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Epistemology matters {1}

Reason and Common Ground: A Response to The Creationists’ “Neutrality” Argument

By Timothy Sandefur

He summaries the article in an abstract at Social Science Research Network:

Although it is a well-established scientific fact, evolution remains a controversial subject in the United States, and especially the issue of teaching evolution or creationism in public schools. An argument that appears to be increasingly popular among creationists is based on a postmodernist notion that science is simply one among many different but equal “ways of knowing,” and that its ascendancy over other methods is due to conflicts between social power structures rather than any objective superiority. Several creationist writers have argued that science’s exclusive reliance on natural causes (so called “methodological naturalism”) is an a priori assumption, or an arbitrary preference, and therefore that both it and religion are equally valid epistemologies. In addition, they argue that the Establishment and Free Exercise Clauses of the First Amendment prohibit government from endorsing or granting “preferences” to science over supernaturalism.

This article is a response to these theories. In Part I, I argue that science is an objectively superior means of knowing, and that methodological naturalism is not an a priori assumption, but both an a posteriori preference and one that is necessary for any valid epistemology. I also reject the argument that naturalism or “humanism” are “religions” or that science requires a “leap of faith.” In Part II, I address whether the First Amendment requires the government to remain “neutral” between supernatural and naturalistic worldviews. I conclude with some general observations on the conflict between science and supernaturalism.

February 7, 2008 Posted by | Bronowski, Darwin, Enlightenment, epistemology, evolution, science | , , , | Leave a comment

The Science Network Forum – Enlightenment 2.0 {2}

My immediate reaction to the talks in Enlightenment 2.0 was there wasn’t quite enough discussion on Enlightenment 1.0 (the cool new way to say The Enlightenment). Presumably the assumption was (many speakers were apologetic about covering the basics in such august company) the other participants knew all about it. However, because the Forum has been publicly broadcast with an wider, general educational aim –so will be watched by many to whom much of this is relatively sketchy, and some totally new to them — it might be worth TSN’s while to fill in some of the the gaps by adding to the website.

If you like me feel a need to start with the basics of The Original Enlightenment, the {Wiki: enlightenment} is a good way to start checking its main features were. It helpfully gives a list of names associated with the enlightenment and quite a few links.

This short student guide to The Age of Enlightenment lists Voltaire’s view in a seven point list, which is also a short-cut way of getting to the nub. If you are not proud: SparkNotes on The Enlightenment (1650 – 1800) is also useful.

The point, if you have watched Enlightenment 2.0, is to figure out what E v 2.0 might be or aim to be. I am not too convinced the talks did this. Some clever chap might have put up a comparison chart.

I started by looking at what was available on-line on the academics who contributed. People like Dawkins and Dennett are pretty well know public intellectuals, but there are other who are not but who introduced interesting research or ideas.

I will, later, put up a list of those speakers who I thought were really useful, those less useful, and those plainly there to sell books. One in the useful category is Melvin Konner, who wrote The Tangled Wing, considered a pop classic on nature v nurture, or as someone in a talk termed it, “hard-wired or culture”. This is Konner’s Notes and References (Caveat: The Dangers of Behavioral Biology), a chapter critique / analysis (pdf, be warned) of The Tangled Wing. Two good reviews of The Tangled Wing : here and here.

Sam Harris stands out in the “I’m here to sell my book” category. Now famous for his book, The End of Faith: Religion, Terror and the Future of Reason , that topped the New York Times bestseller list. Or, maybe it is back there now? I wonder if they read him in the UK, us being heathens ‘n all He later wrote Letter to a Christian Nation. He features in the E 2.0 debate a lot. Makes sense to me! One of the themes across several speakers was natural morality vs. religious morality. Harris argues at least once that there is no need for morality derived from religions because natural morality suffices. In the main he seemed to reiterating small sections of his book on two main areas: Islam (and religion – bad things) and meditation (he has become interested in Buddhist meditation, which is vaguely 70s). I haven’t read the book, and am not likely to just yet, but you can be pretty sure any ideas he has have been around in some form or other since the last Enlightenment, apart from the neuroscience, evidement.

Dawkins (“that’s rubbish”; anti-God book out), Dennett (author of Consciousness Explained; anti-God book now out) and Harris (anti-God books now out) were the three most strident anti-religionists. Many others debated reasonably the ins and out, advantages and disadvantages of religion (and or science) while professing atheism. A small number simply put out their research interests without contextualisation. In the end it was up to the viewer to see how the ideas fitted into any notion of what E 2.0 might be. For example, there was a significant amount of neuroscience and a bit of psychology which was implied we know more about ourselves, but at no point did anyone say because we understand ourselves more clearly this and this is therefore true for E 2.0 over E 1.0

Professor Mahzarin Banaji, a Harvard psychologist, presented research results in cognitive illusion that reminded me of Daniel M Wegner’s Ironic Process Theory. Not listed on Wegner’s papers on ironic effects (pdfs!) is The Seeds of Our Undoing (1999).

January 24, 2008 Posted by | Enlightenment, Enlightenment 2.0, epistemology, evolutionary biology, Ironic effects, religion, science | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

FOVA.TV Debate – My Brain made me do it

My Brain made me do it

I didn’t want to do it

Raymond Tallis discusses the debate in a Times article

January 24, 2008 Posted by | epistemology, evolutionary biology, free will vs. determinism, human nature, neurolaw, neuroscience, Philosophy, science | Leave a comment

What we don’t know

February issue of Wired answers this question (?/!)

It might have been titled Something You Don’t Know For Everyone.

The Rumsfeld quote. What was it exactly? And did it mean anything?

“There’s what we know and what we don’t know and what we know we know and what we don’t know we know and what we know we don’t know…..”

Well, no! Or could it be:

“There’s what we know and what we don’t know; there what we know we know and what we know we don’t know….”

I don’t know!

Well if you vaguely remember it don’t know it exactly, or think you don’t know it, or even know you don’t know it, here it is amongst other Rumsfeldisms.

Which leads imperceptibly to:

Knowing and Not Knowing from doceo, James Atherton’s site.

Came across this about five years ago in a previous splurge of mental activity on science vs. religion. Note the Arab proverb right at the bottom and also

    If I don’t know I don’t know
    I think I know
    If I don’t know I know
    I think I don’t know

Laing R D (1970) Knots

which he puts at the top. (Maybe Rummie was a secret reader of R D Laing. If so he probably threw the lot in the bin round about 1978 like the rest of us should have. I kept them as a reminder of how far it is possible to go wrong on Nature vs. Nurture )


Began to find sociology of religion very interesting about 20 years ago. Read the piece by Gellner, The Pendulum Swing Theory of Islam, with that business about Syndrome P and Syndrome C, which is picked up briefly in a 2001 paper by Keiko Saliko in Arab Quarterly, called Modernity and Tradition in the Islamic Movements in Iraq.

My notes from Gellner at the time:

Syndrome P

* Strict monotheism

* Puritanism

* Stress on scriptural revelation: hence literacy

* Egalitarianism between believers

* Absence of special mediation

* Minimalisation of ritual or mystical extravagance:leaning to moderation and sobriety

* Stress on the observation of rules rather than emotional states

{Urban – fragmented territorially and organisationally}

Syndrome C

* Tendency to hierarchy

* Priesthood or ritual specialisation

* Multiplicity of spirits in other world

* Incarnation of religion in perceptual symbols or images rather than abstract recorded word

* Tendency to profusion of ritual and mystical practices rather than sobriety and moderation

* Ethic of loyalty towards personality rather than respect for rules

{Rural – great continuity (time) and extent (territory) }

January 24, 2008 Posted by | epistemology, religion, Rumsfeld, Sociology of religion | , , | Leave a comment


Own up, how many of you could use the word properly in a sentence? I’ve heard and seen it used many times, but it didn’t seem to be a word I needed to investigate for everyday use. When I first looked it up, about three months ago, what stood out for me was the Biblical origin:

Wikipedia says:

It derives from an account in the Hebrew Bible, in which pronunciation of this word was used to distinguish members of a group (the Ephraimites) whose dialect lacked a /ʃ/ sound (as in shoe) from members of a group (the Gileadites) whose dialect did include such a sound.

For anyone with an imagination, permutations on this theme abound.

It was not etymology which came to mind when I saw a wonderful photograph of a school girl sitting between two cracks in Wood’s Lot, drawing the crack. Because my eyes weren’t really focusing well, I thought for a moment she was sitting between two jagged sculptures, drawing, engaged, transported. When I realised it was Tate Modern, the pleasure of seeing her so engrossed did not change. Instead, I thought along the lines of this post which I discovered immediately afterwards from Inversion Layer:

Doris Salcedo’s Shibboleth: a presence not an absence

This at one stage critically mocked work, has really captured people’s imagination. The photograph in Flickr titled Along the Crack, demonstrates the engagement people have with it. I also like the blurred image, Focal point of the crack. (Are any of them wondering how it was put there and what happened to the original floor? A year ago I walked on the smooth floor below the ‘helter-skelters’). The way I respond to this at one level is: here is a creation which demonstrates more graphically than looking at a painting, how people respond to art: every combination from children getting feet stuck to adults skirting around, slightly embarrassed. But who knows what the skirters did a few minutes later? Perhaps even they were getting down to it too – as only children know how to properly from their hearts. Maybe the children, by doing what they do in response to the crack, are setting the example to the adults, who might have forgotten how to respond instinctively, for fear of seeming unknowledgeable, or some such other hang-up about art. Why not a mourner lying one one side of the crack?

It is also interesting to think that some may see Shibboleth as abstract while others that it is representational, allegorical; it is in any case metaphorical. Maybe as they wander around, they swap and change from one form to the other. Others might see, as I am beginning to, despite not having visited it, that a work of art can be both abstract and not, while at the same time demonstrating the difference between the two; even showing, in the reactions and thoughts of people – more than what is there on the ground, the activity of individuals being essential to the work itself – a series of gradations from one art form to the other. Sure, it’s a play thing too.

Is there such a thing as epistemological of art? By that I mean art which by its nature forces the mind to think of so many things that the brain goes on a journey into what it knows.


My art epistemological education begins with:

Art and Epistemology from The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

The Psycho-epistemology of Art – A discussion of an Ayn Rand essay of that name


“That is All I Know of Him . . . ” Epistemology and Art in Melville’s “Bartleby” By Nancy Roundy


There is a danger with so many ideas flowing from Shibboleth that the artist may end up being accused of having her cake and eating it: with so many interpretations why should she bother to explain what it is that stimulated her to build it in the first place? What it meant to her might be swallowed up in what those who have seen it or photos of it, churn out about its significant or meaning to them.


When hill walking with a friend in Andalucia a few years ago, we came down from a summit with an incredible view


but lost the track. The way we took down nearly ended in disaster when we were forced to walk over a steeply down-slopping section of exposed limestone, often over razor edges, not dissimilar to this in the States:


source: {1}

Once, half way across this sheet of rock, with little prospect of clambering back up it, I did slip a boot down a crevice and panicked for a moment thinking it was stuck, or perhaps that one boot would have to be left behind, with all the complication that might bring.

November 20, 2007 Posted by | art, epistemology | Leave a comment