Yet another frustrating conversation: why talking science to “skeptics” is a hopeless endeavor

Candle in the darkSome time ago I related a frustrating conversation I had with one of my relatives, an intelligent and educated person, who however holds onto what I consider hardly rational views not just in politics (where there is usually ample room for disagreement), but also about conspiracy theories, and more broadly the nature of the world. Recently, I’ve done it again. This time spending days on and off having a conversation via social media with a person I’ve never met and will never likely meet. Let me tell you what I learned from it.

First, a disclaimer: I usually do not engage in any one-on-one debates, either via email or on social media, simply because not only they tend to be fruitless, but they are also incredibly time consuming. And the older I get, the more I’m jealous of my time. This story, therefore, is to be considered as a rare exception, and not as an encouragement to send me private messages to try to repeat the experience. That’s why I have two blogs (this one and howtobeastoic.org), so that we can have fruitful public discussions that may benefit a number of people.

The range of topics of this new episode was much narrower than the preceding one, and also far more close to my own areas of expertise: evolutionary biology and philosophy of science. I felt, therefore, like I really knew what I was talking about, providing not just a reasonably intelligent and somewhat informed opinion (as, say, during informal discussions on economics, or politics), but an expert one, based on 35 years (shit!) of studying the subject matter at a professional level.

It didn’t help. Not in the least. My interlocutor — let’s call her Curiosa — is an intelligent woman who has read a lot of stuff on evolution in particular, and science more generally. She has also read several of my blog posts, watched some of my debates, and even bought one of my books on evolution. She discovered me by way of reading Michel Denton’s Evolution: A Theory in Crisis, which cites me several times as a reluctant critic of evolutionary theory, i.e., one of those people who know that there is something seriously wrong with “Darwinism,” and yet somehow can’t let go of the orthodoxy and embrace the revolution.

My actual position is easy to check online, in several places. For instance in these two recent blog posts for the Extended Evolutionary Synthesis initiative. In a nutshell: evolutionary theory has evolved by way of several episodes beginning from 1859 (original Darwinism) to the 1930s and ’40s (the Evolutionary Synthesis) through current times (the Extended Synthesis), and it will likely continue to do so. There is nothing wrong with Darwin’s original twin ideas of natural selection and common descent, but we have added a number of other areas of inquiry, explanatory concepts, and of course empirical results over the intervening century and a half. End of story.

Not according to Curiosa. She explained to me that Darwinism is a “reductionist” theory, apparently meaning something really bad by that term. I explained that reductionism is a successful strategy throughout the sciences, and that when it is well done (i.e., it’s not what Dan Dennett characterized as “greedy” reductionism), it is pretty much the only game in town to advance our knowledge of the world.

But, countered Curiosa, how do you then explain the bacterial flagellum? This was obviously a reference to the infamous Darwin’s Black Box by intelligent design creationist Michael Behe. You know, Behe is a scientist! With a PhD!! Working at a legitimate university!!! How do you explain that, Prof. Pigliucci?

Simple, I said, you will always find legitimate academics who will position themselves outside of the mainstream. It actually is a healthy aspect of the social enterprise we call science. Occasionally, some of these people go way outside of the consensus opinion, into territory that is highly questionable, or even downright pseudoscientific. They may do it for a number of reasons, from the fact that they consider themselves rebels and mavericks to their tendency to put their (usually religious, but sometimes political) ideology ahead of reason and evidence. As in fact is the case for Behe, a fervent Catholic who simply can’t wrap his mind around the conclusion that life originated and differentiated by purely natural means, no gods required.

Ah!, continued Curiosa, if that’s the case, how come there is so much disagreement among scientists about evolution, and even the origin of life? Well, I replied, let’s begin by separating those two:

To begin with, there is no such thing as widespread disagreement about “Darwinism” among evolutionary biologists. Pretty much all professionals I know accept the idea, and the disagreement is over the shape of the current theory, just like physicists disagree on the cutting edge of their discipline, not about Newton, or even Einstein.

Moreover, the reason there are indeed so many theories about the origin of life, and truly no consensus, is because we just don’t have enough information left for us to zero in on one or a small subset of hypotheses. The historical traces of those events are, unfortunately, forever erased. We don’t have, and likely never will have, fossils documenting what happened at the onset of life, which means that our ideas about it will remain speculative. Indeed, even should we one day be able to recreate life from scratch in a laboratory, we will have no guarantee that the path we followed under controlled conditions was the one historically followed by nature on our planet. But so what? Science never promised to answer every question, it only promised to do its best. Sometimes its best is not good enough, and the wise thing is to accept human epistemic limitations and move on.

Not at all satisfied, Curiosa shifted topic again: didn’t you hear of Roger Penrose quantum mechanical explanation of consciousness? Doesn’t that imply that consciousness is everywhere, that it is a holistic property of the universe?

Hmm, I said, with all due respect to Sir Roger, I doubt physicists have a clue about consciousness, which so far as I can see is a biological phenomenon, whose explanation is hence best left to biologists. Besides, I told her, beware of any “explanation” that invokes quantum mechanics for anything that is not quantum level phenomena, even when done by an actual credentialed physicist like Penrose. At any rate, I concluded, even if Penrose is right, what does that have to do with Darwinism and its alleged failures?

I think you get the idea, so I won’t bore you with additional examples of the many increasingly frustrating and downright useless exchanges between Curiosa and me, which continued until I politely pointed out that we were going in circles and that perhaps it was time to call it a day.

What did I learn from this exchange? A number of things, none of them boding too well for the advancement of rational discourse and public understanding of science.

First, let me remind you that Curiosa is a smart, well read, and genuinely curious person. She ain’t no country bumpkin, so to speak.

Second, precisely because she reads widely, she can’t help herself putting what I write — or what truly eminent evolutionary biologists, like Stephen Jay Gould, write — on the same level with the sort of fluff that comes out of the Behes and the Dentons of the world. She simply has no way to discriminate, since all these people have PhD’s, and they all have affiliations with reputable universities.

Third, while we always assume that knowledge is an unqualified good, it turns out that a bit of knowledge may do more harm than complete ignorance. When someone as intelligent as Curiosa thinks she understands enough to draw conclusions, she will not hesitate in doing so, rejecting expert opinion outright. When this has to do with the status of evolutionary theory, no much harm is done. But when it has to do with, say, climate change, or the safety of vaccines, that’s an altogether different, and far more dire, story.

Fourth, Curiosa has fallen for the well known technique of spreading doubt on mainstream science, enough that people cannot genuinely make up their minds about what is going on. This was the deliberate strategy of the tobacco industry in its absurd (and lethal, for many people) denial of a link between smoking and cancer, so well encapsulated in the book and documentary Merchants of Doubt. The same approach has then been used to saw doubts about climate change, vaccines, and so forth. And of course it has also been the main strategy behind the so-called intelligent design movement.

Fifth, and rather ironically, Curiosa has absorbed and internalized the vocabulary of skeptical (i.e., pro-science) organizations, accusing me and others of engaging in all sorts of logical fallacies, a convenient shortcut that saves her the trouble to actually engage with my arguments. When I pointed out — reasonably, seemed to me — that Discovery Institute Fellow Jonathan Wells is a member of the Church of Reverend Moon, and that his antipathy toward evolution is entirely ideological in nature, I of course “committed” an ad hominem. When pointed out plenty of reliable sources on evolutionary theory, I was engaging in confirmation bias. And so on.

Lastly, Curiosa’s spirited discussion with me was very clearly fueled by her pride in taking on Big Science and its Orthodoxy, in favor of open mindedness and revolution. She saw herself as David, and I was the Goliath to be slain.

There is nothing I or anyone else can do for the Curiosa of the world. If, and it’s a big if, they will ever manage to get their head clear about what is and is not legitimate science, they will have to do it on their own, painfully and slowly. The resources are out there, easily at their disposal. But they have no psychological incentive to do so.

What can, and ought to, be done instead is act at two levels: i) engage in public outreach aimed at those who are still not as far gone as Curiosa, hoping to retain them and even strengthened their resolve to support sound science; and ii) to do a far better job than we do now with the next generation. It is children that we should target — just like, not at all coincidentally — creationists write lots and lots of books for children. But there is little incentive for scientists and science popularizers to do so, because children literature is seen as somehow inferior to that aimed at adults (even though it is arguably harder to pull off), and because we won’t see the results for decades.

Science, and reason in general, thus remains — in the beautiful metaphor proposed by Carl Sagan — like a candle in the dark. Our urgent job is for it not to be snuffed out by the forces of darkness.

234 thoughts on “Yet another frustrating conversation: why talking science to “skeptics” is a hopeless endeavor

  1. Coel

    Hi Haulianlal,

    … this is instrumentalism pure and simple …

    I agree to a large extent, but:

    … a scientific model may be quite useful without being true – the geocentric model for example, is still used in terrestrial navigation, …

    Yes, this is why an important part of science is linking up all the different domains consistently. A wrong-but-useful model might work well in one domain, but won’t work well overall.

    you pointed out the example of Newtonian gravity as an “approximation” to the truth. that is the realist interpretation, and it has so often been repeated as a given its really silly when one thinks deeper.

    So what account of “truth” are we adopting? Science presumes a correspondence account of truth, and — this is the important part — that means correspondence to the “world as it appears to be” as demonstrated by “technological mastery”.

    Thus a scientific account that is consistent across all domains and which is fully in accord with the world “as it appears to be” and which is “useful” and which leads to “technological mastery” is — more or less by definition — true, because that’s what we mean by truth. (Well, so long as the “we” is scientists 🙂 ).

    Of course actual scientific accounts will only be approximations to that “truth” since scientific accounts are only best-attempts at that set of conditions. They do, though, tend to get better and better over time (in the sense of fulfilling those conditions better and better over time).

    Might there be some meta-reality behind that and some meta-truth about that meta-reality that does not affect the world “as it appears to be”? Sure, yes indeed. But again, we can only shrug about that since we can only deal with the world “as it appears to be” since that’s the only thing we have evidence about.

    what do you mean by “methods that work”?

    Ones that lead to scientific accounts that fulfill the above conditions.

    Supposing I don’t know what the US constitution contains, but I know what the Indian constitution does, am I permitted to say, “as we have no access to a copy of the US constitution, let’s see what laws America follows by looking at the constitution we do have – India’s”?

    If the meta-reality is as distinct from observable-reality as the Indian constitution is from the US’s constitution, then the meta-reality is simply uninteresting. Again, we can only shrug. Quite literally it has no importance to us.

    Now suppose that we had no access to a copy of the US constitution, but did have access to every ruling ever made by a US constitutional court. We could thus see the US constitution in operation, as it is actually implemented (“as it appears to be”), and from that form a pretty good understanding of the de-facto as-implemented US constitution.

    Would a theory “A” still be the better one if it explains the behavior of certain phenomena 1,2,3 better than another theory “B”, though theory “B” is better at explaining certain phenomena 1a,2b,3c better?

    No, it would not. If that were the case then there would be tension between A and B and much research would be put into finding a new theory, X, that combined all of the successes of A and of B. This is why science is hard, a better theory cannot just be better in some respects, it also has to be at-least-as-good in every other respect.

    Thus, if we’re trying to develop a theory that combines quantum mechanics with gravity, we need a theory that reproduces every one of the successes of quantum mechanics, and every one of the successes of general relativity, and also improves on those in some respects.

    [And this is why scientists put much emphasis on inter-consistency between different domains of knowledge, and why they naturally think in ways that combine the different perspectives; this is also why I get baffled when sometimes philosophers don’t adopt that approach.]

    why make ontological commitments at all, provisional or otherwise? the very point of having an instrumental view is to avoid ontological commitments!

    We have to have some ontological commitments otherwise science’s explanations just fall apart. For example, how could we explain the “technological mastery” of the “world as it is” if there were no external world that science’s models were at least pretty good approximations to?

    Thus we make a provisional ontological commitment as a consequence of pursuing instrumental science.

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  2. brodix

    Haulianlal,

    “a geographic coordinate system is applied without making any ontological committments to the real existence of imaginary lines.”

    Unlike the premise of the “fabric of spacetime,” where these spatial coordinates, along with one for time, are taken to be ontologically real.

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  3. brodix

    Coel,

    “A wrong-but-useful model might work well in one domain, but won’t work well overall.”

    Such as explaining gravity, but not why we only experience only an ever-present now, not a static continuum of events, with no reason to suppose any difference in which direction to move.

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  4. Haulianlal Guite

    Coel (apologies for the long response! but you raise too many cliche points):

    //this is why an important part of science is linking up all the different domains consistently.//

    //Thus a scientific account that is consistent across all domains and which is fully in accord with the world “as it appears to be” and which is “useful” and which leads to “technological mastery” is — more or less by definition — true, because that’s what we mean by truth.//

    what does this even mean? Einstein’s theory of gravitation, for example, is consistent with both germ and miasma theories. so?

    if by this you mean those cases where theories can at least be inconsistent with each other, this domain is extraordinarily narrow, and ultimatey irrelevant. extraordinarily narrow, because you can contrast one theory of gravitation against another, but not (even within physics) a theory of gravitation against the laws of thermodynamics (for example), since all conceived gravitational theories consistent with these laws.

    but also ultimately irrelevant. to illustrate, human vision, for example, helps us see objects of certain sizes within certain spectrums; microscropes to see tinier things within their own domains, and telescopes the bigger things. now, must microscopes be considered “more useful” than human vision because it helps us see things (eg., cells) eyesight does not – though there are things that we can see which microscope cannot see (eg., an entire human body)? likewise, the geocentric model is more utilitarian than the heliocentric model for Earthlings who wish to measure missile trajectories for example – though the heliocentric model is again more useful if you wish to plot locations of stars. so, one theory may be more useful in a particular domain and less useful in another compared to a competing theory; and yet both theories/models may in turn be consistent with particle physics or thermodynamics, though they may be inconsistent with each other or some other phenomena within the same domain.

    //Science presumes a correspondence account of truth//

    this is what scientific realism presumes. coherentists account for truth differently, as do pragmatists; as do instrumentalists.

    For instrumentalists like me, “truth” understood to mean “a description of things as they are” is not knowable, because science does not aim for that. rather, science should aim for what is useful, what works – and what works may differ from time to time, circumstance to circumstance. thus my reading of science as a vast language game within which are different types of games, but all of them adhering to a common set of presuppositions, of which the most important are methodological naturalism, evidential correspondence (which however need not be the ‘truth’), uniformitarianism and so on. indeed i cannot conceive of how science can be conducted with the premise of methodological naturalism, except on pain of circularity (you really need to elaborate on what you mean when you say “science is whatever works”, because what works in a particular circumstance may not work in another).

    //Of course actual scientific accounts will only be approximations to that “truth” since scientific accounts are only best-attempts at that set of conditions.//

    what set of conditions again?

    //If the meta-reality is as distinct from observable-reality as the Indian constitution is from the US’s constitution, then the meta-reality is simply uninteresting. Again, we can only shrug. Quite literally it has no importance to us.//

    i beg to differ. first, we don’t know if it is distinct, and i’m not sure if there is a way to know; second, if its the same, that makes it so boring and uninteresting (means its just a replicaaa!). i find it quite fascinating to imagine a “meta-reality” that’s distinct from ours, like for example Bostrom’s simulation world. as this is a matter of taste however, let me not dwell too long it.

    //We have to have some ontological commitments otherwise science’s explanations just fall apart.//

    not at all. Hawking’s model-dependent realism makes no such commitments. quantum mechanics (just the science, not the interpretation) makes no commitments whatsoever; its all about measurements. thus the phrase “shut up and calculate!”

    //how could we explain the “technological mastery” of the “world as it is” if there were no external world that science’s models were at least pretty good approximations to?//

    a misreading here. instrumentalism never says there is no external world; it simply says the external world is underdetermined by theories (two or more theories maybe equally good in explaining the data, like the various gravity theories we currently have; or they may approach the data from different perspectives, like the helio and geo models given above; or they may be so enmeshed in background assumptions there is no way to tell how the world would have looked like had there been no theory-ladeness, as Quine alleges).

    that misreading aside, the technological mastery maybe accounted for the same way we may account for how watches are so good in measuring time, without having to attribute an ontological property to watches.

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  5. Daniel Kaufman

    Brodix: Your rejection of self-restraint and social awareness in public conversations is funny, but not surprising. Of course, you are not alone, which is why, increasingly, the only bearable internet conversation is that which is heavily moderated. Massimo is doing the Lord’s work, here, but the conversations are such that dipping in and out is about as much as most people can take, given how many of the conversations devolve into endless, geeky disputations on completely irrelevant technical esoterica, no matter what the topic, dominated by a handful of people.

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  6. Daniel Kaufman

    Haulianlal Guite:

    You poor man. You’re still trying? Coel will never read the literature on Truth; will never understand the problems faced by the correspondence theory (which, in my view is hopeless); will never figure out that Metaphysical Realism and Anti-Realism are empirically neutral; etc., etc. He is waging the same argument with you that he’s been waging since the days of Scientia Salon, which are now years past.

    You’ll figure it out eventually. Coel is like highway noise. Eventually, it just disappears into the background. But whenever you actually listen to it, it drowns out everything else … and drives you mad.

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  7. Michael Fugate

    Socratic, I know what the DI believes and it is centered on human exceptionalism – human’s created in the image of their God. That said, I have no means of knowing what would be optimal to such a God as they advocate. For all I know, the vertebrate retina is optimal from this God’s viewpoint.

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  8. Haulianlal Guite

    Dan,

    Well! What am I suppose to make of your damnation of Coel? 😀

    I do enjoy the exchanges so far, though (admittedly) it does become stale after a certain point when he doesn’t understand such a simple point like the metaphysical neutrality of empirical data.

    I’d like to return a bit on his endless banging on the related points: 1. “science does not presume methodological naturalism, but goes wherever the evidence does”; and 2. “science is whatever works”. as these points are belaboured every single time the topic crops up, I’d like to address the matter here.

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  9. synred

    For all I know, the vertebrate retina is optimal from this God’s viewpoint.

    Huh? In that case we have a name for that — ‘sub-optimal’. We wouldn’t hire someone with such a ‘viewpoint’ as an engineer at SLAC.

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  10. Haulianlal Guite

    So, Coel:

    when you say “science is whatever the ‘evidence’ says”, can you clarify what you mean by “evidence”? Because the word simply means no more no less than “empirical evidence”.

    let me carry the conceptual understanding forward this way. Revelations (like “the bible says so” or “the prophet says so”) will not count as a valid form of evidence, correct? why? because there is no way to know if the revelatory claims are traceable to some empirical fact. acceptable? which means, an evidence is evidentiary iff it is based on some form of empirical data.

    how about expert opinion? again, this does not count as evidence if expert opinion is just an argument from authority devoid of empirical content. so when does an expert opinio count as “evidence”? when that opinion is traceable to some empirical fact on which the opinion relies. therefore, expert opinion is evidence not because it is an opinion, but because it has empirical content on which it relies. again, this shows that, when we say “evidence” in science, we mean simply empirical evidence.

    now, we may also rule out mathematical theorems that have no description of “reality” as being non-scientific. why? because mathematical solutions in string theories for example, do not have corresponding empirical data on which they can be grounded. so, for the moment, string theories and other elegant physical theories relying purely on math, can be ruled out as being non-scientific for not containing empirical data.

    did i miss anything? I hope not. what i simply intend to say here is how, when we say “there is no evidence” or “this is based on solid evidence”, the only scientifically meaningful interpretation of the use of “evidence” is that it means empirical evidence. That is, evidence in science simply means empirical evidence. nothing more nothing less (i assume for argument’s sake the concept of “empirical” is uncontroversial).

    Finally,

    if “evidence” means “empirical evidence”, nothing more nothing less, when we say “science goes wherever the empirical data goes”, what we mean by this is the contraposition that “unless there is empirical data for a theory, that theory is not scientific”. but do you see that this is exactly what “methdological naturalism” means? that this is the very definition of methodological naturalism? that when i say “science is a body of inquiry that goes wherever the (empirical) evidence goes”, this is equivalent to saying “science is limited in its investigation to and only to empirical data”? Coel, this is all there is to methodological naturalism, so when you say “science goes wherever evidence goes”, you are saying science is methodologically confined to study only natural phenomena (empirical data, which alone can count as “evidence”)!

    Now,

    if science is methodologically limited only to what the evidence (empirical data) says, is the empirical data all there is? if it is all there is, it means methodological naturalism implies/entails metaphysical naturalism; if its not the case, it means methodological naturalism does not logically entail metaphysical naturalism. so does methodological naturalism imply metaphysical naturalism?

    no, not conceptually at least. for we can conceptualize entities (numbers, sets, propositions, digital bits, God, angels, demons, the self) that are not empirical at all, but can conceivably exist in some sense. therefore, whether the physical reality is all there is (whether metaphysical naturalism is true), is a valid question that can be asked.

    but the moment you ask it, it means you are stepping outside the strict bounds of science (science understood as “going wherever the evidence goes”). how so? because, even if you pile evidence upon evidence to show and prove that there is star and just more stars a hundred billion or zillion years ago and at a zillion distance away from us, thereby showing that there is only empirical reality all the way, whatever spacetime points you look at, these mountains of evidence will not even begin to shed light on the question whether these are all that exists. the more evidence you pour in, the more circular will the investigation become, since what you want to know is whether these evidences are all that exist!

    in case you do not get the cirularity, let me use an analogy. to conclude that “only empirical entities exists because science discovers only empirical entities” is as fallaciously circular as the reasoning: “only sensory entities exists because our eyes can see only sensory objects” (and, since atoms cannot be seen by our eyes, therefore they do not exist)!

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  11. Coel

    Hi Haulianlal,

    what does this even mean? Einstein’s theory of gravitation, for example, is consistent with both germ and miasma theories. so?

    The doctrine is that “knowledge” is a seamless whole. So, take an analogy of it being a jigsaw puzzle. Two pieces from very different parts of the puzzle — taken in isolation — are always consistent (= no contradiction). But then one has to fit together all the pieces in-between them, both in shape and in picture, and any mismatch in either shape or picture means you’ve gone wrong. The consistency requirement for adjacent pieces is actually very powerful, and then that consistency has to be extended over the entire picture.

    one theory may be more useful in a particular domain and less useful in another compared to a competing theory; and yet both theories/models may in turn be consistent with particle physics or thermodynamics, though they may be inconsistent with each other or some other phenomena within the same domain.

    Agreed, but one is aiming for full consistency over the entire picture, however we examine it. So we can probe any location, and scale, any set of adjacent pieces, any set of distance pieces, and we need full consistency.

    That is effectively the doctrine of “scientism”, where knowledge is a seamless whole with no abrupt “joins” or transitions. The alternative doctrine is that knowledge is divided into domains, and that it only makes sense to ask about consistency within a domain, and thus one rejects questions about any transitions between domains as misguided.

    For instrumentalists like me, “truth” understood to mean “a description of things as they are” is not knowable, because science does not aim for that.

    But what do you mean by “as they are”? Do you mean “as they are” in the “universe as it appears to be”? If so, we’re back to the scientific version of “truth”. If you mean, “as they are” in some meta-reality that we have no access to, well, isn’t it rather silly to define truth in terms of that, rather than in terms of what is real to us, what affects us?

    If we’re talking about correspondence to some unobservable meta-reality, then why not call that “meta-truth”, and we can then use the term “truth” for correspondence to the reality “as it appears to be” that science can access?

    but all of them adhering to a common set of presuppositions, of which the most important are methodological naturalism, evidential correspondence (which however need not be the ‘truth’), uniformitarianism and so on.

    But, to re-iterate:

    1) methodological naturalism: science does not presume this (despite oft-made claims!). Indeed, we don’t even know what “naturalism” means, since we have no clear idea of “supernaturalism” to contrast it with. And science certainly does not have to adopt a non-defined presupposition!

    2) As just above, we are not pre-supposing that correspondence with evidence observable reality gives access to “truth”, we are simply defining that that is what truth is. (Without denying that there may also be meta-truths.)

    3) Science does not actually assume uniformitarianism. Any such doctrine is a beast-assessment product of doing science. One can see this from the fact that scientific models have variously adopted uniformitarianism or catastrophism at different times, as best pointed to by science.

    i cannot conceive of how science can be conducted with [without?] the premise of methodological naturalism, …

    Please actually define “naturalism”, in contrast to “supernaturalism”, so that science would know what it is supposed to avoid!

    you really need to elaborate on what you mean when you say “science is whatever works”, …

    By “whatever works” I mean that leads to knowledge what corresponds to observable reality. This, predictions of future eclipses come true; airplanes and iPhones coming from science-based engineering do work; etc.

    … because what works in a particular circumstance may not work in another

    But then there is the above requirement for consistency across the overall picture. Science is aiming for an overall consistent set of ideas that do work in all situations at all times.

    what set of conditions again?

    “… is consistent across all domains and which is fully in accord with the world “as it appears to be” and which is “useful” and which leads to “technological mastery” …”

    quantum mechanics (just the science, not the interpretation) makes no commitments whatsoever; its all about measurements. thus the phrase “shut up and calculate!”

    But quantum mechanics is only one part of the overall scientific world model. To repeat an early example that I gave, why would all of biology and all of the evolutionary explanation for biology actually work, if there were no external world and no actually existing animals? Thus, the overall scientific model does indeed lead to ontological commitments. It would just make no sense without them. Thus again, a commitment to an actually existing external world is again the product of doing science.

    instrumentalism never says there is no external world; it simply says the external world is underdetermined by theories

    I fully accept that underdetermination by theories, but it’s still the case that we need ontological commitments for science’s world model to make sense.

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  12. Haulianlal Guite

    perhaps a better illustration: to claim empirical reality is all there is on the basis of empirical science discovering only empirical entities, is no different from saying the bible is trustworthy on the basis of some biblical verses declaring the trustworthiness of the bible.

    (no, don’t say this analogy is false because science is based on facts and the bible on hearsay because that’s not the point at all; we are simply demonstrating a logical point here, viz., the circular reasoning).

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  13. Coel

    Hi Haulianlal,

    when you say “science is whatever the ‘evidence’ says”, …

    Well I didn’t actually use that phrase, nor did I say “science is whatever works”. I did say: “Science is pragmatic, and will adopt whichever methods work”, where I’ve defined “works” in the previous comment. To re-iterate, “works” means leads to predictions of eclipses that come true, leads to technology that works, etc.

    Or, in your parlance, the above means “Science is pragmatic, and will adopt whichever methods lead to technological mastery”.

    which means, an evidence is evidentiary iff it is based on some form of empirical data.

    Yes. Though that idea is again a product of science. If the book of Revelations had a better track record of predicting solar eclipses than mathematicians and physicsts, then Revelations would then count as evidence.

    … when we say “science goes wherever the empirical data goes”, what we mean by this is the contraposition that “unless there is empirical data for a theory, that theory is not scientific”.

    OK. Though “empirical data for a theory” is not that straightforward on a Quinean-web account.

    but do you see that this is exactly what “methdological naturalism” means? that this is the very definition of methodological naturalism?

    Is it? Well, lots of things that are usually regarded as “supernatural” (gods, demons, ghosts, etc) also have empirical consequences. Indeed, hardly anyone postulates supernatural stuff that doesn’t have empirical implications. For example, what’s the point of a God that never answers prayers?

    for we can conceptualize entities (numbers, sets, propositions, digital bits, God, angels, demons, the self) that are not empirical at all, but can conceivably exist in some sense.

    First, God, angels, demons, etc, do have empirical aspects! Second, conceptual things such as mathematics are concepts that do not “exist in some sense”, other than being conceptualised. We humans conceptulise such things (mostly) because they are useful for modelling the world.

    therefore, whether the physical reality is all there is, is a valid question that can be asked.

    Yes, agreed. As above I fully accept the possibility of a meta-reality about which there is meta-truth, but which has no empirical consequences at all for empirical reality.

    in case you do not get the cirularity, let me use an analogy. to conclude that “only empirical entities exists because science discovers only empirical entities”

    But then I’ve not said that. From the start of this discussion I’ve accepted the possibility of a meta-reality that has no empirical consequences.

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  14. Coel

    Hi Haulianlal,

    it does become stale after a certain point when he doesn’t understand such a simple point like the metaphysical neutrality of empirical data.

    Actually, I do understand that very simple point. You are simply not understanding my response to that point.

    You say:

    … to claim empirical reality is all there is on the basis of empirical science discovering only empirical entities, …

    .. as if I had made that claim. Actually, what I’d said is:

    “Which is true. There might indeed be some meta-reality “behind” the world as it appears to be, and you’re right that science only has traction on the world as it appears to be.”

    And in the next comment:

    “Might there be some meta-reality behind that and some meta-truth about that meta-reality that does not affect the world “as it appears to be”? Sure, yes indeed.”

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  15. Haulianlal Guite

    Very well Coel, let me see take a different approach.

    //The doctrine is that “knowledge” is a seamless whole. //

    What is the evidence for this doctrine? relativity and quantum theories do not fit in at all, so where is the evidence for this belief? or is it perhaps a hope you are expressing, what science must be rather than what science really is? if its a hope, why should one accept this hopeful picture of science, when there is no evidence at all that our best confirmed theories fit like a jigsaw? what evidence is there that these inconsistent pictures will somehow fit someday? since relativity and quantum theories do not fit – therefore they are not science by your understanding of it – must we not reject either of them (or both) for being unscientific as far as they go?

    It seems to me rather that you are promoting a rosy “philosophy” (how hateful the word!) of science that has no basis in fact. because if your claim is to be seriously taken, and knowledge must be a seamless whole, yet there is no such knowledge, science therefore does not exist yet … by your standards.

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  16. wtc48

    Dan: “I largely blame the internet, which not only has turned everyone who knows 3 things and can count his toes into an expert on everything…”

    This is a well-known and established phenomenon, under the general description of “sophomore:” the internet has made sophomores out of everyone. It has a positive side: I recognize in myself the exhilaration of realizing the accessibility of realms of knowledge I only dreamed of, and remember the same feeling during early years in college. What does this lead to?

    Dan (again): “Oh, I don’t know … One could exercise some self-restraint. Try to keep things germane. Resist the temptation to indulge one’s eccentric fixations in every conversation one finds oneself. Not assume that just because something interests you, anyone else gives a crap. You know … wild things like that.”

    This is the senior (and on up the academic ladder) counseling the sophomore.

    Nothing new; this has been going on since Socrates.

    Liked by 3 people

  17. Haulianlal Guite

    Coel,

    I think we are showing progress! And I missed it from the start of this thread because our previous conversations were all at the back of my mind! Your admission that there can be a “meta-reality” is in the right direction and i should have recognized that.

    Now that’s said, as you still labour on the point about science not presupposing methodological naturalism:

    // Though that idea is again a product of science. If the book of Revelations had a better track record of predicting solar eclipses than mathematicians and physicsts, then Revelations would then count as evidence.//

    now this statement shows you weren’t reading my response properly.

    first, “again a product of science” is a historical fact, not an epistemological one. science itself is a product of religion historically speaking (since it emerged out of the Christian worldview), does that mean science is therefore supervenient on religion?

    second, about revelations having a better track record, now by this comment you are again demanding that revelations behave the way empirical theories do: that they should be traceable to some empirical data. but by demanding that they be traceable to empirical data – which is all that “evidence” means – you are in fact demanding that they must conform to what methodological naturalism demands: that a claimed phenomena mst have empirical content to be scientific. so your rebuttal actually shows the need for methodological naturalism. however, this does not entail that if revelations cannot behave the way physics does, it should be rejected as a descript of reality (yes, it should be rejected as a descrip of physical reality, but revelations is a book that claims to describe another plane of reality, and the absence of empirical evidence for this does not show the absence of such a plane of existence. after all, how can there be empirical evidence for something non-empirical?).

    //is it? lots of things that are usually regarded as “supernatural” (gods, demons, ghosts, etc) also have empirical consequences. Indeed, hardly anyone postulates supernatural stuff that doesn’t have empirical implications. For example, what’s the point of a God that never answers prayers?//

    yes it is Coel; it is all along.

    now that’s said, in this statement you are missing a crucial distinction between the empirical consequences of an entity and the entity itself, which mirrors the crucially important agency/mechanism dichotomy. to the extent that there are empirical consequences, these are scientific. but demanding that they must have empirical consequences is the very thing that methodological naturalism says: that in order to be scientific, it must be empirical!

    from this you may conclude that “since we never observe a God or an evidence of the efficacy of prayers, therefore God does not exist”. not so. not necessarily. what if God’s actions are that the universe must behave according to certain laws that he has made, including assigning quantifiable constants to certain physical quantities? is this conceivable? of course of it is. this is the very God that deism claims (i don’t want to go too deep into the theism discussion here). the point is that there is no way to conceivably imagine how different a universe with God will be from a universe without God, since we can always logically concoct up innumerable ways to satisfy the data.

    //conceptual things such as mathematics are concepts that do not “exist in some sense”, other than being conceptualised. //

    this conventionalism may quite turn out to be true; but there are a good number of mathematical platonists who believe in “eternal nots”, ones and zeroes (Godel is the most famous modern example, and most mathematicians behave in a way their equations are non-conventional and describes truths deeper than physics). the point is not whether conventionalism is true or not; the point, rather, is that platonism can possibly be true. and as long as this possibility remains, that it is quite possible for mathematical entities to exist in some non-subjective sense (i can’t even conceive infinities, so how do we invent it btw?), it means methodological naturalism does not entail metaphysical naturalism.

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  18. Coel

    Hi Haulianlal,

    What is the evidence for this doctrine? relativity and quantum theories do not fit in at all, …

    It is a (provisional) best assessment of all the evidence we have. Through the history of science, things that have previously seemed very different have been unified. One example is how the unification of different theories in physics has made huge progress. Then there is the unification of chemistry with physics, of and geology with both of those, and of the understanding of the domain of biology in a unified way with that of the physical, material world.

    All the evidence suggest that the world is ontologically unified (ontological supervenience physicalism), and if that holds then one would get into huge problems is epistemology were not unified. Thus if, for example, one “domain” of knowledge said that ontological-entity-A was doing X, and another said that ontological-entity-A was doing Y, where X and Y were incompatible, then one is into pretty huge conceptual difficulties!

    Against that, the problems with unifying relativity and QM seem relatively minor, and are the sort of thing that physics has previously solved.

    since relativity and quantum theories do not fit – therefore they are not science by your understanding of it …

    No, that’s not what I said. I said that for the scientific account to be true one would have to make them consistent, but I then said: “Of course actual scientific accounts will only be approximations to that “truth” since scientific accounts are only best-attempts at that set of conditions”.

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  19. Michael Fugate

    Huh? In that case we have a name for that — ‘sub-optimal’. We wouldn’t hire someone with such a ‘viewpoint’ as an engineer at SLAC.

    Are you claiming to be God or that engineers at SLAC never use “sub-optimal” design?

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  20. Haulianlal Guite

    also, on uniformitarianism:

    there are two aspects to uniformitarianism: methodological uniforitarianism (which i specify as the necessary conditions for evolutionary sciences) and applied uniformitarianism (which you rebut me with).

    2 principles of methodological uniformitarianism:
    – Uniformity of law across time and space: Natural laws are constant across space and time.
    – Uniformity of process across time and space: Natural processes are constant across time and space.

    now if you do not presuppose these principles, there is simply no way to know the past! i mean, if the laws that apply today do not apply 15 billion years ago – and these very laws are the only ways by which you can know the past (through extrapolations, past projections, interpolations, deductions and inferences) – how can the past be known? it is necessary for science, therefore, to assume that the fundamental, non-derivative (need not be the derivative laws) of science, such as the laws of thermodynamics and the physical constants, applies across all space and time. without them there is just no way to know the past.

    but it is not all that obvious that the laws we have today apply 15 billion years ago, and will apply 15 billion years from now. so for someone who wishes to reject these principles, he may do so. only if he does, he will be unable to know the past at all. which is why the instrumentalist tends to accept these principles only instrumentally and not realistically (there is no way to know either way).

    now, 2 principles of applied uniformitarianism:
    – Uniformity of rate across time and space: Change is typically slow, steady, and gradual.
    – Uniformity of state across time and space: Change is evenly distributed throughout space and time.

    gradualism is the thesis of the first one, and catastrophism is the thesis of the second one. the point is this: you can deny either of these principles and you will still have ways to know the past on the basis of the methodological principles. that is, the methodological principles are consistent with both the assertions or denials of either of these applications of theoretical uniformitarianism. in other words, the ultimate grounds by which you can deny these applied principles, are the methodological principles that must always hold (because the rate of decay of a certain particle may be “x” or it may be “x + y” instead, but both of these statements can hold because the methodological principles hold).

    so yes, you simply cannot undertake evolutionary studies of the past unless the methodological principles are assumed.

    Liked by 1 person

  21. Coel

    Hi Haulianlal,

    … first, “again a product of science” is a historical fact, not an epistemological one.

    Well I intended it as epistemological, rather than historical. Taking a Quinean-web account, where we can continually examine each aspect of our world model in turn, the idea that “divine revelation” doesn’t work is based on a current assessment of the track record of predictions from “divine revelation” versus predictions from empirical methods.

    second, about revelations having a better track record, now by this comment you are again demanding that revelations behave the way empirical theories do: that they should be traceable to some empirical data.

    First, recall that I am defining the concept “truth” as being correspondence with the “world as we see it”. In essence a “true” account is one that gives us “technological mastery” or gives predictions of solar eclipses that tend to come true, et cetera. I’m thus holding divine revelation to that standard simply because that is how I am defining “true” and indeed that correspondence to the “world as we see it” is ultimately all I am claiming. [Again, nothing there denies the possibility of meta-truths about meta-realities.]

    But it would be in-principle possible for divine revelation to have a better track-record at, say, predicting solar eclipses, than predictions based on the laws of physics. After all, if there is an interventionist God who makes the sun stand still (as in the book of Joshua) and who communicates with humans, then that could readily be the case. Thus, the conclusion that that is not the case is a conclusion based on doing science and seeing which works best, divine revelation or laws of physics. That’s why I deny that one must presuppose methodological naturalism.

    Again, this does assume correspondence with empirical reality as the standard of truth, but that’s simply how I (and most of science) defines the concept “truth”. [Does anyone have a better concept of truth? Dan has never liked my one, but I’m not sure he has anything better.]

    so your rebuttal actually shows the need for methodological naturalism.

    It is possible that we are talking at cross purposes through using the term “naturalism” differently. Yes, science can only deal with empirical reality. But, as I understand it, “natural” is not the same as “empirical”. Thus a God would count as “supernatural” and yet could have empirical consequences. So could most other “supernatural” entities. After all, one can “see” a ghost. There is no concept of “ghost” left if one can never see it, or if it never has any empirical consequences at all.

    from this you may conclude that “since we never observe a God or an evidence of the efficacy of prayers, therefore God does not exist”.

    If the postulated God had no conceivable empirical consequences whatsoever, then in my parlance it would be part of “meta reality”, about which there could be “meta truths”, and about which science cannot say anything. [And nor could philosophy or anything else, for that matter.]

    what if God’s actions are that the universe must behave according to certain laws that he has made, including assigning quantifiable constants to certain physical quantities? is this conceivable?

    Yes, it’s conceivable. Science deals with that using Occam’s razor. “G = 6.67×10^-11 in SI and God made it like that” is actually equivalent, under Occam, to “G = 6.67×10^-11 in SI” unless the “… and God made it like that” has other interesting consequences or explanatory power.

    we can always logically concoct up innumerable ways to satisfy the data.

    Agreed.

    but there are a good number of mathematical platonists who believe in “eternal nots”, ones and zeroes

    Yes, including our very own DM. I’m avoiding that topic for now since it has been done to death! In short, though, I don’t see “Platonic existence” as even meaningful. Oops, looks like I didn’t avoid it. 🙂

    is that platonism can possibly be true. and as long as this possibility remains, that it is quite possible for mathematical entities to exist in some non-subjective sense

    Maybe, though you’d have to start by explaining whay that “exist in some non-subjective sense” actually amounts to. Again, if it’s a meta-reality (if it has no empirical import) then I’m simply going to shrug and ignore it as uninteresting.

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  22. Coel

    Hi Haulianlal,

    now if you do not presuppose these principles, there is simply no way to know the past! i mean, if the laws that apply today do not apply 15 billion years ago […] how can the past be known? it is necessary for science, therefore, to assume that the fundamental, non-derivative … of science, such as the laws of thermodynamics and the physical constants, applies across all space and time. without them there is just no way to know the past.

    But this is simply not true! For example, cosmologists do consider the possibility that the laws and physical constants were different! One idea, as an alternative to the cosmological redshift, was the “tired light” hypothesis, that light changed over time. This was seriously considered but was later abandoned because it didn’t work as well.

    Another example is the possibility that the “fine structure constant”, alpha, has changed over cosmological time. E.g.: take the paper 2016Ap…..59..285L, and quoting from its abstract:

    “One of the key questions of modern physics concerns the possibility that physical constants have varied throughout the history of the Universe. […] Here, we set a new limit on possible spatial and temporal variations of the fine-structure constant alpha” from observing a distant quasar: “we deduce a constraint of Delta-alpha as a fraction of alpha as (-0.157± 0.300)×10-6 at redshift z = 1.15.”

    How does one do this? Easy, you just use the scientific method! Adopt a Quinean-web view. Now turn your gaze on a physical law or a physical constant. Then ask the question: can we make our model work better if we said that this law or constant changed over time, or over space? One then simply compares the models with and without the changed law, and compare them for explanatory and predictive power.

    You are entirely right that the data will always under-determine the theory, which is why one has to introduce a method to prune the theory, and that method is Occam and parsimony.

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  23. Haulianlal Guite

    //It is a (provisional) best assessment of all the evidence we have. Through the history of science, things that have previously seemed very different have been unified. One example is how the unification of different theories in physics has made huge progress. Then there is the unification of chemistry with physics, of and geology with both of those, and of the understanding of the domain of biology in a unified way with that of the physical, material world.//

    No Coel, it is an inductive argument you have, from past examples; and susceptible to the same attacks Hume rained down on induction.

    in addition to Hume’s arguments, these examples are not very good, though they are commonplace. “chemistry” has never been fully unified with physics – though yes, this remains the ideal. i don’t even see how the theory of plate tectonics gets unified with either chemistry or physics, if by “unification” you mean the statements in plate tectonics are ultimately derivable from physical theories (quantum? relativity?).

    if by “unification” you mean rather simple logical consistency, then i suggest the loaded word unification should not be used; and furthermoe, a lot of theories are consistent with each other without being unified as a “seamless whole” (for example, relativity theory is consistent with both continental constant and drift hypothesis, and the phlogiston theory in chemistry does not violate any quantum mechanical principles).

    so these alleged examples of “good unifications” are not really good. the best examples we have so far are perhaps the unification of electricity and magnetism, the unification of special and relativity theories, and the unification of the 3 fundamental forces by quantum electrodynamics. and these are why physicists continue expecting to catch their holy grail.

    however, even if this theory of everything is successful, this will be so in a very limited domain of science and in a very limited subfield of it (namely particle physics), and I don’t see how this TOE will be unified with theories in biology for example, or even much of chemistry. yes, consistency is very easy to get (you only need to apply the disjunctive inference rule, to take the most extreme method for obtaining consistency) ; but logical entailment or instantiation (either of which i suppose is what you mean by “seamless whole”) is extremely difficult, and i don’t see how the principle of natural selection may (for example) emerge out of any conceivable theory of everything.

    But, ultimately,

    //Thus a scientific account that is consistent across all domains and which is fully in accord with the world “as it appears to be” and which is “useful” and which leads to “technological mastery” is — more or less by definition — true, because that’s what we mean by truth.//

    so long as you adhere to this, it means that much of our stock of current scientific knowledge is not a collection of truths, since we do not have a seamless whole yet.

    if however you are saying we are approximating on to this seamless, thereby meaning what Popper meant by verisimilitude, this is an entirely new philosophical field we cannot go into here. but a basic reading will be at https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/truthlikeness/ in case you want to have a go (though, given Dan’s comment, i’m afraid you may not read it!).

    i shall however state this: a theoretical web may be entirely consistent without being true at all. just think of games. you can devise all kinds of chess problems, all kinds of solutions, within the zillions of moves the game allows; and this will fit neatly. science may just be that: a language-game whose basic operational rules are (again to repeat) methodological naturalism, uniformitarianism, empirical correspondence, so on and so forth … without having any ontological import, just like chess does not. though of course the goal of chess is one thing, and the goal of science is another (it maybe the technological mastery of nature, by which i mean the ability to control and manipulate nature this way or another).

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  24. Haulianlal Guite

    //But this is simply not true! For example, cosmologists do consider the possibility that the laws and physical constants were different! One idea, as an alternative to the cosmological redshift, was the “tired light” hypothesis, that light changed over time. This was seriously considered but was later abandoned because it didn’t work as well.//

    Coel, you misunderstand.

    first, this very example demonstrates why physical laws and constants should be held constant, and what happens when we do not. The reasong this conception was abandoned is because you’d have to rewrite the whole of cosmology (among others – George Ellis argues it will change the whole of physics), since our cosmological knowledge of the history of the cosmos are derived from the assumption of an invariant speed for light.

    second and more importantly, the methodological principle of uniformity is not saying this or that law must never be altered throughout history. its saying instead that if these fundamental laws are altered, all our knowledge of the past (which are depending on these laws) will have to be completely altered too, to the extent of their alteration. for example, we hold that natural selection applied for the past 4 billion or so years, and using this assumption, you interpret the whole fossils record that way. now you may say that it is on the basis of evidence that we hold natural selection to be true 3 or 4 billion years ago after life emerged. Yes, but ultimately, not so. It will be impossible for us to have such evidences for natural selection had it not been for some other physical laws and processes we hold to be constant for the moment (for example, the decay rate of protons). now you may in turn question any of these laws and processes, but the moment you do so, the way you interpret the evidence will also change alongside, since the method you now use for interpreting it will be other laws and processes.

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