Sunday, 3 January 2010


Over on the Comment is Free, the commenter with the name solocontrotutti responded to some questions from me. Unfortunately the thread closed before I could respond to him. Here is my response to solocontrotutti. My original questions to him are in italics in the blockquote. His answers are regular text in the blockquote.
1. What do you mean by "non empirical constructs"?

There are possibly two kinds that you could describe related to a God construct. The mind is one and perhaps just for the sake of argument space aliens.

Firstly I doubt whether there are scientists who believe that life doesn't exist in the Universe. It's a construct that has validity because it seems likely but there is no empirical evidence (as yet).

Secondly the mind exists distinct from biological process. I accept that it can be related to the brain but it has a construct that exists external to observable physical process. As do many if not most other human constructs love, emotional pain, etc etc.
We don't know whether extraterrestrial life exists, but the search for it is being conducted along purely scientific lines. It is incorrect to say that there is no evidence for extra-terrestrial life. There is evidence - it is called terrestrial life. If (as seems to be the case) terrestrial life has come about through purely natural processes, then if we can find another location which replicates earthly conditions to a sufficient degree, then there is a good chance that we will find life there. At the moment, we don't yet know how close to early conditions you have to be in order to get life. But the answer to the question can be pursued scientifically as well. There doesn't seem to be anything about this non-empirical construct that requires anything other than a straightforward scientific investigation in order to determine the truth of the matter.

As for the mind, you state as if it were a self-evident fact that "the mind exists distinct from biological process". Well, I don't think that we can make that claim based on evidence, since I don't think that we have any direct evidence of any minds that exist than are not associated with brains governed by biological processes. Nor do we have any evidence that there are any mental events that do not have some correlation with electrical or chemical activity within the brain. I would be the first to admit that our knowledge of the brain is still pitifully primitive at this time. But that doesn't justify throwing round evidence-free concepts such as mind-body dualism.

In the meantime, investigating the mind (and its relationship to the brain) is again a straightforwardly scientific line of enquiry.
2. What "different scientific approach" is required to learn about them? For what reason is this difference required and on what basis do you describe this as a different scientific approach as opposed to a merely unscientific approach?

The Science used to validate space aliens would be based on possibility. A God construct per se could be approached in this way albeit that in the absence of any data it probably would render it meaningless but no one could exclude the possibility. (Obviously I preclude a literal biblical account of God merely to avoid biblical arguments about interpretation).

Secondly you could legitimately approach the mind as a psychologist observing behaviours and personal experience. The difference between neuroscience and psychology (or sociology) is that the psychologist analyses behaviour whereas the neuroscientist constructs physical process to map behaviour. Psychology exists because neuroscientists can't fully map physical process to behaviour.

So the scientific approach to God would be to analyse impacts and personal experience and would not necessarily need a physical process (at the inception of psychology - neuroscience barely existed).
We can say right now that space aliens are a possibility, based on our present knowledge of the universe. Whether they exist or not is at present unknown. Scientific enquiry is the means by which we will find out. Already we have made the first initial scratches on the surface of the moon and Mars, but haven't yet found anything conclusive.

As for the mind, observing behaviours is something we have been doing a long time. Neuroscience is still in its infancy. The fact that we cannot map every behaviour on to a physical process does not mean that there is no physical process. It means that in our ignorance, we don't yet know what it is. If and when neuroscience progresses to the point where we can reliably map behaviour to physical processes, and we find a behaviour that lacks a matching physical process, then we would have evidence of mind-body duality. Not until then. Until that time, we are engaged on a perfectly ordinary scientific investigation.

Now, you have compared the mind to God. I know the reason you are keen on mind-body duality. If human minds can exist independently of bodies, then you can argue that a Godly mind can exist independently of a body. But we have no evidence of the former, so no evidence that the latter is possible. It is perfectly possible to analyse personal experiences, and this is done all the time, but there is no reason at all to think that this analysis will lead to God. Even if it did, this would be a scientific analysis, of just the kind you have said is inappropriate when considering God. In the post where I asked these questions, I was responding to you where you claimed that my arguments "always try to attribute a phycisists empirical reality to non empirical constructs such a God love or enjoyment unfortunately non empirical constructs require a different scientific approach". I've yet to see any description of the difference in approach you are looking for.

"The answer to whether God has an empirical reality is No... etc"

Let me see if I can unpack this. God has no empirical reality in that there is no evidence of such. But the fact that God has no empirical reality doesn't mean that God really has no empirical reality. Because there is no evidence of what God is like, we can make up whatever characteristics for him we think are appropriate (like love or good), because those ideas (with the label "God" attached) then exist in our minds. So, there is no God, but we can bring him into existence by believing in him. Do I have that about right?

No it means that scientifically we cannot say whether God exists or otherwise there isn't enough data for an empirical model. However a scientist could say that God exists as a non empirical reality and because so many people experience him that does have empirical reality. Therefore we can give him attributes on that basis from a scientific perspective.

For example Aspergers syndrome (in many people's view) has no empirical reality. It exists external to a physical process - it's attributes are purely observed (and in many ways are very very loosely observed )- yet it is a scientific construct. Using the kind of scientific arguments Aspergers would be ridiculed.
Do you mean "cannot" as in "cannot at present" or as in "cannot ever"? If you mean "cannot at present", then I am still confused as to why ordinary scientific enquiry is not an appropriate way to proceed. if you mean "cannot ever", then you eed to justify that claim by more than mere assertion.

As for the claim that "God exists as a non empirical reality and because so many people experience him that does have empirical reality", we have now travelled in a full circle, because you haven't given me any other examples of a non empirical reality that enable me to understand what you mean.

By the way, if you think Aspergers syndrome is non-scientific, then you are wrong. We still have a great deal to learn about Aspergers, but the scientific method is what will get us there. It is a name we have given to a group of behavioural characteristics, but what matters is not the name, but what we can learn about the characteristics, their causes, and what can be done to modify them. All purely scientific work.

It seems that you have a some misunderstanding about what science consists of.


  1. Jonathan, I was making a specific point about scientific arguments used by atheists and the nature of science and suggesting that there are lots of constructs that are not empirical such as the mind, love etc that exist as valid constructs in our understanding that are not debunked using scientific arguments.

    Indeed if you tried to define learning it would be almost impossible and if you reviewed the literature there would be infinite different definitions. Learning is a non empirical construct in the sense that a word is insufficient to describe the biological process behind it and yet there are thousands or research papers alluding to it.

    The point about Aspergers is that it is a syndrome that is merely observed and as yet there are no cognitive process underpinining that diagnosis.

    You have missed my point I agree it is scientific however I disagree that we may ever find a biological outcome.

    But that is exactly my point aspergers has no empirical reality it exists only as observed behviours presumably you could apply your argument to religious behaviour. Only the obseved behaviour has empirical reality not the Aspbergers.

    The difference is one of non emprirical opinion - you simply don't believe that there is anything concrete behind religious affectation whilst you believe that there may be a biological relationship with regard to Apergers at this point in time it is a faith issue (if you like).

    The point being is that only a small part of science exists within empirical certainties. As many have noted before science and faith are uncomfortable bed fellows and if you insist on being cynical about religion it's a difficult tool to use if you understand science properly.

    (Remember this is related to arguments that ebbed and flowed on another blog and specific to that argument.)

  2. hi solocontotutti

    The problem here is that you are throwing around the word "empirical" without explaining you mean about it. First we had "non-empirical constructs" about which to be perfectly frank I am no wiser than before your explanation. As far as I can tell, it means something like "something about which we can speculate but where we don't know for certain". But what that has to do with the scientific method being inapplicable is beyond me.

    And then in the comment you talked about "empirical certainty". What is empirical certainty as opposed to other varieties of certainty. I get the impression that I am dealing with some local definitions of words which you haven't yet shared with me.