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NOMA: The religion and science debate, part 3

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Read parts 1 and 2

1543,AndreasVesalius'Fabrica,BaseOfTheBrain

It isn’t that science plays doesn’t role in supplying evidence relevant to undecidable propositions. For example, science can lay out the mechanics of the human brain systems that contribute to our making moral judgments (at least two are currently identified, one running off rational assessment circuitry, and another more snap judgment system riffing off our emotional amygdala network). But even knowing the neural source of our actions still doesn’t answer whether those actions are right or wrong — those judgments are matters of belief (taking a stance in the undecidable realm) and should never be thought of as being knowledge in the sense decidable notions ought to be.

And you may notice how I couldn’t avoid using “should” and “ought” just now, once more stepping across the NOMAD line. It’s really easy to do, and complicates a lot of the discourse that takes place on Science versus Religion.

Here again, though, William James comes in handy to offer a way out of this maze. His idea of pragmatism may be employed: looking at the history of a belief, how it has been used before, and what the consequences of that belief led to in the way of action, and using that historical example to inform the decisions we make today on those (still “undecidable”) issues. So knowledge of the decidable realm can’t decide for you what to believe when it comes to undecidable propositions, but it can suggest what might happen if you chose to believe a certain way.

Free will is an example. Philosophers and scientists tie themselves in knots debating whether we actually do have a measure of free will, which may be a clue that this is an undecidable proposition. Purely mechanistic systems, as the Qualia problem shows (do all people have the same experience when we see the same color or hear the same sound, and how you can’t really figure that out by any empirical measure). So our brains could be fully naturalistic systems and yet still have features about their operation that must elude our scientific grasp in the decidable realm.

However undecidable the existence of free will may be, its consequences drop into the decidable realm of observation, for scientists can pragmatically measure what happens when a person believes in free will. There’s already a pile of technical literature on this topic, prompting some coverage in the June 2014 issue of Scientific American. As it turns out people who believe they have free will tend to be less likely to cheat you than people who don’t, and so if you think less cheaters ought to be the case, you should encourage belief in free will, independent of whether we really do have free will.

And aren’t we now caught in a spiraling storm drain of contradiction: would your affirmation of the desirability of free will belief be an act of free volition or not?  Welcome to the rabbit hole.

In this way ideas (and our beliefs about them leading to action) have definite and usually very important consequences, so no one should think that the taxonomy of “undecidable” is either dismissive or trivializing. In fact, it is quite the opposite. The knowledge that science culls from the decidable realm may not affect our behavior at all: how many people behave differently based on a refinement of the mass or the proton, or whether Pluto qualifies as a planet or not?

But the “undecidable” conundrums of ethical and esthetic reasoning (what is “evil” or “art” and can you know them when you see them?) almost invariably impact our actions.

Jim Downard

About Jim Downard

Jim Downard is a Spokane native (with a sojourn in Southern California back in the early 1960s) who was raised in a secular family, so says had no personal faith to lose.

He's always been a history and science buff (getting a bachelor's in the former area at what was then Eastern Washington University in the early 1970s).

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9 comments

  1. RIFF MATTRE

    It is but one context of knowledge to which you are alluding. Your context is simply an empirical means for COLLECTIVELY accepting or rejecting (“settling”) claims AS knowledge (vs. belief) for a public body.

    Words are not yours to redefine, Jim.

    “Decidable” is not a synonym for “verifiable.”

    If the question had been posed, “On what SCALE of CERTAINTY shall we base and accept (‘decide’) KNOWLEDGE in matters of collective agreement?” your discourse might be sound.

    Otherwise, it appears you want to play God with the English language.

    (Good thing it ain’t all yours to play God with.)

    KNOWLEDGE in general is simply a degree of individual or collective certainty.

    It was good to see you acknowledging diverse interpretations of “God” in your response to Dennis. Correct the omission of clarifying INDIVIDUAL knowledge versus collective knowledge and you’ve got it.

    To acknowledge something as not empirically demonstrable does not equate to something therefore being “undecidable” by necessity. It is simply not empirically demonstrable. (End of story.)

    What makes something DECIDABLE or not to an individual is always unique to the individual and we each most CERTAINLY can claim KNOWLEDGE even if we can’t verify it to you.

    Do you KNOW when you gotta go? Or, do you just BELIEVE you gotta go? (If you tell me evidence of the renal and gastrointestinal processes verify the need to relieve, you’re on a different planet than me, Jim.)

    I definitely have ‘sufficient evidence’ (without any book learning) to be fairly CERTAIN I gotta go, but it’s in no fashion easy to demonstrate this evidence were it necessary to impart such KNOWLEDGE to others. I suppose they’re just going to have to take my word for it, or not. (Thank God.)

    I rest my case.

    Seriously, Jim, you make it too easy.

    How sly you are to NOMAdically introduce your proclamations merely in relation to the creation/evolution debate, repeatedly correlate your notion as it relates to PROPOSITIONS, and then cleverly transplant your notion away from the domain of “propositions” onto ISSUES. Tisk tisk.

    Your PROPOSITION might be better served if you were to entitle your treatise something akin to: “Perhaps it’s best not to argue what you cannot DEMONSTRATE.” (Then you’d be onto something.)

    Unfortunately, you do not build your case in such a way. Instead you stake out territorial claim over the word KNOWLEDGE. (Not yours to claim, Jim.)

    POINTS, however, for the riffing 🙂 amygdala network.

    And, by the way, there’s no such thing as “magisteria,” but in the deceased imagination of Gould, much less, any such “non-overlapping” nonsense. To adopt such twaddle, one might as well advocate that biting into the apple’s KNOWLEDGE of “good” and “evil” is a triumph over grace rather than a fateful fall.

  2. Jim Downard

    I love making things easy, especially so for those who illustrate the very point I was trying to make by protesting too much (and without discussing any of the specific cases, from James to Russell, that I brought up).

    As for defining and using terms, sorry, but everybody not only is allowed to do that, they do it all the time. Or are you contending that we use the English language exactly as was the case in the 12th century (or any other time)? You and I both have a perfect right to lay out a term to be used within the context of the proposition, and then see what can be done with it.

    Are all beliefs true? If not, how does navigate through that? “Your PROPOSITION might be better served if you were to entitle your treatise something akin to: ‘Perhaps it’s best not to argue what you cannot DEMONSTRATE.’ (Then you’d be onto something.)”

    And how does one “demonstrate” things? If you can manage that trick without tumbling over the very distinction I am trying to make in my clumsy old word-redefining essay, then I will observe and marvel.

  3. RIFF MATTRE

    Context is half of all successful communication.

    The first question is to DECIDE whether or not we want to communicate?

    Language, itself, is a methodology. It has rules and constructs which must be agreed and adhered to if communication is going to be successful. Answering questions such as which dictionary we use as accepted common reference and how we go about adopting modifications simplifies any endeavor.

    If two parties attempting communication speak different languages, a commonality of language must first be established. While I do not BELIEVE it to be true, it is possible that you and I simply speak too different a language. Many contributing factors may point in this direction. The most notable of which I have perceived thus far is that you seem to base your constructs for the most part upon historical arguments. I do not. Another factor I’ve questioned is who exactly do your posts address, the general population or a subset such as academia, scientists or logicians? It might help to clarify this upfront.

    What a different post I would have read had it BEGAN, “Within the context of this essay I PROPOSE ‘knowledge’ as limited to ‘empirically verifiable’ synonymous with ‘decidable.’

    (To ME, your essay reads as edict.)

    Your essay’s first sentence is a nonstarter in my book because I conclude dangerous any suggestion of sequestered domains as foundational to cognitive orientation. Sequestered domains serve defendable function only as subsets of undifferentiated cognitive landscape. Manmade restrictions may be erected and presented for utilitarian function, but not substantiated as any universal structural base.

    I find Clifford’s entry sound and concise.

    I reject James’ entry in its entirety due dependence upon interjecting dogmatic principal of supposition (“It will be observed that for the purposes of this discussion we are on ‘dogmatic’ ground,–ground, I mean, which leaves systematic philosophical skepticism altogether out of account. The postulate that there is truth, and that it is the destiny of our minds to attain it, we are deliberately resolving to make, though the sceptic will not make it.”) I must say I’m not exactly clear what benefit you draw from this dissertation other than a rather well-embellished snapshot of the history of epistemology at its time.

    I have no motivation to read either Bertrand Russell or Christian William Lane Craig at this time.

    When we cease to view belief and knowledge as two sequestered domains and simply RATE “knowledge/belief/information” together along one continuum of CERTAINTY based upon substantiating evidence – the mazes and rabbit holes all go away (they don’t exist on their own).

    One is wise to navigate “beliefs” by discerning their level of credibility no different than the credibility of any body of evidence intended to substantiate what you wish to sequester as “knowledge.”

    I believe someone to be telling me the truth (not lying) based upon my heretofore known relationship with the person and the circumstances surrounding the statement presented.

    One DEMONSTRATES water boils at 100 degrees Celsius by explaining the relevant components of the established scientific method of measurement which established this benchmark in the first place.

    Dependable exchange of information depends upon agreement to such scales. When someone chooses to reject this methodology for irrational reasons, it is irrational to argue with such behavior.

  4. Jim Downard

    Well, here we do have a significant difference in our philosophical beliefs, and I think a rather ironic one. I, the atheist, agree with William James that there is a significent problem with Clifford’s logic. Clifford is essentially Carl Sagan c. 1870: nothing should be believed in without sufficient evidence, and that rules out accepting historically asserted miracles (as always wanting sufficiently strong evidence of their actual occurrence). James, quite rightly I think, lays out a domain where there are lots of things that we can (and should) hold to be truths, but for which we are never going to be able to lay out a sufficient evidence argument that will make it through Clifford’s evidential shredder.

    It is relevant that the water boiling example is an instance of what I characterize as a decidable proposition. That’s what science is uniquely suited to. But step across the NOMA-D line and one cannot DEMONSTRATE that Jesus was resurrected, or that Joseph Smith actually did have on loan some golden tablets, or that Apollonius of Tyana actually did see the death of Emperor Domitian from afar. One may believe any, all, or none of those things to have actually taken place, and even offer reasons why one may hold the views you do on them, but can they pass muster in principle with Clifford’s Sufficient Evidence doctrine? And do they even need to? That is the thrust of my essay, to distinguish “decidable” knowledge from “undecidable” belief..

    If it is the case that Riff believes only things that have sufficient evidence, and nothing else, that is swell, but then perhaps he joins in Clifford’s rejection of Bible miracles on those Sufficient Evidence grounds. A Logical Positivist after all?

  5. RIFF MATTRE

    By our exchange I conclude you are misreading Clifford’s connotation of the word “belief.”

    You have made clear that you conceive “belief” and “knowledge” to be sequestered domains.

    I read the meaning of “belief” within Clifford’s “The Duty of Inquiry” to ENCOMPASS “knowledge.”

    As I see, Clifford withholds the idea of knowledge for his conclusion as pinnacle OF belief.

    Clifford states BELIEF “is rightly used on truths which have been established by long experience and waiting toil, and which have stood in the fierce light of free and fearless questioning.”

    Rather than redefining “decidable” as “verifiable,” why not classify “knowledge” within “belief”?

    Conundrums colloquially referred to as “opposites” (such as sides of your NOMA-D line) vanquish when such notions are placed at opposite ends of a SINGULAR SPECTRUM rather than sequestered by domain.

    Imagine number lines labeled “certainty of belief.” Lines exist for each individual, one for every conceivable notion. The center point (zero) is an absence of knowledge/belief/information. In each direction is a scale of certainty (one affirming, one denying). Each scale is finely graduated into orders of: (1) “I have a hunch,” (2) “I am fairly certain” (colloquially spoken, “I believe” and compared to “I know” as binary opposites) and, (3) “I am certain” (belief substantiate by great degree of “knowledge”).

    (According to this context random belief is but merely guesswork.)

    “Knowledge” as thus is a synonym for MOST CERTAIN BELIEF (but STILL “belief”).

    I like to think I never KNOW anything 100% (at most 99%).

    (1% I always leave open to doubt and new possibilities.)

    Clifford specifies one cannot choose to “believe” if recognized evidence contradicts the belief of choice. To do so is dishonest and therefore not genuine belief. Nowhere does he clarify methodology for acquiring “sufficient evidence” to substantiate belief. Genuine belief is merely based “on fair inquiry.”

    Clifford is saying that all true belief must be based upon some degree of conviction and that weak conviction is based in fear whereas strong conviction is based upon FEARLESS inquiry.

    As I have past mentioned, I do not limit fair inquiry to only EXTERNAL empirical scientific evidence.

    There are many, many valid methodologies of going about fair inquiry into matters.

    For ME, “decidable” simply musters a HIGH THRESHOLD of either affirming or denying CERTAINTY.

    Regarding ALL suppositions (such as historical claims) I start with a hunch and pursue rigorous inquiry into imaginable contributing factors related to the notion (including language misinterpretation).

    You refer to Clifford’s rejection of Bible miracles. Where do I find this?

    You are not thinking about what you do not think about if you limit “fair inquiry” to matters of direct outer observation (believing is not merely seeing).

    Thank you for introducing me to William K. Clifford’s piece.

    It is not only sound, but beautiful.

  6. Jim Downard

    I will heartily agree that it is a significant perceptual shift to conceive of knowledge as a special case of tempered belief, versus my conception that knowledge (as defined as an aspect of decidable propositions) operates in a different frame from beliefs (again as so defined in my essay). At least one of our perceptions here is wrong (who knows, maybe both). But I do still propose my version of NOMA is one that squares up with what we observe to be the case in matters of religion versus science: that problems ensue when people start. To make matters even juicier, it may well be that to decide which (if either) of our views are correct, is itself an undecidable (and hence philosophical) proposition.

    I do stand corrected regarding Riff’s point on Clifford’s discussion of miracles in his essay. He did not directly mention Bible examples, but instead drew on Islam and Buddhism as exemplars which operated as stand ins. But readers then and later (including James) knew what Clifford was up to (bearing in mind the way 19th century rhetorical writing indulged in argument by analogy): if one cannot lend credance to the tales that Buddha was born of a virgin and later ascendend into heaven, because of the mutually contradictory conception of God in Islam, as represented by their prophet, then by proxy he has disposed of all public affirmations of such beliefs. What applies to Buddhism and Islam in principle applies to the Bible.

    I agree also that Clfford’s essay is beautiful, and sound (up to a point). And that point is the one that James addressed and that I endeavor to codify. At the very least it signifies that NOMA-D is capable of incensing people just as much as Gould’s NOMA did. Philosophy as contact sport.

  7. RIFF MATTRE

    Operating from MY construct, I would say neither is “wrong.”

    Within a specific context, NOMA is actuality accurate.

    From my point of view, where NOMA and NOMA-D both fail is the forest through the trees.

    It is my conclusion that adopting either of these frameworks merely compounds the greater problem which is the cause of what’s happening in the Middle East.

    KNOWLEDGE as SPECTRUM rather than DOMAIN evaporates DOGMATIC principle and yanks the rug out from under any validation for sectarian violence.

    These are mental constructs.

    Unless I’m missing something, mental constructs are subset to our HUMAN condition.

    THIS we get to CHOOSE.

    In the end we seek a society in which matters/issues/propositions to which CONSENSUS dictates to the greater populace, we AGREE that “decidable” and “undecidable” henceforth be predicated whenever possible upon CONSENSUS of SUFFICIENT EMPIRICAL EVIDENCE versus conclusion based upon discernment of validity in belief that lacks collectively observational evidence.

    America’s founding fathers understood this.

    Too many do not appreciate the effort that went into establishing such freedoms.

    THANK YOU, Jim.
    This was fun!

  8. Very good info. Lucjy me I ran across your blog by accident
    (stumbleupon). I’ve savdd iit for later!

  9. Yes!, very fun. I’m glad to see you all using James, Who has clarified for me many of the routs the above discussion takes. I especially like his pragmatic evaluation of belief: What difference does holding x proposition make? Certainly x may be supported by evidence, or unsupported by disconfirming evidence. Some evidence may be so overwhelming and repeatable that we might say we Know x, beyond belief. If so, it is my responsibility to state clearly my criteria, and accept its limitations, as most propositions have. As for belirf, I must also state clearly the limits involved in holding to x. It is in that statement and acceptance and discussion of limits where-in is the rub.
    Yet James, thank God, goes beyond this requirement of intellectual honesty into the realm of “So what?” What are the pragmatic results of my believing x? Here, Riff makes me very nervous, for by downplaying the commonality of criteria, even up to the possibility of that commonality, we can participate in intellectual chaos. Ultimately it will be argued by some that whatever you believe, so long as it seems to WORK for some one may be held true. This lowering the threshold on what is knowledge can bring in a great deal of mischief and intellectual laziness. Practically, now, what is to prevent a minister from arguing that Homosexuality is a sin that should be excluded from TCU’s magazine and classes because he, not paying attention to the advice of New Testament Greek scholars, says that Paul was talking about homosexuals in our sense, when he condemned same sex sexuality in the church. The same minister also does not understand what is meant by the term, used to condemn homosexuality, “abomination”. I knew him, went to school with him, and he actually came to Janet’s and my first and second weddings. Nice fellow, but not a bright or Brite light of a scholar. He believed sincerely what he did, but pragmatically there was no understanding f intellectual honest criteria. I always believed him to be anti-intellectual. Now, can I say I know him so?

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