Sunday, April 01, 2007

Magical Thinking

Imagine an educational environment in which something like the following scenarios would be possible.

First, imagine a class in elementary mathematics where the teacher is required, by state law, to allow his students to define mathematical functions any way they like. Generally speaking, for example, the "addition" function takes numbers as inputs and gives other numbers as outputs and the outputs follow the pattern with which we are all familiar: 1 + 1 = 2; 1 + 2 = 3; 1 + 3 = 4; etc. Suppose, however, a student wants to define the "addition" function differently, so that, for example, 1 + 1 = 17; 1 + 2 = 36; 1 + 3 = 2; etc. (here "et cetera" cannot mean what it did above; it must mean, rather, something like "in a continuously random manner"). It should be possible, of course, for a student to define the "addition" function in such a way that 1 + 1 yields a different number each time it is "calculated", that is, it can have as its answer anything the student likes.

Before we get into a discussion of how the teacher would grade our student's math homework under this sort of regime, let's imagine another scenario. This time, imagine a medical school, where, alongside tradition "Western Medicine", a "spiritual medicine" is also taught, again by state mandate. According to the "spiritual medicine", illness and disease is not caused by pathogens of the sort we're all familiar with, but by evil spirits. The "medical students" at this "medical school" may choose to specialize in either traditional "Western Medicine" or they may specialize in "spiritual medicine". Some students may want to study both, but that is difficult because they are two very different curricula: neither one overlaps with the other in any way. In particular, "spiritual medicine" requires that they know how to perform various dances and sing certain sorts of incantations, while "Western Medicine" requires them to know anatomy, biology, chemistry, you know, that kind of stuff.

Do these scenarios seem workable to you? I suppose they are workable in the sense that they could, indeed, be mandated by law if we were so inclined to mandate things, but are they workable in a more pragmatic sense? If students could learn mathematics they way I described it above, how far would they get in the general "marketplace of ideas"? Could they manage, for example, to keep their own checkbook balanced? Could they get elected to national office and have power over the U.S. budget, or trade relations? What about medicine? Which sort of "doctor" would you choose to go to?

In short, these scenarios seem very silly indeed, and yet it is something very like one of these scenarios that Christoph Cardinal Schönborn regards as the natural state of affairs in what he calls "a truly liberal society". Such a society is one in which
students [are allowed] to hear of the debate between anti-teleological theories and those scientists and philosophers who defend teleology in nature. And this, in turn, requires considerable freedom in the discussion of open questions in evolutionary theory. Commonly in the scientific community, every inquiry into the scientific weaknesses of the theory is blocked off at the outset, and there prevails a type of censorship similar to that for which the Church is frequently reproached.
This is from Cardinal Schönborn's recent essay, "Reasonable Science, Reasonable Faith", in the April issue of First Things, an essay adapted from his address given at the pontifical colloquium on creation and evolution in September of last year. What is the purpose of "allowing students to hear" of the "scientific weaknesses" of evolutionary theory? If it is merely a matter of letting students know that there are biblical literalists out there who think that evolutionary theory is incompatible with Christian belief, a class in evolutionary biology hardly seems the proper venue for the dissemination of that information. The only possible scientific purpose for "allowing students to hear" about the "scientific weaknesses" would be in order to test, scientifically, they theory of evolution itself. It turns out, however, that the "test" that Cardinal Schönborn has in mind is not a test of evolutionary theory itself, but of materialism. Students in science classes should be allowed to question the very foundations of the discipline in which the theory is being proposed. It is not enough, Schönborn claims, for the scientist to endorse a merely methodological materialism, since, according to Schönborn, even to "endorse" a view is to presuppose something other than materialism: you cannot "endorse" a view or "propose" a scientific theory if materialism is true, because to "endorse" or "propose" presupposes the existence of immaterial things: spirit, reason, and freedom. These things, he claims, cannot be "reduced" to the material.

Regular readers of this blog already know that I am, myself, an anti-materialist, but of the arguments against materialism that I have seen this is probably among the weakest. Indeed, it begs the question, since Schönborn nowhere shows that these could not be reduced to materialist processes in principle, he simply assumes that they cannot be, and uses this assumption as a proof that materialism is false. Eliminative materialists like the Churchlands have long since shown arguments such as this to fail.

This is not to say that I don't have a certain degree of sympathy for Cardinal Schönborn's own methodological stance. He says that
Scientism - - by which I mean the philosophy (usually implicit and unrecognized) that modern science is the only way of gaining objective knowledge of reality - - must be overcome.
I believe that is true, but it is not a very important truth. For example, what ought we to call the adherents of "scientism"? To form a word in the usual way would give us "scientist", and yet I don't think we want to call the advocates of "scientism" "scientists", because most working scientists are not advocates of "scientism", indeed, very few deeply thoughtful people would advocate it at all, since it is virtually self-contradictory (let the letter "S" denote the view of "scientism" that the only way of gaining objective knowledge of reality is through modern science: can modern science, then, tell us that "S" is true?). There are, of course, advocates of "scientism" as Schönborn defines it floating around out there, but they are mostly dyspeptic outliers like Harris, Dennett, and Dawkins. These people, actually, are not exactly idiots, but they are ideologues, which is why scientism appeals to them.

The editors of First Things are not idiots, either, and yet they seem to fall victim to a kind of ideology of their own at times, especially when it comes to this issue of the connection between global materialism and the defense of evolution. Schönborn's essay is neither convincing nor philosophically sophisticated, and yet it has managed to find more than one eager audience of yes-men. Reading it is like watching a theocon version of The View, with Schönborn filling in for Rosie O'Donnell with his vapid pseudo-aristotelian inanities carelessly cribbed from Copleston's History of Philosophy and Fr. Neuhaus doing time as Barbara Walters, silently egging on the Schönborns in the While We're At It section while pretending that the Stephen Barrs don't exist. I suspect that the reason has less to do with anyone's commitment to scientific methodology and more to do with thumbing one's nose at the advocates of scientism. Not that it isn't fun to thumb one's nose at such people, but still. Cardinal Schönborn is quite right when he says
If [George C.] Simpson had said merely that no plan according to which mankind came about may be discerned using the purely quantitative-mechanical methods of scientific inquiry, then this assertion could be correct. But this way of looking at things - - this "self-limitation of reason," in the words of Benedict XVI's Regensburg address - - is not "given by nature" but is a deliberate, methodological, and eminently goal-oriented choice.
He is right, but it is a straw man, because few, if any, reasonable scientists would say otherwise. Nor does it help that this particular quotation comes immediately after this howler:
The existence of a ship leads to the question "Who constructed it?" - - and so the self-evidence experience of nature (as being directed toward an end, as ordered, and as beautiful) leads to the question "Where do these marks of intelligence come from?"
It's difficult to imagine a more naive approach to this particular problem. Even Cicero had deeper thoughts than this. It's ironic, in a way, that those who are ordinarily the strongest defenders of the idea that there is such a thing as objective truth are suddenly driven to scientific anti-realism when science has something to say that they don't find congenial. Of course, the position being defended by Schönborn has a certain advantage to it: being a priori it will have the advantage of necessity, a feature that no scientific hypothesis can share. Talk about fightin' dirty!

There was a movement afoot in the first half of the twentieth century to make philosophy more like science. The Positivists, Logical Positivists, Verificationists, and others shared a vision of empiricist philosophical method that took nearly thirty years to send off to the ash heap of philosophical history. It would be too bad if we traded a movement to turn philosophy into science for a movement to turn science into philosophy. But there seems to be a new movement afoot - - what to call it? Illogical Positivism? - - that appears to aim to do just that. The demarcation problem is not really that much of a problem, and the sooner folks on both sides of this issue realize that, the better off all subsequent discussion will be.


John Farrell said...

Outstanding. I had to stifle myself at work--I was laughing so hard about the Rosie O'Donnell bit.

(Would somebody please please tell the Cardinal "when you're in a hole, stop digging!")

Apollodorus said...

I'm frankly appalled that you know enough about The View to make fun of it. Shame on you. But shame on me for knowing enough about it to be appalled. (Seriously, though, my life has been much better since I got rid of my television again; now I just have to watch 5 minute clips of cute animals on YouTube when my wife insists).

I'm curious, though:

It’s ironic, in a way, that those who are ordinarily the strongest defenders of the idea that there is such a thing as objective truth are suddenly driven to scientific anti-realism when science has something to say that they don’t find congenial.

Would you distinguish yourself from people who fit this description because your scientific anti-realism is based on quite general concerns rather than reaction to some particular theory?

Do you realize, by the way, that those of us without stblogs accounts can't post at your new site?

Scott Carson said...

Well, uh, I only know about The View, um, you see, uh, well, from what I hear about it from Bill Donohue. Yeah, that's it. I don't watch it myself, you understand.

The thing about the anti-realism in interesting to me because if someone were to question, say, the teaching on homosexuality, grounded as it is in natural law, that is, the laws of nature that are supposed to be available to empirical study and that will back up the teaching on homosexuality if one is rational, these people would have a fit. But they aren't beyond questioning the equally empirical results of evolutionary biology, which are subject to the same constraints as the teaching on homosexuality. I accept both results. Having said that, I should add that, while I am an anti-realist about science, I am not an anti-realist about morality or theology. I suppose that makes me problematic in my own way, but I'll blog on that some other time.

I'm not sure what's up at the StBlogs site--I can't seem to turn off the feature that requires registration.

Apollodorus said...

It seems to me that one can be an anti-realist about science in a number of different ways, and that some of those ways are more problematic than others. One might maintain, for instance, simply that the methods employed by the natural sciences -- the sorts of questions they ask and the sorts of answers that are considered legitimate -- do not exhaust the range of legitimate questions and answers. This might not seem like anti-realism, and I suppose it need not necessarily be, but if one allows for a wide variety of other kinds of questions and answers, then it will very probably turn out that scientific theories at their best are radically incomplete. If, for instance, one says that teleology has no place in science, but does have legitimate applications in metaphysics, then the scientific accounts of animal life that labor to reduce all apparent teleology to mechanist-cum-Darwinian explanation will be, if not plain false, severely impoverished. That sort of view need not dismiss much if anything of what the sciences say about animal life, though when it comes time to fit the results of those sciences into a more general view of animal life, it will reject any insistence that theories should only employ the concepts developed in the sciences. If that counts as anti-realism, then I don't see why it should face any difficulties, at least in principle. Of course, it is a different matter to show that appealing to some concepts not used in science (like teleology) make better sense of things than the alternatives.

I suspect, though, that your anti-realism is a bit stronger than this, though I'm still not entirely sure where you draw your lines in the sand. You certainly do not seem to support what I consider to be a much less serious form of anti-realism, the kind which relies on skeptical arguments of a very general sort. Whatever the strength of those arguments, they seem to me to show nothing more than that scientific theories might be mistaken or radically incomplete. That's not very encouraging to those of us who find a metaphysics restricted to the methods of the natural sciences something to be resisted.

And now that you mention it, I'm not so sure if Bill Donohue is all that better than Rosie...