Secular Right | Reality & Reason

TAG | science



Way crazier than Creationism….

…is AIDS Denialism.  Christine Maggiore died before the New Year.  Those making excuses for the deaths in this particular family are not good Bayesians.




Miscellany, January 4

  • Canadian blog Gods of the Copybook Headings — and is anyone here unfamiliar with the classic Kipling secular-rightish poem (bonus Bradlaugh content!) alluded to in that title? — interviews its founder/chief blogger about his classical liberal views (via);
  • Bon mot from Julian Sanchez: “Abstraction has a way of masking disagreement: Everybody’s in favor of ‘liberty,’ for some values of ‘liberty.'” The whole article, on efforts by conservatives to organize online, is worth reading.
  • Things are different in Britain. There’s the splash about the Conservative Humanist Association. There’s London’s amazing and dynamic Mayor Boris Johnson. And now comes word that not one but two MPs in David Cameron’s Tory Shadow Cabinet, likely ministers in a future Conservative government, have entered civil partnerships with their same-sex partners. Per Alex Massie, Shadow Justice Minister Nick Herbert “worked for the British Field Sports Society (ie, the fox-hunting and grouse-shooting lobby) for six years before entering parliament. Culturally at least, that organisation is to the Tory party rather what the National Rifle Association is to the GOP.”
  • Tabloid report: Mob sacks and burns Joseph Priestley’s laboratory to protest his Unitarian views (so maybe things have improved since 1791; via; more from Jonathan Rowe)

· · ·



Who is pro-science, the Left or the Right?

In the comments below I made an assertion to the effect that conservatives are more likely to notionally reject the authority of science, which is one reason that I sometimes focus on right-wing Denialism. On the Left the main analog I experience are feminists and racial minorities who reject science’s authority due to its white male character. On some issues, such as the contention that population level differences between races and sexes are not trivial, the Left is more rejectionist than the Right. But, aside from feminists and racial minorities who reject science as a valid paradigm, my personal experience with Leftists is that they can often be moved into positions which are less rejectionist leveraging the fact that in theory they accept the power and witness of the scientific methodology. The main problem with Creationists, and the reason I simply refuse to engage with them, is that they reject the primacy of the scientific methodology on principle,* so that there is simply no leverage for me to work with (though to be fair, pointing out that St. Augustine noted that much of scripture was allegorical in nature is the sort of leverage which can be used with Creationists on a one-to-one basis).

But I decided to double check my intuition here by looking at the GSS in terms of attitudes toward science. First, if you are curious about “moderates,” they’re less intelligent than those at the political extremes. That should make their results more intelligible. In any case, I am tempted to walk back down from the assertion I made in the comments below, as a wider sampling of variables shows that the reality is more complex, and I am now skeptical that my model captures enough nuance to salvage it.

* I am aware that many avowed Creationists claim to be “scientific.”  Scientific arguments are not the real core of their Creationist commitments. They know that, you know that, but for cultural & legalistic reasons they need to retain the transparent farce that their Creationism is rooted in a scientific basis.


· ·



God as Mid-wife

I just caught a glimpse of the grotesque reality show (a redundancy, I know) “17 Kids and Counting,” which chronicles the “family values” of Arkansas evangelicals Jim Bob and Michelle Duggar and their 17 children.  The segment I saw was shot during the final weeks of Michelle’s 18th pregnancy and included discussions of the medical precautions being taken to meet the obstetric challenge presented by a 40+ woman with 17 previous births.  The hospital and medical sequence concluded with Jim Bob announcing unctuously: “Ultimately, we’re just putting our faith in God,” or something to that effect. 

The heck he is.   I would love for once to see someone really put his faith in God and forego the fruits of centuries of patient scientific work based on empirical proof, not faith.  Jim Bob cloaks himself in the superior virtue of the pious, and yet his actions in seeking out the best medical advice and care are indistinguishable from a heathen secularist. 

One might say, “Well, what’s wrong with a belt-and-suspenders approach?  Take advantage of medical science, but it can’t hurt to throw in a little prayer as an extra insurance policy.”    What’s wrong is the implication when announcing your prayer policy that you are morally superior to those of us without such a policy, even as you behave (rationally and understandably) just like everyone else. 

The baby was delivered safely on December 18.  I can guess who will get the ultimate thanks.  It’s unlikely to be the unsung generations of empiricists who have triumphed over the childbirth mortality of mothers and infants, a condition that has been the human race’s God-given fate for most of history.

And another guess: in those countries still plagued by high rates of childbirth mortality, parents pray with as much fervor as any Arkansas congregation.




Metaphysics & mathematics

Edward Feser, An open letter to Heather MacDonald:

Now I have claimed – as a great many other thinkers, both secular and religious, would claim – that philosophy, and in particular the branch of philosophy called metaphysics, is another form of inquiry which is both rational and at least in part non-empirical. It can be thought of as being similar to both empirical science and mathematics in some respects, and different from both in other respects. Like empirical science, metaphysics often begins with things we know via observation. But like mathematics, it arrives at conclusions which, if the reasoning leading to them is correct, are necessary truths rather than contingent ones, truths that could not have been otherwise. That doesn’t mean that the metaphysician is infallible, any more than the mathematician is. It means instead that if he has done his job well, he will (like the mathematician) have discovered truths about the world that are even deeper and more indubitable than the most solid findings of empirical science.

1) The last sentence takes sides in a debate within mathematical philosophy as to the nature of mathematics. A minor point, but I think not trivial.

2) I don’t grant that metaphysics is very analogous to mathematics at all.* There is a reason that powerfully predictive sciences such as physics use mathematics in preference to verbal reasoning. Humans are really bad at reasoning without the formal structure of mathematics. Really bad. Mathematics straitjackets human cleverness, and prevents one from slowly inching toward their preferred conclusion through a sequence of plausible, if not definite, chain of propositions.

Natural science & mathematics know progress. We cede to them pride of place in intellectual disciplines precisely because we see their fruit all around us.  The method of mathematical proof is so robust that Euclid’s The Elements is still used as a textbook today because it is of more than historical interest.  And yet mathematics does move on at the same time, the elementary techniques learned by most students in the natural sciences (e.g., introductory calculus) are no longer of great intellectual interest.

Note: I do on occasion enjoy reading pre & early modern metaphysicians, but only because of their relevance to the history of thought.

* On second thought, perhaps it is analogous. When I was last interested in philosophical apologetics I would run into a fair amount of logical notation. But, the relation is similar to that of particle physics and social physics (i.e., a quantitative understanding of the dynamics of human societies).  I hope that one day social physics can add some genuine value, but it is not even a shadow of what particle physics is.

· · ·



How Much Religious Falsehood Is Acceptable?

 I am returning to the Ed Feser exchange because it relates to a question I have been pondering about sophisticated Catholics and other Christians.  

 I had asked Mr. Feser if he could suggest an experimental design to test the efficacy of petitionary prayer, in light of his claim that religion is “scientific.”  He pointed me to his book, where I will find sophisticated arguments for the existence of God as the “uncaused first cause,” he says.  

The answer was nonresponsive, and not only for the “courtier’s reply” problems so ably set out by Bradlaugh and several readers.  I’m not asking for a logical proof of God, but simply for a way to verify an oft-praised sign of his love for mankind: his response to believers’ prayers.   “Rational arguments” for God’s existence answer the question of how to test the efficacy of prayer only if answering prayers is a necessary attribute of God’s existence as the “uncaused first cause.”  That assertion strikes me as an even more imaginative leap of theology than usual. 

Mr. Feser displays an impatience with the practice of religion, so I will remind him of one of the most frequent topoi of Christians: If someone recovers from a devastating heart attack, say, it’s because God answered the prayers of friends and family (we won’t ask why the cardiac patient in the next hospital bed, equally prayed-over and–we should surely assume–equally worthy, died).  After nine miners were pulled from a collapsed mine in Pennsylvania in 2002, believers posted a sign:  “Thank you God, 9 for 9. (Either God was busy or the prayers were defective in 2006 when twelve miners died in a West Virginia mine explosion). 
 I was not asking for an empirical test of God’s existence, but just of his effects in the world, which are claimed to be real.  The Templeton experiment, while crude in its details, was at least a start.


· · ·



Is has utility toward ought

Four years ago, Will Wilkinson, stated:

… So, I will powerfully counter-assert: a theory of human nature is NOT supposed to be normative. Take that Richard Rorty! A theory of human nature, or at least a theory of homo sapiens is supposed to tell us what we are like and how we got to be that way. Such theories need tell us no more about what we ought to be like than the theory of the big bang need tell us what the universe ought to be.

Science can tell us a lot about the space of possibility, however. And because ‘ought’ implies ‘can’, there is a straightforward link from the descriptive to the normative. Because a theory of human nature can tell us a lot about what we can’t do, and what won’t work, we can learn a lot about what we shouldn’t do.

I would go further than Will in bowing before the alter of science, but will elaborate on that later….



A model of rational critique?

 Jonah Goldberg posts the “appalled” Ed Feser on secular conservatives.  Apparently Mr. Feser thinks of himself as the opposite of “smugly unreflective and dogmatic.”  Readers can decide for themselves. 

 I will respond to just one of Mr. Feser’s un-smug, non-dogmatic statements: that only someone blithely ignorant of religion would call it “unscientific.”  

I wonder to which science Mr. Feser is referring.  There was the Templeton prayer experiment, and that didn’t work out too satisfactorily, did it?  Granted, the research design was laughable, in a charming sort of way (the people praying for the recovery of cardiac patients, for example, were only given the patient’s first name and last initial, on the assumption presumably that God would know to which Jim G. they were referring).  Perhaps Mr. Feser could propose a more scientifically rigorous design to show the efficacy of petitionary prayer or any other religious practice of his choosing. 

The curious thing to me is why the idea of secular conservatism is so “appalling” to Mr. Feser and others.  We are only proposing that the basis of conservatism  can be broadened beyond revelation to rest on an understanding of human nature itself.  Reason and the evidence of history show the crucial importance of parental responsibility, self-discipline, limited government, and free economic exchange in creating a society in which individuals can most thrive.  Do religious conservatives believe that only religious belief grounds conservatism?  That position strikes me as rather an admission of defeat.

Secular conservatives applaud the virtues put forth in various Holy Books, we simply claim them—proudly–as the creation of human beings, to which all have access.




Science & progress

Some have left comments (which I have deleted) to the effect of “scientists once accepted X, but now accept -X, therefore why should one put stock in acceptance of evolutionary theory?” This is obviously a complicated issue, and there is a whole domain of philosophy of science which is not even an obscure field (e.g., Popper & Kuhn are relatively well known names). But I think the problem with this sort of statement is that more often scientific progress occurs like so:

X +/- 10 ? X +/- 1 ? X +/- 0.1

Scientific models become more precise and are refined so as to generate more fruitful predictions. It seems more accurate to say that Relativity did not overturn Newtonian Mechanics so much as extend, supersede and refine.  R. A. Fisher’s Genetical Theory of Natural Selection did not overturn Darwin’s original formulation of the process by which evolution was driven by natural selection, rather, it added a mathematical formality which aided in the process of verification and refutation.

Why am I posting so much about science?  First, I do think it is fair to say that the Right has a “Science Problem.”  But secondly, my own conservatism is grounded and framed in the scientific understanding of human nature, at least to the extent we understand it.  Any conservatism which is empirical and takes the idea of a human nature seriously must ultimately assimilate the most recent findings of the evolutionary & behavioral sciences.



On the varieties of prediction

In some of the comments below I engaged in a discussion about the power of prediction, the necessity of skepticism, and so on.  In the format of a weblog the full overgrown shape of one’s thoughts can be somewhat muddled.  For example, I evinced a skepticism of predictions of the future from rational a priori assumptions, and therefore a particular prejudice toward custom & tradition.  But across the set of species of predictions obviously various degrees of skepticism are warranted.  After all, I think it would be ridiculous to be skeptical of an astrophysicist who made a prediction as to the arc of celestial orbits.  The record on these things is rather different in terms of precision & accuracy from predictions of, as a contrast, macroeconomic performance.  It stands to reason that the cudgel of skepticism should be selectively applied to different classes of rational systems and the projections thereof.  On the great chain of predictive being, I would rank it like so:


<< Latest posts

Older posts >>

Theme Design by