Julian Baggini on religion and science

The recent (or current) debate throughout the intertubes that has involved contributions from Keith Ward, Jerry Coyne, Jim P. Houston, Ophelia Benson, Jean Kazez, and the gods alone know who else, actually began with an article by Julian Baggini in “Comment is free” – The Guardian‘s online op.ed. site. Given how confusing (at least to me) the debate has become, with issues continually ramifying, I thought it might be worthwhile to go back to Baggini’s original contribution, and try to work out what view he was actually putting … and what sort of view he was opposing.

Baggini’s piece is headed, “Religion’s truce with science can’t hold” – but I don’t know whether that heading was his or a sub-editor’s. Baggini begins by identifying the sort of claim that he will be disputing:

that religion and science are compatible because they are not talking about the same things. Religion does not make empirical claims about how the universe works, and to treat it as though it did is to make a category mistake of the worst kind. So we should just leave science and religion to get on with their different jobs free from mutual molestation.

As an example, he cites Stephen Jay Gould’s argument that science aims to find empirical truths or answer “how” questions, while religion aims to find out the answers to “why” questions, such as whether there may be a meaning or purpose behind what is happening. He then cites some other examples. Baggini’s general target seems to be the principle of Non-Overlapping Magisteria, conceived of as the idea that there is one area of teaching authority related to the observable world and its functioning, and another relating to meaning or purpose.

I’ve had a fair bit to say about NOMA myself, not least here. I doubt that there are two non-overlapping “magisteria”; there may be many of these so-called “magisteria”, in which case, however, there is much continuity and overlap.

In any event, Baggini’s response is to challenge the separation of “why” and “how” questions. He points out that often when we ask “why” a particular phenomenon is observed we are really asking what processes explain it – e.g. “Why does water boil 100 degrees Celsius?” It is natural enough to say that science does, indeed, answer “why” questions. It answers such questions by revealing facts about the mechanisms and processes involved.

Conversely, there is a sense in which religion answers “how” questions. If someone asks “Why does the universe have certain properties that are conducive to the development of life and intelligence?” religious thinkers may tell us something about how the universe came to be as it is, namely by a process of divine will and activity. Often, a body of religious doctrine will include quite specific claims about just how a super-agency intervened in the order of things.

Baggini accepts that some forms of religion do not make claims that of that kind. However, he thinks that, “any religious belief that involves an activist, really-existing God and claims that religion has something to say about why things happen, must also be encroaching on questions of how they happen, too.” Once that happens, he thinks, such a religious belief starts to compete with the explanations given by science and rational inquiry more generally.

All this may be slightly too strong. I could imagine that someone who believes in an activist, really-existing God might nonetheless avoid competing with scientific/rational explanations – perhaps by making only very vague and abstract claims about how God goes about intervening or has intervened in the past. If the doctrinal claims are sufficiently vague and abstract, they may be unfalsifiable, and they do not really compete with other claims. Still, Baggini is correct that religion very often does make claims that can and do compete with those of scientists and scholars.

Baggini concludes with a fundamental point:

What really counts, what should really make the difference between assent and rejection of an empirical claim, is not whether it is compatible with science, but whether an evidence-led, rational examination of a view supports it better than competing alternatives.

Thus, Baggini is not so much concerned about whether religion makes claims that are simply inconsistent with science, especially if it is narrowly conceived. The issue is whether some kinds of religion make claims that compete with, yet are better than, scientific and humanistic alternatives (when all the claims are subjected to evidence-led, rational examination).

Clearly, he thinks that religion of the kind he is discussing does end up making claims that are not well supported once examined. He does not spell this out with examples, so I’m not entirely sure what sorts of claims he has in mind. A claim that the fossil record is best explained by a massive divinely-caused flood several thousand years ago might be one example. Here, the claim that God caused the fossil record to be in the form we see by means (i.e. this is how he did it) of creating a huge flood is less than compelling when compared with claims made by modern sciences that describe the age and history of the Earth, the evolution of life over millions of years, the means by which some creatures came to be fossilised, and so on.

An example from outside the natural sciences might relate to the Tower of Babel. If we explain the diversity of human languages as being caused by God by means of making our ancestors suddenly speak many mutually incomprehensible languages several thousand years ago, then this explanation will compete with the explanations given by scholars who study the development of languages. The religious explanation of how it happened is, once again, less than convincing.

Baggini seems to think that these sorts of religious explanations – explanations that describe how a supernatural agency brought about a result – will always lose out, once subjected to evidence-led, rational examination, with due consideration of the serious alternatives. Once there’s outright competition between science and religion, “science always wins, hands down”.

Baggini does not claim that this is the complete picture – he foreshadows more pieces on related aspects or topics. Some of his claims may be slightly too strong. After all, as mentioned above, religious explanations can be very vague, so much so as not to be genuine competitors with other explanations. But surely that is also a problem for religion, at least potentially – it can become too “thin” to be attractive. I do, moreover, think he is correct that there’s always been a tendency for religion to offer explanations that can, as we learn more about the world, come into competition with reason-based explanations. Not all theological systems make these claims, but many do. When they do so, furthermore, the claims tend not to fare well.

The debate has moved forward a long way since Baggini’s piece, and Baggini himself might want to qualify or clarify some of his argument in the light of the debate. Certainly, my own understanding of his views may be flawed in some way. But anyway, this is where the current round of disputation started. Best at least to be clear about that much. Like Baggini, I plan to say more about the issues.

Leave a comment ?


  1. Thanks Russell. I take your point that “If the doctrinal claims are sufficiently vague and abstract, they may be unfalsifiable, and they do not really compete with other claims” but then they not only don’t compete, they’re not really saying anything at all!

    I’ve said more about problems around vagueness in subsequent posts.

  2. In relation to Christianity, the examples of religious explanation in this article all seem to focus on the start of the Book of Genesis – the Seven days, the Flood, Babel – which so many Christians would concede is mythical in nature that it is hard to see who you are arguing against. I would have thought the causes and effects of faith, where there could perhaps be rival ‘scientific’ and ‘theological’ explanations, would be a more telling issue to discuss, with fairly strong points made on both sides.

  3. “In relation to Christianity, the examples of religious explanation in this article all seem to focus on the start of the Book of Genesis – the Seven days, the Flood, Babel”

    Maybe, which is why in the survey I’ve just done (results coming soon) I also asked believers about Christ’s miracles and his resurrection.

  4. That will be interesting for, as the higher criticism and Channel 4 tells us, Christ was in fact the first Hegelian philosopher (David Strauss) or perhaps the first liberal democrat, but the early Christians, operating within their primitive myth-consciousness, were led by this to invent the miracle stories and confuse him with the good Lord himself! Unless Emperor Constantine made it all up, or there’s something in it, of course.

  5. The issue, at least for the wider intellectual community, is whether it is wrong for scientists, and the scientifically literate, to challenge religious beliefs on empirical grounds. In My God Problem, Natalie Angier makes a convincing case that the issue only seems pertinent because religious beliefs are held to be privileged in a way that other claims to unjustified knowledge are not. Scientists are expected to challenge beliefs inherent to astrology, homeopathy, etc, but to appreciate that claims (Angier) “that Jesus was born to a virgin, an act of parthenogenesis that defies everything we know about mammalian genetics and reproduction” are simply outside of their realm.

  6. “that Jesus was born to a virgin, an act of parthenogenesis that defies everything we know about mammalian genetics and reproduction”

    is something, interestingly, that Keith Ward doubts too. And, unlike some, he does not hold that the scientifically literate can not challenge religious beliefs. There are elements of the biblical accounts that he doubts (partly) because “they seem to conflict too radically with our present knowledge of natural processes”.

  7. s. wallerstein (ex amos)

    Why religion is generally respected and homopathy and astrology are debunked is more of a
    sociological or social psychological question than a philosophical one.

  8. “How the Existence of God Explains the World and its Order” & “How the Existence of God Explains the Existence of Humans”—these are two chapter titles in Swinburne’s below-mentioned book.

    “So there is our universe (or multiverse). It is characterized by vast, all-pervasive temporal order, the conformity of nature to formula, recorded in the scientific laws formulated by humans. It started off in such a way (or through eternity has been characterized by such features) as to lead to the evolution of animals and humans. These phenomena are clearly things ‘too big’ for science to explain. They are where science stops. They constitute the framework of science itself. I have argued that it is not a rational conclusion to suppose that explanation stops where science does, and so we should look for a personal explanation of the existence, conformity to law, and evolutionary potential of the universe. Theism provides just such an explanation. That is strong grounds for believing it to be true… . Note that I am not postulating a ‘God of the gaps’, a god merely to explain the things which science has not yet explained. I am postulating a God to explain what science explains; I do not deny that science explains, but I postulate God to explain why science explains. The very success of science in showing us how deeply orderly the natural world is provides strong grounds for believing that there is an even deeper cause of that order.”

    (Swinburne, Richard. Is There a God? 2nd rev. ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010. p. 62)

    So much for “NOMA”…

  9. “Critically, however, scientific ‘why’ questions do not imply any agency – deliberate action – and hence no intention. We can ask why the dinosaurs died out, why smoking causes cancer and so on without implying any intentions. In the theistic context, however, ‘why’ is usually what I call ‘agency-why’: it’s an explanation involving causation with intention. So not only do the hows and whys get mixed up, religion can end up smuggling in a non-scientific agency-why where it doesn’t belong.” – J. Baggini (http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/belief/2011/oct/14/religion-truce-science-universe)

    The theologians do in fact work with two different models of explanation:

    “We find two different kinds of explanations of events, two different ways in which objects cause events. There is inanimate causation, and there is intentional causation. When the dynamite causes a particular explosion, it does so because it has, among its properties, the power to do so and the liability to exercise that power under certain conditions—when it is ignited at a certain temperature and pressure. It has to cause the explosion under those conditions; it has no option, and there is nothing purposive about it doing so. But the dynamite was ignited because, say, a terrorist ignited it. The terrorist caused the ignition, because he had the power to do so, the belief that doing so would cause an explosion, and the purpose of causing an explosion. He chose to cause the ignition; he could have done otherwise. Here we have two kinds of explanation. The first, in terms of powers and liabilities, is inanimate explanation. The second, in terms of powers, beliefs, and purposes, is intentional, or—as I shall call it in future—personal explanation. Different phenomena are explained in different ways: some events are brought about intentionally by persons (and animals, some of whom also act intentionally), and some events are brought about by inanimate things.”

    (Swinburne, Richard. Is There a God? 2nd rev. ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010. p. 20)

    “[T]he existence of conscious minds introduces a new form of non-scientific explanation for why things happen as they do. Scientific explanation, in general, works by referring to some initial state (a ’cause’) and a general mathematically describable law. That law predicts what regularly follows from the initial state, and it does so without any reference to purpose, value or consciousness.
    But there is another sort of explanation. The Oxford philosopher Richard Swinburne (Dawkins wrongly calls him a theologian, probably because he disagrees with him so much) calls it ‘personal explanation’. It only comes into effect when persons, or conscious minds, exist. Then it explains some of the things that persons do in terms of knowledge, desire, intention and enjoyment.
    If you want to explain how it is that I am writing these words, you could do so by showing that I am aware of some possible future states (I can stay in bed, have a coffee, or write these words), I evaluate one of them as desirable (I want to finish this book), I set in motion a causal process to bring about what I desire (I get out of bed), and finally I enjoy what I am doing, because it is what I wanted and decided to do.
    This is personal explanation. It is a perfectly satisfactory form of explanation, and it does not seem to be reducible to scientific explanation. If it is, no one has yet plausibly suggested any idea of how to reduce it. How can my talk of knowledge, desires, intentions and awareness translate into statements of physics that only refer to physical states and general laws of their behaviour?
    I conclude, like most philosophers, that if conscious knowledge, desire, intention and enjoyment exist, then personal explanation is a sort of explanation that we need, one that is truly explanatory, that is quite different from scientific (purely physical) explanation, and that is not reducible to or translatable into scientific explanation.”

    (Ward, Keith. Why There Almost Certainly Is a God: Doubting Dawkins. Oxford: Lion, 2008. pp. 22-3)

  10. By the way, I think a suitable alternative phrase referring to what Swinburne calls “personal explanation” is psychoteleological explanation.

  11. With regard to:

    “if conscious knowledge, desire, intention and enjoyment exist, then personal explanation is a sort of explanation that we need”

    On the contrary, there are very straightforward ways of accounting for “knowledge, desire, intention and enjoyment” within the well established framework of biology’.

    In fact, each of these products of evolution by natural selection is a necessary function for an organism to interact optimally with its environment.

    It is only if one falls into the inherently recursive trap of introspection that illusory requirements for “personal explanations” to account for these phenomena arise.

    Such propositions are expanded upon and provided with an evidential basis in the context of the very broad evolutionary model outlined (very informally) in “The Goldilocks Effect: What Has Serendipity Ever Done For Us?”, a free download in e-book formats from the “Unusual Perspectives” website.

  12. I think that (what I call) psychoteleological explanations, i.e. explanations in terms of the conations, volitions, and intentions of conscious agents, are theoretically indispensable and conceptually irreducible in the social and cultural sciences, and especially in the philosophy and psychology of human action.

    There is an explanatory contrast and apparent conflict between the “space of reasons” and the “space of causes” or, better, “the space of subsumption under natural law”/”the realm of (natural) law” (W. Sellars & J. McDowell). The space of reasons and the space of causes can overlap, because reasons may well be a kind of natural causes. And the space of nature as a whole arguably comprises both spaces, since personal agents such as human ones are wholly part of nature.

    Of course, the question is whether teleological explanations are also successfully employable in the natural sciences. For example, what about teleological explanations in biology? My distinction between psychoteleological and physioteleological explanations corresponds to Colin Allen’s distinction between teleomentalistic and teleonaturalistic explanations:

    “Teleomentalists regard the teleology of psychological intentions, goals, and purposes as the primary model for understanding teleology in biology. Aside from creationism, the most common form of teleomentalist view is that teleological claims in biology are mere metaphor—describing and explaining biological phenomena on the basis of more or less loose comparisons to psychological teleology. Those who hold teleology in biology to be metaphorical in nature typically regard it as eliminable; i.e., they believe that the science of biology would not be essentially altered if all references to teleology were eschewed. Those who reject teleomentalism typically seek naturalistic truth conditions for teleological claims in biology that do not refer to the intentions, goals, or purposes of psychological agents.

    (Allen, Colin. “Teleological Notions in Biology.” 2003. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/teleology-biology)

  13. Allen distinguishes between teleomentalism and teleonaturalism. What naturalists reject are (nonmetaphorically) teleomentalistic explanations in biology (and, of course, in chemistry and physics); but they can happily believe in what Ernst Mayr calls teleonomic biological processes:

    “Nature (organic and inanimate) abounds in processes and activities that lead to an end. Some authors seem to believe that all such terminating processes are of one kind and ‘finalistic’ in the same manner and to the same degree. Taylor (1950), for instance, if I understand him correctly, claims that all forms of active behavior are of the same kind and that there is no fundamental difference between one kind of movement or purposive action and any other. Waddington (1968) gives a definition of his term ‘quasi-finalistic’ as requiring ‘that the end state of the process is determined by its properties at the beginning.’
    Further study indicates, however, that the class of end-directed processes is composed of two entirely different kinds of phenomena. These two types of phenomena may be characterized as follows:
    Teleomatic processes in inanimate nature. Many movements of inanimate objects as well as physicochemical processes are the simple consequence of natural laws. For instance, gravity provides the end-state for a rock which I drop into a well. It will reach its end-state when it has come to rest on the bottom. A red-hot piece of iron reaches its end-state when its temperature and that of its environment are equal. All objects of the physical world are endowed with the capacity to change their state, and these changes follow natural laws. They are end-directed only in a passive, automatic way, regulated by external forces or conditions. Since the end-state of such inanimate objects is automatically achieved, such changes might be designated as teleomatic. All teleomatic processes come to an end when the potential is used up (as in the cooling of a heated piece of iron) or when the process is stopped by encountering an external impediment (as a falling stone hitting the ground). Teleomatic processes simply follow natural laws, i.e. lead to a result consequential to concomitant physical forces, and the reaching of their end-state is not controlled by a built-in program. The law of gravity and the second law of thermodynamics are among the natural laws which most frequently govern teleomatic processes.
    Teleonomic processes in living nature. Seemingly goal-directed behavior by organisms is of an entirely different nature from teleomatic processes. Goal-directed behavior (in the widest sense of this word) is extremely widespread in the organic world; for instance, most activity connected with migration, food-getting, courtship, ontogeny, and all phases of reproduction is characterized by such goal orientation. The occurrence of goal-directed processes is perhaps the most characteristic feature of the world of living organisms.
    For the last 15 years or so the term ‘teleonomic’ has been used increasingly often for goal-directed processes in organisms. I proposed in 1961 the following definition for this term: ‘It would seem useful to restrict term ‘teleonomic’ rigidly to systems operating on the basis of a program, a code of information’ (Mayr 1961). Although I used the term ‘system’ in this definition, I have since become convinced that it permits a better operational definition to consider certain activities, processes (like growth), and active behaviors as the most characteristic illustrations of teleonomic phenomena. I therefore modify my definition, as follows: A teleonomic process or behavior is one which owes its goal-directedness to the operation of a program The term ‘teleonomic’ implies goal direction. This, in turn, implies a dynamic process rather than a static condition, as represented by the system. The combination of ‘teleonomic’ with the term ‘system’ is, thus, rather incongruent.
    All teleonomic behavior is characterized by two components. It is guided by a ‘program’, and it depends on the existence of some endpoint, goal, or terminus which is foreseen in the program that regulates the behavior, This endpoint might be a structure, a physiological function, the attainment of a new geographical position, or a ‘consummatory’ (Craig 1918) act in behavior. Each particular program is the result of natural selection, constantly adjusted by the selective value of the achieved endpoint.”

    (Mayr, Ernst. “The Multiple Meanings of Teleological.” In: Ernst Mayr, A New Philosophy of Biology: Observations of an Evolutionist, 38-66. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1988. pp. 44-5)

  14. Thinking about thinking about thinking | Butterflies and Wheels - pingback on November 25, 2011 at 7:28 am
  15. Julian Baggini :

    “I take your point that “If the doctrinal claims are sufficiently vague and abstract, they may be unfalsifiable, and they do not really compete with other claims” but then they not only don’t compete, they’re not really saying anything at all!”

    Well that is actually not correct, in my opinion.

    I agree that in a properly constituted philosophy, religion does not compete with science because they occupy different metaphysical spaces, but that does not mean that religion is saying nothing.

    I had occasion to absorb the worldview of a genuine 100% committed born again fundamental Christian. It was logically flawless. There was an explanation for everything. It was a complete metaphysic in which even science was possible. It differed only from a rational materialists viewpoint in three ways:-

    – time was limited to 6000 years or so
    – it posited instead of a Big Bang, a divine and miraculous act of intelligent purposeful creation, in which everything was fixed to look like it was a billion years old.
    – in terms of ultimate FACT, observation was replaced by the King James Bible: This trumped anything when it came to absolute Truth. Nothing, not even the evidence of one’s senses, trumped the Bible. It was the literal truth and the genuine Word Of God.

    As a humble student of metaphysics, it seems to me that we have as humans, no pre defined axis of ‘truth’. In essence we can choose to believe anything we want to be the most true thing there ever was, and arrive at a metaphysic that reflects this, and is complete, and consistent in terms of it.

    As material realists, we assume that the consensual evidence of our senses is the starting point of our construction of a worldview. But we have no justification for saying that it is the most true thing there is, and indeed the history of metaphysics is littered with the scribblings of those who chose otherwise.

    I note this, and move on…

  16. Leo,

    Why do you object to the claim that “If the doctrinal claims are sufficiently vague and abstract… they’re not really saying anything at all!”

    on account of your encounter with a ‘logically flawless’ Christian viewpont in which there was an explanation for everything and a number of clear doctrines about the age of the Earth and its cause…

    – the latter clealry is not so vague and abstract that it fails to say anything

  17. In order to make measurements that can be corroborated in public, by way of scientific method, we need to employ a kind of conceptual toolkit, including the ideas of time elapsing and spacial extension; these are first experienced as being seated in our own consciousness.

    In computing, the idea of dependencies tells you what programs need to be installed before you can run the software that does what want it to. If we can talk about any scientific method of investigation having similar dependencies, concepts that need to be loaded up before it can do anything, does this not open up some space for ‘extra-scientific’ kinds of knowledge or belief?

    If I ask whether time – as subjectively experienced – is composed of discreet chunks or else a seamless trajectory, the question is not meaningless; nor can it be settled by the kind of public enquiry that lets us classify beetles.

    That’s not to say that religion needs to be there to fill that gap. You might well call on more philosophy! But a doctrine could offer a set of customs and practises to provide the means of arriving at conclusions that are based on personal experience (but not public experiment), and that doctrine could call itself a religion.

    In this case, there might be open competition with science – which could try for an answer based on the neural correlates of consciousness – or ‘religion’ might be the only show in town; with science ignoring the question altogether.

    The extent to which religions actually take this approach is debatable. Many forms of Buddhism evidently do something like this and perhaps earlier traditions of Christian mysticism were stronger candidates for this defence of religion. As far as religious beliefs that flatly contradict evidentially certified natural laws go, well, science wins every time. Everyone knows that Mary wasn’t a virgin.

  18. As a scientist I would have to say that science doesn’t “win”, it just goes as far as it can to explain the natural world.

    I don’t know that “Mary wasn’t a virgin” I only know that it would have been outside of the realm of science for her to be one.

    Science at this time lacks any direct scientific evidence(DNA or other)to support the conclusion that she wasn’t a virgin. All that science can really say is that it would have had to have been a miracle for that to happen in our natural world as we understand it.


    I suspect that by “personal experience”, or at least that part of it that does not comply with “public experiment” you can only referring to introspection, with its inherent recursivities. If you allow of such interpretations pretty well anything goes, from solipsism up.
    So such things as religion, the Easter bunny, the flying spaghetti monster are all easily accommodated in this nebulous realm.
    Those of us who would rather use the information provided by our various sensory receptors, rather than introspection or the hearsay of mythology, take the essential validity of this source of information about the world as an axiom. This, of course is an act of faith. But it is one than gives results. It works. Furthermore, it is tacitly shared by those who decry or sideline its validity. While I share none of the Pope’s religious fantasies, he quite happily shares my faith in the laws of aerodynamics and innumerable other physical principles on which the airliners on which he is willing to trust his life. Of course, when an advocate of religion successfully demonstrates a prayer-powered car I will have to recant this position and sit up and listen. I won’t be holding my breath waiting for it to happen, though!

    Incidentally, I have just encountered a fascinating book on comparative religion and related matters which handles such potty myths as the “Virgin Mary” rather nicely.
    It is “An Agnostics Guide to Religion” by Allan W Janssen.
    The author appears to be of a slightly deistic disposition but does not let that stand in the way of his objectivity.

  20. Firstly, responding to Bill, I would like to point out that “outside the realm of science” can either mean “incompatible with scientific laws” or “something that science doesn’t tell us much about”. Mary’s purported virginity/motherhood must be an example of the first kind. If true it would indeed be a miracle – and it is (I hope you’ll agree) less likely that a miracle has occurred than that something else explains people’s belief that a miracle has occurred.

    It is possible that a belief that runs counter to science turns out to be true. In spite of the scant details of any causal mechanism that would explain a virginal birth, the original authors could have stumbled upon a veridical, albeit surprising, phenomenon. But its hard to see how this phenomenon itself would not be amenable to scientific investigation. Only if it were a genuine one-off – a single black swan with ten thousand years full of white swans before and after it – would science be at a loss. If lightening tended to strike anyone who cursed at God, but had no natural antecedents, like charged particles in the sky, science would again have to throw in the towel.

    The world we live in is a regular one. Indeed, its so impeccably regular that all of us and the Pope are happy to travel in planes or drive across a bridge with a dozen HGVs in front without fearing for our lives. The fact that this is true right down to conservation of energy, or energy-mass equivalence, tells us to adopt very high standards of testing for facts that seem to be capricious and irregular (in my view, this is one of the most persuasive arguments against believing in ghosts, for instance). Many of the metaphysical tenets of religious belief also seem to fail this test. Why can only bread and grape juice transubstantiate, and then only within a church?

    If the probability of a virgin birth is so low as to be negligible, perhaps other events that seem to contravene the laws of nature deserve at least our serious attention. This is so when they are apparently observed over repeated experiments using a sound methodology. I have something like Rupert Sheldrake’s “sense of being stared at” experiments in mind; here, I would bet on a wager that says “either this is real and revolutionary, or there’s something interesting in why the results come out as they do, anyway”. While the onus should be on a belief that requires rejecting much of what we previously held true, the importance of science is its method and not any specific and substantive metaphysical conviction.

    However, if it did turn out that action at a distance were possible – namely in the instance of perceiving a stare to the back of your head – then this would simply involve some amount of refactoring of the core body of our scientific beliefs; the updated science would consist of the resultant set of laws.

    Yet if we’re happy to say that science is about method irrespective of what we will end up believing by using this method, then how could anything other than science have a fair chance of competing? Through sheer force of luck, it is possible that a religious stipulation arrives at a truth before science gets there, but that is not really credible (so don’t hold your breath, Peter!).

    As far as publicly ascertainable truths are concerned, a structured response to the environment that employs standard forms of measurement (to grope for a definition of science) beats all the other contenders every time. So I don’t think that introspection holds any promise of illuminating the existence of hidden entities “out there” that are otherwise inaccessible (although sometimes its the only method of discovering where I’ve left my keys). I do think that it can potentially tell us new things about ourselves, as subjects of experience.

    I also think that expanding the definition of science to include this within its remit smacks of loading the dice so that it is assured an easy victory. Not that I object, in fact the book that advocates the view that I’m supporting is Alan B. Wallace’s “The taboo of subjectivity: toward a new science of consciousness”. I happy for this to be called science too, but then we should consider that the scientific community may have made less progress on examining the truths about subjectivity than religion; and conciousness, as an area of study, has been largely neglected by academia.

    I also wonder whether the privacy of personal experience makes it unsuitable for being part of the scientific domain. As the myriad of philosophical examples would have it, we have no cast iron guarantee that we both see the same colour of red. The meter was created by dividing the distance from the equator to the north pole into ten million equal chunks. We cannot journey round consciousness and slice it up to give us a comparable standard unit; but a set of customs embedded in religion could still help me examine my own perception of redness.

    In general, of course, to make predictions about the world we “would rather use the information provided by our various sensory receptors”. The main thrust of my argument is merely that it is possible at least to gain new knowledge that says something substantial about the world (namely, about you, as a subject) using sources of knowledge that we would not usually think of as being scientific.

    Finally, the information provided by our senses does not simply exist as a given, but must be interpreted. Kant gives an example of this when he compares watching a boat moving down a canal to gazing at a house. Even though there is a sensory change as we look from one end of the house to the other (or, indeed, as the visual saccade completes its scan), we are able to perceive the house as unchanged, while during a scan of the boat we observe that it is moving. Our faithful observation of what’s going on cannot be owed to simply responding to visual stimuli: We need to use some tool kit that precedes observation of the evidence that comes from the senses in order to make ‘sense’ of it.

    I would suggest, by analogy, that there may be a defence of some kinds of religious practices, qua truth-yielding practices. We want to form beliefs based on our response to new data as revealed by, say, introspection. Fine, but where do we get our interpretative apparatus from?

  21. Joseph Cape

    I am unfamiliar with the kind of “science” that could claim to prove a theory based on a lack of evidence or knowledge, but maybe it’s possible? I don’t think that science would eliminate that possibility.

  22. I understand the pragmatic point that Science deals with the “how” and religion with the “why” questions. I also understand that it is not as simple as that really, since there is an overlap, e.g., Is the universe real or a kind of ideal (dream)? Both science and religion have something to say on this. We can stick to rational evidence-based discourse only, or allow an arational pov (not irrational ones). The best answer is often the one that is simply better than any alternative (logic of abduction or inference to the best alternative), but what do we mean by “better”, shall it be best by rationality alone or rationality + arationality? Hence the questions of “why” and “how” must also be added the “who” (as in who sets the rules of choice)!

  23. Indeed to the “how, why and who” question we can add “when and what”. As in …

    How? – asking the question how the laws of physics (and its derivatives of chemistry, biology, etc.,) support a phenomenon under examination.

    Why? – asking the question why the laws of physics as they are, and if there is an underlying intentionality or purpose to these laws that impact our lives in terms of ethics and morals.

    Who? – asking the question about who is asking the How and Why questions and if their subjectivity and bias makes a difference to the answers they get, or indeed if their examination means makes a difference to the answer.

    When/What? – asking the question if the placing of the observation in time (when) and space (what) makes a difference to the answers of the other questions above.

  24. With regards to my last post… that “what?” question is better expressed as the “where?” question (not to say the “what?” question is a phenomenological unimportant one.) 🙂

  25. Martin Cuppa writes:

    “Why? – asking the question why the laws of physics as they are, and if there is an underlying intentionality or purpose to these laws that impact our lives in terms of ethics and morals.”

    No, Martin, although those of of a superstitious disposition are apt to frame such questions with “Why” it is in no way inherent in its use.


    “Why is the sky blue?” can quite properly be answered in purely mechanistic terms. ie “because there is less scattering of longer wavelengths by the atmosphere”

    There are absolutely no intentionality or “moral” implications implication implications here.

  26. @PeterKinnon

    Peter, I don’t see it that way.

    The question “why the sky is blue?” you answered with an mechanistic explication of HOW the sky is seen as blue.

    If you asked the question “why did the man murder his wife?” you would not answer it with a how/mechanistic explication (e.g., of the form “by poison”), the WHY question would not look for means but for motive.

    A proper answer to the “why the sky is blue?” would look for the intention and motive behind it being so. Now there are some things that happen without intentionality, e.g., the result of a theoretical random number generator – that by definition has no intentionality or bias of output. However, in practice, we have no true random number generators, they are all “pseudo-random” (based on complex formulae that mimic randomness). We might (as some generators do) rely on noise derived form sources of chaos in nature) but such sources are ASSUMED to be random, they may not be in principle. If you can fathom the principle (see the signal) you may be able to predict the output (maybe within some statistical range). This bias in the output belies an answer to the “why this specific output?” question.

    Hope that clears up the issue.

  27. I was just thinking further on the question of WHY and how it relates to means and motive in the question I posed in my last post of “why did the man murder his wife?” I am aware of mechanistic answers to this question in at least 3 forms: a) My brain made me do it; b) My genes made me do it; c) My upbringing made me do it.

    I think these are not really admissible, they miss the motive and focus on means by which the motive is influenced (ultimately they are HOW the motive was formed answers).

    We are still left with responsibility for a conscionable act such as murder.

  28. So the more I think about it the more I am inclined to think that the WHY and HOW questions are caught up with language issues and assumptions of free will, consciousness, causality, reductionism, etc.

    This therefore relates to my earlier point that what will determine your position on the questions you make is the subjectivity of the inquirer, i.e., the WHY and HOW questions are determined by the WHO question.

    Who? – asking the question about who is asking the How and Why questions and if their subjectivity and bias makes a difference to the answers they get, or indeed if their examination means makes a difference to the answer.

  29. Martin, I don’t know why you think that. If someone says, “Why is the sky blue?” it seems quite natural, and in keeping with ordinary English usage, to reply with an explanation about the wavelength components of visible light, the phenomenon of Rayleigh scattering, etc.

    If someone says, “Well I was really asking what purposive agent acted so as to make the sky blue and what motive it had,” I’d be asking why we would assume that such an agent exists at all. It is unlikely that someone asking such a question is prejudging an issue like that.

    Yes, it’s true that we sometimes use the word “Why” to inquire about motivations and the like – “Why did you do that?” “Why did she want to break up with me?” and so on – but not by any means always.

    And when we ask “Why?” about some phenomenon that is not obviously the action or decision of an intelligent agent, there is no reason to think in advance that the answer will make any reference to such agents.

    Even if the question meant: “Is it true or false that a purposive agent acted so as to make the sky blue?” I don’t see why, in principle, scientists can’t address that question. After all, archeologists, anthropologists and the like already answer questions such as “Is this object something that was created by a purposive agent or not?” We can learn stuff about what sorts of things are created by purposive agents and what sorts of things are not. In fact, we have done so, and people like archeologists apply this knowledge.

    If a question like “Is the observable universe the creation of a rational agent?” is answerable at all, then I don’t see why we should think it can’t be answered using our normal methods of reasoning and evidence-gathering, as supplemented, where needed, by the distinctive methods of science.

    Conversely, if we’re sceptical as to whether it can be answered in that way, I don’t know why we should expect religion to be able to answer it either.

    But again, even before we get to all that, I just don’t think it’s at all unnatural to answer a question like, “Why is the sky blue?” or “Why did the dinosaurs go extinct c.65,000,000 years ago?” without making any reference at all to purposive agents.

  30. To be clear, my comment was in answer to your earlier one. We cross-commented just now.

  31. Hi Russel,

    My issue with the why is the sky blue question as a natural language expression is one of redundancy and proper use. Let me elucidate …

    The answer “because there is less scattering of longer wavelengths by the atmosphere” can be provided to either the question “why is the sky is blue?” or “how does the sky appear blue?” The Q&A pairs are ok in natural language use, but if we are to avoid redundancy we should look to find what these questioning words really drive at.

    It seems to me that a HOW question seeks to identify a process or means, whereas a WHY question seeks an intention or motive.

    I think in the case of the use of the words in the question “why did the man murder his wife” this is more clear.

    So since words are what we make them to be we can say/define the use of why in that context, avoid redundancy and category error.

  32. Also, as for… “If a question like ‘Is the observable universe the creation of a rational agent?’ is answerable at all, then I don’t see why we should think it can’t be answered using our normal methods of reasoning and evidence-gathering, as supplemented, where needed, by the distinctive methods of science.”

    Well the creation of the universe may not be the result of a rational act rather it might be one of a arational act (e.g., some theologians would say it results from the quintessential nature of God being that of “Love”, and a Lover/Creator needs a Beloved/Creation for Love to exist between them – such a religious explanation provides a WHY metaphysical answer, not a HOW physical answer).

    Furthermore whilst it may be the case that Science is the best method we have of answering the HOW questions through rational and empirical means, it does not mean these methods can root out intentions and motives, thus Quantum Cosmology arguments will not resolve “why does the Multiverse exist?” (though it may provide a kind of answer for “How the universe we observe came into being?”).

  33. Russell Blackford has dealt with the how/why issue very comprehensively and, despite your further protestations, I think you are in the process of resolving the common fallacy yourself.

    Just a couple more examples to help move things along, though.

    Why did his wife die when he strangled her? Would you attribute that to her intent? Or rather attribute her death to something like “Because insufficient oxygen was reaching her brain to maintain life? Now, be honest.

    Lets now look at the obverse. The practice of re-phrasing , albeit rather clumsily, a “why” question using “how”:

    “How did it come to pass that God (or the Flying Spaghetti Monster) decided, in their infinite wisdom, to create the universe” My goodness, we now have “how” implying intentionality!
    Maybe we had better abandon that word within the empirical framework too.

    You see, it is in the entire question that lies any implication of intent, not just in those particular parts of speech.

    Your example “Why did god create the world” has no place within the domain of science.

    Not because of the word with which it starts but because, like string theory, for instance, the concept “god” or of a creation has absolutely no hard evidence to back it up. It is a non-question.

    And if you consider that the observable “fine tuning” does at least offer that kind of evidence, be sure to read “The Goldilocks Effect: What Has Serendipity Ever Done For Us?”
    Then think through your notions of intentionality again.

  34. @PeterKinnon

    The question “why did his wife die when he strangled her” is completely different question than “why did the man murder his wife?” The first seeks information about the process of dying by strangulation and could be replaced with the question “How did the wife die through strangulation?”, whereas the question “Why did the man murder his wife?” seeks motive and cannot be reduced to a redundant HOW question (i.e., How was the motive and intention to murder? is not a well formed question).

    Furthermore the question “How did it come to pass that God (or the Flying Spaghetti Monster) decided, in their infinite wisdom, to create the universe” does not ask for the motive of God/FSM in creation but it asks for the means of coming to a decision (perhaps God/FSM used a means of Multi-Attribute Utility Analysis) this does not imply motive and purpose to why the decision (if it was a decision and it need not be, since that implies a time and process and that is not necessarily required theologically).

    I hope this clears up your error in the redundant and incorrect use of the WHY and HOW questions.

    You are right though that “Why did God create the world?” is not a Science question, this is because the scientific method follows rational and empirical means that are not applicable in a situation that can not be empirically tested. It is a religious/theological question. It is a non-science question, not a non-question. You a restricting yourself to only ask questions that can be resolved by scientific inquiry and this is a self-imposed limit.

    I am familiar with strong and weak anthropic principles. We need not discuss at length the merits of them here. The issue here is to understand that scientific methods can not answer some WHY questions that can be reasonably posed about motive/intention, though in the material and natural world it can (and is best at) answering the HOW questions of means/process.

  35. I find the following quotes illuminating in the context of the subject here…

    John Polkinghorne (Theologian and Nuclear Physicist)‎”I also think we need to maintain distinctions – the doctrine of creation is different from a scientific cosmology, and we should resist the temptation, which sometimes scientists give in to, to try to assimilate the concepts of theology to the concepts of science.” The point Polkinghorne is making is pertinent to the WHY questions of religion to the HOW questions of Science.

    Also, with regards to the overlap nevertheless that comes about about the goals and intentions of inquiry (Scientific and Theological) Robert Jastrow (Astronomer/Cosmologist said), “At this moment it seems as though science will never be able to raise the curtain on the mystery of creation. For the scientist who has lived by his faith in the power of reason, the story ends like a bad dream. He has scaled the mountains of ignorance; he is about to conquer the highest peak; as he pulls himself over the final rock, he is greeted by a band of theologians who have been sitting there for centuries.”

    He further went onto say…

    “There is a strange ring of feeling and emotion in these reactions [of scientists to evidence that the universe had a sudden beginning]. They come from the heart whereas you would expect the judgments to come from the brain. Why? I think part of the answer is that scientists cannot bear the thought of a natural phenomenon which cannot be explained, even with unlimited time and money. There is a kind of religion in science, it is the religion of a person who believes there is order and harmony in the universe, and every effect must have its cause, [but still believes that] there is no first cause… “This religious faith of the scientist is violated by the discovery that the world had a beginning under conditions in which the known laws of physics are not valid, and as a product of forces or circumstances we cannot discover. When that happens, the scientist has lost control…”

    I think that last quote useful as a psychological lead as to why some scientists are so anti-religious, even when both seek truth ultimately. Apparently a common desire for truth is not enough for some, they want to claim there way is the only way.

  36. *their way”

  37. It’s not a matter that “their way is the only way”; it’s a matter that we have no reason at all to think that spooky ways of knowing, e.g. getting knowledge from claimed revelations or from mystic transport, have any reliability. Indeed, we have plenty of reason to think that these are not reliable ways of finding out anything at all.

    By contrast, scientific techniques have vastly expanded our ability to find out things that eluded us prior to the rise of science in the sixteenth and (especially) seventeenth centuries. Science has been an intellectual success story.

  38. As for “why” and “how”, common usage allows us to use both of these in different ways. But even if, contrary to natural English usage, we restricted the word “why” to questions about the motivation of an agent or the purpose of an artifact that was created by an agent, that would not help. We could then only ask something like, “Why does the universe exist?” if we already had reason to think it was an artifact created for some purpose by an intelligent agent. Unless you are already religious, you will simply not ask such a question if its meaning is so strictly delimited.

    You might, of course, ask, “Why does the universe exist?” in the same sense as people ask, “Why is the sky blue?” That would be legitimate, since it does not assume that the answer makes reference to purposive agency.

    But you really can’t have it both ways. If you insist that your “why” question is asking about the purpose of an agent you can’t at the same time deny that you are already postulating the existence of such an agent.

  39. @Russell,

    I don’t disparage the Scientific method or its benefits, it is clearly the best way to find out about the important “how?” questions IMO, it just has its limits based on its foundational axiomatic assumptions of a physical materialism and natural causality (that need not be the end of the story). It can not answer the “why?” questions of motivation. And these questions are also important to our human “will to meaning” as Viktor Frankl defined as our central existential psychological driver. Ignoring it because it is an arational discourse (a spooky one in your terms) is potentially ignoring a crucial part of our humanity I feel.

    Yes, as I have said, in natural English language use you can pose questions such as “why is the sky blue?”. But if you ASSUME that there is not a motive question to be answered (a form that is exclusive to the “why?” use), but merely a means question (also redundantly able to be formed with a “how?” question) then you’ll get a process/means related answer along the lines of “It’s due to Rayleigh scattering in the upper atmosphere.”

    I advocate being as precise as we can in our language and avoid confusion. If you are after a means answer ask a “how?” question (and avoid confusing the issue with a “why?” formulation). If you are after a motive answer ask a “why?” question.

    As for your comment about a “why is there a universe?” question ASSUMES a motive of creative agent. Not so. You can answer it with, “There is no motive, it results from a quantum cosmological multiverse process that is a cause to itself – a causa sui – there is no motive, no creative agent, it just is.”

    It’s a valid answer I think. But it’s a metaphysical one you cannot have resolved as true by physical science.

    Thus you have to ask yourself if it satisfies your reason. If you sense meaning and purpose to the universe/multiverse, saying it is has no purpose is not going to satisfy that sensitivity. Yes, you can say this sensitivity is subjective and inclined to non-rational discourse, BUT if it is true that there is a Creator that has a subjective relationship with our conscience then you are obliged to engage in that kind of discourse.

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