Friday, March 14, 2014

Quest or Quixotic?

When truth is our quarry the imagination is an essential tool. But it can go horribly wrong….

In a blog post dated 6th March and entitled “The Knights Errant Sally Forth” PZ Myers responds to an article on Network Norwich and Norfolk by James Knight. In Myers’ post there are some initial comments on atheism and morality. There seems to be common agreement between Myers and James that in principle atheists can be just as moral as anyone else. Although this question is interesting and provocative I won’t pick it up in any detail here except to say that atheism does have an epistemic problem that tempts moral and ontological nihilism. But having said that we must acknowledge that theism is plagued by the opposite problem of a lurking epistemic arrogance which in turn has a tendency to quench all self-doubt with consequences amongst fundamentalists we are all too familiar with.

However, having stirred the seething pot of anti-theistic zeal that is Myers blog, James succeeds in getting some interesting and useful responses from Myers. In a later blog post I hope to pick up some of Myers points but for now I’ll simply quote part of his text with the salient issues emboldened:

Knight’s second paragraph is a complaint that Hitchens’ didn’t tell them what evidence for their god would be acceptable, which is a fair complaint. Or it would be, if there weren’t another problem: define God. I can’t tell you what would be evidence for or against it if you’re not going to settle down and get specific about this god’s properties and nature. Is it an anthropomorphic being with a penis that can impregnate human women? Is it a vast eternal cosmic intelligence that encompasses the entire universe and manipulates matter and energy with its will? Is it benign fluff, a happy feeling of love that permeates us all? I suspect he’d tell us some meaningless noise about a “ground state of being”, which seems to be the universal bafflegab right now to avoid answering the question.
  You know, this is the big difference. If you tell a scientist that their evidence doesn’t distinguish between two alternatives, it’s the scientist who thinks hard about the problem, comes up with what would be differing consequences of an experiment if his hypothesis was valid or invalid, and does the work. We actually love this part of theorizing, thinking through the implications of a hypothesis and then testing them. And that’s a process that involves getting specific about the details of our hypothesis.
Theologians, on the other hand, hate that part. We can ask them what the difference would be between a universe that had a god and one that didn’t, between a god that answers prayers and one that doesn’t, between a Christian god and a Muslim god, between a Catholic god and a Protestant god, and they love to tell us that the differences are profound, but not anything specific. And then they yell at us that we haven’t given them the criteria that we could use to discriminate between the alternatives. And then, most aggravatingly, if we go ahead and make some predictions ourselves about what the universe ought to be like if there is or isn’t a god, they yell even more that their god isn’t like that, we used the wrong premises, we didn’t address their idiosyncratic view of a god…which is always conveniently tailored to circumvent whatever test we propose.
Do you theological wankers even realize that as the proponents of hypothesis about the nature of the universe, it is your job to generate testable hypotheses about how it all works? And that we, as agents in opposition to your nonsense, would be overjoyed to have you say something explicit about an implication of your ideas that we could test? Actually, I think you do know, because you so invariably avoid presenting any useful descriptions of what your philosophy entails. We keep waiting. And right now, your silence and the vacuity of what few feeble replies you make are just added to our stockpile of evidence that you’re all farting theology out of your asses.

If I have time I will deal with these contentions in due course. For the time being, however, I’ll leave a comment on the following quote which also appears in Myers post. It leads into to some significant questions about epistemology:

Watch out, here comes the egregious relativism, which sounds like something straight out of Answers in Genesis ….I really despise the vacuous Well, we just interpret the evidence differently argument — it’s a lie. Over and over, I see it said in order to defend ignoring the bulk of the evidence. …..elves have no evidence for their existence, have posited powers with no known mechanism, and are arbitrary, ad hoc, bizarre explanations for a perfectly ordinary object.

Flippant caricature about elves aside, the kind of interpretative relativism Myers speaks of is the downside of humanity’s necessarily creative efforts as it seeks to make sense of the cosmos: Witness, for example, the arbitrary relativism in Biblical literalist Jason Lisle’s “mature” creation model of cosmology; this model returns to the old literalist rescuing device of signals arbitrarily created in transit. Lisle’s use of the ASC coordinate system is in effect a piece of creative sophistry that succeeds in blinding both himself and his ignorant following to the inherent (self) deceit of his model. There are millions of bits of evidence out there that matter is interacting with itself over millions of light years, but Lisle effectively tells us to forget all that because he can synthesise any evidence he wants with a sweep of his hand – God just made like that, thereby declaring the signals the cosmos is sending us to be unreadable if not downright misleading. How can Lisle get away with this?

What we call evidence is by and large a very small sample subset of the theoretical narrative that embeds it. Ergo, it is quite possible to embed the same evidence in a huge variety of highly fanciful and irrefutable narratives that “explain” the evidence. The conspiracy theorists typify this wanton creative theorizing. Lisle’s ASC model is of a similar ilk; he has given himself the freedom of countless adjustable variables which allow him to invent all but any scenario to “explain” the data.

So what distinguishes a rational theoretical narrative from the endless and arbitrary special pleading such as we see from Lisle and the conspiracy theorists?  The answer to that question is rational a priorism; that is, humans are cognitively set up a priori to judge what is reasonable; in particular we assume our world is by and large sending us reliable, intelligible and coherent signals about its state of affairs; that is, we assume this world has a stable rational integrity about the stories its signals tell; this is the rational heuristic built into our thinking.

But this a priori heuristic is delicately balanced and can be overridden by culture and/or insanity factors; as a consequence we can either over use it or under use it. In the latter category the Biblical literalists override the rational heuristic using a misreading of scripture that almost treats it as a closed ended text book of mathematical axioms. They do not take into account the lessons that the signals of history are sending us; namely, that the Bible is very much a human book showing all the traits, and foibles of human authorship, in many cases telling us less about God than it does about proprietary human conceptions of God *1. Above all they fail to do justice to that fact that Biblical interpretation is subject to the open endedness of its historical connection; this open endedness is brought about by the practically limitless hinterland of information one can receive about a particular historical connection. At the bottom of literalism is, I submit, an epistemic insecurity whose compensatory reaction is to seek certainty in a closed ended axiomatic-like interpretation of scripture rather than the less than certainness associated with the rational heuristic of our mental tool kit.

For the rational mind to work it must proceed against a background of assumptions about the integrity and intelligibility of the signals it receives. Without this background successful theoretical creativity is stultified as the imagination becomes swamped with the infinite possibilities of an otherwise bizarre and incoherent world. It is ironic that fundamentalists are effectively challenging this assumption as a consequence of their dogmatic mechanical literalism. In fact if pressed Biblical literalism can even subvert belief in the integrity of God.

But on what basis have we the right to assume the intelligibility and integrity of the signals our world sends us? Clearly Myers, like the rest of us (or at least most of us), is making use of a heuristic which although is likely to be probabilistically imperfect nevertheless guides our science. Myers is therefore making an a priori judgment about the basic integrity of this heuristic. But the conspiracy theorists will not be impressed by any claim that this heuristic has evidence to back it up, because in the final analysis the same evidence can, as Jason Lisle and other Biblical literalists have shown, be synthesized using quite bizarre and/or conspiratorial narratives*2. What we are left with is a reliance on our a priori good sense as to what is rational. For Myers who is making this kind of a prior judgment about integrity, coherence and intelligibility there is little or no absolute basis for his judgment other than the appeal to “It feels right”. Fair enough, I agree it does feel right. In contrast the fundamentalists and conspiracists don’t just feel they are right they are certain they are right. But I advise atheists to not to go to the opposite extreme and tread the postmodern path of hyper skepticism which may be the consequence of failing to find logically obliging grounds as to why “It feels right” and why we know what we know. For in going to this extreme one becomes like the cyclist who wonders how he manages to keep balance and then promptly falls off his bike. The nihilism and anti-foundationalism of postmodernism are ever the temptation of atheism. Our starting point must be “In the beginning Coherence, Intelligibility and Integrity….” (Compare Proverbs 8 where we find a priori wisdom or reason personified). Our epistemic pilgrimage is a knightly one in as much as heroic hope rather than certainty drives it. But if that a priori basis is invalid the search for truth becomes a quixotic quest.

*1 Once one realizes that this processes is under the Sovereign Management of an immanent God “The Word of God” as a metaphor for scripture re-emerges.
*2 A demand for prediction can to a certain extent call the bluff of the fundamentalist fantasists and conspiracy theorists. But this really only works for the hard sciences; the soft sciences (which often deal with issues which significantly impact our world view) have much more the character of retrospective sense making narratives and do not always lend themselves to successful prediction making. Soft sciences are therefore far more dependent on the a priori assumption that the cosmos is rationally readable.

Some relevant links:

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