Digging Into My Philosophy of Science

The Limits of ScienceI always find it interesting when I believe a certain thing that seems at least a little obscure, only to find that there is a name for it. It isn’t that I think I’m that unusual. For example, most of what I think in terms of “spirituality” was laid out two centuries ago by Arthur Schopenhauer. I just add some of the science that we’ve learned since his time to come up with my own thinking that is somewhat distinct. I’m sure there are not that many people who have done the same. But it wouldn’t surprise me that there are enough such people to have a name like neoneuroschopenhauerites.

Earlier today, I was reading a devastating attack on Richard Dawkins’ new memoir by John Gray, The Closed Mind of Richard Dawkins. If you don’t much care for Dawkins, I recommend reading it. If you do care for him, you might stay away because you would not be wrong in thinking it is at least a bit unfair. But I’m not that interested in that. Gray actually spends a surprising amount of time not talking about Dawkins.

In the article, he mentioned, “For all his fervent enthusiasm for science, Dawkins shows very little interest in asking what scientific knowledge is or how it comes to be possible.” And so he provided a little primer on the philosophy of science:

There are many philosophies of science. Among them is empiricism, which maintains that scientific knowledge extends only so far as observation and experiment can reach; realism, which holds that science can give an account of parts of the world that can never be observed; irrealism, according to which there is no one truth of things to which scientific theories approximate; and pragmatism, which views science theories as useful tools for organizing and controlling experience.

That was very exciting for me. So it turns out that my philosophy of science is pragmatism. I had actually always thought that all people who thought at all seriously about science thought as I did. But I guess I’m wrong. This explains why otherwise smart scientists often say things that I think are totally indefensible. What I most have in mind is the confusion between theoretical scientific models and reality itself.

I most often run into this with quantum mechanics where people will claim that reality is stochastic. I generally respond with something like, “No, no, no! Our models of reality at the smallest level are stochastic; we have no idea what reality is!” And I still think that’s true. Most scientists are empiricists. It strikes me as a fairly simplistic understanding of science.

But then, I would think that, wouldn’t I? I am, after all, more a mystic and a mathematician than I am a scientist. I am deeply skeptical of reality — even to the point of having questions about my own existence. So I accept science like the guy in the chicken joke: I need the eggs.

But I’ve never felt that science answers fundamental questions. That’s not a knock against science, that’s just how science is constructed. For example, science generally answers “how” questions. Evolution theory shows how organic chemistry leads to life and eventually to us. Or if I were being more careful, I would say that evolution theory provides us with an extremely useful narrative about how organic chemistry leads to us. Regardless, science is mostly mute on the “why” questions. For example, why is it that carbon has this structure that allows complex chemical chains to be constructed? That’s not really even a scientific question. We can certainly learn that because of the makeup of subatomic particles after the big bang, it necessitated that atoms be constructed in a particular way and so on. But again, we are talking process (or “narrative”) not “Why?”

This is perhaps a critical element in my fights with the atheist community. It is empiricism versus pragmatism. Although I still don’t get how they can claim to be empiricists after Gödel. If sufficiently complicated deductive systems inevitably lead to contradictions, won’t science — an extremely complicated pseudo-deductive system — eventually tell us, for example, that atoms exist and that atoms don’t exist? It won’t matter to my philosophy of science. It will still be the case that in the reality of my consciousness, hummingbirds are territorial and the light still goes on when I flick the switch.

But what will it mean to those who think that reality is this thing and science uncovers its secrets? I remember reading The Limits of Science by Peter Medawar. In it, if I recall correctly, he said that there were no limits to science in the way that science had always been useful. I took this to mean that the knowledge that we had gained wasn’t going to reduce our ability to gain more knowledge of that type. At the same time, it meant that there had always been limits to science.

I don’t have a problem with this. What’s more, I don’t have a problem with limits to knowledge. And I certainly don’t have a problem with limits to rationality. And none of this has any effect on my philosophy of science.

Government Threat Appraisal Not Objective

Corey RobinIt is not necessarily a widespread fear of foreign or domestic threats — real or imagined — that compels the state to abridge civil liberties. When the government takes measures for the sake of security, it is not simply translating the people’s fear of danger into a repressive act of state. Instead, the government makes a choice: to focus on some threats and not others, and to take certain actions (but not others) to counter those threats. Merely think of the attention — and money, staff, countermeasures, and air time — the US government has lavished upon terrorism as opposed to automobile accidents or climate change, even in the wake of Katrina, Sandy, and a host of other life-threatening weather events…

Governments today have a great deal of freedom to define what threatens a people and how they will respond to those threats. But far from being removed from the interests of and ideologies of the powerful, they are often constrained, even defined and constituted, by those interests and ideologies.

To cite just one example: it is a well known fact that African Americans have suffered as much from the American state’s unwillingness to protect them from basic threats to their lives and liberties as they have from the willingness of white Americans to threaten those lives and liberties. Throughout much of US history, as legal scholar Randall Kennedy has shown, the state has deemed the threat to the physical safety of African Americans to be an unremarkable danger and the protection of African Americans an unworthy focus of its attentions…

[T]his constitutes a grievous failure; in America, it has been a semi-permanent boundary of state action. At the most fateful moment of white-on-black violence in US history, in fact, the national government deemed the threat to African Americans a relatively minor item of public safety, unworthy of federal military protection; by contrast, it deemed the threat to employers from striking workers a public emergency, worthy of federal military protection.

—Corey Robin
Yours, Mine, but Not Ours

“Education” Is Just an Excuse for Not Hiring

Dean BakerEver since I responded to Martin Wolf, Impulse Control and Economic Inequality, I’ve been obsessing about the idea that the cure for income inequality is education. It isn’t that I ever bought this idea. It has always been obvious that it was just a way to minimize concerns about inequality. It is the non-racist’s version of “cultural dysfunction.” But what bugs is that it doesn’t even make sense. How exactly does a college education give one marketable skills except in the sense that employers think it does?

Most recently, I was talking to my partner about our little high tech company. I told him I look forward to the day when we have some money and I can hire “real” programmers to do work that I find interesting, but certainly not the best use of my skills. In other words, as I have had in the past, I want a group of programmers I use to do the detailed work so I can focus on managing the project and moving it in the right direction. Since I have been in the position of hiring such help, I know how I would do it.

When I say “real” programmers, what I mean are people who love programming for its own sake. My approach to programming is very similar to that of most scientists. I just make things work. The code is not well designed and it is rarely even close to being as efficient as it ought to be. So I have a great admiration for people who know how to code right. Of course, I also tend to find them kind of boring — wrapped up in details. But that’s why they are of so much use to me!

I have absolutely no interest in whether such people have a college education. They might, of course. But it doesn’t mean anything to me as an employer. In fact, in my experience, people with computer science degrees are not the best programmers. That’s because computer science isn’t really about programming. It’s about data structures and algorithms and other more theoretical stuff. You know: interesting stuff, but not practical skills. If I had ten programmers, it would probably be good to have one with a computer science degree — but only if he was also an exceptional programmer.

Dean Baker wrote an interesting article that touches on this, David Leonhardt Wonders Why Its Cold In the Winter and Wages Aren’t Rising. Leonhardt wrote another one of those “Why aren’t wages rising?!” articles and, as usual, he rushes to the typical brainless answer: education! Baker fired back that the unemployment rate for college educated workers is 50% higher now than it was before the 2008 financial crisis. But it would seem that people like Leonhardt always look at the unemployment rate of people with college educations and see that they are lower than for people without college education. And this causes them to think that if everyone had college degrees, overall unemployment would be lower. It makes no sense.

Baker noted something that I talk about a lot, but is usually missing from the debate, “Believers in supply and demand would know that more college grads should put even further downward pressure on the wages of college grads.” Yes, the more people have college degrees, the less they mean; they lose the “right kind of people” sheen. But what I think is really going on is that the business community wants to use “education” as an excuse for why it is they sit on piles of case and do stock buybacks rather than hiring people.

So the education excuse for why companies aren’t hiring is just an apologia. The idea of a college education was never about giving people specific skills. In as much as it was ever about employment, it was about giving workers a base of knowledge on top of which a company could provide necessary skills. The idea that someone is going to go to college and get the exact right “skills” that a company wants is laughable. That doesn’t even happen with vocational colleges. So if companies don’t want to hire people, that’s their right. But we don’t have to accept the excuse that it is all about the fact that more people aren’t graduating college.

Atheism Needs to Police its Extremists

CJ WerlemanRecently, I wrote, The Human Bible Ends Before it Dies. And I was pretty hard on the atheist community. It’s not your average atheist on the street that I have a problem with. But as a movement, it has more and more problems. And certainly the most famous of the atheists do little but annoy me as I discussed in that article and When Atheism Blinds Us to Nuance.

This is not a new thing for me. Over two years ago I discussed the political problems in the atheist community, The Atheist Libertarian Connection. And then last year I wrote, Libertarianism Incompatible With Atheism. There is something about the two philosophies (atheism and libertarianism) that appeal to a certain kind of mind. Of course, it isn’t surprising at all that people who get paid thousands of dollars to talk to atheists would think it is the result of their total awesomeness, which ought to free them of any social obligations.

Sam HarrisThere is also a path from atheism to libertarianism. In the atheist community, there is an extremely common belief that their opinions are based upon reason. They don’t believe in God because there is no evidence for it. I have to say that I’ve never found this a compelling argument. I know only too well that there are lots of things I take on faith. (For the record, I am an atheist because I find God to be a useless concept — a non-answer to a question I care deeply about.) Libertarianism is usually pitched as a kind of “first principles” theory. It is thought to be rational when the best thing you can say for it is that it is vaguely internally consistent.

But there are famous atheists who don’t fall into this trap. Someone who has yet to annoy me even a little is CJ Werleman. Of course, Werleman is not that big in the atheist community. He’s far more involved in libel political discussions. When he writes about religion, he usually upsets a lot of the atheist community. And I have a great example of that. He was recently on The Young Turks and they were talking about the Bill Maher and Sam Harris dust-up. And he didn’t pull any punches: he compared Harris to Sarah Palin:

Imagine having Sam Harris as President of the United States with access to the nuclear launch codes. That is no different to the fear of having Sarah Palin in charge of the nuclear launch codes. This is a guy who has a binary world view — us versus them — good versus bad — has already said that he could possibly support a nuclear strike.

The whole video is well worth watching. What I think is important is that atheists need to hit back against Harris’ garbage. I don’t see that happening; I mostly see a circling of the wagons. And that’s, well, very tribal — just like the religious community, which, let’s face it, is really not about religion but about cultural identification.

As many atheists have pointed out, having an atheist community doesn’t make a lot of sense. It is like having a community of people who don’t believe a teapot orbits the Sun somewhere in space between the Earth and Mars. But I get it: religion (especially in the US) is really overbearing and it is nice to be around other people who share your annoyance. Just the same, it is a pretty thin strip of common ground to base a movement on. And it is very easy for the movement to get hijacks by the likes of Sam Harris, who sounds more and more fascist every day.

Atheists: police thyselves!


It’s interesting if you look at Sam Harris’ blog, you see a lot of “Nobody understand me!” articles. He’s not an Islamaphobe; people just misunderstand him. He’s not a sexist; people just misunderstand him. He’s not a western imperialist; people just misunderstand him. What’s sad is that he is a pretty smart guy and in many ways very open minded.

Militant Suffragette Emily Davison

Emily DavisonOn this day in 1872, the women’s right activist Emily Davison was born. Over the last year and a half, I’ve highlighted a lot of important figures in the women’s suffrage movement. But Divison is one of my very favorites because she was militant. In fact, she was killed at the age of 40 in a political act, although given the circumstances, no one is exactly sure what it was her intention to do.

After high school, she received a scholarship to Royal Holloway College. But in her second year, she was forced to drop out because of financial problems with her family following her father’s death. She then became a governess and eventually a teacher, through which she was able to say money to eventually earn a degree from St Hugh’s College, Oxford.

In 1906, she joined the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) — a militant feminist group started by probably the most important suffragette of the twentieth century, Emmeline Pankhurst. Two years later, she quit her teaching position to dedicate herself to political activities. Today, she would be called a terrorist. She went well outside the bounds of the WSPU. She was responsible for violence and arson. This resulted in her jailing on nine different occasions where she staged numerous hunger strikes.

But she also came up with extremely clever forms of protest. For example, on the night of 1911 census, she hid in a cupboard at the Palace of Westminster. This allowed her to claim on the census form that her residence was the House of Commons. According to Wikipedia, “The 1911 census documents that were uncovered state that Emily Wilding Davison was found ‘hiding in the crypt’ in the Houses of Parliament. In 1999 a plaque to commemorate the event was set in place by Tony Benn MP.”

Given her death is unclear, let’s just say that she was trampled by a horse. But she became a martyr to the cause of women’s rights. As a direct result of her death, there was a great increase in male support for suffrage. Women over the age of 30 got the right to vote five years later. And ten years after that, women over the age of 21 were finally allowed to vote.

Happy birthday Emily Davison!