Pounding the square peg into the round hole

Alimage Reilly writes:

Just read your sidebar on the shroud blog and I find your assertion that Pro. Dawkins questions the validity of carbon dating actually as being inaccurate leads one to believe that the good Doctor believes the technique is wholesale inaccurate. That simply isn’t true. Prof Dawkins claims it is not reliable for dating purposes that deal the evolutionary timescale dealing with MILLIONS of years. He claims it is very accurate in terms of dating hundreds and THOUSANDS of years. That would make the procedure highly useful in dating an organic piece of cloth 2000 years old or less. Also, when you write, "We simply do not have enough reliable information to arrive at a scientifically rigorous conclusion. Years ago, as a skeptic of the Shroud, I came to realize that while I might believe it was a fake, I could not know so from the facts. Now, as someone who believes it is the real burial shroud of Jesus of Nazareth, I similarly realize that a leap of faith over unanswered questions is essential", it’s not up to the non-believer to prove its’ validity, it’s up to the claimants, or as Carl Sagan once said,"extraordinary claims (which belief in the shroud is) REQUIRE extraordinary EVIDENCE". If you say your belief in the shroud requires a "leap of faith" after stating your conclusive belief in the item, yet at the same time admitting there are "unanswered questions", you’ve just taken real science out of the picture. In other words, you arrived at the conclusion long before any conclusive evidence. Sorry, Daniel, that is not how real science works. Your blog claims science as its’ tool, yet it fails at using actual scientific methodology. Without "extraordinary evidence" a conclusion to the question, in terms of real science, cannot be reached. The second you use the word "faith" you’ve just raised belief as a priority over the head of real science. That, in reality, is NOT real science. Belief does not require reason, and without reason, there cannot be reality. I think this site (shroud blog) is just another example of apologetics masquerading as science. Or, pounding the square peg into the round hole.

Hi Al:

Re Dawkins:

I don’t know how from what I wrote that anyone might “believe that the good Doctor [=Dawkins] believes the technique is wholesale inaccurate.” And what you say about what Dawkins believes about radiocarbon dating is very accurate. I don’t dispute it. But what I was thinking about was from his wonderful book, “The Greatest Show on Earth,” (pp. 105-106):

The dating of the shroud remains controversial, but not for reasons that cast doubt on the carbon-dating technique itself. For example, the carbon in the shroud might have been contaminated by a fire, which is known to have occurred in 1532. 1 won’t pursue the matter further, because the shroud is of historical, not evolutionary, interest.

Re Extraordinary claims:

It is true that Carl Sagan said, "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence," but the real credit should probably go to David Hume (1711-1776) who wrote,"A wise man . . . proportions his belief to the evidence" or to Marcello Truzzi, a cofounder of CSICOP, who wrote in an essay on pseudo-skepticism in the the Zetetic Scholar . . .

In science, the burden of proof falls upon the claimant; and the more extraordinary a claim, the heavier is the burden of proof demanded. The true skeptic takes an agnostic position, one that says the claim is not proved rather than disproved. He asserts that the claimant has not borne the burden of proof and that science must continue to build its cognitive map of reality without incorporating the extraordinary claim as a new "fact." Since the true skeptic does not assert a claim, he has no burden to prove anything. He just goes on using the established theories of "conventional science" as usual. But if a critic asserts that there is evidence for disproof, that he has a negative hypothesis — saying, for instance, that a seeming psi result was actually due to an artifact — he is making a claim and therefore also has to bear a burden of proof.

Truzzi elaborates enough to remind us to be cautious. So when you write, “Carl Sagan once said,"extraordinary claims (which belief in the shroud is) REQUIRE extraordinary EVIDENCE,”  two things come to mind:

  1. Is belief in the shroud extraordinary? I say it is not.
  2. Is the evidence in support of that not extraordinary.

Spend some time with us in this blog. You may not change your mind about the shroud but you may come to agree with what I contend here.

Regarding faith as a priority over reason.

You say to me, “The second you use the word "faith" you’ve just raised belief as a priority over the head of real science.” Would you rather that I was dishonest? Should I not say that I believe it is real when in fact I do? Should I pretend that the evidence is better than it is? If anything, being honest and not denying science (e.g. by quoting scripture or an apologetic argument) elevates science.

Belief is something Dawkins tries to address in a letter to his then ten year old daughter (A Devil’s Chaplain: Reflections on Hope, Lies, Science, and Love, 2004):

Inside feelings are valuable in science too, but only for giving you ideas that you later test by looking for evidence. A scientist can have a ‘hunch’ about an idea that just ‘feels’ right. In itself, this is not a good reason for believing something. But it can be a good reason for spending some time doing a particular experiment, or looking in a particular way for evidence. Scientists use inside feelings all the time to get ideas. But they are not worth anything until they are supported by evidence. . . .What can we do about all this? It is not easy for you to do anything, because you are only ten. But you could try this. Next time somebody tells you something that sounds important, think to yourself: ‘Is this the kind of thing that people probably know because of evidence? Or is it the kind of thing that people only believe because of tradition, authority or revelation?’ And, next time somebody tells you that something is true, why not say to them: ‘What kind of evidence is there for that?’ And if they can’t give you a good answer, I hope you’ll think very carefully before you believe a word they say.

And this blog is about finding answers that don’t depend solely, or even at all, on tradition, authority or revelation.

An enigmatic thing about the shroud is that to claim it is fake is as extraordinary (if not more so) as to claim it is real. You can do this thought experimentation without making any claims one way or the other about what might be supernatural causes or reasons or consequences for belief.

Al, you say I have arrived at the conclusion long before any conclusive evidence. Maybe, I’ll have to ponder that. (Why do I think of Enrico Fermi pulling out those cadmium rods?)

Al, your comments are welcome here. There are quite a few scientists participating in the discussions.

Re the square peg:

It all depends on the size of the hole.

Thanks for writing. Join in the discussion, please.


5 thoughts on “Pounding the square peg into the round hole”

  1. It’s not clear from his statement whether Al is a scientist or not, but the trouble with most of us (I consider myself one) is that, by relying on evidence, there is practically nothing that we can be sure of. While this is highly commendable in theory, it can be extremely frustrating to non scientists, who are certain of practically everything, and is an almost unworkable position in everyday life. (Shall I eat this egg? It may be infected with salmonella! Or maybe not. But I can’t be sure!) For the sake of an easy life, we make little ‘leaps of faith’ every minute of every day, tipping the balance of evidence firmly down one side or the other depending on the weight we see piled on each side (It’s probably not infected. I’ll eat it). At present, Dan and I, and many of the scientists on this and other sites, are all acquainted with all the evidence about the shroud, and in truth, would all agree with Dan’s statement: “We simply do not have enough reliable information to arrive at a scientifically rigorous conclusion.” However, we ascribe different weights to each piece of evidence, and when pushed, plump for one side or the other, and sometimes hope to persuade our fellows to change their minds about the value of one bit of evidence or another, so that their ‘little leap of faith’ changes too. But really we wander through the world in complete uncertainty….

  2. Hume must have read the same Bible that we (including Dawkins) read today and one mistake lies in making more and more translations to try to “pound the square peg into the round hole”. Centuries after the sceptical English philosopher we meet Heidegger and Wittgenstein, with no God in their philosophies, but with the feeling that something is missing well alive and kicking inside them. Heidegger, the son of a sacristan, and an ex-Jesuit seminarian, fought with the Jesuits and stopped going to Church. Towards the end of his life he walked a lot in the forests, thinking as usual, and when in the city, he entered the church he was passing by and blessed himself. Shortly before dying he called a Catholic priest to his house and requested a Catholic burial. History had told him that he was right in his faith, he said.

    What about Wittgenstein? Born 3/4th Jewish and baptised and raised Catholic he had no room for God in what he wrote in his philosophy, however like Heidegger he knew something more was needed. He spent a year at the Klosterneuberg monastery in his native Austria, sometimes in a hut somewhere in the mountains, always thinking about becoming a monk. Just before dying he asked his “Catholic friends” — philosopher Anscombe among them — to pray for him and they therefore called a priest to his bedside and gave him a Catholic burial.

    The point is this: Hume, Heidegger, Wittgenstein were interpreting the Bible as generally most Christians do today. Although they knew there was the need to “pound the square peg into the round hole” the German and Austrian philosophers were unable to do it and opted for God in the end, whether led by intuition or not. Both fundamentalist and allegorical readings of the Bible are wrong. The time is coming, when depending on our interpretation of Scripture, there will be no need to pound the square peg into the round hole. Jesus said…

  3. “If anything, being honest and not denying science (e.g. by quoting scripture or an apologetic argument) elevates science.”

    Interesting how simply quoting scripture is now equated with denying science. Sounds very Dawkins-inspired kind of thinking. Shall we just edit out the reality that nearly all the founders of the modern fields of science (later hijacked by the World Socialists/Atheists political front) were inspired by those very scriptures that now ‘believers’ in this woeful age seem to be embarrassed of in a scientific discussion? Scripture is deceptively simple on the surface yet so far over the tiny mind of the typical modern thinker that it takes the brilliant gift of a Newton or Planck to perceive and dedicate themselves to exploiting its other-worldly, timeless, divine treasures over against mass-marketed worldly conventional wisdom that would divorce scripture from science and vice-versa.

    “There are more sure proofs of authenticity in the Bible than in any secular history. *All my discoveries have been made in answer to prayer.* I can take my telescope and look millions of miles into space; but I can go away to my room and in prayer get nearer to God and Heaven than I can when assisted by all the telescopes of Earth!” -Isaac Newton

  4. The above comment is good and demonstrates that Newton, the scientist, anticipated philosophers Heidegger and Wittgenstein. As for Hume, the “empiricist”, he was not really an empiricist at all and did not go deep enough and Einstein claimed to have been inspired by him to write his theory of relativity. That is only part of the story, for Einstein looked to Spinoza for metaphysics and did not also go as far as he needed to go because he was one-track minded. Now we have scientists claiming that all that we can know about is the universe, full stop. That was also the mistake made by Hume, Spinoza, Einstein, because, unlike Newton, Heidegger and Wittgenstein they limited their quest and thought they had found everything.

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