Tuesday, July 05, 2011

PZ Myers is Right!

And about something important!  Epistemology. 

The fire-breathing biologist PZ Myers, who fancies himself to religion roughly what the Kraken is to Captain Jack Sparrow's ship, sometimes gets things right.  Occasionally, it's even something important. 

Here's the situation.  Young Earth Creationist Ken Ham is prepping a 9-year old on what questions to ask a lady at a science museum.  Moon rocks are on display, one calculated to be 3.75 billion years old.  The girl boldly saunters up to the counter, and poses the polite but strictly rhetorical and implicitly debunking question:

"Were you there?"

Ham ponders:

"Each time I give examples in my blog posts of children who have been influenced by AiG, the atheists go ballistic on their blogs. They hate to read of instances like this. They want to teach these children there is no God and they are just animals in this hopeless and meaningless struggle of this purposeless existence."

Myers admits that he is indeed angry, but mainly sad for the girl, "who is being manipulated and harmed by a delusion."  He thinks about what he would say to the girl, should she ask him, and pens the following  thoughtful letter, also as a rhetorical exercise.  I'll give it in full, adding some of my own thoughts for adult skeptics, in between.   

"Dear Emma;

"I read your account of seeing a 3.75 billion year old moon rock, and how you asked the person displaying it 'Were you there?, the question that Ken Ham taught you to ask scientists. I'm glad you were asking questions — that's what scientists are supposed to do — but I have to explain to you that that wasn't a very good question, and that Ken Ham is a poor teacher. There are better questions you could have asked.

"One serious problem with the "Were you there?" question is that it is not very sincere. You knew the answer already! You knew that woman had not been to the moon, and you definitely knew that she had not been around to see the rock forming 3.75 billion years ago. You knew the only answer she could give was no,' which is not very informative."

This is well-stated. Skeptics also love to ask questions.  The question that must be asked before any other, though, is "Why am I asking?"  Since The Truth Behind the New Atheism came out, I've had the chance to interacts with hundreds of atheists.  One thing that has surprised me is to see how often skeptics know all of the answers before asking the questions -- even when they've gotten those answers second-hand, from people who have never studied the issues in depth themselves.  (See, for example, my earlier blog, "Does Google Make Atheists?")  A sincere passion for truth is the prerequisite for finding it, for adults as well as children.

"Another problem is that if we can only trust what we have seen with our own two eyes in our short lives, then there's very little we can know at all. You probably know that there are penguins in Antarctica, and that the Civil War was fought in the 1860s, and that there are fish swimming deep in the ocean, and you also believe that Jesus was crucified two thousand years ago, but if I asked you 'Were you there?' about each of those facts, you'd also have to answer 'no' to each one. Does that mean they are all false?"

Myers here implicitly rebuts scientism, the notion that everything we can know must be proven by the scientific method.  I say, well done, and about time.   

Science itself is a social enterprise.  Every scientist depends for much of what he or she believes on peer input, journal articles, someone else manning the telescope in the middle of the night, and at least machines that deliver information that someone else built and maintains. 

In that sense, science is no different from history, so it is right that Myers mixes questions belonging to these two fields in his response. 

What we "see with our own eyes" is always very limitted, for a 9-year old, or for a 90-year old.  Science, like history, is therefore a collective enterprise: we rely on peer review, the literature, and mechanics, implicitly.  Of course each may be wrong, and in theory one could build all the instruments and do all the experiments oneself -- but in practice, that is never possible, and great scientific works (including Origin of Species) are works of trust in other human beings. 

History relies even more on human testimony, which is why sorting that testimony and figuring out when it is reliable and when less so, is such an important part of historical work. 

Furthermore, all empirical study depends on implicit trust that the mind and senses are are not just lying to us.  It is logically possible that they are.  It is possible we live in some computer simulation, or that the world of samsara is empty of ontological reality.  It makes sense to believe our minds and senses, but it is not a sense we can prove scientifically, since science, too, could be part of the delusion. 

"Of course not. You know those things because you have other kinds of evidence. There are photographs and movies of penguins and fish, there are documents from the time of the Civil War, as well as the fact that in many places you can still find old bullets and cannon balls buried in the ground from the time of the war, and you have a book, the Bible, that tells stories about Jesus. You have evidence other than that you personally witnessed something."

Note that none of these bits of evidence is purely "scientific."  A photograph can be faked: one trusts the photos one has seen of Antartica, not because one can scientifically prove it was really taken near the South Pole, but because claiming fraud would involve uprooting trust in too broad a spectrum of society.  A paranoid person might make that claim anyway, if he thinks the government has good cause to lie about penguins.  The difference between sanity and insanity, as G. K. Chesterton long ago recognized, is faith, not reason: the insane may be perfectly lucid in their reasoning. 

The truth is, science can never be a bedrock epistemology.  Science assumes and requires more basic forms of knowing, including philosophical (including logical) and mathematical ways of knowing -- also a fundamental trust in the knowability of the universe -- which is not always as easy as it sounds.   

"This is important because we live in a big ol' beautiful world, far older than your 9 years, and there's so much to learn about it — far more than you'll ever be able to see for yourself. There's a gigantic universe beyond South Carolina, and while you probably won't ever visit a distant star or go inside a cell, there are instruments we can use to see farther and deeper than your eyes can go, and there are books that describe all kinds of wonders. Don't close yourself off to them simply because you weren't there."

Amen!   It is almost too easy, at this point, to turn Shakespeare loose on the Octopus of Atheism: "And there may be more things in Heaven and Earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy, too, Dr. Myers."

"I'd like to teach you a different easy question, one that is far, far more useful than Ken Ham's silly 'Were you there?' The question you can always ask is, "How do you know that?'"

Ay, there's the rub. 

"Right away, you should be able to see the difference. You already knew the answer to the 'Were you there?' question, but you don't know the answer to the "How do you know that?" question. That means the person answering it will tell you something you don't know, and you will learn something new. And that is the coolest thing ever.

"You could have asked the lady at the exhibit, 'How do you know that moon rock is 3.75 billion years old?', and she would have explained it to you. Maybe you would disagree with her; maybe you'd think there's a better answer; maybe you'd still want to believe Ken Ham, who is not a scientist; but the important thing is that you'd have learned why she thought the rock was that old, and why scientists have said that it is that old, and how they worked out the age, even if they weren't there.

"And you'd be a little bit more knowledgeable today."

The asking of sincere questions is, indeed, an art.  Myers is assuming, of course, that one first finds someone worth asking.  As he has already indicated, there are many kinds of experts in the world.  I have elsewhere made the case that my grandmother, an uneducated, Pentacostal lady who had done little traveling, and didn't even have a driver's license, was someone one could go to and find out important things.  That willingness to learn is one of the special talents and beauties of childhood. 

PZ then explains radiometric dating, simply and well.  (Though not every 9-year-old could follow his explanation, I think.)  He then finishes up:

"I think you're off to a great start — being brave enough to ask older people to explain themselves is exactly what you need to do to learn more and more, and open up the whole new exciting world of science for yourself. But that means you have to ask good questions to get good answers so that you will learn more."

This is a kind and diplomatic suggestion.  (One of his fans on the Pharyngula site thought instead that mocking a nine-year old would be appropriate!)

Aristotle noted that aside from direct scientific investigation, one can also find things out by asking the "old, wise, and skillful."  Here Myers shows the sense to recognize this highly fallible, but irreplacable intermediate means of knowing. 

"Don't use Ken Ham's bad question, and most importantly, don't pay attention to Ken Ham's bad answers. There's a wealth of wonderful truths that reveal so much more about our universe out there, and you do not want to close your eyes to them. Maybe someday you could be a woman who does go to the moon and sees the rocks there, or a geologist who sees how rocks erode and form here on earth, or the biologist who observes life in exotic parts of the world…but you won't achieve any of those things if you limit your mind to the dogma of Answers in Genesis."

Most nine-year olds will naturally assume a "dogma" is something that gives birth to puppies.  And students of memetics recognize that in truth, they generally do. 

It would be interesting to trace the special role the Book of Genesis played in the founding of science.  An excellent book by a British historian (using the empirical methods of history, not science, true) has recently been published in the US: James Hannam's The Genesis of Science.  Good title, that, as he underlines a theme many other historians of science have talked about -- how Genesis dogma helped give birth to modern science.  (He also talks a bit about how proto-Genesis musings about the Creator helped birth ancient Greek science.) 

Oxford historian of science Dr. Allan Chapman recently sent me a delightful chapter on the same topic, to be included in a book I am now putting together, expected out early next year.  I'll tell you more about that book, later. 

Postscript: PZ has just come out for scientism.  Sigh.  Break open the first-aid kit; here we go again.


Dr H said...

DM: Myers here implicitly rebuts scientism, the notion that everything we can know must be proven by the scientific method. I say, well done, and about time.
No he doesn't. What he rebuts is the erroneous notion that "observation" in the scientific method means "only what we directly perceive with our own individual senses".

David B Marshall said...

Let me quote Myers himself, again, with the stress laid in the proper places:

"You KNOW those things because you have OTHER KINDS OF EVIDENCE. There are photographs and movies of penguins and fish, there are DOCUMENTS from the time of the Civil War, as well as the fact that in many places you can still find old bullets and cannon balls buried in the ground from the time of the war, and you have A BOOK, the Bible, THAT TELLS STORIES about Jesus. You have EVIDENCE OTHER THAN THAT YOU HAVE PERSONALLY WITNESSED something."

That sounds a lot like Myers means documents and books that report historical events can be called "evidence," and good enough evidence for someone to believe that something happened because of them. That even looks like Myers' whole point, here.

If you want to call historical documents that record human testimony part of the "scientific method," that's fine with me. A rose by any other name . . .