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.

Marabou storks and autism

Marabou stork nightmares is a terrifying book by Irvine Welsh. It tells the story of Roy Strang, who has constructed a fantasy world around Marabou storks, in order to protect himself from the horror of the appalling things he has done. In the end, it isn’t enough and his past catches up with him. The woman he raped finds him, and then castrates and murders him.

Earlier today, I was chatting to an American friend of mine, S, whom I know through online gaming. I’ve known her for nearly eight years. In that time, S fell in love with a Swede, moved to live with him there and has had a son. She loves her boy, with all the passion and feeling that really only a mother can. That’s plain to see. Her son has severe autism and learning difficulties. He suffers from several allergies, including wheat and dairy. And, because S knows and loves her son, she can pinpoint the precise day that he went from being an “ordinary” boy to the child he is today.

It’s the day that he went to get his vaccinations.

Now, I’m aware that the finest scientific minds in the country, if not the world, have tested the vaccines-autism link and have been unable to find anything. I respect the scientific method. However, I also respect S’s opinion. Reconciling the two isn’t easy. However, the scientific method at its best can only say “we have currently discovered no evidence that there is a link between vaccination and autism”. Empiricism will always be susceptible to as-yet-unperceived causal links that, because we don’t know about them, we simply don’t think to test. We may not even know how to test them.

So you must believe me when I say that there is little that makes me angrier than people glibly claiming that S is in any way irrational or is undertaking quackery when she expresses her view that it’s at least reasonable to suspect the vaccinations as a contributory factor. You have lost your basic humanity if you argue this way. Skepticism doesn’t permit you to abandon your responsibilities towards other people. And if I catch a skeptic abusing S or any other grieving mother, you will find your scientific method protecting you about as much as the marabou storks saved Roy Strang. There’s a lot more to life than science, and that wider world demands that you treat your fellow, irrational unscientific brothers and sisters with a little basic respect.

Skeptical atheism, religion and politeness

It’s long been a concern of mine about the skeptics movement that some skeptics find themselves unable to behave civilly when confronted with religious people. So it’s with some interest that I see that David Allen Green has published a civility and inclusion policy that seeks to address the very real problem that some skeptics seem to believe themselves so infused with their quasi-religious fervour that, quite literally, anything goes. Even the essential moral obligation to treat fellow human beings with dignity.

I coin the term ‘skeptical atheism’ as the form of atheism which aggressively seeks to put down religion, often in disparaging, rude terms, rather than the mere expression of personal disbelief in God. God is often a great comfort to people at critical points of their lives. To deny that, even in kind terms, would be improper. To do so in the strident, carping tones of the skeptical atheist is totally unacceptable.

From a personal point of view, I ended up at religion as a result of the study of science. I found that there were simply too many questions that science was unable to answer. This is inevitable given its narrow instruction set, which insists that experiments must be reproducible. Science also tends to be more comfortable with theories and hypotheses that support the existing literature rather than contradict it, even when the possibility must always exist that the existing literature is flawed. Therefore science doesn’t build in a linear fashion, but lurches forward in a series of catastrophic revolutions.

Demand for reproducibility and an absence of wonder in the scientific literature means that religion is excluded almost by definition. Unfortunately, skeptical thought falsely treats the lack of need for religion as proof that it doesn’t exist. But we know that this line of reasoning must be false, due to the nature of knowledge acquisition itself. Descartes acknowledged that, from first principles, the only thing you can know is that, because you think, you exist. Beyond that, you’re having to take things on faith. You must trust that your eyes aren’t deceiving you, that your memory isn’t flawed or being tampered with, and that scientific laws and constants don’t vary. Worse than that, so much of the body of scientific knowledge is built upon experiments that most skeptics have never observed and – indeed – don’t actually understand. Ultimately their argument becomes that they trust [insert your favourite celebrity skeptic here] more than they trust a religious leader. While you could construct some arguments from first principles as to why this might be desirable, it’s certainly not qualitatively different, as skeptical atheists seem to believe.

Some of these issues may get aired on Monday June 25, when Canon Dr Giles Fraser, formerly of St Paul’s Cathedral and now of St Mary Newington, presents at Westminster Skeptics on the subject “Being suspicious about the Skeptics.” I urge you all to attend. And it will be a very significant and potentially serious test of Green’s civility policy. It’s only a few weeks old; let’s hope it can have a long and happy life.

It’s the end of the world as we know it (a Hackney SITP review)

Last night, I returned to the Hackney SITP to see Guardian journalist Alok Jha talk about his new book The Doomsday Handbook: 50 Ways to the End of the World. The book, as you might expect, sets out 50 ways that civilisation might end in gruesome and catastrophic ways. Jha has aimed to use science to illustrate each one, in order to demonstrate just how fragile our modern existence is.

At Hackney, we got only a cut-down version of the book, with 5 ways the world might end:

  • An asteroid crashes into us. Jha pointed out that Hollywood loves this storyline but that the truth is much more mundane. Earth gets hit by asteroids all the time; it’s just that most of them burn up in the upper atmosphere. However, a large asteroid of greater than 1km across would make it all the way through and cause enormous damage. As well as the impact explosion, it would throw up clouds of dust that would obscure the Sun for years. Jha stated that this remains the best explanation of what wiped out the dinosaurs 65 million years ago.
  • We all die of a deadly pandemic. Everyone remembers H1N1 and H5N1. And the film Contagion. But Jha reminded us that the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918 killed millions and millions of people. Were one of the current deadly types of flu to mutate into a novel form, we could see similar numbers of deaths, not least because of the much higher global mobility today.
  • We get sucked into a black hole. Jha suggested that a black hole could wander too close to our solar system and we would find ourselves affected by its deadly gravity. We might be thrown out of orbit altogether, which would condemn us to a freezing winter on the vast emptiness of space, or we might be sucked inside. Nobody really knows what would happen to us there. Except people think we might get stretched like spaghetti, as those parts of us that are nearer to the black hole get sucked in faster than those bits that are further away. Or something. This section was amusing because Alice excitedly pointed out that the image he had chosen was more specifically a quasar rather than a black hole (which would be simply black, right?).
  • Aliens turn up and kill us. If aliens land on Earth, we hope that they might be nice. But they could turn out to be evil, like those nasty Mars Attacks! aliens and merely want to stick probes up our butts and kill us. He referred to the Drake equation, that aims to get its arms around the likelihood of there being alien life.
  • Strangelets. He finished with strangelets, which are definitely one to place in the “File under: Weird” category. Strangelets are (gross simplification alert!!) in such a low energy state that, on coming into contact with any other matter, would convince that matter to turn into a copy of itself. Within hours, everything on Earth would become strangelets. And we’d all be dead. Jha consoled us that the number of interactions that must have taken place in the Earth’s atmosphere over the years, we would expect a strangelet to have been created, were it possible. So the fact that it hasn’t happened so far might suggest that they don’t really exist. [As a side note, strangelets really reminded me of Vonnegut’s Ice-Nine in Cat’s Cradle].


And that was that. Jha took some questions, most of which were fairly mundane – “What’s your favourite?”, “What’s the most boring?” But TruenFairview hit the nail on the head with her question: why should we worry about things we can’t control that will kill us, when shouldn’t we really be worrying about things we can control that, if left unchecked, might severely impact our way of life? Sure, it’s fun to ponder the end of the world, but ultimately there’s really not a lot we can do about it.

I was also a bit unconvinced that the 50 items in his book form a coherent set, at least based on the five he chose to present. Unless we find a clever way to refuel the Sun, we know that in a few billion years it will start to run out. At that point, it will start to expand, consuming the inner planets – including Earth – as it goes. By then, we will need to have designed an enormous rocket or to have found a way to coax Earth into a more hospitable orbit around its (now bigger) sun. That’s a good application of our best understanding of science. By contrast, aliens coming and killing us is just science porn. There’s no real scientific basis underpinning it. Strangelets also feel a little bit the same.

Given that the Skeptics movement exists, in part at least, to counter the abuse of science by charlatans and showmen, I found myself unsure that Jha wasn’t sort of doing precisely that. OK, so he does know some science and is, at least according to the judgement of last night’s gathering, “a good guy”. But this isn’t a book that’s going to teach you a lot of science. It appears to be primarily an entertainment book that will titillate and thrill you, while leaving you not really any more enlightened about science than before. And that seems a bit of a lost opportunity.

Hackney SITP meets on the last Monday of every month at the Hackney Picturehouse from 7:30pm, and is, my slightly doughy reviews notwithstanding, a very good night out. I got to say hi to Alice and to chat to the lovely God_loves_women (I’m afraid I was too chicken to introduce her to the Dead Dad).

Scientists do not have a monopoly on assessing evidence. A Hackney SITP review

Last night, I went to a Hackney “Skeptics in the Pub” event. The big draw was lawyer David Allen Green, aka blogger Jack of Kent, who was speaking on the subject “Scientists do not have a monopoly on assessing evidence“.

The good parts. David is a charismatic and entertaining speaker. The main thrust of his talk was interesting: he wished to disabuse those present of the notion that the legal process is a quest for “the truth”. Instead, the law wishes solely to dis/prove legal liability. Having found that someone is liable, it can then do things to them. Fine them. Make them do community service. Send them to jail. Whether someone is liable therefore depends solely on assessing evidence in accordance with the law as laid down. The truth isn’t so much a consideration.

David illustrated this thesis with a catalogue of cases, all of which will be familiar to the Skeptics movement or to readers of his blog or his New Statesman writing. For example, it matters not that we all know that Paul Chambers never intended to actually blow Robin Hood airport sky high. Liability was established under the law, so bad things can be done to him (there’s a further appeal due in February).

That contrasts with science, which believes that it (and usually scientists believe only it) aims to get at the truth.

It’s certainly an interesting perspective. Unfortunately, that’s as far as he went with it. I was waiting for him to develop it further, but he spent a lot of time wallowing in the past, without really explaining what the implications for his thesis were. It’s good to play to the gallery at times, of course, but I would have welcomed a deepening of his hypothesis.

Both law and science rely on models. The scientific model aims at truth, if you’re a scientific realist, or perhaps usefulness, if you’re an anti-realist. The legal model aims at establishing liability (as David explained). A major difference between science and the law is that where science finds discrepancies between “truth” and its model, it will change the model (this is a gross simplification for the purposes of keeping this blog post short!). Because the law isn’t concerned with the truth, this can’t happen. However, egregiously unfair cases may lead to the law being changed or “bent” to produce a temporarily or permanently fairer outcome, as perhaps happened in the Simon Singh case. Exploring why we operate law and science differently would have been interesting, especially if you were to contemplate whether you could run them the same way. Further, it would have been illuminating to look at other disciplines, such as history, economics or accountancy, to determine whether they follow the legal or scientific model, or whether they have an alternative approach. (My starter for ten is that history is more scientific, accountancy is more legal, and economics has aspects of both.)

As I say, it’s a pity that David didn’t go there. But it was an enjoyable evening in a great venue with excellent company. It’s well worth keeping an eye on their future agenda.

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.

The machine that can detect God

I have a machine. It has a small LED display and a button. It’s very simple to operate; you just press the button and the LED display shows you a brief message: “God exists”.

This is no hoax. My machine really does do this. Why would I lie to you? I’m a priest.

Perhaps you feel you don’t need to see my machine. Perhaps you’re just comfortable with my assertion that it does indeed do what I tell you it does. So you might tell others that you know God exists because you believe in Adam’s machine.

There are other machines in the world. There’s one that has enormous computer displays and lots of buttons. It’s very complicated to operate and frequently breaks down. Its displays can tell you many weird and wonderful things. Such as whether the Higgs Boson exists.

This is also no hoax. The LHC really does do this. Why would the people behind it lie to you? They’re scientists.

Perhaps you feel you don’t need to see the LHC. Actually, that’s a good thing, because you’re not really allowed anywhere near it, and certainly nowhere near its most intimate workings. So you’ll just have to take it as read that it really does indeed do what the scientists tell you it does.  And, yes, you might tell others that you know the Higgs Boson (does? doesn’t?) exist because you believe in the scientists’ machine.

Now there are some people who love the scientific method and see no reason for the existence of God. In their view, because God isn’t necessary to the advancement of knowledge and can’t be detected using the scientific method, He simply doesn’t exist. This can lead to some hurtful and unkind comments about how belief in God is somehow illogical or superstitious.

Yet, qualitatively, there is no difference between the faith of the religious and the faith of the scientific. If anything, the faith of the religious is more likely to be acquired from first hand experience. It’s just that, due to its very personal and spiritual nature, it cannot be replicated by others. By contrast, the faith of the scientific purports to have rigid empirical roots. But, in the hands of an individual, it is just as likely to be built upon faith rather than first-hand, or even second-hand, empirical knowledge. The individual won’t ever have seen a Higgs Boson, or perhaps even an electron. His/her knowledge acquisition is based entirely upon years of academic study by others and is heavily reliant upon machines built by others and the workings of which cannot be verified. It would be as legitimate for most individuals to rely upon my machine as any particle accelerator. They’ve probed inside neither.

Without getting too sceptical about skepticism, it’s fair to say that both religion and science rely heavily upon faith. However, religion is at least honest about its use of faith. Skeptics would be advised to ponder the degree of faith essential for their own study before weighing too heavily on religion.

Yes, I’m aware of the principle of self-correction as a main line of defence against knowledge acquired by relying on others. Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions is effective in showing that self-correction as a principle is pretty seriously flawed.