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Paul Kurtz on the Enlightenment
April 5, 2004 11:19 PM   Subscribe

Paul Kurtz on the Enlightenment. Unfortunately, there has been a massive retreat from Enlightenment ideals in recent years, a return to pre-modern mythologies. There has been a resurgence of fundamentalist religions worldwide—Hinduism, Sikhism, Islam, Roman Catholicism, and Orthodox Judaism. Added to this are occult-paranormal claims, which allegedly transcend the existing scientific paradigm. In the United States—the preeminent scientific-technological-military superpower in the world—significant numbers of Americans have embraced primitive forms of biblical religion. These focus on salvation, the Rapture, and the Second Coming of Jesus. Evangelical Protestant Christians have made alliances with conservative Roman Catholics and neo-conservative Jews, and they have captured political power—power they have used to oppose secular humanism and naturalism. via the council for secular humanism
posted by skallas (75 comments total)

 
Good article, thanks. Particulary the part about "Planetary Ethics".
posted by interrobang at 11:40 PM on April 5, 2004


I'm tempted to suggest this particular individual is as mindlessly obsessed with science as the cure to all the world's troubles as the hardcore theists he denounces. Nietzsche was right when he intimated that the death of the Christian God would result in much of the world's population blindly following science as new the new god, question as little of their new faith as they did of their old.

While I'm unquestionably in favour of science of theism, I find it somewhat hard to read something that glowingly praises science for the industrial revolution without mentioning any of the absolutely horrific things that people did to take advantage of their fellow man during the industrial revolution. There is a long and storied history of science gone too far and a number of such issues exist today (cloning, etc.) that can't simply be viewed in the light of "science is good," in much the same way I resist agreeing with this author's assertion that the proliferation of consumer goods and the industrial revolution were all good and not faulted on many levels.
posted by The God Complex at 11:43 PM on April 5, 2004


science over theism.
posted by The God Complex at 11:44 PM on April 5, 2004


God Complex, I see attitudes your yours all the time. You seem to have this "everything was better when we all used mules and grew our own food" mentality, which of course ignores slavery, serfdom, disease, famine, etc.

The amazing thing of the enlightenment isn't just the technological progress but the idea of a free man. Free to be skeptical and inquire about the nature of things.

>without mentioning any of the absolutely horrific things that people

Sounds like the problem is people, as usual. If more people respected the rights of their fellows then these things wouldn't have happened, but in a theocratic world you are encouraged to hurt others, especially unbelievers, the heretic, women, etc. Blaming technology or expecting every article about science to have big disclaimers like "THIS MAY BE USED BY CRAZED NAZIS!!! BEWARE" is asking a little too much.
posted by skallas at 11:55 PM on April 5, 2004


And to be fair, Kurtz does address your complaints:
Regrettably, post-World War II Parisian savants spawned a vulgar post-modernist cacophony of Heideggerian-Derridian mush. Incoherent as some of their rhetoric may be, it has been influential in its rejection of the Enlightenment, the ethics of humanism, scientific objectivity, and democratic values. This literary-philosophical movement had made great inroads in the academy,

especially within humanities faculties (though, fortunately, it is already being discredited in France itself). But it has taken a terrible toll, undermining confidence in any progressive agendas of emancipation. In part such thinking is an understandable response to the two grotesque twentieth-century ideologies—fascism and Stalinism—that dominated the imagination of so many supporters in Europe and betrayed human dignity on the butcher block of repression and genocide. "After Auschwitz," wrote Theodor Adorno, we cannot praise "the grandeur of man." Surely the world has recovered from that historical period of aberrant bestiality. However, many intellectuals are still disillusioned because of the failure of Marxism to deliver on the perceived promises of socialism, in which they had invested such faith. Whatever the causes of pessimism, we cannot abandon our efforts at reform or at spreading knowledge and enlightenment. We cannot give in to nihilism or self-defeating subjectivism. Although science has often been co-opted by various military-technological powers for anti-humanistic purposes, it also can help fulfill ennobling humanitarian goals.
posted by skallas at 11:58 PM on April 5, 2004


significant numbers of Americans have embraced primitive forms of biblical religion. These focus on salvation, the Rapture, and the Second Coming of Jesus.

Speaking of which: The Return of the Warrior Jesus
posted by homunculus at 11:58 PM on April 5, 2004


God Complex, I see attitudes your yours all the time. You seem to have this "everything was better when we all used mules and grew our own food" mentality, which of course ignores slavery, serfdom, disease, famine, etc.

The amazing thing of the enlightenment isn't just the technological progress but the idea of a free man. Free to be skeptical and inquire about the nature of things.


Talk about a strawman, jesus. My point was simply that blindly following science isn't a whole lot better than blindly following religious faith. Simply putting everything into the "science will fix it" category is going to result in many of the same problems. I don't see any point in you mischaracterizing what I said as some attempt on my part to move us back to serfdom and slavery. I simply pointed out that saying "look at all the great things science has brought us like consumer goods and the industrial revolution" without even saying "oh, by the way, we kinda fucked that up and should probably carefully look at what we do with science before we just push forward at any and all costs." You're attempting to set up a false dichotomy where it's either all or nothing, which is simply not true.

Sounds like the problem is people, as usual. If more people respected the rights of their fellows then these things wouldn't have happened, but in a theocratic world you are encouraged to hurt others, especially unbelievers, the heretic, women, etc. Blaming technology or expecting every article about science to have big disclaimers like "THIS MAY BE USED BY CRAZED NAZIS!!! BEWARE" is asking a little too much.

The problem is always people. I could easily say that in a market-driven, scientific world people are encouraged to ignore the plight of others in a mad dash for obtaining wealth and inconsequential consumer goods, the mania for owning things. Many faiths don't say at their route that you should treat others without respect--on the contrary, in fact. That's just how people have historically interpreted religion as a means of establishing and cementing their own power base, something that still clearly happens in today's society. A lack of theocratic faith doesn't necessarily mean anything is going to change in that respect.

And you're right, he does address it, sort of:

Regrettably, post-World War II Parisian savants spawned a vulgar post-modernist cacophony of Heideggerian-Derridian mush. Incoherent as some of their rhetoric may be, it has been influential in its rejection of the Enlightenment, the ethics of humanism, scientific objectivity, and democratic values. This literary-philosophical movement had made great inroads in the academy,

Of course, Heidegger is one of the giants of existential theory, which deals with exactly what you were talking about (a free man being skeptical and curious about the world we live in an the assumptions forced upon him), and Derrida concentrated primarily on deconstruction theory. Simply throwing out some conjecture about Parisian theory, then mentioning the "grandeur of man" and the Nazis, then positing that many intellectuals are disillusioned because of the failure of nazism accomplishes what, exactly? There's little or no textual evidence presented and there's no real argument made. It's a bunch of generalizations that in my mind doesn't lead anywhere.

Anyway, you surely can't be suggesting that Nietzsche was in some way in favour of feudal life, slavery, and a return to the dark ages. As I see it, his point was a valid criticism of man's need to latch on to something as the one truth for existence instead of critically evaluating themselves, the preconceptions forced onto them by society, and the lack of a true meaning beyond personal belief.
posted by The God Complex at 12:22 AM on April 6, 2004


(sorry, the failure of marxism.)
posted by The God Complex at 12:23 AM on April 6, 2004


Keep in mind I'm not disagreeing with the idea of enlightenment, simply the way much of it is phrased by Kurtz.

I don't know if you've read much Descarte, but Cartesian Physics aside, he also thought he proved the existence of God through reasons (the idea of a perfection exists not because we understand the concept because of a lack of perfection, but because God exists and thus we inherently understand perfection--that was his argument, reproduced in a quick and dirty manner).
posted by The God Complex at 12:27 AM on April 6, 2004


Of course, Descrate's premises are unprovable/untestable and hardly scientific.
posted by skallas at 1:15 AM on April 6, 2004


I'm a pretty feeble minded individual and I need things spelled out for me. What I see in my narrow view is a battle between faith and enlightenment. Pick one, or pick both, are they both mutually exclusive?
posted by Eekacat at 1:24 AM on April 6, 2004


TGC: you're conflating science with its application as technology. Science itself is simply a logic system for attempting to understand and explain the world. Once something is understood then it may well be applied as a technology and may be used with both positive and negative impacts. I would agree that there is an over-reliance on technology to provide a solution to problems which might be better solved elsewhere, for example, as with the approach of many people to the problems of climate change.
If people are clinging to science I would suggest it is people who have a limited understanding of science and its underlying philosophy, and quite likely not actual scientists.
posted by biffa at 2:00 AM on April 6, 2004


TGC: Descartes bit about proving God is a well-known circular argument - in fact it is so patently such that many people today believe he included chapters 4-7 of Meditations strictly to prevent the Jesuits from burning him at the stake for chapters 1-3.
posted by Ryvar at 2:34 AM on April 6, 2004


(burning him at the stake being metaphorical, though the actual reaction would probably have had similar consequences)
posted by Ryvar at 2:35 AM on April 6, 2004


Funny, I spent this weekend reading about my ancestors that left the Massachusetts Bay Colony with Ann Hutchinson. They did it not to avoid "primitive forms of Biblical religion" but to follow the true enlightenment ideal of being free to hold their own experience of religion and to have a direct relationship with God. Today, a new group claims to uphold freedom of thought... but only for those who will submit to the thought police. This kind of crusading secularism is not very far from the inquisition and witch trials of the previous days. It is not necessary to demean my experience of the world (which may include direct and personal God experiences) in order to make your experience of the world valid. And after a few years trying to weave my way through this world successfully and finding myself constaintly in minefields shrewn by the thought police, I really don't think that true freedom has the "power".
posted by loafingcactus at 5:01 AM on April 6, 2004


What skallas said, only more sarcastic
posted by spazzm at 5:40 AM on April 6, 2004


I think this thread will be more readable if we clear up one central misunderstanding:
Some people believe that science is what scientists do.
This is not the case.
Science is a system of thought, an approach to finding solutions and determining facutual information.
Scientists are people who try to apply this system.

In short:
Science is not what scientists do, but scientist are people who do science.
posted by spazzm at 5:48 AM on April 6, 2004


This article reads like it could be a sermon from one of the fundamentalist Christian groups Kurtz is so down on. Although I agree with his point that a New Enlightenment requires

This involves a cultural reformation, the restructuring of first principles, beliefs, and values. Essential for this to occur is some confidence in the capacity of human beings to advance human knowledge, to contribute to scientific discovery, and to engage in rational inquiry.

I disagree with his generalization that

The theist believes that only God will save us, to which I respond that "No deity will save us, we must save ourselves!"

It definitely doesn't apply in my case. When you boil it down this is nothing more than a 'My belief system is cooler than your belief system' article.
posted by sciurus at 6:08 AM on April 6, 2004


Yes, you can not blindly say "science will fix it", saying that belies what science is. Science is you trying to fix it, or understand it really; fixing it is up to you. It is not some passive wish and a dream theology, it is a system of active data gathering and exploration of the natural world.

Also science is not consumerism, and science is not the free market, nor is it capitalism.
posted by rhyax at 6:13 AM on April 6, 2004


So... a secular humanist doesn't believe religion should have a place in society? In terms of surprises, this is about the same level as the pope attempting to convert people to Catholicism.
posted by unreason at 6:27 AM on April 6, 2004


I think one of the issues is defining science; if we go with the pragmatist's position, that science never produces ultimate answers but is an active system for continually working toward the truth, then I think we're okay holding up science as an ideal - it's the basic human behavior, really - curiosity, idea, experiment, information. But I agree it's important we remember that the information is always revisable, and that what is done next, what we do with that information, is in no way determined by science.

And really that only proves TGC's point - science alone doesn't save us. Humanism, the arts, community activity, etc, are part of what makes a society work. In fact, although I am an atheist myself, I don't see why some kind of spirituality or soft religion couldn't help people get along. The problem is exclusive religions (we're going to heaven and you're going to hell) and especially fundamentalist religions (you/this society should follow the rules that will save you/it from hell).

While believing in god can be seen as anti-scientific, at least pantheism and deism can be seen as compatible, and I think some portion of theists have a generally deistic conception of their god (certainly many jews do, eg). Anyway, I feel like we have just as much trouble from the rabid green/ consumer culture / material exhibitionism side of things. If people were taking their religious ideas seriously and living to help others, to find joy in giving and working for everyone, etc, then I don't think it would be such a bad thing. But too many christians just seem to think of jesus as a superhero on their side, and the "good" they try to do for him tends to be to blab about him to anyone they can, which is just a way to talk about themselves and what they think they have over you.

So once again, it's less the structure of ideas and more the behavior of human beings... we need to teach better habits of thought and behavior from the beginning I guess.
posted by mdn at 6:39 AM on April 6, 2004


> Science is a system of thought, an approach to finding solutions and
> determining facutual information.

Nope, that's what was abstracted by "philosophers of science," starting from what scientists actually do. No matter how detailed a description of this "system of thought" you're prepared to give, you don't have any science until you have scientists doing it.

An exactly parallel case: no matter how complete and systematic a grammar of Farsi you have, you've got no Farsi until you have an active population of Farsi speakers. Another exactly parallel case: no matter how complete a classification of class osteichthys you possess, you don't have any bony fishes until you've actually got bony fishes swimming around. Therefore the doing/being is primary, the abstract systematization secondary (and actually of little importance.)
posted by jfuller at 6:46 AM on April 6, 2004


Today, a new group claims to uphold freedom of thought... but only for those who will submit to the thought police. This kind of crusading secularism is not very far from the inquisition and witch trials of the previous days.

You do the historical victims of the Inquisition and witch hunts an incredible disrespect by associating their living hells with the cush positions of modern-day spiritualists. Last time I looked out the window on modern society, people weren't being burned at the stake, stretched on the rack, nor otherwise having their lives & livelihood endangered for their spiritual beliefs. They're just being ridiculed, with the full opportunity to ridicule right back (and perhaps make fat sacks of cash money off of it through book publishing deals and radio shows).

In this sort of environment, the "thought police" don't exist except as an empty label; a bogeyman people conjure up so that they can feel like righteous persecuted martyrs whenever some random person disagrees with them. It's best if you drop that habit; it only makes you look oversensitive, silly, and just like every other crackpot out there. Everyone, both the spiritualists and the secularists, will somehow make themselves feel like they're under constant assail from the evil barbarians storming the gates.

[/member of the secret evil Thought Police global conspiracy & bingo club]
posted by PsychoKick at 6:51 AM on April 6, 2004


Sounds like the problem is people, as usual. If more people...

There's a comic where two mathematicians are standing at a blackboard working on a proof. The proof is written out on the blackboad. Then there's a gap. Then there's the phrase "Then a Miracle Occurs" written on the blackboard, and the proof continues. One of the mathematicians says to the other, "I think you need to be a bit more explicit in this step, here." What bothers me about certain people who seem to be beating the drum of "The Enlightenment Will Save Us" is that it depends on that mysterious step, "If more people would..." Look, they don't. In fact, it's one of the great problems constantly addressed by many different religions (Christianity, in particular) of, "Why do people do these things to each other?" Whereas certain secular utopias (and what was the French Revolution other than an attempt at creating an Englishtenment Utopia?) depend on the step, "And then a miracle occurs, and people will act in ways to make it work."

What should strike us as odd is the paucity of what the author if offering humanity... towards the end, he calls for "a cultural reformation, the restructuring of first principles, beliefs, and values. Essential for this to occur is some confidence in the capacity of human beings to advance human knowledge, to contribute to scientific discovery, and to engage in rational inquiry."

Hey, noone is against these things, but that doesn't offer people very much in terms of their spiritual/emotional needs. No doubt this will help us cure AIDS, find alternative sources of energy, and extend the human lifespan. But will it make us better people? Will individuals have more peace of mind? More freedom?

The reason the author associates what scientific thinking can accomplish with what addresses human spiritual needs is because he misses the point of why religion exists in the first place. He seems to labor under the notion that religion was born out of periods of stress, deprivation, and danger, and that once you lessen or eliminate these things, the need for religion will fade. That very supposition is wrong, as it is not occuring, nor has it occured for the past two centuries in which people claimed that "any day now" religion would become a thing of the past. He himself observes with frustration that in a period of unheard of prosperity in America, people are turning to both traditional religious beliefs on one hand and occult-paranormal claims on the other.
posted by deanc at 7:01 AM on April 6, 2004


So this guy is bitching about a religious revival?

Religious revivals happen all the time in history and there has been one going on for the last 20 years or so in the US. But if history can teach us anything, you'll notice that these revivals do peter out after a time. The US has a huge revival in the early 1800's but it dissipated by the middle of the century. Why it dissipated, I'm not sure. But this guy would have a better argument if he took a look at the history of religious revivals in the world.

and on preview: well said deanc.
posted by Stynxno at 7:12 AM on April 6, 2004


It's worth recalling that the first Enlightenment only enlightened a few white European males, leaving the majority of their contemporaries untouched because they were serfs and peasants. Any putative second Enlightenment will likewise never touch the vast majority of the 8 billion of us, namely the ones who spend their lives stooped over in rice paddies, or just quietly starving somewhere. Secular humanism is strictly a luxury of the rich, and until everybody's rich the dark night of peasant ignorance will remain the human condition.
posted by jfuller at 7:12 AM on April 6, 2004


Secular humanism is strictly a luxury of the rich, and until everybody's rich the dark night of peasant ignorance will remain the human condition.

Unfortunately, I can't help thinking that there are plenty of powerful groups & factions out there with deeply ingrained ideological and economic reasons in making sure that everyone isn't rich.

Heck, even ignoring the whole whacko conspiracy angle, there are plenty of people that believe widespread ease and affluence would be inherently corrupting to humanity, and that suffering and hard work are inherently noble and necessary to build virtue and character.

Which is a load of romantic bunk, really. Suffering and hard work can just as easily twist people into resentful, angry bastards with no qualms over backstabbing others for personal gain. After all, nice guys usually don't survive long in extreme conditions.

Suffering and hard work don't automatically breed strong character. It just seems that way because people of strong character are able to freely choose to endure suffering and hard work in exchange for a long-term goal.

[/being able to waste time is one of mankind's greatest achievements :P]
posted by PsychoKick at 8:30 AM on April 6, 2004


Man, who is "thought police?" Theists routinely tear out parts of science books they don't like, have fully entered the realm of politics, and cry "persecution" when you criticize them.

Really now, there are what? Ten thousand people who call themselves secular humanists? Of course its the educated class, as certain theist groups do nothing but make sure people stay away from religious alternatives every sunday morning. Pat Robertson has made a career by attacking secular humanism, etc.
posted by skallas at 8:33 AM on April 6, 2004


Don't you just love culture wars?

Old & Busted vs. New Enlightenment
posted by EmoChild at 8:54 AM on April 6, 2004


Current hopes for the fading of religion have one big problem: demographics. Secular people are reproducing at far below their replacement rate today, and advocate policies which assure even lower fertility rates in the future.

Here in the U.S., evangelical Christians have embraced the big family values of Mormons and old-fashioned Catholics -- the days of zealous Protestants stopping at two kids as a matter of policy are over.

And this is to say nothing of the overwhelming success of evangelization in the developing world. Hundreds of millions of people in Africa and Asia who were at most nominally religious are becoming enthusiastic Christians.
posted by MattD at 8:54 AM on April 6, 2004


Good thread.

As I see it, we're still in the enlightenment. Maybe Enlightenment V1.5 now with digital marshmallows. Personally, I'm down with Dewey.
Free speech and pragmatics for all, that's the way.
posted by Leonard at 9:00 AM on April 6, 2004


the more and more I read about these so called humanists, the more and more they sound just like the theists that they are trying to battle against.
posted by drpartypoopercrankypantsesquire at 9:02 AM on April 6, 2004


Gee, I just read this one in the print version of Free Inquiry and was considerding writing a response.

One of the things that has bugged be about Kurtz's writing for a while is that he he gives science way too much credit. Believe it or not, there are other systems than science that produce valid knowledge. In addition, science tends to favor one small corner of what we know and ignore the rest.

As an example, I really don't want to see the scientific method used to determine guilt or innocence in a court of law:

* Science works best as an inductive enterprise that creates generalities from a large number of unique case. Law is a deductive enterprise that determines whether a unique case is an example of a particular generality. (And if multiple generalities apply which should hold precidence. For example, is a case of of a woman told by god to kill her kids murder, or mental illness?)

* The inductive and collaborative nature of science means that it can tolerate a high degree of error in the hopes that the error is discovered by other people performing the same protocol. (5% and 1% is typical). In legal terms, it is entirely permissable for a scientist to publish promising results that include a "reasonable doubt." In law, the stakes are high enough that "beyond a reasonable doubt" is a desired standard.

I actually find Kurz to be rather tiresome. I'd rather see more articles about how Secular Humanists are living the good life than about how Chistianity is so bad. (And in fact one of the main criticisms of O'Hair is that she positioned Secular Humanism as an Anti-Religious movement rather than a pro-Humanist movement.)
posted by KirkJobSluder at 9:04 AM on April 6, 2004


is a case of a woman told by god to kill her kids murder, or mental illness?

Funny how everyone seems to accept that she's not actually been told by God to kill her kids.
posted by biffa at 9:21 AM on April 6, 2004


jfuller:
Science is not a concrete thing like Farsi. Science is an abstract ideal.
This of course makes scientists idealists, i.e. people trying to live up to an ideal (and perpetually failing, naturally).
posted by spazzm at 9:23 AM on April 6, 2004


The resurgence of fundamentalism in the world seems to run hand-in-hand with the incredible gains in technology that have been made in the industrial age. Is it possible that more people are turning back to the easy-to-understand "God made the universe and everything in it" because the function of such everyday, commonplace items as the automobile, the personal computer, or the DVD player (to name a few) are so far beyond the grasp of the average person?

Remember that "any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic". When the world around you is already full of magic you don't understand, what's the difference between the magic made by men and the magic made by God?
posted by mr_crash_davis at 9:24 AM on April 6, 2004


"Secular humanism is strictly a luxury of the rich, and until everybody's rich the dark night of peasant ignorance will remain the human condition."

What if it's the other way around?
What if lifting the dark night of peasant ignorance is the first step towards eliminating poverty?
posted by spazzm at 9:26 AM on April 6, 2004


"No doubt this will help us cure AIDS, find alternative sources of energy, and extend the human lifespan. But will it make us better people? Will individuals have more peace of mind? More freedom?"

I guess it might give us peace of mind in the sense that we won't have to worry about getting HIV.
It might give us freedom from oil.
And it might make us better people if we find a way to harvest energy that is not harmful to the environment.

But hey, dismissing science, logic and reason is the hip, cool thing to do right now, so here it goes:
2+2=5.

I feel like a better human already.
posted by spazzm at 9:36 AM on April 6, 2004


Funny how everyone seems to accept that she's not actually been told by God to kill her kids.

Well, actually there is a religious faith defense that could be applied here. However, such a defense was not offered in the case that I'm thinking of, and would be a much more difficult defense to present than insanity.

But that's sort of missing the point.


Spazzm: Science is not a concrete thing like Farsi. Science is an abstract ideal.

I don't know of any linguists who argue that language is a concrete thing either. But the analogy is apt. Science is not just an abstract ideal, it is a practice.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 9:40 AM on April 6, 2004


mr_crash_davis, I understand your argument and I am tempted to agree - but:
Isn't it possible that some forms of religion is also a response to outside pressure? The Taliban rose to power in a country racked by invasion and civil war. Poor people are more likely to be religious, even in western societies.

You see a similar pattern if you study the history of church building in Europe - during the dark ages a lot of magnificent cathedrals were built, even though the population was sparse and poor.
At the end there is an upswing as the population grows more affluent and can afford building more churches, but around 1700-1800 the building of grand cathedrals peters out, compared to the population density.

Now we have the resources to build magnificent places of worship, yet few are built.

The churches of today are utilitarian, tiny things compared to the massive stone cathedrals of medieval times.
posted by spazzm at 9:47 AM on April 6, 2004


Spazzm: But hey, dismissing science, logic and reason is the hip, cool thing to do right now, so here it goes:
2+2=5.


Fallacy of the excluded middle, go directly to jail, do not pass go, do not collect $200.

Scientists themselves have been profoundly skeptical of the ability of science alone to solve human problems. Both Einstein and Feynman expressed the belief that while science may offer technical solutions, it does not make those solutions happen. A professor in my undergraduate department shut down her research lab because of her perception that her work on plant genetics was being used in ways that were incompatible with her goals of sustainable argiculture.

In short, science does not replace ethics. I've rubbed shoulders with a lot of working scientists in my day and I've not met any who would agree with Kurz's placement of science as the ultimate way to solve human problems.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 9:51 AM on April 6, 2004


"Science is not just an abstract ideal, it is a practice."

I'd say that the practice of science is a practice, but science in itself is an unobtainable ideal. But that's just splitting hairs, and I'm not even sure what we are trying to uncover by doing so.

The best definition of scientific method is, IMHO, formulated by Richard P. Feynman:
1. Make a guess; and
2. See if you're wrong.

This is, once you get down to it, the only way you can obtain factual information previously unknown to mankind.

The discussion about science is really a discussion about wether we should obtain new factual information, or stick to the semi-ignorance we have now.
posted by spazzm at 9:55 AM on April 6, 2004


KirkJobSluder:
I agree that science does not replace ethics.
But ethics on its own does not solve human problems either - unless everyone behaves ethically.
And to expect everyone to behave ethically is to be guilty of the same "and then a miracle occurs" thinking the enlightenment proponents are criticized for above.
posted by spazzm at 9:59 AM on April 6, 2004


There is a long and storied history of science gone too far

The opposite of science is ignorance. Now how can that go too far?

When the world around you is already full of magic you don't understand, what's the difference between the magic made by men and the magic made by God?

The magic made by God is capricious and discriminatory; and follows no rules but his own -- and those, it seems, are subject to change. The magic of men is knowable, if you care enough to try. Would you rather believe in a universe that operates according to set and ultimately knowable parameters and which works the same way for everyone, or one whose every detail is subject to the whims of an omnipotent lunatic?
posted by George_Spiggott at 10:05 AM on April 6, 2004


"fallacy of the excluded middle"

Oh, I'm sorry. Here's a corrected version:
2+2=4.5

My apologies, but the point is that you can't have a little logic - you have to accept logic and follow it where it takes you, or reject it altogether. You can't stop halfway trough a scientific inquiry and go "I don't like this result, so I'm changing it to something else" - that's not science.
posted by spazzm at 10:16 AM on April 6, 2004


The opposite of science is ignorance. Now how can that go too far?

Knowledge is the opposite of ignorance. Science is the process of gaining knowledge/reducing ignorance.

I think 'science gone too far' refers to the misuse of science in sort of a mad doctor fashion, or perhaps the tendency for some scientists to ridicule theories that turn out to be true. [Pasteur comes to mind]

Personally, I don't think science can go to far. Yet what the knowledge gained from science is used for is another thing...
posted by sciurus at 10:21 AM on April 6, 2004


You see a similar pattern if you study the history of church building in Europe - during the dark ages a lot of magnificent cathedrals were built, even though the population was sparse and poor.

Does anyone know if any work has been done as to cathedral building in terms of Keynesian economics and the provision of employment by the state/church?
posted by biffa at 10:35 AM on April 6, 2004


spazzm: This is, once you get down to it, the only way you can obtain factual information previously unknown to mankind.

Nonsense. There are other ways to obtain factual information. See the above example of juisprudence as a way to determine the fact of whether a person is guilty or not guilty of a crime. This is not "scientific" (thank goodness.)

Or as another example, mathematics. Math does not follow the scientific method and in fact has a much more rigorous criterion for determining what is and what is a "fact."

The discussion about science is really a discussion about wether we should obtain new factual information, or stick to the semi-ignorance we have now.

For someone who argues that "you can't have a little logic" you seem to like playing fast and loose with it. The above is a straw-man fallacy because no one is arguing that we should not obtain new factual information. The argument is over whether science alone is sufficient for solving complex human problems. Kurz elevates science to the only method worth persuing. Other humanists argue that different types of problems in differnt domains need different methods.

And to expect everyone to behave ethically is to be guilty of the same "and then a miracle occurs" thinking the enlightenment proponents are criticized for above.

Which again, is arguing about a claim that is not made. If you agree that science does not replace ethics, then you must agree that science is not the only valid method for inquiry.

My apologies, but the point is that you can't have a little logic - you have to accept logic and follow it where it takes you, or reject it altogether. You can't stop halfway trough a scientific inquiry and go "I don't like this result, so I'm changing it to something else" - that's not science.

Who has advanced this claim? My point is that you are engaging in a logical fallacy. (Either we engage in science, or we engage in no form of knowledge discovery.) The excluded middle here is the possibility that science should be used for what it excells at (induction) and other disciplines should be used for domains where science is not the best fit (deduction for example).

George_Spiggot: The opposite of science is ignorance. Now how can that go too far?

What is the opposite of a Toyota? Science is just one method for discovering knowledge. There are quite a few other forms out there such as math, ethics, law, and critical analysis that work better for building knowledge in their respective domains.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 10:39 AM on April 6, 2004


Current hopes for the fading of religion have one big problem: demographics. Secular people are reproducing at far below their replacement rate today, and advocate policies which assure even lower fertility rates in the future.

Not only that, but religiosity is to some extent heritable. (Can't find a great source online offhand, but see this book by Martin Seligman, President of the American Psychological Association.)

For more on the rise of fundamentalism as a result of the Enlightenment in all the major religions, see Karen Armstrong's A History of God.
posted by callmejay at 10:50 AM on April 6, 2004


"There are other ways to obtain factual information. See the above example of juisprudence as a way to determine the fact of whether a person is guilty or not guilty of a crime."

Facts are not agreed upon by committee - there has been cases of innocent men being found guilty and vice versa, therefore the verdict of a jury does not constitute fact.
Courts of law has established the most ridiculous 'facts' - existence of witches for example - hence this cannot be seen as a valid way of establishing facts.
Where the process of law has advanced beyond the 'witches' stage it has done so with the aid of science, not in spite of it.

A lot of people consider maths to be a science, or perhaps more accurately that all science is, in some way, built on maths. Math is, if you like, the language that implements the scientific method in its most rigorous form.

"The argument is over whether science alone is sufficient for solving complex human problems."

I can't speak for Kurz, but my claim is that all methods that exclude science are insufficient for solving humanity's problems.

"If you agree that science does not replace ethics, then you must agree that science is not the only valid method for inquiry. "

Straw man - there's a difference between "inquiry" and "discovering factual information previously unknown to mankind".
You can inquire about wether I like the music of Bob Dylan - but I am perfectly capable of lying about that, so your inquiry would gain you no factual information.

"The excluded middle here is the possibility that science should be used for what it excels at (induction) and other disciplines should be used for domains where science is not the best fit (deduction for example)."

Deduction only works if you have correct facts to deduct from - facts you can only get with science.
Deduction can also be seen as part of the scientific method, of course.

"What is the opposite of a Toyota? Science is just one method for discovering knowledge. There are quite a few other forms out there such as math, ethics, law, and critical analysis that work better for building knowledge in their respective domains."

I've covered math - it might not be part of science, but it is certainly part of reason and logic.
Ethics are relative - two ethicists (is that a real word?) can give different 'facts'. Hence ethics cannot be used for discovering unknown facts.
The law does not discover facts - only a passable approximation thereof. A thing is not a fact because 12 randomly selected citizens say so. But still - it's the best we have for that domain, I'll grant you that.
posted by spazzm at 11:16 AM on April 6, 2004


Science is just one method for discovering knowledge. There are quite a few other forms out there such as math, ethics, law, and critical analysis that work better for building knowledge in their respective domains.

You've lumped science and nonscience topics together and suggest that they are distinct from science as a means of acquiring knowldege. At least two of those things are science. Math certainly is -- at least there's no sound basis for saying it isn't -- and while "critical analysis" isn't a specific enough term, applying as it does to everything from fact to fiction, logic to aesthetics and practically anything else you can name, but where it applies to the discernment of fact it is also science. Ethics and law are not themselves about discovering knowledge -- they're about what you do with the knowledge you have -- the finding of fact, discriminating amongst values and the codification of principles.

You're saying that there are alternatives to science in the matter of discovering knowledge -- I'm saying that science and discovering knowledge are the same thing, and that you're in some cases making a false distinction between a facet of science and science itself, and in other cases confusing pursuits that are not about the discovery of knowledge with the discovery of knowledge.

On preview: spazzm has said much the same very well.
posted by George_Spiggott at 11:31 AM on April 6, 2004


"Science," "facts," and "knowledge" are getting thrown around in this thread with little regard for what these terms mean. I think spazzm and KJS are using "science" in completely different and incompatible ways, neither of which is inherently incorrect.

The debate about whether it is good to love children really hinges on what you mean by "love."
posted by monkey.pie.baker at 11:57 AM on April 6, 2004


Spazzm: Facts are not agreed upon by committee - there has been cases of innocent men being found guilty and vice versa, therefore the verdict of a jury does not constitute fact.

In which case, you disqualify science because one of the many arguments for the strength of science is that it is a democratic process. Science works not by some magic inherent in the method, but because a consensus of multiple research teams reviewing the data is seen as more reliable than one.

Likewise, science includes some ammount of error. For most papers the acceptable level of quantified error is 5%. In other words, built into the process of science is the bias that it is acceptable for 1/20 reported results to be wrong.

Courts of law has established the most ridiculous 'facts' - existence of witches for example - hence this cannot be seen as a valid way of establishing facts.

So has science (notable examples being the cosmological constant, the Tychonic solar system, Brontosaurus, and the plum pudding model of the atom.)

A lot of people consider maths to be a science, or perhaps more accurately that all science is, in some way, built on maths. Math is, if you like, the language that implements the scientific method in its most rigorous form.

Do any people who know that they are talking about consider math to be science? This is interesting because just about every mathematician I've read on the topic has explicitly rejected the idea that math is a science. There are HUGE differences in both method and standard of proof that make the two fundamentally different. Scientists may use math to develop models, and mathematicians may use science to eliminate the obvious, but that does not make them both "science".

Deduction only works if you have correct facts to deduct from - facts you can only get with science.

Prove that there are an infinite number of prime numbers using the scientific method. This is one case where science breaks down and mathematical reasoning takes over. The best science can show is that the quantity of prime numbers exceeds our measurement abilities.

Deduction can also be seen as part of the scientific method, of course.

This demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of the scientific method. The scientific method is a primarily inductive process. It creates useful (but provisional) generalities from a large number of case examples. The process of deduction (is this example part of a generality) is rather poorly achieved through the scientific method. Instead, what the scientific method tends to do is apply a sort of meta-induction by triangulating between generalities.

The reason why the scientific method does not work well with individual cases is that it is difficult to get reasonable levels of error from an individual case.

I've covered math - it might not be part of science, but it is certainly part of reason and logic.

If you have science and (reason and logic) then you must admit that there are multiple methods for discovering knowledge.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 12:05 PM on April 6, 2004


Mostly what monkey said. I, for one, have little desire to discuss the topic with one guy who keeps claiming, "everyone who doesn't join the Secular Humanist Society isn't taking logic to its natural conclusion and wants to bring us back to the Dark Ages(tm)!" and another guy making the assertion that "there are other means of being sure of facts besides rational inquiry." The two of you are obviously arguing about things that can't even be argued about in the first place.
posted by deanc at 12:06 PM on April 6, 2004


May God DAMN Tesla and Edison!
posted by quonsar at 12:08 PM on April 6, 2004


the more and more I read about these so called humanists, the more and more they sound just like the theists that they are trying to battle against.

Arguing passionately that future generations should be taught to think, research, and question for themselves is not the same as arguing vehemently that future generations must be taught to believe dogma XYZ. Individuals who think and question (like those of us here at Metafilter) will arive at many disparate opinions, but never at the conclusion that we should not have been thinking in the first place.

What I see in my narrow view is a battle between faith and enlightenment.

Being a humanist does not exclude the possibility of believing in God or belonging to a religion. I know many Christian humanists. But clearly there's a difference between rationalism (Angry young Muslims chose to fly planes into two tall buildings) and fundamentalism (God sent angry young Muslims to attack us because America is harboring faggots and fallen women). Rationalism places ultimate responsibility with people, fundamentalism plays a dangerous guessing-game with God/Satan's intentions.

It's easier to improve a society by responding rationally to difficult situations, harder when everyone is arguing over which spiritual force (God, Allah, Buddha, Gaia, Satan) is responsible for raining on the picnic.
posted by junkbox at 12:09 PM on April 6, 2004


George_Spiggot: At least two of those things are science. Math certainly is -- at least there's no sound basis for saying it isn't

Gee, mathematicians have provided some pretty sound reasons for making a distinction between math and science:

* Type of evidence: science relies on building generalities from a number of case examples. In math, case examples are not relevant. You don't need to sample 50 right-angle triangles to prove the pythagorean theorem. One will do.

* Error: Science considers 5% to be an acceptable error rate for reporting results; in math, there is no such room for error in truth or falsehood.

* Theory vs. Proof: In science, knowledge is in the form of a generalization that is believed to be true for the vast majority of known cases: (vertebrates have four legs). In math, knowledge is in the form of a proof that MUST be true for ALL POSSIBLE cases.

To a mathematician, the scientific method may be useful for falsifying some theorems but can never establish proof. To a scientist, the fact that a theorem may be true for all known cases, or even almost all known cases is "good enough."

and while "critical analysis" isn't a specific enough term, applying as it does to everything from fact to fiction, logic to aesthetics and practically anything else you can name, but where it applies to the discernment of fact it is also science.

Nonsense. The scientific method does not deal well with very small sample sizes and unique cases. (And I'm speaking here as a scientist.) As a result, the scientific method cannot address questions such as whether a person is guilty of murder, or whether the end of a movie matches the narrative of the beginning.

Another area where science falls apart is in history. One of the goals of history is to create rich descriptions of what happend at a specific place and a specific time. You can't use the scientific method to discover knowledge about the assassination of American Presidents because there are too few cases, and each case occured in fundamentally different political contexts. Instead, what historians try to do is pour though the evidence to create a rich description of each case. I would suggest that history is a form of knowledge discovery in spite of it not using the scientific method.

Ethics and law are not themselves about discovering knowledge -- they're about what you do with the knowledge you have -- the finding of fact, discriminating amongst values and the codification of principles.

So let's take a look at this. A person is accused of murder. The court system must determine "beyond a reasonable doubt" guilt or innocence. In fact, the jury decision is called a "decision of fact".

There are multiple reasons why the scientific method does not apply in this case. First, the legal system is not at liberty to conduct actual experiments where the crime is repeated enough times to produce a generality. Second, the scientific method is poorly equiped to handle deduction. Third, the levels of error tolerable with reporting scientific results are intolerable within legal systems. That does not mean that legal systems are error-free, only that "beyond a reasonable doubt" is by necessity a higher standard of evidence than "significant at the 5% level of confidence."

Of course, that does not mean that we cannot use tools developed by science in the courtroom. It is only that the procedures used in the courtroom are not the scientific process.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 12:40 PM on April 6, 2004


Heh, I just found Paul Kurtz's biography and to be quite honest, his science fetish makes sense. For some reason, whenever I talk to philosophers about science they always seem to be at least a century in the past, and prone to over-estimating what science can do. On the one side there are people like Kurtz who tries to subsume all human knowledge under science, and on the other side reactionaries who blaim science for every ill of the last two centuries.

I've found that working scientists who use the scientific method tend to be the least susceptible to scientism, and have a lot more modesty about what the scientific method is capable of.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 12:52 PM on April 6, 2004


KirkJobSluder -- I find that the sticking point seems to be the conflation of "science" with the use of the scientific method; we probably won't make any progress towards comprehending each other's arguments unless we fully agree on the precise meaning of the term in this respect. Is it your position that use of the scientific method is the defining property of the term science? In other words; a discipline is a "science" if and when it employs the scientific method, and where it doesn't , it is not science?
posted by George_Spiggott at 1:03 PM on April 6, 2004


George_Spiggot: Is it your position that use of the scientific method is the defining property of the term science? In other words; a discipline is a "science" if and when it employs the scientific method, and where it doesn't , it is not science?

Well, yes. I would argue that if anything should define science, it is the scientific method. This is how my fellow scientists in biology saw themselves 10 years ago. This is how my fellow scientists in ed. psych. see themselves today. It is the reason why every mathematician I've read who has addressed the issue DOES NOT call math a science.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 1:21 PM on April 6, 2004


KirkJobSluder: Fair enough, let's stipulate to that definition, as they might say in law. But most of the discussion in this thread and elsewhere on the topic with respect to science, vs, for example, theology, contrast not this strict definition of science vs other pursuits which honestly and diligently hew to factual and evidence based processes, but rather contrasting all of those things -- the broader definition of science, as it were -- with things which do not even honestly aspire to be science, such as held sway in the pre-Enlightenment era, to wit: a thing is true because something like tradition, religious authority or the popular will say it to be true.

It was this that I was arguing against when you suggested that there are ways of arriving at knowledge that are not science.
posted by George_Spiggott at 1:42 PM on April 6, 2004


George_Spiggott: It was this that I was arguing against when you suggested that there are ways of arriving at knowledge that are not science.

But, I thought I made it quite clear in my original post that I was not arguing for tradition, religious authority or the popular will. In fact, going back to my original example of law as an alternative way to build knowledege, our current ideals of jurisprudence based on individual rights and trial by jury is as strongly influenced by the Enlightenment as the scientific method. Another reason why I think Kurtz's essay is flawed is because he hangs the entire Enlightenment on science.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 1:58 PM on April 6, 2004


"I am Honorary President of the American Humanist Association, whose headquarters in Amherst, New York, I have never seen. I succeeded the late author and biochemist Dr. Isaac Asimov in that functionless capacity. That we have an organization, a boring business, is to let others know we are numerous. We would prefer to live our lives as Humanists and not talk about it, or t hink more about it than we think about breathing.

"Humanists try to behave decently and honorably without any expectation of rewards or punishment in an afterlife. The creator of the Universe has been to us unknowable so far. We serve as well as we can the highest abstraction of which we have some understanding, which is our community."
-- Kurt Vonnegut.

------

That's a position that I think is tenable and one I probably ascribe to myself. That said, I'm also something of an exisentialist in the sense that while I would teach my children that this is my view of the world and our place in it, I would not tell them it is the "right" way to view the world and everything else is wrong. I might vehemently disagree with them if they chose another view of the world, but I also believe the world is a mess of societal frameworks based upon tradition, not on some greater truth that can be discerned with by a better brain.

The issue of shared ethics and morals is clearly one of our own construction, and the level to which one adheres to them is a matter of personal preference. All I want is for my children to understand this basic premise and make decisions accordingly, with as much awareness as possible. As I said, I will gladly share with them my beliefs in what a person should do, though I don't see it as more than that.

As for the issue of science vs. knowledge, I think KirkJobSluder has basically taken the position I would and what I view science to be (the scientific method). If science is simply equated to gathering knowledge then I would suggest it has lost any and all meaning as something to debate, becoming a self-sealing argument of sorts, because nobody is going to argue against "gathering knowledge," especially if any negative implements of gathering said knowledge is deemed not science but human folly.

So, then, if science is "gathering knowledge" then yes, it is the most preferable path for society to take.
posted by The God Complex at 2:08 PM on April 6, 2004


Vonnegut is definitely cool. On the other hand, he did do one of the worst flips of a Mass by just flipping the horror of the Catholic mass around. With the exception of "Let Ashes sleep like ashes, let no light come to distrub their rest" it's pretty bad.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 2:17 PM on April 6, 2004


He's certainly not infallible by any means, but generally I find him to be on the level with my own views--or in the case of an absurdist war classic like SlaughterHouse Five he reacts in much the way I assume I would (although it's something I thankfully have had to deal with on such a personal, in-my-face level).
posted by The God Complex at 2:24 PM on April 6, 2004


I really don't want to get involved in this discussion, even though the philosophy of science (and its misapplication) is one of my favorite topics. there's just too much bullshit to signal in this thread, and little chance of those partaking of the bullshit to step off their crates and examining themselves.

Top of the page: 'God Complex, I see attitudes your yours all the time. You seem to have this "everything was better when we all used mules and grew our own food" mentality, which of course ignores slavery, serfdom, disease, famine, etc.'

skallas off the bat tries to pidgeonhole the opposition, and with a number of fallacious statements, at that. It's pretty well known that pre-imperial life was not nasty, bruthish, or even particularly short. Most of the diseases we're so afraid of were created and spread by close living quarters; and those with weak immune systems, being dead, didn't have to worry about disease anyway. Slavery and serfdom are products of imperial civilization; without private property, you don't have people as property. Famine isn't a thousandth of the issue people imagine it was. Our present-day hunger problems stem from an exploding population related to lower infant-mortality rates.

Sure, our medical advances have kept alive many, many children under two, and given us the opportunity to sit on our asses for eighty years. But neither of these things is neccesarily good. It makes us weaker, more susceptible to medical conditions, and means we're leading tangibly less happy lives. If you want a counter example to science=happiness, look to the Nemadi people of central Africa, an intensely happy people if ever there was one, or the Aboriginal elders. In many ways the ethics of these peoples conflict with our own, but they might also be interpreted as being far more humane than our common Western ethics.

I mean, where does the idea that human life is sacred come from? Surely not science... Why do we enshrine it, then?

One last point.

Science is not synonymous with the creation of knowledge. Science is, if anything, a system for labelling certain knowledge irrelevant. It discounts the value of individual experience, and promotes scientific specialization which removes us from the process of creating and interpreting our experience. We become alienated from our own lives, because our most basic knowledge base - experience - is non-scientific and therefore devalued.

FWIW, I study mathematics. I'm very interested in changing the way we relate ourselves to science and the role of science in our lives. It is not a cure-all, and has done us a great deal of damage, despite what Kurtz or skallas might want to believe.

And now I've gotta go.
posted by kaibutsu at 4:29 PM on April 6, 2004


Science is, if anything, a system for labelling certain knowledge irrelevant.

That's the most howlingly bankrupt assertion I've seen all day, and that's saying something.

Science is testing. Untested "knowledge" is not knowledge at all, it's belief.
posted by NortonDC at 5:03 PM on April 6, 2004


macroknow knows! religion dominates global mindshare... (altho it is down month-to-date :)
posted by kliuless at 7:35 PM on April 6, 2004


Science is testing. Untested "knowledge" is not knowledge at all, it's belief.

See, but that's not neccesarily true. I know I am looking at a computer screen right now; I don't need to apply the rigors of science to posess that knowledge. I don't apply scientific methodology to arrive at that knowledge.

The scientific method is about taking a body of precisely arrived at experience (the outcome of experiments) and then distills that experiential knowledge into hypotheses, or, as you would put it, 'knowledge.' We label the outliers in the experiment irrelevant, take our means, and arrive at a very particular form of knowledge. It is a process of elimination, as you so clearly illustrate, claiming that all that isn't scientific knowledge simply isn't knowledge at all. That is simply false.

Some take-home questions: Do we have to logically prove something in order for it to be true? How do we deal with unproven knowledge? Can we arrive at knowledge by other means than logical deduction? If not, how did we acquire enough knowledge to start talking about logical deduction in the first place?
posted by kaibutsu at 9:29 PM on April 6, 2004


I know I am looking at a computer screen right now; I don't need to apply the rigors of science to posess that knowledge.

...however, you did need inductive reasoning, and scientific inquiry is merely a formalized strain of the type of inductive reasoning we use all the time in our everyday lives to draw conclusions of exactly that sort. given that we do not have any kind of privileged access to the world as it Really Is, but are instead working through our cognitive apparatuses and the rich network of knowledge we've already accumulated, we are not handed theories like "i am sitting in front of a computer screen" on a golden platter in a totally uninterpreted and theory-neutral fashion. rather, that statement is an inductive inference to the best explanation of a vast body of currently available of empirical evidence (and if the evidence began to contradict the theory - if you computer metamorphosed into a bunny, for instance - you'd alter your theory to bring it into line with the new evidence).

We become alienated from our own lives, because our most basic knowledge base - experience - is non-scientific and therefore devalued.

welll....it is trivially true that science differs from everyday induction in important ways: it holds itself to more rigorous standards of repeatability and falsifiability because it aspires to a higher degree of objectivity (not a perfect degree, but a higher one) than theories that are relativized to the psyche of the individual. however, there's no fundamental disconnect or yawing void between the logic of the two types of induction. it seems dubious to claim that the scientific method is horribly alienating and cuts us off from our own raw experience, since without the inductive theories we formulate to make sense of our own raw experience, it'd be nothing more than a meaningless muddle of uninterpreted sense-data.

Can we arrive at knowledge by other means than logical deduction?

of course. if we couldn't, science wouldn't exist. no scientific theory is ever deductively proved, or even proveable...logical deduction rests securely in the philosophers' toychest.
posted by lardgrass at 12:20 AM on April 7, 2004


I know I am looking at a computer screen right now; I don't need to apply the rigors of science to posess that knowledge.

That is an observation, and observation is a part of the scientific method.

The scientific method is about taking a body of precisely arrived at experience (the outcome of experiments) and then distills that experiential knowledge into hypotheses

That is false. Experimentation comes after the hypotheses, to test it.
posted by NortonDC at 9:30 AM on April 7, 2004


Smart people believe weird things because they are skilled at defending beliefs they arrived at for nonsmart reasons.

Rarely do any of us sit down before a table of facts, weigh them pro and con, and choose the most logical and rational explanation, regardless of what we previously believed. Most of us, most of the time, come to our beliefs for a variety of reasons having little to do with empirical evidence and logical reasoning. Rather, such variables as genetic predisposition, parental predilection, sibling influence, peer pressure, educational experience and life impressions all shape the personality preferences that, in conjunction with numerous social and cultural influences, lead us to our beliefs. We then sort through the body of data and select those that most confirm what we already believe, and ignore or rationalize away those that do not.

70 percent of Americans still do not understand the scientific process, defined in the study as comprehending probability, the experimental method and hypothesis testing. One solution is more and better science education, as indicated by the fact that 53 percent of Americans with a high level of science education (nine or more high school and college science/math courses) understand the scientific process, compared with 38 percent of those with a middle-level science education (six to eight such courses) and 17 percent with a low level (five or fewer courses).

We need to teach that science is not a database of unconnected factoids but a set of methods designed to describe and interpret phenomena, past or present, aimed at building a testable body of knowledge open to rejection or confirmation.
posted by NortonDC at 9:57 AM on April 7, 2004


lardgrass: it seems dubious to claim that the scientific method is horribly alienating and cuts us off from our own raw experience, since without the inductive theories we formulate to make sense of our own raw experience, it'd be nothing more than a meaningless muddle of uninterpreted sense-data.

Actually, I'm starting to wonder if half of the problems with science education are not just due to the anti-science religious right, but with sloppy thinkers such as lardgrass, Kurtz, and spazzm who try to overgeneralize science from the scientific method. It is difficult enough to teach people to do science right without people promoting the idea that the knowldege one is sitting in front of a computer screen is also science. It seems that most of these proposals stem from not only an ignorance of science, but ignorance of what we know about knowledge.

we are not handed theories like "i am sitting in front of a computer screen" on a golden platter in a totally uninterpreted and theory-neutral fashion. rather, that statement is an inductive inference to the best explanation of a vast body of currently available of empirical evidence (and if the evidence began to contradict the theory - if you computer metamorphosed into a bunny, for instance - you'd alter your theory to bring it into line with the new evidence).

Actually, "I am sitting in front of a computer screen" highlights one of the areas of knowledge that cannot be expressed through science: tacit knowing. It is not the result of induction, because induction is a formal logical process performed on explicitly stated terms. Instead, awareness of place is one of those pre-consious forms of knowing that our minds just seem to do.

Much of what we know is tacit. It has to be in order to navigate the world. Tacit knowledge is highly reliable (perhaps even more so than scientific measurement) and yet unconsious and not maleable to induction or deduction.

Perhaps the biggest problem with "science is the only form of knowledge" is that it contradicts what science tells us about how and what we know. These are people who elevate science to a pedestal, and then promptly ignore neurobiology and psychology as a way to explore what knowledge is.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 12:36 PM on April 7, 2004


*sigh* please don't read nonexistent claims into my statements in order to pidgeonhole me as an ignorant science zealot. if you reread my post, you'll notice that i didn't say that knowing you were in front of a computer screen was science - i actually made a point of saying there were important differences between the two. i also don't think - and never claimed to think - that science is going to solve all the world's problems and that all other types of knowledge are useless.

you're right that the phenomenal experience of seeing a computer is real for us prior to theoretical analysis, but the interpretations we place on the experience aren't - and the experience is almost worthless when it's uninterpreted. even simple and seemingly self-evident things like object recognition require an accompanying interpretive frame in order to achieve coherence (for instance, when you look at an ambiguous figure, you can't see both interpretations at the same time - you have to 'flip' it in your head as you switch between reference frames).

those frames don't just spring forth fully formed from the cartesian spirit-realm. they result from a whole slew of cognitive processing. it's true that most of it occurs outside of consciousness, but it's also important not to make the mistake of equating "reasoning" with "conscious, deliberative reasoning". the fact that tons of our reasoning occurs outside of consciousness doesn't mean it ain't inductive in nature.

we use induction all the time. it's built into our mental architecture, and we couldn't stop using it even if we tried. even david hume (who advanced a powerful skeptical argument against the validity of induction) later stated regretfully that he was utterly unable to stop using it in his daily life, precisely because it is implicit in all of our thought.

yes, human thought is procedurally quite different from scientific inquiry. the types of processes that you go through when you're perceiving aren't the same ones you go through when you're in a laboratory. however, the basic principle of inductively coming up with explanations for observations lies at the core of both scientific and intuitive thought. thus, it's not like science is this foreign alien method that's totally irrelevant to our everyday experience.
posted by lardgrass at 3:13 PM on April 7, 2004


ps. another thing i'm not claiming is that human thought is perfectly rational all the time. that's a) totally untrue and b) totally consistent with what i'm saying - we do use a different strain of induction than formalized models, one with more biases built in, and thus our conclusions sometimes diverge.

(i could go off about normative vs prescriptive vs descriptive models of human reasoning - it's a topic i'm fond of - but i'll spare you.)
posted by lardgrass at 3:34 PM on April 7, 2004


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