Monday, December 20, 2010

Does science solve our cognitive ills?

Science is not a monolithic "method" that can be applied across the board to deal with questions all the way from whether there are four bonds on a carbon atom to the question of whether your wife is faithful, or when abortion is justified, or whether it is wrong to inflict pain on little children for your own amusement. There's no magic pill that will make us stop the tendency to believe what we prefer to be true, except being aware that wishful thinking is possible and considering that when you think. C. S. Lewis's analysis of the "wishful thinking" argument in "On Obstinacy in Belief" still stands as a brilliant reply to this whole line of thinking, a response that has gone unanswered in infidel literature, so far as I can tell.

Some subjects are experimentable, and some are not. Even when they are experimentable, scientists who hold the theory that "loses" the experiment don't just give up on their theories. The adjust their theories to deal with the negative experimental results, using auxiliary hypotheses. In fact, they can go on doing this forever if they feel the need to. They usually quit when they die off. It's a myth that Michelson-Morley caused a complete and immediate abandonment of ether theory. So there is no such thing as a "crucial experiment" in science. That's just basic philosophy of science going back to Pierre Duhem.


brenda said...

What is the other method that can give us the facts on the bonds in a carbon atom or answer the question regarding whether one's spouse is faithful?

What does the tendency to believe what we prefer to believe have to do with the truth of the matter? That some people continued to believe the sun revolved around the earth after Copernicus did not change the fact that it is the earth that revolves around the sun.

"Some subjects are experimentable, and some are not."

So? Questions of matters of fact, of what is the case, are the proper subjects of the scientific method. Questions of values, of what we believe ought to be the case, are not. Values are fungible, facts are not.

Doctor Logic said...

What Brenda said.

Anonymous said...

What is the other method that can give us the facts on the bonds in a carbon atom or answer the question regarding whether one's spouse is faithful?

You'll find plenty of scientists who dispute this idea that science gives us "facts" on what you're talking about, and in fact reject the very idea that science discovers objective truths (see Stephen Hawking for the latest on this.)

What science can give us is useful, if imprecise models.

Mike Erich the Mad Theologian said...

Science simply cannot deal with every question. It is impossible to prove Washington crossed the Delaware scientifically. In fact if science is the only way of arriving at factual truth, it would make science impossible as every scientist would have to repeat every experiment for himself.

brenda said...

Any Mouse said:
"You'll find plenty of scientists who dispute this idea that science gives us "facts""

Stephen Hawking has gone off the deep end if you ask me.

String theory is theology.

So, according to these unreferenced scientists of yours, the Copernican theory does not state the facts of the matter, but is a "model"? I don't have a problem with the idea of scientific models. Not really sure what you are trying to say here.

Does the Earth revolve around the sun or not?

Doctor Logic said...

Science *does* give us objective truths, even if it doesn't necessarily give us ultimate truths.

In math, we know the axioms and search for theorems. In science, we have the theorems and search for the axioms. Because science isn't perfectly controlled, we never know for certain whether we're found the ultimate axioms, but to pretend we're not finding truths is silly.

And, whether Washington crossed the Delaware IS a scientific truth. It's based on Bayesian inference, i.e., inference from past experience. There are many examples of historians and anthropologists creating simulations (scientific tests) of techniques that they thought were used by ancients in order to figure out whether those techniques were viable candidates.

Also, just because a claim is based on an eyewitness account doesn't mean that it isn't scientific. What makes such claims scientific is that we can evaluate the veracity of written claims in general. This sort of control allows us to evaluate (albeit imprecisely) the likelihood of the evidence when the claimed theory is false.

Science is just Bayesian inference on steroids. Controls are an effort to account for processes that produce the same effects as the theory under test.

Of course, historical questions can also be evaluated unscientifically, too. If you ignore background processes which might have created misleading evidence, then you can get an unscientific (and more likely false) picture of historical events.

The only area where science does not apply is to the principles of science itself, but these principles follow directly from basic principles of rationality.

Jon Jermey said...

You say there is knowledge beyond the reach of science. OK, what is it? Can you give us one tiny crumb of incontrovertible fact sourced from any method other than science?

Science gets it wrong at least half the time. But religion gets it wrong all the time, because it never checks.

Victor Reppert said...

I don't think religion never checks. I'm not a fideist. I think that there are ways of checking my beliefs. There are possible arrangements of evidence that would make me doubt my religion. What happens from there is anybody's guess, but I don't follow Craig in saying that the Holy Spirit gives me such reassurance that, given any possible change in the evidence or my evaluation of the evidence. I go with C. S. Lewis's "I am not asking anyone to accept Christianity if his best reasoning tells him that the weight of evidence is against it."

I think you have to distinguish between narrowly scientific reasoning and broadly scientific reasoning. Narrowly scientific reasoning is the kind of reasoning accepted in various scientific disciplines. It has some common overall themes, but differs somewhat from disciple to disciples. Should sociology try to be just like physics? Probably not, but of course there are going to be some similarities.

If we are speaking of broadly scientific reasoning, then I can't see any reason why the reasoning one engages in in determining religious beliefs can't be broadly scientific. I believe in Bayesian conditionalization, and I do believe that what I believe religiously can be either confirmed or disconfirmed by evidence. There is something I call the "vacuity argument" which says that "supernatural" (and here the idea of the supernatural has to be clarified, because according to some ways of defining the term I don't think even God is supernatural, and I see no good reason in theory why God couldn't be a theoretical entity in a scientific explanation), explanations are excluded because they can just be stuck in anywhere, and are therefore vacuous. But I have never found this argument persuasive in the least.

Mike Erich the Mad Theologian said...

You can take anything and call it science but if does not refer to generalizations based on observation and experimentation it can come to mean anything and anything can be called "science" simply by pasting the name on to it.

Doctor Logic said...


You are a pretty reasonable bloke.

brenda said...

Victor said:
"If we are speaking of broadly scientific reasoning, then I can't see any reason why the reasoning one engages in in determining religious beliefs can't be broadly scientific."

What is the object of religious study? How can you reason about something which cannot be said to exist? Sure, one can study sacred texts and religious claims as proper objects of scholarly study but that won't get you all the way to belief. At some point you really have to make a leap and it's hard to see how that leap is justified.