Sunday, June 28, 2015

Recent Supreme Court Actions

While reading Plato's Laws in researching my recent post, I came across a phrase that seemed appropriate to the recent actions of our Supreme Court:

"No human being is competent to wield an irresponsible control over mankind without becoming swollen with pride and unrighteousness."  - Laws, Book IV

Relating Ourselves to Indirect Knowledge, pt. 1

In my last post I brought out the distinction between direct and indirect knowledge, and made the point that we can only evaluate indirect knowledge in light of direct knowledge; here I would like to explore that theme further.

Indirect knowledge is knowledge that we are unable to evaluate in the terms by which it is directly known. For example, it is only the cosmologist who has the time, resources and education to draw scientific conclusions about the physical history of the universe on a cosmic scale. The rest of us, to the extent that we can be related to that knowledge at all, are only related to it through the cosmologist and to the extent that we believe what he tells us about cosmology. The key characteristic of indirect knowledge is, therefore, that it is mediated by another.

Naturally we want to only believe things that are true and avoid believing things that are false. In the case of indirect knowledge, then, this must involve an evaluation of the mediator through which we are related to the knowledge. In direct knowledge, we evaluate the evidential and logical basis for the knowledge ourselves; in indirect knowledge, we evaluate the reliability of the mediator who is, presumably, himself directly related to the evidential and logical basis for the knowledge. (It should be remembered that there might be a chain of mediators; the significant point is that the chain must eventually end in someone directly related to the knowledge. For the purposes of this post, however, there is no significant difference between a chain of one or many so the chain will taken to have only one link for the sake of clarity.)

It would be defeating the purpose, of course, if we tried to evaluate the mediator in terms of a direct relationship to the knowledge itself. For instance, there is no point in me trying to evaluate whether a cosmologist is reliable by reviewing his work in light of an application of cosmological science itself. For if I could do that, I could relate myself directly to cosmological knowledge and wouldn't need the cosmologist in the first place. We only avail ourselves of indirect knowledge when direct knowledge is unavailable to us.

While we can't evaluate a mediator directly in terms of the science he mediates, we can evaluate him in terms of his general human nature as a knower. For the canonical example of how to do this, we turn to Socrates in Plato's Apology. It will be recalled that Socrates was told by the oracle at Delphi that he was the wisest of men. Incredulous at this, Socrates attempted to prove the oracle wrong by finding a man wiser than himself, which he thought would not be difficult to do. Among the individuals he interviewed in this quest were the skilled craftsmen. This is the result:

Last of all, I turned to the skilled craftsmen. I knew quite well that I had practically no technical qualifications myself, and I was sure that I should find them full of impressive knowledge. In this I was not disappointed. They understood things which I did not, and to that extent they were wiser than I was. But, gentlemen, these professional experts seemed to share the same failing which I had noticed in the poets. I mean that on the strength of their technical proficiency they claimed a perfect understanding of every other subject, however important, and I felt that this error more than outweighed their positive wisdom. So I made myself spokesmen for the oracle, and asked myself whether I would rather be as I was - neither wise with their wisdom nor stupid with their stupidity - or possess both qualities as they did. I replied through myself to the oracle that it was best for me to be as I was. (from the Apology, in the Collected Dialogues of Plato edited by Hamilton and Cairns)
What Socrates has noticed is that being in expert in one thing does not make one an expert in everything, which is of course common sense. But he has noticed something else which is more significant, and even paradoxical, which is that being an expert in a field has a tendency to make people think they have a competence in other areas that is undeserved. I say it is paradoxical because one would think that through the process of becoming an expert in one field a man would realize how difficult it is to become an expert in any field, and so would tend to a natural humility concerning knowledge outside his own specialized field. Yet the opposite seems to happen; becoming an expert in one field tends to make one think he is an expert everywhere.

This observation is even more relevant today than it was in Socrates's time. For as I pointed out in the original post, science becomes more specialized the further it advances. That is, to become a scientific expert today means spending an increasing amount of time on an increasingly narrow domain. Scientists are subject to opportunity cost as much as anyone else; a scientist can only become an expert today on early universe cosmology by spending his time studying that and not other things - for instance genetics, chemistry, electrical engineering or botany, not to mention law, economics, history or philosophy. But, just as in ancient Greece, the expert of today will pretend to a competence outside his narrow area of expertise.

How can we use this principle in our evaluation of indirect knowledge? We should not take for granted that an expert is able to distinguish that which he knows through his expertise and that which holds merely by his opinion or ordinary reason. In other words, he may have no clear self-understanding of what he knows and what he doesn't know and why. Thus what we get from him may be a mix of his expert opinion on the subject on which he is competent - what we want - and his opinions on other subjects on which he has no particular competence better than our own - what we don't want. It is up to us to sort out the one from the other. But beyond that, we should be more likely to rely on the expert testimony of an expert who has the self-awareness to distinguish his expert opinion from his merely ordinary opinion. Such self-awareness indicates that the expert is aware of what it means to know, and we can have more confidence that what he is giving us is in fact only that which is justified by his expert opinion.

The classic example of an expert who is the modern equivalent of the craftsmen Socrates encountered in Athens is Carl Sagan. Sagan, an expert in planetary science, wrote a number of popular books on science (e.g. Cosmos) that explored well beyond his particular competence in astronomy. One of his most popular books, The Demon Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark attempts to trace science as a singular beacon of knowledge in a world haunted by superstition, religion and pseudoscience. The book is of interest here because of a passage on p. 256-257 where Sagan issues some "mea culpas" on instances where he went wrong. The instances include the following: Estimating the atmospheric pressure of Venus incorrectly; incorrectly estimating the water content of Venutian clouds; thinking there might be plate tectonics on Mars when in fact there weren't; attributing the wrong cause to the high temperatures on Titan; overestimating the effect of burning Persian Gulf oil wells on the agriculture in South Asia.

What do these instances all have in common? They are all cases of Sagan admitting error in his particular area of expertise - planetary science. Yet Sagan offered opinions on subjects far beyond planetary science; in the The Demon Haunted World itself he makes assertions about history, religion, philosophy, politics and economics among others. He gives no instances when he was wrong about politics or philosophy. Is this because, bizarrely, he's always right in areas where he's not an expert and only wrong in areas where he is an expert? More likely is that Sagan, in his area of expertise, knows when he is right and when he is wrong, but in areas outside of his expertise, he doesn't really know when he is right and when he is wrong.

And it is not hard to find instances when he is wrong in The Demon Haunted World. He claims on p. 155 that Plato "assigned a high role to demons" and quotes the following in evidence:
We do not appoint oxen to be the lords of oxen, or goats of goats, but we ourselves are a superior race and rule over them. In like manner God, in his love of mankind, placed over us the demons, who are a superior race, and they with great ease and pleasure to themselves, and no less to us, taking care of us and giving us peace and reverence and order and justice never failing, make the tribes of men happy and united.
Sagan gives no attribution for this quote, but a little research shows that it is from Book IV of Plato's Laws. The context of the quote makes clear that Plato is not speaking in his own voice, but is recounting the received tradition concerning how mankind was originally ruled in the ancient, golden age of Cronus. And the continuation of the passage shows that it means pretty much the opposite of what Sagan thinks it means:
So the story teaches us today, and teaches us truly, that when a community is ruled not by God but by man, its members have no refuge from evil and misery. We should do our utmost - this is the moral - to reproduce the life of the age of Cronus, and therefore should order our private households and our public societies alike in obedience to the immortal element within us, giving the name of law to the appointment of understanding.
(My translation in Hamilton and Cairns is slightly different than Sagan's, wherever he got it from.) So while the age of Cronus may have been ruled by benevolent demons, ours is not, but we can imitate that golden age by ruling ourselves through the immortal element within us - which for Plato is the soul and in particular the intellectual element of the soul - the "appointment of understanding." Plato, far from giving demons a "high role", is giving them no role at all and instead is urging us to order our affairs through reason. More deeply, Plato is wisely using the tradition of mythology to support the rule of reason; rather doing a Sagan-like move and dismissing any regard for mythology as foolish, Plato acknowledges the wisdom in mythology but turns that respect for tradition to his own purposes. In the present age, Plato argues, respect for tradition cannot take the form it once did - since the present age is manifestly not a golden age, we obviously are not being ruled by benevolent demons even if we once were - and can only take the form of ruling ourselves by the divine element within us, our reason. Sagan, rather than dismissing Plato, could probably have taken some lessons from him in how to influence people.

The point for present purposes, however, is that Sagan was clearly wrong about Plato, and in a way that a simple reading of the passage in context would have revealed to any intelligent reader. Furthermore, Sagan doesn't know he is wrong, the way he knows he was wrong about atmospheric pressure on Venus. The lesson to take away is to trust whatever Carl Sagan says about strictly scientific issues concerning planetary science, and to take anything else he says with truckload of salt.

The conclusion for now is that the first principle in evaluating indirect knowledge is to consider the mediator in terms of his character as a knower in the general sense: Is he able to distinguish what he knows from what he doesn't know? Does he know the limits of his own expertise, what he really knows through it and what he doesn't? A mediator for whom positive answers can be given is more trustworthy, both in his area of expertise and in the likelihood of not pretending to pass off as expert knowledge that which was not. In any case, it is important to sift through for ourselves what an expert tells us, sorting out what his expertise really justifies and what it does not.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Science, Philosophy, Direct and Indirect Knowledge

For many, including Jerry Coyne, the significant distinction in knowledge is between scientific knowledge and all other kinds of knowledge (if there are any; in his Faith vs. Fact, Coyne can barely bring himself to acknowledge anything other than science.)

But the more important distinction for us is between direct and indirect knowledge. Direct knowledge is knowledge that is known immediately by us and on our own authority. Indirect knowledge is knowledge that we are related to only through someone else; it is mediated by those others and therefore always involves the issue of authority, for it is on the basis of authority that we determine whom to listen to or not.

Examples of direct knowledge include things like the fact that you can't be in two places at the same time, that you are younger than your parents, and that dogs are produced by nature but automobiles are only products of human artifice. Some (but not all) of mathematics is direct knowledge. You don't need an authority to tell you that 2+2=4. And if you can follow Euclid's proof that there are an infinite number of primes. then the fact that there are an infinite number of primes is direct knowledge for you.

Suppose you can't follow the proof. Then you can still be related to that fact as knowledge, but only indirectly through the authority of someone else who can follow the proof. A consequence of this is that the same piece of knowledge can be known directly by some and indirectly by others. Everyone knows 2+2=4 on his own authority; but very few people know that Fermat's Last Theorem is true on his own authority, for its proof is so sophisticated that only the most educated mathematicians can follow it.

It can be seen that indirect knowledge depends on direct knowledge. If I'm taking something on the authority of another, it is not unreasonable for him to be taking it on the authority of another as well, but somewhere the chain has to end with someone who simply knows it directly. Otherwise we have a train with nothing but freight cars and no engine. (An example is a child who believes in the Big Bang on the authority of his teacher, who in turn believes it on the authority of cosmologists. But the cosmologists know it directly because they have gone through and understand the scientific case for the Big Bang.)

What about science? Jerry Coyne tells us on page 187 of Faith vs Fact that "I see science as a method not a profession... Any discipline that studies the universe using the methods of 'broad' science is capable in principle of finding truth and producing knowledge. If it doesn't, no knowledge is possible." So to have "science" in the strict sense we must produce it through the method that defines science. Unfortunately, very few of us - actually no one - has the time or resources to develop his entire base of knowledge through the application of scientific methods. We must, to a great degree, rely on the application of the scientific method that others have performed and take their results as a given; or, rather, we can only be related to their scientific knowledge indirectly through appeal to their authority as scientists.

The irony of the advance of science is that the more it advances, the less it becomes directly available to any individual man. Back in the early days of modern science, an intelligent amateur could keep abreast of, and perhaps reproduce, most of the crucial scientific results. It's not hard to reproduce Galileo's experiments with rolling balls and, if he can get his hands on a telescope, verify the existence and movements of Jupiter's satellites for himself. And he can easily reproduce Franklin's experiments with electricity or Pascal's with atmospheric pressure. But as science advances, it requires increasingly expensive and elaborate apparatus to construct experiments; and those experiments themselves require a much larger base of knowledge to understand. A high school student can be brought to an understanding of Galileo's experiments in acceleration in the course of one day's class. He'll need another four or so years of intensive education, at least, to understand how and why recent experiments have demonstrated the existence of the Higgs boson, assuming he is capable of mastering the relevant material at all. And that student, while mastering physics, will not be spending his time mastering biology and genetic science, so that, however much he might end up directly related to knowledge in physics, he will still be indirectly related to all that genetic science produces, and all that the other sciences produce. So the more science advances, the more all of us are indirectly related to scientific knowledge, including scientists themselves.

It thus becomes crucial for us to understand the distinction between direct and indirect knowledge, how they are related, and how to handle each type of knowledge appropriately. I've already discussed the distinction between the two types of knowledge. How are they related? As pointed out above, indirect knowledge is dependent on direct knowledge, since indirect knowledge is really just direct knowledge removed some number of times from the original source.

But indirect knowledge is dependent on direct knowledge in another way, and that is subjectively. By that I mean the only means we have available to evaluate indirect knowledge is through direct knowledge. When a scientist says that the Big Bang is true, how do I know whether to believe him or not? I could appeal to some other instance of indirect knowledge, for instance that other scientists agree with him, but this only pushes the problem back a step, since I now have to think about how to evaluate that piece of indirect knowledge. Again, at some point I must have recourse to something I simply know directly, through which I can evaluate competing claims of indirect knowledge.

The process of analyzing and appropriating direct knowledge is philosophy. The crucial distinction with direct knowledge is that it is not mediated; that is, it must ultimately be known without reliance on anyone else. Kierkegaard discusses this in his analysis of Socrates in Philosophical Fragments. A true teacher - that is, in my terms, a teacher of direct knowledge - is only the occasion by which someone comes to know, and the process has only completed when the teacher has become dispensable. It is for this reason that philosophy does not "progress" or produce "results" - one of the perennial charges against it. A "result" is knowledge that can be appropriated without reproducing the process by which it came to be known - for example, when an engineer uses the facts about electronic devices to design a system without first proving all those facts scientifically for himself. "Results" are therefore by nature indirect knowledge. Philosophy cannot produce "results" without falsifying itself; and everyone who would make progress in philosophy must reproduce for himself the process by which philosophers have come to know - and in the process, make those philosophers dispensable. There are no "results" that can be handed on from Plato's Republic. But someone who reads it may come to know things for himself that he might otherwise not know.

The fact that the teacher becomes dispensable is one characteristic of philosophy; another is that it appeals to direct experience as its evidential basis, on the eminently reasonable principle that it is the only possible basis. For my own, immediate experience is the only direct contact I have with reality (if in fact I have contact with reality at all); anything else is mediated and therefore a subject of indirect knowledge. This too, like the fact that philosophy doesn't produce "results", sometimes puts people off philosophy, for it makes philosophy seem a matter of purely "subjective" preference. And it is subjective, in the sense that it is only I that have access to my own experience. This is true, necessary and unavoidable, nearly tautological, yet is frequently overlooked. From p. 195 of Faith vs Fact:
"I'm hungry," my friend tells me, and that too is seen as extrascientific knowledge. And indeed, any feeling that you have, any notion or revelation, can be seen as subjective truth or knowledge. What that means is that it's true that you feel that way. What that doesn't mean is that the epistemic content of your feeling is true. That requires independent verification by others. Often someone claiming hunger actually eats very little, giving rise to the bromide "Your eyes are bigger than your stomach."


The fact you feel hungry is a fact concerning reality as much as any other. Whether you really need to eat or not is irrelevant to the truth that you in fact have the feeling . Ultimately, science itself depends on subjective knowledge, because scientists must read meters and look through microscopes - "I am seeing an amoeba through this lens" or "The voltmeter says 5 volts." There is really no way to escape the subjective nature of these experiences. For instance, trying to "independently verify" them as Coyne suggests, for instance, by asking someone else whether they see 5 volts as well, may be a reasonable procedure, but it only works because we take our subjective experience of what someone else tells us - "I am hearing Joe say the voltmeter reads 5 volts" - as itself not in need of independent verification. Otherwise, we are back to the familiar infinite regress that comes up so often in this context.

The philosopher faces the fact that all our knowledge - direct, indirect or otherwise - can ultimately be evaluated only in light of our own personal experience. The philosopher serves as an ultimately dispensable aid in analyzing and discovering the significance and meaning of that experience. The scientist simply takes the meaning of personal experience for granted so he can get on with his science. And he is perfectly justified in this, but he is in danger, like Coyne, of misunderstanding the real relationship between science and philosophy - which is really a misunderstanding of the basic human condition.

Coming next: How direct knowledge is used to evaluate indirect knowledge. Hint: Read Plato's Apology.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Coyne and Scientism

In his Faith vs Fact, Jerry Coyne in passing gives us his definition of "scientism":
In a debate with Steven Pinker about "scientism" - the notion that science often intrudes into areas where it doesn't belong - the New Republic editor Leon Wieseltier...

Of course science can intrude wherever it likes. The problem - the problem of scientism - comes up when scientists (or anyone else) thinks they are drawing a scientific conclusion when in fact they are expressing a philosophical prejudice. An example of this was given in one of my earlier posts on Coyne, where Coyne defines science as involving the exclusion of purpose in its explanatory framework, then later concludes that there is no ultimate purpose in the universe because science has not discovered any.

In his book Coyne often expresses frustration that the average man does not always accept conclusions that are presented to him by the consensus of the scientific community. He cites climate change and evolution among the topics on which there is resistance. The average person - Kierkegaard's "plain man" - is wiser than Coyne gives him credit for. For the average man may not be able to define "scientism", or describe with precision what is going on, but he sometimes rightly senses something amiss in the pronouncements he hears from the scientific community. When he is told that science demands that he accept that evolution has proven that man is purely the creation of blind, material forces, he rebels because he is skeptical that the most important things about man - his mind, his rationality, his ability to love, come immediately to mind - are things that can even in principle be explained by purely material forces. And he is right about that - for the ability to explain the mind in purely material terms is a notoriously difficult, and, in my opinion, impossible philosophical problem.

The standard response to this point is that, while it has not yet been demonstrated how evolution can account for the mind, we can have confidence there will be an explanation sometime in the future. The "god of the gaps" and all that. In other words, the scientist writes the plain man a check he promises can be cashed someday, although the scientist does not yet have the funds in his account to cover it. And the plain man is perfectly within his rights to reject that check until he knows it won't bounce.

Christianity and Disproof

Jerry Coyne, on p. 61 of his Faith vs Fact, asks the question:
It's a useful exercise to ask religious people what it would take for them to either abandon the "nonnegotiables" of their fath - like the view that Jesus was divine or that the Quran is the world of Allah - or to give-up on their faith entirely.

That's easy and well-known: Were the corpse of Jesus to be discovered, Christianity would be decisively disproven. And it's not so ridiculous as it might sound: We have in fact found the tombs of victims of Roman crucifixion.

Were the tomb of Mary to be discovered, especially with a body in it, that would disprove Roman Catholicism since the Church has taught the Doctrine of the Assumption authoritatively, but it would not necessarily disprove Christianity as such. But I would have a hard time continuing in Christian belief in such an event since my own faith is based on the historical witness of the Church.

Friday, June 12, 2015

Theological Arguments for Evolution

I don't have a problem with the theory of evolution, insofar as it is considered as an explanation for the material origins of life. The diversity of life is generally explained through descent with modification - although I will add the caveat that evolution does not seem capable of explaining the non-material aspects of human nature (i.e. the human intellect).

But the arguments you often hear in defense of evolution sure make it difficult to avoid asking the question whether the scientific advocates of evolution really understand what they are doing. Jerry Coyne, in his Faith vs Fact, makes one such argument on page 33:
Further, oceanic islands like Hawaii and the Galapagos either have very few species of native reptiles, amphibians, and mammals or lack them completely, yet such creatures are widely distributed on continents and "continental islands" like Great Britain that were once connected to major landmasses. It is these facts that helped Darwin concoct the theory of evolution, for those observations can't be explained by creationism (a creator could have put animals wherever he wanted). Rather, they lead us to conclude that endemic birds, insects, and plants on oceanic islands descended, via evolution, from ancestors that had the ability to migrate to those places. Insects, plant seeds, and birds can colonize distant islands by flying, floating, or being borne by the wind, while this is not possible for mammals, reptiles, and amphibians.

What is disturbing is that the claim that the observations can't be explained by a creator isn't a scientific argument; it is a theological argument. And it's not a good theological argument at that. Since a creator could have put animals wherever he wanted, he could have put them where we have in fact found them. So the lack of mammals and reptiles on oceanic islands does nothing to disprove that a creator might have been responsible for their origin.

That does nothing to diminish the fact that the distribution of animals is very suggestive of the evolutionary scenario Coyne offers. If he had kept to that argument, and left out the lame theological argument, his case would be more persuasive. For adding a theological argument to a case that is supposed to be purely scientific suggests to the reader that Coyne doesn't really understand the difference between theology and science.

Stephen Jay Gould used to do a similar thing, deploying theological arguments in an allegedly scientific case for evolution. His favorite was to argue that bad biological design (from our perspective) was proof of evolution, since a creator would never make what appears to us to be a poorly designed creature (this is a broad paraphrase of Gould's original argument, which I am quoting from memory).  Again, this is a bad theological argument, or at least an unsupported one, since Gould never gave any arguments as to why a creator would never create apparently poorly designed creatures. But the real point is the same with Coyne - the very scientists who are most insistent on keeping religion out of science insist on making theological arguments in support of their biological theories.


Jerry Coyne and Mistaking the Definition of Science for a Conclusion of Science

Sometimes an author puts two things together that make it clear what is going on in his project. Jerry Coyne, while discussing the nefarious influence of the Templeton Foundation's money on science (p. 20), tells us this:
The notions of ultimate purpose and "teleology" (an external force directing evolution) are simply not part of science: this mixing of the scientific with the metaphysical is characteristic of Templeton's approach.

Then, on page 23 while quoting L.R. Hamelin, we are informed that:
Centuries of scientific investigation show that the best scientific theories, testable by observation, include nothing like a personal God. We find only a universe of blind, mechanical laws, including natural selection, with no foresight or ultimate purpose.


In the first quote, we are told that the exclusion of purpose is part of the definition of science; in the second quote, the exclusion of purpose is presented as though it is a conclusion of science, as though "ultimate purpose" was something science in principle might have found, but just didn't as it turned out.

Foresight and purpose, of course, don't need to be discovered by science to be known as real. They are manifest to common sense and, indeed, their denial makes a hash of science itself (see my first post on Coyne). Coyne had a purpose in writing his book, you have a purpose in reading this blog, and I have a purpose in writing it. That's just the data. A theory can either account for it or not - or perhaps, define it out of existence to avoid the uncomfortable problem of dealing with it.