Monday, December 8, 2008

500 + 1: Bad Answers to a Good Question—Science has a record with as many failures as religions.

In a comment on the last post, Casey gives us a very nice statement of an interesting objection:

Caloric, Phlogiston, luminous aether, epicycles, flat earth, the four humors, four elements, etc. I could name 500 "dead" scientific theories. So why believe that String Theory is correct? Science accepts that Phlogiston could end up being correct but until we get new evidence then we are to reject it.

"But these were all supernatural claims which have failed"

And these are all natural claims that have failed

"But we have gained information each time, and we're closer to the truth"

The same could be said for religious claims coming closer to understanding God's true nature.

"But there are a number of rivaling religious claims, and historically religious figures didn't act as if everyone was getting closer to the truth"

There are, similarly, a number of scientific theories which rival each other currently and historically each proponent of a scientific theory thought they had it figured out to some extent.

"But science is supposed to get things wrong, it's built into the system"

Why not grant the same fallibility to religious claims.

Now, this does still pose a problem to the theist since this analogy suggests the theist should be confidant that their religion is right as much as a scientist is confident that a particular theory is right, which is a significant blow to the extent faith should play.

Here’s the problem:

There’s a deep disanalogy in the cases. In science, we actively seek out disconfirming evidence for a hypothesis, and when we find it, we discard the model that doesn’t fit with our observations. Successive attempts to model, disconfirm, and arrive at a story that makes successful predictions and that accounts for our observations, including the ones that refuted the earlier models, entitles us to claim that the latest theory is better.

The project here has been to try to find some grounds to think that Christianity is different from the other bogus supernatural, paranormal, and magical claims, especially when it seems to fail for all the same reasons. Furthermore, Christianity is not the culmination of a progressive process of theorizing, testing, and revising. Like the other religions, it claims to have gotten it right from the start. It doesn’t build on their failures by learning and revising. It claims to have had an exclusive, complete representation of the whole truth all along, just like all of the other religions that have collapsed. Christianity can’t claim to have improved and progressed from the other failed religions—the vast majority of Christians haven’t even heard of most of the gods on that list. Neither Christians, nor the followers of the other gods, claim to have achieved a more comprehensive description of the world on the basis of the failures of other religious doctrines.

It would be ironic and perverse of the believer to claim, in response to my argument, that their belief in God and their doctrine is actually a sort of quasi-scientific hypothesis that is subject to the disconfirmations and revisions of scientific models of reality. If the Christian responds to my argument by suggesting that they are in a process of successively revising and improving our account of God in the light of new information and developments, then they’ve got a number of problems. The Christian religious tradition and doctrines, along with most other religious traditions, are fundamentally static. They claim to have an original, direct access to the truth that cannot and does not change with time. To find out what’s true about reality, they consult their book and their God. If what we see in the world appears to conflict with the book or what God says, then it is the observations that must be wrong. To allow that the central claim upon which the whole institution is built can be tested and revised in the light of any historical or empirical developments gives up the whole Christian enterprise.

We should welcome such a move from the Christian because it amounts to their giving up the whole foundation of truth that their movement claimed to be based upon. Revising their story about God’s nature would be rejecting the entire basis of authority that pitted them against scientific modeling of the world in the first place. If they budge on those sacrosanct foundations at all, then the whole edifice will immediately tumble down. If, contrary to what they’ve been saying for millennia, religious revelation has no special access to the truth, then it’s got no legitimate claim at all.

Let’s put the point this way. At some point in their histories, the U.S. and the British patent offices refused to take any more patent applications for perpetual motion machines. After considering stacks and stacks of crazy schemes that did not work, they felt entitled to put an end to a dead end pursuit. “We are not going to waste our time pursuing some far-fetched possibilities because we are justified in concluding that the whole enterprise is based on a mistake.” Only people who are caught up in the romance and who don’t know any better continue to try to build perpetual motion machines. I have been arguing that we can draw a similar lesson from the trash heap of history that is piled high with countless tales of religious bullshit. Only here, people’s fanatical attachment to religious ideas have kept them from acknowledging that they are throwing their lives away for an anachronistic fantasy.

20 comments:

Reginald Selkirk said...

Why not grant the same fallibility to religious claims.

I am willing and eager to comply. The problem is getting the proponents of religious claims to go along.

Reginald Selkirk said...

Caloric, Phlogiston, luminous aether, epicycles, flat earth, the four humors, four elements, etc. I could name 500 "dead" scientific theories.

I would consider a number of the examples cited as pre-scientific, rather than scientific.

I have read of the beliefs about the nature of the world held by pre-Socratic philosophers. One would claim that the earth was flat, and that everything consisted of air, and the next that the earth was oval, and everything consisted of water, etc. The various views were all over the map, and there was no convergence, no accumulation of knowledge. They had not yet developed the scientific method, which is what enables us to experimentally determine which views are consistent with observed reality, and to discard those that aren't.

Matt McCormick said...

Good points all, Reginald. You're right. The analogy fails on several fronts, including the one you're making. But superficially, a believer might consider the 500 dead gods and think that a similar argument could be made against science. Putting one's finger on the difference is hard. Dead gods, I maintain, give us reason to doubt all god hypotheses, failed scientific hypotheses should not lead us to similarly doubt the enterprise of science.

MM

Casey said...

The clarification was very helpful. This distinction may be trivial or superficial but this appears to not be an argument for atheism as it is an argument against truth-seeking processes which are "fundamentally static" and it just so happens that our scientific paradigm does not have this feature and the vast majority of religious claims do have this feature.

paulv said...

You err on a couple of points.

Not all religions claim they are complete, or derive their entire dogma from historical revelation.

Religions do derive concepts of god from other religions (Like virgin birth, but sometimes they just forget or don't acknowledge that they have)

Certainly I can find 500 examples of what the meaning of life was thought to be from 500 ancient worldviews (religions), We feel they were incorrect and some even exceedingly stupid. By the logic of your example we should conclude that life is likely meaningless.
This is clearly nonsense.

Differences in the percieved name or nature of a god or of a purpose to the existance of the universe, do not contribute to the odds of either gods or purpose existing.

Reginald Selkirk said...

Religions do derive concepts of god from other religions (Like virgin birth, but sometimes they just forget or don't acknowledge that they have)

They do, but not in any way that is likely to make the derived religion more accurate than the earlier model. There is nothing in the sphere of religion that is analogous to the scientific method.

paulv said...

I think it is a big mistake to assume religions (worldviews) are fundementally static, or somehow not subject to the forces of evolution.

Evolution does not care about truth, only utility. So our vision is useful but not necessarily a true or complete rendering of the world. Religions similarly that have survived must either be useful, or not too harmful, but not necessarily true.
In the same sense scientific knowledge is useful, but not necessarily a true explaination of how things work.

The eye did not evolve via the scientific method either. Can I conclude from 500 precursor eyes, that the eye will be useless or impossible?

Over the centuries a religion that reduced reproductive fitness should eventually fade (like the Quakers) So it is the effect of religion on societies that will select for "better" religions.

There are good arguments for atheism, this just isn't one of them.

M. Tully said...

Paulv,
You wrote, "I think it is a big mistake to assume religions (worldviews) are fundementally static, or somehow not subject to the forces of evolution."

No it is not a mistake. According to the theistic worldview, scriptural writings are divinely inspired. Consequently, some part of them must reflect the truth. No matter what the evidence dictates.

Science holds no dogma. If the aether hypothesis is wrong, it is wrong. No one has to hold on to it because the great prophet Aristotle claimed it to be true.

If science and religion were equivalent, the aether would be a part of both General Relativity and Quantum Mechanics.

They aren't. Appreciation to the achievements of the past, but no compelling reason to accept them.

Tom said...

I think some people are interpreting MM's argument as saying "500 wrong views is reason for thinking that the next one of the same kind is false." The argument is then rejected, because on the same principle we would be forced to conclude that our most recent scientific theories are likely to be false.

But here's a huge difference: Matt is not talking about the truth/falsity of a belief but about whether one is epistemically justified in believing some claim.
(If I'm reading correctly)

The argument is not that 500 wrong views in the past inductively implies that the next one is false. Rather, it's an attack on the justification in believing one particular explanation of some phenomenon, when 1) there are 500 other explanations which match up with the same observation/data, and 2) we have no good reason for accepting our explanation over the others.

So the disanalogy is this: in science, we are justified in believing our most recent theories/models, because, despite there being 500 other models (like phlogiston) explaining the same phenomenon , we can definitely provide good reasons for adopting our newer model over each and every model in the past that have failed. The scientific process is all about meeting that burden. But in the case of religion, good reasons to prefer one model/god over another are not given, and the discipline seems to carry on without addressing that burden.

Also, when giving reasons for believing in one model over another, we ought to stick with epistemic justification, not practical or pragmatic justification. So I don't think making the claim that both religion and science undergo the same evolutionary process of "only the theories which are useful to society will survive" would advance any argument here. We don't internally believe in Electromagnetism because it brings us TV and makes our lives better, even though at a sociological level it may be true that the utility of the theory is why it prevailed. Such a sociological fact, however, has nothing to do with epistemic justification (also called the genetic fallacy), and so one has yet to show that religion satisfies the same epistemic standard that science does.

Matt McCormick said...

Thank you, Tom. I am really surprised that so many people are so resistant to the suggestion that so many false gods in other cultures has some bearing on the reasonableness of believing in the God of our culture. There seems to be the wide assumption that "my god is different/better," but of course many of them are not really offering any real reasons for thinking that is true.

Rejected hypotheses in science (because they didn't fit our observations) are WHY we are justified in accepting the one we replaced them with.

Also, Tom, I think we're neighbors. Look me up.

MM

Reginald Selkirk said...

... In the same sense scientific knowledge is useful, but not necessarily a true explanation of how things work.

Still, the technology built on that science works. Cell phones work. Lasers work. Microwave ovens work. Vaccines work. There is sufficient reason to believe that science is at least approaching truth.

But a monolithic God vs. a trinity vs. a pantheon? There's no reason to think any of those are any closer to truth than the others.

The eye did not evolve via the scientific method either. Can I conclude from 500 precursor eyes, that the eye will be useless or impossible?

I don't even know where you're going with that.

Over the centuries a religion that reduced reproductive fitness should eventually fade (like the Quakers) So it is the effect of religion on societies that will select for "better" religions.

You were sharing your insights on evolution with us a few threads ago. My opinion of your expertise has not changed.

paulv said...

The question comes down to what has been falsified or declared dead. There will eventually (if not already) be 500 discarded atheistic world views. Does this that one is epistomically justified in rejecting new atheistic world views. I don't think so.

There is only one right answer and an infitite number of wrong ones, so the odds of any one answer being right are infinitesimal. So by this reasoning we can reject everything.

Tom
In my response I spoke of 500 dead meaings to life. Does this mean one is epistomically justified in concluding the universe is meaningless, or just that the next postulated "meaning" is not likely to be correct. If the post is really only arguing the latter I have no problem with it.
It holds as true for theistic world views as atheistic ones, and scientific theories as well.
But I think Dr McCormick wishes to apply it only to theistic world views, (hence the appeal to the scientific method and the scorn see below)
"I have been arguing that we can draw a similar lesson from the trash heap of history that is piled high with countless tales of religious bullshit."
There are also piles of atheistic bullshit and scientific bullshit (aether, refrigerater moms and maybe even string theory).

One doesn't need much justification (epistomically or otherwise) to speculate on (or reject speculations on) either side of an as yet untestable question.

Tully, while some religions believe that they are static, I think history shows them not to be.
Slavery etc was once tolerated in many religions, but is nolonger (the same can be said about democracries)

Reginald, my eye example relates to how things advance due to mistakes, even without the scientific method. Dunbar in "the trouble with science" makes a strong case for science starting long before the "scientific method" was developed from chance discoveries. There is no reason to believe religions are immune form this sort of improvement.
I will look into your recommendation on evolution. My thinking was mostly from Scott Atran's article about Guatamalan Indians, where he argues certain keystone species of their ecosystem were valued in the religion. Ie. that the culture (world view/religion) can be a repository of unconcious knowledge for a people. The truth that the one should not abuse keystone species is contained in their beliefs in certain tree spirits. In which case abandonning the religion before it was fully understood could be detrimental.

The only thing that can be gleaned from the 500+ reasoning is that the next one (idea of god, atheistic world view or scientific theory) is likely not to be the last one. Whether one should believe it depends on how much evidence is available, and at some level a choice of what weight to apply to each piece of evidence or argument.

Reginald Selkirk said...

Reginald, my eye example relates to how things advance due to mistakes, even without the scientific method.

Presumably via evolution through natural selection. The analogy to religions is not transparent.


Dunbar in "the trouble with science" makes a strong case for science starting long before the "scientific method" was developed from chance discoveries. There is no reason to believe religions are immune form this sort of improvement.

Yes there is. The supernatural is notoriously immune to verification. Unlike with scientific knowledge of the natural world, how does one determine which supernatural view is closer to truth? One brand of "making stuff up? is as good as another.

Reginald Selkirk said...

The only thing that can be gleaned from the 500+ reasoning is that the next one (idea of god, atheistic world view or scientific theory) is likely not to be the last one. Whether one should believe it depends on how much evidence is available, and at some level a choice of what weight to apply to each piece of evidence or argument.

Here is where your analogy fails hard. What does evidence have to do with the supernatural?

Reginald Selkirk said...

Evolution does not care about truth, only utility. So our vision is useful but not necessarily a true or complete rendering of the world. Religions similarly that have survived must either be useful, or not too harmful, but not necessarily true.

Just to detail some of the problems with this approach:

As mentioned previously, most researchers in the field acknowledge that religious beliefs themselves are not genetically inheritable, and instead focus on the possibility that religiosity, i.e. tendency towards belief, may be.

The evolutionary conclusion that religion is good for the population that holds it is unwarranted. It may simply be that the existence of the religion is good for the religion. If this is not clear, consider a comparison to viruses. The spread of a virus is good for the virus, not necessarily for the organisms which constitute its environment.

The actual inheritable trait may be only incidental to the supernatural aspects of the religion. I.e. suppose that a tendency towards extended social networks are good for survival, and also happen to be good for the spread of religion. This would in no way reflect on the truth of any supernatural claims made by a religion.

Evolution has no foresight, and is always local in time. A trait which is favorable in one environment may not be favorable when the environment changes.

And so on.

paulv said...

Reginald I agree that the supernatural is immune from verification, as are (for the moment) other universes, so you are free to reject them out of hand, as one possibility out of an infinite set.

My argument is rather that the presence of 500 past examples of one suprenatural belief does not change the odds in any way.

It is important know what you mean by supernatural, because if by that we mean anything that is not currently believed to exist, then even other universes qualify.

I agree that a trait which is favourable in one enviroment may not be favourable in another. Cultural data can in principle change much quicker than genetic data, so it would allow a quicker change to the more effective stategy when the environment changed than if the strategy was genetically hard wired. So it make sense to me that once cultural data existed, it would become an excellent means of storing certain strategies. To work though these beliefs cannot be completely static. This is how I understand Richard Dawkins idea of memes.

I am not arguing that absolute truth exists, are you? Or that we can find absolute truths from studying old religions.

paulv said...

Your other point, whether religion could be a sort of mind virus is worth some consideration, although off topic for this thread.

It is possible that some religions are mind viruses. I don't think I am ready to classify all of them that way. Destructive thought patterns are not likely limited only to theistic ideas, so we need to be able to somehow test for them if it is to be a useful concept. Otherwise its just an exercise in name calling. Your worldview is a virus! No your's is!

Certainly harmful diseases exist. Diseases that affect only one species face alot of pressure not to cripple their host, and as a result tend to become less harmful over time and may eventually form symbiotic relationship with their host. Other diseases like sicle-cell anemaia are understood to be present, in spite of enormous pressure, because they offers some protection against greater threats (malaria in the case of sicle-cell)

So I see 4 possibilities for religion.

1)It is a destructive mind virus that does what it needs to do to survive (an unlucky invention or the gift of an evil being)

2)It is relatively harmless (from the point of view of evolutionary fitness) or the pluses and minus come close to zero, and so it avoids evolutionary pressures and persists like non-coding DNA baggage.

3) It has destructive elements, but it offers some protection against more destructive external agents. So the pluses were at one time and/or are still, greater than the minuses

4) It is entirely beneficial virus(a gift from god or a lucky cultural invention)

To me 2 and 3 seems most likely. History shows that #4 is not likely. #1 does not explain why some have persisted for so long.
#3 allows that theistic religions might have outgrown their usefulness

This would only really hold for old religions. New religions could be of any kind. And it says nothing about the truth of the beliefs, only about the way it affects behaviours.

You have already correctly commented on my expertise in this field. Unfortunately I can only express what I think. And I still think the 500+ abandonned views is a bit of a red herring. It is not the fact that they were abandonned that matters, although why they were abandonned is relevant.

Reginald Selkirk said...

Your other point, whether religion could be a sort of mind virus is worth some consideration, although off topic for this thread.

It is possible that some religions are mind viruses. I don't think I am ready to classify all of them that way. Destructive thought patterns are not likely limited only to theistic ideas, so we need to be able to somehow test for them if it is to be a useful concept. Otherwise its just an exercise in name calling. Your worldview is a virus! No your's is!...


You are making rather too much of this. My sole point was that the survival and spread of religion or religiosity does not necessarily mean that it is good for the host, and this adds complication to an evolutionary argument.

Asno Mudo said...

Of course the believer in the possibility of Perpetual Motion would argue that the reason Patent Offices refuse to deal with their claims is not that the idea is fundamentally unsound but that if successful economic and social ramifications would be troublesome to say the least. In accordance with standard capitalist theory it makes much more sense to kill any research at source by removing the profit incentive.

As I see it the reasons we believe in things has very little to do with an recourse to 'objective' reality - if indeed one actually exists. Arguably the whole western analytic approach is flawed by the very paradigm that it works within. I find it beyond humorous that William Lane Craig does such a wonderful job of spreading his brand of nonsense using the very same tools.

Starchild646 said...

Religions unlike scientific theories do not get disproved/ they die out (sometimes with help from other religions). The better analogy is with language. Should English be the official language of the United States? Is English the true language? Is English disproved by the disappearance of other languages?