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.

Giles Fraser at Westminster Skeptics: a rambling review

Tonight I went to WestSkep, at which Canon Dr Giles Fraser was speaking on “Being suspicious about the Skeptics“. Now my regular readers, yes both of you, will have noted that I prequelled this event in an earlier blog post. In the event, Dr Fraser turned out to be more interesting than I could have anticipated. He’s a very impressive speaker and, despite the audience really wanting to give him a bloody nose at times, he skipped through the questions with the ease of a prize fighter.

A full, nuanced review is beyond my capabilities, even when sober, so here is a collection of random observations and interesting (to me, at least) comments that I collected from the evening. Please note my careful use of scepticism as distinct from skepticism. I mean them to refer to two totally different concepts. Fraser underlined that he understood scepticism well, but was less clear on skepticism, not least because he had never attended an event.

Fraser’s talk started with scepticism proper, ie Descartes. Descartes wanted to know how he knew that he wasn’t a brain in a vat under the supervision of a bad demon. His response was that he knew that he existed because he had thoughts: cogito ergo sum. Fraser observed that Descartes then proved the existence of God in three different ways, all of which ultimately are flawed. Hume was the next great sceptic. Fraser said that Hume found it hard to reconcile his own scepticism with the fact that, on occasion, he liked to go out drinking with his friends and play backgammon with them. Clearly scepticism has its bounds! He then moved on to Cavell, who famously observed that scepticism means you turn those closest to you into strangers.

Fraser then asked us to consider Othello, as a demonstration that there are limits to the situations to which the scientific method can be applied. Othello wanted to know whether Desdemona loved him, and looked for evidence. Unfortunately the best evidence, as with a scientific theory, is that she doesn’t. Othello searched high and low for evidence of her infidelity. And, of course, thanks to Iago’s treachery, he finds it in abundance. Fraser aimed to demonstrate that, in some cases, the evidence based method can be used to control and possess others. In such situations, it is bad.

There were then lots of questions. I won’t attempt to cover them all, but some of the more interesting observations or discussions that followed included:

  • There was a discussion about whether religion or atheism was the better default position. Does religion presume more than atheism or is it vice-versa? Fraser answered that, personally, he uses religion as a receptacle for things he doesn’t know about rather than using it to answer questions or gain knowledge.
  • Someone asked about an ultra-sceptical approach to the world. Does Descartes mean that we need to assume lots of things? Is the concept that there are other people in the pub listening to the talk an assumption, or is it reasonable knowledge? Fraser was unconvinced that such a position can reasonably be considered an assumption.
  • Someone asked whether Othello should have been more sceptical. Wouldn’t that have revealed the plot against him? Here I wish that Fraser had lived up to his talk’s title and been more suspicious. It’s easy for us to laugh at Othello’s lack of scientific method, because we’ve read the whole play and know the terrible conclusion. How do skeptics know that they themselves are truly being sceptical enough when approaching questions about the world?
  • Dr Evan Harris, the self-styled patron saint of the evidence-based method as a means to control others, asked some pointed questions about whether it’s appropriate for religion to be taught in schools.  Amusingly, Fraser agreed with him, noting that religion is taught so badly that it often becomes a “machine for the production of atheists”.
  • David Allen Green asked whether someone who believes in the Christian God is, by definition, an atheist to all the other Gods people believe in. Doesn’t this make Christianity some sort of rounding error in a true atheistic position? Fraser reminded him that this was an early Roman attack on Christianity. It was suggested that Fraser doesn’t believe in the God of the Bible, which Fraser emphatically rejected.
  • Someone asked whether there were some situations in which it would be appropriate to seek evidence for love. However the questioner failed to entirely make his point, coming across as someone who was trying to force the evidence based method into a situation where it didn’t really make sense. Fraser wasn’t trying to define a set of circumstances where EBM is never appropriate, but simply to show that there are some situations where it doesn’t work. Therefore we need to always be suspicious of it. Related to this was a question that sought to get Fraser to define some of his terms better so that there could be a debate on common ground. But Fraser wasn’t having any of it. Defining terms is the sort of whiny crap first year philosophy students like to get up to… usually the sort of first year students who fail to make it into the second year due to their lack of academic rigour.
  • Crispian Jago highlighted the apostle Thomas, who had behaved skeptically in demanding to see Jesus’s wounds and – in Jago’s view – been treated badly by the Church for it. Fraser scoffed at the very idea, noting that Thomas was a saint, quite possibly the highest honour the church can bestow.
  • The strangest question of the night belonged to a young lady who, as well as talking about duck sex, suggested that it was inappropriate to take children to church because it tends to want to instil absolute truths and might constrain their inquisitive minds. As the parent of two young children, both of whom go to Sunday School, I can only presume she has no children of their own. Their Sunday School has never demanded that they accept Bible teachings without question and they ask me thousands of questions every day, just like almost every child does.

Overall it was an interesting discussion, and Fraser acquitted himself well. As with other SITP discussions, I found the debate didn’t answer the title of the talk, which was a bit frustrating. I’d have liked him to turn the focus on skepticism a bit more. Skepticism, for me, is ultimately deficient because it fails to recognise that it is a view of the world that operates on a reduced instruction set (ie the EBM). This fundamental axiom of skepticism is never justified, yet it is used to exclude other ways of arranging the world such as religion.

Furthermore, skepticism is an inadequate way of resolving real problems in the world. OK, so EBM tells us that vaccination doesn’t cause autism. But does that, in itself, justify the mass-vaccination of billions of people against their will? No, skepticism cannot help us answer questions of this sort. Raised this evening was the issue of eugenics, which can be easily justified on scientific grounds but is intolerable under even the most basic ethical frameworks. Another example might be global warming, where it makes sense to avoid it, but not at any cost. To answer these questions, we need to recognise that they are typically resolved in the social, political and emotional arenas. They cannot be answered using science alone. It would have been provocative, for sure, but Dr Fraser didn’t really do enough this evening to explain why we should be suspicious of the skeptics.

Other reflections on tonight’s talk: serious and not-so-serious.

Science vs religion

You can find knowledge and learning without science. But, given that science works so well, why would you?

You can find peace, meaning, a sense of ethics, and inner calm without religion. But, given that religion works so well, why would you?

It’s silly to criticise religion for something that it patently doesn’t set up to do in the first place.

And they came and said to him, “Teacher, we know that you are true and do not care about anyone’s opinion. For you are not swayed by appearances, but truly teach the way of God. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not? Should we pay them, or should we not?” But, knowing their hypocrisy, he said to them, “Why put me to the test? Bring me a denarius and let me look at it.” And they brought one. And he said to them, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” They said to him, “Caesar’s.” Jesus said to them, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” And they marveled at him.

The Gospel according to St Mark chapter 12, verses  14-17.