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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,

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.  :> )

* * * 

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!


( 17 comments — Leave a comment )
Oct. 16th, 2009 05:10 am (UTC)
A jot and tittle, or two...
One may assert that evolution, or rolling out, is a phenomenon of process, and the **existence** of the process, as in the process of falling, may be determined as a fact.

A process does not have material being but exists as variance in the relationship of material objects and may be -- by the study of the objects -- abstracted thereof. Such is how the field of study of evolution abides.

Loosely, one may speak of the fact of the process and assign tentative categorical descriptions through mathematical analysis of patterns pertaining to the process -- laws, in short -- and one can extend this or that useful explanatory umbrella as Darwin did to cover the observed phenomena in a manner that may bring more such consistently explained phenomena to light.

Yet one should should keep clear in mind the which of what one speaks.

Oct. 16th, 2009 07:34 am (UTC)
I'd wager that all three above physicists had studied philosophy in gymnasium or lycee. Then there is poor Dawkins, who doesn't seem to understand how anyone could rationally disagree with him about anything. Evidence of the Decline of the West, or just that biologists today don't know logic?
Oct. 17th, 2009 01:17 am (UTC)
I think it's true that most professional training today is narrowly focused. Whereas people like Poincare and Mach received a solid grounding in early modern philosophy, those of today have "no time to spare." Being unfamiliar with the field, they tend to disparage its content -- because it is not "what we do" and because "what we do" is the only right and true way to do things.

Oddly enough, since Heisenberg there has been a revival of Aristotelianism -- although under new labels.
Oct. 16th, 2009 01:54 pm (UTC)
Dawkins' (and Myers') reasoning goes like this:

1) I have a PhD in Zoology. That means I'm certified as knowing everything.
2) I don't understand them thar philosophers and theologians with their fancy words.
3) Because I know everything, my lack of understanding must be because they are speaking a lot of empty blather, not because of some deficiency in knowledge on my part.
4) Therefore, whatever it is they're babbling on about, I'm more competent to talk about it than they are, because I'm a scientist and I know everything!
Oct. 17th, 2009 12:28 am (UTC)
Philosophy is only as good as its starting assumptions. Science is a way of testing those assumptions that is so cruel as to point out where and how wrong assumptions are wrong.

BTW, I'm passing this on to PZ for his take.
Oct. 17th, 2009 01:26 am (UTC)
But science can only test certain kinds of assumption and test them in certain ways. One may as well attend a concert of Mozart's music and think solely in terms of sound waves in air. There are certain interesting things that one can learn about sound waves in air, but one is likely to miss the point.

One of the problems with modern philosophy is precisely too much concentration on starting assumptions. Each wave that comes along sets out to demolish the assumptions of the previous wave; so you could argue that, historically, modern philosophy has never gotten started. So we have ended up with a sort of vague Nietzschean philosophical egoism, in which the will is triumphant, consent is the sole arbiter of the good, and the truth is whatever makes you feel empowered.
Oct. 18th, 2009 01:45 am (UTC)
All rational activity is only as good as its starting assumptions, including science. Testing or establishing the starting assumptions of science requires philosophy.

And I'm sure Mike just is quaking in his boots that big bad PZ might know about his post.
Oct. 18th, 2009 02:24 am (UTC)
Not quite sure who this PZ is supposed to be, other than someone who sneers at philosophers of the like of Poincare and Heisenberg. But a google reveals that he is an assoc. professor at U.Minn Morris, and apparently has more bees in his bonnet that philosophers of science.

Oct. 18th, 2009 10:51 pm (UTC)
Say hello for me, willya?
Last time I was over there, I left a comment about the desecration of the (allegedly) consecrated Host.

Actually, that might have been the time before last. I think I might also have passed a remark about the kerfuffle regarding the survey of American attitudes to religion and belief, when he was getting his knickers in a twist about calling the 15% of those who did not declare an allegiance to organised religion "nones" instead of "atheists", since this was all part of the vast Christianist conspiracy or something.
Oct. 17th, 2009 08:16 pm (UTC)
"I was going to say something about how biology is not as scientific as physics; but I'll leave that for another day."

*groan* Now, how did I know you were going to say that?

I'm a biologist myself, in a very dilute way, and it's well-known that hte chemists look down on the biologists as flower-collectors, and the physicists look down on the chemists as messing with stinks, and the mathematicians look down on everybody :-)

I wish P.Z. and Dawkins and their ilk would shut up and think for five seconds about what they sound like: of course the "facts/laws/theory" sandwich is not saying any more than it's saying. P.Z. is just reacting to the disingenuous use of "theory" as meaning "not factually based; a guess; made-up; an excuse" used by some of the six-day creationists to discredit the teacing of evolution. It's a bit much when he carries on as if they're right. For cryin' out loud, has the man never read a detective story in his life?

Fact: there is a mark of a particular shape in the gravel beneath the library window.
Law: marks like this are footprints.
Theory: this is the criminal's footprint, left behind when he jumped out the window.

Inspector Smith of the Yard or Algernon Ffye-Smythe, the dashing private detective then go out and see if the theory is correct and on page 236 we find out the butler did it.
Oct. 17th, 2009 08:24 pm (UTC)
Even Agatha Christie knew the difference
Inspector Smith or Algernon both know that the *theory* of who left the footprint is not the same as the *fact* of the footprint; it may indeed be the criminal's footprint, or it may be a red herring - somebody did jump out the library window, but it wasn't the criminal, it was Penelope's unsuitable boyfriend scarpering when her papa came downstairs with a shotgun to encourage him to vacate the premises.

The *theory* of it being the criminal's footprint being right or wrong affects neither the *fact* of the mark in the gravel nor the *law* of such marks being footprints.

Saying that the theory equals the fact is just nonsense. In fact, it is usually the block-headed Detective Sergeant who swears this is the criminal's footprint (being fixated on the theory) who is proven wrong by our dashing detective who demonstrates that it is instead the mark left behind by the peg-legged clockmaker who comes by every Thursday to wind up the grandfather clock and the real criminal is the asparagus vendor who was in the kitchen at the time.

P.Z. *really* needs to start reading some detective fiction to sharpen his cognitive processes :-)
Oct. 18th, 2009 02:16 am (UTC)
The Greek philosopher Xenophanes observed marine fossils in the mountains of Greece and reasoned (correctly) that they were the remains of fish and shellfish that had (somehow) turned to stone. The only natural mechanism he knew of that could deposit marine life on land was a flood or giant wave. And so he concluded that there had once been an ancient flood that had covered even the mountains. It was a purely naturalistic explanation. It turned out to be wrong, but it was well supported and Xenophanes could, as we do today, point to the facts to back it up.

OTOH, Copernicus calculated based on Platonic idealism and Pythagorean mysticism that the earth turned on its axis and revolved around the sun. Nothing he did would be counted as "science" today; and all of his arguments but one had been considered three hundred years earlier (and more clearly set forth) by Nicholas d'Oresme, save for the Tusi couple. He wound up with a system with only about two dozen epicycles. But it was modestly simpler than the Ptolemaic system and gave good predictions. The theory turned out to be correct [or "more correct"], but the facts were against it: it predicted stellar parallax, and there was none observable; and it predicted that objects dropped from towers would fall slightly to the east, and no such deflection was observed. In modern parlance, Copernicanism was "falsified by the data."

Now obviously, there were natural processes that Xenophanes was unaware of, and the parallax and deflection were there but way too small for Galileo et al. to observe. But it is not always easy to know when a theory is true to the facts; and way too easy to confuse truth with facts.
Oct. 18th, 2009 10:48 pm (UTC)
Now, if these guys were content to say "Okay, your sacred book has human guesses about natural phenomena but these have since been proven wrong" then we could come to an agreement, because the same thing can be said about the history of science: people making the best explanation they could about the observable facts with the knowledge to hand.

But jumping forward to say "This proves it is all invented by humans and not revealed by God!" Well, that's disputable; *all* of it? Even the bits about morality and worship and non-natural phenomena - okay, let's talk about this, guys.

Saying "Science is right about how stars are made, so this proves that God did not make the stars! Moreover, science has proved there is no God! And to boot, we are smarter and better and nicer and you are all stupid and ignorant and violent and look funny and smell bad!"

Them's fightin' words :-)
Oct. 19th, 2009 01:00 am (UTC)
1. The only point to the story of Xenophanes and Copernicus is that establishing the truth of a theory is no easy thing. Copernicanism was apparently falsified by the empirical data. And Xenophanes world-girdling flood was supported by the fossils just as easily as modern Darwinism is supported by pointing to genetic similarities. It goes to what I call the Carnap-Duhem problem, and the neglect of Galileo's demonstrative regress.

2. The Christians did not believe that their sacred books had human guesses about natural phenomena, except in the incidental sense that the various writers thereof used whatever was the current state of human knowledge in their expressions. Were we writing today them today, we would refer in passing to the big bang or to natural selection instead. However, none of the books were intended as science texts. Basil, Augustine, and others warned repeatedly against trying to read them as such. But moderns, accustomed to scientific literalism, tend to read them as literal; a mistake the traditional churches never made.
Oct. 19th, 2009 04:00 am (UTC)
As a Christian myself
"The Christians did not believe that their sacred books had human guesses about natural phenomena, except in the incidental sense that the various writers thereof used whatever was the current state of human knowledge in their expressions."

No, no we didn't. We did think that when sacred Scripture said "God made the world", that meant that God did indeed make the world.

My point was that if the New/Old/Hardboiled/Woke Up This Morning And Found I Was atheists kept discussion/criticism of Genesis on the level of "That's not science; it may be early attempts at explanation, but the facts and evidence as we now know it show that..." the universe came into existence 15 billion years ago or whatever figure they're agreeing on for the moment.

But they don't. It's "Ha! Your dumb old book is wrong! We're completely right! Anything you lot ever said is wrong and anything we ever said was right always!"

So that means that I have the choice of either being a six-day of twenty-four hours each creationist or a liar, according to Messrs. Dawkins et al. If I say that belief is more nuanced than that, then I'm not a *proper* believer, since a proper believer is one who accepts nothing other than absolute Biblical inerrancy. If I say I'm not a Protestant, so the 19th century 'sola Scriptura' tussle between Revivalism and Darwinism doesn't affect me - huh? what? That does not compute!
Oct. 19th, 2009 07:45 am (UTC)
Re: As a Christian myself
Dawkins is rather a fundamentalist. Some have called him a Calvinist preacher.
Oct. 19th, 2009 09:27 am (UTC)
Re: As a Christian myself
Which considering the Professor was raised Anglican, is very strange, seeing as the quote allegedly by Evelyn Waugh goes "No one from the Pope to Mao Tse Tung can be certain that he is not an Anglican" :-)
( 17 comments — Leave a comment )


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