philosophy science theology


Definition: Let us take ‘cosmos’ as a term denoting ‘the universe’, the ‘world’, or ‘everything that we see’, etc.

Statement 1: The cosmos was created and is sustained by an ‘other’.

Statement 2: The cosmos is all that there is (and ever has been and ever will be).

Both statements assume the above conceptual definition of ‘cosmos’ (‘everything that we see’), but only statement 2 depends on knowledge of the cosmos that we don’t have, and will never have.  In other words, the theistic statement (1) doesn’t rely upon complete knowledge of the cosmos, but the naturalistic statement (2) seems to.

It is worth pointing out that this statement (classically expressed by Carl Sagan: “The universe is all that is or ever was or ever will be…“) is in a positive form, but with a negative implication implicit in it; namely that there is not anything other than the universe.  Even stating a negative in positive terms doesn’t make it provable.

By way of (crude/imperfect) analogy, this is like someone saying, “Earth is the centre of things” – one could understand the observations that would lead someone to think that.

By reference to a (much better) analogy, this is like a 2-dimensional square saying, “Flatland is all that is, or ever was or ever will be.”  One could understand the square’s 2-dimensional argument.  How fuzzy, awkward, and speculative 3-dimensional fables, ‘experiences’ and ‘logical arguments’ would seem!  Spheres!?  Cubes!?  Thick-ness!!?? How utterly devoid of any solid, ‘objective’, 2-dimensional ‘evidence’!

28 replies on “‘other’”

A few notes:

1) Your definition of the cosmos is pretty weak. I doubt very many people would define it as “everything that we see” and the universe and the world are just other words for the cosmos and don’t add any clarification at all.

2) Statements 1 and 2 are not mutually exclusive if god is something that has been or will be or is or could be.

3) I’d argue that statement 1 depends on knowledge that we don’t have but statement 2 is not contradicted by knowledge that we do have.

4) There is a difference between being demonstrably wrong (geocentricism), and being correct so far as we know (Sagan).

1) by all means, suggest other definitions of ‘cosmos’ then? If it is to be defined as in terms that reach beyond ‘everything that we see’, then cosmos is no longer an ‘objectively’ defined term, but a conceptual one

2) if we include “…and there is no ‘other’…”, which is implicit in statement 2, then they are mutually exclusive, yes?

3) actually I’d say that statement 1 is a non-Flat suggestion (‘depends on non-Flat knowledge), and statement 2 is still over-reaching – It’s like saying: ‘There are no spiritual things, because we cannot physically detect them.’ There are no cylinders, because we only see circles and ovals… etc.

4) Actually, geocentricism was precisely ‘correct so far as we know’ until it was shown to be demonstrably wrong. And this still misses the point that the language of 2 is over-reaching

1) I kind of like Sagan’s description as a definition – the Cosmos is all that is or ever was or ever will be.

2) What you mean to add to statement 2 is that the cosmos is all there is “except for god”. This is overlapping with our discussion at my blog.

3) Statement 1 needs positive knowledge of the ‘other’ which we don’t have. Statement 2 is falsifiable (assuming it is defined as everything except the ‘other’) via the same knowledge which we don’t have.

4) Perhaps you really do read “everything we see” into definitions of the universe or the cosmos. I think you are very wrong to do so.

1) again, defining something we have partial/incomplete knowledge of will always be tentative – both the naturalist statement and the theistic one assume a distinction between this tentatively-defined ‘cosmos’ and ‘anything else’

2) yes, there’s overlap :)

3) but maybe we actually do have that positive knowledge, but typically only see 2-dimensions of it (i.e. that’s not a sphere, it’s a circle)…

4) I suppose I’d want to extend that to ‘everything we see or could see’ – and again, one cannot deduce the non-existence of non-visible things from merely looking at and describing/defining visible things

Obviously your interpretation of Sagan’s position is wrong. We study the cosmos recognising that it is far more than we can see (or imagine). Obviously with out understanding of “cosmos” things like other packet universes, and gods are part of the concept. If the concept is that it is all that exists, then something that exists is part of the cosmos. We don’t have to see it, know it or imagine it for it to be part of all that exists, surely.

Your position is the naive anti-science argument that criticises science because it doesn’t know everything.

…with out understanding of “cosmos” things like other packet universes, and gods are part of the concept.

Not so. You’re ignoring the notion of transcendence. Argue against it, fine (which would entail demonstrating just why the cosmos is all that there is), but don’t just ignore it.

And please – stop with the ‘anti-science’ stuff. Nothing I’ve ever said is anti-science.

It is anti-science because science doesn’t start by defining something as outside existence. If we consider the cosmos, reality to cover everything that exists – then it does. Full stop.

Talk of “transcendence’ is just a way of ring fencing an invisible friend. It’s claiming a knowledge which is obviously impossible and arrogant.

Surely we can concede that we may never know and/or understand parts of reality. We may, for example, postulate that it may be impossible to know or understand what happened before the “big bang”. But we would not be scientific to claim that we “know” that to be impossible. History surely shows many people coming a cropper with such attitudes.

Whilst science, of course, does not start by defining something out of existence, it does start with presuppositions about what it can and/or will study: namely, the repeatable/testable phenomena that we observe ‘around’ us. Implicit in this assumption is the scientific ‘agnosticism’/’indifference’ as to investigating the un-repeatable/non-testable. This is not “anti-science” any more than it is “anti-sharp-steak-knifes” to say that steak-knives are not to be used for cutting steel i-beams.

1) Tentative definitions aren’t a problem for me because I’ll take the world as I find it. They are a huge problem for your position though which demands the world be a particular way.

3) It is entirely possible that is the case but the knowledge that “might” be so isn’t overly useful to us. Show us it is so.

4) I presume you are using “see” and “visible” in their broadest possible senses here? Also you can discern the existence of non-visible things by looking at visible things – it is called indirect observation.

There are, of course, epistemic nuances here – relating to ‘tentative’ definitions and our knowledge of the world and/or anything that might be ontologically distinct from it; to knowledge that ‘might’ be useful and demands for certainty, etc.

And yes, ‘see’ and ‘visible’ were intended in their broadest possible sense. I agree that God can be indirectly ‘observed’ in that his actions can be seen – i.e. the act of creation and sustaining is (if one’s philosophical presuppositions or indoctrinations permits them to see it) seen in the very existence of everything we see. Similarly, with ethics – the existence of ubiquitous, intuitive, reasonable or otherwise ‘properly basic’ moral norms are ‘evidence’ of a human moral ‘compass’ which is oriented to an objective referent. A key addition would be that natural descriptions (i’m deliberately not using the word ‘explanations’) for these two examples (the world, moral norms) do not even begin to negate the possibility of them being ‘evidence’ of God’s action.

I disagree with this claim about science “it does start with presuppositions about what it can and/or will study: namely, the repeatable/testable phenomena that we observe ‘around’ us.”

No such starting point. There is no exclusion. Of course when something can’t be tested with our current technology that is a problem – but not a reason for exclusion. After all – remember the claim that we could never know the mineralogy/chemistry of the stars – made just before the invention of spectroscopic methods. We would be silly to deny any potential testability just because of current technological and intellectual limitations. “String Theory” – another classic example – surely.

As for repeatability – are you going to deny scientific investigation into the evolution of our plant’s climate simply because we can’t repeat the experiment?

You might desire yourself “scientific ‘agnosticism’/’indifference’” to protect your current beliefs – but you can’t deny that to others.

Humanity’s desire for knowledge can’t be held back by such naive attempts at redefinition. We have a tendency to, in the end, ignore such dogma. And I am thankful for that.

There is nothing restrictive or ‘anti-science’ about recognising what we cannot even imagine science to investigate. You are right to point out areas where we’ve been surprised; but the whole point is that science studies things that are ontologically appropriate for scientific study, and if God is the sort of ‘Thing’ with an entirely distinct kind of ‘Existence’ and ‘Essence’, then using natural science to ‘investigate’ God would be like trying to use your hearing capacity (a very valuable capacity) to move food from the plate into your mouth. Sure, go ahead and rant about this ‘putting god outside of investigability’, etc., etc. – I don’t mind.

Science studies reality. Beware of anyone telling you we should only study what they think is “appropriate.”

I have never felt any such restriction in my research (plenty of other ones) and hope never to. Smacks of what happened with Stalin/Lysenko and what the Wedge Document people are attempting to impose.

Ken, as a soil scientist, did you ever study the goodness, beauty or dignity of soil? I think not. And if you made any reference to such things, it wasn’t empirical science that underwrote it.

Of course, you’ll now tell me how such things (worth/value/dignity – in general, any meaning/purpose to reality) are not objective and are subjectively constructed by humans. Apparently if science cannot study it (i.e. meaning/purpose), it is automatically not objectively ‘real’… Wow – what a presupposition – and has nothing at all to do with science.

Even you should recognise that such things are related to objective reality (have an objective basis) – something science is very good at elucidating. Science doesn’t pretend to decide ethical questions (unlike religion even though even the religious adherents don’t accept the ethical decisions in practice). Quite properly it informs but people in general approach these ethical questions as political and social ones. And that is people in general – not bishops, priests, imams, ministers, etc.

Climate change is an obvious example where we have been massively informed by science. But we now have to make ethical/political/social decisions with respect to adaption to and mitigation of climate change. Science cannot decide for us the ethics of leaving a mess for our grandchildren. Nor does it.

But all this is quite different to ring-fencing part of reality and excluding science from it as you are arguing. And not in ethical areas but in your claims for an invisible friend.

Indeed, my view is certainly NOT that only bishops, etc. engage in moral ‘digging’ for truth. But the ‘is/ought’ (or ‘fact/value’ or ‘ontology/ethics’) distinction remains the whole point.

You say that ‘these things (value, purpose, etc.?) are ‘related to objective reality’ – do you mean they themselves aren’t ‘real’? How coudl you know?

And again, we have to watch the descriptive/prescriptive distinction as well. We all seem to agree with the prescriptive goal of NOT leaving a mess for our grandchildren (and heaps of other prescriptive goals), but the descriptive tool of science doesn’t ‘do’ prescription, of course. The point is not to reduce or critique science, but to draw attention to the fact that prescriptive moral ideas are conceived and developed based on value-judgments, etc., etc.

And please leave aside the taunting ‘invisible friend’ language. I’m focussing specifically on the question here of an ‘other’ of any kind. Discussing the nature/character/attributes of that ontologically distinct other is a later step.

What “other” is there than your “invisible friend?” What is the purpose for ring-fencing except to claim a space for an “invisible friend?”

It never comes up in any other context. And probably would be laughed out of court if it did.

It seems that we cam make these sort of extravagant claims and get away with them when we classify them as religious. Otherwise they are considered silly and we question the speakers sanity.

Apparently you’re not interested in being patient with other points of view, so you have to mock them? I see no ‘evidence’ that you are interested in understanding why we might see things differently. Stop pretending that it’s all so simple.
Everyday, normal, practical, down-to-earth life is the realm of ‘oughts’ and ‘values’. Yes [begin edit] we can study/observe [end edit] (for example) the neurological correlates and/or evolutionary developmental history related to the physical/biological activity going on when we think about ‘oughts’ and ‘values’ – but the ‘oughts’ and ‘values’ themselves could never be studied empirically. If we stretch ‘science’ to it’s broadest sense and simply speak of knowledge (latin – scienta), then we can include moral philosophy, tradition, and a host of other things.

Your oughts and values are part of reality. Where else could they be?

You only raise them so that you can then do your leap of faith to claim an invisi9ble friend in the same category.

We can, and do, study why and how we have ogu7ths and values. We can, and do, study why and how we have beliefs in fairies, goblins and invisible friends. That doesn’t mean we have need to postulate something outside reality.

Ken, are you open minded to the possibility of oughts/values transcending human brain processes? If not, why? What possible reason could you give for ruling that out?

And again, I’ve already agreed we can study the natural processes involved in our ‘having’ oughts/values – but the point (which you continue to ignore?) is that the actual oughts (i.e. humans ‘ought’ to take care of soil) and values (i.e ‘because soil has value’) are not demonstrable in empirical terms.

Yes, human values can be transcendent in the sense of being held beyond an individual and by many individuals. Austin Dacey has an interesting discussion of this in his book The Secular Conscience. I don’t think that is at all new.

I don’t think you can discuss our treatment/management or valuing of soil without dealing with the real world.

No that’s not what I asked. I asked if they could transcend “human brain processes” (as in all of them). And the follow-up question is what reason we have for ruling that out.

And I agree, you certainly have to deal with ‘real’ soil to discuss treatment/management. Sure. But the imperative/prescription/’ought’ that we should value it is what I’m asking about – and what you’ve yet to answer about.

I think you are being necessarily contradictory here, Dale, perhaps for the sake of it. Trying to create a “them vs us” situation where it doesn’t exist.

Ken, the ‘them/us’ dynamic is present in ALL discussions between any two people who are not exactly alike – in other words between any two people. Should we pretend otherwise?

Dale, you are dishonest attempting to trivialise and important point so as to divert attention. You know what is meant by the “them vs us” situation and its dangers.

No Ken, your ‘them/us’ complaint is preventing actual discussion. Do you just not want to admit that the is/ought, fact/value, descriptive/prescriptive distinctions actually make sense?

What prevents discussion is attributing positions to your partner they don’t actually hold. That creates a “them vs us.” You want me to deny that human values are transcendent. I didn’t therefore you “correct me” (to fit in with your preconceived them vs us schedule of what I must believe) instead of understanding me. learning from it, and moving on.

Comments are closed.