Dispatches from the Creation Wars

Go To This Website Now

Every once in a while, I come across a webpage that makes me wonder how on earth it has managed to escape my notice for so long. Today I found one only because the editor of the page left a comment in response to a post I made on The Panda’s Thumb. The site in question, Butterflies and Wheels, is the work of Ophelia Benson, a historian by training, and Jeremy Stangroom, a sociologist. The moment I read there raison d’etre, I knew this was my kind of page:

Butterflies and Wheels has been established in order to oppose a number of related phenomena. These include:

1. Pseudoscience that is ideologically and politically motivated.
2. Epistemic relativism in the humanities (for example, the idea that statements are only true or false relative to particular cultures, discourses or language-games).
3. Those disciplines or schools of thought whose truth claims are prompted by the political, ideological and moral commitments of their adherents, and the general tendency to judge the veracity of claims about the world in terms of such commitments.

There are two motivations for setting up the web site. The first is the common one having to do with the thought that truth is important, and that to tell the truth about the world it is necessary to put aside whatever preconceptions (ideological, political, moral, etc.) one brings to the endeavour.

The second has to do with the tendency of the political Left (which both editors of this site consider themselves to be part of) to subjugate the rational assessment of truth-claims to the demands of a variety of pre-existing political and moral frameworks. We believe this tendency to be a mistake on practical as well as epistemological and ethical grounds. Alan Sokal expressed this concern well, when talking about his motivation for the Sokal Hoax: ‘My goal isn’t to defend science from the barbarian hordes of lit crit (we’ll survive just fine, thank you), but to defend the Left from a trendy segment of itself. Like innumerable others from diverse backgrounds and disciplines, I call for the Left to reclaim its Enlightenment roots.’ (Reply to Social Text Editorial)


If you’re not familiar with the Alan Sokal hoax, you should be, and you can read all about it on Sokal’s academic page concerning the incident.

The attacks on science come not only from the Religious Right but also from some sectors of the academic left. Those who subordinate reason and logic to their political goals and insist that truth is relative to one’s gender, race, sexuality or economic position are not only peddling nonsense, they’re peddling dangerous nonsense.

If you are like me and you cringe every time you hear someone invoke Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle or the non-locational effects in Quantum Mechanics as a justification for some fashionable hoohah like ESP or whatever crap Deepok Chopra and Shirley MacLaine are shoveling out these days, you’re going to love this site.

Comments

  1. #1 joseph duemer
    April 30, 2004

    Is there some room in such a polarized debate for some Humanist intervention in science? I’m a poet & a literature professor with a life-long interest in & respect for science. I have nothing but contempt for the ideas of the creationist lobby, whether young- or old-earth. But O have also read anthropology & sociology of science, as well as Kuhn & his successors.

    I accept that there are loony-left versions of science that deserve nothing but scorn; still, the way that scientists sometimes respond to Humanist or lit-crit critiques of science pretty often have a tinge of the fundamentalism they decry when it comes from the right. I’m talking here about the uncontroversial (to me, anyway) notion that scientists, even at work in their labs, are embedded in a cultural & social context that influences their “objectivity.”

    I follow several science weblogs; I teach a course at my univesity called Imagining Science; I have written entries for the Encylopedia of Literature & Science; my best friends are–really–biologists. I am a materialist & “methodological naturalist” even in literary studies. Oh, & my politics have been way left since I was sixteen. So how come I regularly get the sense that scientists are still clinging to the liferaft of “objectivity” even when they could easily wade to the shore of informed pluralism. Is there still an ideology of science that proposes a place outside the world from which to view the world?

  2. #2 Ed Brayton
    April 30, 2004

    Joseph wrote:

    I accept that there are loony-left versions of science that deserve nothing but scorn; still, the way that scientists sometimes respond to Humanist or lit-crit critiques of science pretty often have a tinge of the fundamentalism they decry when it comes from the right. I’m talking here about the uncontroversial (to me, anyway) notion that scientists, even at work in their labs, are embedded in a cultural & social context that influences their “objectivity.”

    I would agree with that, provided it isn’t taken too far, and I suspect from the reasonableness of the rest of your reply that you would not do so. I would certainly agree that there is no such thing as pure objectivity. At the very least, our experiences and previously held ideas shape our perceptions, which then filter new evidence. I think this is, as you say, an uncontroversial idea. It’s when people add “…and therefore, nothing a scientist says can be trusted” or “…and therefore nothing is true because everything is perception” that we know we’re dealing with pure flatulence. When the simple and obvious statement that everyone brings preconceived notions and biases to the table becomes a justification for a denial of the concept of truth in its entirety, that’s when I object. And I don’t think that your position is at all native to the left, I think it would be recognized by pretty much anyone who understands human nature at all.

    I follow several science weblogs; I teach a course at my univesity called Imagining Science; I have written entries for the Encylopedia of Literature & Science; my best friends are–really–biologists. I am a materialist & “methodological naturalist” even in literary studies. Oh, & my politics have been way left since I was sixteen. So how come I regularly get the sense that scientists are still clinging to the liferaft of “objectivity” even when they could easily wade to the shore of informed pluralism.

    Hmmmm. Could you define “informed pluralism” for me? If it means “all views are equally plausible because no one is entirely objective”, then I would disagree strongly. But since I’ve never heard the phrase before, I don’t want to assume that you intend that meaning. I don’t think any scientists, at least none that I know, think that they or their fellow scientists can be purely objective. I think they would generally say, “I recognize that I bring biases and preconceptions with me, but I try as best I can to minimize the effect they would have on my work, and science, by requiring peer review and open sharing of data, provides a double check on that bias that over the long run will minimize the impact of bias as much as humanly possible.” That seems an entirely reasonable statement.

    I certainly do not intend this post to be a blanket objection to the left, with which I share many positions. Like the folks at Butterflies and Wheels, I am objecting to the extreme postmodernist position that nothing is true and that all claims of truth are merely expressions of bias. There is a reasonable middle ground here, I think.

    Thanks very much for the comment.

  3. #3 Ophelia Benson
    May 1, 2004

    Susan Haack is useful reading on this kind of thing. There is for instance what she calls the “passes-for fallacy” – conflating the fact that scientists (and all the rest of us) can fail to get at the truth with the non-fact that there is no truth to get.

  4. #4 Ed Brayton
    May 1, 2004

    Susan Haack is useful reading on this kind of thing. There is for instance what she calls the “passes-for fallacy” – conflating the fact that scientists (and all the rest of us) can fail to get at the truth with the non-fact that there is no truth to get.

    And I went to all that trouble to say exactly this and it could be said so simply!

  5. #5 liz
    May 1, 2004

    I agree it is an interesting and highly readable site. I just wish Ms. Benson would stop referring to Crooked Timber as Twisty Sticks. It is a grating and twee usage.

  6. #6 Ed Brayton
    May 1, 2004

    By the way, Joseph Duemer, who posted above, has an interesting website as well. Poetry, literature and, most importantly, cooking! I’m a cooking afficianado, which is something I’ve hardly mentioned at all on my blog.

  7. #7 Ophelia Benson
    May 1, 2004

    Twee! I hate twee. I’ll have to stop then. (My colleague calls it Crooked Nonsense – will that do?)

  8. #8 joseph duemer
    May 1, 2004

    Ed, thanks for your warm & understanding response to what might have been taken as a critical post.

    EB writes: I would certainly agree that there is no such thing as pure objectivity. At the very least, our experiences and previously held ideas shape our perceptions, which then filter new evidence.

    Would you agree that data is “theory-laden” in the sense that the data collected in any particular observation of the physical world is filtered by the observer’s preconceptions? I’m thinking of Eddington’s expeditions to demonstrate Einstein’s Special Theory, in which the quality of the data was mixed, but the conclusions drawn stated as certain.

    To accept that data is theory-laden does not imply, of course, that data can mean any old thing you want it to. It just means that science is conducted within the human world. Now, philosophically, if you say “everything is perception,” you are in some ways stating a truism: we humans only have our eyes & other senses & our brains to interpret those perceptions. If you mean, however, that “everything is opinion,” then you are engaging in what we might call vulgar relativism. Our senses have been tuned by evolution to work pretty well in most cases & our brains allow us–combined with the information received from culture–to make very good, if not absolute, statements about the nature of our world. As a philosophical pragmatist, I accept that we may come to different conclusions about the nature of reality depending on the situation. This is actually, I think, a notion that ought to be welcomed by scientists, as it suggests ways of working our from under whatever the dominant paradigm might be at any given moment. Philosophical pragmatism is, for the scientists, the essence of creativity.

    You ask about my term “informed pluralism”–I didn’t intend it as a term of art, but pluralism, for me, means only that no single perspective can fully describe the truth about a particular phenomena. By “informed,” I mostly meant scientifically literate.

    As far as the politics of the academic left go, I guess I’m an academic leftist out of sync with my particular corner of the culture. I’d just point out that science has been spectacularly successful over the last three hundred years in bringing into being many of the things that leftists are supposed to want. Sanitation, medicine, reduction of reliance on brute force labor & etc. Now, we could construct a parallel list of bad social consequences of the scientific revolution & as defenders of science we ought to keep such a list handy. My original post was in response to what I perceive as a trend toward scientific hubris.

    So, I’d say that we know pretty certainly that many things are true & that we have science to thank for that. We know about the slight variations in the orbit of Mercury; we were able to predict the existence of Uranus before it was observed; we understand that we ourselves are related by evolution to every other organism on the planet. Science doesn’t tell us much about why we value such knowledge, though. Also, science has much to celebrate, but also much to defend itself against. Without science, nu WW1 mustard gas; without science, no WW2 H-bomb.

    I guess what I’m asking is that science throw off its cloak of innocence & accept itself as a fact of culture. Ontologically, this means that science has to give up its sense of a privileged place outside the world from which it can observe the world. Ain’t no such place, I say. We only understand the world from inside the world, which means that our understanding is always incomplete; but that it is incomplete does not mean that we do not understand anything. That is the great logical fallacy of much postmodern thinking about science.

    We humans love the truth; truth is always provisional & incomplete; from this incompleteness it does not follow that there is no truth; there is plenty of truth, but it is open-ended.

    Okay, sorry to go on so long. I just finished grading for the semester & sat down with a nice big glass of vodka & seltzer. Now that’s an avenue to the truth!

  9. #9 Ed Brayton
    May 2, 2004

    Joseph-

    I find little to quibble with in your last comment. I think that some scientists probably react to any suggestion that they lack objectivity personally because that idea is so often used to justify epistemic relativism, to leap, as Ophelia has said, from “you may not always be able to find the truth” to “there is no truth to find”. But of course, the rational response to that is not to deny the obvious fact that human beings filter reality through their perceptions and bring preconceptions to whatever they do, but to deny the incredible leap if ill-logic that leads to that absurd conclusion. I would also say that I don’t think you’re necessarily out of step with the academic left, but with one subset of it, particularly those involved with deconstructionism and postmodernism.

    And there’s no need to apologize for leaving a long message. I’m delighted that several new people have posted on this thread and that it’s turned into this conversation. As the subtitle of my blog indicates – thoughts from the interface of science, religion, law and culture – I love those areas where these categories overlap.

  10. “We only understand the world from inside the world, which means that our understanding is always incomplete; but that it is incomplete does not mean that we do not understand anything.”

    See, all the scientists I’ve read on this subject agree with that. Maybe I’ve just had good luck? I don’t think so though. Just for one thing, it’s one of the central ideas of science that it is in fact always incomplete and revisable, at least in principle. So surely if you actually find a scientist who says ‘Nope, we know 100% of what there is to know about that and it’s infallible’ – you actually don’t have a scientist at all? Maybe a Scientologist or a Christian Scientist?

  11. #11 Ed Brayton
    May 2, 2004

    Joseph wrote:

    “We only understand the world from inside the world, which means that our understanding is always incomplete; but that it is incomplete does not mean that we do not understand anything.”

    Ophelia replied:

    See, all the scientists I’ve read on this subject agree with that. Maybe I’ve just had good luck? I don’t think so though. Just for one thing, it’s one of the central ideas of science that it is in fact always incomplete and revisable, at least in principle. So surely if you actually find a scientist who says ‘Nope, we know 100% of what there is to know about that and it’s infallible’ – you actually don’t have a scientist at all? Maybe a Scientologist or a Christian Scientist?

    I think part of the problem is that scientists sometimes speak of certainty, but they don’t mean some omniscience-level certainty, but rather “certain beyond a reasonable doubt”. Scientists often speak with great confidence of their conclusions, and in most cases it is quite justified, regardless of whether it’s understood that all humans have biases or that all scientific knowledge is tenuous.

    One of the arguments that makes me want to scream “IDIOT!” at the top of my lungs is the one that says that since idea X cannot (yet) explain every single minute detail about something, idea Y is therefore equally plausible or even justifiable to believe at all. It rests on the ridiculous idea that certainty is an either/or proposition – you either have absolute certainty beyond all doubt, or it’s all a wild guess and one explanation is just as valid as any other. Certainty is a continuum, not a simple dichotomy of certain or uncertain. And at some point on the sliding scale, it is reasonable to say, “This is well established and certain enough at this point to treat it as true for all practical purposes, even while holding out the hypothetical possibility that it might be overturned at some point.”

    This argument, by the way, is the very essence of how ID is being sold to the public. Evolution is an incredibly successful explanation for the diversity and history of life on earth, but the data it explains is so broad and enormous that of course there are particulars that have not yet been explained. There are some lineages of descent that may never be fully understood because of the lack of fossil evidence, or because fossil evidence is all we have and we have to infer non-skeletal characteristics from that. But of course, we also know that innumerable times in the last century and a half, seemingly intractable problems were explained with new data that fit perfectly with the general evolutionary model, so there is little reason to believe that these areas where we lack sufficent data for explanation are impervious to explanation. But the ID advocates exploit this and find very narrow and specific sets of data for which we don’t yet have a fully established explanation, then make 2 fantastic leaps of logic: they don’t have a good explanation, therefore they can’t have a good explanation, therefore God must have done it. But of course these leaps of logic appeal strongly to their followers, who are convinced that evolution is opposed to their religious views, and since their religious views are absolutely vital to everything (without them, the world will literally go to hell, in their minds), they will fall for virtually anything that purports to critique evolution and support Christianity. Hence, the enormous success of ID as a public relations or political campaign and its utter failure as a scientific explanation.

  12. #12 joseph duemer
    May 2, 2004

    Ed wrote:

    I think part of the problem is that scientists sometimes speak of certainty, but they don’t mean some omniscience-level certainty, but rather “certain beyond a reasonable doubt”. Scientists often speak with great confidence of their conclusions, and in most cases it is quite justified, regardless of whether it’s understood that all humans have biases or that all scientific knowledge is tenuous.

    Yes, this happens. I’d add to it that professional scientists also tend to be dismissive of “edge phenomena,” by which I mean things that appear true empirically, but which we don’t have good enough or sufficient scientific reasons for accepting as true. Especially whan those phenomena appear in the popular press or are taken up by non-scientists. Now, I am not talking here about discredited things like astrology & psychic spoon bending, but about, for example, the alternative medical practice of acupuncture or, to take an example from the far reaches of physics, the effects on human consciousness of some of the weirder effects of quantum theory. (I’m thinking in particular of Roger Penrose’s notion that parts of what consciousness does in non-computable.) I’m not here to argue a particular case, these are just examples. And my reaction–reading here or at the Panda’s Thumb or PZ Meyer’s blog, is that scientists can get a little tetchy when the uninitiated start to speculate about scientific matters.

    Now, a little thought on literary postmodernism. Derida & Foucoult & the rest of the gang demonstrated convincingly that understanding a text involves interpretation & that some interpretations get elevated over other, perhaps equally good, interpretations. So far, this simply amounts to a reasonable acceptance of interpretive relativism. I read Shakespeare’s “Shall I compare thee to s summer’s day” differently from, let’s say, a citizen of Trinidad. We bring different personal & cultural materials to the poem. I’d argue that if my hypothetical Trinidadian & I sat down with Shakespeare’s sonnet, we would find different things in it, but that we would agree, for instance, that it is a love poem & not about space travel or professional baseball. I tell my Intro Lit & Creative Writing students that there are, indeed, an infinite number of possible interpretations of a given poem. I take it a step farther–there are, I tell them, an infinite number of possible true interpretations of a poem, with this qualification: the number of wrong, or bad interpretations is an even larger infinity. That is, there is a wide & technically infinite number of interpretations of the sonnet–it is inexhaustible. (One definition of literature I like is that it consists of texts that are interpretatively inexhaustible.) But the universe of harebrained readings of the text is a yet larger infinity.

    So, bringing this back to science, I’d say that the ID people, the young-earth creationists, the spoon-benders & etc. are proposing interpretations that are not supported by reality, just as the student who argues that Shakespeare’s sonnet is about space travel is offering an interpretation unsupported by the text.

    The mistake of many postmodernist critics of science is to confuse a narrowly focused relativism with a general rejection of truth-claims of any kind. That doesn not mean, in my opinion, that the truth-claims of science are beyond challenge–even from outside science, but now I’m veering off into a new aspect of the subject.

  13. #13 Ed Brayton
    May 2, 2004

    Yes, this happens. I’d add to it that professional scientists also tend to be dismissive of “edge phenomena,” by which I mean things that appear true empirically, but which we don’t have good enough or sufficient scientific reasons for accepting as true. Especially whan those phenomena appear in the popular press or are taken up by non-scientists. Now, I am not talking here about discredited things like astrology & psychic spoon bending, but about, for example, the alternative medical practice of acupuncture or, to take an example from the far reaches of physics, the effects on human consciousness of some of the weirder effects of quantum theory.

    I’m not at all familiar with the literature on acupuncture, so I can’t address that specifically. For all I know, there may be a dozen studies that either discredit it entirely, or support it entirely. But in terms of the effects of quantum theory on human consciousness, I would say that scientists react to it because an invocation of quantum mechanics, particularly the notion of non-locality, in support of a religious or quasi-religious proposal is almost a surefire sign that one is dealing with utter nonsense. It’s possible that I am simply unaware of any credible, intellectually rigorous formulation of some causal link between QM and human consciousness, but every instance I have ever seen of such uses of QM – Deepok Chopra, for example, or any number of new age gurus like him – was sheer buncombe. I’m hardly an expert on QM, so it’s possible I’m wrong, but I’ve read enough from real physicists shredding such arguments that I feel pretty confident in this assertion. But perhaps you know of some examples of credible application of QM in this regard.

    I’m not here to argue a particular case, these are just examples. And my reaction–reading here or at the Panda’s Thumb or PZ Meyer’s blog, is that scientists can get a little tetchy when the uninitiated start to speculate about scientific matters.

    I don’t think it really has anything to do with anyone being “uninitiated”. I have no formal background in science whatsoever, but the scientists I work with on the evolution/creationism/ID issue have never had any problem with that, even in taking direction from me in some instances. Do you have a specific idea in mind that you find compelling that has been swept aside without consideration?

    Now, a little thought on literary postmodernism. Derida & Foucoult & the rest of the gang demonstrated convincingly that understanding a text involves interpretation & that some interpretations get elevated over other, perhaps equally good, interpretations. So far, this simply amounts to a reasonable acceptance of interpretive relativism. I read Shakespeare’s “Shall I compare thee to s summer’s day” differently from, let’s say, a citizen of Trinidad. We bring different personal & cultural materials to the poem. I’d argue that if my hypothetical Trinidadian & I sat down with Shakespeare’s sonnet, we would find different things in it, but that we would agree, for instance, that it is a love poem & not about space travel or professional baseball. I tell my Intro Lit & Creative Writing students that there are, indeed, an infinite number of possible interpretations of a given poem. I take it a step farther–there are, I tell them, an infinite number of possible true interpretations of a poem, with this qualification: the number of wrong, or bad interpretations is an even larger infinity. That is, there is a wide & technically infinite number of interpretations of the sonnet–it is inexhaustible. (One definition of literature I like is that it consists of texts that are interpretatively inexhaustible.) But the universe of harebrained readings of the text is a yet larger infinity…So, bringing this back to science, I’d say that the ID people, the young-earth creationists, the spoon-benders & etc. are proposing interpretations that are not supported by reality, just as the student who argues that Shakespeare’s sonnet is about space travel is offering an interpretation unsupported by the text.

    Agree with this entirely, and I think you make a very important point, which goes back to what I said earlier about the false dichotomy of either “absolute certainty” or “total uncertainty”. Your example of the interpretations of Shakespeare is brilliant, but there are those who do precisely that sort of thing. They can’t take the premise that there are different interpretations possible without sliding immediately to the conclusion that therefore there is no way whatsoever to distinguish between reasonable and unreasonable ones.

    It just occured to me that there is an analog to this in the way that Christian fundamentalists view morality. Time and time again we hear that unless we base our morality upon an unchanging and omniscient god, morality is entirely unconstrained, that there is no basis whatsoever for viewing anything as moral or immoral. They are making this same mistake of the false dichotomy, that a given moral claim is either absolutely certain (because God says so), or there is no basis for a moral claim at all. Outside of absolute certainty, to this way of thinking, lies only total uncertainty.

  14. #14 DS
    May 3, 2004

    Ed said {Deepok Chopra: … I’m hardly an expert on QM so it’s possible I’m wrong}

    You’re right.

    ~DS~

  15. #15 Ed Brayton
    May 3, 2004

    You’re right.

    See, that’s why I let you hang around here. You inflate my ego, which, as anyone who knows me can attest, is neither necessary nor wise.

  16. #16 joseph duemer
    May 3, 2004

    Let’s be clear that I don’t hold a brief for any New Age gurus like Chopra. Still, as a layman interested in these things, I think it good to bear in mind Hamlet’s caution to Horatio, that “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” By “philosophy,” Hamlet means science. Science, as Freeman Dyson notes in his recent review of Brian Green’s new book in the New York Review of Books, is always incomplete.

    As Ed has already noted, incompleteness cannot legitimately be used as a club with which to beat science & that’s not why I bring this up. But the incompleteness of science ought, perhaps, to engender just a bit of humility among scientists when they answer their critics–at least their reasonable, non-creationist & etc. critics. Considering they are engaged in an enterprise defined in part by uncertainty (the ordinary kind, not the quantum kind), scientists might want to adopt a rhetoric that does not project certainty so . . . certainly.

    As for quantum entanglement & etc., I don’t make any claims in particular, but reading Brian Green’s The Fabric of the Cosmos, I think it is pretty clear that some very strange things happen in the quantum microverse. The question is, whether any of that strangeness seeps through into the world of classical physics & if so, how does it affect human beings? You don’t have to be a New Ager to ask such a question. Now maybe all this has been settled & scientists have established that no such seepage happens. If so, fine; but I haven’t seen the reports.

    With reference to my notes about interpretation (above), perhaps it is the job of literature & the arts to stretch the range of legitimate interpretations while it is the job of science to limit them. Makes for a tidy dialectic at any rate.

  17. #17 Ed Brayton
    May 4, 2004

    As for quantum entanglement & etc., I don’t make any claims in particular, but reading Brian Green’s The Fabric of the Cosmos, I think it is pretty clear that some very strange things happen in the quantum microverse. The question is, whether any of that strangeness seeps through into the world of classical physics & if so, how does it affect human beings? You don’t have to be a New Ager to ask such a question. Now maybe all this has been settled & scientists have established that no such seepage happens. If so, fine; but I haven’t seen the reports.

    I’m not familiar with this book, but I guess I’d make the opposite claim. If there is a credible, intellectually rigorous hypothesis regarding any such “seepage”, I haven’t seen the reports. I don’t think any scientist would be so foolish as to say that such seepage is impossible, but I think in general scientists are justified in scoffing at all of the formulations of such ideas that I am aware of (with the caveat that I may well be unaware of better ones). I think that if there was a credible hypothesis in that regard, any scientist worth his salt would respond by saying, “Great, how do we test this?” and not with ridicule. When the Chopras of the world blather on inanely about how QM means that perception defines reality and therefore we can live forever if you just put your mind to it, scientists (and pretty much anyone with an IQ above room temperature who isn’t profiting from such nonsense) tend to treat such bloviation with all due ridicule and dismissal.

    I know that when I tend to make assertions that sound outright dismissive or dogmatic, I try to limit it to those areas where it is truly justified. But being a human being, I’m sure I sometimes fail at that.

    With reference to my notes about interpretation (above), perhaps it is the job of literature & the arts to stretch the range of legitimate interpretations while it is the job of science to limit them. Makes for a tidy dialectic at any rate.

    Boy, I hope not. I’d hate to think that science and the arts are at cross purposes. I’m enough of a classical humanist to want to see science and the arts as distinct parts of the whole cloth of the human intellect. But then perhaps the tendencies of those of us steeped more in science than in the arts would tend to balance the tendencies of those trained more in the arts, and vice versa. I’m one of those people who thinks that science, at its best, evokes a sense of awe and wonder that rivals anything found in literature or religion.

  18. #18 DS
    May 4, 2004

    Do a google search using EPR paradox and/or Bell’s Inequality. It’s interesting stuff, not terribly complicated to understand, and worth knowing imo.

    To poorly summerize, when two quons (Quantum particles such as photons) are produced in the same event, they seem to share a communication ability which ‘tells’ them what the other is doing instantaneously-in a limited way.

    ~DS~

  19. #19 Chris Whiley
    May 4, 2004

    As Joseph doesn’t tell us and you haven’t read it I think it’s useful to know what Freeman Dyson DOES say in his review, because it seems so eminently sensible;

    “As a conservative, I do not agree that a division of physics into separate theories for large and small is unacceptable. I am happy with the situation in which we have lived for the last eighty years, with separate theories for the classical world of stars and planets and the quantum world of atoms and electrons.”

    I’m no Einstein but I’d say that explanations of human consciousness are much more likely to be associated with the former than the latter.

    Cheers

  20. #20 joseph duemer
    May 4, 2004

    Chris, Dyson also makes the point about the incompleteness of science, which is why I was citing him. I also applaud the attitude he expresses in the review–while he doesn’t agree with Greene, he recommends the book. And he is modest about his claims as well as skeptical about Greene’s. He points by implication toward that bete noir of many scientists, the simple Kuhnian idea that scientists do science within the limits of their social & psychological orientations. He also recognizes that what passes for scientific certainty in one century has a way of being displaced in the next. This is not to say, of course, that everything is in doubt. I think it is safe to say that the earth revolves around the sun & that evolution by natural selection successfully explains the diversity of life on earth.

    Chris writes: “I’m no Einstein but I’d say that explanations of human consciousness are much more likely to be associated with the former than the latter.” Perhaps. But on what do you base this opinion, something like Dyson’s “conservatism”?

    Ed: When I suggested that science reduces possibilities & the arts expand them I didn’t express myself very clearly. In broad cultural terms, lets say, the job of science is to work toward a single workable explanation for a given phenomenon. It pares away the rediculous first & the plausable but wrong next & so on. In the process, I’d guess, science would plow up all sorts of new things to be looked into; on the other hand, the arts can afford to be a little harebrained, can suggest the outrageous & by doing so create new perspectives from which to view the world.

  21. #21 Ophelia Benson
    May 4, 2004

    “Considering they are engaged in an enterprise defined in part by uncertainty (the ordinary kind, not the quantum kind), scientists might want to adopt a rhetoric that does not project certainty so . . . certainly.”

    Joseph, but who are all these scientists whose rhetoric projects certainty? Are you sure you’re not conflating the idea of strong support by evidence, for example, with certainty? They’re not the same. As I’ve mentioned (so I know I’m repeating myself), the scientists I read or hear tend to avoid the word ‘certainty’. Are you sure you don’t have a straw man here?

    “He points by implication toward that bete noir of many scientists, the simple Kuhnian idea that scientists do science within the limits of their social & psychological orientations.”

    Again – I think there’s a whiff of straw about that. I don’t think that simple idea is anathema or a black beast to many scientists – it’s only the next step that is: that because scientists have orientations, therefore there is no truth about the world for scientists to find out about. I think you would be hard-pressed to find any scientists who would claim to be free of social or psychological orientations.

    Hamlet meant ‘science’ when he said philosophy? Really? Are you sure? Are you certain? As far as I know, the line is a fairly crux-y (so to speak) one, as so many of the lines in Hamlet are. That is, there is plenty of disagreement about what exactly Hamlet meant and how we the audience/readers are meant to take it. And besides, as you said – “Derida & Foucoult & the rest of the gang demonstrated convincingly that understanding a text involves interpretation & that some interpretations get elevated over other, perhaps equally good, interpretations.” Are you sure you’re not privileging an interpretation you find congenial?

  22. #22 joseph duemer
    May 4, 2004

    Ophelia,
    I’ll defer to someone named Ophelia about Hamlet’s meaning any day.(!) I only meant to suggest that in Eliz. England the word “philosophy” had a meaning that included some of what we would now call science. One tends to abbreviate one’s sentences in blog comments. I won’t play pedant & pull out my OED, but as modified above I’m content with my interpretation.

    As for the whiff of straw you detect, it’s possible. I’ve been trying to argue honestly, but I may be projecting & generalizing in ways that are not entirely consistent with the practices & attitudes of contemporary scientists. On the other hand, I teach Humanities at a technical university. I work with scientists & know a few pretty well. Their attitudes & beliefs vary, of course, but I don’t think I’m entirely off the mark in my characterization of what appears to be an attitude of epistemic superiority.

  23. #23 Ophelia Benson
    May 4, 2004

    Ah that’s a point, I forgot to cite my superior knowledge of that crazy mixed-up Hamlet guy!

    Okay, so your point was basically the vocabulary one, that ‘philosophy’ could mean ‘natural philosophy’ which was what we would now call science but wasn’t called that until the 19th century. Fair enough. True about abbreviation.

    Hey, you’re doing a terrific job of arguing honestly, I didn’t mean to imply otherwise. And ‘epistemic superiority’ I wouldn’t argue with – but certainty is another matter.

    So in this fuzzy woolly middle ground – do you think scientists have no reason for this attitude of epistemic superiority? If they don’t, for example, doesn’t that disable biologists from disputing proponents of ID? Isn’t a degree of epistemic superiority kind of the heart of the issue here?

  24. #24 joseph duemer
    May 4, 2004

    Ophelia,
    the issue of epistemic status is a vexed one for me. As a reasonable modern I cede to science the ability to adjudicate truth claims about most things in my experience. As a poet (& as a student of non-scientific cultures), I have the sense that science uses its cultural power to close off realms of human experience that it cannot explain. I think that over the course of this discussion I have established that I am not a New Age crackpot nor a superficial devote of Theory; at the same time, I fervently believe it is necessary to keep open an ontological window for the unknown, the weird & the screwy.

    I want to thank you (& Ed) for engaging so patiently in this discussion. I want to continue working through my own ambivalent attitudes toward science. I think I need to undertake a full scale essay on science & poetry. I’ve touched on this before, both online & in conference papers, but I haven’t worked out my ideas in sufficient detail.

    So let’s continue the conversation, eh?

  25. #25 DS
    May 4, 2004

    I think I understand Joseph’s original point though. And I aknowledge it was a fair observation; re: edge phenomena.

    Let me see if I’ve got it:
    Sticking with the physics, when a physicist runs into something which cannot be explained accurately by existing theory, there is possibly a fundamental truth at work, unknown to the researcher, and fundamentally critical for describing the deep workings of natural proccesses.

    E.G when a physicist has to consider something which is both very, very, small, and extremely energetic or massive, GR and QM overlap, and that’s a situation which thereotically produces nonsensical results. It stands to reason we’re missing crucial peices of the puzzle.

    That’s the kinda of thing which can further science. And more obscure puzzles might garner little attention, they may even be conveniently ignored by a body of science, until they suddenly give birth to a deeper understanding of nature in a brilliant flash of analytical insight. Chaos Theory being my favorite example of the that.

    ~DS~

  26. #26 Stirling Newberry
    May 5, 2004

    “Susan Haack is useful reading on this kind of thing. There is for instance what she calls the “passes-for fallacy” – conflating the fact that scientists (and all the rest of us) can fail to get at the truth with the non-fact that there is no truth to get.”

    This is complete garbage, a number of well known scientists have believed that “there was no truth to be gotten”. The belief in “objective” truth is not required to do science. The belief in rigor is required, and this statement doesn’t meet that test.

  27. #27 Ed Brayton
    May 5, 2004

    I want to thank you (& Ed) for engaging so patiently in this discussion. I want to continue working through my own ambivalent attitudes toward science. I think I need to undertake a full scale essay on science & poetry. I’ve touched on this before, both online & in conference papers, but I haven’t worked out my ideas in sufficient detail. So let’s continue the conversation, eh?

    Absolutely. Thanks for sharing your perspective with us and please jump in any time. I’m glad you found my little site and even more glad you brought interesting ideas with you. Cheers!

  28. #28 Ed Brayton
    May 5, 2004

    Sticking with the physics, when a physicist runs into something which cannot be explained accurately by existing theory, there is possibly a fundamental truth at work, unknown to the researcher, and fundamentally critical for describing the deep workings of natural proccesses.

    I certainly can’t disagree with that. At this point, the fundamental nature of reality in this context is still very much up in the air. And unfortunately, I am simply not educated enough on physics to understand even the possibilities, much less make any claim to know which one may be right.

  29. #29 Ophelia Benson
    May 5, 2004

    Joseph, You bet, let’s do continue the discussion.

    As a matter of fact we had a somewhat parallel discussion at Butterflies and Wheels a couple of weeks ago, about aesthetic judgments, and whether they can be grounded or not, and what difference it makes if they can’t. I think there’s an immense amount to say on the subject, and that what there is to say is often of interest and value, even if none of it is really strictly speaking either ‘true’ or ‘false’.

  30. #30 Ophelia Benson
    May 5, 2004

    Susan Haack is useful reading on this kind of thing. There is for instance what she calls the “passes-for fallacy” – conflating the fact that scientists (and all the rest of us) can fail to get at the truth with the non-fact that there is no truth to get.

    “This is complete garbage, a number of well known scientists have believed that “there was no truth to be gotten”. The belief in “objective” truth is not required to do science. The belief in rigor is required, and this statement doesn’t meet that test.”

    Huh? I didn’t say all scientists didn’t believe there was no truth to be gotten, I merely pointed out the fallacy.