Bifurcated epistemology is doing it wrong


PZ is doing another talk tomorrow, at the American Atheists National Convention. Subject: “Scientists! If you aren’t an atheist, you’re doing it wrong!” Regular commenter (here as well as there) julian disagreed.

Meh.

I’d say if a philosopher’s not an atheist they’re doing it wrong but a scientist can be whatevs so long as they’re sufficiently ignorant of things outside their area of expertise.

I disagreed with that.

How is that not doing it wrong? How is believing something that is dependent on being sufficiently ignorant of things outside their area of expertise not doing it wrong?

I see how it’s technically possible, of course, and how it can be made to “work” in a narrow, vocational sense, but I don’t see how it is, considered more broadly, anything but doing it wrong.

To put it another way, of course strict compartmentalization is possible, but it’s not a respectable solution for a scientist or any other kind of honest inquirer.

That’s what I think. Being ignorant in order to do a special, defective kind of thinking is doing it wrong, as long as “it” is understood to be cognitive functioning in general as opposed to just doing a particular (scientific) job. Yes a scientist can do science in the lab and woo everywhere else, but that’s doing it wrong. NOMA is doing it wrong. Doing it wrong is doing it wrong.

 

 

Comments

  1. llewelly says

    Science in the lab, magic sauce in politics. A perfect recipe for ensuring we all get our beloved medicine and techno-gadgets, but are not faced with the consequences of our actions.

  2. Sastra says

    I agree. Scientists are supposed to be curious about how reality works. They’re building testable models and seeking a conscilience between wide classes of phenomena. Think bottom-up, not top-down.

    Arbitrarily shutting down all inquiry and throwing out the need for consistency because you’re in a special category called “origins” or “the supernatural” is a failure of both integrity and nerve. It would be like a chemist accepting homeopathy because he’s decided that anything connected to human health would use different physical rules. Reality is supposed to fit together …

  3. carpenterman says

    …that cannot be mentally healthy.
    (Sorry… we didn’t have these-here fancy-fied com-pew-trs when I was a young-un. 0

  4. Robert Hunter says

    Hmmm..to separate woo from “things that appear to be true”, one needs a consistent method or criteria.
    The way to bust woo is not to make everything naive reality. Science is about noticing apparent patterns in natural phenomena, and then trying to build descriptive testable models. The test of the model is seeing whether the predictions of the model work. Scientific “truths” therefore, are models that have been destructively tested and not [so far] found wanting. Science simply WORKS. That is the objective value of scientific ideas. Science is also a quest for understanding, but understanding is a welcome bonus, rather than a requirement, because stuff like quantum mechanics and relativity are counter-intuitive.
    In other words, science, properly done should have no metaphysics whatever: it does not claim truth, purpose, or reality. Merely that tested models work.
    This makes science the most robust epistomology we have. We are not omniscient, and therefore all knowledge is non-absolute.
    Where religion and woo goes wrong is that absolute claims are made,without evidence and ignoring our human state of relative ignorance.
    A religious person can do science, because science does not claim absolute truth. Faiths however do, and we know the result of that-bullshit cubed. Pseudosciences, although they do not claim gods, are similar to religions in having a particularly toxic version of naive reality, and also ignore or cherry-pick evidence in an inconsistant and totally unjustifiable way.
    Yes, religion is non-thought, but we must be clear about how that is so. Claiming science as truth is exactly the wrong way to go about it. Although it appears that science does seem to uncover some subset of nature, we can’t make the assumption that it is in fact, reality. It may be, but there is no objective way to tell, although it is pleasing that science does work so well. We should be content with that.

  5. says

    But where did anyone claim science as truth? I didn’t say that at all. Method is exactly what I was talking about. My objection was to calculated ignorance chosen as a way to insulate religious beliefs.

  6. Robert Hunter says

    @ Ophelia:-

    Forgive me, I must have misunderstood what you meant. NOMA is not doing it wrong. S.J. Gould propsed NOMA to explain why the magesteriums overlap. Science inevitably puts doubt on religious notions like disembodied souls or the theological notion of the creation of life.

  7. says

    A scientist who doesn’t know much about a field of knowledge says “I don’t know. There are probably experts in the field who know more than I do. Either I go with ‘I don’t know’ and hold no opinion at all, or I trust that the current consensus of chemists/archaeologists/physicists/historians/geologists/neurobiologists is probably the best answer we have at present.”

    A scientist who doesn’t know much about a field of knowledge and says “I believe in x, and I don’t care what the evidence shows or what the current accepted scientific opinions/theories are.” is doing it wrong.

  8. Deepak Shetty says

    How is believing something that is dependent on being sufficiently ignorant of things outside their area of expertise not doing it wrong?
    But then you’d also have to say that reasonable, smart , intelligent people are also “doing it wrong” (why just scientists?). Not sure I would go so far. Didn’t think you would either.

  9. says

    I’d say if a philosopher’s not an atheist they’re doing it wrong but a scientist can be whatevs so long as they’re sufficiently ignorant of things outside their area of expertise.

    Sure, as long as these things are outside, y’know, science. I wonder what those things might be. What are these alleged things outside science, and what is the right way to learn about them?

    “He insists the Holocaust never happened – knows fuck-all about history. Whatevs!”

  10. Narga says

    Why can’t scientist believe in God. This idea that scientist are doing it wrong if they believe in God is ridiculous. You’re just as ignorant as Christian’s who stuff their religion down my throat.

    “…axiom or postulate is a proposition that is not and cannot be proven within the system based on them. Axioms define and delimit the realm of analysis.”

    If I recall, mathematics is based on various axioms and a large foundation of science is in supported by mathematics.
    Mathematicians and scientist have definitely been doing it wrong, how can they have faith in a proposition that cannot be proven within the system its based on.
    Just because you have faith in something beyond our understanding doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be allowed to believe in them or ridiculed. As long as such faith doesn’t cloud judgement of empirical evidence. There is no reason not to believe the Big Bang wasn’t created by a higher being nor is the reason to believe that it was. Either way, it doesn’t really affect anyone or the field of science.

  11. Dalillama says

    @Robert Hunter
    The problem with NOMA is that no one has presented any magisteria for which religion is a “form of teaching [which] holds the appropriate tools for meaningful discourse and resolution,” in Gould’s words. Questions of purpose are either meaningless/beg the question (What is the purpose of the Universe, for instance), or are perfectly answerable by individuals or society without referent to religion (What ethical systems work better than others?).

    @Narga
    There is actually reason to assume from a scientific perspective that there was no superbeing responsible for the Big Bang. This reason is called Occam’s Razor, which holds that we should not multiply entities unnecessarily. Nothing is added to the current Big Bang theory by the presence of a hypothetical superbeing, nor is such a being required to explain any observed phenomena. Therefore, there is no valid reason to assume such a being.

  12. fredbloggs says

    It’s obviously a mystery to all atheists why others believe in something without a shred of evidence for its existence, and this is doubly troubling when it comes to religious scientists.

    They dedicate their entire professional lives to using an evidence-based model for acquiring knowledge, but completely abandon this approach in their personal lives.

    But surely, even Ken Miller wouldn’t deny that he is a Catholic because that’s how he was raised. If he’d been born in Islamabad, he’d most likely have been raised a Muslim. So what does that say about the TRUTH of his religious beliefs?

  13. Bruce Gorton says

    Narga

    Why can’t scientist believe in God?

    What evidence is there for the said God? In the absense of evidence for something, the scientific view is the null hypothesis – that it isn’t there.

    This is expressed by Occam’s razor – do not multiply entities uneccesarily.

    Another is that the religious texts are point blank wrong, and stupidly so. For example Genesis is wrong on every level.

    On a literal reading it is disputed by just about every hard science in existance. This includes sciences like medicine.

    On a metaphoric level it is disputed by the social sciences. Higher rates of gender equality tend to corrolate to higher rates of social health – while the Bible places the blame for all evil at the feet of a man taking a woman’s advice.

    It also fails on the simple fact that the tree bears the fruit of knowledge of good and evil.

    We do not currently have working definitions of good or evil otherwise there wouldn’t be such a huge debate over the subject. The basic idea that mankind gained responsibility because we gained the ability to tell good from evil falls apart when you consider that in a very real way we still can’t really do that.

    We can tell harmful from helpful results – but good and evil aren’t so easy.

    If we look at it on an evidential basis – which is what science is all about – we cannot say Genesis is correct even taking a metaphorical reading of it.

  14. says

    while the Bible places the blame for all evil at the feet of a man taking a woman’s advice.

    To be fair, the talking snake talked them into it.

  15. Torquil Macneil says

    I’m with Julian B on this one, science is a procedural method not an epistemology, it isn’t much use in resolving any philosophical disagreements. You might as well argue that if scientists are sceptical about or support (depending on your point of view) animal rights ‘they are doing it wrong’. I know scientists who think Phantom of the Opera is a great work of art, compared to which believing in god seems like an insignificant intellectual error.

  16. SAWells says

    @16: that argument fails as it implies beliefs re. the existence of gods are comparable to moral views, e.g. whether animal rights research is moral or not. This cannot be the case for any god which is supposed to have actually done anything. Its existence is a fact question, not a values question.

    You can’t make a problem go away by declaring it a “philosophical disagreement” and thus hoisting it out of reach of “science”. That’s just a defence mechanism for people who don’t want to admit that, by any ordinary standard of evidence, gods are fictional.

  17. Torquil Macneil says

    SAWells, I think the analogy is fairly close, because we will soon find ourselves discussing whether ‘rights’ can be meaningfully said to exist or not, or if they are just legal fictions (or any other number of positions) none of which can be settled by science. I can’t really work out what possible aspect of the god question would be susceptible to scientific investigation. What would the experiment look like? If it could, everyone who accepted the scientific method would be easily brought round, no?

    I agree that problems cannot just be wished away, but science just isn’t a very useful method for settling lots of problems. It is a good method for exploring the properties of matter, and that is about it.

  18. says

    To be fair, the talking snake talked them into it.

    And they were warned! By the big bad sky man! Who they couldn’t know was Big Bad, because they were ignorant. Oh, and the omniscient bully created them and knew it would all happen exactly like this from the very beginning … meaning they didn’t have a choice in the matter.

    Oops.

  19. Michael Fugate says

    “I agree that problems cannot just be wished away, but science just isn’t a very useful method for settling lots of problems. It is a good method for exploring the properties of matter, and that is about it.”

    … and religion isn’t useful at all. Other than random thoughts popping into one’s head and attributing those said random thoughts to a supernatural something or other, religion has no method.

  20. says

    Robert Hunter @ 6 – “NOMA is not doing it wrong. S.J. Gould propsed NOMA to explain why the magesteriums overlap.” No – why they don’t overlap. That’s what the NO stands for – non-overlapping. And I maintain that is doing it wrong, because it’s not true that they don’t overlap. That’s a polite fiction invented to protect religion from embarrassment.

  21. says

    Torquil @ 16 – Julian B? Where did you get that? The julian who comments here is julian, not Julian B. Were you thinking he’s Julian Baggini? He’s not.

  22. you_monster says

    I can’t really work out what possible aspect of the god question would be susceptible to scientific investigation.

    There are many testable claims made about god(s) all the time. So long as we are not talking about a hands-off deistic god, pretty much by definition a theistic god interacts with the world. Whenever a theist makes a claim about god’s interaction with reality, they are making a claim that needs to be supported by evidenced gleaned from the scientific method. Theists make claims, without supporting them, about cosmology, the origin of man, abiogenesis, effectiveness of prayer… all of these are areas of study that science can elucidate. There are some attributes that people give god that are pretty much untestable (i.e. that he will exist forever). Such untestable claims are unscientific. When theists do make testable claims, science rebuts them. When they do not, they are prima facia irrational and unscientific by nature of them being untestable.

    What would the experiment look like?

    Look up the studies that analyzed the effectiveness of praying for people in hospitals.

    If it could, everyone who accepted the scientific method would be easily brought round, no?

    False. Many people both accept the scientific method and hold unscientific supernaturalistic beliefs. It is called cognitive dissonance, look it up.

  23. you_monster says

    Deepak,

    But then you’d also have to say that reasonable, smart , intelligent people are also “doing it wrong” (why just scientists?). Not sure I would go so far. Didn’t think you would either.

    If I am reading you correctly, you are saying that you wouldn’t go so far as to say that all reasonably smart people who hold theistic beliefs are “doing it wrong”. I disagree. They certainly are doing it wrong. Even less rational, less intelligent people are “doing it wrong” when they accept supernatural claims without evidence.

    Faith = you are doing it wrong. Always.

    It is just especially egregious for scientists, or epistemologists, or skeptics, or anyone else with some training in critical thinking to accept god-beliefs.

  24. Dan L. says

    @Narga:

    If I recall, mathematics is based on various axioms and a large foundation of science is in supported by mathematics.
    Mathematicians and scientist have definitely been doing it wrong, how can they have faith in a proposition that cannot be proven within the system its based on.

    1. Science uses mathematics to describe natural phenomena . This does not mean “science is…supported by mathematics” any more than, just for example, a submarine is supported by a welding torch.
    2. The axioms of mathematics are not taken on faith as you are implying. They are themselves the subject of never-ending study by metamathematicians, logicians, and philosophers of mathematics. In fact, there isn’t just one set of “mathematical axioms,” there’s many different formulations and different axioms pertain to different mathematical theories. For example when we talk about axioms in the context of non-Euclidean geometry those are probably not the same axioms being discussed when we talk about the ZF axioms and proving Godel’s theorems.

    The question is not whether naturalists make assumptions as part of their worldview. At the very least we must all assume we are not brains in vats. The question is whether naturalism makes any assumptions which are not made by the various theisms and vice versa — which worldview has the minimal set of assumptions? From my perspective this is very clearly naturalism. Even supernaturalists don’t deny the existence of the natural, and to support their belief in the natural they must make all the same assumptions naturalists do.

    @Torquil:

    I’m with Julian B on this one, science is a procedural method not an epistemology, it isn’t much use in resolving any philosophical disagreements.

    Except when it is. The nature of stars, the nature of fire, the difference between living matter and non-living matter, the nature of causality, the nature of heat, the world’s geometry (disc, sphere, large empty space with a bunch of dust in it, etc.), the nature of time, the nature of mind. This is an incredibly incomplete list of philosophical questions which scientific research has either resolved or has elucidated very usefully.

    I don’t see how any thinking person could type “science is…not an epistemology” into a machine powered by electricity working on the principles of communications science so as to share them with the world. Scientific method may not be an epistemology but its fruits sure are.

    I know scientists who think Phantom of the Opera is a great work of art, compared to which believing in god seems like an insignificant intellectual error.

    You may have heard the saying “no accounting for taste.” That “some scientists” don’t live up to your no-doubt superior artistic criteria has less to do with scientists being poor thinkers than with you being pretentious.

  25. stevebowen says

    @Robert #6 NOMA is wrong because religion does make testable claims about the universe. It claims the Earth is only a few thousand years old, that two people parented all human beings, that prayer works, that all species are independently created and immutable. In other words as Ophelia pointed out, but didn’t elaborate, the majesteria overlap by a significant amount. One cannot be an intellectually honest scientist and religious.

  26. Bruce Gorton says

    Torquil Macneil

    Wouldn’t all epistemologies be methods though – as in the methods by which we define knowledge, seek to figure out how we can justify the said knowledge, and to what degree we can trust it?

  27. SAWells says

    @18: 1 Kings 18 vv 16-40 provides an explicit God-testing methodology, in which the real God is the one who can nuke his own sacrifices from orbit, and the not-real God is the one who doesn’t answer prayers. Read it, it’s hilarious.

    It’s the persistent failure of gods to pass this kind of test in reality that’s caused people to retreat to this rather wibbly ill-defined god concept which doesn’t actually have any testable properties. Since this entity has no possible impact on reality, it’s functionally non-existent and cannot possibly be evidenced, ergo we don’t have to believe in it.

  28. Deepak Shetty says

    @Ophelia
    What is it that you’re disagreeing with, and think is going too far?
    I’m disagreeing with the religious scientists are doing it wrong statement(doing what wrong? science? religion?) or just failing to apply principles of science to religion – in which case is there any scientist that applies the principles of science to every aspect of his/her life (well perhaps except for the big bang theory)

    I would also think that P.Z.’s line of thinking applies to any reasonable, smart person , not just a scientist. Hence the too far comment – but that’s a mistake on my part , I attributed my reasoning to you – sorry for that.

  29. Deepak Shetty says

    you_monster
    But then every reasonable smart person has done something wrong – the observation then becomes a trivial one – humans do some stuff wrong.
    The singling out of non atheist scientists doesn’t particularly add anything – as well as the statement as made sounds as if you are doing the science part wrong.

  30. says

    Deepak – but I said what “it” is – I said that right in the post. Did you miss it?

    Being ignorant in order to do a special, defective kind of thinking is doing it wrong, as long as “it” is understood to be cognitive functioning in general as opposed to just doing a particular (scientific) job.

    I don’t see how I could have been any clearer (except possibly by putting a comma after “in general”).

    And I wasn’t talking about the principles of science, but about reasoning in a much broader sense, reasoning as opposed to “faith.”

  31. Spartan says

    you_monster,

    False. Many people both accept the scientific method and hold unscientific supernaturalistic beliefs. It is called cognitive dissonance, look it up.

    False, perhaps you should look it up actually. Cognitive dissonance requires that the person has discomfort caused by their conflicting beliefs, and that is determined by whether they think their beliefs conflict, not others.

  32. Deepak Shetty says

    @Ophelia
    No I didn’t miss it – but then why single out scientists. Its trivial that most non believers think that believers have it wrong when it comes to religion (barring the stedmans , mooneys or armstrongs) and vice versa.

  33. Robert Hunter says

    @ Ophelia Benson

    [quote]Robert Hunter @ 6 – “NOMA is not doing it wrong. S.J. Gould propsed NOMA to explain why the magesteriums overlap.” No – why they don’t overlap. That’s what the NO stands for – non-overlapping. And I maintain that is doing it wrong, because it’s not true that they don’t overlap. That’s a polite fiction invented to protect religion from embarrassment.[unquote]

    I view NOMA as a null hypothesis- a bit like the Hardy_Weinburg eqilibrium in genetics. It has a number of assumptions, such as the population is of infinte size, that no selection or drift occurs. Scientists put real data up against the H-W allele ratios to see how real world populations differ from H-W predictions.

    I think Gould saw H-W in the same way. In reality both science and religion don’t stick to their own magesteria. Religion makes claims about reality without evidence [eg disembodied souls] and science can’t help but investigate matters in biology, cosmology, orginis of life which were the traditional turf of religions.

    S. J. Gould was never easy to read, and he sometimes made that plain when creationists quote-mined from his works, thinking [erroniously of course] that Gould was rejecting evolution. He was not rejecting evolution, merely stating that PE is more representive of the fossil record than was previously thought.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>