Absolute Agnosticism

Hello:

Ah, this shows every sign of spinning out of control into “angels on the heads of pins” land and beyond.

We agree, it seems, about something fundamental here: The problem, to a large extent, is rooted in language.

So, rather than continue down this language-trapped track, I will just say a few words about my views on language and its usage.

I admire adherents to that discipline called “E Prime” by which one avoids usage of identifier verbs (is, are etc.) in favor of active verbs (do). This not only removes ambiguity and, sometimes, outright falsehood, from the meaning of one’s statements for the listener, but also forces the speaker to think through and clarify his/her own thoughts.

So, I will restate what I think, avoiding labels:

“I hold no opinion regarding god, deities, fairies, leprechauns, sasquatch, UFOs, or other entities or phenomena for which I have neither direct apprehension nor plausible report from trusted parties.”*

You, and “atheists” and “agnostics” and “theists” or any of the foregoing, with or without adjectives or qualifiers appended, may make similar, non-label, declarations and I will agree or disagree with them. I think that from now on I will no longer ask people which category they fit into, but rather, will ask them to state their beliefs or positions.

*That said, I must confess to taking some delight in pointing out to my Christian friends that I, personally, have far more empirical evidence for the existence of The Tooth Fairy and Santa Claus than I do for that of Jesus. Several times I left the tooth under my pillow and the next morning found cash, as predicted by the theory. Several times I went to bed on Christmas Eve to awake Christmas morning to find bundles of wonderful gifts, as predicted by the theory.

Best,

John

I think we understand each others’ vocabulary pretty well at this point. I also think that the real difference in our beliefs isn’t vocabulary, but practicality. I mentally assign probabilities to all possible facts, and treat some as more likely than others. If something is less likely, I require more evidence before I will say that it is likely true. This is, in general, a skeptical/scientific viewpoint.

It seems that you, on the other hand, assign these probabilities only when discussing certain subjects. For example, you said in a previous note, “I know I exist. Everything else I accept or reject according to its degree of workability and usefullness, and that acceptance is subject to change.” Yet you have resisted my attempts to get you to assign a degree of “workability and usefulness” to the supernatural or unproven. It looks like you treat the existence of bigfoot as equally likely as the existence of a deity that I have made up on the spot. If I am understanding your position correctly, then I find it extremely impractical.

For another example, consider these two statements: “UFOs are the spacecraft of aliens from another solar system,” and “UFOs are the spacecraft of aliens from another solar system in the far future.” You have no direct knowledge or plausible report supporting either of these statements, so would you treat them as equally true/untrue? I would not, and I believe science would not.

You are completely correct when you say that science has no business saying “God does not exist” because a purely supernatural being is beyond scientific investigation. But I think you are incorrect when you treat all possible deities as equally likely (since specific concepts of deities can be investigated logically or, in some cases, scientifically), and incorrect when you treat subjects that can be in principle investigated by science (UFOs, bigfoot, fairies) as equally impossible to make scientific statements about as deities.

In closing, I completely agree with you that it is better to ask people for the specifics of their world view than to ask them what label they use. It’s too bad that so many people seem much better at labeling themselves than explaining their personal philosophy.

Posted on February 27, 2008 at 2:28 pm by ideclare · Permalink
In: Agnosticism, Discussion

3 Responses

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  1. Written by John Bennett
    on February 29, 2008 at 10:41 pm
    Reply · Permalink

    Hello.

    I received email from you the other day. I tried to respond but your email address was not functioning. So, I have copied your mail and my response below.

    Cheers,
    John

    __________________________________________________________

    YOUR MAIL TO ME:

    I think we understand each others’ vocabulary pretty well at this point.
    I also think that the real difference in our beliefs isn’t vocabulary, but practicality. I mentally assign robabilities to all possible facts, and treat some as more likely than others. If something is less likely, I require more evidence before I will say that it is likely true. This is, in general, a skeptical/scientific viewpoint.

    It seems that you, on the other hand, assign these probabilities only when discussing certain subjects. For example, you said in a previous note, “I know I exist. Everything else I accept or reject according to its degree of workability and usefullness, and that acceptance is
    subject to change.” Yet you have resisted my attempts to get you to assign a degree of “workability and usefulness” to the supernatural or unproven. It looks like you treat the existence of bigfoot as equally likely as the existence of a deity that I have made up on the spot. If I am understanding your position correctly, then I find it extremely impractical.

    For another example, consider these two statements: “UFOs are the spacecraft of aliens from another solar system,” and “UFOs are the spacecraft of aliens from another solar system in the far future.” You have no direct knowledge or plausible report supporting either of these statements, so would you treat them as equally true/untrue? I would not,
    and I believe science would not.

    You are completely correct when you say that science has no business saying “God does not exist” because a purely supernatural being is beyond scientific investigation. But I think you are incorrect when you treat all possible deities as equally likely (since specific concepts of deities can be investigated logically or, in some cases, scientifically), and incorrect when you treat subjects that can be in
    principle investigated by science (UFOs, bigfoot, fairies) as equally impossible to make scientific statements about as deities.

    In closing, I completely agree with you that it is better to ask people for the specifics of their world view than to ask them what label they use. It’s too bad that so many people seem much better at labeling themselves than explaining their personal philosophy.

    ____________________________________________________

    MY REPLY:

    Hello again.

    “Yet you have resisted my attempts to get you to assign a degree of “workability and usefulness” to the supernatural or unproven.

    Ah, but I do. I assign values of zero workability and zero usefulness. That is precisely the point, I believe. Any statements about the supernatural/untestable are, from a scientific viewpoint, meaningless noise. From an entirely subjective viewpoint of course one might consider “god”
    both workable and useful, but again, that has only personal, not objective, meaning.

    “It looks like you treat the existence of bigfoot as equally likely as the existence of a deity that I have made up on the spot.”

    I believe you have presented me with a false problem here. Bigfoot and your ad hoc deity differ qualitatively. The existence of Bigfoot could, at least theoretically, be testable – for example if we devised some means to examine
    every square meter of the earth simultaneously. Your deity on the other hand cannot even in theory be tested for.

    Similarly, while no evidence has ever been produced for the existence of any deity ever, it is a common occurrence for previously unknown species to be discovered. Bigfoot may not exist or may exist but be elusive. The important point about Bigfoot is not that its existence has not been established, but that no supernatural characteristics have been attributed to it.

    As to practicality, I don’t see how “practical” or any related word can be used in the context of discussing something purely theoretical.

    So, I would say, in my present circumstance, I am equally agnostic regarding Bigfoot and your deity. I do not know (or care) and the “workability and usefulness” of either means nothing to me – equally. Should my circumstances change – say, I should decide to do a solitary wilderness adventure in the Canadian northwest – perhaps I would want to consider the so-called evidence for Bigfoot a bit more closely. But I doubt it.

    Regarding your two different statements about UFOs you ask “so would you treat them as equally true/untrue?” I would treat them as neither true in any degree nor untrue in any degree, but as simply meaningless (for now). That is my whole point about agnosticism, is it not? A statement is true, as borne out by testing, false, as borne out by testing, or meaningless because it cannot be tested and ergo something about which I can have no knowledge and no informed opinion.

    The degree of likelihood of various individual elements within a statement simply do not concern me if the central point of the statement is one about which I can have no knowledge. One may argue ’til the cows come home whether
    Jehovah is an all-loving and kind father figure or a vengeful, sadistic, egotistical scrotum. What does it matter if the root statement “Jehovah exists” is meaningless to me?

    As for the balance of what you say:

    Deities, faeries or whatever, of course there are degrees of likelihood if the entity being referred to is a purely objective, material, being. Science applies. If the entity’s description contains even a single supernatural element, then testability goes out the window and with it objective meaning. And with that, my caring. Add even a single untestable element and it is all angels dancing on pinheads to me.

    Yours in Jesus,
    John

  2. Written by John Bennett
    on March 6, 2008 at 9:07 pm
    Reply · Permalink

    Hello:

    Once again, I received your mail but for some unknown reason my response was undeliverable. So I will respond here again.

    First, your mail, followed by my response;

    YOUR MAIL:

    John:

    You say that you assign values of “zero workability and zero usefulness” to the supernatural. You also say that you are agnostic about the existence of the supernatural. But if a thing has zero workability, it seems to me that such a thing cannot exist, so saying you don’t know whether or not it exists makes no sense. That leads me to believe that
    something else is going on here, and I will get to that at the conclusion of this letter.

    I don’t think that the bigfoot-versus-deity question is a false problem, but your response is a good one. As you say, the difference between bigfoot and a deity is that the existence of bigfoot could, in principle, be proven. I’d say that this is a good reason to assign the two subjects different positions on the spectrum of reasonableness, but
    you say that you are equally agnostic about both. This is an important point, as it is really the crux of our disagreement.

    You say, “no evidence has ever been produced for the existence of any deity ever.” That statement seems false on its face. There is plenty of evidence for the existence of deities (reports of divine resurrection, apparent design in nature, the efficacy of prayer, etc.). Do you mean to
    say that there is no compelling evidence or that there is no possibility of evidence? (I’d say the former and am guessing you’d say the latter.)

    Continuing with Bigfoot, you say, “The important point about Bigfoot is not that its existence has not been established, but that no supernatural characteristics have been attributed to it.” You may be interested to learn that this is not the case. A number of people have assigned psychic powers to Bigfoot or associated it with UFO sightings.
    To me, the “supernatural” and “non-supernatural” versions of Bigfoot have different likelihoods of existence. If someone came to me with a footprint that they said was evidence of Bigfoot, I would consider it to be potential evidence of non-supernatural Bigfoot, because such a creature’s existence is more likely. If I considered the likelihood of
    the existence of both types of Bigfoot to be equal, I don’t see how I could make such a distinction. This would compel me to say either, “That footprint might be evidence for the existence of a supernatural creature,” or “That footprint could not possibly be evidence for any kind of Bigfoot.” Neither statement seems to make sense from a scientific standpoint.

    You ask how “practical” can be used in the context of something theoretical. To avoid confusion, what if we use the word “reasonable” instead? I am guessing that you would say that no concept of a deity is any more reasonable than any other. If that is the case — and because you do not categorically rule out the possibility of deities existing — then I’d say that it appears that you are denying the usefulness of logical investigation when physical investigation is impossible. Scientists use logic in this way all the time, and philosophers build their careers on it.

    Turning to my question about two forms of UFO (visitors from another planet, and visitors from another planet who can travel through time). You say that you consider these concepts to be equally meaningless and imply that it is because they cannot be tested. This seems to deny us
    the ability to use Occam’s Razor when dealing with the unknown. By assigning zero probability to all untested things, you can conclude that any combination of unlikely things is equally unlikely. Doing this makes it much more difficult to decide how to go about investigating those
    things we currently have no information about, so it is only useful when the subjects at hand are truly, absolutely untestable (as is not the case with either alien visitations or time travel).

    You ask why the attributes of Jehovah should make any difference to you if you think the statement “Jehovah exists” is meaningless (and by the way, in all of this I’m assuming that by “meaningless” you mean unprovable either way, not linguistically meaningless). In general, you
    are correct, so long as you assume that a deity cannot impact your life (or afterlife, should one exist). But making such an assumption is assigning an attribute to a deity, which you say you will not do.

    Using logic to examine the attributes of proposed deities is also useful in discussions of moral philosophy. There are times, for example, when it is useful to be able to point out that there cannot logically be a deity who would never let a child come to harm but wants people to kill children. It is also useful when discussing deities with people who
    believe that there is subjective evidence for the existence of God (such as personal revelation).

    In your concluding paragraph, you say, “If the entity’s description contains even a single supernatural element, then testability goes out the window and with it objective meaning.” I’d say that such a statement denies science the ability to reach conclusions on some subjects, such
    as dowsing, which are described in terms of the supernatural but are testable. Science does not say that all untestable things are equally likely, but rather puts the burden of proof on the person proposing something new and treats new phenomena as non-existent until there is evidence to the contrary.

    Putting it another way, if science finds that Uri Geller uses slight of hand to bend spoons, its conclusion should be closer to, “Uri Geller most likely always uses slight of hand to bend spoons,” than to, “Uri Geller uses slight of hand to bend spoons when observed by experts, but may bend spoons by supernatural means at other times.”

    Before corresponding with you, I had spoken with two types of people who I thought were valid agnostics: those who believe that the supernatural, if it exists, cannot in principle interact with the natural, and those who believe that the statement “God exists” has no linguistic value. You
    do not seem to fit precisely into either of these camps.

    Rather, you are coming across as a philosophical materialist who refers to himself as an extreme agnostic because he enjoys the reaction that provokes in others. At this point, I feel that our conversation has gone on so long in part because you are trying to shoehorn pure materialism
    into agnosticism, and this is causing fuzziness along some philosophical boundaries.

    To test this, and perhaps to bring us toward a conclusion, let me try to sum up your philosophy:

    1) Science is the only valid method of gaining information about the world.

    2) That which cannot be tested for might or might not exist, but there is no way to tell the truth so there is no point in discussing such things.

    3) I have no opinion about whether or not things that cannot be tested for exist.

    How close is this to correct?

    ___________________________________________________________

    MY REPLY:

    Workability:

    When I say something supernatural has zero workability I mean simply that it does not provide me a tool for accomplishing anything or discovering other reliable information. A map of London may prove useful and workable. A map of heaven is not of much value that this feeble mind can imagine. Of course a person could say “The way to happiness and salvation is to let Jesus into your heart.” and they could conduct their life accordingly and could therefore describe their untestable assumption as “workable”. Well, good for them. For me, I simply have no idea what their statement even means, so for me it is unworkable.

    Bigfoot(s):

    Reports of divine resurrection are anecdotal. I should have said no empirical evidence. My bad. Apparent design is, again, subjective interpretation. I’d be prepared to wager that if one took 10 million coins, dropped them from some height onto the ground enough times, eventually a perfect likeness of my face would appear, thereby proving to some people that I am god. As to the efficacy of prayer, I am not familiar with any studies concluding that, though I admit to having seen reference to this phenomenon. If it is true, then that is something that should be studied in depth. I am not saying there is no possibility of evidence for supernatural phenomena or beings; only that I am unaware of any and cannot conceive of any – unlike with Bigfoot, for whom I can easily conjure up potential evidence.

    Footprints:

    Again, I think you are posing a false, or at least unnecessary, problem. If someone brought me the footprint why on earth would I consider any question other than “What made this footprint?”. Why must I relate it to Bigfoot who is psychic, Bigfoot who can walk through walls, or any other wacky version of Bigfoot? A scientist does not, when encountering some piece of beetle-related physical evidence, ask “I wonder if this is related to a beetle… or to a beetle with telepathic powers?”

    Logic:

    I think “logical investigation” is something of an oxymoron. “Logical consideration” or “logical contemplation” I could accept, but investigation is investigation – observation, manipulation, and measurement of that which is observable, capable of manipulation and measurable – not simply thinking about it. I disagree when you say science uses logic all the time. Is this not exactly what Galileo railed against when he dropped his whatsit from the tower? Perhaps I am mistaken but I have always thought that one of the primary purposes of the scientific method was to remove logic in favor of empirical examination because historically logic had led to incorrect conclusions. Logic may come to bear in the construction of an objective investigation, of course, but may not be used as a substitute for it.

    Furthermore, and this is a point we seem to disagree on, if the subject is supernatural then logic, which is based on the consideration of relationships between natural phenomena, objects, or games conditions, can simply not be used as a valid tool for examination. When one introduces “logic” into discussion of the supernatural it can lead only to the statement “That defies logic.”. “God is everywhere.” is 100% illogical. However, by definition, God is metaphysical, beyond the physical, so science and logic may not be assumed to apply. Whatever wild statement one may make about god, all that science and logic can say is “That could not be so in this universe.” But god is not in or of this universe. It seems to me you keep trying to apply (or to get me to apply) baseball rules (physics/logic) to a game of football (metaphysics), which you are free to do, of course, but I suspect the result will always be unsatisfying.

    To summarize:
    Q: What can logic tell us about the supernatural?
    A: Nothing.

    Occam’s Razor:

    I do not believe I said these things are equally meaningless in the sense you seem to attribute to me. I said that because their actual existence is untestable, the differing details appended to that existence are irrelevant to me. The equivalence I assert is about relevancy, not likelihood. I am agnostic about likelihood of existence and therefore agnostic about anything that flows from or is a function of that existence. Is it more likely that an invisible flying blue weejee-weejee has 4 limbs or 687 limbs, each with an eye having Superman-like X-ray vision? Well, I really don’t know. I will debate the various levels of limb-age likelihood and other fantastical attributes after it has been shown to me that the creature, whatever its form, actually exists.

    I believe that Occam’s Razor is applied to theories for which there is evidence, as a guide to evaluating the relative quantity and weight of evidence vis a vis two competing theories. e.g.

    1. The universe explained by Big Bang/Physics, with the varieties of evidence available combined with the variety of currently untestable assumptions the theory requires, vs

    2. The universe explained by God with the fact of existence of the universe plus the biblical account of Genesis combined with the near infinite number of currently untestable assumptions the theory entails.

    Or:

    1. Money replaced a lost tooth under my pillow because a creature named The Tooth Fairy whom nobody has ever seen made a swap while I was asleep, vs

    2. Money replaced a lost tooth under my pillow because my mother made a swap while I was asleep.

    Here the known facts are the same: missing tooth + new money. But the assumptions are unequal (qualitatively, not numerically, since the parent’s alleged actions are testable in theory at least) and on Occamite grounds I’ll opt for Mommy’s deceptive generosity.

    However, replace number 2 above, with:

    2. Money replaced a lost tooth under my pillow because a creature named The Telekinetic Tooth Fairy with telekinetic powers whom nobody has ever seen made a swap via telekinesis while I was asleep.

    Here Occam is of no help because, despite the fact that #2 contains more assumptions, the sine qua non (existence) is itself an assumption upon which any others depend (invisibility, telekinetic power) and is qualitatively equal for both. Prove to me that the invisible creature exists and then perhaps I will say the Tooth Fairy is more likely than the Telekinetic Tooth Fairy.

    Where both theories are supported only by assumption(s), how could one and why would one try to apply Occam as a guideline?

    Jehovah:

    If Jehovah exists, perhaps he impacts on my life and I am unaware of it. Fine. But why would I bother pondering that possibility if I have no evidence of it being so? Because a Christian tells me it is so? Must I consider or attempt to calculate the veracity of every statement or claim made to me by anyone? Provide me objective evidence and I most certainly will consider the whole matter.

    Discussion of deities:

    I simply disagree with your assertion that such discussions would be useful, unless by useful you mean entertaining or time-killing. Otherwise, I’d be hard pressed to imagine anything more useless than two people who disagree completely on a basic premise discussing anything that might flow from that premise with a view to reaching agreement or arriving at conclusions. Perhaps a Swahili speaker and a German speaker debating intricacies of Farsi syntax might be in the ballpark.

    Dowsing:

    When I say “supernatural” I mean something that is not bound by the laws of physics. I do not believe anyone has ever described dowsing in those terms. Science does not say that all untestable things are equally likely and neither do I. I say they are equally meaningless.

    Uri Geller:

    I agree but disagree slightly but significantly with your wording. Science’s conclusion should be “No evidence has been found to support the hypothesis that Uri Geller can bend spoons without the application of physical force and it is therefore not accepted at this time.”

    Two camps:

    Correct. I fall into neither camp.

    Me as materialist:

    I couldn’t disagree more. When I say “I am an agnostic” I mean “I do not know.” Nothing more than that. To call myself a materialist would be to say “I do know.”. But I do not know, so I am not a materialist; I’m an agnostic.

    My philosophy:

    1) Science is the only valid method of gaining information about the world.

    I do not agree with that statement at all. (That view is what the writer Ken Wilber, I believe, called “scientism”. An excellent word, in my opinion.)

    2) That which cannot be tested for might or might not exist, but there is no way to tell the truth so there is no point in discussing such things.

    Also an incorrect interpretation of my position. However, if you insert the word “currently” before “no way” and amend the final few words to “….there is no point in pontificating about, making declarations about or drawing conclusions about such things.” I would agree completely.

    3) I have no opinion about whether or not things that cannot be tested for exist.

    Correct.

    Have I missed anything?

    Cheers,
    John

  3. Written by John Bennett
    on March 13, 2008 at 10:26 pm
    Reply · Permalink

    Yikes. It seems that in posting my response, not only was your original mail deleted but also part of my response is missing. Perhaps you could delete my comment #3 above.

    Here is my response in its entirety:
    _________________________________________________________

    BUT WHAT THIS POINTS OUT IS THAT YOU DO NOT CONSIDER “BIGFOOT” AND “PSYCHIC BIGFOOT” EQUALLY UNWORKABLE, EVEN THOUGH THAT WAS THE IMPRESSION YOU WERE GIVING ME. THAT MAKES MUCH MORE SENSE.

    It points out that I think a scientist would assume only that something made the footprint and would pursue the question of the source without prejudice, that’s all.

    SCIENCE CERTAINLY PREFERS INVESTIGATION TO PURE LOGIC, BUT SOMETIMES PURE LOGIC IS ALL WE HAVE.

    I agree, but none of the things you mentioned involve the supernatural. They involve application of logic to what is already known to be so in this universe. They are extrapolation from the known to the as yet unknown, not from the unknowable to the further unknowable.

    TO ME, SAYING THAT LOGIC IS TIED TO THE NATURAL WORLD IS LIKE SAYING THAT NUMBERS ARE MEANINGLESS IF THERE IS NOTHING TO COUNT. SOME PEOPLE THINK THAT STATEMENT IS TRUE, BUT I DON’T.

    You left out “games conditions”, which I included, and which includes mathematics. I suppose that mathematics in a universe having nothing to count might have about the same meaning as the Klingon language has in this universe – an internally consistent fabrication that may be interesting but lacks reference or applicability to anything other than itself.

    I DISAGREE THAT THE STATEMENT “GOD IS EVERYWHERE” IS ILLOGICAL. I’D SAY THAT IT DEPENDS ON HOW YOU DEFINE YOUR TERMS. (OF COURSE, A STATEMENT CAN BE LOGICAL BUT STILL BE UNTRUE, BUT THAT’S A DIFFERENT SUBJECT.)

    If one defines ‘god’ as transcending all reality as we know it then of course omnipresence – like omniscience and omnipotence – are no problem. But in this universe, and barring that transcendent definition, nothing can occupy more than one point in space at the same point in time and no permutations or manipulations of logical reasoning can arrive at “God is everywhere”.

    OCCAM SAYS THAT BIGFOOT IS MORE LIKELY THAN SUPERNATURAL BIGFOOT, SO WE CAN SAY THAT, IF EVIDENCE EVER APPEARS, OCCAM WILL PREFER THE FORMER.

    Yes. IF evidence ever appears.

    BUT IN MORE PRACTICAL SITUATIONS, THIS DISTINCTION CAN BE IMPORTANT.

    What “more practical situations”? We are discussing postulates for which there is no evidence. Of course the distinction is important in “more practical” situations, – I never disputed that, I agreed with it – but we are not discussing “more practical situations”, we are discussing fairies and gods.

    THEN, FROM YOUR STATEMENTS, IT SEEMS THAT YOU ARE ASSIGNING THESE THINGS ZERO PROBABILITY. BUT IN OUR PREVIOUS CONVERSATIONS YOU WERE UNWILLING TO SAY THAT FAIRIES DON’T EXIST, WHICH IMPLIES A NON-ZERO PROBABILITY. CAN YOU SEE WHY I WOULD FIND THIS COUNTERINTUITIVE?

    Perhaps I have failed to state my thoughts clearly again. Regarding fairies, gods et al, I do not assign positive probability and I do not assign zero probability. I assign nothing. I am indeed unwilling to say that fairies exist. I am also unwilling to say they do not exist. I have nothing to say regarding their existence or lack. My unwillingness to say fairies do not exist implies nothing. Why must you insist that no statement regarding X = a statement regarding X?

    PROPONENTS OF UNDISCOVERED PHYSICAL PHENOMENA OFTEN SIMPLY INCREASE THE COMPLEXITY OF THEIR THEORIES WHEN CONFRONTED BY EVIDENCE THAT THEY ARE WRONG. IT IS USEFUL TO BE ABLE TO POINT OUT THAT THE MORE COMPLEXITY THEY ADD, THE MORE PROOF THEY ARE GOING TO HAVE TO PROVIDE. MORE DOWN TO EARTH, IT IS USEFUL WHEN DISCUSSING PURELY THEORETICAL BRANCHES OF SCIENCE, SUCH AS THEORETICAL PHYSICS, OR CERTAIN SUBJECTS IN DISCIPLINES FOR WHICH IT MAY BE HARD TO GET EVIDENCE, SUCH AS HISTORY OR EVOLUTION. FOR EXAMPLE, IF WE ASSUME THAT THERE IS AN UNDISCOVERED SPECIES THAT SERVES AS A TRANSITION BETWEEN MODERN SPECIES A AND PAST SPECIES B, OCCAM SAYS WE SHOULD SEARCH FOR A TERRESTRIAL B BEFORE SEARCHING FOR AN EXTRATERRESTRIAL ONE, EVEN THOUGH BOTH POSSIBILITIES ARE SUPPORTED ONLY BY ASSUMPTIONS.

    Consider what you said: “Proponents of undiscovered physical phenomena…”. Exactly right. Physical phenomena. Physical. Not transcendental, not other universe, not fanciful, not divine. Physical phenomena. This is the appropriate realm of Occam. Proponents of non-physical phenomena do not need to multiply complexity because of being confronted by contradictory evidence because they are never confronted with contradictory evidence.

    Terrestrial vs extra-terrestrial species. This is an attractive but specious argument in my view. The assumption is not about the origin of the species, but simply that a transitional species exists and that assumption is based on evidence. Where to look for that species is a judgment made to be as consistent as possible with the existing evidence. Are you truly suggesting that it requires the application of Occam for an archaeologist to decide to first look for artifacts of a mountain society on and around the mountain rather than at the bottom of the Pacific ocean?

    I AGREE THAT YOU ARE NOT REQUIRED TO CONSIDER WHETHER OR NOT SUPERNATURAL BEINGS MAY IMPACT YOUR LIFE IF YOU HAVE NO EVIDENCE THAT SUCH THINGS EXIST. HOWEVER, IT SEEMS TO ME THAT IMPLICIT IN THIS IS AN ASSUMPTION THAT THE LIKELIHOOD OF THE EXISTENCE OF SUCH A THING IS VERY LOW. WOULD YOU AGREE?

    No, I would not agree. The only thing implicit in my statement is that I make no assumptions about the existence of beings for which I have been given no evidence to consider. You seem to insist that the non-act of not considering non-existent evidence implies a consideration and rejection. This seems bizarre to me. I have not considered whether or not the Lord God Algomafeasia of Planet Nebulon exists either. According to you, this means I have decided or assumed that Lord Al is unlikely to exist.

    The entire essence of what I have said thus far is that agnosticism makes no assumptions. I determine likelihood through evaluation of the quality and quantity of evidence.

    BUT MOST SCIENTISTS DON’T PRACTICE PURE SCIENCE, THEY PRACTICE PRACTICAL SCIENCE. THIS MEANS THAT, ONCE A LEVEL OF EVIDENCE GETS LOW ENOUGH, THEY GENERALLY GO AHEAD AND SAY THAT SOMETHING ISN’T TRUE.

    Well, we actually agree here. Where we differ is that it sounds like you accept that proclivity of scientists to sometimes be less than precise while I consider it shameful and potentially leading to bad science – sometimes with what I would regard as disastrous consequences. If there is one thing I think we can demand of scientists it is precision.

    I UNDERSTAND WHAT YOU MEAN WHEN YOU SAY YOU ARE NOT A MATERIALIST. THIS MAKES SENSE. BUT WHEN YOU SAY THAT SCIENCE ISN’T THE ONLY VALID METHOD OF GAINING INFORMATION ABOUT THE WORLD, YOU SURPRISE ME A BIT. WHAT ELSE DO YOU CONSIDER VALID? I BELIEVE WE’VE ALREADY ELIMINATED PURE LOGIC. WHAT ABOUT PERSONAL REVELATION?

    Yes, logic fails us frequently as a tool for gaining information.

    As to the rest, including personal revelation, I touched on this tangentially before. Let me try to illustrate with these scenarios:

    1.
    Scientist:This glass of water contains millions of tiny organisms.
    Skeptic:Nonsense. It’s just water.
    Scientist: Well you could see them but you must look through this microscope because they are so small. You cannot see them just using your eyes.
    Skeptic: Forget it. I don’t need your smoke-and-mirrors gizmos. I can see for myself. It is just water.
    Scientist: Well, if you refuse to do what must be done we simply cannot discuss the subject, and that would be your loss because you will remain forever ignorant about the true nature of reality.

    2.
    Taoist monk: Your methodologies and instruments are incapable of discerning reality, which cannot be expressed in verbal or mathematical language. It may be understood only through direct apprehension.
    Scientist: Touchy-feelie gobbledygook. Your statement has no meaning and no evidence to support it.
    Taoist monk: Oh, the evidence is available. You simply need to spend time – perhaps between 10 minutes and a lifetime – in meditation to be able to eliminate the distortions caused by your physical and bodily/mental instruments and ultimately perceive it directly.
    Scientist: Forget it. I neither need nor want your mind-altering voodoo practices to learn about reality.
    Taoist monk: Well, if you refuse to do what must be done we simply cannot discuss the subject, and that would be your loss because you will remain forever ignorant about the true nature of reality.

    So, the scientists have their methods for gaining information. The monk has his. Which is valid? I do not know. Perhaps both. Perhaps neither. Perhaps there are a million others. I do not know. I am an agnostic.

    What I do know is that, for me, the scientific method is “valid” to the extent that it not only enhances my life with a variety of goodies such as electricity and mp3’s, but most probably actually made my life possible to begin with.

    Another thing I do know however is that if I put 250 micrograms of LSD25 into the scientist’s Perrier, a short time later the reality he perceives will change dramatically. Of course hours later when it wears off he will say that the reality he perceived was simply a hallucination caused by a chemical imbalance and that this, now is the “real” reality. But on what basis would he make that statement? Why does he assume that the “normal” chemical balance in his brain enables him to perceive the “actual” reality around him? Nothing other than consensus – the fact that most people see and hear the same things (they think). So this is what truth is reduced to. Democracy. We vote on what is real.

    It puts me in mind of the Zen story: A monk recounts that the other night he dreamed he was a butterfly, but now he is wondering if he might not actually be a butterfly dreaming he is a man.

    To say something like “Science is the best method we have yet devised to learn about the content and workings (not the meanings) of the physical universe” would be almost self-evidently true. But to say “Science is the only valid method for gaining information about the physical universe” assumes omniscience of the speaker, which I certainly do not profess to be blessed with and I therefore cannot agree with the statement.

    IT IS NOT TERRIBLY UNCOMMON FOR SCIENTISTS TO DELVE DEEPLY INTO AREAS THAT ARE CURRENTLY IMMUNE TO INVESTIGATION.

    I truly do not know what areas of scientific inquiry (not personal musing) are invalidated by my statement, and I would think that the act of “delving deeply into” means “investigation”.

    I think we are beginning to go around in circles and are caught up in micro-analysis of the meanings of words. Let me try to sum up my view with this illustration:

    There are two rooms.

    The first is the physical universe – the “natural” world of matter and energy and space-time. Science studies this and arrives at conclusions. Science, and I, can make statements regarding it and those statements can, at least in theory, be tested. All conclusions are known to pertain to this room only and cannot be assumed to apply anywhere but in this room.

    The second room is anything and everything that is not included in the first room – the “supernatural” world of who knows what. (This includes god and gods but should not be confused with things such as “paranormal” phenomena like ESP and telekinesis which are claimed to be part of the first room.) Anyone can make any statement they wish about this second room but trying to apply science, mathematical language, logic or any first room methodologies to confirming or refuting the veracity of such statements is useless because such statements cannot be tested in the first room, even in theory, – and are therefore, using my terminology, “meaningless” in the first room.

    My head is spinning.

    Cheers,
    John

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