I have this sort of love/hate relationship with philosophy. I like it because some of the arguments and reasoning are so clever and subtle, but I also dislike it because it is often so pointless. Does it really matter if a philosopher offers his opinion on a subject without also finding a way to test the idea? So often it seems that philosophical ideas exist in a sort of vacuum where they don’t have any viable connection with the real world.
That’s not always the case, of course, and there are branches of philosophy which try to use more scientific, empirical methodologies which can be tested and therefore might be able to be connected with reality. But some of the most basic areas aren’t open to this sort of examination.
The subject of this blog (which is basically my epistemological philosophy) has arisen mainly because of various on-line debates (you might have already guessed this if you regularly follow this blog) which I am currently involved in (my source of subjects seems to be either debates or podcasts). Often the objection my opponents have to accepting science is the claim that science cannot be an ultimate source of knowledge because it relies on untested premises, and this is actually true!
But the problem is that every worldview or system of knowledge must ultimately suffer from the same limitation. So really the issue becomes: which of all the imperfect knowledge systems we have works the best, even if we readily concede it is imperfect?
We can never be totally sure of anything in the real world because we can only interact with the real world through our senses and we already know (or think we know) that they can be easily confused.
A deeper issue is whether there is a thing called reality at all and if there is, is there only one reality or many depending on your worldview. If there is no reality or there are multiple realities which change based on the way you think, then we really are in trouble. Again, there’s no way to prove this for sure but the repeatable results which we get from careful formal tests (such as those of science) indicate that it’s safe to assume there is just one.
Note that quantum effects such as the observer affecting the outcome of an experiment, wave-particle duality, and the many-worlds interpretation don’t really constitute evidence of multiple realities because these effects always manifest themselves consistently – at least we think so, but we can’t be certain!
Science largely relies on empiricism which uses inductive logic to gain information about the world. Many people point out that induction can never really prove anything and I agree. It doesn’t matter how many white swans we see, we could find a black (or purple) one with the next observation. So if we only see white swans it’s OK to say that all swans are white but only as an interim conclusion, and in fact that conclusions will always be interim because we can never look at every instance of anything of any consequence.
But what is the alternative? What about deduction, using the laws of logic? Well that’s OK, using deduction can prove something but it can’t prove anything new. If all men are mortal and Aristotle is a man we can deduce that Aristotle is mortal, but so what? That doesn’t reveal any new truth we didn’t already know. It’s just a rearrangement of information we already have.
I have already dealt with faith-based and revealed knowledge in a previous blog entry but I will briefly reiterate my conclusion here. It was that true faith-based knowledge cannot exist because the selection of which faith-based system (for example, which religion) to adopt is not itself faith-based (it could depend on arbitrary social factors or even the application of scientific principles). And the same applies to revealed knowledge because the source of revelation is made before the revelation itself (you can’t gain knowledge from the Bible for example until you choose the Bible as your preferred source).
So it seems the only source of real knowledge is induction and that can never provide certainty. I am admitting I can never know anything for certain but am I even certain of that? Well no, I’m not!
But applying a certainty value to any knowledge claim isn’t that bad. We already do that with many things: there is a 50% chance of rain tomorrow, we are 95% sure that global warming is caused by human activity, the age of the Universe is 13.72 billion years plus or minus 100 million, etc. (don’t necessarily trust those numbers as being correct, I just used them as an example).
In fact many people say that the people who are most certain of their conclusions are most likely to be wrong. This isn’t always true, of course, because some genuine knowledge does have a very good confidence value, but it should act as a warning regarding those who know for certain that their god exists or that they really were abducted by aliens.
So in summary, here’s my philosophy of knowledge…
1. We can never know anything for certain (not even the fact that we can’t know anything for certain) but it is pointless to proceed on that idea, so we must be pragmatic and accept that the best we can do is to get arbitrarily close to knowing a fact.
2. There is only one reality and properly executed observations and experiments will always access that same reality. Any claim that a different methodology reveals a different reality is really just saying that it is revealing a falsity.
3. Pure logic cannot reveal any new knowledge, and faith and revelation based knowledge is unreliable, so empirically derived knowledge is the only reliable source.
4. All knowledge should have a confidence measurement but it might be reasonable to avoid having to include those numbers over and over again by saying certain things are a fact even though we should leave a small amount of doubt no matter how certain something seems.
So there it is. If you are debating me and I have referred you here and you got this far, well done! If you disagree or can see any major flaws in my logic then please feel free to comment.
There are some remarkably simple thought experiments which we can perform to reveal surprisingly subtle and deep truths about the nature of reality and how the universe really works. There are many of these in the history of science and some of the most famous were those used by Einstein to clarify his ideas on relativity, but in this blog post I want to concentrate on some more related to social sciences.
I initially got the idea to write this entry after listening to a an episode of the excellent BBC Radio 4 podcast “In Our Time” on the subject of Game Theory. Of course I already knew a bit about the subject but this just reminded me how cool it really is.
Most people have heard of the game “rock paper scissors”. This is a game for two people who simultaneously reveal their hand shaped like one of those objects. Each object can defeat another object or be defeated by another object. For example paper defeats rock by covering it but is defeated by scissors which cut it.
So what is the best strategy to win that game? Assuming your opposition also knows the best strategy there is no way to win in the long term (but you can draw). And the best strategy is to present one of the three shapes randomly. That’s a trivial example so let’s move on.
Imagine you and an accomplice are arrested by the police and offered a deal (because the police have no strong evidence against you). If you confess and your accomplice doesn’t you go free but the accomplice gets a long jail term (5 years). If you both confess the prosecutor will give you both a reduced sentence (4 years). If neither confesses you both get jailed for a lesser charge (2 years) which the police do have sufficient evidence for.
So what should you do? From your own point of view you should always confess because if your accomplice also confesses you get a lesser sentence (4 years instead of 5) and if your accomplice doesn’t you go free. But if both use this same strategy you will both get a higher sentence than you would if you both stayed silent (4 years instead of 2).
It’s called the prisoner’s dilemma and is an example of the difference between individual and group rationality. But so what? Who cares about a game imagined by philosophers? Does this have any actual relevance in the real world? Well I guess it could if you were in the exact situation described but, as I hope you will have guessed, the underlying issue goes away beyond that.
A lot of the original research in the related branch of maths, game theory, was done to understand the possible ramifications of nuclear deterrent strategies int he 1950s. So this is serious stuff. And it’s relevant today too, even after the end of the cold war.
Let’s apply the same type of idea to environmental issues (such as global warming) and to social issues (such as accumulation of wealth). The “players” in these games can make decisions to undermine the rights of others for their own benefit (such as catching fish of an endangered species) and as long as others don’t do the same they do well (the fishery is partly depleted which is a loss for others, but they gain a lot of profit which is a big gain for them) except if too many people use the same strategy (and why wouldn’t they) everyone is worse off because the profit is less and the fishery is destroyed.
More generally note that this is an undeniable proof that libertarian ideology doesn’t work. Libertarianism relies on the individual making rational decisions which are also good for the majority, but clearly even if an individual makes a rational decision (which is extremely questionable in itself) there are many situations (I would say the majority and maybe all) where that is not the best for the group at all.
So it’s in the maths, and maths doesn’t lie! Libertarianism and the neo-liberal economic agenda can never work, for those two very good reasons (individual good doesn’t map to group good, and rationality is far from guaranteed).
The question then becomes how can the optimal group rationality be applied when people tend to act to maximise individual rationality (if they act rationally at all). That’s the hard question, of course, because group oriented government hasn’t been conspicuously successful.
But that’s assuming that you equate extreme Soviet style socialism with a true group oriented political system. I don’t. Saying group oriented control has failed because the Soviet bloc failed is a straw man argument. We need to work towards a much better system than that but again I’m not sure what it should be.
But whatever it is we need to start by admitting that the current system of individuals maximising their personal power and wealth is not the optimal solution for the majority. That way most of us really are prisoners.
Last year two people I really admired died. They were Apple founder and technology leader, Steve Jobs, and well-known essayist and political commentator, Christopher Hitchens. Both had been diagnosed with cancer and were not expected to live long but their death was still a bit of a shock.
I’m not pretending these people were perfect because they clearly weren’t. Steve Jobs really was often totally unreasonable and arrogant. Hitchens had some odd political views which many people would disagree with. But they were both also geniuses and that makes it easier to overlook their deficiencies.
I’ve already talked about Steve Jobs (in an entry titled “Think Different” on 2011-10-07) so this time I should say something about “The Hitch”. If you have never experienced Hitchens speaking search for a video of him on YouTube and you will see what I mean. He generally destroys those who dare to debate him with a combination of excellent recall of information and vicious wit (some titles include “Hitchens vs God (god loses by the way)”, “Al Sharpton Gets Hitchslapped”, “Christopher Hitchens Destroys Biblical miracle”, and “A Big HitchSlap!”). His victims are often described as being “Hitch slapped”!
In this entry I want to discuss some of his best quotes. As I have said before, quotes don’t necessarily mean much but they are often a good starting point for discussion and sometimes a concise description of a philosophical position.
My first quote is this short and simple one: “What can be asserted without evidence can also be dismissed without evidence.”
That is a very compact definition of many skeptics’ views and I think it’s true. Anyone who has a theory based on no evidence can have that theory rejected without the need to present evidence against it, because a theory with no evidence isn’t a theory, it’s an opinion. So anyone who believes something “on faith” can never have that belief taken seriously simply because there’s just no need to, it’s simply irrelevant.
Here’s another: “The person who is certain, and who claims divine warrant for his certainty, belongs now to the infancy of our species. It may be a long farewell, but it has begun and, like all farewells, should not be protracted.”
So not only should the religious faithful not be taken seriously but they are also infantile and their way of thinking belongs in the past. Again I agree: one of my objections to religion is that it’s embarrassing. People who really believe the world is 6000 years old and that those who don’t believe the same thing as them are evil are stupid and embarrassing to our species.
Finally here is the ultimate quote (of life, the universe, and everything): “Beware the irrational, however seductive. Shun the ‘transcendent’ and all who invite you to subordinate or annihilate yourself. Distrust compassion; prefer dignity for yourself and others. Don’t be afraid to be thought arrogant or selfish. Picture all experts as if they were mammals. Never be a spectator of unfairness or stupidity. Seek out argument and disputation for their own sake; the grave will supply plenty of time for silence. Suspect your own motives, and all excuses. Do not live for others any more than you would expect others to live for you.”
I will analyse this point by point. First: “Beware the irrational, however seductive.” Many religious fundamentalists ask me why I won’t believe what they do because if I did I would get eternal life. That idea is irrational but the idea of banishing death is certainly seductive. But believing something doesn’t make it true. If I believed in Santa should I expect lots of expensive gifts next Christmas? Believing something doesn’t make it true, it just makes the believer deluded.
Next: “Shun the ‘transcendent’ and all who invite you to subordinate or annihilate yourself. Distrust compassion; prefer dignity for yourself and others.” We should not enslave ourselves to any god, real or imagined. If a god actually existed and required humans to fully submit to his will I still wouldn’t be interested in worshipping him. The poor Christians who let their imaginary god and their churches think for them are truly pitiful.
Then: “Don’t be afraid to be thought arrogant or selfish.” I think many people in the skeptical and atheist communities have been too “nice” in the past. They have been so careful when discussing their views that they have failed to say what they really believe. The new atheists, including Hitchens, have been far more open in what they say and this has, of course, lead to conflict.
I’m occasionally accused of being arrogant myself! I remember on one occasion discussing religion with an Anglican minister and being accused of being arrogant simply because I didn’t believe the same thing he did. I think we need to say what we really think without any regard for how it will be perceived – at least in most situations although I admit sometimes a more subtle strategy might be more effective.
Then: “Picture all experts as if they were mammals.” That one short sentence is important but can be easily misused. All experts are prone to errors. But this shouldn’t be extended and used as an excuse to reject facts. Even though the experts who support evolution and climate change are mammals they should still be believed because those mammals also have plenty of facts on their side!
Then: “Never be a spectator of unfairness or stupidity.” We can’t all spend our lives protesting or occupying Wall Street or being arrested over environmental activism but we should do what we can. We should always be prepared to do what’s right because there’s plenty of unfairness and stupidity out there.
Then: “Seek out argument and disputation for their own sake; the grave will supply plenty of time for silence.” I love arguing (or to put it more politely debating) with people over the big issues even though many people think it’s a waste of time. But I agree that argument is good for it’s own sake, as long as it is about things that really matter.
Then: “Suspect your own motives, and all excuses.” If everyone followed this one rule most of the world’s problems would be solved. I so often see people criticise others for doing exactly what they do. And yes, I know I probably do this myself occasionally and I am aware of which of my beliefs are weakest. One of the reason I engage in debates is to test them and I have changed my mind on some subjects in the past – a phenomenon I have never seen in a fundamentalist of conservative.
Finally: “Do not live for others any more than you would expect others to live for you.” We do live in connected social communities and we do need to consider other people in how we live but in the end we need to do what we think is personally right, not what anyone else tells us.
That’s it. One of the greatest quotes of all time, in my opinion. I think anyone who follows the deeper meaning behind this will be a good and worthwhile person. Thank you Hitch.
In my last blog entry I discussed some of the fundamental questions many people ask, especially those questions they don’t believe can be answered by science. Many of these questions are “why” questions instead of the simpler ones which involve what, who, where, etc.
Ask I said then, I think there are many questions which science cannot currently answer and there are others which it might not ever be able to answer. But there are two reasons a question might not be able to be answered: first, the question is badly formed and cannot be answered for that reason; and second, the question is genuinely deep and difficult. Naturally it’s the second type of question which is more interesting to me. In fact there is one question which I think is the ultimate question, the one on which all others depend. No, it’s not the ultimate question from Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy, and the answer isn’t 42!
Before I reveal this question I want to mention a few which other people think are unanswerable but which I think feel short of the pre-eminence my ultimate question. One would be “what came before the Big Bang?” sure, that’s a great question and one I would love to know the answer to, but there are many ways it might be answered, including the currently popular answer: the question is meaningless because time was created in the Big Bang.
Let’s get a bit less technical. How about this one: “is there a god?” Unfortunately this question becomes a victim of issues of definition. Are we talking about a traditional, personal god; or even one of the existing gods described in common mythologist such as Christianity; or do we mean an advanced race of space aliens; or even impersonal natural forces such as the god concept Einstein followed? Depending on your definition the answer could be probably not, almost certainly not, maybe, or yes.
But enough of this. Here’s my ultimate question. The question is: “why is there anything?” This question is as unanswerable to religion and philosophy as it is to science. For example, if a religious person answers “there is stuff because god wants it that way” I have two (very obvious) objections: first, why does god want it that way; and second, why is there a god? Like many theological answers it isn’t an answer at all. It’s an example of special pleading: science has to explain the reason for everything but religion gets a pass on answering the same questions about god.
So, why is there anything? It really is an interesting question. Before we find out how the force of gravity works on the universe shouldn’t we know why there is a universe? And if the universe appeared through random quantum processes why do those processes exist?
Maybe it’s just another one of those infinite regression questions that children sometimes ask: Why do I have to go to school? Because you need an education. Why do I need an education? Because you need to get a job. Why? To make money. Why do I need money… Well, you get the idea.
But it doesn’t seem quite the same. By questioning the existence of everything this question cannot really be answered in a way which simply leads to a re-specification of essentially the same question. I believe it really is the ultimate question of life, the universe, and everything!
I recently listened to a discussion on the topic of whether science can be a source of morality. In fact it went beyond that to more general subjects involving science, religion and moral philosophy. The participants were impressive: no less than Lawrence Krauss (foundation professor in the School of Earth and Space Exploration, a professor in the physics department, and director of the Origins Project in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at Arizona State University), Simon Blackburn (Professor of Philosophy at the University of Cambridge’s Faculty of Philosophy, and Research Professor of Philosophy at the University of North Carolina), Sam Harris (neuroscientist, non-fiction writer, and CEO of Project Reason), and Steven Pinker (Harvard College Professor, and Johnstone Family Professor in the Department of Psychology at Harvard University).
So yes, these people have a few clues on the subject and the discussion was really fascinating. Sam Harris, as expected, had the most extreme ideas which clearly went beyond what the others were prepared to say, but I think he had some good points and I agree with just about everything he said. Of course Harris and I share a dislike of religion and I think we both believe it has no real place in modern society.
There was a discussion of the embryonic stem cell issue in the USA. There was the suggestion that there are two sides: on one side scientific facts, and on the other morals. But the morals in question weren’t really morals; they were religious dogma, superstition, and ignorance. So the argument isn’t really about morality at all, it’s really about facts versus superstition. If anything other than religion had been the basis of that so-called “morality” it would have immediately been discredited but, as is often the case, religion gets special treatment even though it clearly doesn’t deserve any.
The next question was can science influence values? Clearly it can and it has done in the past and continues to do so. Values change with time (which is an interesting point for those who claim they are based on the wishes of a god) and science is the major force of change in our society (there is debate on that point but I think many people would agree). So obviously science influences values and what is morality except a higher and more fundamental form of values?
Here’s a good old question which has been around a while: where does faith come in science? Does science rely on faith? Many believers seem to think so and even Harris says it requires the presumption that the world is accessible to experiment (in other words what we objectively experience is real). But that’s not really faith. I prefer to use the word “confidence” in those situations. Science has confidence that its methodology works because it has been an outstanding success for hundreds of years. Religion has faith that its doctrines are true despite all the evidence to the contrary. There is a big difference and anyone who equates the two concepts is either being deliberately misleading or is confused about the distinction.
All reasonable people agree that religion has nothing really to say on matters of fact, apart from a few stories based on actual history, but that doesn’t mean that it can’t be an important source of morality, does it? Well I guess not but I would rate it at best as no better than many other sources: pop culture, fiction, and common sense, for example. And I would rate it greatly below more credible sources such as philosophy and science. After all, how can a belief system so obviously based on untrue myths be taken seriously on any topic?
Another discussion involved whether beliefs, opinions and attitudes can be changed by scientific facts. Many people would be rather pessimistic about this, especially when statistics indicate a large percentage of Americans believe in self evidently ridiculous ideas such as creationism. But it was pointed out that attitudes have changed greatly, especially since the Enlightenment. There was some discussion about whether this was because of science or because of new cultural and philosophical ideas such as empiricism but this is just an argument over definitions, especially since empiricism is such a fundamental component of science.
So change can and will happen but it will take time. It’s often through new generations taking on new ideas rather than existing believers having their minds changed that major revisions in belief happen. That’s why the creationists are so desperate to have their lies taught in schools, and why many scientific organisations are fighting it.
But despite the absurd and rather surprising level of belief in Christian mythology in the US those ideas are dying. However high the numbers of believers in the US today they aren’t as great as they were in the past and in other countries religion is only a minority belief and most of the believers don’t take fundamentalism seriously anyway (I do concede that the obvious rise in extreme Islamic fundamentalism is contrary to this trend).
Harris says that science impacts o religion because it demonstrates the way the world really works. Even the Vatican has been forced to accept the truth science has shown although it seems to be contrary to Catholic dogma. Of course they have just retreated to slightly less extreme forms of superstition instead: evolution is real but it is guided by God. If they really believe that they must think their god is a real idiot because his use of evolution (99% of species becoming extinct, extremely poor design of various organs, etc) sure looks arbitrary to me!
Harris denies that the opposite happens: that religion affects science. I don’t know whether that is strictly true but it might as well be. Have a look back at the history of human knowledge: there have been a huge number of religious beliefs which have been replaced with scientific alternatives but has there been a single scientific theory which has been replaced with a religious dogma or belief? There have been none that I can think of, so religion doesn’t affect science that way. Maybe more to the point, religion doesn’t affect truth!
I do agree that religion does affect science through other means such as society, politics, and culture, but these are peripheral issues to the fundamental purpose of science which is to establish the objective truth.
So in summary I would say that science can, and does, affect morality. It’s not the only source of moral information and religion has a clear role there too, but only because religion has subsumed some philosophy (such as the golden rule) and has established some rules through simple common sense. Unfortunately religion also contributes silly rules intended to maintain the power of the church. So if religion’s input to morality disappeared we would be better off but I don’t think we could say the same for science.
Whatever some people think about the morality of the current generation I think the facts speak for themselves: overall people do have better lives, most of them are more free from political and religious oppression, and generally people treat each other better now than in the past. As the world gets less religious it gets better. That must be more than a simple coincidence!
Maybe the biggest problem I have with debating ideologically driven people (you know the ones I mean: creationists, global warming deniers, believers in the paranormal, extreme conservatives, etc) is that they think about things in a different way from me.
They will probably accept this as a fact but claim that their way of thinking is at least equal and probably better than mine. Needless to say, I would disagree.
So the question is, what is the best way to analyse a subject, to think about it, and to draw conclusions which might have some merit beyond that given to an opinion or an anecdote? Well this requires going back to the basics of your world view and of your general philosophy. I think that my epistemological philosophy is hard to fault so I’ll go through it here and refer my detractors to it with the challenge of finding a better one!
Step 1. First we have to admit that logically there is no way to ever know what is real and what isn’t with absolute certainty. This is an old theme in philosophy, most famously advanced by Rene Descartes with his famous phrase “cogito ero sum” (I think therefore I am). He was saying that the only thing a person can be sure of is that he, himself, exists. All the rest could be a delusion.
Descartes also included the existence of God as a prerequisite but that was an arbitrary inclusion and shows how even great philosophers can be badly influenced by the prevailing religious dogma of the time.
Since then other philosophers have claimed that we can’t even know for sure that we exist (and pointed out that the claim of the existence of god as a first principle is bogus). I agree this is ultimately true but also useless. Its far more useful to accept that what can be objectively demonstrated as very likely can be said to be true (this is probably most like philosophical pragmatism).
Step 2. Given that we need to find an objective, unbiased way to establish the truth we need to look for a method which would allow this.
It should be obvious that revealed truth and truth through authority aren’t valid because there are multiple sources for revealed and authoritative truth and no way to establish which is best. So saying something is true because it came from a holy book is useless because another “truth” could easily be contradictory and also come from a (different or even the same) holy book. The same applies to truth derived from gods, mystics and prophets.
A similar argument applies to truth from individual, subjective experience. It doesn’t matter how strongly an individual feels something is true they could still easily be wrong. This can easily be demonstrated by showing that religious zealots will perform suicidal acts for their belief yet anyone outside that religious group will very likely say they are still wrong.
So ideally truth should never come from sources that rely on poorly established authority, or on an experience that is only available to certain groups, or on any other source with poorly defined provenance.
Its also important to avoid a biased world view or a set of unsubstantiated premises. Many religious people start with the requirement that their god exists. And contrary to what many of them say, the rational worldview doesn’t start with the idea that god doesn’t exist, it starts with the idea that we should look at the evidence before we decide. There is no good evidence to support the existence of a god so that idea is rejected, but this is not done as a premise, that’s the critical difference.
The answer in my opinion is empiricism. The particular definition I’m referring to is the idea of a cycle of hypothesising, testing and observing, which is a major component of the modern scientific method.
If anyone doubts this idea I would ask this: if something really is true (even if it is originally derived from a revealed or subjective source) then shouldn’t there be some way to test it through experiment and observation? Some people will say “no” (God can’t be measured, my belief is spiritual, etc) but I would then ask them if their belief has any effect on the physical world. If it does then it can be tested, if it doesn’t then it doesn’t exist (even a spiritual experience affects the subject’s brain in some way).
Step 3. If we accept that an experiment can be performed to support or to reject a hypothesis we also need to accept that there could be other observations which disagree. This is because some experiments are badly designed or badly executed, sometimes the people doing them might have a bias, and sometimes the phenomenon being studied gives variable results because of statistical variations (maybe an experiment just happened by chance to measure something when it was particularly high or low).
So its necessary to look at the big picture. For example, someone determined to believe faith healing works can find studies showing its efficacy, but the overall experimental literature shows no good evidence that it works at all.
So experiments need to be repeatable. It would be preferable if anyone could repeat them, but given that many require expert knowledge or specialised equipment its acceptable if any other expert in the area can. This means that individual bias can be eliminated – even if it still doesn’t negate vast global conspiracies!
Step 4. We need to accept that no one, no matter how intelligent or well informed, can be an expert on any more than one or two subjects. That’s because we have advanced so far, especially in science, that its just impossible to keep up with the skills and knowledge necessary to be an expert.
So its necessary to accept the consensus of experts in most cases. I don’t necessarily think we should blindly believe everything experts tell us for two reasons: first, experts are sometimes wrong or even biased in some way; and second, its sometimes hard to tell who the real experts are.
There are plenty of good tools on the internet (and elsewhere) which allow study of every side of any issue. Anyone can use these to look at the facts. I do agree that the scientific consensus shouldn’t just be followed blindly buit should be given greater credibility than most other sources because it does reflect the majority view of experts.
So let’s use this methodology to examine a contentious issue. Let’s choose… creationism! Creationists (or at least the literal creationists do) claim the universe is about 6000 years old. Let’s see how that theory survives a critical examination by applying the steps above…
Step 1. The origin of the universe is in the past and we can never be 100% sure about what happened but let’s just look at the best evidence and take that as the (interim) truth on the subject.
Step 2. Reading the Bible will tell us how old the universe is according to its authors (whoever they were) but we could choose a different book and get a different answer. We also shouldn’t trust a book with an unknown provenance. So its more sensible to observe and test to see what answer we get for this question.
Step 3. So let’s do the tests. For hundreds of years the results have been accumulating from many areas of knowledge. Without exception they show an old Earth. There’s one experiment anyone can do if they have a little bit of equipment – at least in theory. That’s determining the speed of light and the distance to stars (demonstrating the light has travelled for far longer than creationism allows). I don’t have the space to list the steps here but that might be the subject for a future blog entry.
Step 4. If we can’t do the tests (and most people can’t) we should accept the expert consensus. Its so overwhelming that its stupid (yes, I stand by that word) to believe otherwise. Every branch of science agrees. It would take a conspiracy of far greater in scope than one involving all evolutionist or even all scientists to maintain it. The world is much older than 6000 years. There is no (reasonable) doubt.
So creationism has been rejected. The “controversy” the creationists have tried to create doesn’t exist because, although we should never accept anything completely, the age of the universe being much more than 6000 years is so close to an undeniable fact that it might as well be one.
Taken back to basics crazy beliefs like creationism all just self-destruct!
Everyone has philosophical perspectives or a worldview whether they explicitly understand that or not. Many people seem so apathetic that its hard to label them with a worldview at all but maybe apathy itself could be considered as one. So what I plan to do here is explore my philosophy or worldview (which I don’t necessarily know myself at this point but hope to discover as this blog entry proceeds).
First I am a rationalist. According to Wikipedia rationalism is “any view appealing to reason as a source of knowledge or justification”, or a method or a theory “in which the criterion of the truth is not sensory but intellectual and deductive”. Many people who aren’t rational will claim to be (I’ve heard people claim that belief in creationism is rational) so it really requires an objective, rational (getting a bit circular there) assessment to know for sure.
I’m also an empiricist, specifically a scientific empiricist. From Wikipedia again we get this definition: empiricism emphasizes those aspects of scientific knowledge that are closely related to evidence, especially as discovered in experiments. It is a fundamental part of the scientific method that all hypotheses and theories must be tested against observations of the natural world, rather than resting solely on a priori reasoning, intuition, or revelation. This seems to partly contradict rationalism but let’s not go there!
So I don’t rate ideas very highly unless there is objective evidence they are true. Some people claim I miss out on some subtle aspects of reality this way but I counter that by saying if a phenomenon is so subtle it has no measurable effect on the real universe then it actually don’t exist in any real sense.
The world views above naturally lead to atheism but that is a label I avoid because its more about what I’m not than what I am. I currently see no reason to think there is a god but so what? I am prepared to change that idea if the evidence changes and I also see no evidence for the tooth fairy existing. Should I also be labelled an afairiest?
I am also a political liberal. Liberalism, according to the dictionary is being “open to new behavior or opinions and willing to discard traditional values” or “favoring maximum individual liberty in political and social reform”. I don’t know how useful that definition is because many conservatives and libertarians would also say they support those views but I oppose a lot of what they believe.
I heard an interesting anecdote about liberals in a recent podcast. A radio producer was being challenged about why he used so many conservatives as talkback hosts. The explanation was that conservatives are better for the job because they have more fixed views and are more likely to cause controversy because of that. By contrast liberals make an effort to consider all sides of the story so they are more likely to have at least partial agreement with others and reduce the conflict and therefore the entertainment value of the program. Of course that higher entertainment value comes at the expense of fairness and accuracy!
Maybe most importantly I am a skeptic. That word has several possible nuances in its meaning. I don’t mean the philosophical skepticism which denies the possibility of all knowledge or the popular meaning of someone who doubts the validity of everything, what I really mean is thinking about the validity of new information or ideas instead of just accepting them. For example I never believe anything I see in the media until I have a chance to verify it on the internet or another independent source.
That doesn’t mean I ignore everything in the media. If the sports news reports that a sports team won a game I accept that because its easy to validate and unlikely to be controversial. If the media reports a UFO was sited I will definitely want to do a bit of research to find out what other perspectives are available on the story, and in every case so far there has been another perspective which inevitably involves a prosaic explanation. But that might not always be the case which is why I research the story instead of just discarding it.
The difficulty with skepticism is not so use it as an excuse for disbelief. A friend I recently debated global warming with (he’s a denier) refused to answer the question I asked which was “why did a recent study show 97% of climate experts accept global warming is real and caused by human activity”. He eventually dispensed with this inconvenient fact by saying “I’m deeply suspicious of all statistics that quote wide numbers of opinions as being in concert to the tune of 97%. It’s truly most unlikely”.
That’s not skepticism, its just pure, blind stupidity. I would be prepared to put a small bet on this: I he received a survey indicating 97% of experts supported something he believed in he would suddenly find that statistic quite persuasive!
So skepticism is great but it must be used fairly and evenly. None of the climate change “skeptics” I have met ever qualify as true skeptics, for example, because they are far too selective about how they apply their skepticism. Unless you are fully skeptical (including poorly supported scientific findings) you really shouldn’t use the tag “skeptic”. I use “denier” in this case instead. They love that!
Which brings me to my last label. I’m sarcastic and a bit of a smart-ass! Yes, this isn’t a formal worldview but I enjoy using humour to make a point and sarcasm to highlight the inconsistencies in other people’s opinions. Unfortunately that sometimes means I aren’t quite as objective, respectful, or careful as I should be but, no one’s perfect and you’ve got to have a bit of fun some times!
In some recent debates I have been involved with the idea of laws has been tossed around. That something is a law is used as a justification for all sorts of points of view and superficially the idea might make sense but I’ve looked into this a bit more deeply and realised that it all comes back to the definition of the word.
There are at least three ways of defining the word in the dictionary but my definitions are slightly different. Here’s what I mean…
Example 1: The universal law of gravitation. This is a physical law and the word is quite misleading here. One classic misuse of it is by creationists who say that the laws of physics must imply a law giver. The fact that laws in the legal sense require a person or organisation to create them doesn’t also apply to natural laws. These laws are more like consistent observations of phenomena which lead to predictable results. We have no influence over them and there is no need for an entity to create them.
Example 2. The laws of economics. Economic laws are observations of the real world too, but because they involve human behaviour, rules, and norms, they aren’t as definite as the physical laws. No one really created them but we can significantly affect them. For example the law of supply and demand could easily be changed through various interventions. People who claim that some social outcome is inevitable because of the economic laws ignore the fact that we do have ultimate control over them, unlike the laws of physics.
Example 3. Laws in the conventional legal sense such as laws against murder. These are entirely created by people and, in some sense, totally arbitrary and can be changed in any way required. For example, its usually illegal to kill another person but in times of war its encouraged. Clearly these laws aren’t the same as the laws of physics.
Example 4. God’s laws. These are really just another form of the laws mentioned in example 3 except the people who created them give them extra authority by invoking a god as the originator. The same comments apply to these as example 3.
So there you have it. The next time someone invokes a law as the reason things must happen a certain way or uses a law to justify a particular outcome think about what type of law it is. Unless it is the type mentioned in example 1 above the justification doesn’t apply because really some laws aren’t laws at all.
An interesting podcast I listened to today was an interview with a person who had been closely associated with Star Trek creator, Gene Roddenberry, for many years. She talked about how influential the original TV series and all its subsequent series and movies have been, but also commented on the many underlying themes of morality and equality which were unusual for the time (at least in the original series).
Some of the themes were disguised because of the political sensitivities of the time. Actually, they weren’t exactly subtle but apparently they were obscure enough to fool the TV executives and allow the program to be shown without interference, although an episode showing a kiss between Kirk and Uhura (she was black) wasn’t shown in the Southern states! But the woman who played the character, Nichelle Nichols, was persuaded to stay on in the role by Martin Luther King (no less) because he thought she was a role model for the black community.
So what other sorts of themes were common in the Star Trek programs? Scientific progress and how it could be used to solve problems was one. No one living in the “civilised” parts of the Universe really lacked much because of unlimited energy supplies and material synthesis technology. So the future achieved through science was positive unlike a lot of other science fiction.
Another obvious theme was the consistent examples of equality and against xenophobia. The crew of the Enterprise came from a variety of backgrounds and Spock was from another planet. Sure it was a bit biased towards males but considering the era it was quite remarkable.
Finally there was the religious stuff – or lack of it. There were gods in Star Trek but they tended to be advanced aliens (often mentally unbalanced ones) or some other natural phenomenon. And the crew didn’t show a lot of superstition or religious belief.
The original series had some other good stuff too. Apparently the “prime directive”, a rule forbidding contact with other civilisations which hadn’t yet joined the galactic community was really a commentary on the US military action in Vietnam!
Yeah sure, some of the acting was pretty atrocious and some of the stories were a bit weak, but Star Trek surely was a very influential program – especially when you understand all the hidden messages of unconventional (at the time) morality!