Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Stanley Fish's untenable post-modern relativism

In his New York Times opinion article, "Citing Chapter and Verse: Which Scripture Is the Right One?", Stanley Fish, professor of humanities and law at Florida International University, argues that all "original authorities" choices are equally parochial, equally tribal, equally partisan, equally ideological, and equally arbitrary. Stanley Fish has his own beliefs, and he views himself as one of many other equally parochial, tribal, partisan, ideological advocates. What is important, in his view, is that while we hold and advocate for our beliefs, we simultaneously recognize that all competing beliefs have equally valid foundations. He criticizes modern atheists for placing "the tenets of materialist scientific inquiry" above other equally valid authorities, such as "revelation and conversion".

He points out that any defense of empiricism is circular because "the reasons undergirding that belief [in empiricism] are not independent of it." Such circularity is necessarily true of any possible method of belief justification (what Stanley Fish calls "original authorities") that is uniquely correct and successful. If there is only one method that reliably works then the only way to justify that method is to utilize that method to justify itself. But that doesn't mean all methods of justifying belief are equally valid. There is a way to compare the methods to each other. Consider the hypothetical: What would happen if we did not rely on this method?

Let's start with abandoning the methods of religious revelation and conversion, because those were the only two other methods Stanley Fish mentioned, and rely on empiricism (what Stanley Fish refers to as "education" or "materialist scientific inquiry"). What would happen? Well, generally speaking, people who convert from one religion to another other religion, or to or from no religion, and people who cite one religion based revelation as against another revelation, or no revelation, do equally well, more or less. So, for the sake of argument, lets just say that without relying on revelation and conversion people can, and do, proceed with living their lives as modern atheists (or, if you prefer, as "scientists") without major negative or positive impact.

Now let's try abandoning empiricism. Without empiricism we ignore our senses of smell, touch, hearing, and sight. We can stay perfectly still and within about one week we starve to death for lack of water sitting or lying in our urine and feces. Or maybe we move around, cut ourselves, break our bones smashing ourselves into things, burn ourselves, bleed to death, get run over by a car, walk over a cliff. The details don't matter, there are lots of possibilities, all of them leading to death within a few days.

Of course, outcomes are evidence, and we learn of these outcomes through the "original authority" that Stanley Fish refers to as "education", not from "revelation and conversion". So pointing to outcomes is an empirical way of defending empiricism. Stanley Fish thinks that makes the justification for empiricism circular, and he is right. But he is foolish, not just wrong, to claim that therefore empiricism is no better than any other authority for justifying beliefs. It is foolish because outcomes matter. The only method that reliably works is empiricism. Unlike all other ineffective methods, our lives literally depend on this one method, no one can survive as an independent person without many beliefs that are empirically justified. Everyone, even dependent young children, even dependent adults in adult care institutions, relies on empiricism to navigate our world.

There is no other method of belief justification that has any record of success whatsoever for distinguishing what is true from what is false. The reason that people who rely on revelation and conversion survive at all is that they are inconsistent. Religious people invariably rely on empiricism when they face important decisions that risk their health and welfare, such as whether to walk on water. These same religious people then arbitrarily rely on revelation and conversion when they make decisions that are relatively unimportant, such as whether to spend some time each weekend in a house of worship. Many religious people don't seem to recognize how inconsistent they are and fail to acknowledge the complete failure of revelation and conversion as methods for distinguishing what is true from what is false. Those religious people who really do follow revelation and conversion over education when making health decisions, also known as faith healing, such as Christian Scientists, sacrifice their, and their children's, health and welfare as a result.

At least one professor of humanities and law, maybe thinking he is being sophisticated by being non-judgmental, tragically appears to be unwilling to publicly acknowledge this substantial and important difference. Stanley Fish himself probably relies on medical doctors, not on faith healers, when it really matters to maintain his health, even though the medical knowledge database is obtained indirectly through second hand education that requires some trust in the sources of that information. He argues that because empirical evidence is often obtained second-hand, it is is no better than any other method. But almost all group activities require trust, such as the market economic system and democracy. It doesn't follow that a mixed market and command economic system and republican democracy are no better than North Korea's strictly command economic and political model. It is by inter-person and inter-generational sharing of empirically obtained knowledge that we continuously build up our knowledge base for better outcomes in the future than we had in the past. Yet according to Stanley Fish's relativistic argument, anyone with real and serious injuries who seeks assistance from faith healers instead of medical doctors has acted on equally valid evidence, and for equally good reason, as everyone who opts for medical doctors. The post-modern relativism that Stanley Fish is peddling is foolish nonsense on stilts.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Atheism is not scientism

Philip Kitcher, John Dewey professor of philosophy at Columbia University, in his recent New York Times article titled "Science is Unbelieving", identifies "scientism" as a major flaw in modern atheism. He defines scientism as "this conviction that science can resolve all questions known" including "questions about morality, purpose, and consciousness" and places this label, which he acknowledges is intended to be pejorative, on Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens.

He then elaborates that scientism "rests on three principal ideas. The facts of microphysics determine everything under the sun (beyond it, too); Darwinian natural selection explains human behavior; and brilliant work in the still-young brain sciences shows us as we really are." However, none of these three assertions, neither individually nor in combination, imply that science can resolve all questions known. Everyone with any common sense, including modern atheists, recognizes that science is a human endeavor, that humans are limited to operating within the confines and limits of their location and time and abilities, and that humans never have, and never will, have access to all evidence about everything, everywhere, over all time, past and future. Accordingly, science does not, and will not, resolve all questions known. Indeed, all questions do not have answers because many questions have no relevance to what is true or false or are incoherent. The issue of what questions should be asked is itself an issue that can only be reliably resolved by following the available evidence.

And when we follow the evidence, as all rational people are obliged to do, the assertions that physics is “the whole truth about reality”, that we should achieve “a thoroughly Darwinian understanding of humans”, and that neuroscience makes the abandonment of illusions “inescapable", are not scientism, as Philip Kitcher asserts, they are simply the conclusions that arguably are most consistent with the available evidence. Those are short quotes that Philip Kitcher excerpted from a book by one particular atheist ("The Atheist's Guide to Reality: Enjoying Life Without Illusions" by Alex Rosenberg). He is using his critical review of that book as his launching pad for his more general attack against modern atheism. I have not read that book, but taking short phrases like that out of context is not conducive to fair criticism of the author's argument. I can imagine such short phrases appearing in paragraphs whose context gives them a more nuanced interpretation than Philip Kitcher appears to be trying to attribute to this author. Philip Kitcher clearly dislikes these sorts of conclusions, but his mislabeling these conclusions as scientism fails to demonstrated that they are "premature".

It is true that "very little physics and chemistry can actually be done with its fundamental concepts and methods, and using it to explain life, human behavior or human society is a greater challenge still. Many informed scholars doubt the possibility, even in principle, of understanding, say, economic transactions as complex interactions of subatomic particles.". But again, science is a human activity, and humans are limited in many ways. So none of these limitations in science as a human activity counter the conclusion that physics underlies the whole truth about reality. Quantum indeterminacy, the necessary incompleteness in the description of a physical system, is one of the characteristics of the universe as understood by modern physics. So even if some predictions are impossible "in principle", it still doesn't follow that it is mistaken to conclude that physics underlies the whole truth about reality. What Philip Kitcher derides as "imperial physics" makes complete access to the future forever inaccessible to us. Furthermore, nothing in basic physics requires that the properties of complex systems be identical to the collection of the properties of that system's constituent parts. It is well established in physics that entirely new properties sometimes appear in complex systems. Nothing about this emergent properties phenomena supports the conclusion that god exists. Philip Kitcher may not like that physics rules over us and the universe, but that doesn't make the evidence that it does any less convincing.

Philip Kitcher then disparages the generalizing from evidence to conclusions "unfettered by methodological cautions that students of human evolution have learned". Indeed, atheism is a generalization, not a conclusion of science. Generalizing from the evidence is something we all do. It is a basis for sound philosophy, so it seems kind of odd to hear a philosopher criticize such activity in such general terms. We need to make decisions on the basis of the available evidence, and since the available evidence often falls short of being complete in the context of answering the questions relevant to making our decisions, we generalize on the evidence. Shame on atheists for being like everyone else in this regard!?

Philip Kitcher then points out that "others hold the equally staunch position that some questions are so profound that they must forever lie beyond the scope of natural science. Faith in God, or a conviction that free will exists, or that life has meaning are not subject to revision in the light of empirical evidence." The first two questions are existence questions and the only reliable basis for answering such questions is by matching the answer against the available evidence, not on faith or conviction. The evidence disfavors both, and the people who argue that empirical evidence can have no relevance when trying to answer those questions are no less mistaken for being adamant. The last question is an attitude question. But even human attitudes, to be properly sustained, need to be anchored in facts and therefore should be built on a foundation of evidence, not on counter-evidenced possibilities such as God and free will. And what in the world does the measure of profundity have to do with a question being beyond the scope of natural science? Profundity is irrelevant here. Questions are either inside or outside the scope of natural science primarily in relation to the availability of evidence.

Not surprisingly, Philip Kitcher tries to divorce his attack against "scientism" from disrespect for natural science. He notes that "The natural sciences command admiration through the striking successes ....". But "... the natural sciences have no monopoly on inferential rigor. Linguists and religious scholars make connections among languages and among sacred texts, employing the same methods of inference evolutionary biologists use to reconstruct life’s history. Attending to achievements like these offers many alternatives to scientism." With that last sentence, Philip Kitcher appears to be implying that modern atheism (a.k.a "scientism") is inconsistent with "employing the same methods of inference evolutionary biologists use to reconstruct life’s history" in contexts beyond the natural sciences. This is nonsense. Modern atheists very much support and favor "employing the same methods of inference" on the empirical evidence beyond the confines of the natural sciences. Inferring from the evidence is what we are doing when we observe that the available evidences favor the conclusion that gods are human created fictions.

Philip Kitcher then asserts "Instead of forcing the present-day natural sciences to supply All the Answers, you might value other forms of investigation — at least until physics, biology and neuroscience have advanced." But that is what atheists are doing. Atheists look to psychology, to anthropology, to sociology, to history, to evidence grounded philosophy, etc., and the evidences available from all sources that relates to this particular question is consistent in its direction wherever we look. That is why we are atheists. This has nothing to do with natural sciences supplying "All the Answers", it is about the best fit with the overall evidence answer to a particular question. There are human tendencies that explain the common bias against accepting the evidences that our universe is all space-time and matter-energy, such as the tendency to internalize the beliefs of the people around us during childhood. Maybe in the future we will have evidence that our universe consists of something more than space-time and matter-energy, or maybe not, but it is a mistake to insist that there is also a god without the evidence.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Why is there something instead of nothing? Part 1.

One of the reasons many people shy away from atheism is the conviction that a creator God is a reasonable explanation, and the only viable explanation, for how the universe came to exist. The commonly held assumption is that nothingness was the initial condition sometime prior to the Big Bang and that nothingness is a condition from which something cannot appear. This perspective underpins deism, although many agnostics and theists also share this perspective and see this need for something to originate from nothing as being the Achilles Heel of atheism. The new book, "A universe from nothing: Why there is something rather than nothing", by Lawrence M. Krauss, disputes this assumption. I will discuss that book in a future blog post. For now, let's take a quick look at another cosmologist's overlapping commentary on this topic.

Sean Carrol of the California Institute of Technology, in his article "Does the Universe Need God?", says this: "Most modern cosmologists are convinced that conventional scientific progress will ultimately result in a self- contained understanding of the origin and evolution of the universe, without the need to invoke God or any other supernatural involvement." Furthermore, citing Hawking, he notes that "nothing in the fact that there is a first moment of time ... necessitates that an external something is required to bring the universe about at that moment." Indeed, "the issue of whether or not there actually is a beginning to time remains open." Instead, the Big Bang may be a "transitional stage in an eternal universe." He also explains that "the multi-verse is not a theory, it is a prediction of a theory", based on combining string theory with inflation. Furthermore, contrary to what theistic critics sometimes assert, a multi-verse complies with the preference for simple explanations because "the simplicity of a theory is a statement about how compactly we can describe the formal structure ..., not how many elements it contains."

Sean Carrol points out that a compelling argument for God "would consist of a demonstration that God provides a better explanation (for whatever reason) than a purely materialistic picture, not an a priori insistence that a purely materialistic picture is unsatisfying." Furthermore, "to refer to this or that event as having some particular cause .... Is just shorthand for what's really going on, namely: things are obeying the laws of physics." Accordingly, "there is no reason ... to think of the existence and persistence and regularity of the universe as things that require external explanation." Furthermore, with theism "we're not simply adding a new element to an existing ontology (like a new field or particle), or even replacing one ontology with a more effective one at a similar level of complexity .... We're adding an entirely new metaphysical category, whose relation to the observable world is unclear." Sean Carrol then notes the discrepancies between the universe we should expect if traditional theisms were true and the universe as it is. God "isn't needed to keep things moving, or to develop the complexity of living creatures, or to account for the existence of the universe." At 14 pages, his article is worth the time investment required to read.