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David Hume, still a cool dude

David Hume, still a cool dude

I’m just returning to blogging after a brief, disastrous spell of pretending to be a responsible teacher to young people in a field – transition to work – in which I have no expertise whatsoever.  Fail, as the teens say. So it’s back to my irresponsible, unreliable, anti-authoritarian, perverse, ill-disciplined, reclusive, childishly dilettantish life of poverty and wafer-thin reflection on the dynamic world around me.

I note that, in my absence, my readership, small (but growing) though it ever was, has plummeted. So, time to pull the finger out, and to maybe occasionally have a go at communicating with others. Maybe.

I’ve been reading, among other things, a little book of ideas called Falling for Science, by Bernard Beckett, and I’ve found it both compelling and exasperating. My first impression was that it was going to be an attack on ‘scientism’, and that’s partially true, but it’s a bit more difficult to properly characterise it. Beckett is a novelist and maths-science educator, and the main purpose of his book appears to be an attempt to untangle science from story-telling and to explore the limits of science as ‘answer to everything’. Not that he’s anything but a hard-nosed science advocate, but he’s also fond of the Humean is-ought distinction – one that I’ve always been a bit dubious about. He’s actually very good at explaining stuff, and there’s a pretty good summary of Popper’s falsification thesis in chapter 3, as well as some stimulating story-telling, for example about how close some eighteenth century scientists, or proto-scientists, came to capturing the idea of natural selection, starting with Hume himself, who wrote:

Many worlds might have been botched and bungled, throughout an eternity, ere this system was struck out, much labour lost; many fruitless trials made, and a slow but continual improvement carried on during infinite ages in the art of world making.

Hume here plays dangerously, heretically, with the idea of time and infinity, and even a many-worlds hypothesis, but his key idea was the one that Darwin later had to battle for against the age-of-the-earth pronouncements of Lord Kelvin (William Thompson), that there might be time enough for ‘slow but continual improvement’ in the the evolution of worlds, and hence life. Then there was Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon, who wrote this in 1753:

One could equally well say that the ape is of the family of man, that he is a degenerate man, that man and ape have a common origin; that in fact, all the families among plants as well as animals, have come from a single animal.

It’s striking, but Beckett presents an even more astute source, the mathematician and philosopher Pierre-Louis Maupertuis, who wrote, way back in 1751:

They would have owed their origin merely to some accidental formation in which the basic parts would not have preserved the arrangement present in their parents. Each degree of error would have created a new species, and from these repeated variations would have arisen the infinite diversity of animals that we see at the present day.

All of this is fascinating, and of course further evidence for the proposition that natural selection was a concept ripe for the picking by the mid nineteenth century, but I want to focus this post on what Beckett has to say about the debate, still raging, about evolution and its implications for the practice of religion.

Becckett’s broad argument is the familiar one that evolution isn’t incompatible with religious belief, and he seeks to distinguish between evolutionary theory and ‘evolutionism’, which he believes is a drawing of non-empirical conclusions from the empirical theory. The distinction he makes is a broad one between model and interpretation, with the latter being the story-telling, non-empirical, but nonetheless important, part.

Interestingly, Beckett starts his exploration of this issue with a mild version of a deconversion story, as someone brought up in the Roman Catholic tradition. This is interesting because I’ve recently been watching online deconversion videos that are truly harrowing and moving – young people brought up in close-knit more or less fundamentalist communities who, through an increasing unease about the truth-claims of their communities, have become alienated, isolated, suicidal and profoundly messed up. These of course are the stories of survivors – what of those who didn’t make it?

I mention this because it gripes me more than a little that Beckett’s argument against what he calls ‘evolutionists’ is that they’re wedded to a Platonic notion of truth. I find this argument completely spurious. First, I’m sceptical of hitching the notion of truth to some kind of Platonist idealism. To me, it’s an insult to those apostates who lost so much, in terms of family and community, in rejecting the false claims of Christianity. The author of Why I am no longer a Christian says at one crucial point in his video:

For the first time in my life I realised there was something more important to me than God, and that was truth, and for the first time in my life I learned that if I had to choose between God and truth, I would choose truth.

Compare Beckett’s remark toward the end of Falling for Science:

Unlike the Platonist I find no beauty in truth. Indeed I consider it an ugly word, a bludgeon wielded in battle by those who lack the social grace to back away. Yet all around us confident certainty abounds…

It seems the two here are at cross-purposes. The video author is making the point that living a lie, living in false consciousness as Sartre would say (remember him?) had come to be so painful to him that all his family and friends and the comfort and security they might offer, were no compensation – in fact their regular god-talk would’ve just added to his discomfort and misery. Beckett is talking about truth in a completely different way, as Truth with a capital, as the popes use it when they come out with their papal bull.

Beckett I think overplays his hand in coming out with this narrow and, I think, idiosyncratic way of treating truth. A shame, because he does have some useful things to say. In fact I agree with him about Truth, but not about truth. Truth isn’t an ugly word, but nor have I ever considered it beautiful in a Platonic sense – I’ve never been remotely sympathetic to Platonic idealism. Truth, rather, is a useful word, and even an essential one. Perhaps I can best explain that by avoiding, at least initially, the very word ‘truth’.

I’ve written before about how those twin drivers, curiosity and scepticism, move science forward. They’re also, I would argue, the drivers that drove our video author away from religious conviction. But you have to be curious and/or sceptical about something. As you can see in the deconversion video, the author began to explore the Bible critically and then to explore its authorship, and how Christianity, and Judaism before it, emerged from other religions. He also began to explore the psychology of religious belief. In other words, he was curious and sceptical about what was really going on within communities and in the individual minds of believers vis-a-vis religion, and how this all emerged and came together historically. It was a search for the truth. Not a search for certainty, but for a deeper understanding. And it is this search, this questing spirit, that drives science forward. A dissatisfaction with, or at least a doubt about, the answers so far given (scepticism) together with a push to know more, to understand more deeply (curiosity). You can talk about these forces towards knowing, and this questing drive towards a deeper understanding, without ever mentioning the word ‘truth’, but surely truth is what it’s all about.

To take an example I’ve often used, about my own initial exposure to religion via a Salvation Army Sunday School at the age of eight. Stepping into this world, having no religious background at all, and watching these adults, some of them uniformed, praying and singing naff songs (this was the mid-sixties and the Beatles were all over the airwaves – ‘Jesus loves me, this I know’ couldn’t really compare), and preaching about our heavenly father and maker and his love for us and how he was our lord and we worshipped him eternally and so on, I really thought, even at that age, that I’d entered into a madhouse, and I wanted no part of it. But I could also see that at least some of these people were otherwise normal, functioning people. So what was really going on here? Where did these ideas come from? What benefit were they deriving from this behaviour? Did they really believe in an invisible lord and master and protector, or were they just covering that particular, weird base just in case? Now you might think that an eight year old wouldn’t have the capacity to ask himself such questions, and I won’t pretend that I have a precise memory of my thoughts of the time, but I also think we tend to underestimate the sophistication of children’s thoughts, and my experience with children since then has confirmed that view. The point is that my curiosity and my scepticism were stimulated to the max. And even when we ask the basic question – wtf is going on here? – we’re talking about truth. We get an answer that fobs us off and we think, no no no, I want to know what’s really going on here. I want the truth, or at least something that makes sense. We don’t talk about the coherence theory of truth for nothing.

If you research the coherence theory of truth, and its ‘opponent’ the correspondence theory, you’ll have to grapple with propositions, truth conditions, entailment and the like, but broadly the coherence theory is about fitting things together in a most likely and coherent account. Young Earth Creationism, for example, is incoherent with respect to what we know of geology, cosmology and so much else, such as our tried and true methods of dating fossils. More controversially, the claim that the One True God, the Judeo-Christian one, is the creator of the world, is incoherent with respect to many things we’ve learned. We have cosmological theories about the origin of our planet, and of our solar system, and of our galaxy, and of our universe, which fit together and bear no resemblance to the Biblical account of creation. We also know that there have been many creator gods and creation myths, and that they all belong to an earlier, more speculative, pre-scientific era. And we know, or many of us know, that creator/protector gods who put humans at the pinnacle of their creation, and have a special interest in humans, are much more likely to be self-serving human fabrications than real existents. Our views on this are bolstered by our deeper understanding of a cosmos in which our planet is not at the centre, or anywhere near it, and our deeper understanding of a biosphere in which we are but a recently emerged life form clearly related to other life forms, on a planet in which life forms have come and gone with monotonous regularity.

All of this takes me back to what Beckett has to say on the evolution-religion battle, which he tends to portray as two groups of intransigent certainty-addicts head-butting each other. His attempt to find a pragmatic solution to this confrontation revolves around the distinction between model and interpretation, or theory (in its tight, scientific definition) and story. His argument is that ‘evolutionists’, as well as interested observers, often over-step the mark, moving from the truth of the evolutionary model, which is as empirically well-grounded as it can be, to the truth of their particular interpretation of that model, which has little or no grounding. For example, he quotes George Bernard Shaw on his personal response to the theory:

…when its whole significance dawns on you, your heart sinks into a heap of sand within you. There is a hideous fatalism about it, a ghastly and damnable reduction of beauty and intelligence, of strength and purpose, of honour and aspiration

Beckett is of course right in pointing out that there’s no warrant in the theory itself for this response, or for the very different remarks of Darwin – that there is grandeur in this way of thinking about life.  These are of course perfectly legitimate personal responses, but they don’t follow in any logical sense from the theory.

What I’m not so convinced about is the claim that the model itself has no implications for religion, that only certain interpretations of the model have implications for certain interpretations of religion.

One of the problems is that, on the evolutionary side, certain facts provide real stumbling blocks for those religions (notably Judaism, Christianity and Islam) that stand or fall on a personal relationship between the creator god and his special beings or chosen people. We have a definite knowledge that we are a type of primate, that we share a common ancestry with chimps and bonobos, a slightly older common ancestry with gorillas, and further back with orang-utangs, and gibbons and so forth. The differences between us and other primates, though massive by any measure (other than genomic) are all explicable in purely material terms. This is model, not interpretation. Beckett is a bit cavalier in claiming that the religionist can say, ‘Ah, that’s how God did it’, for all this leaves her is an enfeebled, primum mobile-type deism. The Catholic Church, of course, steps over this mess by issuing the Truth that evolution is compatible with Catholic doctrine but nevertheless humans are their god’s special creatures – which is basically the same as saying, it’s compatible but incompatible. More serious and honest attempts have been made to rescue special creation from the evolutionary model, notably the book Finding Darwin’s God, by the highly-regarded biologist (and Catholic) Kenneth Miller, and although I haven’t read the book, I’ve read enough extracts from it and criticism of it to realize that it only highlights the difficulties of trying to effect such a rescue.

So I think evolution, the model itself, plays its part, along with other theories and models, whether geological, cosmological or psychological – with cognitive psychology allied to neurology having made great strides in recent years – in providing an increasingly coherent description of our world, a description which leaves no room for supernatural agency, especially not of the miraculously interceding kind. I agree with Beckett that accepting evolution doesn’t necessarily imply that you should love all the other critters on earth for being vaguely related to you, or that you should see them as competitors in the struggle for life. Yet I won’t let go of the idea that there are better interpretations of evolution and worse ones, and that the model itself, more thoroughly examined and more deeply understood, will help us towards those best interpretations.

I suspect that this is all a much more vexed question than Beckett allows it to be. It’s a well-known fact and ‘problem’ that sometimes researchers, often in the conclusions to their research papers, step aside, or forward, from the nuts and bolts of their experiments to consider the implications of their findings ‘for humanity’. They move from facts to interpretations or implications, from model to story, whatever. And critics and other scientists cringe, or criticize. Alternatively the researchers go the opposite way, refusing to speculate on implications, or playing them down as much as possible. In that case, informed and interested observers will inevitably step forward and make explicit those implications, or what they consider them to be. And the original researchers will cringe, and criticise. I think all this says something about human nature. I think Beckett is half onto this when he suggests replacing ‘truth’ in science with ‘usefulness’. It won’t do, because the curiosity and scepticism that drives science forward isn’t about usefulness, but about truth – ‘what’s really going on here?’ But it’s also human nature to look for implications, and applications, for any new piece of knowledge we’ve uncovered. Knowledge is power, but only if we apply it, surely. This is where fact and value, models and how we use them and what we draw from them, become difficult to disentangle – and my wondering question is – how important is it to disentangle them? Important, yes, but we should also be aware of what might seem obvious – that we pursue facts for value’s sake. We pursue knowledge in order to have greater control of our world. Why else? If we know what’s really going on, we feel in a better position to do something about it, to act, to decide, to fit what’s happening here into our larger world-view, thus refining and deepening it.

I’ve barely touched on a lot of complexities here, but I do feel that the frustrations felt by the PZ Myers and the Jerry Coynes of the world with the religious worldview, particularly vis-a-vis the world-dominating monotheisms, are seriously mischaracterised as  dogmatic story-telling banging up against dogmatic story-telling. There’s so much more to say, but I’ll leave it at that.

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Written by stewart henderson

March 2, 2013 at 10:29 am

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