Thursday, October 24, 2013

Springs, Precipitates, the Paranormal and Heretic Hunters

Without generalising and extending our epistemology science will go down the tubes

Once again I find atheist Larry Moran’s blog an excellent frizzen for creating the sparks to ignite some thoughts on epistemology: The following quoted material can be found here.


I think there IS a conflict between science and religion. For example, I think that a proper understanding of evolution leads inevitably to the conclusion that there is no purpose or goal in evolution and that the evolution of humans on this planet was largely a chance event. This conflicts with many religious views.

My Comment: A proper understanding of evolution, even as it is understood by the academic establishment leads inevitably to the conclusion that it is highly directed in the sense that its probing “gaseous” fingers of probabilistic diffusion must be limited to very narrow channels in the space of possibilities, otherwise nothing interesting would evolve in realistic time scales. Using phrases like “chance event” fails to do justice to this background structure that guides the process of evolution. See this post where I discuss the channelled nature of evolution with one of Larry Moran’s commenters, a commenter who, like Professor Moran himself, seemed unable see the logic of his own position.
Let me just say by way of qualifying myself, that I'm not committed to the academic establishment's view of evolutionary mechanisms and I'm here only pointing to the implications of what people like Larry Moran must himself be committed to even if he is unaware of it.
There may be a conflict between science and religion if one conceives God’s involvement in natural history as necessarily being that of a kind of jumped alien homunculus who majors in tinkering with the natural order, making science, as we currently know it, fail at those points. (See:
As for the concept of “purpose” let’s be clear that this notion has no meaning unless we are talking about a context where sentience is implicit and consequently where such concepts as plans, goals and aims are meaningful. In contrast there is no intrinsic “purpose” to be found in the mechanisms of evolution any more than one can find purpose in some man-made artifact without imagining the social context in which it functions. "Purpose" is an extrinsic property of an object and it exists by virtue of the object's relation to its context. In a similar vein: One can’t find purpose in the mechanisms of evolution any more than one finds sentience at the low level of brain neurons. Purpose and sentience are only found at the high system level. If purpose is to be found in evolution it will only become apparent in the higher context of the world-view within which one interprets the meaning (or lack of meaning!) of evolution. Therefore contrary to what Larry Moran says it follows that a proper understanding of evolution is not in itself sufficient to throw light on the subject of purpose (or lack of purpose)

I think that science can, and has, dealt with supernatural explanations and found them wanting in all cases. I do not believe in non-overlapping Magisteria. There's nothing that science can't investigate.

My Comment: I agree that there is nothing that can’t be investigated scientifically and I don’t myself believe in non-overlapping Magisteria. But this is not to say that science’s investigations will always be successful; as I have said here, amenability of an ontology to scientific investigation will have a bearing on the level of scientific success. It is quite possible to imagine intractable ontologies that do not readily yield their secrets to scientific epistemology.
I’m not really sure what Larry means by “supernatural explanations” but I suspect this is all bound up with the Western dualist mindset that makes a sharp distinction between natural and supernatural agencies.

I believe that Kevin Padian is wrong when he says that religious scientists such as Ken Miller, Michael Behe, and Francis Collins "do not place religious views above empirical evidence." They all believe in miracles, they all believe that humans have a soul, and they all believe in life after death. They all believe in the existence of a personal, creator God in spite of the fact that there's no evidence that such a being exists. 

Larry Moran appears not to understand how “evidence” really works: There is even evidence for David Ike’s bizarre world of reptilian conspiracy, but whether it is sufficient evidence and interpreted with epistemic discipline is another matter. Human beings do not proceed logically from evidence to theoretical narratives but are inclined to work from theoretical narratives to evidences. These narratives serve as sense making and explanatory objects of those evidences. This very human and open ended capability comes with all the potential epistemic hazards of imaginative and undisciplined over-interpretation. What Moran seems not to understand is that religious views are a way of interpreting accepted evidences against a backdrop of endeavor that seeks to reach an all-embracing world-view by abduction. People like Miller and Collins don’t differ with Larry Moran about evidences or the relatively low level physical science narratives in which these evidences are embedded. But they do differ with Moran in their willingness to put those objects and evidences in the much wider context of a religious world view. Miller and Collins are adding to the basic physical science narratives and not subtracting from them (as do fundamentalists). That they may believe in the occasional few and far between historical suspensions of the normal physical regime (i.e. miracles) can hardly be construed as anti-science heresy (which is, I suspect, the charge that Mr Moran is seeking to bring) and will make little difference to their science.

The kind of objections to the paranormal that we see from Larry Moran may typically have their roots in an a-priori concept of what reality should be like. Rather than objecting to the paranormal for the epistemic reason that its observational protocols are far too erratic to give us a firmly established theoretical narrative the real objection is actually ontological; that is, there is an ulterior and exclusive line being drawn around what can be and should be. What is happening here is that when investigations start to go beyond the relatively amenable world of mechanisms established by spring extending and test tube precipitating sciencethe epistemic difficulties of acquiring knowledge are wrongly perceived as an ontological limitation rather than an epistemic limitation; that is, if it’s beyond the mechanisms within the purview of spring extending and test tube precipitating science then the default assumption is that it doesn't exist. But science isn't ontology, it is epistemology, an epistemology that must wait without prior prejudice on what ontology puts its way. A belief in the identification of the epistemically tractable with ontology is itself a world view that has effectively over interpreted the evidence available.

Having said that, however, I nevertheless respect diffidence about belief in the paranormal (which includes the miraculous) because the manifestation of the paranormal in human consciousness is highly erratic. I therefore find no good reason to blame anyone for genuine disbelief in it. I would certainly not take the line of the Christian fundamentalists who use Romans 1 in an indiscriminating and comprehensive way as a pretext to make a cathartic full-on hell-fire attack on their detractors, accusing them of the most heinous sins of blasphemy and/or heresy: We see atheists like Larry Moran accused of being crypto-theists suppressing the truth of God in unrighteousness as per Romans 1. The history referred to in Romans 1 is inapplicable to people like, say, Larry Moran who gives every impression of having a clear conscience in their disbelief of the paranormal and of God. Romans 1 is about the rejection of the true God in favor of idolatry;  that is, in favor of perverse depictions of God and not atheism per see.
Given the erratic nature of the paranormal and all that is so bizarre and repugnant about many religious communities there are cultural circumstances that help fuel disbelief: This is, in fact, the general lesson that comes out Romans 1; namely, that false depictions of God promotes disbelief. In this connection I'm sure many an atheist will receive mercy on judgement day; they only need plead the mitigating circumstances of Western culture which includes the likes of the Jehovah witnesses, the Mormons, Answers in Genesis, Barry Smith, William Tapley, Harold Camping, David Koresh, David Berg -  the list is endless. 

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