Posts Tagged ‘jerry coyne’

Necessary Minimal Familiarity

In fideism on 19/07/2011 at 9:01 am

The philosopher Edward Feser has a response to the ‘gnu’-atheists that has been floating around for a few months. In the past week he’s brought up the response again. It doesn’t amount to much, but give it a read. Feser must think that the response is powerful enough to sway the critic (or at least powerful enough to quiet any doubts he may have) if he pulls it out more than once. My comments are below the fold.

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Feynman on the Religious Impulse to Know

In fallibilism on 18/07/2011 at 2:44 am

When you doubt and ask, it gets a little harder to believe.  You see, one thing is that I can live with doubt and uncertainty, and not knowing. I think it’s much more interesting to live not knowing than to have answers which might be wrong. . . But I don’t have to know an answer; I don’t feel frightened by not knowing things—by being lost in a mysterious universe without having any purpose, which is the way it really is as far as I can tell, possibly. It doesn’t frighten me. (Richard Feynman)

Over at Why Evolution is True, Jerry Coyne posts the popular video of Richard Feynman explaining the religious impulse. Feynman was a brilliant man, far more competent philosophically than most. The video Take the world from a different view (transcript) is simply a treat.



In flew on 09/07/2011 at 8:53 pm

Jerry Coyne recently said of Antony Flew’s famous paper Theology and Falsification,

I’m actually surprised that this piece, which is quite good (albeit written in academic-speak) was so popular, for what it says seems self evident.

Flew had a habit of following the latest philosophical fads, but not always understanding their purpose. For instance, when Flew says,

When the Sceptic in the parable asked the Believer, “just how does what you call an invisible, intangible, eternally elusive gardener differ from an imaginary gardener or even from no gardener at all?” he was suggesting that the Believer’s earlier statement had been so eroded by qualification that it was no longer an assertion at all, (bolding added)

this is nothing but an inversion of logical positivism’s verification principle of meaning. Flew claims that only scientific statements can be refuted. Religious statements are not meaningful, for if religious statements are not scientific statements, they cannot be refuted. Meaning is then tied to statements that are refutable at least in principle, while meaningless is tied to uninformative or irrefutable statements.

Is such a claim as ‘self evident’ as Coyne claims? I think not, since demarcating science from non-science by way of meaning is a dead end. Religious statements are meaningful, but do not necessarily refer: the statement “Merlin rides a unicorn” is a meaningful statement. Asserting that said statement is meaningless leaves me shrugging my shoulders. Such a statement makes sense to me, but if it is called ‘meaningless,’ in the process all sorts of meaningful statements may turn into meaningless statements. For example, any sort of God-conjecture (“There exists a being with characteristics x,y,z”) is a strictly existential statement, and therefore not falsifiable … since as a matter of logic, strictly existential statements are verifiable, but not falsifiable.

Has Flew then done away with the meaningfulness of strictly existential statements?

Flew does touch on the distastefulness of the behavior of holding on to a statement come what may,

Now it often seems to people who are not religious as if there was no conceivable event or series of events the occurrence of which would be admitted by sophisticated religious people to be a sufficient reason for conceding “There wasn’t a God after all” or “God does not really love us then,”

but Flew misses the point once more, and in the process conflates methodological or procedural rules and objective status of statements: Flew is now talking about ad hoc immunizing procedures when confronted with confounding ‘monsters.’ Monster-barring is not a distasteful behavior solely of the religious individual, but of the pseudo-scientific or non-scientific individual. Scientific statements may be falsifiable, but a scientist may hold on to them come what may as well!

Sagan’s classic The Dragon In My Garage is somewhat better than Flew’s, but it occasionally runs into its own problems or misses the big picture to rag on religion. Russell’s Celestial Teapot is another variation on the same theme, and ought to be preferred over the other two for its focus on doubt, rather than meaning.


Determining the Truth

In critical rationalism, experiments, fallibilism, holism, justificationism, popper, quine, skepticism, underdetermination on 08/07/2011 at 1:13 pm

I go to a wedding and I miss a gigantic explosion in the blogosphere over Sir Harold Kroto’s Nobel Laureate lecture. Eh, I’ve missed worse things.

Andrew Brown at The Guardian has an adequate–but far from complete–drubbing of Kroto’s proto-positivist claim that “Science is the only philosophical construct we have to determine TRUTH with any degree of reliability.”

PZ Myers disagrees with Brown, but I’m not surprised. After reading him for a few years, he comes off as a genuine naïve Popperian, saying “If someone were to say something truly false and giggleworthy, like for instance, “all cats are black,” what I’d do is go out and find a Siamese and a white Persian and wave them in his face. Isn’t that obvious?” After Quine, it isn’t so obvious anymore. Isn’t that obvious? PZ is a scientist, and scientists aren’t often paid to think about epistemology, so I won’t hold it against him. Only through a critical discussion can we come to an agreement, tentative though it may be, about things like the color of cats–and yet this agreement is forever provisional. If someone were to point out this distinction in private, PZ would probably temper his initial statement, but headlines sell papers.

Kroto, Myers, and Brown all come off thinking that science is directed at establishing claims–I am apparently the odd man out when I concede that, rather than lifting up other traditions to science’s level, science does not have the epistemic privilege Kroto and PZ think: there is no way to reliably determine the truth.

That said, we can choose to prefer science over other ‘ways of knowing’ for the same reason we can choose to prefer a theory that has survived criticism over one that has not: while its past success at solving our problems provide no ‘good reasons’ for favoring science, the failures of alternative ‘ways of knowing’ are sufficient to provisionally adopt what remains.