Archive December 2009

Scientific method and the ’supernatural’ Ken Perrott Dec 31

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This is a repeat of a post from over 2 years ago:

Richard Dawkins TV series Enemies of Reason has caused some discussion about the relationship of science to the supernatural. This also comes up in discussions of the nature of science, the science/religion conflict and the motivation behind intelligent design and creationism. Some of the terms used in this discussion can mean different things to different people, so it’s worth starting with some dictionary definitions.

Natural: existing in, produced by nature; not supernatural or strange; based on the principles and findings of human reason rather than on revelation.

Supernatural: of or relating to things that cannot be explained according to natural laws; of or caused as if by a god, miraculous.

Material: that which makes up reality; one of two modes of existence, the other being mind.

Materialist: the doctrine that matter is the only reality and that the mind, the emotions, etc., are merely functions of it.

Scientific method

Describing phenomena as natural or material has the same meaning. I think its worth adding that from a scientific viewpoint natural/material phenomena have objective existence (exist independently of the observing consciousness), have an internal order and are capable of interaction. This means that they are capable of being investigated and (potentially) known or understood.

Science investigates, seeks to understand, natural or material phenomena. If supernatural or non-material phenomena exist, if there is a non-material reality, it is outside the domain of science. This is why religious scientists can happily investigate the natural/materia world but still claim a belief in a god which cannot be investigated scientifically because it is supernatural, outside the natural/material world.

This is sensible because, by definition, only the natural/material world can be investigated. To say we could investigate a supernatural, non-material, phenomena would mean that we understand it to have objective existence, some implicit order and be capable of interaction. That would bring it into the natural, material, sphere.

This is why the scientific method is often described as methodological naturalism or methodological materialism. The materialism describes the methods, not the philosophical outlook of the investigator. So it doesn’t matter if the scientist is a philosophical materialist (non-theist for example) or a philosophical idealist (a theist for example) she will be happy to use the scientific method.

Revelation instead of investigation

The problem with proponents of intelligent design is that they demand that scientists abandon this methodology, they in fact attribute all the ills of the world to ’scientific materialism.’ However, abandonment of methodological naturalism would remove all objectivity from science (see cartoon, right). We would no longer be able to use empirical evidence and testability, reason and peer review. This would be replaced by revelation and authority. True scientific investigation of the origins of the universe and life would be replaced by the bronze-age myth of the Bible.

Even when opponents of methodological naturalism don’t appeal to religious scripture they can still attempt to undermine science by ’ring-fencing’ some areas. They can declare that some areas such as the origin of life, origin of species, origin of the universe, the mind and consciousness, cannot be investigated using the scientific method. However, they do not offer any rational alternative method. This is of course a ’science stopper,’ an appeal to ignorance rather than enlightenment.

Mano Singham discusses this more eloquently, and in more detail, in a his recent post What do creationist/ID advocates want-III?

How do you decide what is ’supernatural’

Considering the difficult problems science investigates it is easy to define some areas as beyond science, outside the scientific domain. Some problems, such as the first seconds of the formation of the universe, may well be beyond our current technology. But that doesn’t mean that the phenomena involved are not material, capable of (in principle) being investigated and understood. We have learned from past mistakes that such phenomena shouldn’t be ruled as being beyond scientific investigation. Consider, for example, the statement, 150 years ago, of the French Philosopher Auguste Comte 1about stars:

’We shall never be able to study, by any method, their chemical composition or their mineralogical structure … Our positive knowledge of stars is necessarily limited to their geometric and mechanical phenomena’

Within a few years the invention of spectrometry proved him wrong!

As a philosophical materialist, an atheist, I believe that reality does not have a supernatural component, although I appreciate that others will believe differently. In practice though, how does one decide that a phenomenon is supernatural, outside the possibility of investigation? It seems to me that the lessons of history indicate that nothing should be exempt from rational investigation. We should never decide that a phenomena is supernatural until it has been thoroughly investigated as a material, natural phenomenon. And we should not use our current limited technology and understanding as an excuse to judge a phenomenon as supernatural — after all that was the approach taken by primitive humans attempting to explain climatic phenomena. We should know better.

For me, the attitude of, Cicero (expressed three centuries ago in De Divinatione), should guide our investigations today:

’For nothing can happen without cause; nothing happens that cannot happen, and when what was capable of happening has happened, it may not be interpreted as a miracle. Consequently there are no miracles. We therefore draw this conclusion: what was incapable of happening never happened and what was capable of happening is not a miracle.’

Related Articles:
Questions science cannot answer?
Debating science and religion
Solution to climate change?
Putting Dawkins in his place
Limits of science or religious ’fog’?
Can science enrich faith?
Miracles and the supernatural?
Should we teach creationism?
Humility of science and the arrogance of religion
Intelligent design/creationism I: What is scientific knowledge?
Intelligent design/creationism II: Is it scientific?
Intelligent design/creationism III: The religious agenda
Intelligent design/creationism IV: The religion — science conflict
Intelligent design/creationism: Postscript
Richard Dawkins and the enemies of reason
Humility of science and the arrogance of religion
Limits of science, limits of religion



Belief, knowledge and science Ken Perrott Dec 30

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This is a repeat of a post from 18 months back:

A pernicious feature of current attacks on science is the promulgation of the idea that scientific knowledge is ’just a belief.’ That it has no more validity than any other belief. That non-scientific beliefs should be given the same status or legitimacy as scientific theory.

This idea is promulgated by ’secular’ new age, post-modernist and similar ideologies. It is also promoted by some religious groups advancing creationist ideas. For an example of the latter have a look at the documentary video ’In Good Faith’ showing a ’science lesson’ at the Australian Pacific Hills Christian School (see also Teaching science in faith schools). In this ’lesson’ students were offered a range of beliefs about biology and told they should consider them and choose which best fitted their religious views.

Not just a belief

But science is not about belief — it’s about evidence, reason and theories which well summarize knowledge. Scientific knowledge is never settled — it changes as new evidence comes to hand. In contrast beliefs are often set in stone. Often beliefs are just dogma without any evidential support. They survive new discoveries because they are immune to them.

The real power of scientific knowledge lies in its evidential support and the resulting ability to change, to update. Our modern society and technology could not have been built on dogma, on just belief. Nor can modern society have any hope of the solving the problems we face by reliance on belief.

Those diverse groups who oppose scientific knowledge have the same aim — to replace that knowledge and the powerful scientific method with dogma. With ’just a belief.’ This is true of US creationists campaigning to ’teach the controversy’ and ’teach the strengths and weakness.’ This is the motive behind the ’academic freedom’ legislation campaigns. All this is aimed at giving religious belief and dogma the same status in the science class as scientific knowledge.

It is also true of ’new age’, ’post-modernist’ ’alternative health’ and similar secular movements. Although in these case the motives are often commercial.

See also:
For an excellent outline of the scientific method given by Pamela L. Gay go to the Astronomy cast podcast Ep. 90: The Scientific Method
Download The Scientific Method podcast
Books and Ideas Podcast #14: Dr. Pamela Gay from Astronomy Cast

Similar articles:
Dembski, peer review and supernova
Teaching science in faith schools
Dissent from Darwinism list — further analysis
Lawrence Krauss — Richard Dawkins discussion
Richard Dawkins in Inverness


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The Unconsidered Life Ken Perrott Dec 28

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A short and to-the-point video. Here the philosopher and author AC Grayling comments thinking critically and being a well-informed citizen of the world.

Something to think about at this time for considering New Year’s resolutions.

YouTube – RDF TV – The Unconsidered Life – A.C. Grayling.


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’A plot to rule the world’ Ken Perrott Dec 26

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We should differentiate between those who are sceptical of current assessment in climate science and those who outright deny the science. There are sceptics and there are deniers.

It seems to me that a feature more or less common to deniers is conspiracy theory. This is probably inevitable. After all, if one is going to reject all the science and make charges of dishonesty against scientists, politicians and activists concerned about global warming you do need some sort of explanatory framework. It seems simpler to just put the whole thing down to a giant conspiracy, rather than bother dealing with the intricacies of the science, commerce and politics involved.

The global warming conspiracy theory

It’s always a give away to me when I hear questioners of climate science peddling myths about Al Gore, referring to people like him in derogatory tones, or supporting the arguments and promoting the videos put out by Lord Monckton – a well know conspiracy theorist. You have to be a denier to do this.

Here’s an extreme example of conspiracy theory being used to reject the findings of climate science. Produced by Jesse “The Body” Ventura who has been a special forces operative, motorcycle gang member, WWF wrestler and governor of Minnesota, and who now promotes himself as a seeker of the “truth” in a new TV show called Conspiracy Theory with Jesse Ventura.

So have a look at the video of his programme on global warming (Conspiracy Theory Jesse Ventura – Global Warming). It’s good for a laugh.

The sad thing though is that even some of our local deniers of climate change basically repeat some of this garbage. They, sadly, seem to be motivated by conspiracy theory.

Part 1:

Part 2:

Part 3:

Part 4:

Part 5:

Part 6:

Thanks to Guardian article Climate change denial as done by a WWF wrestler … and June Sarpong


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George Monbiot on ClimateGate & the climate denial industry Ken Perrott Dec 24

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Lord Christopher Monckton, the 3rd Viscount Monckton of Brenchley

Public comments on the “climategate” emails have certainly been varied. From one extreme like Lord Monckton who uses it to justify his outlandish giant conspiracy theory, to the more rational discussion by science journalists.

George Monbiot, who writes for The Guardian, has made some of the more balanced comments. He is not dismissing the significance of the emails but at the same time puts them in a proper context. He is particularly warning that they are in no way evidence of a conspiracy, or that the current assessment of the threat of global warming is compromised.

The “Gish Gallop”

In this talk (video below) he points to the real issue of climate change denial and the propaganda industry built around this. He discusses some of the tactics used by deniers. I particularly liked his description of the “Gish Gallop*” where deniers make a series of claims, one after the other, continually moving the goalposts so that their opponents are denied the chance of replying to any of them. We have seen this locally with the denier groups and bloggers who have been attacking NIWA scientists. They have quickly moved on from the original claim that the raw data did not support NIWA’s conclusions, to new “demands” about details of adjustments, the numbers of stations used, etc.

Monbiot’s advice – don’t get sucked in! Stick with the original claims and show where they are wrong. Demand that the deniers justify their original claims instead of galloping on.

*The “Gish Gallop” gets its name from Duane Gish – a well known creationists who uses this tactic in his attacks on evolutionary science.

YouTube – George Monbiot on ClimateGate & the climate denial industry.


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Testimony of non-believers Ken Perrott Dec 23

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Recently I reviewed the book 50 Voices of Disbelief: Why We Are Atheists by Russell Blackford and Udo Schuklenk (see Why We Are Atheists). An interesting follow-up to that book is a  talk back show (Talk back: the disbelievers) which played on ABC National radio a few days ago. This involved Russell Blackford (Co-editor, 50 Voices of Disbelief: Why We Are Atheists), and atuhors of some of the bpook’s essays Philip Kitcher (Professor of philosophy, Columbia University, New York), Tanveer Ahmed (Psychiatrist), Sean Williams (Speculative fiction author – including Star Wars: The Force Unleashed), Jack Dann (Author and editor of science fiction, including The Man Who Melted, The Memory Cathedral and The Rebel: An Imagined Life of James Dean) and Emma Tom (Journalist, author, columnist).

However, I was really  interested in the people who phoned in. These were a random collection of non-believers who were asked to describe how they came to their current disbelief. A sort of testimony if you like.

Just personal statements, no ideological dogma. I found them a very nice collection of thoughtful, honest people. And non-belligerent.

It may have helped that the host specifically requested non-believers. Pointing out that he wasn’t interested in believers having their say in this particular programme.

You can download the audio of this show. Or go to Talk back: the disbelievers for more details.

Thanks to Metamagician and the Hellfire Club: Radio show on “Life Matters” for the links.

Thanks to Jesus & Mo for cartoon.


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Becoming an atheist Ken Perrott Dec 20

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Book Review: Why I became an Atheist: Personal Reflections and Additional Arguments by John W. Loftus

Price: US$15.95
Paperback: 180 pages
Publisher: Trafford Publishing (November 7, 2008)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1425183794
ISBN-13: 978-1425183790

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I think this book is for Christians, or recent Christians. Its discussion concentrates on the flaws in the Christian argument, rather than any substantial justification or expansion of atheist ideas. So, the arguments presented are of limited interest to a long-term infidel like me who is not interested in the details of Christian theology or their refutation.

To be fair, I have not yet read Loftus’s  Why I Rejected Christianity: A Former Apologist Explains.’ This current volume supplements that book in providing a collection of personal reflections and additional arguments. Some of these presumable originate from his popular blog Debunking Christianity.’

He covers topics like his personal motivation for his blog, religious funerals, the plight of the preacher, advice for people leaving a faith, various arguments advanced fro Christianity, the problem of evil, virgin birth, reincarnation and Pascal’s wager. On the other hand he does deal with an atheistic ethic, freethinking and ’new atheism.’ However, my feeling is that even with these later subjects his perspective is still strongly influenced by his recently rejected theology. So I find his idea of ’new atheism’ more of the caricature normally presented by apologist opponents. He seems to accept their argument that ’new atheism’ is about evolution, not capitalising the word ’God’, or referring to ’God’ with masculine pronouns. He appears to accept the argument the ’new atheists’ are militant and lack respect for the opponents. I think this is inadequate. Similarly I found his description of the scientific process inadequate.

But that’s my perspective. I grant there will be much here for the Christian or ex-Christian with an interest in theology.

Changing beliefs like divorce

Mind you — I am interested in the processes involved in changing ones beliefs — especially where the beliefs have been strongly held. It is obviously a significant event in one’s life – a bit like a divorce. Just as with a divorce, there are people who transfer to a new belief system (or spouse) rather rapidly. Others may take time to find themselves and not rush to formalise new beliefs (or relationships).

I think there is much to be said for the more gradual process. Perhaps our personal inadequacies will make us prone to the same mistakes. Simply transferring our dogmatic tendencies to a new ideological outlook —as we can fall into new relationships with the same attitudes of dependence, etc., which screwed up the old one. Sometimes we can learn and change if we move slowly but contemplatively.

Personally, I think that changing beliefs is healthy, if at times confusing or painful. Loftus does reveal a little of the personal influence of attitudes and their effects on friendship in this book, but I am sure there is more that could be said.

As a collection, rather than a narrative, this book is easy to ready. Just dip into wherever your interest takes you. The short sections mean that one can pick the book up, think about the passage, and not come back to it for several days. Ideal for holiday reading, perhaps.

So, in summary. A useful book for those interested in Christian theology and debates in this area — especially from someone who has recently left the belief system. But not a book for someone who wants to get an understanding of atheism or of the personal side of the journey from Christianity to atheism.


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The global warming debate summarised Ken Perrott Dec 19


The debates around climate change have hotted up of late. Obviously this is related to the Copenhagen Conference, the “climategate” theft and release of emails in the UK and the attacks on our NIWA scientists by the local “denier” groups the Climate Science Coalition, the Climate Conversation group and a number of local bloggers.

It amazes me how often the same arguments come up, how strongly proponents of these are so adamant about them, and how little they have actually researched the issues – except to confirm their own biases.

Often, but not always, those arguing most furiously have only a rudimentary understanding of the whole subject of climate change. So, they may benefit from exposure to even the most simplified counter arguments.
Recently the Information Is Beautiful blog produced a very effective summary of the arguments and counter arguments (see Climate Change Deniers vs The Consensus). This includes most of the arguments I have heard lately so I reproduce it below. I think it is very effective because it avoids the jargon and technical detail (although I think the simplification may be a bit misleading in parts).

Hopefully readers will find this summary useful. Click on each image to view a clearer version which is also suitable for printing.

Thanks to the Bad Astronomer for the link (see Global warming Information is Beautiful).


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Justifying child abuse Ken Perrott Dec 18

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I have always thought that gods and holy scriptures are convenient. They can be used to justify anything. And they can prevent individuals from developing their own moral sense – always relying instead on the “authority” of holy scripture and/or religious leaders.

This can be particularly bad when it comes to how we treat children. That’s why many people are concerned at the role played by fundamental and conservative Christians in New Zealand’s debates on child discipline.

A friend sent me this today from the  Taranaki Daily News (Man cites Bible in child assault prosecution):

“An 80-year-old man believed he was following the Bible when he used an alkathene pipe to punish a child for stealing $1000 from him.

The man, who has interim named suppression, yesterday pleaded guilty in the New Plymouth District Court to two charges of assaulting a child and assault with a blunt instrument between November 1 and December 7.

When arrested, the man told police that he was frustrated by the child’s behaviour and had been “seeking to correct him in the manner described in the Bible”.

His lawyer, Paul Keegan, said the incident was out of character for the man.

“He is a Christian man and believes firmly in traditional methods of discipline,” he said.”

Well – we know what “traditional methods of discipline” can be “justified” by reference to holy scriptures and religious leaders, don’t we?


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Sack all those scientists? yeah, right! Ken Perrott Dec 17

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Well, some of our local climate change denier bloggers have got it sussed! As a country we could solve all our problems. Just sack the scientists!

Now that would make all this talk about climate change and global warming go away, wouldn’t it?  And we would no longer have to worry about greenhouse gas emissions.

But who would do the science?

No problem – just hire a few school children (what are they learning in school anyway -they don’t need that reading/writing/maths/science rubbish).

This is the message currently being promoted by the local blogs Gotcha! (CLIMATEGATE — A better study than NIWA, by an 11 year old!) and Say Hello to my Little Friend* (Kid and his dad: 1, Global Warming: 0). They reproduce a video from What’s up with that?  (Picking out the UHI in climatic temperature records — so easy a 6th grader can do it!). Here an 11 year old demonstrates he can get rid of global warming. He’s discovered a few tricks those ignorant climate scientists just couldn’t see for looking (the effect of “urban warming”). He really exposed their stupidity.

This was also the attitude behind the “research paper” produced by thy NZ Climate science Coalition and Climate Discussion Group (who both deny global warming). Their great discoveries are described in New Zealand’s denier-gate. They certainly showed those idiot scientist at NIWA up, didn’t they?

While we are at it let’s get rid of some other expensive specialists – the brain surgeons, physicians, plumbers, builders, etc. Why should we be paying their high wages and financing their education when we can safely employ 11 year olds to do the jobs for us? Much cheaper.

What’s wrong with the government? Why should they employ experts for specialist advice.

Seriously, though. Isn’t it interesting that some people get  a hint of the complexity of an issue and automatically assume the experts are unaware of this. That they know better than the experts. Perhaps this is the arrogance that comes from ignorance.

The issue of climate change seems to bring out such attitudes. The possibility of urban growth contributing to climate warming is an old one, often resorted to by climate change deniers.

Climate scientists are well aware of the issues and use a variety of methods to eliminate effects of heat islands from their data. These can include population data and satellite observation of night-time light to identify data sets for removal. However, Thomas Peterson of the US National Climate Data Center has commented: “We need to update out understanding of urban heat islands. This phenomenon is more complex than widely believed by those not immersed in the field.”

Perhaps naive bloggers should ponder this comment before lauding the “research” of 11-year olds above that of more mature, and experienced, scientists.

No sensible government would take these bloggers’ advice.

*Weird because the next post from Say Hello to my Little friend was Lord Winston: New Zealand doesn’t value its intellectuals. This criticises anti-intellectual attitudes. But perhaps this blogger doesn’t see scientists as intellectuals?


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