Monday, November 20, 2006

What's so great about evidence?

Right on cue Richard Dawkins answers the charge of being an atheist fundamentalist :

"Fundamentalists know they are right because they have read the truth in a holy book and they know, in advance, that nothing will budge them from their belief. The truth of the holy book is an axiom, not the end product of a process of reasoning. The book is true, and if the evidence seems to contradict it, it is the evidence that must be thrown out, not the book. By contrast, what I, as a scientist, believe (for example, evolution) I believe not because of reading a holy book but because I have studied the evidence. It really is a very different matter. Books about evolution are believed not because they are holy. They are believed because they present overwhelming quantities of mutually buttressed evidence. In principle, any reader can go and check that evidence. When a science book is wrong, somebody eventually discovers the mistake and it is corrected in subsequent books. That conspicuously doesn't happen with holy books."

To which I respond: What's so great about evidence? Is not your belief that evidence is a reliable guide to Truth just a matter of faith?

I can only imagine how Dawkins would respond to that, but there is only one answer that I can think of so I'll argue with myself and say: the difference between evidence and faith is that the holy books are mutually and internally contradictory, and there is no principled way of resolving those contradictions. Scientific evidence, by contrast, is consistent and independently reproducible, and therefore everyone at least agrees on what the evidence is even if they might differ from time to time about the implications.

The problem with this is, interestingly, a manifestation of the Universal Asymmetry that I pointed out in my last post on this topic. Dawkins may have come to his beliefs by studying "the evidence" but very few people have this luxury. The vast majority of the people in the world do not have direct access to "the evidence." At best they have access to books written by people (scientists) with access to the evidence. And the vast majority of such books are written specifically to be inaccessible to the layman. (To be fair, many of Dawkins' own books are notable exceptions to this rule.) Take me, for example. I believe in evolution, but not because I have actually studied the evidence. I don't have time for that. I believe in evolution becuase it makes sense to me. And people who believe, say, that Christ died for their sins, believe that for the same reason: because it makes sense to them.

Make no mistake: I absolutely believe that those who deny evolution are wrong. The difference between me and Dawkins that I understand how someone might reasonably come to a different conclusion and Dawkins doesn't. He believes despite evidence to the contrary that all non-scientific worldviews are unreasonable. They are not. They just start with different premises and life experiences. Until Dawkins and his ilk come to understand and accept this (and adjust their rhetoric accordingly) I predict they will make little progress towards their stated goals.

P.S. It is not true, as Dawkins claims, that there is are no corrective processes in religion. The text of the holy books may not change often (although it does happen) but the interpretation of the holy books is in constant flux, just as the interpretation of scientific evidence is.

11 comments:

quantamos said...

i would also suggest that science takes as an axiom that super-natural effects do not provide systematic biases. perfectly reasonable, but there are no guidelines on where/how/if that assertion breaks down.

Ron said...

science takes as an axiom that super-natural effects do not provide systematic biases

I think that depends a great deal on how you define "systematic bias." If it's systematic enough then it's just part of nature, no?

Sunil Bajpai said...

You have a point there, Ron. But Dawkins doesn't argue that you have personally verified the evidence, or that you have to. He says you may, if you wish. Scientists continually examine their arguments and the evidence, and someone eventually discovers mistakes that are corrected. Scientific theories thus evolve with time, often very rapidly.

Yes, religious books and their interpretations change too. But they are characterised by resistance. Scientists by contrast, embrace better interpretations enthusiastically.

A large number of people aren't skilled in rigorous scientific thinking, not being trained for it. Similarly not many are trained in interpretation of religious doctrines. Many must, therefore, accept another person's thinking as the truth, a point that you have made very well. What works for them, is right for them.

Indeed, in the Hindu holy book called the Gita, it is argued that the one who has evolved toward enlightenment to a greater degree mustn't confuse others with actions or ideas they are not yet ready for. In other words, even when a religious person understands that certain religious ideas or practices aren't valid or ultimately useful, he should refrain from confusing those who can only evolve beyond that point, when they are ready for it.

Yes, people will hold different viewpoints. And I agree with you that it is perfectly logical (and even necessary) for them to do so.

cerebrator said...

You made an excellent point Ron.

But I think this also shows one downside of human today. We seldom question ourselves.

We take things for granted and we do not question.

Even if we do question, it's not critical. We simply accept things as they are presented.

Ron said...

But Dawkins doesn't argue that you have personally verified the evidence, or that you have to. He says you may, if you wish.

Actually, relgious people say the same thing, e.g. if you open your heart to God then you will personally experience Him.

Yes, religious books and their interpretations change too. But they are characterised by resistance. Scientists by contrast, embrace better interpretations enthusiastically.

Sure, but so what? The mere fact that science changes while religon does not (to a first order approximation) proves nothing. That could just as well be because religion gets it right the first time.

A large number of people aren't skilled in rigorous scientific thinking, not being trained for it. Similarly not many are trained in interpretation of religious doctrines. Many must, therefore, accept another person's thinking as the truth, a point that you have made very well.

Thank you. Now if I can just figure out how to get Richard Dawkins and his ilk to understand that.

Olivier said...

What's so great about evidence?

Are you insane? (I hope not :) The reliance on evidence is the single greatest advance in the history of life on Earth! Not only has it propelled humans way past our innate propensity to stagnate or climb back up the trees, but, as an added bonus, it's what allows us to protect ourselves against fraudulant, dishonest, manipulative charlatans, whether they be politicians, preists or scientists! It's the only thing we have that we really can rely on. Sure, science today is much less hands on, more theoretical, but it ultimately relies on an empirical basis, and that is rather more objective than faith.

Is not your belief that evidence is a reliable guide to Truth just a matter of faith?

I'm not sure if this question borders on the fallacious or the merely self-defeating. The answer is no.

Dawkins may have come to his beliefs by studying "the evidence" but very few people have this luxury.

And this is why you believe that there's nothing great about evidence? Because few peoble have access to it? All it takes to correct this is an education. Any one who want's to can get one. Any one who want's to can get the evidence and make his or her own mind. To save time, we can rely on others, on books, domain experts, etc. But we can, if we so choose, get our hands dirty and validate scientific theories for ourselves. Your criticism in no way invalidates the usefulness of evidence.

Religious books refer to things, tangible or intangible. They purport to explain them. We, as readers of these books, are free to accept these things as true or not. Scientific books refer to things, tangible or intangible. They purport to explain them. We, as readers of these books, are free to accept these things as true or not. Religious books in general fail massively to convince me because they are grosely inconsistent (i.e. contradictory) and devoid of any significant predictive power. Those are real show-stoppers for me. Scientific books, on the other hand, fare much better, IMO. Religious books are replete with denotations that do not refer to any "things." Scientific books fare much better in this respect. Religion should heed the words of Wittgenstein: “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.”

He believes despite evidence to the contrary that all non-scientific worldviews are unreasonable.

Many, many things can "appear" reasonable. That's usually not good enough in every day life. Plenty of fairy tales make sense, at some level or another. So many (too many) religious, cosmological, superstitious beliefs have been held, accompanied with piss-poor thinking, so often and for so long, and at such a cost to humanity, that today we know better than to ignore the value of evidence, rational thought, probability and risk management. Twenty five hundred years of Western rational thought have taught us that our emotions and non-verified beliefs all too often lead us astray. It is reasonable to resist our emotions and to demand evidence to support our beliefs, especially when religious beliefs command social, political, economic and ecological actions. That much we should be sure of. And if we are not, then it may simply be a case of “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” (Santayana)

P.S. It is not true, as Dawkins claims, that there is are no corrective processes in religion...

YMMV. If you "believe" the Bible to be the literal word of God, you're not likely to revisit your interpretation of it.

Your criticism of Dawkins for being a fundamentalist atheist is untenable. It's a typical tactic used by creationists and right-wing religious people. There just isn't any symmetry between dogmatic faith and scientific beliefs, as the difference between the two is ontological. Religious faith is unwavering, regardless of the evidence (what evidence?), not so for scientific beliefs.

As for your new-found spiritual home at churchofreality.org, yeah, it seems to avoid confrontation all right. Yet the content is, in many respects, just as critical as anything from Dennett, Harris or Dawkins. It just doesn't "accuse" evidence-less belief of much, if anything. That may be more your style, as opposed to "arrogance" and "condescension". My personal take on this issue is that a spade should be called as such. If there is something wrong with dogmatic, religious belief, it the ramifications for humanity are serious and a danger exists, it should be addressed. I find that that is exactly what Dawkins, Harris and Dennett are doing. Dawkins foregoes kid gloves and offends many. Agreed. But are his arguments wrong, or is it just the tone?

Yes, I read your criticism of Dawkins' I'm-an-atheist-but-ism #2: people need religion. You claim people don't need religion, but rather want it. Thus people may prefer religion to what science can bring to the table. Sure. A good fiction or falsehood may be more soothing than the "truth", but as Dennett said, "...I love the world so much that I am sure I want to know the truth about it." (Darwin's Dangerous Idea, p. 82). Choosing religion of one's own free will is fine, but when it clashes with reality to the detriment of others, it ceases to be reasonable. Concordance with reality is essential in modern societies, not concordance with fictions. One is pragmatic (reasonable?), the other one isn't.

Science can't answer all questions? Indeed, it may not. But religion can? I don't think so. Quite the opposite, in my opinion.

I am personally content to let that question remain unanswered and revel in the delicious mysteriousness of it all. But I see no rational reason for passing judgement on those who might choose to do otherwise.

Maybe passing judgement on those who choose to answer "why am I me" through religious beliefs is justified by the fact that their answers may not be answers. It's tough referring to things that don't "really" exist (see Wittgenstein above).

Ron said...

Are you insane?

How should I know? (That is not a rhetorical question, by the way.)

The reliance on evidence is the single greatest advance in the history of life on Earth

Sure, I think few people would dispute that relying on evidence is effective. But being effective and being right are two completely different things. The reason I take issue with Dawkins is not because he's wrong but because he's ineffective.

And this is why you believe that there's nothing great about evidence? Because few peoble have access to it? All it takes to correct this is an education. Any one who want's to can get one.

No, you are very wrong about that. I don't think you fully grasp the conditions under which the majority of people on this planet live. An education is an unfathomable luxury for most people. Even here in the U.S. a good education is not so easy to come by.

Your criticism in no way invalidates the usefulness of evidence.

The usefulness of evidence is not in dispute. But just because it's useful doesn't mean it's a reliable guide to truth, or a path to purpose and meaning, or a conduit to the divine.

BTW, faith can be useful too. For a lot of people it's what gets them through the day. And placebo effects are real.

Your criticism of Dawkins for being a fundamentalist atheist is untenable. It's a typical tactic used by creationists and right-wing religious people.

I am neither a creationist nor right-wing nor religious. How do you account for me?

My personal take on this issue is that a spade should be called as such.

So if I think you're an idiot I should just come out and say so? Do you think that would be make you more likely to see things my way?

Concordance with reality is essential in modern societies, not concordance with fictions. One is pragmatic (reasonable?), the other one isn't.

Concordance with reality and concordance with evidence are two different things. Everyone agrees that concordance with reality is essential. The dispute is over what constitutes reality, and the central problem is that my unique vantange point on the world is an undeniable part of my reality. And yet science cannot account for it. On what basis then can you insist that I (or anyone else) adopt science as the arbiter of what is and is not real? (BTW, I can make a pretty convincing scientific argument that you are not real.)

The right way to argue for science is on pragmatic grounds, not dogmatic ones. Science is better because it works better, because the answers it provides are (usually) better, not because it's "right" and everything else is "wrong." Again, please don't misunderstand me: I believe that science is (mostly) right and religion is (mostly) wrong. But I also maintain just a little bit of doubt about that belief. Dawkins harbors none, and that's what makes him a fundamentalist.

The Atheist Spy said...

Ron, you are making this more complicated than it has to be. And you should know better, since you are one of the people who helped me see just how simple it really is.

It does not make sense to compare the validity or the effectiveness or the usefulness of religious "truth" to those of scientific "truth". Those two kinds of "truth"s answer different kinds of questions, model different kinds of relationships, and are not even contradictory (unless you are crazy and take your religious text too literally). You have said so yourself: Science asks "How" and religion asks "Why". You can't reasonably use science to ask "Why" and (despite many people's best efforts) you can't use religion to ask "How". ("How" meaning "What fairly automatic processes and mechanisms caused one set of circumstances to follow another set of circumstances", and "Why" meaning "To what divine/extra-human purpose did the world come to be as we see it?").

So the (primary, at least) thing that determines whether or not you think religion "makes sense" is whether you think "Why" questions are meaningful. "Why" questions cannot be answered with logic, or even with certainty, just with speculation and faith. That by itself means that a lot of people (like me, Dawkins, etc) don't like dealing with them because there is no way to ever know you're right: Either you "like" the answers you found or you don't, and different people like different answers. (And since they're not really "answers", just guesses, some people like me and Dawkins prefer to just be skeptical of all of them, and to make sure we do not mistake them for "truth"). Most people, however, love the kind of super-cosmic perspective that these guesses formulate, love being a part of a divine narrative, love knowing that their lives and the world they live in are part of a plan, and think that this talk of a creator and of "purpose"/"meaning" intuitively make sense (which they do, but to me this reveals that our intuition is not very reliable). This allows them to make a leap of faith (or several) and, from there, to build a fairly complex system of faith that supports itself in complicated and fairly thorough ways, to the point where the original leap of faith (which is still necessary to support the whole structure) is often lost from sight.

Anyways, all I wanted to say is, either you pursue the answers to "Why" and get lost in the mess of speculation and faith and imprecise definitions we call "religion" and "spirituality", or you decide that it's not worth sacrificing logic, certainty (to the extent you can be certain the sun will rise tomorrow), reliability, or an evidence-based model of the world (or you just don't think the universe and life have a purpose or meaning) in which case you have a perspective that allows you to see that religion, while very compelling and beautiful and possibly even "true", is essentially made up.

It irritates me when I hear people trying to argue for or against God's existence (and sometimes things like Jesus' miracles) using "evidence". It's not about "evidence". It's about whether you think the universe ought to have a purpose or not.

And as a PS, I find it very odd and interesting that I hate how confrontation, un-empathetic, and arrogant Dawkins is, despite the fact I agree with all the points he makes. It's very odd to hear him talk and feel like "Yeah, that's right! Thanks for saying it!" and "No, no, no, don't say it like that! This is so painful" at the same time. Especially since modern religion arguably does more good than harm in the world an to people's personal lives, I am fairly sure I do not want to stand next to Dawking on his crusade. But I do want to help people question themselves and look at their beliefs honestly, and realize that atheists are not (necessarily) immoral and that religious people are not (necessarily) crazy.

Ron said...

Ron, you are making this more complicated than it has to be.

I don't think so. Just because there is a why/how dichotomy between religion and science doesn't mean that that's the whole story. Furthermore, when someone with Dawkins' stature starts to spew counerproductive vitriol I think he needs to be challenged directly. And I think it's more effective when that challenge comes from someone who basically agrees with him so that it's harder to write off that challenge as just another right-wing religious nutcase. (Not that I seem to be having much effect. My elephant-in-the-living-room post got zero points on Reddit. I must be doing something very wrong.)

Olivier said...

The reason I take issue with Dawkins is not because he's wrong but because he's ineffective.

I've asked myself whether his approach could be counterproductive. Based on comments and articles posted at richarddawkins.net and elsewhere, there seems to be both good and bad reactions. More importantly, however, it is provoking a debate that might not have reached the proportions that it currently has, had Dawkins et al. not beed so bold.

An education is an unfathomable luxury for most people.

Indeed, that would explain why there are so many more people embracing myths rather than scientific theories. Or does it? Surely, it must be possible to estimate the amount of education it takes to instil in each of us a decent baloney detector and some critical thinking skills? My point is that even limited education can yield some measure of enlightenment. It could even be developed cheaply and provided during primary school education. No need for expensive high-school, college, or even University education.

The usefulness of evidence is not in dispute. But just because it's useful doesn't mean it's a reliable guide to truth, or a path to purpose and meaning, or a conduit to the divine.

In science, usefulness of evidence and truth correlate very well, in a "punctuated-equilibrium" kind of way, does it not?

BTW, faith can be useful too...

Agreed. To a degree.

I am neither a creationist nor right-wing nor religious. How do you account for me?

You slipped, as many do on the issue of the nature of beliefs.

So if I think you're an idiot I should just come out and say so? Do you think that would be make you more likely to see things my way?

Yes. You should come out and say so. And if you provide me with sufficient justification, I will gladly see things your way! (There is always a time and a place for ad hominem attacks. :-)

I believe that science is (mostly) right and religion is (mostly) wrong. But I also maintain just a little bit of doubt about that belief. Dawkins harbors none, and that's what makes him a fundamentalist.

Not quite the reading I make of Dawkins. It's one of the sources of disagreement I have with you. Dawkins has on many, many occasions admitted that he cannot disprove the existence of something like God, or of an alternate plane of knowledge or enlightenment. He volunteers his inability to answer many questions asked by religion (as well as by science). He has expressed his willingness to change his mind regarding scientific facts or theories upon reception of new evidence. And has said likewise regarding the existence of supernatural forces or entities. However, the existence of the latter is, in his opinion, so improbable, that he prefers to deny their existence until sufficient proof/evidence to the contrary is brought forward.

This skepticism is similar to the one displayed by skeptics who deny the existence of paranormal phenomena. Paranormal skeptics get accused of being close-minded by those who claim the existence of such phenomena, as well as by those who are paranormal agnostics. Never mind the fact that 20-30 years of University research has provided not a shred of evidence to support the existence of paranormal phenomena, that all claims of paranormal phenomena in the last 100 years have either proven inconclusive or have been demonstrated as frauds (the quasi totality are frauds). After hundreds, or even thousands, of debunkings, the skeptic and scientific community is, IMO, justified in putting the burden of proof outright on the shoulders of the claimants. "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence", dixit Sagan.

That is what Dawkins et al. are doing with respect to belief in dogma, supernatural forces and deities.

Ron said...

More importantly, however, it is provoking a debate that might not have reached the proportions that it currently has, had Dawkins et al. not beed so bold.

Maybe. We'll never know because we can't do the control experiment.

In science, usefulness of evidence and truth correlate very well, in a "punctuated-equilibrium" kind of way, does it not?

Some kinds of truth, not others. Maybe I should distinguish between lower-case-t truth (the this-is-how-you-send-a-spacecraft-to-mars kind of truth) and upper-case-T Truth (the I-am-me-and-not-someone-else-because... kind of Truth).

There is always a time and a place for ad hominem attacks. :-)

OK, I'll be sure to keep that in mind ;-)

Dawkins has on many, many occasions admitted that he cannot disprove the existence of something like God, or of an alternate plane of knowledge or enlightenment.

Yes, but he doesn't really take that seriously. He says (in the title of one of his books no less) that God is a delusion. In between not being physically real and being a delusion is a whole range of other less abrasive possibilities that Dawkins rejects for no reason other than his own brand of faith.

Paranormal skeptics get accused of being close-minded

I'm not accusing Dawkins of being closed-minded, I'm accusing him of being impolitic and insensitive to the fact that not everyone is a tenured professor at Oxford. He seems to have no clue about the kinds of lives that most people live or the kinds of pain that they have to deal with. While he may be well-versed in the minutiae of evolutionary biology, he seems clueless about life outside the ivory tower. Even if religion is nothing more than a fictional emotional crutch (I personally think it's more than that, but that's another discussion) Dawkins still tries to rip that crutch away from people while offering nothing but science to replace it. But to a poor woman in Louisiana trying to raise three children while making $7/hour at Wal-Mart and dealing with an abusive alchoholic husband, science makes a damn poor substitute for the idea that Jesus loves her and there's hope for someting better after she dies. That is an aspect of reality to which Dawkins -- and you -- seem utterly oblivious.