Wilkins, who has probably forgotten more philosophy than I know, asks an interesting question about a famous thought experiment of Einstein. My old sparring partner Caledonian corrects him (what a shocker!). I give my two cents, too. Enjoy.


Stan, perhaps you haven't had time to respond to my last post, because your most recent post ("Seeking The Next Step") doesn't seem to address anything from my last. Basically, in Stan-Ding Discussion #2, I summarized my reasons why I didn't feel compelled as a science guy to delve into first principles, since they are effectively held provisionally, just like theories, and we justify them not because they've been proven true, but because they've proven useful and productive.

I might add, Stan, that the above distinction may well be pivotal to any argument that takes some version of logical empiricism as a starting point. There is, for example, a well-known (but also deeply-flawed) empiricist critique of scientific realism, which is probably the philosophical stance that most closely corresponds with my views as far as the meaning of scientific claims. You can read about that on the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (SEP) here.

Anyway, in the meantime I'll go ahead and repeat my earlier question:

Given that I need a foundation of some support, what principles would you commend, and for what reason? Am I compelled by logic to adopt any, some or all of these principles?

Again, if this is not where you want to go next, you can just tell me.


As a sidebar, I have a few comments about your last post. First, thanks for providing context but believe it or not, I kind of already had you pegged from leafing through your web site. You were obviously a non-believer with some scientific/technical training in your salad days, who later in life decided to reevaluate your personal atheism, and who now wants to make the claim that one can deduce the rejection of atheism on logical grounds. Gotcha.

Now, I'm definitely interested in that claim, but I will also be interested to see what would compel me to buy into a dichotomy between the 'historical sciences' and 'empirical science', especially since I'm pretty sure you're going to eventually confess that empiricism is not only not part of your belief system, but that you're going to offer some version of rationalism (which in its strong version is not compatible with empiricism) as part of your beliefs.

As far as my beliefs go, you ask: "
I am curious how you segment your theism and your empiricism. Do you believe in separate non-overlapping magesteria?"

Well, again, I just take empiricism to be a flavor of thought within science. I don't identify the use of sense-datum with the be-all and end-all of scientific activity, and I think the attempt to cast a strict empiricism as a valid philosophy of science was a mistake. So I don't need to 'segment' theism and empiricism, because they don't occupy the same ontological status for me personally. This is not to say, however, that I endorse NOMA. While I don't feel constrained by empiricism per se, I do believe that there are areas where scientific claims overlap with, at the very least, the consequences of religious claims. That is why I wrote in my prior post about my interests in things like Pierce's concept of abduction and Popper's falsifiability criterion, because these actually do seem to have some bearing on the question of whether any kind of boundary condition between science and other (alleged) sources of knowledge actually exists.

I could write more, but I won't until I get some kind of reply to the question in blue above from my previous post. I look forward to it!



Stan, I’m worried that our exchange may get bogged down in terminology, and this may do you a disservice. You clearly have a predetermined target as grounds for discussion: namely, that you wish to move to some kind of ‘first principles’ as foundational for investigating nature, and (more specifically) to bring belief itself under scrutiny. Your ambition, as stated on your web site, seems to this observer to be nothing less than to use “the tools of logic and rational thought.... in a careful analysis of the Atheism itself.”

I’m not sure that I’m the best person for that conversation, either, because I am neither an atheist or an Atheist. The difference matters, I think, for atheist (lower-case) to me is simply descriptive of the absence of belief in gods, whereas Atheism (upper-case) implies that said absence is central and motivating to something like a belief system. As illustrative of the difference, as a science teacher who happens to be a theist, I really do think that science is an atheistic enterprise. But then, properly speaking, so is plumbing! Neither science nor plumbing, as a formal matter, involves the invocation of the supernatural. Yet there are plenty of scientists, and plumbers, and all manner of persons who privately harbor this or that belief, including the rather common one that conflates the methodological naturalism of science (which is merely scientific practice) with belief systems.

Anyway, I think your interest in this topic is clearly toward the latter, which is why this conversation has quickly turned on the nature of belief. Yes, it is certainly true that science has certain axiomatic foundations: that there is such a thing as causality, or that the Universe is lawful. And, to the extent that I incorporate such axioms as part of my private worldview, they become beliefs. So, in a sense science knowledge claims can often be represented as claims about what it is that should be believed, so the classic formulation is...

‘To know P is to believe that P is true.’

But, you know, scientific knowledge claims are held provisionally, rather than dogmatically, and on the basis of evidence. Knowledge may imply belief, but it does not imply a belief taken on faith, and that goes for the axioms of science. We accept causation and the lawfulness of the Universe not because they have been proved in any absolute sense, but because we have innumerable observations that support causation and lawfulness, and (this is a key point) many past observations that historically have been interpreted as random, acausal, unlawful etc. (such as supernatural claims) have, upon further investigation, been found to be better explained by scientific models that presume lawfulness. The sun, it seems, does not ride in a chariot.

I conclude, therefore, that I am not compelled to adopt any particular belief system as a personal matter either in doing science or contemplating the foundations of science. It is sufficient that such axioms exist as operational parameters for the conduct of science. These axioms, as with all generalizations in science, may not be true. They may be false. But I don’t need to care about that in order to do science. Based on experience, I and other scientists merely adopt the axioms provisionally as the best foundation for certain kinds of investigation. It is not so much that I intuit the Universe is lawful, now I look for its Laws; rather, I am interested in building models that describe and explain as many phenomena as possible, and the assumption of lawfulness not only greatly simplifies model-building, it seems increasingly difficult not to justify in light of the eminently-repeatable regularities that are apparently observed.

Now, the above attitude, I suppose, does count as something like a belief system in the sense that philosophers have given names to such attitudes. But it is a fluid thing that doesn’t lend itself to the neatest categories. In particular, I’m something of an instrumentalist as far as method is concerned, and a scientific realist in terms of building models to describe large sets of phenomena. The two philosophers whose views I find most compelling are Karl Popper and Charles Pierce, and the reason I feel that way is precisely because their views come closer (at least in my mind) to science as practiced. In fact, while I worry not a bit about the axioms of science, I worry quite a bit about concepts like abduction and falsification, because failure to attend to the niceties here seems to cripple or halt science.

Anyway, I think I’ve made my point. I don’t feel compelled as a scientist to delve into first principles. Perhaps, if I was a philosopher, I would feel more inclined, so for the purposes of our next post, let’s assume that I’m a philosopher. You seem to want to argue for foundational principles for the acquisition /evaluation of knowledge, and in particular for the claims of ‘big-A’ Atheism. Very well, then, assuming I’m a philosopher, my next question is this:

Given that I need a foundation of some support, what principles would you commend, and for what reason? Am I compelled by logic to adopt any, some or all of these principles?

Also, I urge you to stop me here if I am somehow missing the point, or if this is not where you want to go, and propose a different question for starting-over. I thank you in advance for any correction you might want to offer.



It's lunch, and I've received some happier news. It now appears that there is a 'smoking gun' on our copy of the manifests used by the district to confiscate our chemical stores which clearly indicates the failure of employees to follow the district's own guidelines, which happily forms the basis for further lobbying on the part of myself and my colleagues.

Or, as I put it in a letter to a district administrator:

To put it simply, how can you teach Chemistry without chemicals? The district's action has left us in a lurch without any regard for our curriculum, for our students or their families, and this conduct is simply indefensible either in the court of public opinion or (more telling) with the various accrediting agencies that we as science professionals will be obligated to contact if this situation is not resolved in the interests of our students.

By the way, I chose the color above because today in class I wanted to demonstrate sublimation and deposition through the heating of crystallized iodine,* but I couldn't. We don't have any crystallized iodine for a demonstration, because the district mindlessly confiscated perfectly safe, recently-purchased items in a poorly-conceived exercise in 'safety.'

* Hey, I'd dig up a link to this item just for kicks but my site Internet is down for the third time in the last five days. Here's hoping this thing will post.


MSNBC has an interesting article on 'pixelanthropy' emerging amongst some of the participants in the virtual world Second Life. Apparently, even the online avatar is prey to the realization that their virtual life may lack meaning and so some Second Lifers have found the will and means to support charitable work in the real world from the sinecure of their virtual world. Fascinating, and revealing!



OK, this one is going to blow some of y'all's minds.

As you may know, I'm a science teacher. In fact, this year I'm teaching Chemistry. Chemistry, which is a standards-based science course. Chemistry, which is mandated by the State of Kali-forn-ya. Chemistry, which satisfies the University of California's laboratory science requirement (not all science courses do). Chemistry, which you pretty much have to take and do better than average in to get admitted to a UC-type school.

Guess what my school district bureaucrats authorized over the Christmas break? No, guess, really. What do you suppose that they could do that could possibly hurt Chemistry the MOST?

Give up?

How about confiscate ALL of the chemicals in our stockrooms, $40,000 worth, without so much as an explanation? I'm not making this up, mind. We had previously been assured that an OSHA-type review would not take place until after a formal inventory, but what actually happened at our site and throughout the district was wholesale raping of science supplies, including stock that was essentially brand new. The whole business is completely nonsensical: how can you do Chemistry with no chemicals?

And, while we're on the subject, how can they expect that we science teachers are going to stand by and not raise an unholy clamor of protest? Hoping that calmer heads prevail, we intend to submit a list of the confiscated items that need to be returned or replaced in order for us to do the labs already planned. If that doesn't happen...well.....let's just say that some of us will be contacting the University of California, the state Department of Education and WASC. We can't pretend that a Chemistry course without labs satisfies their requirements, and we are pretty much obligated as professionals to make sure that agencies involved with accreditation are apprised of that fact. And students. And parents. And the media.

Again, let's hope that the district fixes its mistake, so that cooler heads may prevail.



OK, in response to the previous question Stan writes:

"...a working scientist has to believe that for each physical effect there exists a physical cause that is measurable and repeatable per the rules of empiricism, otherwise the efforts toward empirical resolution would be futile."

I hasten to say that the italics (and thus the emphasis) are mine, and that I've chosen to highlight this term to point out an area of doubt. I do not think that a 'working scientist' is obliged to 'believe' the above, for a number of reasons:

1) 'Belief' implies an act of faith; I do not think you have to take anything on faith to be a working scientist. Operationally, one can simply accept a certain claim is axiomatic or foundational for the purposes of doing work. Empiricism could be thought of as a belief system, but it could also be seen as an epistemological hypothesis, held provisionally like any other hypothesis within science....

2) Therefore, empiricism in the latter sense would not assert that for each physical effect there must be a physical cause that is measurable/repeatable, etc. This 'working scientist' would recognize that there are anomalous events detectable by the senses which do not seem to have a discernible physical cause, or which fall below the threshold of measurement, or which are unlikely to be repeatable on the basis of what is presently known. Note that none of these conditions necessarily implies an appeal to a non-physical cause, just a healthy skepticism about what can be known...

3) In any case, with or without the non-physical/immaterial/supernatural etc. there is nothing which obligates the working scientist to do anything other than work within the axioms of science, and empiricism as a belief system does not appear to be one of science's axioms, or else how could Newton cast horoscopes, or A.R. Wallace enthusiastically embrace spiritualism, etc.? As far as 'efforts toward empirical resolution' being futile, the question is not whether we have a complete or entirely accurate description, but whether a given model is the best at explaining the greatest number of observations. To the extent that this is true, the model is accepted provisionally as the best fit to its data. This is entirely sufficient to do science, and it no more or less futile an endeavor than painting a picture or writing a sonnet is futile.



I've been asked to enter into a sort of dialogue about the philosophy of science by Stan, who appears to be a regular commenter over at Vox's place and who has both a blog and a web site to promote his views. Stan identifies himself as a "A 40 year Atheist" who "analyzes Atheism, without resorting theism, deism, or fantasy."

My guess is that Stan would like to draw attention to what he feels is an original analysis of atheism, but one that would lead to some sort of modification/rejection of conventional non-belief. That's certainly what a cursory look at his stuff would suggest, but y'all check it out and make up your own minds. I want to say upfront that I don't know Stan, nor do I know exactly where he wants to go with this exchange, but I'm game, especially if I get some kind of new insight as to the limits of science, faith, etc.

So, after some discussion, we agree upon this starting question:

"Is there anything that compels a working scientist (who tends to function, albeit not exclusively, as an empiricist) into adopting either naturalism or materialism as a private matter?"

Stan's response can be found here. I will reply to him soon, hopefully tomorrow.