Friday, August 26, 2005

The ink blot test

As the John Roberts confirmation hearing approaches, the debate on "activist judges" is heating up again. To my mind, Glenn Reynolds had the last word on this back in 2002 (and actually back in 1990). Findlaw also has a good review.

It's really very simple. The founding fathers explicitly anticiapted and rejected the argument that if a right is not enumerated in the Constitution that it doesn't exist. To this end they ratified the Ninth Amendment:

The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.

It couldn't be clearer, and it never ceases to amaze me that the "intellectually dishonest" (as Reynolds puts it, and that is precisely what it is) strict-constructionist argument gets as much traction as it does because to accept it you have to completely ignore the ninth amendment. And indeed, that is exactly what the IDSC camp does. Robert Bork famously suggested that the Ninth Amendment is nothing but an "ink blot". I don't see how much "activist" a jurist can be than to say he's going to just ignore part of the Constitution because it conflicts with his ideology.

It amazes me that there is even one American who, after a comment like that, does not agree that running Bork out of town on a rail was the right thing to do. And yet there are tens of millions who hold him up as a symbol of liberalism run amok. Have none of them ever read the Ninth Amendment?

The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.

It's not that complicated. But given the Conservative capacity to bury its head in the sand it shouldn't surprise me too much that some people can look at those twenty-one words and see nothing but an inkblot.

What if they elected Saddam?

It could happen.

Hussein Supporters Rally Against Constitution
By Borzou Daragahi, Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD -- Up to 3,000 demonstrators waving portraits of deposed Iraqi president Saddam Hussein and chanting slogans against the proposed draft constitution marched in a largely peaceful demonstration this morning through downtown Baqouba, a heavily Sunni Arab city 40 miles north of capital.

"With our souls, with our blood we will defend you, Saddam," some of the demonstrators chanted in a rare public display of support for the former Iraqi leader, now awaiting trial for crimes against humanity.

Thursday, August 25, 2005

The First Amendment takes another hit

Oh say does that star spangled banner yet wave
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave?

No, it doesn't. It waves o'er the land of the secure and the home of the frightened.

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

What part of "Thou shalt not kill" did you not understand?

Allow me to add my voice to the growing chorus of those condemning Pat Robertson's call for the assassination of Venezuela's president. I can't imagine how anyone could support Robertson after this, but there is no doubt in my mind that a mind boggling number of people will. Sigh.

Thursday, August 11, 2005

ID in schools, round 2

God works in mysterious ways.

There I was, scratching my head trying to figure out how to explain to my loyal readers (hey, a boy can dream, can't he?) where I've been the last five months, when along comes John Mark Reynolds with the perfect softball in the form of his response to my letter to him about Intelligent Design theory. Happily, responding to him turns out to be the perfect segue for explaining where I've been the last five months. So, off we go! (Quotes from Reynolds are in italics.)

When Michael Shermer, whose main day job is running a Skeptic advocacy group, is allowed to frame the debate no good can come of it. Shermer is not a scientist. . .

I happen to agree that Michael Shermer did an embarrassingly poor job of holding up his end of the argument. But it's not because Shermer "is not a scientist" or because "his main day job is running a Skeptic advocacy group." I don't think Shermer's profession (he's a writer by trade, by the way. Running the Skeptic Society is something he does on the side.) ought to have anything to do with it. Einstein was a patent clerk in 1905. Should he have been denied a seat at the table because he didn't have any academic credentials?

I bring this up because I'm not a scientist either, not any more. I used to be. I was a card-carrying scientist at a leading national research lab. I have a Ph.D. I held the title of Principal, which was the highest rung on the non-management career ladder. (Actually, it turned out there were higher rungs, but their existence was not publicly acknowledged.)

Having played the scientific/academic career game with a degree of success I believe I have a certain amount of insight into how one becomes one of the "big kids", as Reynolds so charmingly puts it. By some measure I was one of the "big kids." The truth is that becoming a "big kid" (by which is meant a "respected" academic, by which is meant someone whose papers get referenced a lot) depends as much on being a good marketeer as it does on being a good researcher or teacher. All else being equal people will tend to focus their attention where it has been actively drawn. Especially in the age of information overload there just isn't time for anything else.

Turns out I am an absolutely terrible marketeer. I won't get into details, but suffice it to say that my career hit a wall because I was not willing to compromise on certain principles. So last November I quit my job to start a new career in the movie industry. That's why I've not been blogging. Too busy shopping screenplays around.

I can't help but wonder, then, where I stand in John Reynolds' academic pecking order. Am I entitled to "frame the debate" because I was recently a scientist, or do I just get to be a "mirror" of other people's views because my day job now is to write screenplays and sell DVDs?

Having been through the experience I can say I think people put far too much weight on titles. I have met Ph.D's who were complete idiots, and people who dropped out of high school who were absolutely brilliant. The whole degree and title thing is largely a scam. But that's a topic for another day. I'll just point out that Einstein didn't have a Ph.D. and was working as a patent clerk in 1905.

Back to the matter at hand.

First, I think Reynolds and I have some common ground in the belief that public school science education sucks big fat honking weenies (though I suspect he might choose different terminology). Where we differ is in our belief about whether introducing Intelligent Design theory would make the situation better or worse. Reynold's position (as I understand it) is that it would improve the situation by illustrating the breadth of possibilities in philosophy of science and free students from the narrrow straightjack of methodological naturalism.

My position, following the mainstream of anti-ID-in-public-schoool-science-classes, is that ID is not science and ought not to be taught as such. I have no problem with ID in a comparative religion or history class. (The problem is that it is nearly impossible to design a comparative religion class that doesn't piss anybody off, but that's a topic for another day.)

So to respond to Reynolds' specific points:

Actually, I would argue that there is a possibility (if theism and psychological dualism are true), that science is held back by dogmatic adherence to MN [Reynolds originally wrote ID here but he meant MN]. Of course I cannot be sure that this is true.

In fact we can be reasonably certain that the exact opposite is true, that science has accomplished what it has only through a dogmatic adherence to MN. See below.

Science frequently claims to explain reality or even to exhaustively explain reality.

No, I don't think this is true. Where has any respectable scientist ever made such a claim? At best (or at worst depending on your point of view) I think you will find people who take it on faith that science has the *potential* to explain all of *physical* reality. You can also find people who take it on faith that physical reality is all of reality. But this is very different from exhaustively explaining reality."

Is reality limited to the physical?

No. (Actually, if you push hard on quantum mechanics you can make a pretty good argument that what we perceive as the physical world is not real at all. See this paper for an in-depth discussion of this fascinating tangent.)

If one wants to explore all of reality, then does one have to leave science by definition?

That depends on the nature of reality, which is, of course, an open question.

I will make this observation though: if you want to leave room in your worldview for the mysterious then you must, by definition, leave science. This is not a bad thing. Humans have two mutually irreconcilable psychological drives: they want to know, and they want to wonder. Science fulfills the former need, religion (and drama, and magic) the latter. The reason ID is not science is that it necessarily leaves a mystery about the nature of the designer. That is precisely the source of its appeal. There's nothing inherently wrong with that, but it's not science.

Reality is reduced for these "scientists" (doing philosophy without training) to those things that can be explained by science.

No, this is a straw man. Reality is not reduced. When one is doing science ones attention is focused in a way that leaves no room for the irreducibly mysterious (or the supernatural, or the divine). Focusing one's attention in this way is, empirically, effective with respect to certain goals (notably manipulating the physical world to one's own ends). And some people find that they can live fulfilled lives with their attention focused in this way all the time, just as some people can live fulfilled lives without romantic love, or without alchohol. This says nothing about reality. All it says is that different people focus their attention in different ways.

Let us agree that science then is limited to providing explanations of the physical (natural?) world.


The question then becomes: What parts of reality are parts of this merely physical world? Is human personality?

There are clear connections between the physical and chemical structure of the human brain and personality. Whether the brain is sufficient to account for *all* of the phenomenology of human personality is an open question.

This question is not much different than asking if weather is entirely part of physical reality, or if there are extra-physical agents (like Zeus) controlling where the thunderbolts fall. The only difference is that suggesting that the weather is purely physical doesn't seem to bother people as much as suggesting that they themselves are purely physical.

Is God?

That depends on what you mean by God. There are certain views (like Taoism) in which God is purely part of physical reality and others (like the fundamentalist Judeo-Christo-Islamic view) where He is partially physical, and still others (like the Deist view) where He is not part of physical reality at all, at least not any more.

Is there a Person (divine?) that did work in that cosmos? In that case, science would be limited (if an active God is true) in what it could explain even in the material world. That is: It could be the case that not all caused events in the material world have (at their base) physical causes. At their base are human actions subject to merely physical or functional explanations? Is a psychological dualism possible?

Yes, these are valid questions, but they are not scientific questions. They are meta-scientific questions. They all boil down to: is science sufficient to explain all of reality? That is an open question (but, again empirically, the number of areas where non-physical causation remains a reasonable possibility is monotonically decreasing).

One cannot just proclaim: "Science is what scientists do."

Yes, I always cringe when I hear Shermer say this. It's so obviously circular and non-sensical. He really ought to know better.

Science is the idea that one way to arrive at the truth about the physical world is not to argue about it from first principles (which is what people did for thousands of years) but rather to make direct inquiries of the physical universe, a.k.a. experiments. It's that simple. That is what distinguishes science from philosophy, religion, the law, drama, art, etc.

Of course, this simple idea leads to lots of complications, like how to interpret the results of experiments, but the core is non-negotiable: if you're doing experiments to arrive at truth you're doing science. If you aren't then you're not.

Why accept such a limitation, however?

Because this limitation turns out to be very powerful and produces useful results, like antibiotics, fertilizers, computers, and internal combustion engines.

It should be noted that accepting such a limitation when one is trying to do certain kinds of things (like cure disease) does not imply that one necessarily accepts that same limitation when one is trying to do other kinds of things (like create a beautiful painting). But it is wrong to try to ride on the coattails of the achievements of science by calling something scientific when it clearly isn't. It is not science's problem that religion has an inferiority complex.

If we do limit science, then interesting questions will still be examined, just "outside of science." All that will happen is that certain real things (perhaps psychological phenomenon) for example will be removed from "experimentation" in what we call "science." There will of course be experimentation in meta-science or some such "new" field.

No, if you do experiments then you're doing science. But to my knowledge no one has ever done, or even proposed, an experiement to test ID theory. Until that changes, ID isn't science.

Of course, this limitation did not exist until late in the history of science.

I would put this a different way: science itself did not exist until fairly late in he history of humanity. There were some false starts going back as far as the ancient Greeks, but real science as we understand it today is generally acknowledged to have begun with Newton (or, arguably, Galilleo).

Scientists frequently make statements with philosophical assumptions bulging out from them. My own position is that this is fine. . . and that everyone should get to present their point of view about "what is science" to students.

I vehemently disagree with this. One of the big differences between science and other areas of intellectual endeavor is that science has an external arbiter of truth, namely experiment. I suppose it might be true that "scientists frequently make statements with philosophical assumptions bulging out from them." After all, scientists are human too. But what counts in science is not your credentials, it is whether what you say jibes with the experimental results.

This is not a "point of view", it is a historical observation. Once you start letting experiments be the arbiter of truth you start to produce a certain kind of result that you do not obtain in any other way that anyone has been able to figure out. *That* is what makes this a useful definition, not just because I (or Feynman or anyone else) say so.

We have to accept that for years the prestige of science gained in one area has been used (in a bad argument) to support Naturalism or scientism.

Sure, but that is a whole other discussion. The prestige that religion has gained has been used in all kinds of ancillary ways as well. You don't fix the problem of people turning science into a religion by introducing more religion.

This [the claim that MN is the source of the power of science] is a strong statement and requires strong evidence.

Just look at your history. Every example of technological advancement (including, e.g. figuring out how to build gothic cathedrals) has been the result of people doing experiments. No technology has ever been produced in any other way.

If one defines science as control of the physical world by physical means

No, that is not the definition of science. The definition of science is relying on experiments to determine truth. The ability to control the physical world is a *result* of applying science. It is not the definition.

The notion that "truth" is best found by experiment is (it need not be said) a philosophical prejudice.

Another straw man. I never said that the truth is best found by doing experiments. Empirically, doing experiments is more effective at producing certain kinds of results, but this is an observation, not a prejudice (and indeed can be tested experimentally).

After all: What counts as an experiment?

That is an excellent question, and delving into the details would take us far afield. But the general answer is that it is a procedure designed to test a claim. To be considered a scientific experiment the result must be unambiguous and reproducible. (Note that the *interpretation* of the result need not be unambiguous, only the result itself.)

We cannot prove God exists physically, but we could devise ways of making His existence more or less probable.

Really? I'd love to hear about those.

In any case, saying "experiments are the way to the truth" is a good slogan,

It's more than a good slogan, it actually produces tangible results.

but leads to many, many questions. What will count as an experiment is one of them!

Indeed. That is a valid topic for a science class.

However, even if assume that this slogan is right, we could still do experiments without the MN assumption

No, you can't. MN is part and parcel of the definition of the word "experiment" in the sense in which it is used to define science.

If science no longer is about "truth," but about "finding physical answers" to "physical questions" let's make that clear.

Well, science is about "the truth" insofar as it chooses a particular methodology (experiment) to arrive at truth. This methodology is limited by definition (specifically by the definition of "experiment") to the physical. Science has never had as part of its *definition* any claim to completeness. It just happens to turn out (again empirically) to be effective across a very broad range of application.

Let's also NOT assume publicly or in scientific writings that all possible questions (What is the soul?) are therefore subject to scientific answers.

Yet another straw man. No one claims that all possible questions are "subject to scientific answers." However, it is the case (again empirically) that the reach of science seems inexorably to extend into areas that were once thought were not amenable to scientific inquiry. For example, science has made some progress in explaining the phenomenon of consciousness, which might be related to the soul (whatever that is).

Let's limit the scope of scientific investigation hubris. . .
Why? Hubris is not necessarily a bad thing. It takes a certain amount of hubris to stand up to the gods and the forces of nature and say, for example, "disease and floods and locusts are *not* punishments sent from God because we are sinners. They are physical process that we can understand and perhaps even control to our own benefit." The difference between science and non-science is not that one engages in hubris and the other one doesn't, it is that scientific hubris produces results that non-scientific hubris does not. That is the long and the short of it.

Instead, let's say: We don't know what is physical and what is not.

The problem is, however, that we do know a great deal about what is physical and what is not. And all indications are that nearly everything is physical, even things that one might wish were not.

Some things are best understood by experiment. Other things are not.

I certainly agree with that. In fact, it may well be that our own origins are best understood by some means other than experiment. But just don't call it science then, because it isn't.

One feels like sighing here. It is not hubris to follow Plato, Aristotle, Newton, Bacon et al in looking for intelligent design in the universe.

No, it is hubris to claim that one is doing science, or contributing to science, by looking for intelligent design in the universe without doing (or even proposing) experiments.

If an advocate of ID were to propose an experimental test of ID we would not be having this argument.

we are making a point in philosophy of science which has implications on the practice of science.

No, what you (the advocates of ID in science classes) are doing is claiming to do science when you are not. You philosophers need to come to grips with the fact that in the last few hundred years we scientists have got this science thing pretty well figured out without your help, and that we've used it to better humanity's lot in ways that philosophy and religion could not and can not. This is not to say that philosophy and religion have no value; they do. But they are not science, and no amount of tortured logic, twisted definitions, or straw-man arguments will make them so.

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Is Intelligent Design science?

Well, it has been a while, hasn't it? I'll tell the story of why I've been away for so long in another post. For now...

Living in Southern California I am fortunate to be in range of one of the finest journalists of our time, Larry Mantle, who hosts a show on our local NPR station called AirTalk. Larry has an extraordinary ability to tackle controversial subjects without bias, and to keep probing sensitive issues without actually pissing off his guests.

Today's show (which is not up on the KPCC web site yet) was a debate between Michael Shermer and John Reynolds about Intelligent Design (ID) theory. I thought the debate missed a couple of important points, which I sent to Dr. Reynolds in an email. He wanted to respond in his blog, so to facilitate that I'm posting the email I sent to him (lightly edited for blogging):

I listened with interest to your appearance on Larry Mantle's Air Talk this morning.

You kept making the point that adhering to methodological naturalism (MN) was somehow holding science back from certain kinds of progress. You also made the point that there is debate about what science is, and that philosophers are the ones best equipped to make this determination. You are mistaken on both counts. This can be demonstrated (somewhat ironically) with an elementary philosophical argument, to wit:

What distinguishes science from other arenas of human intellectual endeavor like drama, religion, law, etc. is that it produces certain kinds of results that these other arenas do not, e.g. antibiotics, semiconductors, nuclear weapons, etc. (One might go out on a limb and say that science seems uniquely suited among all arenas of human intellectual endeavor to produce results that allow humans to manipulate the physical world according to their desires, and that indeed this is the reason that people care so much about science and that we are even having this discussion. But this is not necessary to make the argument. All that is necessary is to agree that science produces results of a particular character, that these results "matter" in some sense, and that they are not generally produced by non-scientific endeavors.)

The *reason* that science is able to do these things is its adherence to MN. MN does not hold science back; quite the contrary. MN is an *empowering* constraint. It is the reason that science produces the results that it does. Science without MN is like drama without conflict. It is eviscerated. It has been robbed of its essential character.

This is not a deduction; it is an empirical observation. When one adheres to MN one produces "science-like" results. When one rejects MN one fails to produce such results. This is why all scientists (including Feynman, to whom you appealed to support your position) agree: science is the proposition that experiment is the ultimate arbiter of truth (Feynman's words). Inherent in this definition is the MN assumption. That is what the word "experiment" means.

To suggest then that science would be well served by philosophers who wish to "free" it from the "constraint" of MN is rather like a non-lawyer suggesting that the law be freed from its dependence on legal texts. After all, textual law often offends our intuitive notion of "justice", just as MN often offends our intuitive notions of self or soul. Why not instead appeal to "intuitive justice" (as an analog to "intelligent design")? This is not a bad thing to wish for. Indeed, the law (and science) has many shortcomings when measured according to how well they fulfill all of mankind's needs. And indeed if you strip the text from the law you may actually end up with something worthwhile, but it will no longer be the law. Likewise, if you strip MN from science you may end up with something worthwhile, but it will no longer be science. It will be something else.

I would close by observing that if you (or one of your philosopher colleagues) succeeds in making an actual contribution to human intellectual endeavor by rejecting MN then your names will be remembered with the likes of the greatest philosophers that ever lived. Powerful ideas like MN (or textual law, or conflict in drama) do not come along every day. There have probably been less than half a dozen ideas of such power in all of human history. To embark on such an endeavor requires a certain hubris. I point this out not to discourage you (all human progress has been predicated on the hubris that such a thing as "progress" is even possible) but merely to point out the magnitude of what you claim to be doing, and why some scientists might take offense at the suggestion that philosophers wishing to discharge the MN assumption are contributing something to science.

A clarification: although I am very skeptical of the possibility of making fundamentally new contributions to the human condition by rejecting MN, clearly such contributions have been made in the past. (See e.g. my earlier post on logic envy.) There is no shame in this. After all, humans have been doing philosophy for a lot longer than they have been doing science, and so it's not altogether unexpected that the situation might have converged to a sort of steady state. Of course, it's entirely possible that philosophers are out there doing all sorts of cool new things that I'm not aware of. But I don't think anyone would argue that the products of science are much easier to discern in today's world. That is, after all, the reason I think we're having arguments over things like Intelligent Design in the first place.