How Not to Defend Evolution, Part Two

We now continue our discussion of Ian Hacking’s wide-ranging essay on evolution and ID. We left off with Hacking having just completed several paragraphs on the uses of tree metaphors in human history. So far my main criticisms have been with the style, not the substance, of Hacking’s essay. His points are good, but his writing style is confusing and offputting.

Alas, now we come to more substantive criticisms.

After praising Kitcher for his explanation of the aptness of the tree metaphor in evolution, Hacking writes:

Nevertheless, it is useful to reflect on difficulties in the present, rather than successes in the past. They arise precisely because the evolutionary program is “progressive” in Lakatos’s sense. Anti-Darwinists love to repeat news of difficulties. They say, “We told you so; it is just a bunch of guesswork.” Hence defenders of the faith, like Kitcher, do not like to dwell on present problems, for fear of giving succor to the foe.

The Discovery Institute bloggers will have fun pointing out Hacking’s “admission” that evolution is a faith. Perhaps I’m being humorless, but that is not a phrase that should ever be used in an essay criticizing ID. Much worse, however, is Hacking’s concession that evolution suffers from “difficulties” in the sense used by Anti-Darwinists.

That is completely and utterly wrong. Modern evolutionary theory does not have difficulties. It has open questions. That’s a very different thing. The Discovery Institute claims that there are specific facts of nature that are fundamentally incompatible with modern evolutionary theory. That claim is not correct, and every essay on this subject must make that point clearly. Hacking prefers a different rhetorical approach. He seems to think, probably because he has never given serious consideration to most of the Discovery Institute’s talking points, that the best approach is to concede their specious claims, and then go on to explain how such difficulties are in some way indicative of good science.

Lest you think I am being unfair to Hacking, consider what comes next:

I wonder if they should not instead celebrate the difficulties, making plain that evolutionary theory is a living, growing, vital organism, while anti-Darwinism is lifeless, if not, in Kitcher’s word, dead. In my opinion the arrogant religion-baiters–yes, Richard Dawkins comes to mind, but others are worse–do a disservice to their cause by making evolutionary theory seem so cut and dried (viz. dead), when it is a blooming, buzzing, confusing delight, finding out more about the world every day. With anti-Darwinians fabricating a “controversy,” it helps to see what a real scientific controversy is like, with each competing conjecture piling on new research methods, new explanations, new questions, new failures and new successes.

Once again, there is a decent point swimming around in that ocean of verbiage. But the point is made so poorly that it is easy to focus in on the wrong thing.

First, he is misusing the word “difficulties.” There are no difficulties in the Discovery Institute sense of the term, which appears to be the sense Hacking intends. There are open questions, by which we mean issues that are currently unresolved but for which we can look forward to a resolution through familiar research methods. They are not things that challenge the soundness of the theory. I have no doubt that Hacking intends the word “difficulties” in the way I am using “open problems.” The fact remains that his poor phrasing gives the wrong impression.

Second, Hacking advises scientists to embrace the “difficulties” thrown up by evolution, thereby revealing it as the vital, growing science it is as opposed to the lifeless corpse of ID. He seems blissfully unaware that virtually every scholar to weigh in on the evolution side of the issue, including Kitcher, has made that point repeatedly. They didn’t need a johnny-cum-lately like Hacking to point out its importance.

Third, we get a gratuitous aside about “religion-baiters,” totally out of place in this paragraph, and an admonition that Richard Dawkins and other popularizers are guilty of making evolution seem cut and dried. But Dawkins, along with just about everyone else, does not hesitate to discuss the genuine sorts of controversies that drive science forward. It is beyond me how anyone could read Dawkins and come away thinking that evolution is a dead and finished subject. The only things Dawkins presents as cut and dried are the correctness of common descent and the importance of natural selection as a mechanism. Those are useful things to point out in response to the contrary claims of Anti-Darwinists. The idea that people like Dawkins simply gloss over legitimate controversies in evolution simply is not borne out by their writing.

Fourth, Hacking gets it right at the end by contrasting real scientific controversies from the kind manufactured by the DI. But this clear and worthy statement comes only after all the other problems I have just described. Instead of making this point forthrightly, he buried it under a wealth of confusing and irrelevant verbiage.

There now follows quite a few paragraphs describing genuine issues in evolutionary biology. This is fine, except that once again Hacking includes so many caveats, irrelevant asides, and just plain unnecessary words that this all gets ponderous in a hurry.

Hacking gets back to ID with this:

Contrast that with pseudo-controversy and take, for example, Michael Behe, a professor at Lehigh University who must be the most ingenious and prolific anti-Darwinian biologist at work today.

and this

In his capacity as a biologist he does not officially argue for special acts of creation. So you cannot call him antievolution or creationist.

Once again, a basically sound point phrased very badly. First, look forward to the DI fundraising letter announcing that a prominent philosopher of science has declared that Michael Behe is ingenious. Second, Behe isn’t even close to the most prolific ID proponent, having published two books in ten years, with just a smattering of droppings in between. William Dembski is certainly more prolific. And third, bluntly describing Behe as not a creationist does not do justice to the reality of the situation. The fact is that Behe is a leader in a movement designed to water down the teaching of evolution in public schools and to replace it with a God-centered alternative. If that doesn’t make you a creationist, I don’t know what does.

There now follows several very poor paragraphs explaining Michael Behe’s arguments. They are poor because they simultaneously fail to give an accurate impression of what Behe claims and also seem to concede that Behe has a point. Hacking seems to think the point of Darwin’s Black Box was to revive Paley’s old argument about the eye. Actually, DBB was designed to present an abstract argument about irreducible complexity, only using the eye was one small example of a general problem. Hacking also seems to think that The Edge of Evolution is devoted primarily to an argument about the amount of time available for evolution. Really it’s a far more detailed (though still highly dubious) argument about probabilities and beneficial mutations.

But even as he is giving an erroneous impression of Behe’s arguments he only criticizes Behe for not suggesting any novel research methods or approaches. He suggests that Behe has somehow increased the number of open questions scientists must address, as if somehow Behe were pointing out things real scientists had overlooked (which would severely undercut Hacking’s assertions that ID is just dead science). He never gets around to stating clearly that the issue in resolving, say, the evolution of the flagellum, is merely a lack of data and not a lack of theoretical robustness.

After wading through a bridge paragraph, in which, in the space of a few sentences, Hacking makes some gratuitous references to Lamarck, moves onto a brief history of evolutionary thought from the nineteenth century to today, and ends with some talk about modern bioengineering, we get some final thoughts about the persistence of religion. There is quite a bit to criticize here, but I will focus in on just one brief excerpt:

Or read any of the self-indulgent, virulent atheists in circulation today–Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens being just two. Contrary to their professed intentions, such writers buttress the faithful; their loathsome arrogance shields evangelical churches from doubt. That part of the American population that believes God made man in His own image has a heartfelt contempt for know-it-alls. I am inclined to say, God bless the people, even when they get it wrong.

Ahem. Those evangelical churches shielded from doubt by the loathsome arrogance of Harris and Hitchens preach doctrines that state that anyone who disagrees with them will spend eternity in hell. They claim absolute certainty on matters of Biblical interpretation and our fate in the afterlife. They publish books about evolution that go pages at a time without saying anything that is true. In their sermons they hurl the most vicious slanders you can imagine against scientists, atheists and anyone else they fancy to be their enemy.

And in light of this, Hacking can say with a straight face that it is Harris and Hitchens who are being arrogant? That it is the folks in the pews who are fit to pass judgment on who is acting like a know-it-all? This is obvious nonsense. Hacking is just repeating a mindless, knee-jerk criticism here.

The essay meanders on from here in its standard stream of consciousness way, slipping in references to Paley, Aquinas, Kant, Hegel and Leibniz (this from the man criticizing others for being know-it-alls, remember). He points out that a design argument only gets you a designer and not the Christian God, apparently oblivious to the fact that this is a point the ID folks themselves are keen to make. He closes with some bizarre ramblings about how, for some reason, the most intelligent designer would use Darwinian mechanisms to fulfill his purposes. Whatever.

All in all, not a very impressive effort. It is incredibly frustrating that so many academics, when discoursing on this subject, find it next to impossible to make an argument clearly and bluntly. Most (though certainly not all) of Hacking’s points are sensible and accurate. But he has evidently spent little time really studying ID arguments, has frequently played right into the hands of the ID proponents, and has written in a terribly unfocused and pretentious way. Opportunities to write at length on this subject in prominent magazines are rare. We need to take better advantage of them when they arise.

Comments

  1. #1 Blake Stacey
    September 21, 2007

    In my opinion the arrogant religion-baiters–yes, Richard Dawkins comes to mind, but others are worse–do a disservice to their cause by making evolutionary theory seem so cut and dried (viz. dead), when it is a blooming, buzzing, confusing delight, finding out more about the world every day.

    Wrong wrong wrong wrong wrong!

    I can’t think of a single popularizer or advocate of science who does this. Really. I’m going through my alphabet, but nowhere between Asimov and Zimmer do I find a perp who matches that description.

    Hacking could have made a genuine contribution to the philosophy of science, its borderlands and its enemies. We’ve heard a lot about Intelligent Design’s failure from a Popperian viewpoint, so demonstrating how it is a cock-up in Lakatos’ terms as well would have been interesting and worthwhile. Of course, I’m using “interesting” in the ivy-covered-ivory-tower sense, but these days, there’s a larger audience outside the ivory tower for academic talk than there ever has been before.

  2. #2 mk
    September 21, 2007

    “Contrary to their professed intentions, such writers buttress the faithful; their loathsome arrogance shields evangelical churches from doubt.

    Really? It’s the “loathsome arrogance” of Hitchens and Harris that “shields evangelical churches from doubt”?

    It’s not the dogma? The anti-intellectualism? The sanctimonious ignorance and insularity of it all?

    Wow. Who knew?

  3. #3 mk
    September 21, 2007

    Hey Blake…

    Can I sign up to be the rhythm guitarist in Uppity Atheist Noise Machine? ;^}

  4. #4 Blake Stacey
    September 21, 2007

    mk:

    Sure! If a couple more people express an interest, I’ll have to go and actually write some lyrics. (I do have four lines to start with. . .)

  5. #5 386sx
    September 21, 2007

    Sure! If a couple more people express an interest, I’ll have to go and actually write some lyrics.

    Well you got a drummer and a mixertologist right here. FWIW!

  6. #6 mk
    September 21, 2007

    Whoa! Heavy stuff there, Blake. I like it!

  7. #7 Blake Stacey
    September 21, 2007

    Any vocalists in the house?

  8. #8 Thumpalumpacus
    September 21, 2007

    “He closes with some bizarre ramblings about how, for some reason, the most intelligent designer would use Darwinian mechanisms to fulfill his purposes. Whatever.”

    Perhaps he means laziest? It would certainly be more efficient than special creation for each species.

    It’ll be nice when reliigionists finally understand that evolution addresses diversity and not origins.

  9. #9 noncarborundum
    September 21, 2007

    . . . a johnny-cum-lately like Hacking . . .

    Whoa! You really are calling Hacking a wanker!

  10. #10 386sx
    September 21, 2007

    Any vocalists in the house?

    Oh they’re such prima donnas!

  11. #11 Russell Blackford
    September 21, 2007

    I have mixed feelings. The comments about Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens may not be fair or correct, but I think they are the kinds of comments that Harris and Hitchens need to take on the chin. They have in fact adopted a very confrontational line, and it’s not surprising if someone who wants to be above the fray gets annoyed by them. I might want to defend them, but I also defend to the death Hacking’s right to be annoyed by them.

    I feel differently about the comment on Dawkins. Sure, Dawkins has titled his book in a provocative way, has used the term “faith-head” (though as a synonym for “dogmatist” rather than “religionist”, at least as I read it), and perhaps bears some responsibility for the way his dust-up with Ted Haggard went. Overall, though, Dawkins writes in a style that is considered, fair, and polite. I do think it annoying that people like Hacking and Kitcher feel so much need to distance themselves from him (“I’m not like Dawkins, but I do basically agree with him … blah, blah”). I don’t know that it’s terribly disarming, and it simply feeds into the mythology surrounding Dawkins, incrementally making Dawkins less effective than he would otherwise be. If every ally ritually treats Dawkins as an extremist (“I’m not like Dawkins, but …”), there will eventually be no hope of getting the man who is still most lucid advocate for science in the world to viewed in any other way.

    All that said, on balance I want to defend Hacking, at least to this extent. It’s a similar point to one that I made about Matt Nisbet’s writings a few days ago.

    None of us can have things all our own way. Hacking does not have exactly the same agenda as advocates of evolutionary theory who are more in the trenches. He is trying to be above the fray to an extent and to appear more objective (even though his ultimate commitment to science is obvious), and he’s attempting to illuminate the debate from the perspective of his own expertise as a philosopher of science. He may make some errors, but I don’t think we should be making a big thing about what seem like tactical errors every time we see them. The point about his comment on Dawkins is an exception, since that comment was so obviously unnecessary, and was integral to nothing.

    We all have to accept that other voices are going to be different from ours, and may cut across our message to some extent. It’s the same point that I make about Dawkins – from Matt Nisbet’s viewpoint, Dawkins may be making tactical errors, but there is no battle plan that one person gets to orchestrate, and we all have to make our contributions based on who we are: individuals who each have our individual temperaments, styles, and areas of expertise. Each one of us would be ill-advised to plan his or her contributions on the basis that everyone else will cooperate to give our particular contributions the best possible environment to be successful.

    In the end, the Discovery Institute may be able to cherry-pick some quotes, but on the other hand many people will read Hacking and conclude that there are good reasons, seldom explained in such publications, to see intelligent design as a dead end. It may not be the ideal article for an advocate of evolutionary biology to have published if there were some coordinated plan, but there is none. Scientists and philosophers are cats who can’t be herded, and that’s a good thing in the long run.

  12. #12 Blake Stacey
    September 22, 2007

    OK, what do you call a scientist or mathematician who just can’t digest philosophy?

    LAKATOS-intolerant!

    Yeah, yeah, I know, it’s terrible to be reading a science blog, expecting a serious discussion, and to find some schmuck POPPERandom pun into the middle of it. You gotta admit, though, that philosophy jokes are so cheap they’re about a nickel apiece — a PAIR, A DIME.

  13. #13 Tyler DiPietro
    September 22, 2007

    I’m certainly not Lakatos-Intolerant, I regularly pour a certain Lakatos-containing product all over my Blake Flakes.

    See Blake? No matter how bad your puns are, there is some guy out there who can do even worse.

  14. #14 Jason Rosenhouse
    September 22, 2007

    Russell-

    I think you have misapprehended the nature of my criticism of Hacking. There are a few places where I think Hacking made some actual bad arguments, such as when he mischaracterized Behe’s claims. But for the most part I agree wholeheartedly with the points Hacking was making. My objection was to the way he made them, because I think in several places Hacking’s poor choice of words undercuts his argument.

    One example: the way Hacking expressed things it sounds like Behe and the Discovery Institute are right when they say that evolutionary theory has many difficulties. I don’t think that was Hacking’s intention. I think he meant “difficulties” not in the way Behe et al use the term, but in the sense of practical difficulties in unravelling the past.

    The reason I got so annoyed with Hacking’s piece is that I think he has precisely the same agenda I have. What I saw was not a lot of bad points but rather a lot of good points badly made. I don’t fault Hacking for being a philosopher, and therefore making points different from those that I or a scientist might choose to make. I fault him for writing poorly, often with the effect of playing into the creationist’s hands. Simple as that.

  15. #15 Russell Blackford
    September 22, 2007

    Thanks for your comment, Jason, and maybe my response was more impressionistic than it could have been. But take the example of “difficulties” that you mention.

    I’m sure that if he’d run the piece by you, you would have helped him find a better way to formulate it, but I also thought that his meaning was fairly clear in context. So I don’t think it was poorly worded for the purpose of communicating with an educated audience reading him in good faith, just for the purpose of avoiding being misrepresented by dishonest advocates of ID. I think it’s a bit much to ask people in Hacking’s position to apply the latter standard – although maybe I’m wrong about this. Perhaps you’re correct and it’s now come to that. Alas. But even if you are, I don’t blame Hacking if that particular penny hasn’t yet dropped for him.

    I’m only defending him to a limited extent, and you make many excellent points, but I just think you’re being a tad harsh at times. Is that clearer? You don’t have to agree with me, but I’d at least like to be clear.

  16. #16 Ginger Yellow
    September 22, 2007

    What does Hacking mean by “officially” when talking about Behe? It’s an inescapable conclusion of the irreducible complexity argument that millions of organisms with irreducibly complex features must have been specially created, whether by God or some other fantastically powerful and clever “desiger”. Even if you were to balk at calling him a creationist, it’s absurd to pretend he isn’t an anti-evolutionist. He claims evolution can’t explain the diversity of life. That’s a dictionary definition of anti-evolutionism.

  17. #17 salient
    September 22, 2007

    Russell: “Hacking does not have exactly the same agenda as advocates of evolutionary theory who are more in the trenches. He is trying to be above the fray to an extent and to appear more objective . . . ”

    (I find your comments very interesting, in general, Russell. I’m placing this question below your comment because you appear to be speaking from the point of view of philosophy rather than of science.)

    Science, taken as a body of knowledge, has pushed ‘supernatural’ explanations out of contention. *Should* those who recognize the above as a fact be attempting to appear ‘objective’ about the creationist-mythologies vs fact-of-evolution so-called debate? There should, to my mind be no debate with its implications that there is no clear correct-incorrect position.

    Science has moved beyond the homunculus as a potential explanatory concept and debate along such a homunculationist line would be ridiculous, though less ridiculous than this postulated Supernatural Creator who Wants us to Stop Sinning so that we can be Saved for Everlasting Rewards.

    Obviously, I am aware that the supernaturally-motivated are not interested in facts or knowledge, but has not politeness concerning their rights to believe in their Stupidity of Choice allowed ignorance to go unopposed too long? Explaining the realities of scientific knowledge to Biblical literalists will probably never have an impact because their minds shut with the church door. However, many moderate believers and even atheists uneducated in science seem to mistakenly believe that the C vs E debate is legitimately a debate.

    “there is no battle plan that one person gets to orchestrate”

    I agree that there is no battle plan. There is however a clearly incorrect pseudoexplantion (in its various guises) opposed to a clearly correct direction of investigation into explanatory causes.

    Do you not think that a battle plan could be a good idea?

  18. #18 Russell Blackford
    September 22, 2007

    Salient: it’s hard to know where to start, because I don’t think I disagree with your main points at all, it’s just that I’d like to qualify them all in quite subtle ways, which would lead to my writing a book. E.g., it’s clear that there’s no current prospect of a viable theory of the differentiation of life on Earth that relies on supernatural beings, entities, forces, and so on (where we can define the word “supernatural” in some vague-but-workable way that covers such things as deities). Intelligent Design is certainly not such a theory, and the attempt to teach in schools was quite rightly struck down by the court system a breach of the First Amendment – it was an attempt to smuggle in religion.

    However, explaining why all that is so requires philosophical thought, and if Hacking is providing some of it to a large educated readership then surely he is doing a good thing.

    If you’re saying that there could, in principle, never be a successful theory that employs “supernatural” things (defined in some way that avoids circularity and makes the claim a non-trivial one), I disagree. In principle, there could be. It’s just that such theories have failed in the past whenever they’ve been made specific enough to be tested against the evidence, so by now we have good reason to be suspicious of them. Their psychological attractiveness to people is greatly disproportionate to their historical success – GREATLY because they are obviously very attractive to many people, but their historical success so far has been zero.

    However, this is a more subtle point than simply saying broadly that science has pushed supernatural explanations out of contention. There’s a sense in which that’s true, but there’s also a way that it could be interpreted which is not true. For example, although I am a philosophical naturalist, it is difficult to nail down exactly what philosophical naturalism is beyond the prediction that certain kinds of things, such as disembodied spiritual intelligences will play no part in our understanding of the world as it improves. If philosophical naturalism is understood as something like that, it’s not true to say that science, or philosophy when it tries to draw meta-inductions from the history of science, has rendered all alternative positions to philosophical naturalism completely untenable. Those positions are implausible, but you have to do philosophy to explain why. So I could not agree if you were saying that science has put all alternatives to philosophical naturalism out of contention.

    Don’t get me wrong, I sometimes use very strong language to attack irrationalists. In the current situation, there are many things that it would be irrational to believe. Otherwise-rational people are likely to believe such only things if their judgment has been distorted by childhood indoctrination or some kind of psychological crisis (though in the US, the former is more common than not). I’d even go so far as to include the entire panoply of providential theism in the categories that it is irrational to believe, in the sense just discussed. I see myself as very much in Dawkins’ camp in the current debates.

    I even think that Dawkins is correct to talk about “delusion”, even though many of the so-called “deluded” people are not mentally deranged and are perfectly functional within their societies. Dawkins is correct to emphasise the similarities, rather than differences, between common types of religious belief and other things that are less controversially delusions. I think that such an emphasis makes perfectly good tactic to convey the crucial idea he wants to get across, just as I think it was legitimate to name an earlier book The Selfish Gene even though genes are not literally selfish except in a technical sense used by biologists. Notice, however, that even here my defence of Dawkins’ language is shaped by my particular training in philosophy, literary criticism, law, etc. Someone with different training might defend him quite differently.

    Do I think a battle plan would be a good idea? Perhaps. Maybe someone should fund a conference to which everyone broadly on the same side gets invited: Richard Dawkins, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Christopher Hitchens, Ian Hacking, Philip Kitcher, Matt Nisbet … right down to anyone at all who has been prominent lately debating these issues here at ScienceBlogs. I doubt that a battle plan could be reached, but we might at least be able to see how much commonality of aims there is, see how much we all agree on possible traps (e.g. should we all avoid the word “difficulty” in the sense in which Hacking used it?). This would be more constructive than Matt complaining after the horse has bolted that it’s counterproductive to write a book called The God Delusion or even – with all respect to Jason whose work I greatly value and admire – Jason complaining after the horse had bolted about some of the language used by Hacking.

    On the other hand, I suspect that it would not be possible to reach agreement on a battle plan. E.g., Richard Dawkins and Matt Nisbet just don’t have the same agenda, even though their agendas have something in common. And I don’t think there’s any way that someone (such as a majority at the particular conference) could decide who has the “correct” agenda. I could imagine there would be a lot of disagreements and frustrations, as there were at the Beyond Belief conference last year, from what I’ve seen of the videos.

    Still, it might at least enable people who are broadly on the side of freedom, reason, and science to understand each other’s sensitivities. That’s probably all that can be accomplished. Meanwhile, Jason really has made a lot of good points. It’s also possible that Matt Nisbet has good points tucked away, and they’re just getting drowned out in his current debate with PZ (where I am more or less on PZ’s “side”). I just think that the continual criticism of our allies for not doing things quite as we would, because they don’t appreciate such and such a sensitivity that we perceive, is not terribly helpful; better to get them all together and thrash it out. Of course, this a pipe dream – you’d never get everyone who might bob up as an ally in the “battle”.

    So, what do I think can be done? Well, I still think that Jason was a tad harsh, and I think that Matt Nisbet’s criticisms of the so-called New Atheist Noise Machine are far too harsh. I think we all need to relax a bit whenever we find ourselves wincing at some ally’s tactical “error”, as we might perceive it – such as Dawkins using the word “faith-head”, which might cause a backlash, or Hacking using the word “difficulties”, which might be misrepresented. No one is going to be tactically perfect, and we basically need all the voices we can get. Let’s try to be positive, rather than endlessly carping at each other.

    But yes, if a lot of the relevant players could be gathered together to discuss what sensitivities there might be, without raking over who has been insensitive in the past, it might do some good.

  19. #19 AxisofJared
    September 23, 2007

    If only the pro-science side could have any science articles filtered through Scienceblogs or the NCSE before publishing. Of course, that would only create more highly ironic screams of propagandizing from the Disco Boyz.

    Sigh…why must the good guys always take the harder path?

  20. #20 hoary puccoon
    September 24, 2007

    Just out of curiousity, had everyone here heard of Lakatos before? Is this my own ignorance, or is the guy fairly obscure? I have to admit I don’t have much use for philosophers, anyway, especially not philosophers of science. They spend too much time, in my experience, observing science from afar. (Or not at all.)

    But I’m wondering how many of the people reading the article are really so up on the field that they’re saying, ‘oh, Lakatos, of course.’ Again, this is my experience, but I’ve met a lot of supposedly sophisticated, cultured people who don’t actually understand the theory of evolution (they tend to have Darwin mixed up with Lamarck.)

    So, I’m really wondering, here, if this isn’t one more of those baffle-’em-with-BS performances where people end up saying, “Of course Hacking is absolutely brilliant. I couldn’t understand a word he said.”

  21. #21 Russell Blackford
    September 25, 2007

    ^Lakatos is a major figure in philosophy of science. Not as famous as Popper and Kuhn, but way up there.

  22. #22 Blake Stacey
    September 25, 2007

    I expect that within the Philosophy Department, it’s impossible to learn about Popper and Kuhn without also learning about Lakatos and Quine. However, the latter two (in addition to other names of equal preeminence which aren’t springing to mind) haven’t had much impact on the way scientists fight antiscience. We know Popper’s name because he stressed “falsifiability”, and everybody recognizes Kuhn because he inflicted “paradigms” upon the world. In both cases, the philosopher is tied to a highly infectious meme, and in the former case, that meme has a direct bearing upon the struggle against creationism.

    So, the question is not just “who gets a chapter in the Philosophy of Science 101 textbook”, but also “whose name is current among the people whose primary focus is not philosophy?”

  23. #23 hoary puccoon
    September 25, 2007

    Thanks. I’ve actually read Popper and Kuhn. I just googled Lakatos and read a bit of his stuff. It seems entirely possible that I have read him before, and repressed it. (Okay, I admit I have a problem with philosophers.);-)

  24. #24 hoary puccoon
    September 26, 2007

    Russell Blackford, Blake Stacey– Thanks. I tried to acknowledge your posts before, but my post didn’t go through.
    I’ve read Popper and Kuhn, and looked up Lakatos on the web. His criticisms of P & K suffer from what invariably bugs me about philosophers of science– he doesn’t seem to have spent much time hanging out with scientists. It’s all very well to prove logically that you can’t in principle disprove a theory. But if you go into an actual lab, you find people inventing and testing alternative hypotheses, very much proceeding by disproof.
    Anyway, I am mildly less ignorant than previously, so thanks again.

  25. #25 salient
    September 27, 2007

    Russell “If you’re saying that there could, in principle, never be a successful theory that employs “supernatural” things (defined in some way that avoids circularity and makes the claim a non-trivial one), I disagree. In principle, there could be.”

    Theoretically, I suppose that just about anything is possible.

    The supernatural is usually defined within religions as being something along the lines of interfering with the physical yet being outside, or above, the physical. (I see no good reason to consider a different definition since any definition that could be in use on some distant planet is meaningless to Earthlings.)

    The problem, as I see it, is that anything that interacts with the physical (energy and mass) becomes, by virtue of that interaction, part of the physical. In effect, I am saying that the supernatural is both an ontologically and epistemically meaningless category.

    “It’s just that such theories have failed in the past whenever they’ve been made specific enough to be tested against the evidence, so by now we have good reason to be suspicious of them. Their psychological attractiveness to people is greatly disproportionate to their historical success – GREATLY because they are obviously very attractive to many people, but their historical success so far has been zero.”

    I agree, but I believe that those theories were only invented because humans wanted an explanation for the physical evidence (I include mind/soul/emotion in this) and failing to comprehend the physical mechanisms at play, could only come up with a miraculous, supernatural category that conveniently escapes physical scrutiny.

    Could there be unknown forms of energy or unknown forms of matter out there in the universe? Of course. However, their being energy or matter would place them in the physical category. If such ‘items’ were to be considered responsible for the physical manifestations that religions ascribe to them, then they are not, by virtue of this interaction, actually unknown because religions concern themselves with worldly traces that are amenable to empirical investigation. It certainly seems unreasonable to assume that mechanisms that were in existence as recently as 2,000 years ago should have vanished without any further trace.

    “However, this is a more subtle point than simply saying broadly that science has pushed supernatural explanations out of contention.”

    That was shorthand for what I have just explained in more detail. I think that we are actually saying much the same thing.

  26. #26 salient
    September 27, 2007

    “Otherwise-rational people are likely to believe such only things if their judgment has been distorted by childhood indoctrination or some kind of psychological crisis (though in the US, the former is more common than not).”

    I’m a ‘shrink’, so I’m very familiar with the impact of psychological crises, which typically display considerable underlying logic even when the rationality is not initially apparent in superficially irrational emotion-governed coping strategies. Because I am professionally interested in how people think, I am quite fascinated by the protective-of-false-belief illogical distortions manifested by people who cherish an emotionally-rewarding delusion. Having debated with many of them, I have come to the conclusion that many conservative religionists display a cognitive disorder.

    “I even think that Dawkins is correct to talk about “delusion”, even though many of the so-called “deluded” people are not mentally deranged and are perfectly functional within their societies. Dawkins is correct to emphasise the similarities, rather than differences, between common types of religious belief and other things that are less controversially delusions.”

    Some who cling to religious “delusions” are emotionally damaged, though I agree that most religionists are not delusional per se.

    I took Dawkins to be saying that only if an individual entertained such clearly unfounded beliefs counter to cultural beliefs, then those beliefs do indicate a delusional disorder. However, conforming to inculcated false beliefs is not a sign of a delusional disorder. Instead it may indicate the absense of thinking things through combined with an emotional investment in the rewards promised to believers. When those with strong religious beliefs attempt to logically justify their beliefs, they quickly run afoul of fact and logic. Some implode more quickly than others, but they must ultimately resort to fallacious reasoning. I have observed that creationist debaters are either aware that they are being dishonest in an attempt to win an argument, or that they are not uncomfortably aware of their philosophical tension, or some combination of these.

    “I think that such an emphasis makes perfectly good tactic to convey the crucial idea he wants to get across, just as I think it was legitimate to name an earlier book The Selfish Gene even though genes are not literally selfish except in a technical sense used by biologists.”

    I agree that the language is probably reflective of an astute political manoeuvre on Dawkins’ part. I think that he is deliberately shaking up that smug, everyone-else-believes-so-we-must-be-correct attitude that traps people in false beliefs. (Perhaps I am projecting what I’d be trying to accomplish!) Reading personal accounts of the emotional difficulties faced by thinkers who are trying to escape the fear-jerk-response of possible punishment for disbelief, I think that only a strong incentive to reexamine indoctrinated feelings will prompt some conformists to question the myths.

    “Notice, however, that even here my defence of Dawkins’ language is shaped by my particular training in philosophy, literary criticism, law, etc. Someone with different training might defend him quite differently.”

    My first two degrees were in science and I have only lately taken more interest in the humanities, yet I seem to think along the same lines as you. Perhaps this reflects the language-logic-process nature of my profession.

    “Maybe someone should fund a conference to which everyone broadly on the same side gets invited: Richard Dawkins, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Christopher Hitchens, Ian Hacking, Philip Kitcher, Matt Nisbet … right down to anyone at all who has been prominent lately debating these issues here at ScienceBlogs.”

    I don’t know who all of them are, but that sounds absolutley fascinating and I’d fund it myself if I had oodles and boodles of cash.

    “I doubt that a battle plan could be reached, but we might at least be able to see how much commonality of aims there is, see how much we all agree on possible traps (e.g. should we all avoid the word “difficulty” in the sense in which Hacking used it?).”

    “This would be more constructive than Matt complaining after the horse has bolted that it’s counterproductive to write a book called The God Delusion or even – with all respect to Jason whose work I greatly value and admire – Jason complaining after the horse had bolted about some of the language used by Hacking.”

    I doubt that scores of religionists are reading the comments here in order to mine any apparent discord for useful out-of-context quotes, though that is exactly what they appear to do with more public discussions between authority figures. I see these ad hominem strategies as reflective of religionist approaches to thinking and argumentation. The focus on authorities rather than on ideas probably results from conservative emphasis on loyalty to authority figures. Liberal atheists and scientists focus on content and are comfortable with—indeed stimulated by—uncertainty. On the other hand, religionists see the world more in black and white and according to political advantage. Seeking truth really does not appear to matter to many of them.

    “On the other hand, I suspect that it would not be possible to reach agreement on a battle plan.”

    I think that you are probably correct, Russell. I think that the reason for this might lie in the independence of mind of liberal atheists and scientists—the appeal of debate lies in independent engagement with the content of the debate and in the refining process of discussion itself. If such thinkers come away from a debate without a consensus view of strategies, they are still content with having enjoyed thought-provoking discussion. Conservatives and religionists are more content with being told what to think, hence the scriptural regurgiquoting. If they disagree greatly, they simply split off into dogmatic schisms.

    “Still, it might at least enable people who are broadly on the side of freedom, reason, and science to understand each other’s sensitivities. That’s probably all that can be accomplished.”

    I certainly think that agreeing on the priorities of freedom, reason, and science would be a start. (I’d like to see an insistence on rationality in reasoning logically from empirical facts in areas ranging from morality to science rather than pre-noise politeness about dangerous behaviors and anti-expert diatribes.)

    I have been an atheist since childhood, yet I am very new to the politics of atheism and these great blogs (thanks, Jason). Have the people whom you listed for a dream conference actually agreed on these criteria? I do think that patiently reiterating and clarifying the facts of science have not made a dent in religious conceits. This is particularly problematic in America, and the infectious epidemic is spreading to Canada. I have also recently read that religious tensions are invading Oz.

    “I just think that the continual criticism of our allies for not doing things quite as we would, because they don’t appreciate such and such a sensitivity that we perceive, is not terribly helpful; better to get them all together and thrash it out.”

    In the sense that scientists agree upon those aspects of science that have withstood scrutiny, I suppose that agreement should be possible. The difficulty could be that scientists are less intellectually attracted to accepted knowledge than to hashing out the areas of uncertainty.
    “No one is going to be tactically perfect, and we basically need all the voices we can get. Let’s try to be positive, rather than endlessly carping at each other.”

    You have a good point there.

    “But yes, if a lot of the relevant players could be gathered together to discuss what sensitivities there might be, without raking over who has been insensitive in the past, it might do some good.”

    And another good point. It strikes me that the Internet both provides a forum where getting together is possible while, unfortunately, also facilitating criticism and sensitivity-provocation. Thank you for your interesting ideas.

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