Monday, January 19, 2009

Darwin, Art, Atheism Etc.

The rows below about Darwin, art atheism etc took me back to 1992. It was then that I published Understanding the Present, the arguments of which seemed to me to be self-evident to the point of being boring. Others did not agree. For about three weeks I could not open a newspaper. Scientists queued up to abuse me. My reaction was my normal, weak-minded one - I assumed I was wrong about everything. When I recovered sufficiently to read the abuse I realised I was being too hard on myself. The arguments against me were simply rhetorical expressions of faith based on a concealed metaphysic. This has happened again with the comments on this blog. One commenter used the term 'qualia', a which makes my heart sink or, in certain moods, prompts me to reach for my revolver - even though, sadly, I do not own one. Qualia is an important word, however, a term of philosophical art used to identify the subjective and incommunicable quality of experience - the thing which, so to speak, is born with me and dies with me. The arguments surrounding the word are well summarised on Wikipedia. The striking thing about these arguments is that they are inconclusive. No open-minded person is likely to rise from the literature on qualia, ruffling his hair and exclaiming that the whole qualia problem has at last been solved. What he is more likely to conclude is that we do not yet have an account or an explanation of qualia and that, therefore, subjective experience remains a mystery or, if that word is too strong for you, a puzzle. What he cannot rationally conclude is either a) qualia have been accounted for or will necessarily be accounted for in the future or b) qualia therefore God, a position I think I was accused of taking. He cannot say materialism must be true nor that anti-materialism has been proved. He must be, in every sense of the word, agnostic. All the arguments are, therefore, expressions of faith or inclination. For the moment the puzzle/mystery remains. I incline to the view that there is something wrong with the strong physicalist view either that it is not a mystery or that it must necessarily be soluble. Art was my evidence, admittedly inconclusive. If I am proved wrong then I will admit it. But, for the moment, I can't see how that can happen and I will retain my possibly sentimental fondness for the thing that is born with me and will die with me. I think that's about all I was saying, but if you tell me I'm wrong I'll probably believe you.

22 comments:

  1. We need more police on the beat.

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  2. Rows? time for bed, said zebedee.

    word verification: endly

    precisely.

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  3. Were drugs something used in my carbon being I would say, "heavy, but accurate."

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  4. I think, Bryan, you have been exactly right in saying that the only rational conclusion is agnosticism, beyond which - should one choose to go there - lies an act of faith. Your anti-religion critics apparently do not see that they are the exact mirror-image of the scriptural literalists (of whatever creed) they claim to deplore.

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  5. "He cannot say materialism must be true nor that anti-materialism has been proved."

    Well, we have yet to see anything that doesn't fit under materialism-it has an insanely high amount of backing. If it were a scientific theory, they would refer to it as a law. But it isn't- it is the foundation of science. And science... well, so far so good.

    "He must be, in every sense of the word, agnostic."

    Why do you have to be agnostic if you are willing to admit a change in evidence could change your mind, but until than are certain?

    " I incline to the view that there is something wrong with the strong physicalist view either that it is not a mystery or that it must necessarily be soluble."

    The track record disagrees with you. And MRIs.

    "I think, Bryan, you have been exactly right in saying that the only rational conclusion is agnosticism, beyond which - should one choose to go there - lies an act of faith."

    Not really. There are DEGREES of evidence. Imagine someone claiming there is another person in the next room. Now, imagine them claiming it when they hear the sound of a boot on the tiling and the thud of someone hitting the wall.

    "Your anti-religion critics apparently do not see that they are the exact mirror-image of the scriptural literalists (of whatever creed) they claim to deplore."

    When secularists start attempting to take away peoples rights by legislation, than they start coming close. Until than, no.

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  6. You having the 'oh God, if there is a God, save my soul, if i have a soul' stance is all to the good. But it puts you in the middle, between those holding beliefs of industrial strength. Might be as well to think a bit about getting that firearm. What was unclear by the way, which direction was the business end intended to be pointed, if you had one.

    Oh, early in the 18th century 'Fasti' was the word of the moment. For about ten years you could not read a paper without the word appearing speckled like pepper on a feed of chicken and mash

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  7. Samuel:

    "When secularists start attempting to take away peoples rights by legislation, than they start coming close. Until than, no."

    But of course they do. As do agnostics, atheists(different from secularists, but we'll save that for another lesson), the religious and the frankly indifferent. It's an unfortunate habit, but humankind in whatever age has always seemed to produce individuals, we call them politicians, who seem to enjoy telling people what, and what not, to do.

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  8. 'Understanding the Present' is a good book, not surprised it annoyed the lab coats.

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  9. Understanding the Present was, by any standards, amazingly prescient.

    Anyway, the first thing to say about all this is that ultimately it really doesn't matter much, so anyone who enters the debate already in a rage can be ignored. For example, someone who thinks it's ok to call you a 'dumb fuck' in a complex and nuanced philosophical debate clearly has so many self-esteem issues that their judgement can only be clouded, and they therefore automatically disqualify themselves.

    However, the sheer rage and venom of some of the atheists is itself interesting. Really, the scientific approach shouldn't allow you to get that worked up - it doesn't by itself give you any grounds for rage. The scientific method also can't get you to Gordon's Scientism. This is because the scientific approach is merely a set of very useful tools which can only ever yield contingent truths, liable at any time to be overturned or radically modified by new evidence or better theories.

    (Darwinism is an example - if it worked like a faith, scientists would still follow Origin of Species as if it were a handbook. But of course what we call 'Darwinism' now contains allelle frequencies, population bottlenecks, genetic drift and all manner of modifications and complications precisely because it is built on scientific contingency.)

    All of which only goes to show that scientists are, above all, humans. So they get some of the blame for the bitterness, but Intelligent Design gets even more, and you have to expect a torrent of wrath if you give even a hint of a semblance of credence to ID 'theories'.

    A Believer could make God consistent with evolution in various ways that don't conflict with Darwinism, such as:

    1. God kickstarted the evolutionary process, created the 'rules' etc but then let it run its course unaided.
    2. God is involved in the process but he cleverly makes it look exactly like He isn't.
    3. God created the world in 6 days a few thousand years but also created a bewildering infinity of false evidence that makes it look like evolution did it over millennia.

    The correct atheist-darwinist response to any of these would be to say "There is no reason to believe these things, therefore I don't believe them. They are outside the realm of science."

    It is not the scientist's job to say 1, 2 or 3 are 'nonsense', merely that they are unscientific. If he does say they are nonsense, then he is over-reaching himself and is forgetting the whole point of his own approach.

    Intelligent Design, on the other hand, attempts to hijack the scientific method by squeezing religious speculation into the scientist's evidence/falsification-based territory. By doing so the ID proponent shows that he doesn't understand science, makes a mockery of religion and inevitably embarrasses himself.

    The scientist has every right to attack the ID-er as hard has he likes (although simple politeness should forbid calling someone a 'dumb fuck' just because he happens to mention one of them.)

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  10. Perhaps 'dumb fuck' is one of those unexpected sexual compliments? - i hear there's a German phrase that translates literally as 'dumb fucks good', meaning stupid people are good in bed. Perhaps Bryan's troll was really making a...proposition of sorts? Alarming if so.

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  11. How does agnosticism guide ethical choices? Embryonic stem cell research has provoked a debate that is every bit as fierce as I.D. vs Darwin but, unlike the existence of god, you can't simply agree to disagree. Governments have to make a choice and that choice will be guided by moral values. How does anything we have talked about in these treads bear on that choice?

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  12. "But of course they do. As do agnostics, atheists(different from secularists, but we'll save that for another lesson), the religious and the frankly indifferent. It's an unfortunate habit, but humankind in whatever age has always seemed to produce individuals, we call them politicians, who seem to enjoy telling people what, and what not, to do."

    When people make laws based on atheism restricting others rights, use them as an example.

    "
    However, the sheer rage and venom of some of the atheists is itself interesting. Really, the scientific approach shouldn't allow you to get that worked up - it doesn't by itself give you any grounds for rage. The scientific method also can't get you to Gordon's Scientism. This is because the scientific approach is merely a set of very useful tools which can only ever yield contingent truths, liable at any time to be overturned or radically modified by new evidence or better theories."

    Because people NEVER get worked up about injustice.

    "1. God kickstarted the evolutionary process, created the 'rules' etc but then let it run its course unaided."

    The rules are based on the nature of the process and universe- they can't just be "made".

    "2. God is involved in the process but he cleverly makes it look exactly like He isn't."

    The invisible and non-existent...

    "3. God created the world in 6 days a few thousand years but also created a bewildering infinity of false evidence that makes it look like evolution did it over millennia."

    So, the insanity defense?

    "There is no reason to believe these things, therefore I don't believe them. They are outside the realm of science."

    What are you talking about? They are inside science and have been discarded.

    "It is not the scientist's job to say 1, 2 or 3 are 'nonsense', merely that they are unscientific. If he does say they are nonsense, then he is over-reaching himself and is forgetting the whole point of his own approach."

    So scientists should not attack homeopathy?

    "Embryonic stem cell research has provoked a debate that is every bit as fierce as I.D. vs Darwin but, unlike the existence of god, you can't simply agree to disagree."

    Not true- IDers want to change the textbooks.

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  13. The reason you didn't understand my comment, Samuel, is that you don't understand that there is a difference between science disproving something and being silent on something.

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  14. Elberry: "Dumm fickt gut".

    Mr. Skinner: Your comments on materialism are a bit of a bait-n-switch. The people who developed Science and Scientific Method tended to hold philosophies in which God created the world (or might have done, anyway) and the world worked mechanically, in the normal way of things. This allows for the "materialism" which Science requires, and was the philosophy of Newton and Maxwell and the Bacons and a load of other scientists - an assumption that the machina mundi (to borrow a phrase the mediaevals were fond of) works like clockwork and God but rarely tinkers with it, or at least that the fairies do not come out to play when you're looking. This "materialism" is contested by few now, due to the success of Science.

    The "materialism" most people discuss when using the word, especially when atheism is in the arena, is that which says "all is machine and there are no mechanics; the world is a well-wound clock and there is no clockmaker."

    Also, "we have yet to see anything that doesn't fit under materialism" is is totally meaningless. Materialism is an assumption made for understanding the world; if anything doesn't seem to fit, then you can refine your model, and if that doesn't work, it's child's play to generate rationalisations to cover the discrepancy. Hallucination, experimental error, freak atmospheric conditions, "there must be an explanation, we just don't know it yet...", and if none of that works, you're probably not talking about a discrepancy that'll repeat itself under control conditions, so you can just dismiss it as "unrepeatable". Bingo! Sanitised scientific world.

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  15. Godescalc, i hope your Prague crucifix was in your left hand as your typed that with your (right) kill hand, you sweet motherf*cker you.

    Now old Wittgenstein loathed the growing materialism of the post-WW2 days and was aiming for a reorientation of thinking that would combat this loathsome cancer. He did good work but as long as science can press X button and get Y result every time, people will worship the lab coats.

    Of course if other forms of energy were if not proven then at least evidently REAL, science would have to step back and tug its forelock and say 'yes boss'.

    As the physical reality is moving closer to other forms of energy perhaps we will have some reason to suppose science is limited.

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  16. Sweetly put, Godescalc.

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  17. "The reason you didn't understand my comment, Samuel, is that you don't understand that there is a difference between science disproving something and being silent on something."

    Theology considers itself a science. If you are looking for something that is universal and you have failed after 3000 years, it is time to admit that it probably doesn't exist.

    "Mr. Skinner: Your comments on materialism are a bit of a bait-n-switch. The people who developed Science and Scientific Method tended to hold philosophies in which God created the world (or might have done, anyway) and the world worked mechanically, in the normal way of things."

    And the man who wrote that "All men are created equal" was a slave holder.

    "Also, "we have yet to see anything that doesn't fit under materialism" is is totally meaningless. Materialism is an assumption made for understanding the world; if anything doesn't seem to fit, then you can refine your model, and if that doesn't work, it's child's play to generate rationalisations to cover the discrepancy. Hallucination, experimental error, freak atmospheric conditions, "there must be an explanation, we just don't know it yet...", and if none of that works, you're probably not talking about a discrepancy that'll repeat itself under control conditions, so you can just dismiss it as "unrepeatable". Bingo! Sanitised scientific world."

    Except unlike other rationalizations, materialism WORKS. There has never been a case when something couldn't fit under it. Considering the amount of prestige a person would get for overturning it, it is ridiculous to believe that there is evidence out there that is just being ignored.

    But lets not assume materialism. Than what? We still get the same answer! Materialistic answers are always more likely because material answers have been verified countless times, while non-material ones have yet to pass the first hurdle.

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  18. "Theology considers itself a science"

    No I don't. Where did you get that from? Are you sure it wasn't my drunk cousin, Chemistry? We look a lot alike on a dark night.

    Now go get your shine box.

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  19. Theology was a science, and indeed Queen of the Sciences, under the old sense of the term. The meaning of the word "science" has since shifted.

    Sam: Jefferson possibly felt there to be some contradiction. If you hold slaves, believing slaves should be freed one day does not flow from that very naturally. If you believe God has created a well-ordered universe, however, the idea that it's amenable to systematic study (i.e. science) is an obvious idea, at least in hindsight.

    Regarding materialism "working", well, yes, no, still meaningless. I'm having a hard time understanding what you're writing, because you seem to be ignoring distinctions which are obvious to me. Atheist materialism ("the machine exists but there is no mechanic") can't strictly speaking be argued against, but there's somewhat suggestive evidence in every testimony of every miraculous event ever experienced by a human being, of which there are large numbers. (For my part, I've seen a lame guy healed by prayer, FWIW.) Of course, no totally rigorous proof of the supernatural can be offered, because you can't be certain that the apparent miracle didn't have some natural cause. It might be that there is a natural explanation, we just don't know it yet. So to say, as you do, "there has never been a case when something couldn't fit under [materialism]" is either to say to a large chunk of humanity "who you gonna believe, me or your own lyin' eyes?", or to say "There has never been a case where a materialist explanation couldn't be assumed, if you're working under the assumption that there's a materialist explanation for everything."

    What I have called scientific materialism would not be overturned by the existence of miracles (which are generally taken to be an exception to the normal laws, thus implying a normally-mechanistic universe, thus allowing for Science). I cannot imagine what it would take to overturn scientific materialism; it would mean proving there are no consistent laws underlying the behaviour of the world. But whatever data you got about the world, you couldn't prove there were no laws underlying them; all you could say is "I discern no consistent order here; perhaps there is a deeper order, which I do not perceive yet. More research would appear to be called for." If scientific materialism were to be overturned (somehow), then it would come as a shock to a lot of people, including you, me, Dawkins and the Pope.

    So: what would you accept as a disproof of what you call materialism? You talk as if it'd be easy to disprove. I'd like to know the details.

    (The assumption that a miracle always, or usually, involves a breach or suspension of the normal physical laws is arguably an oversimplification, but that's another matter.)

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  20. ...and I should note, as regarding the distinction I want to draw, that my first post's final paragraph sloppily fails to acknowledge that distinction as it discusses the problem with disproving either of the things Sam seems to lump under "materialism". No editors on the internet...

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  21. If the concept of matter doesn't dissolve into absurdity on close inspection then you have no imagination.

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  22. I was over at a poetry forum called Delectable Mnts. There, Art Durkee linked to an article by Reb Livingston on her blog Home-Schooled By a Cackling Jackal. She begins :

    I planned to stay quiet on the inaugural poem and wait for the nasty discussion to simmer down, but I'm disturbed.

    Yours,
    Rus

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