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Phil_Goetz5 comments on Excluding the Supernatural - Less Wrong

37 Post author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 12 September 2008 12:12AM

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Comment author: Phil_Goetz5 12 September 2008 01:29:26AM 22 points [-]

I had a similar, shorter conversation with a theologian. He had hired me to critique a book he was writing, which claimed that reductionist science had reached its limits, and that it was time to turn to non-reductionist science.

The examples he gave were all phenomena which science had difficulty explaining, and which he claimed to explain as being irreducibly complex. For instance, because people had difficulty explaining how cells migrate in a developing fetus, he suggested (as Aristotle might have) that the cells had an innate fate or desire that led them to the right location.

What he really meant by non-reductionist science, was that as a "non-reductionist scientist", one is allowed to throw up one's hands, and say that there is no explanation for something. A claim that a phenomenon is supernatural is always the assertion that something has no explanation. (I don't know that it needs to be presented as a mental phenomenon, as Eliezer says.) So to "do" non-reductionist science is simply to not do science.

It should be possible, then, for a religious person to rightly claim that their point of view is outside the realm of science. If they said, for instance, that lightning is a spirit, that is not a testable hypothesis.

In practice, religions build up webs of claims, and of connections to the non-spiritual world, that can be tested for consistency. If someone claims not just that lightning is a spirit, but that an anthropomorphic God casts lightning bolts at sinners, that is a testable hypothesis. Once, when I was a Christian, lightning struck the cross behind my church. This struck me as strong empirical evidence against the idea that God directed every bolt. (I suppose one could interpret it as divine criticism of the church. The church elders did not, however, pursue that angle.)

Comment author: buybuydandavis 27 October 2011 08:15:15AM -1 points [-]

What he really meant by non-reductionist science, was that as a "non-reductionist scientist", one is allowed to throw up one's hands, and say that there is no explanation for something.

No. Good scientists say that there are no current explanations all the time. The non-reductionist claims to know that there can't ever be an explanation. That's the opposite of throwing up your hands and saying you don't have an explanation. That's a claim to know that all possible explanations will fail.

Comment author: Grognor 01 December 2011 10:10:11PM *  5 points [-]

What he really meant by non-reductionist science, was that as a "non-reductionist scientist", one is allowed to throw up one's hands, and say that there is no explanation for something.

beat

No. Good scientists say that there are no current explanations all the time. The non-reductionist claims to know that there can't ever be an explanation. That's the opposite of throwing up your hands and saying you don't have an explanation. That's a claim to know that all possible explanations will fail.

You tried to make a contradiction, but you ended up saying exactly the same thing. "There is no explanation," means no explanation exists, which is the nonsense position that Phil attacked three years ago. "We don't have an explanation yet," is entirely sensible, of course, which is why that position has never been attacked by anyone, ever.

Comment author: buybuydandavis 03 December 2011 06:27:12AM *  -1 points [-]

No explanation exists for why there is lint in my belly button. No one has explained it, even to themselves. Now, if we think about it, we may come up with an explanation, but that doesn't mean the explanation exists now, anymore than a house we might build exists now because we might build it.

No explanation exists for X <> there can never be an explanation for X.

Comment author: nshepperd 03 December 2011 11:55:13AM 13 points [-]

I have a feeling "no explanation exists" was meant in the mathematical sense of "exists". Which means exactly that there is no possible string of characters that is an explanation for X.