m_francis (m_francis) wrote,
m_francis
m_francis

A Portentious Concatenation

The Imperial March

JJ Brannon sends an email with a Q&A with Dawkins on philosophers:

Q: I've heard it said that you're just trying to put your case across, and trying to be charming with people you don't necessarily agree with. I suppose it's difficult, especially when you're trying to keep the science on one track and keep the philosophy on a different track. Or do you see those tracks as very much related?

[Dawkins]: I think they're pretty much related. Questions about the existence of the supernatural are actually scientific questions. I don't think philosophers have any particular expertise to bring to bear. Certainly theologians haven't any expertise to bring to bear on anything. These are largely questions that scientists should be able to deal with. --
Richard Dawkins,
http://cosmiclog.msnbc.msn.com/archive/2009/10/14/2097873.aspx


Well, one would expect that he doesn't put much stock in philosophers because he doesn't seem to have much of a rigorous grasp of philosophy.  :> )
Regards,
JJB


* * * 

It's true that Dawkins has come into criticism from philosophers for his sloppy logic and writing.  Midgley and Stove come to mind -- and those two certainly cannot be accused of carrying "theistic" water.
  It's primarily a question of not really questioning one's ground assumptions.  This is not necessarily a handicap.  Many a person happily drives an automobile, perhaps even makes a good living driving an automobile, without the least understanding of auto mechanics, let alone of thermodynamics or petroleum geology. 

The portentious concatenation is a parallel post by another well-known non-philosopher, P.Z.Meyers.  (Note that he is another two-initials man.)  Myers posts on a review of Dawkins's most recent book by one Nicholas Wade, quoting Wade as saying:
He [Dawkins] seems to have little appreciation for the cognitive structure of science. Philosophers of science, who are the arbiters of such issues, say science consists largely of facts, laws and theories. The facts are the facts, the laws summarize the regularities in the facts, and the theories explain the laws. Evolution can fall into only of of these categories, and it's a theory.
to the which, Meyers comments:
Whoa. Scientists everywhere are doing a spit-take at those words. Philosophers, sweet as they may be, are most definitely not the "arbiters" of the cognitive structure of science. They are more like interested spectators, running alongside the locomotive of science, playing catch-up in order to figure out what it is doing, and occasionally shouting words of advice to the engineer, who might sometimes nod in interested agreement but is more likely to shrug and ignore the wacky academics with all the longwinded discourses. Personally, I think the philosophy of science is interesting stuff, and can surprise me with insights, but science is a much more pragmatic operation that doesn't do a lot of self-reflection.
I'll give him the "arbiter" complaint.  Scientists don't like to think they are arbitten by anyone.  But not only is Meyers not a philosopher, he is also not a writer.  Otherwise, he would not have used such that locomotive-of-science metaphor.  If the locomotive is science, we should remember that locomotives run down tracks laid by someone else and can only go to those places to which the tracks already run.  A nice metaphor for Kuhn's "paradigm science," to be sure -- or perhaps for the effect of government funding on the direction of science -- but did Meyers really intend to suggest science was like that?  Or was it one of those Freudian slip thingies? 

In any case, readers of Midgley's The Myths We Live By will recognize the mythos of Omnicompetent Imperial Scientism busily colonizing all aspects of life.  Patronization drips from every word. 
 
 
 
Consider Dawkins' comment in the first quote: Questions about the existence of the supernatural are actually scientific questions.  And then we can ask by what scientific principle this is known?    Perhaps the philosopher running beside the locomotive can tell the engineer who, by all appearances has never given this question a moment's thought.  No body of knowledge has within itself the competency to examine its own foundations -- although only Mathematics has a rigorous proof that this is so.  Physics, which in the original meaning was any knowledge (scientia) of physical bodies, and so includes biology and all the rest, is grounded in metaphysics, which simply means "behind the physics."  And that is right where The Metaphysics appears in compilations of Aristotle's works, right after The Physics.  It deals with those ontological and epitemological preconditions.  
             
Science as we know it measures things.  Some folks think that because they can measure Stuff really really accurately that they are therefore Experts on Everything from theology to barbeque sauce or even in other branches of science.  But to measure is to quantify, and quantification belongs to matter (rather than to form, agency, or finality).  Therefore, if you focus exclusively on that-which-can-be-measured, you focus exclusively on that which is matter.  Like anyone whose only tool is a hammer, after a while everything starts to look like a nail.  But in what way does Dawkins suppose that the "supernatural" (whatever he means by that) is a measurable, material body?  Heck.  Forget about the existence of the supernatural.  The existence of an empirical universe is not a scientific question.  It is an a priori assumption necessary if one is to do science in the first place.  Even the existence of natural laws is not a scientific question, but an assumption scientists must make before they will look for them.  (Recall that Dennett has argued that our brains have been shaped by evolution to find patterns.  If he and Dawkins are right about that, then what assurance do we have in science that the natural laws are really out there, and not just patterns imposed by our minds, a la Hume/Dennett?)*          
                                   
Now what gets Meyers all exercised over Wade  is something quite unremarkable: the distinction between a fact and a theory, as seen in the facts<laws<theory distinction that Wade mentions.  Caught up in some sort of tu quoque, Meyers appears to think that because creationists do not understand what Theory means that therefore Dawkins does not misunderstand.  He then quotes Gould who enshrines a deliberate equivocation of the term "evolution."  This proves, if nothing else, the Wisdom of Charles Darwin, who studiously avoided the term "evolution" in his groundbreaking Origin of Species.  Read it.  He uses the term "evolution" perhaps twice.  Darwin knew, even if his epigones have forgotten, the difference between facts and theories.  
                                 
The other embarrassment is that the facts<laws<theory "layer cake" that Meyers scorns was developed by philosophers like Henri Poincare, Ernst Mach, and Pierre Duhem.  It was known variously as the Third Positivism or as Instrumentalism, depending on whom you read.   All three were physicists of some stature, esp. Poincare, whose equation e=mc^2 went on to win fame under Einstein.  So what we notice is that the philosophers that Wade was adumbrating(**) were not in fact running beside the locomotive and not merely driving the locomotive, but had designed and built the locomotive.  It was, moreover, the locomotive of physics and therefore a much more finely-tuned and powerful engine than the choo-choo Meyers drives.  (Physics Rules!!  Woo!  Woo!  Yeah, okay...)                  
                                   
Now, to say that "evolution" is both a theory and a fact is absurd, except in loose, non-scientific speech.  Gould, as quoted, seems to think that a theory that is really well attested somehow becomes a fact.  But the purpose of a physical theory is to spring a narrative through a body of facts that explains those facts in a coherent way; i.e., that "makes sense" out of the facts.  Stars are the facts; constellations are the theories.  "Evolution" cannot be a fact if it is also the theory that makes sense of the facts.  Say hello to Russel's Paradox.  "Falling bodies" are the facts and "gravity" is a theory that explains how they fall.  (It does not explain that they fall.)  Gravity per se has no empirical existence.  Technically, under the EInstein narrative, gravity is a distortion in the field of Ricci tensors due to the presence of matter.  But only the matter has empirical existence, not the "gravity," as indeed Newton said.  (Between the facts and the theories are the laws, for which mathematics is the privileged language.  s=0.5at^2 or F=G(Mm)/d^2 for example.  It is this layer that is deficient in evolutionary theory and which makes of the theory of evolution something a bit less rigorous than the theory of electromagnetism or the theory of refraction.)                  
         
That said, the facts of evolution are such things as the appearance, existence or disappearance of various species -- keeping in mind that a "species" is a human idea and has no empirical existence, as indeed Darwin said -- the dis/similarities of species and of their genomes, the observed inheritance and variability of traits, etc.  The theory -- as Darwin constantly reminded his readers -- was Natural Selection, not evolution.  Natural selection via Malthusian struggle for existence was supposedly the "engine" that drove this process; i.e., which explained why some species have gone extinct, new species have come into being, and existing species show a pattern of similarity-within-diversity.   It is Natural Selection that is falsifiable (or should be -- as Gould pointed out, just-so stories don't cut the mustard).  It is the genotypical and phenotypical distinctions and changes that are the facts.  
           
So where is "evolution"?   Try saying this with a straight face.  "Astronomy is both a theory and a fact."  Or "The Theory of Astronomy proves that...."  Yeah, that's the ticket.  Evolution is neither a theory nor a fact, but a field of study.  So there.        
             
I was going to say something about how biology is not as scientific as physics; but I'll leave that for another day.  



Name the savants: l. to r.: Poincare, Mach, Duhem.  Is it my imagination, or do they sorta look alike?  Are you positive?

(*) our brains impose patterns on the world. 
Dennett, Dawkins, et al use this to argue that God is a delusion.  It works just as well as an argument that evolution is a delusion.  Just a pattern imposed by the brain.  That's the problem with nihilism.  Those dudes may be the greatest underminers of Darwin around today!

(**) adumbration.  I've always wanted to use adumbration in a sentence.  Now I can cross that off my to-do list!


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