nothing is mere

What can we reasonably concede to unreason?

This post first appeared on the Secular Alliance at Indiana University blog.

In October, SAIU members headed up to Indianapolis for the Center for Inquiry‘s “Defending Science: Challenges and Strategies” workshop. Massimo Pigliucci and Julia Galef, co-hosts of the podcast Rationally Speaking, spoke about natural deficits in reasoning, while Jason Rodriguez and John Shook focused on deliberate attempts to restrict scientific inquiry.

Julia Galef drew our attention to the common assumption that being rational means abandoning all intuition and emotion, an assumption she dismissed as a flimsy Hollywood straw man, or “straw vulcan”. True rationality, Julia suggested, is about the skillful integration of intuitive and deliberative thought. As she noted in a similar talk at the Singularity Summit, these skills demand constant cultivation and vigilance. In their absence, we all predictably fall victim to an array of cognitive biases.

To that end, Galef spoke of suites of indispensable “rationality skills”:

  • Know when to override an intuitive judgment with a reasoned one. Recognize cases where your intuition reliably fails, but also cases where intuition tends to perform better than reason.
  • Learn how to query your intuitive brain. For instance, to gauge how you really feel about a possibility, visualize it concretely, and perform thought experiments to test how different parameters and framing effects are influencing you.
  • Persuade your intuitive system of what your reason already knows. For example: Anna Salamon knew intellectually that wire-guided sky jumps are safe, but was having trouble psyching herself up. So she made her knowledge of statistics concrete, imagining thousands of people jumping before her eyes. This helped trick her affective response into better aligning with her factual knowledge.

Massimo Pigliucci’s talk, “A Very Short Course in Intellectual Self-Defense”, was in a similar vein. Pigliucci drew our attention to common formal and informal fallacies, and to the limits of deductive, inductive, and mathematical thought. Dissenting from Thomas Huxley’s view that ordinary reasoning is a great deal like science, Pigliucci argued that science is cognitively unnatural. This is why untrained reasoners routinely fail to properly amass and evaluate data.

While it’s certainly important to keep in mind how much hard work empirical rigor demands, I think we should retain a qualified version of Huxley’s view. It’s worth emphasizing that careful thought is not the exclusive property of professional academics, that the basic assumptions of science are refined versions of many of the intuitions we use in navigating our everyday environments. Science’s methods are rarefied, but not exotic or parochial. If we forget this, we risk giving too much credence to presuppositionalist apologetics.

Next, Jason Rodriguez discussed the tactics and goals of science organizations seeking to appease, work with, or reach out to the religious. Surveying a number of different views on the creation-evolution debate, Rodriguez questioned when it is more valuable to attack religious doctrines head-on, and when it is more productive to avoid conflict or make concessions.

This led in to John Shook’s vigorous talk, “Science Must Never Compromise With Religion, No Matter the Metaphysical or Theological Temptations”, and a follow-up Rationally Speaking podcast with Galef and Pigliucci. As you probably guessed, it focused on attacking metaphysicians and theologians who seek to limit the scope or undermine the credibility of scientific inquiry. Shook’s basic concern was that intellectuals are undermining the authority of science when they deem some facts ‘scientific’ and others ‘unscientific’. This puts undue constraints on scientific practice. Moreover, it gives undue legitimacy to those philosophical and religious thinkers who think abstract thought or divine revelation grant us access to a special domain of Hidden Truths.

Shook’s strongest argument was against attempts to restrict science to ‘the natural’. If we define ‘Nature’ in terms of what is scientifically knowable, then this is an empty and useless constraint. But defining the natural instead as the physical, or the spatiotemporal, or the unmiraculous, deprives us of any principled reason to call our research programs ‘methodologically naturalistic’. We could imagine acquiring good empirical evidence for magic, for miracles, even for causes beyond our universe. So science’s skepticism about such phenomena is a powerful empirical conclusion. It is not an unargued assumption or prejudice on the part of scientists.

Shook also argued that metaphysics does not provide a special, unscientific source of knowledge; the claims of metaphysicians are pure and abject speculation. I found this part of the talk puzzling. Metaphysics, as the study of the basic features of reality, does not seem radically divorced from theoretical physics and mathematics, which make similar claims to expand at least our pool of conditional knowledge, knowledge of the implications of various models. Yet Shook argued, not for embracing metaphysics as a scientific field, but for dismissing it as fruitless hand-waving.

Perhaps the confusion stemmed from a rival conception of ‘metaphysics’, not as a specific academic field, but as the general practice of drawing firm conclusions about ultimate reality from introspection alone — what some might call ‘armchair philosophy’ or ‘neoscholasticism’. Philosophers of all fields — and, for that matter, scientists — would do well to more fully internalize the dangers of excessive armchair speculation. But the criticism is only useful if it is carefully aimed. If we fixate on ‘metaphysics’ and ‘theology’ as the sole targets of our opprobrium, we risk neglecting the same arrogance in other guises, while maligning useful exploration into the contents, bases, and consequences of our conceptual frameworks. And if we restrict knowledge to science, we risk not only delegitimizing fields like logic and mathematics, but also putting undue constraints on science itself. For picking out a special domain of purported facts as ‘metaphysical’, and therefore unscientific, has exactly the same risks as picking out a special domain as ‘non-natural’ or ‘supernatural’.

To defend science effectively, we have to pick our battles with care. This clearly holds true in public policy and education, where it is most useful in some cases to go for the throat, in other cases to make compromises and concessions. But it also applies to our own personal struggles to become more rational, where we must carefully weigh the costs of overriding our unreasoned intuitions, taking a balanced and long-term approach. And it also holds in disputes over the philosophical foundations and limits of scientific knowledge, where the cost of committing ourselves to unusual conceptions of ‘science’ or ‘knowledge’ or ‘metaphysics’ must be weighed against any argumentative and pedagogical benefits.

This workshop continues to stimulate my thought, and continues to fuel my drive to improve science education. The central insight the speakers shared was that the practices we group together as ‘science’ cannot be defended or promoted in a vacuum. We must bring to light the psychological and philosophical underpinnings of science, or we will risk losing sight of the real object of our hope and concern.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: