Archives for posts with tag: certainty

New Scientist is mostly a great magazine. But every few issues they run another really stupid article about religion and I have to write another letter to the editor. Here’s the latest.

“I do not call myself an atheist,” David Eagleman assures us (25 September 2010, p. 34). “I don’t feel that I have enough data to firmly rule out other interesting possibilities. On the other hand, I do not subscribe to any religion.”

Mr. Eagleman, if you do not subscribe to any religion, you are an atheist. Like it or not, that’s what the word means.

“What if we were planted here by aliens?” you ask. “What if there are civilisations in spatial dimensions seven through nine? What if we are nodes in a vast, cosmic, computational device?” These might be interesting possibilities (I guess), but they have nothing to do with atheism.

You say, “in the debates between the strict atheists and the fundamentally religious, I choose a third side.” But in this context, there is no third side. Do any of the gods described by planet Earth’s many religions really exist? You clearly believe that the answer to this question is No. That makes you an atheist. Sorry, but that’s what the word means.

This is not the only logical fallacy in your article.

I feel I should warn you that in condemning the “the amount of certainty” in books by “the new atheists”, you are making an awkward leap onto a crowded and flimsy bandwagon.

“Their books,” you say of Dawkins, Dennett, Harris and Hitchens, “sometimes feed a widespread misconception… that scientists think they have the big picture solved.” But none of these four men has ever claimed, in any book or speech, to have solved the big picture (whatever that means). Your target here is a straw man. The “certainty” you decry does not exist.

Your article is nothing like science, and nothing like news. I am dismayed to find it in New Scientist, where in general the standards are very high.

Roy Sablosky
Sacramento, California, USA


How does a “psychic reader” do what she does? Most of them tell us that they don’t know. This is a disarming admission, but if she doesn’t know how it works, then how does she know that the information she is relaying to us is based on reality, rather than a figment of her imagination?

If I don’t know where the information comes from, why should I take it seriously? It could be from an evil spirit who is trying to ruin my life. How does the reader know it’s good, if she doesn’t know how she obtained it? Say you find some pills in your pocket, and you didn’t know how they got there. Do you swallow them — figuring that, chances are, they’ll make you feel better? Would that not be unwise?

I just know, “sensitives” like to say. I can feel it. But any number of people have said this and been utterly mistaken, or lying. I hope you are not telling us, Ms. Reader, that it is your intuition that tells you that, in general, your intuition is reliable.

As Wittgenstein points out in On Certainty, to say that I know implies that there is a way to find out. If that verb means anything, it means that I can show you how you, too, can know. If you can’t do this, then you don’t know.