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atheism and explanatory monism

I’ve quite enjoyed reading through “Is Nature Enough: Meaning and Truth in the Age of Science“, by John Haught.  One of the many points he articulates well is what he refers to as “layered explanation”.

Layered Explanation.

In the science/religion ‘debate’ (as if it needed to be a debate – which, as we shall see, is the whole point of this post), I think one of the most urgently needed concepts is that of “layered explanation”.  What is meant here is that there can be more than one layer/level/kind of explanation for a given phenomenon.

Here’s a quote from the book:

“Naturalists put too heavy a burden on evolutionary science whenever they turn it into ultimate explanation.  What I shall propose instead, as a way of giving a place to both science and religion is layered explanation.  By this I mean that everything in the universe is open to a plurality of layers of explanation.  The alternative to layered explanation, or to explanatory pluralism, is explanatory monism, an approach dear to the heart of most naturalists.” (p. 16 – italics in original)

Science: enemy or fount of all knowledge?

I think two kinds of people will benefit most from this: fundamentalist religious believers (who either a) make an enemy of science, or b) attempt to create a ‘better’ kind of science) and convinced philosophical naturalists (who generally both a) think religion ‘poisons everything’, and b) think science is the ultimate way to explain everything); they both happen to agree that religion and science are directly and totally incompatible (at least for some definitions of ‘religion’ and of ‘science’). One – religious fundamentalism – demonises science as anti-God, and the other – scientism (another kind of fundamentalism) heralds science as the ultimate key to any and all kinds of knowledge.

Fencing reality – fencing explanations

When a theist (of any kind) suggests to a science-heralding atheist that there are ‘limits’ to what science will ever be able to explain, he/she is sometimes sharply reprimanded for attempting to maliciously ‘ring-fence’ reality, with the obvious motivation of keeping some bits safe for theistic belief.  But the science-heralding atheist does his/her own kind of explanatory ‘ring-fencing’, when she/he restricts ultimate explanation to the tool of science.

Science – a powerful tool, but with limited uses

What I appreciate about John Haught is that he passionately and repeatedly affirms the need to encourage science to go as far as it possibly can in it’s scientific explanation of phenomena.  But there are modes of knowing which are sourced by methods other than methodological naturalism, such as the realm of ethics.

For example, science can offer ever-increasingly detailed accounts of the biological journey in which sperm, egg, placenta and foetus/baby have starring roles.  This kind of account is infinitely valuable (and I’m conscious that this statement is a non-scientific one!), and constitutes a powerful tool of knowledge to be used in many situations… but scientific accounts are unable to provide any guidance whatsoever concerning ethical questions such as: how to (or whether we even should!) reduce unwanted pregnancies and abortion, or when/if a developing foetus can/cannot be ‘terminated’ (on which – just to ground this quickly and easily in reality – it has seriously been proposed by ethicist Peter Singer that ‘termination’ can ethically occur as late as 1 month after birth! – see Singerian principle #9 here).

As valuable as scientific explanations are, they remain (if I may use the strongest language that comes to mind) utterly impotent for the grounding of values from which ethical decisions are made.  However one does ground (or not ground!) the values for their ethical life, they are not using the knowledge arrived at via methodological naturalism, but rather some kind of tradition, philosophy/logic or life-value-system – which can broadly be called their ‘religion’.

54 replies on “atheism and explanatory monism”

This is an old debate, Dale, but doesn’t usually make progress. Although here you do do make the claim that ethical decisions should be made on the basis of religion – which does indicate where the discussion needs to take place.

Just a few points:

1: ““Naturalists put too heavy a burden on evolutionary science whenever they turn it into ultimate explanation.” This statement by Haught seems rather extreme (although I don’t know the context) – I am not aware of anyone claiming that “evolutionary” science” provides an “ultimate explanation.” There might be lay people who make unwarranted claims for the science (one of the problems of this sort of debate in the lay arena and they are certainly provoked by those who make unwarranted dismissals of the science).

2: Use of terms like “naturalist” – there is a real problem with “name-calling” because everyone has there own definitions. I have been accused of naturalism (also of being a fool and a moron and guilty of ‘scientism’ – not here I hasten to add) presumably because I don’t accept theistic explanations of reality. But – you see – I don’t personally believe that “religion ‘poisons everything'”, that “science is the ultimate way to explain everything” or that science has “the ultimate key to any and all kinds of knowledge.”

Further, I really have not met any other scientist who has such beliefs. Now some scientists may actually be happy about the “naturalist” label (I am not happy about any labels)- but obviously they attribute it with a different meaning to that you give here.

3: I am aware of some theists who claim that science has no role in investigating or understanding the origin and evolution of the universe and life (they reserve this for theology) and I would call that “ring-fencing” parts of reality and strongly disagree with that position. But, I myself accept the possibility that there may be aspects of reality that we cannot investigate or understand. That is surely not ring-fencing because we don’t use that as an excuse – we get on and do the work, anticipating until shown otherwise that we have a chance of success.

4: You separate (“ring-fence”) ethics from science – so do I. Actually I don’t know of any scientist who would claim ethics as legitimately an area of scientific decisionsinforming perhaps but not resolving questions. I am sure you would agree that scientific information is vital for understanding how to reduce unwanted pregnancies, how and when it is safe to abort a foetus, etc., but which scientist is actually claiming that the ethical question of whether or not to have an abortion can be decided for the individual by science? None I know of.

5: At the personal level I can make ethical decisions in which I am informed by scientific information and advised by ethical advice – but in the end I make my own decision. Which brings us to your final point – your claiming that these ethical decisions should be based on religion. Now I, and many other New Zealanders (probably a majority of New Zealanders), do not base our ethical decisions on religion. (I would seriously question that religious believers do either, although they may use religious justification for their decisions). I think we are happy about that – and I don’t think society suffers from those decisions.

So, on the one hand I say we don’t base our ethical decisions on religion – Your say that we do!

6: So my point is – forget about talking about science – which is irrelevant here (except in its informing role). Lets hear you justification for the claim that ethical decisions must be grounded in religion.

Hi Ken,
I appreciate the time you would have taken to comment at length. One quick clarification, then I’ll respond to your points.

…here you do do make the claim that ethical decisions should be made on the basis of religion… (emphasis mine)

I think my comments were more descriptive than prescriptive. Moral/ethical decisions are made from (what can broadly – and I think fairly – called) a ‘religious’ perspective. Of course, in the interest of avoiding any association with that word whatsoever, some may want to use different words – but it’s a simple enough point I’m making (i.e. such decisions are made from “some kind of tradition, philosophy/logic or life-value-system”)…

now to interact with your points…

I am not aware of anyone claiming that “evolutionary” science” provides an “ultimate explanation.” There might be lay people who make unwarranted claims for the science…

Yes, I seriously doubt anyone literally ever says ‘science provides an ultimate explanation for everything’, but the sort of thing Haught is referring to is perfectly reflected in this quote from Dawkins in his 07 debate with Lennox (quoted at length for appropriate context – apologies for length):

“I think that religious explanations, although they may have been satisfying for many centuries, are now superseded and outdated. I think moreover that they are petty and parochial, and that the understanding that we can get from science, of all those deep questions that religion once aspired to explain, are now better, more grandly, in a more beautiful, more elegant fashion, explained by science.
I think that when you consider the beauty of the world, and you wonder how it came to be what it is, you’re naturally overwhelmed with a feeling of awe, a feeling of admiration, and you almost feel a desire to worship something. I feel this. I recognise that other scientists such as Carl Sagan feel this. Einstein felt it.
We all of us share a kind of a religious reverence for the beauties of the universe, for the complexity of life, for the sheer magnitude of the cosmos, the sheer magnitude of geological time. And it’s tempting to translate that feeling of awe and worship into a desire to worship some particular thing – a person, an agent. You want to attribute it to a maker, to a creator.
What science has now achieved is an emancipation from that impulse to attribute these things to a creator, and it’s a major emancipation. Because humans have an almost overwhelming desire to think that they’ve explained something by attributing it to a maker.
It was a supreme achievement of the human intellect to realise that there is a better explanation for these things, that these things can come about by purely natural causes.”

The problem here is that Dawkins treats the ‘religious explanations’ as if they were the same kind of explanation as ‘scientific explanations’. It apparently rarely (if ever) occurs to him that the truth of one doesn’t have to (to use his words) ’emancipate’ us from any other ones. For me personally, far from ’emancipating’ me from the worshipful impulse, scientific explanations have enhanced it.

Use of terms like “naturalist” – there is a real problem with “name-calling”…

I’m aware of how unhelpful ‘name calling’ is. Yet for the obvious reason that we all find words useful enough carriers of meaning that we actually use them, ‘labels’ can be appropriate, short-hand summaries of a belief or philosophical position. A term like ‘naturalist’ is a perfectly fine word to refer to a person with the philosophical position that ‘nature’ is all there is to reality (‘philosophical naturalism’).

I am aware of some theists who claim that science has no role in investigating or understanding the origin and evolution of the universe and life (they reserve this for theology) and I would call that “ring-fencing” parts of reality and strongly disagree with that position.

On one hand, I agree with you that there is no need to try to get science out of those areas (I’m with Haught: science should be allowed and encouraged to push it’s explanations as far as possible!), but I’d actually say that those you refer to are not so much trying to ring fence reality as they are trying to ring-fence science (in terms of what it can/can’t explain). Ironically, I think the notion of ‘ring-fencing reality’ would be more fitting of the philosophical naturalist position (i.e. ‘nature’ is all there is to reality).

You separate (”ring-fence”) ethics from science – so do I.

This is key, so I’ll comment in detail. Rather than needing to ‘separate’ (or ‘ring-fence’) ethics from science, I’m simply observing that science and ethics exist at different levels of inquiry/knowledge/explanation. Indeed, there are links. I like to use the words ‘form’ and ‘inform’ here: science can ‘inform’ ethics, but cannot ‘form’ ethical frameworks/values/understandings. And yes, you are right, I think, that nobody literally ever says ‘science provides all we need for ethics’, etc. My point was not to say that anyone ever does… My (descriptive, not prescriptive) point is that there is something else that actually does form our ethical values…

Which brings us to your final point – your claiming that these ethical decisions should be based on religion.

and…

I, and many other New Zealanders … do not base our ethical decisions on religion.

and…

I say we don’t base our ethical decisions on religion – Your say that we do!

and…

Lets hear you[r] justification for the claim that ethical decisions must be grounded in religion.

Again – my comments were not prescriptive (‘should be grounded’) but descriptive (‘are grounded’) and nuanced. I think it’s the nuance which you’re reacting to? As for my ‘justification’, I’ll simply repeat what I said with (what is hopefully) clarifying emphasis.
Ethics are ‘grounded’ or ‘formed’ by all people based on “some kind of tradition, philosophy/logic or life-value-system – which can broadly be called their ‘religion’.”
If it’s desperately important to someone to maintain that they ‘aren’t religious’, then obviously they’ll want to immediately put it in different terms. But I think my point is clear enough. Some kind of tradition, philosophy, logic or value-system is ‘behind’ or ‘under’ or ‘grounding’ or ‘forms’ our ethical decisions. Where we appear to differ is that these sources can fairly be called ‘religious’.

I’m back :)

I’d like to hear further development on this notion that there are areas of knowledge that science can’t work with. If something is even slightly knowable then science can be applied to it, pretty much by definition. So it seems that the only areas of knowledge that science can’t work with are the areas we can’t know anything about in the first place. Such inaccessible areas of knowledge (if there are any) are of no use to us precisely because we can’t access them. As soon as we claim to know something about something, science comes into play. If we don’t claim to know anything about something then nothing will help.

A: I will respond first on the main issue – whether ethics is grounded in “religion.”

1: I appreciate your understanding of the problem with the word. I think that it is firstly a matter of respect – it would be offensive to apply the word when very many people don’t see it as applying to them. And, of course, there are other words which can be more inclusive. Secondly – I don’t think it is possible to avoid a narrow understanding of the word. It was instructive to me to read Gould’s book Rock of Ages. He makes quite clear at the beginning of his formulation of NOMA (non-overlapping magisteria) that he was defining “religion” in the more general sense. But then he, himself – in the same book – clearly went on to use it in the restrictive sense! So it’s no surprise that practically all commentators on NOMA use the restrictive meaning.

Best to avoid such misunderstanding.

2: I don’t actually agree that “Some kind of tradition, philosophy, logic or value-system is ‘behind’ or ‘under’ or ‘grounding’ or ‘forms’ our ethical decisions.” I think that such systems (including religions) can codify, teach, legitimate, provide avenues of discussion, etc., of ethics but I don’t see them as the source.

Here I think there is research which is showing a more scientific understanding of the source of our morality/ethics. This shows something more basic than (or transcending) culture/society/religion. We seem to have innate moral and ethical intuitions/feelings. These determine our immediate reaction and then we apply our rational mind to explain our decisions. Rather than being a rational species we are a rationalising species. I think this sort of analysis has helped explain so many human foibles, habits, etc. Our evolution as a social species no doubt has influenced the development of much of these innate moral/ethical intuitions.

B: Just a comment on use of terms like “naturalims”.

1: One reason for my objection is that it is the language of those who currently attack science – the Wedge Strategy people and their local followers like “Thinking matters” and “Christian News NZ”. These are people who strongly deny science a role in things like the origins and evolution of the universe and life – and practically anything else they want to claim for their religion. They also refuse to recognise the science of scientists who are not on their short list of approved apologetics “scientists” (this includes people like Philip Johnson!!).

OK – they are fundamentalist and dogmatic. Unfortunately (I think) their promotion of words like “naturalism” and “materialism” as evil characterisations of science actually does have some influence on the non-fundamentalist and non-dogmatic Christian – especially if they, themselves, slip into using those words.

2: A second reason for my personal objection to such words is that they do introduce a dogmatic approach into science itself. Fortunately these words are not used by scientists in their day-to-day work (more so in political debates). I would hate to see a situation where, for example, current scientific thinking on the nature and formation of matter was attacked because it was “supernatural”, “not naturalism”, etc. The equivalent of this has often happened under oppressive regimes (eg. Stalin’s USSR, Mao’s China, Hitler’s Germany) with resulting imprisonment and often death for scientists carrying our honest scientific investigations. New theories in physics at the beginning of the 20th Century were rejected and attacked in those tones by other scientists at the time.

In science we must be able to follow the evidence wherever it leads. The issue is not philosophical attitudes like “naturalism” – but the requirement of evidence and verification (these are the real target of the Wedge and “Thinking Matters” dogmatists).

So, I don’t think these philosophical terms are helpful. They often hide other agendas and can be outright dangerous – either to the possibilities of free expression in scientific research, or to the personal safety of researchers.

Ian,
(welcome back!) :)

I’d like to hear further development on this notion that there are areas of knowledge that science can’t work with. If something is even slightly knowable then science can be applied to it, pretty much by definition.

IF (1) by ‘science’ you are referring (inclusively) to all kinds of ‘knowing’ (i.e. the meaning of ‘science’ that comes from the Latin root ‘scienta’ – seen in words like con-science, etc.), that is one thing – and I’d agree…
but IF (2) by ‘science’ you are referring (exclusively) to the one kind of knowing which we get via methodological naturalism (which I suspect you are?), then THANK YOU for providing a sterling example of scientism (the view that ‘science’ -methodological naturalism- is the only way to ‘know’ anything; which is pretty much exactly what you’re saying here, is it not?).

Ken,
Thanks again for your patient response.

I think that it is firstly a matter of respect – it would be offensive to apply the word when very many people don’t see it as applying to them. And, of course, there are other words which can be more inclusive.

Yes, that’s why I applied it carefully and with nuance :) And as you know, I also like to use the term ‘worldview’, etc.

Secondly – I don’t think it is possible to avoid a narrow understanding of the word.

nah… a lot of things can be achieved by conversation/understanding :)

I think that such systems (including religions) can codify, teach, legitimate, provide avenues of discussion, etc., of ethics but I don’t see them as the source.
Here I think there is research which is showing a more scientific understanding of the source of our morality/ethics… We seem to have innate moral and ethical intuitions/feelings. These determine our immediate reaction and then we apply our rational mind to explain our decisions. Rather than being a rational species we are a rationalising species. … Our evolution as a social species no doubt has influenced the development of much of these innate moral/ethical intuitions.

Maybe the term ‘source’ is not the best? What I’m saying is that we all make our ethical/moral decisions via the ongoing, continual, annoyingly-subjective process of ‘working out’ what is right/wrong. Morals/ethics are always based on values, and I’m suggesting that based on the moral/ethical conclusions we see people making, we can see (in between the lines) that a value-system or traditional values or a philosophically/logically-derived value-set is being (for want of a better word) ‘used’ in this process.
You emphasise ethical/moral intuitions/’feelings’ (no doubt with only purely physiological/biological processes in view), and seem to de-emphasise the mental/rational aspects (which – of course – could also only be physiological/biological in your view). Now may not be the best time to open the mind/matter issue, but suffice it to say that whilst I’m quite certain that our physical/biological nature does affect our moral judgments (unless our mind is fully and completely detached from our bodies! which neither of us believe!), I think that we clearly (as you seem to agree) ‘rationalise’ about them. Whether or not this rationalising process is purely physical or not, it is this rationalisation about ethics/morals that I’m talking about when I speak of ‘working it out’. We ‘connect the dots’ of our values, and a picture emerges of our moral convictions. Now, the dots may not be fixed – we may change our values over time, etc. but we don’t get a picture from NOT connecting the dots… (I hope that metaphor helps)

“naturalims”… One reason for my objection is that it is the language of those who currently attack science…

Science is science – philosophy is philosophy. I simply disagree with the anti-evolution Christians. But at the same time (please tell me another word if you know of one!?), I know of no better short-hand term than ‘naturalist’ to refer to someone who things that nature is all there is to reality.
Defining what the ultimate boundaries are (where to place the fence, if you like :) ) for reality is not an empirical task, but a philosophical one. Again, the scientist in his/her role AS a scientist – to do the work of a scientist (as you’ll agree), does not need to be concerned with philosophical notions about the ultimate boundaries of reality. They just get on with their work with one part of reality that we all agree exists: nature. We all agree nature exists, and that methodological naturalism is a perfectly natural (no pun intended) way to investigate it. Whether or not the scientist is a philosophical naturalist or philosophical theist, they can still do their work studying nature using natural methods.
A scientist NEVER needs to use a term like ‘naturalism’. It’s a philosophical term for philosophical discussions. And ONE such philosophical discussion is the discussion initiated by my original post.

Unfortunately (I think) their promotion of words like “naturalism” and “materialism” as evil characterisations of science actually does have some influence on the non-fundamentalist and non-dogmatic Christian

No, I don’t see that. IF (1) those word are aimed at science/scientists in general, then I’m with you (that would be utterly silly – OF course, natural science will use natural methods!) …but IF (2) those words are simply referring specifically to those with the philosophical view that nature/matter is all there is to reality, then I know of no better terms than ‘naturalist’/’materialist’.

A second reason for my personal objection to such words is that they do introduce a dogmatic approach into science itself.

Again, if those words are being aimed at “science itself”, then I’m with you. But they remain perfectly honest being used to refer to someone who sees nature as ‘all there is’ to reality.

In science we must be able to follow the evidence wherever it leads. The issue is not philosophical attitudes like “naturalism” – but the requirement of evidence and verification (these are the real target of the Wedge and “Thinking Matters” dogmatists).

Again – let’s keep philosophy and science distinct. Natural science uses natural methods – and though I do think at least some kind of philosophy/logic is required (i.e. the philosophical law of non-contradiction, or the belief that nature is intelligible/able-to-be-interacted-with) for natural science, I certainly do NOT think (as you’ll agree) that a scientist needs to be at all concerned –for their work as a scientist– with philosophical questions about whether or not nature is ‘all there is’ to reality.

So, I don’t think these philosophical terms are helpful. They often hide other agendas and can be outright dangerous – either to the possibilities of free expression in scientific research, or to the personal safety of researchers.

Terms are helpful or not helpful depending on how and when they are used. Again – right through this whole thing we’ve ALL got to keep that CLEAR distinction between METHODOLOGICAL naturalism (natural methods for study of nature) and PHILOSOPHICAL naturalism (the view that nature is all there is to reality).

but IF (2) by ’science’ you are referring (exclusively) to the one kind of knowing which we get via methodological naturalism

What other kinds of knowing are there? I am not even sure “knowing” is a concept for which there can be a typology. We interpret the world around us via our senses because we don’t have any other tools to do so. The only way we can know that something which we can’t sense directly is to infer it from what we can sense – a process known as science.

Incidentally methodological naturalism is often misrepresented to mean that everything we currently know as natural is all that ever will be natural and every law we know now are the only laws there ever will be. This is not a good philosophy imo and a strawman because very few (if any) scientists believe that. I tend to think of it a little differently (and more conventionally I think) in that everything that exists is “natural”. For example if there is a deity then it is part of the system (by definition) and can be inferred from system behaviour.

Ian,
Of course, epistemology (how we ‘know’, what is ‘knowledge’, what ‘kinds’ are there, etc.) has been discussed since (and no doubt, before) Plato/Aristotle. I’m sorry if you find it offensive, but to say that ‘science’ (referring to the knowledge gained via methodological naturalism) is the only tool we have for attaining knowledge of anything, is scientism. (which some may find a compliment!?) Ken (in comment ‘1’) denies this charge or this kind of elite epistomological status for ‘science’, but you seem happy to do so?
I find it helpful to differentiate the different kinds of knowledge based on the method used to get them. Experience yields experiential knowledge (actually riding a bike is different than having someone explain what it’s like), logical reasoning yields logical/rational knowledge, relational interaction yields relational knowledge (actually ‘knowing’ someone is different than having them described to you), natural methods (i.e. methodological naturalism) yields knowledge about nature, etc., etc.
Just because other modes of knowing are not the same kind as that gained via methodologial naturalism (i.e. not as ‘objective’), doesn’t mean that no other kinds of knowledge exist, nor that they automatically have less value. There is knowledge (scienta), and there is action (praxis). Not all kinds of knowledge are (directly) appropriate for all kinds of action. The greatest automobile mechanic could be an utter jerk, for example.

((and just to clarify – I certainly have never seen anyone represent ‘methodological naturalism’ in the sense you desribe in your second paragraph – I certainly have not))

I’m with Ian here. If there is (are) gods and “mystical” phenomena they are part of reality and – to my mind – are therefore “natural” (if that term is to have any proper objective meaning). The lay person would easily come to the conclusion that quantum mechanics and current theories of “matter” are mystical, not “natural.” But to us they are part of reality (which is the word I much prefer to “natural.”

The “other ways of knowing” is rather vaguely used here – and can open up a can of worms. Of course we “know” something is good or bad, if music and art are good or bad subjectively tthrough ways other than science. (Although science can help us make those decisions and it can help us understand how we make those decisions).

But if we are to give credence to “other ways of knowing when it comes to trialling the efficacy of a fertiliser or medical treatment, the origins and evolution of life or the universe then we open up credibility to all sorts of charlatans. But, of course, this is exactly what those who attack “methodological naturalism”, philosophical materialism”, etc., intend. That is true for the ID/creationists as much as for the snake oil salesmen, alternative medicine proponents, etc.

Gentlemen,
The term scientism refers to a philosophical view.
Ken, earlier you seem to deny any scientism/naturalism labels, but I must say if you are wanting to make the terms ‘reality’ and ‘nature’ synonymous, then you have no ground to deny the charge. There is no larger category of existence than ‘real’/’reality’, so please understand that (logically, linguistically, epistemologically, philosophically) trying to make ‘nature’ and ‘reality’ refer to the same thing is to go beyond anything a scientist needs to be concerned with, and is to rather assert one’s philosophical naturalism. There are no other words to describe it – if you know of any, please let me know! :)

You are utterly convinced that if ‘gods’ exist they are natural (!!!), yet this ignores the standard/basic concept of a god who transcends nature (time/space/matter). You don’t have to agree that a god exists – but you can’t alter (dare I say ‘ring-fence’?) the definition to insist that this god would have to (automatically) exist within nature.

…it occurs to me that insisting that a god (by any standard definition of such an entity) must be a part of nature is analogous to insisting that a parallel universe must be a part of our universe…

Call that ‘ring fencing’ reality if you like, but you’ve got to ‘ring fence’ the definition of a God to place God within nature.

Or we could have a sensible discussion using “layered explanation”

I’m sorry if you find it offensive, but to say that ’science’ (referring to the knowledge gained via methodological naturalism) is the only tool we have for attaining knowledge of anything, is scientism. (which some may find a compliment!?) Ken (in comment ‘1′) denies this charge or this kind of elite epistomological status for ’science’, but you seem happy to do so?

I see science as the method of testing inferences about information gathered in a variety of ways. Science isn’t restricted to people in lab coats – anyone who comes up with an idea and tests it to see if it works is doing science. Science doesn’t care where those ideas or information comes from.

I find it helpful to differentiate the different kinds of knowledge based on the method used to get them.

I find it more useful to differentiate knowledge based on it’s likelihood to accurately reflect reality. Some knowledge is wrong, some is potentially accurate, and some is almost certainly accurate. Science is really the process of figuring out which is which. Again I really don’t see how it matters where that knowledge came from – experience, logic, relations, etc are all subject to scientific enquiry.

Ahh good ol cross posting :)

…it occurs to me that insisting that a god (by any standard definition of such an entity) must be a part of nature is analogous to insisting that a parallel universe must be a part of our universe…

Call that ‘ring fencing’ reality if you like, but you’ve got to ‘ring fence’ the definition of a God to place God within nature.

This comes back to systems theory: anything that can cause change in a system is by definition part of the system. Reality is a system (the only true system we know of) so if there is a deity that can influence it, however it does so, it must be part of the system. Sure what we perceive or understand may be a very small subset of that system but that is our problem, not the systems problem. The point is that the only way something can truly be outside the system is if there is no possible way it can influence or change this system, making it quite irrelevant.

re knowledge/science:
You say “experience, logic, relations, etc are all subject to scientific enquiry.”
Really? What kinds of relationships with other humans do you have? Scientific ones? :)

re ‘systems theory’:
Systems can be open or closed. Influence within a system does not necessitate containment within it.

…I must add: I’m perfectly happy with explanations of things at the scientific level. Like Haught says, I wish (like any scientist would) to see these explanations pushed to their furthest possible degree.
But other explanatory levels/modes do exist and (however subjective or ‘messy’ they may be) they are useful/essential for doing many things (i.e. basically anything other than giving a scientific account of things).

Dale:

it occurs to me that insisting that a god (by any standard definition of such an entity) must be a part of nature is analogous to insisting that a parallel universe must be a part of our universe…

Maybe that’s a way of seeing it. We need to acknowledge that the universe is much bigger than “our” observable universe. It may include other parallel “local” universes. Just because we exist in one of these local universes doesn’t deny the resty of the universe as part of reality.

Although it’s commonly thought that we are for ever excluded from investigating/detecting other local universes there does appear to be possibilities for detecting these (see Other universes may be detectable, published study claims).

I say never say never – and never rule out part of reality as belonging to “nature”. Science has a way of sneaking up on such dogma and biting it in the bum.

I like Ian’s comment on interaction and systems theory. In A rational universe? I advanced the idea that the order in the universe arises from 1: the objective existence of reality and 2: “the ability of its components (I won’t use “matter” here as some people have a problem defining that word) to interact.”

If part of reality can interact with other parts then it is clearly potentially able to be investigated and understood. (A job for science) Other “local” universes fall into this category whether we can eventually detect/investigate them or not.

If components can’t interact they may very well exist but we could never know anything about them – and why bother as they would have absolutely no meaning or significance for us anyway. We may as well just assume they doesn’t exist. Perhaps that latter sentence is “ring-fencing” but surely a very understandable fencing requiring absolutely no action on anyone’s part.

Ken,
(as always thanks for the patient willingness to continue clarifying, etc.)

We need to acknowledge that the universe is much bigger than “our” observable universe. It may include other parallel “local” universes.

I think to speak of any universe(s) included in “our universe” as being both “parallel” and “local” involves something of a contradition which needs clearing up or clarification. The word ‘universe’ (as the article mentions, calling it an “awk­ward def­i­ni­tional is­sue”) speaks of a single thing (hence ‘uni’), and is the largest term we have available to refer to the time/space/’matter’ environment we find ourselves in. A ‘parallel’ universe by definition would be outside of our time/space/matter universe. At any rate, the standard definition of God define him as transcending all time/space/’matter’ (in this universe or any others). Rather than speaking of God existing within ‘reality’, ‘reality’ would be said to exist ‘within’ God.
Just to be clear, my point here is not to say ‘never’ regarding interaction with currently unknown ‘parts’ of nature (whatever they might be called!). It’s simply to point out that you yourself are saying ‘never’ regarding the possibility that there is more to reality than nature.

If part of reality can interact with other parts then it is clearly potentially able to be investigated and understood. (A job for science) Other “local” universes fall into this category whether we can eventually detect/investigate them or not.

and…

If components can’t interact they may very well exist but we could never know anything about them – and why bother as they would have absolutely no meaning or significance for us anyway. We may as well just assume they doesn’t exist.

Indeed, any ‘real’ part/dimension/level/etc. of reality that can interact with other parts/dimensions/levels/etc., can indeed be (at least partially/potentially) ‘investigated’ and ‘understood’. Where I disagree is that ‘science’ (methodological naturalism) is always the tool for the job.
I think some parts/dimensions/levels/spheres/etc. of reality are what we would call more ‘subjective’/’relative’ than other parts/dimensions/levels/spheres/etc., but that doesn’t mean they aren’t real (part of reality). If we’re truly open minded, I don’t think we can say that these parts/dimensions/etc. of reality could ‘never’ exist.

Systems can be open or closed. Influence within a system does not necessitate containment within it.

This only works with artificial boundary setting – which is really the point behind systems thinking. There is only one true system we know of (and can possibly know of): life the universe and everything. All other systems are either fabrications or subsystems. If something is knowable then it is part of our system. If it isn’t then it’s irrelevant.

Hi Ian,
Are you saying that you have certainty that the universe is a closed system? If so please explain to me how certain we are of the boundary of the universe-system?

Not quite. If the universe is not a closed system then this means there is something outside the universe that influences it. This means the boundary called the universe is an artificial boundary and whatever it is outside it is actually part of the system too. Modern cosmology and physics make it fairly likely our universe isn’t everything there is and if that is the case then our universe is simply a component of a larger system.

The real point here is that if there is a god it is necessarily part of our system if it is to be of any relevance whatsoever.

Ian,
Well there’s another problem with how the word ‘universe’ is being used, I suppose.
At any rate, the standard definitions of God is not that God exists as a part of or within nature, but that God is the ‘ground’ or ‘foundation’ for all existence. This is not so much to keep God ‘out’ of nature, but rather to see all of nature/universe/multiverse/???verse/etc. as existing ‘within’ God.
To use your ‘systems’ language, the whole system/systems/etc. operates within God, who (as I’ve said) can be active within the system, though (obviously) not contained by it. I honestly/seriously do not mean the following to sound rude/impatient, but (regardless of whether or not you agree with any of this) is it really that hard to grasp?

“Local” applies to the universe discussed, not to the observer’s universe (except when we talk specifically about that one).

Although the concentration on “naturalism” and “methodological naturalism” is a diversion – it’s interesting so I will comment here on that. I think you misrepresent me when you say:

“It’s simply to point out that you yourself are saying ‘never’ regarding the possibility that there is more to reality than nature.”

It’s why I try to avoid such words because they easily lead to misrepresentation – and they are not precisely defined anyway.

Despite the common use of “methodological naturalism”, etc., what the hell does it mean? Maybe a handy political term but of absolutely no use in the practical activity of science.

Some people see it as meaning that in science we don’t consider the “supernatural” or allow for “supernatural” explanations. Of course this has the problem of how “supernatural” is defined. But consider this – any intelligent, but relatively lay person, confronted with the scientific theory of Quantum Chromodynamics will see it as fantasy, magical, “supernatural.” (That’s certainly been my subjective experience lately). Yet is is a serious, well supported, and successful physical theory. So, my point is, science does not exclude the “supernatural” (One could argue that in fact science was about the “supernatural” – the things we don’t yet understand). We could consider quantum theory, relativity theory, even Newtonian mechanics in its time, etc., etc., in the same way.

The only meaningful interpretation I can make of “methodological naturalism” is the absolute necessity in science for evidence and experiential validation of theory. This is in fact what the Wedge people and their camp followers are attacking when they make the “naturalism” or “materialism” charge.

To the extent that I think “naturalism” is an acceptable term it is not about placing limits on reality or claiming that “nature” “is all there is to “reality.” It is about taking a scientific approach, rather than a magical approach, to reality. And that is about evidence and validation – not how fantastic or “supernatural” any specific theory may appear.

I think part of the differences can arise from the different way words are used. Scientists tend to be fairly precise about words like “reality”, “knowledge” and “truth” – that is these are related in a fairly direct way to objectively existing reality. The less scientifically inclined will use these words differently – as in saying that “we all create our own reality”. We know what is being said here but we are giving a different meaning to “reality.” Similarly when people talk about “knowledge” and “truth” they will often be referring to a subjective belief or feeling rather than anything related to objectively existing reality.

I think this is where problems arise with the concept of “different modes of knowledge.” And that is why we can talk about “knowledge” derived from non-scientific methods. In most cases when we are talk about knowing if something is good or bad, beautiful or ugly, etc., we are talking about subjective “knowledge.” Probably based more on non-rational intuitive feelings. Science may help inform us there, or help explain away those feelings, or help us understand why we get these intuitions. But nevertheless they remain subjective feelings – not scientific knowledge.

I just don’t think there is any reason we should claim such subjective “knowledge” should be placed on the same level as scientific knowledge when it comes to investigating, describing and understanding objectively existing reality.

Ken,
(thanks again for your extended comments)
Again, we need to keep the science and philosophy distinction clear. I fully agree with your description of ‘methodological naturalism’ in terms of science’s need for “experiential validation of theory”. That’s what science is, that’s what science does. We are agreed there.
Philosophical naturalism, however, is something different. A scientist (as you are well aware) does not need to be a christian, a buddhist or an atheist to do science. They just get on with ‘experiential validation of theory’. It is not science or methodological naturalism that makes one an atheist, rather it is a belief or philosophical naturalism that makes one an atheist.

Scientists tend to be fairly precise about words like “reality”, “knowledge” and “truth” – that is these are related in a fairly direct way to objectively existing reality.

I disagree that a scientist ever needs to do this in his/her actual scientific work. They might talk about such terms when they are talking about the nature of the scientific project, but not in their ‘experiential validation of theory’.

In most cases when we are talk about knowing if something is good or bad, beautiful or ugly, etc., we are talking about subjective “knowledge.” Probably based more on non-rational intuitive feelings. Science may help inform us there, or help explain away those feelings, or help us understand why we get these intuitions. But nevertheless they remain subjective feelings – not scientific knowledge.

I don’t think subjective = non-rational (automatically). One can quite rationally investigate modes of knowing which are obviously of a more subjective variety.
The distinction you make between ‘subjective feelings’ and ‘scientific knowledge’ begins to get at what I’m talking about.

I just don’t think there is any reason we should claim such subjective “knowledge” should be placed on the same level as scientific knowledge when it comes to investigating, describing and understanding objectively existing reality.

“on the same level”??? That’s precisely what Haught’s notion of ‘layered explanation’ is getting at! That’s the whole point! Surely we can agree here: non-scientific knowledge and scientific knowledge are not on the same ‘level’. We need not imply which kind of knowledge has more/less value just yet. We can just agree that they’re not the same kind of knowledge.
I suspect you will immediately want to diminish, devalue and degrade the use/worth/value of any ‘subjective’ kind of knowledge, but my view is that this kind of knowledge is all we have to work with when it comes to important and continually/immediately relevant questions (just watch the news or listen to any person talking about their life/relationships/goals/etc.) about how we should live.

Glad you except the evidence and experiential validation meaning for the scientific method (or “methodological naturalism). However, the precision in the use of terms by scientists come precisely from this – the need to map theory against reality.

My understanding of “atheism” is just not believing in a god. Consequently it says little or nothing about the philosophical beliefs of someone who is an atheist. Buddhists, for example, would claim to be opposed to “philosophical naturalism” but still be “atheist.” (Interestingly, I find Buddhism seems to appeal to scientists as a religion these days).

There is a real problem of using words with different meaning because this often leads to attempts to impose ideas inappropriately. For example, attempts to impose non-scientific meanings of knowledge onto the scientific realm – and then claim one’s subjective “knowledge” as “scientific” evidence for a claim – commercial (snake oil) or ideological (ID).

But the subjective nature of “knowledge” when it comes to ethics, morality, personal judgements etc., does bring us back to the main point of the discussion – whether or not we derive our ethics/morality from religion, culture, etc., or are they based in intuitive judgements, feelings, logic.

I am arguing the latter – because so much of our basic human values seem to transcend society/religion. It’s likely that a statistical analysis would show more variation for individuals within a religion or culture than between religions or cultures. In other words there is something common in the underlying base for these values.

I think our species has evolved to have some common intuitions (like guilt, purity, disgust, judgement, reciprocity, etc.) which can be manifested in moral logic and judgements. The manifestations may be different in different cultures, and at different times, but still rely on the basic intuitions. So we can make value/moral/ethical judgements spontaneously. We don’t have to think things through before we save a child threatened by some danger. Again, natural selection would have probably weeded out individuals without that adaption. Just imagine the extra dangers faced by individuals who had to bring their slow moving rational brain into action, or consult their holy scriptures, to make ethical/moral decisions when they faced immediate threats.

Of course, after the event individuals may be able to rationalise an “explanation” for the knee jerk decisions. And that rationalisation may sometimes be religious.

I guess I am saying that the basis for our ethics/morality is innate. We don’t have to learn these from our culture, our religions or political parties. However, those basic intuitions can be utilised, or even hijacked, by religions, cultures, political parties to develop and impose a moral/ethical system. Sometimes that will be harmful – racism, warmongering, xenophobia, attitudes towards gender and gender preference, etc. Often they will be positive – internationalism, pacifism, concern for animal rights, opposition to slavery and sexism, etc. And although the underlying intuitions are innate the professed ethics/morality will in most cases be relative – changing with time and place (and the prevailing political and economic requirements of the ruling class).

On top of this I also like to think that there is an objective basis to our morality in the fact that we exist as sentient individuals. This helps, at a rational level, to reinforce reciprocity, the golden rule and concepts of human rights.

I honestly/seriously do not mean the following to sound rude/impatient, but (regardless of whether or not you agree with any of this) is it really that hard to grasp?

It is about as hard to grasp as saying there is a circle with four sides. They are easy words that superificially make sense until you dig a little deeper.

Either god exists and is part of the system we call reality (which really means everything) or god’s existence is irrelevant. I don’t see how it is possible for things to be any other way.

On a slightly different track (and if its too far off track reel me in lol) I’d like to ask a simple question about this statement:

the whole system/systems/etc. operates within God, who (as I’ve said) can be active within the system, though (obviously) not contained by
it

How do you know this is the case?

Ken,
a quick comment in response

Of course, after the event individuals may be able to rationalise an “explanation” for the knee jerk decisions. And that rationalisation may sometimes be religious.

Your talk of moral decision based on intuition/’intuitive’ judgments, and logic, could fit well into a moral Law theory, just so you know. :) But then later (with the notion of ‘knee jerk decisions’, you emphasise moral decisions as a reaction to feeling. I think morality is far more complex than that. No doubt, we do have reactions-to/feelings-about certain circumstances/actions/etc., and a lot of our action is indeed reactionary/responsive. But when people refer to ‘ethics’, they are referring to the rational ‘working out’ of what is right action for a given place/time/scenario. This is not ‘feelings/reactions’… This kind of moral-rationalisation is done based on one’s value-system, tradition, etc. – one’s ‘religious’ moral understanding.
Bill Cooke (NZ atheist), in his comments on his debate with William Lane Craig, talks in this very same way, saying “there are plenty of ways one can be a religious person” (in context, Cooke was disagreeing with Craig’s exclusive claim of only one true religion). Cooke’s ‘religion’ is obviously not the same as Craig’s, but Cooke seems quite OK with the idea that we all are (in this sense) ‘religious person[s]’.

On top of this I also like to think that there is an objective basis to our morality in the fact that we exist as sentient individuals. This helps, at a rational level, to reinforce reciprocity, the golden rule and concepts of human rights.

(warning: tongue firmly in cheek) ‘Human rights’!? What an arrogant, human-centred (anthropocentric) notion! What of plant or mineral rights!? :) It’s WRONG for you to stack boards on your lawn and KILL grass!…
I’m being silly, but I do think that the notion of ‘human rights’ fits beautifully with many theistic perspectives (i.e. moral law theory).
I fail to see how sentience (mere sensation) gives any kind of ‘objective basis’ to our morality. Critical intelligence? Now we’re talking. :)

Ian,

It is about as hard to grasp as saying there is a circle with four sides. They are easy words that superificially make sense until you dig a little deeper.

Actually, to me it sounds like you’re saying something like ‘objects can have 2 dimensions – length and width. There can be no nonsensical, mystical ‘3rd dimension’… Why? Because of all this 2-dimensional knowledge we have, that’s why!’ [not compelling, is it?] Have you ever heard of ‘FlatLand’, by the way? I’ve just made a rather obvious allusion to it. :) I think it’s a helpful analogy for the ‘is there more’ conversation.

Either god exists and is part of the system we call reality (which really means everything) or god’s existence is irrelevant. I don’t see how it is possible for things to be any other way.

Again, thinking of God as merely a ‘part’ of the system would require a re-definition of the word ‘God’. And it is a non sequitur to say that just because something is not 100% contained within a ‘system’, it therefore is automatically irrelevant and cannot act within the system. Even a weak version of deism will allow that!

How do you know this is the case?

I don’t think that’s off track at all! The word ‘know’ in the question makes epistemology an immediately relevant part of any response to the question. Epistemology asks (among other things), ‘how do we know anything‘? How do we know that rape is a dehumanising, robbing of the dignity of a human being? (And, btw, I’ve heard atheists say that rape would not be immoral if there was only one woman left and she was unwilling – and I’ll not dare assume that you would agree) What kind of epistemic assumptions are involved with such a notion?
So right off the bat, we can say that the way we could know anything at all about a God (both in affirmation of existence, or in denial of existence!!!) would be a different way than we would know something about mathematics or physics (though I note that both of those fields have plenty of mystery in them!).
Next, the idea of levels of certainty (negative and positive) should be raised. Way back when I first ‘met’ you guys (Ian/Ken) over at Frank’s blog, and still now, I say that when it comes to the question of God’s existence, the only intellectually ‘safe ground’ would be agnosticism. I know, I know, spare me all the ‘I’m not 100% certain’ or ‘atheist means no belief’, etc. At the end of the day, we take (at least temporarily) ‘positions’ (and we put them in on our online profiles, etc. :) ). So my point about certainty is a basic one. Strong belief is one thing – absolute certainty is another.
This, of course, raises the distinction between ‘knowing’ something and ‘believing’ something. “How do I know…?” That’s one question – to which there are layers of response depending on what kind of ‘knowing’ is implied in the question. “Why do I believe…?” Now that’s a different question.

Actually, to me it sounds like you’re saying something like ‘objects can have 2 dimensions – length and width. There can be no nonsensical, mystical ‘3rd dimension’… Why? Because of all this 2-dimensional knowledge we have, that’s why!’ [not compelling, is it?]

No that is not what I am saying at all. I am saying that if all we know is 2d, and we discover the third dimension, then reality is 3d, not 2d plus a mystical 3rd dimension. That 3rd dimension is part of the system even if we didn’t know it at the time.

Have you ever heard of ‘FlatLand’, by the way?

Believe it or not I even own a copy of Edwin Abbott’s fine book :)

Again, thinking of God as merely a ‘part’ of the system would require a re-definition of the word ‘God’.

Not really – there are only three possibilities to choose from:

1) God is the system
2) God is part of the system (implying other parts of the system are not god)
3) God is not part of the system

And it is a non sequitur to say that just because something is not 100% contained within a ’system’, it therefore is automatically irrelevant and cannot act within the system. Even a weak version of deism will allow that!

You are misunderstanding systems I think, by treating some narrower version of reality as “the system” and then putting god outside it. This is an arbitrary boundary (aka a subsystem). The real system must include god by definition if god can influence or be influenced by anything in the system.

The word ‘know’ in the question makes epistemology an immediately relevant part of any response to the question…(etc)

Don’t take this the wrong way but I think that whole paragraph was evading the question :) Yes I realise there are difficulties with what is knowledge etc, but not so much so that we can’t figure out why we think certain things. So to clarify my question to avoid the philosophising:

What specific information, observations or reasoning makes the hypothesis that “the whole system/systems/etc. operates within God, who (as I’ve said) can be active within the system, though (obviously) not contained by it” more likely to accurately reflect reality than say a god that is just a being with super powers, or a prime mover that dissapeared, or a god that is everything, or any other model of god-hood you can imagine? (notice I am also setting aside the “is there a god” question here so leave that out of it :))

Ian,
On ‘systems’:
It feels like you’re (a) using the word ‘system’ as a kind of ‘catch-all’ term; and (b) shrinking/ignoring the standard meaning of the word ‘God’ in the attempt to ensure the containment of a God within such a ‘system’.
Call in a ‘trump card’ move if you like, but any God worthy of the captial ‘G’ would be transcendent of all of reality or the whole ‘system’ (and yet immanent – but that’s another point).

there are only three possibilities to choose from:
1) God is the system
2) God is part of the system (implying other parts of the system are not god)
3) God is not part of the system

1) pantheism
2) deism
3) atheism
4) monotheism –> God is transcendent of the system (not contained by it) and at the same time immanent within it (affecting it).

What specific information, observations or reasoning makes the hypothesis that “the whole system/systems/etc. operates within God, who… can be active within the system, though… not contained by it” more likely to accurately reflect reality than say a god that is just a being with super powers, or a prime mover that dissapeared, [deism] or a god that is everything [pantheism]… [terms in brackets mine]

(I’ll give the following summary, but this is an explicitly theological question, and I’d rather keep this discusssion more focussed on issues to do with philosophy and layered explanation, etc.)
First, Pantheism: All immanence, no transcendence. getting in touch with nature (or yourself) = getting in touch with God. struggles to reckon with evil.
Next, Deism (which is relatively new on the religious options menu): all transcendence, no immanence. god distant and irrelevant. struggles to affirm goodness of creation.
Finally, Monotheism (of which there are a few types): both transcendent and immanent. prime mover and continual interaction with creation. evil and goodness both in view.
(and we won’t mention polytheism)
Two VERY quick reasons why I prefer Monotheism. First, I think both pantheism and deism have part of things correct (corresponding to a wide scope of human experience/reflection/reasoning/tradition even across religions), and Monotheism holds it all together reasonably well. Second, I believe the person of Jesus Christ is divine, etc. That’s a quite quick summary! :)

It feels like you’re (a) using the word ’system’ as a kind of ‘catch-all’ term;

From one perspective yes, from another it is a “catch the things you forgot to catch” term :)

and (b) shrinking/ignoring the standard meaning of the word ‘God’ in the attempt to ensure the containment of a God within such a ’system’.

The meaning of god is mostly irrelevant provided it is something that can influence/be influenced by our system. It can be as big or transcendent as it likes but it is still part of the system (see below).

Call in a ‘trump card’ move if you like, but any God worthy of the captial ‘G’ would be transcendent of all of reality or the whole ’system’ (and yet immanent – but that’s another point).

To justify your definition you have to explain how it is possible for something to be able to both influence and be influenced by a system without being part of that system when influence is the defining feature of what constitutes a system! This is the part I think is the logical equivalent to a circle with 4 sides.

Consider a fishbowl as an analogy for our perception of reality. If there was a human outside the constraints of the fishbowl who (from the point of view of the fishbowl) magically makes food appear in the fishbowl then that human, and everything that influences what that human does, and everything that influences those things, etc, are necessarily all part of the system of the fishbowl. The fishbowl without the human is a system with artificially imposed boundaries which do not correspond to reality. We may choose to consider the fishbowl as a self-contained system for the purposes of grappling with how it works but it is not a complete system.

For the record, here is my mapping of your typology to the one I posted earlier:
1) Pantheism = 2
2) deism = 2
3) atheism = 3
4) monotheism = 2 (or nonsense lol, see above)

System-man… er… ‘Ian’, :)

The meaning of god is mostly irrelevant provided it is something that can influence/be influenced by our system. It can be as big or transcendent as it likes but it is still part of the system

No, the meaning of God is utterly relevant (as is the meaning of ‘system’) because we’re using words to have a discussion. If we can’t agree on what we’re talking about we’ll continue to speak past each other. On that note, can you clarify how we know when we’re observing a ‘system’? (more below)

To justify your definition you have to explain how it is possible for something to be able to both influence and be influenced by a system without being part of that system when influence is the defining feature of what constitutes a system!

OK, this is where I may need a fuller definition of what you mean by ‘system’. How many systems are there? How do we know?

I know you’ll hate it, but I think the distinction between ‘nature’ (all natural entities and processes) and ‘reality’ (largest term for all possible real things – known/unknown, seen/unseen, measurable/immeasurable, etc.) is key here.

Perhaps the reason we’re talking past each other, is that when you use the word ‘system’, you are referring to a system defined by causal influence of the natural kind – the ‘natural order’ – a system in which all causes and all influences are natural. The word ‘God’ refers to a being who is the ground/foundation for the existence for the entire natural system. Present at each point and in each process. So utterly transcendent that he is also utterly immanent.

OK, this is where I may need a fuller definition of what you mean by ’system’.

A system is set of entities and causal relationships between those entities. Common usage is to consider something like a car a system but it is impossible to fully understand the car system without considering everything that affects the car system, which means the car system is really an integral part of a much larger system (i.e. it is a subsystem). A complete (or truly closed) system is only possible where there are absolutely no causal relationships outside the system. Therefore if god can influence things in the system, god is necessarily part of the system.

How many systems are there? How do we know?

As far as we know there is only one (aka reality, everything, etc) because nothing is completely isolated. There are essentially infinite different subsystems though.

Perhaps the reason we’re talking past each other, is that when you use the word ’system’, you are referring to a system defined by causal influence of the natural kind – the ‘natural order’ – a system in which all causes and all influences are natural. The word ‘God’ refers to a being who is the ground/foundation for the existence for the entire natural system. Present at each point and in each process. So utterly transcendent that he is also utterly immanent.

I don’t think the word “natural” means anything in this context. If god exists, it is part of the natural order of things – sure it may be somehow tied into everything else but it is still “natural”. Here is a question: If we do have an afterlife, is it natural?

This is why I prefer to use the term system because it is not arbitrary.

“Your talk of moral decision based on intuition/’intuitive’ judgments, and logic, could fit well into a moral Law theory, just so you know.”

and

“I do think that the notion of ‘human rights’ fits beautifully with many theistic perspectives (i.e. moral law theory).”

I think this underlines what I am saying. There can be a theist rationalisation for moral/ethical ideas. Incidentally – we could find similar rationalisations in communist writings. Doesn’t this just indicate that there is something more basic, more transcendent, than religion/culture? I am not trying to deny a role for religion, or communism, is the codification, promotion, teaching of morals/ethics. I am just pointing out that that role is common to other ideological approaches. (Religion should not claim for itself a unique role here).

When I talk about intuitions – it’s more than just naive feelings. And I think these are fundamental – especially to our spontaneous moral/ethics. And moral logic based on our existence as sentient intelligent individuals is also basic – and transcendent to any religion/culture.

I have tried to give an explanation of where we get our morality/ethics from. It think scientific investigation helps us understand this (although it doesn’t tell us directly what is right or wrong, beautiful or ugly). Our culture may give us an idea of current moral/ethical codes – but they are not the basic source.

And specifically, I can’t see that religion is a basic source of our morals/ethics.

Ian,
I’m going to reply and then give you the last word in our exchange here. I’ve got a full year that’s ‘starting’ soon, and quite a bit to do until it ‘starts’ :)

A complete (or truly closed) system is only possible where there are absolutely no causal relationships outside the system. Therefore if god can influence things in the system, god is necessarily part of the system.

Affirmation: God does influence nature/reality/’the system’ – so god is (in this sense) a ‘part of the system’.
Assertion: …yet at the same time, God is outside the system, being the foundation and source of the system itself.

If god exists, it is part of the natural order of things – sure it may be somehow tied into everything else but it is still “natural”.

I can think of no better example of ‘naturalism’ than that statement. Again, if you’re going to change/ignore the definition of God as a supernatural being (whilst at the same time assuming that you are sure that nature is all there is to reality), then we’re not going to be able to understand one another.

Here is a question: If we do have an afterlife, is it natural?

An afterlife would be ‘natural’ in the sense of being consistent with a view of reality within a supernatural God.

Ken,

There can be a theist rationalisation for moral/ethical ideas. Incidentally – we could find similar rationalisations in communist writings. Doesn’t this just indicate that there is something more basic, more transcendent, than religion/culture? I am not trying to deny a role for religion, or communism, is the codification, promotion, teaching of morals/ethics.

and…

…moral logic based on our existence as sentient intelligent individuals is also basic – and transcendent to any religion/culture.

and…

Our culture may give us an idea of current moral/ethical codes – but they are not the basic source. And specifically, I can’t see that religion is a basic source of our morals/ethics.

A quick tangent, and then a comment:
quick tangent: I don’t know how our mere sentience (sensation) forms any basis at all for moral outworking (‘logic’). You might have to explain that more for me. :)
Now, more general comments:
I like so much of what you say here. Let me make what may be a surprising agreement. I too, don’t think that “religion is a basic source of our morals/ethics.” I take ‘religion’ to be human attempts at understanding how life should be lived, and the attempts to actually live life rightly. In this sense, we are all (subjectively, of course) ‘religious’ – even atheists. I also agree that the basis for ethics is transcendent (great word!) to any religion/culture, only I think that I think this ultimate source/basis/grounding for ethics is God. :)

Assertion: …yet at the same time, God is outside the system, being the foundation and source of the system itself.

I get the sense you still think of systems as having a material manifestation. If God is the foundation and source of the material part of the system then the system is bigger than the material reality.

I can think of no better example of ‘naturalism’ than that statement. Again, if you’re going to change/ignore the definition of God as a supernatural being (whilst at the same time assuming that you are sure that nature is all there is to reality), then we’re not going to be able to understand one another.

Again I think you might be conflating “natural” with “material”. If god exists then that is the way it is, not some additional bit on top of the way it is.

Anyhew good to be engaging again :) Have fun with your prep lol.

So, we seem to largely agree on the source of ethics/morality – then you add:

“only I think that I think this ultimate source/basis/grounding for ethics is God.”

Clearly I don’t accept that – and it is presented without justification. Unfortunately such a claim can then be used to support some quite preposterous positions (eg. the Thinking Matters claim that atheists can not criticise Hitler).

Somehow, or other, a theist position of morality/ethics should not end up being anti moral/anti ethical by supporting such conclusions. The only way I can see this happening is by the acceptance of a secular source for our morality/ethics. Our morality/ethics come from our secular conscience – before any subsequent ideological or religious justification.

Ken,
I didn’t expect you to accept that. :) But the assertion does have a justification, just not one in scientific terms. Of course, that assertion can also be challenged (like any) – but would have to be challenged in terms of ethics/philosophy/religion/etc.
In sum – I think (without needing to provided or bother with a scientific justification) we’re all ‘religious’ because we have a God-given moral conscience. That assertion is a religious one – not a scientific one.

See – you now use “religious” in the narrow way. Quite unacceptable to me so lets keep away from it.

More important, though, is that describing our morality/ethics as arising from a “God-given moral conscience” doesn’t allow for any proper investigation of the source of our morals/ethics. (And perhaps you don’t want to make that investigation as you seem to deny the need “to provide or bother with a scientific justification.”)

However, to me I think without such proper investigation no “theory of morality” can have any validity. That’s why I have tried to argue the case on the basis of current scientific understanding.

Actually, I think my use of ‘religious’ is quite intentionally broad and inclusive (i.e. ‘ALL’ of us are ‘religious’). :)

And let me be clear:
At one level, there is the philosophical/religious assertion that the transcendent source of our morals/religiosity is our God-given moral conscience (which, can be directly sharpened, challenged, etc. on a philosophical/religious level and in philosophical/religious terms.

At another level, there are scientific observations about morality/religiosity, which are proper and good at the level of scientific investigation.

One can have all kinds of historical data and/or evolutionary theories about how beliefs have changed, etc. over time (not to mention how they’ve stayed the same, or what is common in all times/places), but the discussion about the ‘right-ness’ or ‘wrong-ness’ of any beliefs just has to be had at the philosophical/ethical/religious level.

Dale – when you say “we’re all ‘religious’ because we have a God-given moral conscience.” you are using “religious” in its narrow theistic sense. That is an example of why the use of this word in a (claimed) more general sense causes misunderstanding. That happened with Gould – even in his own book. So its natural it will happen with others.

The problem with this misunderstanding is more important than just respect for the non-theistic person. It also leads to bringing in a god as an explanation. Like all forms of “god did it arguments” this actually prevents proper investigation and understanding. (It’s perhaps better for the theist to have a personal conviction that “god did it” but if they are interested in understanding to ask the question “how did god do it?”).

Ken,
The statement that “we’re all religious because we have a God-given moral conscience” is perfectly appropriate if we recognise what KIND of a statement it is. First, it’s a religious/philosophical/ethical (as opposed to empirical) statement, so any interaction-with/opposition-to the statement would need to be in those terms. Secondly, it is not ‘narrow’ or ‘exclusive’, it is just at the religious/philosophical/ethical level (as opposed to other levels).

The fact that it is at that level of discussion/enquiry is ALSO a reason why it does not at all prevent ‘proper investigation and understanding’. If we’re to have fruitful exchanges, we’ve simply got to appreciate what kind of statements we are making and/or interacting with.

Nah – don’t buy that.

But it does indicate the difficulty of discussing things like the sources of morality/ethics across ideological boundaries.

I just don’t think such comment get us anywhere, scientifically or philosophically, because they are made from an ideological corner without any argument or justification.

Ken,

the difficulty of discussing things like the sources of morality/ethics across ideological boundaries.

You’re getting me hopeful! :) Can I take your mentioning of ‘ideological boundaries’ to mean that you agree that you do have an ideological/philosophical position?

I just don’t think such comment get us anywhere, scientifically or philosophically, because they are made from an ideological corner without any argument or justification.

what kind of argument/justification do you desire or would you allow? (hint: an argument/justification for an ideological/philosophical statement would not be ‘scientific’) :)

Of course I have a philosophical position – realism. Never hid that.

Incidentally, this seems to be behind most scientific activity – acknowledged or not. And its probably best not to acknowledge because once named ideologies easily become dogmas.

But it’s significant than when we talk of science we don’t talk of a Christian science, Islamic science, Hindu science, atheist science, realist science, Marxist science, idealistic science,. etc.. Yet the scientific community seems to me to be the biggest and most successful community – international, transcending borders and religious boundaries. I think this is because of its realism – its based on reality and arguments are decided by reality. A very useful counter to dogma.

Recognising the importance of a source in reality, and the need to transcend ideological opposition when it comes to ethics/morality I think we have to reject/avoid statements like “we have a God-given moral conscience” “Allah-given conscience”, Krishna-given conscience”, etc.

It’s also sensible tactics, politics etc., to aid respectful interaction across idealogical and political boundaries.

Ken,
Thanks.
It may frustrate you, and no worries if you can’t be bothered, but what kind of ‘realist’ philosophy (see list here under ‘Philosophy’) do you subscribe to (problem being that, philosophically speaking, the question of what is ‘real’ is quite central)?

when we talk of science we don’t talk of a Christian science, Islamic science, Hindu science, atheist science, realist science, Marxist science, idealistic science,. etc..

Yes. Science is not defined by a religion/philosophy – it’s defined by the methodology it uses and the knowledge gained by it. More below…

I think this is because of its realism – its based on reality and arguments are decided by reality. A very useful counter to dogma.

I think when you use the word ‘reality’ like this, you not only seem to wed science to a particular philosophy (perhaps your ‘realism’?), but also (because there is simply no larger [ontological] term to describe ‘all that is real’ or ‘all that exists) imply that the methods used by science are appropriate for all kinds of knowing about all kinds of (possible) things. Interestingly, I think the word ‘natural’ is a far less dogmatic way to talk about what science studies. Again, to do the work of a scientist, no scientist ever needs to worry about what is ultimately real or not real…

comment more later…

OK – back from my first “father-son” outing with Thomas :) (latte, savoury scone and intermittent reading for me, nap-time and adoration from passers by for Thomas :) )

Recognising the importance of a source in reality, and the need to transcend ideological opposition when it comes to ethics/morality I think we have to reject/avoid statements like “we have a God-given moral conscience” “Allah-given conscience”, Krishna-given conscience”, etc.

I note in passing yet another use of the word ‘reality’. Grammatically, to say that a source (of morals/ethics) is “in reality” is merely to say that it is ‘real’.
Now, as for ‘God/Allah/Krishna/etc.-given moral conscience, why should any person from any ideological/philosophical/religious perspective be required to “reject” or “avoid” giving accounts of the source of morality at the philosophical/religious/ethical level of inquiry and in those terms? What dogma is it that prevents such ideological/philosophical/religious statements to be made (and interacted with!!! by anyone!!! open conversation!!!) at that level of inquiry and in those terms???

Given up “subscriptions” long ago – it goes with my rejection of dogma.

However, I did recently read a discussion (Norris) of the philosophical arguments that have gone on around quantum mechanics lately and came across of differentiation of philosophical realism – one of which seem to me very appropriate. Unfortunately I can’t remember the adjective, it’s not in your list and not in the dictionary. Still – as I have said, I try to keep away from naming my ideology because I don’t want to place limits on it (my [perspective) or provide meat for misrepresentation (others perspective).

However, my realism is with respect to objectively existing reality – not any subjective sort. Actually, I think one should be able to pick up on my approach via discussions with me.

The “methods used by science” is a very restrictive comment. Science develops new methods as it needs them and as the technology/understanding makes possible. It’s not restrictive.

“Natural” is dogmatic and restrictive if it has the motive of ring-fencing part of reality away from human investigation and potential understanding (especially if individuals then claim “knowledge” of those parts of reality they have ring-fenced. That always leads me to thing they are making it up.

“What dogma is it that prevents such ideological/philosophical/religious statements”

Only from the perspective of communication, and working with, other people. People can go ahead (and will go ahead) and use their own “in-group” terms and dogma when talking amongst themselves. To advance the concept of a “God-given conscience” to someone like me means that you have to stop and go one step back and deal with the “god” question. Unless we can agree that there is a god, and what the qualities of the god are then it is impossible to make any progress with such a claim and subsequent discussion. I can only push it aside – tell you that you have no evidence or good logic – and lets deal with what we can establish as real.

This could also be done form other perspectives. One could dogmatically claim that we pick up all out morality from our environment or family, that it is all; relevant. On the other hand one could advance a 100% genetic deterministic claim. Without providing evidence and discussion the likelihood of such models any discussion with someone who doesn’t accept these dogmas would be irrelevant.

In other words, injection of a dogmatic claim, especially without justification and evidence, actually cuts off discussion. It is divisive when in fact (I think) discussion of sources of morality/ethics can actually be inclusive – and it should be given the empirical evidence that our source of morality/ethics do appear to transcend politics/ religion/nation.

Ken,

Given up “subscriptions” long ago – it goes with my rejection of dogma.

that’s probably a dogmatic position and self-refuting :)

However, my realism is with respect to objectively existing reality – not any subjective sort.

Are subjectively known/experienced things automatically not ‘real’? For someone with so tentative a philosophy, you seem pretty confident about this! :)

The “methods used by science” is a very restrictive comment. Science develops new methods as it needs them and as the technology/understanding makes possible. It’s not restrictive.

I don’t think it’s restrictive at all. Whatever the form of the ‘new methods’ might look like for science, they will remain consistent with methodological naturalism. No scientist would have his/her work restricted at all by such notions.

I can’t help but feel that you continually insist on using words like ‘reality’ instead of ‘nature’ because you cannot or will not for even a moment entertain the idea that there may be something ‘outside of’ or ‘transcending’ nature which would be best investigated with methods other than the empirical/metrical/etc. ones used by ‘science’. However, if you want to use ‘science’ in the broadest possible sense (‘knowing’ from latin ‘scienta’), then yes, we can even talk of theology being a divine science.

“Natural” is dogmatic and restrictive if it has the motive of ring-fencing part of reality away from human investigation and potential understanding (especially if individuals then claim “knowledge” of those parts of reality they have ring-fenced.

And the philosophical claim (without philosophical justification!) that nature = reality is dogmatic and restrictive, too.
As for claiming knowledge of other-than-natural parts of reality, that is perfectly fine because the knowledge of those parts would be attained through methods different to natural science.

To advance the concept of a “God-given conscience” to someone like me means that you have to stop and go one step back and deal with the “god” question. Unless we can agree that there is a god, and what the qualities of the god are then it is impossible to make any progress with such a claim and subsequent discussion. I can only push it aside – tell you that you have no evidence or good logic – and lets deal with what we can establish as real.

It’s called philosophy – and we all do it. Might as well do it on purpose, rather than accidentally. :)

In other words, injection of a dogmatic claim, especially without justification and evidence, actually cuts off discussion. It is divisive when in fact (I think) discussion of sources of morality/ethics can actually be inclusive – and it should be given the empirical evidence that our source of morality/ethics do appear to transcend politics/ religion/nation.

Not so at all. People are actually quite capable of discussing views from different perspective. I’ve had wonderful and engaging conversations which remained fruitful and civil between a buddhist, a muslim, a secular humanist (self described) and others. And not all ‘evidence’ is empirical.

The term “self-refuting” has been getting some bad connotations as its seems to be a knee-jerk retaliation by local dogmatists avoiding engaging in proper debate. It’s not a term I can give any credibility to when used like that.

I guess we are going around in circles now – and anyway things like this are worked out in practice – not by jabbering.

However, something that I have been becoming vaguely aware of is the need by some people to use labels and rigidly define concepts outside possible experience.

You have been trying to give me a label (“philosophical naturalist or materialist”). People like Bnonn, Stuart and James also give me this label and then tell me what I believe (fortunately you do give me the chance to “explain myself”). Now, that’s an interesting concept because these people then end up debating with an imaginary person (with a “materialist”, “naturalist” or “Darwinist”) – and don’t actually engage with my ideas.

They insist on telling me what I believe based on their naive interpretations of “naturalism” and “materialism” (and “Darwinism”) and get rattled because I refuse to use those terms or violate their naive understanding of these terms in my comments.

Thinking back to my youth I perhaps also may have tried to classify people in that way (probably the flush of enthusiasm in discovering philosophy).

I am aware that I tend not to do that now (although it’s easy to fall back on terms like “creationist”). For example, I am aware (because of your self identification) that you are a theist and a Christian. I appreciate these terms cover a multitude of “sins” – for example I would not try to describe you beliefs based on “Christian” because I know that covers an extremely wide spectrum of belief (including “atheists” like Geering). And I actually aren’t interested in even finding out what denomination of Christianity you adhere to.

However, over a year or so I have developed an understanding of your ideas and philosophy. I am conscious that only part of this is from what you say – its also from how you say it. In other words, personality is also part of the description of someone’s “world view”.

Now, I have never felt the need to apply a label to you. In fact I think a label would not convey to me the complexity of your thinking that I have picked up from experience, from interaction. The label would be a mask, actually inhibit my appreciation of your ideas.

So I really can’t see the desire to label me – or say things like “someone with so tentative a philosophy.” I would have expected you would by now have a much better understanding of my philosophical approach than any label could give you. I would expect that you would realise that my philosophy wasn’t tentative just because I refused to give a naive and inhibiting label to it.

So the desire to label is a bit of a mystery to me. At least on your part because you are open to discussion. I can understand the problem with James, Bnonn and Stuart who want to lecture and impose dogma rather than discuss. For them labels are a way of enforcing a “them and us” approach involving demonising of their opponents. It reminds me a bit of Marx’s concept of “commodity fetishism” – and I idea I should look into further.

But think about it. Can you get by without putting a label on a discussion partner?

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