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Can a Religious Person be a Good Scientist?

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Source: Pew

In the culture of science you occasionally run into the sort of person who believes as an apodictic fact that if one is religious one can not by their fact of belief be a good scientist. You encounter this sort of person at all levels of science, and they exhibit a range of variation in terms of the volume of their belief about beliefs of others. I don’t want to exaggerate how much it permeates the culture of science, or at least what I know of it. But, it is a tacit and real thread that runs through the world-views of some individuals. It’s a definite cultural subtext, and one which I don’t encounter often because I’m a rather vanilla atheist. A friend who is now a tenure track faculty in evolutionary biology who happens to be a Christian once told me that his religion came up nearly every day during graduate school! (some of it was hostile, but mostly it was curiosity and incomprehension)

This is on my mind because a very prominent person on genomics Twitter stated yesterday that Francis Collins by the very fact of his evangelical Christianity should not hold the scientific position of authority that he holds (the individual in question was wondering if they could sign a petition to remove him!). The logic was very straightforward: science by its nature conflicts with religion, and those who engage in the sort of cognitive processes which result in religion will be suboptimal in terms of scientific reasoning. As I indicated above the people who promote this viewpoint treat it as a deterministic scientific law. And, importantly there is little reference to cognitive science or survey data to support their propositions. Ten seconds on Google will yield the figure you see above. A substantial proportion of American scientists aver a religious affiliation.

Programming_Perl_4th_Ed_cover Mind you, there are patterns. The data when examined in a more granular fashion suggests that academic scientists are more secular than those in industry, as are the more eminent ones. But it doesn’t take much time to think of great scientists who avowed some sort of religious affiliation. In evolutionary biology R. A. Fisher and Theodosius Dobzhansky affiliated as Christians. The mid-20th century evolutionary biologist David Lack was an Anglican convert. In Reconciling Science and Religion the historian of science Peter J. Bowler outlines a movement in early 20th century Britain to accommodate and assimilate the findings of evolutionary biology to that of mainstream Christianity, so it is entirely unsurprising that Anglicans such as Fisher and Lack were active researchers within evolutionary science.

Outside of evolutionary biology there are two examples which stand out in my mind. Larry Wall, the originator of the Perl language which has had a long history in bioinformatics is an evangelical Protestant Christian. And Donald Knuth, the author of the magisterial series The Art of Computer Programming is a Lutheran.

51-C0feX3uL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_ My point in reviewing this data, which should be widely known, is to bring some empiricism to this discussion. What do the data say? Not one’s prejudices and intuitions. One response on Twitter was that empiricism precludes faith. That’s the theory about empiricism. The reality is that there are many great empirical scientists who have a religious faith. Any scientist worth their salt who wishes to air hypotheses about the incompatibility of religion and science on an individual level needs to engage with these facts.

To be fair, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that there’s a correlation in the aggregate between secularism and science. But this issue is complex, emerging at the intersection of cognitive science, sociology, and history. These subtleties can’t be waved away airily with a reference to facts that everyone knows which happens to reflect one’s own personal prejudices. That reminds me of things besides science.

Finally, this truth that in the aggregate scientists are a diverse lot even if there tends to be particular patterns of social concentration is a general one. E.g., most scientists are more liberal than not. But a substantial minority are not, with a fraction of those being rather closeted about this. The average scientist, in particular in the academy, is a secular liberal. But the minority are not trivial. We’re in your lab meetings, at your conferences, collecting data for you, and on your committees, reviewing your grant applications.* Because of the nature of the academy outside of religious colleges there is often silence from this minority lest they be pigeon-holed as out of step with the social culture of science. That’s human nature. And scientists can’t escape that, whether they are in the majority, or the minority. For all the talk of logic and empiricism, scientists are all too human in their basic wiring.

* Much of what I say applies to natural science. From the survey data in the academy non-liberals-to-Leftists are almost entirely absent in sociology and a lesser extent in areas of psychology.

 
• Category: Ideology, Science • Tags: Science, Sociology 

112 Comments to "Can a Religious Person be a Good Scientist?"

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  1. Some points.

    First: 4% atheists and agnostics in general population, 28% (7x) of scientists. The inverse figures for evangelical protestants. Science probably comes with strings attached.

    Second: of course you can be a very good scientist and also very religious, if your religion says nothing about your science.

    Third: of course one can be a scientist in a field where one´s religion have strong opinions that contradict one´s science. It rests to be seen if one is really a good scientist _ or a good follower of his religion!

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  2. I think the error starts with separating religion, belief and the impulse to join mass movements. For instance, how often have you known someone to provocatively eschew religion, yet sign onto every social movement available? The same impulse driving the person to “passionately fight for children’s rights” drives others to be a faithful Lutherans or Evangelicals.

    Progressives have always viewed Christianity as enemy number one and it colors their movement to this day. My bet is the people trying to drive the Christians out of science are the most “progressive” members of the science world. It’s not empiricism that drives them, but ideological fervor.

    Replace “secular liberal” with “Islamic” and the debates within the academy begin to make a lot more sense.

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  3. We’re in your lab meetings, at your conferences, collecting data for you, and on your committees. Because of the nature of the academy outside of religious colleges there is often silence from this minority lest they be pigeon-holed as out of step with the social culture of science.

    Fair enough. But OTOH you’re followed, retweeted and occasionally defended by people like the Eisen brothers, Michael Hendricks, and other vocally liberal scientists. And you in turn routinely retweet from staunch liberals.

    This gives me hope that, even in the age of echo chambers, most scientists are able to surmount vast ideological gaps when it comes to science itself.

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  4. First: 4% atheists and agnostics in general population, 28% (7x) of scientists. The inverse figures for evangelical protestants. Science probably comes with strings attached.

    a lot of it seems to be selection bias. in terms of the type of people who become scientists, as opposed to peoples’ opinions changing once they are in science. though i suspect there’s a lot of transition from fundamentalist to non-fundamentalist religious beliefs.

  5. Fair enough. But OTOH you’re followed, retweeted and occasionally defended by people like the Eisen brothers, Michael Hendricks, and other vocally liberal scientists. And you in turn routinely retweet from staunch liberals.

    yeah, but i’m not the type to keep my mouth shut. i will tell you that a lot of non-liberal, or heterodox liberals, direct message me a lot whenever a political thing blows up. they know that i’m going to be sympathetic since they know my politics, while they pretend to be orthodox liberal.

    i do think transparency for everyone would be best. but it’s a collective action problem.

  6. “science by its nature conflicts with religion”

    I think that the above is based on the idea that science is the force of truth opposed by religion or more specifically the masses of US religious voters. But in the US system legalism (Supreme Court) is used to remove issues from the political arena if religion interferes (womans right to choose). And as a thought experiment, would any of the secular majority of scientists ever attempt to get something accepted as the truth, if it was unacceptable to the sacred foundational creed of the state?

    EVEN if we join those commentators who view Hobbes as the founder of liberalism, insofar as he seeks to depoliticize social life for the pursuit of happiness and economic gain, the basic pessimism of Hobbes’ vision is clear. Since even a brutally oppressive regime would be preferable to civil war, the key is that nothing should be regarded as transcending the sphere of the state. Not only religion, but even science must be blocked from claiming access to a superior truth beyond the power of the sovereign. Hobbes himself went so far as to denounce the chemist Robert Boyle to the English government for claiming direct access to the truth of the vacuum.

  7. Not only atheists and agnostics, but also Jews (2% of the general [American] public, 8% of scientists). However, in this case it is quite likely that “religious affiliation” is a poor proxy for depth of religious belief, since “Jewishness” as most American Jews define it has a massive ethno-cultural component with only tenuous links to any kind of theological world-view.

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  8. drilldown on belief in these sorts of data show that jewish PhD/MDs are often atheists/agnostics to a high level. but when given the ‘jewish’ option they default to that. (though lots of jews will not select jew if they don’t believe in the religion, so the % that is of jewish background is probably > 8%)

  9. That is a good breakdown on key points. From an American perspective, I can think of two potential sources of conflict here.

    (1) Christian fundamentalist insistence on man being created in present form, not changing over time. This certainly would have to make some fields of science more impenetrable than others.

    (A 2009 Pew poll claims 2% of scientist believe man was created as is; 8% of scientists believe man evolved over time under divine guidance. I suspect “guided evolution” was a concept that the public understood as accommodating both evolution and belief in a supernatural power, while scientists agreeable to such accommodation, were suspicious that the phrase implied something other than physical law)

    http://www.people-press.org/2009/07/09/section-5-evolution-climate-change-and-other-issues/

    (2) Social separatism or chauvinism. It’s hard to imagine any religious separatists like the Amish engaging in meaningful science these days, nor people who believe that an “outside” religious group can offer anything of value. Of course, non-religious groups can be chauvinist too.

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  10. When I read this post, the first name that came to my mind was Georges Lemaitre, the renowned physicist who was also a Catholic priest: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Georges_Lema%C3%AEtre

    Everyone knows “big bang theory,” but so few seem to know about Lemaitre.

    A friend who is now a tenure track faculty in evolutionary biology who happens to be a Christian once told me that his religion came up nearly every day during graduate school!

    I know a computer scientist with a long track record of accomplishments (both theoretical and commercial) in the field who was recently considered for a top level job at a well-known IT company. He was turned down because of his “controversial” views and activities (his one backer at the company later told him that it was because he was very religious and had been active in political causes like traditional marriage). Apparently the bulk of the internal discussion was about his faith, not about his qualifications. He was hired for a similar job elsewhere, but that was an eye-opener, even though I left academia years ago because it became obvious me that I must either 1) hide my political views until tenure or 2) leave the field. I thought it was just universities. Silly me.

    Because of the nature of the academy outside of religious colleges there is often silence from this minority lest they be pigeon-holed as out of step with the social culture of science. That’s human nature. And scientists can’t escape that, whether they are in the majority, or the minority. For all the talk of logic and empiricism, scientists are all too human in their basic wiring.

    I think you nailed it right there with “the social culture of science.” So many secularist scientists like to think of themselves as purely rational empiricists when in fact they are like other human beings, a part of a particular social culture with its attendant biases and mores.

  11. I wonder if a lot of this selection for non-religion is itself tied to incentives, peer culture within particular fields, and the like. We recognize some fields (speaking more broadly than natural science) seem to have demographic oddities – often at odds with the field’s demographics a generation or two earlier. Why are some fields dominated by women while others have few women? (Conscious or unconscious discrimination play a part, but other effects also matter in non obvious ways)

    Were we to query these fields in the 1920′s I suspect religion would play a much larger role even if more deistic conceptions of religion probably dominated.

    I bring all this up just to note that trends often have an end. Yet especially in the natural sciences the current post war trend is taken as strongly indicative of something about scientific knowledge rather than merely a reflection of social trends or fads. Maybe it is, but if it is I suspect it’s non-obvious how it plays out.

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  12. BTW – while not directly addressing being a good scientist, there have been a few demographic studies of scientists and religion. I discussed a few of these a couple of months ago. Part of the problem (beyond the good part) is figuring out what we mean by scientist. A lot of these studies tend to just treat everyone in a STEM like field as a scientist. Yet clearly a doctor is quite different from a scientist and a computer programmer or engineer different yet.

  13. it’s been like this in the usa for at least 100 years

    http://www.nytimes.com/1997/04/03/us/survey-of-scientists-finds-a-stability-of-faith-in-god.html

    probably earlier. i think it is defensible to say that with the rise of modern science in the 17th/18th century there was a notable trend of scientists being HETERODOX. not necessarily atheist. but weird in their beliefs. like isaac newton for example. i think part of it is that science is weird and unnatural in many ways in its practice and implications.

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  14. We might as well include climate science.

    Every American institution now has a jack-booted Zampolit. Marriage, Islam, Climate, you name it; political officers and/or human resources are waiting to correct your errors.

  15. science is weird and unnatural in many ways

    From a traditionalist point of view, reductionism is kinda “weird.” Without reductionism there is no modern science, yet I think people in traditional cultures tend to find reductionism both counter-intuitive and impractical. The old joke about the economist on a deserted island and a can of soup comes to mind (“I’ll just assume that I have a can opener”).

  16. think it is defensible to say that with the rise of modern science in the 17th/18th century there was a notable trend of scientists being HETERODOX.

    That seems rather intuitive to me though I imagine less intuitive to others. A willingness to subject one’s ideas to scrutiny is rather fundamental to science.

    I thought I’d share a quote from Saint Augustine of Hippo that I though you and others here might enjoy.

    Usually, even a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and the other elements of this world, about the motion and orbit of the stars and even their size and relative positions, about the predictable eclipses of the sun and moon, the cycles of the years and the seasons, about the kinds of animals, shrubs, stones, and so forth, and this knowledge he hold to as being certain from reason and experience. Now, it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking nonsense on these topics; and we should take all means to prevent such an embarrassing situation, in which people show up vast ignorance in a Christian and laugh it to scorn. The shame is not so much that an ignorant individual is derided, but that people outside the household of faith think our sacred writers held such opinions, and, to the great loss of those for whose salvation we toil, the writers of our Scripture are criticized and rejected as unlearned men. If they find a Christian mistaken in a field which they themselves know well and hear him maintaining his foolish opinions about our books, how are they going to believe those books in matters concerning the resurrection of the dead, the hope of eternal life, and the kingdom of heaven, when they think their pages are full of falsehoods and on facts which they themselves have learnt from experience and the light of reason? Reckless and incompetent expounders of Holy Scripture bring untold trouble and sorrow on their wiser brethren when they are caught in one of their mischievous false opinions and are taken to task by those who are not bound by the authority of our sacred books. For then, to defend their utterly foolish and obviously untrue statements, they will try to call upon Holy Scripture for proof and even recite from memory many passages which they think support their position, although they understand neither what they say nor the things about which they make assertion.

    From The Literal Meaning of Genesis

  17. Interesting. I assumed that in the late 19th century and very early 20th when US universities still were very tied to religion that people would at least fake religion. There simply were huge social costs for going outside of the religious norms. Thus Emerson wasn’t allowed to speak at Harvard after his infamous lecture on scholars. And Peirce was a pariah other than the occasion speech arranged by James due to his breaking of religious norms. (He married a gypsy after divorcing his wife)

    Thanks for the link. I guess universities then were much more pluralistic than I assumed.

  18. The teacher of the adult Sunday school at my university town Episcopal church is a particle physicist (former nuclear submariner). Much missed when away at CERN.

  19. On creationists in science: A history of science former prof of mine with connections to the Christian biological community estimates that around 3-5% of Christians who work in biology and related fields are special creationists.

  20. I can’t believe no one has mentioned the obvious problem yet: the average age of tenure is around 40. This is disastrous to anyone with any functional libido who holds traditionalist views of sexual morality, and for women who want to have any children at all in any conventional kind of family, even by today’s standards. If there were science career tracks that allowed for a living family wage and reasonable working hours fresh out of high school, you would see them filled with the religious. Predictably, such options are not available.

    Academia is corrupted by its absurdly high median age where one could make a decent living, if one is ever even lucky enough to get one of those spots. The kind of people who find that kind of work appealing are weird in the first place, even adjusted for IQ, and the dirty career “competition” that goes on further reduces the numbers of moral absolutists, we’ll say (and this is true in any sufficiently developed bureaucracy). It’s embarrassing to see in the first place, but when it’s combined with genuine hostility for ideological reasons it is just rubbing salt in the wound of people who are at a disadvantage in the first place. And I don’t mean to say religion is the disadvantage here, as history shows. The structure of academic science is what causes the disparate impact on the faithful.

    Finally, I suspect that the religiously scientific are the kind of people who conscientiously play by (what they imagine to be) the rules, and feel inappropriately sensitive about their beliefs such that they don’t form in-groups despite being in a politicized environment, and I’m including the de facto secularist Jews. In other words, they perceive the world in a guilt culture and they often don’t notice when everyone else doesn’t reciprocate. Science and guilt culture don’t mix anymore, at least not in the official institutions with ambiguous standards of merit and promotion.

    If you’re looking for correlations between science and beliefs and how this influences society, the professional scientists are about as badly reliable and biased as Catholic priests, and for the same reason that sexuality has to be compromised as the cost of entry. Most of what comes next is after-the-fact rationalizations and saving face for the shame culture people.

  21. says:
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    I think it has been considered bad form for at least the last few centuries for scientists to express their personal religious beliefs. Steve Weinberg talks about this in one of his books and mentions that among of his peers is an Anglican priest (Polkinghorne?), three general relativists who are devout Catholics, and a practicing Muslim (Abdus Salam no doubt). Peter Grünberg (2007 Nobel Prize in physics) and Prof. Charles Misner (general relativist, Univ. of Maryland) are practicing Catholics and William Daniel Phillips (1997 Nobel Prize in Physics) is active in his local Methodist church in Maryland.

    Here are some Nobel Prize winners in science (from Cosmos, Bios, Theos: Scientists Reflect on Science, God, and the Origins of the Universe, Henry Margenau and Roy A. Varghese editors):

    “I believe in the concept of God and in His existence.” — Charles H. Townes, winner of the Nobel Prize in physics in 1964

    “I think only an idiot can be an atheist. We must admit that there exists an incomprehensible power or force with limitless foresight and knowledge that started the whole universe going in the first place.” — Christian B. Anfinsen, 1972 winner of the Nobel Prize in chemistry

    “There is no incompatibility between science and religion. Both are seeking the same truth. Science shows that God exists.” — D.H.R. Barton, 1969 winner of the Nobel Prize for chemistry

    “It seems to me that when confronted with the marvels of life and the universe, one must ask why and not just how. The only possible answers are religious. I find a need for God in the universe and in my own life.” — Arthur L. Schawlow, winner of the 1981 Nobel Prize in physics

    “If I consider reality as I experience it, the primary experience I have is of my own existence as a unique self-conscious being which I believe is God-created.” — Sir John Eccles, 1963 Nobel Prize winner in physiology and medicine

  22. Ideologues (like the evangelicals listed here, and also true-believing Leftists) might not make good scientists. They can however make excellent mathematicians and metamathematicians – I consider computer algorithms as metamath.

    They aren’t up for empirical study and revision of their own hypotheses, but they can be excellent at following a logical chain from a set of axioms. Blaise Pascal is often cited in this context. Perhaps also Isaac Newton.

  23. I think the right way to think about this issue doesn’t much involve the question whether religion is compatible with science.

    For any given scientist, logical incompatibilities within his internal beliefs, even if they apply to the science in question, seem often to mean very little with respect to the scientific merit of his work. People in general and scientists as well seem often capable of great compartmentalization in their belief systems. I don’t see how one can presume any given scientist can’t do competent science in an area because of some set of religious or ideological beliefs they hold. We as outsiders may wonder how they might believe certain things which seem transparently contradictory, but if their scientific output passes muster, what else is of relevance?

    I myself find it fairly amazing that some geneticists hold that it is effectively inconceivable that there might be significant differences between long separated population groups on socially important traits. How can they possibly believe such a thing, especially considering their training?

    But certainly any number of them are very good geneticists, restricted to the questions they actually pursue. I have to conclude that they manage to compartmentalize their beliefs so that one domain doesn’t intrude on the other, even if, to me, they seem like pretty much the same domain.

  24. My question is if today’s world had absolutely no belief of religion and god, how many (real) scientists would conceive of such? We do live in a sea of religiosity.

    Also, religion seems like a pretty useful cultural adaptation for combining dissimilar or adversarial populations into a larger cohesive population. Like during the difficult time of transition from forager cultures to pharaonic type cultures.

  25. Razib,

    I think that Jerry Coyne has excellent counter-argument to your scientist-and-believer-compatibility argument. He says that there is significant number of Catholic priests that are pedophiles, but that doesn’t mean that catholicism is compatible with pedophilia. Being scientist and believer at the same time demonstrates cognitive dissonance, not compatibility.

  26. Monisn was popular with scientist like Haeckel and Ernest Mach for a while. Haeckel ideas were used in the anti Catholic Kulturekampf of Bismarck, under the influence of liberals. Scientists who are anti religion are doing politics, not science.

  27. Progressives have always viewed Christianity as enemy number one and it colors their movement to this day. My bet is the people trying to drive the Christians out of science are the most “progressive” members of the science world. It’s not empiricism that drives them, but ideological fervor.

    This seems to be especially true in England. Maybe it’s because the faith in Progress and faith in God competed shoulder to shoulder in the industrial heartland of Britain like nowhere else?

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  28. Even the most general, non-personal deistic belief seems to pass for religion these days. I would want a study that only counts as “religious” those scientists who affirm some sort of revealed creed and are active in a religious community. The quotes given above, by 21, indicate a philosophical position (the Unmoved Mover) more than an earnest religious belief. I don’t know how much that counts in this discussion?

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  29. Fr. Barron has written and said some interesting things on this topic over the last few years:

    Does Religion Really Have a “Smart-People Problem”?, by Fr. Robert Barron, January 06, 2015

    http://www.wordonfire.org/resources/article/does-religion-really-have-a-smart-people-problem/4610/

    Modernity and Morality by Fr. Robert Barron, May 16, 2013

    http://www.wordonfire.org/resources/video/modernity-and-morality/271/

    The Myth of the War Between Science and Religion, by Fr. Robert Barron, December 08, 2008

    http://www.wordonfire.org/resources/article/the-myth-of-the-war-between-science-and-religion/331/

  30. I am a postdoc in the life sciences. I am also a Christian. As long as I have been a scientist, it has never affected my work, even as it relates to evolution. There is a great many of us within the Christian religion who are absolutely fascinated by evolution, accept it fully, and see no conflict between it and our religious beliefs. It continues to amaze me then when ever I encounter such…prejudice and stereotyping as I witnessed on Twitter yesterday. If these individuals were as empirical as they believed themselves to be, then they would actually bother to examine the reality of the situation as you have clearly done.

    It does create an environment in the workplace that is somewhat hostile. I never talk about my beliefs unless directly asked. Many have been the times that my colleagues have openly said things that in any other context would be considered bigoted and I remained silent. A lot of that is fear that it will have a negative impact on my career and that I will be discriminated against moving forward if I am open about it. I can be fairly certain that if I were ever to apply for a position that had Mick Watson on the search committee that such discrimination would take place.

  31. “Can a Religious Person be a Good Scientist?”

    It depends on the religion and the branch of science.

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  32. says:
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    Even the most general, non-personal deistic belief seems to pass for religion these days. I would want a study that only counts as “religious” those scientists who affirm some sort of revealed creed and are active in a religious community. The quotes given above, by 21, indicate a philosophical position (the Unmoved Mover) more than an earnest religious belief. I don’t know how much that counts in this discussion?

    I can’t think of many instances where someone accepts the reality of an unmoved mover without progression to a religious belief and practice. In fact, it would go against the curious nature of the scientific mind to simply leave things there. Martin Gardner is the only exception that comes to mind. Francis Collins’ religious faith started this way.

    Kurt Gödel would not fit your definition of being religious because he was not active in a religious community. He was a self-professed Christian and he would read the Bible on Sunday mornings (according to his wife). Gödel also had positive things to say about Islam. Lastly, as an aside, but to the unmoved mover point, Gödel believed God’s existence could be proven mathematically and did so.

  33. No doubt there are some religionists for whom some science would constitute a threat to their theological beliefs. But as a practicing Christian who is also committed to basing my beliefs on evidence, I see nothing in (small-o) orthodox Christianity that is seriously threatened by science — and by orthodox Christianity, I mean (roughly) what is affirmed in the ancient Church creeds. Perhaps some of the commentators above could enlighten me what it is that I have to compartmentalize my religious beliefs from?

    I do grant that certain Christian theological ideas require reinterpreting in the face of science: the most serious one I can think of is the Fall, which can no longer be conceived as a historical event for an original Adam and Eve in the light of evolutionary biology. And I can conceive of a world in which the most central claims of Christianity are disconfirmed by the evidence. Christianity, after all, makes historical claims which are amenable to ordinary historical investigation. But, far from that investigation seriously threatening Christianity, it has by my lights greatly confirmed it: the New Testament documents are by and large as or more reliable than any other documents we have from the ancient world when it comes to details that we can independently check up on, and investigation of their internal structure and connections makes it clear that they were by and large reporting history.

    In addition, findings in modern physics, including the anthropic fine-tuning of the universe, seem to provide confirmation for theism. Very recent work suggests that not only are the physical laws and constants of the universe finely tuned for life — i.e., such that, if they were even slightly different, life could not exist — but finely tuned for discoverability — i.e., such that, if they were even (less) slightly different, the universe would be harder to discover than it actually is. A striking example is the strength of the cosmic microwave background radiation (CMBR). This radiation is scientists’ primary source of evidence about the origins of the universe; the more intense the CMBR is, the more information it carries about the universe. The intensity of the CMBR is a function of the ratio of photons to baryons in the universe. This ratio is approximately a billion to one, but it could have been anywhere from one to infinity; it traces back to the degree of asymmetry in matter and anti-matter right after the beginning of the universe – for approximately every billion particles of antimatter, there was a billion and one particles of matter. It turns out that, incredibly, our universe has the exact ratio of photons to baryons that maximizes the CMBR. (Source: http://home.messiah.edu/~rcollins/Fine-tuning/Greer-Heard%20Forum%20paper%20draft%20for%20posting.pdf) What is a better explanation for this: that it happened by chance, or that the creator of the universe designed it so as to be discoverable by embodied conscious beings like us?

  34. It depends on the person. A good scientist will do good science whether atheist or religious. I have seen many bad scientists who were also atheists. I’ve seen many good scientists who were atheists. The two really have no connection as to the quality of work one does. Far more important are their skills, their intelligence, and overall…their work ethic. Exclusion of people from any branch of science or the assumption that one cannot do good science because they are Christian/Muslim/Jewish/Hindu/etc is the equivalent of saying that one cannot do good science because someone is black/female/homosexual/disabled/etc. Its bigotry and the assumptions of those who think that a person’s religion precludes them from being a good scientist says more about the type of person that individual is then anything else. They are certainly not people I want to work with.

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  35. Exclusion of people from any branch of science or the assumption that one cannot do good science because they are Christian/Muslim/Jewish/Hindu/etc is the equivalent of saying that one cannot do good science because someone is black/female/homosexual/disabled/etc.

    i would caution the analogy though because religious belief in western societies is conceived to be a matter of choice and confession in a way racial and sexual identity is not (though the latter is actually changing, i can’t keep track of it anymore). also, i think terms like ‘bigotry’ are thrown around so much. what the person on Twitter said yesterday, basically suggesting the religious should not have careers in science by virtue of their belief, seems pretty much dictionary definition. but others immediately started appropriating the debate into the debate about “colonialism” and the telescopes in hawaii….

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  36. This perceived conflict between science and faith is a peculiarly western disease, and has come about following the Reformation. But there are exceptions, and here’s one example:

    William H. Bragg (1862-1942)

    “From religion comes a man’s purpose; from science, his power to achieve it. Sometimes people ask if religion and science are not opposed to one another. They are: in the sense that the thumb and fingers of my hands are opposed to one another. It is an opposition by means of which anything can be grasped.”

    –British physicist, chemist, and mathematician. Awarded Nobel Prize in 1915

  37. I argued above that it really shouldn’t matter whether someone is religious when it comes to their merit as scientists, on the ground that people can be very good at compartmentalizing their beliefs (I’d expect that the smarter they are, the better they are at compartmentalization).

    But it’s actually very hard to make out a serious argument that, say, Christian belief is outright incompatible with any scientific belief. Most certainly Catholicism isn’t, given that it does not hold that the universe is literally 6,000 years old, nor that evolution didn’t produce all forms of life. Even those who believe that the universe is 6,000 years old can square that belief with the scientific evidence by asserting that God created the universe with all the fossils in the ground, etc., and did so, perhaps, to test our faith.

    This last may seem absurd to us, but, again, it’s religious faith. If one is going to take the Bible seriously, and believe so much on faith anyway, including the reality of all manner of miracles, why not this?

  38. I lost track of the debate yesterday when it started becoming about everything else. I guess I am still reeling a bit from the call to remove a good scientist from his position solely on the basis of religious belief and other such statements….

    While religion is a choice, so are many other things. How many scientists have I seen compromised because of bad marriage or politics? Ultimately, a good scientist needs to be judged on the quality of their work and to ignore that and judge based on something personal is bigotry.

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  39. 959340

    As Razib points out in this post, ultimately you have to look at the facts. I have been hearing that “theory” that being religious and being scientist means ultimately compromising one or the other, but no matter how great a theory is, facts win out. I’ve seen too many good scientists who are also religious that I must reject such a theory as true.

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  40. The West has been trying to reconcile Rousseau’s observations about religion for over two centuries. A purely private religion has merit, but it is bad for the state. A civil religion is good for the state, but often tyrannical. The third option, the international religion, competes with the state and results in instability.

    What we imagine to be secularism, however, is reactionary. It is in reaction to both the civil religions that emerged after the reformation and the lingering influence of international Christianity. Like all reactionary movements, it seeks to destroy and then replace, never getting around to the second part. As a result, stamping out Christianity from the public square has been the defining characteristic of modern secularism.

    I’ll note that the tradition in Northern European cultures to separate private and public religious custom predates Christianity. Private piety was a separate matter from public piety, which was much more about things concerning the whole of society. That seems to have carried into Christianity in these cultures.

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  41. Second: of course you can be a very good scientist and also very religious, if your religion says nothing about your science.

    I think this is also true of more secular religions. Like Marxism.

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  42. I’ll note that the tradition in Northern European cultures to separate private and public religious custom predates Christianity. Private piety was a separate matter from public piety, which was much more about things concerning the whole of society. That seems to have carried into Christianity in these cultures.

    do you say think this is peculiar to northern europe? it seems a cultural universal. often bracketed as public religion vs. the households/numina, etc. rather than your opinions i’d be curious about papers and books (do note that i’m the type of person who has read *germanization of early medieval christianity* and *the barbarian conversion* so you can get academic on me). it’s complicated, but even today in judaism and christianity the distinction between public practice and private belief is considered more clear than in confessional protestantism, which often reduces religion to belief.

  43. if you do a scatter plot you’ll get a correlation. but you’ll get a correlation a lot of things. you don’t make hiring decisions on r-squared of 0.25. or at least you shouldn’t, when you have much better data. that’s kind of my reaction here…. (obviously the facts refute a categorical assertion)

  44. While religion is a choice, so are many other things. How many scientists have I seen compromised because of bad marriage or politics? Ultimately, a good scientist needs to be judged on the quality of their work and to ignore that and judge based on something personal is bigotry.

    oh, i agree. science is what is important. though there are boundary conditions. how many female scientists would want to be in a lab with a haredi jew or islamic fundamentalist who insisted on speaking to them through intermediaries? or what if your labmate was an avowed nazi or black nationalist? because i’m libertarian i recognize that lab heads have a right to make certain decisions. but, most discrimination on demographic variables is just dumb.

    second, the term ‘bigotry’ is just overused. i tried to avoid using it for that reason, since it often comes up when trying to defeat people in rhetorical arguments. the issue isn’t that firing collins for being xtian is bigoted, though that’s a defensible position. it’s just irrational and insane. prejudice uber alles.

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  45. if you post as ‘anonymous’ i’m not going to publish future comments.

  46. dick lewontin thinks that marxism has some relationship to his science. but he still did good science, and his students over the past 20 years have been very influential (and not marxist to my knowledge).

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  47. : What is a better explanation for this: that it happened by chance, or that the creator of the universe designed it so as to be discoverable by embodied conscious beings like us?

    Chance, obviously. There are infinite “reasons” we can invent for why things turned out the way they did, and a divine creator is only one of them. Chance however requires nothing except what can be empirically measured and so is simpler than any explanation requiring a supernatural element… thus, by Occam’s razor, chance is the better explanation.

    Did you consider that if an all-powerful creator wanted the universe to be so discoverable, why not just make it really super easy to understand without all these pesky baryons and antimatters in the first place?

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  48. if the discussion is going to go in this direction let’s keep it civil and somewhat interesting (as it is now). obviously resolution won’t occur in this comment thread.

  49. “how many female scientists would want to be in a lab with a haredi jew or islamic fundamentalist who insisted on speaking to them through intermediaries? or what if your labmate was an avowed nazi or black nationalist?”

    Intermediaries for sincere fundamentalists who don’t want to speak with women are legally a reasonable accommodation, and both Nazis and Communists made contributions worth noting in science. Many Islamic countries today have functioning scientific communities, that are capable enough that the West finds them to be threatening, to the detriment of everyone. Science is arguably the closest thing to a universal standard, such that even marginal cultures can understand it and effectively communicate in its contexts. It doesn’t overlap with ideology by itself, but the state subsidized institutions that employ scientists most certainly do, and this is what confuses the debate.

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  50. That’s why we have rules regarding behavior of what is and is not acceptable. Those would be as problematic in any line of work as in science, so that they are not a unique problem to be a scientist.

  51. Intermediaries for sincere fundamentalists who don’t want to speak with women are legally a reasonable accommodation,

    no, american lawyers would not agree to this. stop making stuff up by fiat or i’ll ban you.

    Many Islamic countries today have functioning scientific communities, that are capable enough that the West finds them to be threatening, to the detriment of everyone.

    the threatening aspect is to some extent paranoia IMO. pakistan stole a lot of their nuke stuff from north korea. and saudi arabia’s program is basically borrowed from pakistan from what i’m to understand. iran might be able to manage it.

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  52. Yeah, I thought of Lewontin. My impression is that the productive parts of his Marxism were kind of general, like Newton’s and other early scientists’ feeling that God had made a world which worked according to understandable laws, which He would be happy for them to understand. Perhaps I was too influenced by Trivers’ “vignette” published in unz April 27.

    I first heard him talk when he visited Harvard in 1969 to lecture on the new work. He gave a masterful talk, both in content and in style … But within five years he turned his back on natural selection and decided to emphasize the importance of random factors, which of course produced no patterns of particular interest, nor any insight into the function of genes and traits. This I believe he did for political grounds, emasculating his own discipline in order to render it sterile regarding human behavior and genetics.

    In later years, doing less and less science, he spent more of his time on politics and philosophical writing whose meaning was difficult to locate, in part because there was often no meaning there. …

    As for his political writing, nothing could beat a piece he wrote with Richard Levins stating that there was nothing in Marxist/Leninism that could be contradicted by objective reality. Wow, I thought, it is rare for people to fess up so quickly that there is no content to their enterprise, since if in principle it can’t be contradicted, it says nothing.

    Lewontin’s story is that of a man with great talents who often wasted them on foolishness, on preening and showing off, on shallow political thinking and on useless philosophical rumination while limiting his genetic work by assumptions congenial to his politics. He ran a successful lab for many years, and easily raised large sums of research funds, so many U.S. geneticists remember him fondly for their time with him at Harvard, as a grad student or post-doc, but as an evolutionary thinker, never mind geneticist (beyond his early work on linkage disequilibrium), he has turned up mostly empty and the best of his ex-students concede he had done little of note for more than 20 years.

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  53. http://tabletmag.com/jewish-life-and-religion/173488/ezras-nashim-women-emts

    Here’s a good article about how openly public services can fairly work with the standards of modesty that religion demands, even in emergency situations. A lab environment certainly isn’t an emergency, or public in the sense that ambulances are, and since the former situation has gone through so much case law that has affirmed its rights I would give the benefit of the doubt to the reasonable accommodation argument.

    When you weigh the value of completely excluding Haredi from science, versus the feelings and minor convenience of women, the scales come down in favor of religious liberty by far, unless you hold prejudiced views in the first place.

    Some American lawyers would agree, and some would disagree. It’s how they work. But Hatzalah is how the world works, the facts on the ground.

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  54. Consider that knowledge lies in the space of what we know. Then we have the space of belief which is the space of all that we don’t know but believe to be true. (Then we also have, a la Rumsfeld, the space of all that we don’t know or believe that we don’t know.) Only a part of the space of what we believe is what we might call religious faith or belief.
    Science appears at the interface between knowledge and belief. It comes into play as a belief becomes a hypothesis, is put to the test, and – perhaps – moves into the realm of knowledge.
    The interface is a conflict interface in that a belief which can be formulated as a hypothesis may be falsified and, if falsified, has to be given up. That can be a problem for a believer. A hypothesis once falsified cannot remain within the space of belief.
    For many scientists there is no conflict because the hypotheses they are studying are not in, or in any conflict with, the space of their religious beliefs.
    And so the answer to the question in your title is that it depends on whether the scientist accepts that he is working on a falsifiable hypothesis, or whether he follows the track of proving that his hypothesis/belief is true. If the latter then he cannot be a “good” scientist, he is merely an acolyte.
    Science is not, I think, in conflict with religion. Science is the conflict interface between knowledge and belief.

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  55. Twinkie mentioned Georges Lemaitre, a distinguished scientist who was a Catholic priest. Gregor Mendel, founder of the science of genetics, can also be mentioned. He was a Sudeten German monk.

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  56. Chance, obviously. There are infinite “reasons” we can invent for why things turned out the way they did, and a divine creator is only one of them.

    This is a fully general argument against any explanation of anything, theistic or naturalistic.

    Chance however requires nothing except what can be empirically measured and so is simpler than any explanation requiring a supernatural element… thus, by Occam’s razor, chance is the better explanation.

    Naturalistic explanations frequently appeal to unobservable entities (e.g., subatomic particles). I can think of no relevant sense in which God is less “empirically measurable” than they are. Nor do I see why more empirically measurable (in whatever sense) entities necessarily make for simpler hypotheses.

    Think about the argument in Bayesian terms. Just stick to the more well-known fine-tuning for life for now. Let “life” stand for the proposition that the universe is life-permitting, “theism” stand for the proposition that the God of classical theism exists, and K stand for the scientific background knowledge that tells us that the physical parameters that would allow for life are an incredibly small fraction of all possible combinations of parameters. Exactly how small is hard to say, but physicist Lee Smolin estimates that the probability of the universe allowing for stars (let alone life) by chance is 1 in 10^229 (plato.stanford.edu/entries/teleological-arguments/#CosFinTun). (This estimate is almost 20 years old; evidence since then has only increased the extent to which the universe looks fine-tuned.)

    By the Odds Form of Bayes’ Theorem, the posterior odds of theism given the existence of a life-bearing universe is:

    P(theism | life&K) / P(~theism | life&K) =
    [P(theism | K) / P(~theism | K)] x
    [P(life | theism&K) / P(life | ~theism&K)]

    The last term is the Bayes’ factor; it measures the strength of the evidence — i.e., how much it supports theism. The bottom term, P(life | ~theism&K), is 1/10^229, it is strong evidence if P(life | theism&K) >> 1/10^229. Naturally it is impossible to give a precise value to the probability that God would create a life-bearing universe, but it seems to me absurd to say that this probability is anywhere near as low as 1/10^229. Inasmuch as life is a good thing, an all-good being would have reason to create it. Moreover, we know from our own experience with conscious beings that they tend to enjoy being around other conscious beings; this gives us some reason to think that God, being a conscious being, would have similar motivations. Obviously these reasons are not at all decisive, but even if they only give us a probability of God creating life on the (absurdly small) order of 1/10^100, that stills gives us an enormously top-heavy Bayes’ factor.

    Of course the Bayes’ factor is weighted by the priors, and we could argue all day about how to assign those. But so long as you don’t (dogmatically) assign theism a prior probability of 0, there should be a certain amount of evidence that would convince you to at least take it seriously as an explanation.

    Did you consider that if an all-powerful creator wanted the universe to be so discoverable, why not just make it really super easy to understand without all these pesky baryons and antimatters in the first place?

    It’s difficult to respond to this comment without a better idea of precisely what alternative universe you have in mind. If there were no baryons, matter as we know it would not exist. We wouldn’t be around to discover things in the first place.

    Perhaps you have in mind some radically different kind of universe with radically different laws. I’d be happy to consider this universe if you describe it for me and explain how it is more discoverable than our own universe (which is governed by incredibly simple fundamental laws, something physicists have marveled at for some time).

  57. “A good scientist will do good science whether atheist or religious”

    Lots of great scientists became convinced communists in the 30′ s and started saying up was down and Lysenko was right like Bernal and Haldane, which was caused by fear of a rising Germany and aimed at German ideology for unifying the German race/nation. People need myths and scientists can’t transcend their biology, whatever they might think.

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  58. When you weigh the value of completely excluding Haredi from science, versus the feelings and minor convenience of women, the scales come down in favor of religious liberty by far, unless you hold prejudiced views in the first place.

    this is so laugh-out-loud crazy and obnoxiously bullshitty that i’m letting it through for laughs. you’re trying to pull the “shaggy rule” in this discussion

    the only problem with this sort of behavior is that i am the lord your god yahweh in this forum. but as long as you amuse keep dancing monkey ;-) the lord smiles upon your impudence jacob, but at some point i may touch your hip.

  59. a minor note. someone could correct me, but my understanding that mendel’s religious vocation was less out of piety (though he was probably a believer) and more out of the fact that it provided him income and means to do his scholarship. not analogous to lemaitre, who was a very religious person by choice.

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  60. very close to not publishing because this reads like a hard passage on the GRE. watch the clarity in the future.

  61. My impression is that the productive parts of his Marxism were kind of general, like Newton’s and other early scientists’ feeling that God had made a world which worked according to understandable laws,

    i know some of his students. one of them told me he’s sincere. but no one has any idea really how he thinks marxism impacts his science. though he wrote a book with levins on this, right?

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  62. pakistan stole a lot of their nuke stuff from north korea.

    I thought Pakistan just bought nuclear waste reprocessing equipment from the British?

    I thought your religion being viewed as a choice comment was interesting though. Is that how things are viewed by people in the US? For the most part I see the opposite attitude in Canada, and people are willing to give the benefit of the doubt to quite a bit when it comes to faith. At least outside of Quebec – there’s more prescriptive view of secularism to an extend there, just as there is in France.

    It’d be interesting to know the differences in how faith is viewed in different countries.

  63. pakistan stole a lot of their nuke stuff from north korea.

    It’s the other way around. Pakistan is alleged to have provided nuclear technologies to North Korea in return for North Korea’s expertise in ballistic missile technologies. See: http://carnegieendowment.org/pdf/npp/Pakistan%20and%20North%20Korea.pdf

    Having “the bomb” is not very useful unless you also have a reliable and fast delivery vehicle that can put space between you and your target without being intercepted.

  64. Yeah, The Dialectical Biologist. At one point, I planned to read it but after the fall of the Soviet Union, I was fine with consigning Marxism to “the dustbin of history.” He also used to run a seminar called something like Marxian Methods in the Biological Sciences.

  65. Firstly let me say that I have no issue with your or anybody else’s religion. My only purpose in raising these points is because you’ve made logical errors in your reasoning and I like to point these out, so continue to believe whatever you want, just learn how to reason correctly if your going to do it.

    I can think of no relevant sense in which God is less “empirically measurable” than they are. Nor do I see why more empirically measurable (in whatever sense) entities necessarily make for simpler hypotheses.

    You can consider God on the level of a subatomic particle if you like, but the point still stands that if the physical universe can be explained without God, then from a rational point of view adding God is an unnecessary complication.

    If
    y = x
    explains a scenario, then saying
    y = x + G
    is superfluous, and hence fails Occam’s razor.

    But so long as you don’t (dogmatically) assign theism a prior probability of 0.

    And there’s the issue – your “proof” that God exists only works if you assume that God exists in the first place. It’s a circular argument, your conclusion is part of your proposition. A working theory that doesn’t include God will thus always be simpler than one that does, because it requires one less unfalsifiable assumption.

    It’s difficult to respond to this comment

    That’s because it was rhetorical, but you missed the point. Your argument is that life that can understand the universe is so unlikely that it couldn’t have happened by chance and thus must be by a designer who wanted such an outcome. My point was that if such a designer exists (s)he could have made the outcome much, much more likely, so the fact that it’s so unlikely contraindicates a designer and suggest chance – it’s a kind of catch-22 situation. :P

    From a logical point of view, I suggest you read over your Bayesian explanation again, but this time substitute the word “gods” where you have “God” – ie test “the probability of gods creating life”, as in a Hindu or ancient Greek cosmology. As you can see, the same logic and reasoning holds for “gods” as it does for “God”. Now substitute “dolphins” and imagine a Douglas Adams type universe… again, if we assume a non-zero probability, the “proof” works. Now substitute “dreamer” and imaging a universe that is just the dream of some crazy physicist… and so on and so forth. As you can see, one can take *ANY* arbitrary unfalsifiable proposition for the creation of the universe and justify it with your Bayesian “logic”. It’s really bad science.

    As to the main point of Razib’s post, I agree with most of the posters here – a good scientist can do good science regardless of their religion. You can correctly estimate the ratio of photons to baryons whether God made them or whether they’re just there by chance.

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  66. The great thing about science is that we can judge it objectively and determine if some bias has affected the results. A good scientist will always keep this in mind and even when a great scientist succumbs to it…whether religion, atheism, marxism, nationalism, etc…it will be found out. Science would be poorer if not for the contribution of many of these people, regardless of their flaws. Science suffers if we exclude people based on some prejudice of who can or cannot be a scientist.

  67. Mendel eventually became an abbot…I suspect that he was more pious than he is given credit for.

  68. the point still stands that if the physical universe can be explained without God, then from a rational point of view adding God is an unnecessary complication.
    If
    y = x
    explains a scenario, then saying
    y = x + G
    is superfluous, and hence fails Occam’s razor.

    As I understand it dark matter and dark energy make up a whopping 95% X factor so I’d say we’re a long way from whipping out Occam’s razor:

    … dark matter is estimated to constitute 84.5% of the total matter in the universe, while dark energy plus dark matter constitute 95.1% of the total mass–energy content of the universe.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dark_matter

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  69. “A good scientist will do good science whether atheist or religious.”

    The question was can a religious person be a good scientist?

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  70. @troy

    As far as fine tuning for life goes, I think the argument is outright self defeating. If life/sentience is so hard to make that we require fine tuned laws of physics in order for such a thing to exist, then God, being a hypothetical sentient life form is a priori unlikely. So even if you take the probability of sentient life given God to be 1, whatever advantage theism gains from the factor
    “P(life | theism&K) / P(life | ~theism&K)”
    must be lost again in the factor:
    “P(theism | K) / P(~theism | K)”

    Thus the argument is at best a complete wash.

    Even ignoring this, your 10^-229 requires one assume both
    1) The observed constants of nature are fundamentally changeable. (If not, the only possible constants allow life, and therefore P(life | ~theism&K)=1)
    2) The process that set these constants (the big bang presumably) was never repeated.

    The odds that one or both of these assumptions is wrong strikes me as a good deal higher than your 10^-229 figure. Personally, I consider 2) more likely wrong than not on general principles (if it can happen once it can happen repeatedly — and most inflationary cosmologies bear this out.) Moreover, assumption 1) makes assumption 2) seem far less likely, since changeability of fundamental constants almost seems to implicitly assume a multiverse.

    As far as fine tuning for discoverability goes, the CMB argument you link seems extremely fishy. Baryon/Photon ratio has been pretty stable since primordial nucleosynthesis, but the intensity of the CMB fell with the 4th power of the age of the universe throughout the period of matter domination, and is now falling exponentially due to the current dark energy domination. A few billion years one way or the other, and the observed CMB intensity could go up or down by an order of magnitude or more. Thus, Collins’s result is highly sensitive to his assumptions about the age of the universe as seen by typical observers. Given that no one can give a confident estimate of how long it should typically take to produce sentient life in this universe, let alone when you start messing with the baryon/photon ratio, I don’t see how a calculation of the sort Collins alludes to could tell us much of anything, other than the personal biases of the person doing the calculation. I can’t help but note that he never seems to have published the calculation, nor does he name the 3 physicists he claims confirmed his calculation.

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  71. “the most central claims of Christianity are disconfirmed by the evidence.”

    “the New Testament documents are by and large as or more reliable than any other documents we have from the ancient world when it comes to details that we can independently check up on, and investigation of their internal structure and connections makes it clear that they were by and large reporting history”.

    Isn’t that a bit of contradiction?
    The central claim of Christianity is the Resurrection, the rising of Jesus from the dead. What possible evidence would “disconfirm” it? The only evidence for it is the witness of the Apostles, recorded in the New Testament, which is a reliable historical document.

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  72. Are you proposing that dark matter is inherently supernatural or divine in nature?

  73. As there is peer review and the religious are not going to be determining what counts as good science in our lifetime, bad science or Midwife Toad flummery by the religious will simply discredit religion. This is really about scientists’ fury that the religious outlook is paid more attention to in politics that science is.

    But a thouroughgoing scientific materialist understanding of humans, which has no place for free will as commonly understood (because no-one chooses their genes, womb, upbringing or ideological environment) is not obviously more profound than the religious understanding. Eating the apple from the tree of knowledge for example; in theory some knowledge of reality could be thought harmful and benevolent scientists could say ‘well that is true, but we won’t let you tell the trampling herd of humanity about it’.

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  74. benevolent scientists

    If you won’t lie to save mankind, what kind of person are you?

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  75. I said that “I can conceive of a world in which the most central claims of Christianity are disconfirmed by the evidence.” What I was saying is that Christianity is in principle disconfirmable. What I am denying is that it actually has been substantially disconfirmed.

    The central claim of Christianity is the Resurrection, the rising of Jesus from the dead. What possible evidence would “disconfirm” it?

    To give just one example, ancient documents from the 1st century (as evidenced by intimate knowledge of 1st century Palestine, etc.) that report eyewitness accounts of seeing Peter steal Jesus’s body.

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  76. “Eating the apple from the tree of knowledge for example; in theory some knowledge of reality could be thought harmful and benevolent scientists could say ‘well that is true, but we won’t let you tell the trampling herd of humanity about it’.”

    Religion and science are at odds.
    Religion tries hides the truth
    Science tries to find the truth.

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  77. “If you won’t lie to save mankind, what kind of person are you?”

    Honest!

  78. the point still stands that if the physical universe can be explained without God, then from a rational point of view adding God is an unnecessary complication.

    If
    y = x
    explains a scenario, then saying
    y = x + G
    is superfluous, and hence fails Occam’s razor.

    Depending on what you mean by this, it is either false or not applicable to my argument. “Explanation” isn’t an on-off; different hypotheses do better or worse jobs of explaining the same evidence. In general (I claim), how well two hypotheses H1 and H2 do at explaining evidence E (relative to background knowledge K) is a function of the relative Bayes’ factor P(E | H1&K) / P(E | H2&K); if this ratio is top-heavy, H1 explains E better, if it is bottom-heavy, H2 explains E better. How much better H1 or H2 explains E is a function of how top-heavy or bottom-heavy this ratio is.

    As I already noted in my previous post, there’s more to how probable a hypothesis is than how well it explains the evidence. There’s also its prior probability. If you multiply P(E | H1&K) / P(E | H2&K) by the relative prior odds of H1 and H2, P(H1 | K) / P(H2 | K), you get their relative posterior odds. This is where norms like Occam’s razor come in. A charitable interpretation of your claim above is that if P(E | H1&K) = P(E | H2&K) and H1 is simpler than H2, we should prefer H1. This is true so long as simpler theories have higher prior probabilities, which I am happy to grant.

    However, if this is what you mean then I grant it and deny its relevance. P(Life | Theism&K) >> P(Life | Atheism&K); this is what I claimed in my earlier post and you have not argued against it. Even if theism is a less simple theory than atheism, if you grant my Bayes’ factor you need it to be so much less simple that its prior is over 10^200 times lower than atheism’s. This is not plausible. (The much smarter move is to deny the Bayes’ factor, as Ray implicitly does below by appeal to the multiverse.)

    And there’s the issue – your “proof” that God exists only works if you assume that God exists in the first place. It’s a circular argument, your conclusion is part of your proposition.

    I have not given a proof that God exists. I’ve given a probabilistic argument. My only assumption in the neighborhood of “God exists” is “the prior probability that God exists is non-zero.” Are you seriously denying this premise?

    Note that I am not assuming that the prior probability is especially high. For all I say here it could be, say, on the order of 1/10^10. The claim that one’s favored hypothesis has a prior on the order of 1 in 10,000,000,000 is about as far from assuming one’s conclusion as one can get.

    Your argument is that life that can understand the universe is so unlikely that it couldn’t have happened by chance and thus must be by a designer who wanted such an outcome. My point was that if such a designer exists (s)he could have made the outcome much, much more likely, so the fact that it’s so unlikely contraindicates a designer and suggest chance – it’s a kind of catch-22 situation.

    In general, some evidence E supports a hypothesis H1 over a hypothesis H2 (relative to K) iff P(E | H1&K) > P(E | H2&K). Let H1 be theism and H2 be atheism. Your claim, I take it, is that something about our universe in the neighborhood of our conversation is more likely on atheism than theism, that is, that for some E, P(E | Theism&K) < P(E | Atheism&K). Please oblige me by telling me what this E is, and I will do my best to comment on its evidential force.

    From a logical point of view, I suggest you read over your Bayesian explanation again, but this time substitute the word “gods” where you have “God” – ie test “the probability of godscreating life”, as in a Hindu or ancient Greek cosmology. As you can see, the same logic and reasoning holds for “gods” as it does for “God”. Now substitute “dolphins” and imagine a Douglas Adams type universe… again, if we assume a non-zero probability, the “proof” works. Now substitute “dreamer” and imaging a universe that is just the dream of some crazy physicist… and so on and so forth. As you can see, one can take *ANY* arbitrary unfalsifiable proposition for the creation of the universe and justify it with your Bayesian “logic”. It’s really bad science.

    First, I never claimed this was science. I think it is good reasoning, but not all good reasoning is science.

    Second, you’re simply mistaken about your alternative hypotheses. The “dolphins” hypothesis doesn’t even make sense, inasmuch as my concept of a dolphin involves materiality, which the creator of the world presumably does not have. As for Greek mythology, most gods came to be after the creation of the universe, and thus could not have created its fundamental parameters. The one possible exception is “Chaos.” Sometimes Chaos is semi-personified, but it does not appear to be an agent in the same way Zeus or the Christian God are agents. So it’s not clear that it even would have had the capacity to manipulate the physical parameters of the universe, if it’s even supposed to be temporally or ontologically prior to those things. Thus P(life-bearing universe | Chaos) is not obviously high. Your “dreamer” case needs to be filled out more. Perhaps it predicts a life-bearing universe, but I’d need to hear exactly what you have in mind by it. (Nick Bostrom, for instance, has seriously advanced a “simulation hypothesis” about the universe; is this the kind of thing you have in mind?)

    Moreover, these cases all do even worse, as far as I can tell, when it comes to discoverability. On the Greek worldview the gods control nature by caprice; there are no natural laws to be discovered. Just consider the name “Chaos” above. Greek cosmology makes the discoverability of the universe extremely surprising.

    The Hindu case is actually considerably more interesting than any of the above, inasmuch as the Hindus have something like a multiverse cosmology. See my response to Ray above.

    Third, I don’t deny, at any rate, that there are alternative hypotheses that explain the data equally well (in the sense that P(E | Theism) = P(E | alternative hypothesis)). The same evidence can confirm multiple mutually exclusive hypotheses; this just follows from probability theory. I think these alternative hypotheses in the case at hand will generally have a lower prior probability than theism, although some (such as the multiverse) are nevertheless serious contenders.

    Note, moreover, that this is again not a “problem” unique to this case. If the existence of mutually exclusive hypotheses that explain the data equally well is a problem, it’s a problem for literally all empirical reasoning. In philosophy of science, this is known as the problem of the underdetermination of theory by data. Suppose we are walking down Main Street and see a man in a ski mask carrying a bag of jewelry, standing in front of the jewelry shop with broken windows. Here are two hypotheses that explain that evidence about equally well:

    - The man is a jewel thief.
    - The man is the owner of the store, who happened to be walking home from a masquerade party when he noticed that the window was broken (by some punk kids, let’s say) and went in to take his jewelry home and keep it safe.

    Both of these hypotheses do about an equally good job of predicting the data. But clearly it would be ridiculous to object to an inference to the first hypothesis on the grounds that the second explains the data just as well.

    Fourth, let me clarify that I never claimed that fine-tuning is strong evidence for Christian theism above other forms of theism. I understand theism (stipulatively) to be the hypothesis that an all-powerful, all-knowing, morally perfect agent exists and created the universe. This is inconsistent with Hinduism as I understand it, but it is consistent with, e.g., Islam.

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  79. (I tried posting this earlier; not sure why it didn’t go through. If it’s too long or something let me know, Razib, but for now I’ll just try posting it again.)

    As far as fine tuning for life goes, I think the argument is outright self defeating. If life/sentience is so hard to make that we require fine tuned laws of physics in order for such a thing to exist, then God, being a hypothetical sentient life form is a priori unlikely.

    Only if we conceive of God as a material being who evolved in a universe like our own. But literally no versions of theism that I know of so conceives of God. In traditional Christian theology, God is in immaterial mind.

    Even ignoring this, your 10^-229 requires one assume both
    1) The observed constants of nature are fundamentally changeable. (If not, the only possible constants allow life, and therefore P(life | ~theism&K)=1)
    2) The process that set these constants (the big bang presumably) was never repeated.

    The odds that one or both of these assumptions is wrong strikes me as a good deal higher than your 10^-229 figure. Personally, I consider 2) more likely wrong than not on general principles (if it can happen once it can happen repeatedly — and most inflationary cosmologies bear this out.) Moreover, assumption 1) makes assumption 2) seem far less likely, since changeability of fundamental constants almost seems to implicitly assume a multiverse.

    I wouldn’t put (1) quite the way you do. I would say the assumption is that the constants of nature do not have the values they do by metaphysical necessity. This need not imply any kind of “chance process” (and so need not imply (2)); all it says is that it is not metaphysically necessary that the (or a) universe look the way ours does.

    I don’t think (1) is completely obvious, although it is plausible. But that the constants necessarily have these particular values — i.e., the life-permitting ones — strikes me as having an incredibly low prior probability: at least, absent any reason to think that the constants would necessary have these values. (I do take seriously non-theistic hypotheses that try to explain this, such as John Leslie’s “axiarchic” hypothesis that Goodness is causally efficacious.)

    Denying (2) is, I think, by far the best way for the non-theist to respond to the fine-tuning argument. The standard objection to this is that most life randomly generated by a multiverse would be of the Boltzmann brain variety (see here, p. 266), but I don’t know the physics well enough to comment on the plausibility of this. Assuming this is false, then what we can say is that fine-tuning for life confirms both theism and the multiverse over an atheistic single-universe hypothesis. Their relative posterior odds will depend on their relative prior odds, which are difficult to estimate. If this were all the evidence the theist had I would be happy to call it a draw at this point, but I don’t think this is all the evidence we have. (For example, discoverability is not predicted by the multiverse hypothesis, because most universes will not be discoverable.)

    As far as fine tuning for discoverability goes, the CMB argument you link seems extremely fishy. Baryon/Photon ratio has been pretty stable since primordial nucleosynthesis, but the intensity of the CMB fell with the 4th power of the age of the universe throughout the period of matter domination, and is now falling exponentially due to the current dark energy domination. A few billion years one way or the other, and the observed CMB intensity could go up or down by an order of magnitude or more. Thus, Collins’s result is highly sensitive to his assumptions about the age of the universe as seen by typical observers. Given that no one can give a confident estimate of how long it should typically take to produce sentient life in this universe, let alone when you start messing with the baryon/photon ratio, I don’t see how a calculation of the sort Collins alludes to could tell us much of anything, other than the personal biases of the person doing the calculation.

    This is a fair point, but it seems to me to at best temper the argument slightly. Where “intense” says that the CMB is maximally intense right now, it doesn’t raise P(Intense | Atheism) at all (as far as I can see), but it perhaps lowers P(Intense | Theism) somewhat (because perhaps God, if he existed, would have maximized the CMB at some other point in the universe’s history). But I doubt it lowers it by more than an order of magnitude or so.

    Another way to think of it is that Intense raises the probability of a sub-version of Theism that says that God has tailored things particularly for human beings. (This is presumably friendly to Christian theism.) This sub-version of Theism will have a lower prior, of course, but if we get lots of similarly anthropocentric discoverability evidence then it may end up well-confirmed.

    I can’t help but note that he never seems to have published the calculation, nor does he name the 3 physicists he claims confirmed his calculation.

    This is very recent work, and Collins is on the cutting edge of it. He is writing two books on the subject right now. I am confident that when those go out his physical claims will get a lot of scrutiny. (I can also personally vouch for Collins’s character; he would not make that claim about confirmation if it were not true. But if you want to wait until skeptics openly check his calculations, I think you’ll get your chance.)

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  80. Only if we conceive of God as a material being who evolved in a universe like our own. But literally no versions of theism that I know of so conceives of God. In traditional Christian theology, God is in immaterial mind.

    No. The usual way to set priors on models of reality (whether physical or “immaterial” whatever that might mean) is by some sort of simplicity preference (usually algorithmic complexity or something fairly like it.) But algorithmically simple structures are precisely of the sort that will crop up in a wide variety of possible physical theories. Thus if things like mind and sentience fail to occur generically in a family of physical theories parametrized by some constants, then it either means that mind and sentience are complex, and therefore should have a low prior likelihood in any instantiation, or it means that the relevant family of physical theories is unusually fine tuned against life.

    “intense” says that the CMB is maximally intense right now

    If so, this is false. CMB intensity has been decreasing monotonically since the time of last scattering 380,000 years after the big bang. For example, the CMB was 30% more intense just a billion years ago, and something like 10 times as intense when the universe was half its present age. I see no reason sentient beings couldn’t have evolved a billion or even 7 billion years ago. Moreover, even if we fix the age of the universe, for some reason, baryon/photon ratio isn’t the only thing that affects CMB intensity. There’s also, for example, the ratios of normal matter/ dark matter/ and dark energy density to one another.

    The point is that, even if there is some parameter we can vary while leaving the others fixed, such that the measured value maximizes CMB intensity, there are many other parameters we can vary such that the measured value does not maximize CMB intensity. If the former is to be counted as evidence for theism, the latter must be counted as evidence against.

    The standard objection to this is that most life randomly generated by a multiverse would be of the Boltzmann brain variety (see here, p. 266), but I don’t know the physics well enough to comment on the plausibility of this.

    The general consensus is that determining whether Boltzmann observers dominate requires a solution to the Measure problem. As a general rule, it seems easier to come up with a plausible measure under which normal observers dominate, when there is a multiverse as opposed to a single universe. I don’t think any of the measures listed in the linked wikipedia article have a Boltzmann brain problem.

    That said, some physicists have argued that in the proper interpretation of quantum mechanics, Boltzmann brains simply don’t exist. (see here. So, I wouldn’t say the Boltzmann brain problem is a particularly strong argument for a multiverse, but it certainly isn’t a good argument against the multiverse.

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  81. The usual way to set priors on models of reality (whether physical or “immaterial” whatever that might mean) is by some sort of simplicity preference (usually algorithmic complexity or something fairly like it.) But algorithmically simple structures are precisely of the sort that will crop up in a wide variety of possible physical theories. Thus if things like mind and sentience fail to occur generically in a family of physical theories parametrized by some constants, then it either means that mind and sentience are complex, and therefore should have a low prior likelihood in any instantiation, or it means that the relevant family of physical theories is unusually fine tuned against life.

    I’m on board with using simplicity as a criterion of prior probability, but I am skeptical of the claim that algorithmic complexity is the way to measure it. Your particular way of utilizing it here appears to beg the question in favor of some version of physicalism. Looking at the frequency with which mind occurs in a family of physical theories in the emergent way that we observe in our universe is beside the point if theists claim that this is not how mind occurs in the case of God. It would be like finding a computer without knowing where it came from, running it, and assigning prior probabilities to different explanations for the origin of the computer based on how frequently the computer generates the kinds of things that figure in the explanation. If the computer never generates conscious beings, then we’d assign a prior probability of 0 that a conscious being designed the computer, which would be clearly absurd.

    If so, this is false. CMB intensity has been decreasing monotonically since the time of last scattering 380,000 years after the big bang. For example, the CMB was 30% more intense just a billion years ago, and something like 10 times as intense when the universe was half its present age. I see no reason sentient beings couldn’t have evolved a billion or even 7 billion years ago. Moreover, even if we fix the age of the universe, for some reason, baryon/photon ratio isn’t the only thing that affects CMB intensity. There’s also, for example, the ratios of normal matter/ dark matter/ and dark energy density to one another.

    Right, I was being sloppy there; what I should have said is that the photon:baryon ratio is set so as maximize the CMB. Varying other parameters might make it more intense.

    The point is that, even if there is some parameter we can vary while leaving the others fixed, such that the measured value maximizes CMB intensity, there are many other parameters we can vary such that the measured value does not maximize CMB intensity. If the former is to be counted as evidence for theism, the latter must be counted as evidence against.

    I agree, with two caveats. First, varying other parameters might have other negative effects as far as discoverability goes (including life, which is a precondition for discoverability). So, it’s not a straightforward inference from “we could increase the strength of the CMB by varying this parameter” to “we could make the universe more discoverable by varying this parameter.” And snap intuitions about what would make the universe more discoverable may not match with later careful investigation. For example, in a response to the lecture I linked to earlier, Sean Carroll raised the Higgs Boson as a counterexample to Collins’s discoverability claim, and when Collins investigated it, he found that it and other particles in fact appeared to actually have an ideal lifetime for being identified. (See this video from 14:30-23:20; the discussion of the Higgs Boson in particular starts at 21:40 or so.)

    Second, evidence from apparent sub-optimality for discovery will generally be weaker than evidence from apparent optimality for discovery. Suppose we measure the strength of evidence can be measured by the Bayes’ factor. Let Parameter-i say that parameter i appears to be optimized for discovery. And suppose that (owing to our ignorance of what makes for maximal discoverability, our ignorance of God’s motives, etc. — i.e., the kinds of considerations mentioned above) the probability of Parameter-i given Theism is around 1/10. Inasmuch as, on Atheism, we should be indifferent between different possible values for i (that are consistent with the existence of life), the probability of Parameter-i on Atheism will be much lower — say 1/10,000. Then the Bayes’ factor in favor of Theism from Parameter-i for some value of i (e.g., the photon:baryon ratio) will be (suppressing the background K and assuming independence of the Parameter-i’s relative to Theism and Atheism, both for simplicity’s sake):

    P(Parameter-i | Theism) / P(Parameter-i | Atheism) =
    1/10 / 1/10,000 =
    10,000 / 10 =
    1000 / 1.

    Whereas the Bayes’ factor against Theism from ~Parameter-i from some other value of i (e.g., one of the ones you brought up) will be

    P(~Parameter-i | Theism) / P(~Parameter-i | Atheism) =
    1-(1/10) / 1-(1/10,000) ≈
    9/10 / 1 =
    9/10.

    9/10 is a much less bottom-heavy Bayes’ factor than 1000/1 is a top-heavy Bayes’ factor; finding that a parameter is apparently not optimal is thus much weaker evidence against Theism than finding that another parameter apparently is optimal (assuming my above assumptions are roughly correct).

    This asymmetry, incidentally, is hardly unique to this case; a similar analysis would illustrate why “arguments from absence” are in general weak — for example, why gaps in the fossil record are weaker evidence against evolution than the existence of an apparent transitional form is evidence for it.

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  82. Depending on what you mean by this, it is either false or not applicable to my argument. “Explanation” isn’t an on-off; different hypotheses do better or worse jobs of explaining the same evidence

    You missed the point (again!). The “chance” hypothesis is a bit like a null hypothesis – it says there is no extra or unknown factor behind the universe, it just is what it is. Any arbitrary unfalsifiable element added to this just complicates it, and according to Occam’s razor, does a worse job. So when you ask “What is a better explanation for this: that it happened by chance, or that the creator of the universe designed it so as to be discoverable by embodied conscious beings like us?”.. the answer is obviously, chance – it’s the same thing but simpler.

    My only assumption in the neighborhood of “God exists” is “the prior probability that God exists is non-zero.”

    Incorrect. You also assign it an arbitrary probability higher than that of God not existing: (“it seems to me absurd to say that this probability is anywhere near as low as 1/10^229…. even if they only give us a probability of God creating life on the (absurdly small) order of 1/10^100, that stills gives us an enormously top-heavy Bayes’ factor.”)

    If we assume our pet theory has a higher probability than any opposing hypothesis then of course it’s going to have a higher Bayes factor. Assume it’s 1/10^230 though and see what happens. Can you see how it’s only your assumption that “proves” your assumptions? This is called circular reasoning, it happens a lot when you know the answer you want before you start trying to work it out.

    Are you seriously denying this premise?

    Absolutely, given the current state of scientific knowledge I see no reason to assume the probability of a supernatural power creating the universe to be anything other than zero.

    Moreover, if we *are* going to assign it a non-zero probability, then that probability has to be *less* than that of the same theory without a supernatural element, because adding the supernatural element makes it *less* likely. If the probability of life is 10^-229, then the probability of life AND God creating it has to be less than 10^-229.

    That’s why “chance” is the better explanation – it’s the same theory as your “creator” explanation, just without the extraneous “creator” bit.

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  83. Could you please be more precise about these “documents”?
    The reliable (by your own admission) Gospels tell another story:

    “11Now when they were going, behold, some of the watch came into the city, and shewed unto the chief priests all the things that were done. 12And when they were assembled with the elders, and had taken counsel, they gave large money unto the soldiers, 13Saying, Say ye, His disciples came by night, and stole him away while we slept. 14And if this come to the governor’s ears, we will persuade him, and secure you. 15So they took the money, and did as they were taught: and this saying is commonly reported among the Jews until this day.” (Matthew 28, 11-15).”

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  84. 961024

    @Melendwyr,

    Science and religion have different objects. In any case the Christian religion (this is the one most attacked for its “scientific” inadequacy) is not an attempt to finesse the relations between matter and anti-matter, or similar pursuits. It is perfectly happy to leave them to the “scientists” who have to earn their bread (aka “grants for fundamental research”) too.

  85. I’m on board with using simplicity as a criterion of prior probability, but I am skeptical of the claim that algorithmic complexity is the way to measure it.

    You got a better idea, I’m all ears. So far, all you’ve given me is “gee this seems like a small number.” Applying that standard consistently, you wouldn’t get through prospective theories of everything that would fit on a T-shirt before your priors added up to more than 1.

    Everything we’ve learned from human biology, AI research, the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, attempts to find anthropic laws of physics, etc. seems to indicate that minds are extremely complex and rare in any domain we have the ability to explore rigorously. And I don’t mean rare/complex like 10^-10 (~30 bits of information to specify). I mean rare/complex like 10^-1,000,000,000 (a few billion bits of information to specify. — guess based on the size of the human genome.) Given these kinds of numbers, yes, absolutely “pick random physical constants and maybe Darwinian evolution will get started and continue long enough to produce an intelligence” looks like a much more likely route for producing intelligence than “maybe reality is just set up in such a way that intelligence is built in from the get go.”

    Now I suppose you could say immaterial minds are different and should have a higher prior because reasons, but I don’t really buy this. What’s to prevent me from hypothesizing “immaterial quarks” that act exactly the same as regular quarks (except occasionally they sneak off, take human form, and play poker in skeevy bars in Vegas, including this one time last week…), but they have a higher prior, because they’re immaterial. Now I can bring all the evidence for the Standard Model to bear to prove that guy who bilked my friend Tony out of 500 bucks on the river last week was secretly a quark in disguise.

    It would be like finding a computer without knowing where it came from, running it, and assigning prior probabilities to different explanations for the origin of the computer based on how frequently the computer generates the kinds of things that figure in the explanation. If the computer never generates conscious beings, then we’d assign a prior probability of 0 that a conscious being designed the computer, which would be clearly absurd.

    This is a bad analogy. The scenario suggests (but avoids explicitly stating) that we found this computer in the ordinary universe we know and love. But if that’s the case, the existence of the computer is not the only data we bring to bear on our prior. In particular, we have copious data that indicates conscious beings exist in our universe. Keep in mind that, even something as small as a 5 minute Turing test is, in principle, capable of overcoming a prior of something like 10^-400 against there being an intelligence on the other end (Assumptions: 3 minutes worth of text from test subject, 50 words per minute, 10 bits of info per word.) So there’s every reason to believe that our intuition, that a computer found in our universe was intelligently designed, is entirely compatible with an astronomically low probability of intelligence prior to our observation that such intelligence exists.

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  86. The “chance” hypothesis is a bit like a null hypothesis – it says there is no extra or unknown factor behind the universe, it just is what it is. Any arbitrary unfalsifiable element added to this just complicates it, and according to Occam’s razor, does a worse job.

    Again, this is a fully general argument against any explanation whatsoever. Suppose that SETI finds a signal from Vega repeating a sequence of prime numbers. Two explanations: chance or intelligent aliens.

    Well, the “chance” hypothesis is a bit like a null hypothesis – it says there is no extra or unknown factor behind the [signal], it just is what it is. Any arbitrary unfalsifiable element [aliens] added to this just complicates it, and according to Occam’s razor, does a worse job.

    Suppose we go to Vega and find a spaceship orbiting one of its planets. Two explanations: it assembled by chance or it was designed by intelligent aliens.

    Well, the “chance” hypothesis is a bit like a null hypothesis – it says there is no extra or unknown factor behind the [spaceship], it just is what it is. Any arbitrary unfalsifiable element [aliens] added to this just complicates it, and according to Occam’s razor, does a worse job.

    This is a bad argument.

    My only assumption in the neighborhood of “God exists” is “the prior probability that God exists is non-zero.”

    Incorrect. You also assign it an arbitrary probability higher than that of God not existing:

    Suppose the prior probability that God exists is 1/1000. Then the prior probability that God does not exist is (1 – 1/1000) = 999/1000, because the latter proposition is the negation of the former. Hence, I am not assuming that God’s existing has a higher probability than God’s not existing.

    If we assume our pet theory has a higher probability than any opposing hypothesis then of course it’s going to have a higher Bayes factor.

    This just isn’t true. We’re talking about prior probabilities here, and Bayes’ factors are independent of priors. If my two hypotheses about the composition of an urn are that it has 2 red balls and 1 white ball and that it has 2 white balls and 1 red ball, then the 2 red hypothesis will have a higher Bayes’ factor for the evidence of drawing out a red ball — whatever the priors of my urn hypotheses are.

    (What you say isn’t even true for posterior probabilities. After drawing the red ball the posterior probability that the urn is the 2 white urn could still be higher than the posterior probability that it’s the 2 red urn, if the prior for the 2 white exceed the prior of the 2 red enough.)

    Absolutely, given the current state of scientific knowledge I see no reason to assume the probability of a supernatural power creating the universe to be anything other than zero.

    If you assign a hypothesis a probability of 0, you’re doing so independently of the current state of scientific knowledge. Once a probability of 0, always a probability of 0. Assigning a hypothesis a probability of 0 is saying, in effect, “there is absolutely no evidence I could ever receive that would make me consider this hypothesis probably true.” You could go outside and see the stars in the sky rearrange themselves to spell “I am the LORD thy God, thou shalt have no other gods before me” in Hebrew and Koine Greek, and it wouldn’t budge your probability 0 one bit.

    Which one of us is betraying an anti-empirical attitude here?

    Moreover, if we *are* going to assign it a non-zero probability, then that probability has to be *less* than that of the same theory without a supernatural element, because adding the supernatural element makes it *less* likely. If the probability of life is 10^-229, then the probability of life AND God creating it has to be less than 10^-229.

    This comment either misunderstands my argument or misunderstand how epistemic probabilities work. You are presumably alluding to the product rule, according to which P(Theism&Life) = P(Theism)P(Life|Theism). But what I claimed in the argument is that P(Life|Atheism) = 1/10^229. This does not tell us P(Life|Theism) any more than knowing that the probability of your winning the lottery given that it’s fair is 1 in a million tells us the probability of your winning the lottery given that your brother rigged it.

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  87. Yes, that passage is why I picked the example I did; Matthew tells us that this is a story the Jewish leadership told to explain the empty tomb, and so corroboration of this story would be evidence against the historicity of the resurrection.

    This particular passage, of course, does not purport to report eyewitnesses of anyone stealing Jesus’s body; rather, it says that the chief priests bribed the guards to say that this is what had happened.

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  88. If a banker or a stockbroker or a CEO can claim to be religious, then why not a scientist? There may be a possible intellectual contradiction, but not a moral one.

  89. I’m on board with using simplicity as a criterion of prior probability, but I am skeptical of the claim that algorithmic complexity is the way to measure it.

    You got a better idea, I’m all ears.

    I think the problem of the priors is a very hard problem, and I don’t have a solution to it. (For one thing, I think any suitable solution needs to be able to give a privileged partition of the space of possibilities, and I don’t know a way to in general do that.) I think that in practical cases we usually have a good enough idea of what theories are simpler to be able to make rough estimates of probabilities. (In controversial cases, like the God hypothesis, it of course becomes harder.)

    Now I suppose you could say immaterial minds are different and should have a higher prior because reasons, but I don’t really buy this.

    This is indeed what I would say. Your method tells us that minds are rare in our physical universe. I don’t think that tells us anything about the prior probability of God. It may help us assign a prior probability to a different hypothesis from mine, namely that an embodied intelligence in another universe created ours. (Consider, for example, a version of Nick Bostrom’s simulation hypothesis, that our universe is a computer simulation.)

    Your current procedure would seem to give the probability of an unembodied divine mind a prior of 0, because we’ve never observed an unembodied mind. This suggests it can’t be the right way to think about the prior probability of Theism.

    I can’t give you an argument to establish a precise prior for Theism, but it seems to me that the arguments of philosophers like Richard Swinburne show that it is a simple hypothesis in many important ways. For example, the hypothesis can be stated fairly straightforwardly: there exists an omnipotent, omniscient, morally perfect immaterial mind who created the universe. We only ascribe a few fundamental properties to our hypothetical divine mind: namely, those listed earlier. Even if we added such properties as aseity and timelessness, and whatever else you like from canonical theology, we would still end up with a much more concise description than could suffice to describe our physical universe.

    What’s to prevent me from hypothesizing “immaterial quarks” that act exactly the same as regular quarks (except occasionally they sneak off, take human form, and play poker in skeevy bars in Vegas, including this one time last week…), but they have a higher prior, because they’re immaterial.

    I don’t know what an “immaterial quark” is — my concept of “quark” includes materiality. My concept of mind does not include materiality; I take it to be at the very least conceptually possible that our minds are non-identical to anything physical.

    This is a bad analogy. The scenario suggests (but avoids explicitly stating) that we found this computer in the ordinary universe we know and love. But if that’s the case, the existence of the computer is not the only data we bring to bear on our prior. In particular, we have copious data that indicates conscious beings exist in our universe.

    This is true, but I think the case would work equally well even if we had very little background knowledge about conscious beings; e.g., you can imagine that you’re the only one in existence and you discover this computer (we can suppose further that you’ve never encountered a computer before).

    The methodological point I was trying to make with the case is that the way the computer functions is not relevant to the prior probability of an intelligent designer for it, because the computer is (or would be) explanatorily posterior to that designer. Rather, other facts (such as, as you observe, our background knowledge about the universe) are relevant to assigning that prior. Similarly, the way this universe functions does not seem relevant to the prior probability of God. Since God is presumably explanatorily fundamental, we will have no (a posteriori) background knowledge to bear on the God hypothesis, and so have to rely on a priori considerations (like simplicity — not within some physical model, but tout court).

  90. For example, the hypothesis can be stated fairly straightforwardly: there exists an omnipotent, omniscient, morally perfect immaterial mind who created the universe. We only ascribe a few fundamental properties to our hypothetical divine mind

    This may be short in human language, but it signifies something extremely complex. This is because we have many words for things that are not actually simple, but have a simple relationship to us (e.g. being a common part of our environment or a familiar part of our biology or culture.) Thus, morality is defined by reference to human values, and mind is defined by analogy to our own nervous system. But, both of these things are uncontroversially extremely complex.

    Theology often tries to hide the inherently anthropomorphic components of traditional God concepts, but removing such components entirely leaves the concept completely unrecognizable. This problem is exacerbated in Christianity due to the doctrine of the incarnation, since Christianity posits that a certain Jewish man (whom the Chalcedonian creed declares “fully human”) literally was God. As long as anything in the concept of God is defined by reference/analogy/image etc. the concept cannot credibly be argued to be simple.

    I don’t know what an “immaterial quark” is — my concept of “quark” includes materiality. My concept of mind does not include materiality; I take it to be at the very least conceptually possible that our minds are non-identical to anything physical.

    It’s not clear that the notion of materiality means much of anything outside of a particular Aristotelian conception of reality, (which was historically used to argue that certain incorrect physical theories were not just true but necessarily so — e.g. circular orbits.) Nonetheless, if ancient ideas about human minds, and Christian ideas about God are to be taken as paradigm cases, being immaterial does not prevent it from having an effect on the material world (Socrates’s mind could move his arm, God supposedly took a human form, parted the red sea etc.) Thus I would posit an immaterial quark would not be material but would have the same effect on the material world as a material quark (except when playing poker of course.)

    Thus, I do not see what rules of reasoning should permit the Christian “immaterial god” while disallowing my “immaterial quark.” I personally think it reasonable to estimate the complexity of these hypothetical entities by the complexity of a material model which duplicates the same behavior (not necessarily in real time.) This would give an extremely low prior (and posterior) probability for both hypotheses and doesn’t seem to be obviously begging the question. The alternative is to simply say that any hypothesis, simply by virtue of containing the word “immaterial” might appropriately be assigned a very high prior probability, and we have no way to know. I think this pretty clearly leads to radical skepticism, but I suppose you’re welcome to it if that’s the way you want to go.

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  91. It was not until the Scopes trial that America began to separate faith from science, deciding that they could not co-exist. Some of the greatest advances in science were made during time in which there was no logical inconsistency proposed by being a man of faith and a man of science. As your excellent article makes clear, there is no inconsistency in reality. If anything, it is the firm belief that God is unchanging and that, therefore, nature can be studied reliably, that allows for sound science.

  92. Again, this is a fully general argument against any explanation whatsoever.

    No, only against ones that add an arbitrary, unobservable, unfalsifiable element to a perfectly workable explanation.

    Suppose that SETI finds a signal from Vega repeating a sequence of prime numbers. Two explanations: chance or intelligent aliens.
    Suppose we go to Vega and find a spaceship orbiting one of its planets. Two explanations: it assembled by chance or it was designed by intelligent aliens.

    Now you are just being stupid. Signals, spaceships and aliens all have a physical reality that can be measured and empirically verified, thus affecting the likelihood of any each explanation. God doesn’t.

    I am not assuming that God’s existing has a higher probability than God’s not existing.

    Then why did you assign 1/10^100 to theism and only 1/10^229 to ~theism? Assign 1/10^230 to theism and tell me what the Bayes factor says.

    This does not tell us P(Life|Theism) any more than knowing that the probability of your winning the lottery given that it’s fair is 1 in a million tells us the probability of your winning the lottery given that your brother rigged it.

    Again, lotteries, brothers and millions of dollars have an observable, measurable and empirically verifiable physical reality, God doesn’t. We can examine the lottery and determine if it was rigged or not. We can trace our brother’s movement and determine if he rigged it or not. All of these elements affect the physical world in a way that can be quantified and tested and verified. What you are proposing is not at all like this. Yours is more like a loser insisting it was rigged by an invisible person using undetectable methods when all independent testing proves it was still a 1 in a million chance.

    Do you believe in the big bang or do you think God created the universe in 7 days exactly in its present state? Do you accept modern scientific consensus or do you believe what the bible says?

    At the point you depart from accepted scientific theory the discussion becomes pointless – you say science is wrong, I say it’s right, repeat ad infinitum, game over. So that leaves us at a position where the physical universe created by God is EXACTLY the same as a naturally occurring universe, but with an added supernatural element to it – an element that can’t be observed or measured.

    If the physical characteristics of the universe are identical however it came into being then estimation of 10^229 possible configurations of the universe is the same in every case – there’s a 1/10^229 chance of the universe forming this way of it’s own accord, and there’s a 1/10^229 chance that God chose this particular configuration out of all his options. The only room for variation in your Bayesian factor then is the probability of the various natures of your supernatural element – God/dolphin/cosmic snooker game/whatever. The chance of the universe being the way it is is 1/10^229, the chance of it being that way because of cause X is 1/10^229 * P(X). Dig?

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  93. @ancient documents from the 1st century (as evidenced by intimate knowledge of 1st century Palestine, etc.) that report eyewitness accounts of seeing Peter steal Jesus’s body.

    I am still a bit confused. The way you presented the case would suggest that such documents (independent of the Gospels) exist (“as evidenced by intimate knowledge of 1st century Palestine, etc.”) and not just a question of principle. I am sorry if I misunderstood you.

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  94. i was waiting for these documents too.

  95. Obviously, a young-earth creationist is going to have a hard time being a productive biologist. But the broad question of whether someone professing any religion can be an effective scientist must be yes, because science has yet to produce a self-consistent theory of everything that excludes religion. In other words, science has to admit religion in some form unless and until all the questions are answered, after which time there would be neither science nor religion because there would be no need for either.

  96. Are you talking about science or secular liberalism (liberalism is certainly a tradition).

    As Freud said, religion is an illusion, but an illusion is not necessarily a error.

    Science would have an open mind as to whether ‘the truth’ is truly good for you. Secular liberalism does not seem to have a good effect on the birth rate, does it make people happier?

  97. @ancient documents from the 1st century (as evidenced by intimate knowledge of 1st century Palestine, etc.) that report eyewitness accounts of seeing Peter steal Jesus’s body.

    I am still a bit confused. The way you presented the case would suggest that such documents (independent of the Gospels) exist (“as evidenced by intimate knowledge of 1st century Palestine, etc.”) and not just a question of principle. I am sorry if I misunderstood you.

    I apologize if I was unclear. I was answering the question, “What possible evidence would “disconfirm” [the Resurrection]“? The answer I was trying to give was, if we found documents from the 1st century that reported eyewitness accounts of seeing Peter steal Jesus’s dead body, this would be evidence against the Resurrection. No such documents have actually been found (as far as I know!). I was describing possible evidence we could get, not actual evidence we have. (The “as evidenced by” clause was just an example of one way that we could confirm that they were in fact from the 1st century. Naturally if a document purporting to be of the kind I’ve just described were discovered, the most initially likely explanation would be that it’s a hoax, like “the Gospel of Jesus’ wife.” So we’d need to be assured that it actually did come from the 1st century before putting much stock in anything it said.)

    The broader point I was making that started off this whole conversation was just that Christianity makes historical claims which are amenable to empirical investigation. Thus, they could be confirmed or disconfirmed by historical research just like any other historical claims.

  98. Signals, spaceships and aliens all have a physical reality that can be measured and empirically verified, thus affecting the likelihood of any each explanation. God doesn’t.

    (1) Whether the God hypothesis is empirically verifiable is precisely what’s under dispute. I have given you examples of data which are made more probable by Theism than by ~Theism, and which thus affect its probability. It is thus verifiable/falsifiable in the sense that the evidence can make it more or less probable.

    (2) If you want something stronger than that — e.g., being able to reach out and touch the thing — then we can alter the scenario so that there is an impenetrable forcefield around the planet aliens are alleged to live on that is immediately deadly to any human who tries to cross it. So it’s impossible to conclusively verify or falsify the alien hypothesis. This makes no difference to the cases.

    Then why did you assign 1/10^100 to theism and only 1/10^229 to ~theism?

    I did not do that. You are not reading carefully. I said, and I quote, “The bottom term, P(life | ~theism&K), is 1/10^229.” P(life | ~theism&K) =/= P(~theism | K). The probability of ~Theism, as I have said multiple times now, is one minus the probability of Theism. If P(Theism|K) = 1/10^100, P(~Theism|K) = ([10^100]-1) / (10^100).

    All of these elements affect the physical world in a way that can be quantified and tested and verified. What you are proposing is not at all like this.

    Again, precisely what I’m denying. This is begging the question.

    If the physical characteristics of the universe are identical however it came into being then estimation of 10^229 possible configurations of the universe is the same in every case – there’s a 1/10^229 chance of the universe forming this way of it’s own accord, and there’s a 1/10^229 chance that God chose this particular configuration out of all his options.

    No. Intentional agents act for reasons; they don’t pick randomly. The probability of a chess move being picked at random from all possible legal moves or being made by an intelligent player are different. The God hypothesis says that God is an intentional agent, just like the chess player.

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  99. Nonetheless, if ancient ideas about human minds, and Christian ideas about God are to be taken as paradigm cases, being immaterial does not prevent it from having an effect on the material world

    Yes, I agree so far.

    Thus I would posit an immaterial quark would not be material but would have the same effect on the material world as a material quark (except when playing poker of course.)

    This is where I don’t understand the example. It’s not the having material effects part I don’t understand. It’s the being immaterial in the first place. As I understand the term ‘quark,’ it is defined as a certain kind of particle, with certain properties. I take particles to (essentially) be a kind of material thing, and so ‘immaterial particle’ sounds to me like ‘square circle.’

    The closest thing I can imagine in the neighborhood is an immaterial mind that controls the behavior of a material quark. Perhaps this will serve well enough for your purposes.

    I personally think it reasonable to estimate the complexity of these hypothetical entities by the complexity of a material model which duplicates the same behavior (not necessarily in real time.)

    I think this is our fundamental disagreement. Perhaps this is true in cases where the capacities of our hypothetical mind are conceptually parasitic on our understanding of material behavior, which seems to be the case in (my modification of) your quark example (inasmuch as I understand it) — there the only way to specify what the quark-mind can do is by way of specifying what quarks can do (and poker-players, etc.). But I don’t think our grasp of divine capacities is parasitic in that way, and as such it does not seem to me to be proper to use a material instantiation of those capacities to estimate their complexity when instantiated in an immaterial mind.

  100. It is thus verifiable/falsifiable in the sense that the evidence can make it more or less probable.

    What evidence? All we have is your belief.

    Suppose that SETI doesn’t pick up any signal from anywhere. But someone who once read a book about intelligent life of Vega proposes that there is a signal coming from Vega and we just can’t detect it. Scientists assign this possibility the “absurdly small” probability of 1/10^100 which is reasonable since it is “about as far from assuming one’s conclusion as one can get”. When they put this probability in to their Bayes factor machine along with the 1/10^229 probability of stars existing….. bingo! There must be life on Vega.

    Off they fly but when they arrive there’s no signs of any spaceship. Perhaps the spaceship is invisible and undetectable but it’s safe to dock with? They assign this the stupidly low and entirely reasonable probability of 1/10^200, out comes the Bayes factor machine and…. bingo!! They open their hatches to board the invisible, undetectable spaceship and that is known today as the Great Vegan Cock-up of 2027 – *sigh* – if only they’d assumed a probability lower than the one they gave to the universe existing!

    The probability of a chess move being picked at random from all possible legal moves or being made by an intelligent player are different

    It’s very easy to tell if a chess game is being played by random moves or by an intelligent player (or even an unintelligent one!) in just a few moves. If God does exist, he’s so bad at designing universes that his products are indistinguishable from randomness….. it’s taken nearly 14 billion years for a lifeform to arise that could even conceive of him, any all-powerful supernatural deity worth his salt could have done that in less than femtosecond… nanosecond tops.

  101. Perhaps this is true in cases where the capacities of our hypothetical mind are conceptually parasitic on our understanding of material behavior, which seems to be the case in (my modification of) your quark example (inasmuch as I understand it) — there the only way to specify what the quark-mind can do is by way of specifying what quarks can do (and poker-players, etc.). But I don’t think our grasp of divine capacities is parasitic in that way

    It sounds from this like our disagreement has been reduced to a simple question of the psychology of belief. I think it’s pretty obvious that all traditional concepts of God are parasitic on the notion of man. I previously pointed out that the official creedal statements of Swinburne’s own Orthodox Church (I don’t know your exact affiliation) make this explicit by defining God as a hypostatic union of the father, son, and holy spirit, and defining the son as a hypostatic union of fully human and fully divine natures.

    One may also show that this applies more generically. Psychological studies (e.g. http://www.pnas.org/content/106/51/21533.abstract ) imply that believers tend to base their concept of God not just on man in the abstract, but directly upon themselves. It certainly looks like the concept of God is parasitic on our understanding of humans.

    Finally, the fine tuning argument relies on God having a desire to create life which is not only like humans in some metaphysical sense, but whose existence relies on very similar material constraints (in the form of fine tuned laws of physics.) How you can define God as having a desire like that, without the concept being parasitic on a material understanding of man is beyond me.

  102. […] Where public policy misses biology. Where Pinker got lost. Religion and morality (topologically related). The death of trust. America’s secessionist […]

  103. What church did Troffim Lysenko belong to? Oh that’s right, he was an atheist! So, surely he was a much better and more honest guide to genetics than a freaking Catholic monk like Gregor Mendel.

    Ummm…

    Okay, snark over. The point is, there’s nothing unique about religion that disqualifies one from becoming a good scientist. ANY ideology, religious or secular, can make you a bad scientist, if it prevents you from going wherever the evidence leads.

    A scientist can have whatever beliefs he wants, about God, politics, or anything else. But if the evidence demonstrates that his beliefs are wrong, a good scientist must either abandon those beliefs or adapt them to fit the evidence- not vice versa.

    If your holy book says the Earth is 6,000 years old and all evidence says it’s much older, you can’t be a good scientist AND assert the absolute, literal truth of the holy book. You must either abandon the holy book or treat it as a metaphor.

    Similarly, if your political ideology says that there is no difference in brain size among races, but another scientist’s evidence indicates there is, you CANNOT be a good scientist while slandering the other scientist and distorting his evidence.

    Ergo, Georges Lemaitre was a great scientist despite being a Catholic priest and Stephen Jay Gould was a lousy scientist even though he was not religious.

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  104. Alright, let me try to wrap things up here. (If either of you would like to respond, I’m happy to let you have the last word — I’ve said my piece.)

    I think there’s an important distinction between our using our experience with humans to make predictions about God’s behavior and mental life and reference to humans being necessary to define the theistic hypothesis to begin with. (You rightly observe that the latter is necessary for the particularly Christian conception of God. However, I was attempting to state theism in a way that left open those further questions.) At any rate, I suspect we’ve gone about as far down this road as is profitable — I’m content to have clarified our disagreement to being about the prior of theism.

    The evidence is the existence of life and the discoverability of the universe — the particular example of the latter I described above had to do with the anomalous intensity of the Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation. My claim was that these facts are more predicted by theism than atheism.

    Given your persistent misunderstandings of my argument and of basic mathematical principles of probability throughout this conversation, I see little point in providing a detailed response to your analogies. Suffice to say that there is no way to coherently fill out your scenarios to get the Bayes’ factors you suggest. The proof is left as an exercise to the reader.

  105. :
    My claim was that these facts are more predicted by theism than atheism.

    Yes, and I pointed out that this is solely because you assigned a higher prior probability to life|theism than you did to life|~theism. Its circular reasoning.

    I will leave you with this thought: Belief in God is a personal choice and just like art, music, sport and love, rationality doesn’t (and shouldn’t) enter in to it. Believe it if you need it, no need to justify it rationally.

  106. says:
         Show CommentNext New Comment

    “I think this is also true of more secular religions. Like Marxism.”

    I agree.

  107. “What church did Troffim Lysenko belong to? Oh that’s right, he was an atheist! So, surely he was a much better and more honest guide to genetics than a freaking Catholic monk like Gregor Mendel.”

    Lysenko lost his science by being a good communist. But let’s not forget that Mendel probably saw his scientific endeavour as a refutation of Darwin.

    http://somosbacteriasyvirus.com/mendel.pdf

  108. My general problem with Bayesian arguments for or against creationism is that we simply have no good idea how to guess the probabilities that are thrown around. Is 1/10^229 too small a probability for God to choose the configuration that currently exists? We simply don’t know, and there’s no empirical data to help us (n=1).

    To indulge these probabilities more concretely, though, I think the probability P(life | creator) may be quite a bit smaller than some have assumed. People seem to be calculating P(life | benevolent creator, probably of the type described in Abrahamic religions). The kind that “likes” life, etc. But it seems to me that we need to integrate over all the possible kinds of creators, e.g. ones that hate life, that hate order, etc. Given the infinite number of possible gods out there, the probability that it chose the orderly configuration we see may be quite small – smaller, anyway, that is sometimes assumed.

    You could of course say that we’re only interested in P(life | benevolent creator, the kind postulated by most theists today), but then the prior probability would have to decrease by the same factor, since P(benevolent creator) < P(creator). So that would accomplish nothing.

    Still, despite my preceding argument being pretty logical, I can't help but feel it was mostly a waste of time.

    Forgive me if someone else has already said all this in the comments.

  109. Re Can a theist be a good scientist?

    Obviously yes; we have examples.

    As for the argument that “one cannot hold nonscientific beliefs (theism) and be considered a good scientist”: to me, this is akin to arguing that a good doctor can’t smoke, or a good nutritionist can’t eat junk food. As long as professionals don’t let their personal beliefs get in the way of their job performance, they can do whatever they want with their private lives.

    Of course, scientists often ARE swayed by their personal beliefs and biases, but I’m not sure this is any more acute a problem among theistic scientists. As many have said, see Gould.

  110. Alvin Plantinga, in “Where the Conflict Really Lies,” would say the opposite; or rather would say one cannot coherently hold to both naturalistic atheism and scientific rationalism. Since materialism necessarily denies the causal efficacy of any truth propositions in a person’s mind–one’s neurochemistry is what causes behavior not the associated belief–naturalistic evolution (assuming materialism) cannot act to make the propositional content of one’s thoughts more likely true than not. Of course if our beliefs are not more likely to be true than false, rationality (in which I include the empirical sciences) cannot be affirmed.

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  111. i have read that book. whenever plantinga asserts “x necessarily entails y” i scream NNNOOO!!!! his argument follows from his assertion of necessity.

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