A Sunday Science Sermon


[Before I launch into the statistics, I want to urge you to watch the YouTube video at the bottom of this post. It’s a beautiful testament to the scientific method. In it, a scientist proves Darwin right on a hypothesis that, when Darwin was alive, earned him ridicule. The proof took 150 years to come to light – and it does so in that video.]

Damned Statistics

The crisis in scientific illiteracy should be a well-known fact to educated Americans, but just in case, a few statistics from the University of Chicago‘s National Opinion Research Center’s 1991-93 International Social Survey Program (ISSP):

  • Percentage Saying “I know God exists and I have no doubts about it”
    • United States: 62.8% – ranks 3rd under the Philippines and Poland. (Britain, by comparison, ranks 13th at 23.8%, and even Israel is less certain about this “knowledge,” at 43%, than the U.S.)
  • Percentage Saying They Definitely Believe “The Bible is the actual word of God and it is to be taken literally, word for word”
    • United States: 33.5% – ranks 3rd, again under the Philippines and Poland. (Again, Britain, by comparison, ranks 17th at 8%, and Israel ranks 6th at 26.7%.)
  • Percentage Saying They Definitely Believe in “The Devil”
    • United States: a whopping 44.5% – ranks 1st, this time, right above the Philippines and Poland. (Britain, by comparison, ranks 10th at 12.7%, and Israel ranks 11th at 12.6%.)
  • Percentage Saying They Definitely Believe in “Hell”
    • United States: a whopping 49.6% – ranks 1st, again, right above Northern Ireland and the Philippines. (Britain, with 12.8%, ranks 10th, while Israel ranks 5th at 22.5%.)
  • Percentage Saying They Definitely Believe in “Religious Miracles”
    • United States ranks first, at 45.6%, above Northern Ireland and Ireland. (Britain ranks 13th with 15.3%, and Israel ranks 7th with only 26.4%.)

I frame these statistics in terms of “scientific illiteracy” because it seems clear that a basic understanding of what we mean by “knowing” (as opposed to “having faith”) is lacking among those saying they “know God exists.” Similarly, those who “definitely believe” in the ontological reality of “the Devil,” “Hell,” and “Religious Miracles” betray a lack of understanding of what, in the International Baccalaureate program’s “Theory of Knowledge” class, we call “Justified True Belief.” (How is “definite” belief any different, subjectively, than believing we “know,” since “definite” implies no doubt?). Finally, the fundamentalist belief that every word of the Bible is “literally” true, as I read it, suggests a belief that the contradictory creation myths in that book’s first two pages (Genesis Books 1 and 2) are to be taken as scientific, cosmological explanations on the level of contemporary physics.

The ISSP survey seems to corroborate my “scientific illiteracy” frame by including in its survey questions that measure each respondent’s understanding of basic evolutionary theory:

  • Ranking of 21 Nations on Knowledge Question about Human Evolution:

Evolution Knowledge Rankings

The United States, as you can see, finished dead last out of 21 countries. A 44% grade on this national science test literally shows that America scores an “F” on its report card for science class. (Britain gets a C, and non-monotheistic Japan and then-Soviet satellite E. Germany score a solid B-. Remarkable, when you remember this is a survey of the general populace, and not just the educated elite.)

I know this data is 15 years old, but more recent data from 2005, as I’ve reported before, shows “that the United States ranks next to last in acceptance of evolution theory among [34] nations polled,” and “that the number of Americans who are uncertain about the theory’s validity has increased over the past 20 years.” We beat Turkey in that study, but Bulgaria beat us.

A Testament to Science and Darwin’s Prophecy Hypothesis Come True

Just watch it. Science teachers and Theory of Knowledge teachers, your students should love this:

Two Short Stories: Why I’m Writing This

There’s so much muddying of the scientific waters from proponents of Creationism and Intelligent Design going on in America. Many of our edubloggers are guilty of that. In my book, no responsible progressive will stay silent and cede the battle for scientific literacy to the forces of medievalism out a sense of social niceness. The stakes are too vital. Call me a crusader for knowledge – or just call me a teacher.

Besides that, I had two recent experiences that struck me with enough force to mention them here:

One: The Neglected Healer

My mother-in-law suffered a catastrophic stroke last Sunday morning. My wife and I rushed to the hospital and joined her family in the Intensive Care Unit in what we thought was our final goodbye to that sweet woman. (She survived, thank goodness, though twice the doctors told us her chances were less than 20%.)

After saying the only words I figured this Korean woman, who speaks no English, would understand – “We love you. It’s okay. We love you. It’s okay.” – I stepped back to let the other family members in.

Two of them bent over her and started praying intensely in Korean. I listened to the “hallelujah’s” and “amen’s” with my ears as I watched the I.V. tubes and medical monitors with my eyes.

Right afterward, the surgeon who’d just operated on my mother-in-law’s brain spoke to the entire family. They hung on his every word. When he was finished, I saw no indication of gratitude or thanks to this man who, through the power of science, had just opened my mother-in-law’s skull and saved her life with science’s healing hands.

I don’t mean to attack prayer here. I simply mean to point out that science saved this woman. Her family didn’t take her to a priest for healing. Yet they gave credit to the priest’s paradigm instead of the scientist’s.

I wish I had a Korean translation of cognitive scientist and philosopher Daniel Dennett‘s beautiful essay, “Thank Goodness,” written after surviving

a nine-hour surgery, in which [his] heart was stopped entirely and [his] body and brain were chilled down to about 45 degrees to prevent brain damage from lack of oxygen until they could get the heart-lung machine pumping

so I could share it with that doctor. (See this post – one of my favorites on this blog – for more on that.)

Two: The Medieval “A” Students

My “Advanced Placement” seniors – 18-year-olds now, ending their K-12 education presumably ready to enter many of America’s “elite” (if you believe the hype) universities – and I recently had a class discussion about what scientists are projecting about the future of our planet. One of the students brought up the prophecies of Nostradamus, and how they’ve been “proven true” – according to something she saw on TV, I think. All the other students in the class chimed in with the same enthusiastic credulity about Nostradamus as the first student. There were no skeptical rebuttals.

I was aghast.

That moment was not uncommon. I’m tempted to say, when it comes to evidence that schools succeed in training students to think critically, that that moment was the norm. (Other teachers, please weigh in here. Is my case different from yours?)

It left me wondering how, after 12 years of daily incarceration and nightly homework, even the students with the highest grades show such an inability to think. The easy answer, as regular readers who know me will predict I’d say, is that the students aren’t thinking about learning all these years, but about making grades.

What answers do you have?

Photo: secular, non-secular, non sequitur by Dean Forbes

Related: All posts tagged “Religion

74 thoughts on “A Sunday Science Sermon”

  1. Eric, Help me understand your point. Here’s mine:

    A man observes nature, looks for patterns, finds some, develops a theory based on them.

    He finds something in nature that forces him, on the basis of his theory, to hypothesize that something ridiculous must exist, or else his theory is falsified. (I’m talking about that real flower, and that hypthesized moth.)

    A century and a half later (the blink of an eye compared to religious prophecies about hypothesized beings, which haven’t materialized after two millennia), that hypothesized being – the moth – is independently observed, recorded, documented.

    Are we tangled over the semantics of the word “proof”? Would “validated” serve better here? It seems beyond argument that the theory gains credibility, whatever word we choose. So what am I missing?

    @Soojin and John, It’s not pleasant to say this, but if any deity gets credit for saving the life of my mother-in-law through his responsibility for science, then what do we say about the infant on a deathbed a few feet away in that ICU? And all the other people science couldn’t help? And the apparent divine decision to withhold science from the world for all but the last century or so – when it could have saved so many from all the plagues and diseases (attributed to demons, not germs, until very recently) over thousands of years?

    I’m not even being blasphemous here, since theologians have wrestled with theodicy – explaining “the problem of evil” when God is claimed to be “omnipotent” and “good,” thus theoretically able to prevent evil – throughout religious history. Yes, we can say “God’s will is inscrutable,” or “The Devil did it,” or “God has a better plan for those whose lives were cut short,” but those are claims impossible to both know and demonstrate beyond doubt.

    @Charlie, That question about Christianity’s “Will to Truth” is one Nietzsche asks and probes at length in many of his works – most powerfully, if I recall correctly, in The Genealogy of Morals (it may have been Beyond Good and Evil or The Gay Science – it’s been years since I read his complete works in a year I took off from college for that purpose).

    Nietzsche follows you in your claim that Christianity is responsible, with its elevation of literal Truth (as opposed to symbolic, metaphorical, and other types of truth), for the rise of science in the modern West. But Fritz posits that this was an ironic tragedy for the faith – because the Will to Truth falsified most of what the Church taught, from Creation to miracles to metaphysics to astronomy, physics, geography, history, on and on. A dialectical tragedy of sorts, to be precious and all philosophical about it.

    This post aimed to point out the confusion between knowledge and belief in many thinkers in and outside of education – and the dangers that poses to the advancement and efficacy of science in an age which fatefully needs it.

    Eric, something in one of your comments disturbed me a bit by implying that scientific knowledge is something we have faith in. Maybe lay people have faith in science. But scientists themselves understand that all scientific “truth” is provisional – one falsification is enough to cause any truth to be amended or rejected.

    Evolution hasn’t suffered any fatal falsifications. On the contrary, that moth is one of thousands of confirmations of the theory’s soundness so far. We don’t have any other explanatory frameworks for the history of speciation on this planet that come anywhere close to this level of corroboration.

    Does Darwin (or any scientist worth the name) claim “knowledge” of presence or absence of a creator in setting the whole cosmos, and this blue-green ball, in motion? Not as far as I know. I don’t see how they can, with any sort of intellectual integrity, claim to know. It only gets harder, even if we grant I.D., to argue rationally that it wasn’t Zeus or Ahura Mazda.

    It’s the claims by those who say they do know the answers to such questions that lead us down the slippery slope to confusing belief and knowledge, and muddying the understanding of what the word “know” means, when applied to scientific questions.

    In the third millennium – the space age – it seems incongruous that we would urge critical thinking about everything but the biggest questions, and answers that come from pre-historic tribes. I sincerely don’t get it.

    @Benjamin’s remark that the only thing people see of science is TV reports that what killed you last year doesn’t kill you this year sort of mirrors the irony I pointed at in the ICU, when I was seeing the science all around these people – life-support systems, medical personnel, etc – but everybody else seemed blind to them.

    By that I mean that Benjamin seems blind to the fact that we are surrounded by science every moment of the day, from the light switch we flick in the morning to the refrigerator we open when we eat – to the computer Benjamin was typing his comment on. Science made our modern lives possible.

    That’s why they deserve better than what they get.

    I wonder how many of you read Dennett’s essay, linked above. It’s one of the most memorable paeans to science I’ve ever read. It’s so much more important than anything I could say here. So good, so moral, and so sensible.

  2. Thanks for sharing your experience , it put a smile on my face. It’s an interesting scene as I can relate with your experience. Every time I visit my in laws in Korea I bring my trusty iPod and load it up with all sorts of audio books and when the family goes into their hour long prayer rituals, I’m able to mediate through these long sessions, quite patiently.

  3. Would “validated” serve better here? It seems beyond argument that the theory gains credibility, whatever word we choose.

    Validated would serve better, yes. And I agree that the theory gains credibility.

    So what am I missing?

    I think what you’re missing is simply that my point is a small point, and it has carried over more comments than it’s worth. Also, it seems some people are assuming I’m arguing for a certain position, but I haven’t been. (Mainly because I’m not technically qualified to make the argument, not being a trained scientist, though what I understand puts me solidly in the evolution camp.)

    More specifically, you say:

    [A man] finds something in nature that forces him, on the basis of his theory, to hypothesize that something ridiculous must exist, or else his theory is falsified.

    My initial, little, qualified, and admittedly picky point was that the same could be true of someone coming at this from the I.D. position, namely: “Look at this ridiculous flower. If God created this flower, surely he must have created an insect to go with this flower. I’ll camp out with my camera to ‘prove’ my theory correct. Wait. Yawn. My leg’s falling asleep. Yawn. Hey look! There’s the insect! My theory’s correct!”

    It’s the preponderance of evidence, not the single instance, that validates the theory of evolution over that of intelligent design. I was merely steering us away from placing too much significance on any one piece of evidence.

    …implying that scientific knowledge is something we have faith in

    A critical, well-informed person should know that scientific knowledge is not something to “have faith in.” Varying degrees of certainty are always in play (as you point out), but that’s not the same. I didn’t intend to imply that we “have faith in” scientific knowledge. However …

    Maybe lay people have faith in science.

    I worry about this possibility. If our aim is to build critical thinkers, but all we succeed in doing is moving unthinking acceptance from religion over to science, then we’ve failed. Agreed?

    And to be clear: I think science and the scientific method is great, organized religion is dangerous, and evolution, as the theory is currently expressed, is pretty darn solid.

  4. Eric – ah, dialog. I’m with you.

    Except: I’ll put more faith in international scientific consensus – the case of Global Warming is a good example – than in anything else.

    Since science is peer reviewed, and we lay people can’t be experts in every field of science, I can’t see any alternative to trusting the consensus of specialists in any field. That means I place my faith in reason, I guess, and the honesty of most scientists as they seek knowledge.

    To me, we risk undercutting science if we caution people against believing what the qualified community of scientists find (always provisionally) true. We have no brighter light to guide us. (And neuroscience today promises interesting insights into the noumenal realms previously the domain of priests. Makes me want to live long just to learn what they discover.)

  5. I agree entirely with your last comment, Clay.

    None of us can actually verify all the things we accept to be true, but we can appreciate more and less-qualified sources of information.

    I’ve been in dialog with Peter Rock over on his blog, and the point I left there seems relevant here, as well:

    “My concern is that we will limit our thinking based on the surety of our present knowledge, rather than recognize the limits of our present knowledge and the possibilities those limitations open for our thinking.”

    But I agree we must balance that with this comment of yours:
    we risk undercutting science if we caution people against believing what the qualified community of scientists find (always provisionally) true.

    Thanks for the verbal/intellectual fun.

  6. @Lucia, I doubt anyone’s ‘family values’ include “elevating drug sales to a reputable occupation, regarding the desire to be come educated as a failing, or promoting the use of violence as a means of settling minor disputes.”

    But I have seen religious values shunned, spurned and denigrated, and even attempts to get children out of homes of the religious. This is just not acceptable in a ‘free’ (supposedly) country.

  7. @”Teacher” – A scenario for you: A child has a life-threatening influenza for which there is a known medical cure. His religious family does not believe in modern medical care, and instead, as their literalist reading of their scripture tells them to, they take their child to a priest for healing instead.

    The child dies.

    The child has a younger sibling that has caught this influenza from him. The younger sibling has a fever. The cheap, known cure is down the street, readily available at the hospital. But the cure is against the family’s religion.

    Would you take the second child away from its religious parents, or watch as they take him to the same faith healer who presided over the first child’s death? Apparently you’d do the second – in the name of freedom (and child slavery to parents instead of children’s rights).

    Have you never heard of cases like this in the States? They’re not infrequent.

    Coming from the American South myself, I can vouch for traditionalists and anti-intellectuals denigrating my study of philosophy, comparative religion, and all the other fields I was curious about in my desire to make sense of this life. They rolled their eyes, insinuated I was too big for my britches, and learning from a bunch of somehow sinister educated types.

    So I know from experience that Lucia’s characterization of the family values of many Americans is not uncommon.

    And a relative of mine works for the pharmaceutical industry, and is filthy rich as a result – and honored. Pharmaceuticals are drugs. Most of them are obscenely over-priced. Many of them are unnecessary. (And yes, this is ironic in this thread about science, but when science and the profit motive mix – HMO, anyone? – all sorts of perversions happen.)

    “Teacher,” you really can’t think of any instances in which Lucia makes a point?

  8. I would lay out the choices and then after that it’s up to them. Children do not belong to the “state” or the elitists that think they know better. Period. This is an extreme case and I’ve rarely heard of anything like this happening in this country.

    Unfortunately it is not situations like this that bring parents under attack, but parents are singled out if they have ‘religion’. I know because it’s happening to friends of mine now. It’s truly Orwellian.

    I knew this conversation would deteriorate into anti-capitalism. “And a relative of mine works for the pharmaceutical industry, and is filthy rich as a result”.

    So be it. This is called the free market.
    If you don’t want to use the drugs, then don’t.

    I recently cured an ailment without them.

    HMOs killed my spouse so I have no love for any sort of socialized medicine.

  9. @Teacher: Tell us the story of your friends. Why are they being singled out? That’s rare too, isn’t it?

    HMO’s are “socialized” medicine? They’re corporate businesses.

    So you’d let those hypothetical parents deprive their child of life-saving medical treatment out of deference to their religious beliefs, even in this case? Just to confirm.

    And as you yourself (subtly) acknowledge, since you’ve ‘rarely’ heard of such a case, that it does happen. So Lucia’s point stands, and your denial of it crumbles, at least a wee bit.

    I’m being this way because I can’t recall you granting a single point when people have replied with reasoned arguments in these pages. To me, that implies a sort of dialogical deafness. Sorry if I’m wrong – it’s an impression.

  10. What I am saying is, in rare cases where a child might be denied medical help, medical help can be given. In my state, an 11 year old can get an abortion without parental knowledge so why not an anti-biotic etc?

    And yes, parents AND TEACHERS who are known to be religious, or pro-American, or in support of the Constitution and Bill of Rights as opposed to all this UN nonsense, have been singled out for harassment and even have been fired just for being ‘conservative’.

  11. @Teacher
    Umm.. HMOs are not socialized medicine. Your tax dollars are not paying for that HMO. Clearly you have not lived anywhere or read enough about places where actual socialized medicine exists, for that was truly an ignorant comment. (Sorry, but.. c’mon… really!)

    And I too want to know more about the parents and teachers who are being singled out for harassment or being fired. Please share more details. Perhaps a link to a local news story? I have never heard of this.

    Btw, what is “all this UN nonsense”? (Curious, of course, because you know I work at a UN school which, although not faultless, is not “nonsense.”)

    Adriennes last blog post..Commenting Self-Audit

  12. Anyone who works for the UN ought to hang their heads in shame.
    That’s all I have to say about this issue…

  13. Teacher:

    So, anyone who works for an organization created to maintain world peace and improve the lives of humans everywhere ought to hang their head in shame? Why?

    I remember reading about some psych research where people tend to overestimate the number of minorities in any group of people. One of the weird parts of it is that when the number of a minority approaches about 1/3 of the total, people start to claim that it has reached equality or is becoming the majority.

    I often think that claims by Christians in America of oppression are related to this. The fact is that Christianity (in all its many variants) is still the majority religion in this nation. Its ideals are privileged in our national discourse, in our laws, in our entertainment. This is the country where you can be criticized for not wearing a flag pin if you’re a politician, where people can say that atheists cannot be moral and shouldn’t be citizens with impunity, where “centrist” politics are what most of the rest of the world defines as solidly conservative, and where conservative Christians are a respected voting bloc with strong influence on elections.

    Yet, because people have started to recognize that other religious beliefs deserve some attention, and that we have a ways to go before we achieve real separation of church and state, suddenly Christians are oppressed?

    You all need to follow Fred Clark at Slacktivist (http://slacktivist.typepad.com/). He says everything I want to say about the problems with this attitude and the representation of Christianity in the media, and better. Plus, unlike me, he’s an evangelical Christian so he’s speaking from the perspective of an actual member of a faith that I’ve only studied as a matter of interest.

    Penelopes last blog post..Brief Hiatus

  14. Clay – Thank you for arguing my point with much more eloquence than I could muster.

    I think much of this conversation supports the idea that people can’t seem to come to an agreement as to what it means to “know” something.

    As for my own experience as a public school teacher in Central Florida, the schools in our district fully respect a student’s right to practice his/her faith during school hours. We have strict policies about not planning tests or “important” instructional periods on days that would interfere with religious observances. The majority of our school board also believes that ID should be taught along side evolution. As a non-believer, I’m in the minority and I dare not share my views with my students. I’ve learned to respond to their questions about my “faith” with a patient, “How I practice my faith is a private matter.” It’s sad really; it’s the only thing about who I am that I keep from my students (and the rest of the faculty as well).

    Adrienne – I think, maybe, the reference to the UN is a stab at their support for IB programs. That’s how I interpreted it.

  15. Teacher, whoever you are, I am growing rather tired of your unsubstantiated comments. And I have decided I will no longer respond to them, because they’re not worth my time. If you make a statement, please support it. Otherwise, we cannot seriously engage in meaningful dialogue with you.

  16. @ Penelope: That Slacktivist link you shared is high quality stuff. While I personally don’t get how people can be half-and-half credulous (either it’s basd on an ultimate truth or it isn’t, in my book), I’m still thankful for people who can think critically about how much of their old creed seems credible today.

    My favorite link in return is Bishop John Shelby Spong. This hour-long lecture (video) he gave a few years back is as riveting in its honesty as it is perplexing in its claim that there’s still something godly there. And his Call for a New Reformation is Martin Luther meets the Enlightenment. I’m not exaggerating. It’s the most piercing critique from a man of the cloth about the challenges of science to the credibility of the creed. Luther didn’t challenge the basic dogma on scientific grounds. Spong does. Historical stuff.

  17. Clay, before you read much further I’m going to apologise to you that this is going to be a long comment; perhaps it should really be a blog post. I have a copy – feel free to delete it from your blog.

    Knowledge is a very complex entity. Recently I have had a conversation with some of the leading lights in how civilised humans presently regard knowledge. I was amazed at the conceptualisation that had to arise so that a parallel could be drawn between the wave-particle duality (paradox) in physics and the way that knowledge is currently viewed (as a thing or a flow). The third ‘thing’ that was brought into the conversation alluded to the possible existence of knowledge being of a form that paralleled a quantum (these are my words). At first I could not believe it (not the paradox, but that the parallel was drawn). Sadly, I have to admit to you here, I found it to be true.

    Another consideration I’d like to broach is that of ‘the problem’. I use this expression to describe any entity that we may have bother with, misunderstanding over or just puzzlement about. Problem solvers tell us that before a problem can be solved it must first be recognised as a problem. I have no problem with that idea. Others who differ with that opinion may find it problematic – get my drift? I sleep at nights while they continue discussing.

    It comes down to belief. Mrs Credo believes the problem exists. Mr Faith does not.

    I believe that the sun will rise tomorrow at some predictable time, given my location and pending the weather allowing a clear observation to be made so that this belief can be verified. Others may claim that it doesn’t need any verification; that is simply not scientific of course. Argue as another may, there is no way that it can be proved (or disproved) until that point in time occurs. For some, belief is implicit.

    I believe that Jesus Christ walked this earth. I introduced the last sentence that way for, frankly, the statement that Christ walked this earth is scientifically verifiable whether I am religious or not.

    What we (you and me perhaps) understand about the ‘scientific’ way is based entirely on what we may agree to call a ‘scientific method’. It’s like the discussion going on at the moment about whether kids should have a few print based verifications rather than what may amount to a thousand and one citations on the Internet in support of their assignment. It is a premise about verification, a hypothesis that’s based entirely on belief.

    Even the scientific method cannot prove or disprove things with any surety without having belief. A high-school child who tosses a coin in the air 6 times and records 6 heads may be misled into thinking that a pattern has arisen that makes it almost certain that the seventh toss will also be a head. If the same child decides to take the experiment further by using a verification method, the same result may be obtained the exact same probability exists that another six heads can be thrown consecutively. And it is the same for the third set of six throws (not so all three sets one after the other 😉

    Given that a finite probability exists that the child may succeed in tossing 18 heads in a row, such results could seriously be construed as being definite proof that the 19th throw shall return a head like all the rest. The child may well believe that this is a true and correct scientific way of going about verifying it, and after proving it, may see no reason to attempt to verify it again.

    Will the sun rise tomorrow?

  18. @Ken, I have no problems at all, at all, with long comments. :) (Responding to them with equal length can be problematic, though!)

    I’m having a hard time following your points, though. Help me out.

    1. What is the “it” referring to in the last line of your first long paragraph? And which, if any, of the three metaphors are you suggesting is the (most?) correct one?

    2. What is the point of your exposition of the word “problem”? I define it, in this context at least, as a situation in which the confusion between knowledge and belief causes less than optimal consequences in society’s attempts to effectively handle problems (social, environmental, political, more).

    To expand on that, as responses to global warming, scientific answers seem preferable to faith-based shoulder shrugs that “it won’t matter when we’re in heaven” (and yes, thank Goodness, some green types from the Abrahamic traditions interpret “dominion” as a call for “stewardship” of Nature and earth, and even the Pope recently decreed energy waste a “sin”); as a response to hurricane defense, science and engineering are more reliable than prayer; similarly, in the case of illness and disease, a trip to the physician is a more reliable solution than a trip to the faith healer.

    Climate change, poor public works, and disease and illness qualify as “problems” to me. Are you suggesting otherwise?

    The question of whether Jesus the Christ – important, that “the” – ever walked the earth is a “problem” of a lower order, though belief in it has secondary effects in problems of a higher order, like the examples I just named.

    (By the way, historians have long been aware that there is very little compelling evidence that the Jesus of the Gospels, who performed miracles and rose from the dead, ever did exist. Priest, theologian, and New Testament professor Tom Harpur’s The Pagan Christ extensively catalogs all the evidence and arguments of historians and theologians against the existence of an historical Jesus, and Earl Doherty’s The Jesus Puzzle includes much of this online.

    For the record, there are counter-arguments such as the “argument from embarrassment,” so I’m not saying the question is closed. Most people, though, don’t seem to realize it’s open.)

    My point, though, is that I can’t see how your response helps us with pragmatic questions of historical and natural “fact.” Did Jesus walk the earth? Do I? Does Ronald McDonald? We can seek evidence to “know” the answer. “Belief” contrary to the evidence is no argument. If you’re suggesting otherwise, how is that not sophistry of the least helpful sort?

    Given that a finite probability exists that the child may succeed in tossing 18 heads in a row, such results could seriously be construed as being definite proof that the 19th throw shall return a head like all the rest. The child may well believe that this is a true and correct scientific way of going about verifying it, and after proving it, may see no reason to attempt to verify it again.

    I’m a humanities specialist with a background in the history of ideas, not a scientist, and that preface is necessary before I respond to this last argument. Maybe a more qualified specialist in science can weigh in here.

    My response is this: The case of a child tossing 18 heads in a row could by no means be “seriously construed as … a definite proof” of anything. That’s naive pseudo-science that omits the most vital elements of any real scientific verification, namely: peer review, duplication of the experiment, and falsifiability. The species-wide community of scientist would repeat the experiment, get different results, and put that child’s theory to rest.

    (I’m talking about the coin-toss, not the sun “rising” – two wildly different examples that don’t belong in the same argument, but interestingly, if the earth ever DID stop spinning, thereby giving evidence that the sun does NOT always rise, scientists would be the first to say, “Back to the drawing board, boys. There’s more to this rotation and momentum of the earth thing than we ever knew, so we have to study it afresh.” We may as well add that as soon as evidence surfaces that Jesus definitely existed or the fossil evidence has been misinterpreted, true scientists – humble and respectful before evidence, wherever it leads and whatever sacred cows, scientific or otherwise, it flattens in its course – true scientists, as I say, would go back to the drawing board to improve their understanding of everything they thought they “knew” in light of this new evidence.)

    That’s about as much as I have in me right now. Please let me know if I’ve misunderstood you, and thanks for taking the trouble to weigh in.


  19. @Clay, thank you for weighing in.

    You said that you “have no problems at all, at all, with long comments”. Do I detect an Irish dialect? Or does your keyboard have a stammer? :-)

    I acknowledge that a civilised question deserves a civilised answer. Your question was anything but uncivilised.

    The ‘it’ you refer to is ‘the idea that a parallel could be drawn between the wave-particle duality in physics and the concept of knowledge being either a thing or a flow’. I took the trouble to insert the explanatory parenthesis “(not the paradox, but that the parallel was drawn)” in order to clarify this. I apologise for not being explicit enough.

    In your 2nd bulleted argument, the point of my exposition of the word ‘problem’ was an attempt to convey the relationship between the belief that a problem may exist and the problem as defined by the person who thinks that it is a problem.

    I have no disagreement with your contextual definition “as a situation in which the confusion between knowledge and belief causes less than optimal consequences in society’s attempts to effectively handle problems (social, environmental, political, more)”.

    I must admit that the way you express this tends to verify what I’d assume about your use of an Irish dialect and possible related idiosyncrasies – that you would not say something in 100 words if you could express it in 101. :-)

    I also agree with your expanded elucidation, though I feel that it is expedient to stay nearer the point rather than explore sinuous ramifications of it.

    You said that in your belief “(c)limate change, poor public works, and disease and illness” qualify as problems. At the same time you raised the point that perhaps I meant otherwise.

    No Clay. I certainly do not suggest that any problem you perceive could be anything other than your problem. Nor would I dispute the ownership of such a perceived problem. The problem belongs entirely to you, as does the air you breath.

    I did not use the description “Jesus the Christ”. But I do recognise that by using it in your discourse to exemplify the existence of a hierarchy of orders of belief, you needed to draw some distinction between Jesus the Christ and my less specific description. I believe that you and I are taking about the same person here.

    Your commentary in parenthesis which immediately follows, seems to confirm what I said about verifiability, whether from the standpoint of religion or not. In this regard I wonder at your need to clarify what I meant by “Jesus Christ”.

    I am not suggesting otherwise that “(b)elief contrary to the evidence is no argument.” In fact, you have underlined my conviction that belief could indeed be construed as sophistry.

    Your point about the need for me to clarify the ‘science’ is well taken. You say you are a humanities specialist with a background in the history of ideas, not a scientist. I am a specialist in philosophy with a background in science. It seems that the overlap of our respective backgrounds and understanding is considerable.

    And so I agree with you. The child’s belief, that it is scientific to use the result of 18 tosses yielding 18 consecutive heads, would be naive. I would not go so far as to describe it as pseudo-science. I’d reserve that description for someone who had more knowledge and experience than a child and who believed it was scientific to use that sort of result as certain proof of the outcome of the next toss being a head.

    In essence, the scientific method is simply one where a hypothesis is put to the test. This is done by drawing together as much reproducible observational evidence as possible in support of that hypothesis.

    But it does not finish there. There also has to be some way the hypothesis can then be used to predict some hitherto unobserved, but nevertheless observable phenomenon (or outcome).

    Verification of the hypothesis becomes strengthened when observations are made that show the prediction to be correct. This is an iterative and exhaustive process which, in fairness to those who dispute the scientific method, can never provide certain, unequivocal proof. Good scientists know this.

    That the sun rises tomorrow is implicit in all that is known and understood about the sun, the earth and how these bodies appear to behave with respect to each other. The knowledge of this can be, and usually is, diverse in the extreme and can originate from a wide variety of seemingly unrelated disciplines. That this is so simply shows the verifiability of the hypothesis that the sun rises tomorrow – nothing more.

    As you say, true scientists go back to the drawing board to improve their understanding of everything they thought they knew. They do this when they are confronted with new evidence that puts their original and seemingly verifiable hypothesis into dispute.

    I’d say we were well matched on the weigh-ins. I look forward to the next bout.

    Ka kite
    from Middle-earth

  20. @Ken, At the risk of making you feel short-changed, from what I can see in your response, there’s not much disagreement going on between us.

    I could challenge the somewhat solipsistic-sounding “your problem is your problem entirely, like the air you breathe” (I paraphrase) comment, and counter that the air I breathe, if toxic, is not only my problem in any pragmatic sense.

    But I sense you’re talking on a more abstract level?

    As for talking about the same Jesus, I’m not sure. “The” Christ is a title applicable to anyone who has achieved the same insights Jesus allegedly did, and thus have “the Christ” in them. Jesus “the” Christ is in this view not part of any holy Trinity, not a god, but simply one of many other philosophical types throughout history that realized that “the Kingdom of Heaven is within us.” So that Jesus is a person, and a teacher of Good News that has nothing to do with believing he’s God and died so the rest of us could die and go to heaven.

    Anyway, not too many words in me tonight. (And being an American mongrel, I have the blood of the Irish and probably just about every other race you can imagine in me. We Americans are mutts. But I am a lover of words, for sure, as you are.)

    ‘Til next time.

  21. @Clay, the metaphor of “the air you breathe (sic)” is that ownership of the problem does not necessarily exclude sharing it.

    But given that agreement spells death for discussion, it may appear complacent and possibly even defeatist to say I’m glad we agree on most things. The fact is I believe we do.

    It remains for me to thank you for the weight and quality of your contribution, for now and to close with the indelible words of Dave Allen.

    “And may your god go with you.” :-)

    Ken Allans last blog post..Reflecting on what I’ve learnt so far

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