Friday, January 04, 2013


So I'm on my hobby horse about cliches we can do without.  Thinks like "Pain is just weakness leaving the body."  That one's fairly new, and it's fairly offensive.  A more familiar one is:  "That which does not destroy me makes me stronger."  Just don't drop that one in conversation in Newtown, Connecticut anytime soon.

And it's not just that a cliche like that is offensive in the wrong context, it's offensive, period.  It's a stupid idea.  So enough poison to make me sick but not kill me is a good thing?  A little mercury in my diet is not so bad?  Feh!

My latest cliche that should be tossed is the one tossed around lightly by people who think they are being scientific, or who think they know what the word "evidence" means:  "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence."  Often used in discussions about the existence of God (which discussions are never conducted within the understandings of the discourse on philosophy of religion), it is meant to shut down the authority of believers by putting them on the spot, since, well, "proof" of God is a problem that goes back to Isaiah:

Oh that thou wouldest rend the heavens, that thou wouldest come down, that the mountains might flow down at thy presence,
As when the melting fire burneth, the fire causeth the waters to boil, to make thy name known to thine adversaries, that the nations may tremble at thy presence!
When thou didst terrible things which we looked not for, thou camest down, the mountains flowed down at thy presence. 

Isaiah 64:1-3, KJV.

Yeah, like that.  "Evidence," however, is a term I am quite familiar with; to a lawyer it means something rather different than it does to a non-lawyer, even a scientist.  But a good empiricist never strays far from the proof of the evidence either, and anyone with a minimal appreciation of the complexity of the concept realizes "evidence" is not a unitary term measurable on a scale from "extraordinary" and "quite ordinary."

Much of scientific reasoning, as Kuhn established, is altered by paradigm shifts.  It isn't done by the presence of extraordinary evidence.  Einstein shifted physics from Newton by building on the work of others, not by producing sui generis his own theory which no one could deny.  Indeed, some parts of Einstein's theory have only been established in recent decades, which is not to say the physical evidence was unimportant, but the theory was accepted long before the evidence for all of it was available. There were, of course, good reasons to accept Einstein's reasoning, just as there were good reasons to accept, or at least pursue with fantastically expensive equipment and an untold number of man hours, the suppositions of Peter Higgs.  And the reasoning about the Higgs Boson is not fully accepted until enough evidence is present to establish it, but the finding of evidence always follows the theory; it is seldom the other way around.  Reasoning leads to conclusions, not observations alone.

This has been true in Western thought since Socrates, who from argument alone established the idea of the immortal soul, and idea that may have no post-Enlightenment merit, but which as proven durable across the centuries nonetheless.

Science simply doesn't shift because of "extraordinary evidence," and it never has.  Science shifts because of reasoning, as Kuhn showed.  It shifts in part because evidence accumulates that supports a new claim, but it also shifts because reasoning leads to the search for evidence that supports a new claim.  Extraordinary evidence is never available, because what is "evident" or even "evidence" depends upon a claim to establish it.  Evidence does not walk up, shake your hand, and explain to you what it is in terms of current scientific reasoning.  Reasoning looks for, and eventually finds, the evidence.

For example, when I was a child, there were two kingdoms in the Linnean system of classification:  animals and plants.  Viruses were known, when I was in elementary school, but they had no language of "genetic material" to describe them, and I remember one theory that wasn't rejected out of hand, was that viruses might be proof of extraterrestrial life, because they didn't fit the classification system of "life" that science had established.  Well, now, of course, we know viruses are quite terrestrial.  We also know there are five kingdoms, not two.  Because we discovered variant life forms never accounted for when I was a child?  No, because we finally let go of the old classification system by realizing its limitations and errors.  Did extraordinary evidence lead to this massive change?  Evidence of what:  the existence of algae and fungi?  No; observation and reasoning led to the conclusion that just because a living organism didn't seek its food, it wasn't necessarily a "plant."  It might have been an extraordinary claim, when I was a child, to say that fungi were not plants; but it didn't take extraordinary evidence to establish it.  It just took a reconsideration of the system of classification.

Science is full of such changes, and never relies on "extraordinary evidence" to establish a claim.  If anything, science relies on careful examination of its own reasoning (and it's a good thing, too!).  Which brings me to the relationship of evidence to the law.

In a court of law, nothing is taken for granted.  If you want to establish that it was raining on a day important to the facts of the case, you need to bring acceptable records of atmospheric conditions for that day.  You need even to establish your client's identity, their relationship to other witnesses, even the smallest details of their story.  Any claim made in a court of law is subject to proof by evidence, and in a very literal sense every claim of fact, however small and "ordinary" it may be, is treated as "extraordinary" in a court of law.  Not because it must be established beyond any reasonable standard (and what constitutes "evidence" is a complex set of determinants, not all of them clearly established rules), but because it must be established at all.  If we can return to Kierkegaard's example of the prisoner on trial, the prosecution must establish not that the person on trial exists, but that he is the criminal guilty of the crime.  This does not rest on "extraordinary evidence," as it does on TV or in the movies.  It rests on a great deal of tedious and minute evidence, the kind that makes trials last for weeks, not minutes.  Even then, of course, we don't establish the truly extraordinary claim: that the criminal exists.  To do that, we have to establish a working definition of existence.  The best Descartes could do was "Cogito, ergo sum."  And he only stopped at the cogito because he quite reasonably reasoned that to wonder if he weren't thinking at all, if even his own self-awareness by knowing his thoughts was an illusion, would lead to a reductio from which there was no escape.  That way, he concluded, lies madness; and that would lead him to no conclusion at all.

To establish the existence of any scientist, then, for example, would require extraordinary evidence indeed; starting with the criteria for establishing existence at all.

Science never proceeds from the proof of "extraordinary evidence."  It proceeds from extraordinary reasoning (the "paradigm shift") to identify evidence in light of the new paradigm, much as a court of law examines evidence relevant to a case, but limits evidence subject to consideration to that which is deemed relevant to one theory or another presented by the case.  "Extraordinary" evidence doesn't establish anything outside an accepted paradigm, because it isn't taken as evidence within that paradigm.  If it is accepted, it isn't "extraordinary," it is consistent with the paradigm in effect.  If it isn't consistent with that paradigm, it isn't evidence.  I can, for example, present all manner of "extraordinary evidence" which I claim established the reality of ghosts.  But since no scientific paradigm (well, not in physics; perhaps in anthropology) accepts the claim of an immortal soul which can exist apart from the body, such evidence will never be accepted as proof that ghosts are, in fact, real.  Such evidence will always be explained in ways that support the existing paradigm.  Which doesn't mean ghosts are, in fact, real; it just means acceptance of their reality means stepping out of the existing scientific paradigms, or radically shifting those paradigms.  Whether that has to happen, or ever happens, would require, among other things, a re-definition of the subjects of science, and how science understands, and so explains, the world.  If science ever has to accept the reality of ghosts, or of an immortal soul, the currently accepted thinking is that it would break science to do so.

So better to say there is no extraordinary evidence available to do that, than to change fundamental scientific reasoning.  At least, among some scientists.  But do extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence?  Better to say they require a shift in what is allowed to be considered evidence, which means a shift in what is allowed to be considered:  period.

(And do ghosts exist?  I dunno.  Depends on how I examine the evidence....)


  1. Ah, now you've hit on one of my pet peeves. "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence." is a line Carl Sagan cribbed from Marcello Truzzi, a rather rigorous internal critic of the "skepticism" industry (google "Zetetic". Reports are that Truzzi was thinking of recanting it before his sudden death, as well he should have.

    In addition to the defects you note, there are other problems. One is that the definition of what constitutes "extraordinary" claims and evidence are in the hands of the person declaring them to be "extraordinary", and there are few such decisions that have not proven to be any less subjective than that. If you want a good example, google Carl Sagan's "Amniotic Universe" to see the level of claims he figured didn't require "extraordinary" evidence as long as Sagan could make it support his preferred ideology of materialism. Other such examples can be provided on request.

    A bigger problem is that if a "normal" level of evidence is insufficient to test an "extraordinary" claim, it is no less insufficient to test an "ordinary" claim. Taken seriously, that standard would easily negate the validity of science and anything else desired. It's always so interesting to see how the "skeptics" and other varieties of atheists promoting scientism would burn down science to save it.

    Not all allegations of bill payment are true, some are demonstrably false. That doesn't negate all reports of bill payment, some of them really are in the mail. A case by case review is necessary and not all of those reviews will produce a solid outcome. Why should reports of ghosts be held to a higher standard of proof? My first question wouldn't be "where's the evidence", it would be "where's the harm"?

  2. Much as I do love this blog I really do think you go too far. Philosophy is a lot of things but in terms of science in the world of here and now it does not serve as evidence of anything. Yes, if someone wants to propose something outside the realm of worldly knowledge then indeed they do need to provide extraordinary proof. If we accept what you say then we should all believe in extra-terrestrials. In science, unlike religion, everything is to be challenge and no, Einstein’s theory was not just universally accepted, it was and still is tested constantly and by any means that becomes available and has never used a philosophical argument to prove or disprove it.

  3. "In science, unlike religion, everything is to be challenged".

    You have got to be kidding. As Richard Lewontin pointed out to that assertion made by Carl Sagan that if he wanted to see rigorous logical challenge he should go to a Hasidic study house and observe the scholars engaged in pilpul. The literature of religion consists of an enormous amount of rigorous questioning of religious assertions, quite often those posed by the person questioning it. Religious people are constantly questioning ourselves and our ideas and our motives.... etc. Going back for centuries before science was invented. You can look at the Rg Veda for some early examples of skepticism and plurality of belief.

    Carl Sagan, Mr. "Extraordinary claims..." certainly believed in extraterrestrials, coming up with an enormous range of claims about them, about how they would "have to be". One of his declarations was that as soon as the first contact was made, that would be it for God and religion. He doesn't seem to have questioned his assumptions to the extent that he entertained the possibility that "other life" might be religious believers. I wonder if "other life" with more intellectual faculties than we have might not possibly have a firmer grasp on the reality of God such that it would make as much sense to them as it would to question the existence of a table you might be leaning against.

    Since the first example of "other life" is not available for inspection, not to mention the second or the 324,103rd examples of it, any assumption that even the first "other" one is there is based on absolutely NO EVIDENCE at all. Yet Carl Sagan founded "Exobiology", an entire "science", no less, on it. A "science"which people get money to study, from the federal government. All without ANY EVIDENCE AT ALL THAT THERE IS ANYTHING THERE TO BE STUDIED.

  4. Philosophy is a lot of things but in terms of science in the world of here and now it does not serve as evidence of anything. Yes, if someone wants to propose something outside the realm of worldly knowledge then indeed they do need to provide extraordinary proof.

    First, science is a philosophy. It is not direct access to Truth (with a capital "T") it is a philosophy that has it's own requirements for what is "Reasonable" and it's own limitations. One of those is on the issue of evidence, because "evidence," as I said above, is not a unitary concept. The "evidence" required in a court of law is not the evidence required to get published in a scientific journal, but both concepts are valid in their respective fields.

    As for "worldly knowledge," there is little more worldly than the concept of romantic love. Now, how do I prove to you that I love my wife? What "worldly knowledge" would establish that fact? Or do you just accept my assertion of same out of politeness? What, in fact, is "love"? Please provide empirical evidence supporting your claim, and distinguish it as clearly as possibly from all other contenders, including altruism, "selfish gene" theory, etc., etc., etc.

    No, I'm quite serious. And by the way, (I don't mean to be rude, just accurate) I didn't say Einstein's theory was universally accepted, I said a great deal of it was accepted even as the evidence supporting it wasn't established until decades later. Nobody thought Einstein was wrong, or they wouldn't have looked for the "evidence" to support his theories. Just as the CERN project didn't go randomly doing experiments to see what might pop up, but specifically went looking for evidence of the Higgs Boson.

    Because Peter Higgs had theorized its existence.

    There is a valid distinction there. And there is a valid argument for science being yet another philosophy. There's an entire branch of it, called "philosophy of science."

    Again, not meaning to be harsh or rude, just correcting the record; so to speak. The idea that religion is not subject to rigorous examination is, well, just ignorant. Sorry, but there it is. "The literature of religion consists of an enormous amount of rigorous questioning of religious assertions, quite often those posed by the person questioning it." That's really quite true. Anybody who's been to seminary will tell you that it's the best place in the world to lose your religion (and that's intentional, especially if you mean to be in the pulpit). Just because it doesn't make its way before the TV cameras of televangelists or onto the front page of the newspaper, doesn't mean it doesn't happen.

  5. A "science"which people get money to study, from the federal government. All without ANY EVIDENCE AT ALL THAT THERE IS ANYTHING THERE TO BE STUDIED.

    I once sketched out an idea for a short story (in my feckless youth) on the premise that space exploration proved, conclusively, that there was no other life in the universe.

    It wasn't much of a premise, but it was based on the idea that: what if we found out we were "alone"?


  6. I disagree. There is an almost universal reality that somewhere around I would guess 99.99% of humans agree. Red is a sound we call a word and use to communicate, in English at least, concerning a particular color; one that also corresponds to a specific electromagnetic frequency. And it is that way for everyone. Its fun to philosophize about reality but in the end we do live in a reality where if you slam your fist into a solid object you will experience a reality called pain. Science in this world of reality is not a philosophy. You can philosophize that there is no reality and that maybe we are just a computer simulation but even there the simulation is a reality where laws are in place that can be discovered through investigation such as scientifically. Maybe the next time you come down with an illness, not real of course, you will skip the doctor and just consult philosophy. Nothing we see around us, utilize, eat, touch or feel was created by philosophic principals. Yes I know that the beginnings of the scientict method began within religious studies, but I still say science will change when evidence indicates it must but religion will not and indeed hasn’t

  7. Rmj you can do better than that. Evidence has numerous definitions but only by using your convoluted definition finds no evidence of anything to study. Why study religion since there is none? Why study philosophy since there is no evidence of that either and again it isn’t real. Why do anything since we are not real and there is no reality.

  8. Your idea of science is way out of date, ironic in that it was with Einstein and his contemporaries that 18th century view of science began to fall apart and the extent to which science is dependent on philosophical concepts and considerations became obvious. Eddinging, Jean, Schrodinger, Heisenberg, etc. all delved into the philosophical aspects of human address of physical phenomena in order to try to make sense of what they were learning. Even physicists who disdain philosophy, such as Feynman, unsuspectingly make strings of philosophical statements about it, something which they'd realize they were doing if their overly specialized educations had included more reading of philosophy. Your statements contain a good dose of scientism which is a philosophical position, not a very good philosophical position in that it contains its own disconfirmation, but a philosophical position, nonetheless. Materialism, "physicalism" the various species of naturalism are all philosophical positions that are frequently asserted by sciency types who disdain philosophy in that way.

    Why do you say that religion doesn't change with evidence? Are you under the impression that religion is static and unrelated to human experience? What's your evidence for that? Certainly not the extremely varied, often contentious diversity of religions. Diversity between different groups, within groups and over the lifetime of individual religious believers. All of that is based in the changing experience of people, all of that based in the evidence of their own observations and analyses.

  9. Rmj you can do better than that. Evidence has numerous definitions but only by using your convoluted definition finds no evidence of anything to study.

    You insist on inventing controversies that don't exist, and strain at gnats while swallowing camels.

    Science does not define "reality," even if you limit reality to empirically known objects (and empiricism is a philosophy, btw). And philosophy is not the discussion of what isn't real.

    But so long as you refuse to recognize these definitions, I don't know what to say to you. As for the problem of "evidence," you really aren't even beginning to discuss what I'm discussing. You have a very crabbed view of "evidence" and when the discussion doesn't fit your term, you reject the discussion.

    Nice work if you can get it.

  10. Rmj you can do better than that. Evidence has numerous definitions but only by using your convoluted definition finds no evidence of anything to study. Why study religion since there is none? Why study philosophy since there is no evidence of that either and again it isn’t real. Why do anything since we are not real and there is no reality.

    Let me be blunt, as I would be to one of my students: You don't understand what I'm talking about.

  11. I consider myself to be one of your students; have been since around 2004. You might try asking the same question of yourself; do you understand what you are talking about. Or is it that as a teacher you have some shortcomings. I don’t know and I am certainly not as knowledgeable in some of these matters as you are. Nonetheless your philosophical discussions seem very much to start nowhere and end nowhere; going in circles. If there is no reality, as you seem to say, then no dialog can be had because there is nothing to have a dialog about, means (words) to have it with, no other party engage in it. Unless you can settle on a fixed point then all is something like an illusion, or hallucination, or perhaps a computer simulation. The words, the topic, nothing is real; there is nothing; then what? If it is indeed true that I don’t understand it would be nice if you would try to explain it. Or maybe there is nothing to explain since nothing is reality and reality is nothing.

  12. I understand that quantum mechanics is a very strange environment but I still don’t think of it in philosophical terms. Wave particle duality is a theory not a philosophical construct. And quantum mechanics, as is true of scientific matters, is falsifiable if evidence should become available; and it is constantly sought. As you have noted, science has changed with the discovery of new evidence; something that is never ending; Can you tell me of any deity that has been falsified? Yes, what is called religion changes; I have noticed the mega-churches and the attempts to gain political power by the fundamentalists. But the basic premise still seems to be a deity whose existence can neither be proven nor disproved. Even if incontrovertible proof of non existence was found it would be held as false because of the basic premise and we just go round, and round the circle. And actually it cannot change in any fundamental way or else it would cease to exist. If proof were found that there is no god then how could you have a religion centered on that deity? If quantum mechanics were found to be fatally flawed I am certain it would be scientifically traumatic, but science would still exist and move on.

  13. I would explain, if I thought you could understand. But you insist on hearing what I'm not saying. You think you've trumped me by appealing to "reality," which you cannot define because you think it self-evident. And yet reality encompasses everything from atomic theory to love, and a great deal that isn't touched on by science or empiricism at all. And while I have yet to deny "reality," or even mention it except in response to you, you insist I do because it's the only thing you think you understand. "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your" positivism.

    And when you can empirically establish love, get back to me. But please don't resort a reductio argument.

    As for the "existence of God," it's a non-issue. Can you establish your existence? Would you know where to start? Funny, I'm watching a movie right now that turns on the question of a man's identity, which in turn rests on whether he's dead or alive; i.e., does the man still exist? Nothing abstruse about it, the allegation is the "real" person died in the war, and an imposter took over his identity. But doesn't the question of identity rest on the question of existence? Yet identity doesn't establish existence, else every actor would call whole realms of "people" into "existence".

    Well, and then to say God even exists as humans do, is to misapprehend the concept (not the reality, mind) of God. If you want to discuss the concept of God, you first have to let go of the idea of existence as a necessary component. Not because God doesn't exist, but because existence itself is an ill-defined term. If I say you exist, I mean as an individual. If I say a platypus exists, I don't mean the same thing at all; yet I've used the same word in the same syntax. So what do I mean by "existence" in either case? Something quite different each time. Does that observation deny reality? I don't see how.

    If I seem to be going in circles, it's because I'm trying to get you to think, not merely hand out answers. Answers are not ends in themselves. "And the end of all our exploring/Will be to arrive where we started/And know the place for the first time." I've often wondered if Eliot meant "end" as "finality" or as "goal," as in "purpose." Or maybe he was just denying reality by being unclear.

    If you don't yet know where you started, it just means your exploration is not at an end, yet. And that wisdom encompasses a great deal more than mere knowledge.

  14. "Can you tell me of any deity that has been falsified?"

    Like so many atheists, you've learned a few words and don't know how what they mean. The proposed test of falsification was applicable only to physical phenomena being studied by science with scientific methods. Trying to apply it to any proposed supernatural god would only prove the callow chap claiming to do that didn't know what falsifiability meant.

    And what is so ironic in that question, in this discussion, is the fact that the entire issue of falsification is entirely a matter of THE PHILOSOPHY OF SCIENCE as proposed by PHILOSOPHER OF SCIENCE KARL POPPER. It is a PHILOSOPHICAL position that has never been adopted within science because it is a principle that isn't scientific, it is A PHILOSOPHICAL POSITION.

    One of the ironies of its popularity with today's atheists is that his principle of falisifiability led Popper to make a rather cutting critique of natural selection due to its unfalsifiability. Only Popper recanted due to the howls of protest by the priesthood of natural selection. Not because his critique was flawed, his recantation not being nearly as convincing as his critique but due to ideological, professional and social coersion. Of course evo-psy, Richard Dawkins claim to fame, can't be falsified because the observations of behavior in the lost past could never be made, to say the least.

    Try to falsify time, something rather important to every single branch of science. Try to falsify being.

  15. TC--you raise an interesting point. I don't think science even recognizes being as a legitimate subject of study, not even in psychiatry. And yet the question of being is central to the challenge to God's existence. As S.K. said, if you don't think God exists, you can't prove God's existence. If you do, you don't need to.

    So it's a pointless pursuit.

  16. Thinking more. You have an entirely romantic and fictitious idea of what science is. That's not unusual, most people do have some odd idea that science has some absolutely pure, disembodied existence outside of the minds of the scientists who do the science and those who read what they do. If you want to see how sadly fallible it is, go read the archive of the blog Retraction Watch, especially concentrating on the intentional fraud that was passed through the protective mechanism of pre-publication and even post-publication review. You might want to, especially, look at the Marc Hauser scandal and others like it which stood for quite a while, even as grad students working for Hauser realized they were seeing fraud but were afraid to challenge prominent scientists with power and an ability to destroy their careers. And that's only one of the ways in which science falls far short of its romantic PR. Considering the role science plays in weapons production and environmental destruction, academic fraud of other varieties is hardly the worst thing scientists, in whom science resides, do in its name.

    The typical response to a realistic, unromantic view of science is sputtering outrage at the impiety of the critic dissing science, accusations of apostasy (usually of being a creationist) and pretty much a repetition of the language of medieval trials for heresy in a different and hilariously ironic context. I've had many a blog atheist go off at it, sounding something like the accusers of Galileo could be imagined to have sounded by a really inferior, anti-Catholic, BBC script writer.

    Science doesn't entirely fall because it is a human activity in which all of the human failings are fully manifest. Not any more than any other aspect of human culture does. It holds together by the skin of very human teeth and it's way past time it stopped selling itself as if that wasn't the fact of the matter.

  17. RMJ, here's how Eddington begins on the related subject of "existence":

    I FIND a difficulty in understanding books on philosophy because they talk a great deal about "existence", and I do not know what they mean. Existence seems to be a rather important property, because I gather that one of the main sources of division between different schools of philosophy is the question whether certain things exist or not. But I cannot even begin to understand these issues, because I can find no explanation of the term "exist".

    The word "existence" is, of course, familiar in everyday speech; but it does not express a uniform idea--a universally agreed principle according to which things can be divided into existing and non-existing. Difference of opinion as to whether a thing exists or not sometimes arises because the thing itself is imperfectly defined, or because the exact implications of the definition have not been grasped; thus the "real existence" of electrons, aether, space, colour, may be affirmed or denied because different persons use these terms with somewhat different implications. But ambiguity of definition is not always responsible for the difference of view. Let us take something familiar, say an overdraft at a bank. No one can fail to understand precisely what that means. Is an overdraft something which exists? If the question were put to the vote, I think some would say that its existence must be accepted as a grim reality, and others would consider it illogical to concede existence to what is intrinsically a negation. But what divides the two parties is no more than a question of words.

    The Philosophy of Physical Science