Re: Eliezer on Science versus Religion

From: Jim Fehlinger (
Date: Tue Mar 06 2001 - 14:07:52 MST

"Eliezer S. Yudkowsky" wrote:
> The claim of any theologian in a primary religion that religion is
> untestable for fundamental moral and theological reasons is inconsistent
> with that religion's exposition of historical fact as understood by the
> vast majority of the members of that religion.

OK, this sounds more plausible to me. Though I'm not a philosopher
or a historian (and not particularly knowledgeable or well-read in
either field), I can believe that the explicit notion of "falsifiability"
is a sophisticated, modern one, stemming from the philosophy of science
and the explicit analysis of what's today called the "scientific method",
and that if theologians are now casting their arguments into these terms
it's in reaction to the ascendancy of modern science (and has little to
do with the thoughts and ideas of ordinary practitioners of the faith).
Nevertheless, it has been very convenient, in circumstances in which they were
expected to be taken literally, for the sacred texts to have concentrated on
events that were described in sufficient detail to have been falsified or verified
when they were purported to have occurred, but which happened in so remote
a past that establishing what a modern historian or archeologist would
accept as a persuasive chain of evidence is difficult or impossible.
Of course, it's precisely the distance from historical events and the
encrustation of millennia of embellishment that makes these works
compelling as literature independent of the literal belief which they
may have lost in some circles (we can still enjoy Charlton Heston splitting
the Red Sea in Technicolor).

And yes, if the past suddenly became available in vivid detail, while the
theologians might be able to weasel their way out of it through some
sort of well-practiced doublethink, to the mass of ordinary believers,
the sacred books would simply be -- falsified (I assume you've seen
_The Light of Other Days_ by Arthur C. Clarke and Stephen Baxter, ).

> Anyway, the point is
> that while non-*local*-falsifiability is salient, made-up stories will
> tend to describe a fictional history that would have most certainly been
> falsifiable at the point of occurrence.

It's interesting that Stephen Jay Gould harrumphs at the evolutionary
adaptationists for the same reason -- that while the Just-So stories
they make up about why the elephant has his trunk and so on may have been
falsifiable 30 million years ago, or whenever, they are not falsifiable
today, and are therefore bad science.

Jim F.

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