Tag Archives: Epistemology

How do we know what is true?

The British Humanist Association has produced 4 animated videos explaining humanist ideas. They are all narrated by Stephen Fry

Here is one that particularly appealed to me - “How do we know what is true?.

See: That’s Humanism: Four animated videos about Humanism narrated by Stephen Fry

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The [in]compatibility of science and religion

There have been several books lately promoting the idea the religion and science are compatible – or at least challenging any suggestion that they might be incompatible. Of course, these were written by advocates of religion, or at least advocates of “belief in belief.”

While many of these books were critiqued in reviews there has been very little challenge presented in book length. So I was very pleased to see news that Victor Stenger has a new book, released in Apri,l called God and the Folly of Faith: The Incompatibility of Science and Religion.

John W. Loftus at debunking Christianity has read a pre-release copy and is very impressed (see  Stenger’s New Book: God and the Folly of Faith: The Incompatibility of Science and Religion). He calls it a tour de force.

Loftus says (in part):

“The reader is treated to the history of the conflict between science and religion where Stenger argues there is a fundamental conflict between the two. “Science” he writes, “has earned our trust by its proven success. Religion has destroyed our trust by its repeated failures. Using the empirical method, science has eliminated smallpox, flown men to the moon, and discovered DNA. If science did not work, we wouldn’t do it. Relying on faith, religion has brought us inquisitions, holy wars, and intolerance. Religion does not work, but we still do it.” (p. 15)”

I have often said that religion and science are not incompatible at the individual level. After all many scientists are also religious. But their basic approach to knowledge, their epistemologies, are incompatible. So I agree with this comment by Loftus:

“Believers generally do not trust science. Stenger’s book is the antidote. Believers will see just how science works and why it is to be trusted over anything religion has ever produced. “Science and religion are fundamentally incompatible,” Stenger argues, “because of their unequivocally opposed epistemologies–the separate assumptions they make concerning what we can know about the world.” (p. 16)”

Loftus thinks this is Stenger’s best book yet – because it is ” written for the average intelligent reader. There isn’t a lot of technical jargon in it.” He believes it will “appeal to a broad range of readers . . . because he’s hit the nail on the head, writing about the essential problem between scientifically minded people and believers.”

Another book to look forward to.

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“Other ways of knowing” and their result.

Here’s a little clip from one of Richard Dawkins presentations.

I think it’s a fitting illustration of what science would be like if epistemologically it behaved the way religion does.

It also ridicules the concept that religion has “other ways of knowing” which are more reliable than science.

Richard Dawkins: If Science Worked Like Religion

Historians of science sometimes miss the wood for the trees

I came across this nice little quote recently:*

Philosophy of science without history of science is empty;
history of science without philosophy of science is blind.

It’s attributed to  Imre Lakatos, the Hungarian philosopher of mathematics and science.

This really appealed to me as I have been somewhat surprised lately how some historians of science approach their subject mechanically. They look on the history of science as a sequence of events, discoveries, etc., without ever seeming to recognise the significance of what is going on. I can’t help thinking about woods and trees.

One example is the intensive debate about the Galileo affair which questions why Galileo should have argued for heliocentricism when no parallax evidence could be found. Or that his explanation for tides was wrong. Or that he was rather abrasive with a tendency to polemics. Or that he was ambitious. Etc., Etc.

These historians seem to impose too much of their own understandings, values and ideology onto the historical events.  They are also treating history as a dead collection of unconnected events while ignoring the underlying evolution of methods and approaches. The changes in the philosophy and epistemology of science.

Galileo’s real contribution

To me the real importance of studying such history is to see the changes in approach lying behind the great discoveries. Galileo is often called the father of modern science, not because he was the first astronomer to use a telescope, or because of the discoveries that ensued. But because he challenged the old approach, the old way of thinking influenced by theology and religious philosophy, and not objective reality. His contribution was basically epistemological. And it was a necessary part of the modern scientific revolution.

I commented on this before in Galileo’s revolutionary contribution. To me Galileo’s real significance and contribution is summarised in his comments of theology. In part:

“therefore, whatever sensory experience places before our eyes or necessary demonstrations prove to us concerning natural effects should not in any way be called into question on account of scriptural passages whose words appear to have a different meaning, since not every statement of Scripture is bound to obligations as severely as each effect of nature.”

Elsewhere he expressed this in terms of discovering the truth about nature in the “book of nature”, rather than the scriptures.

I just wish more historians of science appreciated the history of the philosophy or epistemology of science.


*This quote was used as an introductory message by Peter Dear in his chapter “Philosophy of Science and Its Historical Reconstructions” in the collection Integrating History and Philosophy of Science: Problems and Prospects.

Some of the other chapters also have interesting quotes. For example, this one in Jan Golinski’s chapter “Thomas Kuhn and Interdisciplinary Conversation: Why Historians and Philosophers of Science Stopped Talking to One Another.”:

“Paradigm was a perfectly good word until I messed it up.”

Thomas S. Kuhn

So true!

Then what about this one in Dean Rickles’ chapter “Quantum Gravity Meets &HPS”:

Science is what scientists have done, not what a philosopher tells us the scientist meant to do, were really doing, or should have done.

James Cushing

Yeah – doesn’t that attitude of some of the philosophically minded annoy you?

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The implausibility of reality

Seems to describe my state of mind at the moment. I am trying to deal with a computer trashed by a virus. So something short and sweet to go on with.

I am currently reading Antonio Damasio‘s Self Comes to Mind: Constructing the Conscious Brain. Chapter two starts with this:

Mark Twain thought the big difference between fiction and reality was that fiction had to be believable. Reality could afford to be implausible, but fiction could not.”

I like it.

While we often say facts are strange than fiction I think this quote also encompasses the idea that reality is counter-intuitive. Discovering the truth about reality doesn’t come easily because we have evolved to make subjective decisions which are often not correct, although they may have been adaptive.

It took humanity thousands of years to develop procedures which give us a reliable picture of reality. These methods are most obviously embodied in modern science. And these methods include requirements of evidence and checking against reality.

So, fiction has to be believable because there is no way of checking the story. But scientific knowledge can be intuitively implausible – because we can check against reality. Its what confirms our ideas for us – and keeps us honest.

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“Other ways of knowing” – some sense at last

There’s been a lot of rubbish written about “other ways of knowing”. So it’s quite refreshing to read Richard Carrier’s classification of methods of knowing. This is from his book Sense and Goodness Without God: A Defense of Metaphysical Naturalism. Well worthy reading by the way.

He starts by pointing out that no method of obtaining knowledge can produce absolute certainty. We can always be wrong, make mistakes. But we can list possible methods in order of reliability:

What is rational is to assign degrees of conviction to degrees of certainty established by a tried-and-tested method. What is rational is reasonable certainty, not absolute certainty.”

The methods of logic and mathematics are well-developed and provide the greatest certainty we have yet been able to find regarding anything, other than a present, uninterpreted experience. The next greatest certainty has been found in the application of scientific methods to empirical problems. In third place is our own daily experience, when interpreted with a logical or scientific mindset. Fourth is the application of critical-historical methods to claims about past events. Fifth is the application of the criteria of trust to the claims of experts. Sixth is the untested but logical application of inferential generalizations from incomplete facts—that is, plausible deductions. Such is the scale of methods that we have historically been able to discover and confirm as effective.”

“Experience shows that our degree of certainty will generally be weaker with regard to facts at each stage down this six-rung ladder, though within each category lies its own continuum of certainty and uncertainty, and the ladder itself is a continuum of precision and access to information: the more data we have to ground our conclusions, the farther up the ladder we find ourselves. Thus, mathematics is just perfected science; science, perfected experience; experience, perfected history; and history, perfected attention to experts; while plausible inference is what we are left with when we have none of those things.”

“Lacking any of the above approaches to the truth, we are faced with untrustworthy hearsay and pure speculation, where only the feeblest of certainty can ever be justified, if at all.”

Carrier writes that accurate methods of knowing have the properties of predictive success and convergent accumulation of consistent results.  However, these should be evaluated intelligently. Even the best method may produce faulty knowledge if used incorrectly.

So how do the different methods rate?:

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The rules of science

pz_myersPZ Myers has a great post Ten Questions to Ask Your Biology Teacher About Intelligent Design. It briefly discusses, and disposes of, some of the most common intelligent design (ID) arguments. And does it so clearly.

He is a great writer – and I just don’t know how gets time to write so well and do all the other things he does. His upcoming book should be great – but I have yet to hear of any publication date.

I have extracted question 3 because I think this is of general interest. And one I think is important to counter. The question  and accompanying argument is taken from a Christian Apologetics article by William Dembski and Sean McDowell.

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Epistemolo-what?!!

Kim-il-sung

Kim Il Sung giving "on the spot guidance" to collective farmers. When asked the farmers were unclear about his message

One of the biggest complaints of New Zealand scientists working in the Crown Research Institutes is bureaucracy. Or, at least that was the case during my time.

You know – stupid bureaucratic requirements like time sheets. At one stage we were being forced to break our time down to 6 min intervals! I used to say that science is a creative process and this was as silly as getting artists to fill in time sheets. Then we had financial managers, commercial managers, human resources people, communication managers, etc. making extra demands on our time. Creative people forced into an accounting role. Publications having to be vetted for intellectual property (IP) before publication – and sometimes prevented from being published so that IP could be “captured”. “Innovative thinking” and “customer management” courses imposed on researchers. Commercial managers preventing proper communication of science to the public (see the example of Jim Salinger in Clamping down on science communication).

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