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Science and...

The author of a recent polemic, titled, The Separation of Science and Belief - "Give No Solace to the Faithful” posed a great question. He asked: 

“Is it irrational to believe in something that cannot be proven?”

It was clear that he intended it as a rhetorical question, to which there could only be one right answer. Some dialogue followed, and a lot of insult. I think this question is too important to get lost in the fog of verbal warfare. I hope we can revisit it… more productively this time. 

In response to that question, I talked about the personal benefits that can come from prayer and angelic solace, in the context of discussing my illness and brush with death 12 years ago. In the spirit of dialogue, eschmitt wrote the following:

We have evolved as social animals. I see no incompatibility between your experience and empiricism….

That love is an emotion and thus a brain-state doesn't make it any less potent or important. It just means it doesn't have a supernatural component.

I would point out that you were treated by evidence-based medicine. Had you relied merely on the prayers of a clergy of whatever denomination, your odds of survival would have been precisely equal to the odds of recovering on your own.

Faith healers never seem to treat amputees...

By contrast, the polemist (Vidda) wrote: “Personally, I can never take anyone seriously who believes in angels. I never will.” 

I felt that the difference was not between eschmitt and Vidda as writers, but rather as readers. Eschmitt read with his mind and heart. Eschmitt was interested and empathetic. Perhaps the underlying difference behind their contrasting reactions was different brain states.  

I would like to argue that it can be very rational to believe something that you cannot prove. If believing that I am surrounded by angels puts me in a beneficial brain state, would it not be foolish to wait for “science” to “prove” that such beliefs reduce stress chemicals in the brain? 

And suppose I find that forsaking these unproven beliefs cause me to feel alone and bitter. What would be rational then? It would be a problem were I to insist that others must believe as I do, but I see no problem with beliefs which improve my mental clarity and sense of well-being.

My wife, Donna Faith K-Brooks, says that people are always asking: “Do you believe in…?” She says that a better question would be: “Have you experienced…? She may be on to something. If so, then science vs religion might be a provocative question, but framing the issue differently might stimulate a more productive discussion.


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The initial question

contains a few words that Wikipedia's editorial guidelines might consider "weasel words".

“Is it irrational to believe in something that cannot be proven?”

How does one define "irrational", and more importantly how do we come to a consensus about this?

Same for "proven" and, to a lesser extent, "believe in something".

As a matter of the scientific method, everything is falsifiable, so nothing can be proven. During my lifetime, the sun keeps rising from the east (but at different points north-to-south), there's much empirical and theoretical evidence to suggest that it will continue to be so, therefore I believe it will continue to do so.

A mere century ago the Earth was thought to be 100 million years old and plate tectonics was laughed out of the conference where it was presented.

Clearly I'm on a tangent to the crux of SKB's post, the focus is spirituality. Is faith irrational?

As an irreligious atheist, I don't find it so much irrational as I find it vexing, particularly when it's invoked for political, militaristic and "patriotic" purposes.

If it brings a person comfort, I'm fine with respecting another person's faith, but when that faith is used to threaten or otherwise solicit me (I'm thinking of the holy rollers that turn up on Elliot Street from time to time on weekends) I am offended intellectually and emotionally.


Irrational: not logical or

Irrational: not logical or reasonable.

Proven: to establish the truth or genuineness of, as by evidence or argument

Belief: an acceptance that a statement is true or that something exists

The consensus is that the above is our usage of those word which conveys a certain mutually understood meaning.

That may come off as glib but its because I have absolutely no idea what you are trying to say by questioning the meaning of those terms?

Your claim that nothing can be proven is a little weird. What you are really getting at is the problem of absolute certainty, in that is appears to be impossible to be absolutely certain about anything. So, as a practical necessity we consider "facts" "truth" and "knowledge" to be that which has been demonstrated to be consistent with reality as far as we are able to determine to an extremely high degree of confidence.

For example, we can regard it as a fact that the earth revolves around the sun and is shaped mostly spheroid. That is both falsifiable, and in a practical sense, provable. It has been demonstrated to be true to such an extremely high degree of confidence that we can reasonably claim to be certain about it, though the philosophical problem of absolute certainty remains.

For example, we have not observed the existence of Pluto for a sufficiently long enough time to observe its entire orbit around the sun. However, we can extrapolate from known data to predict its orbit around the sun. In your mind, must we observe its entire orbit before having rational justification for claiming to know Pluto's orbital path?

It is similar to the problem of hard solipsism. It does not appear to be resolvable, so as a practical necessity we have to make certain presuppositions.

So, I disagree that nothing can be proven in a practical sense, since philosophical resolutions to hard solipsism and absolute certainty are likely impossible. We can establish a fact with a sufficient degree of credibility and certainty to reasonably call it "proven".


The revelations about Pluto over the past year or two

have enormously falsified much of what is "known" about that dwarf planet. Earlier this week I read an article on extremetech.com regarding X-rays coming from Pluto that could not be attributed to the usual suspects.

Not to be glib, but I don't understand how "everything is falsifiable" cannot be transformed into "nothing can be proven". It's the logical converse as logic was taught to me in the eighth grade.

I should also invoke Kurt Godel's Incompleteness Theorem.


I don't think we've really

I don't think we've really "falsified" what is known about Pluto. I think the scientific community was pretty clear about "We don't know much" and was waiting with great anticipation these probe missions and other observations to return more data. Now that they have, we know tremendously more about Pluto than we did previously.

The x-rays from Pluto are attributable to its very very thin atmosphere, which would rank among the usual suspects.

Some claims have withstood such a high degree of experimentation and scrutiny that we can consider them to have been proven correct.

Do you understand the difference between a falsifiable claim and a falsified claim?

In order for a claim to be provable, it MUST be falsifiable.


engaging with a trolls is a waste of time

"Do you understand the difference ...?" between two grammar usages of the same concept is a troll question. Try to talk down to me more, because he it's really helping me check in with this site for the Selectboard Meeting narrative and nothing else.

You get away with it because, like Zygmunt at Mocha Joe's, attendance trumps all in a small VT town. Even after nine years here the song remains the bleepin' same.

fwiw Zygmunt-as-handle, you're wrong about the falsification of what we know about Pluto. The term "planetoid" came and went for a solid series of falsifications; even Neil deGrasse Tyson came down from his high horse and calls it a "dwarf planet" now.

Do you know what a falsification is? I don't care, but that's now the level of discourse you tried creating, and I'm aborting now.

See you in the funny pages.

cheers hajm


I wasn't talking down to you,

I wasn't talking down to you, I was asking you a question about whether you understood the difference between falsifiable and falsified as it related to your point.

" but I don't understand how "everything is falsifiable" cannot be transformed into "nothing can be proven"."

You said yourself you don't understand how. So why are you flipping out when I ask if you understand the difference?

Since something that is not falsifiable cannot be proven or disproven, in order for something to be provable, it must be falsifiable. The way I read your previous statement is that you saw some issue with that, that falsifiable somehow meant not provable because no "proof" was beyond falsification. What you are missing there is just because the claim is falsifiable, doesn't mean it will be falsified. Do you follow? Or are you going to take it as condescending that I ask if you if you understand what I am trying to say to you in order to facilitate communication?

The term "dwarf planet" wasn't a thing until just a few years ago and it was created pretty much to deal with examples like Pluto.

"IAU Resolution 6a of 2006 recognizes Pluto as "the prototype of a new category of trans-Neptunian objects"."

What exactly does debating about how to classify Pluto have to do with falsification of our knowledge about it? Your statement makes no sense. I'm starting to question whether you understand how that term is used in a scientific context.

Given that a new classification was created for it, its not at all surprising that Dr. Tyson would utilize the new classification, especially since he was arguing that Pluto shouldn't be categorized as a planet. He was kinda on the winning side of that argument. The high horse jab, I have no idea what you are on about there.

But sure, you can throw your toys on the floor and storm out. I think its rather immature to claim trolling just because you aren't getting your way and someone on the internet may have a bit more expertise than you in astronomy, given its a huge interest of mine. I'm happy to be corrected when I am in error, as thats one way to learn, but so far you've not demonstrated a sufficient grasp of the subject for me to defer to you, and in fact you've been wrong or unclear with every statement so far.

So, perhaps instead of getting bent out of shape, why don't you try to have a productive conversation?


"Is it irrational to believe

"Is it irrational to believe in something that cannot be proven". I will also add "or disproven".


Unfalsifiable claims have no truth value because they are absolutely indistinguishable from any other unfalsifiable claim. Thus they are worthless and meaningless.

David Hume: "A wise man, therefore, proportions his belief to the evidence."

"I would like to argue that it can be very rational to believe something that you cannot prove. If believing that I am surrounded by angels puts me in a beneficial brain state, would it not be foolish to wait for “science” to “prove” that such beliefs reduce stress chemicals in the brain? "

Your definition of rationality may be the issue here. The dictionary definition is: the quality or state of being reasonable, or based on facts or reason.

So, facts or reason. That essentially means empirical evidence or sound, logical argument using one of the various methods of reasoning (I.E. inductive, deductive)

Now, your example argument is not clear. Are you suggesting it is rational to believe in angels because doing so might have a beneficial effect? What if we change the argument to "Believing that there are not angels puts me in a beneficial brain state". Couldn't that be equally true? Now we have a logical contradiction. There cannot both be angels and not angels.

Thus it would not be rational to use that argument to justify your belief in angels as it cannot differentiate between angels and not angels.

The critical issue here is whether you care about whether your beliefs are true, or if you only care whether they are comforting. If you are justifying your beliefs based only on their relative comfort, you cannot claim to have rational justification, as you have abandoned any claim to truth.

Unless your rationality argument rests on the "It comforts me" part. Well, ok, sure, whether or not it comforts you is a falsifiable question and if you feel comforted then you can say you have rational justification to say that you feel comforted. But, I'm not sure that has much value to what you seem to be trying to say? (Correct me please?)

To quote Dillahunty: "Beliefs inform actions and actions have consequences therefore it is preferable to hold as many true beliefs and as few false beliefs as possible".

I also disagree with your wife changing the question to "Have you experienced" because we know hallucination happens. My wife works in a psychiatric facility. Patients experience all sorts of things that do not actually exist in reality. Whether one experiences something is a poor measure of whether that experience is actually concordant with objective reality.


Love Loves and People Change (Experience)

It has been my experience that in the act of loving, going beyond one's finite self, do we change. Melevav of the old Common Loaf Bakery days in the Harmony Lot.


I have absolutely no idea

I have absolutely no idea what melevav is trying to say and my eyes roll at "beyond one's finite self" but I will make one correction to my above comment as I re-read it trying to figure out what melevav was talking about.

When I said that one's experience was a poor measure of what is concordant with objective reality, I probably should have said that one's conclusions drawn from one's experience tends to be a poor measure.... etc...

Small but potentially important distinction...


What is the likelihood...

that an apparent experience is actually a hallucination?

Checking online it seems that about 1% of the population, world wide, is schizophrenic, suggesting that at least 99% of experiences are not hallucinations.


Schizophrenia is not the only

Schizophrenia is not the only reason one would hallucinate.

A better way to ask the question is "What percentage of people have at some point in their lives had their brain misinterpret their sensory input" and then you need to add the whole remembering things incorrectly, as we know our brains do that too.

At that point its probably more like 99% *have* experienced such incorrect conclusions/memories.

For example, you'll note that when people claim religious visions or religious experiences of supernatural encounters with supernatural beings, the experience always seems to reflect the local religious culture. You don't generally have hindu's seeing the christian jesus or angels and visa versa.


An example?

Can you give a link to a Hindu's account and another link to a Christian's account of the type of experiences that you are referring to? I think it would be really interesting to be able to consider actual examples.


Live and let live

I like Donna's formulation "have you experienced..." I have. But I don't try to make other people share my experience (pointless effort and generally not welcome). What we believe is up to the individual.

I do object when someone innocently posts something about their experience, and scientistic skeptics jump all over them shouting "you're wrong! you're stupid! you're irrational!" Leaving aside the question of who appointed them the arbiters of truth in all things, it strikes me as just plain mean to jump all over someone in a public forum. Forcing a rationalist viewpoint is no better than religious zealots trying to enforce their religious views. Let people believe what they want.

The last thought I had on this is that there is a gigantic divide between scientific/rationalist people and artsy/intuitive/spiritual people. Our society privileges science and 'reason' over all other modes of knowing, so it's not surprising that many people think they are the only way to know. I personally think that there are other ways, including intuition, but that's just me. I don't expect anyone else to agree with me. I wish the same was true for our resident rationalists....

Thanks for bringing up these issues again. I agree strongly with SKB's original point that this topic was worth discussing without nasty invective. Unfortunately, anything of a spiritual or non-rationalist nature seems open for attack lately.


Beliefs inform actions and

Beliefs inform actions and actions have consequences, therefore it is preferable to belief in as many true things and as many false things as possible.

Science and reason are the best methods we have of determining what is true.

As far as who appointed the rational voices as the arbiters of truth, well, you can go on believing 2+2=5, but it that does not require anyone to respect it as a valid answer and you'd probably be better off if your beliefs conformed to reality.

Persuading people of a rational viewpoint versus a religious one has one very very important merit in its favor. Its true, correct, verifiable, repeatable, etc...

You'll find if you are being honest that you quite prefer living in a world where your buildings, cars, bridges, cell phones and ETC are designed and built based on rational scientific principles and empirical evidence versus what people "feel" to be true.

When someone is convicted in court not on sufficient evidence but instead on bias and "feelings" would you not say that an injustice has been committed?

Generally folks who espouse the viewpoint you just presented are very eager to benefit from the scientific method and reason *until* it contradicts them, until it says that you just might be flat wrong. At which point it gets labeled oppressive and close-minded. Its hypocritical.

You say that society privileges science and reason above all other methods of "knowing".

What other method of "knowing" do you propose that doesn't lead to 2+2=5?


Never the twain shall meet

As I said above, there is a gigantic divide between the rationalists and people who do not define themselves solely by that term. I don't think the divide can be bridged. So if you choose to rail against people who think differently than you, you will be wasting your time because they will be no more convinced by you than you are by them!

See what I'm saying?


Please present your

Please present your alternative method of "knowing" ?

Its unfortunate that you consider any challenge to your ideas to be me "railing" against you.

Perhaps I have misunderstood the purpose of a discussion forum. Is the purpose of a discussion forum for all participants to simply say "Yes, me too!" and those who disagree should keep such positions to themselves?

I come here seeking to be challenged and challenge others in kind as well as to practice articulating myself (and in the case of conspiracy theorists, to push back against anti-intellectual and anti-science nonsense).

Why do you come here?


The healthy mind cannot have two masters

In the above article by SK-B he wrote that my recent previous article, titled, The Separation of Science and Belief - "Give No Solace to the Faithful” had, in his words, "posed a great question," where I asked, “Is it irrational to believe in something that cannot be proven?”

His article, in a transparent attempt to compare and divide eschmitt and myself, may not have worked as well as he had liked. Eschmitt’s response was, “Yes” to my question, "Is it irrational to believe in something that cannot be proven (or disproven)?" Eschmitt goes on to say, “Unfalsifiable claims have no truth value because they are absolutely indistinguishable from any other unfalsifiable claim. Thus they are worthless and meaningless.”
What is it about that, that is so hard to understand?

One does not have to be a rocket-scientist to know that if you really believe in anything that has not, cannot, be proven or disproved, then truly, “Houston, we have a problem.”

The idea that Donna and Lise feel that a better question would be: “Have you experienced…?” has no weight to nullify my original “great question.”
The fact that anyone has “experienced” something is essentially “loose change” that does not go very far to substantiate “the intellectual and practical activity encompassing the systematic study of the structure and behavior of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment.”

When Lise comments that “there is a gigantic divide between scientific/rationalist people and artsy/intuitive/spiritual people” she suggests that artsy and intuitive falls only with the “spiritual” people. That is patently untrue. Scientific/rationalist people have, can and do use intuition where quick, immediate insight, convictions, even cognition help them to think things through, and scientists can go on to provide proofs that are then subject to important peer review. Moreover, scientific/rationalist people can also be creative in the many fields of the arts without being the least bit spiritual.

If your "experiences" and/or “beliefs conformed to reality,” and are proven, they are no longer beliefs.

The healthy mind cannot have two masters.


Trying to add something

Religion means many things to many people. Not all religions are fundamentalist sects that cling to written words as the truth. For me religion is a creative mix of metaphor, storytelling, moral insight through parables, community, comfort for those in need, music, meditation, culture and tradition. Religion is not - for me - an alternative way of knowing about things we have determined through the scientific method. To say that religion and science are somehow competing for the same territory takes us back to such absurdities as the Scopes "monkey trial". I think we have moved beyond that by a few inches anyway.

The problem of religion being used to control people, demonize others and justify violence is less about religion and more about the terrible tendency of people to create identity by hating "the other". This is not only not religion - it is actually the exact opposite of what the world's faith traditions have tried to counter. I have no problem with folks who have no interest in religion of any kind - as long as they pay their contractors and treat the folks around them with decency. On the other, hand trying to argue against this hunger for grappling with the unknown through religious symbols and traditions is tough assignment. Religion has a lot to answer for, however a lot of the world's pain and suffering has been brought about by very 'rational' people. Just trying to add something.



A cunning device or expedient

When SK-B revealed, as he states above, his "personal benefits that can come from prayer and angelic solace, in the context of discussing my illness and brush with death 12 years ago," he attributed this complexity of thoughts "during" the time he was in a coma. I know enough about intensive care units (ICU) to tell you that if you revisit the startling, explicit and detailed storyline that he claims to have had during his unconscious comatose state, here in my article: (http://ibrattleboro.com/sections/oped/separation-science-and-belief-give... ), you can better understand why I reacted in the strident manner I did to his claims of alleged, amazing post-coma recall.. But my comment was deleted then. So be it.

But I reiterate here, in the human unconscious state there may, in fact, be some recall enough to tell others about it. Yet, please read carefully what is written by SK-B describing his recall in a state of coma:

"Although I was in a coma, apparently insensate, my own mind was active and I knew full well that death was imminent. I think that I had a realistic experience of what death can feel like, because as my breathing became more and more of a struggle, I came to a moment where was sure that I could not hold on for more than another minute and a half. In my delusional world, I thought that I was a political prisoner, that my torturers had decided to kill me, and it was beyond my power to stop them." [Read his full comment here: http://ibrattleboro.com/sections/oped/separation-science-and-belief-give... ]

Does any rational reader really believe that anyone could come out of a coma and with explicit clarity, replay in detail what their mind was thinking at the time they were comatose?

Let's look at some medical science behind it. This article, while not necessarily an exact fit to SK-B's experience, it is highly indicative to the realities behind people in a comatose state: http://www.businessinsider.com/do-people-remember-being-in-a-coma-2014-7:

"In a true, or non-induced coma, there's no evidence of fluctuating circadian cycles or changing brain activity, according to Dr. Proekt. In that case, he says it's highly unlikely anyone would remember anything or even dream — though if they wake up, which isn't guaranteed, they might enter mental states along the way that allow them to dream....More commonly, people remember things that never happened."

Where does the truth lay between what someone believes and what actually happened, is the very thing that made me think SK-B's story was contrived, an artifice, a "clever or cunning device or expedient, especially as used to trick or deceive others" in his desire to propagate his belief-dependency versus science.

The doubt that I express then is what I mean now. This time there is no utter disbelief "invictive" cause to delete my comment.


magical thinking

I've been thinking about this so called "gigantic divide between scientific/rationalist people and artsy/intuitive/spiritual people," and I can't help but see an irony: Spirituality and Religion remain popular because they function to rationalize life's mysteries. That's right: it's the artsy/intuitive/spiritual/superstitious that overlay meaning where perhaps there is none. rationalizing the irrational. seeing patterns where they don't exist. The universe was not designed with the comforts of human beings in mind. We are not the heroes we imagine ourselves to be. and yet we are. all of us imagine ourselves to be the hero in our personal narrative, when in truth most of us are myopic assholes. narcissistic blowhards. this is as true for scientists and rationalists, as it is for Hindus, astrologists, and born again Christians. none of us are as smart and savvy as we purport to be.


Fractious mess

What a strange mass of confusion. I don't know why you even bothered to comment? You're all over the place like a jumbled train wreck. No magical thinking about that.


You're right!

Husband, wife, and wife's mother went to the rabbi for arbitration.

The rabbi listened while the wife poured out her complaints. "My husband is a schlemiel. He is a poor provider, completely unreliable. The other day, the cow got out because my husband, the daydreamer, was not paying attention. And I feel disrespected by him because he nods and agrees when I ask him something but he is nor really listening."

When she had finished, the Rabbi turned to her and said, "You're right."

The husband became irate. "How can you say she is right, when you have not even heard what I have to say?" He proceeded to pour out his heart, telling a story which was very different from his wife's." The rabbi turned to him and said, "You're right."

Now the mother-in-law jumped in: "Rabbi, you just told my daughter that she is right. Then my filthy son-in-law told a completely opposite story, and you told him that he is right. How can they both be right? Rabbi, you are crazy!"

"And you are right too!" replied the rabbi.


Like your post

Them that hear not the music think them that dance are mad.

Awe and wonder have a place - even in science.

"The most boring question you can ask of any religion is whether it is true." - Alain de Botton

Is light a particle or a wave? Just wondering.


A reasonable perspectiive

I appreciated your comment titled, "Trying to add something." It was thoughtful and definitely added to this discussion.


What kind of "world" it would be

"...a lot of the world's pain and suffering has been brought about by very 'rational' people."

The world you're referring to has been predominately controlled and run by believers and religious people. This "world" has never been run (controlled) by a logical, rational society. There is no real point of reference as to just what kind of world it would be.

Even when believers and rational people did do good for the world, with good and peaceful intentions, it was the religious based governments who debased what good they contributed to our betterment.


Dormant stage

To SK-B and Andy D...:
The cow knows when to meander and when to come straight home. Anybody who believes that everyone can be right is the bigger fool for going into a pontless rabbi "joke" in the first place.

When one asks the question "is light a particle or a wave" and then says "just wondering" it means that you knew (Googled) the answer beforehand and you're trying to pull one over. That's not a reasonable perspective. (Thanks Tob for catching that.) Don't preach that awe and wonder have a place, even in science. Science has that and much, much more. Your "boring" axiom is as empty as de Botton's head, which "forged a lucrative career stating the bleeding obvious in a series of poncey, lighter-than-air books aimed at smug Sunday supplement pseuds looking for something clever-looking to read on the plane," or in your case some empty-headed quote with no real meaning and even less interest.


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