Posts Tagged tradition

Compulsory payments for advancement of religion — let’s get rid of that. Ken Perrott Sep 29


I read  recently how cynically humans use the word “freedom.” (I think it was in Jennifer Michael Hecht‘s Doubt: A History)  How often do you see a fascist or otherwise undemocratic organisation with freedom in its name or slogans?

This came to mind again when I saw this post Students: Free at Last. (At Say Hello to my Little Friend – a blog which has a smoking gun in its heading. The blogger justifies the graphic saying “it depicts the way I like to ruthlessly ’whack’ bad ideas.” Rather unfortunate use of gangster terminology – especially as he uses the blog to advance his own “bad ideas”).

This particular post is “whacking” the “bad idea” of compulsorily union membership. I agree that, in this case, it is a bad idea  – in principle. During most of my working life I supported unionism – and the union I belonged to was voluntary, a comparatively strong and active union because of that. In fact people of my “socialist” persuasion saw compulsory unionism as a right-wing fetter, promoting class apathy and, in most cases, ensuring a leadership complaint with employer interests.

But, in my experience, most of those who have campaigned against compulsory unionism did so because they were more opposed to the “unionism” part than the “compulsory” part. They had their own ideological reasons for their campaign and it wasn’t desire for freedom.

This is why I find this, and similar campaigns, by conservative Christian groups and blogs (as “Say Hello” is) hypocritical. Some of these groups don’t allow their own members to join unions, compulsory or not. And many of their policies are the very opposite of freedom.

For example – I oppose the classification of “advancement of religion” as a charitable purpose for purposes of tax exemption – and local body rates. In practice these means part of my taxes are used to subsidise the tax-free status of people, organisations and buildings whose only purpose is proselytization of ideas I find abhorent. I don’t see that a charitable purpose, nor would most New Zealanders. Yet provided these organisations or people are proselytising a supernatural world view they can get tax exemption. No real charitable work is required for this.

Sure, many religious organisations do genuine charitable work – and I have no problem with their receiving tax exemption for that part of their work. None at all.

But this subsidy for the “advancement of religion” is undemocratic on two grounds:

  1. It is available only to those who hold supernatural beliefs;
  2. We all pay for it through our taxes and rates, we have never been asked if we wish to and most people are just completely unaware of this imposition on their earnings.

I think it is hypocritical for conservative Christians to argue on the one hand against compulsory unionism, or deduction of union fees or their equivalent. Then, to argue on the other hand that the compulsory payment of taxes to subsidise their specific supernatural beliefs is somehow OK.

It is not.

If we want to talk about freedom lets not be hypocritical about it. Let’s recognise that this compulsory deduction from our earnings to subsidise the advancement of supernatural ideas also violates our freedoms – specifically our freedom to be treated equally, irrespective of religion or belief. And our freedom of, and freedom from, religion or belief.

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Background Briefing for Mockton’s NZ visit Ken Perrott Jul 21

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Christopher Monckton speaking in Melbourne last year. (Photo: Australian Conservative.)

Apparently Christopher Monckton will visit New Zealand for a few days (August 4 – 7) at the end of his Australian tour. His fanboys in the local climate change denier/contrarian/sceptic groups will obviously do their best to make as much publicity out of the visit as possible.

Others who want a more balanced assessment of Monckton might like to listen to the Backgrounder prepared by the Australian ABC (see Background Briefing – 17 July 2011 – The Lord Monckton roadshow). It includes extensive recordings of Monckton’s statements plus checking of many of his claims (he is often completely wrong and misrepresents science and scientists). There is also information on his mining industry financial backers.

The backgrounder illustrates how Monckton is attempting to whip up an anti-science and anti-scientists campaign (listen to him present his aim to prosecute and imprison scientists). The experience of the reporter who was exposed to the hysterical anti-media campaign at one of his meetings is also enlightening.

Download Audio – 17072011
Listen Now – 2011-07-17

See also:
Background Briefing on Monckton
Monckton’s Nazi jibe over the top: Abbott
A letter to Viscount Monckton of Brenchley from the Clerk of the Parliaments
Astroturfing works, and it’s a major challenge to climate change
Monckton requires religious certification for scientists?

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Clarifying some myths in the history of science Ken Perrott Jun 15


I want to deal here with some myths about religion and science. Specifically the religious apologetics claim that Christianity was a requirement for the scientific revolution. And the more widespread popular belief that blames early Christianity for the “dark ages.”

I have been reading about that early period lately. A couple of historical novels on the philosopher and mathematician Hypatia‘s murder by a Christian mob in 415 CE were interesting. These were Hypatia’s Feud by Nicholas Fourikis and Selene of Alexandria by Faith L. Justice. I recommend both, but especially Selene of Alexandria. Both authors have taken care with  known historical facts.

The religious mysticism of that early period is undeniable. But the causes may not be as  the popular concepts imply. Reality is, after all, never simple.

So I was pleased to read Richard Carrier’s comments on these myths. The science of the ancient Greeks and Romans is a research speciality of his.

Richard Carrier’s helpful analysis

Carrier attributes the retreat from science and the launch of the dark ages to the collapse of the Roman Empire “under the weight of constant civil war and disastrous economical policy”. The negative role of Christianity is that it was a one of the mystical worldviews. It did not cause the “dark ages” but did benefit from them. Consequently, when in came to power it did not restore scientific values. This took a millennium.

These scientific values were only reintroduced into the Christianised culture after several centuries of disinterest.  One must look outside religion to find reasons for their restoration.

Carrier’s critics

Richard Carrier covers these topics in the videos I embedded in my last post Early history of science. However, I thought it worth quoting an extract from his writings on these topics because I feel two of the critics of that post, and of Carrier, have misrepresented them. On Twitter, Rebekah Higgett (beckyfh) accused Carrier of being “ideologically-driven” (who isn’t?), that  “he works from particular agenda rather than evidence” and that he “misuses history.” Unfortunately she wouldn’t give any specific examples.

Thony Christie claimed on Twitter: “Richard Carrier has an agenda he claims that Christianity is responsible for the decline of culture in antiquity! It’s crap!” and commented on the post “what Carrier is selling is not history of science but warped propaganda for his own twisted prejudices.” He adds, “Carrier implies more that once in his statements that the adoption of Christianity by Constantine in the fourth century was responsible for the decline in scientific thought in antiquity.” He did not give any evidence for this claim despite my requesting it.

These claims conflict with my reading of Carrier. it’s probably just an example of the irrational hostility that sometimes develops between professionals. However, I have asked for evidence backing up these claims because I could well be wrong in my understanding. And also because if the claims are wrong they should be challenged. These sort of claims can lead to new myths – like the claim that an expert is peddling a myth when they aren’t.

So here is an extract from the Conclusion of Richard Carriers chapter in the book The Christian Delusion: Why Faith Failsedited by John Loftus and Dan Barker. The title of the chapter is ’Christianity Was Not Responsible for Modern Science.’ I commented on this chapter in my review of the book (see Some pesky delusions).

What does Carrier actually say?

See what you think. After conceding these myths “are built on kernels of truth” he writes:

“Pagans did set the stage for the end of ancient science–just not for any of the reasons Christians now claim. By failing to develop a stable and effective constitutional government, the Roman Empire was doomed to collapse under the weight of constant civil war and disastrous economical policy; and in the third century BCE that’s exactly what it did – society responded to this collapse by retreating from the scientific values of its past and fleeing to increasingly mystical and fantastical ways of viewing the world and its wonders. Christianity was already one such worldview, and thus became increasingly popular at just that time. But as one could predict, when Christianity came to power it did not restore those scientific values, but instead sealed the fate of science by putting an end to all significant scientific progress for almost a thousand years. It did not do this by oppressing, or persecuting science, but simply by not promoting its progress and by promoting instead a deep and enduring suspicion against the very values necessary to produce it.
Likewise, modern science did develop in a Christian milieu, in the hands of scientists who were indeed Christians, and Christianity can be made compatible with science and scientific values. Christianity only had to adapt to embrace those old pagan values that once drove scientific progress. And it was Christians who adapted it, craftily inventing Christian arguments in favor of the change because only arguments in accord with Christian theology and the Bible would have succeeded in persuading their peers. But this was a development in spite of Christianity’s original values and ideals, returning the world back to where pagans, not Christians, had left it a thousand years before at the dawn of the third century. Only then did the Christian world take up that old pagan science and its core values once again. And only then did further progress ensue.”

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A secular bible Ken Perrott May 27

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Here’s something for your winter reading – The Good Book: A Humanist Bible.

I purchased it recently and am enjoying browsing through it. It’s a collection of wise sayings, proverbs, etc. Ideal for browsing – just as well as its 600 pages long.

Wisely, A. C. Grayling does not describe himself as the author – rather the book was “made” by him.

The Good Book is a collection of comments – proverbs, songs, parables, etc. – advising on the good life. Secular comments originating as far back as Confucius and the ancient Greeks. As Grayling remarks in his Epistle to the Reader:

“Throughout history the commonwealth of humankind has had master-thinkers whose mighty works are monuments to posterity; it is aspiration enough to be a guide among them, and to take from them resources to promote what is true and good.”

To this end he has made this book:

“consisting in distillations of the wisdom and experience of humankind, to the end that reflecting on them might bring profit and comfort. “

Its secular nature is a tremendous advantage. Grayling describes the book’s purpose as:

“not to demand acceptance of beliefs or obedience to commands, not to impose obligations and threaten with punishments, but to aid and guide, to suggest, inform, warn and console; and above all to hold up the light of the human mind and heart against the shadows of life.”

A.C. Grayling was interviewed about his book by Kim Hill last weekend. You can hear the interview at  Saturday Morning with Kim Hill. Or download the mp3 file.

Here’s an example from the book – a list of proverbs on Books:

1. Something is learned every time a book is opened.
2. A book may be as great a thing as a battle.
3. Books are ships that traverse the seas of time.
4. Books cannot always please, however good; minds are not always craving for food.
5. Books give no wisdom where there was not wisdom before.
6. Rather a study full of books than a purse full of money
7. There is nothing so old as a new book.
8. The best companions are good books.
9. The books that help most are those that prompt most thought.
10. The virtue of books is to be readable.
11. There is no frigate like a book to take us to lands far away.
12. Wear the old coat and buy the new book.
13. The world may know me by my book, and my book by me.
14. Word by word the great books are written.
15. The reader’s fancy makes the fate of books.

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Is there a role for science in morality? Ken Perrott Apr 28

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In our discussion of the science of morality commenters often assert that science may be able to describe why and how we are moral but it cannot make moral decisions for us. Or tell us what is right and wrong. Sometimes these commenters have their own motive — a covert or overt interest in promoting a religiously determined moral code and they don’t want another discipline intruding into ’their’ arena. At other times they may be reacting to a simplistic interpretation of the role of science. This is common in criticisms of The Moral Landscape (and Harris did not help by using the subtitle “How Science Can Determine Human Values”). In partial mitigation of Harris’s position he does make clear, often, that he is using ’science’ in a very general sense — including philosophy and history.

Emotions in human decisions

Our moral decisions are different to the apparently straightforward decisions a physical scientist might make relying on evidence. Logic and reasoning, and validation against reality. Being social animals things are never that simple for us. And we have evolved not to be a rational animal, more a rationalising one. Our decisions will usually involve our emotions and intuitions as well as evidence and reasoning. In fact research suggests that an emotional component is essential in decision-making. Where emotions are impaired people find decision-making impossible. We are also influenced by the moral attitudes of others, and in some situations a moral decision may involve a democratic process. Moral ideas get validated against society and not objective reality.

But the fact is human morality is now a very live area of scientific research and discussion. This is generally about how our morality works and its origins, and not using ’science’ as such to prove a moral position. But there is no doubt that an awareness of the science of morality may actually influence moral decision-making, particularly during public discussion and deliberation. Science indicates our morals are not simply ’relative’ (anything goes depending on our own feelings) or ’divinely’ commanded (our god tells us what is right and wrong — just accept it), or based on tradition. If that is publicly accepted then the proponents of ’divine’ commands, tradition, or relativism will have less influence on our moral deliberations.

Sure, our prejudices and emotions will still be involved. Our religious beliefs and cultural influence will also play a role. But there will be far more acceptance of discussion about facts and accepted ideas of what is good for society and individuals. In the past religion and tradition have been far too influential in such discussions. Hell, this example from a potential US presidential candidate shows they are still too influential (see Bachmann: God Told Me To Introduce Constitutional Amendment Prohibiting Same-Sex Marriage In MN). I think our moral progress has only been possible to the extent we have been able to override those influences.

Role of public deliberation

One argument that came through strongly for me in the Edge New Science of Morality  Seminar was the role of social or public deliberation of moral questions. (See The new science of morality, Is and ought and A scientific consensus on human morality) ) Particpation of a range of individuals helps make sure that prejudice and individual emotion don’t play a determining role. A group can be more rational than an individual. This indicates that groups and social decision-making may produce better moral, and hence legal, decisions than those made by individuals.

Of course, in the end our actions are made mostly by individuals. And very often these decisions and action are the result of unconscious moral decisions. But, as I pointed out in Foundations of human morality, our subconscious moral position is always changing. We are always learning and what we learn consciously becomes integrated into our subconscious. Similarly we are learning without deliberate intellectual consideration just by being a member of society, exposed to the changing moral zeitgeist through our entertainments and social contact. Just consider what influence the portrayal of women and gays has had on influence individual moral attitudes over the years.

Yes, there is an important role

So, I think the current interest in the science of morality is important. It’s important from the point of view of knowledge, of finding out and understanding more about our species and its behaviour. But I also think its important because it will help us be more rational about our moral deliberations and decisions.

That must be a good thing.

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The secular Egyptian protest a good start for a successful revolution Ken Perrott Feb 12


The ongoing Egyptian revolution has captured the attention and sympathy of people around the world. This is helped by the worldwide availability of internet access and social messaging devices. Even when the Mubarak regime cut off the internet, demonstrators were still able to get their message out. A warning to tyrants everywhere.

Twitter has been full of messages of support. And it is amazing what can be condensed into 140 characters. I like the simple messages which used the image of software installation on a computer to make a political point. For example this for d@dn2k which makes the point that Mubarak’s downfall is just the start of the beginning.

Right-click here to download pictures. To help protect your privacy, Outlook prevented automatic download of this picture from the Internet.dn2k (@dn2k)
12/02/11 9:18 AM
RT @25Egypt: ّ Uninstalling dictator COMPLETE 100% ██████████████████ Installing now: egypt 2.0: █░░░░░░░░░░░░░░░░░░ #jan25 #Feb11

Egyptians certainly do face some huge political tasks with many opportunities and many pitfalls. The army’s support is essential for any new regime – and there will be an ongoing struggle by all sides to exert influence here. And some commentators have been preoccupied with the possibility of extreme Islamic groups influencing the revolution.

I have been heartened by the discipline and peaceful nature of the protests. Most violence seems to have been instigated by the security forces and  stooges of Mubarak’s regime. The occupation of Tahrir Square  over such a long period reveals a welcome degree of organisation. Protesters have organised to maintain their control and to provide services for the occupiers.

I hope this demonstrates that the various political forces within the protest have been negotiating among themselves to build a basis for unity. Also that they have been negotiating with the army and elements of the old regime to build some sort of trust and agreement on transition.

The protest itself has had a strong secular character. There has not been a preoccupation with religious agendas. At the same time the protests have not been sectarian. This was demonstrated by the cooperation of majority Muslims with minority Christians. Even to the extent of providing protection for each others prayers and services. Even cooperating together with some of these.

The unity and secular nature of the protest, and the revolution so far, are positive indications for the near future.

But to get back to Twitter. there has been some comment that the successful revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt will encourage people in other countries to demand their human rights. Already we have seen big protests in Jordan and Yemen.

Daisy McDonald used another computer graphic to suggest world wide possibilities.

daisy_mcdonald (@daisy_mcdonald)
12/02/11 12:36 PM
@eddieizzard MT @jmgoig Please wait while uninstalling rest of dictators of the world: █░░░░░░░░░░░░░░░░░░ #egypt #jan25 <–fingers crossed!

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The god gene — or is it a meme? Ken Perrott Jan 24


Is humanity doomed to a future of religious fundamentalism? Some recent internet articles appear to suggest it is.

The prediction is based on the established fact that the birth rate for members of fundamental religions is much higher than for the non-religious, or the members of the more main line churches. Similarly some Europeans worry about Islamic immigration because Muslims also have a relatively high birth rate. They fear a future involving a majority Islamic religion in their countries.

A recent scientific paper written by economist Robert Rowthorn promoted some of this speculation (Religion, fertility and genes: a dual inheritance model. [See full text]). This presented a model based on the assumption of a “religious gene,” or at least a gene which “predisposed humans towards religion.” While they acknowledge that such predisposition is unlikely to  be determined by a single gene this simplification was required to make the analysis possible. And they argue that the general conclusions can be applied to the normally expected multi-gene situation.

Together with the fact that birth rates for many conservative, religious groups are much higher than for the non–religious population this model predicts that the human species will evolve to a situation where conservative, fundamentalist religions predominate.

What a horrible prospect. But is it at all realistic?

No religion gene

Many commenter have pointed out that there is no gene for religion. That religion is a cultural phenomenon – not biological. However, there may be an intermediate aspect. Perhaps certain personalities predispose an individual to be religious and maybe these are genetically determined and could be selected for by the reproduction policies of religious groups.

But there are several problems with this concept. Genetic determination is neither direct or simple. Even biological traits can be influenced by environmental  effects on gene expression. And evolution  by natural selection may very well dispose a population to having a distribution of complex characteristics like personality. The realities of interaction between individuals in human societies probably favours such an outcome where single personality types would not dominate.

“Religion” meaningless

There is another reason why I don’t like the whole idea of “religious genes” and genetic or personality determination of religion. That is because the word “religion” tends to be meaningless. Not only because the word covers a “multitude of sins” as it were. But because it really doesn’t describe the relevant aspects of people who belong to a religion.

Pascal Boyer explains this idea very well in his recent book The Fracture Of An Illusion: Science And The Dissolution Of Religion. (It’s well worth reading and I will be posting a review soon).

While “religion” may describe particular institutions and dogma it doesn’t describe the underlying reasons why people belong to such groups. Therefore scientific study of these phenomena requires breaking below the surface and investigating religious behaviors, rituals and relationships. The study of “religion” itself would ignore the real underlying and important features. It would be the study of dogma and church history. The story religious officials use to explain their origins.

So Boyer advocates the anthropological, evolutionary and cognitive investigation of behaviors, relationships and rituals. Not Churches and dogma. This helps explain the natural origins of “supernatural beliefs,” ideas of spirits, ghosts and gods. It explains them in terms of our cognitive and intuitional structures as well as their evolution. Similarly we can see the natural origins of “religious” behaviors quite divorced from modern church dogmas. Even in conflict with those dogmas. (For instance even in modern churches the lay parishioner probably has a more natural concept of the god being worshiped than the theologians or ministers teaching an advanced theological dogma. This often leads to conflicts between parishioners and church leaders over interpretation of dogma).

Natural religious beliefs and behaviours

So the natural religious beliefs and behaviors may have little to do with religion in the established form. They may not even require the sort of beliefs and rituals required by churches. Again there is a tension between the natural beliefs and the theological teachings and dogma.

In fact the evolved intuitions and cognitive structures, and personalities,  may be manifested in other than religious ways. We can, for instance, find purpose, community and uplifting ideas in political parties, sport groups and other social activities as well as in religion.

The evolved characteristics which may make some people more prone to “magical thinking” could be manifested in religious beliefs. Equally they could be manifested in activities like dramatic acting, stage personalities, etc. Perhaps even in the creativity of practicing atheist scientists. (Didn’t Einstein imagine riding a sunbeam?) Certainly conservative, masochistic and faithful followers may be just as happy in a political party as a church.

So I reject the idea that fundamentalist and conservative religion is transmitted to children genetically and that higher fertility of these groups will inevitable lead to our species evolving into a basically fundamentalist and conservative one. Nevertheless, there are other ways in which religious belief is transmitted inter-generationally. And that is be memes.

People have often observed that religion is inherited. But that is via the culture. And especially the family culture. It’s no wonder that a child which is protected form other ideas, perhaps home educated or educated in a faith school, is likely to inherit its parents religion. (Probably also their politics and football teams). So perhaps the cultural mechanism, specifically the hierarchical family culture, provides a mechanism for encouraging the spread of religion by simple spread of adherents through birth.

A human rights issue

It’s interesting that some theological commentators appear to welcome the religion gene idea (see Believers’ Gene’ May Help Spread Religion, Pastors Agree). However, most religious leaders are also very conscious of the role of memes, of family and church culture in “passing” on religion. And they also think it is very important to utilise this mechanism. Some passionately stress the importance of getting access to the child at its most vulnerable age. Conservative and fundamentalist religions promote religious instruction and religious control of education – even of subjects like science.

So perhaps there are aspects of our culture which are encouraging an increase in the numbers of conservative and fundamentalist religious people. But rather than seeing that as a future danger, as a problem for future generations, I think we should recognise it as a present danger.

Such conservative and fundamentalist religious instruction and control of children amounts to violation of their human rights.  Their education can be retarded and often their development as mature autonomous moral agents is inhibited. Religious dogma also tends to be divisory, especially when fundamentalist. Church members actively think in terms of “them vs us.” Children learn to see themselves as superiour to the schoolmates. Even that some of their fellow class members may be “evil” because of their different religion or beliefs (really the religion or beliefs of their families).

However these conservative and fundamentalist family cultures may not be as effective as they appear in the long run. Promotion of division and social tension  causes a reaction. Secular societies will not always be so amenable to financing faith schools and organisations which promote division.

I think also that education inevitably has an effect. People growing up today have many reasons to accept a good objective education and to interact with people of different beliefs, cultures and ethnicity. Education and growing living standards also help break down the hierarchical family. Women are more able to take advantage of what modern society can offer them and inevitably control their own fertility to make this possible.

So I really don’t think our biological evolution is threatened by a “religion gene.” And while religion is nowhere near dying a natural death I think that social and economic development will also reduce the influence of conservative and fundamentalist hierarchical family cultures.

I hope so anyway.

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See also:
Why we are all different (and not all religious)
There’s no such thing as a gene for religion

’Other ways of knowing’ — some sense at last Ken Perrott Jan 19


There’s been a lot of rubbish written about “other ways of knowing”. So it’s quite refreshing to read Richard Carrier’s classification of methods of knowing. This is from his book Sense and Goodness Without God: A Defense of Metaphysical Naturalism. Well worthy reading by the way.

He starts by pointing out that no method of obtaining knowledge can produce absolute certainty. We can always be wrong, make mistakes. But we can list possible methods in order of reliability:

What is rational is to assign degrees of conviction to degrees of certainty established by a tried-and-tested method. What is rational is reasonable certainty, not absolute certainty.”

The methods of logic and mathematics are well-developed and provide the greatest certainty we have yet been able to find regarding anything, other than a present, uninterpreted experience. The next greatest certainty has been found in the application of scientific methods to empirical problems. In third place is our own daily experience, when interpreted with a logical or scientific mindset. Fourth is the application of critical-historical methods to claims about past events. Fifth is the application of the criteria of trust to the claims of experts. Sixth is the untested but logical application of inferential generalizations from incomplete facts–that is, plausible deductions. Such is the scale of methods that we have historically been able to discover and confirm as effective.”

“Experience shows that our degree of certainty will generally be weaker with regard to facts at each stage down this six-rung ladder, though within each category lies its own continuum of certainty and uncertainty, and the ladder itself is a continuum of precision and access to information: the more data we have to ground our conclusions, the farther up the ladder we find ourselves. Thus, mathematics is just perfected science; science, perfected experience; experience, perfected history; and history, perfected attention to experts; while plausible inference is what we are left with when we have none of those things.”

“Lacking any of the above approaches to the truth, we are faced with untrustworthy hearsay and pure speculation, where only the feeblest of certainty can ever be justified, if at all.”

Carrier writes that accurate methods of knowing have the properties of predictive success and convergent accumulation of consistent results.  However, these should be evaluated intelligently. Even the best method may produce faulty knowledge if used incorrectly.

So how do the different methods rate?:

1: Logic and mathematics

Produces the broadest, most complete and most consistent results. The methods are relatively simple and they involve few, precisely defined, predictions which are easily validated (as Carrier says – “in the laboratory of the mind”).

Logical claims are about the meaning of concepts, not details, and this limits the applicability of the method. It is also easily (and often) manipulated. For example logical arguments are presented as arbitrary lists (proving only that the “logician” can count) or based on shonky premises – chosen to produce the desired answer. This often happens with people arguing for strong ideological prejudices.

I think this can be countered using careful validation by other logicians or mathematicians. Many of the conclusions can also be validated (or proved wrong) by application of empirically based methods of knowing.

2: Scientific method

This is actually a whole complex of empirical methods, and also includes logic and mathematics. I think it is important to see that the method cannot be reduced to a simple algorithm. In reality science can be quite messy and influenced by subjective desires. But it also includes processes to reduce the influence of subjectivism and test resulting conclusions.

The method is not as certain as the logical-mathematical method. It is also a complicated, expensive, difficult and often lengthy process. Requiring special care and extensive evaluation. “But,” Carrier points out, “when these standards are met, well and properly, our conclusions will be the most certain we can achieve about facts outside the human mind, correcting even our own errors in direct experience.”

We need to appreciate, though, scientific knowledge is relative, always open to change and improvement as we acquire more empirical and logical information. And often science needs to talk in terms of probabilities rather than absolutes. On the other hand we are often able to quantify the probabilities involved.

3: Experience

Ultimately all out knowledge comes from our personal life experiences. And we know that knowledge is largely correct because very different people agree on these  conclusions.

But simple unexamined isolated experiences are not as trustworthy as many, well analysed and verified experiences. So we must accept that our knowledge based on personal experience is wrong if this is shown by science, logic or mathematics. The lesson here is that it is always best to examine out own experiences with logical reason and scientific honesty.

Richard Carrier points to the clear advantage of a personal philosophy of scientific naturalism. “For us, if we want greater certainty rather than less, the method of personal experience ought to be the simple practice of living a life of reason, applying scientific and logical principles whenever and wherever possible. This will ensure your life experience produces more reliable knowledge, and is more flexible (by being more open-minded and skeptical), and thus less challenged by the findings of science and logic.”

4: History

Because our evidence here is indirect, historical knowledge is less reliable than logic, scientific and personal experience.  And methods available to verify or confirm this knowledge are also indirect and less secure.

However, critical historical analysis can avoid or limit some of these problems. It’s also important to realise that some of the criticisms of “historical science” are mistaken in that that knowledge can often be derived from several different lines of empirical evidence, often derived from current measurements, which converge on a conclusion.

5: Expert testimony

This is important because most people rely on this sort of knowledge for often very important decisions.

Expert testimony is essentially derivative of the other methods. For example scientific experts may derive their authority from actual involvement in the scientific, logical and mathematical methods.

Experts will clearly provide more reliable and trustworthy knowledge that non-experts. This places importance on criteria for determining the reliability of experts. Its worth “testing” them for reliability.

For example:

  • Are their qualifications relevant to the questions at hand;
  • Is their testimony confirmed by other reliable experts
  • Is their evidence that the experts adhere to  reliable methods of gaining their knowledge
  • Do the experts make an effort to avoid or correct for their personal biases.

Clearly experts can be wrong and ideally their advice should be checked by other more reliable methods where possible. Their expertise counts for nothing if their advice conflicts with knowledge obtained logically, mathematically and scientifically.

These are important qualifications for the person in the street who often relies on expert testimony for input to their own important decisions. Just consider, for example, the political importance of expert testimony when considering climate change and political decisions arising from it. Unfortunately, many people “choose” their expert using confirmation bias rather than objective assessment. The advice from Richard Carrier on the personal advantage of scientific naturalism (see 3: Experience above) is relevant here.

A claimed area of expertise may be inappropriate to the question at hand. For example, militant theists will often argue that comments, articles  and books written by scientists, philosophers and others questioning existence of gods are irrelevant becuase these people are not theologians. As Richard Carrier points out “a theologian may be an expert on theology, but that only means he has a genuine experts in concepts of theology, not that he is an expert on factual questions like whether a god exists or whether Catholicism is the One true religion. No one can be an expert on these questions becuase no one has any real evidence for them, at least evidence properly produced by one or more of the superior methods above. A theologian can hardly claim any more experience with an actual god than we can.”

And we need to recognise that in some areas “like theology we find very little agreement among qualified experts, and a vast influence of ideological bias that is rarely placed under any objective control.”

6: Plausible inference

It is reasonable to trust plausible inference and inferential generalisations if well argued. But we shouldn’t give these more credence than the more reliable methods of knowing.

I believe this method has an important role in science and should not be rejected just because the evidence is incomplete or missing. Speculation and wild ideas are an important source of creativity and of hypotheses for testing.

In fact some ideas or hypotheses based on plausible inference may have useful explanatory power and be useful where validation is not yet possible. Consider “String Theory” and the “Multiverse” ideas.

However, we should expect that a proportion of ideas based on plausible inference will fail when tested scientifically. This is a salutary lesson all good scientists learn early in their career.

7: Pure faith

These are beliefs based solely on tradition, hearsay, mere speculation, desires and wishes.  Beliefs in ungrounded assertions.

We know from experience that such beliefs usually turn out to be false. Just consider all those legends, traditional myths and superstitions which have been shown wrong throughout history. Yet the method of pure faith transmits beliefs without any regard to their truth. Faith conveys false beliefs just as well as it does true ones.

So the probability of faith-based beliefs being reliable must be low. Carrier writes: “blind faith is inherently self-defeating. The number of false beliefs always vastly outnumbers the true. It follows that any arbitrary method of selection will be maximally successful at selecting false beliefs.”

Some sense at last!

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Overlapping Magisteria? Ken Perrott Jan 05

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The relationship between science and religion, and the demarcation of their fields, or magisteria, seems to be topical at the moment. On the one had the boundary appears to be violated by religious promotion of creationism and attacks on evolutionary science. On the other, scientists are starting to make assertive comments about the nature of morality and the lack of any requirement for gods in understanding the origins of the universe and life.

This has been accompanied by debates among scientists about how to relate to religion. Whether religion should be immune from criticism or not? Should we challenge religion’s fanciful claims about reality?

So its not surprising that the concept of “Non-Overlapping Magisteria” is being discussed again.

This concept has both its supporters and critics. Different people ascribe different meanings to the concept. And there are of course political and ideological reasons for this.


It’s not a new concept but today it is usually attributed to the evolutionary scientist Stephen Jay Gould. In his 1977 essay Nonoverlapping Magisteria he proposed a system of non-overlapping magisteria (or NOMA) as a way of avoiding conflict between science and religion. (The article actually attributed the concept in part to Pope Pius XII.) Gould also elaborated on the concept in his book Rocks of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life:

’Science tries to document the factual character of the natural world, and to develop theories that coordinate and explain these facts. Religion, on the other hand, operates in the equally important, but utterly different, realm of human purposes, meaning and values — subjects that the factual domain of science might illuminate, but can never resolve. Similarly, while science must operate with ethical principles, some specific to the practice, the validity of these questions can never be inferred from the factual discoveries of science.’

It is important to be aware of the meaning Gould attributes to the word “religion” here:

’I will accept both Huxley’s view and the etymology of the word itself — and construe as fundamentally religious (literally, binding us together) all moral discourse on principles that might activate the ideal of universal fellowship among people.’

So Gould was using “religion” in its widest possible meaning – one which doesn’t necessarily include supernatural propositions.

I think this explanation is important although it is almost universally ignored (and indeed was effectively ignored by Gould himself through the rest of his book).

A captured magisteria?

In effect, the prevailing interpretation gives unwarranted exclusivity to established religion. While Gould’s original meaning provided for a magisteria of an informed public dealing with the “realm of human purposes, meaning and values” it now seems almost universally assumed that this is the magisteria of established religion. A position which the established religions are of course happy to promote.

In fact some seem to have forgotten about “purposes, meaning and values.” A local Christian apologist even went so far as describing this magisteria as involving religious questions; questions about theology, about God, about questions about subject matter that’s not part of ’nature.’” He was certainly clear that the non-religious have no role in this magisteria.

In my post 3 years ago, Morals, values and the limits of science, I commented:

“Few people would object to Gould’s description of the role and limits of science and few scientists would claim a sole right to solving ethical questions. Modern science is more and more raising ethical questions about application of new technologies and even the research protocols themselves. Ethical problems related to introduction of genetically modified organisms into the environment and the harvesting of stem cells are only two recent examples. These question cannot be left to the researchers involved (how can they be objective) but should also involve an informed public.”


“So yes, let’s acknowledge the limits of science and agree that when it comes to morality and ethics there is no straightforward way of deciding what is ’right.’ There are no absolutes in such areas. Resolution depends on the prevailing ethics of the specific society and times, as well as the empirical indication of consequences. Consequently, society as a whole must decide such matters. Full information will assist such decisions. But, also essential, is a democratic process enabling involvement of all sections of society.

And this is where I have a problem with Gould’s presentation of NOMA. It is basically undemocratic because it grants religion (and only religion) a special role in moral and ethical questions. It defines morals and ethics as the special domain of religion (and only religion). It says we should hand these problem over to religion. It denies any role for those of us with non-religious ethical and spiritual beliefs. Surely, as humans we non-religious are as equally qualified (or as equally at a loss) on such questions. It is undemocratic to hand these problems to one section of society and deny a role to the rest of society.”

So there are huge problems in the practical interpretation and application of NOMA. Religion is interpreted in a narrow way (always a problem of trying to redefine words away from common usage). This disenfranchises the non-religious in the areas “human purposes, meaning and values.” No doubt welcomed by the religious apologist and church establishments but hardly democratic.

NOMA in tatters?

Nevertheless the NOMA concept is promoted by some scientific organisations. I believe this is largely for opportunist political reasons. An attempt to placate religious sensitivities by ruling “out of bounds” religiously sensitive subjects from scientific enquiry. As well as the disenfrachising this opportunism supports, though, it is also patently unrealistic. Out of touch with reality.

NOMA is in ruins today and it’s supporters were foolish and unrealistic to expect it could survive. There are real issues, real conflicts, between science and religion and an artificial structure like this has absolutely no hope of hiding these. Even Gould, in his 1977 essay, was clearly underestimating the religious attacks which were to come on his own field of evolutionary science.

Today religion still intrudes into areas outside it’s “magisteria.”.Evolution and cosmology are topical. As also is the history of science where apologists are attempting to excuse the persecution of Galileo and make chauvinistic claims about science originating from within Christianity!

Scientists like Stephen Hawking are prepared to acknowledge publicly (if only to sell their books) that humanity can understand reality without resorting to gods and other supernatural “explanations.” And the theological reaction to this rather obvious point has been extreme.

Science is intruding into the “religion magisteria” with modern research into human morality. We now talk about the “new science of morality.” And theologians bristle again – as do some scientists.

Also, there is less reticence among scientists about criticising religion and its claims. People like Victor Stenger and Richard Dawkins get attacked for daring to suggest that the question of the objective existence of gods is a scientific question. And religionists are not at all happy about anthropologists, psychologists and cognitive scientists who have the temerity to research the origins and nature of religion as a natural phenomenon.

I think the genie is out of the bag on this one (or is it Pandora out of the box). Science will certainly make more inroads into areas religion thought it had captured for itself. This seems to be an inevitable result of the progress in scientific technology and our understanding of the brain and human consciousness.

On the other hand we can expect established religion to object to  scientific progress from time to time. But this is likely to fall on deaf ears. Humanity has too much to lose if scientific progress were to be abandoned.

I am sure theologians and philosophers of religion will continue their battle in the philosophical arena. They may even develop new and intriguing arguments.

Predictions are always difficult. But if we look at the trends over the last 400 years it seems to be a safe bet that they will continue in the same direction. Organised religion has had to make one concession after another since it disciplined Galileo in 1632 for daring to think outside the Inquisition’s square.

Surely this progress will continue, with religious leaders being forced to take note of, and accommodate, the news of new scientific discoveries. However, I can’t see physicists or any other scientists having to adjust their own theories because of some new Papal announcement or paper published by a theologian.

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Deriving ’ought from is’ scientifically? Ken Perrott Jan 04


Dr Richard Carrier

There has been a lot of debate recently about the role of science in deciding moral questions. And I am sure this will continue as scientific investigations reveal more about our morality.

One issue which keeps coming up, though, is the question of telling an “ought from an is.” Often this is presented dogmatically (“You can’t tell an ought from an is”) and justified as almost an ancient philosophical truism.

But this is now being challenged by some of the participants in this debate. recently I heard Richard Carrier, a philosopher and historian of science, on this. He rejects this specific dogma. In the interview Richard supplies a clear example:

“A surgeon ought to maintain high levels of hygiene in her work.”

Seems pretty obvious, doesn’t it. And we can get there from two “is’s.”

  1. Unhygienic surrounding enable fatal infections, and
  2. A surgeon protects human life.

I thought it useful for him to divide the argument in this way. Too often we think only of the first is – the facts which have an immediate effect. Most people will acknowledge that science usually has a role in this area – and that is clear in our example. Science has established the role of hygiene in prevent fatal infections.

So there is wide acceptance that science can “inform” moral decisions such as these. But Many people, not just religious believers, will maintain that step 2 is not an “is.” One can’t prove logically or scientifically that “A surgeon protects human life” or the equivalent.

Well, I think in the case of surgeons it goes with the job, the definition of the profession., But the more general case would be the “is” that humans have such attributes. The claim that you can’t prove it is human to protect life, to desire the flourishing of human life, etc.

Getting rid of dogma

Personally I think this is another dogma that the philosophically, or religiously, inclined often cling to. But science is telling us a lot about ourselves these days. Anthropologists and evolutionary biologists have helped us understand our biological and social evolution. Cognitive scientists and psychologists have provided understandings of our human thinking and instincts.

Consequently we have a better idea now of this second “is” – our human nature. We can appreciate how our social relations have developed, how our intuitions have evolved to aid social interaction. We can understand some of the physical and social reasons for our empathetic intuitions. Both in terms of basic nature but also in the way these adapt to social interactions and learning. And our knowledge about the differences and similarities of human societies today and historically help us overcome old racial and sexual biases which influenced our social interactions and our morality.

In effect this second “is” refers to our nature as sentient, conscious, intelligent, social, and empathetic beings.

So I agree with Richard. It’s about time we stopped repeating the old dogmatic mantra “You can’t get an ought from an is.” Lets realise we can do a lot to provide an objective basis for human morality. And we should not be intimidated into accepting an imposed “morality” which doesn’t have such an objective basis.

Incidentally, look forward to me from Richard Carrier on morality. He has three chapters in the book The End of Christianity published next July. One of them, Moral Facts Naturally Exist (and Science Could Find Them), provides a philosophical grounding for an objectively based morality.

See also:
The End of Christianity (Table of contents).
Skepconnect Richard Carrier interview

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