The Spirit of Science

•June 13 2007 • Leave a Comment

Anyone who is even remotely concerned with the nature of scientific enquiry or the use of reason should check out David Colquhoun’s site. The man is a genius! Wonderfully concise debunking of the large volume of pseudo-science that poisons the modern intellect. Great writing in a very good cause…


Einstein on Motivation

•June 6 2007 • Leave a Comment

In my last post, I made a passing reference to Pirsig’s “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”. This reminded me of a beautiful quote in that book from Einstein about the purest motivation for doing science or indeed any high-level rational activity:

“A finely tempered nature longs to escape from his noisy cramped surroundings into the silence of the high mountains where the eye ranges freely through the still pure air and fondly traces out the restful contours apparently built for eternity.”

Modern Rhetoric

•June 6 2007 • 1 Comment

I was going to write a post about this type of thing anyway and got a further intellectual push from reading a post at cosmic variance on the a televised debate for Republican party candidates in the US.

I think that the main problems scientists have with Intelligent Design, as opposed to alternative scientific theories are:

  • Lack of respect for Occam’s razor – there are certainly many fields in science where there is legitimate debate as to which of a set of competing theories are more simple but once you try to explain complexity by positing the existence of an unobservable being with more complexity than the observed universe you go off the scale.
  • Starting off with assumptions that prejudge the question. Scientists in any field will start off assuming that existing theories are mainly correct. Contrary to some anti-scientific propaganda this is not due to some conservative conspiracy – merely that existing theories have been extensively tested and peer reviewed. Any honest scientist would abandon a belief in evolution if it was shown to be incompatible with the observed evidence. However the big problem with Intelligent Design is that it starts off from a non-scientifice (theological) asumption and proceeds from there.

Personally, I always have difficulty understanding how some scientists maintain theist beliefs while having a strong evidence-based rational view of their chosen field – but it is undoubtedly true that many do and pull off the mental gymnastics necessary. So I do not agree with the view expressed by some prominent atheists that one cannot be a theist and a good scientist. Indeed one of the principal tenets of rational discourse is that the truth of a statement is independent of who is making it.

A classic example is Newton. He was undoubtedly was a great scientist, whose theories are used on a daily basis by rocket scientists and engineers. He also held a large number of ridiculous cranky beliefs on matters such as alchemy which have been dismissed by modern scientists. Then to show the middle ground, his development of the calculus included many theorems which are now accepted to be true but were derived from mathematically non-rigourous methods. Cauchy and other nineteenth-century mathematicians later filled in these gaps. So legitimacy is gained not by authority, but by logical consistency and agreement with the observed facts.

Which leads nicely onto my main point- the need for the development of modern rhetoric.

Classically rhetoric was an art (viewed as disreputable by thinkers such as Plato) for constructing real-world as opposed to philosophical arguments. The battle between some the proponents of rhetoric (the sophists) and the followers of Plato is given an interesting spin in Pirsig’s “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”. However in a modern society, arguments are often made with an appeal to official statistics and so on and thus a correct deployment of elementary probability and sampling theory is essential for the modern practitioner of rhetoric.

Questions like evolution and gravity are scientific and can only be answered by theories which are compared with experiment. The calculus example relates to mathematical reasoning which involves careful deduction from axioms which are taken as givens.

However, there are many questions which are not scientific or mathematical/logical.Questions like “what is the best way of funding health-care provision?” or “what is the best level of taxation for the UK?” are in this class. Often one hears politicians, pressure groups or members of the public putting forward views on such questions using blatant logical or mathematical fallacies. This suggests to me that there should be more study of what I term ‘modern rhetoric’ – that is the use of correct reasoning from personal convictions.

The ‘axioms’ in these type of debates are not arbitrary as in maths – but they cannot be judged against reality in a straightforward way like science either. Statements like “an equal society is a just society” or “the state should not create a culture of dependency on it” are matters of personal and political principle. However – once one starts from such a point, intellectual honesty means you should proceed rationally.

This means in my opinion:

  • Any use of statistics or other maths to back up your views must be mathematically meaningful. This would stop moronic statements such as “we should try to make sure our poverty levels are below the EU average” (if you are part of the population from which the average is drawn reducing your poverty level will reduce the average too if everything else stays the same).
  • You must only make logical, consistent and universal deductions from your starting position. A classic example of how not to do this is the ‘NIMBY fallacy’ (where a whole society believe in, say, more house construction but everyone thinks the growth should occur somewhere else).
  • You should stick to objective statements. As I argued in my piece on secularism, subjective faith-based beliefs belong in the private emotional world and not in reasoned debate. A religious believer may oppose abortion because of his faith but when he uses his faith explicitly in a debate on the subject he is begging the question in the same way as a ‘scientist’ propounding Intelligent Design. He may start off with the ‘axiom’ that “all human life must be protected” but then he must rationally go on to demonstrate that a foetus is indeed human life and so on and arguments like “because the pope/bible says…” are automatically invalid.
  • When appealing to scientific studies and the like, there is no such thing as ‘anecdotal evidence’. The most anecdotes can be is a spur to the starting of proper scientific research into an area and even a well-written properly conducted study published in a peer-reviewed journal is only the start. The only legitimate use of scientific theories in political debate involves theories which confirmed by several such experimental studies and any anomalies etc. accounted for to the satisfaction of most of those working in the field.

I do not claim that all my arguments are perfect in this way or that anybody else’s should be. However, logical or mathematical gaps in one’s arguments should be seen as flaws which must be addressed by those who have made them, rather than the debater reverting back to the ‘axioms’ and indulging in ad hominem attacks as is the norm in political debates.

Interestingly most teaching of maths at school level is justified by appeal to applications such as adding up prices and doing budgets. However, to be a competent citizen of a democracy, I would contend that an ability to analyze and create ‘modern rhetorical’ arguments is at least as important.

If the logical and mathematical level of debate could be improved we would be more free, our politicians less mendacious and our societies more democratic.

The Case for Secularism

•June 3 2007 • Leave a Comment

In the heightened climate after the 11th of September 2001 and in the light of the ‘New Atheism’ of Dawkins, Hitchens et al, there has been much debate on the rights and wrongs of religion.

Much of this has boiled down to two questions:

  1. Does God exist?
  2. Does religion do more harm than good?

Despite the occasional deployment of topical examples such as the attack on the Twin Towers or the Danish cartoons of the prophet Mohammed, it is a long time since I heard much new or interesting in these debates. Sometimes arguments are advanced with more elegance or wit but mostly it is a case of hoary debating society cliches being wheeled out on cue. Despite this these are not trivial questions – people kill and die based on faith and the protection of free speech is fundamental to anyone who wishes to live in a free society.

It is obvious to any observer that not convinced much is gained by once more rehearsing the arguments as to whether Hitler or Stalin were atheists or whether the argument from design stands up to rational scrutiny. Those with strong opinions on either side get very worked up and much more heat than light tends is generated.

I come at this from a slightly different angle – one which I would describe as liberal. The word liberal has been much distorted and is virtually a term of abuse in American politics. When I use the term I use it to describe myself as a passionate defender of the intellectual inheritance of the Enlightenment – I believe in freedom of speech, trade and thought under a justly applied law.

I focus on one key phrase that comes up in the political versions of these debates – ‘religious freedom’. This tends to be employed in support of such practices as wearing of the veil by Muslim women or state-supported faith schools. I think that this is a dangerous reversal of what started off as a legitimate idea. Historically religious freedom was ‘freedom from‘ not ‘freedom to‘. The European settlers of the New World or those who campaigned for the emancipation of Catholics in the 19th century were opposed to the imposition of the religion. Freedom of religion is not the freedom to do whatever one likes using ones faith as an excuse, but rather the right to freedom from unjust strictures based on the religious sensiblilities of others.

While on the question of rights – there is no ‘right not to be offended’. In a true democracy one can offend whoever one pleases – and it is only those who resort to violence or other criminality in support of their beliefs who should have the weight of the state brought upon them. We cannot give up fundamental freedoms for fear of hurting people’s feelings. Application of this principle to the isssues of the day is left as an exercise to the reader…

Democracy can be summed up in two basic principles – that the majority may not prevent a minority from trying to become a majority and that a minority may not prevent the majority from going about their lawful business. The first principle is the justification for most traditional rights such as free speech, freedom of the press and so on, while the second in my opinion shows why the actions of intimidating trade union pickets or animal rights extremists using the methods of terrorism are fundamentally antidemocratic.

So – how is religious freedom in the correct sense preserved? The answer is secularism. This means that the state becomes neutral with respect to religion. The state does not enforce any religion (or persecute anyone practising their religion peacefully). Religion moves from the public sphere to the private. It becomes subject to something analogous the basic liberal position on sexual morality – what goes on within the minds of consenting adults is no-one’s business but their own.

One can therefore measure some of the quality of a democracy by its degree of secularism. An established church, an official religion or laws on scientific research or birth control based on the views of particular faith groups are antidemocratic and those who promote freedom should in my view oppose such things.

Religious commentators often refer to those who have strong anti-religious views as ‘secular fundamentalists’. This a poor use of language. The whole point of secularism is that the state does not take a position on whether Christians, Muslims or atheists are right. Secularism is just a transfer of the highly-charged religious debates out of the area of public policy and into the area of personal conscience. Those who wish to maintain their faith can do so and those who wish to argue for the n-th time about whether the existence of a watch implies the existence of a watchmaker can carry on. Meanwhile we all would get a less oppressive and more peaceful society to live in.

Post 0

•June 3 2007 • Leave a Comment

Welcome to my blog. As Socrates is supposed to have said “the unexamined life is not worth living”. In an ongoing attempt to give my existence meaning I continually examine what I believe and why I believe it. Some of the results will appear here for contemplation by anyone who is interested…