On the Two Parts of Empirical Knowledge

There’s two parts to looking at the world. The looking and the world. Most fields of inquiry fix their way of looking and go out in search of the world. Philosophy (at least some of it) instead turns to the way we’re looking at it.
Take for example the role of acetylcholine in the brain. If you ask “Why is that ACh there?” the organic chemist will answer with some sort of mechanical explanation. There’s some mechanism that created an ACh molecule and put it where it is. On the other hand, if you asked a molecular biologist, she would give some sort of purposive explanation. There’s ACh doing the stuff it does being the beings with the ACh doing what it does were able to reproduce. Here we see two scientists answering the same question with two different but compatible answers. Both look to the world, gather their evidence, and draw conclusions about the world. And both keep their ways of looking at the world more or less fixed throughout.
This isn’t meant as an insult to the scientists! Fixing a method of investigation is just how we get a science going. Until we have a concrete system of generating questions (or problems) and an established method of answering (or solving) them, we just don’t have a science. Once we do, though, we apparently get quite a bit of use out of it. The tricky part is figuring out which systems of generating questions and which methods of answering them are the good ones. This is where I see philosophy fitting in.
I take my work on consciousness in particular to be serving this role to neuroscience and psychology, for example. The two fields have very effective ways of investigating nervous systems and mental/behavioral structures. I think that they don’t yet have a great way of investigating subjective conscious experience itself yet (which isn’t a super unpopular view). Don’t get me wrong: I don’t deny the current best empirical data people have collected. My point is not that we have no information from our current perspective, but rather that with a fundamental reconfiguration of our understanding of what consciousness is, and with this reconfiguration a new vocabulary, calculus, etc., we can see it much more clearly.
It takes all kinds. Some people are excellent at taking the blueprints and paving the roads. Some people are great at taking the beaten paths and continuing to build. And some of us see some value in taking yet-undiscovered approaches to the same material. Thus there is in fact not a conflict here but rather two parts of the same larger enterprise.

Argue more effectively for climate change

There was an image circulating listing the current natural disasters and then saying climate change is evident.

I don’t deny climate change, but that’s a really poorly-made point. Change implies things used to be one way and are now another way. Moreover, to my knowledge, California gets wildfires and the east coast gets hurricanes. So pointing out those things are happening is not indicative of change.

Worse yet, I’m seeing this from the same sources I saw pictures in winter making fun of CC-deniers for saying CC isn’t real because of the current weather being chilly. So they should know by now that CC, or any trend for that matter, is established via multiple data points over an extended length of time.

Are we seeing an overall increase in quantity or intensity in wildfires or hurricanes over the span of many years? Stating the overall rate of increase is short enough to fit on an image and actually makes the point set out to be made.

Response to Evidence for God from Science Part 1: General Introduction

When I used to be a Christian, I enjoyed the articles on godandscience.org. The arguments were written in a compelling style and appealed to a modern sense of reason. At the time, I thought the arguments were sound. After all, the author of them, Richard Deem, is himself a scientist. In this series, I seek to refute the arguments he makes. I will be focusing primarily on his “Answers for Atheists” section for therein lies the articles with some of the more egregious logical jumps. So let us begin this series with his introduction, General Introduction for Non-Believers: Part 1, Are Your Beliefs Consistent with Your Worldview?

His goal in the first piece is to convince readers we ought to question our own beliefs. Good enough. In the section “Do skeptics have beliefs?” he claims that skeptics do indeed have beliefs and moreover have emotional attachment to those beliefs. However, he also compels the skeptic reader to dump the emotional baggage. For a group that already has the dumping of emotional baggage as their goal, if they’re failing already, I’m not sure how he expects his command to be obeyed.

Moving forward, one of his biggest issues does lie right at the outset of his series. In the section “The skeptical worldview” he declares the two tenets of a skeptical worldview:

  1. All beliefs should be based on observational evidence
  2. Skeptics must be logically consistent at all times

The two are already incompatible, so the skeptic that he proposes to be arguing against is already in the weakest of positions. Logic is not an observed event, so to be using logic, one is already going beyond observational evidence. In his explanation, he dichotomizes belief into observational evidence and religious revelation.  Apparently a priori reasoning is foreign to Deem. This omission will return in later articles.

The next section more or less covers an argument from design, which he expands upon in part 2.

In part 2 Deem goes on to list a number of physical properties of the universe required for human life that happen to sound rather unlikely. His argument ultimately comes down to some minimum probability for something in the universe to happen without some sort of design involved. Rather than address his argument point by point, I’ll merely provide a counterexample to his normative claim.

Deem asserts the minimum probability of an event in the universe occurring is 1 in 10 to the 143rd power. Now, shuffle two poker decks together a few times. The probability that the cards arrange the way they did is 1 in 10 to the 166th power. Note that this is many orders of magnitude less likely than the alleged minimally probable event. However, the cards did arrange the way they did despite the odds because some  arrangement had to happen. Likewise, any possible setup of the universe would be equally unlikely as the one we have. To say none of them could have occurred is, of course, absurd.

Moving along past his appeals to authority and arguments against a different counterargument, we arrive at the “Who created God?” section. He argues God is not bound by the law of causation because he is independent of time. Yet he also caused the universe independent of time. He also addresses the possibility that the universe itself is uncaused and that no God is necessary by appealing back to part 1 where evidence for the big bang is presented. However, he again presents a false dichotomy: either the universe is eternal or the universe is caused. Apparently the possibility of the universe beginning at point time=0 with no prior cause is outside of the realm of discussion.

Part 3 attempts to assert that Christianity is the religion with the true account of God. First Deem attacks the multiverse theory, Hinduism (and any other religion with an eternal universe), Mormonism and Islam. He seems to harbor the belief that the only possibilities are those of established religions and that any other hypothesis must be false by default. But his defense of Christianity is the more interesting part.

Deem claims the biggest coup of the Bible is asserting the universe had a beginning. There were a total of two options here (beginning or no beginning), so a coin flip would have the same accuracy rating. He may be exaggerating the importance of getting this right. He also claims the Bible endorses an expanding universe model, citing verses such as Isaiah 45:12 “It is I who made the earth, and created man upon it. I stretched out the heavens with My hands, And I ordained all their host.” I’m not a grammatician, but I do believe “stretched” is a past tense verb. Those familiar with how tense works will know this means God already stretched out the world, not that he is currently doing so. However, the universe is still expanding. (Of course, more likely the slew of Bible quotes he cites are metaphors, not referring to literal universe expansion, but if we’re going literal, may as well go all the way.)

Other marvels of the Bible Deem cites are knowledge that the world is no longer being created and that there are three dimensions of physical space. The first makes intuitive sense, and the second is apparent to anyone who can see or moves around. Additionally, wind has weight, valleys exist, and ocean water moves. He also uses the NASB translation to say Job 38:16 asserts knowledge of deep sea vents when it actually just asks if you have gone to the depths of sea, a traditionally sublime thing, and to say Ecclesiastes 1:6 asserts the cycles of the wind rather than how it actually just says God circles the world. While some advanced knowledge in the Bible might have been at least reason to give it a serious look, Deem’s best points are little more than obvious appearances and creative translations.

In the “Christian Worldview” section, Deem addresses worldviews of Christianity and Naturalistic Materialism. A good portion of the chart he opens the section with is transparent appeals to emotion, but he does make a few false claims:

  • A naturalist worldview does not place more value on humans who contribute more to society. One can place value on whoever they want; many materialists value themselves and their friends and families more than even the most charitable do-gooders.
  • A naturist worldview does not include “He who dies with the most things wins”. In fact, without an afterlife, dying with things is silly.

Moving on, he claims there are seven criteria with which to judge worldviews. The second criterion is that a worldview must be neither too simple nor too complex. This is silly: if reality happens to be extremely complex, an accurate worldview will reflect that. Being mediocre for its own sake just results in worldviews that are inaccurate for aesthetics.

Deem asserts explanatory power is another criterion and that Christianity has it. I disagree on both points. If explanatory power only includes true explanation, then Christianity makes many false claims or unverifiable claims and thus has very little explanatory power. On the other hand, if any explanatory power works, I can make up theories that explain absolutely everything, though they’d have no correlation with reality, but they’d have a hell of a lot of explanatory power.

The “Applicable to real life” criterion falls to the same basic issue. Sure Christianity says a lot of things about real life, but I could say even more. If it’s based on falsehoods, it’s silly, and thus this criterion is also nonsensical.

Finally he posits “Fills existential needs” as a criterion. If our goal with worldviews is to make people feel good inside, sure, use this criterion. However, if our goal is accuracy, this has no business here. Moreover, one could tell a much nicer story than that of the vengeful, jealous Yahweh. Again, the criterion is bad and even if it weren’t, Christianity wouldn’t be the top choice.

Ultimately, Deem wants to reduce his opposition to those will only rely on empirical evidence and then proceeds to use the cosmological argument and argument from design as well as posing several non-scientific, non-empirical arguments. Thus he has both constructed a strawman (or at least low-hanging fruit) and then proceeded to miss it anyway.