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.

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.

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.