Sunday, August 24, 2014

The Great Epistemic Tradeoff

The title should of course read "Has It Ever Occurred to You that We Might Both be Wrong?" Epistemic humility doesn't come naturally to human beings.

Evangelical atheist Larry Moran is still hung up on what he refers to as the “Demarcation Problem”; that is, the question of where does science end and non-science start.  This is his take on the question: (See  John Wilkins discusses the "Demarcation Problem”, "Sandwalk" blogspot, 18 August)

I side with those philosophers who prefer a broad definition of science—the one that's more akin to "scientia" or the German word Wissenschaft. According to this view, science is a way of knowing based on evidence, rational thinking, and healthy skepticism. As long as you are employing this approach, you are engaging in a scientific way of knowing. This includes economists, physicians, and philosophers.

I largely concur with this definition of science; all epistemic efforts juxtapose the “evidence” of experiential protocols with theoretical narratives in an endeavor to work out a synthesis between the two (See my side bar). So, in the final analysis a very large class of theoretical narratives are “scientific” in as much as they are attempts to make sense of the “evidential” samples of protocol experience.  But having said that I must add the caveat that “evidences” never constitute proof of a theoretical narrative in the sense that those evidences can be used to rigorously derive the theory in question. (See here)

According to the foregoing sketch any epistemology classifies as science if it involves setting narrative against the samples of empirical protocols and then attempts to resolve their conflicts (rationally one hopes!). But where I feel Moran falls down here is that he fails to emphasize the effect of ontology on the effectiveness of our scientific epistemology: The ontology of history, for example, is far less tractable to systematic investigation than springs and chemical precipitates (See here). It is clear therefore that some ontologies are more amenable to abductive inference from the window of our experience than others; in particular, an ontology of erratics, irregularities and anomalies is epistemologically difficult to handle. A consequence is that such ontologies give scope for imaginative fantasy; see for example David Ike’s interpretation of the human socio-political life and let’s be clear even Ike’s science is empirical in as much as it is an attempt to make sense, albeit in a very idiosyncratic way, of his social experience. But let’s also be clear that given an irregular ontology there comes a trade-off:; the scope that such ontology gives for far reaching and visionary imaginative construction based on relatively paltry evidences must be set against the likelihood of taking a wrong path. I see nothing wrong in imaginative speculation provided it comes with the self-aware traits of skepticism and self-doubt: These are traits we don’t see amongst the David Ikes or Ken Hams of this world. Unfortunately there is no clear cut-off between science and bad science – as the ontology gets less tractable the science gets more subject to risky flights of the imagination. If we are to indulge in imaginative science we do so at our own risk and must do so with self-awareness, unless we are to succumb to self-delusion.

But although I agree with a broad definition of science Moran, as an evangelical atheist, is anxious to spread the word of atheism and therefore I am suspicious of his motives.  My guess is that behind his wanting to broaden the definition of science beyond the physical sciences is a latent intellectual hegemony which seeks a basis from which to legitimize charges of scientific heresy. Moran seems to be unaware that his broad definition of science introduces a tradeoff between scientific comprehensiveness and epistemic risk which in turn entails an epistemic spectrum with no clear cut-off between good science and bad-science. I also suspect that Moran has conflated ontology and epistemology to the extent that he has committed himself (unconsciously?) to a belief that the mechanisms which facilitate the success of test tube precipitating and spring extending science are comprehensive enough to provide a model for what all science should look like. For myself I think it likely that the historian, the social scientist and the theologian will always be with us as scholars operating an epistemology that in detail looks very different to Moran’s.  Moreover, it is certainly not clear just how comprehensive is the standard model of physics, especially as physics itself teaches us that at best physics is only a frame work that modulates the vicissitudes of chaos, thus giving plenty of scope for those who might fancy they see patterns in the chaos. But as for Larry Moran, my guess he thinks he knows in advance how it all works (in principle; it's just the details that need filling out!), when in fact all he is seeing is the systematic/regular ontology that gets selected out by a our systematic methods. I bet he thinks that the broad definition of science is a nifty way of excluding theology from the "empirical" club. In his darkest dreams he has no idea that this broad definition creates a demarcation problem that results in theology being embraced into science. If he wants to call theology "bad science" then perhaps he ought to get off his butt and shows us why it is so, given that it's a science that deals with an awkward high end ontology. Trouble is, he'd much prefer to write it off without serious engagement!

It is ironic that in the final analysis all our theoretical narrative construction has to ultimately face the sampling of empirical protocol evidence to a greater or lesser degree, a degree that depends on how “hard” is the science we are dealing with  and just how tractable its subject ontology. For example, theology is unlikely to think of itself as empirical and yet that is just what it is; it is an imaginative attempt to make sense of the human predicament from the perspective of that predicament’s widest parameters. Fundamentalists try to circumvent the imaginative component of theology by attempting to make the Bible look like a set of observational protocols (“God Words”). This fundamentalist scriptural epistemic does little justice to the formula Meaning = text + context,  a formula that tells us that interpretation is not an extrinsic property of language, but an extrinsic one arising from language acting as a stimulant which brings forth meaning out of the context on which it works. (under divine sovereign management, of course)

For those schooled in the notion that empiricism is confined to the “majesteria” (silly term!) of spring extending and test tube precipitating science, the idea that theology is actually observational is difficult to take on board – see for example my discussions with doubting Christian James Moar. I don’t think that during our discussion James got to grips with the idea that theology suffers from the empirical-theoretical trade-off. The elementary ontology behind springs and chemical precipitates has a strong empirical component but correspondingly has less a priori cognitive input; what complex awkward ontologies lose in empiricism they gain in a priori imaginative input, but let us beware of the cost and the risk of going off at half-cock in this case. James Moar was coming from a stronger evangelical position than myself and was therefore looking, I guess, for a theology with a firmer basis of experiential protocols, perhaps even some kind of personal “Wow!” type revelation demonstrating God’s existence. In the end I don’t think he ever got his much wanted revelation and like myself he was left having to give his best shot at interpreting what experience he has been given! But if God is the sort of God we think he is (Hebrews 1:1ff) then we’re on to a winner!

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