The Confused Thinking of Alan Sokal

It looks like Alan Sokal, the physicist most famous for committing a hoax, is now trying to further dumb-down the definition of science. Activist Jerry Coyne, giddy to have an ally for this agenda, quotes him extensively. So let’s take a critical look at Sokal’s arguments.

Sokal writes:

Thus, by science I mean, first of all, a worldview giving primacy to reason and observation and a methodology aimed at acquiring accurate knowledge of the natural and social world.

Note that from the start, Sokal defines science as a “worldview.” Okay. But if science is a “worldview” that does this, it would mean that such primacy must always apply in all areas of life. Otherwise, it’s not much of a “worldview.” The problem is that it is too easy to find examples of people with this scientific “worldview” who do not give primacy to reason and observation. Consider Richard Dawkins and the way he promotes the pseudoscientific nonsense about a religious upbringing being a form of child abuse.

Second, why is it that those who claim to have this “scientific worldview” can never seem to agree on much? Consider the multiple examples of atheist vs. atheist, whether the topic be feminism, guns, or religion.

Third, do not lose sight of the simple fact that this description also applies to confirmation bias – anyone engaged in confirmation bias will tell you they are giving primacy to reason and observation and using a methodology aimed at acquiring accurate knowledge of the natural and social world.

This methodology is characterized, above all else, by the critical spirit: namely, the commitment to the incessant testing of assertions through observations and/or experiments — the more stringent the tests, the better — and to revising or discarding those theories that fail the test.

And folks who are engaged in confirmation bias have a very critical spirit – for they also rely on disconfirmation bias when it comes to competing viewpoints. But the key thing to note in Sokal’s description is that the “testing” can be in the form of observations OR experiments. In other words, as long as someone is making some type of observation, there is no need for experiment. Experiments become superfluous to science.

One corollary of the critical spirit is fallibilism: namely, the understanding that all our empirical knowledge is tentative, incomplete and open to revision in the light of new evidence or cogent new arguments (though, of course, the most well-established aspects of scientific knowledge are unlikely to be discarded entirely).

Yes, but how are we supposed to know that the “fallibilism” exists? Just because someone claims they hold to “fallibilism” does not mean they do. It just means they know they are supposed to convey the notion they are holding onto beliefs tentatively. Go with the flow. Social behavior. For example, we have seen it is very common for New Atheists to posture as if their atheism is tentative and open to revision. Yet we have also seen that by probing with some simple questions (what would you count as evidence for God?), such posturing is an illusion.

Until Sokal comes up with a method for determing that fallibilism exists, I’m afraid that criterion is completely useless. As such, Sokal has no way of distinguishing confirmation bias (and disconfirmation bias) from science. And that comes in very handy for any activist trying to masquerade as a scientist. As such, Sokal is doing subtle damage to science here. Having stuck the knife into the back of science, he then proceeds to twist it:

. . . I stress that my use of the term “science” is not limited to the natural sciences, but includes investigations aimed at acquiring accurate knowledge of factual matters relating to any aspect of the world by using rational empirical methods analogous to those employed in the natural sciences. (Please note the limitation to questions of fact. I intentionally exclude from my purview questions of ethics, aesthetics, ultimate purpose, and so forth.) Thus, “science” (as I use the term) is routinely practiced not only by physicists, chemists and biologists, but also by historians, detectives, plumbers and indeed all human beings in (some aspects of) our daily lives. (Of course, the fact that we all practice science from time to time does not mean that we all practice it equally well, or that we practice it equally well in all areas of our lives.)

Sokal has dumbed down the meaning of science such that detectives and plumbers also do it. So what this means is that science does not need to be tied to experiments. Nor do scientific findings have to be published in peer-reviewed scientific journals. From Sokal’s perspective, such things are adornments and not necessary for science given the simple fact that plumbers and detectives do not conduct experiments and publish their results in peer-reviewed literature.

What’s worse is that there is no reason to stop with plumbers and detectives. As Sokal concedes, all human beings in (some aspects of) our daily lives do science. And with that step, Sokal strips science of its special authority. That is, in addition to plumbing and detectives, we do science when we date. We do science when we shop. We do science when we gamble on sports. Our politicians are doing science everyday and the talking heads on TV are doing science every night. Science, science, everywhere! We are all scientists! As long as you have an opinion that is backed up by some observations of the world, and as long as you claim you are willing to change your mind about your opinion, you are doing science. And thus it is not you making the claim, it is Science that makes the claim. What a wonderful way to inflate our opinions! Of course, someone can insist you are not doing science very well, but so what? What do you call science that is not done very well? Science. That’s the only word every activist craves.

Of course, once we have dumbed-down the meaning of science to including dating and shopping, then that means science no longer has a special track record of success. For the track record of science should go beyond cherry picking examples of success and include all the results of dating, shopping, gambling, and other daily life events. But oddly enough, when its time to talk track records, the dumbed-down definition of science is thrown under the bus and the rigorous definition conveniently takes its place.

So why is Sokal fatally undermining the authority of science? It turns out he has a familiar agenda:

And so, if I were tactically minded, I would stress — as most scientists do — that science and religion need not come into conflict.

Notice how Sokal personally attacks most scientists as being “tactically minded.” Sorry professor, most scientists could very well stress this because they are standing on principle and refuse to dumb-down the definition of science so that it becomes an available weapon for activists everywhere.

I might even go on to argue, following Stephen Jay Gould, that science and religion should be understood as “nonoverlapping magisteria”: science dealing with questions of fact, religion dealing with questions of ethics and meaning. But I can’t in good conscience proceed in this way, for the simple reason that I don’t think the arguments stand up to careful logical examination. Why do I say that? For the details, I have to refer you to a 75-page chapter in my book [16]; but let me at least try to sketch now the main reasons why I think that science and religion are fundamentally incompatible ways of looking at the world.
. . . Each religion makes scores of purportedly factual assertions about everything from the creation of the universe to the afterlife.

This is not relevant to science unless such factual claims can be examined through experimentation. For example, Richard Dawkins made a factual claim – he claimed he experienced mild pedophilia as a child. Science cannot tell us whether or not this happened because science cannot test the claim.

But on what grounds can believers presume to know that these assertions are true? The reasons they give are various, but the ultimate justification for most religious people’s beliefs is a simple one: we believe what we believe because our holy scriptures say so.

At this point the scientist seems to be relying on a stereotype that is common among the intellectually inbred academic atheists. What I typically encounter are theists who attempt to justify their beliefs with reason and observation and a methodology aimed at acquiring accurate knowledge of the natural and social world. I don’t find to many theists out there claiming, “Because my Bible said so!”

But how, then, do we know that our holy scriptures are factually accurate? Because the scriptures themselves say so. Theologians specialize in weaving elaborate webs of verbiage to avoid saying anything quite so bluntly, but this gem of circular reasoning really is the epistemological bottom line on which all “faith” is grounded. In the words of Pope John Paul II: “By the authority of his absolute transcendence, God who makes himself known is also the source of the credibility of what he reveals.” [17] It goes without saying that this begs the question of whether the texts at issue really were authored or inspired by God, and on what grounds one knows this. “Faith” is not in fact a rejection of reason, but simply a lazy acceptance of bad reasons. “Faith” is the pseudo-justification that some people trot out when they want to make claims without the necessary evidence.

It looks to me like Sokal’s understanding of “faith” comes from reading people like Sam Harris and not interacting with real people of faith.

And here, it seems to me, is the crux of the conflict between religion and science. Not the religious rejection of specific scientific theories (be it heliocentrism in the 17th century or evolutionary biology today); over time most religions do find some way to make peace with well-established science. Rather, the scientific worldview and the religious worldview come into conflict over a far more fundamental question: namely, what constitutes evidence.

Okay – note the word CONFLICT.

Science relies on publicly reproducible sense experience (that is, experiments and observations) combined with rational reflection on those empirical observations.

Whoa! Sokal just dumbed-down the definition of science to include daily life activity and now he wants to ignore that and invoke physics, chemistry, and biology. Look, dating, plumbing, and shopping (which are science according to Sokal) don’t have to be a “publicly reproducible sense experience.” My plumber, for example, can work in private under the house and I don’t need to bring in a second plumber to “reproduce” his work. And notice how what started as “observation and/OR experiment” has sneakily become “observation AND experiment.” Plumbing, dating, and shopping do not need to be public, reproducible, or tied to any experiment.

Religious people acknowledge the validity of that method, but then claim to be in the possession of additional methods for obtaining reliable knowledge of factual matters — methods that go beyond the mere assessment of empirical evidence — such as intuition, revelation, or the reliance on sacred texts.

Plumbers, shoppers, detectives, and those who date also rely on intuition and revelation (having Aha! moments). And while they might not rely on “sacred texts,” they often rely on what they have been taught. Sokal does not seem to realize that by dumbing down the definition of science, his distinctions between science and religion evaporate. His entire argument collapses.

But the trouble is this: What good reason do we have to believe that such methods work, in the sense of steering us systematically (even if not invariably) towards true beliefs rather than towards false ones?

None of this matters. Science, according to the dumbed-down definition, incorporates these methods. So how can there be CONFLICT when there is no solid distinction between religion and dumbed-down science?

At least in the domains where we have been able to test these methods — astronomy, geology and history, for instance — they have not proven terribly reliable. Why should we expect them to work any better when we apply them to problems that are even more difficult, such as the fundamental nature of the universe?

This question is rendered nonsensical once we adopt Sokal’s dumbed-down definition of science.

Last but not least, these non-empirical methods suffer from an insuperable logical problem: What should we do when different people’s intuitions or revelations conflict? How can we know which of the many purportedly sacred texts — whose assertions frequently contradict one another — are in fact sacred?

You make the best guess while acknowledging you could possibly be wrong. It works with the science of plumbing, dating, and shopping. Why think it can’t work with religion? Is Sokal going to complain there is no consensus in religion? Well, there’s no huge consensus when it comes to the science of dating, plumbing, politics, or shopping. So what’s the problem?

Summary: Sokal dumbs down the definition of science so that it becomes indistinguishable from sneaky confirmation bias and everyday life activity. As such, science is stripped of its special, authoritative status and those who maintain it has a track record of success do so through cherry picking. Sokal seems oblivious to the fact that once he has dumbed down the meaning of science, the distinctions between science and religion become exceedingly blurred and any argument about conflict or incompatibility becomes incoherent and nonsensical.

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31 Responses to The Confused Thinking of Alan Sokal

  1. aporetic says:

    It’s a great shame. I think Alan Sokal did everyone a great service in exposing the ridiculousness of postmodern cultural studies with the Social Text hoax. It’s sad to see him being taken in by this kind of nonsense now.

  2. Crude says:

    You make the best guess while acknowledging you could possibly be wrong. It works with the science of plumbing, dating, and shopping. Why think it can’t work with religion? Is Sokal going to complain there is no consensus in religion? Well, there’s no huge consensus when it comes to the science of dating, plumbing, politics, or shopping. So what’s the problem?

    One of the bigger problems people like Sokal have is that it’s not just ‘plumbing’ which turns out to be science, but philosophy – and theology, and religion.

  3. Michael says:

    One of the bigger problems people like Sokal have is that it’s not just ‘plumbing’ which turns out to be science, but philosophy – and theology, and religion.

    There is even a bigger problem for people like Sokal – it’s not just “plumbing” and “detectives” that turn out to be science. It’s also…..Intelligent Design.

  4. RD Miksa says:

    Michael,

    You beat me to it…I was just about to say that given Sokal’s definition of science, ID not only could, but should, be incorporated into science class right now. One wonders if he (and Coyne) realized that fact when he penned his new definition of science!

  5. TFBW says:

    What should we do when different people’s intuitions or revelations conflict? How can we know which of the many purportedly sacred texts — whose assertions frequently contradict one another — are in fact sacred?

    What should we do when different people’s experiments or observations conflict? How can we know which of the many purportedly scientific theories — whose assertions frequently contradict one another — are in fact scientific? As a rule, we resolve the conflict through non-scientific methods: we go with the one to which we feel most intuitively inclined, or, for those of a timid or apathetic disposition, go with the one which has current majority support.

    Such a choice is not always possible, however. Consider the conflict between general relativity and quantum mechanics: both theories are widely accepted and have strong empirical support, yet they are seemingly irreconcilable at the sub-microscopic scale. Here, the popular approach is to accept both theories, despite their conflicts — a position justified by the great usefulness of both theories, and some sort of appeal to possible future developments, or hypothetical models with no direct experimental or observational support.

    In other cases, it’s a little more difficult to cast a flattering light on the situation. Consider the state of affairs in origin-of-life theories. For those who mindlessly follow the herd, RNA-world theory still seems to be the popular choice, but there is serious dissent among authorities in the field, and a corresponding plethora of conflicting theories as to how it happened. Observational and experimental support is tenuous, with an embarrassing amount of citation still going towards the 1953 Miller-Urey experiment, despite it being based on a model of the early atmosphere which has since fallen out of favour. If this mess still counts as “science”, then “absence of conflict” is obviously an unreasonable expectation.

    In short, it seems to me that Sokal’s rhetorical question applies just as well to science as it does to religion, and not just to the dumbed-down science given in the early part of his argument, but to the supposedly strong sciences on which the latter part of this argument rests. If physics has problems of internal conflict, why should anyone be even slightly perturbed about the fact that there are conflicting religions?

  6. Dhay says:

    Come on, guys; try looking on it as another hoax.

  7. Jon Garvey says:

    It was Michael Polanyi (back in the fifties) who pointed out that what Sokal calls fallibilism is a ploy to avoid having to admit to belief: yet “knowledge” is always at heart “belief”. Polanyi points out that all the fallibilist-claimant is really saying is, “I believe ptoday, but I may believe q at some future date“. Meanwhile, they are committed to panyway, so nothing has been said of substance.

  8. Dhay says:

    Jerry Coyne latches onto Alan Sokal’s articles because Sokal says there what Coyne has long been saying; but if Sokal is doing what he did in his original hoax, with straight-faced quoting of people he thinks of as incoherent idiots, and straight-faced reproduction of ideas he actually thinks incoherent and worth ridiculing, reproducing Coyne’s silly ideas is exactly what Sokal would do should he consider Coyne on a par with the post-modernist tripe-spouters he originally parodied.

    @Jon > Yes, and I note that in Sam Harris’ two neuroscience experiments, what can safely be classed as ‘knowledge’ (evidenced by ‘that is true’ responses from 100% of tested subjects) is consistently treated as being ‘belief’. So “knowledge” is always at heart “belief” for Harris, too.

  9. Dhay says:

    Thus, “science” (as I use the term) is routinely practiced not only by physicists, chemists and biologists, but also by historians, detectives, plumbers and indeed all human beings in (some aspects of) our daily lives.

    I like this method of dilution, because it can be generalised to make the claim that anyone who says, “Have a nice day”, or signs off a letter with, “Best wishes”, is appealing to a higher power to accomplish this in that person’s life; that is, everyone who actually means these wishes, these blessings, is actually praying.

    Thus, “prayer” (as I use the term) is routinely practiced not only by fundamentalist Christians, Quakers and pew-fodder, but also by pagans, agnostics, atheists and New Atheists, and indeed all human beings in (some aspects of) our daily lives.

  10. Dhay says:

    Perhaps Alan Sokal is parodying New Atheism, or perhaps he is not. Perhaps we need a “Poe’s 2nd Law” that says:

    Without a winking smiley or other blatant display of humour, it is impossible to create a parody of New Atheism that SOMEONE won’t mistake for the real thing.

  11. TFBW says:

    @Dhay: when Sokal published his parody paper, he followed it up soon after with the admission that it was a hoax. Ever since then, he’s been pleading with people to adopt his “scientific worldview”. He was preaching it in 1996, and he’s still preaching it now. According to my evidence-based worldview, Sokal’s mushy reasoning is not intended as parody, even if it seems like self-parody. Rather, it is what it seems to be: sincere scientism.

  12. cl says:

    Love to see your blog growing with community! As for Sokal, we’ve heard it all before haven’t we? Same nonsense, different mouth.

  13. Dhay says:

    Perhaps the “Poe’s 2nd Law” should be:

    Without a winking smiley or other blatant display of humour, it is impossible to create an exposition of New Atheism that SOMEONE won’t mistake for a parody.

  14. TFBW says:

    I think you want a variation on Clarke’s third law: “any sufficiently advanced scientism is indistinguishable from parody.”

  15. Kind of tangential, but perhaps relevant to the issue science and the New Atheists:

    “The problem is that a lot of clever people want to go for the sky, and there is much more people who want the sky compared to the available positions. In general, science career is a race, where three people go to the podium and all the others sooner or later will go back home (See also this article from the Economist on the problem). The competition for funding and positions means that not only the hopes of getting a job are really lousy, but that people become nasty. Like, really nasty.

    I know of people that have given a purportedly crippled software to a collegue to sabotage his project. I’ve been violently attacked verbally for having dared talking with my supervisor of a project I was collaborating with, because she feared that I wanted to “steal” her credit. I’ve seen more than once people “helped” during a project, only to find all credit for their work taken by the nice and smiling people who scammed them by “helping” them. There are endless horror stories like that. Everywhere. Now, do you want to work in a place full of insanely clever people who are also insanely cynical and determined to do everything to get on top of you? If so, you can do top level science.

    It’s not all, of course. Top level science requires also an absolutely mind-boggling determination and, overall, confidence in yourself. To properly do science you must be absolutely sure that, whatever you have in mind, you will do it, no matter what, and that you’re doing it right, to the point of almost self-delusion. This is so important that who wins in science is regularly not the most brilliant but the most determined (I’ve seen Nobel prizes speaking and half of the times they didn’t look much more brilliant than your average professor. Most of them were just lucky, and overall were incredibly, monolithically determined). Combined with the above, this means working 24/7, basically leaving behind everything in your life, without any doubt on your skills and abilities and most importantly on your project, while fencing off a competition of equally tough, confident and skilled guys.”

    So, not-too-bright but determined people who’ll stoop to dirty tactics to get one over on their rivals and who are convinced that they’re right, “to the point of almost self-delusion”? Yep, sounds a lot like the New Atheists to me. No wonder Dawkins and co. feel an affinity for top-level scientists (even if they’re too busy bashing religion to pay attention to top-level *science*): birds of a feather and all that. I suppose it might also be relevant to point out that a lot of atheists, at least on the internet, seem to view morality as primary a tool: act moral, because it’s the best way of achieving social harmony and making other people like you. But of course, if being moral is a tool to worldly success, it makes sense to drop it and fight dirty when doing so would seem to bring about better results. So there’s another possibly similarity between atheist subcultures and scientists.

  16. MItch Buck says:

    Intelligent design would not be included as a science (using Sokal’s definition) because he explicitly states in the quoted paragraph that his definition has certain restrictions: “(Please note the limitation to questions of fact. I intentionally exclude from my purview questions of ethics, aesthetics, ultimate purpose, and so forth.)”

    Intelligent design is all about the design inference, and nothing more; so it wouldn’t be considered a science. No formal theories of ID are ever generated that explain all of the currently known data and make specific predictions which lead to novel data. If ID ever descends from the realm of speculation and makes hard, testable, specific predictions about the world that expand our current understanding, then it could be treated as a rival competitor to evolutionary biology. However, there’s a conspicuous absence of this being done. Oh, well.

    Michael also says, “Second, why is it that those who claim to have this “scientific worldview” can never seem to agree on much? Consider the multiple examples of atheist vs. atheist, whether the topic be feminism, guns, or religion.”

    Again, explicitly, Sokal admits : (Of course, the fact that we all practice science from time to time does not mean that we all practice it equally well, or that we practice it equally well in all areas of our lives.)” I would also add that disagreement is not anathema to science, or science-minded persons. Physicists are in disagreement over whether dark matter actually exists or if Newton’s law of gravity needs to be tweaked a little at the very large scale (modified Newtonian Dynamics), for example. Disagreement is a strength of science, not a weakness since these disagreements often refine bad ideas and lead to better ones.

    Moreover, Michael, if I modify your quote by replacing a few nouns, we get this old chestnut I’m sure you’re very familiar with: “Second, why is it that those who claim to have this “Christian worldview” can never seem to agree on much? Consider the multiple examples of Christian vs Christian, whether the topic be heaven, hell, or revelation.” Disagreement, I’m guessing you’ll agree, doesn’t necessitate falsity.

    Lastly, confirmation bias — it cuts both ways. It makes your position just as vulnerable as it does your opponents.

  17. TFBW says:

    @Mitch Buck:

    Intelligent design would not be included as a science (using Sokal’s definition) because he explicitly states in the quoted paragraph that his definition has certain restrictions: “(Please note the limitation to questions of fact. I intentionally exclude from my purview questions of ethics, aesthetics, ultimate purpose, and so forth.)”

    It is a question of fact whether life as we know it is a purely natural phenomenon, or whether a guiding intelligence was involved, and Intelligent Design theory is a scientific approach to distinguishing between these two possibilities. It is not a question of ethics, aesthetics, ultimate purpose, or anything of that sort. The answer to that question of fact has some bearing on those more abstract questions (e.g. if no intelligence was involved, then no intent was involved, and there can be no ultimate purpose without intent), but ID itself only addresses the question of fact using physical evidence and rational analysis. It is, therefore, by Sokal’s definition, science.

    Sorry, but your argument simply does not support your claim. At all.

    I would also add that disagreement is not anathema to science, or science-minded persons. Physicists are in disagreement over whether dark matter actually exists or if Newton’s law of gravity needs to be tweaked a little at the very large scale (modified Newtonian Dynamics), for example. Disagreement is a strength of science, not a weakness since these disagreements often refine bad ideas and lead to better ones.

    I quite agree that disagreement is not anathema to science, but Sokal uses rhetorical questions to imply that disagreement is a show-stopping problem for religion. That was the subject of my first post in this thread. Michael’s point, I think, is that Sokal is applying a blatant double-standard: one for his “scientific” worldview, where a certain amount of disagreement is par for the course, and another for religion, where he presents it as a gaping flaw.

    Can you see the double standard? Do you think it is reasonable?

  18. Michael says:

    Intelligent design would not be included as a science (using Sokal’s definition) because he explicitly states in the quoted paragraph that his definition has certain restrictions: “(Please note the limitation to questions of fact. I intentionally exclude from my purview questions of ethics, aesthetics, ultimate purpose, and so forth.)”

    Hmm. Was X designed? That would seem to me to be a “question of fact.” You are missing the major point, Mitch. According to Sokal, “science (as I use the term) is routinely practiced not only by physicists, chemists and biologists, but also by historians, detectives, plumbers and indeed all human beings in (some aspects of) our daily lives.” As I mentioned, this would also mean that dating and shopping are examples of science.

    Intelligent design is all about the design inference, and nothing more; so it wouldn’t be considered a science.

    Okay, now I am confused. According to Lawrence Krauss and Jerry Coyne, finding a pattern of stars in the sky is scientific evidence for God. That would seem to contradict your statement. Are you saying that yes, such a pattern would be scientific evidence for God, but it could not be considered scientific evidence for design?

    No formal theories of ID are ever generated that explain all of the currently known data and make specific predictions which lead to novel data.

    So? There are no formal theories of plumbing, shopping, dating. Are we abandoning that dumbed-down definition of science for the purposes of refuting ID?

    You don’t seem to get it, Mitch. According to Coyne, Krauss, Stenger, Dawkins, etc., “God-did-it” is a scientific explanation. There is no need for all that fluff about formal theories, specific predictions, novel data, etc. A Gap is all that is needed.

    If ID ever descends from the realm of speculation and makes hard, testable, specific predictions about the world that expand our current understanding, then it could be treated as a rival competitor to evolutionary biology.

    Newsflash to Mitch – plumbing, dating, and shopping do not involve making hard, testable, specific predictions about the world that expand our current understanding. So, for the purposes of refuting ID, you’d like to retreat from that dumbed-down definition of science, eh? Do you have any objective criteria for when we are to use the rigorous definition of science vs. the dumbed down definition of science?

    Michael also says, “Second, why is it that those who claim to have this “scientific worldview” can never seem to agree on much? Consider the multiple examples of atheist vs. atheist, whether the topic be feminism, guns, or religion.” Again, explicitly, Sokal admits : (Of course, the fact that we all practice science from time to time does not mean that we all practice it equally well, or that we practice it equally well in all eareas of our lives.)” I would also add that disagreement is not anathema to science, or science-minded persons. Physicists are in disagreement over whether dark matter actually exists or if Newton’s law of gravity needs to be tweaked a little at the very large scale (modified Newtonian Dynamics), for example. Disagreement is a strength of science, not a weakness since these disagreements often refine bad ideas and lead to better ones.

    Hold your horses. According to the New Atheists, what makes science so much better than religion is that it has a method to resolve disagreement and bring about consensus. Theology and philosophy can also claim that disagreements often refine bad ideas and lead to better ones. Science goes a step beyond that at brings about agreement as to which ideas are bad and which are better. Now, you are telling me the opposite.

    Moreover, Michael, if I modify your quote by replacing a few nouns, we get this old chestnut I’m sure you’re very familiar with: “Second, why is it that those who claim to have this “Christian worldview” can never seem to agree on much? Consider the multiple examples of Christian vs Christian, whether the topic be heaven, hell, or revelation.” Disagreement, I’m guessing you’ll agree, doesn’t necessitate falsity.

    I never said that disagreement necessitates falsity. I’m questioning atheism as a “scientific worldview.” It would entail that we abandon a strength of science – a method that generates agreement.

    Lastly, confirmation bias — it cuts both ways. It makes your position just as vulnerable as it does your opponents.

    Sure. But the point here is that Sokal is dumbing down the definition of science such that it becomes confirmation bias.

  19. MItch Buck says:

    A lot of good points you brought up, MIchael (I’ve been reading the blog for quite a while and I expected as much).

    As ID presently stands, it is merely a philosophical inference. Coyne’s example you brought up is irrelevant since current ID theories don’t have access to evidence anywhere near that calibre. If they did, however, I would say that such a pattern would be scientific evidence of design, and not scientific evidence of God. I’ll go one step further and say that even if the stars periodically rearranged themselves in such a way, I would still find a natural explanation simpler; our universe could be a computer simulation and the programmer was trying to communicate to us, or it could be an alien species that designed us. A supernatural explanation is still clunkier since it posits an infinite supernatural realm having to exist just so a few stars moving around can be explained.

    Michael, you then say, “Newsflash to Mitch – plumbing, dating, and shopping do not involve making hard, testable, specific predictions about the world that expand our current understanding.”

    You couldn’t be more wrong here, Michael. Let’s look at the shopping example. There are plenty of consumer report magazines printed that consumers readily buy so they can acquire accurate knowledge of factual matters (the items they wish to purchase) when it come to spending their money in different markets. Doing this expands the consumer’s understanding and makes him or her a savvy consumer. If the consumer was so inclined, they could also study market trends and predict future trends. This seems to be all that Sokal means by his definition of science.

    You continue: “So, for the purposes of refuting ID, you’d like to retreat from that dumbed-down definition of science, eh? Do you have any objective criteria for when we are to use the rigorous definition of science vs. the dumbed down definition of science?”

    I never refuted ID. I said that even with the broadened definition of science, ID, in it’s present state, is still in the realm of philosophy — which isn’t a bad thing; it’s just not science. I reject your dichotomy between the two definitions of science. As Sokal defines it, we should be rigorous in our thinking every time we make claims about the world. So to answer your question, we should always strive for rigor… which was kind of Sokal’s point.

    Finally, you say “Hold your horses. According to the New Atheists, what makes science so much better than religion is that it has a method to resolve disagreement and bring about consensus. Theology and philosophy can also claim that disagreements often refine bad ideas and lead to better ones. Science goes a step beyond that at brings about agreement as to which ideas are bad and which are better. Now, you are telling me the opposite.”

    I’m having a hard time understanding you here. Am I telling you the opposite of what New Atheists say about science?

  20. MItch Buck says:

    TFBW,
    Imagine we have two individuals, one who holds that life evolved by blind processes, the other believes that evolution happened but that it wasn’t random; a supernatural being guided the process. Both positions are fully supported by the evidence of evolution, both positions make sense of all the given data pertaining to biology. How do we determine who’s right? We can’t appeal to scientific evidence since both positions are empirically equivalent. In order to resolve the issue, we are thrusted into metaphysics.

    But ID isn’t even at the stage where it’s making just as much verified predictions as evolutionary theory — and that’s my whole point. ID isn’t remotely competitive with evolutionary theory at this stage. The problem is that they need to step up their predictions, move them beyond vague statements like, “expect more complexity in DNA.” That isn’t specific enough. Predict specific species in the fossil record, if life has no shared common ancestry. Paleontologists predicted half-mammilian, half reptilian creatures based on common ancestry and found plenty; they also predict that finding mixed phyla inconsistent with common ancestry would falsify it. Why aren’t IDers funding paleontologists to look for these, anyway? Oh that’s right, because it isn’t science but philosophy (again, philosophy is not a bad word).

    I think Soka’s point is that a lot of religious disagreements seem irresolvable in principle. Philosophy makes progress with rational argument; physics makes progress with the scientific method; mathematics makes phenomenal progress with proof –each field has disagreements but they have methods of resolving them. Religion not only has disagreements, but there doesn’t seem to be a clear way of finding them out in any robust sense. Religious experience, maybe? Whose religious experience is more valid, the mormon’s or the christian’s or the wiccan?

  21. TFBW says:

    But ID isn’t even at the stage where it’s making just as much verified predictions as evolutionary theory — and that’s my whole point.

    Nothing in Sokal’s definition of science requires any “verified predictions”, or anything of that sort. It only requires that the subject matter be factual in nature, which it is, and that the investigation employ “rational empirical methods”, which it does. If that’s your whole point, then the most it gets you is, “ID theory is less productive science than evolutionary theory,” and I have no need to argue that point at this time.

    I think Soka’s point is that a lot of religious disagreements seem irresolvable in principle. Philosophy makes progress with rational argument; physics makes progress with the scientific method; mathematics makes phenomenal progress with proof –each field has disagreements but they have methods of resolving them.

    Mathematics has formal proof that some mathematical questions can’t be resolved. If you’re going to dismiss an entire field of inquiry because it contains disagreements which are irresolvable in principle, then start with mathematics. And if you’re going to repudiate mathematics, an awful lot of science collapses along with it. I don’t think you can adopt that single standard without sawing off the branch on which you are sitting.

  22. MItch Buck says:

    Any rational empirical investigations applied to questions of fact often times do lead to predictions. Look at Sokal’s point with the detective. They gather evidence, form a theory, and predict who broke the law. These are small scale predictions, but predictions nonetheless. Or you can study the behavior of someone you love and buy them a gift you think they’ll like–which is another example of a small scale prediction. Still, ID doesn’t even fulfill these smaller scale predictions. Predictions are the bread and butter of science — Sokal implicitly acknowledges this by saying we should employ methods analogous to the natural sciences.

    Secondly, I did not repudiate mathematics. I have tremendous respect for the field and think the results are more certain than any other form of knowledge we have. You’re misunderstanding Godel’s incompleteness theorem. It states that within certain axiomatic systems, there will be certain statements (not all statements) which are neither true nor false. This simply means that the question cannot be resolved within the given framework and you need to go outside the system to demonstrate it — which is what mathematicians do. (This is also why mathematicians argue that computers will never replace mathematicians in proving theorems since computers cannot “reason” outside the system they are programmed in). Godel’s incompleteness theorem has done nothing to hinder the progress of mathematics — it’s almost irrelevant it seems. (I talked to a mathematician who said that no mathematicians on the planet understand more than about 10 percent of the mathematics out there — and each year that percent is getting smaller as more and more results are proved each year).

    To see this for yourself, look up the proof that the square root of 2 is irrational. It’s a done deal, despite the fact that there are CERTAIN (very few) statements that the axioms of arithmetic are agnostic on. The square root of 2 isn’t one of them.

  23. TFBW says:

    Any rational empirical investigations applied to questions of fact often times do lead to predictions. Look at Sokal’s point with the detective.

    ID theorists are detectives of biology, working on the problem of determining whether life was an accident, or a deliberate act. Again, this would seem to fit perfectly within Sokal’s framework, despite your repeated ad hoc efforts to exclude ID. If forensic detective work that distinguishes between accidental causes and deliberate causes can be science, then so can ID theory.

    Godel’s incompleteness theorem has done nothing to hinder the progress of mathematics — it’s almost irrelevant it seems.

    It was the last nail in the coffin of Hilbert’s formalist programme, which aimed to completely formalise everything in number theory, and prove its consistency. Godel proved that the goal itself was impossible to achieve, so we know with reasonable certainty that there can be no progress of this sort in mathematics, ever.

    Look — what is your criterion, exactly? If it’s that the system must not contain any unanswerable-in-principle questions, then mathematics is certainly out. If it’s not that, then what is it? On the one hand you’re asserting that unanswerable questions are a tremendous problem for religion, but you wave them away as having no consequence when I point out that they exist in mathematics — a double standard.

  24. MItch Buck says:

    Hilbert did little in the way of actually formalizing mathematics on a logically tight foundation. The workhorses behind this task were Russel and Whitehead, who filled three tomes trying to do just that. I’m in agreement when you say, “we know with reasonable certainty that there can be no progress of this sort in mathematics, ever” Right, of THIS SORT. What’s interesting is that despite Godel’s incompleteness theorem, mathematics as a discipline keeps making absolutely ridiculous progress. It would seem, and Godel’s theorem verifies this, that there is something inherently wrong about the notion of formalizing things on purely logical grounds. Philosophers have noticed that even logic itself cannot be grounded on logical principles — so what gives? I’m not sure, but Massimo Piggliucci had a very interesting discussion about it here, where philosophers are considering replacing the notion of an “edifice of knowledge” with a “web of knowledge.” Here’s the link if you’re curious: http://rationallyspeaking.blogspot.com/2014/01/the-meta-itch.html. I apologize if this is too off topic — I felt it may be tangentially related.

    TFBW: “Look — what is your criterion, exactly?”

    My criterion is irrelevant since we’re discussing Sokal’s argument. Defending someone’s argument doesn’t entail me holding to the argument. (I’ve also been known to fiercely defend Descartes arguments for God as well — despite myself not believing in one — from other atheists who are insistent on not reading him fairly). It seemed to me that Sokal was not being given a charitable reading, hence my chiming in to the discussion.

    TFBW: “On the one hand you’re asserting that unanswerable questions are a tremendous problem for religion, but you wave them away as having no consequence when I point out that they exist in mathematics — a double standard.”

    Again, I’m not asserting anything. Sokal is making the argument, and I acknowledged that rather plainly just a post or two ago; I said, “I think Soka’s point is that a lot of religious disagreements seem irresolvable in principle.” Anyways, onto your point.

    My language here could have been better, so your observation’s a fair one. I should have said that a lot of religious disagreements seem irresolvable in principle since there is no clear method (analogous to proof or the scientific method) that exists which COULD be used to settle these conflicting truth claims. Is there such a method or technique? How do we resolve a muslim and a Christian each verifying his or her holy text with a religious experience? I’m genuinely curious.

    Lastly, ID. You say, “ID theorists are detectives of biology … Again, this would seem to fit perfectly within Sokal’s framework, despite your repeated ad hoc efforts to exclude ID.”

    My unwillingness to include ID is based on the fact that there are no ID paleontologists digging up fossils that refute common ancestry, there are no ID labs publishing results in peer reviewed journals, there are no disambiguated predictions made which are not only verified, but lead to new understandings not predicted by rival theories. I will go so far as to say that creationists who look for Noah’s ark deserve credit as doing science, be it poorly, since they made a prediction and are endeavoring to verify it. Maybe it’s high time the Discovery Institute tries to model itself after Ken Ham’s project.

    Finally, I’ve said this two or three times now. At PRESENT, ID has failed to graduate beyond a mere design inference. I said earlier also that if ID makes concrete predictions that are verified, “I would say that such a pattern would be scientific evidence of design…” in which case Sokal’s definition would apply.

  25. TFBW says:

    @Mitch Buck:

    Again, I’m not asserting anything. Sokal is making the argument…

    It’s nice that you’re giving Sokal a charitable interpretation. I’d appreciate it if you did the same for me. That will save me from trying to spell everything out long-hand, as in, “the interpretation of Sokal’s argument that you are presently defending,” rather than, “your argument.”

    I should have said that a lot of religious disagreements seem irresolvable in principle since there is no clear method (analogous to proof or the scientific method) that exists which COULD be used to settle these conflicting truth claims.

    And there are problems which are known to be irresolvable in principle in mathematics, where proof is known to be not possible, so you still haven’t phrased your objection in a manner that distinguishes religion from mathematics. On another reading, I might interpret you as saying that there is no method for resolving any dispute in religion, but that seems like a pretty outlandish claim, and I wouldn’t want to put those words in your mouth. But that leaves us with “some religious arguments seem irresolvable in principle,” and I’m back to pointing out that the same is true of mathematics.

    Or are you satisfied that mathematics has “proof” as a tool, even though that tool is (provably!) useless for irresolvable questions? I could point out that if you are satisfied with methods that don’t work, there are plenty to choose from.

    My unwillingness to include ID is based on the fact that there are no ID paleontologists digging up fossils that refute common ancestry, there are no ID labs publishing results in peer reviewed journals, there are no disambiguated predictions made which are not only verified, but lead to new understandings not predicted by rival theories.

    All of the above is irrelevant, and in some cases false. I’ll focus on the irrelevance. Sokal’s definition does not require them to dig up fossils, nor does it require published results in peer reviewed journals, or even the expression of a theory, let alone one that has merit relative to another. Remember, Sokal says that “science” (as he uses the term), “is routinely practiced not only by physicists, chemists and biologists, but also by historians, detectives, plumbers and indeed all human beings in (some aspects of) our daily lives.” Show me how a plumber meets the criteria you have set for ID, and I’ll reconsider your response. Failing that, you have simply departed wholesale from Sokal’s definition.

    Finally, I’ve said this two or three times now. At PRESENT, ID has failed to graduate beyond a mere design inference.

    And I’ve responded each time with the same answer: Sokal’s definition DOES NOT REQUIRE that it be anything more than that. It’s a factual question being addressed with physical evidence and rational analysis. That’s all it takes to meet Sokal’s requirements. That’s how a plumber who makes a sewer-obstructed-by-tree-roots inference can be said to be doing “science”.

    I think you’d save a lot of time at this point if you just admitted that you don’t agree with Sokal’s definition of science.

  26. MItch Buck says:

    It’s not enough to assert than my statements of ID are false. Show me. Where did I go wrong? Plumbing is rather obvious. After learning the trade, plumbers will form a hypothesis, experiment, and resolve an issue. ID forms a nebulous hypotheses (expect more complexity, irreducible systems)… speculates… does a meta analysis… speculates… laments evolution… I feel we are at an impasse on this point. With Sokal’s broader definition, philosophy does not become science. ID, in its present state, is still philosophy — bad philosophy I might add.

    TFBW: “Or are you satisfied that mathematics has “proof” as a tool, even though that tool is (provably!) useless for irresolvable questions?”

    The method of proof has not been refuted for irresolvable questions. Godel’s proof showed that axiomatic systems are inconsistent when grounded purely on air-tight logic — using only finitistic methods, which is a branch of mathematical philosophy (supported by Hilbert) that rejects infinities. Gerhard Gentzen, a polish mathematician gave a proof of the consistency of Peano’s axioms, using transfinite induction in 1936. Godel’s results were more problematic to certain schools of philosophy, not mathematics itself outside the grounding on logic problem.

    Although irresolvable questions in mathematics abound, each year more and more are answered by grad students and professional mathematicians as they develop NEW theorems and mathematics to solve problems which were unsolvable given the current mathematics. The progress being made, despite your claims of proof being “useless for irresolvable questions” is downright mind-blowing. The ISI database http://wok.mimas.ac.uk/ contains only articles published in peer review mathematics journals, and it lists over 1.3 million papers since 1900. http://strathmaths.wordpress.com/2013/04/17/how-much-mathematics-is-there/.

    The relevant difference between mathematics and religion is that mathematics develops new mathematical concepts and structures to answer problems currently unanswerable by present day mathematics, and they do this using proof — a process has been arguably more fruitful than any human endeavor in generating knowledge, even surpassing science, I’d argue. Religion does not generate new knowledge, as far as I know. What is something new to Christianity that wasn’t revealed in scripture? How to Christians respond to the claim by some of new revelations?

    And it’s even worse for religion when you consider the disputes that exist surrounding what has already been “revealed.” How do we know which sect of Christianity is correct on its interpretation of heaven, hell and revelation?

    This is my third attempt at trying to get an understanding of religious epistemology from you. You criticized me for a double standard. I’ve made many attempts to demonstrate the standard is not one in the same with religion and mathematics — in fact we’ve only discussed mathematics. I’ve demonstrated that progress in mathematics has not at all been hindered, and given the sheer enormity of new mathematical knowledge generated since 1900, it’s a closed case. Proof works.

  27. Kevin says:

    I would agree that religion and mathematics are not synonymous, and really not a valid comparison anyway. It would be like comparing carpentry with a hammer. One is a tool, the other is a field of knowledge/practice that might incorporate many tools, including the hammer.

    Religion does not generate new knowledge, as far as I know. What is something new to Christianity that wasn’t revealed in scripture? How to Christians respond to the claim by some of new revelations?

    While I understand this quote is directed at the religion/mathematics comparison, I would still like to take a slightly different angle and point out that religion is more philosophical in nature than scientific/epistemological. Among the host of things that also generate no new knowledge are atheism, secular humanism, philosophical naturalism, liberalism, conservatism, libertarianism…each one of these has sets of truth claims that are outside the purview of science. Religion, oddly enough, seems to be held to a different standard than the rest. No one demands to see the scientific evidence that abortion IS a woman’s right to choose, or that gay marriage IS a fundamental right, or that any who disagree with these truth claims are wrong, if not evil. It is by no means the only body of philosophical ideas that makes unverifiable truth claims (and seeks to impose it on others who disagree).

    As far as ID goes, I think the entire scope of what they are attempting to do is unscientific at its core. That’s not to say that it isn’t true. Things that are unscientific can still be true, and scientific ideas can be false. It’s just that ID does not really follow the methodologies of science. The only reason forensic science works is from experience, gathering evidence and formulating the best explanation for that evidence based on what we know about human nature. While ID may make perfectly logical sense as an explanation over naturalism, we really don’t know what the difference would be between a designed and undesigned universe (other than the latter being really really implausible), thus we can’t really judge what the evidence indicates in a truly scientific manner.

  28. Michael says:

    As ID presently stands, it is merely a philosophical inference. Coyne’s example you brought up is irrelevant since current ID theories don’t have access to evidence anywhere near that calibre.

    Yes, it’s relevant, as it gives us insight to the logic that being applied.

    If they did, however, I would say that such a pattern would be scientific evidence of design,

    I don’t think it would be scientific evidence of design; I think it would be empirical evidence of design. The significant thing here is this it demonstrates we do not need any independent information about the designers (intentions, methods, etc.) in order to infer design. But that’s another topic.

    and not scientific evidence of God. I’ll go one step further and say that even if the stars periodically rearranged themselves in such a way, I would still find a natural explanation simpler; our universe could be a computer simulation and the programmer was trying to communicate to us, or it could be an alien species that designed us. A supernatural explanation is still clunkier since it posits an infinite supernatural realm having to exist just so a few stars moving around can be explained.

    I actually agree. But two things follow from our agreement.

    First, this nicely illustrates the deep limitations of reason when it comes to determining whether or not God exists. If God was indeed to carry out such an astronomical demonstration, reason would have us denying this because it would be too “clunky.” Reason generates false negatives.

    Second, while we may agree about this, scientists like Jerry Coyne, Lawrence Krauss, and Victor Stenger say otherwise. Since the general public is likely to think they represent science, and we are relative nobodies, can you cite some prominent scientists who have taken Coyne, Krauss, and Stenger to the woodshed on this issue?

    You couldn’t be more wrong here, Michael. Let’s look at the shopping example. There are plenty of consumer report magazines printed that consumers readily buy so they can acquire accurate knowledge of factual matters (the items they wish to purchase) when it come to spending their money in different markets. Doing this expands the consumer’s understanding and makes him or her a savvy consumer. If the consumer was so inclined, they could also study market trends and predict future trends. This seems to be all that Sokal means by his definition of science.

    I don’t think I am wrong at all with the shopping example. When Sokal speaks of making hard, testable, specific predictions about the world that expand our current understanding, I don’t think anyone has in mind a person reading the latest issue of Consumer Reports to help make a purchasing decision.

    Surely, one can make rational, informed choices when it comes to shopping. But why call that science? If shopping is science, why is it not mentioned when someone wants to brag about the successful track record of science? What’s more, if shopping is science, then it means experiments are superfluous to science. It means publishing papers is also superfluous to science. So I’m confused as why you wrote to TFBW: “there are no ID labs publishing results in peer reviewed journals.” The shopping example shows us we don’t a) need a lab and b) publish results in c) peer reviewed journals to do science. If we embrace Sokal’s dumbed-down definition, we get to jettison all those things.

    I never refuted ID. I said that even with the broadened definition of science, ID, in it’s present state, is still in the realm of philosophy — which isn’t a bad thing; it’s just not science.

    I agree.

    I reject your dichotomy between the two definitions of science.

    The two definitions of science have different requirements. For example, the dumbed down Sokal-Coyne definition abandons the need to do carefully controlled experiments and publishing them in scientific journals. Can’t have it both ways.

    As Sokal defines it, we should be rigorous in our thinking every time we make claims about the world. So to answer your question, we should always strive for rigor… which was kind of Sokal’s point.

    Being “rigorous in our thinking?” What does that even mean? Whether or not any explanation is sufficiently rigorous is in the eye of the beholder. It will be a subjective judgment call. Sokal’s point is thus vacuous, as we have no objective Rigor Sufficiency Meter.
    In real science, this problem is solved by the carefully designed experiment. An experiment, with carefully designed controls, has the rigor built into the inquiry, isolating the variable in question and guarding against false positives and negatives. Sokal thinks none of this is important in science and would replace it by a subjective judgment call of rigor coming from someone with a copy of Consumer Reports in hand.

    I’m having a hard time understanding you here. Am I telling you the opposite of what New Atheists say about science?

    Yep. The New Atheists, in trying to sell their scientism, like to brag about how science can generate consensus. But you are telling the opposite of consensus, disagreement, in a strength of science.

    Again, I’m simply pointing out that if atheism is a “scientific worldview,” how is it that there is so little agreement among those who espouse this “worldview?” What happened to science, and its ability to generate consensus about the truth?

  29. MItch Buck says:

    I’m sorry to let you down guys, but I am mostly in agreement with you both.

    Kevin, right on. Just because something is not scientific (ahem, mathematics), does not mean that it is untrue. The distinction between a designed and undesigned universe is also a great insight, I have often wondered what Dawkins means when he claims that the observable universe is just what we would expect to see if it were undesigned… How do you test such a claim? I think this point dovetails nicely with Michael’s about the limits of reason. I don’t have much time now, but I’ll chime in later to respond to some of Michael’s point (warning: there’s not much disagreement).

  30. TFBW says:

    @Mitch Buck:

    ID forms a nebulous hypotheses (expect more complexity, irreducible systems)… speculates… does a meta analysis… speculates… laments evolution… I feel we are at an impasse on this point.

    If I were to take you to a lab where an ID theorist was conducting an experiment that was relevant to ID research, or show you a published paper which documents that sort of research, would this change your opinion on the matter? Or would you know in advance that the experiment could not, in principle, be relevant to ID theory?

    I want to know whether I’m up against an evidence problem, or a definition-in-principle problem here. On the one hand, it seems like it must be the latter, because your statement treats ID as a category, without reference to specific examples. On the other hand, you make occasional concessions to the idea that ID could be science, but it’s not there yet. That concession rings extremely hollow, however, when you say that ID is currently less scientific than plumbing. Surely you can’t know that all practice in the field of ID is really as bad as you say, unless you have an in-principle reason to dismiss the whole of ID as a subject on which empirical evidence can not, categorically, be brought to bear.

    Religion does not generate new knowledge, as far as I know.

    Let’s suppose that you are right for the sake of argument. Where, in Sokal’s definition of science, do you find the requirement that new knowledge be generated? And what do you mean by “new knowledge”? After all, if I read a Bible verse that I’ve never read before, then I’ve just gained “new knowledge” of the Bible. The bar must surely be set higher than that, but where, exactly? What sort of “new knowledge” does the typical plumber produce?

    And it’s even worse for religion when you consider the disputes that exist surrounding what has already been “revealed.” How do we know which sect of Christianity is correct on its interpretation of heaven, hell and revelation?

    You are repeating Sokal’s rhetoric without shedding any further light on the distinction. I already pointed out (in my first comment) that the exact same question could be applied to naturalistic theories of abiogenesis. You still haven’t drawn a line between religion and Sokal’s dumbed-down science.

    This is my third attempt at trying to get an understanding of religious epistemology from you.

    My position is that “religious epistemology” is a term invented by the anti-religious as a tool of sophistry. There is no single epistemology of religion. There is not even a single epistemology of Christianity. Christian philosophers have differing schools of thought on the matter. This may come as a shock to those who have only been informed by anti-religious activists who insist that “religious epistemology” is synonymous with “fideism”, or even “self-delusion”.

    I should also add that there is no single “religious method” for determining truth, either, since that seems to be what you are really after (seeking something analogous to “proof” in mathematics). There is not even a “Christian method”. It would be more appropriate to say that religions offer guidance in the form of a worldview, although even there it would be simplistic to think that all members of a religion have identical worldviews. You’ll note that Sokal is promoting a competing worldview — see the first quotation at the top of the original post.

    Sokal speaks as though there is a clear line between religion and his dumbed-down version of science. I see no such distinction: when C. S. Lewis or some other clear-thinking apologist makes a case for some factual claim (e.g. the divinity of Jesus) based on observation and reason, then that’s “scientific” by straightforward application of Sokal’s definition. Attempts to exclude such “religious” matters from the domain of Sokal’s dumbed-down science come across as tortuously ad hoc, or squarely based on a straw-man version of religion in which all religious folks are assumed to have the mental capacity of sheep.

  31. Dhay says:

    Here’s from Jerry Coyne’s May 5 2012 blog entry, replying to criticism of his position by undoubtedly atheist philosopher of science, Philip Kitcher:
    http://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2012/05/30/philip-kitcher-and-i-discuss-scientism/

    In fact, I have said that even things like car mechanics and plumbing could be considered forms of science, for when fixing electrical problems or finding leaks, mechanics and plumbers use scientific inquiry.

    Philip [Kitcher] objects to my extension of science, saying:

    One possibility is to say that the method involves using uncontroversial human capacities: perception, memory, inference. If that’s the view, the notion of “science” is so thin that the declaration that “science” is the only way of knowing is trivial – surely all human knowledge is obtained by using the capacities human beings have, and Coyne and I agree on the list.

    Well, I’m happy to reframe things like archaeology, history, and detection of leaks as “the use of secular reason,” and reserve the label “science” for “things done by scientists.”

    Well, that didn’t last long, did it. Coyne has returned rapidly back to bad habits. Back to “scientist” plumbers.

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