Clarifying agnosticism

John Horgan recently wrote a column which has received a lot of attention. Horgan’s thesis is that when it comes to three topics: the existence of God, the mind-body problem, and the measurement problem in quantum mechanics, science can’t provide the answers and may never be able to. Horgan advises that the only responsible position for these questions is agnosticism, an acknowledgement that knowledge in these areas may be impossible.

Those of you who’ve known me for a while can probably guess my reaction. To be fair, I do think Horgan makes some important points about the current limitations of science. But arguably two assumptions he makes in his piece are wrong.

The first is that the current limitations on knowledge is a static condition and will never change. The history of science isn’t kind to people who said we’d never know the answer to a particular question, at least to any precise concrete one. Ideas that are untestable today may well be testable tomorrow.

But the second is what I want to address in this post, the idea that there’s some sharp boundary between belief and knowledge, that a belief requires absolute certitude to be considered knowledge. Since we never have absolute certitude about anything, I don’t find that to be a productive standard. It effectively renders words like “knowledge” or “know” unusable. I think a more productive outlook is that knowledge is always probabilistic. In this view, knowledge is a belief with which we are justified in feeling a higher degree of certitude, with the idea that we never reach 100%.

So simply saying we’re agnostic on a certain question is often an ambiguous statement. It leaves a lot unsaid about what credence we do have for the possible answers. Of course, for these questions, it’s not possible to give a precise probability, like 78.9%. But a book I read a few years ago, How to Measure Anything, pointed out that often when a precise statement isn’t possible, a broad approximate one might be, and that can still be useful for many purposes.

With similar reasoning, Richard Dawkins, in his book, The God Delusion, in trying to add some clarity to the question of agnosticism about God, came up with a seven point spectrum of probability to indicate where someone might be in terms of certitude about their conclusion. I think that scale has a lot going for it, but sticking with percentages, even imprecise ones, seems to give a better idea of the magnitude of credence we put in something.

In terms of God, it’s worth pointing out how culturally specific this question is. Very few people today are agnostic about the existence of the Sumerian, Norse, or Aztec gods. Of course, we can come up with increasingly generic versions of “God” that are progressively less culturally specific. Or we can use the word “God” to refer to the universe or the laws of nature.

However you feel about these moves, my credence for any culturally specific version is south of 1%. The other versions get increasingly higher until we get to a deistic intelligence that created the universe but doesn’t interfere with it, where I’m probably around 30%. When it comes to referring to the universe or the laws of nature, it becomes equal to my credence in the external world, well north of 90%.

I long ago lost interest in the agnostic vs atheist debates, so I’ll leave it to others to figure out which label is appropriate here.

When it comes to consciousness, my credence for reductionist physicalist approaches is north of 90%. Which doesn’t leave much room for the competing views: non-reductive physicalism, dualism, panpsychism, idealism, etc.

In terms of any specific physicalist theory, that credence is much lower. I think they’re all wrong, but some seem less wrong than others. My deep suspicion is the answer will involve numerous theories, involving a mix of biology, neuroscience, and computation. But these distinctions are tractable scientific questions involving no deep metaphysical mystery.

And then there are interpretations of quantum mechanics. I’m going to set aside anti-real approaches (weak Copenhagen, QBism, quantum information, etc), since they’re not really making a statement about reality. (Except possibly an assertion that an anti-real explanation is all we’ll ever get, in which case see the first point above.)

My credence in straight quantum theory with no physical collapse (aka Everett many-worlds) is around 50%. That leaves a 50% credence that new discoveries significantly change the picture. However, my credence is pretty low (10% at best) for any specific realist interpretation with additional assumptions. Until we have experimental results pushing in a particular direction, they all seem like speculative guessing. Some, like objective collapse and pilot-wave theories, seem too much about saving appearances.

In summary, for the most common conceptions of God and mind, I think Horgan overstates the mystery. There are straightforward answers if we’re willing to accept them. That could also be true for quantum mechanics, but the uncertainty there seems higher. For now.

What do you think? On any of the three topics that you’re willing to share, what do your numbers look like? Do rough credence percentages work for you? If not, is there another framework that’s better?

103 thoughts on “Clarifying agnosticism

  1. Absolutes, as beliefs or otherwise, are a joke. They do not exist and I can’t think of how they ever would. (Chemists are trained to consider absolutes like chemical purity as unattainable extremes. Chemicals can be 100.1% pure and that doesn’t mean there are no contaminants in them.)

    As to “we may never find out . . . ” this claim is always true but quite unhelpful. In the physical sciences we are empirically driven. Factual measurements drive theories and theories point the way to new facts, but we are always allowing Nature to have the final word. Since this is the case, I say it is impossible to know what questions will and will not be answered in the future. There are questions, I am sure, that will not be answered because no one tries to answer them and, say, we destroy our civilization before someone gets around to trying. There may even be questions that cannot be answered but we can’t identify them because all of the possible experiments have not yet been done, so all we can say is we haven’t answered them so far.

    The number of possible scientific questions seems to be very, very large. The number of people trying to answer them is quite small. Progress is not expected to be rapid and it is surprising to me that it has been as rapid as it has been (possibly because we have been picking the bottom hanging ripe fruit).

    Why anyone would ever want to write about questions that will not be answered is beyond me. At worst it dissuades people from trying to answer those questions and at best it makes one look an idiot.

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    1. Generally I agree, although I wouldn’t call people who engage in this kind of reasoning idiots. Some of the most intelligent people who ever lived have gone there. Some of it may be motivated reasoning, seeing something they want to see, or failing to see something they don’t want to be true. Or it might simply be a failure of imagination on how we could ever learn about a particular question.

      Not a few cases are people being diplomatic, political, or both, taking positions that strategically allow them to step around controversy.


  2. I’m less a fan of the percentage estimation for the credibility of things. To me this seems a bit arbitrary. Instead I like to directly present my case for what I believe. This should also generally display the strength of my convictions.

    Furthermore regarding the prospect for non worldly dynamics, or a second kind of stuff, that’s addressed with my single principle of metaphysics. Here I note that to the extent that things happen in our realm that aren’t incited through its own causality, that it’s not possible for us to grasp why such things occur. Here science itself becomes obsolete since causal dynamics itself are what science seeks to grasp as explanation. So I presume perfect causality, not because I can know this to be the case, but rather as a convenient presumption from which to support the potential of science. Here instead of mixing both perfect and less perfect naturalists together as we do today, I’d have scientists be segregated by adding a more liberal variety of science that’s open to non-causal dynamics. I suspect that natural science would do better if it were able to side step unnatural science by passing such proposals that way.

    In any case some sort of god or whatever would necessarily be something beyond our realm that affects it, and so would violate my own metaphysical premise. I suppose that to change my mind I’d need some pretty strong demonstrations of this being’s existence and non-worldly powers.

    Then regarding the mind body problem, under my metaphysics it seems clear that there must be worldly mechanisms which create mind by means of body. I personally suspect neuron induced electromagnetic radiation. But note that even if empirically demonstrated to be the case, this wouldn’t in itself solve the problem. Here it still shouldn’t make sense to us why phenomenal experience would exist as such, and might never. What such validation should do however is dismiss all notions that algorithms can exist in themselves without being mechanism specific. Thus for naturalists, the vast majority of popular consciousness proposals today should be dismissed as unnatural in that capacity at least.

    Then regarding the QM measurement problem, yeah that’s a good one! It’s well over my head, though my own metaphysics does mandate that either quantum dynamics ultimately occur deterministically, or they’re effectively “not of this world”. So given my presumption of determinism, how might that work? I’m not optimistic, though some how it seems to me that we must be misrepresenting matter when we refer to it as either “particle” or “wave” instead of something else that’s inherently both (and probably more). Furthermore couldn’t there be other dimensions to existence that address quantum entanglement and such though we only have evidence of them in cases where we run into quantum funkiness? Seems logical to me.

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    1. On the percentages being arbitrary, maybe I should have put more effort into making this clear, but they’re not meant to be precise statements. So when I say 50%, I’m not saying between 49% and 51%, but maybe between 30% and 70%. If I say I have 10% credence in something, I’m saying I think it’s probably false, but could much more easily conceive of evidence arising for it than for something I have 1% credence in. Which is to say, it’s more about magnitudes than precise numbers.

      I’m pretty sure we’ve discussed this before, but I’m leery of metaphysical principles. It seems like something that could easily metastasize into a hardened ideology, which might blind us to the implications of data that don’t conform to it.

      It reminds me of Jim Baggott’s phrase, “metaphysical costs”. It took a while for me to figure out why that phrase bothered me so much, before I realized what he’s saying, that it involves costs to his preferred metaphysics. I’d rather wear my metaphysical views (to the extent I have any) lightly, and let the data take me where it may.

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      1. It seems like we’ve discussed most everything that interests us at least a bit Mike, though perhaps my metaphysical principle somewhat less. In any case it seems to me that science today suffers by remaining open to non causal dynamics, which is to say, “magic”. For anyone who would challenge the usefulness of my principle, I’d ask how it is that science might ever account for a given non causal dynamic if the missing causality itself would exist as the account that science can’t possibly grasp since by definition it wouldn’t exist? Shouldn’t a respected band of meta scientists acknowledge that science grows obsolete to the extent that causality fails? And note that I’m not quite dismissing the existence of non causal dynamics. I’m simply saying that there’d be a separate variety of science dedicated to that sort of thing which normal scientists wouldn’t wade into. So I’m speaking of specialization, as in “Our side will do this stuff while your side will do that and more”.

        I suspect that Jim Baggot didn’t quite have my metaphysical principle in mind when he spoke of “metaphysical costs”. Surely he didn’t mean that normal scientists should remain open to things that happen which weren’t incited in our realm. Or if he did mean this then apparently he meant that his own brand of metaphysics remains open to the existence of magic. In that case theoretically he could help support my proposed open class of science. Either way…

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        1. Eric,
          When you say non causal dynamics, what do you mean? Do you mean indeterminism? Is this about quantum randomness? In your view, can there be an indeterministic cause? If so, let’s suppose evidence came up that ruled out every deterministic interpretation, that showed conclusively that reality was fundamentally random. Would you reject such evidence, or modify your principle? (Just fyi, I’d modify my metaphysical views.)

          Here’s Baggott’s use of the phrase “metaphysical cost”. I’ll let it speak for itself. Note, to be fair, you might have to follow the link and scroll up to get the full context of what he’s saying.

          Liked by 1 person

          1. Mike,
            It’s not exactly about quantum mechanics, though as a theory in science this is something that my metaphysical principle addresses. I’m of course not going to say that it applies to everything except QM. So on to your question.

            If it were somehow determined that reality were fundamentally random (consider the irony of that!), what would I do? Would I say that my metaphysical principle that science itself becomes obsolete to the extent that causality fails, is wrong? Would I make an exception here to say that because modern science thinks it’s somehow determined that QM is fundamentally random, and because presumed naturalists would rather not say they believe that QM is “not of this world”, then science shouldn’t grow obsolete to the extent of presumed failure in causality? No I wouldn’t abandon my principle just because here scientists would like to believe that they’ve settled this question but also don’t want to endorse the existence of unnatural dynamics. Instead I’d say what I’ve said all along, or that if the dynamics of this world are not inherently determined by dynamics of this world, they in those ways they function magically. And you know that I consider realist MWI interpretations to be magical. I guess that puts me in line with Baggot. But if he chooses to say that there are things which exist that aren’t caused to exist, then to me he’s crossed the line anyway.

            By chance I’m at minute 18 of a fun interview with McFadden on his new book about Occam’s razor. It seems to me that I’m currently trying to use that razor to help rid standard science of its various spooky ideas —I’d rather put that sort of thing elsewhere.

            Liked by 1 person

          2. Eric,
            What would you say to a theist who said that they’re metaphysical principles includes a personal god, and that similar to your stance toward anything that violates your principles, they’d assume any scientific evidence that violates theirs is wrong? In other words, once we stop letting the evidence guide us, what tells us that one set of metaphysical principles are better than another set?

            Different subject. I just finished watching a movie on Amazon you might find interesting: “2047 Virtual Revolution”. It’s a future world where 75% of the population are “the connected”, spending all their time in virtual worlds, even while their bodies rot in the real world, and what happens when a movement tries to free them. It’s an exploration very similar to your pleasure machine scenario.

            Liked by 1 person

          3. Mike,
            It’s interesting that you bring up a scenario where theists would like to deny evidence to help support their theism, when in a historical sense McFadden’s new book addresses that very thing. In the interview that I just linked to he says that one of the main features of Occam’s razor is that it permits theists to engage in science by separating their faith (or theism) from their reason (or science). Thus even William of Occam, a theist like so many of the time, was able to have a major contribution.

            My own metaphysical principle goes further however given the number of presumed modern naturalists who unwittingly sneak unnatural ideas into science. It simply observes that to the extent that causality fails, nothing exists to discover. And why should that be believed? Because it’s the causality itself that science seeks to grasp. So where causality fails, science itself should inherently fail. Right?

            Observe that I, unlike your hypothetical theist, am not dismissing any evidence to help support my own brand of metaphysics. Instead I’m advocating the creation of both a “clean” variety of science and a “dirty” one. The first presumes that causality never fails and thus magic does not exist, while the second presumes that it does fail and thus magic does exist. As you know there are many popular ideas in science today that I’d put in the unclean variety to thus purify the other, such as theorized qualia producing algorithms that are both generic and require no mechanical instantiation. (In that interview btw, McFadden didn’t once mention his own mechanistic qualia proposal.) So understand that I accept all that science has found regarding quantum funkiness. Nevertheless I also observe that either it’s deterministic in the end, or it’s magical in the end and thus inherently ungraspable.

            So what would I tell a theist who would like to support their theism by denying evidence? The same thing that I suspect William of Occam would have, or that this would be mixing up two incompatible things. My own metaphysical principle reinforces his “simplicity” stance, and even if many modern naturalist would like to believe that causality does ontologically fail. Sorry, but that would be a form of magic by which science itself would fail. My advice would be for them to rephrase their assertions in epistemic terms.

            Then as for the movie that you’re talking about, yes I do realize that some of my ideas are, as Derek Parfit would have said, “repugnant”. My response remains that this shouldn’t be surprising since reality itself can be repugnant. Beyond metaphysical and epistemological principles, I believe that science will need at least one axiological principle from which to harden up its softest fields. Here’s mine: In an otherwise valueless world, it’s possible for a machine (such as the human brain), to produce a value dynamic from which to drive the function of a phenomenal entity (such as yourself).

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          4. Eric,
            How would your principle handle phenomena we don’t yet understand, but that we just have to work around for now? For instance, in 1687, when Newton proposed his theory of universal gravitation, he had no idea what gravity was. He could only observe its effects. Many resisted his theory at the time, because it did seem to mix in a “magical” action at a distance. The scientific community had to bracket that issue for over two centuries, until Einstein came along. It’s worth noting that the answer, when it came, was something people in the 1600s wouldn’t even have had the paradigm for.

            For that matter, when Copernicus first proposed his heliocentric model, it had all kinds of conceptual problems. Those issues had to be bracketed until Newton came along. Should his theory not have been considered science until then?

            My concern with metaphysical principles is that they risk locking in our current paradigms, and leaving us blind to future shifts when they become necessary.

            Anyway, we won’t solve this here. It’s been one of our points of disagreement for a while.

            Liked by 1 person

          5. Actually Mike, my metaphysical principle does handle phenomena that we don’t understand yet without locking in current paradigms. A central point is that the naturalist must inherently be open to causal explanations for what’s observed, and even in cases where we don’t have any reasonable explanations.

            In the case of Newton’s proposal for an unexplained but inherent attraction force between masses, my principle tells us that either the observed attraction is magical (which is to say that there’s no worldly causal explanation), or a causal explanation does exist that might be figured out roughly at least.

            The point is that without the existence of ontological causality, the source of gravity would remain fundamentally beyond science since there wouldn’t be anything to even potentially understand. It’s the same with the situation of Copernicus. My principle would state that either the heavenly bodies function by means of magic that therefore can’t be explained through science, or they function by means of not yet discovered causal dynamics that possibly could be understood.

            As for quantum mechanics, so strange is this that here some physicists seem to have lost their faith in causality itself. My principle suggests that it’s fine for them to speak this way epistemologically, though when they do so ontologically they also allude to the existence of magic. Because science itself grows obsolete to the extent that causality fails, they’d reside under a different class of study which is open to the existence of non-causal dynamics. (And as far as I can tell, they’d be joined by Sean Carroll and his literal “many worlds” that are thought to spawn from ours, each of which would then spawn their own, and so on for infinite regress.)

            I doubt that either of us care nearly as much about QM as we care about the means through which existence is experienced. As you know, I use my metaphysical proposal to suggest that many popular consciousness theorists should eventually find themselves in a “causal plus” variety of science, and this is given their advocacy for phenomenal experience by means of non mechanism specific algorithms which require no mechanistic instantiation. We needn’t get into that now. But I am quite sure that if the suspicions of one of us does become experimentally validated before we die, that the other would concede their error.

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  3. I happened upon an article by Mark Manson (in his newsletter section, MindF*ck Monthy) and wonder if the following simple system applies to Horgan: In order to stand out in the morass of constant news, ideas and social saturation it pays to be controversial.

    That’s it.

    Take any subject, state some blatantly problematic nonsense and stand back and collect all the social points that will undoubtedly bubble and froth surrounding your offering.

    It’s a helluva way to get noticed. But, it works.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I suspect you’re right, although it doesn’t necessarily need to be controversial. It can also just be telling people what they want to hear. Arguably for these topics, most people don’t want to hear the most straightforward answer. There’s always a market for pandering, particularly if it seems to be in the face of those conveying unpopular answers.

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  4. I think to a large extent you, Horgan, and Dawkins are mixing up domains.

    The God and mind-body questions are philosophical and you are trying to apply science to them. It is similar to a creationist trying to read science into the Bible.

    If you want to stick to science, you won’t really have any room for reductionist physicalism either.

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    1. This seems like Gould’s non-overlapping magisteria. But that always struck me as more of a diplomatic political concept than a real scientific or philosophical one.

      That’s not to say I don’t think there are areas science can’t help us with. Basically there has to be some coherent fact of the matter for science to get any traction. So definitions or other cases where there is no fact of the matter could be considered outside its scope. Although science can still inform those deliberations, and often requires pragmatic definitions for methodological reasons.

      Reductive physicalism seems squarely in science’s bailiwick to me. What makes you think it isn’t?


  5. I think a way of thinking that could be labeled agnostic is reasonable and even good for a healthy spiritual and ethical life. I think my turning point happened when I fully understood Plato’s Euthyphro dialog. In much simplified form Socrates asks his friend if he performs the good act because God commands it or whether God commands it because it is good. If the former, then the Good is arbitrary and if the latter, then the Good is a standard separate from God. Thus, through a very long argument, which I’ll spare you all, I concluded that God and an afterlife, if there is such a thing, will take care of itself. My spiritual and ethical concerns are here and now. And, most importantly, they are discerned by a standard, if such exists, that even God, if she exists, recognizes.

    For what it’s worth, if you’re looking for sound advocacy in favor of Atheism, steer clear of Dawkins and his New Atheists colleagues—Harris, Hitchens and Dennett. In general they mount naïve straw man arguments against theism, which for them is fundamentalism. Stick with the heavy-hitters like Nietzsche.

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    1. That assumes Socrates’ question to Euthyphro was a meaningful one. But I agree that ethical matters are best handled outside of theology or metaphysics.

      I generally agree on the writings of Harris and Hitchens. I haven’t found too much of their material bears scrutiny over time. Dawkins is far more polemical than I care for, but I find most of his actual reasoning sound. My impression is Dennett’s more measured than the others, but I have to admit I’ve read very little of his writing specifically on religion.

      Can’t say I agree on Nietzsche. His views strike me as too much a reaction to late 19th century paradigms. He seems too much a believer’s idea of what a non-believer should be, someone tortured by their “fall” from faith. If he’d lived longer, he might have reached the stage of just not caring anymore.

      For anyone who wants a thoughtful discussion of non-belief, I’d recommend Julian Barbour’s “Atheism: A Very Short Introduction”, and Carl Sagan’s “The Varieties of Scientific Experience”.


      1. I think you meant to say Julian Baggini. Barbour is a physicist. Baggini is probably worth a read. Although I haven’t done so. And I think Nietzsche is still quite relevant and rigorous an atheistic thinker. I recommend as well the Existentialists, Sartre and Camus who were strongly influenced by Nietzsche. But I respectfully submit that Carl Sagan’s scientific approach to theism is virtually identical Dawkins and equally unimaginative, although less vitriolic. Reading him would be redundant to Dawkins I think. I would like to rebut your dismissal of Plato’s Euthyphro dialog. But I think Socrates can speak for himself!

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Thanks. Not sure why “Barbour” came out, but definitely I meant Baggini. It’s been several years since I read him. I think his might have been the first book on atheism I read. (There wasn’t much available and I wasn’t familiar with philosophy at the time.)

          Sagan’s book is actually a transcript of his 1985 Gifford lectures. I found it fascinating, but it’s definitely from the perspective of a scientist. (To the dismay of some in the audience at the time.)


  6. “Do rough credence percentages work for you?”

    Not really. I have a close long-time friend who uses percentages a lot to describe her feelings about thing, and I came to call those “emotional numbers” — they were not the product of analysis so much as the result of feelings. Which is fine. Understood as an impression, they can be quite evocative.

    “If not, is there another framework that’s better?”

    I’ve written a lot of posts about a multi-dimensional approach that gets away from number-line thinking — this attempt to set a single number to represent the sum total of one’s view. For me, any subject complicated enough to be interesting, an opinion has many components that don’t lend themselves well to a single sum.

    With regard to QM or consciousness, I don’t think we know enough yet for any real conclusions. With regard to God, that’s between the individual and the universe.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. As I noted to Eric, I probably should have put more effort into emphasizing that the percentages aren’t meant to be precise. The focus should be on magnitudes rather than the precise number. So if I say I have 10% credence in something, that’s saying I don’t think it’s likely to be true, but it seems far more likely than something I only have 1% credence in. A 50% credence should be taken as a statement that I just have no idea, a 70% credence that I lean toward it being true but with significant uncertainty, etc.

      I think multi-dimensional approaches are good too. They’re more work, but they further clarify where we might be on a particular position. You could view me addressing different conceptions of God as adding a second dimension. (An earlier version of this post actually set up two dimensional tables, but it was in terms of Dawkins’ seven point scale, which required grouping too much under the same number.)


      1. It’s a useful bit of modern shorthand. The thing that struck me about my friend was that her use of percentages initially fools the listener into that implied precision. It’s only on reflection it’s clear the number is emotional and evocative. (My friend didn’t round off, which made the science impression stronger. Something might be an 83% chance. Sometimes she even used fractions. Useful, for instance, if you’re feeling 50.1% about something.)

        Tables and hierarchies are a good step in the right direction. They can still be linear and number-line oriented, although the two dimensions of tables is helpful. The selling point of multi-dimensional approaches is promoting the sense of a space over a linear selection. This allows notions that seem opposing to be, instead, orthogonal.


        1. I could see using decimals in some places, such as 0.01% or 99.9% to indicate very high certitude. I could even see 50.1% to indicate no idea but with the slightest leaning. (My experience is such slight leanings tend to be transient, so I wouldn’t be inclined to mention them.) In these cases, the decimals are magnitude indicators. Granted, it’s easy to get the impression of intended precision if it’s not explained. But yeah, I’m not sure where 83% would come from. Although I could also see using 33% or 66% to indicate roughly 1/3 or 2/3 credence.


          1. I think in her case, and certainly in mine, the fake precision is meant as a signal, because, yeah exactly, where would 83% even come from? Given she and I both are old enough to remember Spock and his multi-decimal point probability percentages, I think there is a vague reference buried in there (again, definitely in my case). When I use decimal points in emotional numbers, I’m often being ironic or tongue-in-cheek, though, as you say, 99.9% is a useful notion.


  7. Personally I am increasingly leading towards a metaphysics that is somewhat like Nagarjuna’s which is somewhat like Rovelli’s as discussed in Helgoland. I regard it as somewhat of an anti-metaphysics or perhaps a pragmatic metaphysics which is also seems to me compatible with instrumentalism as a scientific approach.


    1. My interest in metaphysics is limited, at least beyond what is implied by the untestable portions of otherwise rigorous scientific theories. Beyond that seems like a lot of guessing.

      I’m open to the relational aspects of Rovelli’s ontology, but the idea that even the relational ontology doesn’t exist until an interaction doesn’t make sense to me. If the relational properties don’t exist before the interaction, what determines those properties during the interaction?

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        1. To be clear, I do occasionally veer into metaphysical territory, with a post here or there on platonism, the Mathematical Universe Hypothesis, or something along those lines. So it’s not like I’m completely uninterested. But my stance on most metaphysical propositions leans skeptical. It’s a lot easier to negate metaphysical propositions than find positive reasons for them.


          1. Reductionist physicalism seems like a strategy that has worked widely in science. We understand biology in terms of chemistry, chemistry in terms of physics, molecules in terms of atoms, atoms in terms of protons, neutrons and electrons, protons and neutrons in terms of quarks, etc. Certainly it may have its limits. Right now everything seems to reduce down to quantum fields. They might be fundamental, or we might eventually figure out a way to reduce them further.

            I can see the case for calling that metaphysics, since strictly speaking our ability to predict the higher levels from the lower ones is limited, but I think it falls in the category of scientifically inspired metaphysics, which I did admit interest in above.

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          2. I think the problem has been that it is possible to break things things down to lower units but it is not so easy figuring out how they reassemble them into higher units. Call it emergence, or something else, if you like.

            Besides that where does the reduction end? What’s at the bottom?

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          3. I’m a reductionist but not an eliminativist, so I’m good with emergence, albeit of the weak variety. I guess the preference for the weak version could be considered a metaphysical one, but I just see that as skepticism of the strong variety.

            At the bottom it’s turtles all the way down. 🙂


          4. Deconstruction is always easier than construction because there are so many ways to construct things.

            You might like Lee Smolin’s Time Reborn, which I just read and reviewed. A big part of the book is why the reductive approach has created a problem in physics. It’s extremely effective in its domain, but it may have given us some simplistic ideas about reality.

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          5. Yes. And the question is do we have a theory on how to construct things that can predict how the constructed things will be behave? I know there is something called constructor theory but whether that helps or even has an relevance to this, I don’t know.


          6. Well, at some level any reductive approach is trying to understand a construction by deconstructing it. Tricky, though. Knowing what atoms comprise a substance doesn’t give us the structure, and knowing the structure doesn’t tell us how to construct it. A meta-theory of construction would be a nice thing. (The Wiki page for constructor theory doesn’t, at a brief glance, make it seem to be that sort of thing.)

            Smolin does talk a lot about physical laws and whether they are timeless and absolute or are mutable and change over time. If the latter, this implies (A) time is real and (B) implies something like a meta-law describing how laws form and evolve. (But that implies an infinite regress of meta-meta-law, so it’s complicated.)

            I have long been fascinated by how the universe, in defiance of entropy, seems to have a meta-law that says something like: Simple laws + energy + time = complex structure. There is no necessity that this be the case. We could live in a universe where that doesn’t happen. There does seem an underlying construction (meta-)law.

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  8. Mike,
    When you say that you’re good with “weak emergence” metaphysically, doesn’t this reduce down to “causal emergence”? And if you’re good with causal emergence but not non-causal emergence, doesn’t this square you with my own metaphysical principle that a void in causality may effectively be assessed as magic that would thus not be possible for science to explore, so any scientist who proposes such dynamics should be referring to “a second kind of stuff”?


    1. Eric,
      The difference is I wear that preference only as long as it’s productive. I don’t consider it an unbreakable axiom. More like a working assumption. I think we’ve discussed this before, but I don’t object to your principles in and of themselves. They seem like common sense to me. I object to reifying them into unbreakable laws and excluding anything that doesn’t appear to meet them, an appearance that might well result from a lack of understanding, either personal or in the current state of science overall.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Mike,
        I appreciate your endorsement of my four principles of meta science as common sense. To be clear, I’m not technically saying that they would be end all answers. I’m saying that we’ll need a respected community of specialists in metaphysics, epistemology, and axiology, to develop various accepted principles here to help science function better than it has so far. Why? Because otherwise scientists should naturally get into all sorts of trouble regarding these elements which naturally underlie their work. I’m saying that we should let scientists focus upon science, while a respected community of specialists would handle the structural side (which scientists should at least be ill suited for given various random conflicting professional interests).

        Until they can be improved I’ll continue to judge science through the four principles of meta science / philosophy that I’ve developed, or perhaps until various other principles seem like they could serve science better if widely adopted.

        If this at least technically addresses your concerns, then to challenge me you might directly assert that my metaphysical principle (which restricts mainstream science to causal dynamics while another branch would be open to a larger domain), doesn’t seem productive because certain things that don’t seem causal, might be in the end. An example would be the mainstream position that phenomenal experience exists by means of mechanism independent algorithms that ultimately require no mechanistic instantiation. But note that if phenomenal experience from certain generic algorithms turned into other generic algorithms is causal, then this would not be a case where my principle has failed. It eludes me how that could even potentially be causal, but if I’m wrong here then so be it. Let’s see some evidence for that. In any case I think these mainstream scientists would rightly have a monkey on their backs, while at least McFadden would not. And note that McFadden’s proposal is both falsifiable and testable.


        1. “An example would be the mainstream position that phenomenal experience exists by means of mechanism independent algorithms that ultimately require no mechanistic instantiation.”

          Eric, I don’t think a conversation with you on this can be productive because, as I and others have pointed out numerous times, no one thinks that. (At least none of the people you’re labeling as “in the mainstream”.)

          Liked by 1 person

          1. Yeah I guess I was wrong to call that a mainstream position. It’s more of a heuristic that I use to reduce what many popular consciousness proposals effectively boil down to. And indeed, if my assessment of their proposals were to become popular enough, surely many proponents would object. The question would be whether or not any of their objections to my heuristic would seem valid.

            In any case that was simply an example of how my principle of metaphysics works. I’ve also mentioned its implications to quantum mechanics. I guess another would be David Chalmers’ property dualism. If there are no worldly causal dynamics proposed in his consciousness account (and I don’t see any), then my principle suggests that it reduces back to substance dualism that would need to be explored under a variety of science that’s open to non causal function. This would be the case even if his proposal happened to be correct.

            I suppose that was a long way to say that I’m also not satisfied with agnosticism.

            Liked by 1 person

          2. The problem with that “heuristic” is it’s roughly equivalent to me criticizing you for your belief in telepathy, while ignoring any and all attempts from you to clarify you don’t believe in telepathy. Maybe I believe your stated positions “boil down” to a belief in telepathy, but if so, I owe it to you to show my work, the step by step logical reasoning of how I got there. In the absence of that, I think you’d eventually be justified in concluding that conversation with me on the topic isn’t worth the bother.

            It is indeed a good example, because it shows you using your principle to exclude things, but from a place of ignorance. There are many phenomena that we don’t understand all the workings of, yet consistent patterns can still be observed and mathematical relations worked out. Should we exclude those phenomena from science because we don’t yet have a full causal account? Or should we view it as something to keep studying and coming up with the best models we can in the meantime?

            Liked by 1 person

          3. Maybe it’s as you say Mike — I’m not showing my work and simply being close minded to various proposals that to me seem outside the domain of causality. Or it could be that I am showing my work and reaching logical conclusions on that basis, though people who have become invested in some of those positions over the years should be expected to not like the implications of that logic (even if it does happen to be sound), and so perceive missing work. Or I suppose it could be any combination of the two. Hopefully one of us will be validated at some point. And if this does turn out to be me, I’ll credit you as much as anyone for helping me hone my work. (Yeah I know, “What work?” 🙂 )

            Liked by 1 person

          4. For anyone following along who would like to consider whether or not I’ve presented a reasonable account of how popular modern consciousness theories effectively side step causality (unlike McFadden’s unpopular mechanism specific consciousness proposal as far as I can tell), here’s an account that I gave at Eric Schwitzgebel’s site a couple of weeks ago:


  9. Hi Mike, A few days ago Horgan had a convo with Robert Wright, which I watched. Here it is: .
    At around 45:00 it get interesting. Horgan confesses he’s “Hopelessly befuddled by everything”, then Wright says that’s not a good ending to a book. Which Horgan is writing.
    Agnosticism is a vague word. (Which is Horgan’s main complaint – language is inadequate. Along with, the world is “completely mysterious.”) I think: agnosticism is a cover for: 1) It doesn’t matter 2) I don’t care 3) I don’t know. All of which are not great places to stand.
    Richard Dawkins’ 7pt. scale I see this way: 1) no chance = 0% 2) highly unlikely = 1-15% 3) somewhat unlikely = 16-30% 4) maybe +31-60% 5) somewhat likely 61-84% 6) highly likely = 85-99% 7) certain =100%.
    w/r/t “belief in god” – I am 100% atheist; but not 100% certain about that. Put me at level 6. It’s possible I’m wrong and believers are right. And it only matters in that my belief impacts my behavior. I do care, somewhat.
    I agree with Horgan, I don’t think science will ever tell us the answer. But I could be wrong. cheers.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Mark,
      Thanks. I saw that exchange (the latter parts) yesterday.

      My issue with Dawkins’ scale is I ended up with a lot of stuff in 6, but still perceived orders of magnitude variance between them. As I noted in the post, for the credence I give to any culturally specific version of God or the gods, I’m south of 1%. But if we make the concept more generic, that can increase substantially, maybe to 10% for some versions. Both the 1% and 10% seems to fall in Dawkins’ 6. And as I noted in the post, the deistic version gets to maybe 30%, which I’d regard as equivalent to Dawkins’ 5. (Dawkins described himself as a 6.9, but I don’t recall him distinguishing between different versions of God.)

      My stance about science providing the answer depends on the version we’re talking about. I think it’s already falsified the fundamentalist versions. But it’ll never be able to address the deistic version, because it’s beyond science, arguably by design.

      Consciousness has similar versioning issues. Science will be able to address the more concrete precisely defined versions. But the hazier amorphous ones? Probably not. I’m still hopeful it will provide answers for quantum mechanics. Only time will tell.


  10. Hi Mike,

    It’s been a while, so perhaps you’ll permit a long comment. A few weeks worth at once… Haha. Here goes…

    I read Horgan’s article and wondered if he wasn’t simply saying: we don’t have good enough answers yet to make a ruling on some of these questions. I didn’t get that he suggested we stop the quest for scientific truths on the basis of what we know today. While he stated he doubts that science will be able to answer the question of God’s existence, or what quantum mechanics truly means, he went on to say in the following sentence that one of the joys of being agnostic is being open to and eager for new answers.

    At any rate, there’s probably a lot of ground we don’t need to rehash here, but I wanted to touch on a few points. First, I read The God Delusion and found Dawkins to be profoundly unimaginative about the possible qualities of whatever it is we’re talking about when we talk about God. I think he has his sights aimed at a very particular category of belief and/or person, and those who believe reality exists quite happily outside of the fundamentalist theological lines as well as the bounds of known science, simply are omitted from his discussions. It’s disappointing to me, I guess, because that’s where the interesting conversations are available in my opinion. For Dawkins to cater his efforts primarily towards folks who believe the Earth is only a couple thousand years old is like shooting fish in a barrel with hand grenades.

    Anyway, I understand, I think, why he makes this choice: these are the mindsets he views as most dangerous to the project of rationalism, and perhaps to civilization itself. I wouldn’t disagree, really. I just think in some ways this is a given. I also think there’s quite a bit of interesting fare outside the lines.
    And I also think that his polemical approach sends a pretty clear message of bigotry. He may feel he’s responding in kind; in some cases he obviously is. But it’s not exactly how the people I most admire choose to relate to others, even those who see the world radically different than they themselves do. I’ve seen Richard cool and collected as well in a few videos, so I know it’s not always his way. But there’s an edge to it I do not like. I didn’t feel any of that in Horgan’s article. Maybe Horgan was saying something for popular gain, but at some level his view is preferable to me over Dawkins’.

    What’s perhaps more interesting to me is to consider a few of the key reasons why people are so dismissive of the possibility that the universe as a whole is alive, and responsive to itself and it’s creations (for lack of a better term). I prefer such a description to saying people are dismissive of the possibility of God’s existence. I think we live in a responsive universe.

    One obvious difficulty, in my opinion, is that people have pretty polarized views. Many have a very hard time recognizing any middle ground between Biblical fanaticism and the appreciation there may be more to the universe than meets the physicalist eye. So, for instance, for Dawkins to apply his creative intellect to considering any of the other possible points in the space of possibility for how/why things are the way they are, I think would be extremely difficult because the tools for interfacing with the world he has chosen are (my opinion) in many ways a reaction to and protection against the sort of infantile and delusional thinking he has observed in others. He absolutely does NOT want to be “infected” by such ideas, and his stance is a system of thought that provides protection against it. So to consider other vantages as being actually viable would threaten this system of thought he’s embraced, which ensures he is insulated against particular forms of delusion, and able to use his very advanced intellect in all sorts of enjoyable and intriguing ways.

    At the same time this divides him from people, I think, and so there’s this difficult question. Is it worth it? I think that generally people do not, deep down, enjoy adopting positions that divide them from others. (Give me a moment!) It’s a difficult thing to do. One way to make it worth it, or to reduce the difficulties such decisions engender, is to take great satisfaction in being “right.” It is, in other words, to make others “wrong” and further to render them somehow “less than” those who are right, and in the know. These “others” then become dismissible for being whatever it is they are—screwed up in some way—and the loss of human connection and empathy with them becomes acceptable. Who would want to identify with “those idiots” anyway?

    This allows what is actually quite difficult—walking away from embracing the empathy and connection we naturally seek with others—to become something perversely enjoyable. It becomes this crusade or something. The defense to really acknowledging the difficulty of turning away from people is making it an act that is profoundly good and important to do. Something that must be done for the greater good. I see this as a mechanism adopted by all sorts of people on all sides of issues like those discussed here.
    There’s similar arguments on all sides and they go nowhere. So I actually think a question, curious sort of agnosticism is preferable to the sorts of positions that solidify into stark contrasts as Dawkins often seems to prefer.

    As to the existence of Aztec, Norse or Sumerian gods. . . well, they exist(ed) to those who relate(d) to them. The idea that there’s clearly something false going on here because the Aztec and the Norse see the world differently is predicated on a question about “God” that has been missed, and that is that “God” arises specifically as a unique form of relationship between individuals and individual communities and the greater whole of life. There is no objective God, I don’t think, just as there is no objective Michael Mark. My relationship with my wife is quite different than my relationship with you, and I’m not entirely the same individual in the two spaces. That’s because different qualities emerge in every relationship as a result of the specific qualities and conditions of the participants. God is, for me I suppose, like the universal relator. The face of wonder that emerges in different cultures doesn’t detract from that of any other—but this notion that God must be objectively understood detracts from all of them.

    To the point made by James Cross, the mode of relating to universe that we call science is itself a creative act, one I think is quite good in many respects. It isn’t going to teach you about Aztec spirituality or what is there to be experienced there, but it offers opportunities for experience the Aztec route does not. It is really only when one insists the fruits that emerge from the seeds one has planted must negate the possibility of any other seeds being viable that we get stuck. In some ways it’s as if I were to raise roses and suggest that rubber trees are an absurd notion.

    The way to refute this simplistic metaphor is to say that you could go visit a rubber tree and see it. And of course I appreciate this argument. But if one was truly willing, they could go and experience an Aztec god. But I don’t mean as a tourist per se. I mean with a true and heartfelt willingness. This is sort of the scary part, though, right? Because to offer our true and heartfelt willingness to experience something so different from what we’re comfortable with exposes us to this possibility of delusion. We want to understand BEFORE we offer our true and heartfelt willingness.

    And the possibility of being wrong, or deluded, is the worst of all outcomes, so we stick to our chosen protections and try to see across the gap that cannot be seen across, but only traveled. This cannot be done. There can be no genuine joining or interconnectedness without movement between these spaces.
    Perhaps a benefit of agnosticism is that it reduces rigidity in this regard, but to Horgan’s point, if one doesn’t truly dive into something, one may end up with nothing at all… And if we’ve dived into something that works for us, great! But why insist it negates the places we’ve never dared to visit?


    Liked by 3 people

    1. Hi Michael,
      Good hearing from you. Yeah, I haven’t been posting much serious content lately. So unless you like anime or science fiction there hasn’t been much opportunity for discussion.

      I rarely write about God. Part of the reason is it’s a pretty settled matter for me. (Although nothing is ever so settled that new evidence can’t unsettle it.) The other is that I perceive it to be a painful debate for many on the other side. So on God in particular, I’m going to let what I said in the post stand.

      I will note that I think you’re being pretty charitable toward Horgan because you agree with him, and particularly uncharitable toward Dawkins and his motives because you disagree with him. Of course, Dawkins himself is infamously uncharitable with those he disagrees with, so he pretty much brings that on himself. I do, however, have a different perspective as a nonbeliever.

      I reached my conclusions several years ago, but mostly alone and without much knowledge of what was out there about the subject. It left me somewhat in a state of feeling guilt and shame about what I had concluded. Was I just a sicko or something? Most of what I had heard growing up seemed to indicate it. I was in that state for years. You talked about choosing positions that divide us from others. Well, I wasn’t happy about being divided, but it was where I found myself, a division imposed by people who saw my conclusion as despicable.

      Then one day I was channel hopping and stumbled on a debate between Christopher Hitchens and Tony Blair about God. I was stunned by Hitchens. Here was a guy who had reached the same conclusion I had, but wasn’t shy or guilty about it. Instead he was in your face. I wasn’t sure if he wasn’t just some pathological exception, but in the next few months I started looking around and discovered Dawkins, Harris, and the others.

      A movement had formed around these guys. Not one of convincing people away from other people. Most of the folks attracted to it were like me, already separated. What it offered was a new community of like minded people, a new chance to be connected again. Unfortunately, lack of belief isn’t much to have a movement around, so it eventually fractured along political and other ideological lines. But not before having a major effect on the narrative in our society about nonbelief. Daniel Dennett years ago remarked that what was needed were uncompromising atheists who would never be accepted by the society at large, but who could open up a space behind them for the more moderate people. I think they succeeded.

      I did eventually conclude the New Atheists were overstating the case against religion as a problematic social force. It definitely can be, but so can any aspect of culture. You don’t need religion to have rigid ideological positions that cause harm. And it’s not without its benefits. Although partaking in them requires a commitment that many of us can’t make, at least not honestly.

      Anyway, I described my credence estimates in the post. Whether they’re agnostic enough I’ll leave to others to decide. I will note that I always look forward to learning something that rips the carpet out from under me, that forces a reassessment of what I thought I knew. It’s not a feeling I get to experience very often, and it’s often followed by intense pushback from many of the people I share it with, pushback that inevitably divides me from them to some extent. Is it worth it? Well, I don’t know that I can have the feeling without possibility of the pushback, and yet I still crave it, so I guess for me it is.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Hello Mike,

        First off, I don’t disagree with your characterization of my view towards Dawkins being largely uncharitable. It is. It’s not that I wouldn’t enjoy having the opportunity to have a discussion with him, or that I even think that he’s not doing what he feels is appropriate and important. But having read two or three of his books, and watched several videos of his encounters with other people, it is difficult for me not to see him as being just WAY too smart not to understand what he is doing—which is often trying to shame people in one way or another, or make them look foolish.

        It is hard for a reader here perhaps to understand that this doesn’t mean I’m any happier about the Christian or religious “side” of the coin. My dismay with Dawkins is pretty much equal to my dismay with those individuals who hate and make despicable those who are different from them (for any reason, but particularly) on some sort of religious grounds. It’s a terrible thing. So let me say my heart wrenched when I read of your decision and its impacts on you personally, and at some level I understand this difficulty. I grew up in the American south as well, and I also walked away from the organized religion of my family, including an aunt who was a nun, and my confirmation sponsor, and somewhat dismayed to say the least. I’m not fan or supporter of organized religion.

        As to making a choice that divides us from others, I do see your difficulties as fundamentally different than what I’ve described. If I follow your bread crumbs correctly, you were the one that others, in their righteousness, chose to divide themselves from. I don’t see you as wishing to be no longer involved with those in your life; rather, you arrived at a personal conviction. This is not what I was describing. I was describing those who are willing to make the choice to abandon others because of an allegiance. I don’t perceive this as what you described you did, and for the record you’re not in my mind anything but a person I respect. We disagree, I guess, about the nature of reality, as I do with many friends, openly discussed or not, but I think we’re here because we both enjoy discussing it and pondering and thinking and feeling, and because at the end of the day we can do so with a mutual understanding this isn’t really a personal thing.

        So that said, let me also say I would be a supporter of your decision. Let me know if I’m mistaken, but I think you chose to walk away from the God of whatever religious training and indoctrination you received as a youth. See, in my opinion, when we talk about God we’ve got to define terms. And I tried to do so in my previous note on this thread. Having lived in the American south, I do think I have some sense of this God you decided wasn’t for you, and this God wasn’t for me either. And I, too, walked away from the God of my religious training and indoctrination. The difference between us, I think, is we chose different points on the compass in which to walk. All good.

        I can totally see the state of mind you described, and the attraction to Hitchens, Harris, et al. I’ve enjoyed listening to all of these speakers myself. I disagree with them about some things, but so it goes. I still view the movement as one that is primarily reacting to the fundamentalist Christian (and Muslim) groups that a) ignore science and the impositions of reason altogether, b) judge those different from themselves, and c) try and impose their will on society, etc. I don’t have an issue with the New Atheists’ dissent from these positions. I’m even on board with the notion that at some level, maybe the aggressive approach needed to be taken.

        But that’s not for me, I guess. When the medicine involves ridiculing others, it’s not going to lead to great places in my opinion. (Dawkins also uses hyperbole to ridicule those with non-religious ideas he doesn’t like. So for him this sort of a modus operandi. It’s one of the reasons he’s a hard pill for me to swallow.) It’s not unlike using ridicule to raise a child. We typically wouldn’t view this as a way to building a better world. The difference is the parents are not typically threatened by a young child’s power, and in a world where James Cross’s statistics hold, there is concern (rightfully so) that religious fundamentalism harmfully can negatively impact society. I don’t disagree.

        I don’t disagree on the problem. I disagree (with the New Atheists, and those who view physicalist science as the only rational alterative) on the remedy. I don’t think divisiveness is a very good cure, and further, I disagree that either the conventional religious views of reality or the physicalist form of scientific views have the potential to lead to a truly better world. There are important, valuable elements in all these areas of human endeavor I think, but in my view the number one difficulty is disunity. I am truly sorry you’ve experienced the pains of this. And I do respect and admire your convictions.

        I think there are a myriad of options to choose from for metaphysical orientations, not just two. And that may well be another distinction between us. It is the one perhaps, I have the highest tendency to try and introduce for discussion. What is essential in my view is transcending the trap of polarity.


        Liked by 2 people

        1. Hi Michael,
          I appreciate your points, and grateful for your empathy. It strikes me that I owe you some clarifications.

          First, I didn’t have a dramatic walk away from the faith of my childhood. I was raised Roman Catholic, but had already started drifting away from it as a teenager, moving more into a generic sort of Christianity. In college, that drift continued into a pretty liberal universalist theology, of a sort I suspect many believers who comment here hold. By my 30s, that drift had continued into a sort of deism, although I wasn’t familiar with the term then.

          At the time of the conclusion I described, my credence in a deistic god probably shifted from something like 75% to roughly 50%, and I thought of myself as an agnostic. (As noted in the post, the current credence for deism is around 30%.) The sense of alienation I felt didn’t come from a coming out event that went bad, but a sense that I simply no longer belonged. It was sharpened from an attempt a year earlier to attend the Southern Baptist church that some close friends belonged to, where the differences even at that time were powerfully driven home by the conversations I had in the study groups.

          Second, although I did find the New Atheists an emotional comfort, I was never comfortable with many of their tactics. Even in my most anti-theist phase, I never felt comfortable ridiculing people. Which isn’t to say I didn’t have my share of nasty debates. But once I realized the psychological role religion plays, I pretty much stopped participating in those debates.

          Currently, I personally don’t think any religion is true, except possibly some naturalistic varieties (see this post on Michael Dowd for an interesting example: ). That said, if people find comfort and meaning in their religion, I have no interest in taking it from them. My attitude is live and let live, at least as long as they don’t deny science or try to impose their strictures on me.

          In the end, we’re all just trying to understand reality the best way we can. For me, that does mean the scientific view and its physicalist focus. Although as you know, I’m pretty open minded about what can fall within that physicalist framework. I recognize you see more to reality. That’s ok as far as I’m concerned. I don’t know anyone I agree with on all things. And the most interesting discussions come from people who disagree but can do so respectfully and constructively.

          Liked by 1 person

          1. Thanks for the clarifications, Mike. Live and let live is the way, and as Wyrd pointed out so well below (or above, not sure how this will stack out in the thread), it’s zealotry, close-mindedness, and the sense of tribal or ideological superiority that leads to the greatest evils. The answer isn’t to stop saying what we think–as we’re (with gratitude)–able to do here. I suppose one of my major talking points, and difficulties, is that a great deal of the dialogue tends to be focused on the organization of religion and that of science.

            For me religion is at best the map, but hardly the territory. To sum up my greatest difficulty with both religious zealots and the more militant atheists, it would be the unwillingness to consider this in their discussions. In general, I agree with the New Atheists on the profound problems with religious indoctrination, and the ideological orientations that many try to push on others, and which lead to parasitic practices like indulgences, or arguing against commonsense items like the empowerment of women and the denial of modern contraception. Those are terrible things, not to mention the wars, etc., etc.

            I’m just interested in what lies beyond this level of dialogue. When a scientific law changes, we know the scientific propositions are the territory, not the map. And I think the religious would benefit from such a view in many respects. The dictates of a human organization like the Church (Roman Catholic) often have very little (in my mind) to do with the territory itself.


            Liked by 3 people

    2. Hey Michael, been a while! Some very astute observations there, I thought. One thing I’ve noticed about many of the more reactionary atheists is that they are often oriented almost entirely at Christian fundamentalism or the excesses of (usually) Christian organizations, and their complaints are often as much, or more, about those institutions and their behavior than about those with mature and thoughtful spiritual purpose. Unfortunately, religion is one of those human power tools that can do great harm in the wrong hands, which gives militant atheists a lot of targets. But they rarely acknowledge the myriad quiet believers who form communities, help the poor, stand up for the disenfranchised, and generally try to make the world a better place.

      As you say, we’ve become very divisive and often cruel, and it’s not good for the human spirit.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Thanks, Wyrd. I’m not a fan of ideological movements in general I guess. I don’t think we need a new one. I think we’d be fine to get rid of them completely and think for ourselves and talk and listen and be compassionate with one another, and see where that takes us.

        As Mike has pointed out, I myself do not always succeed in this regard. But it is the aspiration. Christian and non-Christian organizations alike do important work in the world. And we need to help those who need help I think. However we do it. I’m definitely not a fan of saying, here’s a bag of groceries and I look forward to seeing you at church. But I’m a fan of saying, here’s a bag of groceries and I look forward to being your friend.

        There is a wide spectrum of belief outside of the shackles of organized religion, and the New Atheists aggressively dismiss this entirely. It’s why I don’t entirely “trust” them beyond their discontent with the dominant religions. They are every bit as ideologically motivated as other groups, I think, or else they might approach the topics in a different light. That they choose not to, and insist on it being largely a polarized conversation/debate rather than one that admits of various possibilities, reduces their credibility in my eye.


        Liked by 1 person

    3. Regarding middle ground, we should note that some surveys put the number of fundamentalist Christians at 30-40% of the population. I don’t see this group seeing any middle ground. In fact, they seem for the most part to be more than willing to impose their beliefs, many even unsupported by the Bible, on the rest of us.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Hi James,

        I’m not really an advocate of middle ground in the sense of, the Bible says the world is 6,000 years old or whatever the number is, and carbon dating and astronomy say it is 4.5 billion years old, so the number must somehow be in the middle. And I’m no apologist for fundamentalist Christianity, so if that is your takeaway please allow me to disabuse you of that notion.

        Until such time as we have a better understanding of things, I’m all in favor of empathetic dialogue between diverse groups, and when that breaks down, I’m not in favor of might makes right. In the meanwhile, if 30% – 40% of the people have a certain view based on a religious fervor that makes little to no sense to those outside of the group, that’s indeed a problem. And I take Mike’s point that the New Atheists may have been an essential movement to create space in our public discourse for a broader diversity of opinions. I think that’s a good point.

        But I don’t think there is only one way to do that, or that a route emphasizing polarity is the best long-term approach. As I noted to Mike, I think a healthier discourse would acknowledge the range of positions possible. I’d welcome a dialogue for instance, that included a Native American elder, a New Atheist, a physcist who may not have a strong metaphysical affiliation, a Christian, a Buddhist, a non-religious meditation practicioner, and an agnostic. But we don’t see this, (at least not as readily available as the Christian/Muslim vs Atheist dialogues), and this is a form of elitism in some sense. I don’t know what other word to use for it. But I hope you take my point. The fact that we don’t even hear from certain groups is a form of marginalizing them. And much is lost…



        1. I didn’t put you in the group of fundamentalists. Sure, there is some middle ground but it isn’t large when it comes to religion in the United States. And the predominant fundamentalist side of this argument doesn’t seem all that interested in discourse. So what you have are atheists/agnostics talking with some small group of open minded people with varying beliefs while the fundamentalists mostly would be all on board with a theocracy. You can’t ignore the elephant in the room by pointing to some mice running around at the elephant’s feet.

          Liked by 1 person

  11. Hey Mike,

    This article made me think of William James, particularly when you reject the usefulness of “absolute truth” statements since we can’t know anything with absolute certainty, ever.

    Pragmatics, I believe, is a really elegant way to apply the percentages you mention to a way of life. The short version of said pragmatics, in James, being “does X pay?”

    By “pay,” James is basically asking if such and such belief increases our ability to explain the world we experience. If the answer is “yes,” then it is true for us and since we are all stuck in subjective prisons located behind our eyes, “true for us” is the only truth that really matters.

    If on the other hand a truth cannot or does not impact our world in any way then it is simply not subject to truth statements one way or another.

    I like this definition of truth because it both allows us to maintain a hopeful worldview, keeps us out of metaphysical malaise and allows us to empathize with people who are otherwise very different. You mentioned the Norse gods, so I’ll use them as an example.

    If we have no theory of the cosmos there is no way for our Viking friends to time the sewing and reaping of their crops, the times when they should and should not attempt to capture such and such fish species, etc. This is, in the James conception, a complete absence of truth.

    However, if we develop an “Odin’s Family Theory of Cosmology” then we gain an explanation for when and why it is good to harvest crops in July but not September (or whatever the case may be), not to mention a framework for navigation principles and a divine mandate for ordering social groups. This would be, to James, much more true because it explains so much more. Satelites and meteorology would, then, be even more true because they explain more.

    Hope you’re well,

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hey Ben,
      In general, I like the pragmatic approach, although from what I know about some of the ways James uses it, I think he goes places I don’t agree with, such as considering a belief that merely has psychological benefits to be “true”. A belief in alternate medicine can have psychological benefits, but not be treating the actual health issue. Steve Jobs might still be alive if he hadn’t partaken of that psychological benefit.

      In terms of pagan gods, I do think it’s important to remember their lineage. They didn’t start out as beings who were assigned specific tasks in the world. For example, Thor didn’t start out as the god of thunder. The etymology of his name is the word for thunder. In other words, Thor started out as thunder itself, a force that seemed to have its own agency. The worship of Thor started out as an attempt to appease that force, with all the other personality attributes evolving later. Of course, a lightning rod would have been far more effective, but that required knowledge people at the time didn’t have, and I’m sure the effort at appeasing him at least made it feel like something productive was being done about a capricious force.

      I’m doing pretty well. Hope you are too!

      Liked by 1 person

  12. Given the topic here some may find a current writing contest interesting. Apparently the Templeton Foundation is paying £2000 for worthy abstracts less than 1000 words regarding the nature of “belief” (which is of course quite associated with the non belief of agnosticism). As I read it those chosen would be given until February 1, 2023 to complete their six to ten thousand word essays for publication in a volume on the topic. Why not give it a go? Professor Eric Schwitzgebel who is heading this up recently published a pro pragmatism versus intellectualism paper on the topic, though I consider him pretty open to other ideas as well.


  13. Mike,

    Clearly you’ve have been on a painful odyssey between theism and atheism. One would have to be a fool not to respect the sincere effort you’ve put into it. I’ve offered a few remarks above concerning the four horsemen of the New Atheism. For some I think it may be a starting point to the inquiry. But their arguments are pretty much limited to fundamentalism and, as you say, “…overstating the case against religion as a problematic social force.” Attacking fundamentalism and the negative consequences of dogmatic intolerance are certainly arguments to consider. But the historical evidence is mixed. One must also include the atheistic dogmatism of the Communists and Nazis in the twentieth century. They were not inconsequential.

    But, I submit, that the New Atheists are off-target on the heart of the matter and, at times, laughably naïve. Take Harris’s “Letter to a Christian Nation.” Harris is clearly the most simple-minded of the four. His arguments are childishly naïve when applied to mainstream religious thought. Let me quote:

    “A book written by an omniscient being could contain a chapter on mathematics that, after two thousand years of continuous use, would still be the richest source of mathematical insight humanity has ever known.” P. 60

    Was Harris joking? Indeed no. He goes on to seriously complain that the Bible says nothing about electricity, DNA, the size and age of the universe, or a cure for cancer among other things. “Why aren’t these pages, or anything remotely like them, found in the Bible.” P. 61-62. Harris’s argument sounds like it was written for Roseanne Roseannadanna on Saturday Night Live! No help for those looking for serious atheism arguments that go to the heart of the matter.

    I will honestly concede however, that if one believes that reality is confined to only what scientific evidence can discern then a Bertrand Russell or a Carl Sagan or even the vituperative Richard Dawkins would be all you need to reach a conclusion

    Liked by 1 person

    1. “I will honestly concede however, that if one believes that reality is confined to only what scientific evidence can discern then a Bertrand Russell or a Carl Sagan or even the vituperative Richard Dawkins would be all you need to reach a conclusion.”

      I think the problem is that reality is much more than what scientific evidence can discern but scientific evidence is all we can practically use to make decisions.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. Matti,
      It would be wrong to view me as some kind of tragic figure. As I tried to clarify to Michael, for me it was a gradual evolution in my views. The evolution in and of itself was mostly painless. The one exception being when I lowered my credence in the afterlife, which I’ll admit was painful for a few weeks. Other than that, most of the pain came from holding views not held by most people in society. But it’s mostly water under the bridge at this point. I rarely think about these matters anymore. (These days, my political views are more likely to be an issue.)

      There are a lot of things Harris says I don’t agree with. And I think many of his analyses are simplistic. But I actually don’t see the problem with the example you cite. I think his point is that if the authors of these books were in communication with the creator of the universe, we would expect them to have insights that transcend their historical milieu. The specific things he lists are just possible examples of what those insights could have been. But my impression is that most believers think their scriptures, which few have actually read, are far more sophisticated than they are.

      Bertrand Russell is an interesting recommendation. I found his book “Why I Am Not a Christian” to be one of the strongest attacks on religion I’ve ever read. I think historical distance may have somewhat dulled the sting of those attacks. I see many of the New Atheists largely as contemporary versions of him.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. James, Mike,

        Mike; Sorry, if my remarks about your personal quest made you appear tragic. That’s unfair. Beyond that, there’s not much I can say. Especially if you believe Sam Harris’s questions are relevant. Jim; I sympathize with your point and most times that is where I come down in my decisions. Yet I keep coming back to Immanuel Kant’s advice: “Sapere aude.” I interpret him to be advising us to aspire to know—don’t close off the inquiry. Where I am is at my initial remarks (above) which some I think might label a form of agnosticism. I’m not so sure.

        Liked by 2 people

        1. My email signature has the phrase lux et veritas, sapere aude. 🙂

          One thing I’ve noticed about escaped atheists is that some of them have merely switched sides from a belief system they found hard to logically support (and may not have understood) to a belief system they found more logical and easier to support. But their abiding faith in their chosen metaphysics is just as strong, and they are often just as intolerant of competing views as they were before. They just switched to the more palatable religion of scientism.

          FWIW, I’ve never seen any real difference between good people and evil people in terms of their espoused metaphysics. I do think more harm is done by those with strong beliefs in the rightness of their own thinking, whatever that cause is. I think the biggest human danger axis is the closed versus open mind one.

          Liked by 2 people

          1. Could not agree more. I once had a great teacher exclaim that whenever someone seeks to perfect mankind they end up killing people. That stuck with me. That motivation, I concluded, was one of the main sources of evil in the world. So, I tend to steer clear of zealots—on all sides.

            Liked by 1 person

        2. On the topic of painful odysseys away from religion, there’s a guy who comments here on occasion by the name of Travis. In June he did a quite touching podcast on his conversion. Essentially it’s a woeful tail on the consequences of mixing reason with faith, when those who mean everything to you will not follow. He decided to do this to help in the grief from his father’s passing.


      2. Mike, you wrote: But I actually don’t see the problem with the example you cite. I think his point is that if the authors of these books were in communication with the creator of the universe, we would expect them to have insights that transcend their historical milieu.

        In my mind, this is an interesting point to use in exploration of what may exist beyond some of the more simplistic notions of things. There are some implied assertions in the passage from Harris you and Matti just discussed, and I want to speak about two or three briefly, as a way of noting the nature of the (to me) more fertile territory that lies between the positions of Harris and the fundamentalist Christians he would be speaking to.

        The first is that Harris writes as if the communication channel between this creator and human beings is one in which any information whatsoever could be transmitted at any given time, regardless of the conceptual vocabulary and level of understanding of the human beings. It’s as if the creator is the mind, and the human being the hand holding a pencil—a Turing style implement (for lack of a better term) capable of receiving and transcribing anything whatsoever. While many Christians themselves may adopt such a view, and give Harris free reign to adopt it himself, the notion isn’t actually consistent with the evidence of inspired writing throughout human history.

        My experience and opinion is that all divinely inspired communications hinge upon relationship, and that the receiver’s conceptual vocabulary, as well as that of the given culture in which it occurs, is not irrelevant. It is quite relevant in fact. If you imagine giving an individual 2,500 years ago Einstein’s Field Equations for general relativity, I think you’d concede it would be quite a daunting task. And ultimately, those equations are likely to be modified, expanded, amended or disproven at some point here in our future. But the point is that a progression of understanding is required, and that I think generally inspired communications are constrained by the conditions and capabilities of the mind(s) involved. Christians may not enjoy this particular point any more than Harris, but I think it’s an obvious one (once freed of an either/or mentality).

        Second, there’s something unreasonable, for me, about the claim Harris implicitly makes that downloading twentieth century biology, math and physics to subsistence farmers and shepherds would be the hallmark of communication between the human and the divine at the time. It’s implication is that all else being equal, if divinity existed at all, its first task would be to offer information fundamental to material advancement. The further implication of this is that the most difficult challenges facing our world are material in nature, and in my mind they are not. I largely see our material gains and the alleviations of suffering they are able to provide as being temporary and incomplete relief to deeper underlying issues we’ve yet to resolve (or even identify all that well collectively).

        I’m not arguing advances in technology haven’t been wonderful. But their presence or absence in divine communications of the time is not a metric I know how to appreciate. As one who thinks believers and unbelievers alike are recipients of inspired thoughts and insights all the time, including those that led to the scientific revolution, I really don’t know what to make of this notion.

        All that said, there’s an equally difficult problem of fundamentalist Christians adopting one book as perfect, and all others as flawed or unequal. There’s problems with divine messaging related to war, and other issues for sure. Harris is and would be correct in my mind to make these points. But he ignores the possibility of an evolving relationship between the human and the divine which is not the same in all points of time and culture, that many individuals throughout time within and without of organized religion have been inspired, and that humanity’s relationship with the divine may, in fact, be as living as any other relationship.


        Liked by 2 people

        1. Michael,
          I think you’re right that Harris focuses on fundamentalists. But as you and James noted, they’re the main problem. From the perspective of the Harris’ of the world, they’re also the ones making relatively concrete falsifiable claims. The problem, of course, is that they ignore the fact that many of their claims have been falsified.

          The paradigm you describe is much more compatible with observations. However, it seems to exist in that gray zone where it can’t be falsified or confirmed. In other words, I see no way to adjudicate between what you describe and there being no divine inspiration with us just misattributing human ingenuity to it, except to note I don’t perceive parsimony is on your side.

          But this is that extra bit you mentioned above that you see being in the world that I don’t.

          Liked by 1 person

          1. Hi Mike,

            Agreed. For me, I think a great challenge of our time, perhaps throughout time, but certainly it seems at a feverish level of late, is admitting we do exist in a gray zone. The need we humans have to be definitive and close the various cases that are open is, for me, one of the strongest drives within us. And I think it is this drive that tends so many of us towards the closemindedness you and I each decry in our various ways. We’ve noted here that in many ways it is fundamentalism that is of the greatest concern: If I believed the world was flat but didn’t mind if airlines used great circle routes to transport everyone who wishes to be transported in such ways to their various destinations, so what. If I believed the world was flat and insisted everyone else fly routes based on a flat Earth conception, well… clearly that would not be good.

            In our political sphere we have much of the same. Neither side is quite “right,” but each side sure needs to think it is–at least the more vocal members of them. And this works against adopting the virtues of each in a way that is not a zero-sum compromise, but a good faith dialogue.

            The gray area is what I think we ought at some level to be admitting to one another more often. And with the acknowledgment that what we make of it is our personal experiment. I know I’m a bit idealistic in this desire of mine. But it makes the most sense to me at present.

            Parsimony is a challenging concept to use, in my opinion, on the largest issues such as we’ve been discussing. The primary reason is that it’s a bit circular when it comes to navigating this gray zone. In discussions such as we’ve just had, parsimony is often used to express the notion that everything can or will eventually be explained without those elements of reality that for me are the simplest and most essential. Parsimony is a notion that provides a very valuable function in scientific research, but it’s use to advocate for a purely material perspective amounts to saying that if a person accepts a material paradigm, then parsimony must apply, and in light of parsimony, the paradigm makes rational sense. And this is absolutely true.

            When we speak of the gray zone we’re speaking of the fact that multiple perspectives (or thought systems) can obtain that are not logically self-defeating, and parsimony is essential to one of them. That said, I don’t feel particularly un-parsimonious, but I do admit of different evidence than you do, and/or elect to fit that evidence into a different thought system, and that I think is our distinction.

            It’s just gray, I think. And that’s okay. The more voices admitting of the gray zone’s existence the better, I think, because such voices tend to be tolerant and multi-faceted, and less fixed in their thinking.


            Liked by 2 people

          2. Michael, as you say, “[t]he need we humans have to be definitive and close the various cases that are open is, for me, one of the strongest drives within us.” I agree. But let me offer a slightly different perspective—a wider view of history.

            The achievements in science and technology within modern history have been breathtaking. That alone has cemented a certain “modern” mindset in our culture. Yet that change was accompanied by loss—the loss of comforting certainty—the certainty of authority. That is, the loss of the philosophical authority of the ancients, the loss of spiritual authority with reformation and a lost of political authority with, for example, novel ideas like a social contract.

            In place of authority we were left with “grey areas” of uncertainty. Uncertainty can lead to a kind of intellectual anxiety. I think that is at least a partial explanation of fundamentalism—all kinds of fundamentalism not just religious. We all want to have a comforting certainty. It’s hard keeping all the balls in the air all the time. Religious fundamentalists have a comforting certainty and Richard Dawkins and his friends have theirs.

            But Mike is dead right in demanding evidence—and in being skeptical of offers of proof. I’m on his side there. But I think parsimony, in the larger view of the human condition, may not always be a useful tool. We know, for example, that the evidence used to arrive at a true conclusion in physics is quite different from the evidence used in biology. We could expand that analogy to other areas of inquiry. We also know that even scientific truth turns out to be only a partial truth over time. I think it’s possible to imagine that evidence of truth in other parts of our human experience might be different (and also partial) from the evidence we tend to trust in physics or biology or some other science? But accepting such complexity puts more balls in the air and takes away a comforting certainty.

            Liked by 2 people

          3. Hello Matti,

            With regards to your first three paragraphs, I agree completely with the basic notions. What you’ve said is very much related to what I was hoping to convey, albeit situated within the larger historical context you provided. I think there are many interesting discussions to be had about interpretations of history, few of which I’m qualified to participate in, but I think the basic psychological point—that not knowing (and losing the confidence in traditional authorities) can be uncomfortable—is clear.

            As to your statement about evidence, I don’t believe I’ve suggested evidence is irrelevant. I just said there are different types and that Mike and I disagree on what constitutes validity of those various types. (Perhaps you’re point is that skepticism is essential, which I will give you a thought or two on below.) I think we can all admit that observations, or “facts,” only become evidence when considered in the context of a thought system that fact provides confirmation of a proposed relationship that they endorse. In other words, the facts or observations must be situated in a context within which they comport meaning.

            Mike and I disagree in the following manner (and Mike I hope will jump in if I misstate anything) concerning evidence.

            1. I believe that not all experiences or observations are universal, or universally objective, and that essentially all observations occur within the context of various pre-conditions.

            2. I further believe that individuals and/or groups of people may have subjective (common to the group but maybe not common to everyone on plant Earth), but valid experiences that others do not (meaning they are real but not necessarily universally shared), because of the system of relationships they have cultivated within themselves and with respect to the world around them.

            3. So, to explain by way of an example, when I was younger a friend invited me to attend a Native American ceremony. I ended up going back, and over time became relatively deeply enmeshed within a community practicing a particular tradition. I had some experiences there that many others in the same location as me also had, and which are strikingly similar to reports of this tradition as documented in various anthropological journals, reports from the community over hundreds of years, and by a few popular accounts such as the New York Times. Mike has expressed his opinion that even though thousands and thousands of people have reported similar accounts in this tradition over many years, those accounts may be dismissed as delusional because they are not objective and reproducible by scientific means.

            So, this is the clearest example I can give of where Mike and I admit or exclude different forms of evidence in fashioning our thought systems, as I noted. I submit that there are preconditions to just about every form of experience we would use to validate a thought system. One cannot just walk into a room and confirm Bell’s Inequality has been violated: it requires a great deal of preparation in terms of scientific concepts, a fair bit of money, a considerable technical knowledge about subatomic particle behavior, detectors and data processing, as well as a good deal of mathematics and statistics. The argument is that this could all be taught to someone, and that once they knew these things, the facts would stand out as the facts. This presupposes, however, that the “someone” being taught has the passion, interest level, and aptitude to understand such things. Let’s leave aptitude aside: if they don’t have a passion for it and a high interest level, they might never reach a state where they “know on their own merits” that Bell’s inequality has been violated by an experiment. And we could never make them. They would then have to decide if they believed others who told them it was or wasn’t so.

            In my example of a Native American tradition, I am suggesting that something akin to this passion and interest level—a willingness, a surrender, a trust, etc.–is required. If one does not bring these to the room, one does not meet the prerequisites. But for those who do bring this to the room, the experiences reported over many generations of people are very similar—albeit not identical. So when many people have a common experience, but not everyone in the world, I don’t view it as easily dismissed. I do know that at face value this makes room for some ideas or beliefs I would probably not endorse, but so it goes. There isn’t space here to address the various means of discernment that might be applied to various situations. I’m not advocating those beliefs or practices: I’m simply saying that when a culture has a time-proven methodology and thought system in place, the fact that it cannot be reproduced in a skeptical laboratory means very little to me.

            Here is the rub, exactly as I described it earlier: there are things in this universe that may not be experienced by everyone, and that may have a much lower percentage of being experienced by those who are skeptical of them, and that is just part of how this world works I think. Either human beings exist within and as part of the reality around them, with countless forms of interrelatedness, in which case it may be possible for relationships with the whole, or the divine, to form over time and become traditions, or human beings are separate and only external/objective phenomena exist.

            I guess my point, Matti, is that unfortunately we don’t get to decide which universe we live in based on evidence alone, because the evidence is a product of our choice. In a sense, there is no such thing as pure evidence that stands outside of any thought system. And skepticism as I understand Mike (and yourself) might apply it, rules out certain experiences. This is simply “how it is” I think. There is no a priori decision one can make that is neutral with regards to the outcomes experienced. Is there evidence that Bell’s Inequality is violated by many repeated physical experiments? Yes. Absolutely. Does this mean that the sacred traditions of a particular Native American nation are a form of mass delusion? No, it does not.

            Ultimately, I would like a thought system that can accommodate the truths of each. And in all honesty I think we could have it if we actually desired it. I concede that most do not—most want one half of the coin—and that is the greatest difficulty I personally see to advancement.



          4. Hi Michael,

            Please forgive me if I totally misunderstand what you are saying. That is quite possible.

            A “thought system” is a concept you refer to often—I think about half a dozen times. Unfortunately I’m unacquainted with it. So, for me, even within the context of your comments it’s a fairly squishy concept. After a quick search of the internet, I suspect it may be derived from David Bohn’s book, “Thought as a System.” Even so, that doesn’t help me. It appears to be a term unique to him. So, I’m in the dark on where it comes from and, more importantly, what it exactly means.

            There are a couple of other concepts you use that I’m fuzzy on, but you lean heavy on “thought system” so I felt I had to confess my ignorance on that one. Consequently, I’ll restrict my response to what I think I’m fairly confident that I comprehend.

            First, I wrote the first part of my remarks because I thought we were in agreement. Moreover, I’m convinced that ideas are influenced by and best understood within an historical context. I assumed I was saying much the same as you just from a different perspective and I wanted to share that.

            Second, I apologize for my poor communication. I was not and do not believe you suggested that “evidence” is irrelevant. Far from it. I was noting, obviously not well, that Mike appears to lean on a certain rigorous (one could say scientific) standard of evidence which I thought was commendable. As I said, I’m on his side there. But I also thought that his rigorous standard itself may provide some wiggle room for the acceptance of other reliable truth that is beyond the realm of what is generally considered science. I was not trying to imply that you think “evidence” is irrelevant—only to contrast (clumsily I see) what I perceived to be a difference and to suggest that Mike’s standard of proof, from my limited knowledge, is not merely a narrow closed scientism. But I could be wrong.

            Third, Perhaps I am engaging in oversimplification but I understand you to mean that some people have real experiences that are not shared by others because they have prepared themselves for such a relationship through sincere, passionate prayer, meditation or some other spiritual techniques. And, most importantly, one must have a willingness to surrender oneself in that process. Those are what I’d call theological explanations (if that’s what you mean) that I’m quite familiar with. I’ve been down that road. I have no way to dispute that some may develop a relationship with the Whole or the Devine if you will. And, yes, evidence is a matter of choice.

            Within a Christian context, Did Moses encounter God atop Mount Sinai? Did Jesus rise on Easter? Did St Paul encounter the risen Christ along the road to Damascus? And so on. Were they inventions or hallucinations? Or, on a deeper level, does it really matter? I don’t know. And that could be because I have not done my homework.

            But, as I said (and as I wanted to emphasize), I thought that this rigorous standard of evidence may provide room for the acceptance of truth that is beyond the realm of mere science. Some thinkers much wiser than I think so. My goal was to argue for incremental movement. My main interest is discerning how to live a good life (here and now) in all the relevant senses of “good.”

            Mike’s selected topic was agnosticism. So, in closing, as I said in my very first remarks, I have concluded that my view could be labeled as a form of agnosticism. It’s not that I don’t consult spiritual sources. I do. And I have gained valuable insights from doing so. But at the end of the day I have concluded that God and an afterlife can take care of themselves with no help from me. I believe I can quest for the good life by bracketing those issues and by plodding along discerning what evidence I can—evidence that I can share with others. I acknowledge that I may be a fool. Perhaps Kierkegaard had a point

            Liked by 1 person

          5. Hi Matti,

            I wanted to provide some brief replies to your note and also explain what I mean by a thought system. For starters, I enjoyed your locating of ideas within a historical context, and maybe that didn’t come across. Doing so can give ideas a certain depth. But also… it’s possible to make a great many interpretations right? So it’s a beautiful thing that involves some judgment.

            As to your second point, no need to apologize. You’ve touched on an issue that has been a point of distinction between Mike and I, and I probably gave you more than you bargained for. Haha. I would be interested to know more of what you mean when you say, But I also thought that his rigorous standard itself may provide some wiggle room for the acceptance of other reliable truth that is beyond the realm of what is generally considered science.

            That said, my main point is that “evidence” cannot really be viewed as this neutral thing that exists independent of any/all choices we might make about what the universe is, and contains, etc. Evidence arises within and is interpreted from within a conceptual context.

            Which gets to thought systems. Thought system is a term I believe I came across in the book A Course in Miracles. But I think it has general applicability as follows: a thought system is a self-consistent schema of logic and evidence through which experience and one’s perceptual orientation to the world are filtered. As a corollary, no thought system can exist without a point of beginning, which must be a “given” or an “axiom” or whatever we may wish to call it.

            The fundamental distinction made in A Course in Miracles is between thought systems based on unity and those based on separation. Unity essentially means that the fundamental nature of existence is wholeness—with the particular twist, I suppose, that what we might call “God” is that which field of Being that all elements of reality are in relationship with. It’s a bit like saying God is the common denominator of existence or something. When this is accepted, all experience and evidence naturally organizes logically in a consistent manner.

            The alternative basis of thought systems is separation, which looks pretty much the same externally, but does not have this underlying point of connectedness, or relatedness, between all of the elements. All the parts and pieces are independent from one another, rather than being fundamentally joined. There’s much more that could be said as these explanations are fairly limited: the main point here is that the same external (physical) observations can support either thought system.

            This gets us back to evidence, with a couple of final notions being that a) one cannot use external observation alone to assess which basic thought system is correct; and b) experience itself will vary with our selection of thought system. The latter gets to a final and essential point about thought systems: they are creative and inform the nature of our experiences, and they do so in a logically consistent manner. To say it simply: there is no single interpretation of evidence/experience that may be proven correct in a purely objective fashion above or before all others.

            This is in essence what I was trying to say.



          6. Hi Michael,

            I have been on a long journey for the past several days. However, I did see your recent response and clarification of your position from a couple of days ago. Thank you for that.

            However, I will still step around the term “thought system.” Even with your explanation it’s not within my intellectual neighborhood. But I should let you know that with what little free time I had over the past few days I attempted to translate what you said into a vernacular of contemporary philosophy that is familiarity to me. I did write a long response in which I essentially tried to provide support for you position. With the freshness of a good nights sleep, I decided will leave it in draft form—way too much Immanuel Kant! However, I will share my closing remarks which, in other terms, I think may support what you say.

            Hilary Putnam, former Harvard philosopher and mathematician, who recently passed away, likes to say that no one has a “God’s eye point of view.” And Thomas Nagel’s book, The View From Nowhere, says much the same thing—that is, one cannot see the world from a neutral perspective (a view from nowhere). We are all “situated” and thus restricted from what we can know by our own perspectives. That is, there is no evidence, so to speak, that gives us a neutral perspective.

            All our knowledge is fallible. And our knowing is mediated by our means of knowing which includes, our course, our biological senses—but also includes our theories, our culture and our history. That is, we know what we know through a framework of theory, culture and history. And that framework changes and expands. Hilary Putnam also demonstrated (quite conclusively I submit) that we can never know that any theory of reality is the correct interpretation.

            Does skepticism, or a certain kind, rule out some experiences, hence some ways of knowing for folks like Mike and me? Possibly so. But if you claim that such experiences can give one the ability to transcend our limited perspective, i.e., to give one that God’s eye point of view, then I respectfully disagree. But that last point is merely an article of faith.

            I would like try to get to your specific question to me. But, I’ll have to save that for later.


        2. Michael, Your clear articulation of part of a debate we are sadly missing is insightful! As you say the implication of the Harris critique is that “the most difficult challenges facing our world are material in nature, and in my mind they are not.” My mind too!

          Liked by 2 people

  14. Mike,

    I dunno how I missed this, but I enthusiastically agree with all your main points. “The history of science isn’t kind to people who said we’d never know the answer to a particular question.” Yes, prediction is hard, especially about the future. And of course, saying that knowledge doesn’t have to absolutely certain immediately implies that the distinction between agnosticism and atheism loses interest in some zone of low credence.

    I do like Wyrd Smythe’s suggestion that we could rate speculative ideas along multiple dimensions, and that a single probability (even if it’s allowed to be fuzzy) might not capture all the uncertainty.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Paul. Yeah, if I had it to do over again, I probably would have done the God one in at least two dimensions, with the particular version or conception of God being one of them, and maybe something similar for consciousness. I might have also noted that credence in various QM interpretations aren’t necessarily exclusive, with room for multiple to be true, each within a certain range of applicability.

      But I always know what I should have covered in a post after the discussion. 🙂


  15. Hi. Late to this party having recently stumbled here, but I will offer this:

    I did read Horgan’s piece when it arose, and find it fairly similar to his long-standing stance on these matters. Horgan is trying hard, and I credit him. He accepts physicalism or materialism, however, and this colors how far he can get with his skepticism in general. It places him inside an illusory box of reasoning. Taking his first two puzzles (I leave out QM measurement since I do not understand it but suspect it is trying to extend Physics into a region where it cannot legitimately live), as I see it, science can not ever make suitable further progress in these areas because the subject matter is not scientific. As Nagel got castigated for pointing out a decade ago, the scientific process deliberately excommunicated non-physical aspects of reality, methodologically, about the time of Shakespeare, and went merrily along building a successful world conception (or should I call it perspective) populated exclusively by physically measurable phenomena ad their results within technology. So it should not surprise that fundamentally aphysical questions cannot be addressed by this burgeoning mass of knowledge, which has led to intractable problems.

    Horgan’s instincts about the “limits of science” are correct but he cannot see why because he, like so many, is blinded by physicalism. Physicalism — which is ascientific, having no plausible or actual experimental antecedents. Thus a belief. But hardly an examined one.

    Which lands us to your interesting point about the boundaries between belief and knowledge. I understand your reticence for 100% here. I do not fully agree with it, since I was a mathematician early in life and personally experienced the condition of absolutely knowing things to be true. I do not know how to convey that to people who have not worked out their own proofs and so on, and I also do not know exactly what ails the so-called non-Platonist math people… but something does ail them. Math aside, I can easily sympathize with not feeling comfy about 100%-style knowledge within scientific circles. The reason being — again –science presumes philosophical physicalism and thus perforce ignores a significant portion of reality. It is good for what it does… but gets pretty arrogant about its lane, considering the presumptions at its roots.

    Finally, about your other question… I’d go with something like 5% credence on atheism. It is not relevant, as I see it, what the particular conception of God is — or even if there need be one. The underlying question is whether everything which manifests in the cosmos is convincingly plausible by accident, and from ‘nothing’. Which is a no. Again, it requires faith in physicalism to even begin to entertain this scenario. Which was clear enough to people 1000, 2000, 4000 year ago. About mind-body, I would say 95% credence for dualism. Introspection and personal experience weighs heavily here. (Which was outlawed by ‘science’ at the outset… Nagel) But also the lack of persuasiveness within the various neurological theories put forth, as well as the faith-driven reliance upon ’emergentism’ as an explanatory tool. I liked John Horton Conway’s game of life stuff too… but the universe of cells and propagation rules (and implicit clock) had to come from somewhere besides thin air.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Welcome to the party. Thanks for commenting.

      I wonder how you would define “physicalism”. What does it include? And what’s excluded from it? And what should science do differently to include it?


  16. You’re welcome & thanks. I do not believe my conception of the term ‘physicalism’ varies particularly from the ordinary usage. It is not defined in terms of what is included (permitted to exist) or excluded (inexplicable in terms of it), rather it is a way of conceiving cosmic ontology, I would suppose. I think the Wikipedia shorthand works well enough: In philosophy, physicalism is the metaphysical thesis that “everything is physical”, that there is “nothing over and above” the physical, or that everything supervenes on the physical. … Physicalism is closely related to materialism. How about you? Do you conceive it differently? Accepting it, the final question you ask, I think, becomes: what can (cannot) be safely explained or categorized under the term physical, meaning exclusively physical. I would answer: nothing. This doesn’t zero out science as practiced, of course, as I explained, because voluminous practical results have been amassed via a purely physically measurable consideration of the universe of phenomena, over 4-5 centuries.

    Your last question, it seems to me, can be more expediently put: how can the scientific method be adjusted or expanded so as to analyze and explicate those aspects of reality which presuming physicalism causes it to ignore. I would think what is normally thought of as 1st person evidence and experience needs to be a starting point here. To get a better intro, if desired, as to how I see it and how Nagel tried to uncover the blind spot, you can try this which I wrote 5 years ago or so:


    1. Thanks for your thoughts.

      My conception of physicalism isn’t sharp. I’m struck by the fact that, historically, when something was discovered that didn’t accord with our previous ideas of what was physical, we didn’t label it as non-physical phenomena. Instead we expanded our conception of the physical to include it.

      Examples were Newton’s idea of how gravity worked, which many of his contemporaries were concerned about because it involved action at a distance, something they had worked hard to excise. Later general relativity forced us to consider that spacetime itself was physical, something that affects and is affected by matter. And of course quantum theory involves some kind of massive revision to our conception of physics, but we’re still debating the nature of that revision.

      Rather than focus on physicalism in any ideological sense, I prefer to focus on what’s possible to establish with some reliability. You noted mathematical relations, but in terms of reality, it seems to involve repeatable patterns that we can study and construct models of, models that can then be used to predict future observations (or retrodict past ones) related to those patterns.

      My suspicion is that we’ll adjust our conception of the physical to match anything that results from that endeavor. In any case, reliable models are more important to me than any current meaning we attach to the word “physical”.


  17. Sure, you are welcome for my thoughts… and yours as well.

    I think the sharpness of the concept ‘physical’ has dissipated precisely because the 19th century conceit of a straightforward atomism explaining and unifying everything has been repeatedly confronted and found in need. But what is behind the physical-ism in the first place? As explained by Nagel, it is the wish that beings of a supernatural (not physical) character not be needed to produce and maintain the cosmos. (Which is why it is inherently ideological.) This has gradually led to the absurdity of trying to explain consciousness and thinking purely physically, the fantasy of uploading or downloading “us”, and in terms of the models you reference, the idea of the multiverse where everything is safely random and not resulting from intention — which can only be modelled and never be empirically examined via experiment.

    So we kind of agree. In my view, the malleability of our scientific modelling of “physical” will continue to taffy its way into something topologically no longer recognizable as we struggle to reconcile our initial unwarranted assumptions and their ramifications. Then we will be close to confronting the reality of the “spiritual”.

    What I was meaning, about math, was the inner experience of truth, without qualifying percentages. Just the sheer experience of beholding truth in certainty, because it was exclusively our own thinking with traversed each step and observed the correctness in our own mentation — which we were also capable of surveying. If truth is approached as a 3rd person phenomena, it can never be reached. Only 1st person.

    When you said I referenced mathematical relations, but that in terms of ‘reality’, they seem to involve repeatable patterns we can model and construct… I wonder: what does he mean by “in reality”. Why isn’t the reality the experience of seeing the truth within a reasoned chain? When we add a legitimate concept to a purely perceived sensory perception in the outer world, why cannot it be that we are perceiving something additional, the concept, which is just as much a part of the thing’s reality as what we sensorially obtain? Hard to explain. But I am not talking about the models; I am talking about the process, the experience. The phenomenon cognitionally, not the repeatability. We do not know it is true because it is repeatable. That is just communication and convention. We know it is true because of our inner experience of it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. In terms of supernatural beings, I think that gets into what we mean by “natural”. My take on that is very similar to what I wrote above about physicalism. Our concept of nature changes as we learn new things. If scientific investigation went in the direction you anticipate, I suspect our conception of “natural” would expand to encompass it.

      It’s worth noting that the concept of the supernatural was historically developed by theologians, largely to explain how actions attributed to God or other entities could still happen despite contradicting reliable models of nature. The ancients, before those models existed, had no need for it.

      Not sure what you mean by inner experience here. I think the history of science has shown that intuitions are, at best, starting points, ones that often aren’t validated. We actually wouldn’t need science if the world matched all our intuitions.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Well, I suspect you still have not looked at the Nagel article I suggested. Otherwise you might be able to make room in your conceptual framework for what scientific investigation automatically precludes. I also suspect here is where our dialog reaches the end of value. I read the wiki article on ‘supernatural’ and began laughing by the 2nd paragraph; it is just clueless. Most people want to cleave to their belief boxes. Finally, if you are serious about caring to see what I mean by the inner experience of truth — try observing your own thinking, especially when you are determining the truth about something. Did not metion ‘intuition’, which is an entirely different thing. Peace Out.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. I actually did read Nagel’s article. (I should say “reread” since I read it when it was published.) Nagel’s reasoning follows from what he sees as the intractable mystery of consciousness, that no scientific explanation of it is possible. But this feeling arises due to a mismatch between what introspection tells us and what science tells us. When two sources disagree, the thing to do is figure out which is less reliable.

          As it turns out, we have extensive psychological research showing that introspection is an unreliable source of information.

          I haven’t seen Nagel, or others in this camp like Chalmers or Goff, engage with this fact. From what I can see, it removes the foundation from his reasoning in this area.

          Thanks for the conversation! All the best.


    2. If you’ll excuse me blundering into the conversation, which I’ve enjoyed reading, I think I can relate your “truth in certainty” with math proofs to what I think is a similar joy in seeing a simple algorithm that’s known to be correct. Of course, algorithms are just a form of math.

      Math interests me because it seems to straddle being a priori and a posteriori. I’ve argued that it’s a priori to our physical experience, but a posteriori to our thoughts. The problem is that our thoughts, our conceptual framework, is built on our a posteriori experience. But to the extent we abstract math we effectively make it a priori — we ground it in facts that don’t depend on physical experience. Math converges on Platonic truths, but I think ultimately those truths are based on the physical universe. So, there’s a chicken-egg thing going on…


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