Science vs Religion

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Science vs Religion

Post  eddie on Tue Apr 12, 2011 7:37 pm

The Moral Landscape: How Science can Determine Moral Values by Sam Harris – review

It isn't Sam Harris's atheism that bothers Giles Fraser, but his breathtaking hubris

Giles Fraser The Guardian, Saturday 9 April 2011

We are caught in a battle between those who believe too much and those who believe too little – so Terry Eagleton was saying at St Paul's cathedral the other day. In the one corner are the fundamentalists for whom certainty can be pulled off the page of ancient scripture, and in the other are the "whatever" generation for whom the continual introduction of the word "like" is the perfect expression of anxiety about certainty per se. (Conversation with my daughter: she says "It is, like, raining." "No," I reply, "there's no like about it. It is raining.")


The Moral Landscape by Sam Harris

Sam Harris struck literary gold having a go at those with too much certainty in The End of Faith. Now he turns his attention to those with too little. His target is moral relativism. For too long religion has sheltered behind the popular idea that you can have your truth and I will have mine. Harris wants a more muscular form of God-denying liberalism, attained by tearing down the familiar idea that science does facts (where truth is possible) and religion does meaning and values (where relativistic respect is essential). With this fact/value distinction – inspired by no less a figure than David Hume – religion and science have announced the terms of their peace treaty, each claiming for themselves a non-competing jurisdiction. But Harris will have none of it. Science has sold itself cheap. The peace treaty must be torn up. Science can indeed tell us about morality. Indeed, science can determine morality.

First, the atheism. On that useful quadrant – interesting and right, interesting and wrong, uninteresting and right, uninteresting and wrong – Harris is mostly in the uninteresting and right category. Uninteresting because he is concerned only with the narrowest definition of religious belief, and right because the moral and intellectual crimes he pins on this form of belief – its ignorance and prejudice – are so obvious to the western secular imagination that they do not require argument, and certainly not a PhD in neuroscience. Given his definition of religion, his attack on it is the philosophical equivalent of taking sweets from a baby. These things are wrong: "female genital excision, blood feuds, infanticide, the torture of animals, scarification, foot binding, cannibalism, ceremonial rape, human sacrifice". The list goes on. With regard to the god Harris describes, I am a much more convinced atheist than he – even though I am a priest. For Harris asks constantly for evidence, with the implication that if he discovered some, he would change his mind. My own line would be that even if the god he described was proved to exist, I would see it as my moral duty to be an atheist. An all-powerful eternal despot is still a despot. Blake called this wicked villain "Nobodaddy".

Nonetheless, the attack on relativism leads Harris into much more interesting territory, but interesting and wrong. His astonishing lack of humility leads him to claim too much for what science can achieve in the realm of morality. The key concept is that of "wellbeing". It is, he suggests, both a fact word and a value word, like "health". So, for example, to suggest that a thing contributes to wellbeing is to make of it a positive evaluation as well as to claim something that can be measured scientifically. On this Harris has invoked the wrath of countless philosophers. But I'm with Harris here. As Mary Midgley argued years ago in her brilliant Beast and Man (a book with a comparable intention to Harris's, though more modestly expressed), an apparently neutral description – "natural" or "human" for example – relates to the empirical world and contains a moral charge. But to extend this point to the idea that wellbeing can shoulder all the work of morality is breathtakingly hubristic.

What is presented as Harris's big new idea is really just reheated utilitarianism with wellbeing in place of pleasure. Where this idea breaks down is where utilitarianism breaks down. Let me start with Harris's defence of torture. If the sum of general wellbeing (whatever that means) is increased by the torture of a terrorist suspect, then torture is not even a necessary evil – it becomes a moral duty. Worse still: discussing Robert Nozick's ingenious idea of a "utility monster", Harris asks "if it would be ethical for our species to be sacrificed for the unimaginably vast happiness of some superbeings". His answer is astonishing: "Provided we take time to really imagine the details (which is not easy), I think the answer is clearly 'yes'." For me this is back with the evil Nobodaddy. I will not worship superbeings nor sacrifice to them. Once again I am more atheist than he.

There are so many problems with utilitarianism, it's a pity Harris does so little to address them. How can one quantify the sum total of wellbeing produced by a single action when the potential consequences of any particular action are infinite? So keen is he to turn morality into science that Harris presses on regardless. His demand is that all morality be calibrated on a single scale. Yet if one observes what it is that people call good (and isn't observation a scientific golden rule?), instead of assuming what good ought to look like, one surely recognises very different sorts of moral value. Can the moral value of freedom and equality really be measured in the same way? Can a conflict between love and duty be resolved by some scientific calculation? No. As Isaiah Berlin rightly pointed out, moral values are often incommensurable. Not all things are good in the same way and for the same reasons. Thus they cannot be measured against each other, however attractive that seems to the scientific mind.

For all this, it is not so much that I disagree with Harris. Rather, I am scared of him. And not his atheism, which is standard scientific materialism with the volume turned up. But scared of his complete lack of ambiguity, his absolute clarity of vision, his refusal of humour or self-criticism, his unrelenting seriousness. Harris sees the great moral battle of our day as one between belief and unbelief. I see it as between those who insist that the world be captured by a single philosophy and those who don't. Which is why I fear Harris in just the same way I fear evangelical Christians, to whom he looks so similar. Like them, he is in no doubt about his faith. Like them, he has his devoted followers. Like them, he wants to convert the world. Well, I'm sorry. I am not a believer.

Giles Fraser is canon chancellor of St Paul's cathedral.

guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2011

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Re: Science vs Religion

Post  Doc Watson on Thu Apr 14, 2011 12:38 am

When you line them up together religion wins , hands down.

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Re: Science vs Religion

Post  pinhedz on Thu Apr 14, 2011 12:45 am

Doc Watson wrote:When you line them up together religion wins , hands down.
Wins what?

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Re: Science vs Religion

Post  Doc Watson on Thu Apr 14, 2011 12:47 pm

You must pick one or the other , but neither are what they claim.

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Re: Science vs Religion

Post  eddie on Mon Jun 20, 2011 3:36 pm


New Yorker cartoon.

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Re: Science vs Religion

Post  Andy on Tue Jul 05, 2011 8:57 am

One of the most typical characteristics of especially ancient philosophy is the complex, hard to fully graps and thought-provocative relation between theorethical and practical philosophy - the understanding that our conception of the world finally has a role to play in the way we lead our lves.
Religion has long propagated a similar vision: the God that has created the world has created us with a certain purpose and thus we must behave and act according to certain principles.

The problem religion is facing today is that both it ontological and epistemological claims have become either very hard to believe or even plainly nonesensical. Kant made short work of the epistemological aspect in the late 1700s, the ontological claim died a slow death in between Galilei and the early 20th century.

And thus man sits around with the question how to found his life after the fundament of all fundaments has been proven obsolete.

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Re: Science vs Religion

Post  pinhedz on Tue Jul 05, 2011 1:03 pm

I've never known a minister directly herding a flock of believers to ever say anything about epistemology or ontology. They just say read the bible and have faith.

I've never known (known personally, that is) any scientist that claimed the natural sciences can say anything about the supernatural (how could natural sciences delve into the supernatural?). I don't see how science and religion can be regarded as in confrontation; they never occupy the same turf as far as i can see.

And if what I was taught in religion class had been strictly applied, Thomas Aquinas would have been declared a heretic for trying to prove Gods exists, because the Church teaches that God's existence is an article of Faith.

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Re: Science vs Religion

Post  Andy on Wed Jul 06, 2011 6:15 am

To which Aquinas would answer you that the existence of God is one of the praeambula fidei - grounding notion which according to his understanding had to be made 'demonstrabilia' instead of mere 'credibilia' by philosophy - and not articula fidei - significant yet contigent truths of faith which because of their nature are pricipally unaccessable to reason alone and does required a revelation (e.g. the ressurection of the flesh, Original Sin, creation in time, ...

Aquinas also rejected a priori proves for the existence of God such as the ontological argument by Anselmus of Canterbury.
Aquinas' prooves for the existence of God, the so-calld quinque viae, are demonstration of how reason through its own autonomy can come to trace the reality of a divine being in reality.

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Re: Science vs Religion

Post  pinhedz on Wed Jul 06, 2011 10:18 am

nemo wrote:Aquinas' prooves for the existence of God, the so-calld quinque viae, are demonstration of how reason through its own autonomy can come to trace the reality of a divine being in reality.
Would you say he succeeded in doing that?

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Re: Science vs Religion

Post  Andy on Wed Jul 06, 2011 5:15 pm

That depends on how you understand that question of course.

He doesn't succeed in convincing me - his arguments all point to notions that Kant would consider synthetic a priori's in a metaphysical context. The sort of notions, in other words, which find themselves outside the field of scientific inquiry and only might serve it in a regulative sense. That's something else than a God obviously.

But my answer is of course already influenced by my knowledge and understanding of evolutions in scientific and intellectual inquiry that span the +/- 600 years that seperate us from Aquinas.
I would consider it rather unfair to hold such things against anyone - it's a bit like saying that Newton's stuff is rubbish because he failed to take general relativity and quantum physics into account.

Aquinas intellectual demonstrations of the existence of God are a child of their time and a very decent effort to fullfill the goal he was trying to achieve: a Christian actualisation of the Aristotelian corpus.

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Re: Science vs Religion

Post  pinhedz on Thu Jul 07, 2011 10:30 am

If it's fair to say (as you say Kant would have said) that Aquinas' arguments really all point to notions that are synthetic a priori's in a metaphysical context, then I think one would certainly be justified in holding that against him.

And Newton would never have been guilty of any such a thing bounce (and I would add that "gross oversimplifications" need not be "rubbish").

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Re: Science vs Religion

Post  Andy on Mon Aug 01, 2011 9:01 am

I have been thinking about how to formulate an accurate and sensefull answer to this thread for quite a while now ...

The problem is I'll either become lengthy and technical - and thus, boring and maybe hard to follow (at least in part due to the fact that I'd have to formulate a number of complex ideas in a language that is not my mother's tongue) -, or short and blunt.

Let me say this in favour of Aquinas: in your religion class you may have been told that God is real and that his existence has to be entirely accepted upon the sole authority of the revelation. This may also not have been the case, but it certainly was a dominant stace in Aquinas' days which maintains to be heard till this very day.
Aquinas did a huge effort in the process of the emancipation of autonomous reason - of rational inquiry into reality a part from the revelation.

Aquinas was a theologian and as such, his goal obviously was not to create animosity between autonomous rational inquiry and the revelation: he rather saw them as 2 paths to a singular truth, 2 techniques of inquiry if you wish. Both also had their specific function: revelation, for example and among other things, served to show the Truth to everyone whereas philosophy was obviously only accessible to the select elite of intellectuals. Philosophy, on the other hand, also served to demonstrate the reality of certain elements of the revelation.
The quinque viae are to be understood in this context.

Now, in relation to Kant one might say that the specific formulation of the demonstrations that make up the quique viae allows one to understand them as regulative ideas - in case of which they are acceptable, even neccessary according to Kant (he's a bit dubious on this matter: sometimes he suggest they are the product of moments of overenthusiasm of reason, other times he maintains such ideas are fundamentally inherent to reason).
Put simply: Kant sees a possitive function for metaphysics in that it pentrates into the fundamental issues which inspire us our rational inquiry of reality - it are these questions which fuel reason to operate, so to speak. The only mistake we musn't make, according to Kant, is to be tempted to take our ideas of certain metaphysical matter - e.g. 'Does God exist', 'Is time finite or infinite', 'Is the soul substantial', ... - for actual realities - which he calls the constutive use of metaphysical a priori's. At great lenght he demonstrates how none of such notions withstand intense scrutiny by a logician.

It is obvious that Thomas himself likely meant his quique viae as demonstrations of the actual existence of an Ideal Being - which is a term Kant uses to designate God - and in doing so he clearly trespasses the line set out by Kant. Anybody who whises to put faith in them in spite of this fact faces the Gargantuan task of having to rewrite the Kritik der reinen Vernunft, I don't even think Hegel could save 'm.

But a figure who initiated the proces of emancipation of rational reason after it had been incorporated entirely within the bound of a theistic religion for nearly a millennium deserves some credit I think - especially when the specific formulation of his problematic demonstrations allow for a less-problematic reading by a modern reader.

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Re: Science vs Religion

Post  pinhedz on Tue Aug 02, 2011 8:56 am

Andy wrote:Let me say this in favour of Aquinas: in your religion class you may have been told that God is real and that his existence has to be entirely accepted upon the sole authority of the revelation. This may also not have been the case, but it certainly was a dominant stace in Aquinas' days which maintains to be heard till this very day.

Aquinas did a huge effort in the process of the emancipation of autonomous reason - of rational inquiry into reality a part from the revelation.

Aquinas was a theologian and as such, his goal obviously was not to create animosity between autonomous rational inquiry and the revelation: he rather saw them as 2 paths to a singular truth, 2 techniques of inquiry if you wish. Both also had their specific function: revelation, for example and among other things, served to show the Truth to everyone whereas philosophy was obviously only accessible to the select elite of intellectuals. Philosophy, on the other hand, also served to demonstrate the reality of certain elements of the revelation.
The quinque viae are to be understood in this context.
I certainly bear no ill will towards Aquinas; I am no more keen on blind faith than he was. I was only pointing out that his philosophical inquiry was at odds with the teachings of his own church, and what he was trying to do was likely even dangerous.

I appreciate his dilemma: "...his goal obviously was not to create animosity between autonomous rational inquiry and the revelation..." But I don't think there was ever any possibility that he could actually bring the natural and the supernatural together within a single discipline. In the end, the church did the wise thing, and simply declared them to be separate--and therefore not in conflict.

As for Kant, I think I have to work through some linguistic issues in order to judge. It's interesting to discuss Kant with someone who's read him in German, while I've read him in English, and in a 120-year-old translation at that, with archaic 19th century English usage and probably some neologisms made up by the translator. [I recognize some ideas that Kant evidently took from mathematics and the natural sciences--he (or the translator) just used different language. The term "a priori cognition" does not appear in mathematics texts, just as the term "postulate" (as a noun) does not appear in Kant].

But it's clear that Kant recognizes that without free will there can be no morality and no God. And he says that we cannot "cognize" free will (that is, it is not a phenomenon that we will ever experience or witness), but we can "think" it as something purely theoretical. To me, it seems a long journey from something we can "think," but never "cognize," to a conclusion that God exists, and so far I have not been able to go the distance with him.

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Re: Science vs Religion

Post  Andy on Tue Aug 02, 2011 5:47 pm

pinhedz wrote:I certainly bear no ill will towards Aquinas; I am no more keen on blind faith than he was. I was only pointing out that his philosophical inquiry was at odds with the teachings of his own church, and what he was trying to do was likely even dangerous.

I appreciate his dilemma: "...his goal obviously was not to create animosity between autonomous rational inquiry and the revelation..." But I don't think there was ever any possibility that he could actually bring the natural and the supernatural together within a single discipline. In the end, the church did the wise thing, and simply declared them to be separate--and therefore not in conflict.

I think it is important to keep to historical context in which Aquinas was working in our minds: the philosophical doctrines of the Church had been rooted in (neo-) platonism almost from the time of the Churchfathers - up until some time during the 12th century Aristotles work was almost entirely forgotten save only for his efforts in the field of logic.
The specific way in which neo-platonism seeks to find true knowledge in this world is very different from how aristotelian science advances. To put it simply - and thus, obviously, without neccessary nuance -: Plato taught that the Real World was to be found outside of the Cave (I assume most of the people reading here are familiar with his parable of the cave, if not just check out the entry for Plato in the '3 Minute Philosophy' cartoon series at YouTube, it's meant as satire but portrays the idea sufficiently accurately). So for any philosopher seeking true knowledge the challenge lies in 'getting outside of the cave' - to be understood metaphorically, of course -, to somehow obtain insight into the world outside the cave through contemplation.
The elements one has awareness of inside the cave can be of some help, but are ultimately of little assistance in this process.

Translated to the Christian doctrine you get a situation in which close study of the Revelation is the only possible exit out of the cave and as such a church relatively unconcerned with the elements of reality - the strict seperation of the natural and the supernatural you refer to.

The introduction of the Arestotelian corpus, at least part due to Arabic occupation of European territories, did pose a serious challenge to the European thinker confronted with it. Unlike Plato, Aristotle had written extensively about physics, biology and other disciplines that are directly occupied with the physical world. As a result, Aristotelianism proved to offer much more detailed and accurate description of the world as we perceive it through our sense.
Furthermore, there was a collection of writing called 'The Metaphysics' - a term more than likely never used by Aristotle himself - which contained a complex study of how to obtain insight in the divine order through the study of the physical world.
(Note: this is a gross oversimplification of 'The metaphysics', I chose to focus only on this aspect of this study because of its relevance to the rest of the matter we're discussing.)

It was Thomas' brilliance to understand the sciences of Aristotle as an alternative path through which knowledge of God as a destination of all mankind can be revealed. Or to put it quite simply: if we wish to obtain knowledge of Gods Divine Plan we can procede by studying His Revelation (The Bible) or His Creation (The World).
When choosing the last path we procede 'a posterioribus in priora' - only through close and detailed study of what is given in specific particular objects in this world do we gradually obtain an understanding of the more general abstract principles which govern them.

The real danger in Thomas' teaching lay in the fact that he extended the Church scope outside of the religious context: suddenly the physical world became a matter of interest as well, as it was appreciated as a path to God.
This is the process that eventually lead to the sort of strict doctrines you see portrayed in a book like 'The name of the rose'.

Nominalism was the reaction against this strict intertwining of The World and The Word - a position most famously held by William of Ockham, the source of inspiration for the lead character in 'The name of the rose'.
Their thesis, put simply, has an almost Kantian touch to it: to them metaphysical entities such as the soul and God lay outside of the understanding of man and can therefor not be known through study of the world.
There were no doubt various reasons for nominalism to see the light of day, but once which is often cited is the ravage caused by the Plague throughout Europe. In a world in which God's word and his creation are essentially thought as 1, the plague can obviously not be the work of a loving God. How could we obtain insight in the divine order through studying the world around us, if that world is filled with a horrible reality that one obviously doesn't wish to ascribe to his Divine Saviour?
The nominalists seperation of both order allows for the formulation of what has become a classic answer to the question of suffering by religiously inspired people: The Lord works in mysterious ways - i.e. Gods intentions with his creation are unknowable to mere mortals.

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Re: Science vs Religion

Post  Andy on Wed Aug 03, 2011 2:56 am

pinhedz wrote:
As for Kant, I think I have to work through some linguistic issues in order to judge. It's interesting to discuss Kant with someone who's read him in German, while I've read him in English, and in a 120-year-old translation at that, with archaic 19th century English usage and probably some neologisms made up by the translator. [I recognize some ideas that Kant evidently took from mathematics and the natural sciences--he (or the translator) just used different language. The term "a priori cognition" does not appear in mathematics texts, just as the term "postulate" (as a noun) does not appear in Kant].

But it's clear that Kant recognizes that without free will there can be no morality and no God. And he says that we cannot "cognize" free will (that is, it is not a phenomenon that we will ever experience or witness), but we can "think" it as something purely theoretical. To me, it seems a long journey from something we can "think," but never "cognize," to a conclusion that God exists, and so far I have not been able to go the distance with him.

Kant has the reputation to be a terrible stylist.
I think this reputation is only partly justified.

For sure Kant often expresses himself through extremely long phrases - even for me! - which have over-complex grammatical structures. Prior to analyse the content of what he is saying one regularly has to analyse simply what he is saying, überhaupt. So if you translate him and which to deliver a readable text, you're facing a serious challenge.
But personally I only partly agree with this reputation, for the simple reason that I find most philosophers to be rather poor to downright terrible stylists and that Kant doesn't really stand out in a bad way amongst them. Try Husserl or, even worse, Heidegger. Personally I find Descartes to be so self-indulgent that he's barely readable. Deleuze is a chaotic who is so allergic to strutural argumentation that sometimes he reads like Dylan's Tarantula, Carnap is so incredibly boring, Aristotle mostly known through notes that weren't even meant to be read by a large public but rather served working instruments for himself etc. Plato, Schopenhauer and Nietzsche are notewothy exceptions.
I'd say that one of the things I like best about Kant is his clearly neurotic approach: he's extremely structured which is very helpfull to obtain so broad overview from his writings prior to examening aspects in more detail. He's also extremely rigous and will devote considerably lengthy sections to elements which at first hand might appear to be self-evident.

As an atheist I'm obiously also not going the distance with him which leads him to postulating the immortality of the soul and the existence of God - I actually even find such notion problematic in relation to Kants own theoretical philosophy, which delivers a far more robust theory.
I do understand why he postulates these notions - or rather proclaims that reason itself does so.

In his most famous writing about morality, Grundlegung zur Metaphysik der Sitten (GMS) (Eng.: Foundation of the metaphysics of morals, I believe), Kant examens the very nature of morality - what it is in itself, a part from specific situations. His examination lead his from the central position of the good will over the dimension of duty that is implied within it to the formulation of the categorical imperative as the cental explicitation of his theory of ethics.
In the opening chapters of 'Die Religion innerhalb der Grenzen der bloße Vernunft' (Eng. Religion within the bounds of pure reason , I believe), Kant examens the condition humaine in relation to his work on morality in the GMS. His conclusion is rather dim: man is a being capable of doing good but by nature inclined to give into his passions and urges and thus ultimately, by nature bad. True moral actions are motivated solely by the understanding of the duty that speaks from the moral law. Any inspiration from other motives leads to the action being disqualified as truly moral.

In the Kritik der praktischen Vernunft Kant than asks how reasonable being are able of acting in accordance with moral laws - put shortly: how are pratical synthetic a priori's possible? In the GMS he had famously caimed that morality would shine as a juwel even if it didn't cause single moment of goodness in this world - that is to say: effecs or intented effects of actions can never serve as a valid criterium to determine moral actions. Ever. In the Religion he formulates his most fundamental - but surely not only - objection against any form of motivation aside from respect for the moral law.
This obviously leads one to ask: why would one choose to act in accordance with the categorical imperative? It would mean renouncing to all human passions and continue to do so even in spite of an awareness of the uselessness of one's moral behaviour.
And this is why he caims pratical reason postulates the immortality of the soul and the existence of God - a life lead in strict accordance with the categorical imperative must finally find its justification in an aferlife gouverned by the divine order.

Some also claim that Kant's servant was a very pious and devout man who was sincerely let down by the conclusion of his employer in his opus magnum: the fundamental impossibility to know God. To make amends, some claim, Kant wrote the praktische Vernunft.

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Re: Science vs Religion

Post  pinhedz on Thu Aug 04, 2011 3:30 am

The thread topic "science vs religion" presupposes that science and religion are in conflict, but the philosophers cited were working to reconcile religion with reason and science, or even to use reason and science as a path to God.

You say it like this:

It was Thomas' brilliance to understand the sciences of Aristotle as an alternative path through which knowledge of God as a destination of all mankind can be revealed. Or to put it quite simply: if we wish to obtain knowledge of Gods Divine Plan we can procede by studying His Revelation (The Bible) or His Creation (The World).

When choosing the last path we procede 'a posterioribus in priora' - only through close and detailed study of what is given in specific particular objects in this world do we gradually obtain an understanding of the more general abstract principles which govern them.

The real danger in Thomas' teaching lay in the fact that he extended the Church scope outside of the religious context: suddenly the physical world became a matter of interest as well, as it was appreciated as a path to God.
So Thomas did not consider that there was a contest between religion and science, and it is not clear that you are arguing that there is a contest.

I think we both agree that Thomas was unsuccessful in his effort to use science as a path to God, but what should we conclude from that? Should we conclude that science is anti-religion and that in the contest science has vanquished religion?

Or should we conclude that science is simply not then path to God, and anyone in search of God must find a different path?

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Re: Science vs Religion

Post  pinhedz on Thu Aug 04, 2011 3:37 am

I think I left my copy of Camus' "Myth of Sisyphus" in a hotel room somewhere, so I can't quote anything from it right now.

But there is a section in "Sisyphus" in which Camus debunks all of the philosophical "proofs" of God's existance--all of the arguments presented by the great philosophers from his time all the way back to the ancient Greeks.

It seems arrogant that one would take on all of those heavy hitters and declare that they were all wrong--but I do that myself. Razz

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Re: Science vs Religion

Post  Andy on Thu Aug 04, 2011 5:50 am

pinhedz wrote:
So Thomas did not consider that there was a contest between religion and science, and it is not clear that you are arguing that there is a contest.

I think we both agree that Thomas was unsuccessful in his effort to use science as a path to God, but what should we conclude from that? Should we conclude that science is anti-religion and that in the contest science has vanquished religion?

Or should we conclude that science is simply not then path to God, and anyone in search of God must find a different path?

Well, strictly speaking there wasn't anything called 'science' in Thomas' days, at least not in the way you and I understand the term.
That's why I have been speaking of 'rational reflection' rather than 'science' when talking about Thomas.

There's 2 ways of appreciating Thomas: using our scientific mindset and using (what we know about) the mindset of his own day.
A serious appreciation of Thomas should at least make the effort of considering the last part.
In The God delusion Richard Dawkins wrote an entry about Aquinas in which he debunked all of Thomas' proofs for the existence for God.
While I actually agree on Dawkins' starting point - i.e. that there is no object present in reality that adequately corresponds to the notion of a 'God' such as is put forward in theistic doctrines -, I find Dawkins consideration of Thomas a lot less intellectualy impressive than the massive effort Thomas took up.

Thomas was succesfull enough if measured by the standards of his own time - the real rupture between science and religion wasn't set in motion until Galileo Galilei maintained firmly that his maths were superior to Scripture - Descartes praised Galilei but said he builded without any foundation and set out to provide the metaphysical groundwork for Galilei - a process in which God quickly pops up as the seal of warranty for the reality of clear and distinct ideas, Newton continued the path Galilei had started but really spent more time writing about religion than about the physics we remember him for - Hume said Newtonian physics weren't really possible and Kant provided the extensive theory of knowledge that is the Kritik der reinen Vernunft in which he worked out an understanding of science that both answers Hume's scepticism and grounds his opinions within the field of metaphysics.

What I retain from Kant is that if we can only speak of object which are at least theoretically object of experience.
I find the notion of a God only usefull in relation to an entity which somehow demonstrates both transcedental power in relation to the laws of physic - i.e. which is bound by neccesity - and displays honest care for the humen race / this planet / this dimension of reality.
I find that I never experienced the presence of such a being, nor that anybody I ever met has experienced it, nor that those who do claim to have experienced divine presence speak of an entity such as I have defined above with any form of certainty.
Ergo: I see no reason to assume the actual existence of such an entity.

I'm not sure that's scientific reasoning.

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Re: Science vs Religion

Post  Andy on Sat Aug 06, 2011 8:24 am

I personally think that imagine of religion one can get through reading the wors of Immanuel Kant is probably one of the most interesting regarding it relation to science.

One could briefly summarize the essence of his theoretical philosophy in this regard as this:
reason, the very instrument which allows and enables us to speak truthfully about the matters in this wold, by its very nature tempts us into extending our inquiry in this world beyond the limits of what it is capable to obtain certain knowledge about. Unaware of this transgression reason will often formulate theories about the objects with which it is concerned in this field - does God exist? Do we have a soul? Is there such a thing as freedom from determination? etc. - as if there never was such a transgression. The theories will thus have the appearance of the other certain claims which reason has formulated and as such we will be tempted to understand them as knowledge that is equally trustworthy as, say, the knowledge we obtain in physics.
Kant scrupulously writes out complex demonstrations - applied to the fields of special metaphysics such as are to be found in the philosophy of dogmatic philosophers as Wolff and Baumgarten - to show that the very nature of all claims reason produces in these fields is of another character than those that we find in any other field of science.

Kant concludes that our reason simply doesn't allow us to make any certain claim to answer the question wether or not a God exists and that yet, oh irony, it is this (type of) question(s) which put reason to work, to which we most passionately wish to find the answer.

In his pratical philosophy God pops up again as a postulate of reason - that is: not as an entity of which was can obtain objective information and insight, but one which we feel compelled to accept through the very nature of our own (pratical) reason.
And I think this is a cristalisation of that which is so typical of religiously inspired people: their belief in God is ultimately not (just) founded on how they have come to think reality IS through rational inquiry, but at least in part also on how they feel reality OUGHT to be through their experiences in life.
God is the final and most fundamental guarantee for a world in which things can have a different dimension from how they are - namely how they ought to be as expressed through His Will.
Kants ethics would swim in a void through which they would loose their very motivation - they would represent a useless attitude - if not for a God and a soul to put right was is wrong.

And here we see the drama of the matter hand: the instrument which learns us of how reality is makes us wonder of the possibility of a dimension of how reality ought to be - yet ultimately leaves us walking around blindly as soon as we wish to pierce into that matter.

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Re: Science vs Religion

Post  pinhedz on Sat Aug 06, 2011 8:37 am

Kant concludes that our reason simply doesn't allow us to make any certain claim to answer the question wether or not a God exists and that yet, oh irony, it is this (type of) question(s) which put reason to work, to which we most passionately wish to find the answer.
Yes, he says exactly that ...

In his practical philosophy God pops up again as a postulate of reason - that is: not as an entity of which was can obtain objective information and insight, but one which we feel compelled to accept through the very nature of our own (pratical) reason.
... but does he actually say this? Or is this your own conclusion from what he says? We might both believe he arrived at a dead end--but is that what he concluded himself?

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Re: Science vs Religion

Post  Andy on Sat Aug 06, 2011 11:27 am

Here's part of the entry on the postulates of pratical reason in the Staford Encyclopedia of Philosophy - I think this answers your question more fully than I could do myself:

3.5 The postulates of practical reason and the categorical imperative

Kant terms immortality and the existence of God “postulates” in order to distinguish them from the “ideas” of the soul and of God that rationalist metaphysics had made objects of theoretical proofs. These “postulates of practical reason” are fundamental components in what Kant terms “moral faith.” The need for such moral faith arises in the context of our human efforts to sustain ourselves in consistent, life-long moral endeavor. The requirement of practical reason that we make the highest good the object of our will is crucial for sustaining us in this endeavor. Kant thinks that our efforts in that endeavor will falter, however, in the face of the predicament for our willing that the antinomy of practical reason poses for us. If we think that the highest good is impossible of attainment or that our actions have no bearing on its attainment, what basis do we then have for continuing our moral efforts?

Kant's response to this predicament is to appeal to the unconditioned character of the moral demand, i.e., the categorical imperative, that we place upon ourselves in exercising our freedom. Since our reason demands that we will our actions solely on the basis of their rightness, and since we acknowledge that we can do what reason demands, i.e., that we are free, then we have a basis in reason for affirming the possibility of meeting reason's correlative demand regarding the highest good. We can make the achievement of the highest good the object of our willing, even if it remains obscure to us exactly how this will eventually come about. Thus the immortality and the God that are postulated as necessary for bringing about, in concert with our own moral endeavors, the highest good are both objects of “moral faith.” Kant is insistent that the affirmation of God and immortality that is made on the basis of moral faith does not make them objects of theoretical knowledge. They are objects of moral faith inasmuch as their acknowledgment is a matter of a free assent that is legitimated, but not thereby coerced, by reason. In some measure, his account of moral faith complements his arguments against the traditional proofs for the existence of God inasmuch as Kant thinks that such proofs seek to coerce us intellectually into an acknowledgment of that which can only be appropriately affirmed by a response of our human freedom.

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Re: Science vs Religion

Post  pinhedz on Sat Aug 13, 2011 11:04 am

Something might have been lost in the encyclopedist's distillation down to 2 paragraphs, but if that summary really is Kant's reasoning, he is subordinating truth to a perceived need for morality (assuming we can define morality from scratch). Morality demands that God and an afterlife exist (or so he claims), so therefore they must exist--even if the truth is that they don't.

I can understand why one might call that "practical reason;" it's only intended to get us through the day and keep us out of trouble (assuming we can define "trouble" from scratch), and for practical purposes it doesn't matter if it's not really true.

But I'm most intrigued by this claim:
The requirement of practical reason that we make the highest good the object of our will is crucial for sustaining us in this endeavor. Kant thinks that our efforts in that endeavor will falter, however, in the face of the predicament for our willing that the antinomy of practical reason poses for us. If we think that the highest good is impossible of attainment or that our actions have no bearing on its attainment, what basis do we then have for continuing our moral efforts?
He's saying that an atheist can't be good (assuming we can define "good" starting from scratch). Do you think that's true?

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Re: Science vs Religion

Post  Andy on Mon Aug 15, 2011 8:08 am

pinhedz wrote:
He's saying that an atheist can't be good (assuming we can define "good" starting from scratch). Do you think that's true?

I don’t think Kant himself would have said that one’s religious convictions had any effect whatsoever on one’s moral constitution. To demonstrate his I could simply make reference to the title of the third chapter in the first section of his Die Religion innerhalb der Grenzen der bloβe Vernunft , ‘Der Mensch ist von Natur böse’: ‘Man is evil by nature’. Regardless of one’s religious ideals, one is by nature evil if one is man.
Now, the problem at hand might in part be attributed to the fact that Kants moral philosophy is developed over a much larger set of texts than his theoretical philosophy. Each of this texts considers practical philosophy from a specific viewpoint: to understand what is exactly trying to say it thus crucial to bear in mind what specific issue a certain text is dealing with.
I will try to make matters a tad more insightful, but wish to remind you of my own shortcomings both as an authority on Kant - I am merely student and most clearly not an authority – and as a person writing in English. Kant tends to be complex and precise – any serious philosopher usually is both –, I’m not sure if I’m able to do him justice in a post like this one.
It was interesting to see you making reference to the matter of formulating these matters from scratch, because that was exactly Kants ambition: his ethics are not an elaboration or an update of older theories but they represent a truly unprecedented approach to the matter.
Kants initial question is simply how we are capable of morality in the first place. For behavior to be moral, it is imperative that we are somehow able to choose how we act – the classical free will, if you like. For it would be simply pointless to call any type of behavior either good or bad if we were predestinate to act a certain way: there simply wouldn’t be any room for the differentiation between bad and good in such a context. By being free from predestination we should not only think of the typical religious teachings of that subject, but also of our animalistic background. Animals are entirely determined by their instincts and impulses and we take them to be incapable of choosing to act in a different way than their instinct tell them to.
So, what is it that puts humans in this specific position? It is our ability of reason, the fact that we are capable of letting our actions depend upon our rational insights rather than our impulses – which, to be clear, are still a fundamental part of our being! So, how could we differentiate good actions from bad actions than? Well, Kant says, good actions are those which are motivated by and only motivated by our rational understanding of what we should do. That is the intuition that lays beneath the famous opening line of his Grundlegung zur Metaphysik der Sitten: “Nothing in the world - or out of it! - can possibly be conceived that could be called ‘good’ without qualification except a GOOD WILL”.

The motivation for our actions and ONLY the motivation can serve as a useful criterion to distinguish good acts from bad acts. And since it is reason that grants us the freedom that is an a priori condition for morality to be able to exist tout court, we ought to be motivated to act in strict accordance with reason and reason alone. Thus whether we believe in a God or not is strictly irrelevant: a believer who acts a certain way partly because of his fear for the wrath of God – even if his actions would commonly be judged to be morally supreme by believers and atheists alike – is disqualified to be called morally good in Kantian ethics, an atheist who chooses his actions solely upon his rational insight on the other hand can be called good.

What might also be clear from this previous example is that ultimately, our reason leads us to be fully independent and autonomous beings: our actions are no longer dependent upon the desires of some higher being that exist a part from us, but they are motivated through the reason that this prior characteristic of what makes us human. The very idea of something like the Ten Commandments is laughable for Kant – people who read Kant in search for an answer to the question whether acting this or that way is good will thus do so in vain for the only answer they will ever find is: ‘Sapere aude’ – ‘Dare to think’. Which brings me to a short side-thought: bear in mind that Kant was a central figure in the movement of the Enlightment and that all this writings date from the 1780s to the late 1790s when this movement saw its most intense crisis with the advent of the French Revolution. What Kant did was providing an intellectual foundation for this movement of secularization: he set out to rigorously demonstrate how reason ultimately acts as its own autonomous legislator without any need to appeal to the authority of a God.
Now in the Kritik der Praktischen Vernunft Kant considers the Quaestio iuris of this matter: the question on which grounds reason can become practical to itself. And it is in this more lengthy consideration of the nature of reason such as we come to know it in its practical guise – it is, to be clear, the exact same reason as the theoretical reason yet simply occupied with matters of a different sort – that the postulates of reason surface.
What’s the problem? Since Kant has made motivation – he uses the term will most of the time – the sole locus of morality, it has become perfectly possible that all good actions in the world would ultimately be in vain. For the effect of these actions is of no importance. Kant says so much explicitly, consider this example of true moral behavior from the first chapter of the Grundlegung:
“This person has been a friend to mankind, but his mind has become clouded by a sorrow of his own that has extinguished all feeling for how others are faring. He still has the power to benefit others in distress, but their need leaves him untouched because he is too preoccupied with his own. But now he tears himself out of his dead insensibility and acts charitably purely from duty, without feeling any want or liking so to behave.

Now, for the first time, his conduct has genuine moral worth.
Furthermore Kant is well aware that we are not just motivated by reason but that instead we find our impulses and instincts to play a crucial role in our motivations. When he concludes that man is bad by nature, it’s precisely because of this: that man is capable of choosing to act strictly upon his reasonable insights and yet in spite there off is constantly tempted to follow his more basic impulses.
Thus we find that reason asks of us an almost * inhuman effort to act in strict accordance with reason even though we might not experience a single moment of benefit from doing so. Reason does demands of us to consider certain actions good even if that goodness never becomes an object of our experience – keep hi s criticism of metaphysics in his theoretical philosophy in mind here. Thus, he concludes, reason itself leads us to think the existence of an immortal soul and a God as ultimate motivations for morality. That doesn’t mean reason shows us they are real, that they exist but that we are forced by it to think them AS IF they are real.

(*) The word almost is essential in regard to Kant’s Religion : in this he argues that Jesus Christ can only serve as a true example of a moral ideal if we think of him as a normal human being. Should we consider him, as official religious doctrine does, to be God(-like) than he becomes useless as an example: it would have been all too easy to be such an exemplary ideal if he didn’t have to deal with the specific shortcomings of a human will.

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Re: Science vs Religion

Post  Andy on Mon Aug 15, 2011 8:41 am

I read an interesting article about the 'Pontificia accademia delle scienze' - a prestiguous scientific academy founded by the Vatican.

On its homepage we find an interesting quote of pope Benedict XVI:
"Nature is a book whose history, whose evolution, whose "writing" and meaning we "read" according to the different approaches of the sciences, while all the time presupposing the foundational presence of the author who has wished to reveal himself therein."

Do I hear you murmor 'Thomas' there?

It's also rather odd that Ratzinger formulates this Thomistic notion in such away that he is almost paraphrasing one of Kant's demonstrations of how reason leads itself astray when considering metaphysical objects.
Reason, he says, acts according to the maxim: 'If you find a conditional truth, find the unconditional principle underlying it'. (e.g. if you find certain objects to be affected by gravity a certain way,set out to formulate a theory of gravity which counts for all objects under all circumstances.)
This idea ultimately leads to God as unconditional source of all conditional causes.
But in this process reason commits the mistake to assume that when the conditional is given, the unconditional must also be given (and is simply not yet discovered). But the fact that a conditional state of affairs is given doesn't logically imply the exitence of an unconditional to exist.

Ratzingers' choice to formulate his Thomistic vision using the word 'presupposing' almost echoes Kant's criticism of this very notion.

Now, what's far more interesting to learn is the impressive list of (former) members of this academy.
While one might expect the Vatican to have created a scientific academy to produce scientific works in strict accordance with its doctrines, it turns out that they are apparently genuinly interested in science and welcome members whose discoveries are rather at odds with Papal doctrines.
People like Rutherford, Planck, Heisenberg, Schrödinger, Bohr, ... have all been member of it.

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Re: Science vs Religion

Post  pinhedz on Fri Aug 26, 2011 3:47 am

"You must exist, You must!" -- a priori


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