Reason, belief, and epistemology


by Paul P. Mealing – Tuesday, March 15, 2016  1:20 AM

 Recently in New Scientist (5 March 2016) there was a review of a book, The Persuaders: The Hidden Industry that Wants to Change Your Mind by James Garvey (which I must read), which tackles the issue of why argument by reason often fails. I’ve experienced this first hand on this blog, which has led me to the conclusion that you can’t explain something to someone who doesn’t want it explained. The book referenced above is more about how propaganda works, apparently, but that is not what I wish to discuss.

In the same vein, I’ve recently watched a number of YouTube videos covering excerpts from debates and interviews with scientists on the apparent conflict between science and religion. I say apparent because not all scientists are atheists and not all theologians are creationists, yet that is the impression one often gets from watching these.

The scientists I’ve been watching include Richard Dawkins, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Bill Nye (aka the science guy) and Michio Kaku. I think Tyson presents the best arguments (from the small sample I watched) but Michio Kaku comes closest to presenting my own philosophical point of view. In one debate (see links at bottom) he says the ‘God question’ is ‘undecidable’ and predicts that, unlike many scientific questions of today, the God question will be no further advanced in 100 years time than it is in the current debate.

The issue, from my perspective, is that science and religion deal with completely different things. Science is an epistemology – it’s a study of the natural world in all its manifestations. Religion is something deeply personal and totally subjective, and that includes God. God is something people find inside themselves which is why said God has so many different personalities and prejudices depending on who the believer is. I’ve argued this before, so I won’t repeat myself.

At least 2 of the scientists I reference above (Dawkins and Tyson) point out something I’ve said myself: once you bring God into epistemology to explain some phenomenon that science can’t currently explain, you are saying we have come to the end of science. History has revealed many times over that something that was inexplicable in the past becomes explicable in the future. As I’ve said more than once on this blog: only people from the future can tell us how ignorant we are in the present. Tyson made the point that the apposite titled God-of-the-Gaps is actually a representation of our ignorance – a point I’ve made myself.

This does not mean that God does not exist; it means that God can’t help us with our science. People who argue that science can be replaced with Scripture are effectively arguing that science should be replaced by ignorance. The Old Testament was written by people who wanted to tell a story of their origins and it evolved into a text to scare people into believing that they are born intrinsically evil. At least that’s how it was presented to me as a child.

Of all the videos I watched, the most telling was an excerpt from a debate between Bill Nye (the science guy) and Ken Ham (the architect of the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky). Ham effectively argued that science can only be done in the present. So-called historical science, giving the age of the Earth or the Universe, or its origins, cannot be determined using the same methods we use for current scientific investigations. When asked if any evidence could change his beliefs, he said there was no such evidence and the Bible was the sole criterion for his beliefs.

And this segues back into my introduction: you cannot explain something to someone who doesn’t want it explained. When I argue with someone or even present an argument on this blog, I don’t expect to change people’s points of view to mine; I expect to make them think. Hence the little aphorism in the blog’s title block.

One of the points made in the New Scientist review, referenced in my opening, is that people rarely if ever change their point of view even when presented with indisputable evidence or a proof. This is true even among scientists. We all try to hang on to our pet theories for as long as possible until they are no longer tenable. I’m as guilty of this as anyone, even though I’m not a scientist.

One of the things that helps perpetuate our stubbornness is confirmation bias (mentioned by New Scientist) whereby we tend to only read or listen to people whom we agree with. We do this with politics all the time. But I have read contrary points of view, usually given to me by people who think I’m biased. I’ve even read C.S. Lewis. What I find myself doing in these instances is arguing in my head with the authors. To give another example, I once read a book by Colin McGinn (Basic Structures of Reality) that only affirmed for me that people who don’t understand science shouldn’t write books about it, yet I still read it and even wrote a review of it on Amazon UK.

There is a thing called philosophy and it’s been married to science for many centuries. Despite what some people claim (Richard Dawkins and Stephen Hawking to mention 2) I can’t see a divorce any time soon. To use a visual metaphor, our knowledge is like an island surrounded by a sea of unsolved mysteries. The island keeps expanding but the sea is infinite. The island is science and the shoreline is philosophy. To extend the metaphor, our pet theories reside on the beach.

Noson Yanofsky, a Professor of Computer and Information Science in New York, wrote an excellent book called The Outer Limits of Reason, whereby he explained how we will never know everything – it’s cognitively and physically impossible. History has demonstrated that every generation believes that we almost know everything that science can reveal, yet every revelation only reveals new mysteries.

This is a video of Michio Kaku and Richard Dawkins, amongst others, giving their views on science, God and religion.

This is a short video of Leonard Susskind explaining 2 types of agnosticism, one of which he seems to concur with.

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