How not to defend humanistic reasoning

Sometimes the attitudes of philosophers towards science baffle me. A good example is the article Defending Humanistic Reasoning by Paul Giladi, Alexis Papazoglou and Giuseppina D’Oro, recently in Philosophy Now.

Why did Caesar cross the Rubicon? Because of his leg movements? Or because he wanted to assert his authority in Rome over his rivals? When we seek to interpret the actions of Caesar and Socrates, and ask what reasons they had for acting so, we do not usually want their actions to be explained as we might explain the rise of the tides or the motion of the planets; that is, as physical events dictated by natural laws. […]

The two varieties of explanation appear to compete, because both give rival explanations of the same action. But there is a way in which scientific explanations such as bodily movements and humanistic explanations such as motives and goals need not compete.

This treats “science” as though it stops where humans start. Science can deal with the world as it was before humans evolved, but at some point humans came along and — for unstated reasons — humans are outside the scope of science. This might be how some philosophers see things but the notion is totally alien to science. Humans are natural products of a natural world, and are just as much a part of what science can study as anything else.

Yes of course we want explanations of Caesar’s acts in terms of “motivations and goals” rather than physiology alone — is there even one person anywhere who would deny that? But nothing about human motivations and goals is outside the proper domain of science.

If we ask about a gazelle running from a lion, or about social interactions within a chimpanzee troop, such as two beta males forming an alliance to depose the alpha male, we again want explanations in terms of goals, thoughts and motivations, and yet no-one denies that studying animal behaviour is “scientific”.

Explanations in such terms are not “unscientific”, they are simply from one of the explanatory frameworks that is most appropriate to adopt when dealing with biology and with self-aware animals. Even Giladi et al accept that biology is a science, and yet when it comes to humans they imply that science suddenly stops and can no longer function.

Western philosophy has adopted increasingly naturalistic views. In current Anglo-American philosophy, the norm is to assume a reductive form of this naturalism which claims that everything can be explained just in physical terms. This position is usually called physicalism or materialism. According to this version of scientific naturalism, the image of the world provided by the physical sciences (basically, physics, chemistry, and biology) is all the world there is.

There are several elements here to clarify. First, “naturalistic” is not to be contrasted with “humanistic”. Humans are entirely natural and biology is a science (as is anthropology). Naturalism is instead contrasted with supernaturalism, such as the notion that humans possess a dualistic soul. The idea that the “world provided by the physical sciences is all the world there is” denies supernaturalism, but does not deny that humans exist and have thought, goals and motivations.

Second, let’s unpack the idea that: “everything can be explained just in physical terms”. The underlying doctrine of “supervenience physicalism” says that higher-level phenomena such as mammals supervene on lower-level phenomena such as atoms and molecules. And one can completely describe a system in low-level terms. That means that, if one exactly replicated all low-level aspects of a system (a complete and exhaustive listing of every atom and molecule and its behaviour), then the higher-level phenomena would also be entailed and replicated.

But — crucially — a complete description is not the only explanation, and it is likely not the most useful nor the most interesting explanation. Complete explanations (ones that are sufficient to exactly replicate the entire system) are simply too unwieldy for nearly all purposes. Higher-level explanations are reduced-information explanations that focus on salient aspects and so are usually more useful and interesting.

The different explanations do not compete, they are complementary. Nothing prevents there being more than one explanation or description of the same thing! Thus a “complete” explanation does not push out all other explanations, it sits alongside them.

That is the case even within physics. For example, when considering a simple system of a gas inside a container, one could (in principle) list every individual gas molecule and its trajectory — but one can’t in practice, it’s too hard — or one can instead provide explanations in terms of higher-level concepts such as “pressure”, “temperature”, “entropy” and the laws of thermodynamics, which apply only to the system as a whole, and cannot be applied to individual particles.

The doctrine of supervenience physicalism requires that all the explanations at the different levels must be consistent (they cannot conflict with each other), but in no sense does naturalism or physicalism disqualify or push out the higher-level and humanistic explanations.

Giladi et al continue:

One reason physicalist forms of scientific naturalism have become so widely accepted is that many philosophers tend to find it difficult to make room for complex phenomena such as consciousness within the world presented to us by the natural sciences. Because of this, some physicalist philosophers reduce complex psychological phenomena down to their component material parts –- things such neural mechanisms –- or even to the very components of matter itself.

One has to be careful with that word “reduce”. Many philosophers use it to mean a fairly strong notion of eliminative reductionism. In this thesis, if one understood the lower-level aspects of a system at the level of physics, then one could, by a few lines of algebra, calculate the higher-level properties such as desires and motivations. The higher-level properties could then be eliminated, and the proper level of discourse would be only at the lower-level of physics.

It is unclear to me whether any philosophers actually hold to this idea, as opposed to it being a straw-man attributed to others, but I’m fairly sure that no physicist or scientist holds to it.

Yes, one could, in principle, replicate a system by replicating all low-level aspects, but this is nearly always impossible in practice, even within physics. Further, the thought experiment of replicating, say, a jaguar — such as with an atom-by-atom, Star-Trek-transporter device — is not at all the same as calculating the behaviour of a jaguar from the low-level description plus a set of simple laws and some algebra. The dream of finding laws to enable us to do the latter is sometimes attributed to physicists by philosophers, but it is not how the world works and not how physicists think.

So after having, to my mind, falsely created a division between physicalism and humanism, how do Giladi et al then attempt to reconcile them? They invoke a philosophical tradition that seeks to “defend the independence of the human sciences from the natural sciences” (again, what about humans is unnatural?) by starting with the claim that “all knowledge rests on presuppositions”. The investigation of the “background assumptions of science”, they say, “cannot itself be carried out using the methods of natural science”.

This claim that science rests of assumptions that cannot be tested by science is, I think, wrong. Science is a web of ideas that is aimed at modelling empirical reality. The scientific method tests the set of ideas against reality, and, where it is found wanting, then adjusts the model to do better, before testing once again.

In Neurath’s analogy of science’s web of ideas as the set of planks of a raft afloat on the sea, any idea, any plank, can be examined and replaced if that means that the raft floats better. In this view there are no “presuppositions” of science; every idea can be tested.

The way to test a “presupposition” is the same as the way to test any other idea: simply replace the idea with its negation, make consequent adjustments elsewhere in the web, and then again test the web of ideas against reality. If the web containing the negation does worse (however much you try to make compensatory adjustments) then the negation is rejected. Thus the idea has now been tested, not merely assumed, and is thence adopted because it works.

If, alternatively, replacing the idea with its negation makes no difference in how well the overall web matches reality, then that means that it is not a presupposition of science, since (ipso facto) one needn’t suppose it. Either way, the idea that there are ideas that science must assume but cannot test is erroneous.

What actual ideas do Giladi et al then point to?

By carefully unpacking the background assumptions of the different forms of inquiry we can lay bare the most important difference between the natural sciences and the human sciences. For example, natural science presupposes a uniform universe governed by universal laws; on the other hand, a historian does not approach history in such a way. Another difference between the natural sciences and the human sciences amounts to the natural sciences aspiring to grasp the universal, the general, whereas a human science such as history aspires to make sense of the particular, of unique events.

Well sorry, but this is just wrong. Yes, physical scientists are indeed interested in uncovering the universal laws of a uniform nature where that is appropriate, but they are just as interested in the chance, contingent events that are just as important in leading to actual outcomes.

As just two examples from the natural sciences, first, our moon is believed to have formed when, early in the history of our Solar System, a Mars-sized proto-planet collided with the proto-Earth, throwing up a cloud of debris that coalesced into our moon. This was a unique and particular chance event of great importance to the history of the Earth. A second example is the collision with Earth of the Chicxulub meteor that is believed to have wiped out the dinosaurs and radically changed the history of subsequent life on Earth. Again, it was a particular and chance event.

To say that the natural sciences are uninterested in such historical contingency, or that they cannot deal with such singular events, or that the natural sciences are only interested in uniformities in nature and universal laws, is just wrong.

Giladi et al want to divide different areas of knowledge up (natural sciences versus humanities) according to the different presuppositions that each area must adopt. I think this is wrong-headed. The different areas of knowledge are all part of the same whole. But there is no conflict, no competition between the different areas. The different types of enquiry and types of explanation must all be mutually consistent and sit alongside each other. They are different simply because they focus on different features of interest, different aspects of the whole.

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47 thoughts on “How not to defend humanistic reasoning

  1. Paul Braterman

    As you point out, universal vs contingent has nothing to do with human vs non-human (Carol Cleland is good on this). Nor does science limit itself to the physical, whatever that may mean. Laplace pointed out that the scientists of his day studied magnetism, although they had no idea of its material basis, and Boudry points out (I think you’d agree) that the methodological naturalism of science is pragmatic, based on what lines of research have or have not proved fruitful. Finally, the fact that actions can be described at either the particle or the systems level is not specific to humans or even living beings. We can say that a computer is carrying out a calculation that leads to a definite result, and we can (in principle) describe the movement of streams of electrons through semiconducting junctions to predict this same result. I propose this as another illustration of the falseness of the dichotomy that you describe Giladi et al as drawing between “natural” and “human” sciences. I assume, after all, that they do not think my venerable Texas Instruments calculator is human

    Reply
    1. Coel Post author

      Hi Paul,

      Boudry points out (I think you’d agree) that the methodological naturalism of science is pragmatic, based on what lines of research have or have not proved fruitful.

      Yes, agreed. Methodological naturalism is a conclusion, not a presupposition. Indeed it’s easy to trace back to when scientists did not adopt methodological naturalism, but presumed the direct involvement of God in creation, for example in keeping Newtonian orbits stable. This died out because it didn’t work as well (e.g. Laplace’s “I had no need of that hypothesis”).

  2. Roo Bookaroo

    I don’t have much of substance to add to this discussion, which after all really brings nothing new to what we had to absorb from any review of the History of Philosophy, Western-style at least. It sounded like the old dualistic dilemma rephrased in rebarbative and indigestible language. Has anybody enjoyed the prose of those self-styeld “philosophers”?

    I was simply curious as to why you, Coel, were attracted to even discuss the text of those three platitude-spewing guys. I went to the original article to find out who they were and what they were doing. And the end of the article brings everything into light:

    ” In epistemological idealism, a defence of the human sciences goes hand in hand with an understanding of philosophy as distinct in kind from natural science. Epistemological idealism, then, provides a powerful defence of the autonomy of philosophy against the recent attempts to see it as subordinate to the natural sciences. Reports of the death of philosophy rely on a misunderstanding of its nature. Rather, philosophy itself is needed in order to make sense of the human, as well as the natural, sciences.

    © Dr Paul Giladi, dr Alexis Papazoglou & dr Giuseppina D’Oro 2017

    Paul Giladi is a teaching and research fellow in Philosophy at University College Dublin and honorary research fellow at the University of Sheffield. Alexis Papazoglou is Lecturer in Philosophy at Royal Holloway, University of London, and secretary of the Hegel Society of Great Britain. Giuseppina D’Oro is Reader in Philosophy at Keele University and principal investigator, with Paul and Alexis, on a Templeton-funded project ‘Idealism and the Philosophy of Mind’.

    • This article was made possible through the support of a grant from the John Templeton Foundation. The opinions expressed in it are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Foundation. ”

    So this simply confirms my suspicion that those three writers — who state they have formal employment as “professors” or “teachers”, or “researchers” of “philosophy”, and are funded by our dear old friend the John Templeton Foundation — find nothing better to enrich their bibliography than to rehash the same old intellectual divisions, and that they most naturally are going to end up with a return to the same “safe area” of the old Hebraic/Christian profession of a dual world, with God/spirit/conscience/human lurking somewhere over the world as a key protagonist, more or less disguised or in obvious light, all this unattractive goulash served in a heavy sauce of, at bottom, useless and dreadfully boring language.
    My reaction was, what a waste of time having to read their drivel. But of course, I am not teaching in any role, and have no obligation to adopt a respectful attitude under the pretense that these writers are saying anything new, important, or even simply interesting.

    This reminds me of Lewis Carroll’s poem, FAME’S PENNY-TRUMPET, which is worth quoting here in full as the best comment:

    Blow, blow your trumpets till they crack,
    Ye little men of little souls!
    And bid them huddle at your back –
    Gold-sucking leeches, shoals on shoals!

    Fill all the air with hungry wails –
    “Reward us, ere we think or write!
    Without your Gold mere Knowledge fails
    To sate the swinish appetite!”

    And, where great Plato paced serene,
    Or Newton paused with wistful eye,
    Rush to the chace with hoofs unclean
    And Babel-clamour of the sty

    Be yours the pay: be theirs the praise:
    We will not rob them of their due,
    Nor vex the ghosts of other days
    By naming them along with you.

    They sought and found undying fame:
    They toiled not for reward nor thanks:
    Their cheeks are hot with honest shame
    For you, the modern mountebanks!

    Who preach of Justice – plead with tears
    That Love and Mercy should abound –
    While marking with complacent ears
    The moaning of some tortured hound:

    Who prate of Wisdom – nay, forbear,
    Lest Wisdom turn on you in wrath,
    Trampling, with heel that will not spare,
    The vermin that beset her path!

    Go, throng each other’s drawing-rooms,
    Ye idols of a petty clique:
    Strut your brief hour in borrowed plumes,
    And make your penny-trumpets squeak.

    Deck your dull talk with pilfered shreds
    Of learning from a nobler time,
    And oil each other’s little heads
    With mutual Flattery’s golden slime:

    And when the topmost height ye gain,
    And stand in Glory’s ether clear,
    And grasp the prize of all your pain –
    So many hundred pounds a year –

    Then let Fame’s banner be unfurled!
    Sing Paeans for a victory won!
    Ye tapers, that would light the world,
    And cast a shadow on the Sun –

    Who still shall pour His rays sublime,
    One crystal flood, from East to West,
    When YE have burned your little time
    And feebly flickered into rest!

    Reply
  3. vampyricon

    Well, it’s the Templeton Foundation, what did you expect? They want a dualistic view, with science on one side and something on the other, so they could claim science can’t know everything. One of the professors in the science and religion course I took claimed that logic provides more certain truths than science and it is in the realm of philosophy, setting up a dualism. But logic is pretty much the realm of mathematics these days, and math is definitely science.

    Reply
  4. Phil

    A few somewhat random replies…

    Coel wrote, “The idea that the “world provided by the physical sciences is all the world there is” denies supernaturalism…”

    Yes. And it does so upon a logic of “if we can’t see it, it doesn’t exist”. Upon that same kind of logic black holes, dark matter, the microscopic, atomic, quantum, distant galaxies etc could have all at one time or another have been “proven” to not exist.

    The word “deny” is the key word in that quote above as it reveals the emotional source of the assumption which goes, “We don’t wish for there to be anything beyond our potential grasp, therefore we deny that there is.”

    Instead of such a denial, it would be far more rational to simply stick with the facts, we don’t know if there is anything outside the laws of nature. But stating “we don’t know” is found to be emotionally inconvenient, and so rationality is declined in this instance.

    Coel wrote, “Because of this, some physicalist philosophers reduce complex psychological phenomena down to their component material parts –- things such neural mechanisms –- or even to the very components of matter itself.”

    I agree with Coel that the word “reduce” is tricky here, but that aside, I”ve been making essentially this point all over the blog. The content of thought arises out of the nature of thought, is a function of the way that thought operates. Does the nature of thought arise from a deeper source yet, say the properties of neurons? Seems likely, but I don’t claim to know.

    I would agree that philosophy and psychology are at their heart built from mechanical sources. Do those mechanical sources have a non-mechanical source? Ah, well, as a dogmatic Fundamentalist Agnostic rabid true believing ideologue I’m not allowed to have an opinion on that. 🙂

    Coel wrote, “Science is a web of ideas that is aimed at modelling empirical reality. The scientific method tests the set of ideas against reality, and, where it is found wanting, then adjusts the model to do better, before testing once again.”

    Yes, good description. I would add that to the degree this is the focus of science, science is not actually dealing with reality, but rather with ideas about reality, something quite different. As example, any description of Coel however accurate is not the reality of Coel and never can be.

    This distinction matters a LOT if a scientist should then, say, wish to be accepted as a credible authority on the subject of religion. The best religionists (admittedly few and far between) focus not on ideas about reality, but on direct observation of reality. That is, instead of observation being a means to the end of theories and conclusions, that equation is reversed. This is a fundamentally different methodology which opens doors not available in the “modeling reality” methodology.

    Coel wrote, “Giladi et al want to divide different areas of knowledge up (natural sciences versus humanities) according to the different presuppositions that each area must adopt. I think this is wrong-headed. The different areas of knowledge are all part of the same whole.”

    Agree here, sort of. The reductive nature of science arises from the divisive nature of thought, and is it’s great power. Giladi et all appear to be trying to harness that power. However, the reductive nature of science and the divisive nature of thought it arises from come with a big price tag, the illusion that the single unified reality can be divided.

    So I would agree, a notion that there are “different areas of knowledge” is a sometimes useful illusion. Like Coel, I don’t really see how it’s useful in this case. Well, perhaps the theory being offered is useful in sparking an enlightening conversation.

    Reply
    1. vampyricon

      I found a few problems with your reasoning.

      “Yes. And it does so upon a logic of “if we can’t see it, it doesn’t exist”. Upon that same kind of logic black holes, dark matter, the microscopic, atomic, quantum, distant galaxies etc could have all at one time or another have been “proven” to not exist.”
      This is a strawman. Black holes interact gravitationally. Dark matter interacts gravitationally. The microscopic interacts electromagnetically. Atoms interact electromagnetically. Quantum is a scale, and interactions at that scale proceed through all 4 of the fundamental forces. Distant galaxies emit light. We can see all of them.

      The supernatural, by definition, doesn’t exist. If it interacts with our universe, i.e. the natural world, it would be natural. If it doesn’t, then how is it different from being nonexistent?

    2. Coel Post author

      And it does so upon a logic of “if we can’t see it, it doesn’t exist”.

      No, not at all. It does so on the logic that ditching supernatural elements provides a better model of the world than retaining them.

      The word “deny” is the key word in that quote above as it reveals the emotional source of the assumption which goes, “We don’t wish for there to be anything beyond our potential grasp, therefore we deny that there is.”

      Nope, wrong, to “deny” is to withhold assent, and one withholds assent from propositions for which there is no evidence.

      But stating “we don’t know” is found to be emotionally inconvenient, …

      This is your standard strawman that you attribute to others.

  5. Phil

    The concluding quote from Daniel Dennett in the Galadi article seems useful…

    “Scientists sometimes deceive themselves into thinking that philosophical ideas are only, at best, decorations or parasitic commentaries on the hard, objective triumphs of science, and that they themselves are immune to the confusions that philosophers devote their lives to dissolving. But there is no such thing as philosophy-free science; there is only science whose philosophical baggage is taken on board without examination.”

    An example from my own experience…

    I’ve been writing for years that the “more is better” relationship with knowledge which has served us so well so long can now be reasonably labeled as simplistic, outdated and dangerous, a victim of it’s own success.

    It’s extremely difficult to find scientists who are willing to inspect and challenge science at that level. Instead, they seem to always want to simply assume “more is better” is still appropriate, and then get back as quickly as possible to the process of more.

    As scientists, that makes sense because developing more knowledge is what we pay them to do. But as philosophers, it seems a very weak stew indeed.

    Reply
    1. Paul Braterman

      I don’t quite follow. There may be odd circumstances where additional information can mislead. For example, if a study was in fact erroneous, one might have a better perspective on the subject than if one knew about it. Apart from such situations, when is it not better to have more information?

      I get the impression that you certainly want, and here I would agree with you, scientists to have more knowledge than some clearly do about the philosophical underpinnings that inevitably underlie their procedures.

    2. vampyricon

      “I’ve been writing for years that the “more is better” relationship with knowledge which has served us so well so long can now be reasonably labeled as simplistic, outdated and dangerous, a victim of it’s own success.”
      What are the problems of this “more is better” approach? If your answer is “nuclear weapons” or other potential harm that may come from knowledge, you are confusing the process of science with the misuse of that knowledge by politicians. If your answer is that it is a waste of resources, then stop using the internet. It was a spin-off of particle physics research. Don’t use the GPS either. It is a result of basic research into the nature of gravity.

      “As scientists, that makes sense because developing more knowledge is what we pay them to do. But as philosophers, it seems a very weak stew indeed.”
      And that is why scientists don’t care about what philosophers have to say about their subject.

    3. Paul Braterman

      Vampyricon, it depends on the philosopher. Dennett (already mentioned), Boudry, Pugliacci (former biologist) and,going back a bit, Medawar (primarily a biologist) and his inspiration, Whewell, have or had a great deal of value to say. In contrast, I have seen noted scientists brag of their disdain for philosophy, only to lay out their own incoherent philosophy under the delusion that it is part of their (sometimes excellent) science.

  6. Phil

    Hi Paul, you asked…

    “When is it not better to have more information?”

    Put another way, what is the value of ignorance? I think this is a very interesting question, but I’m wary of fully exploring my interest in it here. Put briefly, the value of ignorance is in the richness it brings to our human experience.

    Paul writes, “I get the impression that you certainly want, and here I would agree with you, scientists to have more knowledge than some clearly do about the philosophical underpinnings that inevitably underlie their procedures.”

    I would settle for sincere interest, an active process of inquiry.

    For example, I would be most delighted to have a forum full of scientists rise up to challenge an assertion that our “more is better” relationship with knowledge is simplistic, outdated and dangerous. I certainly don’t expect anyone, especially a scientist, to automatically agree with such a bold claim which strikes at the heart of science.

    But I would expect intelligent thoughtful people, especially scientists, to be loyal to their own stated methodology, and be willing to follow such a reasoned investigation where ever it may lead, however inconvenient such a journey may be.

    But typically it seems it’s considered far easier to just assume the foundations of science are solid, and then proceed with the usual “more is better” routines. Thus, I found the Daniel Dennett to be worth considering.

    Reply
  7. Phil

    Hi vampyricon, you wrote…

    “What are the problems of this “more is better” approach?”

    This is one of my favorite topics so I’m usually happy to address it, but I’m reluctant to hijack this thread with one of my pet rants, given how often I’ve done that before.

    But how about this? If Coel or perhaps Paul decides to address and/or challenge my claim on their blogs that would be an appropriate time for me to jump in. For reference, the claim again is…

    Our “more is better” relationship with knowledge is simplistic, outdated, and dangerous.

    I brought this claim up here not to argue it’s case, (which I’ve already done on this site a number of times) but to make the hopefully relevant point that scientists are typically unwilling or unable to inspect and challenge the philosophical assumptions at the heart of their enterprise.

    Reply
    1. Paul Braterman

      Let me be blunt.

      It does happen that being overburdened with knowledge can hamper enquiry, and that part of the art of discovery is to pretend ignorance. However, It seems obvious that at the level of evaluation, more information is likely to give a more accurate picture of reality, provided ofc this information has merit. Which raises questions of good practice, but not of philosophical underpinning.

      Your claim that ‘Our “more is better” relationship with knowledge is simplistic, outdated, and dangerous’ is contrary to expectation, you give no reason to take it seriously, you do not even provide a link to your justification for it, and therefore at this stage I see no reason to examine it further

  8. Phil

    Paul,

    The philosophical underpinning of science is the belief that more=better when it comes to knowledge. This is a very understandable belief given that it’s been true for a very long time.

    It is however an unexamined assumption, which is no longer true, which is why I brought it up in the context of this article. The relevant point I’m attempting to make is that scientists are scientists, and not philosophers, which is why they don’t seem to yet understand that the premise their enterprise is built upon is more debatable with every passing day.

    I’m more than willing to explain and defend my thesis here, as proven by the fact that I’ve already done so on a number of other pages of Coel’s blog. If members feel that discussion would be relevant to Coel’s article, I’m happy to proceed. Or, an alternative could be that such a discussion take place on a page dedicated to that purpose. I’m agreeable to either.

    I’m also agreeable to dropping the topic, because I know from long experience that such a debate likely won’t accomplish much. It’s simply too big of a leap for most folks, especially those who make their livings developing new knowledge.

    You wrote, “However, It seems obvious that at the level of evaluation, more information is likely to give a more accurate picture of reality…”

    That’s of course true. But you’re assuming a more accurate picture of reality is still in our interests. That assumption is very easy to challenge. If one wishes to challenge it, which most people don’t, for very understandable reasons.

    Options for proceeding:

    1) Drop this topic
    2) Discuss it here
    3) Discuss it somewhere else.

    I’m agreeable to whatever works for you.

    Reply
    1. Coel Post author

      But you’re assuming a more accurate picture of reality is still in our interests.

      That’s a fairly long comment that gives no indication of why it wouldn’t be.

  9. Phil

    Coel wrote, “That’s a fairly long comment that gives no indication of why it wouldn’t be.”

    It’s actually a fairly short comment compared to what I’ve already written on this topic on your blog, speeches which you’ve apparently either not read or not grasped. Thus my reluctance to keep clogging these pages with content which would appear to be a waste of both of our time.

    However, that said, I’m happy to be proven wrong. Really, I am, that would get this incessant interest out of my head.

    You’re always looking for things to debunk so feel free to have a go at the following assertion some day when you’re out of other article ideas.

    ASSERTION: Our “more is better” relationship with knowledge is simplistic, outdated and dangerous.

    Again, the relevance of this assertion to this page is that nobody needs me to explore this premise. Every scientist is entirely free to do their own homework and inspect and challenge this philosophical foundation of the scientific enterprise. The fact that you, and the scientific community as a whole, have little to no interest in doing so illustrates the relevant point I’m trying to make.

    Scientists are scientists, not philosophers. Scientists are really good at what they’re really good at, but that does not seem include an ability to get to the bottom line.

    Then end result would appear to be that we live in a knowledge driven civilization brilliantly and blindly racing towards it’s own demise.

    Reply
    1. Coel Post author

      It’s actually a fairly short comment compared to what I’ve already written on this topic on your blog, speeches which you’ve apparently either not read or not grasped.

      Or maybe you just keep *asserting* that increasing knowledge might be harmful, but don’t actually make that case.

  10. Phil

    Pardon me while I quickly add…

    My reluctance to just automatically repeat a speech I’ve given too many times to count really has nothing to do Coel or this blog. I should make that clear.

    What I’ve learned from discussing this topic on every site I can find for ten years is that editing the “more is better” relationship with knowledge is too big of a leap to be accomplished with mere logic. It’s going to take some kind of dramatic event which forces us to re-examine fundamental assumptions. As example, a limited nuke exchange which doesn’t crash civilization, but scares us to our core.

    I’m still willing to do the debate dance again because I’m an incurable typoholic, but I don’t expect it to accomplish much at this point.

    Reply
  11. Phil

    Coel wrote, “Nope, wrong, to “deny” is to withhold assent, and one withholds assent from propositions for which there is no evidence.”

    QUESTION: Where is the evidence that you or any other human being who ever lived is in a position to know whether there is or isn’t a supernatural realm above and outside the laws of nature?

    There is no such evidence, none at all. We can’t even define the realm under discussion, all of reality, in the most basic manner. The question “is there a God?” is itself hopeless flawed. The whole debate on all sides is just a circus merry-go-round used to harvest the satisfaction which can be derived from fantasy knowings..

    Reply
    1. Coel Post author

      QUESTION: Where is the evidence that you or any other human being who ever lived is in a position to know whether there is or isn’t a supernatural realm above and outside the laws of nature?

      Did anyone claim that there is any such evidence? As usual, you are attributing positions to people that they don’t hold. The above “withholding assent from a proposition” is NOT the same as “I know for sure that the proposition is wrong”.

  12. Phil

    Coel,

    YES!! By your actions, by the words you repeatedly write, you are claiming that you are in a position to have a credible opinion on the possible existence of the supernatural. That is a claim without any basis in fact, just as it is for theists. The great divide you perceive between atheists and theists is a figment of your imagination.

    You write article after article after article for years, all filled with blatant adamant certainty on basically the same point, there is no God. And then when the certainty is challenged, you retreat in to the claim “not to know for sure”. This pattern is just standard issue atheist ideologue tactics repeated in every thread on every atheist forum across the Net by mobs of people far less interesting than you. We deserve better from someone of your intelligence and education.

    Please stop telling us that you are not adamantly certain. All that does is undermine your credibility, because we can read your own words for ourselves.

    Go ahead and be what you are, adamantly certain. And then try to defend that certainty if it interests you to persuade others to your position. That would be intellectually honest.

    Reply
    1. Coel Post author

      … you are claiming that you are in a position to have a credible opinion on the possible existence of the supernatural.

      My position is merely not giving assent to propositions for which there is insufficient evidence. Which is pretty reasonable.

      You write article after article after article for years, all filled with blatant adamant certainty on basically the same point, there is no God.

      Really? Where? I’ve just looked at the last several of my posts and didn’t see anything such.

  13. Phil

    Coel wrote, “Or maybe you just keep *asserting* that increasing knowledge might be harmful, but don’t actually make that case.”

    Or maybe you don’t read my posts on your blog. Or maybe you lack the courage to challenge my thesis in a full article so we can find out whether I can make the case or not.

    That annoyingly said, I am gradually growing some modest level of understanding for those who are unwilling or unable to see their most fundamental assumptions challenged. I realize I’m asking a lot of readers, probably too much.

    As example, one of my routine challenges on Catholic sites goes like this…

    When did Jesus _the carpenter_ ever show the slightest interest in erecting even a single modest church building, let alone in the creation of a trillion dollar global real estate empire such as the Catholic Church now presides over??

    Such a point is logical on the surface, but illogical to the degree that it doesn’t recognize that many millions of people feel they need these churches, and they’re going to keep building them no matter what anybody else has to say about it, whether or not such an activity was sanctioned by their leader.

    It’s the same with atheists. They have to defend reason to the death, because without it they have nothing. And the same for scientists, they have to defend the “more is better” relationship with knowledge because without that assumption their position in society is transformed from hero to threat.

    The way to debunk my posts is to point to the reality that logic has little to do with human affairs, and thus, however clever my logic may be, it’s still largely irrelevant and pointless.

    My punishment as an annoying socially clueless blowhard is to see this clearly, and still be incurably compelled to keep typing. It’s the human condition, filled as always with embarrassing ironies.

    Reply
    1. Coel Post author

      That’s yet another comment in which you have not made any case that greater knowledge is on-balance harmful.

  14. Phil

    “That’s yet another comment in which you have not made any case that greater knowledge is on-balance harmful.”

    Yet another lazy one liner used to duck the invitation to explore this in detail which has been presented over and over again.

    Yet another lazy one liner used to ignore that I’ve already made all these points in detail in other sections of your blog. Which you apparently chose not to read. And so the argument for typing it all up yet again, is what exactly?

    Yet another lazy one liner used as a way for you to avoid challenging the “more is better” philosophical foundation of science on your own, without spoon feeding from anyone. If you feel that scientists can do philosophy just as well or better than philosophers, what’s stopping you from proceeding with this investigation independently of anything I may or may not do???

    Nothing is stopping you. Except that you don’t dare to investigate the unexamined premise your career is built upon. Which, as I tried to say above, it completely normal. Everybody needs _something_ to believe in, and everybody will cling to whatever that something is even if it can’t be justified by reason.

    As example, I cling to typing, even though there is no evidence it accomplishes anything more than filling this room with the sound of the keys on my keyboard going clickety clack, clickety clack.

    I’m still entirely willing to discuss the thesis I presented above and welcome all challenges. The price tag for that would be readers first showing evidence that they are engaged in their own investigation of the subject, and not just sitting back waiting for someone to type something so they can say why it’s wrong.

    Or we can just skip it. That’s ok here too.

    Reply
    1. vampyricon

      Phil, all I see you claiming is that the “more knowledge is better” stance is harmful, but you haven’t laid out any case for it. All I’ve seen is you accusing scientists of “refusing to challenge their fundamental assumptions”.

      You can assume I’m utterly stupid and can’t see your reasoning as to why more knowledge is harmful. Walk me through your reasoning please.

  15. Phil

    Coel wrote, “My position is merely not giving assent to propositions for which there is insufficient evidence. Which is pretty reasonable.”

    That’s what you think your position is. Your real position is not giving assent to OTHER PEOPLE’s faith based beliefs. Your own faith based beliefs get a free pass.

    For the hundredth time. That’s not reason. That’s ideology.

    It seems best that I try to stop converting you from ideology to reason. It’s not accomplishing anything and the repetitive back and forth between us is likely boring any other readers to tears.

    Do what ya gotta do. I’ll make more of an effort to let you do it peace.

    Reply
  16. Phil

    Hi again vampyricon,

    First, I’m really not trying to dodge, blow you off, or be snotty. I’m trying to address your question in a manner more effective than I have done in the past. The reasoning of this new methodology I’m attempting goes like this…

    If a person is not already conducting this investigation on their own, they’re not really that interested in this topic, thus whatever I might say on the subject will likely have little impact upon them.

    As evidence of this, I’ve already written on this topic at some length on this blog, a fact no one seems to remember.

    Please note, there’s nothing at all wrong with anyone not being interested in the thesis I’ve presented. Not a thing. But there’s also nothing wrong with me declining to type the same things over and over to an audience which seems to prefer to pursue other interests.

    So, as already stated numerous times above, if we are to proceed, here’s how it will happen.

    ASSERTION: Our “more is better” relationship with knowledge is simplistic, outdated, and dangerous.

    If this assertion interests you, start investigating it.

    Is this ancient relationship simplistic?

    Is it outdated?

    Is it dangerous?

    Pretend that I just died when my head exploded from excessive bloviation. I’m gone, over, unavailable for further comment. You’re on your own.

    What will you do next? If you continue the investigation without me, you are sincerely interested. If you set this aside and move on to some other topic, you aren’t that interested.

    If you should wish to persuade me that you’re interested and that you feel this topic merits investigation, dedicate a full page to it on your blog, or persuade one or more of the other bloggers above to do so. Start the investigation without me. If you put enough work in to doing your own investigation I’ll join you.

    Or, we can simply forget all this and move on to some other subject. That is agreeable here as well, given that I don’t really benefit that much from typing things that I already know.

    Reply
    1. vampyricon

      I’ve given this assertion some thought and I’ve stated some of them above. Regarding “simplistic”, more knowledge allows us to make better judgements. Unless you can show that this is false in general, or in our specific case, it isn’t simplistic. Regarding “outdated”, this isn’t applicable until you can give a more updated model of how we should gain knowledge. Regarding “dangerous”, it seems quite biased to ignore the good that may come from more knowledge.

      This is your assertion. It is your job to provide the evidence. You can’t just shift the burden of proof of your own statement onto those challenging it. This allows less honest individuals to strawman your position and denigrate it as the absurd ramblings of a madman.

      I should add that I find your assertion somewhat interesting, otherwise I wouldn’t be starting this conversation. But if you don’t provide any evidence to support it, I’ll have to resort to Hitchens’ razor: What can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence.

    2. Coel Post author

      If a person is not already conducting this investigation on their own, they’re not really that interested in this topic,…

      There are a thousand different things people could investigate. We all have to pick and choose. As for this topic, you have repeatedly *asserted* that it is an important one to investigate, but you have given zero indication of why it is important and interesting, or why it may be the case that greater knowledge is, in general, harmful.

      In short, you’ve not made the case for why anyone should get interested in the topic. It’s up to you to make that case, since you’re the one arguing it, not just denigrate people for not having looked into it themselves.

  17. Phil

    OK, here’s what we have from you so far.

    “I’ve given this assertion some thought and I’ve stated some of them above. Regarding “simplistic”, more knowledge allows us to make better judgements. Unless you can show that this is false in general, or in our specific case, it isn’t simplistic. Regarding “outdated”, this isn’t applicable until you can give a more updated model of how we should gain knowledge. Regarding “dangerous”, it seems quite biased to ignore the good that may come from more knowledge.”

    As they say, all journey’s begin with a single step. Keep going if you wish, still listening.

    Reply
    1. Coel Post author

      Come on, that’s a completely troll-ish reply to a fair question. If you claim to have already said something “at length”, it’s entirely fair to ask for a link to it.

  18. Phil

    I was able to find my previous Coel blog posts on this topic on Google in about 7 seconds.

    So, let’s review where we are. I claimed that scientists are not interested in examining and challenging the core assumptions their enterprise is based upon. That is, I claimed that scientists are scientists, and not philosophers.

    At least in the case of this admittedly tiny sample of scientists, my claim has been proven beyond all doubt.

    If you wish, observe what happened here. Instead of making a bunch of arguments myself, I stepped back and created some space where your own actions, or rather lack thereof, could speak for themselves.

    There’s nothing wrong with not being a philosopher. Few people are. But one would be a bit more of a philosopher if one at least knew one is not a philosopher.

    Reply
  19. Phil

    Coel wrote, “In short, you’ve not made the case for why anyone should get interested in the topic. It’s up to you to make that case… ”
    I’m not a scientist. Why is it up to me to spoon feed you an interest in the philosophical foundations of YOUR career???

    For the ninth time, I don’t object if members don’t have an interest in this topic. As I said somewhere above, long experience with this topic has taught me it’s going to take way more than logic for our culture in general, and scientists in particular, to re-examine this assumption at the heart of science. It’s going to take some big event in the real world.

    I used to foolishly feel such an event could be avoided through reason, and even more foolishly felt that my logic dancing in particular could be helpful. I now know this to not be true. This is a tide of history thing, beyond anyone’s power to control.

    The only reason I keep typing about any of this is that I’m addicted to typing, and um, well, the sound of my own voice. That too.

    Reply
    1. vampyricon

      YOU are the one making the assertion. YOU have the burden of proof. Either you provide evidence, or shut up and stop spamming this blog’s comments section post after post after post.

      If you’re addicted to typing write a fanfiction or something. I’m not judging.

  20. Phil

    Hi vampyricon,

    I don’t owe you or anybody else a single #$%^#$# thing. The solution here is simple. Don’t believe anything I’ve ever written. Problem solved.

    Here’s why members are so mad. Atheists want to have the same relationship with me that you have with theists. That relationship is summarized in the word “atheist”. We can observe how atheism makes no attempt to offer constructive solutions of it’s own, it’s content to say only that “we are not theists.”

    That’s what’s happening in this thread as well. None of you are willing to examine the assumptions science is built upon on your own. What you DEMAND!!! we do instead is play the atheist game, where you sit on your lazy asses waiting for someone else to say something, and then you tell them why it’s wrong, Wrong, WRONG!!

    If a reader is a college sophomore writing from their dorm room, then ok, fair enough, we’ve all been there, Rome is not built in a day, and everybody starts somewhere. If a readers has a Phd in science all I can suggest is, stick to science. Forget about philosophy, forget about theology, because you don’t know jack shit about any of that.

    Reply
    1. Coel Post author

      Here’s why members are so mad.

      No, they’re not “mad”, they’re just a bit exasperated by your style:

      You> There is a big problem with X.

      Others> Is there? Why is that?

      You> Work it out for yourself.

      Your style consists solely of accusing others of being unthinking dogmatists, you don’t go beyond that to say anything actually worthwhile.

      We can observe how atheism makes no attempt to offer constructive solutions of it’s own …

      But then “atheism” is only a small part of someone’s thoughts and identity.

  21. Phil

    Hi Coel,

    First, I don’t really blame anybody anywhere for being annoyed with me. I seem to have been born with (ie. I had nothing to do with it) a knack for exploring the boundaries of any and every group consensus (not just atheism) I find myself in, and this is indeed perhaps the least successful social strategy ever invented. What’s happening above generally happens everywhere I go, and I accept it as the price tag for attempting to think outside the usual memorized boxes.

    Members are exasperated because I have proven my thesis using their own actions (or rather lack thereof). My claim was that scientists are scientists, and not philosophers, and thus they have little interest in examining and challenging the assumptions at the heart of their enterprise. And that is exactly what we see in the thread above, little interest in examining and challenging the philosophical foundations of science.

    Instead what we see above are incessant increasingly rude demands that I do your homework for you, so that you can tell me why it’s wrong, an emotional agenda.

    Finally, as I’ve now had to type about ten times, I’ve already addressed the “more is better” topic to at least some degree on this blog, a fact easily discovered by a 10 second investigation on Google, a job deemed too challenging by this group.

    I don’t blame anybody for not looking up what has already been written. There is no obligation to do so. But then, I am under no obligation to spoon feed members either.

    Again, should there be an interest to examine the following assertion….

    ASSERTION: Our “more is better” relationship with knowledge is simplistic, outdated and dangerous.

    …the price tag is as follows, as already stated a number of times.

    Write an article taking any position on the above assertion, and show evidence of conducting your own thoughtful investigation. Pretend that I am dead and can no longer be of any assistance. Pretend that you are on your own, and if this assertion is to be explored, it’s up to you to do it.

    If I see that happening somewhere, and if I’m invited to participate in that investigation, I will happily do so. All I’m doing in this thread is declining to spoon feed. And the only reason I am so declining is that I’ve already spoon fed on this subject what seems a thousand times, and so it is no longer that interesting a process for me.

    Now, finally, I agree that we can have a food fight in my dorm room, but you guys have to agree to be careful not to knock down my beer can wall, which I’ve spent months so carefully assembling. 🙂

    Reply
    1. Coel Post author

      Phil,

      … a knack for exploring the boundaries of any and every group consensus (not just atheism)

      You are completely deluded if you think that that’s what you’re doing, all you’ve ever done is sneer at atheists while making no substantive critique.

      … I have proven my thesis using their own actions (or rather lack thereof).

      You are completely deluded if you think that.

      And that is exactly what we see in the thread above, little interest in examining and challenging the philosophical foundations of science.

      You don’t seem to have noticed that a major part of this blog is about philosophical aspects of science.

      Finally, as I’ve now had to type about ten times, I’ve already addressed the “more is better” topic to at least some degree on this blog, …

      That is deluded and dishonest. All you’ve ever done is repeatedly assert that there is a discussion to be had. You have never posted anything of substance making the case.

      Now, please can you stop trolling? By which I mean posts that simply sneer at others. If you want to start a discussion about “more is better” or whatever THEN START IT. If you don’t want to start it then don’t. But further posts amounting to “I want other people to start it and I’ll sneer at them if I don’t” is just being obnoxious.

  22. Phil

    Coel, nobody has ever been required to read or reply to any of my posts. This fantasy victim pose you are attempting to sell is a figment of your imagination. If you don’t find my posts useful, just ban my IP and I’m gone forever. No problem, no offense taken,I don’t object. All these so many problems users are whining about are entirely your own invention.

    Reply
    1. josh

      Hi Phil,
      I’ve been following along a good part of your conversation with Coel and others. As an outside observer, let me tell you that you are acting like a troll. Coel is not performing a “fantasy victim pose” as a “figment of his imagination”. I’m writing on the chance that you don’t realize this and might change your behavior.

      It’s true that no one is “required” to engage with you, but your numerous posts still take up space and break up the flow of conversation. You have effectively derailed this post, which was a critique of certain philosophers statements about humanism and science. That’s generally a dick move and if you genuinely wanted to get people thinking about your concerns you aren’t going to succeed with your current method. Moreover, people here have tried to engage you, out of courtesy or curiosity, and you have blown them off with deflections to unspecified comments elsewhere and a refusal to answer questions or elaborate your own thoughts. It’s you who have tried to assign your homework to other people, essentially telling them to write an essay on a question which is the object of your idiosyncratic obsession, after which you may deign to comment. This is rude and not indicative of any sincere thought on your part.

      Rather than concluding that scientists have never thought about the assumptions of science, you shouldn’t conclude anything, because you have no way of knowing what other people have thought about such questions. Your refusal to engage in a productive manner virtually guarantees you will remain in the dark.

      My suggestions would be to
      1) Find an appropriate venue to ask your burning question.
      2) Lay out your own concerns and elaborate your position seriously if and when people do
      engage you. You can just quote yourself if you’ve already done it somewhere.
      3) Let it go if no one wants to talk to you about it for a while. Try to talk about the subjects actually introduced in the original post or else just stay silent, but don’t drag every conversation onto your singular theme.

      Best regards,
      josh

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