Science and philosophy. A Hackney SITP review

Tonight I made it, somewhat late (sorry), to see Clio Bellenis present on “Is philosophy relevant to science?” at Hackney SITP. This is a subject that has huge resonance for me. For I was once a student of science who became increasingly disenchanted with the subject and who took up philosophy in order to provide some answers to the questions I felt science was unable to answer. And, having started studying physical science at university, I ended up with a degree in philosophy, to the great disappointment of my parents.

So it was with great anticipation that I turned up to the friendly Hackney SITP to see Dr Bellenis speak. Boy, was I disappointed. After (rightly) putting the boot in to Professor Brian Cox for his idiotic attack on philosophy, she gave a very muddled presentation that touched on philosophy of mind and the free will/determinism debate but which managed to avoid any discussion at all about philosophy of science. In the questions that followed, Dr Bellenis presented some astonishingly facile arguments against the existence of God [“He is logically impossible, unless He is a sadist. If God is omniscient, omnipresent and omnipotent, how can there be suffering in the world? He must be evil. Therefore God cannot exist” This argument manages to undervalue the concept of freedom. Every parent knows that it’s better for their child to be free to make mistakes than to be constrained], railed against grammar school tests and, most irritatingly of all, stated that she knew very little about philosophy of science.

Given that this was supposed to be the subject of her presentation, I felt this to be a very major failing. I do prefer it when speakers at this sort of event manage to answer the exam question they have set for themselves.

An alternative approach might have been to identify a few reasonable but controversial propositions that scientists might make and then test them using philosophy. For example:

  1. “Science is the only way to acquire knowledge”. This could have allowed discussion of alternative methods of knowledge-acquisition and whether they are, philosophically speaking, as valid as science. What gives science its higher position, if anything? The work of Paul Feyerabend would be a good reference here. Shouldn’t we be open to mad approaches to knowledge acquisition if they produce information that is useful? Even religious approaches?
  2. “The empirical method is infallible”. This could have allowed discussion of some of the challenges to empiricism. In particular, the work of Thomas Kuhn (which Dr Bellenis sadly misused horribly in the question and answer session: paradigm shifts are fundamental changes in the building blocks of science, not a change from one theory to another. [Incidentally, Kuhn is poison for most skeptics, who do seem to prefer the idea of a linear progression towards perfect knowledge. I do wonder why he’s so popular with them]), which suggests that science can be very bad at analysing evidence fairly, especially when it contradicts the major theories of the day. Conflicting theories often don’t get a fair assessment until there are so many holes in traditional science that it becomes untenable. Doesn’t this mean that scientists should be more receptive to radical, unconventional theories today?
  3. “Only those things that can be replicated using the scientific method shall be considered true”. This could have allowed discussion of logical positivism, which seems to curry favour with some more radical skeptics today, even though the theory has fallen into disrepute in modern philosophy. But what can replace it? What are the implications for science?

Now it’s been some 20 years since I studied philosophy of science, so I’m a bit rusty, I know. But, in my view, this would have provided a much more stimulating framework for discussion of the relationship between science and philosophy than Dr Bellenis’s rather incoherent presentation. Ultimately science doesn’t need philosophy, just as it doesn’t need history or politics. But it’s much, much stronger for taking account of it.

Many thanks to the lovely Alice Sheppard for arranging tonight’s presentation and for making Hackney SITP an essential part of the monthly calendar.

Music and emotion

At university, I sang first tenor in a college choir. The college choral scene is a fairly mercenary affair and many colleges seek to bolster their ranks with choral rejects from colleges with a much better singing tradition. And so it was that I, an outsider, shared the pews with two other outsiders. One was a third year English student, distant heir to a brewing fortune and quite possibly the most intelligent and insane person I have ever met. The other was a PhD candidate whose thesis covered the relationship between music and emotion.

Now, you must understand, I have not always been the calm, measured person I am now. At some point, we got to discussing his thesis and I didn’t agree with him. I was polite enough not to come to blows; after all, I had to sit next to this chap three times a week. But I had to agree to defer to his greater knowledge. He, after all, already had his degree, whereas I was only a pretendy philosophy undergraduate.

His proposition was that music cannot instil emotion in people. While he accepted that you can hear music and feel emotions, these emotions are merely an epiphenomenon caused by some attachment you have between that piece of music and some life experience. The music, in and of itself, does not cause the emotion. He believed that it cannot do that.

This afternoon I was listening to random bits of music on my mp3 player. I came across a song I hadn’t heard before by the Total Sound Group Direct Action Committee and my spirits were lifted. I simply don’t accept that there is some hidden connection with Tim Kerr’s guitar or Mike Carroll’s rough-as-shit vocals that caused my emotional change.

I’m going back in time to retract my deference. The theory’s bollocks.

Dead horses and red meat

People are outraged that five horses have died at the Cheltenham Festival. Yet, not so long ago, people were trashing claims that eating red meat increases an individual’s chance of death.

The moment you claim that it’s daft to suggest that eating red meat increases your chance of death, you must simultaneously agree that it’s daft to suggest that racing at Cheltenham increases a racehorse’s chance of death. This isn’t to downplay the sad story of how racehorses are treated, but to demonstrate that people are incredibly comfortable holding inconsistent views.

(Of course, this is just another scope issue).

Fox hunting and gay marriage

Gay marriage is indeed the topic du jour. And an argument that I’ve seen doing the rounds is that opponents of gay marriage need not worry, because they don’t have to marry a gay. They just have to tolerate other people, who may be gay, getting married.

This brings to mind a debate from an earlier decade: fox hunting. In the fox hunting debate, you’ll recall, it was proposed that there are some activities that are so pernicious, so depraving, that they corrupt not only those who partake of them but potentially others in the community around them. As this risk cannot be tolerated, it’s accepted that part of society can impose its will on the rest of society.

Once you have accepted that those opposed to fox hunting, most of whom know next to nothing about fox hunting, can legitimately stop those who want to hunt foxes from doing so, you cannot complain when those opposed to gay marriage, most of whom know next to nothing about gay marriage, seeking to stop gays from getting married. Those who seek to restrict the liberty of others must accept their own medicine when the iron hand of authoritarianism knocks on their door.

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The advantages of threatening to kill a baby

An article that argues that newborn babies do not have the same moral status as people, and therefore that it’s acceptable to kill them, has created a storm of outrage. The Journal of Medical Ethics has had to defend its decision to publish the article, bemoaning “the deep opposition that exists now to liberal values and fanatical opposition to any kind of reasoned engagement”.

I’m not sure they’ve quite got it right. I don’t see this as opposition to liberal values but rather a symptom of demented inconsistency that clouds people’s ability to think clearly.

Our laws protect people and don’t, at least not nearly to the same extent, protect non-people. By and large, you can kill any animal you want to without fear of being hauled in front of the courts for murder. By contrast, an animal that kills a human can expect summary destruction without so much as a trial. People and non-people are different, and the courts reflect that. So, in order to deny Giubilini and Minerva’s conclusions, you must either claim that they’ve drawn the line between personhood and non-personhood at the wrong place,  or that we need a special set of laws for special non-person things like foetuses and newborn babies.

The first of these is probably easier to argue. Many of those who hate Giublini and Minerva’s article may well be opposed to all types of abortion. And that’s fine; you may a coherent position from that starting point, while needing to address how to deal with situations where perhaps the mother lacks capacity or the child is severely disabled. But these issues aren’t insurmountable. You can rightly argue that life is sacrosanct and that it begins at conception. Therefore it’s always wrong to abort in all cases, including when the baby is newborn.

The second is more tricky. Are you to say that the pre-person thing gets a subset of the rights people enjoy? If so, how do you define what that subset is to be? Why should it get the right to life where we deny it to certain animals? Of course, please feel free to make the case if you think you can do it.

What upsets me most about people’s reaction to the article is the inconsistency. Regardless of the line you want to take, you are basically arguing that it’s always wrong to kill a person. And therefore it’s totally absurd to argue, as some people have done, that it’s justifiable to “do away with people who believe in doing away with live babies” or that they “would personally kill anyone doing a after-birth abortion”. If these people can conceive of a situation where it’s acceptable to kill a philosopher, then they must similarly be able to contemplate a situation where it’s acceptable to kill a baby?

No, the correct response must be to thank the authors. By illustrating just how appalling and absurd it is to kill a newborn baby, they help to highlight the difficult ethical dilemmas raised by abortion. Those who seek to restrict abortion further should celebrate this contribution to their cause. Even those who can accept abortion in certain situations should welcome this challenge to their principles. Abortion is morally difficult and articles that help us think about it more clearly are to be welcomed. What’s particularly unwelcome is a rash of mindless thuggery in response.  That does nothing to improve the civility of our society.