PZ Myers on the radio

Did I mention I was on Christian talk radio once? No? Well, anyway, some other chap called PZ Myers was also on Premier Christian Radio’s Unbelievable programme, talking about science and religion, a topic much discussed in blog-land recently. His Christian opposite number was Denis Alexander, who runs something called the Faraday Institute here in Cambridge, which was started by a grant from those naughty (but terribly well funded) Templeton Foundation people. You can listen to the audio on Premier’s site, and read Myers’s commentary on his blog.

It was an interesting programme. Myers is a strident shrill fundamentalist neo-rationalist atheist on his blog, but is softly spoken in person. The talk was pretty well mannered. <lj-cut text=”Who said what”>Myers and Alexander agree that there’s no place for god-talk in the science lab, and that evolution happened without divine meddling (amusingly, the presenter was careful to add a disclaimer that not all Christians believe the latter, presumably in an attempt to anticipate the letters in green crayon from creationists and intelligent design supporters). Myers was careful to limit the terms of the debate: he specifically objected to the project of using religious means to find out stuff about how the world works, saying that religion gets it wrong and science does better. Alexander accused Myers of scientism and argued that there are fields of discourse other than science which humans find worthwhile (law, art, and so on), but Myers kept coming back to how we find out how the world works.

Alexander argued that big questions like “why is there something rather than nothing?” are things we can reason about (specifically, using inference to the best explanation), but are not within the purview of science. He finds the human feeling that life has a purpose suggestive, because there’s a dissonance between atheism and the feeling of purpose. Myers argues that a sense of purpose is inculcated by successful cultures. Justin Brierley paraphrases Plantinga, but nobody bites. Summing up, Myers says that religion is superfluous not just in science, but in the rest of life also. Alexander says that science isn’t the only dimension to life, and that his personal relationship with Jesus makes his science work part of his worship.

I think I’d’ve been a bit less eager to attribute the human need for purpose to evolution, although Myers backed off that a bit when he talked about a cultural idea of purpose. Rather, I’d question the notional that an absolute, eternal purpose is the only real sort of purpose, just as I’d question the same assertion about morality.

I’d also question Alexander’s claim that Christians are applying inference to the best explanation in a similar way to scientists. According to philosophers of science, that inference should only be applied when an explanation is clearly better than the alternatives. The idea that a specific sort of god did it doesn’t seem clearly better, as Hume could have told you (unless by “better” we mean “in agreement with my religion”, I suppose).

Myers and Alexander spent a lot of time talking past each other when they were trying to work out what Myers’s objections were. Myers was wise to talk about methodology rather than disagreement about specific facts, on the grounds that science is a set of tools rather than a static body of knowledge. But Alexander is right that there are other legitimate ways to gain knowledge.

Perhaps we should talk about things that those legitimate ways have in common. As Eliezer says, if I’m told by my friend Inspector Morse that Wulky Wilkinsen runs the local crime syndicate, I’d be a fool to annoy Wulky. My belief is not established scientifically, but I’ve got some strong evidence, because Morse is much more likely to tell me that if Wilkinsen really is a shady character than if he isn’t. As Myers argues, reliance on holy books doesn’t work, but not because it’s not science. Rather, because a report of a miracle in a holy book may occur with or without the actual miracle having happened, with at least even odds (to see this, consider how one religion views another’s book, and note that if God wanted us to have a holy book, it would bear the 5 marks of a true holy book). As we saw last time, that your theory is compatible with the observation is not good enough. Rather, say, “Is this observation more likely if my idea is true than if it is not?”

10 thoughts on “PZ Myers on the radio”

        1. Is ‘observation and testing’ the scientific method? Can you please define what you mean by science (or whether you mean the scientific method, which is what I referred to)?

          If observation is necessary then would you say that mathematics does not comprise legitimate knowledge? Mathematics does not refer to observable material things (which is one of the reasons why mathematics is not science).

          Also – if I experience something but it is not repeatable, or not observable by you (or any of the other things that would mean it was not investigatable by the scientific method) – does that mean that my knowledge here is not legitimate?

          1. Is ‘observation and testing’ the scientific method? Can you please define what you mean by science (or whether you mean the scientific method, which is what I referred to)?

            I’m using observation and testing to refer to the scientific method. It seems a reasonable shorthand for a one-line comment. 🙂

            If observation is necessary then would you say that mathematics does not comprise legitimate knowledge? Mathematics does not refer to observable material things (which is one of the reasons why mathematics is not science).

            This is an interesting one, and the only example I could think of that could provide legitimate knowledge. However…

            I’m not sure if mathematics counts because of the assumptions it makes as its starting point. By definition we don’t prove the axioms. But we use them as axioms because of how neatly they accord with real life experience. How long into the history of mathematics did Russell and Whitehead prove that 1+1=2? 😉 I don’t think anyone was in doubt about the result though, because mathematical addition fits so well with our daily experiences of physical addition. In the end, mathematics is a logical extension built on observations from our everyday lives.

            I consider mathematics a tool in the sense that we’re talking here. It’s not the world itself but it’s a powerful way of manipulating the world to reveal new hypotheses. Like a chisel it can be used to carve new things out of the world. And it may be a very beautiful tool (I’d argue it is) but it’s not reliable knowledge about the world.

            Maybe you think of maths differently and I’d be interested to hear what you think. Please knock holes in my logic! 😉 But I still think “observation and testing” is the only legitimate way to know something about the world. Or as Knuth might say: “Beware of bugs in the above code; I have only proved it correct, not tried it”. 🙂

            Also – if I experience something but it is not repeatable, or not observable by you (or any of the other things that would mean it was not investigatable by the scientific method) – does that mean that my knowledge here is not legitimate?

            A person can believe something without it being legitimate knowledge. Recently Helen was sure she’s accidentally read a BSG spoiler online, and was worried this knowledge was colouring our discussion so much that I would learn the spoiler too. Well, it turned out she’d dreamt the spoiler, and things did not unfold the way she thought they were going to unfold.

            I don’t think it’s safe to say Helen had legitimate knowledge of the plot of Battlestar Galactica at that point. But her knowledge was tested, disproved and discarded by actually watching the show. Observations don’t have to be accurate, only testable! 🙂

            If you claim that you have experienced something that is completely untestable or unverifiable, many people will not believe you. But most things do not fall into that category…

            I’m not sure I really understand what you think is an untestable experience? Is “Schindler’s List is a sad movie” untestable? Is “my partner loves me” an untestable hypothesis? To continue the analogy of our host here, if Inspector Morse says someone is a dodgy character this verdict is probably not given out of the blue. It’s probably come from previous experience of the person in question, an examination of their previous arrests, and so on. It comes from observation. But still Inspector Morse’s opinion, right or wrong, is not enough to convict without evidence.

            I find the “other ways of knowing” line quite insincere wherever it is used because it’s never supported with (cough) evidence. You’re the first person who has ever suggested something (mathematics) and I’ve had this discussion plenty of times before.

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