T. H. Huxley, James Clerk Maxwell, and the divorce of science from religion

stanley_book
A review of “Huxley’s Church and Maxwell’s Demon:
from theistic science to naturalistic science”,
by Matthew Stanley of New York University,
University of Chicago Press, 2014

At the beginning of Victorian-era Britain, science was so thoroughly entwinned with religion that “it was expected that men of science would take religious considerations into account”, says Matthew Stanley. But by the end of that era things had changed so much than now “it seemed impossible that they would do so”.

Stanley explores the decades when science changed from being theistic — with most scientists taking it for granted that a god was an integral part of the world and how it worked — to being atheistic, no longer having any need of gods as part of the explanation. The contrast is exemplified in the theistic James Clerk Maxwell (“I have looked into most philosophical systems, and I have seen that none will work without a God.”) versus the anti-clerical Thomas Henry Huxley (“Extinguished theologians lie about the cradle of every science …”).

The theists included the cream of British science, not only Maxwell but Faraday, Lord Kelvin, Richard Owen, George Stokes and many others. To the theists, the order and regularity in the universe was proof of God’s ongoing presence. As astronomer John Herschel wrote in 1830, the laws of nature established by the “Divine Author of the universe” were maintained by “the constant exercise of his direct power in maintaining the system of nature” while all material causes emanated “from his immediate will, acting in conformity with his own laws”.

In ideas as old as Genesis, Christians held that a god-less universe would be chaotic nothingness, a world “without form, and void”, such that even the distinction between light and dark requires an act of God’s will.

Huxley was having none of it, disdaining “miracles” and seeing divine intervention as a “god of the gaps” notion that conflicted with the observed regularities of nature:

But what is the history of astronomy … but a narration of the steps by which the human mind has been compelled, often sorely against its will, to recognise the operation of secondary causes in events where ignorance beheld an immediate intervention of a higher power? [The Darwinian Hypothesis (1859)]

Here Huxley was not arguing against the deist notion of a god as the primary cause, but against the idea of God intervening in the world.

Scientists as great as Newton had appealed to God’s ongoing intervention to keep the Solar System stable. But when Laplace developed orbital mechanics further he famously told Napoleon that he “had no need of that hypothesis” to make his models work.

The crux of the matter, though, was not astronomy, but the application of new scientific notions to human beings. Based on Darwin’s new understanding of evolved animals, Huxley rejected the traditional dualistic notion of a “soul” and wrote an influential essay “On the Hypothesis that Animals are Automata”. This undercut traditional notions of free will and morality and so appeared to threaten civilised society. As Stanley writes: “Theistic and naturalistic scientists had been able to find common ground in a lawful nature” and over the nature of science, but “free will was the fault line from which they began to diverge profoundly”.

T.H.Huxley

Huxley declared that animate matter was no different from inanimate matter, that “the body of the living animal is a beautifully formed active machine” and that the forces at work in such a body are “identical with those which exist in the inorganic world”. Even our consciousness and will were explained as “… but a concomitant of the molecular changes in the brain …”.

Debate turned to the First Law of Thermodynamics — conservation of energy — which, experiments demonstrated, applied to living creatures just as much as to inorganic matter. The “living body”, Huxley explained, “is a machine” in which “all its movements … are to be accounted for by the energy which is supplied to it”, leaving no role for a dualistic soul.

james-clerk-maxwell

Maxwell was a Christian, committed to the idea of a soul and anxious to defend theistic notions of free-will, but he also was fully committed to the science that he himself was central to developing:

I have to tell my men that all they see, and their own bodies, are subject to laws which they cannot alter, and that if they wish to do anything they must work according to those laws, or fail, and therefore we study the laws [citation here]

The solution Maxwell came to was ingenious. The soul, he explained, was akin to a railway “pointsman”. By pulling a lever, the train was directed onto a different track, but the energy required to switch the lever was much less than the energy propelling the train.

Further, science was developing an understanding of unstable systems. A pencil balanced on its point is unstable and will fall, but even the tiniest of interventions, at the critical moment, can determine which way it falls. By combining the concept of the pointsman with ideas about unstable systems, the energy required for the soul’s actions could be considered to be too small to be detectable. Conservation of energy, and thus compatibility with science, was preserved.

Thus, explained Maxwell:

The doctrine of conservation of energy, when applied to living beings, leads to the conclusion that the soul of an animal is not, like the mainspring of a watch, the motive power of the body, but that its function is rather that of a steersman of a vessel — not to produce, but to regulate and direct the animal powers.

The soul, the moral agent, could intervene undetectably, but still direct our actions.

But then there is the Second Law of Thermodynamics, the finding that entropy only increases. Could that also be made consistent with theistic notions of a soul? Maxwell thought yes, and invented the idea that has become known as “Maxwell’s Demon”.

If two vessels of gas, one hotter than the other, are placed in contact, exchanging gas particles through a small aperture, the Second Law states that they will tend to the equilibrium state of having the same temperature. But suppose, Maxwell reasoned, a small demon sat at the aperture, able to open and close it at will. If the demon watches for faster-moving gas particles, and opens the aperture for those, but closes the aperture for slower-moving particles, then there is no violation of how physics works, and yet the temperature differential can be increased, against the run of the Second Law.

maxwellsdemon

Maxwell’s Demon was an illustration of how God or a non-material soul could, in principle, intervene in the material universe — preserving theistic free will — but in ways compatible with the motions of physical particles. Science and religion would be perfectly reconciled.

Nowadays Maxwell’s Demon is taught to physics undergraduates as an illustration of why such schemes don’t work. Essentially, the knowledge of the motions of incoming particles does not come for free, and the energy dissipated in making those observations would preserve the Second-Law behaviour.

To the theist, though, if the “demon” role were played by a god with presumed omnipotence, that objection is over-come. Given the concept of the railway pointsman, observing and directing matter, theistic notions of free will could be preserved even in the deterministic universe of nineteenth-century physics.

Thus the “pointsman” or soul “was both a scientific and a religious entity”, says Stanley, “Maxwell thought materialists such as Huxley had fooled themselves into seeing laws of nature where there were none”, an error that “came from paying too much attention to energy and motion and not enough to personality and the experience of the divine”.

As Stanley documents, Maxwell’s generation of scientists was the last in which the mainstream combined and entwined religious concepts with science. Such ideas then died out in the usual way, by failing to convince the succeeding generations of younger scientists. Instead, Huxley’s disciples took over.

Increasingly, any references to gods were dispensed with as redundant and superfluous, such that they came to be seen as unscientific. Quite simply, models without any deities worked better. Today one can look through thousands of pages of The Astrophysical Journal and not find any references to gods or demons.

But this history is worth recounting because it shows that the division between science and religion is not — as so often claimed — about subject area, but is instead about quality. Introducing notions of gods into models is not unscientific because such notions are outside the scope of science, but rather they are unscientific because they don’t work very well.

In the days of Maxwell, Faraday, Kelvin and Paley, it was accepted that science was “natural theology” and so about revealing God’s role in the world. God was a scientific hypothesis, needed to make scientific models work. Increasingly, though, scientists found that “they had no need of that hypothesis” in understanding the universe; atheistic models, ones without gods, simply worked better, were more explanatory, and were more parsimonious.

The modern fashion for trying to put religion into a separate “magisterium” and claiming that it deals with topics outside the scope of science, and thus is impervious to the advance of science, is really just denial, a way of clinging on to gods long after the evidence for them has evaporated.

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21 thoughts on “T. H. Huxley, James Clerk Maxwell, and the divorce of science from religion

  1. Adam Davis

    Saw this on my FB feed. An interesting and sound account of an important chapter in intellectual history, but it takes a wrong turn right at the end. SJG’s discussion of the separate magisteria was not an attempt to maintain some gap in which talk of gods and souls could still go on among educated people. It was a recognition that there are questions which are demonstrably of importance to humans and which cannot be settled by some entity called “science.” What would Science say “justice” is, for instance? Plato wrote a really long book on exactly that question, and gods and souls serve only ornamental functions in the argument. The error comes from a mistake common among materialists who see themselves in conflict with something they call “religion.” They never get round to defining it, but what they seem always to mean is “literal belief in what cannot be demonstrated to be true or even what can be demonstrated to be untrue.” And specifically, belief in supernatural beings (gods) and nonmaterial entities (souls). Which works fine for polemics, one necessarily wins when one gets to stuff the straw man, but do pick up the intro text for any freshman “world religions” class — that misconception is the very first thing they disabuse you of. Lots of religions have no gods, no notion of souls. Literalism is quite a modern phenomenon. Really. It’s about grounds of value and grounds of being. Crikey, there’s a lot of literature out there. Fieldwork. Anthropology.

    Reply
    1. Coel Post author

      Hi Adam, thanks for commenting.

      What would Science say “justice” is, for instance?

      Science would say that “justice” is something like: a concept that humans have constructed about how humans feel about some ways in which humans act and the consequences of their acts. (I could probably do better with some thought.) As I see it, the study of and understanding of humans is as “scientific” as the study of chimps or other animals, so I don’t see that the notion of “justice” is outside the scope of science.

      Literalism is quite a modern phenomenon.

      One can argue about. Many historical Christians have been fairly literalist at times. But anyhow, “materialists” do not define religion as “literalist”, we accept that there are plenty of non-literalist beliefs in religions.

      Lots of religions have no gods, no notion of souls.

      Very few religions dispense with the supernatural elements entirely (no gods, no demons, no dualism, no life after death, no spirits of the ancestors, etc) and those few that do might be better considered to be philosophies or cultures rather than “religions”.

      It’s about grounds of value and grounds of being.

      “Grounds of being” is also a rather modern concept, and one that seems to have been designed to be so vague as to be fairly meaningless, deliberately so as a defence against examination.

  2. Dan Dana

    For nearly a year, i have been inviting professional clergy (Protestant, Catholic Jewish, and Muslim) to supply a science vs. religion “reconciliation theory” that addresses the inconsistencies between natural science and supernaturalism — details here: http://www.dandana.us/atheism/reconcile.htm To date, not a single response has been received. I infer from this null result that religious leaders cannot, in fact, reconcile the two worldviews. In that respect, at least, I agree with them.

    Reply
  3. Adam Davis

    Hi Coel–

    “Very few religions dispense with the supernatural elements entirely (no gods, no demons, no dualism, no life after death, no spirits of the ancestors, etc) and those few that do might be better considered to be philosophies or cultures rather than “religions”.”

    Well, sure. And most people talk about the sun rising in the east, though they know better. In chemistry, we used Bohr’s model of the atom, though we were told nobody thinks they really look like that. Part of the trouble with people who haven’t studied religions who then go on to talk about religion is they really lack an understanding of the varieties of religious experience. Religions are models, and understood to be models by those who have reason to think about the nature of models (uncritically assumed to be literal by those who don’t. Sun sets in the west). Now if you have a clear distinction between “philosophy” and “religion,” there are thousands of scholars who would eagerly hear it, because very early in any intro text, you’ll hear that no such distinction is possible. I suspect therefore that what you mean by “religion” actually *does* turn out to be “counterfactual beliefs of people we don’t respect.” The supernatural. Convenient for argument, but flat wrong, and dishonest in formulation.

    “Grounds of being” is also a rather modern concept, and one that seems to have been designed to be so vague as to be fairly meaningless, deliberately so as a defence against examination.”

    No, grounds of being is an ancient concept, though the analytic articulation of it is modern, as are most analytic articulations of absolutely everything. Equally ancient is the recognition of existential awe that it lies at the heart of religion: why-there-should-be-something-rather-than-nothing. Science has nothing to say about the experience of awe, though poetry does. Science has nothing to say about poetry, either. It is quite a specific concept. You have declared it meaningless, I suspect because it would be inconvenient to examine it. Here’s what you’d find on an examination of the literature concerning creation narratives and the grounds of existence (including the fact of one’s own consciousness, which startled both Descartes and Shelley): religious cosmologies are rarely taken as literal until a scientific account presents a threat to institutional authority and cultural hegemony. Fieldwork among “literalists” shows that very few of them are in fact literalist. But they’re resentful of educated elites, and they take on that posture against outsiders. Religion is less a set of factlike propostiions than a network of loyalties. All students of religion know this. And very few evangelical materialists seem to. This dynamic has been studied a lot: one makes a silly claim the price of admission to the group, and thereby one can test the level of desire for admission.

    Remember the meso-american model of the earth resting on the back of a giant turtle, who sits on another turtle…etc? Do we imagine that people who could build those pyramids would fail to see the absurdity? I mean, who’s the small-minded literalist now? The absurdity is just exactly the point – *grounds of value lie outside of rationality.* That is how students of religion define religion. When the Abrahamic faiths talk about the universe as “void and without form” they are talking about the mystery of a moral order emerging e nihilo. Again, students of religion call this “the horizon of imponderability,” and it’s always a transparently absurd assertion. Egyptian and Native American mythologies do something very similar. When you ask sub-Saharan Africans if they really believe Mwindo literally shat the dry land into the primordial swamp, they look at you like you’re stupid. Which one would have to be, if one believes they’re that stupid.

    For the materialist, nihilism is inevitable (just follow Hume’s is/ought problem. Kierkegaard and Lewis came to the same conclusion: you can’t get from descriptions to imperatives without passing through values, which cannot be grounded in fact).

    Only the sociopath has a rational ethics. There is no alternative to nihilism.

    And yet I reject it, emotionally and in my behavior, as does absolutely every materialist I know. When pressed on the issue, there *is* the possible claim that we are not autonomous agents, we’re just acting out evolutionary psychology. Now there’s a science in search of data. In fact, the ground of value is put beyond examination, which is what students of comparative religion call “sacred” or “taboo.”

    So there remain spheres of thought and activity that don’t fall within science, unless we define science tautologically as “that which science studies scientifically,” and assuming there is nothing else. It’s like having a microscope and announcing elephants don’t exist.
    If we follow the traditional tripartite division of philosophy into epistemology (the true) aesthetics (the beautiful) and ethics (the good), science can work quite effectively with a third of it. But science can neither tell us Hiroshima was wrong nor why we shouldn’t do some more of that. If “science” says, actually, there’s no such thing as right or wrong, the problem is the limits of science, and the ethical conduct of scientists suggests there’s an unexamined theory of action that conflicts with the articulated theory of profession.

    Reply
    1. Coel Post author

      Hi Adam,
      The issue of the sun rising in the East and setting in the West is illustrative, since in ancient times a lot of people (regarding the Earth as static) would have held it to be literally true (and anyhow, it *is* literally true from the frame of reference of people standing on the Earth’s surface, which is a pretty useful frame of reference since that’s exactly what we’re doing, which explains why we still use such language).

      But, more generally, it’s somewhat of a strawman to suggest that materialists think that religion is always or even mostly intended literally. Some of it is, some of it isn’t; every religious person has their own mixture of those two.

      On the definition of religion, the vast majority of religions include supernatural elements (I’m not aware of any that do not, though perhaps you are). Certainly, supernatural beliefs are so characteristic of religion that it is fair to include such in the definition of religion.

      I don’t agree that nihilism is inevitable for the materialist. We humans generate our own values. Values don’t need to be objective and independent of humans in order to be important and real.

      I don’t accept that there are any domains such as “right and wrong” that are outside science. Yes, science says there is no such thing as *objective* right and wrong, that is, values that are somehow disembodied and independent of someone doing the valuing, but our human values are real and important, and we humans are moral agents who have ideas about what we like and dislike, what we regard as right and wrong. But I don’t see any good argument that this domain of human psychology is outside the scope of science.

  4. Adam Davis

    Hi Coel–

    It does seem to me you’re having it both ways on two crucial questions:

    -materialists are not to be charged with the straw man of equating religion with a belief in the supernatural, but religion is a belief in the supernatural.
    That’s crucial to your position because the argumentative warrant for materialism’s superiority and universal authority is that it is free of the supernatural. Really, scholars of religion, most of whom are quite materialistic anthropologists, pretty unanimously see religions primarily as complexes of social behaviors providing warrants for judging some things as more worthy of respect than others. Which science emphatically can’t do. Doesn’t want to do. Wouldn’t be able to make sense of. Though scientists as individuals regularly show themselves alert to the greater value of, say, a human life relative to an ice-cream cone. We’d regard a parent who let his child starve in a closet because he wanted to go away for a couple of weeks and didn’t feel like paying a babysitter as having done wrong, but it’s perfectly rational. To the extent we judge him wrong, we affirm the non-rational, or maybe just have to cop to it.

    -values are not objective and independent of humans but values are important and real.

    Well, no, if they are not independent of humans they are as meaningless and arbitrary as any claim that is supposed to be revealed by a deity or, as in the meso-american model, simply self-existent. In fact, as widespread delusions, they are as pernicious as any other non-naturalistic belief. What experiment would show that animal abuse is wrong, such that no similar experiment would show that it is right? Actually, there’s lots of evidence that it’s all pretty cultural (bullfighting, bearbaiting), so there’s another vote for nihilism. But such reflections make us pretty uncomfortable, and we would like those rules to be placed beyond individual calculation. Sacralization. Religion.
    The consequence is that any non-nihilist who claims to be a materialist is compromised, mistaken, or under the influence of what is at least structurally equivalent to religious revelation: axioms of value unavailable for interrogation. In a trivial sense my argument’s just a tu quoque, but crucially it bankrupts the claim of superiority, Archimedean externality. Nihilism is a logical necessity and an ethical impossibility (perhaps avoidable as a practical matter because we’re mostly too cowardly and conventional to do the awful-but-not-really-awful-because-nothing’s-awful things that maybe we’d like). Ethics, epistemology, aesthetics are different realms of cognitive activity. Separate magisteria.

    Really, the Hiroshima example was no snark. Science did that. Science did Auschwitz. Both were technical problems in engineering. Their wrongness is unintelligible and invisible in a cognitive world that can only make statements of fact and infer further facts from them.

    There’s any number of things people are demonstrably, durably and deeply interested in, and where whatever we might call science could certainly apply analytic techniques, but it really can’t answer: “what’s the meaning of life?” for instance. Why is Chopin beautiful? It could only answer that such questions are without meaning *within science,* i.e., that science has no apparatus for dealing with them, and so they do not exist, they are not intelligible. Which is pretty much the same result as religionists’ attempts to do science. Or for that matter, aesthetes’. The claim to universal magisterium involves the annihilation of so much that it exposes itself as mere solipsism.
    I’ve enjoyed this exchange, a welcome workout.

    Reply
    1. Coel Post author

      Hi Adam,

      materialists are not to be charged with the straw man of equating religion with a belief in the supernatural, but religion is a belief in the supernatural.

      The strawman is rather that materialists always regard religion as being intended literally,

      Really, scholars of religion, most of whom are quite materialistic anthropologists, pretty unanimously see religions primarily as complexes of social behaviors providing warrants for judging some things as more worthy of respect than others.

      The problem with dropping the supernatural from the definition of religion is that, as you’ve noted, one can’t then really distinguish a religion from a philosophy or indeed many other cultural traditions.

      For example, the tradition of a village have an annual fete at which prizes are awarded for the best cake baking, the best jam making, and the best floral arrangement, would qualify as a “religion” under the description you’ve just given.

      if [values] are not independent of humans they are as meaningless and arbitrary as any claim that is supposed to be revealed by a deity …

      Human-dependent values are certainly not meaningless, indeed they mean a very great deal to us humans, they are the things we care about. Nor are they arbitrary, since human nature is not arbitrary, but is instead part of our evolutionary programming.

      Even since Hume and Darwin, the idea of moral realism, the idea that morals or values can exist independent of humans, has seemed to me a non-starter.

      What experiment would show that animal abuse is wrong, such that no similar experiment would show that it is right?

      Given that moral realism is pretty much a non-starter that no-one has got to make sense, and following Hume and Darwin, the only sensible interpretation of statements such as “X is wrong” is “Person A dislikes X”. It is easy for science to work out what people like and dislike — asking people is a good start.

      Really, the Hiroshima example was no snark. Science did that. Science did Auschwitz.

      No, “science” did neither Hiroshima nor Auschwitz — rather, people did both of them. Yes, science gave people knowledge of how to do things (though Auschwitz was pretty low-tech really) but people were the actors, the decision makers, the ones who chose.

      but [science] really can’t answer: “what’s the meaning of life?” for instance.

      Perhaps because that’s a pretty vague and ill-posed question. What exactly is being asked for? Most likely there is nothing that can be sensibly called the “meaning of life” — other than 42 of course.

      Why is Chopin beautiful?

      The question there would be why do humans find Chopin beautiful. That question, maybe sufficiently advanced neuroscience could answer (though we’re nowhere near that yet of course).

  5. Adam Davis

    Greetings, Coel—

    “For example, the tradition of a village have an annual fete at which prizes are awarded for the best cake baking, the best jam making, and the best floral arrangement, would qualify as a “religion” under the description you’ve just given.”

    No, all scholars of religion recognize a difference in the seriousness of religious traditions, narratives and rituals as opposed to trivial. They can tell the difference, for instance, between the Book of Job and a mere joke (though generically, it is a joke). Or between the quite materialistic foundational Mande epic Son-Jara and a folktale about Anansi the spider-man. One more time, religion provides the grounds of value. It has organizing value for human experience. Which science by definition cannot do, though most scientists find it useful or necessary. Cake-baking might have some minor ritual space, actually, if it is connected let’s say with ideas of proper womanhood. In fact I could point you to some folk-rituals of the type. But no one confuses them with religion. The anthropology’s a lot more advanced than that.

    “Even since Hume and Darwin, the idea of moral realism, the idea that morals or values can exist independent of humans, has seemed to me a non-starter.”
    You’ve misunderstood. Nobody is saying values can or do exist outside of humans. Nihilism is inevitable, inescapable from within a resolutely and pure materialist position (actually, there’s a Buddhist alternative, but that in turn requires a number of unverifiable propositions). Values don’t exist at all. Yet, at a practical and emotional level, nihilism is universally rejected. Anyone who behaves as if values exist is acting on a nonmaterialist proposition. From a materialist point of view, I’d say they’re wrong, but it is a fiction that makes life possible, which is why we have poetry. Something else science doesn’t do.

    To say values “have meaning” may be a delusion, a dodge, it may be a mere inconsistency, it may be treating a model as a reality (sun rises in the east, the world rides on the back of a great turtle). But in structural terms, it cannot claim superiority to other non-material claims, though some are more overtly counter-logical than others (which is generally understood to be exactly the point). There is no way within materialism to say the Rape of Nanking was a bad thing. The fact that thousands of perpetrators derived some kind of utility from it tells us precisely that there is no “law” existing outside of human society that would prohibit such a thing. But then, science doesn’t have a word for “bad.” Or “good.”

    Within a materialist horizon, as a minor paradox, it is not even intelligible to say that scientific truth has value.

    “Perhaps because that’s a pretty vague and ill-posed question.”

    But the-meaning-of-life is *the* question most people ultimately ask. So our discourse of universal authority – not just superior to all others, but really, the only discourse that exists – can’t address the questions that people in all times and places have asked? It treats them as absurd, because it has no wherewithal for dealing with them? Isn’t that kind of a major defect in a grand unified anything? If the world is limited to those things which science does effectively, then it is indeed the universal discourse. And it *is* limited to those things if we decide ahead of time that the only things admitted to the discussion will be those things intelligible to reductionist materialism – but that’s a bit circular. If science really looks at Hiroshima and can’t say “that was wrong,” then science leaves something to be desired as a universal path to understanding.

    That’s what’s meant by the nonoverlapping magisteria – that there are areas of cognitive activity people report unsatisfactorily accounted-for by reductionism. And their nonsatisfaction is in itself some sort of fact.
    Within a materialist point of view “this is wrong” or “you must not do this” cannot even be formulated. There’s no grammar for it. “Hurting people is good” is absolutely indistinguishable from “hurting people is bad.” A discourse that does all things but can’t do that? If my dog were that useless I’d get another one.

    Reply
    1. Coel Post author

      Hi Adam,

      No, all scholars of religion recognize a difference in the seriousness of religious traditions, narratives and rituals as opposed to trivial.

      And yet, the competition for the cake-baking prize at the annual village fete can get pretty serious. And competitors for the biggest marrow have been known to poison a rival’s vegetable patch!

      Plenty of people in Britain regard themselves as nominally Christian, and yet care far more about football. Maybe that’s a religion also?

      . One more time, religion provides the grounds of value.

      Religion can no more be a ground of value than can science. Values derive from humans, and only human feeling grounds values. Religion is merely a repository for human values, invented in man’s own image.

      Values don’t exist at all.

      To a materialist, values do exist. Human feelings and emotions do exist, they exist as neural patterns in our brains. Such things are real, and are among the most important things to us.

      There is no way within materialism to say the Rape of Nanking was a bad thing.

      Within materialism one can say whether people like or dislike the Rape of Nanking, and one can say whether they like or dislike its consequences.

      But the-meaning-of-life is *the* question most people ultimately ask.

      That doesn’t mean that it is a sensible, well-posed question. Lots of human intuitions are misconceived.

      … there are areas of cognitive activity people report unsatisfactorily accounted-for by reductionism. And their nonsatisfaction is in itself some sort of fact.

      Yes, some people are indeed not satisfied, and so they invent religion to satisfy themselves. But their nonsatisfaction is purely their emotional reaction. It doesn’t make materialism untrue, it just means that some people don’t like it.

      Within a materialist point of view “this is wrong” or “you must not do this” cannot even be formulated. There’s no grammar for it.

      It can be formulated, it just needs to be re-formulated as “John dislikes this”, or “Sarah would dislike it if you did that”. That’s the understanding Hume and Darwin came to. No-one has shown that understanding to be inadequate (the fact that some people *feel* it to be “unsatisfactory” is not actually a counter-argument) and nor have they come up with anything better.

  6. richardwein

    Hi there, guys.

    “…(and anyhow, it *is* literally true from the frame of reference of people standing on the Earth’s surface, which is a pretty useful frame of reference since that’s exactly what we’re doing, which explains why we still use such language).”

    Agreed. In fact I wrote the following before noticing that you’d already responded…

    The sun _does_ rise in the East. (Well, roughly speaking. For simplicity let’s assume we’re at the Equator on the equinox.) Where else do you think it rises? In the West?

    Of course I’m not denying that the earth spins on its axis, as opposed to the sun going round the earth every day. I’m making a point about the appropriate use of language in our modelling (description) of reality. The purpose of saying “the sun rises in the East” is not to make a point about the larger astronomical relationship between earth and sun. It’s to model the movement of the sun relative to our normal human situation, so we can correctly predict where it will appear.

    Similarly, it would be silly to deny our ordinary earthly statements about speed (e.g. “the car was moving at 30 mph”) on the grounds that the car was actually hurtling around the sun at thousands of mph. (Or should we be measuring relative to the galactic hub?) All our models (descriptions) of reality must be taken in a way that’s appropriate to (relative to) the context.

    This may seem like a trivial point. But a lot of philosophical errors arise from a failure to see that true statements about the world are useful models (or particulars within models), rather than their having the sort of absolute quality that they are naively felt to have.

    Reply
    1. Coel Post author

      Yes, good points. It’s worth re-iterating that nearly all human ideas are imperfect but good-enough *models* of the wider world.

    2. Adam Davis

      Hi Coel–

      “Religion can no more be a ground of value than can science. Values derive from humans, and only human feeling grounds values. Religion is merely a repository for human values, invented in man’s own image.”

      Well…. in a sense that paper can’t really be a repository of ideas, ok, right… but in every other sense, that’s just exactly what a religion is: a philosophical system for storing ideas and discourse about ideas. Unless of course you mean that ideas cannot exist outside of neurons, but is that really the rabbit hole you want to go down? Because science disappears there, too. You’ll get no argument from me that the ideas of religions are created by humans. I’m no defender of religion or religions (I’m also increasingly convinced there is no escape from religion, that all non-psychopaths are in all significant senses religious, though that’s not what I’m arguing here).

      But science has *no* values. Created or otherwise. It can’t or it would stop being science, which deals only in descriptions and statements of fact. Science can’t say “healing is better than killing.” Values are in another dimension. You read “Flatland” at some point, right? You say that the failure of materialism to address questions of meaning “doesn’t make materialism untrue.” You lose the thread there. Nobody said materialism was untrue. The failure of arithmetic to tell me whether I should throw poisoned popcorn to the pigeons in the park doesn’t make math untrue. Makes it other than a universal guide to all things, including decisions. The map will describe the road to your friend’s house; it won’t tell you whether you should visit and mend fences, stand on your dignity or swallow your pride. We have poetry that will do that. Remember, our conversation is about SJG’s two magisteria (and the third he proposed for art/beauty — I wouldn’t turn those over to the churches either).

      Now you say values exist, and are important. Which is to say values are values. See a problem emerging? And then they’re described as mere neural patterns of pleasure and nonpleasure. Which is to say, as I’ve said right along, to the materialist, there is no motive for doing/not doing but pleasure and desire. There is no meaning to the statement that “the people of Nanking experienced unpleasantness” unless I care about the people of Nanking. The impossibility of a materialist ethics seems to me established, and consequently, the uselessness of pure materialism for anyone who has the slightest ethical impulses. That is important because it dissolves the claimed universal warrant for materialist discourse, which — insofar as it is absolute — is either absolute or bankrupt.

      Unless we treat it as “good enough.” Which takes us to another consistency problem. We want semantic precision when we’re claiming that “thou shalt not” is merely an ill-stated version of “[entity x] will subjectively experience negativity if s/he experiences [stimulus y]” but we can treat the failure to get across the line to an imperative as a simple matter of “close enough”? As before, a system that claims to be universal and comprehensive but cannot even give an account of itself, and moreover offers a circular argument that it is not only the best but the *only* guide to action (even though it has acknowledged that it cannot say “do/ do not”), leaves much to be desired. It’s nihilism, of course, but of course that’s no bad thing, especially given the fact that there are no bad things and no good ones. It’s workable neither in a practical world, nor in formal philosophy, and both as a consequence of its circularity.

    3. Coel Post author

      Hi Adam,

      I think you’re mis-interpreting me slightly: I was saying that religion *is* a repository of human values. Religions get their values from humans. Thus religion cannot be a “ground of value” any more than science can.

      The only “ground of value” is human nature and human feeling. And thus I agree entirely that science doesn’t and cannot generate values. But I don’t see anything incomplete about the materialist account. That account explains why humans have feelings and values (as a result of evolutionary programming), and thus explains morals.

      There would only be something missing from the materialist/scientific account if moral realism held, and if values were “objective” and independent of humans. That would be something that materialism would struggle to explain. But there is no good argument for those things being true.

      Which is to say, as I’ve said right along, to the materialist, there is no motive for doing/not doing but pleasure and desire.

      Yes, I agree.

      There is no meaning to the statement that “the people of Nanking experienced unpleasantness” unless I care about the people of Nanking.

      Well, the statement “the people of Nanking experienced unpleasantness” is still meaningful even if I don’t care about them. You are right, though, that if I don’t care about them then I don’t care, and am not motivated by it.

      The impossibility of a materialist ethics seems to me established, and consequently, the uselessness of pure materialism for anyone who has the slightest ethical impulses.

      The impossibility of an *objective* ethical system (one that prescribes acts, totally independently of human opinion) is indeed established. But *subjective* moral systems are not useless. Subjective moral systems are what we do indeed have. De facto, they work well enough in allowing us to get along with each other. We don’t actually need “objective” morality.

      Plenty of people do want to be told what to do by some objective moral oracle, but that doesn’t mean that there is anything such, and in the absence of anything such people just get along with their subjective moral senses.

      That is important because it dissolves the claimed universal warrant for materialist discourse, which — insofar as it is absolute — is either absolute or bankrupt.

      Materialism’s universal warrant would only be dissolved if moral realism could be established to be true. Only then would one have demonstrated something missing from the materialist account.

    4. Adam Davis

      Hi Coel—

      With thanks for the clarification, if religion is a repository of human values, it remains the case that science is *not*. Still need to address the fact that a religious discourse is capable not only of offering a value (whereas a materialist can offer only descriptions), it can also issue a command. It can say “You should care about the people of Nanking.” To say that what was done to them was wrong is a different order of statement from “they didn’t enjoy it;” to say that “’it was wrong’ is ill-framed” can be understood as saying it doesn’t belong in a materialist discourse any more than “my toe hurts” belongs in astronomy. It means the observation lies outside the domain of the method deployed. Which is to say – different magisteria. You may be hanging up on the notion of religion as a collection of factlike statements, as some think of science – in both cases, a (sometimes willfully) naïve approach. Both are discourses, an interaction of claims and rules for relating them to one another, and as formal systems, they do indeed exist outside of human consciousness, though they are the product of human consciousness.

      You’ve imposed a requirement that a discourse of values must exist independently of human beings, must be in some sense “objective.” I don’t see what necessitates that requirement. If it were attempting to describe the natural world, as science does, that would make sense. But the whole point is that a discourse capable of saying “x is of greater value than y” and “do x rather than y” is a different discourse from one that can only say “x weighs seven grams.” The limitation of materialism does not depend on the demonstration of moral realism, which no one here has proposed; we’re talking about materialism not as a philosophical position (which can only be assumed but looks parsimonious enough), but as a way of thinking and talking about the phenomenal world within which we operate. The fact remains that no collection of facts, no matter how large, can tell anybody what to do, as a discourse of values does. Different discourse, different magisterium. A different set of questions, procedures, domains, outputs. Color theory as practiced by painters is of very little use in dealing with plumbing problems. Arithmetic is of no help in matters of the heart.

    5. Coel Post author

      Hi Adam,

      … if religion is a repository of human values, it remains the case that science is *not*.

      Agreed.

      Still need to address the fact that a religious discourse is capable not only of offering a value (whereas a materialist can offer only descriptions), it can also issue a command. It can say “You should care about the people of Nanking.”

      This is true, but religion is not the origin of the command. Religion is simply reporting back the values that human have deposited into the religion. Thus the command actually comes from humans.

      The materialist account is the same: according to the materialist, humans are programmed with feelings and values, and they can and do express preferences and issue commands deriving from those values.

      … to say that “’it was wrong’ is ill-framed” can be understood as saying it doesn’t belong in a materialist discourse …

      It does fit into the materialist discourse, so long as “it is wrong” is interpreted as meaning “I dislike it” or “it conflicts with my values”.

      Bringing religion into the picture doesn’t actually change that. What happens is that the “I dislike it” and the “it conflicts with my values” gets codified into a religion. It gets translated into “religion says you should not do it”. But, since religion is not a *ground* of value, but only a *repository* of the values of humans, “religion says you should not do it” doesn’t mean anything other than “it conflicts with the values” of whoever developed the religion.

      The fact remains that no collection of facts, no matter how large, can tell anybody what to do, as a discourse of values does. Different discourse, different magisterium.

      I agree, but would still say that there is nothing missing from the materialist account. That scientific/materialist account explains why humans have feelings and values; it explains what feelings and values are and why they exist, why humans have them, why humans consider them important, and why a lot of human discourse involves such values.

      Now, science can indeed not do the feeling and valuing on behalf of people — but then neither can religion. But the materialist account is still complete.

    6. Adam Davis

      Hi Coel—
      “Now, science can indeed not do the feeling and valuing on behalf of people — but then neither can religion. But the materialist account is still complete.”
      The materialist “account” is indeed complete, in that it has an explanation, which was all it ever aimed at. But as a discourse, SJG’s “magisterium,” its function is limited. It does not do something that humans in all times and places want done, which is to provide a way for talking about what we should do. It does not command. Not so much as drop broad hints. Even as a system which is externalized from the vast number of human consciousnesses who collectively created the materialist account we call science, it remains descriptive rather than imperative.

      For the materialist certainly there can be no such thing as moral realism, no existence of values outside of human culture. That still seems to me rooted in circularity and programmatic restriction: if there were such a thing, the system’s pre-programmed not to acknowledge it, as a Cartesian plane doesn’t deal well with spheres. My own unexplored intuition is that moral values might have a type of existence which is more like “four” and “fourness” or “pi” than it is like silica. But in fact a discourse other than a scientific, descriptive, factual one has no need whatsoever to posit values existing independently of human consciousness, because we are not talking about entities but discourses. So, cheerfully granting for the moment the prohibition on any kind of moral realism, there remains a difference between the operations of a moral discourse which can command, and a scientific discourse which cannot. For the discourses themselves, as opposed to the things they concern themselves with, it’s not an ontological difference, because a scientific discourse does not exist apart from those using it, anymore than a moral discourse does.

    7. Coel Post author

      Hi Adam,

      [science] does not command. Not so much as drop broad hints. Even as a system which is externalized from the vast number of human consciousnesses who collectively created the materialist account we call science, it remains descriptive rather than imperative.

      Yes, I entirely agree. Science generates knowledge, but does not generate values and commands. But neither does religion! There is no “other magisterium”. Only people generate values and commands. Religion just reflects the values of those who influenced the religion.

      That still seems to me rooted in circularity and programmatic restriction: if there were such a thing, the system’s pre-programmed not to acknowledge it …

      To me, materialism and the scientific account are conclusions made after evaluating the evidence. These things are not pre-suppositions. That is shown by the article above, where in the past mainstream science did not hold to such conclusions; rather, they are conclusions that science gradually came to, over time, on the basis of which models work best.

  7. richardwein

    Hi Coel,

    Materialism’s universal warrant would only be dissolved if moral realism could be established to be true. Only then would one have demonstrated something missing from the materialist account.

    Hmm… I think you and I would agree that moral realism is a conceptual impossibility. Of course we’re fallible humans, so in principle we could turn out to be wrong about that. But it’s hard to see how moral realism could be established to be true without some significant clarification of the concept of moral truth. Until we have that clarification, isn’t it premature to say that it would leave something missing from materialism? Moreover, why mention “materialism” in particular? Why think that any non-materialistic view would be in any better position to explain the newly-established moral realism? I suppose that if moral claims could be made true by an event, and if that event was difficult to explain on materialism, then theists would have the advantage of being able to say “God did it”. But it seems so implausible that moral truth could be of that nature, that it hardly seems worth taking this scenario seriously.

    It’s hard to address scenarios which seem conceptually impossible. It’s rather like asking if it would be a problem for materialism (in particular) if circles turned out to be square. (Granted, moral realism is far less obviously a conceptual impossibility than are square circles.)

    Reply
    1. Coel Post author

      Yes, you are probably right. It is granting too much to concede that moral realism would certainly be a problem for materialism, without first having an actual and specific moral-realist account to examine and consider.

  8. richardwein

    Hi Adam,

    So, cheerfully granting for the moment the prohibition on any kind of moral realism, there remains a difference between the operations of a moral discourse which can command, and a scientific discourse which cannot.

    Agreed. Well, I agree that moral discourse does command, and people are influenced by those commands. To say that it can command could be taken as suggesting that it has some epistemic authority to command, which I wouldn’t accept.

    But I agree that empirical discourse (our discourse about the real world, in or out of formal science) and moral discourse are two very different types of discourse, with very different functions. The former is in the business of modelling reality. The latter is in the business of motivating behaviour. However, people’s intuitive moral realism encourages them to think that there are moral facts to be discovered, and they then start to wonder what sorts of facts these are and how we can know them. That may then lead to arguments over whether science, philosophy, religion or anything else has the tools for discovering these facts. But since I say there are no such facts to be discovered, I say that question does not even arise.

    Religion appears to be an effective method of inculcating moral values and moral beliefs. But it has no more resources for discovering moral facts than any other method, because there are no such facts to be discovered.

    Reply
  9. Pingback: Contra theologian Roger Trigg on the nature of science | coelsblog

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