasonable explanation of that phenomenon.

    That is what Collins does in his book, and alludes to on that panel.

    So I can only say again, we do appear to be using different definitions of evidence, but I don't think you are consistent with that. And I think you are quite wrong when you say "he rowed back on his claims to have scientific evidence". Check out the video again - he only said he did not have proof, and he continued to say he had evidence.

    I'll leave it all with you now. Best wishes.

  63. unkle e
    Evidence really is very simple. You have a hypothesis X, which purports to describe some aspect of reality. You can test the hypothesis by making some specific observation relevant to the hypothesis, such that if you get result Y, it confirms the hypothesis, but if you get result Z, it disproves it.

    In the circumstance and this circumstance only, the observation and its result can be regarded as evidence relative to the hypothesis.

    If the hypothesis is such that there is no observation which can possibly made that would disprove it, then it is not a scientific hypothesis, since all results of all possible observations are consistent with the hypothesis.

    So, a hypothesis that God answers prayers for the healing of the sick is a scientific hypothesis. You can count up the numbers of prayers and the number of people healed, and see whether they are consistent with the hypothesis. That has been done, and the result was negative.

    But is not a scientific hypothesis to suggest that God heals the sick in response to prayers except when you are trying to check whether he is doing so, since with this hypothesis, no possible observation regarding prayers and healings can shed light on whether the hypothesis is true or not. For such a hypothesis, there is no such thing as evidence.

    So, you have to decide first of all what your God hypothesis is. From that definition, we can determine whether it is a testable hypothesis. Then we can compare the hypothesis with relevant observations.

    You have been defining God and his properties in such a way as to leave no testable hypothesis. Therefore, by definition you have no evidence and cannot possibly have evidence.

    That's fine. If you want to think of God in that way, I'm not going to stop you. But I have no reason at all to join in.

  64. G'day Jon,

    Sorry about the hiatus - my ADSL line went down for 2 days. But I had already felt this conversation had just about run its course, so I will simply sum up what I have learnt.

    You seem to define evidence in a exclusively scientific way (you said that in answer to my question in your response dated 09 November 2009 23:14) - i.e. you seem to mean it is only evidence if we have a testable hypothesis, and you are convinced that it allows that hypothesis to be tested.

    It seems to me that this definition fails the commonsense test for several reasons:

    1. It doesn't allow for other forms of evidence such as (a) historical or (b) personal experience. Such evidence is recognised in (a) historical study which draws conclusions which I doubt you would question, and (b) in courts of law.

    2. It doesn't even cover all scientific evidence. Many scientific discoveries start out with a chance observation which may require many more observations before even a hypothesis can be developed. yet these observations are surely evidence.

    3. It applies a standard of rigour which we rarely use in other parts of life (e.g. in drawing conclusions in your columns), and even in some areas of science (e.g some aspects of cosmology and evolutionary science rely on lower standards of evidence than the science of current occurrences).

    Therefore I agree with you when you say: "Unless you are prepared to accept this understanding of evidence, then there is little more we can say to each other, since in essence we are talking a different language.".

    I accept the concept of evidence, and think it can only be sensibly applied with varying degrees of rigour appropriate to the question being discussed. But I believe you apply different standards than scientific rigour in some cases, but insist on scientific rigour when questioning a theist. I feel this inconsistency allows you to rule out the God question, while holding strong convictions which cannot be supported by scientific evidence on other matters.

    I think my belief is supported by at least as much evidence as you have to support most of your conclusions (outside of strict science). You say: "You have been defining God and his properties in such a way as to leave no testable hypothesis. Therefore, by definition you have no evidence and cannot possibly have evidence", but that isn't true. One of my main reasons for believing is the historical evidence for Jesus - where the testable hypothesis is that Jesus lived and the documents tell us about him - a strong conclusion of scholars, but not verifiable scientifically. Likewise, the design argument rests on the evidence of cosmologists, who say quite definitely that the universe exhibits qualities that are far more precise and fortuitous than chance would allow - again, the hypothesis that the universe arose by chance can be tested, again not with the same rigour as most science, and shown to be highly unlikely.

    So I have learnt something from all this, for I am slightly surprised to find someone holding views that seem to me to be impractical and inconsistent. But I guess you haven't learned so much, because I suppose you would have expected me to say these things. I apologise for that! : (

    So I'll leave it there. Thanks for the discussion. Best wishes.

  65. I forgot one other thing I have learnt. You seem to require evidence to lead to proof. Your statement that Francis Collins "has retreated from his claims to have evidence." can only be equated with Collins' actual statement that "None of the arguments .... ought to be considered proofs" if your "evidence" = Collins' "proof". I found this strange, as it is contrary to dictionary definition, common usage, logic, legal usage, scientific usage and even your own usage on other matters. I haven't come across that view before. Thanks again.

  66. unkle e,
    I'm wondering what evidence you have and why you would think your evidence would be important to anything at all. Whenever somebody notices some evidence, it is always evidence "for" something. So, you may have evidence and you can rightly claim that your evidence is not "proof", but it will be evidence "for" something. Nobody makes careful note of the wind today, and then says its eveidence, but evidence for "nothing". It could be evidence for God or evidence for climate change or evidence for something.

    So we always get evidence that may point towards something - essentially evidence for a hypothesis that may eventually be proven or disproved. The quality of the evidence may not be very good at first. The evidence may be very personal, but the person that thinks they have evidence for something will hope to be able to refine things and head towards a proof of something. I assume you have been collecting lots of personal evidence and that this has helped to confirm your hypothesis that God is interacting with the world we live in. Perhaps it is this evidence that has lead you to feel very confident that God exists, but you're not prepared to say that the quality of the evidence is good enough to prove existence, but let's face it, it would be nice if you had some good quality evidence that was proof for existence. And if you had such evidence I'm sure you would want to share it with everyone.

    For anything that really matters, we need proof. When Fleming luckily discovered penicillin, his first evidence that it killed bacteria was a personal observation. But such personal observations alone would never have meant that it would ever become a commonly used antibiotic. Further proof was provided. This proof was available for anyone to see.

    You might say that a mother kissing her child is proof of the mother's love. In my everyday experience I would agree with you, because it is fairly usual for a mother to love her child and for loving mothers to press their lips against their children. But it's not actually good quality evidence. If someone accused the mother of violently abusing the child (a hypothesis) then the "kiss evidence" will not be sufficient good quality evidence that the mother loves the child. We would need better quality evidence for all to see.

    The problem with only having small amounts of low quality evidence for something was summarised by Richard Feynman when he said, "The first principle is that you must not fool yourself - and you are the easiest person to fool".

    I suppose there's some truth in the statement, "There's none so blind as those who will not see", but we should add that there are plenty of foolish people who see what simply isn't there. Lightning bolts are not thrown by Thor. We now have a very good scientific explanation for thunder and lightning. Using your own rules of evidence I'd have an impossible task of disproving the existence of Thor.

    Francis Collins may have evidence (or what he feels is evidence) for God. The evidence is poor. You may have personal experience which you have taken as evidence for God, but such evidence is not available to everyone, and when such evidence is presented it is no better than the evidence for Allah or Shiva or faeries. When such evidence is examined there is always a perfectly good scientific explanation for the events and we always find that there is no need for the God hypothesis.

  67. Stefan, thanks for your comments. There is a lot there, so I will only respond to a few matters.

    "For anything that really matters, we need proof."

    I think this is (for me) the key statement in your comments. And I think it is an overstatement. I would say that for most things that really matter to us in life, we would like proof, but we almost never get it.

    Does our mother truly love us (your example)?
    Is there a real world "out there"?
    Can I know anything for sure?
    How should I live my life?
    What is right and what is wrong?
    Should I marry this woman?
    Is there a God?

    These are some of the truly important questions of life, and we don't have proof of any of them. You and I (and Jon) don't have proof of many of the things we assert every day. This includes the statements you make about the importance of evidence, which represent a well-known philosophical position that cannot be proved, and is thus self contradictory.

    Many scientific questions are important (e.g. your example of Fleming), but compared to these questions, most scientific questions are relatively less important. Does it really matter to the human race if the Higgs boson exists or not? Or if we can know the amount of dark energy in the universe? Or which of several models of abiogenesis is the correct one (if any of them are)?

    So I would argue that there's no clear correlation between importance and proof. So we have to decide each important question on the best evidence we can find. And mostly, we do. We choose careers and spouses, raise children, make ethical choices, vote, support causes, etc, all without proof. Why do you make a different demand for belief in God?

    "Francis Collins may have evidence (or what he feels is evidence) for God. The evidence is poor."

    I wonder whether you could prove your statement? Or is it simply a value judgment, no more and no less valid than Collins' judgment that the evidence is good? You have stated it like it is a truth, but I don't think it is. I point this out because you have expressed yourself strongly about evidence, but, unless you can prove Collins' evidence is poor (and I can't see how you can) then you have failed to live up to your own standards. I do not criticise you for this, but I do suggest you should recognise this, and not criticise Collins for doing just the same as what you are doing.

    "When such evidence is examined there is always a perfectly good scientific explanation for the events and we always find that there is no need for the God hypothesis."

    I wonder too how you'd prove this rather broad and strong statement. I would be able to point you to accounts of apparent healing miracles which I would challenge you to prove to me (with the certainty you have expressed here) that God didn't do it. We both know you couldn't do that, just as the claimants cannot prove that God did do it. Your statement here is either a statement of dogmatism or of faith. Far more honest, and in accordance with the evidence, would be to say that we are not able to make a clear judgment in most cases.

    "I'm wondering what evidence you have and why you would think your evidence would be important to anything at all."

    You will notice that I didn't talk much about my beliefs, rather I challenged Jon (and now you) to come to a more realistic view of evidence that you yourselves were actually able to live by. Until you do that, discussion about evidence for God would be pointless, and on a different basis to the rest of life.

    Best wishes.

  68. unkle e,
    I make the odd axiomatic assumptions. The first assumption would not be "There must be a God". Many people, including philosophers, accept that "there is a real world out there". Objective Reality exists for me, but I cannot prove it.

    I can't prove such Reality, but if it doesn't exist then all of "this" is just in my mind. This conversation I'm having with you is in my mind and I could decide that it's time to stop it because you are not real and I don't need to consider your opinion. Nothing is real, so nothing really matters. In my all-important imaginary world, God does not exist because I do not want my imaginary world contaminated by such vulgar concepts. But actually, if you don't mind, I'll claim there is a "real world out there". Having made that assumption, I'd like to live my life making some sense of this world.

    I'm willing to adjust my own statement to "For anything that really matters we'd like to have proof". It seems that religious people are too willing to say "we almost never get proof" and so a religious hypothesis is "good enough". Many other people say, "I might accept your ideas for a while, but I'll keep looking for proof one way or the other (and hope that doesn't offend you)" Scientists are particularly good at continuously sifting through the evidence and looking for the simplest explanation. Too many people have accepted we'll never find the evidence nor the proof. Worse still, too many people have audaciously stated that their religious beliefs must be true, on the basis that we'll never get good evidence, and so they assert that their religious beliefs are the explanations! The lazy proposition of some religious minds: "We'll probably never know and never understand. So God did it."

    "Do our mothers love us?" That is an important question. Quite a few know very well that their mother does not love them. Some have enough evidence available to suggest their mother does not love them but still insist that she does. There may be evidence of meals and even the occasional kiss. The hatred, anger, bruises, shouting, general neglect could be easily be ignored. The hurt child is unwanted, despised, unloved. But, on the flimsy evidence of some food and a kiss, pronounces that their mother loves them! I suggested earlier that any accusation of abuse, which may end up in court, would require better evidence to show us what the mother's care was really like. I suspect you agree with me. A lack of proof will simply mean that we do not know (yet) whether the hypothesis is true or not. Someone judging the case would be unwise to assume, on the lack of evidence, that the mother loves her child. Similarly, I think it's unwise, with a lack of good evidence (for all to see), to assume that any god exists.

  69. "Should I marry this woman?" The simple answer is "no". She is unlikely to be the very best woman for me. The fact that I did means that I knowingly accepted a sub-optimal solution (I'm even more convinced that she could have done a hell of a lot better than marry me!) What I am saying is that "I know that I don't know". I don't then make wild claims, such as, "She is the best cook in the world. It's the greatest sex. It's the perfect partnership. Her actions are promoting world peace." It was a choice I made on the lack of evidence. I know that. We'll probably be divorced soon.

    I also know that my voting choice is based on a lack of evidence. I'm guessing the best I can on fairly flimsy evidence and a lack of undertsanding of all the issues. It's democracy. The choice to make the wrong choice. I don't expect my wrong choice to fly, cure all cancer and aids. Nor do I expect my politicians to lead their chosen people to the promised land.

    You can discuss the evidence I might have tried to collect, and point out how much I wanted my guesses to be very educated guesses. But I know that I make choices every day where the evidence is lacking. All I can say is that I wish it wasn't so. I'd like more evidence. The point is that I try not to make remarkable claims based on flimsy evidence. Religion tends to enjoy making remarkable claims with flimsy evidence.

    Collins wanted a sign and saw 3 frozen waterfalls. Running water is harder to freeze than still water, but it's still easy to explain with our understanding of science. The fact that there were 3, rather than 1 or 4, may seem significant, but it's not. It's simply what's what was there. The previous week and the week after there were 3 waterfalls there. Did he count the trees? Was it significant that there were 10 trees rather than 9?. Two Feynmann stories:
    1) An experimenter notices a peculiar result after many trials - a rat in a maze turns alternately left, right, and left. The experimenter calculates the odds against something so extraordinary and decides that it cannot have been an accident. Feynman would say: "I had the most remarkable experience. ... While coming in here I saw license plate ANZ 912. Calculate for me, please, the odds that of all the license plates ..."
    2) "I was upstairs typing up some theme of philosophy. And I was completely engrossed, not thinking of anything but the theme, when all of a sudden in a most mysterious fashion there swept through my mind the idea: my grandmother has died. Now of course I exaggerate slightly, as you should in all such stories. I just sort of half got the idea for a moment. ... Immediately after that the telephone rang downstairs. I remember this distinctly for the reason you will now hear. ... It was for somebody else. My grandmother was perfectly healthy and there's nothing to it. Now what we have to do is to accumulate a large number of these to fight the few cases when it could happen."

    I really hope I've given an indication why I think Collins' evidence is poor. Even if Collins does insist his evidence is important to him, can it really be claimed that it's God and not faeries?

  70. G'day Stefan,

    "I'm willing to adjust my own statement to "For anything that really matters we'd like to have proof"."
    Thanks. That is good. It means we can at least begin to discuss.

    "I make the odd axiomatic assumptions."
    "But I know that I make choices every day where the evidence is lacking. All I can say is that I wish it wasn't so. I'd like more evidence."
    Further agreement! I agree with most of your examples too. I also wish for more evidence, about many things. But we can only make progress when we recognise that we don't have it for some important matters. The questions then are (1) Will we do the best we can, or give up? and (2) How will we proceed?

    "The first assumption would not be "There must be a God"."
    Three out of three is unexpected, but welcome! We agree here too. So how to proceed on the God question?

    In the end, we have the universe before us, and the human race around us, and we have our own consciousness and experience. We must learn what we can. And on the question of God, we make a choice, to believe, or disbelieve, or wait for more evidence. But how to decide?

    If we knew nothing about God, we might decide to wait, at least for a while. But we only have one life (as far as we know) and the various religions already exist - they are part of the evidence. It doesn't really matter at this stage which religious tradition we are most familiar with, they all suggest making a response is better than waiting.

    So we have a choice, and I choose not to wait. I'm not going to die wondering if I can help it, and if I make a choice and new evidence undermines that choice, I can always change my mind. And when I consider the life of Jesus, as revealed by historians, I am reinforced in deciding to make a choice. And the choice is between believing in God or not believing.

    I find the choice quite simple. I can illustrate this best by considering which of the two choices (hypotheses) best predicts what we see before us. And I find God wins about 5-1, as follows:

    If there was no God, I would not expect anything to exist (why should it?), but if a God exists, I wouldn't be surprised if a universe existed or not. It does exist, so God wins.

    If there was no God and a universe existed, I'd expect it to be random, chaotic and short-lived, whereas if a God existed, it might be thus, or equally it might be well designed. The cosmologists tell us it's finely-tuned. Score another to God.

    I could go on, looking at human rationality, free will and ethics, people's apparent experiences of God, and the life of Jesus, all more expected on the God hypothesis than on the no-God hypothesis.

    And of course, there's evidence the other way, If there is a God, I'd expect the world to be benign, whereas with no God, it could be anything. But the world is full of evil. Score one against God.

    All of these matters can be explored at great depth, but I can't escape the conclusion that this looks much more like a world created by God than one occurring by chance.

    So, logically, I make the choice to believe God exists, based on the evidence. And as I live my life by that conclusion, I find it seems to work out, it's consistent (though not without its hiccups!).

    "Similarly, I think it's unwise, with a lack of good evidence (for all to see), to assume that any god exists."
    So you see, this is not at all how I see it. There is plenty of evidence, I need make no assumption, but just draw the most logical conclusion.

    Best wishes.

  71. unkl e
    There is plenty of evidence, I need make no assumption, but just draw the most logical conclusion.

    In that case I would like to include you specifically in my invitation to all religious people. Do please describe the evidence that you say you have plenty of.

  72. G'day Jon. Welcome back to your own blog! : )

    I don't believe we can profitably re-visit this question until we can reach some agreement on how we define "evidence".

    I find your apparent definitions untenable, the main issues being whether information is only evidence if a hypothesis testable by the full scientific method can lead to some sort of proof. I would be happy to explore these questions with you if you wish. I suggest the best way would be for you to write a blog on your definition of evidence, and then I and others can discuss this with you.

    What do you think?

  73. Go on then Jonathan, what's your comment on the Shermer article where he expresses his thoughts that religious people should have no problem accepting science (in particular evolution)? There are a lot of people, who like to follow what Richard Dawkins is up to, who vehemently disagree with what Shermer thinks.

  74. Stefan
    I presume you mean this article

    If not, perhaps you could enlighten me as to which article you mean.

    Ultimately, it is possible for some self-identifying religious people to work to a considerable extent on the basis of evidence, even to the point of doing good science, as for instance Francis Collins has done.

    In doing so, it is necessary for them to discard certain anti-scientific notions held by some of their fellow-religionists, such as a belief in the inerrancy of scripture.

    In as far as religious people can be encouraged to take more notice of evidence, Shermer is entirely right to offer that encouragement, and I wish him every success.

    However, once you start deciding to base your opinions on evidence rather than faith, there is no telling where that path will take you, and I suspect that many religious people have some degree of understanding of this, and so refuse to take any significant steps in that direction.

    But that's fine. Shermer and Dawkins are in fact addressing two different audiences. Shermer is telling the actively religious that they have no need to discard their religion in order to acknowledge the truth of evolution - that the evidence of evolution can be taken to be consistent with theistic evolution - i.e. an evolutionary process guided by God.

    Dawkins is addressing a different audience, those who either under their own steam or with the encouragement of people like Shermer, have started to have serious albeit private doubts about religion, for instance realising that while evolution could have been guided by an omnipotent God, here is no evidence that enable you to show God's involvement or even his existence.

    It is a frequently held misunderstanding of Dawkins (avidly propagated by the actively religious) that Dawkins is seeking to convert the strongly religious. It isn't true. Dawkins is looking to persuade the doubters to acknowledge their doubts and to openly decide to base their opinions solely on evidence. In doing so, he speaks against the religious way of thinking, but as a contrast against the scientific evidence-based approach. He has said on more than one occasion that he does not hope to change many minds among the strongly religious.

  75. Jonathan, yep, that's the article.

    At the start of The God Delusion, it says, "If this book works as I intend, religious leaders who open it will be atheists when they put it down." Now we both know that Dawkins accepts that this is a considerable stretch of his optimism, but his statement is there for all to see. So, in fact, he'd quite like to persuade the strongly religious to base their decisions on good quality evidence. I'm under the impression he's had some success, which I applaud.

    I don't really think that Shermer and Dawkins are trying to speak to different audiences. I think they are both putting their thoughts across for all to see. Even if they do somehow generally reach different mind-sets, you can be sure that there will be considerable overlap of those people. Those that hear Shermer also get word of what people like Richard are saying. The question is, how will the religious community relate to the blunt message that science and religion are incompatible? The message that all theists are wrong and they are either foolish or stupid to think that God exists.

    Now I'm sure Richard tries very hard to be careful about exactly what he says about religion and religious people. But occasionally he's not careful. The quickest example that comes to mind was when he said it wasn't surprising that people like Cliff Richard were religious: "The difference is that belief in some sort of god is the expected default position for an uneducated or stupid person like Cliff Richard." A short time after this statement Richard realised that he had been too hasty in making this statement and apologised with: "I have no evidence that he is stupid other than the fact that he is religious"

    However, Richard is setting the scene for followers to come out and say that there is no way that a theist is genuinely embracing all of science. On RD.net the statements made are quite cear: "Theistic religion and evolution can never live side by side". Alternatively we see: "Religion, and the unquestioned acceptance of it and respect for it really are the root of human irrationality and gullibility". Once again, a well meaning person like Shermer, is being lambasted as an "accomodationist", and we see statements such as "Sorry, Michael Shermer, but this accommodationism is a no-go" or "Accommodationism gives up the “battle” before it has even begun."

    That's why I wanted to know what you had to say about Shermer and his approach.

  76. I've been to church recently (interesting, worrying and painful). I've seen a woman with a science degree announce she's just got a job as a Physics teacher and also state that there is no conflict between her beliefs and science (internally I shook my head in dismay). I've seen energetic leaders announce that there is no way that evolution is true, without anyone giving an opposing opinion. I've spoken to the vicar, who tells me that he accepts science and accepts evolution, get up and talk about God's hand in creation, using Paley's Watchmaker analogy. The vicar simply didn't understand that evolution was all about explaining how such complexity came about, and I told him so.

    As agonising as all that is, what am I supposed to say to a religious people expressing an interest in science? Am I to tell them, loud and clear, that they will have to eventually drop their existing religious beliefs because there is no way that they can keep them whilst also understanding/accepting all the conclusion of science? This seemed to be the area that Ruse was venturing into when he bemoaned continual blunt messages about how science refutes religion. You've argued your case that it is possible to have some very vague (almost meaningless) sense of god that doesn't contradict science. But I don't know many people (probably none) who believe in that god. So every theist I meet cannot possibly fully understand science and where the scientific evidence leads.

    With the hardline "rationalists" embracing what Richard Dawkins has to say, we find that there are very few that should be willing to do science because they will have to give up many of their cherished misunderstandings. But I'll tell you what my muddled thinking is. This is how I can tolerate theists and hope that they will venture towards scientific thinking. "I am irrational!" There I've said it (the first step is to recognise this within myself). In fact, Max Planck was not only religious, but (as I understand it) he struggled to really accept Science's present understanding of Quantum Mechanics. Planck forced theory to fit observation by fudging the equations to make them fit. His genious move was to say that the energy was quantised, but he did not readily accept that quantisation was a physical property of the electromagnetic radiation. In his mind this was a sticking point. He was unwilling to relinquish his preconceptions. Einstein more readily accepted such quantisation, but struggled to accept the endless statistical game of chance that quantum mechanics became. So Einstein too had a sticking point.

    Is it so hard to accept that all sorts of irrational people do good science? Even religious people can do science, in spite of their sticking points and misunderstandings. Let's bring 'em in. Let's not stress that they have to leave their stupidity at the door, because if they have to do that then so do I, and I cannot. Neither can Bill Maher, neither can Michael Shermer, neither can a whole host of scientists!

    Go Accomodationism! ;-)

  77. Stefan

    I thought I'd venture back into these murky waters because I think I see a little more clearly where we differ. Consider these statements or phrases in your last comment:

    "science refutes religion"
    "they will have to eventually drop their existing religious beliefs because there is no way that they can keep them whilst also understanding/accepting all the conclusion of science"
    "So every theist I meet cannot possibly fully understand science and where the scientific evidence leads."
    "Even religious people can do science, in spite of their sticking points and misunderstandings. "

    Surely you understand that theistic scientists and philosophers have looked at the questions raised by these comments? It's not that they are stupid and wrong necessarily but that they have a different definition of science than you apparently have.

    Theists that I know follow "methodological naturalism", in which science is defined as being limited to the natural world and natural causes and effects. If there happens to be a supernatural, science doesn't address it. And if occasionally a supernatural event occurs (I say occasionally because it is clear that miracles are not happening as a high percentage of events overall) then science will remain ignorant of it or try to find a scientific explanation even though this in fact will be impossible. This is as sensible as a microbiologist assuming none of his/her colleagues has interfered with the petri dishes overnight, although there may come occasions when this has in fact occurred.

    But atheistic scientists tend to jump from methodological naturalism to ontological naturalism, without any proof. Now I'm not wishing to argue about that jump, just to point out that it is indeed a jump. And then to berate believers because they don't also make that jump.

    I think all your statements above, and you overall argument, depend on confusion about the difference between methodological and ontological naturalism. We are not stupid, and we can do science using methodological naturalism (which is all that science requires) quite successfully and without the sort of logical compromise you suggest. It is your requirement that we embrace ontological naturalism which is the key piece of false logic. Philosophers of science know that, but it seems that naturalists and scientists ignore it.

    I'm not trying to set up another argument here, just trying to point out where the problem lies, and the hard Dawkins line will not win out - because it's based on false and apparently unexamined assumptions. Bat thank you at least for your version of accomodationism, which I tend to agree with.

    Best wishes.

  78. Stefan Puchowski4 December 2009 at 15:10

    unkle e

    I feeI a bit guilty about my part in the length of this thread, but I'll respond anyway. I thought I was a a "methodological naturalist"!? I think we should let the evidence lead us wherever it may. We should strive not to let bias and expectation obstruct our observations and conclusions.

    I have no problem with someone proposing God as their hypothesis. Thousands of years ago the God hypothesis seemed a good way to explain our planet's existence and how all people and living organisms came to be. We now have other explanations and the evidence backs up many scientific ideas, leading to well established Scientific Theories.

    I definitely cannot disprove a Deistic god. I couldn't possibly dissuade someone from their blind faith in any god. But you and many others claim evidence for believing what you do and scientists can examine the evidence for God. If evidence is a lost pen, a moved petri dish, a bent spoon, or the double-six roll, then we can discuss this evidence. We can come up with several plausible explanations for all of these events. Why should any of them prove the God hypothesis? In fact, why should the existence of this universe, which has produced exactly the conditions we would expect it to produce and which has produced the sort of long-surviving life we would expect it could plausibly produce, be any evidence for God?

    The fine-tuning argument isn't a winner. Neither is human morality (or lack of). The question, "Why is there something?" is a tricky one. I don't have the answer at the moment. I accept that we are where we are and we have what we have, and maybe one day someone will come up with a satisfying answer to that one. But it still isn't a compelling argument for god (and we won't have answered "Why is there a god?")

    Essentially you have a well-hidden God. You keep the possibility of God alive by declaring that it's subtle, hidden and mysterious. If you want to believe that your God exists then I have no problem with that. The problem is that you might want to persuade others that its perfectly acceptable and normal for anyone to believe that your God exists. That it's acceptable and normal to drop the skepticism and probing questions and to accept that something so subtle exists with so little / poor evidence. The scientific method means that we should keep questioning and find the best and simplest explanation. And the reason why I don't think you are being a methodological naturalist is because you have shown yourself to be keen to explain problematic areas with "it must be God". Food: God. Good people: God. Life: God. Universe: God. Good fortune: God

    One reason why some people oppose Francis Collins appointment to the NIH is because they worry about how religion will impact his decisions. Also, what conclusions would he make from unexpected results? Would he check his experiment, or would he jump once again to the conclusion that it is further evidence to the wonder of God? Real science wouldn't jump to such conclusions. Real scienctists would want to see the miracles performed in front of them, in a closely controlled laboratory, and repeated many times (and they don't want to see a clever Uri Geller trick)

    Of course you are not stupid. We both have our blinkers and misconceptions. But the scientific method is the best chance we both have of removing the blinkers and any misconceptions.