Is There a Good Ideological Echo Chamber?

This is the second part of a discussion about the rhetoric I use on this blog and the dangers of linking identity to ideology.

As I head out to the Reason Rally this morning, I wanted to address the second part of Brian Green’s comment:

I suppose my real concern is a theory-practice one again, as usual. As you gain practical commitment to atheist causes, the bond strengthens. Theory follows practice. Habit deepens. When you become president of the American Atheists, your freedom of thought will become highly constricted just due to practical concerns, even if on an unconscious level. The stronger your overt physical commitment, the more tightly are you mentally chained to that commitment.

Edward Feser has some similar critiques of the entire idea of the Reason Rally, since he thought a whip-’em-up convention couldn’t promote serious thinking and would only reinforce bad habits.  Both Feser and Green are worried that thinking of one ideology as an essential part of your identity is going to put you at high risk of slipping into an affective death spiral, where it becomes harder and harder to reevaluate that belief fairly.

I think Feser, Green, and Yudkowsky all are worried about a real danger, but precautions can be taken too far.  One of my hobbyhorses is the problem of jobs that need to be done, but require an enormous moral sacrifice to perform (cf drone pilots). I really don’t think that heads of activist organizations or rally attendees endanger their reasoning for the sake of reform to the point where they qualify as sin-eaters.

But if I’m willing to accept some risk of irrational thought patterns, the real question is: what good am I trying to secure that is worth the trade-off?  In the last post, I explained that my aggressive tone is very much informed by my college experiences debating philosophy, and perhaps a story from that time might be useful.

One perennial source of conflict was whether people should be expected to dress up for debates.  I was on the suit side, because costuming matters, on or off stage.  Most of us are slightly uncomfortable in formal attire, so we hold ourselves differently.  We’re less slouchy and there’s a bit of a feedback loop that tells us this must be important, or I wouldn’t have dressed up.  It’d be nice if we could summon up that alertness and excitement reliably and automatically, but, once we’ve decided that’s the appropriate response, I have no objection to using clothes to keep our brains on track.

YouTube Preview Image

Now when it comes to the trade-offs of the Reason Rally, I think the essential point is that an atheism rally can be a symposium of ideas, but it’s also a gathering of people groping toward shared tradition. What we’re doing, at events like the Reason Rally or in running gags like Hemant Mehta’s joke about atheists eating babies, is building up a reserve of shared experiences and references.

In the long run, it could make it easier to have some of the sorely needed constructive philosophy conversations, because we’ll be more fluent in each other’s ideas. The affinity engendered by these rallies and the personal ties formed at these get-togethers can build up trust, making it easier for us to criticize each other, so the movement can be more self-correcting.  To return in a very literal way to the title of the post, it’s good for us to have a way to bounce ideas off each other, so that the contradictory ideas can annihilate each other by destructive interference.

The big open question is whether we’re building that community on a dicey foundation. If too many of our shared references and experiences are rooted in just mocking religious people, it will be harder to use them to open a conversation about what we do believe.

But for an answer to that, you’ll have to wait til tomorrow, since writing this post is making me late to the rally I’m analyzing.

About Leah Libresco

Leah Anthony Libresco graduated from Yale in 2011. She works as an Editorial Assistant at The American Conservative by day, and by night writes for Patheos about theology, philosophy, and math at She was received into the Catholic Church in November 2012."

  • Ray

    These kind of criticisms just seem disingenuous coming from members of an institution that encourages its members to step into an ideological echo chamber every Sunday. And Feser’s blog, wow, it amazes me to see comment after comment vehemently agreeing with the host, without the slightest awareness that they’re doing the exact same thing they’re accusing the Atheists of doing.

  • deiseach

    I disagree with Feser’s post about the rally, because the things he is worried about seem to me to be the whole point. No, of course there is not going to be (a whole lot of) sitting quietly on the grass engaged in academic debate, but I don’t think that’s the point of a rally, any rally (and that means I broadly agree with him about the nature of what’s going on).

    It’s about commonality of experience, meeting like-minded others, re-inforcing bonds, making those bonds in the first place; it’s about saying “Here we are and we exist and we matter and we count”. So the music and fun events are, in my view, of more import than the lectures and speeches.

    Yes, mobs can be dangerous, volatile, easily whipped-up but not so easily put down. Yes, there will probably be a distinct minority of people going to this rally who are only going for an ego-boost, to puff themselves up about being better and smarter and righter than the boobs who believe in the sky-fairy. So what? Whether or not there’s a rally, people with those attitudes are going to have them.

    What makes me more concerned is something like Myers’ “Courtier’s reply” dodge, which really is a recipe for not thinking or investigating in depth. I’m surprised he thought it was such a killer put-down, because I’m fairly sure that he, as a teacher, has had at least once to tell one of his students who handed up bad work that they just hadn’t done the required reading and didn’t understand the topic. How impressed would he be if they retorted “Oh, that’s just a courtier’s reply!”?

    • Ray

      I don’t think the Courtier’s reply works in your example. The student has already accepted PZ as an authority by taking his class. If the student thought biology was as worthless a discipline as PZ thinks theology is, the student would not enroll in the class.

      • deiseach

        But if Myers can see the absurdity in someone saying “I don’t need to learn anything about what the theory of evolution really is, I know all about what I need to know from the Bible”, why doesn’t he see the lack of intellectual rigour when Dawkins says “I don’t need to read what the theologians say, I know all about it from my Sunday School classes when I was nine”?

      • Ray

        Do I need to read all of Dembski’s books before I dismiss the man as a Charlatan? Did I need to understand how the OPERA experiment worked, and what exactly was wrong with it, to expect that the faster-than-light neutrino result would be overturned?

        Are you or are you not claiming that a man, whose strongest connection to history is some letters written by a political rival of his brother 2000 years ago, came back from the dead?

        • deiseach

          Please explain this to me, because I am so dumb: by “letters written by a political rival of his brother” I am assuming you mean the Epistles of St. Paul, James the brother of the Lord, and then I’m lost.

          As to the examples you give, I imagine you would need to have read something by this Dembski guy to decide whether or not he was a charlatan; if you were going by hearsay, you would need to have some confidence in the authorities that said Dembski’s work was rubbish, and how you would judge that, I imagine, is by seeing what their work is, what their qualifications, what acceptance and status they get in their professional field.

          Would you accept my judgement of a physics paper based on “Well, when I was nine, I learned that atoms are made up of little tiny balls called electrons that go in circles around the nucleus”, or would you suggest I maybe familiarise myself with at least a more adult layman’s view of the matter?

          • deiseach

            Whoops – forgot to reply to your question. If you meant to ask can I say the following part of the Nicene Creed without crossing my fingers behind my back or treating it as mythopoeic –

            “For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate, he suffered death and was buried, and rose again on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures”

            - then yes, I can and do. I believe in the physical resurrection of Jesus Christ from true death and His appearance to the apostles in His glorified body, and His ascension into Heaven.

            There you have it – I’m one of the deluded superstitious ignorant masses :-)

          • Ray

            You seem to take a perverse delight in being thought ignorant and deluded. Why? Do you really think so little of me that my disdain for your views counts as a compliment?

            On your physics question, I’m not sure how I would respond (assuming convincing the confused student was my goal.) I’ve never seen the particular sort of confusion you’re describing. Pretty much everyone agrees that the right way of doing physics is the sort taught at university and in grad school. No one seems to agree on the right way of doing theology, and there are plenty of very smart people, like PZ, who think that there is no right way. (To forestall one particular response, I would point out that, for PZ, the claim that Jesus did not recover from his crucifixion is no more a theological claim than the claim that Abraham Lincoln did not recover from his head wound.)

            In short, there is near universal agreement among outsiders about where to find authoritative views on physics. There is no agreement among outsiders about where to find authoritative views on theology. (And to forestall a similar objection to the above, “Aquinas believed xxx” is a historical claim, not a theological claim.) These are for the most part the same outsiders, so it seems to me that the logical place to look for an explanation of the difference in perceived authority is in the disciplines themselves, not the outsiders making the judgment.

      • Ray

        On a less flippant note, there are plenty of reasons, requiring no particularly intensive study, for thinking Biology in general, and Evolution specifically are legitimate domains of knowledge. The same cannot be said for Theology.

        1) People working in other legitimate fields of knowledge (i.e. Chemists, Geologists, Neuroscientists, Physicists, Philosophers, Historians etc.) will all agree that the Biologists roughly know what they’re doing wrt Evolution. Many of these areas are related or in some way depend upon claims made by biologists, and an expert in either field will tell you as much. So if you can vet expertise in any of these areas, you will know to take evolution seriously.

        2)Modern advances in medical science are obvious, and I’d be shocked if you didn’t rely on medical expertise in some important way during your lifetime. Pretty much every med-school in existence requires you to learn evolution at some time during your training (I’m not a doctor, but I suspect they may actually require it by way of accepting pre-meds for their program.)

        3) Do you really need a PhD to interpret this image:

        • deiseach

          I’m not arguing that Dawkins doesn’t know anything about his field; I accept that he does know and is an expert.

          I am arguing that that does not make him an expert in any other field. I wouldn’t ask him, even though he’s a biologist, to diagnose is the pain in the lower right quadrant of my abdomen appendicitis or (because I’m female) one of a number of other things it could be. Neither do I accept his flippancy about ‘I don’t need to read technical documents in theology because I already know it’s rubbish’.

          When speaking outside his area of expertise, his opinion is worth as much as mine or any other person not qualified in that field. Or are you going to tell me that being able to classify which skull belongs to which genus of hominoid automatically means a person can also give an opinion on what makes a good work of art the same as a trained art critic?

          • Ray

            Here’s what you’re not getting. All of the uncontroversially legitimate domains of knowledge are connected. Hence, other disciplines are qualified to vet each other, at least at a sanity check level. For example, in the late 19th century, chemists believed in atoms, physicists didn’t. The physicists were wrong, and they should have taken the chemists more seriously. Here’s another anecdote from history of science (quoted from wikipedia):

            “Volta’s investigations led shortly to the invention of an early battery, but not by Galvani, who did not perceive electricity as separable from biology. Galvani did not see electricity as the essence of life, which he regarded vitalistically. Galvani believed that the animal electricity came from the muscle. Galvani’s associate Alessandro Volta, in opposition, reasoned that the animal electricity was a physical phenomenon caused by rubbing frog skin and not a metallic electricity.

            While, as Galvani believed, all frogs contain electrical power, specifically toads. Frog cells and every toad cell has a cell potential, biological electricity has the same chemical underpinnings as the current between electrochemical cells, and thus can be recapitulated in a way outside the body, Volta’s intuition was correct. Volta, essentially, objected to Galvani’s conclusions about ‘animal electric fluid’, but the two scientists disagreed respectfully and Volta coined the term ‘galvanism’ for a direct current of electricity produced by chemical action. Thus, owing to an argument between the two in regard to the source or cause of the electricity, Volta built the first battery in order to specifically disprove his associate’s theory. Volta’s ‘pile’ became known therefore as a voltaic pile.”

            Likewise, archaeology can vet historical claims, as can the analysis of military formations (to see whether a historical source is exaggerating their numbers).

            So what can vet theological claims aside from theology? (apparently nothing.) So here we have a discipline, claiming no application in any other domain of knowledge, making claims that are grossly implausible on their face to the other disciplines, but conveniently shielded from investigation based on the fact that they supposedly happened 2000 years ago. Why on earth should anyone assume that theology cannot be rejected wholesale. We already know it’s not going to force us to reject any knowledge from the disciplines we do trust. OTOH rejecting physics, for example, would remove any claims about electron orbitals from chemistry, any talk about cellular energy (in the ATP sense, not Chi or whatever — just to be careful) from biology, carbon dating from archaeology, and K-Ar dating from geology, and I’m just scratching the surface.

          • Anonymous

            Do the social sciences make your cut for legitimate sources of knowledge? Could theological understanding of family inform on the finding that when you control for family structure, race and poverty based correlations to crime disappear? Could theological understanding of marital relationships inform on the neurological findings concerning your brain on love? Could theological teaching of the deception that lies in the heart inform on the findings concerning the social harm due to misunderstanding and misapplication of various types of love?

            …or do none of these things count as legitimate?

          • Ray


            Social Sciences most certainly count as knowledge. That said, your argument here is pretty tenuous.

            1) Your examples are from sociology, which has a pretty poor reputation, even among the social sciences.

            2) I’m not that familiar with the sociology literature, but I’m pretty sure that “theological understandings” don’t figure particularly prominently.

            3) The one actual result you do cite — without a reference I might note — i.e. that correlations of crime to race and poverty disappear when you control for family structure, could be interpreted in lots of different ways, since mere correlations are not sufficient to establish the direction of causation. If the result is even right, it’s probably equally true that correlations between crime and family structure disappear when you control for race and poverty. So, what does that tell you? not a whole lot. Certainly not enough to start claiming that certain relatively poorly attested historical figures came back from the dead.

          • Ray


            Ok. Quick Google search says family structure correlates to crime, even controlling for race and poverty (although I still suspect you could add in other plausible looking factors, such as educational attainment and make the correlation go away.) However, I don’t see anything supporting your claim that race and poverty have no correlation to crime when controlling for family structure. (Lack of correlation as opposed to weak correlation is a pretty hard claim to support in any event.)

            I don’t doubt that family structure has a strong effect on children, but the idea that this is the end-all and be-all of good parenting, which seems to be what you’re intimating, strikes me as ludicrous.

          • Anonymous

            I’m not claiming any definitive outputs. I don’t need to. You cited two fields which you believe are legitimate ways of finding knowledge… and they even clashed! The only requirement was that one could potentially find a way of translating between the two fields, and that they could then vet one another. Since your original argument boiled down to, “legitimate domains of knowledge are connected,” all that needs be checked is if they’re connected and could potentially vet one another. I gave a few examples of connection that came to mind. I’m sure you can think of more.

            What you’re not getting is that even if some past/current outputs of theology turn out to be wrong, it’s not a death sentence for theology as knowledge… every one of your “obviously legitimate” fields has had false outputs in the past, and likely has false outputs even today.

          • Ray


            “I gave a few examples of connection that came to mind. I’m sure you can think of more.”

            So you’re conceding my point that other domains can vet theological claims. Well, the majority of scientists in the US National Academy and philosophers in the PhilPapers Survey think it’s crap (atleast insofar as theology involves the claim that God exists.) I’ll wager that results from historians and even sociologists will come out roughly the same. And now you don’t think you need justification for the assertion that theology is a legitimate domain of knowledge? I’m sorry but respect needs to be earned. Biology and Physics have done this many times over, Theology has not.

          • Anonymous

            Goalposts just moved. Before, you said, “So what can vet theological claims aside from theology? (apparently nothing.)” as if it were a knockdown argument against theology as a potential source of knowledge. You provided a test that connections had to be possible. Now that I’ve trashed that test, you’ve changed the goalpost to, “look at these people in these other fields… they’re not currently very convinced.” …as if a snapshot in time of the opinions of people in other fields is always the sole arbiter of what can be a source of knowledge.

            …wait a second, where have I seen this before? Oh right… this was the conclusion of what you were trying to prove at the beginning. Now it’s become an assumption. Circular reasoning works because circular reasoning works.

          • Ray


            I was arguing against Deiseach who was claiming that biologists were not qualified to vet theological claims. You have pretty much conceded that they are capable, but you don’t like the answer, so you’re holding out hope that maybe they’ll change their minds.

            I hope it’s obvious to you just how destructive this attitude would be to the usefulness of human knowledge in general and science in particular. You’re saying we can never apply scientific conclusions until we are certain that they won’t change. This is an impossible standard, since science is based upon being open to changing one’s mind.

          • Ray

            And just to be clear, being open to changing one’s mind does not mean wasting several hours of your time reading a book length treatise supporting any crackpot theory that may come your way. There’s many volumes of material on the theory of bodily humors, but I certainly wouldn’t think less of a med student who dismissed the whole thing without reading more than a 1-page summary of the thing.

          • Anonymous

            And I was rebutting your ridiculous claim that theology cannot be a source of knowledge. You have now conceded this.

            Finally, you’ve assumed WAYYY more about me than I’ve claimed. I’m actually a scientist. I teach at a major research university. I’m a rocket scientist, but my research is heavy in mathematics and neuroscience. I certainly choose to ignore some things. In fact, I speak often of the “wading through crap” quotient of some journals. I ignore them because I’m not interested, because it’s not useful to me at the moment, or because I believe I already understand what they’re talking about. However, I don’t have the hubris to declare entire fields as being incapable of producing knowledge… especially without studying them myself. Don’t mistake time-optimization with a theoretical proof of what is or is not a possible source of knowledge.

          • Ray


            “And I was rebutting your ridiculous claim that theology cannot be a source of knowledge. ”

            I don’t think I actually made that claim. I’m pretty sure I was making the weaker claim that it is reasonable for PZ to assume that theology is crap barring some pretty convincing evidence otherwise, and that PZ is under no obligation to spend very much time seeking out that evidence (i.e. this is a reasonable time optimization strategy given the current widely held academic views on the value of theology.) But yes, if you think I was claiming absolute certainty (about anything really) I concede that absolute certainty is not justified.

          • Anonymous

            “…Biology in general, and Evolution specifically are legitimate domains of knowledge. The same cannot be said for Theology.”

            You and PZ are perfectly allowed to think a subject is crap. You can ignore it all you want.. spend your time somewhere that you think is useful. But then, you should probably not spend time on it. Specifically, by not talking about it and not making bold claims that might turn out to not be true given a bit of nuance gained from actually studying the subject. …specifically, claims like the above.

            Also, I’d like to slightly modify my previous statement. “I ignore them because I’m not interested, because it’s not useful to me at the moment, or because I believe I already understand what they’re talking about, or because I know that I have no idea what they’re talking about.” Every researcher has been sent a paper from a colleague, stared at it, and said to himself, “I don’t have the first clue what they’re doing.”

          • Ray

            “You and PZ are perfectly allowed to think a subject is crap. You can ignore it all you want.. spend your time somewhere that you think is useful. But then, you should probably not spend time on it. Specifically, by not talking about it”

            This sounds like an attempt to silence dissent. Would you look so kindly upon homeopaths, astrologers, and bodily humor theorists making the same demands?

          • Anonymous

            Ok, since you’d like to start substituting other fields… Imagine you’re in a world where everyone does theology or some other field you currently want to ignore. You encounter a one-page summary of this old estranged field known as physics. All your authority figures say things like, “As you’ll see, some people looked into that.. but they ended up claiming that there were a huge number of universes, possibly infinite… one for every possible outcome. Not only that, but in each of those universes, reality is just a three-dimensional projection of the two-dimensional boundary of the particular universe. On top of all of that, while claiming to be the sole arbiter of what does and doesn’t exist, they knew absolutely nothing about 73% of the universe. It’s so absurd on its face to bother reading more than a one-page summary.”

            If, while reading this, you had the thought, “But you have to understand ____ to be able to contextualize that possibility in physics,” you’ve made my point. You wouldn’t want someone else creating the one-page summary of your field, would you? As a scientist, I don’t want my determination of what is a valid source of knowledge to turn on societal views and one-page summaries.

            So yes. I don’t pay attention to homeopathy, astrology, or body humor theory. And thus, I say nothing about them. Literally, I couldn’t tell you anything about any of them… because I wouldn’t know a single thing to say besides, “Popular opinion seems to be against them.” That is all I can say… because I know nothing more. Maybe once I study them some, I could say something.

          • Ray

            When your argument requires putting up labor intensive barriers for astronomers criticizing astrology and doctors criticizing homeopathy, you’ve pretty much lost the argument. If not a brief summary of the relevant claims, exactly how much reading is enough to qualify an outsider to criticize a field of no particular academic repute?

            “If, while reading this, you had the thought, ‘But you have to understand ____ to be able to contextualize that possibility in physics,’ you’ve made my point.”

            Not in the least. My first thought was how ridiculous your hypothetical is, since it seems to require the destruction of all historical and archaeological evidence of the achievements made possible by physics. If such evidence were available, my first argument to the skeptic would be something along the lines of, “people in the physics department designed this here solid state laser, maybe they have some idea what they’re talking about.”

            The closest historical analogy to your contrived example I can think of is Heliocentrism in the 17th century. Needless to say, Galileo and Kepler didn’t get much help from the Church in spreading their views, but it worked anyway. If they could meet that burden of proof, why can’t theologians? (especially considering that Galileo et al didn’t just have to contend with ridicule but house arrest, book banning, and threats of torture.)

          • Anonymous

            You’re still not getting it. The important part is the word “criticize”. “I’ve not found any particular use for _____,” may be a valid criticism. You can do that… without any labor intensive barriers. “_____ claims X,Y,Z… which are obviously false… and thus _____ is not a legitimate source of knowledge,” is not a valid criticism. How do I know that? Because I made such reasoning for physics… a field I know and love. Learning about X,Y,Z, and then saying, “Claims X,Y,Z seem to be false because of ____,” is a valid criticism. Notice that this does not claim anything about ‘legitimate’ sources of knowledge. I want to reiterate that you pointed out situations where a scientific field was wrong. Others said, “I’ve looked into this, and it seems to be wrong because of ____.” And then they didn’t conclude that the entire field must be illegitimate.

            “Here’s this solid state laser. It works, so I must be right!” How about no. The course I’m teaching right now includes aerodynamics. By 1903, people obviously knew how to generate lift and reduce drag… they had an actual working flying machine! But guess what? Nobody could tell you what caused drag. Nobody. Having something that works is simply having something that works. Pragmatic considerations are not theoretical considerations, no matter how much you’d like them to be. Pragmatic considerations do not imply that something is a genuine source of knowledge. Most importantly, some other field seeming to have pragmatic outputs does not mean that other fields are incapable of being sources of knowledge. Many people have believed that theology has pragmatic outputs. That means jack about whether it’s a legitimate source of knowledge.

            Pragmatic methodological naturalism is pragmatic. It’s wonderful to do things. But we’ve known for centuries that it’s much harder to know things. Your argument is so ridiculous that it seems to require the destruction of all philosophical writings since Plato.

            Finally, really take a look at the analogy again. Perhaps solid state lasers never came to be in this alternate universe. Perhaps they fell out of usefulness as the population gravitated toward other things. None of that matters… because in this hypothetical universe, none of your pragmatic considerations exist… and those that do, probably seem to fall under some other theory. The reason why they don’t exist is because all you know of physics is a one-page summary. If you do have a solid state laser, you’re plenty happy believing your authorities when they say, “That thing makes sense in context of this other theory over here.” Or maybe they say, “That thing doesn’t really make sense in context of our current theory (cue the ‘obviously false’ things in physics), but we’re pretty sure we’ll figure it out. I mean, we’ve figured out everything else that we have, right?”

          • Alex

            Ray. I’m curious as to what sort of theology you are talking about. Do you think that you can dismiss Craig and Smith’s book on Time and Absolute Simultaneity without first studying special relativity?

            Also do you consider philosophy in general to be a valid source of knowledge?


          • Ray


            We’re talking about which institutions can reliably produce knowledge in the world we find ourselves in, not some goofy counterfactual alternative history. You would then seem to be the one whose argument requires forgetting everything we’ve come to know about the world. Anyway, if a discipline (i.e. theology) has historically been the source of many false claims (vitalism, geocentrism, circular orbits, creationism etc.) and no true claims above and beyond common sense claims about human nature (The sorts of thing a competent politician can figure out instinctively,) it should be assumed that the discipline is not a legitimate source of knowledge

            p.s., the Wright Brothers did know what caused drag. Air. That they didn’t know how to calculate it is another matter.

            I regard philosophy legitimate, although I consider a significant fraction (say 25-30%) of scientists competent to speak on philosophical matters at least as well as your average philosopher. (I’m pretty sure a significant number of philosophers would take this view as well — Quine and Dennett are two prominent modern philosophers who come to mind.)

            I consider the claim that any well known argument settles the God debate in the affirmative to be a crank view given that 87 percent of modern philosophers remain unconvinced (although 72% are mostly or entirely convinced in the other direction. So considering atheism a settled point is not ludicrous, especially considering the disposition of the general population from which philosophers are drawn.) I am familiar with Craig, he makes such claims, along with other insanity such as condoning the Biblically described (thankfully ahistorical) genocides, such as those in the book of Joshua. Craig is a crank, and this book looks as though he’s branched into physics crankdom too. (I am trained in physics, so I should know.)

          • Anonymous

            I give up on the main point. I’m apparently incapable of getting you to realize that your theory turns on societal views and historical factors that it should be independent of.

            The postscript is interesting, however. It brings to mind the question of how your naturalism defines knowledge. The key promise of science is that after you measure a bunch of things, you can figure out ‘how stuff works’… pragmatic knowledge. Inherently, the idea is that you can take the measurements from this bunch of stuff over here and compute predictions about that similar bunch of stuff over there. (Of course, here is where extreme naturalism comes in and says, “If we can’t measure/compute/predict… and do it over and over, it doesn’t exist,” right?) If that’s your measure of knowing something, then the Wright Brothers ‘knew’ what caused drag in the same way that we ‘know’ what is causing the universe to expand. It seems like something is happening. We can kinda measure it. We give it a name, air… errr, I mean dark energy. But we can’t go over to a bunch of similar stuff (because we don’t know what ‘similar stuff’ looks like) and compute predictions about how it will behave. …or would you say, “Of course we know what causes the universe to expand in the way it is. Dark energy!”?

            …which of course, reminds me of another major question for which I’ve never quite found a satisfactory answer. In your brand of naturalism, what is the role of mathematics, as a source of knowledge? It’s certainly an enabling tool… but large swaths of it don’t seem to have any particular pragmatic value. Furthermore, we really cherrypick from it what we consider “useful” (again, pragmatic). We ignore lots of it, especially when it doesn’t fit our pragmatic point of view. Your differential equation might not have an actual solution (or maybe it’s not actually unique)? Oh well. A numerical approximation seems to have some pragmatic value, so we’ll ignore those possible problems. Your computations rest on mathematics that smuggled in the axiom of choice? No bother, we can safely ignore the Banach-Tarski paradox. It seems as though if we let mathematics into our category of ‘legitimate sources of knowledge’, we run into some problems.

          • Ray


            “your theory turns on societal views and historical factors that it should be independent of.”

            And why is that? You’ll not get very far in your quest for knowledge without standing on the shoulders of giants. Shouldn’t your epistemology then include a method for figuring out which giants are the tallest?

            On air and dark energy. And what’s your alternative to the categories of being physicists talk about? substance and essence, prime matter and form, act and potency. Tell me good sir, have you ever seen any of this “prime matter?” Can you tell me what the price of 75% pure active potency is on the commodities market? Honestly, I find explanations in terms of air, and even dark energy, infinitely more enlightening than the sorts of things metaphysicians speak of.

            On similarity: (apart from Euclidean Geometry) “similarity” seems to me to be a mildly ambiguous term from the natural language originating in the early modern British Isles. Native speakers seem to use it fairly consistently, so perhaps you should ask one of them which things are similar and which are not if you are confused about the matter.

            On mathematics: At a minimum, truth of mathematical statements (at least those which are uncontroversially true) can be decided by way of certain symbol manipulation tasks, that can be checked by appropriately programmed silicon computers (Humans can do it too, but they have a higher error rate.) Some of these statements have a more concrete relationship to physical reality (e.g. they can predict the outcome of various processes involving the counting of rocks and the grouping of them into piles.) I’ve yet to see a workable physical theory that allows us to concretely realize (in a similar way to the rocks — refer back to what I said about similarity if you’re confused) the sets involved in the Banach-Tarski Construction. So Again, I don’t see the problem.

            So. Do you need to spend any more time proving to yourself that thinking is possible, or are you ready to get around to actually doing it?

          • Daniel

            Anon, you’re better off ignoring the Rays of this world. There are people that are teachable and some that are not. Not matter how much patience you show and how much you simplify things some cannot and, more importantly, will not want to understand. If you reiterate things and they miss your point twice, cut your losses and move on.

            I was going to respond to Ray on the comments above before but I resisted the temptation, instead I bought Roger Scruton’s excellent introduction to Kant (kindle version) and now I am getting a new and fascinating view on this philosopher.

            you can use your time on more profitable things is all I am saying.

          • Ray

            Making too much sense, am I? Daniel.

          • Anonymous

            Standing on the shoulders of the tallest giant does not imply that no one else in the world exists or stands. This is yet again a pragmatic solution to a theoretical problem. You’ve provided a method for career advancement, not a method for epistemology.

            On air and dark energy, you again take the pragmatic position. ‘This construction seems to be useful, while I don’t think some other possible construction is.’ Reading your response, however, I’m still left wondering whether you think science “knows” what pushes the universe, similar to the way the Wright Brothers “knew” that air drag that pushes the airfoil… or if they were both in the dark in some important sense.

            I don’t quite get what seems to be a fairly minor objection to the use of the word “similarity”. I was simply saying that the promise of science is to say, “Look at that thing. It’s like something I’ve seen before. Thus, it should behave in this manner.” Can you point to something and say, “That’s like dark energy. It should behave similarly to dark energy.”? I think not. This is ruining the claim that science possesses ‘scientific’ knowledge about dark energy at a stage even prior to the point at which the Wright Brothers’ claim to ‘scientifically’ knowing air drag would fail.

            First off, lol to the idea that mathematical statements can be decided by manipulation of symbols. We can sometimes go through a computation, mindlessly pushing symbols until the result comes out, but nearly all modern mathematics requires adept parsing of content… and then attempting to choose symbols that don’t get in the way too much (I’ll resist unleashing a barrage of my favorite quotes from old math profs about symbol to content ratios).

            Furthermore, you’ve conceded my point that some mathematics seem to have no pragmatic application. However, you’ve avoided stating whether mathematics satisfies your criteria for being a ‘legitimate source of knowledge’. As far as whether we worry about it, if I presented a theory (theology, physics, metaphysics, etc.) that produced one output which wonderfully matches the observation… but which is deductively equivalent… an iff… to something that you think would be absurd (oh, say a god or fairies or doubling rocks), would you question whether it’s a legitimate source of knowledge? Or would you just ignore those features of the theory?

            And again, if I presented a theory that relied on mathematics for the computations… but just didn’t care what mathematics had to say on the issues of basic things like existence and uniqueness of solutions, would you question it?

            Finally, I do plenty of thinking. I do plenty of nuts and bolts pragmatic work. But that doesn’t mean I can’t be skeptical concerning some strange philosophies that seem to be a misguided attempt at saying the output of such pragmatic work is the only possible knowledge.

          • Ray


            Yes Mathematics is a domain of knowledge.

            And yes it’s machine verifiable (Recursively Enumerable in math speak. Or do you know of an accepted branch of mathematics whose formalism is not RE.) Yes, humans are (sometimes) faster than computer software at proof search, and they often use natural language as shorthand, but you’ll need more of an argument than a vague sense of unease to convince me that natural language is some kind of magic code that can’t be replicated by software even in principle.

            What’s your alternative to grounding mathematics in physical reality? Set theory? How do you know that set theory is consistent, besides checking empirically for contradictions and generalizing from experience?

          • Anonymous

            Uhhh…. arithmetic (specifically of the complete type)? You know… counting rocks or putting them in piles… Or did you miss when Godel killed Principia Mathematica?

            Machines can push symbols around, and if we’re smart about the way we formulate our symbols, they can give us new results in terms of those symbols… but whether the symbols we input or the symbols it outputs make sense in terms of your pragmatic empirical sensibilities requires you to parse content. (…not even going to ask how you’re going to get your pragmatic hands on a Turing machine…)

            Remained unanswered:
            1) Does ‘scientific knowledge’ include classifying a thing and computing predictions for how things in that class behave? In light of this, do we have scientific knowledge of dark energy? Did the Wright Brothers have scientific knowledge of air drag?

            2) If a theory produces one pragmatic output that fits observation wonderfully… but in doing so implies a god, fairies, or doubling rocks, do you simply ignore the other pieces or do you let it into your group of legitimate knowledge?

            3) If a theory relies on mathematics for computations, but we ignore basic math of existence/uniqueness, does the theory qualify as legitimate knowledge?

          • Ray

            “Uhhh…. arithmetic (specifically of the complete type)? You know… counting rocks or putting them in piles”

            How Many theorems do you know that are proven within “complete arithmetic” rather than a finite axiomatization of it?
            And where exactly do you expect to find an infinite number of rocks to count? This would then make “complete arithmetic”
            as opposed to finite axiomatizations of arithmetic and finite physical models thereof, a branch of knowledge where nothing
            is known, hence not a legitimate source of knowledge (or an illegitimate one.)

            “Machines can push symbols around, and if we’re smart about the way we formulate our symbols, they can give us new results in terms of those symbols… but whether the symbols we input or the symbols it outputs make sense in terms of your pragmatic empirical sensibilities requires you to parse content. (…not even going to ask how you’re going to get your pragmatic hands on a Turing machine…)”
            “Parsing content” only requires you to switch between manipulating symbols, manipulating sensory data, and manipulating parts of the physical universe, which on my view is no fundamental shift at all. Every one of these things are physical, and the matching rules between the domains are no more complicated than the symbol manipulation rules were in the first place. Likewise, theorems about “Turing machines” are a formalism we use to get answers about what phyiscal computers will do. The fact that this works is confirmed empirically.

            As for your explicit questions:
            1) Is not “dark energy” already classified in the category of “energy” or more properly “things described by terms in the stress energy tensor”? That should at least tell you something about conservation laws (although more in the differential sense than the invariant sense.)
            2) I reject the theory if a simpler theory (or more precisely one which results in a simpler world view when combined with the other things I know about) can produce the same predictive success, or if the greater predictive success of the theory in question can be attributed to overfitting, p-value fishing, or similar.
            3) In my experience “existence” means either “physical existence” — which commits you to quite a lot, or “mathematical existence” — which only really commits you to being able to produce an axiom or theorem in some formalism containing a backwards E, although it may have some physical implications depending on whether your physical theory allows for a sufficiently complete model of the formal system. There’s also some talk of “real existence” which in my experience is an indication that the bodily structure from which the words are issuing metaphorically exists in a location deep within another bodily structure at the opposite end of a long and winding tube. How this classification of existence claims helps is left as an exercise for the reader.

            You still haven’t given me an answer regarding how you ground mathematics, or how any of this, as interesting as it may be, helps you resurrect theology as a reliable source of knowledge. Do you seriously doubt that (in 21st century academia) the reputation of a discipline (at least one that purports to be a source of knowledge) correlates strongly with how reliable it is as a source of knowledge?

          • Anonymous

            …how about any theorem in ZFC… the most commonly used foundation of mathematics? If you kill theories that are not finitely axiomatizable, most of my very pragmatic work would fall (as would a lot of achievements that I’m sure you champion).

            You can’t make a 1-1 matching between the set of sensory data or parts of the physical universe and the set of symbols in a computer. Furthermore, theorems about Turing machines are proved using one of the non-finitely axiomatizable systems we’ve been talking about. So you use an illegitimate source of knowledge to tell you that your empiricist philosophy works… (and even if you could make a 1-1 matching, you’d be obviously overfitting (oh, and even if you’re able to find an isomorphism for stuff you see, you still need additional philosophical reasoning to say that that’s all there is… I can pretty easily find isomorphisms of a subset of my fictional computing resources into subsets of physical things)).

            1) If I told you that air drag was “things described by terms in Newton’s force vector”… have I really elucidated scientific knowledge of air drag? …or is there something important missing?

            2) So you’re completely fine with absurd results (remember this when you want to reject theology out of hand)… so long as it seems to be ‘the best you have’. Suppose I have what is unquestionably the best current theory… every prediction makes sense and matches the data (we have NO theory like this currently). Now, suppose I can take two possible steps. Step (a) fails to predict new observational data, but produces no absurd result. Step (b) predicts the new observational data, but produces n absurd results. Which are you going with? Does it depend upon the value of n? Does mathematics have a lower number of absurd results than the critical value of n?

            3) Mathematical existence is kind of important. If there is no solution for my model, then how can solutions to my model represent “physical existence” solutions? …which again begs the question of how one could find an isomorphism between the two in order to shove it into my Turing machine. Also important is uniqueness. You would agree that time-symmetry of mathematical laws demanded investigation, correct? Why wouldn’t non-uniqueness be equally as troubling? We’re still dealing with two (or more) perfectly acceptable physical realizations of our theory… we should probably investigate why we see one and not the other, right?

            I don’t need to resurrect theology. That’s not my goal at all. My goal is to understand your empiricist epistemology… and see if I can make sense of it. So far, it seems like I can’t… so my goal has become to show you that you should be agnostic and skeptical about that extreme empiricism. A nice consequence of this is that you also have to give up your philosophical claim that theology cannot be a source of knowledge. Any decent logician should know that disproving the implication A -> X is not Y does not mean that X actually is Y. Maybe X isn’t Y… but you’re probably starting from the wrong premise.. and your inference is certainly poor.

          • Ray


            According to wikipedia. ZFC has 9 axioms. Last I checked, that’s a finite number. Looks RE to me. A quick Google search seems to confirm this.

            As for the rest, I’m not quite sure I understand your objection, but a detail you may be leaving out: We are not just disembodied minds uttering abstractions at one another. We have bodies that we can use to point at specific parts of the physical world. Hopefully you understand that it doesn’t require magic for an evolved social creature to interpret the gesture.

          • Anonymous

            Since your understanding of mathematics seems to be based on wikipedia, check out Richard Montague’s work. It’s been known for a long time that ZFC is not finitely axiomatizible. You just seem to be throwing around words like recursively enumerable and finite axiomatization without knowing what they mean… and why they matter when you claim the epistemology that you’ve claimed.

            Lots of things don’t require magic. Those things may or may not be true. They may or may not preclude the existence of other true things. “Look, I have a body,” is not a satisfying argument whatsoever.

          • Ray

            ZFC as actually applied in mathematics is most certainly finitely axiomatizable, if for no other reason, because there are only finitely many statements known to be true in mathematics. Axioms are true by definition, so this places a finite upper bound on the number of axioms that have ever been used in all of mathematics. You need an infinite number of axioms if you want completeness without inconsistency. But mathematics, the body of knowledge that has been produced by mathematicians, is quite clearly incomplete. Long story short, I’m pretty sure that the wikipedia article which lists the 9 axioms of standard ZFC theory is correct and the article containing a two sentence description of Montague’s work is wrong or misleading.

            In any event, the claim that any mathematician has proven a theorem by starting from an infinite number of axioms is such a profound misunderstanding that I will not continue discussion with you until you have corrected it.

          • Anonymous

            …just continue reading wikipedia. In the ZFC article, read down to the metamathematics section. Read the wikipedia article on axiom schema. Learn what these words mean (you probably should do this before you use them)… and maybe learn why you can possibly write down a representation of an infinite number of things with only a finite number of symbols. …or do I need an infinitely long sheet of paper and an infinite supply of pencil lead to ever discuss something infinite?

            Your claim is simply ignorant of standard accepted theory. Ignoring the giants whose shoulders you’re trying to stand on is such a profound misunderstanding that I will not continue discussion with you until you have corrected it.

          • Anonymous

            …of course, you could actually read Montague’s work (as I suggested), rather than thinking my argument rested on a two-sentence description (total lolz, because we’ve gotten back to you rejecting things based on an incredibly small amount of exposure… even though this time, it’s core to the foundation of your own beliefs).

          • Ray

            Ok. I’ll give you that I misinterpreted an unfamiliar term “finitely axiomatizable.” So I’ll back off from my ultimatum for one comment at least.

            I don’t however think this contradicts my original claim that ZFC is RE. Can you support the claim that the presence of finitely many schema in an otherwise finite system of axioms makes it non-RE?

            Again, the first few Google hits for “set theory theorem prover” seem to give no indication that, actual, implemented, theorem proving software has any trouble checking proofs from set theory.

            can you please check your claim explicitly before proceeding?

          • Anonymous

            You need to give up the RE claim as well. You can start with a wiki attempt to put Godel into simple terms.

            As I said long ago, you can have a computer push symbols around and do computations. These computations can certainly help in getting a person to a proof… but there are limitations.

            Now that you’re accepting that ZFC is not finitely axiomatizable, are you going to drop your claim that mathematics is a source of knowledge or your claim that an infinite axiom schema is “a branch of knowledge where nothing is know, hence not a legitimate source of knowledge”? If you drop the latter, are you admitting the existence of knowledge that is not purely empirical?

            Remains to be answered:
            1) Is the description of air drag: “things described by terms in Newton’s force vector” an elucidation of scientific knowledge of air drag?

            2) I’m guessing that you’ve dropped the latter claim above (because you’re probably very emotionally connected to keeping the legitimacy of mathematics). As such, you have accepted the absurd results that come with it. What is the number of absurd results that a theory is allowed to have? What distinguishes fairies from doubling rocks?

            3) If there is no mathematical solution for a model, how can solutions to the model represent physical existence solutions? If a mathematical solution for a model is non-unique, would you agree that the theory should be expected to explain why one solution is physically realized… so that we can just ignore yet another absurd implication of our theory?

          • Anonymous

            Actually, you need not drop RE. It simply doesn’t matter. If you’re banking on something like ZFC underpinning your theory, you have the axiom of choice built in anyway… and you’re still not finitely axiomatizable (meaning something non-empirical must be accepted as knowledge)… and you still end up with the absurd results. We can pretty safely just agree to ignore the question of RE.

          • Ray

            Whoa, where do you get the claim that mathematical existence of sets in the banach tarski construction implies the physical existence of doubling rocks? You do know that a rock is not the same thing as an arbitrary point set, right?

          • Anonymous

            …so there is knowledge that is not empirical?

          • Ray

            On RE, you have a funny way of admitting you were wrong.

            On empirical confirmation of axiom schema. Empirical confirmation of a finite number of axioms from the schema counts as evidence for the validity of the schema as a whole. Empiricism deals in evidence, not proof.

            So I don’t see how your argument against mathematics being a source of empirically checkable knowledge goes anywhere, unless you’re assuming absolute certainty is required for knowledge.

          • Ray

            How is running Banach and Tarski’s proof through a theorem checker not empirical confirmation?

          • Anonymous

            On RE, the truth is nuanced and I didn’t want to get into it. The axiom schema of ZFC is RE… but the statements of ZFC (or complete extensions of ZFC) is not RE (thus, still ending up with a computability problem)… The reason why I don’t want to get into it is because it won’t help either of our arguments.

            Do you have a finite number of axioms which provides the mathematics that you need for today’s science (…to get to empirical predictions)? I’ll give you a hint… you don’t. That’s why people use ZFC. That’s why if ZFC falls, my pragmatic work falls. Unfortunately for you, you have to admit Banach-Tarski into the domain of knowledge in order to keep ZFC. But, as you adeptly pointed out, Banach-Tarski is not empirical knowledge. So, after reiterating the bind, are you dropping your ‘empiricism-only’ epistemology, or are you ready to renounce all scientific work that requires knowledge derived from ZFC? (Hint: this is my own personal flavor of an argument I’ve since seen posed to professional philosophers (I started considering it back when I took set theory and learned about Banach-Tarski… the related open question has been a long-standing concern of mine from differential equations)… they tend to drop the empiricism-only epistemology.)

          • Anonymous

            Proving Banach-Tarski from ZFC with a theorem-prover (or by hand) does not make it empirical. ZFC => your empirical results. ZFC => BT. That does not mean empirical results => BT.

          • Anonymous

            …and besides.. BT is absurd on its face… like gods and fairies and flying spaghetti monsters, right? You’re calling that thing empirical?

          • Anonymous

            Aside: On another personal note (since I mentioned my history with this bind), thank you for being a fairly reasonable, willing participant. I’ve not actually gone through this argument with a true-to-form empiricist-only interlocutor. So far, it’s only been an idea in my head (and like I mentioned, supported by a few glimpses of professional philosophers who talked generally about giving up empiricism-only due to the problem of mathematics). I really did start out just wanting to know how you justified your empiricism-only view… but then realized that it would be a great opportunity to try this out.

          • Ray

            The fact that a mathematical theorem, physically typed into physical computer, which was programmed, by way of more physical typing, to run theorem proving software, results in a pattern on the screen indicating a proof was found, for example a big green letter T, is unquestionably an empirical one. It is also unquestionably treated by mathematicians as evidence that the theorem is true.

            Whether the truth of the theorem has any other physical consequences, say regarding rocks, is a matter for physicists to decide, but it is in no way essential to the claim that the theorem is true.

          • Anonymous

            How about a mathematical theorem… physically written down on a sheet of paper… resulting in a big T that says a proof was found? Is that an empirical result?

          • Anonymous

            …how about a mathematical theorem physically spoken by a skilled orator… yelling a big “T” indicating that proof has been found?

            …how about a mathematical theorem physically processed by a mathematician’s brain… where synapses fire in the way consistent with the ASCII representation of a capital T, indicating that proof has been found?

            The justification… the steps in the proof, are still all the same. In fact, I need to be able to do the above before I can invoke a computer (I just don’t necessarily need to be able to perform EVERY step in my head). It’s a purely theoretical matter. There is simply nothing empirical about it.

          • Ray

            “How about a mathematical theorem… physically written down on a sheet of paper… resulting in a big T that says a proof was found? Is that an empirical result?”

            Sure. You’ll need to make sure that the patterns on the sheet of paper are coming from a mathematically trained human to make the result say anything about the truth of the theorem. You can even use yourself if you’d like, which probably makes the paperwork requirements for human experimentation less severe.

          • Anonymous

            We’re agreeing that it’s true… what I don’t understand is how you could possibly be claiming that it’s empirical. Please explain this to me.

          • Ray

            Oh. One clarification. I am only an empiricist in the sense that I think that all valid knowledge claims can be supported by empirical evidence. I never said this was the only way of supporting a claim. And for the record, I do believe in a priori knowledge, but not in a spooky way (by a priori knowledge I simply mean belief forming know-how along the lines of animal instinct.)

            Anyway, I think this discussion has pretty much wrapped up. Hopefully I was helpful elucidating the empiricist position.

          • Ray

            Oh well, since you did explicitly ask, I’ll try to explain myself again. How is running a theorem prover an empirical exercise? Well, you’re doing a bunch of physical manipulations on an experimental apparatus (the computer) and whether you think the theorem is true hinges on what kind of sensory input you get from the screen. This seems to me to be as classic an example of an empirical investigation as you can get.

          • Anonymous

            Well… I suppose it is wrapped up… since you apparently weren’t defending an empiricism-only point of view the entire time… I do think this problem of mathematics kills that view. Once you let other sources of knowledge into your epistemology, most anything can happen (and one can’t flippantly dismiss/antagonize theology from the grounds of, “It’s not science!” They actually have to engage the problem). Knowledge is a funny-looking entity.

          • Anonymous

            …oh, since the discussion is continued… how is it empirical without the computer? And if I start with different axioms (or even just the ones I have)… maybe I end up showing that a god or fairies exist, would you call that result empirical?

          • Ray

            Read my claim again:

            “all valid knowledge claims can be supported by empirical evidence. ”

            i.e. you can get your knowledge claims from a non empirical source, and you can even provisionally treat them as true, but they must answer to empirical data in order to remain provisionally true after investigation. If they are repeatedly shown to fail that test more often than they succeed, well you probably should conclude your source of knowledge wasn’t so good after all.

            I have demonstrated that math passes the above test. It doesn’t matter if turning this into a psychology experiment rather than a computer science experiment renders the testing process non-empirical (it doesn’t.) Theology has been investigated and it fails miserably, hence my view is strong enough to kill theology.

          • Anonymous

            Ok. Mathematics is not a source of knowledge, it is only a source of knowledge claims… I suppose you can keep empiricism and drop mathematics.

            Then, at the very least, our knowledge is going to be incredibly disjointed. Our theory is no longer a broad theory. It’s simply a collection of claims, for which logical deduction from one to the other is meaningless. That’s still a bit rough for my work (I call it pragmatic, because I’m not really a pure mathematician… but it’s rather mathematics heavy).

            I want to go back to my earlier investigation (that we dropped) concerning air drag/dark energy, because I think there’s still something important there concerning the role of mathematics/prediction. Would you say that, “Things described by terms in Newton’s force vector” is an elucidation of scientific knowledge of air drag?

          • Ray

            Provisionally true knowledge claims are the same thing as knowledge from my view. Remember what I’ve been saying about absolute certainty. So math is still in.

            And no, empiricism of my sort does not result in a disjointed worldview, in fact empiricism as practiced pretty much always includes some form of Ockham’s razor. The only requirement of your knowledge generating structure is that it may not include any components that are a priori excluded from later revision in response to empirical results. This is what Leah is saying when she talks about beliefs “paying rent” — although it comes from LessWrong, of course.

          • Anonymous

            You’re still losing large swaths of mathematics and the deduction that goes with it. You surely can’t say that Banach-Tarski has crossed the gap from provisional knowledge to knowledge (you can’t say that they’re the same thing, otherwise you wouldn’t need the word “provisional”). I’m fairly certain that as far as you’re concerned, BT is as likely to cross that gap as the god hypothesis.

            …I’d still really like to know about air drag, dark energy, and terms in an equation.

          • Ray

            I made the distinction because, when used by theists, “knowledge” is often taken to imply absolute certainty. In that sense, I don’t think knowledge claims ever graduate from provisionally true to “KNOWLEDGE.” That’s what I’m trying to head off. Let’s just leave it at mathematical theorems have every bit as much right to be called knowledge as empirical facts.

            Anyway, you’re exhausting. I can tell that you’re trying to understand, but well, this is likely to take a very long time, and I don’t really have the patience. Views similar enough to mine are available all over the place (LessWrong, pretty much anything by Quine, Feynman’s 7th messenger lecture etc.).

            You’re basically asking me to explain scientific reasoning in complete detail. What’s the point? you already know how to do it. You also know how to prove theorems in mathematics, and I assume you have no problem treating them as unproblematically true outside the context of philosophy. I mean really, how often do you hear an actual physicist saying, “hey maybe all those integration formulas I learned in calculus don’t really work.” The Banach Tarski theorem is true. Those axioms really do lead to that conclusion. (I haven’t studied it in any detail, but my suspicion is the scariest conclusion you can draw from Banach Tarski is that you can give consistent answers to any finite sequence of questions regarding which of the six components contains point x,y,z in the original sphere. I’m not even sure you can do that. It may be a “the answers exist but they’re non-computable” thing.)

            Anyway, just because you believe one crazy thing (and I’m not convinced it’s even as crazy as you think it is. Whether axiomatic QM includes the axiom of choice or not, I’m pretty sure you can’t physically realize doubling rocks at finite energies anyway.) it does not mean that you can just believe whatever you want. Suppose doubling rocks were well motivated, would that logically entail the existence of fairies or the Trinitarian God? I don’t think so. You need to provide all new motivation for that particular absurdity.

          • Anonymous

            I’m as exhausted as I am exhausting. I’ve been slammed busy with stuff (and trying to carry on this conversation, because I’m really interested, has been quite difficult). Also, insomnia is not a friend.

            Again, we agree on the pragmatic value of math/science (otherwise, I wouldn’t be an academic)… but that doesn’t mean I don’t think philosophy is important or interesting (I think you agree, otherwise you wouldn’t have persisted this long (unless you’re really just stubborn)).

            I use BT, because it’s an example I’m familiar with. However, I’ve encountered many pieces of mathematical ‘truth’ that would be absurd physical results. If you remember earlier, I was also mentioning uniqueness of solutions as another potentially troublesome thing (a little easier for pretty much anyone with just a bit of undergrad in math/science to understand). Also, I began inquiring about how many crazy things a theory had to predict before it became problematic. The question isn’t so much, “Can I imply the Abrahamic God from your axioms,” but more, “How many fairies is too many fairies?” I wouldn’t want to reject theories that doesn’t possess the requisite number of fairies too rapidly.

            Stopping everything at provisional status seems like a nifty trick. I suppose I’ll call this view total metaphysical agnosticism or something. Basically, nothing is knowledge. That could be a bit bothersome, still… I mean, “tautologies are (provisionally) tautological”? Deduction seems in danger still.

            If you’re really just out, fine… I’ll keep Quine in mind (Feynman never seemed to really care about philosophical problems… and LessWrong has its own whole host of problems). Judging by his short wikipedia summary, it appears that he’s willing to say that mathematical entities are knowledge (and even real)… but then quickly looking at his indispensability thesis seems to go back through mathematics and simply cross out the things he doesn’t like. Basically, by fiat he kills large chunks of mathematics (which I don’t think most people are willing to do… especially because they’d probably like deduction to make sense).

          • Anonymous

            And again (if you’re done), thanks for the conversation. I enjoyed it and learned stuff. Woot!

          • Ray


            well, I guess I’m not completely done, but trying to wrap it up sometime soon. It’s been fun.

            Total metaphysical agnosticism — yeah, I can live with that label. It’s a bit difficult to say what I’m denying, since philosophers don’t seem to agree on what “metaphysics” is (cf. the first sentence of .) But yes, it’s common for courses in metaphysics to include a question along the lines of “is metaphysics possible?” without answering in the affirmative (e.g. ,) so this would seem to indicate that honest metaphysicians aren’t even certain that anything they have actually written constitutes metaphysics. In this case, the professor has pretty strong reasons. Compare the statement from the handout “metaphysicians want to be taken fully literally.” with this paper by the same professor: .) And of course there’s the practical matter that no one can agree upon answers to any of the questions that have traditionally been thought to be metaphysical (e.g. platonism vs nominalism.)

            So perhaps you could reconceptualize the conversation as an attempt to convince you that total metaphysical agnosticism isn’t all that scary, and we may have no choice.

            Anyway, Hopefully I’ve given you enough reading and other things to think about that you can pursue this mostly on your own. I’m willing to answer more questions, I guess, but I’m certainly happy enough to be done.

          • Anonymous

            I’m not here to claim that total metaphysical agnosticism is scary… I’m just interested to see that it seems to be necessary for the popular empiricism claims.

            But if we’re worried about scary, the first two links you have make arguments that denying metaphysical statements tends to run into self-refuting problems… which may be scarier than eschewing deduction and claiming that tautologies are only provisionally tautological, depending on what you care about. I’ll read the paper you linked to (probably tomorrow afternoon…).

            Most of the conversation might be done, as I feel like we’ve boxed the empiricism-only epistemology into an (anti-)metaphysical box… one which at least gives the honest atheist a bit of pause before he outrightly rejects other sources of knowledge with contempt. Essentially, we’re finished with the epistemology question, and leaving the question of “what could go wrong with the necessary (anti-)metaphysical position?” for future inquiry. That seems reasonable.

            (…although, if you’re still willing to answer a question more directly related to the epistemology question, I’m still really curious what you think about air drag, dark energy, and terms in an equation.)

          • Ray

            OK. For the record, I would characterize my position as a-metaphysical rather than anti-metaphysical, since denying the possibility of metaphysics presumes that metaphysics is well defined in the first place. Given the SEP article, I think it’s fair to say that the real life metaphysicians have not done a good job of laying out a coherent position for me to deny. So, I simply say that I have no use for the metaphysical/non-metaphysical distinction. If someone says something using the word “metaphysical,” I may suggest a number of ways it may be rephrased in language I find more unambiguously comprehensible (e.g. something in the language of quantum field theory or mathematical logic.) Of course, they can say “that’s not what I meant” without contradiction, but the same is true of any incoherent position. So it doesn’t prove all that much.

          • Anonymous

            This definitely seems problematic. You’ve introduced a privileged set of languages, but no guidelines except personal preference (what you find ‘comprehensible’) for populating the list. You’ll need at least two criteria to go with this set. First, you’ll need a criterion for saying a language should be in the set. Otherwise, one could just plug his ears and ignore as many languages as he likes (in fact, he could just find all languages incomprehensible, ignore them all, and be perfectly content with the empty set).

            Secondly, you’ll need a criterion for saying a language should not be allowed in the set (because your whole goal seems to be to exclude languages that you don’t like). Unfortunately, this begs the question we’ve been discussing with mathematics. If you let mathematics be a privileged language, than you certainly can’t use “contains absurd ideas that have no empirical value” as a criterion for being ‘incomprehensible’ (and thus strikable from your set).

            Finally, those criteria themselves must be elucidated in a language… which must itself be privileged… and we slide down a metaphysical loop-the-loop…

          • Ray


            Why are you trying to justify claims to a person who doesn’t already think we can speak coherently about atoms, molecules, wavefunctions, and which theorems can be derived from which axioms? Where are you going to find such a person? An insane asylum? Why does his hypothetical opinion matter?

            Why are you expecting a one sentence description of how to evaluate scientific claims? If one sentence was all you needed, it seems like you wouldn’t need 20 years of schooling to get yourself on board.

            I personally believe that I picked up some useful knowledge of the world in my years of training. I believe it is right and proper to use that knowledge rather than pretending it doesn’t exist and seeing what I can derive from there.

          • Ray

            Or. To be briefer and less snarky. I do not consider “assumes that we can speak coherently about math and physics” to be a flaw in my epistemology. I consider it blatantly obvious that we can.

          • Ray

            Oh, and please don’t follow up with “what does it mean to speak coherently of something?” as if you had not only forgotten everything you know about math and physics, but the English language as well. If you respond along those lines, I WILL discontinue this conversation immediately.

          • Anonymous

            “Get on board. Why are you asking for a consistent philosophical understanding of theology? Why did you come to mosque for 20 years if you want to sum it all up in one sentence? I learned something from the Qur’an, and I believe it’s right to put that knowledge to use rather than pretend it doesn’t exist. I consider the knowledge in the Qur’an blatantly obvious.”

            I mean, come on. How many times do I have to explain that I’m not claiming empiricism doesn’t have pragmatic value (and that I use it often)? How many times do I have to explain that I’m simply exploring the philosophical consistency and epistemological/metaphysical consequences of a popular form of empiricism?

            I’m not saying it can’t do things. I’m not claiming that it shouldn’t be used to do things. Churches can do things too. But at least they’re usually honest about the fact that they stick their fingers in their ears when you dig too deep. Rational empiricists aren’t supposed to do that. They’re not supposed to stick their fingers in their ears at all. At the very least, they’re supposed to acknowledge, “That’s a problem,” and then maybe go about trying to find a solution someday.

            That’s what you want when you antagonize theists, right? (I’ve tried to be polite, but let my questions/arguments carry the force.) You want them to admit, “That’s a problem.” And then you want them to realize that it’s such an insurmountable problem that they must deconvert. I’m not even shooting for that! I’m sitting here, considering empiricism as a potential atheist philosophy… and not unlike anyone who’s considering converting to a religion, I’m curious about the implications. “Shut up and get back to work,” is not a rational response. You can even say, “That’s a problem… now get back to work.” That would at least be reasonable.

            …I’m saddened that I had to write this post.

          • Ray

            Sigh. When there are two people involved in a dispute, neither party should demand justification for claims they both believe. It’s a waste of time. I can tell you are not going to understand this simple principle, so I think any continuation will just be wasting more time. I’m done.

          • Anonymous

            But there’s obviously something we don’t agree on. The most obvious piece that we don’t agree on a criterion for striking languages from our set of privileged languages. The rest of my demand (I prefer request) is to make sense of that kind of criteria in general. This does not seem to be outlandish.

          • Anonymous

            …and actually, I would argue that the best society can hope to do is ask for justification of all claims, regardless of how many people believe them. I mean, I wouldn’t want the need for justification to rely on how many people the Catholics converted….

            Also, justifying claims.. even when we seem to agree on them.. has led to much new inquiry and knowledge… and much science.

          • Anonymous

            The challenge is a recycle of the challenge concerning how we strike down potential sources of knowledge. Why? Because the response to the problem of mathematics in that setting was to push it off to metaphysics. Then, realizing that rejecting metaphysics might not be nice, the exact same trick for ridding ourselves of potential sources of knowledge was invoked to get rid of potentially troublesome languages: “I don’t like it… I don’t want it.” No criteria. This is why it fails the exact same test… because you just pushed the problem upstairs.

        • Smidoz

          I’m not sure that studying evolution automatically makes it useful, to any discipline, since it would narrow the work to fit into a framework, that no matter what anybody says is based on interpretation of data, not on solid testing. I studied linguistics, and as someone who believed in evolution really struggled with it from a linguistic point of view. Proto-languages, no matter how reasonable they might sound are contradictory to empirical evidence. Ancient languages had incredibly complex structures not like we see in most languages today which are simpler. If we look at one of the world’s youngest languages, Afrikaans, it also turns out to be one of the simplest. How do we get that language started simple, and became complex, only to revert back to simple again.

          The rapid mutation of a language acquisition device seems a better approach in light of the data, but this LAD is only useful if the person is exposed to language in their formative years, which the first generation with this device wouldn’t have had, which kind of leaves the evolution of language in a pickle.

          In short, I spent a semester studying something which was of no use to me understanding how language actually works in the real world. I’m sure it’s the same for doctors, who need to work with peoples anatomy as it is now, as opposed to as it may have been millions of years ago.

          Your argument assumes that the study of something is useful because people study it in mulitple disciplines, which you would actually need to demonstrate, so far as I can see the usefulness in studying it is really only to the people who draw a salary from it.

    • leahlibresco

      I’m not sure what can be done about the Courtier’s Reply. You’re absolutely right, Deisach that a lot of people try and hide behind it who really haven’t done their homework and who really don’t understand what their opponents are saying. On the other hand, there are plenty of Christians who really are making the kinds of unreasonable demands that the Courtier’s Reply is meant to label. I might suggest that you shouldn’t claim a Courtier’s Reply defence unless you can pass an ideological turing test. You have to do something to prove you’re conversant, even if it seems obvious to you that your interlocutor is leading you down an infinite reading regress.

    • Adam Lee

      I think the Courtier’s Reply is one of those ideas that religious evangelists love to misunderstand. The point of it isn’t that you don’t need to know anything about theology whatsoever to be a justified atheist; it’s that you don’t need to know about those parts of it that have no bearing on whether God exists to be a justified atheist. The classic example was given by Terry Eagleton when he said of Dawkins:

      What, one wonders, are Dawkins’s views on the epistemological differences between Aquinas and Duns Scotus? Has he read Eriugena on subjectivity, Rahner on grace or Moltmann on hope? Has he even heard of them?

      I think even the most staunch apologist would have to concede that these debates, however fascinating they may or may not be, are either irrelevant to the question of whether God actually exists, or meaningless if God does not exist. That being the case, atheists rightly dismiss them as unimportant. The point of the Courtier’s Reply is that you only need to consider a religion’s empirical claims to decide on its truth value.

  • deiseach

    “Do you really think so little of me that my disdain for your views counts as a compliment?”

    Ray, I don’t know you well enough to have either disdain or regard (apart from the common courtesy you are owed by virtue of your humanity) for you. What I’m doing is reclaiming the terminology – I’m reappropriating the civil discourse evident in the likes of this bon mot : “that waffling pettifogging traditional Catholic way of accepting the evidence but imagining a lot of god-diddling in the background.”

    Just call me a waffling pettifogging traditional Catholic! You know you want to, Ray ;-)

    • Patrick

      You’re playing the politeness game. If you can define criticism of the justification of religious belief as entailing an insult to the intelligence of believers, people who don’t want to insult the intelligence of believers won’t want to criticize religion.

      Good luck.

      • deiseach

        No, Patrick, what I am defining is “If your criticism of religious belief boils down to insulting the intelligence of believers, at the very least learn some new insults.”

        Way back, a fansite I was involved with got into a minor flamewar with some people from FandomWank (mainly as a result of some third party, for whatever reason, indulging themselves in “Let’s you and him fight!”).

        I don’t know if the commenters who left insults on our site were from FandomWank or just random trolls attracted by the scent of blood in the water, but I have to say I was extremely disappointed in the level of invective. I was expecting a good row and instead got the kind of playground insults you would hear from a bunch of nine year olds.

        Elevate the discourse! Invest in a thesaurus!

    • leahlibresco

      I have to endorse more frequent use of the work ‘pettifogging’ in the comment sections.

      • deiseach

        I’ve always felt that people should read more 19th century literature; it would have a marked effect on their vocabulary.

        I’m also slightly reeling from the realisation that there are people out there who think, for instance, that a novel that was published more than twenty years is old. In a good way, mind, due to someone doing an online reading of “The Lord of the Rings” and being constantly amazed that “This book is nearly sixty years old, how come it’s so good?”, but still a little amazed myself at this attitude.


    • Ray

      I really don’t buy this reappropriation business. You can reappropriate a term like “queer,” “heathen,” or “infidel,” which doesn’t denote anything that is both specific and negative. PZ and I are both accusing you of a very specific sort of muddled reasoning (special pleading is at least in the neighborhood.)

      However, if we want to talk about arrogance, you are admitting that you don’t know squat about science, but rather than believing the scientist who says that disallowing your sort of muddled reasoning is essential to the success of the scientific process, you shrug off the accusation without even attempting a defense.

      • Ray

        erk. I meant to say “scientific project,” not “scientific process.” (Not really essential to my point, but it would have read better.)

        Oh, and to loop back to the original topic. “You haven’t done your reading” is not a specific accusation, it’s a stalling tactic. Hence the gnu atheist appropriation of “unsophisticated.” When the claim of unsophistication is replaced by specific objections, e.g. as concerns Dawkins’s exposition of the Five Ways, the objections generally turn out to rely on a contentious reading of what Aquinas meant by something, or they assume something (like Divine Simplicity) that may reasonably thought to conflict with other claims made by Aquinas — I can quote no less an expert on Aquinas than Sir Anthony Kenny to support both claims. Hopefully you won’t accuse him of being “unsophisticated” as well. I’d also note that prior to the publication of TGD, modified versions of the five proofs were much more common in apologetics circles than the originals, so responding to a version closer to what was commonly presented at the time was entirely warranted.

      • deiseach

        You don’t think “queer” is both specific and negative? I might yield to you on that, were it not that I witnessed a very irate commentor on a fanfic site having an absolute meltdown over the use of the word due to either youth or misunderstanding; they thought it was meant as a slur about same-sex attraction when those of us who were either old enough to remember its use in ordinary converse or those who had read books over thirty years old explained that it was obvious from the context that the word was being used in its older sense of “strange, unusual, odd”. Even an apology and clarification on the part of the writer, and comments from a range of readers (on a slash-friendly site, so we weren’t all straight, cis-gender, conservative, religious types) failed to assuage the dudgeon of the offended party.

        I am totally reclaiming the iconography of The Papal Octupus, however :-)

        • Ray

          “queer” like other slurs has a connotation which is roughly independent of its denotation, and so it can co-exist with other more neutral terms like “homosexual” or even potentially positive terms such as “gay.” (iirc the last one was originally positive but was temporarily co-opted as a middle-school insult.) OTOH, some terms like “stupid” or “sadistic” really can’t be said in a positive way, and any attempt to do so will immediately be recognized as a euphemism.

          As far as what you’re trying to co-opt: If you are trying to give a positive connotation to something that literally means “makes bold claims only when she’s pretty sure any contradictory evidence that might have existed has been destroyed” I want no part of it.

      • deiseach

        Ray, I consider I know as much about science as Dawkins does about religion, viz. what both of us learned in school.

        If I’m unsophisticated in the field of his expertise, he’s unsophisticated in the field of theological expertise. If I should familiarise myself with what is really the thought of modern science rather than content myself with “Everyone knows that…”, then so should he likewise.

        I’ve read the “Origin of Species” which I’m willing to dare any of the atheists out there: how many of you have done so?

  • deiseach

    I would like to thank Patrick for raising the topic. I’ve seen some reports that, at the Reason Rally, Professor Dawkins called for people not alone to challenge religious believers, but to ridicule and show contempt for their doctrines and sacraments. I have no idea if this is so or what he said (Leah, any report from your experience?)

    I would just say that if you are going to take that tack, then there’s a long history and a high level to live up to – for example, the Alexamenos graffito or the story of the patron saint of actors, St. Genesius (briefly, he had the starring role in a play mocking Christians, especially the sacrament of baptism, which was put on before the Emperor Diocletian – of the 4th century Persecution fame – and either in rehearsal or in performance, is alleged to have been converted and was executed for his troubles).

    The point I am making here is that there have been centuries worth of mockery and contempt for doctrines and sacraments, and it hasn’t really worked as a tactic. Talking, explaining and civility work slower, but better.

    • Ray

      Forgive me if I’m a bit skeptical of advice from someone who doesn’t want my attempts at persuasion to work.

    • Ray

      Hopefully I don’t have to explain to you that ridicule of Divine Jesus belief doesn’t work as well when your critics believe equally ridiculous things about Hercules and Bacchus. Nor should I have to point out that modern physics and natural history is a much sounder foundation from which to reject supernatural claims than neoplatonism (which doesn’t exclude such claims in the first place. And yes, physics and natural history do rule out supernatural claims unless you impose artificial and very weakly motivated limits on their applicability.)

      • deiseach

        “Hopefully I don’t have to explain to you that ridicule of Divine Jesus belief doesn’t work as well when your critics believe equally ridiculous things about Hercules and Bacchus. ”

        Excellent! So I can look forward to the cessation of gibes about cannibalism (and at least, disregarding the poster, that’s a more thoughtful treatment of the usage than generally seen) and incest amongst Christians because worshippers of Bacchus and Heracles also accused us, back in the day, of Thyestean banquets and Oedipodean intercourse?

        I mean, if it was good enough for “critics who believe equally ridiculous thigs about Hercules and Bacchus”, then obviously it can’t be good enough for rational free-thinkers!

        • Ray

          I really don’t see how that follows.

          I’ll agree that sterotyping southerners is rude, and mis-aimed if applied to Catholics. That said, there is something inherently absurd about making a great moral point about the distinction between cannibalism and eating the body of a “fully human” man. Especially given that wars were fought over just how “fully human” the man in question was.

        • Ray

          I would also add that, claiming that eating something “fully human” is ok, because of the accidents rather than the substance, massively undercuts your case against both the Cracker incident and abortion at the blastula stage on the grounds that the blastula is “fully human.”

    • leahlibresco

      He did encourage people to show contempt, but not for its own sake. This was part of the speech where he talked about people who affiliate with a certain religion but don’t really believe its propositions. It’s meant to be a way to get them to confront their own doubts or doublethink. I endorse the goal, but have doubts about this specific tactic.

  • @b

    >>Is There a Good Ideological Echo Chamber?

    Yes, it’s academia.

    The Reason Rally is advocating the modern academic consensus. Because overlooking the facts-of-the-day is wrongheaded. Ethically. However imperfect. However unbelievable to non-experts. However discordant with religious beliefs. Today in public debate. Historically inside academia. Right is right.

    The quick rebuttal is that academia is a Leftwing ideological echo chamber. And therefore mistaken. Ethically misguided. Or factually mistaken.

    And yet it moves