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A recent panel discussion in Mexico debated the question “Does the universe have a purpose?” The speakers for the affirmative were Rabbi David Wolpe, William Lane Craig and Douglas Geivett. And for the negative Matt Ridley, Michael Shermer and Richard Dawkins.

I don’t think the discussion was very good. Contributions were short and the original video is in Spanish. It’s also full of hoopla. Reminds we of an international scientific congress I attended in Mexico some time ago. All the official meetings involved many young women as decoration. And the Mexicans are certainly a very musical people. Music was everywhere.

However, I have included a video below of the short contribution made by Richard Dawkins in this discussion. It gives an idea of the issues discussed:

Prof.Richard Dawkins destroys Dr.William Lane C…, posted with vodpod

A local exchange

This debate ended up provoking me into a small exchange with some local theologically inclined philosophers (or is it philosophically inclined theologians). Well, I guess you know the futility of such exchanges but it did manage to elucidate some attitudes on the ability of science to answer questions about the universe .

It started with a claim that Dawkins should not have participated in the Mexican discussion because the issue was not scientific. (Presumably this complaint also covered Ridley and Shermer – but you know how some people can’t see past the word “Dawkins”).

This critic of science claimed: “Science can’t even put its hands on that question because it lays behind the domain of the scientific. It’s like science attempting to answer the question of whether or not the universe was intended. It has nothing to say.”

Well, charges of “scientism” followed and it was claimed that the question of purpose is a “religious and philosophical (not scientific) question.” Then came the old charge that scientists assert ’science is the only valid knowledge” and reference to “other ways of knowing.” Ho hum, if I had a penny for each time these red herrings were dragged out . . . ?

Jerry Coyne (from the science perspective) and Russell Blackford (from a humanities perspective) have been discussing similar charges lately (see Keeping the humanities alive and Keeping the humanities alive – and a bit on “other ways“). I liked this comment from Russell on “other ways of knowing”:

“But this whole “other ways of knowing” is a pain in the arse. It’s a phrase that tends to be used by people who want to devalue scientific knowledge, treating it as just one more interpretation of the world, no more true than that contained in mythology, holy books, reports of mystical experiences, etc., or at least by people who want to be able to say that whatever is contained in mythology, holy books, reports of mystical experiences, etc., may be true, and that human reason cannot check up on it.”

Such discussions usually produce more heat than light, but it’s worth briefly pondering some of the issues involved.

Is “purpose” outside the science domain?

If purpose or intent have any reality they will be reflected in the details of the universe. Take the Rev Pailey’s watch on the heath. A scientific investigation of such a found artifact could reveal that it had a purpose, surely.  So a purpose or intent for the universe (which I guess implies some sort of “creator”) should surely be reflected in the structure, history and functioning of the universe – like the cogs and spring in a watch. Sure, the evidence may be equivocal. But given the excellent record the methods of science has in investigating the universe it is surely the method of choice for attempting to detect purpose or intent.

And this is what even the advocates of “intelligent design” do. They look for “evidence” in bacterial flagella, DNA, fine tuning of physical constants, etc. They don’t use “another way” – although one can of course question the way they use science.

Can science know everything?

This is a common straw man – because no-one makes that claim!

While we can agree that the modern scientific method is a very successful way of investigating and understanding the universe, objective reality, this does not deny limits – even in this area. Lets, face it – our species did not evolve to understand reality – purely to survive. Consequently objective reasoning and discovery doesn’t come easy to us – it is unnatural. Science has developed procedures that help us overcome our subjectivity, our emotional attachment to beliefs, and normal human bias and a desire to confirm that bias.  Logical reasoning and empirical evidence, testing and validation may not always produce an exact description of reality – but it is a hell of a lot better than any alternative! Or, more correctly, if and when we find effective alternatives they will be incorporated into the scientists toolbox.

And science is cumulative and self-correcting. I liked Lawrence Krauss‘s comment in his book Hiding in the Mirror:

’What is too often underappreciated about science is that almost all of the ideas it proposes turn out to be wrong.’

As I explained in  Most ideas in science are wrong!:

“It is in the nature of the scientific method that ideas, hypotheses, are proposed and most of these turn out to be wrong. And we know they are wrong because the ideas are tested in practice, by experiment, measurements and observations of reality. It is the ideas or hypotheses which survive such testing that are incorporated into scientific theory, become part of accepted scientific knowledge. Even then, of course, such knowledge is relative. New discoveries often lead to modification, or even replacement, of a scientific theory if it is proved to be inadequate.”

A corollary of this is that ideas or theories resulting from “other ways of knowing” which don’t incorporate empirical evidence, checking and verification are just as likely to be wrong. You just wouldn’t know it! (Which is, of course, very convenient for people peddling these “other ways”).

Nor do we deny epistemological limits. There may be aspects of reality which are just beyond our investigation and/or understanding because of technological limits and/or the limits of the human mind. There may be aspects of reality which just can’t be comprehended by the human mind. As Stephen Pinker said (see Science Is Culture: Conversations at the New Intersection of Science + Society):

“one expects there should be problems that the mind is incapable of grasping, simply because of the way it is put together. . . there may be limitations to the way the human brain works that make certain problems eternally paradoxical.”

But of course, being human, we are inquisitive. We shouldn’t refuse the attempt at investigation and understanding just because we recognise our possible limitations. Maybe one day we will have to just give up and admit defeat. But I suspect we are a way off that yet.

Beware of anyone who wishes to ring-fence part of reality and deny science has a right to move beyond their fence. Especially as they are usually busy peddling their own myths or faith as “explanations” for those areas. They don’t appear willing to accept limitations to their own “ways of knowing.”

What are these other ways of knowing?

I could go into the “other ways of knowing” I actually see as valid. There are plenty in the political, ethical and social spheres. Situations where science may inform but decisions are made by humans using other non-scientific reasons. Emotional, ethical and political aspects may play a determining role.

But I will leave it with this illustration from the current problem of human induced climate change using a quote from Andy Reisinger’s book Climate Change 101: An Educational Resource:

“We need to draw a clear distinction between the role of science and political decisions about how to respond to information. The IPCC reports take great care to provide policy-relevant but not policy-prescriptive evaluations of the scientific state of knowledge. Decision on whether, when, and by how much to reduce emissions, and  how to facilitate adaption, remain ultimately political decisions that can be informed  by scientific assessments such as those provided by the IPCC.”

Obviously these political decisions include ethical and social considerations.

Usually the “other ways of knowing” is an argument by default. Those using it often get confused when asked to describe their “other ways.” Suddenly this discussion diverts from objective reality of the universe to “science can’t describe love or art?”

However, I did manage to get some answers from my local protagonists and they are worth considering

Logical inference

The most sensible response was the use of “pure logic”:

“one very obvious way of acquiring knowledge that doesn’t involve any of the sciences is logical inference, either from analytic truths or from other truths that might be scientific or might not.”

I think this is an important one because it is often used by theologians  and philosophers of religion when attempting to decry science. I suspect it reflects their specific training as it displays an ignorance of the true nature and history of science. It also indicates how much theology and religious philosophy is buried in medieval philosophy.

Logical reasoning has long been used by humanity in its efforts to investigate and understand the universe. But an important component of modern science is the use of empirical evidence and our testing and validation of ideas and theory empirically.

I suggest that when theologians advocate logical inference and analytical truths as an alternative to science they are expressing a desire to remove the annoyance of empirical evidence and testing. They are attempting to return to a “stripped down” medieval version of science.

One could go into a detailed consideration  of deductive logic vs inductive logic. But here are some important considerations.

In principle deductive logic may produce the correct conclusion – if it starts with the correct premise. And logical laws are correctly followed. It’s reliance on premise makes it very conservative – you only get out what you put in. And how does one check?

Humans, being humans, automatically attempt to confirm their biases. They will choose the most convenient premise to start with. They will fudge their logical steps.  The ability to count to 3 is not a guarantee of correct logic.

How do you know if you are wrong without empirical evidence and testing?

Revelation and testimony

Yeah, right. Of course these would be great – if they worked. It would save a lot of time and expense in research if we could just consult the “holy” scripture, accept the assurance of the Pope, priests, theologians, Imams or the guy raving on the street corner.  But come off it. This method has been tested – it doesn’t work.

Instinctive religious awareness

Since when has this provided us information on how the universe functions? How chemistry works? How physics and biology work?

Would you rely on such awareness when it comes to your health and safety? Would you step aboard an airplane constructed on the basis of such “awareness.?”

Memory and intuitions

Of course we rely on our intuitions and memory in our day to day activity. That is their role, why we have evolved such abilities. But as I said above, we did not evolve to objectively investigate and understand reality. Our memories and intuitions often let us down in such endeavors.

So much of objective reality is counter-intuitive. How could it be otherwise as we have evolved in a rather limited part of reality. Our intuitive reactions let us down when we come to investigate the very small, very large or very fast.

Counting teeth

All the “other ways of knowing” our philosophical theologists have suggested ignore the question – “How do you know you are correct?” None of them include empirical evidence, checking or validation. On the contrary, they seem to avoid this step so normal in science.

In Let’s count teeth I relate a little homily from Chris Trotter’s blog (see Counting the Horses Teeth) which I think is very relevant:

’According to legend, the radical medieval theologian and poet, Peter Abelard, once confounded his teachers by subjecting their received wisdom to a simple empirical test.

His scholastic masters had been arguing about exactly how many teeth there should be in a horse’s mouth. If they applied the principles of the classical philosopher Aristotle, they arrived at one number, but, if they relied upon the observations of another ancient sage, a different total suggested itself.

Backwards and forwards the argument raged until the young Abelard, frustrated beyond endurance, rose to his feet, and, calling upon his fellow students to follow him, marched down to the marketplace, where he simply forced open the mouth of the one horse after another — and counted its teeth.’

Significantly, neither of my protagonists were willing to suggest which specific way of knowing they would use to determine purpose or intent in the universe! Or how they determined if their conclusions were correct

The old argument by default again.

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