Friday, April 27, 2012

Science vs. Philosophy?

Given some of the recent exchanges in the comments sections of this blog, I thought this recent piece by philosopher Massimo Pigliucci, responding to physicist Lawrence Krauss's dismissal of philosophy, is worth a look.

The piece is also of interest for its tangential relation to the cosmological question that drives much thinking in theology and the philosophy of religion (and, I would argue, implicitly motivates religious leanings in many ordinary people).

Leibniz stated the question in the following terms: "Why is there something and not nothing?" Physicist Victor Stenger claimed in his bestselling book, God: The Failed Hypothesis, that physicists have an answer to this age-old question. I argued briefly (but, I think, decisively) in Is God a Delusion? that the so-called answer he offers is no answer at all.

This brief exchange between me and Stenger is, in effect, being replayed by Krauss and his critics--insofar as Krauss has framed his most recent book, A Universe from Nothing, as offering an answer to the perennial question, and several philosophers have pointed out that Krauss simply does not answer the philosophical question at all--for reasons very similar to the ones I gave in response to Stenger. Krauss effectively concedes the point when pressed--but follows up with more dismissal of philosophy. He doesn't care about the philosophical question.

Fine. If he wants to confine himself to questions in physics, he has every right to do so. But he shouldn't pretend that answers to physics questions are answers to superficially similar philosophical ones. I would say he shouldn't pretend this even as a marketing ploy (which is what he basically concedes it was). And no one should pretend--as Dawkins seems to do--that Krauss has somehow managed to silence once and for all one of the deep wellsprings of belief in the transcendent.

40 comments:

  1. Krauss offers a clarification and an apology.

    The Consolation of Philosophy. An update by the author of "A Universe from Nothing" on his thoughts, as a theoretical physicist, about the value of the discipline of philosophy.

    By Lawrence M. Krauss | April 27, 2012

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  2. Hello,

    Similar article here as to the relationship between science and philosophy: http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/04/05/philosophy-is-not-a-science/?scp=10&sq=the%20stone&st=Search

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  3. Hi Eric,

    Isn't part of the problem this idea that there are questions of science, questions of philosophy, of religion, and so on? In other words, the idea that reality is nicely compartmentalized according to human categories?

    It rather seems to me that the questions are primary, “human” questions if you will, and that we can address them using different set of tools and methods, depending on the question and of what is available at a given time. These tools and methods are, perhaps by necessity, categorized but the questions themselves don't need to be.

    Isn't this what someone like Einstein was doing, for instance? Asking deep questions about reality and, at times, moving smoothly between philosophical and scientific points of views? Sure enough, some questions are very specialized and make sense only within a given discipline (is there an infinity of twin primes?) but my main point remains.

    Take morality: is this a scientific, philosophical, religious, psychological question? Something else? I would think the best is to consider it “holistically” and look at it from various angles. For example, trying to answer the question of the origin of morality without a consideration of human evolutionary past is a loosing proposition. A philosopher trying to answer this question while ignoring biology would be committing the same mistake scientists who are ignoring philosophy are often accused of.

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  4. Eric-

    I'll admit that we of the atheist and scientific camp have fallen into an easy dismissal of the entire field of philosophy at the same time that we are functionally deeply interested in it. The problem is that some we have seen of it is terrible. The whole swath taken up with theology seems absurd, even risible, yet finds its homes in philosophy departments through the land, sagely nodding its heads about "what is true and good".

    Perhaps we are not used to such wild diversity in a supposedly logical field of endeavor. To be flip, one could say that philosophy happens any time two drunks meet. So I would posit that while defenses of philosophy turn heavily on its putative practice of logic and rigor, that is, to be frank, not always in great evidence, when looking over the field as whole. It seems more dedicated to writing a lot of more or less rhetorical rationalizations of intuitive positions, whether under popular or "technical" cover.

    Coming from the creationist/ ID debate, we in biology have been appalled to find that while we have been striving to maintain intellectual standards of truth-seeking intact against the medievalists, philosophy has not. Indeed, the asylum sometimes seems to be run by the inmates. We value good philosophy, and strongly reject bad philosophy. You remember the Sokal incident?

    A basic problem may be the sanctity of axioms/intuitions. It seems that philosophers spend their time making more or less painful logical arguments and constructions on top of of intuitive premises. Your own work presupposing life-after-death, souls, heaven, and god that not only exists, but is good, is an example. No matter how much logical firepower you bring to the elaboration of such a postition, it doesn't seem worth very much to anyone not moved by all these intutions, or even someone skeptical about them even if they share them, recognizing their whispy nature. So much seems built on foundations of sand.

    Your own blog typically makes clever points that support your preconceived group allegiances and other intuitions. How can that happen so routinely? Is intuition ever wrong? Other fields, even economics, find intution to be wrong quite frequently. Each camp has its pet philosophers that buttress its intuitions, whether Hume and Dennet, or Aquinas and Plantinga. How can that be?

    .. cont ..

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  5. To take another example, I have heard a great deal about Parfit's recent work, which, while surely tome-ish, seems (from the New Yorker and other reviews) to miss the main question of what criterion could possibly provide the premise for a moral right or wrong, reason needing a motivational premise to operate. Just one example.

    "He came up with what he called the Triple Theory: An act is wrong just when such acts are disallowed by some principle that is optimific, uniquely universally willable, and not reasonably rejectable."

    This is clearly a statement of preferences by Parfit, based on (probably hidden) intutive preferences of fairness, universal equality, etc. Who comes up with these principles? We do, as humans agreeing about how we feel about treating each other. While I may like Parfit and respect him, there is no evident reason to take his feelings any more seriously than anyone else's.

    Then there is also the absurdity of demanding people read the unreadable corpus of philosophy in order to comment on it. Lay people get to comment on fields based on their fruits, not necessarily based on scholarship. The fruits of philosophy have been far less than compelling in the recent past. Indeed, much of the past few decades have been regressive, whether the field is postmodernism, or the political philosophies of the Right wing intellectual establishment, or the continued apologetics on religion both right and left. Going back farther, we have communism, Hegel, etc., before we get to the bright spot of America's founding and the postive philosophical aspects of the French revolution, enlightenment, and so forth. Much of the most recent positive movement (in my humble opinion) has been actuated by new data and concepts from scientific fields such as cognitive science.

    So we look in and see a field in some difficulty, with high pretensions and deep history, but seriously diminished. Maybe it is played out, and everything that could germinate from its soil into new and rigorous fields (math, science, political science, economics, etc.) has already done so. Perhaps what remains is more amateur social commentary and impossibly specialized hair-splitting than pathbreaking findings about perennial questions. Perhaps just keeping the perennial questions alive is enough. Perhaps its value of logic is under-utilized because it applies logic to illogical premises. Perhaps the professional pressures in philosophy value novelty over boring old common sense. Perhaps it is unconsciously tied to the ambient rise and prosperity of the society it lives in, and declines as that society becomes enervated and sclerotic. I don't know.

    It is sad to be contributing to the anti-intellecutal tenor of the times, and I enjoy our exchanges in hope of finding out something new and having my mind changed via philosophy. Doubtless I have misunderstood the field thorougly- this is just how it looks from outside.

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  6. Oh, rereading the post, I find I forgot to address it directly. On the cosmological philosophical question, one has to ask why a question represents "one of the deep wellsprings of belief in the transcendent"?

    I can ask tons of unanswerable questions. Why do I feel good today, rather than bad? Why do we live in this galaxy rather than another one? Just because one can pose a question, even one that asks about the origin of everything, doesn't logically imply a particular answer, (... in the absence of the necessary logical and observational tools to figure it out). Indeed, it should imply the humility to wait until a decently rigorous answer is found.

    Yes, I know that many people feel inside that something very *big* is going on, with portentious connections to their own lottery chances and other highly important phenomena. Does this constitute philosophical warrant for "belief in the transcendent"? It is a key point, where even the most modest skepticism would say ... no.

    Indeed, the trend of physical explanations, the farther we get from our human scale and the closer we get to the relevant cosmic scales, is less and less agent-like, more impersonal, more random, more mechanistic, more mathematically described to more decimal places. So just on that basis, the "deep wellspring of belief" does not look particularly likely at all. And even if a transcendent something-or-other were somehow implied by the question posed and the responding feeling, is there philosophical warrant for decorating it with characters like goodness, love, interest in our putative afterlives? The whole chain of reasoning is absurd on any but nakedly psychological grounds.

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    1. Ah, but Burk - it is fair for a conscious observer to ask if that which is observed would exist if unobserved. That's the fundamental question, isn't it? We scientists apply a certain systematic process of study and arrive (hopefully) at what appear to be systematic results, but just because it is repeatable does not mean it is fundamental. Perhaps it is only repeatable because only human beings repeat it. Perhaps the universe, to a protozoan or a tuna or a gibbon, takes on a completely different character. Of course this tends toward the universe seeming more random (though I don't understand how something can be both "more random" and "more mechanistic" or "more mathematically described"...), but it doesn't negate the fact that our (humankind's) experience of that universe is important. Science has gone so far that it has forgotten the fact that the scientist had to first be taken out... I guess what I'm arguing is that the observer is no less important than the observed, because in the end there is no such distinction.

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  7. Just going to jump in briefly and point out that Stenger (despite having a PhD in physics) is hardly a physicist...

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  8. n.Kelly-

    On randomness, I meant the statistical mechanics & quantum randomness- calculable in bulk, yet not predictable in detail, like nuclear decay, say. Not chaos, though.

    Now, your observer proposition is one of the more exotic areas of philosophy. If a tree falls in the forest and no one hears it, did it make a sound? Did it even fall? Did it even exist?

    I think scientists and common sense are in agreement that this isn't much of a conundrum- that yes, yes, and yes.. they all exist, even if not observed by humans. For instance, what on earth was going on for the first 4.5 billion years .. while we were not present? Was it all faked, like the young-earther's say?

    So while we can certainly posit that we are important, we aren't that important. Aside from narcissism, we do form part of the physical system when observations happen, and there are definitely some unplumbed aspects to that whole end of quantum physics. Does that make "room for god" to act to change things in an agent-like way, as one of our past commenters insisted? I'd call it extremely unlikely, (and possibly impossible, though I don't know the physics sufficiently), but in any case, it is another case of question that is open, not pregnant with the transcendent, etc..

    You are also right that the observer's perspective and biases inform what they are able to see or choose to see. There definitely is a role for philosophy of science and for insightful scientists to delve into these issues. So there is productive communication both ways, to some extent. But empirically, it seems a pretty small interaction. Taking Kuhn as an example, the nature of the interaction is largely one of observation- a philosopher / sociologist / anthropologist / (psychologist?) looking at the scientific community and articulating unconscious mechanisms and practices by which it operates, explaining how it falls short of a commonly accepted ideal. Most such observations are much less successful, but in any case, they don't have a heck of a lot of effect on the practice of science. Perhaps I am engaged in the converse, observing the practice of philosophy and making similarly effectless comments.

    Yes, Stenger is mostly a polemicist, I'd agree. But either way, Krauss or Stenger, high (science) credentials or low, bad philosophy can't be excused.

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    1. Now, your observer proposition is one of the more exotic areas of philosophy. If a tree falls in the forest and no one hears it, did it make a sound? Did it even fall? Did it even exist?
      I think scientists and common sense are in agreement that this isn't much of a conundrum- that yes, yes, and yes.. they all exist, even if not observed by humans. For instance, what on earth was going on for the first 4.5 billion years .. while we were not present? Was it all faked, like the young-earther's say?

      I think scientists only say yes because they assume (consciously or not) that there is always an observer. Perhaps that observer is not anthropomorphic - perhaps the thing observed is its own observer - or perhaps "science" (or mathematics) is that observer - but we only assert that the tree existed when we weren't looking because we assume that something was "looking."
      But this is why there is such a thing as philosophy of science, right? Because scientists can't be bothered with such fundamental questions while they're just trying to work out which chemical improves the permeability of the cell membrane in high-salinity environments or which nuclear reaction plays the largest role in the energy production of x-ray bursts, etc.

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  9. Some of those comments are painful to read. There would be no "science" without philosophy. All of those ugly, reductive, materialist critiques of philosophy would not have been possible without philosophy first providing the ground for the critique!

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  10. For "trained" philosophers as for "trained" scientists, it must be difficult to hear amateur arguments or fully explain why they're incorrect. I have this problem with engineers. "Doesn't the idea that greenhouse gases in the atmosphere are warming the Earth's surface violate the second law of thermodynamics? The atmosphere is cold and the Earth is warm...." It must be the same for a philosopher. Thus, it's not really "absurd" to demand some level of scholarship in order to comment effectively in a philosophic debate; we do it in science. (Side note: a good philosopher, like a good scientist, would attempt to explain the error of an uninformed comment, as best as possible.) Of course a layperson can comment on the fruits of a field (in science or philosophy), but they can't do so by saying that the science or philosophy is wrong or bad, because they don't have the knowledge to judge such things. They can only comment on how they approve or disapprove of the outcome.

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  11. Bernard BeckettMay 1, 2012 at 5:31 PM

    Hi nuclear.kelly

    There is a danger, perhaps, if the attitude then extends to wanting to shut the amateur out of the debate. Progress in knowledge, both personal and public, relies to some extent upon encouraging amateur curiosity. Education doesn't get off the ground without it. The fault then, is never with the naive questioner; it is with the expert who considers the question beneath them, or the questioner who refuses to accept the answer (or refuses to acknowledge they do not understand the answer.)

    One useful role the outsider plays is a check against institutional capture. So, for example, I have a degree in economics, and am well aware of the damage that can be done when a particular intellectual school captures the public debate, and refuses to engage with those not schooled in the more arcane details of their at times fanciful models. One of the great improvments in economic theory recently has been its engagement with other academic fields, most notably psychology. Psychologists have for some time pointed out that economic models are just wrong, insomuch as their descriptions of human behaviour are so far removed from everything we observe. It was only at the point where the concerns of the 'non-experts' were admitted, that any real progress was possible.

    Similarly, it may be that somebody working in biology, or physics or psychology turns out to be exactly the right person to shine a light on some of the darker corners of philosophical speculation.

    Another difference might stem from a distinction between agreed and controversial knowledge. It is much more arrogant for the uniformed outsider to oppose an established and well agreed upon body of knowledge (so your example of the global warming mechanisms is a good one) than it is for them to intuitively take sides in a debate where the experts themselves are split (as is so often the case in philosophy).

    Bernard

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  13. Bernard,

    “Similarly, it may be that somebody working in biology, or physics or psychology turns out to be exactly the right person to shine a light on some of the darker corners of philosophical speculation.”

    I think the point though that some are trying to make here is that the only way a biologist, physicist, or psychologist is going to “shine light” on any dark corner is by taking the knowledge from their respective disciplines and setting in within some sort of philosophical framework as they articulate what their findings and knowledge means and might tell us. In other words, no biologist in addressing the question “Why is there something rather than nothing” responds with, “Because plants can change sunlight into food” or some other “fact.” If a biologist, physicist, or psychologist is going to address a philosophical question, they are always doing so from within a philosophy. They cannot simply say, “The facts tell me this and everyone must see the facts the way I do because I’m a biologist, neutral, objective, and free of all bias or philosophy.” To address any “dark corners” they must articulate, reflect, use logic, reason, and yes, even wisdom—they must philosophize! They must know that methodological naturalism is not the same as philosophical naturalism. They must know that the tools of science are not necessarily created to answer or even address philosophical questions, while at the same time, as Kuhn noted, the scientist is always/already doing his or her work from and within what he called paradigms but what we could also call philosophies or world-views.

    In other words I agree with you that light can come from any number of sources, including the ones you noted, but light rarely comes from those closed off to the voices of others. The last time I checked not much light has come from any fundamentalist whether of the religious or secular type. If I start a conversation with an economist or teacher by noting that I think the conversations between most economists (who all agree upon the numbers, but come to very divergent views when it comes to telling us what the number mean or should mean) sounds like a conversation between two drunks; and, by the way, teachers teach because they can’t do, now let me tell you what you should think about economics and teaching…well, I doubt I’m going to shine much light anywhere. Call me crazy.

    “Another difference might stem from a distinction between agreed and controversial knowledge. It is much more arrogant for the uniformed outsider to oppose an established and well agreed upon body of knowledge (so your example of the global warming mechanisms is a good one) than it is for them to intuitively take sides in a debate where the experts themselves are split (as is so often the case in philosophy).”

    This misses the point though that at the level of theory and philosophy within science (and economics and in teaching “philosophies”) there is the same debate between the experts as there is in the philosophical world or any other for that matter. It doesn’t matter that we agree upon the “facts.” The question is what do the facts mean and how should we interpret the facts. Once we get to that place, philosophy must and always/already takes over. Even if we say, “the facts mean nothing,” we are espousing a philosophy.

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  14. Bernard, Darrell - I basically agree with both of you.
    Bernard, you're right, there's a lot that can be gained from the introduction of ideas from outside the status quo. And we (as a "community" of science or philosophy or whatever) are only ignoring such input to our own detriment. This is why I said that a "good" scientist/philosopher/expert will take the time to engage and explain - perhaps they will realize, in the process, the merit which might exist in the "amateur" opinion. There isn't necessarily going to be any merit (the majority of the time, there won't be), but we shouldn't disregard the opinion outright without first (at the very least) listening to it.
    Darrell, you're also right to point out that any real insight from outside of a given community is going to come from the extrapolation of one's own factual knowledge. We may not be aware of it, but as creatures of pattern recognition, it's likely that the outside opinion we're espousing is simply the continuation of a previously observed pattern. Take the climate change example. The amateur sees a pattern ("cold things cannot make hot things hotter"), which is correct, but incorrectly extrapolates it ("atmosphere is cold and Earth is hot, therefore atmosphere can't make Earth hotter"). You slowly build up a worldview by couching direct experience into previously adopted (or taught) patterns. Therefore I can agree on the "fact" (the second law of thermodynamics) and disagree on the conclusion drawn (climate change goes against the 2nd law) because my worldview, including the information I have gained through years of amassing knowledge, leads me to a different conclusion. We should be careful, though, traveling down this road - it can quickly lead to the belief that all opinions are equally valid. Because my opinion is based upon a larger subset of experiential results (both my own and historical), my opinion on climate change would be more valid than the opinion of the amateur who thinks the 2nd law forbids it. But I have to allow the possibility that the amateur has gained some piece of knowledge or experience that fills a gap in my own - where the "naive questioner" Bernard mentions becomes most important.
    This has been a fantastic discussion so far... thanks guys!

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  15. N. Kelly,

    “We should be careful, though, traveling down this road - it can quickly lead to the belief that all opinions are equally valid.”

    Yes, you are absolutely correct-and thank you for your other insights. The post-modern turn many mistakenly believe requires this leveling of opinions to the point that everyone is correct. It rather simply notes the fact that reality is an interpreted reality. We bring ourselves to the facts and we tell stories or narratives to makes sense of the “facts.” Christianity is one of those narratives. Atheism and agnosticism are also one of those narratives. And calling something a narrative doesn’t mean it’s a made up story or that one narrative cannot be true while another false. What it brings home is the reality that we are not objective neutral observers but we are all philosophers, whether good, bad, or indifferent. And every “fact” is an interpreted fact.

    And for anyone to try and stand outside that reality and tell us he is a non-philosophical neutral observer just noting “facts” is fairly amazing. Especially since in the telling the philosophical positions/leaning are so evident. Pardon me, but you philosophical slip is showing.

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    1. As Schopenhauer said, "materialism is the philosophy of the subject who forgets to take account of himself." :-)

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  16. Darrell-

    So what makes a good interpretation and what makes a bad one? What makes a fact (i.e. a gold-plated interpretation)? Unless you do indeed validate any interpretation someone might choose to make, there must be a method to the interpretive madness. What is it? Is it only what you agree with, or is it some other, maybe objective, criterion? Do you get to call things objective on the basis of intuition or popularity? Perhaps you could flesh out your own philosophical approach here.

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  17. Hi Darrell,

    Good to read you again, but I still fail to understand precisely what you're saying.

    At times, it just looks as if you're stating the obvious. Fact: it's past 7 at night. This is just a plain fact, right? Of course, we may build many stories around this: it means, because of the season, that there is still enough daylight to work outside for an hour; or, it means the workday is over and we can relax commenting on Eric's blog; or, it may bring about anticipation of a meeting planned with an old friend; or, I don't know, stuff like that. Different ways to interpret what it means for the time of day to be what it is. Is this what you're talking about?

    I know, trivial example. But I'm thinking if we can't work out simple cases like this, there is no hope for anything more substantial.

    If so, then the dichotomy between fact and interpretation does not hold really well, isn't it? Because, my starting point above (it's past 7) is itself an interpretation of more basic facts (a particular configuration of pixels on my computer screen), themselves susceptible to many different interpretations or places in stories. At the other end, the “meanings” above (still time to work outside) can in turn be considered facts leading to more, larger, interpretations.

    But perhaps I'm misreading you completely. If so, how would you define this “meaning” that stories provide? I can only think that a story, being a combination of simpler elements, define “places” for these various elements and it is the relationship between a component element and the story that defines the meaning of the element (its place relative to the larger context).

    Another simple example, perhaps better. Consider the rook on the chessboard in front of me. One meaning: the rook is blocking the light coming from the window and projects a shadow on part of the desktop – it is a light blocker. Another: the rook represents a threat of mate on the next move. Another: because there's no dust on the piece, it means somebody lives here. Is that it?

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  18. Bernard BeckettMay 2, 2012 at 6:49 PM

    Darrell

    Burk has anticipated my question, but let me express it anyway. You note that it is a mistake to believe everyone is correct, and here I agree with you. But, by arguing both that every fact is an interpreted fact, and that some narratives can be false, you are, I think, setting out the claim that there might exist some criteria by which the falseness of a narrative can be measured. Now, I've never heard you express your personal criteria for this measure of falseness, and it would be very interesting to hear what they are. I understand of course that I may be overinterpreting you here, and that you are making the lesser claim that while some narratives may be false, we have no way of knowing which they are.

    One way of thinking about such criteria might be to ask the question, 'what encourages me to change my world view?' For me, it's three things. One, I might find my understanding of the facts upon which I have based my interpretation is actually wrong (so, were a discovery made that turned all our evolutionary assumptions on their head, my world view would be in tatters and I'd have to change). Two, I might discover an inconsistency in my reasoning, so for example, I may tend both towards scientific realism, and the belief that reasonable people can disagree on religion. If, upon exmaination, I discover that the premises upon which my first belief are built contradict the premises crucial for the second belief, then something has to give. And third, it may be that by teasing out the implications of a world view, I find it brings me to a new conclusion that I simply find distasteful (so, even if I discovered a strong instinct for religious belief, the need to privilege it over other beliefs would create a taste problem for me).

    I think one and two provide a criteria for falseness, whereas three doesn't transfer naturally to a belief about what others ought to believe.

    Bernard

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  19. Bernard BeckettMay 3, 2012 at 2:27 AM

    Hi JP

    Do you mind if I jump here? I think your question is fascinating. I often, perhaps carelessly, refer to narrative making meaning of our lives, so perhaps I can have a go at addressing this.

    Consider your example, and the fact of a chessboard sitting on a table in plain sight. How might the world views of the people observing this contribute to the way they make meaning of what they see? There seem to me to be many ways this might happen.

    The marxist is immediately disturbed by the sight. For her, the game of chess is itself a symbol of oppression, the lowly pawns sacrificed for the greater good of the monarch. She, because of the narrative she brings to the table, feels a sort of anger, the sight offends her.

    The professional carver immediately notices the beauty of the rook's proportions, and pays tribute to his fellow craftsman, who made the piece, and in doing so feels his own choice of career affirmed. The sight warms him, lifts his mood.

    The chess player sees the game in progress, itches to take the next move.

    The writer turns her mind immediately to the person who left the board in this way, game half finished. She speculates. The host knew there were guests coming, this is an ostentatious display of intellectualism, a fraud of sorts. She lowers her assessment of the host.

    The theist marvels for a moment at the beauty of creation, what a piece of work is the human mind, that it can devise and play out such a game, and how glorious then is the God, who made it possible? He gives silent thanks.

    The evolutionary psychologist sees not the board, but the competition, the refined version of the mating ritual; two brains at battle, subconsciously driven to display the quality of the genes on offer. He congratulates himself on his insight, and the implicit quality of his own genes, in bringing him to this conclusion.

    The kleptomaniac sees the pieces, their size, their weight, notes the position of the people in the room, where they are looking. Sees not a game of chess, but a prize...

    Helpful?

    Bernard

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  20. Burk, Bernard, and JP,

    I sense a changing of the subject here a bit. You all have good questions, but Eric has posted as to these questions and I’ve responded almost ad nauseam at this point to several of the questions you bring up. This is fairly plowed ground at this point.

    I would challenge you to re-read my last response to N. Kelly. Before switching gears, in relation to Eric’s post and the essays he cites, what is your response to my thoughts in that context? What is your response to N. Kelly’s thoughts regarding my response? Why so quick to move on?

    Space and time do not allow for a comprehensive response to all your questions and comments, but here are some quick takes:

    Burk: Again, in keeping with Eric’s post and the topic at hand, what is your response to mine and N. Kelly’s thoughts in the context of the post? The post isn’t about narratives or objectivity per se. I raised the issue of narratives in the context of the post, in the sense that narratives could also be called “philosophies” and western science at the level of theory is context –laden and very much philosophical. The idea that there could be something called science v. philosophy is incredible and yet seems to be what you are suggesting.

    JP: “But perhaps I'm misreading you completely. If so, how would you define this “meaning” that stories provide?” I gave you three examples of narratives: Christianity, atheism, and agnosticism. Surely you are aware of the “meaning” provided by those narratives (at least in a general sense), whether you agree with any of them or not, right?

    Bernard: “Now, I've never heard you express your personal criteria for this measure of falseness, and it would be very interesting to hear what they are.” But Eric has posted many times on this very subject and I basically agree with him. I certainly don’t have space to give it its due here. I can tell you that the truth or falseness of the matter (such as God’s existence) is certainly not going to be proved by God appearing on radar or being seen through a telescope, which is apparently what Burk is holding out for.

    Oh, and I certainly liked your last response regarding how we view and interpret “facts.” When I assert that all facts are interpreted facts, I generally mean when we are doing a summation or comprehensive unpacking of the totality of what we know in an area. My point is that at that level, we are always doing philosophy. But you make a very creative point that we do this at many different levels.

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  21. Bernard BeckettMay 3, 2012 at 5:51 PM

    Hi Darrell

    To answer your question, and so not change the topic, yes I wholehearetedly agree that one can not dismiss the worth of philosophy without indulging in philosophy, the game is self defeating.

    Perhaps though, what is happening here is a sort of shorthand is being employed. What is being dismissed is not philosophy per se, but rather particular brands of philosophy. So, to pit science against philosophy is, as you rightly say, ridiculous. But, to claim that scientific findings undermine certain philosophical stances is, at the very least, a credible starting point in a conversation.

    So, if we think of the scientific process in its narrowest terms, the extension of predictively accurate, verifiable models, what you and I call facts, then the intuitions this project rest upon (and you are right, there are intuitions in play here) are shared intuitions (most notably the intuition that the physical world exhibits regularity).

    Materialists, having observed the great power of this project, may then ask, when a consensus forming mechanism is absent, how are we to proceed? How can one personal intuition be judged against another, if we are not to retreat to the 'all personal intuitions are equally valid' position? I know you say Eric has answered this many times, but I for one am still unclear on his answer.

    At times it appears to have a pragmatist flavour, there are the Hegelian aspects of truth through the resolving of contradictions, and there is this idea of warranted belief, in the absence of defeaters. I think perhaps it is the same mixture of approaches you would defend?

    My hesitation with this approach is not that it doesn't provide a reasonable framework for religious belief, but rather that it potentially provides a reasonable framework for any belief. I'm not yet clear how this approach avoids the relativism you (and I) wish to avoid. Sorry if you feel you've already explained this, as always you are under no obligation to respond if I'm just being dense about this.

    Thanks

    Bernard

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  22. Hi Bernard,

    Very interesting examples, and each very different from the others. Each would make a very instructive study.

    Would you agree that this meaning-giving process is more or less recursive? For, to consider the “chessboard” is also making an interpretation based on a set of more elementary facts: the presence of various objects with recognizable shapes, the board itself with its regular division into squares, the relationship between the pieces, the fact there's nothing else of significance on the board, and so on. All these facts leading to one possible interpretation as a chessboard. Others are possible, of course. A young child would perhaps see people and play with them. And who knows what a chimp would make of this?

    Likewise, going downward, the board itself can be seen as an interpretation of more basic facts (lines, colours, etc.), and so on ad nauseam. And likewise upward, using one of your interpretations in a larger context, in combination with other “meta-facts”, and so on.

    In fact, meaning does not seem very problematic. We could say, I think, something like this: “meaning” is what happens when an agent interacts with a set of facts within a specific framework, or context (or story). This leaves no room for intrinsic meaning, but this seems to me roughly correct.

    What is problematic, however, is that this process, as such, does not seem to help at all in trying to find stuff about reality. It is clearly possible to build completely fantastic stories around almost any set of facts. Conspiracy theorists do that all the time. The giant Nazca drawings in Peru make sense as the work of extraterrestrials, don't they? Meaning does not seem related to truth at all, unless there is some way to evaluate these meaning-giving frameworks. Or unless we only define truth as relative to such a framework.

    Which leads us back to the fundamental question: how do we adjudicate between frameworks? This narrative/world-view/interpretation/meaning business is no doubt interesting but this is far from enough. Despite the efforts of our friends here, I, like you, am still very unclear about how they go about this.

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  23. Bernard BeckettMay 4, 2012 at 2:44 AM

    Hi JP,

    Interesting. Yes, I agree there is a necessary element of recursion here, or perhaps more broadly, of association. I think, when we speak of making meaning, we are speaking roughly, and could be referring to a number of very different processes. That's why I chose different types of examples.

    Sometimes, when interpretations of facts differ, it's simply because people have access to different networks of association. So, to a person who has never seen a chessboard before, interpretations of game in progress are unavailable to them. In this case, we can speak fairly, I think, of deficient interpretations. If the person had more information, their interpretation would fall in line.

    Sometimes, interpretations are nothing more than personal responses, an assessment of the beauty of chess pieces, for example. And in this sense I have no problem with different people taking different meanings from the same facts, which is to say having different emotional responses. Here, there is no dispute about reality. I can find the chess piece ugly, you find it beautiful, without us making contradictory claims about reality.

    Sometimes interpretations are guesses, forced on us by incomplete information. I might think the game was left there to show off, somebody else might believe the game was actually abandoned. Our different guesses, if acknowledged as speculative, again need not lead to competing conclusions regarding reality.

    My guess is that meaning making only implies different views of reality when a person believes they have access to some information that can not be shared (so I might intuit the beauty of God's creation in the scene before me) but that nevertheless speaks to something fundamental. This is mostly, therefore, about metaphysical beliefs.

    One area where I probably disagree with most of the theists here, then, is on the necessity of holding controversial metaphysical beliefs. I think that mostly, faced with an areas where collective investigation and confirmation is impossible, we can simply suspend (dis)belief. Darrell, I'm guessing, might argue that this lack of commitment is in itself a metaphysical stance, but I'm yet to be convinced that this is a logically compelling proposition. I don't quite understand how saying 'here is the fact, and I just don't know what it means' is to commit to an interpretation of that fact.

    Bernard

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  24. Hi Bernard,

    I think your comment has been lost – perhaps Eric will be able to retrieve it.

    You say that someone unknowledgeable about chess who would not recognize a chessboard would make a deficient interpretation.

    Is this correct? If an interpretation depends on a framework (I prefer this to world-view as it is more general; a world-view would be, say, a “top-level” framework) and if a given interpretation fits perfectly within a framework, then I don't see why the interpretation should be found faulty. What we would have, instead, is an incomplete or perhaps deficient framework.

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  25. hi thanks for provide the Microscopes information.

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  26. Bernard,

    You are not being dense—rather I am probably a poor communicator. I will try and just hit some key points here:

    “But, to claim that scientific findings undermine certain philosophical stances is, at the very least, a credible starting point in a conversation.”

    But no one is disputing that possibility. Further, at the level of theory any such stance would be undermined by another philosophical stance, not necessarily any new “fact” but a different way of looking at the same set of facts.

    “I know you say Eric has answered this many times, but I for one am still unclear on his answer.”

    I didn’t say he has “answered” or resolved these questions. He has posed possible solutions or ways of thinking about these areas, most of which I agree with. See his posts entitled “narratives” “interpretive world-views” and similar.

    “My hesitation with this approach is not that it doesn't provide a reasonable framework for religious belief, but rather that it potentially provides a reasonable framework for any belief. I'm not yet clear how this approach avoids the relativism you (and I) wish to avoid. Sorry if you feel you've already explained this, as always you are under no obligation to respond if I'm just being dense about this.”

    I can’t go into detail here but the reality is that people do not take Eric’s framework and arrive and just “any belief.” As cultures go, we think nothing of it if the President of the United States says he believes in God. However if he were to seriously say he believed in leprechauns he would be unelectable and laughed off the public stage—even considered mentally unbalanced. The strident atheist has a problem with this in that he believes to assert belief in either is the same thing. I would hope you would understand the difference though (as most people do) and perhaps this would lend itself to understanding that the framework does not provide a platform for just any belief.

    Maybe the difference would be a good area for Eric to post about in the future. I am very happy to hear though that you don’t believe philosophy to be a waste of time or somehow irrelevant due to science.

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  27. JP,

    “Which leads us back to the fundamental question: how do we adjudicate between frameworks? This narrative/world-view/interpretation/meaning business is no doubt interesting but this is far from enough. Despite the efforts of our friends here, I, like you, am still very unclear about how they go about this.”

    You run the risk of missing and therefore making the very mistake being pointed out in this post and the entire response thread (again see the exchange between N. Kelly and me).

    What do you mean how “they” go about it? “You” are going about it in this very conversation. “You” have a world-view, a philosophy, a narrative. You believe there is meaning (or none) in certain ideas, actions, and ways of interpreting the physical world and universe. You act, (again, something that is impossible), as if you were on the outside- on some neutral objective platform- looking in at the rest of us talking about world-views and such. No, you are in the room with us, with a world-view/narrative/philosophy and the rest, which is all your own. Welcome.

    In fact, in many of your responses over time on several of Eric’s posts you have told us how you think adjudication should work, which is something along the lines of making empirical evidence/science the adjudicator (correct me I have misread you), which is, in and of itself, a world-view/narrative/philosophy. Again, you may be right and you may be wrong, but you do have a world-view. That is all I’m trying to get people to see here. As to how we determine who may be wrong and go about that process is another matter.

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  28. Hi Darrell,

    Perhaps I explain myself very badly. Let me have another go at how I understand this.

    The obvious, I think, is this: meaning is a subjective thing, being totally relative to the framework used to evaluate “facts”. The meaning of a “fact” being, essentially, its place within the framework. The same brute fact may mean one thing under framework A and a completely different thing under framework B. Makes perfect sense.

    Now, as such, this has nothing to do with the truth of falsehood of a given framework. We can certainly construct a framework in which the existence of fairies at the bottom of my (hypothetical) garden is the most natural thing in the world.

    How do we know the fairies-in-the-garden framework is or isn’t an appropriate description of reality? No doubt by using a larger framework in which criteria exist that we can use to evaluate these lower-level frameworks. And so on.

    When it comes to theism versus atheism versus agnosticism versus whatever (what you call world-views and what I consider special cases of frameworks), the question is: how can one decide between them? Certainly not from within one of these frameworks – that would be circular reasoning (clearly, theism makes a lot of sense from within itself, and so on). So, what we need is a “meta-framework”, that is neither theism nor atheism nor any of these isms, and use it to sort out the whatever-isms. This is what I’m asking about.

    Turtles all the way up, perhaps…

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  29. JP,

    “When it comes to theism versus atheism versus agnosticism versus whatever (what you call world-views and what I consider special cases of frameworks), the question is: how can one decide between them? Certainly not from within one of these frameworks – that would be circular reasoning (clearly, theism makes a lot of sense from within itself, and so on). So, what we need is a “meta-framework”, that is neither theism nor atheism nor any of these isms, and use it to sort out the whatever-isms. This is what I’m asking about.”

    First, I’m glad you understand and agree that you, yourself, have a world-view/narrative/philosophy that you “see” the world through. You are engaged in and coming from a “place” like the rest of us in this conversation.

    Secondly, most of the literature supports and I think the consensus is- that narratives like Christianity or philosophical naturalism/empiricism are meta-narratives. When we get to the place of calling something a meta-narrative, we have reached the end. It is the all-encompassing philosophical frame-work from which we view the world. For the Christian, there is nothing larger than God and the Christian story. For many atheists, it is foundational and there is nothing larger than the truth that the physical/material is all that exists. And that is the whole point of the “meta” part of the narrative.

    Again though, the point here (in this post and conversation thread) is not how we choose between meta-narratives (a question for another day) but admitting that we all have one.

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  30. Darrell-

    I am afraid this is mostly non-responsive. The question of what criteria you use for interpretation is not "another issue", but precisely the issue asked about. The closest you get seems to be the hory old "I generally mean when we are doing a summation or comprehensive unpacking of the totality of what we know in an area."

    As Bernard notes, this is basically license to believe anything you want, because obviously no one else has access to your totality. Each totality could come up with something delightfully different- to each his and her own truth.

    Then you delve into the criteria of popularity and magisterial authority, whose "framework does not provide a platform for just any belief.", being able magically to tell the difference between belief in leprechauns and in god. Now there may be good social reasons for rejecting unpopular ideas and accepting popular ideas, even officially church-approved ideas, but they aren't good philosophical reasons. Wasn't Protestantism unpopular and unapproved at one point? Wasn't Christianity itself?

    Lastly, you speak about frames and ... "When we get to the place of calling something a meta-narrative, we have reached the end. It is the all-encompassing philosophical frame-work from which we view the world."

    Apparently you believe there is no hope whatsoever to adjudicate these conflicting world views by any operation of logic. Apparently, they will just have to be fought out in the trenches of evangelism and charismatic attractiveness. That is where scientists differ, since there is something to hold onto in the miasma of narrative, (about reality at any rate), and that is a fact, with its more or less logical interpretation in connection to other facts. A defective metanarrative is far from immune to inquiry- it is where many of the most flagrant, but also fixable, philosophical defects lie.

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  31. Hi Darrell,

    Well... Do you agree then that, as I suggested, meanings are always subjective, relative to a given framework? That there is no such a thing as intrinsic meaning? That there is no way to objectively compare meanings coming from different frameworks?

    Overall, as it stands, this whole framework/world-view business does not appear to say much. That facts mean nothing unless interpreted is nothing new – Darwin wrote as much 150 years ago. That we are influenced and limited by our culture, upbringing, environment, and so on is almost a truism. I suppose there is more to this but, until it's fleshed out, the whole thing is just too vague and, frankly, rather common place.

    But now, I don't think the question of how we compare meta-narratives (as you say) is secondary. Burk is perfectly right: this is the crux of the matter. More than that: all our discussion about these meta-frameworks must somehow be occurring outside all of them – if we hope to achieve any common understanding at all. But what and where is this place?

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  32. JP,

    “Well... Do you agree then that, as I suggested, meanings are always subjective, relative to a given framework? That there is no such a thing as intrinsic meaning? That there is no way to objectively compare meanings coming from different frameworks?”

    We all make subjective judgments but that doesn’t mean what we are making those judgments about (God’s existence or non-existence) are not objective truths or have intrinsic meaning. One hardly follows the other.

    “Overall, as it stands, this whole framework/world-view business does not appear to say much.”

    Again, as you tell us from your framework/world-view! It appears to say much through you, right? I hate to beat a dead horse here, but that is why I kept noting the exchange between N. Kelly and me. It would be interesting to hear you or Burk’s take on that exchange. If you engage that exchange and the other responses—you may see the irony in your statement above as to who is saying much here.

    “But now, I don't think the question of how we compare meta-narratives (as you say) is secondary. Burk is perfectly right: this is the crux of the matter.”

    I didn’t say it was secondary and it may be the crux of the matter but it certainly wasn’t the crux or point of this post or most of the responses. If Eric wants to devote a post to these questions, I will be happy to join in.

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  33. Bernard BeckettMay 4, 2012 at 8:04 PM

    Hi JP

    Yes, deficient is perhaps the wrong word when speaking of an interpretation. I had in mind cases where, were I given more information, I would prefer the new framework (I see a tasty morsel before me, you see a poisonous plant. I should prefer your framework to mine, if it is indeed based upon extra information).

    Bernard

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  34. Bernard BeckettMay 4, 2012 at 8:15 PM

    Hi Darrell

    I understand you don't want to pursue this line at the moment, but would just like to offer a story on your leprechaun example, because there is something interesting going on here that perhaps we will discuss at some later date.

    When I was growing up a friend of mine's Irish grandmother did indeed believe in the 'little people'. She saw them, spoke to them. I had a child's usual instincts, fascination, disbelief and respect for my elders. I didn't think she was right, and I didn't have the sophistication to see it as simply a different interpretative framework, but nor did I feel any great need to ridicule her.

    And so it goes with your President. I have no idea how devout he is, (and certainly he would struggle for votes if he didn't at least appear to be a believer) but if his belief is genuine it's not one I share. I wouldn't ridicule him for it, any more than I would have ridiculed my friend's grandmother. At heart, belief in God or Leprechauns seems to me to have a very similar philosophical grounding, and I don't say that to belittle either. What I don't understand is what, in your philosophy, gives one notion validity, while allowing you to dismiss the other as perhaps a sign of mental imbalance.

    This is one way of testing the consistency of a framework, isn't it? We substitute terms and see if the argument still feels as strong, as a way of checking that it's reason, rather than prejudice, doing the work for us. (Exactly the process we use to remind scientists of their reliance upon philosophy).

    As I say, I understand if you prefer not to respond to this now, and I would certainly like to see Eric develop this line at some point because clearly there's a lot of interest in it.

    Bernard

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  35. Darrell,

    You know, it's rather funny, in a way. I may be too optimistic, I don't know, but I often I believe we're making progress, and then you come back with something that makes me think we're again talking pass each other. I am at a loss, really.

    You keep repeating that we are influenced, limited, or whatever, by world-views. That everything we say and think is tainted by where we come from. Fine. Good. Granted. And then what?

    Your answer to many questions and opinions is often to say, in effect: this is just your world-view speaking. Or again: you act as if you were on the outside, on some neutral objective platform, etc..

    Well, I wonder: what we can talk about? I'm trying to engage you as openly and honestly as I can but, if I am trapped in my world-view and you're trapped in yours, if it's impossible to look at these world-views from a common place, if every opinion is dismissed as just “something coming out of a world-view”, if every question is received as almost idiotic, then what are we to do? What is there to talk about?

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  36. JP,

    We have been talking passed each other. But I will take the blame. I am not communicating very clearly. I want to be very clear that I do think we can communicate and the fact we all speak from certain meta-narratives only means we may disagree regarding conclusions but it should never prevent us from understanding where the other is coming from and it certainly doesn’t mean the other person’s view is idiotic. My point that we all speak from meta-narratives is not to be dismissive; in fact, it is the very point at hand. What I have a hard time understanding is you seem to agree and then turn around and make an assertion like: “Overall, as it stands, this whole framework/world-view business does not appear to say much.”

    Do you see the irony at all here? I’m not being facetious. In the literature, what you call framework/worldview are meta-narratives and these are our deepest held beliefs about ourselves and our world. They represent what we truly believe. How in the world does that not “say much?” I think you are “saying much” from your worldview.

    I will ask again: Please re-read my early responses and N. Kelly’s and engage those points. I know you want to move on but I get the sense you are not really engaging with the topic at hand. If you do so, it may give some insight into your other questions.

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  37. Hi Eric!I don't mean to spam you, but I could find your contact info on the site.

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