Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Science and the Imagination

Head in the Clouds: Flights of the imagination can and do work, but not always.

PZ Myers and the overwhelming mobbing voting power of his ranks of raiders readers have wrecked many a web poll; although truth be told, many of those polls aren’t worth the server space they occupy because they are simply contrived to solicit the result the pollster is looking for. Even so, it’s fitting that PZ and his marauding hordes should experience an unwelcome raid of their own: Recently a flurry of comments orchestrated, according to PZ, by fundamentalist Eric Hovind hit PZ’s mail box and his blog in what PZ referred to as a zombie invasion! Why is it I find this all too human tribal scrapping so funny? Is it subliminal expression of an aloof and smug superiority? But then that would also apply to viewers of all TV comedies whose humour depends on showcasing the foibles and idiosyncrasies of human nature.

Anyway, according to PZ the fundamentalist “zombies” have been filling his comment section with Bible quotes and one-liner quips. Viz:

Their primary approach is to assert that because logic exists, god exists, and therefore any attempt to apply reason to a problem is evidence for god.

PZ’s response is as follows:

They are unable to justify their premise, however, so it’s a silly game they’re playing — there is no reason to assume an anthropic being was necessary to conjure logic into existence or even that any kind of intelligence was required, any more than we could argue that intelligence is required to start an avalanche. Small fluctuations can lead to large scale changes in that example, so there’s no logical barrier to the idea that unintelligent processes seed universes that expand with internally consistent rules (and universes seeded with illogical rules, if that were possible, wouldn’t exist and definitely wouldn’t be populated with intelligent beings contemplating the laws of their universe).

So, a fundamentalist invasion has prompted PZ to get a little reflexive and that can’t be bad: The self reference entailed by careful observation and analysis of science itself is not something that I have noticed to be conspicuous amongst the kind of atheist PZ represents. But here we have it at last; some reflection on why science and its logical handmaidens are so efficacious.

But more about that in a later post. In this earlier blog post we also find PZ getting a little reflexive in answer to a theologian who points out the difficulties in applying classic science to history. In response PZ starts by criticizing the naive “You weren’t there” quip that we frequently hear from Ken Ham and his AiG friends as they attempt to undermine the historical sciences in favour of what they categorize as “operational science”: that is, science which deals exclusively with present-tense-continuous processes. I largely agree with PZ on this matter: All science, in an absolute sense, is historical and unrepeatable in as much as hypothesis testing inevitably has to be documented and repeatability is inevitably compromised by the impossibility of exactly replicating test conditions; an underlying simple uniformity and symmetry has to be assumed to make any progress in any science. "Operational science", then, is isomorphic with history. Conversely, history is isomorphic with "operational science", for whilst history itself is not a present-tense-continuous process the evidential trace it leaves behind is, nonetheless, present-tense-continuous.

I would certainly by at one with PZ in regarding Ken Ham and his AiG cronies as anti-science bigots who are busily subverting and corrupting science. This anti-science bigotry is seen nowhere clearer than in their attempts to debunk the historical sciences with this childish quip about “Not being there”, a quip that in the final analysis makes a mockery of the whole of science by attacking the common assumption on which it is based; namely that the world is rational and readable. There is an across-the-board congruity in the use of scientific epistemology and therefore the “You weren’t there” quip has the potential to sabotage all science at source, historical and otherwise. In fact, ironically Ham’s much loved and overworked quip even hamstrings the historical basis of the Christian faith; “We weren’t there” at the resurrection or when the Bible was written therefore, according to Ham, we have no right to makes claims about Divine choreography.

However, in his post PZ is reacting to a theologian who is an entirely different kettle of fish to the nincompoops we see at Answers in Genesis and PZ gives it brief but serious consideration:

I agree that not every thing in the universe is scientifically verifiable or repeatable, but this cavalier attitude towards history is reprehensible. Yes, there are history laboratories: there are historians who do archaeology, chemistry, biology, astronomy and all kinds of hard sciences to confirm and test historical claims. The provenance and authenticity of documents is a major historical interest.
A discrete historical event may not be repeatable, but it is amenable to confirmation and validation. The source information can be independently verified. Multiple approaches can be taken to test a claim. Did Caesar invade Gaul? It only happened once, you don’t get to repeat the invasion, and no one alive was there, after all. But we can look at the archaeology of France, we can see the linguistic evidence, we’ve got documents from the time, and every time someone digs up a Roman cache from the first century BCE we are getting more information on the event.
I do consider it scientifically tractable. Evidence-based, empirical study and logical analysis are right there at the heart of the discipline of history.

I wouldn’t say I especially disagree with PZ’s points above, but his brevity makes it look too easy. The objects of our study differ in complexity, repeatability, accessibility, predictability and what not; they are by no means all equally scientifically tractable. Theorizing about and testing simple low-level physical objects like springs and even molecules is a far cry from testing theories about high level objects like, say, whole societies, especially societies in the distance past. Questions like “Who was Jack the Ripper” or “What happened to Lord Lucan” may never be answered no matter how hard we investigate. Unlike simple physical objects, historical objects have far more degrees of freedom and yet fewer degrees of freedom that we can voluntarily adjust in order to test them. Historical research is very dependent on the fortuitous: Purposeful documentary and archeological searches may reveal nothing; in fact sitting back and waiting for documents and artifacts to emerge may be as proactive as it gets and anecdotal evidence the best you’ve got. Moreover, if one has ever listened to the interpretations of an able and imaginative historian like Simon Schama one observes someone who first makes a very human connection with his subjects of study and then allows his historical imagination to trip along at a rate of knots as he reads history in a way which leaves the snail’s pace physical scientist’s head spinning. And yet in the final analysis I’m sure even someone like Schama would subject their highly imaginative constructions to the light of new documents and artifacts; but only if they should, perchance, come to light.

Clearly, then, not all science, if science it can be called, proceeds in the philosophically classic fashion of data collection, theory synthesis, prediction, and proactive hypothesis testing. In fact high level science may be less predictive than it is post-dictive; that is, it employs after-the-fact sense making structures that are used as frameworks to interpret situations rather than predict them; the success of these post-dictive frameworks may be based on a rather less than objective judgment about the ease with which they can assimilate the accepted data protocols arising out of observation. For example, if evolutionary history really is a story of randomly fortuitous events being locked into place by some kind of physical ratchet then we certainly are not going to be able to predict everything about that history; it is more likely that we will make observations on the fossil record (if we are lucky enough for it to be preserved) and then retrospectively try to make evolutionary sense of that record. Not that evolution is the only theory that has a heavy retrospective element: Homunculus Intelligent design , in my opinion, is even less a hard science than evolution. The general rule here seems to be this: We may not always be able to predict the dots of observation, but instead find ourselves trying to fit prefabricated sense making theoretical structures to the dots of observation after they have been experienced.
However, as I have said in my sidebar, if “science” is defined very generally as any activity that makes comparison between theory and experience and attempts to reconcile them, then science as an epistemological method covers a very wide class of knowledge acquisition if not the whole of analytic activity; it’s just that the theory vs. experience contention does not always proceed along the straight path of classic science; namely, data collection, theory synthesis, prediction, proactive hypothesis testing, data collection, re-synthesis etc. As the objects we deal with get increasingly high level and their lack of amenability compromises rigorous formal methods, science imperceptibly shades over into subjective post-facto sense making interpretations; anyone who has tried to follow the Jack the Ripper history knows what I mean.

But it gets even worse than this: When it comes to attempts to form a totalizing world view bog standard spring extending and test tube precipitating science goes out of the window completely. Let me be frank; in my opinion there simply isn’t enough data out there to form a totalizing world view with the same standards of rigour that one can apply to simple objects like springs and molecules. World view synthesis is a hit and miss, seat of the pants, edgy affair, an activity for those who like dangling by their finger tips from precipices. World view synthesis is big on imagination and small on data simply because the objects posited in world view synthesis are large and complex in the extreme, making the available relevant data look like a very small window indeed. In fact at the extreme end world views are not far removed from mythology; that is, stories which help one cope with and make a human connection with an otherwise humanly incoherent and complex cosmos. None of this is say that the synthesis of a valid world view isn’t possible; there is the freedom to engage in world view synthesis (at least in democratic Countries) and give it one’s best shot. But the caveat remains: It is simply not possible to form such a world view that is beyond reasonable doubt; the relevant data samples are too few and far between. As my agnostic brother-in-law Jon Benison has observed when commenting on this sort thing; much of it is based on hunches and guesses (of varying degrees of plausibility). But, nevertheless, if providence wills, hunches and guesses can pay off; therein lies my personal hope.

But there is also the freedom to conscientiously dissent. I’m not a postmodernist myself but I would agree with the postmodern sentiment that implicates grand rationales as a tool in authoritarianism and oppression. But I say that not because I think there aren’t any valid grand rationales, but rather because claims to the effect that a particular grand rationale is self evident and compellingly true are likely to be bogus. In particular, fundamentalists are very sure they have a clear conception of “God’s Word”, a Word which they believe can be read plainly with little need for interpretative subtleties; so plainly, in fact, that they are sure everyone else can actually see it their way but is not admitting it and therefore must have bad consciences if they dissent. Fundamentalists are loathe to acknowledge that their interpretations of scripture are open to honest analysis and challenge; such challenges are apt to be regarded by fundamentalists as at best sinister and at worst Satanic. But in my view conscientious dissent and clear conscience agnosticism are authentic positions because no world view is beyond reasonable doubt; at least  beyond the oppresive confines of some of the cloying sub-cultures that promulgate them.

Given the difficulty in establishing world views it is no surprise that many Christians have resorted to a “mythos” rather than a “logos” response; that is, they have resorted to the inner revelations of a kind of gnostic version of Christianity in order to protect themselves from analytical challenge. They think of themselves as bypassing the cut and thrust of analysis and argument with talk of “knowing Jesus in my heart” and special “Holy Spirit” insight. In my experience the touchy-feely ethos of contemporary mythos-centric spirituality can be intense and cloying with great pressure on one to make constant checks on the existential quality of one’s faith and whether one feels near to God. But the fact is, an intuitive sense of God’s/Jesus’ presence, in the final analysis, itself classifies as an experiential sample (and an experience that is by no means common to all Christians), a data point, as it were, that a Christian world view attempts to explain and assimilate.

We are, as I have already suggested, free to dissent from world view synthesis and remain as agnostics with a clear conscience. But if we do it leaves us with little assurance except in the simple elemental objects with which spring-extending and test-tube-precipitating science deals. But if the views I have expressed in my sidebar are correct then very little is left that is not empirical in the sense that it can be investigated with a generalized albeit informal version of science: All our notions must face up to and wrestle with our day to day experience. All human theoretical ideas face the challenge of empirical life whether those challenges are simple protocol statements coming out of a formal experiment, the contents of old parchments, or broad sweep observations about a suffering world which impact our view on the nature and existence of God. In this very general sense science is an all embracing activity, an activity in which even our theological flights of the imagination are put to the test.

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