We hear the word "rational" thrown around a lot.  I like to think I am a rational person but I often find some moments where I need to struggle with what that actually means.  Sorry that this got a little long but I think it is an important subject and I wanted to detail out some of my thinking to other intelligent people because I don't have many folks around me who like to discuss this stuff.

Most rational people point to science when they present their conclusions about the universe.  Yet, in my view, the most rational principle of science is that it is agnostic.  Things are often talked about as if they are fact in Astronomy Magazine and on the Discovery Channel. . . but there is a big asterisk under every scientific conversation that says everything is constantly being tested and some theories have much bigger holes than our confidence suggests.  People don't always live up to this asterisk though.  There are plenty of examples, in fact,  where the progress of science has been slower than it needed to be because too many of the establishment members were over-confident in the existing theories rather than under-confident.

The idea of God is probably the most glaring example in many people's minds of the boundaries between being rational and irrational about the universe.  I'm pretty sure that the reason that science has long avoided the concept of God, and mysticism in general, is not because of a deliberate, irrational choice to reject God.  It is because of the rational choice to look for evidence and make determinations based on what we have found. I think it is a fair and rational position to say that the past evidence of God brought to us by old books and belief systems has been adequately disproven. . .  I am not so sure about statements that no such thing could ever exist in a rational scientific framework, however.

I only say this because it seems to me that Science can accept some really supernatural sounding concepts if there is a rational case being made for them.  Think of string theory with multiple dimensions, or the "multiverse" which suggests a nearly infinite number of big bangs happening inside some larger construct where whole universes come and go like bubbles in foam.   I once found a suggestion by a physicist that every electron in the universe may be the same single electron that is jumping time boundaries to appear everywhere at once to those of us observing it from our time bound viewpoint.  

These are some really big and crazy sounding concepts in a universe that is appearing more and more crazy as we learn more about it.  In the last analysis many of these concepts are also completely untestable and unobservable.  Yet, there are many scientists and "rationalists" who will gladly ponder these things because they are intriguing and there are ways with math and logic to make them appear plausible regardless of how crazy they may appear on the surface.   String theory is one of the more obvious examples of that.

There is also observational evidence of things we cannot resolve, such as dark matter and dark energy which have unremarkable sounding names but they are properties of the universe that appear to exist, but only as their effect.  What is creating the effect appears to be totally undetectable with all known means of scientific testing (for now at least).   With our current understanding of gravity, they also seem to hold an incredibly irrational amount of invisible power we can't account for.   This is not evidence of an invisible entity holding the universe together. . .  but it is certainly evidence that we have no business talking about our understanding of even something primal like gravity as "established fact" and we should be careful if we want to use the ability to detect things as the only standard of proof.

I am in the middle of a book called "The Self Aware Universe" by a quantum physicist who has turned into a sort of science mystic because he discovered the ancient monistic concepts of his Hindu upbringing within the framework of quantum physics.   It is not quite an anthropomorphic God concept (so far) but it certainly presents a concept of the universe that is not purely mechanical and materialistic like many would choose to believe.  He believes he has reached this view through rational means by examining the evidence.

I found myself speculating one day about infinity.   Infinity, as a matter of "fact", is a purely mathematical concept.  Infinity, as a reality of time or space in the universe, is a concept that makes rational sense but it is more of a leap of faith.  There is no way to test it for confirmation, so there are mixed views on the matter. What gets me, though, is that If we enter into some speculation about an infinite universe, then we could arrive at a supreme being concept just by using evolution and time. Take a universe full of intelligent species and project it forward a few billion or trillion years of additional evolution and it is not hard to imagine some sort of supremely evolved being as a result.  That's projecting forward in time.  But, If we can project the evolution of such a being by looking forward into infinite time, then the infinite amount of time behind us could also have already evolved it, could it not?    I'm way out on a limb here, I know. . . but how crazy is this, really,  compared to the rational thinking that brings us the 10 or 26 dimensions of string theory?  Or the theory that something comes from nothingness if enough time passes?  Where do the boundaries of being rational begin and end?  Are any and all speculations about a God type concept a taboo no matter what, just because of how long we have been telling ourselves that science killed God?

If we are truly rational is it proper to be something like a Theist or and Athiest who make declarations as if they are facts? Or is it better to always be agnostic, and acknowledge the possibilities while never totally committing to an absolute position on anything?  Even when it is something so central to many people's self identity such as believing in a God, or the lack of a God?  

I don't claim to have the answers, and I'm not here pitching a new God concept (except as a personally intriguing intellectual exercise).  I try to fall into the agnostic category for the most part. .  but I have no fear of speculating within reason and that often leads me to strange places where I wonder where the boundaries of being rational really are.  At this point I feel like the truly rational choice in a belief system is not to harbor any belief system at all . . .only a "possibility system" which is always open to change.  Science strives for this as a field, but can individuals really do it?   Latching onto tribal belief systems seems to be part of human nature.   It makes me wonder if any and all belief systems are in danger of becoming just another form of over confidence, self deception, and tribalism; even the ones who are trying to be rational.  



Is this a. . . rational. . . concern?   

Tags: Agnostic, Rational, Science, evolution

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That's fair.

I'm reading "The Electric Sky" and this is actually helping to clarify our positions on this.

FYI.   The article about fairies was a clever title for an article that spelled out the specifics of the scientific method.  He's not defending intelligent design.  He is saying that we are having the wrong argument.  So claiming that it took you 90 seconds to disregard it only claims that you didn't pay very much attention to it.


It's totally fair to take issue with him on that old point about atheism not being a scientific fact, but to say you disregarded the whole thing in less time than most people could read it. . .  only shows you didn't care, not that you are rational.

There is lots of scientific theory that ends up in unknown territories like "singularities" and infinity and alternate dimensions.  It is still useful enough to build a working theory of the universe around them.

There is lots of scientific theory that ends up in unknown territories

Now you have changed it to “scientific theory” and not “scientific truth”.

He did not claim Atheism was not a scientific fact but that is was a “faith based position” which to me is that same as the line “It takes as much faith to not believe in God as it does to believe in God”. This is a statement normally made by someone that does not understand what Atheism is.

I may have been quick to dismiss it because I just scan-read it. Another few minutes shows some interesting points about the teaching of Science.

The author of "The Electric Sky" made a really good point that I may have been taking for granted.

A whole lot of cosmology, archeology, and geology is based on "deductive" methods that cannot be falsified.

Black holes, for example, are the result of deductive reasoning with math.  They are not scientific truth.  Deductive concepts are a good place to start, and they can be treated as a working model, but they are not scientific truth without falsification and verification, as everyone here has mentioned.  That leaves them in limbo as "good ideas" that are waiting for future ways to strengthen them into scientific truth.

He brings up some notable scientists who have given grave warnings that cosmology (and the other two), are in danger of turning their fields into another form of religion if we give deductive reasoning too much authority.

Some examples of theories that he sees as deductive rather than falsifiable:

The big bang

The interpretations of the red shift of galaxies

The existence of black holes and pulsars.

The age of the universe.

The existence of what we call "dark matter" and "dark energy"

The way solar systems are formed

The nuclear fusion in the center of suns.

He is essentially putting all of these theories and concepts in the same category as my theory about intelligence becoming dominant over nature.   They represent deductive reasoning, which is a good start but not an end all it's own.  Einstein's theories were completely deductive.  But  E=MC squared didn't become the giant it is now, as far as I know, until the deductive reasoning was tested and validated in empirical research.

I suppose in my case there would need to be specific empirical research about the potential of intelligence to expand beyond human brains and a study of the possible limitations that would eventually stop such an intelligence from completely mastering nature if it could become immortal.  

I don't suppose there would ever be a way to measure it against infinity or to come up with falsifiable ways to contemplate the science and technologies that would eventually come available to such an intelligence. That would make it an open ended sort of study waiting for future data.

Anyway.   I am seeing now that the field of cosmology is the problem here.  They are releasing a lot of information as if it is available with 99% certainty even though it is totally deductive and not falsifiable.  Something like string theory is a mathematical fad that has people stroking their chins, but not very useful as falsifiable fact.

We are still left with a massive problem of "the gaps" however.  While we are all guarding against putting God in the gaps, some of us may be a lot more tolerant of allowing black holes and string theory into those gaps, without holding them to the same rigorous standard and/or dismissal when people start talking about them.

They are releasing a lot of information as if it is available with 99% certainty even though it is totally deductive and not falsifiable. 

Curious comment. What's that impression based on? The 99% certainty, that is.

He used it in The Electric Sky as an example of an announcement they made about neutrinos.  They claimed that "scientists now knew with 99% certainty".

He also asked the same question.  How exactly did they determine the 99%?

"Black holes, for example, are the result of deductive reasoning with math.  They are not scientific truth."

Today they are a fact backed by empirical proof.

Hey remember how your mother would always say "Don't stare at the Sun, it will burn you eyes out"?  I have a new one "Don't stare at a Black Hole it will suck your eyes out.

Do you know what the empirical proof is?  I know they have data that is being interpreted in a certain way and lots of deductive math leading to the conclusions.  Nobody has sent a probe for actual observation obviously.

I always thought of them as proven myself but that book "The Electric Sky" had me questioning them for the first time.  Maybe he is the one mistaken. . or maybe the book was written before more recent discoveries.  

Either way I was using them as an example of deductive research that is not being verified or falsified with actual field observations.  Maybe string theory is a better example.  He is also going after the big bang as non falsifiable.

What is your definition of a scientific fact Roy?

Well funny you should ask Davis.  I've gotten a great refresher course right here in this conversaton.  :)

I guess my definition would be the same as that article I posted about electrons and fairies.

If it stands up to falsification, has a lot of data to support it, and people can predict or manipulate things accurately based on all of that, then whatever it is is as close as we get to a fact, though it may still be incomplete and modified with future information.  Or it may prove to have a baby brother with a whole separate set of rules, like quantum physics.

There are plenty of things that we could consider scientific facts.  But cosmology has a big disadvantage when it comes to falsification because we can't reach the subjects of our study.  So a whole lot of the work is done on chalk boards with equations, and the falsification sometimes amounts to little more than the peer review process.   

Sending probes to the planets falsified a whole lot of theories that were only on chalk boards.  It also verified some.

Donald Scott, the author of The Electric Sky implies that the dark matter/energy problem could lead to either the falsification of a whole lot of theories including the big bang. . . or some more really imaginative ways of holding on to the status quo that are totally unfalsifiable.  We have already seen the proposition that there is invisible matter and energy nobody can detect that makes up 90% of the universe.

Why not just say it is the realm of Heaven causing this because "spirit matter" also creates gravity even though we can't detect it? Nobody could falsify that either.  Plus it would save the big bang. . . sort of. . .  lol

My preferred definition of scientific fact is: an observation that has been confirmed repeatedly and is accepted as true (although its truth is never final).

As I see it falsifiability only delimits what is a scientific theory and what is pseudoscience. A scientific fact on the other hand is about what has been confirmed by observation and has thus already passed the test of falsifiability before the testing (or repeated testing) began.

I've found a copy of the book and I'm thinking of getting it if you recommend it based on what you've read so far.

If it stands up to falsification, has a lot of data to support it, and people can predict or manipulate things accurately based on all of that, then whatever it is is as close as we get to a fact, though it may still be incomplete and modified with future information. 

What would you call an assertion that "has a lot of data to support it, and people can predict or manipulate things accurately based on (it)" but which lacks falsifiability? Are you up for a new category, "virtual facts"?

Let's suppose string theory meets that standard. Would that make string theory factual in any way? In other words, even if we can't say for sure "there are strings" or "strings are a myth," can't string theory still be a fruitful theory?

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