“Knowledge” from ignorance

Recently, I came across the very relevant statement in a paper I was reading:

“Ignorance cannot support a knowledge claim of any sort except perhaps for the trivial claim that we simply do not know.”

I think this is something we should keep in the front of our minds when we consider those creationist and religious apologetics arguments justifying anti-science positions. You know, Bill Dembski‘s “design filter” – “if we cant show something is caused by chance, or by laws of nature, then it must be intelligently designed.” Or Michael Behe‘s irreducible complexityargument. Or the “cosmological” argument, the “fine tuning” argument, etc., etc.

If we don’t have evidence we should be happy to say: “I don’t know.” And, ideally follow that with: “Let’s find out.”

To use lack of information to support a knowledge claim is just not logical.

By the way – the paper is by Carol E. Cleland & Shelley Copley (2005). “The Possibility of Alternative Microbial Life on Earth,” International Journal of Astrobiology 4, pp. 165-173. It discusses the possibility that life may have originated on earth more than once and these forms may be basically different. Peter Ward, in his book Life as We Do Not Know It also discusses this possibility.

It’s intriguing. Maybe we will discover “alien” life on earth before we discover extra-terrestrial life.


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6 responses to ““Knowledge” from ignorance

  1. The problem is that the “Let’s find out” for a naturalist automatically excludes considering the possibility of God.


  2. Chucky – you are making unwarranted assumptions there – and I think that is shown by your use of the word “naturalist.” I don’t know what that means (In New Zealand a “naturalist” is a nudist.) Scientists don’t use these sort of terms in their research. They just look at the evidence, all the evidence, and follow it wherever it leads.

    OK, you want a possibility of a god or gods in science. Will then you need to develop an evidence based hypothesis which can be tested. if these ideas are confirmed (provisionally always) by testing then of cours these gods would become part of scientific knowledge. So far this hasn’t happened and no-one really seems to want to go through that process. (I suspect that if it were possible to propose a credible hypothesis it would already have happened).

    To turn around and claim this is, by definition, not possible, and then to assert there are gods, is basing “knowledge” on ignorance. The very point I have made.


  3. I’m not sure I’m looking for the “possibility of a god or gods in science.” I’m looking for the possibility of a God or gods in Reality. Science tells me a great deal about Reality, but not everything about it.

    Science cannot tell me (at present) whether quantum physics “collapses” into a single timeline, as the standard Copenhagen interpretation claims, or yields all possible futures, as Hugh Everett suggested and David Deutsch has popularized in “The Fabric of Reality.” The difference between these two is enormous, immediately and personally relevant, and not scientifically testable.

    We don’t know–and can’t know, at present–whether there is a single timeline or every timeline. If Everett and Deutsch are correct, however, all the “Intelligent Design” arguments vaporize. The claim that life is too complex to arise by chance falls apart if this timeline is just one of an uncountable infinity of timelines. If everything that is physically possible actually happens (which is Deutsch’s claim), then NOTHING is “irreducibly complex.”

    Given two equally plausible but untestable theories about quantum physics, one of which completely solves all the Intelligent Design arguments and one of which leaves them all intact, I’d say the “better fit” was the one that solved more problems.

    You, however, seem to be philosophically precommitted to avoid such a conclusion. Have I misread you?


  4. Scott – the “theories” about QM you refer to are not “theories” – they are basically “interpretations” (and “speculations”).

    They actually have nothing to do with ID “arguments.”

    This is a big problem with quantum mechanics. Because it describes (very successfully) things outside our normal range of comprehension (for which our brain obviously didn’t evolve to handle) it confuses people. Therefore charlatans use it to “explain” anything they find confusing. (I include the god-botherers who use QM this way amongst that group of charlatans).

    My “philosophical commitment” is to understanding and appreciating reality. If there were evidence for “intelligent design” I would have no problem accommodating it. In fact I would find it relatively fascinating (but probably not as fascinating as many other ideas in science which, in contrast to ID, have a high level of acceptance).


  5. That’s a helpful distinction, Ken. I’ve been struggling with the implications of three major “interpretations” of quantum physics for quite a while.

    It seems to me that there are MAJOR psychological implications to the three different interpretations I’ve been looking at. The dominant view is the standard Copenhagen model, which holds that there is a single timeline, which is determined by chance. That’s fully consistent with neo-Darwinism, and I assume it’s your position.

    The second option is Hugh Everett’s “many worlds” version, popularized by David Deutsch in “The Fabric of Reality.” Deutsch argues that every physical possibility is a real timeline, resulting in some very odd conclusions–he says there are “Harry Potter worlds,” in which, although all the rules of physics still apply, people fly around on brooms. (It’s physically possible, but statistically impossible. Deutsch denies the difference.)

    The psychological implications of the Everett/Deutsch model are extreme. A little science fiction story called “All the Myriad Ways” put it best–everybody started committing suicide and/or random acts of violence when they realized that EVERY future was real. I’ve talked about the Everett/Deutsch model with friends, and they uniformly freak out at the idea.

    The “many worlds” interpretation can’t be proved (or disproved) by any scientific test we have yet, but it solves a lot of problems. It makes the whole abiogenesis question go away. It vaporizes every Intelligent Design argument. It clobbers the “Just Six Numbers” and “fine tuning” arguments. If you take those arguments at all seriously (and I do, although I sense that you don’t), the “many worlds” interpretation demands a second look.

    Your blog is titled “open parachute.” What has frustrated me over the last few years of trying to grapple with the implications of quantum physics is how few people have an open mind towards it. People are SO close-minded they won’t even listen to an idea that falls outside their paradigm.

    You say your philosophical commitment is to understanding and appreciating reality. I’d LOVE to have your help in thinking through quantum physics!


  6. The dominant view is the standard Copenhagen model, which holds that there is a single timeline, which is determined by chance. That’s fully consistent with neo-Darwinism, and I assume it’s your position.

    Quantum mechanics and evolution aren’t connected; trying to draw a connect between them is artificial and meaningless.


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