Knowledge vs. utility

Gary Wolf’s article describing the New Atheism movement and Khalid Mir’s post on the value of intuition have prompted me to consider the difference between a belief system’s validity and usefulness.

One such ‘use’ is morality. Is morality superior to knowledge? To make an extreme case: I’d rather live among friendly and fun imbeciles than I would mean and murderous intellectuals. Or as Trey Parker explained it in Reason Magazine’s article, South Park Libertarians:

If a religion’s going to take over the world, and the one that really believes “just be super nice to everyone” takes over, that’s all right with me. Even if it’s all bullshit, that’s OK.

Parker is forgetting all the other things that come attached to religion. Though some beliefs in themselves might be useful or even true, the beliefs in the remainder of a belief system might not be.

[to be continued]


62 thoughts on “Knowledge vs. utility

  1. I understand that many religious people are religious partly because it heightens their own sense of morality. The question remains, though: Does one need religion to be a moral person? Are atheists or intellectuals somehow less moral?

  2. I think morality and religion are independent. Think of the variety of ways theists can cherry-pick scriptures to support their morality. I personally know a Baptist Christian who thinks homosexuality isn’t a sin. There’s not necessarily a thick line between every atheist and theist. I’m questioning the significance of religious labels.

    I’m also opening this post up to belief systems in a more general sense. Khalid Mir made an important point when he noted that free will is inconsistent with science, since science is deterministic. Psychologists have known for decades that people who believe they’re not in control of their lives are more apt to be depressed and withdrawn.

    Are some beliefs necessary illusions?

  3. Hmm, interesting points. I’m sort of just acclimating myself with this concept of determinism, but I would think Khalid’s point important too if I didn’t immediately wonder whether science weren’t deterministic (that is, if I’m correctly interpreting what determinism entails). Instead, I feel that free will is science, just as much as biology is science. That’s not to say that we’re all robotic vectors being governed by physical interactions of molecules inside of us – actually, wait, that’s precisely what I’m saying. It’s just that it’s weird to say precisely because these same interactions make it feel weird, make it feel as if it’s weird to imagine a world in which emotions and thoughts and morals and experiences are merely chemicals and nothing more.

    Then again, if my understanding of determinism is off, you might need to straighten me out.

  4. Also, the point about those believing they’re not in control of their lives is interesting. Do you happen to know of any citiations for that? I’m also a bit baffled by what you mean by those who “believe they’re not in control of their lives;” is that like, say, they think the world is being controlled by an all-powerful being, perhaps? :)

  5. Nosu (I wish you had a simpler name !), I think you’re spot on about the self-righteousness of some religious types…the Ned Flanders of the world and the Little-house-on-the -Prairie-morality..may God save us from them :)

    I don’t understand determinism either and it is hard to imagine anyone actually *living* it. The point I made is a very old one (in modern terms , down to Kant) and I don’t think it can be easily resolved: we always live with the tension between freedom and necessity. That seems to be the human condtion.

    But here’s my point: if we are just a product of the causal laws of atoms (matter) then how can we ever *know* that? (wouldn’t we have to be ‘outside’ them to say that?) We must not only abandon our notion of ‘freedom’ , but also the very idea of ‘thoght’ and ‘truth’. As Jason perceptively remarked in an earlier post: it may all be an illusuion and we cannot even know that..we might just be able to say that it’s a *pleasurable* illusion !

    As you say, what does it mean to say that thoughts are just chemical reactions? Does that include the thought that thought is just a chemical reaction as well? It is not surprising that we live in a Gnostic age! (see Hans Jonas’s brilliant Gnosticism, Existentialism and Nihilism in his book, the phenomenon of life). I don’t know of you’ve seen the Matrix (I’ve written on this , on my blog ‘Gnostic Nation’).

    anyway, the best description I’ve seen of the problems raised by scuh a conception of things is Mary Midgely’s first chapter of ‘poetry and science’.

    Keep well,


    Simone Weil: ‘necessity is the veil of God’

  6. “Nosu (I wish you had a simpler name !)”

    Khalid, read “nosugrefneb” backwards. His name is Ben ;)

    Although determinists would accept that the future is, in some sense, set, they accept human actions as factors that will cause the future to take the shape that it will – even though those human actions are themselves determined; if they had been different, the future would also be different.


    It seems determinism, though it might rule out free will as an immaterial or uncaused cause, still offers humanity the possibility of a sense of free will. This goes back to my argument of knowledge versus utility. It may or may not be true that will is independent from causes outside itself or a soul or some other originating identity such as the mind, but one still has the power to choose, whether that power is ultimately ‘free’ or not. To believe one’s choices are futile is to take a step towards fatalism.

    Fatalism is the view that human deliberation and actions are pointless and ineffectual in determining events, because whatever will be will be.

    Let me try to clarify what I mean by “people who believe they’re not in control of their lives.” For starters, think of addicts. They often feel like their habits are inescapable forces that willpower can’t overcome. Another example set is victims of sexual assault.

    These kinds of experiences–of having frightening thoughts invade their minds–seem to be virtually uncontrollable at times and certainly can make it difficult to concentrate. This adds to the feeling many victims have of not being in control of their own lives. [emphasis added]


    I think the above quote would apply to victims of any circumstances, including self-created ones.

  7. Khalid, call me Ben; it’s easier to spell and will save you lots of time!
    After thinking about it a bit more, I suppose I’m firmly on the side of reductionism – that everything can be causally related to the actions and inventory of its parts, which, in most cases, all boils down to physics, which itself is unfortunate because I don’t have the slightest understanding of it.

    The short answer for how we can know that is that we’ve gotten to a point in our development to be able to do so. To me, it’s as simple as an immune surveillance cell chasing a bacterium, which most people wouldn’t call thinking, but there are complex response pathways going on inside that allow the immune cell to make “decisions” about where it needs to go. Why is it that animals don’t have emotions and can’t make complex decisions? They’re not as advanced in their development as we are; that is to way that we evolved differently than they did. The reason we’re able to think about the nature of our thoughts is because over millions of years, organisms have been perfecting their biology, and somewhere along there humans began to consciously realize that they knew things and become curious about the nature of things. If that weren’t the case, don’t you think that we would have built entire civilizations and invented light bulbs and computers much earlier than this? After all, humans have been around for tens of thousands of years, yet more progress has been made in the last 50 or 100 years than the rest of that period combined.

    There was an initial seed of curiosity, and everything up until now has been building on that alone.

  8. Ben, I would strongly disagree with your statement that animals don’t have emotions. Whether they actually experience emotion as we do is arguable, as we’ve yet to fully understand consciousness. But I believe scientists have confirmed that animals have largely the same behavioral and biological criteria for emotions as humans do.

    It’s also arguable that animals can’t make complex decisions. But I think you were trying to say that humans, unlike other animals, not only have thoughts and emotions, but also an awareness of those thoughts and emotions. We can have thoughts about our thoughts. It is this ability to reflect which brings about self-awareness and a capacity to ruminate that certainly surpasses other lifeforms.

  9. Sure, you’re probably right. The truth is that what I was going for was that thing that people always say animals don’t have, but I guess that thing is neither emotions nor complex thoughts! But you get what I’m trying to say – indeed, you said it much better than I.

  10. Ben, of course ! (Der…or,as I think you say in America : Doh!)
    Sad to hear that you’ve gone over to the “reductionsist” side! :)
    Come on Ben, friendship, love, art, poetry, music, scientific thought: nothing but the result of the structure and movement, of matter? Hmm.

    I like how you say “decisions” , not decisions ! Yes, how inconvenient this thing human freedom is :)

    but tell me Ben, if you’ve now “decided” that you are a reductionsit, was it you really deciding or was it just a shift in the atoms that MADE you change your mind?

  11. Ow, this is starting to hurt my head. Friendship, love, art, poetry, music, scientific thought are all beautiful things, especially when they’re taken merely at face value, but they come from somewhere. They don’t just exist; they are created for and by our own minds. Our minds have some underlying mechanism for their actions, and it all inevitably boils down to physics.

    I’ll admit it: It’s depressing for me to think about. It’s depressing for me to accept that, to me, there is no heaven, that we as humans encompass a fraction of a fraction of a fraction of the lifetime of all that exists, both in time and in space, and that somehow we are vastly unimportant because of it. That’s most definitely depressing, and it hurts my head to wonder why anybody ever works hard, strives for happiness, tries not to die, etc. when really, it doesn’t matter. The only reason I can come up with is that we’ve evolved over tens of thousands of years as humans, and much much longer than that as evolving predecessors, to be that way, but evolution doesn’t matter too much in the whole scheme of things either.

    That’s why it sometimes boggles my mind that some religious people are so self-centric and era-centric. What I mean by that is that everyone always thinks they, and everything surrounding them – time, environment, etc. – is the most important thing that ever has been. Sam Harris has quoted a poll that says that 44% of Americans think either that Jesus will definitely return to the Earth within their lifetime, or roughly the next 50 years, or that he probably will.

    What?!? Not only has the universe been around for 13.7 BILLION years, but some of these people probably believe that everything that exists has been around for 6 THOUSAND years, and they have the balls to say that, of course, Jesus is going to come back and see THEM? If he didn’t come back during the previous 50 years, or during the 50 before that, or the 50 before that, or during any of the 40 or so periods since he supposedly lived, what makes them think that, duh, he’s definitely coming back now?

    Anyway, my head still hurts.

  12. Ben, my head hurts too! Maybe we’re tying to think too hard about this. As if love, friendship, art could be ‘thought’ about ..coleridge would say: we need to think the stars AND feel them. (anyway, just saw a great film, ‘the dead’. You must see it. Don’t read my review until you see it).

    Yep, agree with you. there’s a terrible dange rin thinking one is the centre of attention (whatw as the line from contact: an awful waste of spce! :) )
    But i think there’s an equal danger of just thinking of ourselves as matter (although I know some people who are like atoms! :) )
    Promo levi, BTW, has a great book on this: the periodic table.

    “they don’t just exist”.?
    Hmm…Wallace stevens. “muddy centre”?

    If your loved one asks you but WHY do you love me then you knwo your in trouble! :)
    some things do just exist…”reason not the need”, said the man.

  13. Real quick, because I have a final in two hours and still have about 80% of the material to get through(!): Check out this movie I came across…it explains what I’m trying to say a bit better.

    Also, you appear to have read far more than I have.

  14. It’s depressing for me to accept that, to me, there is no heaven, that we as humans encompass a fraction of a fraction of a fraction of the lifetime of all that exists, both in time and in space, and that somehow we are vastly unimportant because of it.

    There’s no reason we can’t strive for a heaven on Earth. And isn’t it the fact that our lifetimes are so short that makes life important? It would be easy to take life for granted if we were immortal.

    And it’s easy for a single life to seem insignificant from a God’s-eye point of view. But who’s to say that perspective is any more valid that one’s subjective perspective? Self-importance is essential because it is the self who decides what is important. My life is important to me. It’s also important to those close to me, and vice-versa. Maybe I’m not important to the universe as a whole, but why should that matter to me?

    […] why anybody ever works hard, strives for happiness, tries not to die, etc. when really, it doesn’t matter.

    It does matter for evolution. And it can matter in other ways if you want it to. Some may feel lost without an absolute purpose. But isn’t there a beautiful freedom in being able to choose a purpose? The meaning of life is whatever meaning you give it.

    If your loved one asks you but WHY do you love me then you know you’re in trouble!

    Well, honey, it’s because we have these chemical reactions, you see, that have evolved over thousands of years…

    Yeah, that could be a problem ;)

  15. Yes, the fact that our lives are so short makes living them to the fullest important to ourselves, but relative to everything else, no, it doesn’t. We recognize that we’re alive for a finite amount of time, which seems important to us right here and right now, but it is precisely that finiteness that makes us decidedly unimportant, relatively speaking, as it is inevitable that everything will continue to exist when we no longer do.

    I’m not necessarily talking about individual lives here, either. I’m talking about the entire history of humanity, the entire existence of Earth, even the duration of the existence of this galaxy. They’re all so very brief. These things easily transcend the perceived importance of arbitrary decisions any self could make, I’d say. Like I’ve said before, does the color you pick for your kitchen cabinets really matter when you consider that the universe is 13.7 billion years old? Does evolution of every organism on the planet really matter (assuming they’re not going to be around indefinitely)?

    However, you said it best: Whether we’re important shouldn’t matter to us now, here. I totally agree with that, but it remains stuck in the back of my head all the same. Luckily it doesn’t venture out too often, or I might have serious motivation issues (that is to say even more so than I already do!).

  16. Go on Jason, try those lines.., I dare you :)

    Something like:

    J.A: our meeting was in the stars.

    girl: how romantic. (fluttering her eyelids)

    J.A.: no, seriously. It was just a chance agglomeration of matter that brought you, another chance agglomeration of matter to me. In the bigger scheme of things, it doesn’t matter.

    girl: huh?

    J.A: And whether it was you or some other “blonde” atoms that came my way was just dependent on a parameter in the equations taking on a particular value.

    Girl: What the f*%$!

    J.A. (prompted by Ben): Girls just haven’t evolved enough to understand these things…

    Ben, how did your exams go?

  17. I’m laughing over here, Khalid. And I’m thinking, why not try that approach? Nothing else has worked for me in the past year!

    Ben, I know what you’re saying. Looking at life, individual or collective, from a distance is indeed depressing, but only if one gives that view too much importance. It can be useful to look outside ourselves, but it can also be detrimental if we spend too much time there. Yes, our lives may pass in a blink of the eye of the universe, but not our own.

  18. Ha! When you get slapped, just remember: It doesn’t matter. Exams went well, although I suspect I might not have had to guess as often as I did had I been reading something other than these conversations.

    Jason: Yes. Right. Exactly. Word. You have just said in a few lines what took me half a page to say, and I hadn’t even quite gotten there yet. How’s that for depressing?

  19. Girls haven’t evolved enough to understand these things? Hmmph.

    (I’m giggling…but really, why would gender have anything to do with understanding?)

    Thanks, Ben, for pointing me to this conversation. But no, I hadn’t seen this. The conversation I’d referred to had taken place at a forum called zaadz, which I’ve abandoned because it turned out to be nothing but a hotbed for moral relativism, which drives me up a wall.

    I think we can say that emotions and thoughts are chemical reactions AND we have free will, because both are pretty clearly true, and not necessarily mutually exclusive. Just because we don’t yet understand the material basis for free will and consciousness doesn’t mean there isn’t one. The brain is bizarrely complex. In 100 years or so I’m betting they’ll have figured it out; they’ve made leaps and bounds just in the last decade.

    I’m also betting that we’ll have abandoned the idea of a creator and will have figured out that we are all related and therefore ought to try a little better to get along with each other, share resources, and solve the problems that we as a species face. (At least, I’m hoping so.)

    And I agree that religion and morality are independent. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that people who’ve abandoned the need for religion carry morality to a higher level, because they seek to do the right thing because it’s the right thing, and not because they’re threatened with sanctions by some wrathful deity.

  20. Well said. Interestingly, this morning I was listening to a podcast of Radio Lab, the coolest thing ever, and they were discussing an experiment that was done a while back that involved instructing subjects to wiggle their fingers whenever they wished while recording their brain activity. Strangely, there was significant brain activity far before their fingers actually wiggled, indicating that perhaps people DON’T have as much free will as we once thought. I’m having difficulty locating the citation, but if I come across it I’ll let you know.

  21. Though that could show instead simply that brain activity is involved in the act of choosing…that consciousness has to amp up, make a choice, then perform the action. Or that the subjects were thinking, “should I wiggle now? No, not yet.” In my view, such an experiment would actually reinforce the idea that we have choice. If brain activity didn’t occur until the finger-wiggle, then it might seem more like a spontaneous, unwilled act.

    I wonder about folks’ desire to believe that we lack free will. That would certainly remove responsibility for our actions, which some might find comforting.

  22. So I don’t think I explained it properly, but that was definitely excluded as a possibility from what I understand. The time it takes for a nerve impulse to be formed in your brain and travel to the muscles of your finger is at the level of a few milliseconds, while this gap between brain activity and the sensation of your finger moving they found was more on the order of a full second. Again, I haven’t read the paper, so it’d be interesting to see what it actually says! I didn’t get the impression that the scientists themselves made any assertions about the concept of free will, but rather that philosophers later interpreted it as such.

  23. As far as the timing, that’s why I postulated that the preceding brain activity could simply have been thought, even at a subconscious level.

    And as far as the philosophers interpreting it to mean something about free will (or the lack of it), that’s whom I was talking about when I said I wonder about folks’ desire to deny its existence.

    I really think that it’s simplistic to imagine that reality is one of two choices: materialistic determinism, or a shell motivated by some supernatural power (the ghost in the machine). I think it’s pretty obvious that the truth lies in the middle: There’s nothing but matter, yet, somehow, given an immensity of time and complexity, consciousness — free & plenary — arose from that matter. And so here we are.

    It seems to me that what we (not us few, but us as a species) need to be using our brainpower to determine, rather than the ultimate nature of reality (which may be well nigh unknowable), is how we can progress into a future that doesn’t eliminate the rest of the species, but instead eliminates violence, famine, and the mass of avoidable suffering that plagues us right now.

  24. Further evidence that Radio Lab pervades every aspect of my life these days: A few days I caught part of their show that discussed the emerging science of emergence (teehee), which deals with incredibly simple and/or stupid components that come together to form a giant, complex working unit. An atom, or even subatomic particles, are perfect examples of this. Individual neurons, ants, and citizens are other examples they offered. Ahh, brings me back to my reductionist days…(from like 6 days ago).

  25. ‘Men vs Insects’…no ben, it’s not the latest movie, nor is it a feminist rant :)
    It’s a great essay by Russell.

    As for citizens..let’s remember whitman: think of people as people, not as dots and dreams.

    ants shants, let’s call the whole thing off.

    Hope all else is well.

  26. HP, I think your words about the truth being in-betwen are profound ones.

    But I have to say, I think *part* of the problem has been because we think of the rest of nature as “mere matter” that we’ve been able to exploit her. Only the ‘I’ is real in such a view…it is another attempt-in the final analysis-to be God.

    It is that “somehow” where all the mystery lies. No?

    ‘Brainpower’. For me, this is not answer. The germans had plenty of it and look where it led them. I would suggest ‘integral thinking’…which is feeling , intuition, and thought…as that great natural philosopher G. Bush once said: hearts *and * minds.

  27. The heart pumps blood. That’s all.

    Integral thinking ALL takes place in the brain. By brain power I’m not just talking about the intellect.

    And yes, while I speak of all human’s realizing that they’re kin, I believe that’s just the first step. If you read the first entry in my blog, “Enough,” you’ll see that the step following that is to recognize that we’re intimately related to everything here, an inextricable part of the cosmos.

    And you ARE joking about Bush being any kind of thinker, right?

  28. “the heart pumps blood, that’s all”.

    Hmm. Sad to hear that you feel/think that way HP. So, to say you love your kids with all your heart is just a poor use of language is it? Somehow I doubt you *really* think that in your heart of hearts.

    I like your idea of being related. Except I see it throught he spirit and not through matter..or, to be more precise, not JUST through matter.

    Bush! of course :)
    but sometimes even a fool will stumble on wise words , even though he doesn’t know what he’s saying or what they mean…

  29. Emotion takes place in the brain, simple as that.

    I can say I love my kids completely, and leave my heart out of it.

    Of course, as a poet, I understand metaphor, and often use it. But when you denigrate the term “brain power” as if there’s some other organ we can use to solve our problems, I have to object.

  30. HP, I have nothing to say to that. If that’s what you believe-that emotion is merely what happens in the brain- then what else can I say? Have you read Mary midgely’s ‘poetry and science’ btw?

    Keep well,


  31. No, I haven’t. I’ll keep my eye out for it. It’s a topic of great interest to me, since I engage science in my work quite a bit (I’m married to a scientist).

    I guess the reason we don’t see eye-to-eye on the matter-vs.-spirit (mind-vs.-heart) thing is that I don’t believe in the existence of a spirit, or a soul. I believe in consciousness, which I find wondrous enough. But I believe that it ends at death, since it’s a process, not an entity.

    best wishes,

  32. HP, what can possibly exist between determinism and the ghost in the machine? I don’t see how determinism is escapable within an empirical domain. The material world is either determined or it’s not. How could something free arise out of something bound to mechanical principles? What other than a preternatural entity could exert will over matter?

  33. Jason, you are free to act…you are matter.
    You think but the brain is matter.
    Is life subject to mechanical principles and that only?
    “He who sees Ratio sees only himself” Blake.

    A shaykh once told me that the truth of this matter is between freedom and necessity..a bit like being half pregnant!

    If there are many dimensions to reality then it seems possible to imagine causality at one level and freedom at another. What is true in the order of truth may not be in the order of love said the sage, Simone Weil. For us, to see things only in terms of mechanism is to see things through the ‘aql’-the root meaning of which means ‘binding’: rationality binds us to one level fo reality.

  34. You’re presupposing freedom, among other things, Khalid. Let me clarify.

    I’m saying that if matter is all that exists (which I think is HP’s view), and if matter always follows physical rules, then determinism is inevitable. Uncaused freedom (is there any other kind?) can’t logically exist under those conditions. For free will to exist, either there must be more than just matter, or matter must be capable of disobeying physics.

    The only loophole I’m aware of in all this is quantum indeterminacy. One interpretation alleges that observation itself might play a role in determining the state of subatomic particles. If free will operates at the quantum level, there’s surely a lot of work to be done in figuring out how that transposes to our conventional sense of the term. One of the books I’m reading, The Mind and the Brain: Neuroplasticity and the Power of Mental Force by Jeffrey M. Schwartz, attempts to cover some of that work. It should be interesting to see where it leads.

    At this moment, I’m not sure where I stand on the issue. I’m not convinced consciousness (which I assume connects to free will) is entirely material. A colorblind neuroscientist can study another’s perceptions of the color red but never have a subjective experiential understanding of the color as she would if she woke up one morning cured of colorblindness and saw a bush of red roses out her window. It seems consciousness is more than the mere information processing carried out by our sense organs and brain.

  35. Jason, that was just my whole point at the very beginning ogf ur discussions if you remember! I had suggested that material monism runs into all sorts of problems and recommended Hans Jonas and Mary Midgely on this.

    I don’t understand quantum or physics but have read soemwhere that matter “is” both wave and particle..Adn there was Schroedinger’s cat. I tend to think of Weil’s : necessity is the veil of God. i.e that mechanism is only one way of looking at the same reality.

    the problem is as old as Descrtes (at least in its modern guise). If only the ‘I’ is free and res extensa is subject to mechanism, then how is there interaction between them. I think Descrtes answer of the pineal gland isn’t very helpful. jonas in Morality and Mortality suggests something. the point is this Jason, the problem is areal one and has exercised the best minds (do take a look at the lecture on Kant at the Tanner lecture site…I think it’s by O’neil) .

    but here’s the thing: we DO act in a way that we think is free , we do think in a way that we assume is true and not just the result of mechanical processes in the brain. What would it mean to say that thought is determined by atoms? Would it still be thought? This is why my position right at the beginning was that material monism is untenable. (Goes back to our discussion with Ben and reductionism).

    I thonk the ‘solution’ -if there is one, ultimately boils down to time. But one way of seeing it is, perhaps: water and ice are materially continuous but qualitatively different. Science cannot -at the moment-talk about qualities.

    I ws flicking through some walter Benjamin yesterday and something he said struck me as profound. I’ll try and post it on my blog.

    Hope all else is well.

    Take care,

    p.s Ben, are you alive?

  36. I only re-read (red) your post and saw that it ties in with mine about ‘secondary qualities’ !
    Yes, I think consciousness is incredibly complicated. Recently , i’ve started reading Tallis’ ‘the hand’ which is a fascinating account of No, seriously, right up your street. the more I read the more complex even simple things like the hands I’m leaving ‘consciousness’ for the time being.
    Damasio is supposed to have aan excellent book on this bTW. haven’t read it but if I start that’s where I will go first….unless this book you’re reading is something you highly recommend…

  37. I remember your original point. But I was specifically addressing honestpoet’s comments, arguing that there’s an incompatibility between free will and materialism. I didn’t intend to go beyond that.

    I don’t have time to respond to the rest of your comment right now. Maybe later this evening.

    By the way, I was editing my comment while you were posting yours. That’s probably why you missed part of it.

  38. Janson, I don’t see them as incompatible at all. Consciousness clearly arises out of matter, and is subject to it: look at a stroke victim, or even someone with meningitis. Their consciousness is clearly affected by the stuff of their brain.

    But yes, thought, consciousness, free will, all that stuff we feel as our selves, must happen at the quantum level, where all kinds of wildness goes on. At a small enough level, matter is really organized energy, though it sure feels solid, doesn’t it! It’s really something to think about.

    But all of it, love, will, grief, ends when the brain dies. I don’t know about y’all, but I’m okay with that.

  39. HP, I think we’re talking about two different kinds of consciousness. Your use seems to reflect the medical definition, which functions practically in its field. But I’m referring to one’s subjective and spontaneous experience, which is not something perceivable (at least not yet) to an outside observer, as in my colorblind example above. I’ll reiterate. We could study a frog’s central nervous system and learn how all the information is processed within it. But that won’t tell us what it’s like to be a frog, to be in its mind and to witness reality as it does. That first-hand experience is what I’m calling consciousness.

    Returning to free will, philosopher Daniel Dennett (also an outspoken atheist who I’d rank with Dawkins and Harris) describes a materialist form of free will here in a summary of his 1984 book Elbow Room: The Varieties of Free Will Worth Wanting. Dennett’s free will is entirely utilitarian—a necessary illusion—which goes back to this post’s topic and my early comments.

    Khalid, I have little more to add in response to your comments, though as always, I’ll thoroughly consider your point of view. At the moment, I think my approach differs substantially from your own. I’m starting with materialism and trying to build a dualistic argument by trying to show that consciousness (in the experiential, spontaneous sense) can’t be explained by matter or observation. It’s interesting that you said it “boils down to time.” Just take a look at my last post.

    I can’t recommend the book I’m reading just yet. I need to get a little further into it.

    P.S. Honestpoet, I hope you recover quickly! Be well.

  40. I’ve read Orr’s review, which I disagree with. I’ve also read this retort to Orr’s review, which I do agree with.

    I haven’t been in much of a writing mood this week, I’m afraid. I’ve been dealing with an annoying cold and absorbing information from the various books and articles I’ve been reading. I’m in learning mode, you could say.

  41. I don’t know. I’ve just read half of the ‘rebuttal’ and it’s so weak that I’m surprised you agree with it.

    1. That Dawkins engages not with the ‘theology’ or ideas of religion but with its practice is really indicative of his polemical nature. Of course he’s aiming for middle-brow: this is an attempt to convert the masses (or at least give food to those who already don’t is, as Rieff would say, a deathwork).

    2. ‘Natural law as are given. that’s just the way it is’. Startling ignorance here in my opinion. He has failed to undertsand the point that one cannot consistently argue against the idea of having asumptions before one’s theory if one is doing exactly the same thing.

    3.that science has, at times, been consistent with religion would suggest, at least to a neutral observer, that there might not necessarily be a conflict. How can “data” go against theology when the propositions of the latter aren’t verifiable?

    That this ‘rebuttal. uses words like silly, sillier, and silliest just shows how infantile his response has been. The creation of the universe starts out with the simplest elements? are we supposed to take that seriously. What, no laws to describe the interaction of those elements, and what of an explanantion of how the universe goes from nothing (if indeed that’s what happend) to something. Is that , merely , a description of the simplest elements? Cofused thinking, in my opinion.

  42. I’m halfway through The God Delusion, so maybe I have a better understanding of what the author is referring to. Or maybe I’m biased.

    1. How religion is practiced and justified by the many surely outweighs how it’s conceptualized by the few. I don’t think Dawkins is aiming to “convert” so much as he’s aiming to infuse atheistic reasoning and credibility into mainstream discourse, simultaneously encouraging existing atheists to ‘come out of the closet.’

    2. I don’t see where you got the quote about natural law from. Regardless, assumptions are unavoidable. No epistemology is without its axioms. A system of knowledge that assumes the least and provides a coherent method of concluding truth is superior to any other. Systems of religious belief are presumptuous through and through, relying on authority and blind faith. Empiricism assumes the reality of observable phenomena and nothing more.

    3. In The God Delusion, Dawkins formulates a “God Hypothesis” which places the primary theological idea of a god into a verifiable context. Although ultimately no god cannot be proved or disproved, Dawkins shows that a god’s existence and supposed powers can be reduced to scientific probability.

    Is the use of the word “silly” the only indication of an infantile response? Must we generalize due to a few word choices and a personal interpretation of the author’s intention?

    Physics and Darwinism both demonstrate a universal progression of simplicity to complexity. The fact that there’s no complete theory as to how something arose from nothing in no way makes room for a supernatural explanation. It’s simply an unanswered question. Science has its gaps and it’s working to fill them, plainly enough.

  43. Well, I haven’t reead Dawkins and so I cannot comment . I’m only going by the review and the response .

    1. why does it “outweigh”. This in itself is a value judgement and is hardly a reasonable approach. Try and think about it objectively. If a critique of science was based on what most peoeple thought about it or by what science has contributed to society (including the bomb) would that be a fair way of assessing its intellectual claims?

    Mainstream discourse? perhaps things are different in the states to here but I think mainstream discourse is most definitely independent of religion!

    2. “Why can the laws of nature be taken as given? Because they are given! We know the laws of nature exist. We’re stuck with them”

    Depends what the words coherent mean. Coherent according to that system perhaps. The scholastics would have said that their system is internally coherent as well.

    anyway, I don’t think it is as coherent as it is made out to be. If human freedom and thought itself are the mere products of material processes -as the materilaist view holds-then I think there are incoherences.

    3. Haven’t read it so can’t comment. But it does sound strange, don’t you think, to examine a concept (God) which admittedly doesn’t conform in any meaningful way to one’s outlook and then talk about verifiability?

    I’m not saying that it does make room Jason. But look at the statement again : “material elements”. This is disingenuous because it says nothing about how those elements emerge or what laws they are subject to. To say that the elements themselves are ‘simple’ is to give the indication that the actual process is also simple -and I’m not sure that it is. And the origins does not, as far as i know, deal with how matter emerges from whatever it does or , indeed, how life emrges from matter; it mainly talks about the generation of species FROM the origin of life onwards.

    Science has its gaps.this assumes that it CAN fill those gaps. No?

    I see his ‘rebuttal’ as an emotional response, not a reasoned one. The words he uses are indicative of this. It’s like a child arguing: “score a point for”…”Silly”..and the quote in point 2. It’s there because it’s there. Isn’t that a case of circular reasoning that you said was inadmissible before?

  44. 1. Science and religion are fundamentally different. The truth of science rests upon it’s formal methods, not the public’s understanding. The truth of religion, however, rests upon the faith of its followers, not on theology. There is no epistemological method in religion explaining how one can differentiate between what is true and what is not. It merely dictates.

    Dawkins emphasizes that religion is strangely immune to criticism in common discourse. He wishes to change that by bringing religious and counter-religious dialog into the mainstream, hoping to make such talk more socially acceptable.

    2. What is coherent about supernatural claims? What is incoherent about scientific method? Science can produce demonstrable examples of its claims. Supernaturalism cannot. One can argue anything in terms of abstract principles. But when it comes down to it, science has the advantage of consistent and observable data.

    3. The bottom line is that I agree with Dawkins. Both Orr’s and Rosenhouse’s articles are incomplete in and of themselves since they both require reading of The God Delusion to understand the larger context of the debate. Rosenhouse’s writing is not devoid of emotion, I admit. But nor is it empty of reason.

    Science does not assume it can fill every gap. The origin of the universe or things such as consciousness may never be known to science. The job of science is to explain as much as possible. It doesn’t claim to be able to explain everything, though it will try its damndest.

  45. 1. why this arbitrary distinction? Who is to say that the truth of religion rests on the assumptions of its followers? why I can’t I sau that the truth of science depends on the public’s assumptions about it? Don’t you see how biased that is. You have given no *reasons* why that is so, just stated it.

    2. Criticism in common, starting out by saying that god is a delusion is really a good way of doing that :)
    what religious discourse does he want to bring into the mainstream though? the straw man arguments of the lay person ! Talk about the lack of intellectual honesty…

    I think you’re wrong here. Demonstrable according to certain criteria of what counts as ‘demonstrable’ (see Hacking’s ‘style of reasoning’). Circular reasoning . What is incoherent? the idea that one ahs to first of all *choose* the scientifc method, that the method itself cannot be chosen on scientific grounds (unless one allows more circular reasoning); it must assume that the world does in fact conform to its methods, that its methods are indeed objective, the “reality of observable phenomenona” as you say. Why isn’t that “blind faith”? why isn’t that “presumptious”. I fear your terms are loaded and you only apply them to religion.

    Well, let’s put to one side if they are just ‘abstract principles’ ..even here it seems pretty bvious that logic and systems of thought are built on abstract principles. Woudl “observed data” even be possible without the ‘categories of understanding’, the synthetic a prioris?

    science may not claim to explain everything but scientism certainly does. shouldn’t that be the equivalent if we’re talking about what most people believe?

  46. So, tell me, science isn’t dictating when it calls red a ‘secondary quality’, when it says love can only be explained through material processes, when it says tatements about the metaphysical are either meaningless or nonsesne?

    Of course religion doesn’t ‘dictate’; it assumes that reason can reach an understanding of the objective world . again, let’s seriously ask the question: if you think it’s about dictation how would you explain the strong traditions of philosophy in both christian and Islamic traditions? I’m intrigued…

  47. 1. Science cannot exist without scientific method. Religion can easily exist without theology. At minimum it only needs scripture and believers. I apologize for assuming that much was obvious.

    2. I want to point out that you’re criticizing a book you haven’t read, and judging it by its cover, nonetheless ;)

    I confessed that materialism is presumptuous, but minimally so. Science’s superiority lies in its examples and evidence. We all witness gravity. It is demonstrable in the sense that we tangibly perceive it. I know you question the nature of material reality. But you cannot question the fact that it does exist in some fashion. And you cannot question the fact that science explains much of it very consistently, unlike any supernatural explanation of, well, anything.

    Gravity exists. How it ultimately exists is another question altogether. God, on the other hand, cannot be shown to exist at all using any methodology. Science does not assume gravity to exist, it shows that it exists. In that sense, science doesn’t dictate. Whereas scripture says, “God exists. Period.”

    At the core, science has a consistent method for producing truth that relies on the barest of assumptions. Religion has no such method and requires far more assumptions.

    I’m confused as to how you’re correlating religion and reason. Strong traditions are most likely that way because of imposed or unquestioned adherence, not reason.

  48. 1.why this conflation of existence with truth? to say that religion exists without theology (here we’d have to take a narrow idea of theology, but let’s put that to one isde) is not the same as saying that its truth claims can or should be drived from its followers.

    could not a member of the public understand something of science without understanding scientific method?

    2. No, I’m not ‘judging’ the book at all. As I’ve clearly stated, I’m just responding to the “rebuttal” . In which statements have I said anything about the book? I think if you look closely, you may find one.

    3. of course I readily admit that science explains material relaity much better than religion! Can ther ebe much doubt to that?

    We all witness gravity..except that common sense ideas of observations may be quite far from science’s theorising (quantum physics seems th throw up spme pretty weod things when ‘translated’ back into our conceptual worlds. No?).
    did we observe gravity before the word ‘gravity’? before the scientific concept of gravity?

    no, scripture doesn’t say that Jason. It says if you look in your heart and if you look to creation you will see signs of his creation and thereofe of the Creator.

    “shows that it exists”…how does it show? According to criteria that it has already chosen , right? How are those criteria chosen? on scientific grounds? Doesn’t science assuime that the object of its enquiry existsand that scientific knowledge can bridge that gap between the subject and the object?

    Reason and religoon. All i can suggest here is Macintyre. I think even the most superficial look at intellectual history will tell us that reason -or a particular type of reason-went hand in hand with theology (not always, but sometimes). See Leo Strauss’ philosophy and law.

    The attempt to distance reason from religion is precisely waht Pope Ratzinger was trying to say. Again, I can only refer you to the brilliant ‘Fides et Ratio ‘ by the former Pope. I’ve written soemthing on this on my blog somewhere.

  49. I see the same ideas going round and round, being stated in different ways. Let me try to redirect this.

    Yes, science chooses it’s criteria. Yes, science assumes. But it is consistent and reliable. And the criteria it assumes, namely observable matter, is something we all experience. You cannot possibly say that about religion. Religions are inconsistent among each other and within themselves. The fact that there’s more than one is testimony to their inherent fallibility.

    Imagine that all scriptures and all supernatural notions were suddenly whisked away from the entire human population. Could we ‘rediscover’ God? Or does our idea of God rely solely on our imaginations? What reason is there to conclude that there’s an omniscient and omnipotent being? Without scriptures, religions are nothing. Without scriptures, there is no God.

    Science isn’t perfect, but I see no better alternatives.

  50. “But its consistent and reliable” don’t you see that that consistency could be determined by the prior assumption?

    We all experince observable matter.
    again, the fallacy of this argument is,in my opinion, that people observed matter before and for thousands of years still beleived in religion.

    and I’m not sure that the observations under experimental condtions are what we “all observe”. In fact, what we observe comes mediated through man-made machines and the point made by Heisenberg (cited by hannah arendt) remains a profound one: how can we be sure that the reality we ‘observe’ isn’t but the product of our own minds?

    Religions are inconsistent within themselves. Don’t think so. I freely admit that they can apparently be so.

    Fallibility. Only if one has a narrow view that all of reality is homogenous or of the same nature/substance. Reading Levinas on Husserl i think this is Descartes mistake.

    Tell me Jason, we are matter but we freely decide to move , we think in a nondetrmined way (if the word ‘think ‘ is to maintain its traditional meaning, that is). If all there is matter though, if all there is is natural explanations (material causes) then isn’t thought, action, love, friendship, art and so many other things just inconsistent with that approach?

    I don’t see how you get to your last conclusion.
    for us, it os part of orthodox all peoples recieved a ‘revelation’. That means that some revelations wer without scriptures.

    depends on what you call “reason”. for an economist benefits outweighing costs is a reason fro doing something, the rweason for doing it, for a utilitarian it might be soemthing else, for a Kantian something else: following a universal law.

    I’d still like to know how you think it was possible that reason has actually gone hand in hand with religion in the Scholastic traditions .

    of course, if you see no better alternatives Jason that is entirely up to you. Each to their own. But I don’t see the point of calling your views “delusional” even if I think they are wrong.

  51. It’s this simple: With faith, there’s no way to determine what’s true or false. That’s why there are so many different religions and variants of each. There’s only one science. A ball will fall if you drop it no matter where or when on Earth you are. If that’s not consistent and reliable, I don’t know what is.

    Now compare that to Islam, Christianity, Judaism, and (for the sake of argument) Scientology. All these religions have in common is the requirement of faith to believe them. There is absolutely no way to know which one is correct. So I believe none of them, making me an atheist by definition. If that’s not a reasonable decision, I don’t know what is.

  52. There’s only one science? Er.. I think on closer examination there have been many different disciplines and modes of enquiry that have caleld themselves ‘sciences’; what one is left with is there is only one modern science that is modern science !

    A ball dropping is not science! It is an observation. Science would be an explanation or a hypothesis based on that observation and might employ certain techniques for observing it (example : a balla nd feather from a tower); it might employ mathematical models to theorise the relation; it will assume -as you have readily admitted-some things about the validity of its methods. That’s science. I’m shcoked that you think the observation in itself is science!

    so, is science the observation? Is science the laws of motion that explain phenomenon or is science the discovery of those laws? i mean, even without ‘science’a s adiscipline,a mode of enquiry, thre ball would stiil, presumably, fall to the earth? :)

    Tell me, is nmattera particle or is it a wave ? I think Mary Midgely in poetry and science is right to suggest that science is moving to a more poetical conception of the world where it considers multiple universes, different dimensions and types of interaction.

    and how does one know that science is correct unless one makes the prior assumption that what is correct is what is consistent with the methodology? Now, where is the argument to say that that first choice, that ssumption , rests on any grounds? I think wittgenstein was right: explanation comes toa limit…

    “…I don’t know what is”
    you may have inadvertently stumbled on to something there jason:)

    Peace bro’.

  53. There is only one science. There are different schools of thought, but they are all united under one overarching principle of scientific method.

    I haven’t made an observation of a ball dropping, per se. Rather, I’ve predicted that a ball will drop no matter when or where (on Earth or on another object with sufficient gravitational pull) one lets go of it. Without science, a ball would still fall to earth, yes. But one cannot know in advance that a ball will fall without employing scientific method.

    Matter is both particle and wave. Which model to use depends on the conditions of the experiment. How matter can be both particle and wave is still being examined. Physicists are working hard to unify general relativity and quantum mechanics.

    “How does one know that science is correct unless one makes the prior assumption that what is correct is what is consistent with the methodology?”

    The bottom line is this: Science has a methodology.

    You can tear science apart as much as you wish, but you’ve made no argument for an alternative. Probably because there is no alternative, and that’s my point. Science is the best method we have for determining truth. Granted, it’s truth is relative to a specific domain of experience which does require some prior assumptions. But science has robust explanatory power within its domain. That cannot be said of any other epistemology. There is presently no other method to confirm or explain anything about reality.

    Sorry I’ve been absent. Life outside the ‘blogosphere’ is distracting me ;) I hope you’ve been well. Happy New Year to you!

  54. I wanted to add, Khalid, that I think there’s something about scientific method and its assumptions that’s worth scrutinizing, namely observation itself. I firmly hold an existentialist view, which puts subjectivity above objectivity. It’s only natural to begin inquiry into reality with one’s personal experience. But there’s a logical gap in explaining one’s subjective experience with an aggregation of subjective experiences, as science requires. Because then one is attempting to explain something by using the very (type of) thing that’s being explained, thereby assuming its validity at the outset. There must be something that precedes scientific method.

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