Strange Notions

The website “Strange Notions” is a great website established by Catholic writer, blogger, and speaker Brandon Vogt. It is a pleasant forum for Catholics and other to discuss apologetics, counter-apologetics and atheist perspectives. There are two things that I really like about this site. One is that there is a steady stream of articles, the other being that the forum is heavily moderated. This means that comments do not get lost in a sea of trolls and actual dialogue is able to occur.

Unfortunately this means that the commenting standards are so strict that sometimes commenters get banned or deleted and don’t seem to know why. Recently, on a post about the science, materialism and demarcation, a number of commenters have been banned and there has been some confusion over why.

Interestingly, due to some weird glitch in my iPad or something, I was shown a page with all of the deleted comments intact. (I really don’t know how, sometimes when loading the page the comments appear in a kind of plain text which gets resolved when the page fully loads. It seems that the load stopped at this point and I could read all of the comments.) I was able to copy and paste much of the conversation as of 9 a.m. Eastern Time, January 22, 2014, before I hit a link and lost it.

Reading through this it seems to me that some of the statements were properly in violation of the site’s rules, others do not and may have been deleted in error. In any event it is Brandon’s site and he can do what he wants.

I do encourage anyone interested to engage at Strange Notions, especially theists, but please respect the strict commenting policy that is strictly enforced.

Here are the comments.

  • David Nickol

    “Exact science is the quantitative study of the quantitative aspects of objects in motion.”

    I don’t really understand the “objects in motion” aspect. Are electromagnetic waves objects? Is there anything in the physical world that is not in some very real sense “in motion”? I just watched an enjoyable episode of the television show Brain Games about color perception. The study of color perception seems to me clearly to be science, but unless you wildly stretch the definition above, color is not about “objects in motion,” and much of it is not quantitative. I don’t see how evolution fits the definition.

    I have spent some time delving into the philosophy of science recently, and while I think trying to define science is clearly a worthwhile and legitimate pursuit, it is very, very difficult to come up with a definition that includes what we intuitively think of as science and excludes what we don’t think of as science (intelligent design, astrology). It seems to me the above definition could be used to include most of pseudoscience or exclude most of authentic science, depending on how it is interpreted. It seems to me, though, that the intent of the definition is to narrow as far as possible the definition of science.

    • Peter Piper

      The other problem with this definition is that it isn’t clear that it bounds science in the way that Dr Trasancos would like it to. For example, it was not clear that heat was a matter of `objects in motion’ (the jiggling of all those molecules) until we had developed the modern conception of it, before which someone following this definition could easily have made the mistake of thinking that it lay outside the scope of scientific inquiry. A similar comment applies to the life of cells before the advent of molecular biology. Ben Posin gives more examples in his comment above.

      • Ben Posin

        This the point that pretty much unravels the above post. Ms. Trasancos seems to think it’s obvious that consciousness and the “soul” are beyond the bounds of “objects in motion,” when there’s really no basis for this belief. To the contrary, all evidence we have suggests that consciousness is utterly created and dependent on “objects in motion.”

    • Andrew G.

      Failing to exclude astrology or whatever by definition isn’t actually a problem; astrology has been tested and found to be false on the evidence, so you can regard what makes it “pseudo” as the fact that it is sticking around after being disproved, rather than any inherent property.

      Having a definition based on evidence does mean that you rule out claims that try to violate the conservation-of-evidence rule (e.g. by claiming that X is evidence for Y, and also that not-X is also evidence for Y); or claims which refuse to engage with the world at all (thus making them untestable).

      • David Nickol

        Failing to exclude astrology or whatever by definition isn’t actually a problem . . .

        It strikes me as a problem if you want a definition of science that allows you to say what is science and what is not. If your definition of science doesn’t rule out astrology as a science, then it seems to me you are forced to grant it the status of a science while pointing out that it generally fails to produce helpful results (something believers in astrology will no doubt hotly dispute). Or you could modify your definition of science to require that to be a science, it must be in some way successful. By that standard, string theory may not be a science.

        • Andrew G.

          Astrology can be formulated as a scientific hypothesis – and tested, found to be false, and thrown out. The “based on evidence” part of the definition makes it unscientific to maintain a belief in a theory when the evidence has refuted it.

          String theory for a long time was a mathematical speculation rather than a science – but with the opportunity to predict masses for possible new particles, it’s getting into testable territory, even if not yet conclusively ruled in or out of contention.

        • Mike A

          So the problem is you’re using two different definitions for the word science- first, Science- the overarching term for the method of rational enquiry, and second, science- a subset of investigation.

          Science includes astrology, in that astrology makes testable claims, which turn out to be false; astrology isn’t “a science” in the sense that it’s not a valid discipline to study. I don’t see the problem.

        • picklefactory

          Some philosophers of science hold the opinion that it is hard to have a ‘bright line’ in this area of science vs. pseudoscience. Massimo Pigliucci, who @Geena_Safire:disqus mentioned earlier as one of the philosophers pursuing a better definition of naturalism, wrote a whole book on this topic which I like very much, Nonsense on Stilts.

    • I like Paul Feyerabend’s operational definition of science. Science is whatever most scientists get paid to do. I am suspicious of any more detailed or restrictive definition than that.

      • Andrew G.

        Postmodernist vapidity.

        One of the important corrective mechanisms for science is that it tests its own success – without that it is no better than stamp collecting, regardless of who is being paid to do what.

        • Paul Boillot

          “Vapidity”

          I’m sure there are interesting truths to be learned about stamps; the best kinds of glue to use, how different inks age over time, relative contrast ratios necessary to easily and quickly distinguish stamps at-a-glance etc…

          I think I’ll change my major to stamp-science.

          • Jean_A_Bluestone

            There are at least 100 less comments at How Contemporary Physics Points to God than before. There are at least 60 fewer comments for this article.

        • Geena Safire

          Aw gee, Andrew, he was giving an operational definition, and probably making a bit of a joke.

          “Atheism is a religion as not stamp-collecting is a hobby.”

          • Andrew G.

            The intended reference was to a famous comment by Rutherford, nothing to do with atheism. :-)

          • Geena Safire

            Yeah, but the stamp-collecting reference was hard to resist.

          • MichaelNewsham

            I thought he was referring to Rutherford’s comment “All science is either physics or stamp-collecting”

          • MichaelNewsham

            Ooops, already answered

        • Postmodernist vapidity

          Sounds like a great name for a band.

    • Paul Boillot

      I think the key to this is the easy-to-overlook phrasing of “aspects of objects in motion.”

      Since mass is just condensed energy, any “aspect” of either is in the scientific purview; wavelengths, amplitudes, etc…

    • Geena Safire

      ID and astrology are not science not because their ideas are outside of the sphere of a definition of science. They fail as science on other grounds, as do many other proposed hypotheses that have been proven to be false.

      “Intelligent design” is not “a science.” It is also not a scientific theory. At best, it is ahypothesis within the field of biology, and a failed hypothesis. As the judge in the Kitzmiller v. Dover case noted: “We find that ID fails [to be science] on three different levels, any one of which is sufficient to preclude a determination that ID is science. They are: (1) ID violates the centuries-old ground rules of science by invoking and permitting supernatural causation; (2) the argument of irreducible complexity, central to ID, employs the same flawed and illogical contrived dualism that doomed creation science in the 1980s; and (3) ID’s negative attacks on evolution have been refuted by the scientific community.”

      “Astronomy” is not “a science.” It is a hypothesis within the field of cosmology/astronomy/physics. This hypothesis, regarding the influence of planetary bodies on humans, has been scientifically tested and found to be false. As theoretical physicist Sean Carroll said, the gravitational force of the planet Saturn at the moment of your birth did exert a gravitational influence on you, but it was less than the gravitational influence of the nurse standing beside your mother. Also, the planetary bodies do not generate a different effect on different people based on their differing horoscopes.

      • I think you meant astrology. Astronomy is certainly science, it is not a hypothesis but contains numerous hypotheses and theories. It is just a label we use to talk about people who study non-earth objects.

      • Andrew G.

        It’s important (I think, anyway) to note that the idea of a rule in science against supernatural causation is not quite what some people (like the IDers and other anti-science theists) claim it is.

        Specifically, there is no Giant Stone Tablet with “Thou shalt not invoke supernatural causation” on it.

        Instead, it’s a derived rule, based on the principle that theories must be rationally related to the evidence. Part of that is that a complex theory should not spring into existence from nowhere – choice of theory should be guided by evidence. Another part is that theories should constrain our expectation of the future as tightly as possible, so a theory with mind-like parts (as usual, following Carrier’s definition of the supernatural here) is inherently less predictive than one without.

        (Saying “because God” is not a simple theory, despite the lack of verbosity, because what counts is the amount of code – primitive mathematical operations, computer instructions, whatever – needed to make the predictions of the theory, not the human-language description.)

    • WHB

      The shallowness of most of you ‘internet’ experts is appalling. You go to any and all extremes to deny the obivous–an omnipresent Creator and come up the silliest stuff.

      So how might you in your wisdom ‘detect’ these invisible EM waves? Or perceive color? In both cases a ‘detector’ is required and what might such detectors be made of? Matter, objects, particles in motion and that’s what you measure. There is nothing wrong with Jaki’s definition. It is the central issue to why when materialists try to cross the line from Science to Philosophy and Theology they fall flat. You are now treading upon the ground of Reasoned Discourse. I suggest you start studying something more substantial than the latest ‘pop science’ TV program or web blog, get out from under the denial of your own mind! Yes that’s what it is.

      As Nagel points out in the very last paragraph of his book on the mind, the one that has caused so much consternation among his fellow non-believing materialists, no amount of hand-wringing, soothsaying and wishing is going to show that reductive materialism can ever show how the mind was created or evolved. In this words, and I quote,

      “But to go back to my introductory remarks, I find this view antecedently unbelievable— a heroic triumph of ideological theory over common sense. The empirical evidence can be interpreted to accommodate different comprehensive theories, but in this case the cost in conceptual and probabilistic contortions is prohibitive. I would be willing to bet that the present right-thinking consensus will come to seem laughable in a generation or two— though of course it may be replaced by a new consensus that is just as invalid. The human will to believe is inexhaustible.”
      ———————————————————–
      Nagel, Thomas (2012-08-04). Mind and Cosmos:Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False (p. 128). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.

      —————————————————————
      Adios.

      • Mike A

        Wow, baseless ad-hominem attacks from a Christian. What a surprise.

        ;)

        • Andre Boillot

          You’re countering ad-hominems wrong :)

          • Mike A

            …I guess that wasn’t as funny as I thought it was.

          • Andre Boillot

            I didn’t get the irony…if you edit in a wink, i’ll switch my vote!

          • Mike A

            Wink added!

            Blackmailer.

  • Ben Posin

    “It is clear that science never could answer questions about the soul, it cannot reveal where consciousness comes from or what consciousness is. And clearly, immortality is not the work of science. As Jaki put it, ‘And it is always with measurement that the buck stops with science.'”

    Lord Kelvin, a premier scientist of the 19th century, noted with dismay that the method by which muscles could be directed to move, or plants grow from seeds, both so different from the ordinary, undirected behavior of matter, was “infinitely beyond the range of any scientific inquiry hitherto entered on.” Like Ms. Trasacos, he found such things impossible to understand from a measurement of the “fortuitous concourse of atoms.” And this man was a real smart cookie, who really believed in the power of measurement and its role in knowledge and science, indeed, he had a unit of measurement named after him!

    But Lord Kelvin was wrong. The problem of how an animal can move its muscles, or plants grow and reproduce, is long solved, certainly fascinating, but something one could feel confident getting accurate information on from wikipedia. Ms. Trasacos now stands here and tells us that the problem of consciousness stands infinitely beyond science’s reach, but I’m at a loss to tell you why, save that she has a distaste for materialism, which she thinks renders people “robots.” Her distaste and subjective reaction to materialism are, to me, the actual signs of a closed mind, and despite them my money’s still on science.

    • Ben Posin

      And what my above post left out is this: we’re making a pretty good start in consciousness through science’s study of the brain, which we have greater access to than ever before with all kinds of nifty imaging gadgets. And all the evidence we have suggests that a person’s memories, personality, decision making, etc., depend on the condition of the physical (dare I say, material) brain.

      I brought a very good overview of this subject to Ms. Trasacos’ attention once:http://www.patheos.com/blogs/daylightatheism/essays/a-ghost-in-the-machine/
      which I commend to everyone’s attention here. She dismissed it as lacking in “philosophical” understanding, but I don’t see how that detracts from the mountain of evidence that identifies what we think of as the mind with the physical brain. As to souls…well, as with certain other things Ms. Trasacos says science can’t understand (such as “angels” and “demons”) right now this seems to be a word without a referent.

      • Conscious Objector

        I don’t think it’s so much ‘distaste’ for Materialism that causes Theists to reject it so much as it is, inherently, a self-refuting, irrational premise. Under the constraints of Materialism, only material evidence serves as ‘proof’ of any claim, with transcendent reality and intuition denied even the possibility of existence. However, the premise that only material evidence is valid cannot be shown to be vaild through use of material evidence alone. The materialist must devolve to first principles of logic which are i) Intuited and ii) transcendent. In other words Materialism declares that intuition and other transcendences cannot
        exist, but the basis for Materialism is itself intuitive and transcendent. This internal logical contradiction means Materialism is irrational.

        • Ben Posin

          Sure, and I’m told the scientific method can’t prove the validity of the scientific method.

          I think we’re looking at things a bit differently. I’m not out to prove the philosophical underpinnings of materialism. It’s a bit simpler for me. So far, every phenomenon that mankind has really been able to dig it’s teeth into has turned out to be not magic. Explaining things in terms of material causes and physical laws has a pretty amazing track record.

          I’m not standing here declaring that all things MUST have a material cause and nature (though I don’t know what a non-material thing might be like). But if you want me to believe in causes or “things” beyond the material, give me a reason. Show me things we can agree are real that are inconsistent with material causes. But consciousness is not such a thing. We have a staggering amount of evidence suggesting consciousness is a function of the very material brain. The article I linked to is a decent place to get started, and I’d be happy to discuss it with you.

          • Conscious Objector

            Thanks for the response Ben, I will read the article, but may take a while to get back to you as I have a baby due imminently! In the meantime, let me try to respond to your points:

            ‘Sure, and I’m told the scientific method can’t prove the validity of the scientific method’.

            Agreed!

            ‘I think we’re looking at things a bit differently. I’m not out to prove the philosophical underpinnings of materialism. It’s a bit simpler for me. So far, every phenomenon that mankind has really been able to dig it’s teeth into has turned out to be not magic. Explaining things in terms of material causes and physical laws has a pretty amazing track record. I’m not standing here declaring that all things MUST have a material cause and nature (though I don’t know what a non-material thing might be like). But if you want me to believe in causes or “things” beyond the material, give me a reason. Show me things we can agree are real that are inconsistent with material causes.’

            If you’re not interested in looking at the philosophical underpinnings, I can’t show you what you’re asking me to show you. The nature of something immaterial, is that it cannot be demonstrated by material means. The philosophical underpinnings are important. You’ve stated that empirical observation of physical laws/processes has an amazing track record, (I think?) in which case I agree with you. But have you considered why this should be so? If empiricism ‘works’, then apparently the reasoning we used to establish the rules of empirical process must be sound. (Unless the whole body of scientific knowledge is just a fluke of course).

            Empiricism is derived from first principles of logic, and first principles of logic are intuited. As such, they are immaterial. So do you accept such a thing as logic i) Exists? and ii) is immaterial?

            ‘But consciousness is not such a thing. We have a staggering amount of evidence suggesting consciousness is a function of the very material brain. The article I linked to is a decent place to get started, and I’d be happy to discuss it with you.’

            I haven’t read past the first paragraph yet, so I’ll largely pass on this for now, except to say that a materialist view of the brain requires an acceptance of determinism. My initial questions to you on this topic then would be:

            1. Do you believe all your actions to be pre-determined, and that you have in fact no agency of your own? 2. If so, do you live your life accordingly? (To give you a for instance of what I mean by that second question, consider the implications of determinism for crime and punishment. If all actions are deterministic, there is no ‘good’ or ‘evil’. In which case, we have no rational basis for discriminating against, say, a rapist, by imprisoning him. After all, such a person would not be responsible for his actions.)

            3. Do you find such things (determinism, no ‘good’ or ‘evil’) to be compatible or incompatible with your own experience of life as an individual?

          • Conscious Objector

            Sorry Ben, to clarify that should read that, on determinism, there are no ‘good’ or ‘evil’ *actions*.

          • Ben Posin

            Conscious Objector:
            That’s a lot to respond to, so please don’t take it amiss if I only address a couple of points at this time. I think you may be raising a legitimate topic of discussion, but it’s certainly far afield from where I started, which is that we have a lot evidence supporting the idea that consciousness is a creation of the physical brain. I’m loathe to try to solve the material/immaterial nature of logic, mathematics, etc. and whether they are a human creation, something woven into the fabric of the universe, or in some way “immaterial” at this juncture…it seems unnecesary unless you can make a case that some sort of “immaterial” principle of logic is reasonably comparable to an immaterial mind or person. I feel like this has been kicked around on this website before though, so if someone has something in the can on this subject feel free to jump in–my gut reaction is that it’s a red herring, though.

            Why does the scientific/materialist method have a good track record you ask? NI’d say not because it is born of pure logic and intution, but because, as best we can tell, it turned out to be correct! When tested against the world it has shown itself to map on to it properly. If you want to call the method or its source “immaterial” knock yourself out, but let’s not pretend the important thing about it is that it might at some point have been “intuited.”

            As to determinism: I don’t concede that a material mind means determinism is correct, though it may be so, and some people agree with you. I certainly do believe that we are not just “free” to do anything at any moment, but that our actions and thoughts and desires are certainly bounded in various ways. Your questions are on balance reasonable things to ask about the implications of a material mind, which the evidence overwhelmingly shows humans to have. But they all come downstream of the actual question of whether consciousness has a material basis. My personal views of good and evil may make no sense when compared with the actual reality of how the mind works, but that’s a problem with my views, not reality.

          • Conscious Objector

            That’s a lot to respond to, so please don’t take it amiss if I only address a couple of points at this time. I think you may be raising a legitimate topic of discussion, but it’s certainly far afield from where I started, which is that we have a lot evidence supporting the idea that consciousness is a creation of the physical brain. 
            I don’t think it’s far at all. I’m going to give you evidence for a non-material source of consciousness. Unlike the ‘evidence’ for a material brain, it will not be based on a logically non-coherent foundation. You said: Show me things we can agree are real that are inconsistent with material causes. and you’re right to ask this. Before we can tackle consciousness, we need to first agree that non-material things exist, and I am proposing ‘logic’ as such a thing.

            I’m loathe to try to solve the material/immaterial nature of logic, mathematics, etc. and whether they are a human creation, something woven into the fabric of the universe, or in some way “immaterial” at this juncture…it seems unnecesary unless you can make a case that some sort of “immaterial” principle of logic is reasonably comparable to an immaterial mind or person.

            Then let me try to save you some time. Logic is either:
            1. Material
            2. Non-material but ‘woven into the fabric of the universe’ (e.g. a law of the universe, or a first condition set at the big bang singularity)
            3. Non-material.

            If it is material, empirical science can measure it like everything else that is material. Empirical science cannot do this, so it is not material.
            If it is ‘woven into the fabric of the universe’ in the manner of, say, gravity or entropy, it would produce effects that are materially observable. It does not do so in any known way, so it is not ‘woven into the fabric of the universe’.
            It seems we are left with non-material.

            I feel like this has been kicked around on this website before though, so if someone has something in the can on this subject feel free to jump in–
            Quite possibly, this is my first conversation here :)

            my gut reaction is that it’s a red herring, though.
            It’s not and I will unpack the link between logic and the non-material source of consciousness if you agree that logic is non-material.

            Why does the scientific/materialist method have a good track record you ask? I’d say not because it is born of pure logic and intution, but because, as best we can tell, it turned out to be correct! When tested against the world it has shown itself to map on to it properly.
            You seem to have misunderstood me. I wasn’t questioning it’s record at all, which I agree is bullet proof. I was asking you why it should be that empirical enquiry should be so uncannily successful?

            If you want to call the method or its source “immaterial” knock yourself out…
            Hurrah! So you do agree that logic is non-material. Excellent, we can proceed.

            …but let’s not pretend the important thing about it is that it might at some point have been “intuited.”
            Agreed for the purposes of debate, I used the term only to illustrate the non-material nature of logic.

            As to determinism: I don’t concede that a material mind means determinism is correct, though it may be so, and some people agree with you.
            Can you lay out any evidence for such a position? What seems to be claimed as the best evidence for a non-deterministic material mind is, in my limited experience, successful only in removing the problem of the obvious existence of free will by one step.

            I certainly do believe that we are not just “free” to do anything at any moment, but that our actions and thoughts and desires are bounded in various ways.

            If you mean we might feel bound by, for instance social conventions, feelings etc, I would agree. If you mean we are actually materially bound from engaging in certain behaviour, I would require evidence for that.

            Your questions are on balance reasonable things to ask about the implications of a material mind, which the evidence overwhelmingly shows humans to have.
            Can you define what you mean by ‘evidence’ please?

            But they all come downstream of the actual question of whether consciousness has a material basis. 
            If you do not accept upstream we must start with downstream. You have agreed now that logic is not a material thing. In the interests of moving the discussion on I’m going to assume that you believe logic to be a creation of (material) minds and therefore materially derived. Is this fair?

            My personal views of good and evil may make no sense when compared with the actual reality of how the mind works, but that’s a problem with my views, not reality.
            I’m not sure what you’re getting at here. My point about there being no ‘good’ or ‘evil’ actions on a deterministic, material world-view is that determinism is incompatible with agency and machines cannot be moral agents.

      • Conscious Objector

        Ben, I’ve read your link now. Here is an article about Dr Sam Parnia and his ongoing research into resuscitation medicine and the persistence of consciousness after death in patients with no observable brain activity:http://www.wired.com/wiredscience/2013/04/consciousness-after-death/all/

        In light of research like this I do not accept your claim of ‘overwhelming evidence’ for a material brain. To quote Parnia:

        Scientists have come to believe that the self is brain cell processes, but there’s never been an experiment to show how cells in the brain could possibly lead to human thought. If you look at a brain cell under a microscope, and I tell you, “this brain cell thinks I’m hungry,” that’s impossible.

        So what evidence do we have?

        All the evidence we have shows an association between certain parts of the brain and certain mental processes. But it’s a chicken and egg question: Does cellular activity produce the mind, or does the mind produce cellular activity? Some people have tried to conclude that what we observe indicates that cells produce thought: here’s a picture of depression, here’s a picture of happiness. But this is simply an association, not a causation.

        What do you think of this? Do you still think the evidence of a material mind is ‘overwhelming’?

  • Andrew G.

    Ah, more nonsense about science from someone who doesn’t even understand the concept of “thirds”.

    • Peter Piper

      This comment is too obscure for me to understand, Andrew. Would you mind explaining it a bit more?

      • Andrew G.

        Sorry. It’s a thing from the early days of the site – Stacy made some comment (which I’ll try and track down and link) about it being theoretically impossible to divide something in thirds and reassemble it precisely, and didn’t respond when asked for an explanation. I’ve brought it up every other month or so since then, and still don’t have an explanation.

        (I could make a pretty good bet on what it is, but I don’t want to jump to conclusions.)

        • Peter Piper

          I see. It is possible, of course, that she made a mistake (as do we all from time to time). I don’t know: I haven’t seen the original comment. Even if true, it wouldn’t matter all that much, and it certainly wouldn’t exclude her from providing insights into the proper place of science.

          • Andrew G.

            Of course it’s possible. The relevance may be clearer from reading the original thread, which I’ve now linked from my original comment.

          • Peter Piper

            The link makes your original comment clearer, which is good. However, it seems that (at worst) you have shown that Dr Trascanos is not a mathematician. Not being a mathematician is a common affliction, and not a particularly severe one. It is irrelevant to the current discussion.

          • Mike A

            No, he’s shown she has a habit of posting confidently about things she’s utterly ignorant of.

          • Andrew G.
          • Peter Piper

            At best, he has shown she did this once. But he hasn’t even shown that, since she demonstrated in the unmentioned parts of her comments that she is not `utterly ignorant’ of mathematics, merely far from expert.

          • Mike A

            Wow, I just read that original thread. Man, that is just full of empirically false statements and general nonsense. I mean, literally every axiom she posts is wrong.

            And all these proofs are ridiculous even given the wrong axioms, because if you genuinely believe every effect must be preceded by a cause (again, this is Not A True Statement), then you believe something must have created God. The only way around this is to say your axioms don’t apply to God, in which case they’re no longer axioms.

            I really can’t find words rude enough to describe relying on people’s understanding of reality 2,000 years ago. For god’s sake, we didn’t even understand Newtonian mechanics, let along quantum physics. Plato and Aristotle and Aquinas knew almost nothing about the nature of reality. Stop looking to them and pick up some Michio Kaku.

  • Mike

    I’d like to agree that the myth of science vs. religion isn’t as large as people outside of academia would think (at least from my personal experience).

    I’ve worked with all types or people from very different backgrounds and with various religious beliefs: athiests, Jews, Catholics, Episcopalians, Lutherans, Buddhists, Hindus, Mormons, and Quakers. I can’t think of a single time that someone has claimed that myself or others are bad scientists because of our beliefs.

    There ARE certainly many people in academia who are anti-religion, and/or non-believers, but I don’t think many of them would think someone is a bad scientist based solely on their religious beliefs.

    For example, I keep a cross in my office (its not prominently displayed but not hidden either) which sits right next to my thesis. I always took comfort as a Catholic that my religious beliefs wouldn’t conflict with my profession. I also dedicated my Ph. D. thesis “To my lord and savior Jesus Christ, may I discover the truth you have created” and never heard a complaint from my committee, or anyone in the graduate studies department that had to read through and approve the text.

    No one had asserted, for example, that my belief in the Eucharist makes me a bad scientist, any more than someone could tell the Buddhists I’ve worked with that their beliefs make them a bad scientist. In my experience the supposed conflict between science and religion isn’t as significant as is portrayed elsewhere.

    • Andrew G.

      (Trying this again now that Disqus seems less flaky…)

      Outside the Laboratory

      • Mike

        Hi Andrew,

        Thanks for sharing the article. I don’t want to put words in your mouth, but I’m wondering if you (or the article) are asserting that an individual can’t be a good scientist if they are religious?

  • Paul Boillot

    Unfortunately for Stacy, “Exact science is the quantitative study of the quantitative aspects of objects in motion” does not help her make her case.

    1) Quantitative study
    2) Objects in motion
    3) the aspects of objects in motion

    So, we have methodical study of matter and the “aspects” of its motion. I can’t help but notice that all of our laws of motion, gravity, forces, etc are “aspects” of objects in motion. (Incidentally, does that mean that Jaki thinks we can’t study objects @ 0 Kevin?)

    Neuroscientists aren’t advancing our understanding of subjective experience using any other tools, and if we do arrive at a materialistic understanding of consciousness, it won’t be reliant on anything more than the study of things in motion, and their aspects.

    “It is clear that science never could answer questions about the soul, it cannot reveal where consciousness comes from or what consciousness is.”

    One can thoroughly believe that materialist science will not do so; in fact Harris, the scientist Stacy snubs by describing first as an “author” and second a “neuroscientist,” has publicly advanced that very possibility. (Note: Jaki is described as a physicist first, priest second)

    That conclusion in no way follows logically from the proposed “bounded” definition of science, even if I am wrong, and it does so-follow…Stacy has done no work to show this. She drops the definition in one paragraph, and then makes the assertion a paragraph later, with no scientific, philosophical, or logical work in between.

    The belief that consciousness-is-inaccessible is based on intuition, and on the fact that we haven’t yet accessed it fully. It’s a gut-feeling, perhaps well educated, perhaps ultimately to be vindicated, but the jump from Jaki’s “limited” definition to her conclusion is a non-sequitur.

  • Geena Safire

    Geology?

    • Andre Boillot

      Stacy,

      While I disagree with much of what you wrote, I do find myself nodding in agreement, to an extent, when you say:

      In conclusion, if scientists do not cross the line out of science and into ideology, and if theologians and philosophers do not cross the line into science, everyone can watch scientific discovery unfold together. A precise definition allows this.

      However, I can’t help but view this as a contradiction of your oft stated opinion that ‘Without Dogma, Science is Lost’:

      To do science well, a working knowledge of Catholic dogma is necessary.

      That’s what I tried to provide, not just a book you can read, but a book you can use to explain the startling claim that science needs to be guided by faith, and that the Catholic Church has a legitimate right and authority to veto scientific conclusions that directly contradict her dogma. This is not about the Church being against science, but about the Church being a guardian of truth. There is no purpose to science if it is not about the truth.

      http://stacytrasancos.com/without-dogma-science-is-lost/

      How do you reconcile these apparent contradictions?

      EDIT: Just to be perfectly clear, suggesting that science can only operate within the confines of what the RCC deems appropriate seems like a strange position to hold if you’re writing about ‘opening scientific minds’.

      • Paul Boillot

        I like to smother my science in materialism, like a nice poutine, or a chilli-cheese dog.

      • Geena Safire

        Trasancos writes (elsewhere):…the Catholic Church has a legitimate right and authority to veto scientific conclusions that directly contradict her dogma…

        In case y’all are wondering what these dogmata are, for which science is
        subject to veto (!) by the Catholic Church should it scientifically contradict:

        The 358 Dogmata of the Roman Catholic Church

        Only 255 are declared “infallible.” The other 102 are merely declared “certain truths.” Maybe this list should be considered part of the grant-writing criteria for NSF grants?

    • Paul Boillot

      I’m trying to slog my way through Stacy’s source material, and finding it mind-numbing; truly painful.

      An author willing to use phrases like “intellectually bankrupt” should stay away from trash like:

      Luckily for mankind, there is (of course) no reason to believe that brilliant progress in any field will continue, much less accelerate; imagine predicting the state of space exploration today based on the events of 1960–1972.

      Yes….taking one small period of scientific progress is not a good indicator of future progress…much like the period of 1913-1915 was a bad predictor of humans riding dune buggies on the moon and perpetually-inhabited orbiting space stations.

      • picklefactory

        Also apparently Nagel was lynched, beaten to death, and eaten by hyenas?

        Nagel was immediately set on and (symbolically) beaten to death by all the leading punks, bullies, and hangers-on of the philosophical underworld. Attacking Darwin is the sin against the Holy Ghost that pious scientists are taught never to forgive. …

        The intelligentsia was so furious that it formed a lynch mob. In May 2013, the Chronicle of Higher Education ran a piece called “Where Thomas Nagel Went Wrong.” …

        It’s the cowardice of the Chronicle’s statement that is alarming—as if the only conceivable response to a mass attack by killer hyenas were to run away. Nagel was assailed; almost everyone else ran.

        Not only is this description of the reaction to Nagel incredibly hyperbolic, but also I think deceptive: the Chronicle’s piece was construed as being supportive of Nagel, but saying essentially that he did himself no favors in the way he presented his argument.

        • picklefactory

          Also — I would definitely run away from a killer hyena attack. That is just a matter of self-preservation.

          I would even help Dr. Gerlernter run away from killer hyenas, but I would not stick around if he insisted on staying.

          • Paul Boillot

            “I don’t have to outrun the bear, Bob, I just have to outrun you.”

        • Andre Boillot

          My take: the Chronicle is also not doing itself any favors by (ironically) being imprecise, while Trasancos and Gelernter are somewhat disingenuous in their presentation, or at best inadvertently some relevant data, when claiming that Nagel was attacked for failure “to express sufficient hatred of religion to satisfy other atheists”.

          When taken in context, the Chronicle seems to say that it was not the attack on Darwinist Evolution per se which drew the ire of some, but rather the apparent validation of intelligent design:

          Nagel didn’t help his cause by (a) being a philosopher opining on science; (b) being alarmingly nice to intelligent-design theorists; and (c) writing in a convoluted style that made him sound unconvinced of his own ideas.

          Nagel really got their noses out of joint by sympathizing with theorists of intelligent design. “They do not deserve the scorn with which they are commonly met,” he wrote. “It is manifestly unfair.” To be sure, he was not agreeing with them. He notes several times that he is an atheist and has no truck with supernatural gods. He views the ID crowd the way a broad-minded capitalist would sum up Marx: right in his critique, wrong in his solutions. But ID, he says, does contain criticisms of evolutionary theory that should be taken seriously.

          Taken in context, therefore, it seems that the conclusion the Chronicle should have drawn was: ‘In that climate, saying anything nice at all about intelligent design is a tactical error’.

    • Geena Safire

      If Stacy or her ilk are interested in what leading scientists and philosophers are up to with respect to defining Naturalism, they might watch this weekend meeting (presented in its entirety) from December 2012, called Moving Naturalism Forward.
      The participants included Sean CarrollJerry CoyneRichard DawkinsTerrence Deacon,Simon DeDeoDaniel DennettOwen FlanaganRebecca GoldsteinJanna LevinDavid PoeppelMassimo PigliucciNicholas PritzkerAlex RosenbergDon Ross, and Steven Weinberg.

      Stacy will be disappointed to hear that several other of the usual suspects, such as Sam Harris, were unable to attend. But they have been working with the team above toward developing a clear and workable definition of Naturalism that both scientists and philosophers can use.

    • David Nickol

      Some of the messages I wrote in this thread have been arbitrarily (in my opinion) deleted. I see no point in attempting to make further comments.

      • Andre Boillot

        Dave, if it’s any consolation, I would guess many of us subscribe to each thread, and thus will have your posts in email form…

        • Paul Boillot

          I receive emails of replies to me, how do I subscribe to a whole page’s thread?

      • Geena Safire

        David, it may be possible that there is a problem with Disqus, as I have experienced several times before (including yesterday!), and several others at other Disqus forums have decried.

        If the mods delete a post, I believe it always appears as “this comment has been deleted,” rather than just never appearing or even disappearing.

        • picklefactory

          I saw some weirdness earlier myself, and I think Geena is right; I haven’t seen any comments disappear without a trace.

          • picklefactory

            Now a bunch of them have disappeared, but not without a trace.

            • David Nickol

              Now a bunch of them have disappeared, but not without a trace.

              Yes, that’s the case in this thread and the previous one (Does the Catholic Church Hate Women?).

              And the marker that I keep next to my computer keyboard for my calendar/whiteboard is gone, too!

            • Guest

              Bunch of us just got banned, no warning, no explanation.

              -Andre Boillot

              (I’ll respect Brandon’s decision going forward, but just wanted to post this for the record)

            • Susan

              Now a bunch of them have disappeared, but not without a trace

              Looks like another purge. A group of commentators who have contributed much to the conversation have been banned without warning and their contributions deleted, probably on some vague charge of “snark”.

              Last time it happened, Brandon claimed that they were warned though there was no sign that they were and according to them, they weren’t.

              Is this how “reasoning together” works?

              I wonder if I’ll be next for posting this comment.

            • mgcruss

              Is it really possible that commentators like Andre Boillot and Geena Safire have been banned? I’m not seeing any of their posts. My apologies if I’m missing something here.

            • Susan

              Is it really possible that commentators like Andre Boillot and Geena Safire have been banned?

              I’m afraid so, mg. Also, Mike A and I’m fairly certain Josh has been too.

            • picklefactory

              Welp. Looks like a bunch of other stuff I noticed earlier has gone, whole-thread-wise.

              Moderation is a good thing. I welcome it. But I consider retroactively memory-holing a bunch of commenters, then nuking the conversation about memory-holing, pretty much beyond the pale for civilized discussion.

            • Argon

              Geena’s posts seem to be gone from the last three articles. Others are missing in those articles’ comments as well.

              What’s up?

            • David Nickol

              Geena’s posts seem to be gone from the last three articles.

              Ironically, one of Geena’s missing posts is the one from yesterday in which she advised me to attribute the disappearance of one of my own posts to glitches in Disqus and not to SN moderators!

            • Argon

              ‘Disqus issues’ is my working assumption. I really, really dislike Disqus, more so because it doesn’t play well with Android browsers.

              I was worried that it might have been a case of what happened occasionally at The WELL (Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link) where people fed up with the system deleted all their posts, leaving gaping holes in the threads. Or a moderator accidentally deleting a whole account instead of a single response.

            • Michael Murray

              I think when posts disappear or reappear that’s Disqus. When posts are deleted that’s either the author deleting or moderator action. In this case I can confirm that Rob Tisinai and Andre Boillot have been banned.

        • David Nickol

          Thanks. There were two messages that I thought were deleted. Note that there is one notice in this thread that says, “This comment was deleted.” I presume that is for the first lost message. If indeed it is, I can kind of see how a very activist moderator might have deleted it. The second message was the long, substantive one, and based on what you say, I think it very well may have been lost by Disqus rather than deleted by a moderator. I will give SN the benefit of the doubt on both, though I believe part of the fun of participating in forums like this is to quit in a huff every so often!

          I think one lesson is never, never, never to submit a message without saving your own copy. Whether it’s the fault of moderators or computer glitches, a masterpiece lost is a masterpiece lost!

          • picklefactory

            If you use Firefox, Chrome, or Safari, there’s an app called Lazarus Form Recovery that will autosave any form you type into, including comboxes like Disqus has. I’ve found it quite helpful in the past.

            • David Nickol

              Excellent! Thanks so much.

            • picklefactory

              Not at all. I saw your original post and liked it very much, and would prefer not to see your posts vanish into the depths of Disqus in the future.

          • Geena Safire

            I believe part of the fun of participating in forums like this is to quit in a huff every so often!

            Oh yes, if only because it gives us the opportunity to reach out to you and let you know how much we would miss you and how much SN would suffer from the absence of your contributions.

            I think one lesson is never, never, never to submit a message without saving your own copy.

            This is so true! Not only because of Disqus’ apparent random black hole. I almost always compose in an application (unless a short comment), though mostly because of the more frequent tendency of my pinky finger to accidentally hit the “backspace” key midway through a long comment. :-(

          • Andre Boillot

            David, re: your second post, when I click on the link from my email subs it’s showing up as under moderation (though it’s already been upvoted x3). I don’t know what triggers moderation (# of links?), but it’s not deleted (yet).

          • Geena Safire

            It may be that Brandon, as webmaster, might be able to find the ‘disappeared’ one — and might, if requested, send you a copy of the deleted one.

    • Mike A

      It is clear that science never could answer questions about the soul, it cannot reveal where consciousness comes from or what consciousness is. And clearly, immortality is not the work of science. As Jaki put it, “And it is always with measurement that the buck stops with science.” (A Late Awakening and Other Essays, 68)

      Serious question; if the soul has any impact on what we do (and we’re not, in fact, purely mechanics) then isn’t it obvious science should be able to detect and measure the soul? If we could build a model of what decisions a test subject would make if our brain structure was the only factor in play, and then compare those to what decisions said subject actually made, then boom- we found the soul by process of subtraction.

      In other words, if the soul has any effect on the material world, we should be able- with enough advances in our ability to model the material world- quantify, define, and examine the soul scientifically by looking for where our models depart from observed reality.

      Someone, please, provide a counterargument, because I can’t think of one and I really gave it my best shot. And if my argument is true, all these assertions about how science can’t tell us about souls (or God, for that matter) are nonsense.

      • The experiment you propose has the logic exactly correct. While we can’t yet model the whole human brain at once, there have been many studies which successfully model nearly every interesting component of the brain. So far, the evidence is uniformly on the side of materialism — no discrepancy between materialist model and measurement, no hint of nonmaterial influence has shown up.

        • Mike A

          Thanks! But what I’m really wondering, and want to ask the supernaturalists here, is not even about the empirical evidence, but the theory underlying the claim science can’t study the soul or other non-material things. That position isn’t compatible with the belief that the soul, or non-material things, influence the real world, as far as I can tell, and so either you have to believe that the soul doesn’t effect our behavior, or you have to believe it can be studied be science.

          Trying to argue that neither is the case seems, frankly, stupid.

      • The problem lies partly in the fact that the stopping of the buck with measurement does not obviously flow from Jaki’s definition. I prefer the definition: Exact science is the quantitative study of the measureable properties of material reality. A failure to discern a quantitative relationship in the measureable properties of the brain would not be relevant to the existence or non-existence of a soul. From the perspective of science, the failure could only be interpreted as a failure to perform successful
        experimentation: No quantitative relationship discerned on the basis of these
        experiments.

        • Mike A

          That’s a good point- if there the model showed incomplete results, that wouldn’t imply the existence of souls.

          My point is aimed at Catholics who do believe in the existence of souls, but who say they can’t be approached through material science. I’m simply pointing out that if souls actually affect the way we behave, those beliefs are self-contradictory.

        • Mike, I got your reply via email, but I don’t see it here. Assuming this will appear your reply was:
          That’s a good point- if there the model showed incomplete results, that wouldn’t imply the existence of souls.
          My point is aimed at Catholics who do believe in the existence of souls, but who say they can’t be approached through material science. I’m simply pointing out that if souls actually affect the way we behave, those beliefs are self-contradictory. 1:40 a.m., Tuesday Jan. 21
          My reply to yours is:
          No scientific model can incorporate or test the self-contradictory
          proposition that measureable y is quantitatively related to inherently
          non-measureable x. In addition to understanding science by being cognitive of its definition, what is needed is a definition of philosophy. You demand philosophical knowledge from science, which is incapable. Also, it is philosophy which justifies science.
          Philosophy is the determination of those principles which
          must necessarily be true, if what we experience of reality is to be possible. The two most fundamental principles of philosophy are: (1) things exist, (2) Everything has an explanation. These may be expressed as: Material reality is inherently intelligible. The philosophy of science may be summarized as: One aspect of the intelligibility of material reality is the existence of quantitative relationships inherent in the measureable properties of material things. However beautiful and fascinating, science is just one aspect of the intelligibility of things.

      • Martin Snigg

        The concepts and grammar you’ve used themselves demonstrate the soul. They’re used to convey meaning which you assume is independent of the pixels and can reach me in Australia.

        As Nagel has tried to explain, we are live in a teleological universe (which implies form or soul – form follows function or telos), our thoughts themselves are the subjects of a science par excellence, given that they and the humans that do ‘science’ need explaining first and foremost.

        Aside: We’ve forgotten how ‘science’ was deliberately hived off into its mathematical function in the 17thC, focused on quantity and measurement and excluded ‘secondary properties’. So quantity was thought to the be the really real quality. This, as it happens, had theological motivation originally but with political overtones too. Sensible natural philosophy, of the Aristotelian kind, was shepherded through the centuries by the Catholic Church, and institutional embrace of the Church was chafing to many. The baby was thrown out with the bath water. Now in a manner of speaking “there are none left who remember it”. Nagel is talking common sense to people exiled and lost.

        So, the soul is the animating principle (form) of living things. Hippos don’t *turn* (aren’t directed to) into eagles, there is no ‘hipponess particle’ so lets talk seriously about our observations and not be beholden to the rather silly metaphysicians of the C17th.

        • Andrew G.

          (Retry of a comment Disqus ate. Since the comment I’m replying to has been edited since I wrote the reply, there are some inconsistencies and an addition at the end.)

          Even by the standards of previous Aristotelian contributors this is pretty weak.

          Nothing in our ability to communicate requires a “soul” or any non-material things. We learn to navigate the physical world thanks to an evolved brain and cultural knowledge, part of which involves learning one or more systems for mapping between categories of experiences and verbal or written symbols; two people with compatible mappings can exchange meaningful information by evoking the interlocutor’s mental categorizations via the mapping.

          Hippos don’t turn into eagles because there is no mechanism that would allow that to happen. (An ancestor of the hippo did, however, managed to have descendants who happen to be whales, and another, much earlier, ancestor of hippos is also the ancestor of the eagle along with all other birds, reptiles and mammals.) Gold and lead are not “enemies”. My own suspicion is that Aristotle underrated the importance of the efficient cause because he knew so little about it; with no useful body of facts to base his reasoning on, he reached nonsensical and inadequate conclusions which, if you try and use them as a basis for thinking in the modern world, will in turn lead to serious errors.

          I suggest reading A Human’s Guide to Words (link is to the first of a couple of dozen linked short articles; you don’t need to read the comments)

          —-

          To respond to the edited version of the article: hippos are not “directed to” eagles, but then the common ancestor of hippos and eagles was not “directed to” either (or for that matter to humans, whales, giraffes, tyrannosaurs, turtles, etc.).

          And whether or not the metaphysicians of the 17thC were silly, it is even more laughable to be beholden instead to the metaphysicians of the 4thC BC, who had so much less knowledge to build their arguments on.

          • Martin Snigg

            ‘Ability’ (function) ‘evolved’ (directed) ‘knowledge'(ordering-directed
            to) ‘systems’ (functional interrelated wholes) ‘mapping’
            (congruence-content directed) ‘mental’ (petitio) ‘categorizations’
            (intentional) ‘symbols’ (see semiosis) ‘mechanism’ (input-output for
            something) seem to be the problem, they’re all words that assume what we’re arguing. Nagel again. Anyway it helps to remind
            you that you require an argument or go the Rosenberg way and eliminate
            the objective reality of the mental.

            Finer details about the
            efficient cause of change give us more information about form and
            function (telos/final causes) but can never eliminate them. Pre-hippo
            particle doesn’t collide with another pre-Hippo particle and turn into a
            Hippo organism. The form is there from the start.

            When an
            organism grows and stem cells change into all the myriad tissue types,
            they are so different they could almost be different species, though the
            DNA is the same in all the cells. The cellular machinery similarly. I
            don’t think you have an appreciation of how the timing of all the
            changes has to be a whole organism symphony co-ordination, mediated of
            course by chemical transmission. But it would be like saying you could
            explain a violin concerto simply by reference to the movement of the bow
            across the strings.

            Cosmologist George Ellis Causation in Complex Systems https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nEhTkF3eG8Q

            Quote: “Aristotle was right”

            You miss the point re: C17th metaphysics, it has been shown to be demonstrably false E.A Burtt ‘The Metaphysical Foundations of Modern Physical Science’ and they were explicitly rejecting Aristotle for demonstrably mistaken reasons as we know now. What you’re committed to in that argument is not something ‘more modern’ but more primitive -BC 4thC Democritan/Lucretian metaphysics. There’s no way around that.

            • Andrew G.

              I have no interest in whether 17thC metaphysicians were right or wrong (I’d bet on wrong, because they didn’t have much more to go on than Aristotle).

              What do you think “the objective reality of the mental” is? The physical processes in brains certainly objectively exist, as do their relationships with sensory input and actions; no more is required.

              “Form” (in the aristotelian sense) and “final cause” are not physical concepts, they are part of the map rather than the territory.

    • Geena Safire

      I would like to compliment Ms. Trasancos on a well-written article.

      I have my disagreements, but the article was well constructed and readable.

      If scientists do not cross the line out of science and into ideology,
      and if theologians and philosophers do not cross the line into science,

      But what of the field of Philosophy of Science?

      Before the 16th century

      Plato

      Aristotle

      Empedocles

      Ibn al-Haytham
      (Alhacen)

      Robert Grosseteste

      Roger Bacon

      16th century

      Sir Francis
      Bacon

      17th century

      Galileo Galilei

      René Descartes

      Sir Isaac Newton

      18th century

      George Berkeley

      Immanuel Kant

      David Hume

      19th century

      Auguste Comte

      John Stuart Mill

      William Whewell

      George Henry Lewes

      Edmund Husserl

      Ernst Mach

      Charles Sanders
      Peirce

      1900–1930

      Henri Poincaré

      Pierre Duhem

      Niels Bohr

      Albert Einstein

      Bertrand Russell

      Frank P. Ramsey

      Moritz Schlick

      John Dewey

      Alfred North
      Whitehead

      C.V. Raman

      Satyendra Nath Bose

      1930–1960

      Alfred Ayer

      Hans Reichenbach

      Georges Canguilhem

      Kenneth Craik

      Alexandre Koyré

      Sir Karl Popper

      Rudolf Carnap

      Michael Polanyi

      Otto Neurath

      Carl Gustav Hempel

      Paul Oppenheim

      Gaston Bachelard

      R. B. Braithwaite

      Werner Heisenberg

      Taketani Mitsuo

      Stephen Toulmin

      1960–1980

      Paul Feyerabend

      Mary Hesse

      Thomas Kuhn

      Imre Lakatos

      Ernest Nagel

      Hilary Putnam

      W.V. Quine

      Carl
      Friedrich von Weizsäcker

      Mario Bunge

      David Bloor

      1980–Today

      Donna Haraway

      David Albert

      Richard Boyd

      Nancy
      Cartwright

      Alan Chalmers

      Daniel Dennett

      John Dupré

      John Earman

      Noam Chomsky

      William Lane Craig

      Bas van Fraassen

      Ronald Giere

      Peter Godfrey-Smith

      Adolf Grünbaum

      Ian Hacking

      Sandra Harding

      Michał Heller

      Philip Kitcher

      Larry Laudan

      John Lennox

      Isaac Levi

      Peter Lipton

      Helen Longino

      Ernan McMullin

      Peter Medawar

      Stephen C. Meyer

      Nancey Murphy

      Roger Penrose

      John Polkinghorne

      Alex Rosenberg

      Wesley C. Salmon

      Brian Skyrms

      Patrick Suppes

      David Stove

      Wolfgang Stegmüller

      Elliott Sober

      Kim Sterelny

      Richard Swinburne

      Sandra Mitchell

      Lawrence Sklar

      Gerard Verschuuren

    • David Nickol

      I am going to note a few comments about David Gelernter’s “five flaws” from OP’s linked article in case my lost message never shows up. If it does show up, I hope I don’t contradict everything here that I said earlier.

      The Flaws.

      But the master analogy—between mind and software, brain and computer—is fatally flawed. It falls apart once you mull these simple facts:

      1. You can transfer a program easily from one computer to another,
      but you can’t transfer a mind, ever, from one brain to another.
      2. You can run an endless series of different programs on any one computer, but only one “program” runs, or ever can run, on any one human brain.
      3. Software is transparent. I can read off the precise state of the
      entire program at any time. Minds are opaque—there is no way I can know
      what you are thinking unless you tell me.
      4. Computers can be erased; minds cannot.
      5. Computers can be made to operate precisely as we choose; minds cannot.

      There are more. Come up with them yourself. It’s easy.

      1. One might think we simply don’t have advanced enough technology and ask why Gelernter thinks it can’t be done. Certainly it has never been tried. But if he means transferring something like transferring my mind another person’s brain, or two bodies swapping minds (as happens occasionally in movies or tv shows), I would agree it is impossible. Firstly, his statement is incorrect. You can’t easily transfer a program from one computer to another. If you are running a program on a Mac with OS 10.9.1, you can easily run that program on another Mac running OS 10.9.1, but you can’t transfer it while it is running. And you can’t even run it on a PC or a Mac running OS.

      More importantly, if you want to think of a human brain as a computer, every person’s brain is a unique computer. Genetic make-up will determine the development of the brain from the original zygote, and each brain will be different. Also, unlike manufactured computers,learning and experience physically change the brain. So even identical twins, once their brains begin functioning (which would surely be before birth) will have different brains, and their brains (and every human being’s brain) will be different tomorrow than it was today. So supposing a person could somehow “download” the entire contents of his mind today for safekeeping. It is the case (or at least it is my conjecture), should he die or have his mind wiped clean a year later, the “download” in storage won’t be able to be read into his brain, because the brain will have changed.

      2. I don’t think the mind is comparable to a single program running on a single computer. The mind/brain is doing many things at once, and many of those may be independent of many others. The mind is a collection or composite of many modules running in the brain. We tend not to realize how many complex processes coincide and cooperate to control something like vision. But read a few case histories by Oliver Sacks, and you will find that when one or more components of a single process malfunction and others continue functioning normally, you get bizarre neurological symptoms. Some people, for example, cannot see movement but have no problem seeing stationary objects. Vision isn’t just one capability running as a subroutine of one program in the brain. It is a whole group of brain functions running separately.

      3. Of course, even if the brain were a giant and powerful single computer running on a single computer, the complexity and the volume of information it was processing would be immense. You might be able to do a memory dump at one instant, but making sense of it would certainly be beyond the ability of a single person. You can’t just look at a printout of the memory of a computer and say, “Aha, I see it was working on a chess problem!” or, “Oh yes, it was calculating pi to 100,000 decimal places.”

      4. There are drugs that cause short term or permanent memory loss. I don’t doubt if there were some good reason to spend the money on it, scientists could come up with a way to erase human memory. Take a look here, for example. (Please note, I have only read the first couple of paragraphs. I hope it is not a site like The Onion!)

      5. I cannot make my computer do anything I want it to do! If it were possible to make anycomputer do anything you wanted it to do, we wouldn’t have thousands of types of computers. If you have two identical computers, you can certainly make each one of them do exactly what the other one does. But as I have argued, each brain is different, so if you can hear a symphony by reading the score, and I can can tell you what day of the week any date in history was (which I can’t), that doesn’t mean you can do what I do and I can do what you do, even with years of practice. A computer can do only what it was designed to do (although of course the designers may not think of all the possible specific uses to which users will come up with).

      In sum, the brain is not a single computer, the mind is not a single program. Each individual brain is different from every other, and the same brain is different from moment to moment, not just in terms of the “software” it is running, but because the brain has self-modifying “hardware” and or “firmware.”

      I personally don’t think that if materialism is true, and “the mind is something the brain does,”it makes a play by Shakespeare or a painting by Cezanne any less brilliant than they are now. The reaction of people like Gelernter, it seems to me, is similar to the reaction many people had to Darwin. “I’m not descended from apes! I’m not made only of matter!”

      • Geena Safire

        Regarding point 1, “You can transfer a program easily from one computer to another, but you can’t transfer a mind, ever, from one brain to another.”

        If the analogy is “a mind” to “a computer.” then it is not relevant, in this analogy to speak of transferring “a mind.”

        What would be relevant to transferring a program from one computer to another would be, simply, teaching.

    • Michael Murray

      If existence is both material and spiritual, as most religions hold, then science can only answersome of the questions we face, and not the most important ones about ultimate destiny and purpose. Something has to give if you are a materialist.

      What kind of answer are you looking for to the big questions ? Do you expect to find an answer of the kind “the creator has made mankind for the purpose of …” or would you be content with “mankind should do …”. Science can inform the latter by telling you what mankind of capable of but ultimately it’s up to us to decide what we do with our own lives and humanity as a whole.

      Either science is limited or existence is limited.

      Existence is limited. But not as much as you seem to fear.

      do not expect science to be the savior of mankind.

      Of course not. Science is a tool. Mankind is the saviour of mankind. No-one else is going to help us.

      • Geena Safire

        Trasancos: [Science cannot answer] the most important [questions] about ultimate destiny and purpose.

        It’s hard to imagine if science could answer them since, from a scientific point of view, these questions — so far, at least — do not seem to have an answer.

        • Mike A

          Agreed. “Our ultimate purpose” is a made up concept and asking questions about it is a colossal waste of time and energy. If people would just focus on trying to actually make the world we have a better place, things would be vastly improved.

          It’s such a tragedy that we’ve wasted so many of our brightest minds on such wasteful pursuits.

          • David Nickol

            “Our ultimate purpose” is a made up concept and asking questions about it is a colossal waste of time and energy.

            It seems to me it is impossible to reach the above conclusion without, in effect, asking what “our ultimate purpose” is and concluding there is none. How do you know our ultimate purpose is a made-up concept?

            I am reading some ancient history at the moment and am struck by how much attention virtually every ancient civilization paid to its god or gods. I suppose it might be argued that primitive peoples didn’t know any better, but it seems to me the conclusion to draw is that there is something in human nature that causes people to look for ultimate purposes and ever-higher causes. I would be the last to say that proves the supernatural exists, but it does indicate to me that it is a very human pursuit to look for “our ultimate purpose” or “the meaning of life.” As one of Kurt Vonnegut’s characters asked, “What are people for?”

            • Mike A

              there is something in human nature that causes people to look for ultimate purposes and ever-higher causes… it does indicate to me that it is a very human pursuit to look for “our ultimate purpose” or “the meaning of life.”

              Absolutely. We’re pattern-finding machines as much as we are anything else. This is both one of our greatest strengths, and greatest weaknesses; we end up finding patterns where none exist, which is where we get superstition.

              It seems to me it is impossible to reach the above conclusion without, in effect, asking what “our ultimate purpose” is and concluding there is none. How do you know our ultimate purpose is a made-up concept?

              To be clear, I’m not arguing we don’t have an ultimate purpose, I’m arguing that not just “ultimate purpose,” but ‘purpose’ itself, can’t have any meaning without the context of an additional agent. The purpose of my keyboard is to type words, because that’s the purpose I use it for. But to ask what the purpose is of something is in the abstract is not just meaningless, but meaningless by definition. Purpose is a human concept.

              I suppose you could say ‘the purpose of our lives is whatever purpose we give them,’ but that’s not really the question the supernaturalists are asking themselves.

    • Ray Kurzweil is not a scientist, is he? he doesn’t do research, he makes predictions about

About Brian Green Adams

I am an atheist in Canada. I know something about law. "Brian Green Adams" is a pseudonym, taken from Brian Eno, Robert Green Ingersol, and Douglas Adams. Three of my favourite atheists. Not to mention The Life of Brian, Brian Green (physicist), Eno's "Another Green World", and Adam from Genesis in the Bible. The connection to Brian Adams is an unfortunate coincidence, though I was very fond of him when I was 12.
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13 Responses to Strange Notions

  1. Thanks for posting this Brian. Having survived the ‘First Great SN Purge’, I’ve been in the habit of subscribing to any thread I participated in (or was curious about). It helped to have original copies of comments in case things were edited without acknowledgement, as well as comments being deleted. The only downside is that subscribing doesn’t save copies of your own posts!

    If anyone who reads this would like copies of some particularly brilliant / important comment, or series of exchanges, feel free to contact me at andre dot boillot at gmail dot com, and I will be happy to look through my subscription archives for you.

  2. Argon says:

    Hello Brian.
    I had my doubts but am now convinced that for me, Strange Notions is not the place to engage in serious discourse. Many of the articles are repeats of age-old debates but with little history or past writings acknowledged, particularly on the con side. One might expect this as the site was designed as an evangelizing tool but there are more neutral and balanced venues available for discussion. For me the poor quality of the scientifically related articles and the uneven moderation created the final incentives to discontinue. I’ve removed my posts that I could still edit in sympathy to others whose hard work and real effort were moderated into the ether.

    • Fair enough! But I think these concerns are endemic in this kind of dialogue. Just my take, but I honestly think Brandon believes he is being fair and reasonable. I am going to try and get a post published and see how that goes.

  3. Andrew G. says:

    I’m guessing it’s a search-engine thing; the comments appear on the raw source of the page, and may be displayed temporarily, but then normally the disqus javascript code overwrites them with the formatted version. I’d already retrieved my comments from several articles this way.

    I’ve put up a post for a disqus comments thread here:
    http://outshine-the-sun.blogspot.co.uk/2014/01/the-strange-notions-debacle.html

  4. josh says:

    Hi Brian,
    This is Josh from Strange Notions. I’m just writing to confirm that I am locked out of commenting there as well. No warning. No notification. I don’t know any particular comment of mine that would have prompted it. I gave SN the benefit of the doubt once before when they banned at least one useful commenter and a lot of others walked. Obviously not an option for me this time, but unless the moderators come forth with some serious explanation, and they’ve had time if this was a technical glitch, I’d be very wary of continuing there. You are of course welcome to make your own call about engaging them further.

    Thanks for preserving the posts above.

    • Andrew G. says:

      I think the fact that all discussion of the issue has been systematically deleted rules out any glitch.

      Had you commented on any recent posts? I don’t see anything from you…

      • Argon says:

        Oddly enough, as someone else noted, the deleted comments still exist in a page’s HTML. There’s probably just code to make them invisible.

    • Colin Walls says:

      I am the poster formerly known as “epeeist” on SN. Supposedly given many warnings and then banned for “snark” and “sarcasm”. However I received none of these warnings either on the site or by email. Others banned at the same time or earlier had the same experience.
      It was probably an action by me that got posts deleted ;-(
      When I was banned I found that while I couldn’t post new responses I could edit the ones that I had already made. I did make edits to a number of them to highlight the fact that I had been banned, which caused the mass walkout.
      I suspect Brandon wasn’t going to allow the same thing to happen this time.

      As for the article, it really was pretty poor. Stacy has little understanding of philosophy of science and I would argue that even her understanding of the way science works is very limited.

      The “matter in motion” thing is originally from Galileo as far as I am aware, though I have a nagging suspicion that there might be something earlier in Greek philosophy, possibly Democritus.

      • Hey! Thanks for getting in touch. I once made a comment (probably as 42Oolon) that we should be cautious about one of the posters had no background in history, but was making a post advancing a fringe historical view. I suggested we be careful not to take his views on authority. I was shocked that Brandon thought this was an ad hominem or poisoning the waters. I guess technically it might be, but I also realized that this meant that I needed to be about as polite and forgiving as if I were speaking to the Queen of England. I thought it was setting the bar very high but doable.

        But I cannot for the life of me think why Geena was banned, posting too long? Off topic? Seriously?

        What is clear is that there is so little and little good Catholic apologists that they are having to get students to make comments!

  5. mmurray57 says:

    Hi all. Interesting fact about deletions being in the source. Presumably it would be possible to write an plugin that showed Disqus undeleted ? We discovered last time that being banned doesn’t stop you editing old comments although they don’t appear on the new posts lists. I did wonder if that was why Brandon or the mods went back and deleted so many posts.

    Call me cynical but when I saw a few months back that Brandon had turned Strange Notions into a paying job I thought that explained a lot.

    Some explanation of last time in case anyone wasn’t there.

    http://quinesqueue.blogspot.com.au/2013/08/an-experiment-in-strange-notions.html

    Michael

    • Andrew G. says:

      I’m 99% sure that the deletions remaining in the source is a search optimization thing.

      If the page just had the Disqus javascript link, then the comments would be invisible to search engines; by having the comment author and body text incorporated into the article then the page gains relevance from the comment content.

      When the Disqus javascript loads, it removes or hides the comments given in the source, and (I think) reloads them all from the Disqus API and formats them. One consequence is that the comment text in the article doesn’t seem to be affected by edits.

  6. quine001 says:

    Hi Brian, I gave up posting at SN because I could see how the unpredictable moderation was going. You might be interested in what I wrote about that last summer:

    http://quinesqueue.blogspot.com/2013/08/an-experiment-in-strange-notions.html

  7. quine001 says:

    Wow, Michael beat me to posting my own link!

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