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Do Theological Claims Need to be Falsifiable?

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Antony Flew’s famous 1950 article “Theology and Falsification” posed what came to be known as the “falsificationist challenge” to theology. A claim is falsifiable when it is empirically testable—that is to say, when it makes predictions about what will be observed under such-and-such circumstances such that, if the predictions don’t pan out, the claim is thereby shown to be false.

The idea that a genuinely scientific claim must be falsifiable had already been given currency by Karl Popper. Flew’s aim was to apply it to a critique of such theological claims as the thesis that God loves us. No matter what sorts of evil and suffering occur in the world, the theologian does not give up the claim that God loves us. But then, what, in that case, does the claim actually amount to? And why should we accept the claim? Flew’s challenge was to get the theologian to specify exactly what would have to happen in order for the theologian to give up the claim that God loves us, or the claim that God exists.

Now, there are several problems with Flew’s challenge. Some of them have to do with specifically theological matters, such as the analogical use of the term “good” when applied to God, the role that divine permission of evil plays in the realization of a greater good, and so forth. Some of the problems have to do with the idea of falsification itself. As Popper himself emphasized, it is simply an error to suppose that all rationally justifiable claims have to be empirically falsifiable. Popper intended falsificationism merely as a theory about what makes a claim scientific, and not every rationally acceptable claim is or ought to be a scientific claim. Hence not every rationally acceptable claim is or ought to be empirically falsifiable.

For example, the thesis of falsificationism itself is, as Popper realized, not empirically falsifiable. This does not make Popper’s falsificationist theory of science self-refuting, because, again, he does not say in the first place that every claim has to be empirically falsifiable. Falsificationism is a claim about science but it is not itself a scientific claim, but rather a philosophical claim (what Popper called a claim of “meta-science”). It is subject to potential criticism—by way of philosophical analysis and argument, say—but not by way of empirical testing, specifically.

Claims of mathematics and logic are like this too. We can analyze and argue about them philosophically, but they are not plausibly subject to empirical refutation, specifically. And metaphysical claims are like that as well. With at least the most general sorts of metaphysical claims (e.g. about the nature of causality as such, or substance as such, or what have you), it is a sheer category mistake to suppose that they do, or ought to, entail specific empirical predictions. The reason is that the claims are too general for that. They are claims about (among other things) what any possible empirically observable phenomena must necessarily presuppose (and any possible non-empirical realities too, if there are any). Naturally, then, they are not going to be undermined by any specific empirical observation. By no means does that make them immune from rational evaluation. They can still be analyzed, and argued for or against, by way of philosophical analysis and argumentation. But as with claims of meta-science, or claims of mathematics and logic, so too with claims of metaphysics, it is a mistake to suppose that they stand or fall with empirical falsifiability.

Now, the fundamental claims and arguments of theology—for example, the most important arguments for the existence and attributes of God (such as Aquinas’s arguments, or Leibniz’s arguments)—are a species of metaphysical claim. Hence it is simply a category mistake to demand of them, as Flew did, that they be empirically falsifiable. To dismiss theology on falsificationist grounds, one would, to be consistent, also have to dismiss mathematics, logic, meta-science, and metaphysics in general. Which would be, not only absurd, but self-defeating, since the claim that only scientific claims are rationally justifiable is itself not a scientific claim but a metaphysical claim, and any argument for this claim would presuppose standards of logic.

There is also the problem that, as philosophers of science had already begun to see at the time Flew wrote, it turns out that even scientific claims are not as crisply falsifiable as Popper initially thought. Indeed, the problem was known even before Popper’s time, and famously raised by Pierre Duhem. A scientific theory is always tested in conjunction with various assumptions about background conditions obtaining at the time an experiment is performed, assumptions about the experimental set-up itself, and auxiliary scientific hypotheses about the phenomena being studied. If the outcome of an experiment is not as predicted, one could give up the theory being tested, but one might also consider giving up one or more of the auxiliary hypotheses instead, or check to see if the background conditions or experimental set-up were really as one had supposed. That does not mean that scientific theories are not empirically falsifiable after all, but it does mean that falsifying a theory is a much messier and more tentative affair than readers of pop science and pop philosophy books might suppose.

Then there are claims that are empirical and not metaphysical in the strictest sense, but still so extremely general that any possible natural science would have to take them for granted—in which case they are really presuppositions of natural science rather than propositions of natural science. For example, the proposition that change occurs is like this. We know from experience that change occurs, but it is not something falsifiable by experience, because any possible experience by which we might test it itself presupposes that change occurs. In particular, in order to test a proposition via observation or experiment, you need to see whether or not your current experience is followed by the predicted experience, which involves one experience succeeding another, which entails change. Natural science itself, then, which involves attempting to falsify theories (even if it involves more than this) presupposes something which cannot be falsified.

Necessary presuppositions of natural science like the one just described are the subject matter of that branch of philosophy known as the philosophy of nature (which, though more fundamental than natural science, is less fundamental than metaphysics as Thomists understand “metaphysics,” and is thus something of a middle-ground discipline between them). For example, the Aristotelian theory of actuality and potentiality (which is the core of the Aristotelian philosophy of nature) is grounded in an analysis of what change must involve, where the existence of change is presupposed by natural science. Hence the theory of actuality and potentiality is grounded in what is presupposed by natural science. That is why even natural science cannot overthrow it. But the characteristically Aristotelian argument for God’s existence—the argument from change to the existence of an unchanging changer of things (or, more precisely, of a purely actual actualizer of things)—is grounded in the theory of actuality and potentiality, and thus in what natural science itself must take for granted. And thus it too cannot be overturned even by natural science. This “empirical unfalsifiability” is no more a weakness of the Aristotelian argument for God’s existence than the “empirical unfalsifiability” of the existence of change, including the existence of experience itself, is a weakness. It makes the arguments in question (if they are otherwise unproblematic) more rationally secure than empirical science, not less.

Lazy shouts of “unfalisfiability!” against theological claims just ignore all this complexity—the distinctions that have to be drawn between empirical claims on the one hand and claims of mathematics, logic, and metaphysics on the other; between extremely general empirical claims and more specific ones; between philosophy of nature (which studies the philosophical presuppositions of natural science) and natural science itself; and between the testing of a thesis and the testing of the auxiliary assumptions we generally take for granted but conjoin with the thesis when drawing predictions from it.

So, falsificationism is a rather feeble instrument to wield against theology. And in fact, atheist philosophers have known this for decades, even if New Atheist combox commandos are still catching up.

All the same, where we are evaluating a specific empirical claim—rather than a claim of mathematics, logic, or metaphysics, or an extremely general empirical claim like “change occurs”—falsifiability is an important consideration, even if not as decisive as Popper supposed. Take an extremely specific and straightforward empirical claim, e.g. the claim that a large, yellowish triangular shape will suddenly appear in the center of my field of vision within the next few seconds. If no such shape actually appears in the next few seconds, it would be pretty hard to deny that the claim has been falsified. For example, I couldn’t say “Maybe the shape was there in the room, but I didn’t see it because it was behind a bookshelf.” I intentionally phrased the claim so that it was about what I would experience, not about what would be in the room, so appealing to the idea that some physical object stood in the way of my seeing it won’t help avoid falsification. Nor would it help to say “Maybe it will appear an hour from now, or tomorrow,” since the claim referred specifically to the next few seconds.

Of course, that’s not a very interesting empirical claim. Most interesting empirical claims are far less specific than that, even though they are nowhere near as general as the claim that change occurs. There is, needless to say, a large range of cases, some of which are more toward the general end of things, some of them more toward the specific, and the latter are easier to falsify than the former. But even if the more general ones aren’t as crisply falsifiable as a more simplistic application of the Popperian model would imply, they are still far from unfalsifiable.

For example, take the claim that heavy smoking over a long period of time has a strong tendency to cause cancer. Obviously this is not falsified by the fact that some heavy smokers never develop cancer, because the claim has been phrased in a way that takes account of that. It speaks only of a strong tendency, and even a strong tendency needn’t always be realized. But neither is the claim made vacuous by that qualification. If it turned out that only five percent of people who smoke heavily over the course of many years ended up getting cancer, we could reasonably say that the claim had been falsified. Whereas if it turned out that sixty percent of those who smoke heavily over the course of many years end up getting cancer, we would say that the claim had survived falsification, even though sixty percent is well short of one hundred percent. Indeed, even if the percentage were much lower than that—suppose it were forty percent, for example—it would not necessarily follow that the claim had been falsified.

Nor need there be anything like even that strong a link between two phenomena for us reasonably to posit a causal correlation. Take an example often discussed in philosophy of science, viz. the relationship between syphilis and paresis. If syphilis is untreated, it can lead to paresis, though this is rare. But it would be absurd, not to mention medically irresponsible, to conclude that the claim of a causal correlation between syphilis and paresis is falsified by the fact that actually developing paresis is rare. All the same, if there were on record only one or two cases, out of millions, of paresis following upon syphilis, it would—especially if no mechanism by which the one might lead to the other were proposed—be hard in that case to resist the conclusion that the claim of a causal correlation had been falsified.

So, an empirical claim concerning a causal link between two phenomena can be substantive rather than vacuous, and also empirically very well-supported, even if there are many cases in which the one phenomenon is not in fact followed by the other. Considerations about falsifiability, properly understood, do not undermine the point. Indeed, someone who resists such a claim might himself be subject to criticism on the grounds that he has made his position unfalsifiable.

For example, suppose a heavy smoker said, in reply to those who implored him to cut back: “Oh come on, lots of people smoke heavily and don’t get cancer! So how can you maintain your claim that there is a causal link, in the face of all that evidence? Don’t you know that a serious scientific claim should be falsifiable?” In fact, of course, it is the heavy smoker in question who is more plausibly accused of being insufficiently respectful of falsifiability. For there is a very strong link between heavy smoking and cancer, even if the former doesn’t always lead to the latter. And the empirical evidence for that link is so strong that it is those who deny it who are refusing to let their position be falsified by the evidence.

More could be said, but in fact these reflections on falsification are intended merely as a preamble to an application of the idea to a domain very different from the examples considered so far—namely, an example concerning politics and current events. I’ll get to that in another post.
 
 
NOTE: Dr. Feser's contributions at Strange Notions were originally posted on his blog, including this article, and therefore lose some of their context when reprinted here. Dr. Feser explains why that matters.
 
 
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Dr. Edward Feser

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Dr. Edward Feser is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Pasadena City College in Pasadena, California. He has been a Visiting Assistant Professor at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles and a Visiting Scholar at the Social Philosophy and Policy Center at Bowling Green State University in Bowling Green, Ohio. He holds a doctorate in philosophy from the University of California at Santa Barbara, a master’s degree in religion from the Claremont Graduate School, and a bachelor’s degree in philosophy and religious studies from the California State University at Fullerton. He is author of numerous books including The Last Superstition: A Refutation of the New Atheism (St. Augustines Press, 2010); Aquinas (Oneworld, 2009); and Philosophy of Mind (Oneworld, 2007). Follow Dr. Feser on his blog and his website, EdwardFeser.com.

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  • Sure, the point being that a claim that is empirically falsifiable and survives various testing is one that we can be more confident than one that lacks this, everything else being equal.

    The issue seems to arise for me when we have claims that seem falsifiable (e.g. God intervenes in the world, I have a personal relationship with god) and we show that the empirical evidence seems to falsify this claim, and the theist doubles down, atheists tend to think the theist is ignoring the evidence.

    I guess Feser's position is that such claims do not rely on that kind of empirical evidence but some other basis, or he may not accept such claims as reasonably justified.

    It does bear pointing out when a theological claim is not relying in any way on what we would expect to find empirically being borne out.

    • The issue seems to arise for me when we have claims that seem falsifiable (e.g. God intervenes in the world, I have a personal relationship with god) and we show that the empirical evidence seems to falsify this claim, and the theist doubles down, atheists tend to think the theist is ignoring the evidence.

      Do you have specific examples of such falsification? First, I'm interested in how much of it can be categorized as "God is a vending machine: put prayer in, get miracle out." Second, I'm interested in how the 'personal relationship with God' thing was operationalized in empirical studies.

      • Goodness no, I do not have any such examples.

        • Wait a second; you made a generalization with zero concrete examples to back it up?

          • Yes I did. You will note that this is a combox on the internet, not a doctoral thesis.

          • I was unaware that presenting one or two concrete examples constitutes writing a doctoral thesis. Indeed, I regularly see atheists demand the burden of proof from theists. Perhaps this is simply a double standard which we theist must bear, along with our crosses?

          • No. I am simply providing the perspective of atheists and how this issue comes up. What I mean is no, I did not research the occasions when such claims are made, and your criticism that this could be a straw man is well founded.

            But sure, here is an example that just happened to come up this morning: John Kasich recently said on bowing out of his campaign "As I suspend my campaign today I have renewed faith, deeper faith that the Lord will show me the way forward," http://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-36201042

            Wait, did the Lord not tell him to run in the first place? Yes he did. When he was considering running he said the most important consideration was "what does the Lord want me to do with my life?" He then chose to run which would presumably mean he determined the Lord wanted him to run.

            This is the kind of thing I am talking about, people who say I am running because it is the God's plan, and then step down because it is the Lord's plan. Atheists like myself, I think quite reasonably, think this idea of the Lord having a plan for Mr Kasich's life is unfalsifiable. Whatever decision he makes he says it is because of God's plan, when it doesn't work out, the fact that it didn't work out is part of God's plan. So what God's plan is, is utterly undeterminable.

            We see it also in skeptical theism, in which no matter what terrible thing happens to humanity it can never be evidence that god doesn't have the power or the will to stop it, there must be other reasons he had not to intervene.

            We also see it quite a bit in the attribution of wins in sports to prayer, but losses to human failure.

            We see it when creationists are shown the fossil record and then claim the devil put those dinosaur bones to trick us into not believing. https://ca.answers.yahoo.com/question/index?qid=20120623215810AAISliM

          • Thanks for the concrete examples. Would you be willing to help me understand what it would look like for "God has a plan for your life" to be falsifiable? Let's put aside matters of political expedience, folk religion, and No True Scotsman, and talk about how one could distinguish this stuff, in theory. So, for example, how would I design a psychology experiment to attempt to falsify "God has a plan for your life", with the possibility that it would actually be verified?

          • D Rieder

            I can give you a personal example. When I was very young...maybe 4 or 5, my older brother, 10 years my senior, made the claim that God had called him to be a missionary and specifically called him to be a missionary to the Cape Verde Islands. It was more remarkable than that. His perception when he got the call (as I recall) was that God gave him an image of some islands off the coast of Africa and he had to go find a map and figure out that those specific islands were the Cape Verde Islands.

            I lived with that in my mind for ~10 years. But when he had finished his education and his 2 years ministry stateside (part of the denominational requirements) and was "assigned" a mission field, they asked him to go to South Korea. Now they knew of his specific call and asked him if he would go to Korea. He agreed to go.

            Now I guess it's how one places the emphasis on the phrase, "God's plan for your life." But to me, something was wrong, it was shown that somehow, that was not God's plan for his life. It might even be that he fared better by going to Korea. Maybe that was God's plan for his life all along and he just got it wrong as a teenager.

            It was touted by him as God's plan. Now, I know I can't say it falsified GOD'S plan, but it falsified the combination of "God's plan in his life." So in the end, what can (IMHO) be falsified are claims made by folks who claim they are acting on behalf of God. True, that's not falsifying God's plan, but it falsifies the connection between God and man.

            As to designing an experiment, I'd say it would involve getting folks to write down the specifics when they claim they know God's plan in their lives and what it would lead to. Then compare the specifics with the outcome/future. I doubt you'd get many volunteers. Not because folks would be reticent to tell you their understanding of God's plans for their lives, but those plans would rarely give specifics that could be measured at the end of, or over the course of a period of time.

            I'd say there is one claim most Christians make that we'll all falsify/corroborate (prove/disprove) if you like. That of "it is appointed unto man to die and after death the judgment." If I die and find myself in whatever form facing some sort of situation that I perceive as being judged then that specific claim would be verified. If I don't find myself in that situation, that claim will turn out to be falsified.

          • It's hard for me to reason very much with a single example. It seems to me that the only way to really analyze this is to find the different components to (i) detecting God's call; (ii) acting or not acting on God's call; (iii) reflecting on the results, look at variation across people, and see if patterns emerge which point to certain ways of thinking and acting leading to better outcomes.

            As to designing an experiment, I'd say it would involve getting folks to write down the specifics when they claim they know God's plan in their lives and what it would lead to. Then compare the specifics with the outcome/future. I doubt you'd get many volunteers. Not because folks would be reticent to tell you their understanding of God's plans for their lives, but those plans would rarely give specifics that could be measured at the end of, or over the course of a period of time.

            I nevertheless think it would be a good idea. I would actually like to engage in a secular version of this on a less personal level: look at people's extrapolations from their understanding of reality and history. For example, Alexis de Tocqueville is frequently touted as getting a lot of things right, even a century past when he lived. The general topic is what makes for good individual, social, civic, and cultural life. It is very easy to spin stories in a post hoc fashion; it is much harder to get predictions right. Instead of God calling people to X, this would be sort of like Reason calling people to X.

            I'd say there is one claim most Christians make that we'll all falsify/corroborate (prove/disprove) if you like. That of "it is appointed unto man to die and after death the judgment."

            Yep. Sometimes I have fun imagining what would happen if humans actually chose whom to resurrect, via sophisticated technology, 10,000 years from now. Ostensibly, the question would be which people were actually pushing the world to a better state, vs. not caring, screwing it over, or telling themselves pretty little stories instead of actually doing what's necessary. My inspiration for this came from the short-lived TV series Caprica.

          • It is about the claim itself. If the claim is unfalsifiable, there is no way to test the claim with science or any means.

            Again recall my comments that the criticism is about claims that seem falsifiable, but when apparent falsification occurs, the claim is updated to account for any result that appears to falsify it. This renders the claim of virtually no import. We are left thinking that rather than anything like a justified belief, the claimant just choses to see the world this way.

            For example, when Kasich says he is running because it is gods plan, a falsifiable claim would be: it is Gods plan that I run and if I lose, this would mean it I was mistaken about my belief that it is Gods plan that it run. The unfalsifiable claim is it is Gods plan that I run, if I win, lose or a thousand people are killed at one of my rallies, it will be consistent with Gods plan.

            This doesn't mean unfalsifiable claims are wrong, they just cannot be verified so they have virtually no value.

            When theists claim the world was created by god, I might say, no we are in an simulation created by mortal beings in a cosmos that looks completely different than this one, one in which the science shows a steady state universe and the cosmological constants are not precise, that no one has any moral intuitions. Such a reality is not impossible, and is completely consistent with all our observations and would dispense with all four of the most common theistic apologetics. It is a fair criticism to say that such a claim is of very little import since it is impossible to verify.

          • It is about the claim itself. If the claim is unfalsifiable, there is no way to test the claim with science or any means.

            But surely we can imagine people who are just completely wrong about what God called them to do, as well as people who merely use the language in a politically expedient way when they don't believe a word of it. The question is whether we can even imagine people trying to discern and follow God's plan in a way that is falsifiable.

            It seems to me that it's trivially demonstrable that God could talk to us and could tell us things about what life paths would be more beneficial and which would be less. After all, surely a programmer of a digital world containing sentient, sapient beings could communicate with them such that they know it is a non-digital-being talking to them. But what would it look like for such communication to take place? How do we go searching for it?

            It is a fair criticism to say that such a claim is of very little import since it is impossible to verify.

            That's only true if all you get is "reality is simulated"; compare that bare assertion to claims of potentials of reality and how to actualize them. Jesus said we could be part of building the kingdom of God and that the result would be awesome, although it would require a tremendous amount of suffering to do so. Such a claim appeals to a multitude of facts about reality, and it is conceivable that all efforts to build said kingdom would either fail or not look anything like the predicted result. Such repeated failure would constitute evidence that such a thing is impossible. We are in the midst of running that kind of experiment with the assertion "all people are of equal moral worth". Some parts of the world better 'reify' that assertion than others. Some think it's a useful political fiction, while others think that the more we make it real, the better things will be (after an adjustment period).

          • " But what would it look like for such communication to take place? How do we go searching for it?"

            Well you have to put some content into the claim, if the claim is that God's plan involves prayers being answered in some way that is distinguishable from a control, we should be able to detect it. If the claim is that it would not be distinguishable from a control, then it is essentially a meaningless claim.

            "Jesus said we could be part of building the kingdom of God and that the
            result would be awesome, although it would require a tremendous amount
            of suffering to do so."

            Is there any difference in the observable world where this is true, from where this is a myth?

          • [...] if the claim is that God's plan involves prayers being answered in some way that is distinguishable from a control, we should be able to detect it.

            Imagine we do this study not with praying to God, but asking aliens for things. Say we're Earthlings right after Cochrane successfully flew into warp, and some Vulcans land on earth. They have a tremendous amount of technology they could just hand to us. And yet, they don't—they only hand it out based on a pattern that seems distinctly unlike how we understand the forces of nature to operate. Does this mean they don't exist, or that our asking does not cause them to do anything?

            If the claim is that it would not be distinguishable from a control, then it is essentially a meaningless claim.

            What is the control, in the case where the Vulcans landed on earth and Earthlings started asking asking for things?

            Is there any difference in the observable world where this is true, from where this is a myth?

            There is a big difference between a world where egalitarianism is possible and one where it is impossible. But you can always say that the reason egaliatarian is possible is something other than the Christian explanation. Why? Underdetermination of Scientific Theory explains. I explore this more in my answer to the Phil.SE question Could there ever be evidence for an infinite being?

          • "Does this mean they don't exist, or that our asking does not cause them to do anything?"

            No, their existence has nothing to do with whether and how they assist with tech development, would we not have direct observation of them? The claim that they do not exist is falsified by observation of them.

            If the claim is not "Vulcans exist" but "asking Vulcans for assistance results in us advancing in technology more quickly" this is a falsifiable claim. The control is a group that does not ask, you compare this to those who do ask, if the control does better or the same as those asking, this would falsify the claim.

            "There is a big difference between a world where egalitarianism is possible and one where it is impossible possible"

            Not really what I was asking, but okay, what is the difference? I would put it to you that the world we observe is equally consistent with both being true.

          • If the claim is not "Vulcans exist" but "asking Vulcans for assistance results in us advancing in technology more quickly" this is a falsifiable claim. The control is a group that does not ask, you compare this to those who do ask, if the control does better or the same as those asking, this would falsify the claim.

            How is "better" anything other than a 100% subjective claim? Or is the idea that only those things that Vulcans give us which can be used equally for good or nefarious purposes would contribute to an evaluation of "better"? Let me carefully note that if this is your measure of "better", then all the Vulcans would really be giving us is more knowledge of the impersonal forces of nature and how to manipulate them. The idea that this is all, or even most, of what God would want to give us is deeply problematic. But perhaps your epistemology and/or your ontology makes it so that only this kind of thing is what God—or any being—can 'detectably' give. That's what I'm trying to get at.

            Not really what I was asking, but okay, what is the difference? I would put it to you that the world we observe is equally consistent with both being true.

            You cannot possibly know that. The world we live in is one where an official of the most powerful country in the world can say "one American casualty is worth about 85,000 Rwandan dead." (A Problem from Hell, 381) It is very much not an egalitarian world. And we are not guaranteed that it can be made more egalitarian than some amount, where that amount leaves many in the 'screwed' category.

          • Well the example you've chosen does involve some subjective criteria. For example it would be subjective whether the tech they assist with is "better", e.g. a cloaking device. But what would not be subjective is whether the device were discovered. Better here means which group discovers more tech? You would have to include some criteria into what counts as tech. You provided this scenario, but you keep changing the claim, is it that vulcans exist, or that they assist with tech, or that they assist with tech that is beneficial?

            With respect to egalitarianism. Again you are shifting the claim. The claim you advanced was that "egalitarianism" is possible vs impossible. The example you have provided implies that a government in this world took the position that a life of one nationality is worth much more than the lives of another nationality. It does not imply that equality is impossible. It implies that not all humans share the view of substantive equality. If that is the claim I would agree we can distinguish this world from one in which all humans agree on equality and it is a fact.

          • You provided this scenario, but you keep changing the claim, is it that vulcans exist, or that they assist with tech, or that they assist with tech that is beneficial?

            Yes, you're right. I'm trying to tease out the conception of 'personal causation', and I'm finding that harder than I thought it would be. What I really wanted to ask was whether the conditions under which the Vulcans grant our requests can be scientifically analyzed. More precisely, can science not just explain the causes of the previous successful requests, but predict what we would have to do to get the next requst granted?

            Consider that the Vulcans might refuse me a request because I have some moral defect I'm not interested in dealing with, while they would grant you a request because you're more truly interested in promoting the flourishing of all life. As far as science is concerned, our morality should not impact our experimenting on reality (barring the narrow slice of morals required for the cooperative endeavor that is modern science). And yet, here our characters matter! That seems to work against standard requests for objective tests for answers to prayers requests.

            I understand that the Vulcans would exist as configurations of matter–energy; what I was trying, but failed to get at, was whether they would exist as ontological causal sources which are utterly different from the impersonal laws of nature. It will probably be hard to impossible to talk about this matter with you, due to your anti-realist stance on causaion, as exemplified by your "Indeed I do not see "the laws of nature" as having any ontological presence."

            It does not imply that equality is impossible. It implies that not all humans share the view of substantive equality. If that is the claim I would agree we can distinguish this world from one in which all humans agree on equality and it is a fact.

            The possibility of egalitarianism depends on the properties of human nature. I don't mean whether it is possible in your imagination, I mean whether it is possible in reality.

          • In terms of this idea of personal causation and science, if you are asking can science investigate these issues yes. The entire fields of psychiatry, socialogy, psychology are devoted to trying to understand what causes people's behaviours. It is as you can appreciate one of the most difficult and complex areas we can investigate, which is not surprising as the human brain is the most complex object we have encountered. You've made it even more difficult to discuss as you are asking about aliens.

            As far as the example of the requests in paragraph 2, you've given the reasons in the scenario, they are making their decisions on what to give based on their moral values and assessments. They will provide techs of they think it is moral to do so. Neither the vulcans nor the humans are doing science they are making judgment calls on sharing and requesting information.

            They are configurations of matter and energy and that matter and energy operate consistent with laws of nature. If the matter/energy bahaves differently than the laws predict, the laws are wrong.

            You use the phrase ontological causal sources and I don't know what you mean. Yes the vulcans exist, yes they cause things. Is how they cause things in some way independent of our models of how matter and energy behave, the laws of nature, no. Does this mean that the laws of nature exist as separate indecent entities on some immaterialist metaphysics, I say no, that is in conflict with my metaphysics.

          • The entire fields of psychiatry, socialogy, psychology are devoted to trying to understand what causes people's behaviours.

            Oh of course. But we can study people because our ability to model them is commensurate with their complexity of behavior. What happens when the object of study is much more complex than our ability to model it? Let's return to the Vulcans. The reason they rate-limit the technology they give us is because they want our moral characters to improve so that we use the technology responsibly. Can our science tell us what the next moral improvement is going to be without them telling us? Because if it cannot, then we won't be able to do reproducible experiments whereby we ask them for something and they give it to us. And if reproducibility is shot, where does that put is?

            To be more succinct, much in the human sciences is about understanding and prediction with sights set on control. What I've prevented (I think) is the idea that we can control the Vulcans into being technology vending machines. What I want to investigate is whether "what causes them to give us more tech" can be studied scientifically, under these conditions.

            Neither the vulcans nor the humans are doing science they are making judgment calls on sharing and requesting information.

            I'm not sure why you said this; the direct analogy to God acting is that if he acts according to moral criteria—precisely like I have the Vulcans acting—then science, as currently construed, may not be able to study the causes of his acting. Or more precisely, it may be completely unable to predict how God will next act. (It may be able to give after-the-fact explanations of God's actions to-date; it could even causally attribute them to a source other than God.)

            You use the phrase ontological causal sources and I don't know what you mean.

            I meant to line up with your "Indeed I do not see "the laws of nature" as having any ontological presence." Presumably you knew what you meant when you said 'ontological presence'?

            Yes the vulcans exist, yes they cause things. Is how they cause things in some way independent of our models of how matter and energy behave, the laws of nature, no.

            Why is your ultimate model of causation impersonal in nature? How would you be convinced that it might be wrong?

          • If something is far too complex for us to model it then we will never be able to model it or reach correct conclusions about it.

            What is the claim you are advancing about the vulcans that you are asking if science can determine. You first suggested it was whether the Vulcans exist, but clearly in your example it is an accepted fact that they exist. I then thought it was whether they were giving us tech at all, now that seems to be an acknowledged fact in the scenario. It now seems to be a question of when what and why they will give us tech?

            If this is the case, that we know there are beings with more tech than us, that they are doling it out more slowly than we would like it appears to be in some pattern and we want to determine what the pattern is? I agree there may be no way to determine what the pattern is. There may be no pattern, or there may be a pattern that we could understand, but will not be able to gain evidence of what it is, or we may not be able to grasp it. Science can try to make predictions, but I would doubt it will have much success. Just like science cannot predict with really any resolution what any human or even animal will behave other than very vague trends. However, in this scenario, there would seem to be really zero doubt when the vulcans give us tech that we have the tech and that we got it from the vulcans, or that when they provide tech it is quite useful.

            A comparison to this Gods plan scenario is that we have never seen the vulcans at least not in living memory and the records of the encounters are extremely contentious. some people say they are in contact and that the vulcans are indeed giving tech to us. Others say there are no vulcans, but there are Romulans doing it, others say there are no aliens and people are attributing our own discoveries to aliens if they believe in them. The vulcans say that the Romulans people are mistaken, they think they are getting it from Romulans but it is really vulcans. The atheists say, if these aliens really exist why don't they show themselves and explain this, they certainly have the power and it would seem the inclination to. But both alien camps say that the aliens must have really good reasons for not doing this, that we could not understand, even though they claim these aliens have done this numerous times in the long past.

            Every once in a while someone unveils a new discovery and says "the vulcans discovered this isn't it great!" The Romulans say yes, but it was the Romulans. The atheists say, you discovered it yourself, unless you care to explain how and why then vulcans are responsible. The answer is, "it just came to me, I can't explain it".

            Other times someone says something like "the vulcans have told me to build a particle accelerator and they will provide an new discovery." He builds it and after running it for a year discovers nothing, funding is running out and he says "I am closing the accelerator and going to build some other experiment to allow the vulcans to provide me with a great technological discovery! I am more convinced than ever that the vulcans are providing us with tech." When questioned about the particle accelerator, doesn't that suggest you were wrong about the vulcans? "No! Who are we to say that that was fruitless? There must have been a reason they told me to build that, it will become clear. Or maybe we will never know."

            So the atheists say, I am calling you alienists out on this. It seems to us that whether you discover new tech or not you attribute anything that happens to the vulcans plan. It seems to is that we all are just doing science, that when vulcanists discover something they think is beneficial they attribute it to vulcans, when it goes nowhere they attribute it to vulcans. It doesn't seem that making the attribution helps get more tech, in fact it seems as if we ignore the vulcans entirely, as we atheists do, we fare the same in terms of our rate of discovery. The vulcans may exist and we can discuss what to infer for the contested records, but there really is no warrant to keep attributing everything success and failure to vulcans.

          • If something is far too complex for us to model it then we will never be able to model it or reach correct conclusions about it.

            This isn't to say that we can't have grossly simplified models that capture how the thing (or person) behaves in some limited context. But there is a distinctly anti-realist vibe about such a situation. You also find this vibe in apophatic theology. Finally, it's not like God can't enhance our ability to understand him.

            You first suggested it was whether the Vulcans exist, but clearly in your example it is an accepted fact that they exist.

            Yes, to mirror the question of whether God exists.

            I then thought it was whether they were giving us tech at all, now that seems to be an acknowledged fact in the scenario.

            Yes, to mirror whether it's God acting or just the laws of nature.

            It now seems to be a question of when what and why they will give us tech?

            Yes, to get at how we would scientifically detect God acting, if it's possible to scientifically conclude that it is God acting and not the laws of nature. If scientific knowledge is the only real knowledge, then it could be that God is in principle undetectable as God, because science cannot capture personhood, only impersonal forces of nature doing their thing. And if we cannot detect God acting at this stage, then soon we'll be saying that God doesn't give us anything, and soon after that we'll question whether God exists. The questions are all connected.

            If this is the case, that we know there are beings with more tech than us, that they are doling it out more slowly than we would like it appears to be in some pattern and we want to determine what the pattern is? I agree there may be no way to determine what the pattern is.

            Is it possible for there to be a pattern which humans can detect, but which they cannot detect by deploying science as currently construed? This is directly a question about scientism.

            However, in this scenario, there would seem to be really zero doubt when the vulcans give us tech that we have the tech and that we got it from the vulcans, or that when they provide tech it is quite useful.

            Yes, that's why I made up that hypothetical scenario. The Vulcans could be truly acting in reality according to rational/​moral reasoning, in a way that truly affects us, without us being able to control those actions such that we can study them scientifically. I propose that this is precisely how God would act in reality, if he exists. What does this do to your request that we be able to scientifically examine his actions?

            A comparison to this Gods plan scenario is that we have never seen the vulcans at least not in living memory and the records of the encounters are extremely contentious.

            Sure. But perhaps that is because we are too scientistic, and have not properly developed the means to think about how people act. Perhaps we have refused to deeply theorize about character (because that's contentious), instead preferring to stay at the surface (Missing Persons, 10). Perhaps we've insisted on moral philosophy which talks about what it is good to do, but not what it is good to be (Sources of the Self, 3). Perhaps we have even avoided the idea that morals could have causal power (The Malaise of Modernity, 19–20; Moral, Believing Animals). Perhaps we have been so full of ourselves that we want only the slightest bit of character formation at most, thus leading to so few large-scale actions to form our characters (and thus give us data).

            Furthermore, your note of "extremely contentious" really has nothing to do with the previous discussion (which was to examine whether God's actions would necessarily be examinable via science)—unless you want to make the very strong claim that if something is not scientifically knowable, it is not knowable.

            It doesn't seem that making the attribution helps get more tech, in fact it seems as if we ignore the vulcans entirely, as we atheists do, we fare the same in terms of our rate of discovery.

            Does this apply only to instrumental tech (you can use it equally well for good or evil), or does it also apply to continuing character formation? Alternatively, perhaps it is the case that atheists these days think that the theory part of what it means to be an excellent human has pretty much been figured out, even if behavior lags. Perhaps the doing away with 'sin' as a first-order concept has hamstrung us in the theory domain (thinking we've figured it all out when we haven't). We can still use the word to mean that behavior falls short of theory, but we no longer use the word to mean that theory can fall short of truth.

            If the above is largely true, then I would suggest that we're in a period of time where really nobody wants to hear overmuch from God (because he would challenge us to do things which are against our morals), and that the Bible records him unhappily but begrudgingly willing to let us do things on our own for a while, to see where they go. There might be pockets of activity, but not enough to sufficiently impact statistics. The next step is for things to get bad enough that we call out to God for rescue. Catastrophic global climate change might suffice. If our ability to act in reality so greatly outstripped our ability to act responsibly in reality that billions die, maybe we'll admit that our ideas of what it means to be an excellent human being will be opened up for some serious renovation.

            (Yes, I realize the atheist's position is indistinguishable from the theist's, if God has chosen to temporarily abandon them. How the two act during that time may be significantly different.)

          • It really is not fair for you to introduce an anology and then keep changing the claim like that. It makes it very difficult to know what you are arguing.

            Well your Vulcan analogy was entirely misplaced to compare the existence of God to the existence of Vulcans. In the scenario we have direct continuing empirical evidence of the Vulcans unlike anything we have with Gods. Similarly for whether they are providing us with tech, again this is a given for the vulcans but not for Gods. Yes, like any other mind, the motivations for a God are going to be at least as hard to determine as the motivations of other humans.

            Yes certainly there are patterns we can detect, but cannot reach conclusions to a scientific standards. This is what courts and historians and people do every day. But it is because to is impractical to go through the scientific method. However, it is not reasonable to say one is as confident about these conclusions as scientific conclusions, at least on empirical questions.

            No I do not deny the existence of gods because they have not reached a scientific standard of proof. The existence of the vulcans in your example does not require scientific proof not would anyone expect it. If, like the vulcans we met and spoke to them had lots of phsycal evidence of them, you would not have disagreement from me that a god exists.

            You don't get to ask questions about how someone acts, their motivations and plans if you cannot even establish that they exist.

            No the atheist position is that he does not believe any god exists. The theist position is that at least one god exists. The theist position cannot be justified as more likely true than not. If you have an argument of be happy to hear and discuss it. But please first define what you mean by god, and what you mean by exist.

          • It really is not fair for you to introduce an anology and then keep changing the claim like that. It makes it very difficult to know what you are arguing.

            I'm not faulting you for anything; I'm not attempting to perform a 'gotcha' based on goalpost shifting. Instead, I'm learning how to talk to you about these things. If you don't like how I do it, you can suggest another method or decide that talking to me is too onerous. I'm doing the best I can, in lieu of any outside help.

            Well your Vulcan analogy was entirely misplaced to compare the existence of God to the existence of Vulcans. In the scenario we have direct continuing empirical evidence of the Vulcans unlike anything we have with Gods. Similarly for whether they are providing us with tech, again this is a given for the vulcans but not for Gods. Yes, like any other mind, the motivations for a God are going to be at least as hard to determine as the motivations of other humans.

            Recall that the analogy was to the scientific study of God's actions. I think I did a decent job arguing that a being can interact with humans according to a pattern, but not such that scientists qua scientists can predict. The remaining question is whether humans can nevertheless understand what is going on. I'm pretty sure it is a question about scientism.

            Yes certainly there are patterns we can detect, but cannot reach conclusions to a scientific standards. This is what courts and historians and people do every day. But it is because to is impractical to go through the scientific method.

            But is this scientism: science offers the best knowledge—"at least on empirical questions"? Is there any other kind of knowledge? The answer seems to be "no", because we're justified in dismissing the probable existence (or relevance) of God if science cannot examine his actions.

            You don't get to ask questions about how someone acts, their motivations and plans if you cannot even establish that they exist.

            Ahhh, but I'm allowed to talk about the required metaphysical conditions for possibly examining the actions of a personal God, am I not? Otherwise, you can require that your metaphysic undergird the entire investigation, where your metaphysic presupposes God out of existence. You don't even have to mention the metaphysic explicitly; your arguments can merely presuppose it. You can win the argument before it begins.

            Put another way: if you refuse to build an instrument which is sensitive to some new phenomenon, and then demand evidence that this phenomenon exists before you build such an instrument, your declaration that this phenomenon does not exist is vacuous.

            No the atheist position is that he does not believe any god exists. The theist position is that at least one god exists. The theist position cannot be justified as more likely true than not. If you have an argument of be happy to hear and discuss it. But please first define what you mean by god, and what you mean by exist.

            I am pretty sure that on your metaphysic, you are absolutely correct that the theist cannot show his beliefs to be more justified than yours. This doesn't bother me, because as far as I can tell, 'rationality' is impossible and/or unknowable on your metaphysic. The same goes with 'logic'. In the scheme of things, I think your problem of justification is worse than mine.

          • "But is this scientism: science offers the best knowledge—"at least on empirical questions"? "

            No, scientism says that we can have no knowledge unless it is a scientific conclusion.

            "The answer seems to be "no", because we're justified in dismissing the probable existence (or relevance) of God if science cannot examine his actions."

            I will say it again, scientism is not my position, I do not require scientific proof of god to believe. We are justified in rejecting claims that a God exists because there is insufficient evidence to accept such a claim, on any standard of proof.

            "if you refuse to build an instrument which is sensitive to some new phenomenon"

            What are you talking about? What instrument am I refusing to build?

            "your declaration that this phenomenon does not exist is vacuous."

            No it is not, it is well-supported as is my metaphysical perspective.

            Again you are welcome to define what you mean by God and exist, and provide arguments for this position that "god" exists. Or, I can give you some definitions that I have heard and give you arguments for why such an entity is not likely to exist. Or, you are welcome to ask what basis I have for my metaphysical perspective and I can do so.

          • No, scientism says that we can have no knowledge unless it is a scientific conclusion.

            That's only the strongest form of scientism. A weaker form says that the best knowledge is scientific knowledge. Any other knowledge would be 'pre-scientific'.

            I will say it again, scientism is not my position, I do not require scientific proof of god to believe.

            Ok, then let's return to an earlier claim of yours, which provoked me to launch in the hypothetical scenario with Vulcans:

            BGA: [...] if the claim is that God's plan involves prayers being answered in some way that is distinguishable from a control, we should be able to detect it.

            Your talk of 'control' made me immediately think of 'scientific study', but perhaps you did not mean to entail this. What would be an example of doing the above that isn't "scientific proof"? Are you really just saying that something pre-scientific would be acceptable, but that ultimately, it would be the kind of thing which could be turned into science? Contrast this to the understanding of what will cause the Vulcans to release their next tech to us, which is something I think I've established science cannot deal with because of the very nature of science.

            What are you talking about? What instrument am I refusing to build?

            As far as I can tell, an instrument which can detect God. (We are the instruments with which we explore reality.) It is arguably the case that we can only become conscious of patterns on our perceptual neurons when they sufficiently well-match patterns which already exist on our non-perceptual neurons; see Grossberg 1999 The Link between Brain Learning, Attention, and Consciousness (partial tutorial). And so, if we do not curate our imaginations of what could be and be careful to not rule out what we ought not rule out, we are in danger of being blind to some of what is.

            Again you are welcome to define what you mean by God and exist, and provide arguments for this position that "god" exists. Or, I can give you some definitions that I have heard and give you arguments for why such an entity is not likely to exist. Or, you are welcome to ask what basis I have for my metaphysical perspective and I can do so.

            I simply don't have any confidence that this would go anywhere before we establish a metaphysic which can support the knowability of 'rationality', or even the knowability of 'logic'. You'll say that your instrument can detect God, while I'll say that an instrument which doesn't support rationality ain't gonna detect God.

          • Paul F

            These claims by Kasich and your brother about knowing God's plans are cognitive claims, not metaphysical claims. Life not turning out the way they knew God had planned does falsify something; but it does not falsify God's existence nor the fact that God has plans. It falsifies statements like "Kasich knew God's plan" (with certain qualifications).

            To me this opens the door to empirical tests of what people know about God's plans. From my anecdotal experiences I have found that nobody knows very much about God's plans. People seem to follow God's plans the way a bull follows the matador's cape: miss and start looking for red again.

          • ClayJames

            It is about the claim itself. If the claim is unfalsifiable, there is no way to test the claim with science or any means.

            The claim is falsifiable and this is a topic that has been written about extensively throughout the history of the Catholic Church. There is no reason to expect that it can be falsified by science since this is not a scientific question. But most importantly, your claim that it is not falsifiable stems from your complete rejection of the way to falsify it. If I reject science, then every scientific claim will be unfalsifiable. If I reject religion, then every religious claim will be unfalsifiable but this is on you, not on the claim itself.

            I highly recommend the books The Jesuit Guide to Almost Everything by James Martin as an introduction to how these claims are falsified and Walter Ciszek's He Leadeth Me as a real world example of how this is applied.

            Now that we are on the topic of the Jesuits, just about every single person that tries to become a Jesuit priest (or a priest of any other religious order) believes that this is what God truly wants him to do. The first part of this process is to confirm that this is truly what God is calling this person to do and it is not at all uncommon for aspiring novitiates to be turned away or delayed because of a lack of confirmation. I think you would be shocked to know that Ignatius himself outlined the process of decision making, discernment and confirmation almost as a step by step checklist that could definitely lead to falsifying initial beliefs regarding the will of God.

            In practice, religious people falsify these beliefs all the time. I'll give you a very general personal example (without going in depth) of how I came to falsify such a belief. Several years ago I was offered a job in another city that included a substantial pay rise. I was absolutely sure that this was part of God's will and that I should accept the opportunity to give my family a better life. On further reflection I realize that I wasn't facing this decision with complete indifference which resulted in overlooking and undervaluing other consequences of this decision. For example, this job would require me to travel a lot more which would take time away from my family. This was something that I undervalued because of the significant financial benefit of taking the job. After making the decision not to take the job I proceeded to confirming it or what Ignatius calls the "rightness of chioce".

            There are other claims regarding the will of God that are more straight forward to falsify. If you believe that it is God's will to abort your unborn child, then it is not that hard to falsify this claim. If you believe that part of God's will is to make a choice that will lead you to be unfaithful to your wife or reject your responsibility as a parent, then this also easy to falsify.

            Regarding Kasich, the unfalsifiable claim that you attribute to him would, at the most, show that he has not taken the appropriate steps to confirm that this is truly God's will. I fail to see how this shows that his belief in unfalsifiable. Just like someone not attempting to falsify the claim that the moon is made of cheese does not make that claim unfalsifiable, someone not attempting to falsify a claim regarding God's plan does not make such claims unfalsifiable.

          • David Nickol

            I am not sure people are using the concept of falsifiability correctly. If Kasich said it was God's will that he run for president, and then later he says it is God's will for him to drop out of the race because of insufficient voter support, it is very simple to come up with any number of reasons for God's alleged will. Maybe it was God's plan for Kasich to run and lose. Maybe it was to teach Kasich a lesson about humility. Maybe it was to get Kasich's message out without him becoming the nominee. Maybe it was to position Kasich for a cabinet position in the Trump administration. Maybe it was to prepare Kasich to run in 2020. When you have sayings like, "God writes straight with crooked lines," it is very easy to come up with reasons why Kasich was following God's will to both enter and exit the race for president.

            For those who believe there is no God, or even that there may be no God, it hardly makes sense to argue that Kasich's claim that he is following God's will is falsifiable.

            The whole point of the article (to the extent that I understood it) is that theological claims don't need to be falsifiable. I suppose, very loosely speaking, Kasich's claims that God willed him to run and also willed him to stop running are "theological." So why try to argue that they are falsifiable?

            Even the argument that someone's claim that God wills her to have an abortion is "falsifiable" is true only to those who hold that abortion is always against God's will. There is no absolute guarantee that is the case.

            This has caused me to remember a weekend party at a neighbor's house when I was in high school. All the girls were very upset and crying and had closed themselves off in a room away from the boys. Finally one of the guys finally convinced his girlfriend to tell him what was wrong. The girls had got it into their heads that God was calling them to become nuns, and they did not want to be nuns!

          • ClayJames

            I am not sure people are using the concept of falsifiability correctly. If Kasich said it was God's will that he run for president, and then later he says it is God's will for him to drop out of the race because of insufficient voter support, it is very simple to come up with any number of reasons for God's alleged will. Maybe it was God's plan for Kasich to run and lose. Maybe it was to teach Kasich a lesson about humility. Maybe it was to get Kasich's message out without him becoming the nominee....

            But this has nothing to do will falsifiability. It is correct to say that Kasich losing the nomination does not mean that he was wrong to believe this was God´s calling, it could have been for the many reasons you provided. However, even if he wasn´t being honest with himself, this does not mean that the claim is unfalsifiable. At the most, it means that he will do everythingt to not falsify it but that is on him, not on the claim itself or on the steps that should be taken to actually falsify that claim. Conspiracy theorists do this all the time. Just because, in practice, they treat the claim ¨Man has not landed on the moon¨ as unfalsifiable does not mean that the claim in unfalsifiable.

            For those who believe there is no God, or even that there may be no God, it hardly makes sense to argue that Kasich's claim that he is following God's will is falsifiable.

            I don´t think this is true. I could reject science and still acknowledge that within a scientific frameworks, a specific scientific claim is falsifiable. Similarly, I can reject God and religion but acklowdge that within a specific religious framework, claims about following God´s will can be falsified.

            The whole point of the article (to the extent that I understood it) is that theological claims don't need to be falsifiable. I suppose, very loosely speaking, Kasich's claims that God willed him to run and also willed him to stop running are "theological." So why try to argue that they are falsifiable?

            I didn´t read that at all. It seems to me that the point of the article is to show that religious claims don´t need to be empirically falsifiable. But even if it is true that religious claims don´t need to be falsifiable it does not follow that all religious claims are therefore unfalsifiable. It can still be the case that most, or some religious claims, such as claims regarding the will of God, can be falsified.

            Even the argument that someone's claim that God wills her to have an abortion is "falsifiable" is true only to those who hold that abortion is always against God's will. There is no absolute guarantee that is the case.

            Even if abortion is not always against God´s will, it does not follow from this that a claim that God wills a person to have an abortion is unfalsifiable. Either God willed someone to have an abortion or he didn´t and within a specific religious framework, it is definetly possible to falsify that claim.

            This has caused me to remember a weekend party at a neighbor's house when I was in high school. All the girls were very upset and crying and had closed themselves off in a room away from the boys. Finally one of the guys finally convinced his girlfriend to tell him what was wrong. The girls had got it into their heads that God was calling them to become nuns, and they did not want to be nuns!

            This is what you get for hoping God would turn the water into wine when he showed up.

          • Yes... Good and concrete examples.

            With your background, I'm guessing you've already heard and read up on it... but in case you haven't, you might be interested in looking into Ignatian spirituality and the discernment of spirits. It does effect decision making within the RCC, especially those who are within the clergy. When I hear something akin to... "God called me to run for president of the United States..." I ask myself what discernment was used to come to that conclusion. When it comes to many big life situations like that, discerning what one believes God is calling them to do is a biggie... Many Catholic theologians would probably recommend some type of discernment such as that used within Ignatian spirituality and/or talking with a spiritual director.

            Since there is no way to disprove what someone believes God is calling them to do, the only way that really can be done is if the person later on claims they misread what God was calling them to do (e.g., realizing an error in reasoning with a spiritual director) or they change their belief status (e.g., theist becoming an atheist).

            Take care

  • It seems to me that the Bible has a good mix of material that's more presuppositional/​metaphysical and material that is truly predictive. Given that all observation is theory-laden, this is the only intellectually responsible way of dealing with reality. As an example of something that is predictive:

    But understand this, that in the last days there will come times of difficulty. For people will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, heartless, unappeasable, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not loving good, treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power. Avoid such people. (2 Timothy 3:1–5)

    The claim is obvious: there is true power in the Christian faith and if you encounter a group of people with the listed behaviors which aren't being sanctified away, that power is absent. Christianity itself can be falsified by its own internal measures by demonstrating that there are no groups with such power. In Paul's first Letter to the Thessalonians, he writes that "our gospel came to you not only in word, but also in power".

    There is, however, a catch. The Enlightenment form of power is that of bending nature to our wills—whatever those wills may be. God's form of power is giving life and sanctification—things which have a tendency to change our wills. It makes perfect sense for God to deprive us of any special power of his if we're merely going to treat him as a vending machine: "put prayer in, get miracle out". In the OT he removed his power from a disobedient Israel, letting it get carried off into captivity. Many doubted the very existence of God's power in that time, while some questioned how they may have deviated sharply from the Good and the True and the Beautiful.

  • I would argue that the Bible is very interested in egalitarianism, or at least the roots of it. An example reading on this is Joshua A. Berman's Created Equal: How the Bible Broke with Ancient Political Thought. I'm also inclined to agree with Louis Pojman's conclusion that there is no empirical justification for egalitarianism, no secular justification for it:

        The possibilities [for grounding equal worth] are frighteningly innumerable. My point is that you need some metaphysical explanation to ground the doctrine of equal worth, if it is to serve as the basis for equal human rights. It is not enough simply to assert, as philosophers like Dworkin do, that their egalitarian doctrines are "metaphysically unambiguous." But, of course, there are severe epistemological difficulties with the kinds of metaphysical systems I have been discussing. My point has not been to defend religion. For purposes of this paper I am neutral on the question of whether any religion is true. Rather my purpose is to show that we cannot burn our bridges and still drive Mack trucks over them. But, if we cannot return to religion, then it would seem perhaps we should abandon egalitarianism and devise political philosophies that reflect naturalistic assumptions, theories which are forthright in viewing humans as differentially talented animals who must get on together. (Equality: Selected Readings, 296)

    If a huge chunk of theology has to do with matters like this, then a huge chunk will be unfalsifiable. But does that just show us that more of how we build our lives and understand them is unfalsifiable than some would have us believe?

    • David Nickol

      I would argue that the Bible is very interested in egalitarianism . . .

      Do you read the Bible as one coherent book?

      • I'm inclined to say it is roughly coherent the way that science is coherent. That is, there are true disagreements, but the agreement and especially the direction being moved toward has properties of convergence that we generally associate with being truth-directed.

        • Scape Goat

          You cannot equate "science" to the Bible. Science is as vast as the universe itself while the Bible is collection of ancient documents.

          • Well, I'm glad I didn't equate them. They certainly are different things; S ≠ B. What I did do was extract a property of them, and say P(S) ≈ P(B). Perhaps I could have done a better job of saying that by S, I mean the history of science and all the various perspectives involved in the endeavor—not just what we have, today. That would capture a rich history, which the Bible has and which is a crucial aspect to what I called "properties of convergence".

  • Darren

    Claims of mathematics and logic are like this too. We can analyze and argue about them philosophically, but they are not plausibly subject to empirical refutation, specifically.

    Pretty sure at least some mathematical and logical claims are subject to empirical verification / refutation. By slipping in this claim, that they are not empirically falsifiable, Feser puts his un-falsifiable theology on an epistemic parity with the "of course they are real things" mathematics and logic.

    Slippery, dear professor.

    • What's an example of a mathematical or logical claim which is "subject to empirical verification / refutation"?

      • Pythagoras' theorem

        • Jim (hillclimber)

          The usual formulation of the Pythagorean Theorem presumes Euclidean space and its proposed context of (exact) validity is limited to perfect Euclidean spaces. If you encounter real world data on triangles for which a^2 + b^2 is not equal to c^2, this would not be evidence against Pythagoras's theorem. It would be evidence that the particular aspect of reality that you are modeling is not well-approximated by Euclidean geometry.

          So then, how would one go about falsifying Pythagoras' Theorem?

          • Ignatius Reilly

            So then, how would one go about falsifying Pythagoras' Theorem?

            What you would really be falsifying is the applicability of Euclidean geometry to your space.

          • Jim (hillclimber)

            Sort of. But since you would then be in the messy realm of interpreting data, with all of the Duhem-ish concerns that that entails, only a soft and suggestive falsifiability would be possible. If you were pig-headed, you could still maintain a belief in the universal applicability of Euclidean geometry, as long as you introduced enough auxiliary hypotheses. However, if you had a basic underlying faith that the truth must ultimately have some beautiful simplicity, you would not tolerate all those auxiliary hypotheses. Only an epistemology buttressed by that underlying faith in beauty can really reject the universal applicability of Euclidean geometry.

          • Mike

            i didn't understand this completely i don't think but it sounds really interesting.

          • Jim (hillclimber)

            You might be interested Frank Wilczek's book, A Beautiful Question: Finding Nature's Deep Design. To be honest I haven't read it yet (I do plan to), but I listened to an interview with him about the book on NPR the other day. He speaks a lot to the importance of aesthetic sensibility in evaluating scientific hypotheses.

          • Mike

            believe it or not i am reading it now. it's ok but i think he's probably a much much better physicist than story teller.

          • I would take you to Jacob Boronowski's proof of the theorem as demonstrated on The Ascent of Man, in which he uses actual objects. The claim is falsifiable because if this did not work, it would falsify the claim.

            Moreover, is it not common for mathematicians to develop proofs of conjectures is to assume the falsification and see if it leads to a contradiction, if it does, this would be a falsification of the conjecture. It is not empirical, obviously, but mathmatics is abstract.

          • Jim (hillclimber)

            The claim is falsifiable because if [Borowski's proof] did not work, it would falsify the claim

            No it would not, for reasons I have already explained. To re-state in a different way, the statement: "If the axioms of Euclidean geometry with a Euclidean norm hold, Pythagoras's theorem will be true", is a mathematical statement. Like all mathematical statements (though this is often implicit), it has a conditional structure: "If the axioms are true, then the result follows." It relates first principles to non-obvious corollaries of those first principles. Because of that conditional structure, it cannot be empirically falsified, even in principle.

            By contrast, the following statements, taken together, stake out a scientific position:

            "Space, on a human scale, is well-approximated by Euclidean geometry with a Euclidean norm. Where space is well-approximated by that geometric model, triangles existing in that space will approximately satisfy Pythagoras' theorem. Therefore, when we observe triangles on a human scale in our little neighborhood of space-time, we predict that they will approximately satisfy Pythagoras theorem."

            These scientific statements can entail a prediction, and so can be falsified (e.g. they would be falsified if Borowski's proof failed). But, when they are falsified (and indeed they are falsified, if we measure precisely enough), the implication is not that our if-then logic (encapsulated in Pythagoras theorem) is wrong, but rather that our premises (the Euclidean axioms) do not (quite) reflect all of the subtleties of the geometry of the real world.

            assume the falsification and see if it leads to a contradiction

            Mathematical proof by contradiction is not falsification in the sense that is being discussed in the OP. The whole point of the OP is that we have non-empirical methods for investigating the truth content of non-empirical claims, so if you agree with the validity of mathematical proof by contradiction, you are supporting the premise of the OP.

          • But everything has a conditional structure. Any empirical claim or falsification is conditional of all kinds of assumptions, that material reality is real, that observation is somewhat reliable.

            Obviously, any proof requires some framework or context I which to be analyzed. Are you saying that if I postulate that a^2 + b^2 = c^3 is true on a plane, that this claim is unfalsifiable? That if I make cardboard versions of various triangles and the squares of sides, and measure them and it is utterly wrong, I have in not falsified the postulate?

          • Jim (hillclimber)

            But everything has a conditional structure.

            Exactly. Every argument takes place within the context of various assumptions and rules of argumentation. The point is, the (often implicit) premises that create the context of an argument cannot be refuted by an argument that operates within that very context. For example, you cannot use the methodology of biology to disprove the existence of life, because biology presumes the existence of life as a starting point. You cannot use the methodology of physics to disprove the existence of change, because physics takes the existence of change as a starting point.

            It is generally understood that when we talk about the proof of the (typical formulation of the) Pythagorean Theorem, we are talking about a mathematical argument that is constructed in the context of Euclidean geometry. Because that argument operates within the context of Euclidean geometry, any external evidence of non-Euclidean geometry is out of bounds and beside the point of that argument.

            Are you saying that if I postulate that a^2 + b^2 = c^3 is true on a plane, that this claim is unfalsifiable?

            Insofar as your key clause "on a plane", when interpreted in the vernacular, suggests that you are taking (ideal) Euclidean space (a.k.a "flat space") as a premise, yes, that statement is unfalsifiable, because you have specified this narrow and idealized context in which to evaluate your claim.

            That if I make cardboard versions of various triangles and the squares of sides, and measure them and it is utterly wrong, I have in not falsified the postulate

            Here you have no longer explicitly assumed Euclidean space. If the postulate that you are evaluating is "the Pythagorean Theorem holds in the real world", i.e. if you understand the Pythagorean Theorem to be a Theory in physics rather than a Theorem in mathematics (in which case you should rename it as the "Pythagorean Theory", to alert everyone of your non-standard interpretation), then yes, your experiment could falsify that physical theory. And as I mentioned, we already know that that physical theory is incorrect at some number of decimal places. We live in a manifold that is better approximated by hyperbolic space than by Euclidean space, and we therefore know (insofar as we accept General Relativity) that there are triangles in the real world that do not satisfy the typical formulation of the Pythagorean Theorem. And yet there were never any headlines that read, "Einstein Disproves Pythagoras", because the Pythagorean Theorem has always been understood to be a mathematical theorem rather than a physical theory.

          • Cool thanks,

        • So beings who live in hyperbolic space couldn't prove the truth or falsity of Pythagoras' theorem?

      • Scape Goat

        2+2=4. If you cannot falsify this, then you ought to check into the loony bin. Feser's statements that math and logic cannot be falsifiable are absurd.

        • Jim (hillclimber)

          I guess I need to check into the loony bin.

          If you are considering some aspect of reality for which 2 thingamagigs plus 2 thingamagigs is not equal to 4 thingamagigs, then you are looking at an aspect of reality that is not well-modeled by addition of integers (and of course, there are many such relationships). That doesn't mean you have disproved 2+2=4.

          • Darren

            Interesting... Who new that O'Brien was simply imparting a lesson on Thomistic Mathematics to Winston Smith.

            Though on a more serious note, I am curious, in light of your (to me) rather puzzling assertion, if given three propositions, 2+2=3, 2+2=4, and 2+2=5, how you would know which, if any, of those propositions was true?

          • Jim (hillclimber)

            Well, personally, I'm easy. I just take 2+2=4 as axiomatically true. But if I wanted to be more rigorous and derive it from more fundamental principles, I guess I would look to the Peano Axioms? I don't think either your first or last proposition can be derived from those axioms.

          • Ignatius Reilly

            The Peano postulates and than a recursive definition of arithmetic gets you that 1+1 = 2 and 2+ 2 = 4, etc.

            You could of course define arithmetic modularly. Then 2+2 modulo 3 would be 1.

            It would probably be most accurate to say that we define addition so that 2+2=4. If someone told me that 2+2=7 under ordinary arithmetic, I would say that they are wrong based on the definition. I would not make any empirical judgment.

            The fact that many things in our daily lives add linearly, just means that ordinary arithmetic is the way we should count glasses of beer does not mean that it is applicable to what time it will be in 7 hours.

            Edit: I'm sure you know all of this

          • Jim (hillclimber)

            All this reminded me of one of the most penetrating mathematical discussions of all time.

            As Ernie points out, the natural numbers are excellent for modeling collections of sufficiently similar things (or, if one has at least some essentialist sympathies, the natural numbers are great for modeling collections of things that share the same essence), like fish.

            I'm not sure the natural numbers are always a good model for glasses of beer, as you suggest. Occasionally I have one glass of beer, and then a second, and then next thing you know there are three empty bottles. Some sort of super-additivity.

          • Ignatius Reilly

            I think we can draw a parallel to theology. In mathematics we can draw maps without worrying about any territories. However, if we want to apply a portion of mathematics to a territory we have to make sure it works.

            We can invent and hypothesize all sorts of theologies in a philosophical manner. I could write a novel with an alien race and a whole new theology. It is one thing to philosophize about a theology and it is another to see if it makes sense in the universe that we are in. I think Feser and his sympathizers skip that second step completely. Indeed they actually seem to spend most of their energy avoiding that conversation with fits of bluster.

            Personally, I don't think the Thomistic Catholic metaphysic is even coherent. I certainly don't think it has anything to do with the world that we observe.

            Beers are not meant to be counted - they are meant to be drunk.

          • Jim (hillclimber)

            I'm sympathetic to the complaint that there is often too much effort expended in "the mathematics" of theology (taking various conceptual models as a starting point and systematically examining the implications), and perhaps not enough effort expended on "modeling" itself (the act of naming the phenomena of our experience and mapping it to conceptual models). In Feser's defense, I think it is basically his professional calling to focus on the more "mathematical" aspects of theology. There is a valuable role to be played there, even if it perhaps doesn't speak to the more urgent theological needs that many people have. We can't blame him for doing his job.

            Although I have a pretty cursory understanding of Thomistic thinking, I can only imagine that it must be deficient in various ways, just as all human thinking is deficient in certain ways. But I must say, it doesn't seem grossly incoherent to me. What specifically seems incoherent to you?

            As for whether it corresponds in any significant way to our experience of the world, I think part of the problem is that a lot of Thomistically grounded theology is still stated in basically Chaucerian English: "sin", "salvation", "judgement", "God", "Satan", etc. It takes a bit of work for a modern or post-modern person to map that traditional vocabulary to phenomena within our experience. I think it would help if we would find a new lexicon for referring to these aspects of reality, one not so laden with accretions of misleading connotations. On the other hand, I wouldn't want to completely divorce myself from millenia worth of cultural heritage. We have to maintain some continuity with the past. It would help if we had a larger diplomatic corps that was able to translate better between the traditional language and the language of modernity.

          • Ignatius Reilly

            In Feser's defense, I think it is basically his professional calling to
            focus on the more "mathematical" aspects of theology. There is a
            valuable role to be played there, even if it perhaps doesn't speak to
            the more urgent theological needs that many people have. We can't blame
            him for doing his job.

            That is a very charitable interpretation of what Feser is doing. To me he seems like a blogging polemicist, and a rather bad one. His academic credentials are lackluster, his publishing track record is non-existent, and his writing in general is not pushing new philosophical boundaries. I don't think he is doing the "mathematics" of theology. I think he is trying to be a Christian Hitchens.

            Although I have a pretty cursory understanding of Thomistic thinking, I
            can only imagine that it must be deficient in various ways, just as all
            human thinking is deficient in certain ways. But I must say, it doesn't
            seem grossly incoherent to me. What specifically seems incoherent to
            you?

            I've read more Aristotle than Thomas, but from the purely Thomistic standpoint I think Classical Theism is either incoherent or devoid of meaning. I think property simplicity is self-contradictory.

            There is a broader complaint, which most apologist seem to miss and for Feser it is inexcusable that for Aristotle and Aquinas metaphysics and physics are closely related. One cannot make a clean demarcation between the two. All this bluster about metaphysics and physics being separate for the good Thomist is not accurate when you read the writing of Aristotle and also from what I have read from Thomas.

            In terms of general metaphysics I'm very skeptical of essences - that a dog would have a doggy essence which makes it a dog. I am also very skeptical of a lot of the teleology in A/T.

          • Darren

            Jim (hillclimber) wrote,

            Well, personally, I'm easy. I just take 2+2=4 as axiomatically true. But if I wanted to be more rigorous and derive it from more fundamental principles, I guess I would look to the Peano Axioms? I don't think either your first or last proposition can be derived from those axioms.

            Perhaps it is a failure of imagination on my part, but am
            skeptical you hold 2+2=4 to be true because your kindergarten teacher told you so and that the intervening decades’ repeated instances of your ability to successfully count “1, 2, 3, 4” is unrelated.

            I shall have to take your word that Peano can be used so,
            but again I have my doubts that 2+2=4 because Peano says. I propose instead that Peano exists in the formulation you know, and is accepted as true, only because its predictions have been empirically verified as being true.

          • I propose instead that Peano exists in the formulation you know, and is accepted as true, only because its predictions have been empirically verified as being true.

            In that case, everytime I mix sugar and water and find that volume is not linearly additive, I disprove that 2+2=4. Except nobody thinks this way.

          • Darren

            In that case, everytime I mix sugar and water and find that volume is not linearly additive, I disprove that 2+2=4. Except nobody thinks this way.

            Nah, you've just discovered atoms... unless you're an Aristotelian, I'm not sure what you do then.

            Good for you in realizing you had to specify volume, not mass. Your example, though, shows the value of the falsification requirement. Why do two volumes plus two volumes not equal four volumes (though it does equal four masses)*? Something must be amiss; we must investigate further.

            Of course, the answer turns out to be that it does equal four volumes - the volumes just overlap.

            * - (EDIT) minus the miniscule mass loss do to solution formation entropy increase, but converting back by e=Mc^2 puts the mass back to 4.

          • * - (EDIT) minus the miniscule mass loss do to solution formation entropy increase, but converting back by e=Mc^2 puts the mass back to 4.

            That's another great instance whereby we can see that 2+2=4 is not falsified when the data fail to match the simpler mathematical formalism. Instead, we go looking for a mathematical formalism which is sufficient for the task.

          • Darren

            Yep, that about sums it up:

            Physics = quibbling over parts per quintillion measurement uncertainties

            Theology = still hasn't reached consensus about.... uh... anything; check back in another 3,000 years.

          • Physics = quibbling over parts per quintillion measurement uncertainties

            That makes no sense; nobody says that 2+2=4 is approximately true.

            Theology = still hasn't reached consensus about.... uh... anything; check back in another 3,000 years.

            Show me converging consensus in sociology, psychology, or general attitudes about what constitutes "the good life" across the world and then I'll think your statement in any way devalues theology. A little bit of agreement here or there won't help, because theology has had that, especially over the time period you'll find corresponding agreement among the human sciences.

            It's like you think it's somehow shocking that people are more willing to agree about something when it makes no moral demand of them. Or, that pretty much all we need is more power over reality (science + technology) and all of a sudden our hard problems will be dissolved. Or, that God would, if he existed, merely impose himself on people like any dictator wishes [s]he could do. Now, perhaps I'm mistaken, but I've encountered many atheistic arguments on the internet and I've never seen yours turn out to be rational when exposed to sufficient critical examination.

        • Please show me how to falsify 2+2=4—since apparently, at least you aren't in the loony bin. Unless you were offering an invitation?

  • Ignatius Reilly

    There is a lot wrong here, and Feser misses the point entirely. Feser writes:

    Lazy shouts of “unfalisfiability!” against theological claims just
    ignore all this complexity—the distinctions that have to be drawn
    between empirical claims on the one hand and claims of mathematics,
    logic, and metaphysics on the other; between extremely general empirical
    claims and more specific ones; between philosophy of nature (which
    studies the philosophical presuppositions of natural science) and
    natural science itself; and between the testing of a thesis and the
    testing of the auxiliary assumptions we generally take for granted but
    conjoin with the thesis when drawing predictions from it.

    There is a difference between metaphysics and theological claims of the sort God loves us, Jesus is God, the Eucharist is God, sinners burn in hell, the pope is infallible, etc. The problem here is not with Aristotelian metaphysics, which is wrong, but with theological claims that have a ton of content. Flew says it best (emphasis mine):

    Take such utterances as "God has a plan,"
    "God created the world," "God loves us as a father loves his children."
    They look at first sight very much like assertions, vast cosmological
    assertions.

    This is where Feser misses the point entirely. We aren't arguing about metaphysics or change. We are arguing about theological assertions.

    It is completely fair to ask a theist why they believe that God is good and if something could change their mind.

    There is then a second point that theological claims operate similar to the parable in Flew's article, which I will quote here:

    Let us begin with a parable. It is a parable developed from a tale told
    by John Wisdom in his haunting and revelatory article 'Gods'.[1]
    Once upon a time two explorers came upon a clearing in the jungle. In
    the clearing were growing many flowers and many weeds. One explorer
    says, "some gardener must tend this plot." The other disagrees, "There
    is no gardener." So they pitch their tents and set a watch. No gardener
    is ever seen. "But perhaps he is an invisible gardener." So they, set up
    a barbed-wire fence. They electrify it. They patrol with bloodhounds.
    (For they remember how H.G. Wells's The Invisible Man could be
    both smelt and touched though he could not he seen.) But no shrieks ever
    suggest that some intruder has received a shock. No movements of the
    wire ever betray an invisible climber. The bloodhounds never give cry.
    Yet still the Believer is not convinced. "But there is a gardener,
    invisible, intangible, insensible to electric shocks, a gardener who has
    no scent and makes no sound, a gardener who comes secretly to look
    after the garden which he loves." At last the Sceptic despairs, "But
    what remains of your original assertion? Just how does what you call an
    invisible, intangible, eternally elusive gardener differ from an
    imaginary gardener or even from no gardener at all?"

  • Rudy R

    Theological claims need to be falsifiable, if theists are concerned with logic and reason and not just faith. For example, for the fine-tuned universe claim to be taken seriously, the theist would have to describe the properties of a non-fined-tuned universe. What would a universe look like that couldn't sustain life as we know it. Simply striking a tree with an arrow and then drawing a target around the arrow and claiming a bullseye does not prove the point...just demonstrates reverse-engineering.

    • Peter

      It is not an issue of drawing a target around the arrow but of the arrow drawing a target around itself.

      As examples of conscious life, we represent the arrow in that tree. As conscious beings, it is we who are able to draw the target around ourselves and claim ourselves and other possible races like us to be the bullseye.

      The notion of a bullseye would never exist unless there were conscious races around to recognise themselves as constituting it.

    • All theological claims, or just some? If "some", must they be properly falsifiable within any old system of thought, or may they reference a system of thought which serves as the appropriate background for testing them?

  • Scape Goat

    Word salad. The author's metaphysical orientation is so obvious, it's embarrassing. How you could ever claim that "the Eucharist is actually Jesus Christ" and " 2=2=4" are in the same category of unfalsifiability? There is simply no way you could ever test in any reasonable way the previous claim. There is no evidence at all that it's true, aside from a few nutcases reporting miracles, e.g., Julia Kim -- and these are also completely unverifiable.

    • The author's metaphysical orientation is so obvious, it's embarrassing.

      Wait, it's embarrassing to have one's metaphysical orientation be obvious? Are we supposed to hide our metaphysical orientations (perhaps deny that we have one) and attempt to subversively foist them on others, instead?

  • Paul Brandon Rimmer

    As long as Christian claims are separate from claims about the physical universe, then there is no need for the Christian claims to have testable implications. If, however, a Christian claim is connected to claims about the physical universe, then that claim should have testable implications. The physical universe should look different if the claim is false than it looks if the claim is true. If the claim fails the test, it should be rejected.

    Most Christian claims appear to be flexible enough to avoid clear, testable implications. I am not sure that Christianity is entirely free of clear testable implications, but I don't know what they would be.

    • Jim (hillclimber)

      I think the central tenet of Christian hope, that the universe is on a narrative trajectory in which, eventually, "all things will be made new" and the "creation itself will be set free from slavery" is testable ... but we are still waiting for the data to come in. We will be waiting until the end of time for final database lock. In the meantime, reasonable people can disagree.

      • Paul Brandon Rimmer

        Is there a way we can test these claims at a specific time in the future? Because otherwise, the predictions are not very useful for making tests.

        If the claims of Christian hope are true and I make my observations in 50 years, I might expect to see the exact same results as if the claims of Christian hope are false. How could the claims of Christian hope ever fail the test, in principle?

        If the entire human race were destroyed by a cometary impact? Would even this be sufficient to falsify the claims of Christian hope?

        • Jim (hillclimber)

          Is there a way we can test these claims at a specific time in the future?

          I would say no, not in any precise sense. I do think one can vaguely discern a sort of Teilhardian trajectory of reality: matter from non-matter, life from non-life, consciousness from life, (and for the Christian, Christ from consciousness), etc. But at best all of this provides a general suggestive sense of where things might eventually be headed. None of this leads to especially specific predictions about the future.

          Because otherwise, the predictions are not very useful for making tests.

          I agree. At best, we are talking about a very soft eschatological falsifiability, along the lines of, "I had no idea what this would be like, but I knew that eventually everything would "work out". And sure enough, here I am at t = infinity and everything fits together in some sort of ultimate belonging, just not in the particular way that I expected".

          If the entire human race were destroyed by a cometary impact?

          Naw. I'd want to wait around and see what happened next before jumping to any hasty conclusions ;-)

          • Darren

            Jim (hillclimber) wrote,

            "I had no idea what this would be like, but I knew that eventually everything would "work out". And sure enough, here I am at t = infinity and everything fits together in some sort of ultimate belonging, just not in the particular way that I expected".

            So, the answer is yes, then; in your view the universe will be, in some measurable way, different if your theology is true than it would be if your theology is not true.

          • Jim (hillclimber)

            That's a fair summary, sure.

    • Peter

      For centuries the Church has claimed that the world i.e. universe had a beginning, in the face of constant opposition from atheist philosophers and scientists right up to the middle of last century. It was this belief, that the universe was an eternal brute fact, which gave rise to the godless Enlightenment.

      Needless to say, our current science has validated this claim and the Enlightenment is dead.

      • Paul Brandon Rimmer

        Is it in principle possible that the universe could be discovered to have no beginning? If so, and if future tests showed (contrary to all the present evidence) that the universe had no beginning, would this falsify Catholic doctrine? Would you give up the Catholic faith in this case? If it can't be tested, or if failing the test doesn't convince people, it doesn't seem like much of a test.

        On the other hand, if this is a real test for you, so far, your faith has passed this exceedingly easy empirical test. You had a 50/50 shot and got it right. That's great.

        But then there's a very small chance in the future that science will require you to abandon your faith or your reason. That seems like a very precarious position to me.

        • Peter

          I'd hardly call it a 50/50 shot since for centuries the overwhelming scientific consensus was that the universe was static and unchanging and deemed to be eternal.

          In claiming a beginning, the Church was a particular lone voice against the march of history, only to be spectacularly vindicated just over half a century ago when, for the first time, science had the genuine ability to test it.

          The universe is no longer a brute fact and the Enlightenment is dead. Atheists nowadays have to recourse to petty criticism of religious practices and minority creationist beliefs. They have lost the big one: the universe is not a brute fact; it needs an explanation.

          In that respect, the Church's position is far from precarious. Although science may eventually explain the big bang, it will never return us to a belief that the universe is a brute fact.
          The notion of it being a brute fact - the foundation of the Enlightenment - was based on scientific ignorance.

          What science reveals in future will always raise more questions than it answers. Further explanations will always be required for what is discovered. The notion of a brute fact, where no explanation is necessary, is dead. The Enlightenment is dead and atheism is crippled.

          • Paul Brandon Rimmer

            Either the universe had a beginning or it didn't. Without further information, just guessing, you get a 50/50 chance.

            From what you say, it sounds like no future information would cause you to change your mind. Doesn't sound like your beliefs about the origin of the universe are really testable after all.

          • Peter

            We are no longer in the realms of scientific ignorance as we were in the Enlightenment, and we can never return to that. Scientific ignorance is a thing of the past, and so too is the notion of the universe being an unexplainable brute fact which was based on it.

            That is a centuries-old battle begun with the Greek and Roman atomists, and followed through across the centuries by their brilliant successors, that the Church has eventually won. Even Fred Hoyle couldn't accept it as late as the middle of last century.

    • Mike

      some testable things: universe began to exist, Jesus body is not in the universe, our Intellects are not 100% natural.

      • Paul Brandon Rimmer

        How would any of these end up getting falsified? Could you propose candidate tests for each of these?

        What test would convince you that Jesus really is in the universe?

        What test would convince you that the intellect is not 100% natural?

        What test would convince you that the universe did not begin to exist?

        I can see a case for the last one. I think that could genuinely be testable. It is hard for me to imagine the claim about Jesus being really testable (as with most historical claims, it would be difficult to find something definitive, but I'm open to the possibility). The claim about the unnatural intellect would seem impossible to test, and, in my opinion as a committed naturalist, impossible period.

        • Mike

          1. if his bones were found; but it's been 2000 years or what if they were pulverized back then or burned and are gone. then maybe if it were 'proven' that his body was stolen that it was all made up?
          2. intellect; very hard but what if science of chemistry or physics showed exactly how complex molecules can become conscious and rational in the relevant sense. if we are really just more advanced animals this should be possible.
          3. well the big bang seems close to 'proving' that the universe did have a beginning. sorry i mean 'begin' in the sense of being created NOT in time. Maybe there would be some way to prove that the universe was never created but is necessity?

          • Paul Brandon Rimmer

            1. How would that 'proof' be accomplished, in principle? (I think if time machines were possible, this would be the most plausible way to do it; maybe new methods will be discovered).

            2. I doubt there will be a clear empirical test for this. Can you imagine a test where, if the result is A, it means the intellect is supernatural, and if the result is B it means the intellect isn't?

            3. I think I could imagine evidence that would strongly favour one or the other conclusion, and maybe in my lifetime. Presently, it's not definitive that the universe had a definite beginning. I think it probably did. The evidence suggests it did. And this is something that maybe certain tests involving the CMB or eventual Cosmic Neutrino Background measurements, or other cosmological discoveries, might be able to determine with much greater confidence. I think this is the best case of the three.

            As a more specific example of (3), maybe there will be a theory that both explains how gravity works with quantum mechanics and requires the universe to have a unique beginning. It predicts that a certain particle is generated at 100 TeV. People build an accelerator that gets to that energy and find the particle.

          • Darren

            1. How would that 'proof' be accomplished, in principle? (I think if time machines were possible, this would be the most plausible way to do it; maybe new methods will be discovered).

            On a slightly related note - we could DNA type all of the Eucharistic miracles. If they are as they are claimed to be, each will have human DNA. More specifically, each will have _one_ human's DNA, DNA showing genes typical of the middle east.

            Anyone care to speculate what the Y-chromosome will look like?

            There is one in Poland right now. Let's get to it.

            We could cross-correlate with the Shroud of Turin, splinters of the True Cross, Holy Grail, etc.

          • Paul Brandon Rimmer

            That's a great idea. Now that would be a pretty convincing test for me.

            But do you think that test would convince many of the faithful? If it all were the same, they would say, of course they are, since they all came from the same person. If they were all different, they might say that the different DNA results are what we should expect from a resurrected body.

            I do hope it would convince a few of them.

          • Darren

            To expand, if I were to formulate a falsifiable hypothesis:

            Assuming the Eucharistic miracles are what is claimed, the physical flesh of Jesus of Nazareth, what would we expect:

            The samples would be human tissue

            The samples would contain DNA

            That DNA would be human

            The DNA would be from one, and only one, human

            That human DNA would be Semetic

            That human would be male

            Going a bit further and taking the Virgin Birth into account:

            The DNA would show anomalies involving the Y chromosome

            The Y chromosome would be “ideal”, lacking errors (‘junk’
            DNA) and the typical mutations that accumulate over time – as though it were newly created

            The Y chromosome would not have any living descendants

            Now, if this were the results that were found, and found
            repeatedly by different credible researchers at different institutions, it would be pretty profound. I am not saying that I would head out to be baptized, but even I would have to admit that something pretty-darned peculiar was going on and that at the very least, Christians might very well be on to something and they would be perfectly justified in holding to their beliefs.

            The faithful would believe. But, being faithful they already
            believe.

            I suspect the weekly religious and the ‘nones’ would almost all be convinced.

            The honest seekers, deluded into false religions such as
            Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, and such, would, I believe, in large part be convinced.

            If the results were found to be negative, the faithful would
            still be faithful, just having lost a fringe miracle that was, in hindsight, seen to be unnecessary to establish the truth of their beliefs.

            So, wrapping up in a cost benefit analysis. Multiply the
            benefits if true (huge) by the probability of truth .vs. the detriment if false (small) by the probability of being false. Considering the, so far, lack of organized effort on the part
            of believers to undertake such an experiment, this puts upper bounds on the probability of truth that believers themselves place on the Eucharistic miracles.

          • Paul Brandon Rimmer

            I really like your exposition, and I think you carry out a good cost-benefit analysis. My prediction about expectations is a bit different.

            People who believe in Eucharistic miracles may also believe that, for whatever reason, resurrected bodies are different, when Mary appears to the masses, she often appears as a different race, etc., that the DNA may not be all from the same person. Christ's DNA may represent the Resurrected Christ's unity with all of humanity, or something like this, and so the tests, when they can be performed, might have bunches of different DNA. If believers in these miracles think this is a distinct possibility, the last thing they would want to do is the DNA tests. Because the rest of the world wouldn't buy that kind of explanation.

            I certainly wouldn't. I'd consider this falsification.

            To argue for my prediction, I would point out the shroud of turin. It's been dated, analysed, carefully considered in its details, and it has failed every test. The claim that it is the burial shroud of Jesus is, to my satisfaction, definitively falsified (and for other readers, I'm not going to waste my time debating this because life is too short and there are far more interesting questions).

            My point would be that, if the Vatican were more resistant to testing the Shroud of Turin, the people who believe will still believe, and those who didn't believe wouldn't be 'scandalised' by the contrary evidence. In light of this, I think it would be very wise that even fervent believers in these Eucharistic miracles do not advocate that they be tested.

            I, of course, would love to see the results of these tests. If they turned out as you say, I would probably return to the Catholic Church.

          • Alexandra

            Hi Darren,
            (I bring this up in relation to PBR's response to you of what "should" convince a believer that they are wrong.)

            None of what you are proposing here would disprove the Catholic faith
            (although, depending on the results, could be used to support it).

            If you 100% disqualify (show to be untrue) a private revelation, say through a scientific test, it would have no impact on the faith. Private revelations are approached with caution and inquiry. You are allowed your own reasons for belief or disbelief.

            From the Catechism:
            67 Throughout the ages, there have been so-called "private" revelations, some of which have been recognized by the authority of the Church. They do not belong, however, to the deposit of faith.

            If a miracle were (scientifically) proven, would you become theist?

          • Paul Brandon Rimmer

            That being the case, with, as Darren says, a lot to gain and nothing to lose, why not do the DNA tests?

            If the DNA tests show that the claimed Eucharistic miracles come from multiple people, will you deny that Eucharistic miracles happen, or would you think that they are more rare than previously believed, and that most claimed Eucharistic miracles are hoaxes?

            Would it have any impact on your belief about that private revelation?

          • Alexandra

            >>>>That being the case, with, as Darren says, a lot to gain and nothing to lose, why not do the DNA tests?

            Yes, of course. All legitimate evidence should be gathered, if possible. (Although I think it highly unlikely that Darren would be able to obtain legitimate DNA samples, but not completely out of the realm of possibility.)
            Theoretically speaking, if a miracle could somehow scientifically be shown true or substantiated, - this could support Catholic argument about the supernatural. If the miracle is 100/% scientifically shown to be false- it doesn't hurt Catholicism, and we'd be rid of a hoax. Either way, it's a win-win for Catholics.

            >>>>If the DNA tests show that the claimed Eucharistic miracles come from multiple people, will you deny that Eucharistic miracles happen, or would you think that they are more rare than previously believed, and that most claimed Eucharistic miracles are hoaxes?...

            I didn't quite understand these questions; in your scenario, are you saying that all the Eucharistic miracles were shown to be false?
            Generally speaking, I think miracles should be evaluated on a case-by-case basis. Disproving one doesn't automatically invalidate another.

          • Paul Brandon Rimmer

            Say only five claimed Eucharistic miracles can be tested and all five come from DNA from five different people.

            Would this change your opinion about those five cases? Would you at least think that four of them were hoaxes?

            What about the fifth? Or other cases that haven't been tested? Would you consider them to be more likely to be hoaxes, given these results?

            These questions are out of genuine interest, and not as a way to cause you any discomfort or to criticise your dogmatism. I have my own dogmatism about this, in that I would think almost any explanation would be more likely than that these claimed Eucharistic miracles were in fact suspensions of the laws of nature. The discovery that they all had common DNA, along with the other conditions Darren describes so well, would probably be sufficient to overthrow my dogmatism. It would impact my general belief about these miracles.

            Would the reverse result (all tests prove negative), affect in any way your general belief about these miracles, if you have any positive beliefs about them to begin with?

          • Alexandra

            Sorry, I will respond as soon as I can. I have been having computer issues. :(

            I did find out that DNA testing was attempted on the Shroud of Turin.

          • Sample1

            I'm at a loss to understand why a scientifically proved miracle is reason enough to become a theist.

            Mike

          • Michael Murray

            You mean something like this

            https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DKtjBqJ4NxA

          • Sample1

            Exactly.

            Is not the apologist really asking, if my God could be proved to you scientifically would you become a theist?

            A theist, well I guess so. But a disciple? That's a different question. They seem to presume that their god is deserving of my time. So finding compelling evidence for theism isn't even half the battle.

            Mike

          • Lazarus

            That makes you an atheist regardless of the evidence.

          • Sample1

            I think that would make one an anti-theist, not an atheist.

            Mike

          • Ignatius Reilly

            Do you mean strictly compelling evidence for theism or compelling evidence for Catholic God

          • Sample1

            Ruling out my own brain damage or honest error and somehow allowing for what is currently not allowed in science (absolute proof rather than provisional acceptance subject to change) then yes, the Catholic god.

            But this could be used for Hanuman the Monkey God too if I'm asked by a Hindu.

            Though it takes what I see as a destruction of the scientific method to get me there, my real point is that these gods are not worth my time anyway. I find them to be awful role models who bring out the worst in people. I'd reserve the right to remain an anti-theist for all the documented ones that I'm familiar with.

            Bishop Sheen's "god of bloody sacrifices" is yucky. :-)

            Mike

            https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xM_kbE3S8gk&feature=youtu.be

            Edit done: added video.

          • Alexandra

            Then my guess is this would not be the means God uses to convert you, but you never know. ;)

          • Sample1

            Humor noted (you know I don't think that's gods, or your God, exist).

            Why are so-called miracles so convincing for you? Do you think it's fundamentally different than gullibility which many humans are prone too? If so, why?

            Mike, unable to sin.

          • Alexandra

            >>>>Why are so called miracles so convincing to you? Do you think it's fundamentally different than gullibility which many humans are prone too? If so, why? - Mike unable to sin

            ODE TO GULLIBILITY

            Through day and through night,
            on a wonderful site,
            queried an Atheist named Sample:

            "Belief is all gullibility, I say,
            unless you say nay,
            so you must give me your example."

            "The answer is under your nose,
            or more down to your toes;"
            She said in reply, with a sigh.

            "I speak of course,
            though I question your source,
            of the dark and lowly fungi.

            For this too man is prone,
            but what have you shown?,
            so let us not drone, and goodbye."

          • Sample1

            I love that, even if bits are not a correct representation of my position. A+

            Mike, unable to sin.

          • Darren

            Sample 1 wrote,

            I'm at a loss to understand why a scientifically proved miracle is reason enough to become a theist.

            As always, the degree of belief follows the degree of
            evidence.

            Most miracles are, to be blunt, pathetic: a vaguely Mary-shaped smudge on an overpass, a wavy apparition, reddish-brown gook on a soggy wafer. Even if they could be proven genuine, they would, at best, establish the existence of a pagan nature spirit or a practical joking alien with slightly better than human technology. Really, if you can’t do better than a stage magician or a Scooby Doo bad guy,
            how impressed am I supposed to be?

            Biblical-class miracles are better: raining fire on the priests of Bal; graves opening and all the dead walking around Jerusalem; sun standing still in the heavens. I am starting to be impressed, but we still haven’t established more than a middling-competent trickster God or really advanced alien. I suppose I am prepared to acknowledge Loki or Mr. Mxyzptlk if I must and render unto them whatever obeisance they require in order for them not to smite me, but we are still a long way from the God of Theism.

            Of course, the answer is incredibly simple. God, being omniscient, knows exactly how to convince me, exactly how to convince anyone, and can do so within any limitations we might wish to impose: no compromising free will (assuming such a thing exists and is of value); not
            using the letter “E”; in Pig-Latin; what have you.

            Personally, I require no letters of fire or frogs falling from the sky, all I need is a defeator to the Problem of Evil and the Problem of Divine Hiddeness and I am good.

          • Michael Murray

            Have you ever read

            http://www.amazon.com/Honk-If-You-are Jesus/dp/0207196095

            A rich billionaire extracts DNA from holy relics and they clone Jesus.

          • Mike

            1. yeah tough but i think possible in principle
            2. well if it could be shown with 100% certainty exactly how the intellect functions and how the process is 100% material?
            3. i don't know nearly enough physics but what you suggest does sound interesting and promising.

          • Paul Brandon Rimmer

            With (1) I probably agree, esp. after looking at Darren's comments. There are tests that could work in principle, like the Eucharistic miracles test.

            I don't think (2) as you state it is possible with science. '100% certainty' and '100% material' isn't ever possible. We don't even know with 100% certainty that 100% of energy is conserved, or that the inverse square law of gravity is 100% accurate. Looking for a 100% thing, especially looking for the 100% absence of something, is not really possible with science, I think. Philosophy becomes necessary. Actually, I can't imagine a test that would falsify the conservation of energy. If any such test were attempted, and energy was lost from the system, or gained, a reasonable conclusion would be that energy wasn't destroyed. It was just converted into a form we can't yet detect, or converted from a form we didn't detect into a form we could.

            I'd argue that, based on present evidence, it's reasonable to accept that the intellect is 100% natural, because so far, there's no evidence to the contrary, and models that treat the intellect as 100% natural haven't failed any tests. But I can't imagine a test where my position on this could be falsified.

          • Mike

            not sure what darren's test is but the claim is NOT that the host changes in any physical way so not sure what a test could pick up.

            how about a document found that showed how the ressur. began as metaphor? that way we'd know the claim that he rose physically was made up after?

            the claim i should specify is that the intellect is not 100% material NOT that it isn't natural. the supernatural claim is that it couldn't have evolved naturally w/o some supernatural input. i think the claim is that God creates new supernatural immaterial soul w/o which we'd be w/o intellect and will.

            if a scientist showed that the intellect is 100% material it would falsify christianity.

            btw if all we think and 'want' is 100% material then do we even exist or is our consciousness an illusion?

          • Darren

            Mike wrote,

            not sure what darren's test is but the claim is NOT that the host changes in any physical way so not sure what a test could pick up.

            Brush up on Eucharistic miracles, such at the one in Poland. The claim is it has undergone a physical transformation into the flesh of Christ (typical heart tissue).

          • Mike

            that's a totally separate claim though. during the mass the host is 100% bread physically.

            if it did turn into a human heart would you believe it?

          • Darren

            that's a totally separate claim though

            Its the claim I referenced.

          • Mike

            ok well it has nothing to do with falsifying catholicism.

          • Paul Brandon Rimmer

            the claim i should specify is that the intellect is not 100% material NOT that it isn't natural

            (1) I don't think that the intellect is material. (2) I can't think of any way, even in principle, to test this scientifically. Can you?

            the supernatural claim is that it couldn't have evolved naturally w/o some supernatural input.

            Can you think of any way to test this claim? How would it be done? What would passing the test look like? What would failing the test look like?

          • Mike

            1. what about all the research into neurons etc aren't scientists currently trying to show that all our thoughts are patterns of neurons firing? i think the current paradigm is that all thoughts are material no? i am not up on the topic but that seems to be what many atheists say/imply.

            2. i can't think of the exact experiment but again mainstream science today i think assumes or believes that our intellectual powers are 100% explainable via natural selection/evolution. but i am not the scientist you are ;) so you have to think up the experiments :).

            but in principle i think both should be falsifiable.

          • Paul Brandon Rimmer

            1. I am not this kind of scientist, but Christof Koch is, and he observes that all these studies can show is that neural activity is correlated with thoughts/feelings, not that they are identical. Philosophy is necessary if you want to make that last step. I don't buy it. Thoughts and feelings seem to me something completely different from matter. My mind doesnt seem material to me.

            2. That natural selection explains our intellect is testable. I can imagine tests for this. But if natural selection did not explain our intellect, that wouldn't suggest a supernatural explanation. There may be a yet unknown alternative natural explanation for the intellect. Science operates under the assumption that everything in the physical universe has a natural explanation. This assumption cannot be tested.

            I do not think that the materiality or immateriality of the intellect can ever be tested. as for supernatural explanations, so far they have failed every scientific test. Maybe this means that there is no such thing as the supernatural. Or maybe this means that the supernatural is not the kind of thing that can be tested. Or maybe it will pass some future test someday. Take your pick.

          • Mike

            1. i agree.
            2. i agree that there may be some other natural explanation even if it isn't evolution.

            the defn of natural can be very broad. either way though i think that in some way the 'potential' for our minds had to be baked into the universe from the start, into the properties of matter or chemistry etc. even if it's a random coincidence there still needs to be that 'potential'.

          • Paul Brandon Rimmer

            I think we totally agree then.

          • Mike

            yes i think we do.

            hey so are you a phd yet? i think i remember you studying for one? and is it astrophysics?

          • Paul Brandon Rimmer

            I got my PhD in 2012. I'm a postdoc at St Andrews and I work on astrophysics. My area of research at present is atmospheric chemistry on exoplanets and brown dwarfs. I'll soon be transitioning into origin of life research.

          • Mike

            amazing! congrats on all that; you must have done MUCH better than me in math and science ;)! i am a somewhat lowly underwriter for a big bank. anyway thx for the exchange.

            PS check out Ard Louis if you ever get a chance as i think he's also involved in origin of life and is a well known speaker.

    • Darren

      BTW, one of my favorite strips about miracles. Amusing and, IMO, suitably respectful as to be enjoyable by our theist friends (I would have
      found it funny when I was a Christian):

      Miracles

  • Doug Shaver

    If an assertion is unfalsifiable, does it matter whether I believe it not?

    • Darren

      That is a masterfully Laconic summary, Doug.

      • Doug Shaver

        Thanks, Darren.

    • Jim (hillclimber)

      Consider the unfalsifiable position mentioned in the OP: "A genuinely scientific claim must be [empirically] falsifiable". Do you think it matters whether you hold that position or not?

      • Doug Shaver

        Do you think it matters whether you hold that position or not?

        That depends on whether communication matters. If I disagree with that position, then I disagree about what it means for a claim to be scientific.

        • Jim (hillclimber)

          And do you believe that communication matters?

          • Doug Shaver

            I think it usually matters. I suppose there could be situations in which it doesn't.

          • Jim (hillclimber)

            OK, so you believe that communication sometimes matters. That belief has consequences for the way you live your life, I presume? Is it a falsifiable belief?

          • My suspicion is that under a positivism with a single taken-for-granted set of norms, one can avoid reflective analysis of those norms and then require that everything else be falsifiable. One can ignore the deep entanglement of fact and value which sociologists have been forced to admit exists and thereby ignore the realm of moral contingency (where true, ontological freedom can be exercised—with concomitant moral responsibility).

          • Doug Shaver

            If, no matter what I said or how I said it, none of it ever had any effect on the people around me, then my belief that communication matters would be falsified, at least with respect to myself.

          • Jim (hillclimber)

            We are off on separate tracks here. Sorry if I misunderstood, but when you said: "That depends on whether communication matters", I could have sworn you were using the phrase "communication matters" in a normative sense, along the lines of: "we should strive to communicate in ways that others will understand". If all you meant was "communication has causal effects in the physical world", that has very little bearing on whether you and I (and others) have the same sense of "what it means for a claim to be scientific". Even if we completely misinterpret each other, our communication will surely have causal effects. So could I ask: in your earlier comment, did you in fact intend the phrase "communication matters" to convey a normative meaning? And if so, have we in fact identified at least one normative belief that you hold? And if so, is there any way to falsify that belief?

          • Doug Shaver

            Taking it from the top:

            Consider the unfalsifiable position mentioned in the OP: "A genuinely scientific claim must be [empirically] falsifiable". Do you think it matters whether you hold that position or not?

            That depends on whether communication matters. If I disagree with that position, then I disagree about what it means for a claim to be scientific.

            The "unfalsifiable position" to which you refer implicitly states a criterion for regarding any claim as genuinely scientific. It thus asserts that it must be falsifiable by the definition of "scientific." But definitions are established by usage, and so they are not so much true or false as they are more or less useful for communicative purposes. If you and I mean different things when we talk about scientific claims, then we're not communicating effectively. If we do the same thing, whatever that is, then you and I can communicate, at least with each other.

            There does seem to be a consensus within the scientific community that the methods of their profession are ineffective for investigating unfalsifiable claims, and thus we get the conventional wisdom that unfalsifiable claims are unscientific. If that consensus does not actually exist, then it could be argued that that would falsify the conventional wisdom. That assumes in turn that we should define "science" as whatever it is that scientists, qua scientists, actually do. Whether we should or should not so define it seems to me not a matter of fact so much as a matter of judgment, in which case the issue of falsifiability is not even applicable.

          • Jim (hillclimber)

            So, you are saying that the proposition, which I will write in shorthand as: "scientific = "empirically falsifiable" is a tautology that exists only by definition / convention. I agree that it is a tautological equivalence, but -- as with many valuable tautologies -- I don't think it is merely cataloguing a linguistic redundancy. I think one can expand both sides of the "'scientific' = 'empirically falsifiable'" equation to read:

            "a good path to knowledge regarding the measurable aspects of reality" =

            "working in a hypothetico-deductive framework and limiting oneself to hypotheses from which one can deduce things that could in principle come into conflict with data"

            That is an equivalence, in my opinion, that accomplishes something. It tautly identifies the value of scientific methodology with the methodology itself. Even if we were to change our linguistic conventions, the underlying truth content of the tautology would remain, ready to be re-expressed in new language.

            In other words, I think "scientific = falsifiable" is an expression of genuine knowledge. It is, however, empirically unfalsifiable knowledge.

          • Doug Shaver

            I think one can expand both sides of the "'scientific' = 'empirically falsifiable'" equation to read:

            "a good path to knowledge regarding the measurable aspects of reality" =

            "working in a hypothetico-deductive framework and limiting oneself to hypotheses from which one can deduce things that could in principle come into conflict with data"

            That is an equivalence, in my opinion, that accomplishes something. It tautly identifies the value of scientific methodology with the methodology itself.

            I won't deny the relevance of mathematics to the study of language, but I think it's a mistake to treat synonymy as an analogue to algebraic equality. In linguistic matters, it is seldom the case that things equal to the same thing are equal to each other.

            Of course science is a path to knowledge, and obviously I'm of the opinion that it's a good path, i.e. a path of high value. Furthermore, in my observation, nearly every one of my intellectual adversaries, on secular as well as religious matters of debate, shares that opinion. But it is still only an opinion, a judgment of its value. Its being almost a universal judgment suggests, very strongly, that the judgment is well justified. But justification, no matter how compelling, does not change a matter of opinion into a matter of fact.

            In other words, I think "scientific = falsifiable" is an expression of genuine knowledge

            It expresses our knowledge of what people mean when they say that something is scientific. It could also express our knowledge of one of their reasons for judging it to be a good path to knowledge regarding the measurable aspects of reality.

          • Jim (hillclimber)

            If it's merely an opinion that the scientific method is a valid path to knowledge, then I presume that any "fact" that is scientifically established must also be only a matter of opinion? (Otherwise, how could one use a methodology of uncertain value to establish a certain fact?) And if scientific "facts" are just opinions, then is there anything at all that is truly a fact?

            I think you are setting the bar way too high for what constitutes knowledge, and for what constitutes a fact, and for what constitutes truth. I think you *know* that science is a highly valuable path to knowledge. Of course you cannot be absolutely certain of this. We mortals never have access to absolute certainty. But you still have knowledge of the value of science in every practically relevant sense of the word "knowledge".

          • Doug Shaver

            If it's merely an opinion that the scientific method is a valid path to knowledge . . . .?

            I don't regard "good" and "valid" as interchangeable.

            then I presume that any "fact" that is scientifically established must also be only a matter of opinion?

            I would say that we're justified in treating the factuality of science's well-established conclusions as axiomatic.

            I think you *know* that science is a highly valuable path to knowledge. Of course you cannot be absolutely certain of this. We mortals never have access to absolute certainty. But you still have knowledge of the value of science in every practically relevant sense of the word "knowledge".

            I'm not distinguishing between facts and opinions on the basis of our justified confidence in either, although common usage does complicate the issue. We're used to saying things like "In my opinion, X" when X would be a fact if it were true. In those situations, the locution "in my opinion" is just a judgment of the probability that X is true plus an admission that the probability, so judged, does not warrant a claim of actual knowledge. We reserve claims of knowledge for those propositions for which we judge the probability so close to 1.0 that we feel entitled to disregard, at least tentatively, the hypothetical possibility that we've made a mistake.

            In other words, common usage does allow statements of opinion about matters of fact. But matters of fact are true regardless of our opinions about them. Our judgments have nothing to do with their truth or falsity. The distinction I am trying to establish is between matters of fact and matters of value. A value just is a judgment, regardless of its degree of justification. This is not to deprecate values in any way. We couldn't survive without them. There are some judgments that we are compelled to make in order to stay alive. There are others that, because of our nature, we will make even if our lives don't depend on them because they affect the quality of our lives.

            What I think really muddies the waters is a widespread supposition about the objective existence of values, which is an ontological issue. We say that certain things have value, and we suppose that it makes no sense to say that any X can have some Y unless Y really exists in the same way that X exists. That is a metaphysical supposition that I don't accept.

          • Jim (hillclimber)

            Have you ever expressed moral uncertainty, e.g. "I think this is the ethical thing to do, but I am not sure"? If so, how do you make sense of such a thought without conceptual reference to an (unknown) course of action that *truly would be* ethical?

          • Doug Shaver

            Your question seems to presuppose some form of moral Platonism. I don't know how to answer the question "How do you make sense of a non-Platonic universe?" other than to say, "I just do."

          • Mike

            do you think that the universe is non platonic? or do you just seem to comfortably assume implicitly that it is?

          • Doug Shaver

            or do you just seem to comfortably assume implicitly that it is?

            I can't think of any way to prove it, so it's an assumption in that sense. But I think it's more like discarding assumptions, as Occam suggested we should do. Platonism posits a whole slew of entities that, to me, seem unnecessary to explain what makes the universe tick.

    • "all people are of equal moral worth"

      • FWIW, I don't believe that assertion. Now how does it matter that I don't believe it?

        • Well, perhaps you can tell me how it would have mattered if enough people had called bollocks on:

          We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

          My suspicion is that we would live in a different world than we do, today. My suspicion is that it would be a suckier world, for most. But perhaps you would be one of the aristocracy in such a world, and thus have it better?

          • I see you avoided the question. Is that because you don't have an answer?

            I'll answer yours though: Not even the men who signed that document believed it. It was politically useful though. Interestingly, they went on to craft a government in which that document has no legal weight. So I think history puts your suspicion firmly in the dustbin.

          • I see you avoided the question. Is that because you don't have an answer?

            No, it's more that I was flabbergasted that you'd ask the question. How it matters is that the structure of society is determined by normative laws, sort of like the structure of material reality is determined by natural laws. A world where all people are treated as having equal moral worth is vastly different from a world where US officials can say (and act on) "one American casualty is worth about 85,000 Rwandan dead." (A Problem from Hell, 381) I also suspect that you believe something pretty close to "all people are of equal moral worth", making your disagreement pedantic.

            Not even the men who signed that document believed it. It was politically useful though.

            I would be surprised if none believed it, and I would suspect that some others defined 'men' to exclude Negroes. I would not be surprised if some did not believe it.

            Perhaps we could cut to the chase and you could tell me whether you think all such moralizing is really a veiled display of pure power? If so, that would appear to be an unfalsifiable stance. If not, then surely I could have picked something other than "all people are of equal moral worth" or the Declartion of Independence, and we could avoid quibbles and get to the meat of the matter.

      • Doug Shaver

        "all people are of equal moral worth"

        That is a judgment. It expresses an opinion as to how we ought to behave. As such, it makes no statement of fact. Falsifiability applies only to purported statements of fact.

        • That is a judgment.

          So judgments aren't assertions, or did you perhaps mean to say "If an assertion of a fact is unfalsifiable"?

          As such, it makes no statement of fact.

          So when folks say "all people are of equal moral worth", they aren't making any predictions, such that "the world would be better if we adopted this belief"? The reason I ask this is that I generally think of any given moral precept as being part of constructing a social world, just like natural laws are part of constructing a natural world. The social world imagined from a moral precept can be impossible (like communism appears to be, at least according to some people): both in the more fact-like quality, as well as the moral 'feel' (e.g. we have progressed since medieval times—things are better now).

          Basically, I'm questioning the strict separation of fact and value you appear to be presupposing. I could ask you if it's a fact that they are separated, or something closer to a definition or a judgment. If it's a definition, then I request the means you use to test whether the formal system which goes with the definition actually matches reality. If it's a judgment, I want to know why I ought to accept it. If it's something else, I'd like to know what it is.

          I would argue that the best theology admits of zero separation of fact and value, and that when one presupposes a strong separation in critiquing theology, one has it wrong from the start. One has it wrong because one is presupposing theology is something it isn't, and one has it wrong because human life just doesn't have that separation.

          • Doug Shaver

            did you perhaps mean to say "If an assertion of a fact is unfalsifiable"?

            I meant statements of empirical fact, without committing myself as to whether there is any other kind.

            So when folks say "all people are of equal moral worth", they aren't making any predictions, such that "the world would be better if we adopted this belief"?

            That would depend on what they meant by "better." As a consequentialist, I might assert that universal adoption of such a principle would lead to a diminution of human suffering, and that is a falsifiable assertion. But my assertion that human suffering is a bad thing per se and therefore ought to be diminished is not falsifiable.

            I'm questioning the strict separation of fact and value you appear to be presupposing.

            I get it that facts are not irrelevant to values. It might often, if not invariably, be impossible to discuss one without also discussing the other. It does not follow that the criteria by which one judges assertions of one kind are the same as those by which assertions of the other kind must be judged.

            I could ask you if it's a fact that they are separated, or something closer to a definition or a judgment.

            It is a linguistic fact that people use them to refer to different kinds of statements. Since usage entails definition, that separates them by definition. The claim that people are mistaken to perceive such a distinction and therefore ought to change their linguistic habits is a judgment.

            I would argue that the best theology admits of zero separation of fact and value

            If it does, then that's one more reason for me to be an atheist.

            when one presupposes a strong separation in critiquing theology, one has it wrong from the start. One has it wrong because one is presupposing theology is something it isn't, and one has it wrong because human life just doesn't have that separation.

            To the best of my recollection, you are the first theist I have encountered who has asserted a theology that denies the fact-value dichotomy. As for its separation in human life . . . you don't see it, and I do, and that's a dispute that I can't think of a good way to resolve.

          • I meant statements of empirical fact, without committing myself as to whether there is any other kind.

            Ok, but now you've restricted the domain of your comment—

            DS: If an assertion is unfalsifiable, does it matter whether I believe it not?

            —to talk of allegedly value-free empirical facts. Your statement would then seem to verge on a tautology. Something matters iff (i) it is fodder for hypothetical imperatives, or (2) it has to do with categorical imperatives. The objection would be that one cannot actually do this:

            I get it that facts are not irrelevant to values. It might often, if not invariably, be impossible to discuss one without also discussing the other. It does not follow that the criteria by which one judges assertions of one kind are the same as those by which assertions of the other kind must be judged.

            That is, if there are things in reality which have value-dimension and fact-dimension such that you must deal with both when dealing with the thing as a whole, the way of thinking you espouse in your comment is exposed as a formal system which is inadequate to empirical reality. It is very common for positivists to treat the way they speak about reality as if reality is obviously that way and couldn't possibly be different. This leads to questions and statements which implicitly presume that reality is a certain way. I enjoy putting such presumptions to the test. I believe the folks responsible for the Enlightenment did, as well.

            If it does, then that's one more reason for me to be an atheist.

            This seems entirely ideological and not empirical in the slightest.

            To the best of my recollection, you are the first theist I have encountered who has asserted a theology that denies the fact-value dichotomy.

            According to Ellen T. Charry in her essay "Walking in the Truth: On Knowing God" in But Is It All True?, the move from sapientia (Hellenistic belief that knowledge leads to goodness) to scientia (knowledge which can be demonstrated) happened around the turn of the first millennium. The fact–value dichotomy is, as far as I know, a relatively new thing.

            Perhaps it would be important to note that the fact—value dichotomy can be instrumentally useful, as an approximation which works well in some domains. As science itself has taught us, something which is instrumentally useful need not be be the case, ontologically. Fail to distinguish between epistemology and ontology and you become someone who judges by appearances.

            As for its separation in human life . . . you don't see it, and I do, and that's a dispute that I can't think of a good way to resolve.

            You realize that during the reign of positivism, sociologists thought they could study human society in a value-neutral fashion, right? Learning that this is absolutely false has been a long slog, and many people are stuck closer to the positivist stage. Perhaps you could tell me what residue is left which is still value-neutral.

          • Doug Shaver

            Ok, but now you've restricted the domain of your comment—

            —to talk of allegedly value-free empirical facts.

            I have not alleged that any facts are value-free. I have alleged that facts and values are not the same thing.

            It is very common for positivists to treat the way they speak about reality as if reality is obviously that way and couldn't possibly be different.

            My sympathy for positivism does not entail my agreement with any particular position taken by any other positivist. Historically, there was considerable debate within the Vienna Circle over some of their most basic ideas.

            The fact–value dichotomy is, as far as I know, a relatively new thing.

            Maybe it is, but I don't reject ideas just because they're new.

            Fail to distinguish between epistemology and ontology and you become someone who judges by appearances.

            My epistemology fails to find your ontology justifiable. That is not a failure to distinguish between the two.

            You realize that during the reign of positivism, sociologists thought they could study human society in a value-neutral fashion, right?

            Yes, and I also know that they were mistaken to think so. The distinction between facts and values can be very difficult to recognize, but that doesn't mean it doesn't exist or that we should pretend that it's irrelevant.

          • I have not alleged that any facts are value-free. I have alleged that facts and values are not the same thing.

            Hmmm, can you then describe the gray zone between value-laden facts and fact-free values? (Or if it's not gray, then the line of demarcation instead.) I'm trying to understand your original comment, and the more we discuss I find the less I understand it!

            Maybe it is, but I don't reject ideas just because they're new.

            I don't understand what provoked you to say this. You were noting surprise that I think the [alleged] fact—value dichotomy is very important when it comes to what theology is; I was attempting to explain why this actually shouldn't be all that surprising, unless perhaps you have restricted your exposure to theology to be quite provincial.

            The distinction between facts and values can be very difficult to recognize, but that doesn't mean it doesn't exist or that we should pretend that it's irrelevant.

            I explicitly noted that the fact–value dichotomy is relevant in some domains, so again I don't understand why you would say "pretend that it's irrelevant".

            The bottom line, as I see it, is this. Values can be ignored when we are studying inanimate objects, and to some extent organisms (social organisms are the exception I'm thinking of). The most wildly successful science has been done in precisely these areas. If we pretend that all of reality is like those domains, we reify the fact–value dichotomy. I say that theology deals with the most value-laden aspect of reality: human life. And yet, I frequently see atheists try to analyze theology with a mindset best suited to studying inanimate objects. It makes no sense, unless one is denying the ontological reality of values. That, I find extremely problematic.

            I may have gone too far in saying "theology admits of zero separation of fact and value". I would have to be convinced of it. What I am quite confident about is that atheists are wont to treat theology as if it separated the two much more than it possibly can, and be anything remotely like the 'theology' done four hundred years ago. (One might posit a radical break sometime in the intervening time—but it would only cover some subsequent theology.)

          • Doug Shaver

            I may have gone too far in saying "theology admits of zero separation of fact and value".

            What you said was [emphasis added]: "I would argue that the best theology admits of zero separation of fact and value."

            What I am quite confident about is that atheists are wont to treat theology as if it separated the two much more than it possibly can,

            I don't much care about what anybody's theology has to say about the distinction between fact and value. I am not arguing that they must be distinct because God doesn't exist. If you're trying to argue that they can't be distinct because God does exist, then you're in effect changing the subject.

            You were noting surprise that I think the [alleged] fact—value dichotomy is very important when it comes to what theology is;

            You said that the best theology denied the distinction. I was merely telling you that that was news to me. It was surprising only in the sense that it was unexpected.

            perhaps you have restricted your exposure to theology to be quite provincial.

            I'll admit to having made no study of theology beyond what I've gotten from religious apologists and two undergraduate classes in the philosophy of religion.

            I explicitly noted that the fact–value dichotomy is relevant in some domains

            So, there is no real distinction, but sometimes it's OK to pretend there is? Is that what you're saying?

          • What you said was [emphasis added]: "I would argue that the best theology admits of zero separation of fact and value."

            What I said still applies.

            I don't much care about what anybody's theology has to say about the distinction between fact and value.

            Hey, you're the one who said "To the best of my recollection, you are the first theist I have encountered who has asserted a theology that denies the fact-value dichotomy." I was trying to work from that.

            I'll admit to having made no study of theology beyond what I've gotten from religious apologists and two undergraduate classes in the philosophy of religion.

            Then I suggest reading On Being an Ex-Apologist (part 1 of 3), by Randy Hardman. What you will find is that the form of apologetics he was espousing had little to no impact on his character—or as people sometimes say, "it was all head and no heart". Christianity was like a formal system which deviated more and more from reality. Or: it was an exclusive focus on facts, with zero focus on values. I'm not saying that all Christian apologetics is like this, but an awful lot I myself have seen these days is.

            So, there is no real distinction, but sometimes it's OK to pretend there is? Is that what you're saying?

            Not necessarily; the mass of the electron does seem pretty value-free, but it is also utterly irrelevant to theology. What I said outside of theology—

            LB: Perhaps it would be important to note that the fact—value dichotomy can be instrumentally useful, as an approximation which works well in some domains. As science itself has taught us, something which is instrumentally useful need not be be the case, ontologically.

            —is true, regardless of whether there is an ontological distinction. Likewise, F = ma is a wonderful approximation for many situations. Another example would be that Ockham's [methodological] razor is quite well-supported, while the ontological form is completely unsubstantiated (we have no idea whether ultimate reality is simple or complex).

          • Doug Shaver

            Hey, you're the one who said "To the best of my recollection, you are the first theist I have encountered who has asserted a theology that denies the fact-value dichotomy." I was trying to work from that.

            Fair enough, but I intended only an observation, not a counterargument.

            the mass of the electron does seem pretty value-free,

            What do you mean, "seems"? It is or it isn't. Which say you?

          • What do you mean, "seems"? It is or it isn't. Which say you?

            When it is embedded in the fine-tuning argument, it seems to take on an aspect of value-ladenness: it is that way because that was required for there to be life. And so, I'm really not sure whether it is better to say that the mass of the electron is, or is not, value-free.

          • Doug Shaver

            I'm not disputing the existence of value-laden facts. I'm disputing your assertion that there is no distinction to be made between values and facts. My workshop is laden with sawdust, but there is no sense in which the workshop and the sawdust are indistinguishable.

          • Where did I assert "no distinction"? A proton has mass and charge; we can talk about them separately to some extent. But ultimately, they inhere in a single thing, and you cannot provide a complete definition of that thing without mentioning both.

          • Doug Shaver

            Where did I assert "no distinction"?

            I thought it was what you meant when you said that the best theology denies any separation between facts and values. Did I misunderstand you?

          • When I said "I would argue that the best theology admits of zero separation of fact and value", by 'separation' I meant the following, which is from the NDPR review of Thick Concepts:

            At the heart of the debate in its early days was the question whether the descriptive and evaluative components of thick concepts can be disentangled. As Simon Kirchin explains, this is the issue of whether thick concepts can be 'separated into distinct, isolatable, and independently intelligible parts: typically some evaluative conceptual content and some descriptive conceptual content. . . . whether [thick concepts] can be broken down into more basic elements' (6-7).

            One can distinguish the charge and mass of a proton, but one cannot separate them, as if they were two distinct entities. If you were to try to comprehensively discuss protons while ignoring their charge, you would be missing out on something fundamental.

          • Doug Shaver

            Did I misunderstand you?

            I meant the following

            I misunderstood you.

    • Phil

      Hey Doug -- One problem with this belief is that we live every single day making decisions based upon things that are, in principle, unfalsifiable. Entering into any sort of basic relationship with another person is an act of trust; there is a "leap of faith" that must happen. Yes, this "leap of faith" can be one that's based upon good reasoning, but that never gets rid of the subjectivity inherent when we encounter human persons.

      It would be very interesting to think through a normal day and imagine what it would look like if we only acted upon beliefs that could be falsified...

      • Doug Shaver

        Hey Doug -- One problem with this belief is that we live every single day making decisions based upon things that are, in principle, unfalsifiable

        I'm not so sure. Most of the routine decisions I make are untestable at the moment when I make them, but I always intend for them to have a certain outcome (or set of possible outcomes). If the outcome is something contrary to my intention, then I've made the wrong decision, i.e. my decision was falsified. To put it a bit more precisely, I decide to do X instead of something not-X because I believe the result of my doing X will be more to my liking than the outcome of my doing not-X, but that belief can be falsified if the actual outcome turns out not to be what I wanted.

        To be falsifiable, a belief does not have to actually be falsified. All that is required is an observable possible state of affairs that, if it obtains, is inconsistent with the belief. And the observability needs to hold only in principle. The practical possibility of observing the contrary state of affairs is irrelevant.

        • Phil

          And the observability needs to hold only in principle. The practical possibility of observing the contrary state of affairs is irrelevant.

          This very broad view of a principle of falsifiability seems to make everything falsifiable. If one need only to have the theoretical, not practical, ability to falsify something, then it seems that absolutely everything becomes falsifiable.

          • Doug Shaver

            This very broad view of a principle of falsifiability seems to make everything falsifiable.

            Maybe it should. But then you encounter someone advocating some proposition for which you think there is ample evidence to the contrary. So you say, "What about X?" and they say, "That is not inconsistent with what I'm saying." Then you say, "But what about Y?" and they say, "That is not inconsistent either." "OK, then what about Z?" "Not a problem." Finally you ask, "All right, then, what would prove you wrong?" and they respond with either silence or evasion. That is tantamount to an admission of unfalsifiability.

          • Phil

            They may not know what it would take, but a falsifiable state would exist if one took a broad view of falsifiability. It all depends on what one means by "falsifiable". If it doesn't need to be something that could be practically tested, then that opens up everything.

            For example, someone asks what would it take to prove the hypothesis that "God exists" is false. Well, if I didn't exist as I do right now, that would falsify it. Because I exist, therefore the non-contingent Creator God exists.

            But of course, there's no way to practically test this even though we can coherently present what it would take to falsify the belief. That is why one's definition of "falsifiable" is key.

          • Doug Shaver

            As long as someone says, "My belief could be falsified, and here is what it would take," I'm unlikely to argue back that what they're claiming is not real falsifiability. My concern is with people who admit that their beliefs are unfalsifiable and then argue that I'm wrong to think that that's a problem.

          • Mike

            i agree. apparently catholic claims are 'practically' falsifiable on at least fronts or in 2 clear cases:

            1. find the body of Christ or his mother
            2. prove that our intellects and will arose out out purely natural processes

            and maybe something like"
            - prove that 100% of chemistry can be know via only physics, which would prove that telos in the natural world and forms don't exist as we think they do.

  • Feser as usual heaps up errors on errors like nobody else, but let's assume for the sake of argument that he's right. Why is it imagined to be a good thing that theological claims are kept unfalsifiable?

    Falsifiable: Can be shown to be false if it is false.
    Unfalsifiable: Cannot be shown to be false even if it is false.

    So if you insist that your beliefs are unfalsifiable, then even if they are indeed false you could still believe them for the same reasons you do now, which means your reasons for belief are really very bad reasons!

  • If not falsifiability, then what standard should be applied to test whether a theological claim is true or false? Why don't theologians make their theological claims sufficiently rigorous that they could be demonstrated to meet or fail any objective standard at all? Why don't theologians voluntarily take on a standard of proof of their own choosing, such as scientists (via experiment) and mathematicians (via axiomatic systems) have done now for centuries? What does it say about the supposed content of theological claims that there is as yet no such objective standard for them to meet or fail?

    • Phil

      Hey Ryan,

      There actually is a rigorousness to the discipline of theology, the problem is that many want rigorousness on their terms, not on the terms of the discipline (e.g., wanting it to be falsifiable).

      Doing Christian theology is a discipline that is based upon the harmony of faith and reason. Without faith (i.e., trust that God has revealed himself) you don't have theology. Without reason you don't a coherent discipline. God himself is also necessarily reasonable, which can be shown through rational argument in philosophy, which gives further credence to the necessity of reason. No theological belief can be truly incoherent. Now, some theological truths go beyond reason (supra-rational), but they definitely don't undermine reason (irrational).

      This why I believe it is properly said that good theology can only be done "on one's knees". If one does not have some sort of a personal relationship with the God whom he or she is coming to know, it all is in vain. So yes, theology is hard, much harder than science or philosophy in my opinion.

      So there are objective standards, but remember, we aren't doing science so one can't expect them to be the same standards as science.

      • Sample1

        There actually is a rigorousness to the discipline of theology, the problem is that many want rigorousness on their terms, not on the terms of the discipline (e.g., wanting it to be falsifiable).

        What if I say that there is a rigorousness to the discipline of biology but the problem is that many want rigorousness on their terms, not on the terms of the discipline? Could you reflect on what an example of that would look like and post it for me?

        Mike

        • Phil

          Hey Mike,

          One would have to use good philosophy to determine what is the proper rigor for that certain discipline. Ultimately, good reasoning is the proper rigor for every single coherent discipline.

          I believe the point underlying your comment is whether one could think they were being rigorous, when they really weren't. Absolutely; one could think they're being rigorous when they really were not.

          But that point is different from expecting to determine the truth of a philosophical or theological truth based upon the principles of rigor of the physical sciences. That makes little sense and is akin to trying to saw a piece of wood with a hammer.

          • Sample1

            When questioning you I had chosen to suspend judgement (I had no underlying point as you suggest) and rather hoped to gain a perspective.

            If you had provided an example we could have continued from there depending on your reply, of course. That was my only "point."

            Mike

          • Phil

            Thanks for clarifying--sometimes on these discussions I can beat around the bush, so I was trying to see if there was a deeper point that we were getting at.

            As for an example, it is much clearer when we compare a physical science with a non-physical science (I'll keep thinking to see if I can come up with a biology example).

            When someone doing physics puts forward a hypothesis that could be falsified via an empirical experiment, you make the observations/run the experiment many times by different people and if the data supports your hypothesis and it can't be falsified from many different angles, I may become an accepted theory.

            When it comes to a discipline such as metaphysics, we are trying to understand the nature of causality itself. If one asks the question, what data would falsify your belief about the nature of causality, well, that's the wrong question. The only answer to that could be "well, the world not existing as it does right now". This is because causality extends to the very nature of physical beings. So in metaphysics we observe reality and then reason about what must be true about it metaphysically. If one wants to prove a belief about the nature of causality wrong, one must use a metaphysical proof, not the physical sciences. In short, there is no scientific "test" that one could run to falsify a belief about the nature of causality. But one could put forward a metaphysical proof that would throw one's belief about the nature of causality into question.

            This is also why metaphysical "proofs" for the existence of God have no need to fear the discoveries of the physical sciences. Nothing the physical sciences could discover could disprove them. One could disprove them using a metaphysical proud though.

            Anyone, hope this sheds some light! Again, I'll try and think of a biology example.

          • Sample1

            ¶ 1: No worries, understood.

            ¶ 2: Well, I'm more adept with general biology (insofar as being able to see red flag understandings) than physics so I'll just await any discovery you might find.

            ¶ 3: I think what you want to convey is that if experimental results don't agree with theory, then the theory is probably wrong or perhaps incomplete. That's ok by me. It is incorrect to say, however, that in science when a theory cannot be falsified it becomes an accepted theory. We don't have to talk about the principle of falsification right now, however.

            ¶ 4: It seems you've "gone nuclear" (and paradoxically*) by saying that the "world not existing as it does right now" is the only answer to a supposed wrong question. *Paradoxically because an answer is given.

            I don't think you mean to say causality is only extended to the nature of physical beings, do you? I've seen others here extend causality to particles, for instance.

            I don't see why the "nature of causality" is a topic untouchable by scientific inquiry. By scientific inquiry I mean critical thought and by that I mean not just a logical understanding but rather an intellectual determination of an experience. In other words, evaluating the quality of one's thinking. When you say that metaphysics tries to understand the nature of causality is it critical thinking that's employed or is another method of knowing used? As an aside, what do you make of this famous quote (bold mine):

            The best possible knowledge of a whole does not necessarily include the best possible knowledge of its parts. -Schrödinger

            ¶ 5: This is the paragraph where you seem to be saying (as PBR recently highlighted to Peter) that metaphysics (rather than accepted scientific claims) is not falsifiable and therefore beyond disproving.

            ¶ 6: Please do, I look forward to a biology example.

            Mike

          • Phil

            Before I respond, since biology is your expertise, would you be able to describe what would be the overall methods for biology and how biological hypotheses are generally tested? I am much more familiar with physics and cosmology, so I would love to learn. That may also help me to propose a coherent example!

            I don't think you mean to say causality is only extended to the nature of physical beings, do you? I've seen others here extend causality to particles, for instance.

            By "beings" I mean all that exists (which would include particles). I apologize for not being clear.

            I don't see why the "nature of causality" is a topic untouchable by scientific inquiry. By scientific inquiry I mean critical thought and by that I mean not just a logical understanding but rather an intellectual determination of an experience. In other words, evaluating the quality of one's thinking. When you say that metaphysics tries to understand the nature of causality is it critical thinking that's employed or is another method of knowing used?

            It all depends on what you mean by "scientific inquiry". If by scientific inquiry you mean any discipline that uses reason to discern the truth, then yes, metaphysics and philosophy as a whole is "scientific inquiry". Now, if you only mean the physical sciences when you use that term, then no, they are not the proper tool to discern the nature of causality because they rely on the principle of causality to even be able to function in the first place. They can't figure out the truth of something that they assume to be a coherent discipline in the first place.

            To your last question--Yes, philosophy (and metaphysics specifically) is simply using reason well to discern the true nature of reality. Metaphysics underlies the physical sciences such as biology and physics. For example--asking questions like "what is biology", "is biology a coherent discipline", "is the scientific method a valid way to come discover truth" are all philosophical questions. Biology can't prove that it is coherent, just as no science can prove that the scientific method is valid and all scientists aren't living an illusion of truth. Metaphysics goes to the very underlying structures of reality that exist as a unity with all physical entities.

            This is the paragraph where you seem to be saying (as PBR recently highlighted to Peter) that metaphysics (rather than accepted scientific claims) is not falsifiable and therefore beyond disproving.

            It all depends on what one means by "falsifiable". If one simply means that a metaphysical theory can be shown to be incoherent through reason and logic, then yes, all philosophical theories a "falsifiable". Now, if one means that there is an empirical experiment that one could run to falsify a metaphysical theory, then no, they are not falsifiable. But if one takes this latter view of falsifiable (the more common one), one then can't conclude that only that which is in principle empirically falsifiable counts as true knowledge (this statement itself is not empirically falsifiable!).

            It is incorrect to say, however, that in science
            when a theory cannot be falsified it becomes an accepted theory.

            My statement was probably too vague. It was more meant to point out that as a hypothesis is able to explain the most data, is internally coherent, and has not been falsified it may become an accepted theory.

            As an aside, what do you make of this famous quote: The best possible knowledge of a whole does not necessarily include the best possible knowledge of its parts. -Schrödinger

            I would need some more context to respond well to this. As he could be referencing several different things and I don't want to run off in the wrong direction.

          • Sample1

            Well, the process of hypothesis formation is independent of the discipline be it biology or physics or chemistry.

            Let's take a biological example I worked with in college. Can cetacean behaviors be predicted by respiration rates? If so, such knowledge could foster relatively inexpensive research projects (not needing telemetry implantations/drones, etc). And as it happens, studying respiration rates has shown that certain whale behavior can be predicted/known from feeding, to traveling, to resting, etc. I can pick up a pair of binoculars, look out my window and know something about what a forty ton mammal is doing without actually seeing it, save for its breathing. Not to mention being able to identify, with good accuracy, the species based on the shape of the spout. If a boat ventures into the area of a feeding pod, I can draw a correlation of behavior change based on respiratory changes that would support nusiance boating activity. Sounds simple, but all the ingredients for hypothesis formation were undertaken to draw provisional conclusions leading to a theory of cetacean behavior based on respiratory data.

            It's the many principles found in good definitions of critical thinking that underlie all of scientific inquiry. Interestingly, I've come across data showing only about one in five people are natural critical thinkers and moreover our US universities are terrible at fostering that skill even though faculty say it's important (though they are often unable to provide any intelligible explanation themselves!). The good news: critical thinking can be learned. The bad news, this is a very long discussion in the making. Your third paragraph in response is going to require tackling that subject as I don't think it's sufficient to write the word reason and assume it applies equally to scientific inquiry and metaphysical claims.

            Do you see a distinction between philosophy and metaphysics? You've used them interchangeably to my eyes.

            The Schrödinger quote was brought up because it has to do with his philosophy of physics endeavors, specifically causality. We don't need to go there, I just was curious if it would stir a comment from you.

            Mike
            Edit done

          • Phil

            Thanks for taking the time to write out a real life biological example, I find that sort of stuff quite fascinating!

            I am right there with you about critical thinking, especially in our higher learning institutions! That is why good philosophy classes are so important! Philosophy is a main place where one learns to think critically and reason well. While other sciences assume good reasoning, it could be said that philosophy is the art of reasoning well. If one can then reason well in general, that will apply to reasoning and thinking critically about everything in life, including the physical sciences.

            So you are exactly right to mention in your example that the specifically "scientific method" part transcends specific physical sciences and really just contains a bunch of philosophical assumptions and good philosophical reasoning. What you are doing is using good reasoning, i.e., good philosophy, to propose certain connections that may exist and discard/ignore ad hoc premises.

            (E.g., If someone noted that the breathing rate is perfectly correlative in some way to the fact that cetacea can't speak the inuit langauge, you would note that how quickly someone breathes does not directly cause whether, in the first place, one is capable of speaking inuit or not. This is something that good reasoning, i.e., good philosophy, would tell someone, not the physical sciences.)

            Do you see a distinction between philosophy and metaphysics? You've used them interchangeably to my eyes.

            I apologize, sometimes I throw out terms without defining them as I'm already long-winded enough. Metaphysics is merely a sub-discipline of the larger discipline of philosophy. Metaphysics studies the underlying structure of reality; more specifically being qua being. Metaphysics doesn't study any beings specifically (e.g., protons, planets, monkeys, trees, persons, black holes, etc), but studies what does it mean to say something is a unified being or "substance" in the first place. That is why metaphysics is prior to any physical science that is studying the individual beings themselves. It studies what the nature of physical entities, merely as being a physical entity, is in general. That is why it studies things like the nature of causality (which the physical sciences must assume). It also studies why certain physical entities can have "powers" to bring about certain causes rather than others in the first place, i.e., why isn't everything just completely random? If you don't get causality right, you don't have a physical science in the first place.

            Some other branches of philosophy would be: philosophy of nature, philosophy of physics/biology/psychology, etc, ethics, philosophy of language, and on and on... That is why good philosophers can be annoying because they seem to be able to say something about everything. That is because philosophy underlies absolutely everything in life! (As I mentioned above, good philosophy is good critical thinking/reasoning.) Is it hard? Absolutely, because you are dealing with so much stuff. Though I have studied philosophy for many years, I am merely an amateur.

          • Sample1

            Metaphysics; after the physics. What comes to mind for you when I say, after the biology or metabiology?

            When you say being (not pressing you for a definition), your thoughts turn to substance (perhaps you are getting at Aristotle's ultimate stuff).

            When I hear the word being, I think of the word species. I think of what it means to say that something is a species. I think of my old high school chemistry professor (a pivotal figure in my life of learning about science) who once said to my class, "everything is chemistry." If I were a philosopher of biology, perhaps I would ask if species are reducible to chemical processes. Or perhaps I'd note how Mendel's genetics have been reduced to molecular genetics. I see these philosophical questions taking a naturalistic path of inquiry: no talk of, say, vitalism (except perhaps the history of vitalism and why it is no longer accepted).

            I guess my question to you is, have you ever looked in to the philosophy of biology? What questions come to mind for you?

            Mike
            Edit done

          • Phil

            Metaphysics; after the physics. What comes to mind for you when I say, after the biology or metabiology.

            "Meta-biology" would be philosophy; more specifically, "philosophy of biology". That would be studying the principles that underlie the discipline of biology which would include some principles of metaphysics as well, some philosophy of nature, and various other philosophical branches.

            I guess my question to you is, have you ever looked in to the philosophy of biology? What questions come to mind for you?

            I have done a little in regards to philosophy of biology, but only in a roundabout way, never directly with that focus. Some questions I've studied in that realm would be regarding the metaphysics of evolution, questions about animal "minds" and especially what makes the human animal so different, not simply in complexity but qualitatively different, from other animals.

            I see these philosophical questions taking a naturalistic path of inquiry: no talk of, say, vitalism (except perhaps the history of vitalism and why it is no longer accepted).

            If by naturalistic, one means "materialistic", then that is a philosophical question that is up for grabs. I am only moderately familiar with vitalism (haven't studied it in depth), but it almost seems to be a deformed version of Aristotelian-Thomistic hylomorphism. I have found A-T hylomorphism to be the most coherent metaphysics (in its most basic form it states that all material reality is both material and immaterial in its nature; it is a rejection of both materialism and dualism). It's foundation is Aristotelian metaphysics and was greatly refined by Thomas Aquinas in the Middle Ages.

            Most of these modern so-called philosophical "problems" simply go away in the face of A-T metaphysics. That is one of the marks of a good "theory: does it explain and make intelligible the most wide array of "data".

            Though, many have spoken out against it over the past 300 years and don't like it simply because it's final rational and logical conclusion is that God exists, and people are sadly biased towards that rational conclusion. Intellectual bias at its "best"!

            At this point, many don't even study of A-T metaphysics actually is; it simply gets dismissed...

            When I hear the word being, I think of the word species. I think of what it means to say that something is a species.

            And this is actually good reminder for me because "being" from a philosophy standpoint references something very different than biology. So it's a reminder to realize that not everyone understands concepts the way that I personally do. (Sometimes one can get a little lost in one's own mind, if you know what I mean!)

          • Sample1

            What do you think is the difference between, as you say, "studying the principles of biology" as metaphysics and studying theoretical biology?

            Mike
            Edit done

          • Phil

            I only know some basics when it comes to the sort of things that one focuses on in theoretical biology, but if it is similar to many of the "theoretical" sciences then there is a lot of philosophy and utilizing of philosophical principles in theoretical biology.

            I think it is good for more in the physical sciences to realize that even when one is doing something like a more pure experimental biology or physics there are a lot of philosophical principles that one is employing. To simply interpret data or to propose and defend a certain experiment includes much philosophy. The data can't interpret itself, one must use good philosophical principles regarding reasoning to interpret the data. This is where some physicists (e.g., Stephen Hawking and Lawrence Krauss) and evolutionary biologists (e.g., Richard Dawkins) get into trouble because they can propose some radical philosophical conclusions from the gathered data and observations. What normally happens is they show themselves to by very good scientists but bad philosophers.

            Here is one of my favorite quotes from Einstein. It was in a letter response to someone who was frustrated when he couldn't get good philosophy classes included in the physics curriculum:

            "I fully agree with you about the significance and educational value of methodology as well as history and philosophy of science. So many people today--and even professional scientists--seem to me like someone who has seen thousands of trees but have never seen a forest. A knowledge of the historical and philosophical background gives the kind of independence from prejudices of his generation from which most scientists are suffering. This independence created by philosophical insight is--in my opinion--the mark of distinction between a mere artisan or specialist and a real seeker of truth."

            -- Albert Einstein

          • Sample1

            I ask because it's tricky for me to differentiate between doing philosophy in biology and doing theoretical biology. You agree there is an important difference.

            Can you please give one example of doing philosophy of biology and one example of doing theoretical biology?

            Thanks,
            Mike

          • Phil

            Yeah, I think I'd agree. There are no black and white answers. Philosophy, philosophical principles, and philosophical assumptions will be used in both a more experimental biology and theoretical biology. In what way and to what degree will depend upon the types of questions that one is tackling.

            While I'm working on exams for this week so I won't be able to give full examples until next week, know that there is a lot of overlap in philosophy of biology, use of philosophy in an experimental biology, and theoretical biology. Much has to do with the type of questions one is asking and what task one is doing. As I mentioned above there is no hard line between philosophy and the physical sciences. So your point that you aren't seeing the distinction between something like theoretical biology and philosophy of biology is well-warranted. Though there are subtle differences in the type of questions and problems being posed, there is a lot of overlap.

            -----
            Thanks for the great discussion! These type of questions really help me to think through my own beliefs about these things, which is the exact reason why I frequent these combox chats--I want to learn more from everyone here.

          • Sample1

            Ok, so what we have, I think, from our discussion is at least a basic agreement that:

            1. There is a philosophy of biology: no examples
            2. There is theoretical biology: no examples

            Now I need to ask for one more thing. What is an example of:

            3. Metabiology

            Mike

          • Phil

            I think a better group of takeaways from the discussion is that there is no hard line between philosophy and the physical sciences. That is the important thing for us to understand. Sometimes we like to talk like it is science vs. philosophy. That is very misleading. There are no physical sciences without the philosophical ground beneath them. Philosophy is the tree branch which the physical sciences sit upon, so to saw off the branch is to allow the sciences to crash to the ground as well.

            Now I need to ask for one more thing. What is an example of: Metabiology

            You might have missed it above, but I mentioned that a "metabiology" would be a philosophy of biology. It might be confusing, but metaphysics does not correlate to physics in the same way that a "metabiology" would correlate to biology. Metaphysics applies to biology just as much as it applies to physics. This is because it studies the structure underlying all of reality.

            -------
            Since I would like to provide examples, but I don't have much time this week I'll just throw out 3 quick questions that each discipline might ask:

            1) Biology: Can cetacean behaviors be predicted by respiration rates? (Though, the next question may be, is it merely correlative or is there an actual casual relationship between these two things? That is more of a philosophical question. Science gives you correlation, philosophy can give you reasons to believe in actual casual connections.)

            2) Philosophy of Biology: Can higher-level processes be reduced purely to physical and chemical processes? What is biology?

            3) Theoretical Biology: (This is the hardest because it brings so many disciplines together.) Based upon our understanding of the believed causes within a biological system, here is a proposed mathematical model for 'X' biological system. Then one can take that model and see if it aligns well with reality.

            Again, I have little experience specifically with biology. My realm is closer to philosophy, especially metaphysics. If one proposes a biological question, I would be much better at pointing out what are some of the underlying philosophical questions that come into play.

          • Sample1

            I think a better group of takeaways from the discussion is that there is no hard line between philosophy and the physical sciences.

            The way I understand recorded or one might say recent history is that natural philosophy was the precursor field of study to what we now call science (diverging from each other around the 19th century coinciding with a formalization of the scientific method). Likewise, natural philosophy diverged from philosophy still a few centuries prior.

            If by no hard line you mean that the history of science traces its development back in time through philosophy I agree. But I would also trace philosophy back even further, before the recorded history of the Greeks and into the minds of our earliest ancestors who engaged with their environment. We know the Neanderthals, who left Africa before humans did, cooked their vegetables and perhaps even sailed the Mediterranean in boats. Considering their frontal lobes, I'm not ready to deny them a philosophical history of their own; perhaps even one which our own eventually diverged from. Impossible to know. My point being that philosophy has been an ever evolving discipline.

            Philosophy is the tree branch which the physical sciences sit upon, so to saw off the branch is to allow the sciences to crash to the ground as well.

            Again, I agree with the historical link but I part ways with your metaphor of "falling to the ground." For instance, I have a coral that I glued, initially, to a piece of rock in my aquarium when I purchased it. The coral branched and touched another rock and in the process starting adhering and growing there. Over a year later, the initial gluing point has no coral on it, it has branched completely off that rock and is thriving elsewhere.

            I see the specialized sciences in much the same way. Each field thrives in its own right. One need not be a philosopher to be a biologist or a chemist, or a physicist just as my coral needn't be glued back to its initial spot a year ago in order to thrive. Of course corals, though they are animals, don't have brains and so cannot reflect on their own history. We can. But I don't think that reflection, that reflection of our history, is a kind of binding force or something that necessitates adherence in order to continue evolving into ever more fields of study.

            Mike

          • Phil

            Again, I agree with the historical link but I part ways with your metaphor of "falling to the ground."

            Actually, it is not merely historically that the physical sciences rely upon philosophy. It is right here and now! Without a rational philosophical basis right now, the physical sciences come crashing to the ground!

            For example, here are some things that the physical sciences assume philosophically but can't prove:

            The physical sciences assume:
            -That the physical world is actually intelligible and can be understood
            -That the physical world contains order, where things act towards certain ends/purposes (i.e., things aren't completely random)
            -A coherent causality
            -Objective external truth exists
            -That the scientific method works and isn't merely illusory (the scientific method itself is a philosophical belief)
            -That our subjective experience is actually in contact with an objective external reality
            -That they themselves are a rational study of reality (e.g., why is biology a valid science and astrology is not? That's a philosophical question.) In short, biology can't itself prove that it is a rational field of study of reality, it only can assume it is. Philosophy can show whether biology is a coherent study or not.

            If you don't have a rational philosophical reason to believe just one of these above, all the physical sciences come crashing to the ground here and now.

            One need not be a philosopher to be a biologist or a chemist, or a physicist just as my coral needn't be glued back to its initial spot a year ago in order to thrive. Of course corals, though they are animals, don't have brains and so cannot reflect on their own history. We can. But I don't think that reflection, that reflection of our history, is a kind of binding force or something that necessitates adherence in order to continue evolving into ever more fields of study.

            You are exactly correct that one need not be a philosopher to be a good biologist or physicist. But as Einstein said, being a good philosopher will only make one a better biologist or physicist. Philosophy is what underlies each science right here and now. Philosophy is not merely about history, its about rational investigation of the true nature of reality right now. There is philosophy of history, but that's merely a branch of philosophy.

            In short, philosophy is as it means "the love of wisdom". It seeks truth everywhere it is possible through rational investigation.

      • No theological belief can be truly incoherent. Now, some theological truths go beyond reason (supra-rational), but they definitely don't undermine reason (irrational).

        A conclusion was either reached via reason or not. When we've reached a conclusion by not by reason, then whether we call it "above" reason or "below" reason is just an argument from personal prejudice. If we like the conclusion, we call it supra-rational, and if we dislike it, we call it subrational or irrational. But really any conclusions or beliefs that go beyond what the evidence ratios justify are just irrational.

        • Phil

          A conclusion was either reached via reason or not. When we've reached a conclusion by not by reason, then whether we call it "above" reason or "below" reason is just an argument from personal prejudice. If we like the conclusion, we call it supra-rational, and if we dislike it, we call it subrational or irrational.

          Not at all--there is a difference between that which is in contradiction to reason and that which is beyond reason. If something is beyond reason, it would be impossible for it to contradict reason (that's just how logic and reason at work).

          Now there is a problem with someone saying that something is "beyond reason" when it is really is able to be evaluated by reason.

          • OK, let's make this less abstract. Show me a statement that is "beyond reason" according to your standard, and yet not irrational according to the evidence ratios.

      • So there are objective standards, but remember, we aren't doing science so one can't expect them to be the same standards as science.

        Oh, what is one of these objective standards? I note that you didn't mention any.

        There actually is a rigorousness to the discipline of theology

        There actually is a rigorousness to the discipline of writing fairy tales. So what? I agree that theology is not simply ink splashed chaotically onto the page, but that there are important desiderata valued in the market for works of inspirational fantasy.

        Feser keeps trying to appropriate for theology the esteem granted to science and mathematics. But scientists have earned that esteem by voluntarily adhering to an objective standard: settling their debates by experiment. Mathematicians have earned that esteem by voluntarily adhering to an objective standard: deduction within axiomatic systems.

        Nothing prevents theologians from voluntarily adhering to some objective standard of their own choosing. Yet communities of theologians avoid any objective standard, presumably because any objective standard at all would instantly prove fatal to traditional religious doctrine.

        In the real world, the esteem theologians can earn is based on only subjective standards of the same sort as other authors of fiction. They value use of lovely language, of literary allusions to the works of previous authors, of original perspectives on traditional topics, of crafting new metaphors to replace old metaphors that have fallen out of fashion.

        That is a genuine type of esteem and no one should knock it. But, as is important for discussion between skeptics and believers, theology as a discipline has not earned any esteem with regard to an ability reach true conclusions.

        • Phil

          What was stated seems to lack a knowledge of what exactly Christian theology is and what it does. It does not deal with fairy tales, it deals with a real person, namely Jesus of Nazareth. Either one has good reason to believe that God revealed his very self to us in Jesus in human history, or one does not believe that God has revealed himself.

          If one concludes that he did not reveal himself, then move along because Christian theology is necessarily incoherent. But if one sees that there is reason to believe that God has revealed himself in human history, then let's go on the journey of prayer and theology, and coming to know God's very heart of love that he has for each and every person, including yourself.

          But to say that theology is subjective shows a lack of knowledge of exactly what theology is and does. I've only studied graduate level theology for several years and can tell you I've comes across things that can be shown to be objectively wrong. These things can be shown through reason and good arguments.

          Is theology hard? Yep, even harder than good philosophy! But is it worth it, coming to know in a deeper way the God who is the ground of all being...you betcha!

          • You still didn't mention even one supposedly objective standard, yet you keep claiming that there are such standards. Why is it so impossible to get a believer to commit to any standard of truth?

            It does not deal with fairy tales, it deals with a real person, namely Jesus of Nazareth.

            Potato, potato. :) That's not a distinction we agree on.

          • Phil

            You still didn't mention even one supposedly objective standard.

            The intellectual grounding is simply like any other serious study--it must be shown to not be contrary to reason (irrational and incoherent) or contrary to relevant evidence.

            OK, let's make this less abstract. Show me a true statement that is "beyond reason" according to your standard, and yet not irrational according to the evidence ratios.

            One would be that God is Trinity. That God exists is possible to be shown via reason alone. But that God is a community in and of himself is not something we can can come to via reason alone. It doesn't contradict reason, merely goes beyond it. In theology, one merely doesn't propose something and say it is "supra-rational". There needs to be good reason to believe that God has actually revealed it to us through his public revelation in Jesus and continued through his Church. People can't just propose whatever they want.

          • it's simply like any other serious study--it must be shown to not be irrational or contrary to relevant evidence.

            To me that looks like mere handwaving vaguely about "irrationality" and "evidence" in the abstract, as if you somehow believe "irrationality" is a single objectively defined thing.

            Clearly you do not mean the decision theoretic concept of rationality, nor the scientific type of evidence. So literally all I can know about your imagined standard is that it's not experiment and it's not axiomatic deduction.

            When I keep referring to an objective standard, I mean one that is objective: something independent of our opinions and values. An objective standard often starts with a vague, subjective idea and then operationalizes it. The point is not to have the operationalized definition replace the fuzzy intuitive notion, since the fuzzy notion is the one we care about and want to know more about; the point it is to make progress with an objective standard and then later improve the operationalized definition with our newfound knowledge.

            So, do you still say there is an objective standard in theology? If it's a theology-specific soft notion of "rationality", how do you objectively determine whether that concept (or at least an operationalized version of it) is met or not? As far as I can tell, there is no such determination, no such standard.

          • Phil

            Hey Ryan--Sorry for the delay as I had some commitments I had to take care of, but I wanted to make sure I got back to you.

            You are getting to the very heart of philosophy right now. This is because we are beginning to assume that "scientific types of evidence, experiment, and evaluation" are rational and that logical deduction is coherent and rational. Obviously, these are philosophical questions and only philosophy can tell us whether the scientific method is itself coherent. (Yes, I believe both are rational forms of inquiry, but I don't know that via science, I know that via philosophy.)

            Most people assume these two things to be true. But we must remember what happens when we assume things. Philosophy can show that these two things are coherent.

            So, Theology relies on these most basic philosophical principles of reasoning and logic. So yes, theology does include deductive and inductive forms of reasoning just like any of rational inquiry of reality.

            ---------

            In regards to an objective standard:

            What you may be concerned about is that you may have perceived that there are not as "clear-cut" objective standards for theology as there is for the physical sciences. And this may be the case. This doesn't mean that there aren't standards for theology, they just aren't the same and as clear-cut. We have to be willing to dwell in the "grey area". While some wish to make everything black and white, we don't live in a black and white world. Our world is much more like a most beautiful multi-colored peacock tail.

            One thing that makes theology so much harder than the physical sciences is that we are dealing with the heart of "mystery". We are dealing with realities that cannot be put under a microscope. Some want to then say that whatever can't be "put under a microscope" doesn't exist. Obviously, this is a bad conclusion. That person will then ignore much of our daily experience of reality as subjective, conceiving persons.

            So though theology may make you uncomfortable, know that Christian theology is much older than the physical sciences (by about 1700 years), and has been refined by some of the best thinkers the world has seen these past 2000 years. This doesn't mean that there won't be bad theologians who are ignorant of theological history. There are. I personally don't claim to be a great theologian. In fact, I am a better philosopher than I am a theologian. Theology is hard, I'm more than comfortable admitting that.

            I figure none of this will be satisfactory, and that's okay. It is simply an invite to open yourself to the mystery of reality that lies at the center of each one of our own hearts. Ultimately, the best theologians are the little old ladies who sit in the back of church yet experience God in most profound ways. Though they could never put those things into words, they know much more than the most studied "intellectual" theologian. That is why Thomas Aquinas could say after having a mystical experience of God towards the end of his life that, "All I have written to this point is as straw compared to what has been revealed to me." And Aquinas is still one of the premier theologians in Catholic theology to this day!

    • Among other things, theology generally makes claims about what "the good life" is. Please tell me what it would look like to have an objective standard in this domain. If you cannot, then I suggest we imagine what is left of theology after one rips out claims about "the good life", as well as everything which deductively leads to them. I wonder if anything but a husk would be left.

      We could also ask whether there is anything like deep agreement about objective standards in sociology, psychology, economics, and political science. If the following is still true—and as far as I can tell, it is—there is no such agreement:

          There are several reasons why the contemporary social sciences make the idea of the person stand on its own, without social attributes or moral principles. Emptying the theoretical person of values and emotions is an atheoretical move. We shall see how it is a strategy to avoid threats to objectivity. But in effect it creates an unarticulated space whence theorizing is expelled and there are no words for saying what is going on. No wonder it is difficult for anthropologists to say what they know about other ideas on the nature of persons and other definitions of well-being and poverty. The path of their argument is closed. No one wants to hear about alternative theories of the person, because a theory of persons tends to be heavily prejudiced. It is insulting to be told that your idea about persons is flawed. It is like being told you have misunderstood human beings and morality, too. The context of this argument is always adversarial. (Missing Persons: A Critique of the Personhood in the Social Sciences, 10)

      We could then ask what it is about modernity which leaves this being the case. The problem would no longer be scoped narrowly to theology, but to anything which has interesting implications for what "the good life" is.

      • Among other things, theology generally makes claims about what "the good life" is. Please tell me what it would look like to have an objective standard in this domain.

        QALYs and DALYs are most common. Traditional hedonic utilitarianism proposed another such standard, but most people agree it missed some important things.

        We could also ask whether there is anything like deep agreement about objective standards in sociology, psychology, economics, and political science.

        And happily we can answer it easily. Sociology, psychology, and political science are sciences and use experiment as their standard. Economics has theoretical and applied branches, the former operating as a branch of mathematics using axiomatic systems, the latter as a science using experiment.

        [long pointless quote about how soft sciences are plagued by various problems]

        Nobody's claiming that having an objective standard makes all problems go away.

        My positive claim is that the lack of any objective standards in theology is justification for dismissing its content as subjective.

        My hope is to spur people to select an objective standard and start applying it to their theological claims. It doesn't have to be experiment! Any type of falsifiability - you can choose your own! - would be a fantastic start.

        -------

        EDIT: this comment was a placeholder earlier.

        • I'd rather not continue to poll this comment to see when it has been changed, so please just submit a new one if and when you're ready. Also, I generally see these discussions as very long-term affairs, so a few day or even few week delay is a nonissue to me.

        • QALYs and DALYs are most common. Traditional hedonic utilitarianism proposed another such standard, but most people agree it missed some important things.

          If these are objective, then please indicate the objective process whereby homosexuality was first considered a disease on the DSM, and then removed from that categorization in a revision.

          Sociology, psychology, and political science are sciences and use experiment as their standard.

          If you think that this automagically grants them "deep agreement about objective standards", I think I'll point interested folks to works such as Toward Transformation in Social Knowledge, Interpretive Social Science: A Second Look, The Collapse of the Fact/Value Dichotomy, and Rationality and the Ideology of Disconnection. I'm becoming convinced that you are writing more ideologically (probably in a positivist vein) than empirically, here.

          Nobody's claiming that having an objective standard makes all problems go away.

          That is not the claim, so your replacement of my excerpt with "[long pointless quote about how soft sciences are plagued by various problems]" indicates that you failed to comprehend it. The problem is that coming up with a model in the human sciences commits one to a model of the person, and doing so is a highly contentious move. So instead of explicitly committing themselves to a model of the person, folks in the human sciences refuse to articulate what they believe in this realm, instead working off of existent, but un-discussable models of the person.

          My positive claim is that the lack of any objective standards in theology is justification for dismissing its content as subjective.

          And I maintain that what you say theology lacks, so do the human sciences. Let us recall that some large proportion of people agreeing about something makes it only intersubjective, not objective.

          My hope is to spur people to select an objective standard and start applying it to their theological claims.

          I have a different suggestion. Perhaps God made each person unique, where this uniqueness means, among other things, that said person has the potential to understand some aspect of God, some facet of God, better than everyone else. As this person gains deeper understanding of that facet it can be explained to others, but [s]he will always be the best 'researcher' or 'knower' when it comes to that facet. Other people will have their own facets, and there will be overlap (else communicability would be impossible). Indeed, I may need your research results in order to further my own research. Likewise, getting to know other people allows me to deepen my relationship with my wife.

          My model does not require that everyone see God in precisely the same way. It does require overlap in knowledge. It allows for a deepening process which allows one to know one is on the right track and hasn't settled on just-so stories which can explain the extant state of affairs but is powerless at deepening them. My model allows us all to get to know a person, instead of merely an impersonal set of forces.

  • I think "falsifiablity" need not be solely empirical. Things can also be falsified with logic. Perhaps the complaint is that a lot of theological claims cannot be even by that.

  • D Rieder

    " But as with claims of meta-science, or claims of mathematics and logic,
    so too with claims of metaphysics, it is a mistake to suppose that they
    stand or fall with empirical falsifiability."

    I'm not understanding this. I would think that mathematics is one thing that could/should/must be falsifiable. Isn't it pretty obvious that one could falsify 2+2=4?

    What mathematical proposition could not be falsified by tracking back through simpler and simpler propositions back to something as basic as 2+2=4?

    I would also think that logical claims could be falsified. Don't we often see examples of, say, the excluded middle that offer tangible objects and explanations about how it can be demonstrated that there is obviously an excluded middle. Aren't we offered something like...If A=B and B=C, then A=C. Could it not be falsified that A equaling B and B equaling C doesn't amount to C equaling A?

    So what am I missing?

    • Empirical claims are falsified/​corroborated; theorems in formal systems are proven/​disproven.

      • D Rieder

        Ok, thanks. But in context of what I quoted that seems to raise more questions than it answers in my mind.

        It would seem that disproving things is a form of falsification...a very strong form. It seems we can prove 2+2=4 easily with simply objects. We even get to the point that we think we know it intuitively. But I think that's only because it is so easily done. It seems the ability to prove/disprove things logically or mathematically means it can be affirmed with greater, not less, certainty than empirical claims.

        I note that in the essay claims of mathematics and logic seemed to be likened to metaphysical claims. Maybe I was misled to thinking that the author thought metaphysics was like logic and mathematics and in the same direction with regard to figuring out if they are true or not. IOW, since logic and math can be proven, theological claims can be proven. But in reality, it seems they are very much unlike each other and in the opposite direction when thinking of verification. It would seem if one cannot falsify metaphysical claims one could certainly not disprove them.
        It's not clear now why the comment was even made.
        I'm left wondering if the author is claiming one can prove/disprove metaphysical claims and that it would it be accurate to say we could prove/disprove claims folks make about God? That's obviously a question only the author can answer so I'm not trying to pin you down{:

        • It would seem that disproving things is a form of falsification...a very strong form. It seems we can prove 2+2=4 easily with simply objects.

          I don't think this is the best way to think about it. Take, for example, two cups of water and two cups of sugar. When you add them, do you get two cups? No, you get less. On the other hand, if you add 2 grams of sugar to 2 grams of water, you get something so close to 4 grams that you probably won't measure any deviation. So is 2+2=4, or isn't it? The truth is that 2+2=4 is always true, but whether or not that formalism is 'empirically adequate' will be context-dependent.

          I note that in the essay claims of mathematics and logic seemed to be likened to metaphysical claims. Maybe I was misled to thinking that the author thought metaphysics was like logic and mathematics and in the same direction with regard to figuring out if they are true or not.

          Metaphysics is not the same kind of thing as mathematics, but it is as wrong to apply Karl Popper's notion of falsification to math as it is to apply it to metaphysics. Perhaps it would help to note that during the attempt to falsify some hypothesis, there is a whole lot of mental stuff which is being treated as if it were true. We could not attempt to falsify something without that. And so, one way to think of at least some metaphysics is to think of what we must believe in order to even go about exploring the world in the first place. To think that you can go about falsifying metaphysics just like you can falsify hypotheses is to commit a grave category mistake. What you're probably doing is treating the metaphysic as a hypothesis and not a metaphysic, which means that you are implicitly shielding your own taken-for-granted metaphysic from analysis. That is the antithesis to critical thought.

          I'm left wondering if the author is claiming one can prove/​disprove metaphysical claims and that it would it be accurate to say we could prove/​disprove claims folks make about God?

          Feser definitely thinks that A–T metaphysics establishes necessary aspects about reality. But others have disagreed, and written arguments critiquing e.g. Aquinas' Five Ways. So it seems that there is some method in place of disputing metaphysical claims.

          As to proving things about God, yes Aquinas and those who followed him think that you can prove some aspects about God from reason—others require special revelation. (You might consider that you can learn something about a person via observation, but there are many things you couldn't know without that person talking to you.) Folks have also disagreed with them about this, indicating that there are ways to dispute such claims.

          A crucial point is that you cannot just say, "Tell me what empirical observations would prove your metaphysic incorrect." The reason for this is that we aren't beings who start with purely a posteriori observations, which we use to then build an a priori metaphysical framework. No, all observation is theory-laden. To insist that all of the discussion happen in the a posteriori realm is to attempt to impose your particular a priori framework on the other, and to do it implicitly—insidiously.

          • D Rieder

            Two issues still seem uncertain to me.

            What do we mean by falsify? I think it means that if we follow through with a hypothesis and as carefully as possible and repeatedly apply it, we find out that it turns out to not always true...ie we falsify it. Of course it isn't easy and sometimes it might be impossible in practice but is still possible in principle. It would seem that disproving something is essentially showing it to be wrong/false/inadequate. When would that not be true? We both agree, I think, that the example of adding two cups of sugar to two cups of water and not getting four cups of something simply means we weren't careful and tried to add things based on units that were inappropriate. It doesn't do anything to the inclination to think 2+2 always equals 4.

            The other thing that seems uncertain are the kinds of metaphysics claims/conclusions we are talking about. Claims that cannot, even in principle, be falsified. What are some things that are categorically different than emperical claims such that we can't even consider the concept of falsification?

            Are these good example?

            - God created the world from nothing.
            - Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and thou shalt be saved.
            - It is appointed unto man once to die and after death the judgment.
            - Ask and it shall be given thee, seek and ye shall find, knock and it shall be opened unto you.
            - God is good

            Do these qualify as metaphysical claims that I am to understand cannot be falsified or otherwise shown to be untrue? Or are their better examples?

          • What do we mean by falsify?

            Karl Popper introduced the idea of falsification to separate out science from non-science. So to apply his idea to mathematics is antithetical to his purpose. It's not clear to me that the idea of falsification has changed sufficiently since his invention of it, to start applying to mathematics. I'm pretty sure it still means that a hypothesis is scientific iff there are conceivable observations which it says one will never observe.

            The other thing that seems uncertain are the kinds of metaphysics claims/conclusions we are talking about. Claims that cannot, even in principle, be falsified.

            That a claim cannot be [empirically] falsified does not mean that there is no way to dispute it. Instead, the means of disputation is different from falsification. It is a category mistake to challenge a claim to be disputed via an inappropriate method.

            What are some things that are categorically different than emperical claims such that we can't even consider the concept of falsification?

            "There are other minds."
            "There is world external to my mind."
            "All people are of equal moral worth."†
            "The proper way to think about causation is thus and so."

            † One might quibble about this, per my last paragraph.

            Are these good example?

            That's difficult for me to say, because the Bible doesn't just say that God created the world, it also says the world has certain properties and potentialities as a result. (As an example: I would argue that much in it points to egalitarianism, as if our reality can truly support it being implemented arbitrarily completely—this is not otherwise guaranteed.) But can we test for those properties and potentialities and shear off the bit about God creating the world? If so, are there analogues for scientific theories, where some big aspect can be likewise sheared off? Do we actually do this? (I'm inclined to say that anti-realists do do this.)

            Claims about what happens after death seem like they have to be taken on trust (faith), and I think for very good reason. Humans' power over each other stops at death, and any ability to test for what happens after death would be for them to actually have power there. God lets us do absolutely wicked things to each other during life, but that stops at death.

            God's promise to give to us seems falsifiable, but only if we relax the condition that the test be value-neutral. After all, God is a person and not a vending machine: he desires our characters be shaped in certain ways. He's not going to give us arbitrary power and ability and goods to do whatever the hell we want.

            God's goodness is an extremely complex topic. My suspicion is that assertions about goodness come with forecasts, both empirical and affective.

          • D Rieder

            "Claims about what happens after death seem like they have to be taken on trust (faith), and I think for very good reason. Humans' power over each other stops at death, and any ability to test for what happens after death would be for them to actually have power there."

            I wonder.

            For example, I don't have the power of independent flight. Somehow, someone might come up with some hypothesis that if one does thus and so just in the right way, they will be able to fly independently (ie without some device like a airplane, glider suit or hot air balloon). Now, if the only way to test it is to actually have a person try it out, then, in principle, it is falsifiable for that person even if the person doesn't survive and has no control (assuming the hypothesis is going to be falsifiable) after they initiate the test. So, it would seem the "living after we die" is indeed a falsifiable claim even if we can't do anything about it after the fact. IF I wake up dead, then I'll know I was wrong. If I don't wake up, the claim will be falsified at least for me.

            As usual, thanks for the interesting discussion{:

          • Oh, you would know. But nobody on this side of the veil would know.

      • Doug Shaver

        theorems in formal systems are proven/​disproven.

        They are proven only when the system's axioms are accepted. Reject any axiom and you can reject any theorem that depends on that axiom.

        • All you've then done is reject the theorem within a different formal system. You've done absolutely nothing in terms of transcending the chasm between formal system and empirical reality. Therefore, you are no closer to falsification.

          • Doug Shaver

            Therefore, you are no closer to falsification.

            So what? When you said:

            Empirical claims are falsified/​corroborated; theorems in formal systems are proven/​disproven.

            you seemed to be suggesting that falsification does not apply to formal systems.

          • I'm not just suggesting that, I'm strongly claiming it. The very notion of falsification was meant to distinguish between empirical and non-empirical matters. Shall I quote from Karl Popper's The Logic of Scientific Discovery?

          • Doug Shaver

            you seemed to be suggesting that falsification does not apply to formal systems.

            I'm not just suggesting that, I'm strongly claiming it.

            OK, but I didn't claim otherwise. My comment about proof in formal systems made no reference to falsification.

          • Then I have no idea why you made this comment.

  • Mike

    haven't been on here in a while as work has been busy but have to say that again some great conversations here! you da man brendan.

  • neil_pogi

    a theory should be falsifiable in order for that theory to become 'true'.... but i don't agree with that logic.

    if the question: 'If God is the Designer, who design the designer' -- this statement is invalid or not falsifiable, because the Creator, God, is uncaused 'cause' by nature.

    only things that have beginnings should be criticize for falsifiable claims. for example, the Big Bang predicts that there should be 'cosmic background radiation' in order for the theory to be valid. but how did astronomers know that that is to be expected? how do they know that the radiation background really is the one that was discovered by penzias? there must be other explanations for that!

    the laws of physics say that 'time travel' is possible, that is the prediction, but how can someone goes back in time when the past is already past? if this is not predicted, can we say that the laws of physics is not true? is not reliable?

    atheists say they predict that non-living matter evolve and eventually became living matter. but where's their prediction?

    • Sample1

      But you are supposed to prove how you live your life inside a tomato. I mean people of faith say all things are possible with God! So how come you can't explain this tomato living arrangement of yours? You can't deny this is possible for GOD! I mean, when you find something green inside your tomato house, do you think it's a scallion or some sort of metaphysical chimney? Maybe you live in a bowl of salsa?

      You have no answers for this so I will stick with atheism. Thanks!

      Mike

      • neil_pogi

        then how come a single cell organism then, eventually evolved into a human. you perform an experiment and you'll be surprised that it won't.

        i'll stick with theism

      • neil_pogi

        just predict if non-living matter becomes living.. just predict!

  • Lazarus

    Edited. Sorry, I commented in the wrong thread. Dotty old fool.