Can We Empirically Detect "Agency"?

(Clinton Ohlers) #1

Agency: Detection vs. Suspicion

@swamidass, there is something to clarify here that hopefully will be helpful. Also, I’ll respond somewhat at greater length than is absolutely necessary because 1) I think this may be something we could make use of down the road, and 2) I suspect it might become the basis of a paper and so I would welcome critique.

To preface this, let me add that I have studied Barrett’s work in depth giving it multiple readings and have interacted with him personally about it at length. My reason for doing so is that I find his work on agency and agency detection central to achieving a better understanding of divine action. Therefore, prior to the position I currently hold at the University fo Hong Kong, I was in conversation about working with him at Fuller. At present, I simply plan to do much of the same work in, engagement with his, from here. So, I am aware of his views on agency detection, including cases of false positives. False positives I will deal with at the end of this, as I think they offer valuable information on reliable agency detection.

To start, I do not believe what you are referencing as agency detection is what I meant by that term. You comment:

What you are referring to is not what I mean, and I think Barret means, by agency detection, although I do think he uses the idea a little more broadly than I do. The bump in the night, when my wife wakes up and says, “Someone’s there!” is not detection, it is suspicion. The difference between the two is that suspicion of an agent is an emotional alarm that is immediate and sets off and helps ensure our survival. The reason for a sudden suspicion response to anything unknown that is even remotely possibly an agent makes very good sense: almost everything in this world that will maim or kill you is an agent. Hear a twig snap in the woods? Better safe than sorry.

So, if I ask my wife, “Honey, on what basis of a single bump to you conclude the malevolent presence of an intruder who has elaborately sneaked into the house through a window and past our ruthless Labrador, but now carelessly gave oneself away with a bump? And why not the house settling, or the dog, or me accidentally brushing the cell phone off the bed–all reasons which also sufficiently explain why the dog, not to mention myself until this moment, is still snoring happily and unperturbed?” She’ll admit. “Well, I don’t know it’s a person. I’m just worried. You go check.”

The same reason that you or I are the ones sent to check, and not our wives, is the same reason my agent alarm didn’t go off in the first place and hers did. I’m just not as vulnerable.

But that isn’t detection, its suspicion.

Detection of an agent is a cognitive faculty whereby we arrive at the conclusion that, available evidence considered, something must be an agent. Detection is a longer process, although it can happen very rapidly, seconds or less, if sufficient evidence presents itself. Detection also requires patterning, not single instances. When it comes to detection, as in the examples I used of the remotely controlled inanimate objects, the conclusion of agency appears entirely to do with a human’s assessment of patterns of movement and action that indicate will and purpose and which, therefore, are not properly explainable by appeal to random natural processes.

False Positives

Barret also discusses false positives, doing so by relating a ghost belief that developed in a certain Central American village. When I spoke with Barrett, I shared with him a ghost belief that I, or more accurately my mother observed, as it developed. I’ll relate it here, since that is the one I know the details of relatively first-hand.

In the town of Naples, Florida, there is a historic tourist destination known as Palm Cottage. Palm Cottage is, of course, reputed to be haunted. There is nothing spooky about the place and nothing lurid in its past. Rather it is quite inviting. So one assumes that its repute for being haunted has to do with its being old, and since virtually nothing is old in Florida, and since ghosts are known to like old things, if there are ghosts in Florida, then one would simply, almost inevitably, have to turn up at Palm Cottage.

My mother enjoyed volunteering there as a docent for years. During that time she watched her fellow docents come to believe in the Palm Cottage ghost, much to her amused incredulity.

The spectacle unfolded in a rather simple manner, simply repeated over and over again. When docents would get together, conversation would sometimes turn to the rumor of the Palm Cottage ghost. Then, docents would begin watching for signs. An unexplained open door would be noticed. A light on or off that shouldn’t have been and which no-one remembered touching. And so on.

What my mother really got a kick out of was watching the reports come in. On one or two occasions she was present when someone informed others of new evidence of the Palm Cottage ghost, but she herself witnessed the whole thing. Some “unexplained” door or window was reported, but she knew that it had just been used. What amazed her was the credulity of her colleagues, and their flippant dismissal of correction, and the speed at which the group became (or claimed to be) believers.

On the one hand, do false conclusions arise? Yes, but that is true in everything where analysis is involved. Not to be harsh, but there are a lot of lame brains capable of screwing up agency just as they do mathematics, deductive reasoning, and likely just about everything else that requires sustained concentration and cross-checking.

But that isn’t what’s really interesting to me about the Palm Cottage ghost. What is really interesting is that the story didn’t take off because of a single bump in the night. Rather, the group of docents constructed patterns of evidence that mimicked agency. In other words, even they knew that no pattern of agency means no agent. So, they created evidence where none existed. But they created it according to a pattern necessary to demonstrate a real agent. This suggest that the human capacity to detect agency is so innate and well informed that even when individuals are constructing a case of false detection, for subconscious reasons or otherwise, they instinctively know how to forge the fraud.

Had all of the reports of the Palm Cottage ghost been accurate, then warranted belief would be in the actions of an agent–not necessarily a ghost, but an agent. It might be an agent unusual for its low-level activity of being limited to doors and windows, but it seems hard to account for these things otherwise if they were actually true. There’s only so much that wind can do. In fact, even the misreported evidence was still the result of agency–agents had left a door open or light on. These reports just weren’t evidence of a single agent working alone. When we think about it, even crop circles were evidence of agents, just not alien agents.

Put another way, the false belief in the Palm Cottage ghost didn’t arise from human unreliability in detecting agents. It arose from unreliability in reporting and evaluating evidence. It also only takes another entity with the faculty of agency detection and experience with what constitutes genuine evidence, to disconfirm the claim.

To take this a further step, Barrett includes another story of special divine action and agency detection in Why Would Anyone Believe in God? The book is stored on a remote drive and so I will give the details from memory. Suffice it to say my summary is pretty close to what was reported. In this account a farmer who entered a grain silo sees a spark ignite and knows he’s about to die in the explosion that will immediately result, and which does. However, he doesn’t die. Instead, he finds himself outside of the silo, suspended in the air by what he feels to be a pair of hands that carry him about 20 feet off the ground and place him on his feet safely out of the range of the blast.

Notice the difference and variety of the few details of this story with those of the Palm Cottage ghost. A person might question whether this account is factual. However, if the account is factual, then agency has been detected.

Google and the Turing Test

@swamidass, I don’t know if I missed this post or if you added that later, but I thought about this and for sake of space planned not to address it unless it was brought up.

My basic response is this:

I don’t think the questions of reliability in agency detection properly include the issue of false positives when intelligent agents that understand the patterns of intelligent agency are able to fool other agents into detecting agency in an automated fabrication of agency that only agents with intimate knowledge of agency could possibly possess the knowledge to create–and took years to do with every knowledge resource at their disposal. The default setting of agency detection is “agency vs. random natural phenomena.”

As I suspected, watching the video, the person on the other end of the call had no idea such technology existed. In addition, given the job description they wouldn’t care if they did know. I mean why not engage a pleasant and humanlike computer to book an appointment rather than a real person who stumbles, changes their mind, might make annoying small talk when you are busy. However, try to use this thing for counterintelligence by infiltrating a network that knows the technology exists and I think you have a different story. I would also go further to bet, although I may be wrong, that now that sophisticated mimicry is for the first time even an option, human agents will pick up on it and start using their sophisticated knowledge of agency to game Google.

I’d like to get this call and see how it does with a tasty word salad thrown at it: “The jealous marchino smiled ocherly as the tuberous mirror played a bright sandwich against the town.” Or just randomly mix two languages as you speak. “Hola, tengo an appointment at sies y media.” And keep doing it every time it asks for clarification. Or alternate word salad sentence and meaningful sentence and see how well it tracks to its goal. Finally, there’s one thing a fake agent can’t do and that is genuinely seek to understand why you are doing what you are doing, and sooner or later a person would.

So, whether our abilities are sophisticated enough that we can toggle between a “face agent detection” setting and the “agency vs. random natural phenomena” default is another question, but not one that undermines the fundamental reliability of the cognitive faculty of agency detection.

Therefore, I will stand by this statement that although not perfect or immune to abuse, the human cognitive faculty of agency detection is very reliable.

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(Daniel Deen) #2

@rcohlers, I find this a fascinating thought. I realize that I am jumping in mid-conversation, but could you discuss the “how” of this a little more? I realize that you may be working on it and I do not need a dissertation, just some thoughts of your rough thoughts.

Do you take this to be a difference in cognitive wiring of the sexes?

This is an interesting thought to unpack a bit. You seem to be hitting upon one of the primary philosophical problems with evolutionary psychology, cognitive mechanism individuation. You seem to imply that agent detection requires a rational component, something that can be trained up and is in some way under the agents control whereas the suspicion mechanism is an untutored reflex or something as such – are these different mechanisms or the same mechanism with different people registering different abilities to control them? I don’t know – thoughts?

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(S. Joshua Swamidass) #3

So @rcohlers, that is fine, but let’s just appreciate you are using the terminology in an idiosyncratic way. Given your framing it appears to be about detecting “agency” or “intention”, and not even about “detecting.” It seems rather you are concerned with how we might form confident and warranted belief in the existence of another mind.

It is important to keep in mind some departures from usual use here. The terminology “detect” has a meaning very different than your usage to scientists and ID advocates. It is usually understood as a mathematical
(or almost mechanical) test for the presence of something that usually does have false positives and negatives. What you are describing is different.

However, I’d remind you of Plantinga’s seminal book God and Other Minds:

This recent Veritas Forum article gets it right:

This is the central thesis of the book. Plantinga argues that although one cannot prove empirically that other minds exist, it is still rational to believe in them, and that the same is true for the existence of God. It follows from this that there must be bases of knowledge outside empirical investigation. This conclusion was anathema to the positivist, whose entire epistemology revolved around a presumption of the omnipotence of empirical investigation.

What is more, the logic is elegantly simple: We believe A despite a lack of empirical evidence; it is rational to do so; therefore, it might also be rational to believe B despite a lack of empirical evidence. If one takes Plantinga’s goal to be restoring the viability of belief in God by dismantling the tyranny of the positivist regime, he certainly succeeded.

What you are bypassing from the get go in your quest is that we cannot even empirically demonstrate your wife has a mind. We can’t empirically demonstrate anyone has a mind but ourselves. It is still rational to believe there are other minds. Belief in other minds, then, a proper basic belief.

Starting from Plantinga’s argument comes my extension. If we can’t empirically demonstrate another human has a mind, why should not expect to empirically demonstrate the existence of a Divine Mind?

That is, of course, unless that Divine Mind chose to reveal Himself somehow to us. Perhaps He grants us knowledge of a Divine Mind a basic belief. Perhaps He miraculously gives some people awareness. Perhaps He makes use of the One Sign (the Resurrection). This returns us to the fundamental problem. Without words, without revealing, with out written revelation, or miraculous work of God, I’m not sure we can detect a Divine Mind empirically.

I am not denying evidence. There is evidence. There is also something more than the evidence.

This i immensely important for Intelligent Design, and rising questions about what it means to be a human. At what point does an AI have a mind? We have no idea how to tell. If we cannot construct a process (and humans themselves can’t figure out how) to do determine if an AI has a mind or not, we would expect any sort of ID effort to detect another mind to work?

Take the fudge word “genuinely” out (how do you assess it), and I’m not sure you can tell. I think AI is a really important test case for you. It is a perfect example of “mind” detection. Here are three questions we have no idea how to answer:

  1. Can we make a conscious machine?
  2. How would we make a conscious machine?
  3. How would we know that our conscious machine is in fact conscious?

Of these the most directly relevant to you is #3. We have no idea how to answer this. We just do not know how to tell if an AI or Robot is actually conscious or emulating conscious, actually self-aware or emulating self awareness. If we can’t answer such questions, and can’t even figure out how we might answer these question in a sensible way, it seem to be a hard stop for you. We certainly understand more about robots and AI than God, and we can’t detect “agency” (a mind) in them.

You seem trying to arguing against the positivism of the pre-Plantinga era (which makes sense because you are a historian :smile:). Positivism, though, is long gone. That is not where the current argument is.

It would be great then to see how you solve the 3 hard question of AI. Apparently none of us in the field have been able to figure it out. Enlighten us. What are we missing?

He is hitting up on the “hard” problem of AI, on which a good percentage of science fiction entertainment spends immense time trying to work through. I’m not sure this is solvable.

It seems like the real issue is that our belief in minds is a proper basic belief that proceeds reasoning. It is axiomatic, not an evidence-contingent conclusion. @rcohlers it seems that if you want to go down this path you must first deal with Plantinga, then deal with the “hard” AI problem, then come and deal with me.

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(S. Joshua Swamidass) #4

Notice the subtitle too? A Study of the Rational Justification of Belief in God.

You keep talking about the need for rational belief in God. We already have a good case for this, as a proper basic belief. Rationality can’t be your quest. We already have that. We also have a strong evidential case in the Resurrection. That can’t be your quest either. We already have that.

Im lost on exactly what you are trying to establish right now…

(Clinton Ohlers) #5

I’m not trying to establish rational belief in God. I’m dealing with warranted belief in divine action as a first-hand experience.

(S. Joshua Swamidass) #6

Is not this another example of a proper basic belief? How does this tie in with your understanding of agency?

Clearly I misunderstood you too. Sorry. Im just trying to put a finger what exactly you are going for that is not being satisfied.

(Clinton Ohlers) #7

It seems to me that when conversations spiral larger and larger with very few points being resolved, then something fundamental is being overlooked somewhere, something that which if addressed would anchor the discussion. If I’m right, then it would be valuable to try to identify that.

For example:

Let me clarify one thing before returning to my spiral point:

I noted much earlier in the forum that belief in other minds could be basic, at least for the purposes of this discussion. What I am talking about is the action of other minds (the existence of which we already take as basic) by which we recognize that another mind is at work. Belief in other minds might be basic, but the belief that my Labrador has a mind and my chez-lounge does not, do not seem to me to be basic beliefs. Rather they are rational conclusions based on observation.

Similarly, if even an infant appears to recognize agency in a remotely controlled 2-dimensional dot on a screen, and and adult undoubtedly does, that is an interesting example. Here the thing that exhibits the evidence of agency is something we also know doesn’t have a mind at all. Nevertheless agency was properly detected because there was in fact an agent acting remotely.

Regarding the spiral, it seems like an enormous amount of work is having to go into forming consensus on the simple and seeming obvious fact that first-hand observers of Lazarus’ raising were warranted (and in fact correct) in believing a miracle had occurred, and that we would be also had we been present.

If that is not established, then we can’t really answer, or even ask, the question of how science, which always posits a natural cause for any observed phenomenon, relates to our larger knowledge of the world in which we accurately observe divine action at work.

Part of the problem, I think, has to do with starting points:

I think the biblical text has to be taken as it is written. So, although I very much appreciate @swamidass’ point that personal experience with Christ becomes context by which we in the present day can believe the historical record regarding another miracle (Lazarus), I don’t believe that maps directly onto the question of first-hand experiences of divine action. The case in point would be all of the miracles, Lazarus included, that Jesus performed before his resurrection. They did, however, have warranted belief without the later resurrection for context. Jesus also warned his audience that they were accountable to God for failing to believe on the basis of those miracles, prior to the resurrection.

So, it is important to get back to scripture and the details it records in the order it was written.

As another example, at the end of the “Two Parables” forum,

I find this statement quite problematic because it significantly distorts the text of scripture and in doing so distorts the data pool we are working with to sort out these questions. Jesus never declared at Bethany that the raising of Lazarus was a miracle or even commented on his own actions there in that way. It just isn’t in the text or even implied by it. The idea that Jesus must be present to confirm the reality of a miracle is further undermined by the entire book of Acts. By comparison, the idea that apart from scripture we should expect to have trouble even recognizing a theological miracle is undermined by all of scripture itself. Every theological miracle in scripture was witnessed and believed apart from scripture, since the scripture that records it wasn’t written yet.

At the same time, the account of Lazarus is replete why details to inform this conversant that have yet to be discussed. Therefore, I think if we take the details and the order of event in scripture as our starting point, we will find them very illuminating and arrive much more quickly at an accurate understanding of the relationship of scientific inquiry to divine action.

(S. Joshua Swamidass) #8

What do you mean by agency? Agency usually implies intention…

They also recognize agency in things without minds. It will also be easy to fool people with AI that a mind is remote controlling the dot.

What agency (if not a mind) is being detected?

(S. Joshua Swamidass) #9

@rcohlers there is also reduction of miracles down to agency, and I’m not sure that’s valid. Agency as a concept (I’m not sure what you mean) does not appear in theology as far as I am aware. We might very well be able to recognize miracles and discern providence even if agency is not clearly discerned.

You have a point that @Philosurfer misstated his case. That’s a good correction. However I still think you miss the importance of revelation, both divine and human, in confident inference in this space, even though I remain unclear your meaning of agency.

(Daniel Deen) #10

This is fun!

Yes, and this is the nature of conversation. This is an internet forum, more akin to all of us sitting down with beers, whiskey, tea, whatever and talking. We are not necessarily providing essays and dissertations for disputation. @swamidass Correct me if I’m wrong, but I view a lot of what goes on in here as iron sharpening iron. It is an interdisciplinary conversation where we have to step outside of our own disciplinary and interdisciplinary bubbles to talk to one another. That is always a difficult task in person, let alone digitally. So thanks @rcohlers for bringing us back to basics and anchoring the discussion.


Yes, that is Plantinga’s position. My initial formation of belief in other minds and God is instant. I simply find myself believing that my wife has agency and my computer does not, that God is the creator of the Grand Canyon, etc… Plantinga is keen on the immediacy of the beliefs we form to get at his notion of properly basic. My belief in other agents, including God, is no different than the perceptual beliefs I immediately form when confronted with stimulus, and then we build from these beliefs to others.


if I understand Platninga correctly, I can’t empirically understand my own mind as well. It is simply not something that is up to be inferred from evidence/experience. Hence, the properly basicness of the belief. But I would challenge that any properly basic belief IS empirical, as it is generated by stimulus even if I don’t infer the belief, rather I simply find myself believing those properly basic beliefs due to the way I was designed by God. Thus, @rcohlers and cognitive science can tell us something about how our properly basic belief forming mechanism(s) actually operate,

and this is where Plantinga seems to stop… in that he does not really provide a framework for helping us understand how to USE properly basic beliefs. The closest he gets is when discussing evolutionary rationality and David Sloan Wilson’s thesis on the religion and group selection, but there he does odd things with evidence bases that I’m not sure any of us would agree with. I may be wrong however…

Yes, the point is more that any divine action outside of what is revealed in scripture, including Acts and the rest of it, will have to be understood as the masked God. The masked God in relation to divine action is not something that I have seen much discussed. The miracles that I am confident in are the biblical miracles, the miracles of today, I’m much less sure. Or to put it another way, Luther saw miracles in the normal operations of nature, from the mother giveing birth to the janitor sweeping the floor. Luther’s sense of miracle was not fantastic, although he didn’t deny that, it was common place. Thus, the miraculous healings of @jongarvey will be left alone in Lutheran theology. This is probably due to the the missing Luther in these larger Christian conversations. If Luther is mentioned at all, it is usually as a stepping stone to Calvin. Regardless, when you mentioned this,

I am genuinely interested. Even if it is just a barroom discussion as to what your actual argument is from recognizing human agency to divine agency. Your ghost example concerning your mom and your point of how deep the agency detection/creation device is implanted in us was well-received and I was curious as to the rest of your argument.


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(Clinton Ohlers) #11

@Philosurfer and @swamidass, this just gets more and more interesting. Thank you for the level of engagement and critique you’ve been putting out. Much appreciated. It’s 10 am here in HK. I’ll review closely and circle back, hopefully this evening.

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(S. Joshua Swamidass) #12

That is certainly true.

That is exactly right. Speaking from experience, extended engagement on forums with thoughtful people (like @jongarvey for example) has really raised my game. It is through these conversations that we can really take hold of the “translation” between the disciplines, and real insight can arise.

To the contrary, it can be easier digitally.

On this forum, we have a clear record of what was said. We can link to other resources. We can go back, reread and even correct the wording that has been used. We can see the whole dialectic. We can also ruminate on things for hours before answering, or even days or months before coming back to something. It helps create space for people to engage at different paces too. Let alone different places. A this point we are really a forum on which the sun does not set (look at me being British @jongarvey!).

Moreover it is public, so others are watching and can jump in and help us overcome hurdles. Of course, I hope that real academic publications come out of conversations like this, but even if they don’t, these threads are indexed by search engines. People can find what we have done here. It is a type of “soft” (non-CV) publication.

And there is that too :smiley:.

Just don’t get too lost down the rabbit hole. We do have jobs too. As I said, hopefully these conversations will turn in to academic publications. When they do, post links here so we can celebrate with you.

(Jon Garvey) #13

If that isn’t a reason to colour the forum pink, I don’t know what it…:grinning:

(Clinton Ohlers) #14

While I’m waiting to look these over thoroughly and respond – I’ve gotten tied up with other things-- it would be worth noting that “Can We Empirically Detect ‘Agency’?” is not the title I would have given this string, although I understand @swamidass point in assigning it. Rather, I my first inclination would be to title it “Can We Rationally Detect ‘Agency’?”

The reason for the difference is that I would say that empiricism would see to limited. I would opt with “rationally” because what we know from our five senses is contained within what we know rationally. The British natural philosophers of the of the seventeenth century we were discussing were often called Moderate Empiricists, but for the same reasons that I would lean away from the “empirical” label. Their empiricism was moderate for many of the very reasons I think “rational” would be better here: what they observed from the five sense was understood within their larger rational thought, which included theological and philosophical thought (e.g., the noetic effects of sin, cosmological arguments from a first cause).

That means of knowing is was I am proposing in regard to agency and miracles would stand in contrast with other possible positions: e.g., versus a fideist position that would take miracles as credible solely on the grounds they are contained in scripture; or against a “personal illumination” view that relies on direct inner personal relation from God in order to apprehend a miracle because no adequate evidential base is possible to make a miracle rationally believable in contrast to a naturalistic explanation (although a possible workable alternative might entail the necessity of a work of the spirit to recognize a miracle that has a real evidential base over and against naturalistic explanation but that the noetic effect of sin blinds the human mind in its fallen state to perceiving).

So, I would say I suspect there is a rational test for detecting a miracle, which begin with empirical observation of a realtime event, but also employs other means of real knowledge. The reason for the engagement with science is that the domain of science and the domain of rational knowledge overlap at the point of empirically observable realtime events.

(Jon Garvey) #15

I guess the thread title might be changed to “can we empirically detect ‘naturalness’” without much altering the epistemological difficulties. At least, can we do so without making the a priori judgement that (a) there are things called natural events and (b) they are the default explanation for phenomena?

My limiting case is occasionalism, which is a legitimate metaphysical position, which is entirely compatible with any scientific finding whatsoever, and which denies that there are any natural causes whatsoever.

Not only that, but by definition, every event would be the result of direct agency, so detecting the event would be to detect the agency. The only way of refuting this is to put a different metaphysics before your empiricism, such as naturalism, which cannot detect agency because it too has an unproveable assumption built into it, ie that there is no agency to detect in events.

So maybe it’s worth asking if this question is even coherent: “Can we empirically detect natural events under occasionalism?” If it is harder than the original question about detecting agency, why is that?

I suggest it inevitably leads on to our asking, “Is there a metaphysical system that allows both for “nature” and “agency” (which would require a clear definition for both)?” And, “Does that metaphysics allow for a way to distinguish the two?”

But in order to go there, one has already put oneself outside the pale of science “as she is spoke.” It seems to be more a problem with science than with reality.

(S. Joshua Swamidass) #16

So that is why I used “emperically” in the thread. This is where the disagreement lies.

First of all, I see science as very different than you.

It is my understanding that science largely ignores realtime events. We are usually collecting large datasets of events, and by the time we look at them they are no longer realtime. We are usually looking at the past, and almost never at realtime. In fact, I would say it is part of our training to ignore the realtime, so that we can avoid observer bias.

So if what you care about is “empirically observable realtime events,” I’m not sure that is in the domain of science, at least as it is currently practiced. Though maybe someone can show me the rare exception. That would be interesting, but it would still be the exception to the rule.

On another thread there is an interesting test case. There are two places I see God’s action in The Thai Cave Rescue.

What we do not see is any consideration of science or natural law. That seems entirely irrelevant. Though we can still assert they have a rational basis (perhaps rooted in proper basic knowledge and/or religious experience). Moreover, it is entirely possible that the natural explanation of “chance” is correct. We cannot distinguish between chance and providence. Both might be equally valid interpretations of the publicly accessible data.

The other example seems to be embeded in our internal wiring of how we tell stories.

So I am inferring something about God’s action here, in the way we are prone to understand the story. It is also once again easy to come up with natural explanations for this. But does that even really engage my inference? Not really, as it might merely be the ontology of our nature, but not its teleology.

I think this is a good place to engage deeper @rcohlers. It seems like you come with a strong presupposition that science is supposed to be helpful here. Why? Is it possible you are wrong on that? If the goal is to just show that such beliefs are rational, proper basic belief (or perception) and/or religious experience seems to get you there. Why is that not enough for you?

That is why I’m finding a lot learn from Lutheranism. I’m confident that God could be working in these places, and I believe we can rationally discern God’s providential governance. However, discerning special divine action in particular independent of revelation? That is hard to imagine.

Perhaps you have given us another reason to doubt science can help us too @rcohlers, because realtime events does not appear to be in science’s domain.

(Jon Garvey) #17

That’s an excellent point, Joshua, similar to the argument made by Arthur Eddington that science (physics in his case) works by abstracting everything real into mere numbers. I loved his point that there is nothing in Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwocky that is in the least unscientific - it just happens to have not a single word of truth in it.

Conversely he gives an example of an exam question about an elephant sliding down a grassy bank, which becomes merely a mass, an angle and a coefficient of friction. Everything real and contingent disappears.

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(S. Joshua Swamidass) #18

As C.S. Lewis once reflected.

“I am a rationalist. For me, reason is the natural organ of truth; but imagination is the organ of meaning. Imagination, producing new metaphors or revivifying old, is not the cause of truth, but its condition.”
– C.S. Lewis, Bluspels and Flalansferes

The teleology is that we see wired to read ambiguous stories in a way that echoes the deeper meaning and truthful ways. Even though the plain and valid reading of the story is that of children causing the death of an innocent man, the more truthful reading is that of world community sparing no expense, including the life of a man, to bring these children home. Both stories are valid, and those in the narrative might chose one or the other to live under, but one story is ultimately more True.

It is not empiricism that gets us there. The facts are identical, but the teleology , the purpose, the meaning is different. That is why I am so pessimistic about science giving us insight on teleology , purpose, and meaning. It gives us some understanding of the natural world. We can read them in many ways. I’m not sure the way we read them is much at all influenced by what science tells us. At the very least, there is very little evidence that science influences us much in how we complete the scientific story.

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(Jon Garvey) #20

But we’re also wired to perform the logical operations on which science depends, especially theory choice. If logical reasoning is properly basic (yet capable of error), and teleology is properly basic (yet capable of error), then it seems to be merely convention which of our faculties is permitted to operate within science.

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