Thursday, October 20, 2011

Salute to Richard Dawkins

Since Richard Dawkins claimed in this Guardian piece to take pleasure in how upset people get when he refuses to debate William Lane Craig, I assumed that was an open invitation for us all to have fun at his refusal as well. As long as we are all enjoying ourselves.

You are Richard Dawkins.

You enjoyed success at the academic level as an evolutionary biologist, and made a name for yourself producing readable books about a subject that is not always exciting. You tire and weary of religious people that don't like your work, so as a side project you decide to write more and more about how there is no God and that people who believe in God are stupid. You then write a book called The God Delusion, where you – a professional scholar – offer up arguments and ideas about the nature of religious belief.

Your loyal followers love it, but within the world of informed critics it is less well received. One of the greatest Christian philosophers of the age says that to call it sophomoric would be an insult to his sophomore class and a well known fellow atheist lambasts you for your ignorance as it pertains to religion. But you are Richard Dawkins, and you needn't worry about the opinions of critics because your dogs are out in force and they gleefully attack the character of anyone who dares question your brilliance.

There is a man that you despise, one among many. He is a fellow scholar and he debates people like you all over the world. Friends and colleagues by the dozens, respected scholars all, have met him on stage in the spirit of open dialogue and intellectual engagement. He wants to debate you, but you hesitate. “Why should I debate him?” you ask. You are famous and beloved and he is nobody. You decide to let it go. Sooner or later the upstart will disappear.

But he does not and now the pressure is mounting. You are, after all, the face of the new atheists. You are the mack daddy of doubters who sneers like no other. You have been as rude and dismissive as possible while making it clear that you are above this guy, yet the calls keep coming. And now there are articles in British papers questioning your spirit! They ask if you have the guts to take this man on! How dare they?! Don't they know you are Richard Dawkins?! Who cares if the man is coming to your stomping grounds to discuss and criticize your book, you are better than him and more famous by far. You have no responsibility to face criticism for your intellectual work in the normal academic style! You are the atheist bomb and have brought the thunder to stupid God believers for decades! PZ Meyers will back you up on that as will all of his blog commenters!

So what are you going to do? “I am busy that night.” Genius. And for good measure, you write an editorial that reiterates that you are Richard Dawkins and don't have to talk to this guy, because even though you and your philosopher friends have never heard of him – at least the ones that have not already debated him - and you do not want to engage his arguments you happen to have read some of his arguments. You characterize him as a kook and a defender of genocide. You go on Bill O'Reilly to peddle your book and then come home and cast the upstart as a shameless self promoter.

There will be an empty chair on the stage representing your absence? Well tell your followers to leave empty chairs everywhere to make the point that you are not at lots of places that night. Of course lots of places will not be hosting a criticism of your work where you turned down repeated invitations to defend your intellectual claims, but your followers will think this is cute and will not ask questions.

You are right. This will work. If there are empty chairs everywhere then the one looks less damning. If everyone else doesn't debate him, then it doesn't look so bad that you won't. So encourage everyone to not debate him and simply shun him. Good show.

You are Richard Dawkins.

Monday, October 17, 2011

A Quick Thought on Arguing the Supremacy of Science

I am currently reading a philosopher who will remain nameless. Not having finished her book, any criticism is premature without first reading her full argument. Thus far, she at once impresses with her intellect and frustrates with the gaps in her reasoning as it pertains to the primacy of scientific knowledge over what she terms “more meaningful” but less verifiable intellectual pursuits.

So here is the oft asked question in rebuttal: What type of appeals and arguments will we be forced to make in order to defend the proposition that testable scientific knowledge is superior to philosophical knowledge?

It is one thing to state an obvious fact; testable experimentally verifiable knowledge enjoys the luxury of being demonstrated again and again so as to earn our confidence. Reasonable people must accept the fact that water freezes at 32 degrees F/0 degrees C. If presented with a case where water failed to freeze at 32 degrees F, it makes sense to question the facts in order to determine what mistake was made. We are left with three probabilities: it is not water(H2O), the thermometer is incorrect, the water was supercooled so that it dipped below the freezing point before actually freezing. It must be one of these things because all reasonable people acknowledge that water normally freezes at 32 degrees F. This is the strength of this type of knowledge. Inquiry leads to trustable answers.

Mathematics are also an extension of this. 2 + 2 = 4 is demonstrably true and reasonable people acknowledge it. (Except , of course, defenders of Fictionalism or a type of Nominalism that denies the reality of numbers and so denies that the equation is literally true, but you don't run into too many of these people at the soccer fields and in the normal work place) Combine the rational power of math and experimental sciences and we have the basis for some of the greatest accomplishments in human history.

But when you argue that experimentally verifiable scientific truth is superior to philosophical truth we are not arguing the more limited claim just discussed. Arguing that it is superior is arguing that the information in question has qualities that make it better by nature than other types of information. Uh oh. Qualities? Nature? This sounds suspiciously like philosophy to me.

Objectors tell me that they are merely stating that scientific exploration works in a way that philosophical consideration cannot. Science discovered everything that makes our life better than our more primitive ancestors. “But what do you mean by better?” I ask.

And why did we advance science? What drove the men and women to pursue vaccines, clean drinking water, stronger protective dwellings, and advanced medical treatment? Was it the idea that we ought to take care of our fellow man and limit suffering? Do our perceived obligations and duties to others often inspire the endeavors we are talking about? Certainly those motivations for exploration are not scientific by nature.

Another consideration, we can all agree that science produces useful information, but how do we assess the application of that knowledge? Zyklon B was a cyanide based pesticide. It was used to keep citrus groves, food stores, and shipping vehicles free of insects and rodents to protect food supplies in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It was also used by the Nazis to kill millions of innocent Jews in death camps. How do we evaluate the different applications of the same scientific principles? One – the killing of insects and rodents - is a possible good and the other – the killing of innocent human beings – is a monstrous evil. Are these judgments scientific? Nope. And if the scientific fact that Zykon B kills living things is the preeminent truth then how we use it is of secondary importance. The moral judgements of the disparate uses of Zyklon B are in doubt in comparison to the certainty of how it works. After all, we know with scientific certainty that Zyklon B kills animals while the moral judgements upon those actions belong to the realm of knowledge that we are told cannot be trusted.

But how is that possible? How can the moral applications of scientific advancement be of secondary importance to the mere fact of discovery itself?

That is the crux of the problem for the greater claim of the supremacy of scientific truth. In order to be better or superior it must explain why the truth discovered through experimentation, though more verifiable by its nature, is of greater importance to the beings those discoveries serve than philosophical truths concerning morality, duties, justice, the existence of God, or the presence of greater purpose to life. This requires contemplation on what kind of beings we are, what is best in life for us, what is our destiny, and what information will best serve us. These questions cannot be melted, burned, vaporized, frozen, or weighed. They cannot be the subject of scientific inquiry in any traditional way that empirical study is understood. In fact, they are exactly the kind of questions that the champion of the supremacy of science is trying to undermine. The arguments for the justification of the supremacy of science are undercut by the attackers own criticisms of philosophy.

Or in the words of Friedrich Nietzsche in Twilight of the Idols:

“The true world — we have abolished. What world has remained? The apparent one perhaps? But no! With the true world we have also abolished the apparent one.”