Saturday, September 19, 2009


I Knew That!

And so it continues.

There is a lot of rational discussion being had about Josh Rosenau's piece on different "ways of knowing" and Jerry Coyne, as usual, is adding nothing to that discussion. His latest is a pep rally for Jason Rosenhouse's post on the subject. But I shouldn't say Coyne has added nothing because I think he has inadvertently revealed one of the real problems here.

First, let me digress and recommend Chris Schoen's entry at u_n_d_e_r_v_e_s_e. Chris, along with making an eloquent case for our being a storytelling species, where we convey and learn knowledge best through the stories we tell each other, discusses Ophelia Benson's and Jason Rosenhouse's posts and notes that they both concede that nonscientific means can lead to "truth." Benson agrees that "[t]elling stories ... can be a great way to convey certain truths about the world" and Rosenhouse relates a story about how a difficult chess match revealed things about himself that he may not have learned otherwise. Both then turn on a dime and declare that those truths are not a result of a "way of knowing," with little or no explanation.

It is at this point that Coyne comes to the "rescue":

As Jason says, nobody has yet provided one truth — about the divine or otherwise — that has come from non-empirical ways of knowing.

This harkens back to a "contest" that Coyne ran to "Name a truth revealed by faith." First Coyne defined truth as something:

... about the world and/or universe that has been arrived at by faith alone, could not be arrived at by secular reason or science, and that is true in that it is in principle verifiable by all people.

OED: Truth: Conformity with fact; agreement with reality

Can you see the circularity lurking here? There no "truth" from non-empirical ways of knowing and "truth" is defined by empirical ways of knowing. It is a symptom of circular thinking that you reach a point that, having exhausted the circumnavigation of your circle, you simply restate your starting premise, the way Benson and Rosenhouse do.

Now just because a person's reasoning is circular does not mean they may not have (more or less accidentally) arrived at the truth. Let's take it a step further. Is education a "way of knowing"? After all, how much of the science that Coyne "knows" has he empirically confirmed himself? Has he conducted all the experiments and observations that confirm what he has read in books about atoms and biology and botany and a thousand other "facts"? Does he not "know" these things?

Sure he might be able to empirically confirm all those experiments and observations, if he had the time and means, but then he'd have no time to do any new science. Science education is a "story" told to students, every bit as much as Buffy the Vampire Slayer. We can rationally distinguish the "truth-content" of science's story and Buffy's but the process is the same.

But do we empirically confirm the "truths" we learn from great art and literature? Do we test them against "reality"? Yes, we do ... by living life and comparing our experience with what we have leaned from others.

Ultimately, this argument, I think, boils down to a distinction the "science as the only way to knowledge" crowd want to make between "collective" knowledge and "individual" knowledge. But collective knowledge is just the aggregation of our individual knowledge. Can we truly have a "way of knowing" that arises out of something that is, itself, a stranger to knowledge?

The big problem that I see here is what the heck does "way of knowing" mean? It seems like it is used ambiguously to mean either "way to convey knowledge about the world" or "way to convey ideas (which may be true or untrue) about the world."

It also doesn't help that we only have Russell Blackford's second-hand take on what Eugenie Scott said, which complicates things royally, and the only other clues I can find are blog posts about an apparently similar talk that Scott gave in 2006. The "angry astronomer" Jon Voisey talks about how Eugenie Scott talked about three ways of learning, namely authority, personal revelation, and science, and how she noted (as Coyne himself did, interestingly enough) that the first two ways of learning "don’t transfer well and aren’t convincing to others." The creationist/ID blog "Reasonable Kansans" discusses the same talk, and while I wouldn't trust that blog any further than I could throw it, if that, it does appear to confirm that Scott did use the phrase "ways of knowing" rather than "ways of learning." If the talk in 2006 is reflective of the 2009 talk at Dragon*Con, I'm not so sure that Scott and Coyne really differ that much in their positions on empiricism.
I can see a sense in which religion can be a "way of knowing" without being objectively true. for instance, I have heard that Hindu children can often understand their own psychology, and learn to relate better with their peers, by comparing themselves with characters in the Mahabharata.
Of course others can use avowed fiction in the same way. If the religionists are only claiming the same validity as fiction for their beliefs, who can deny them? But how many of them will be happy with that?

Of course that's the problem with the whole kerfuffle. I think the phrase first arose or gained the most prominence from the NAS's booklet, Science, Evolution, and Creationism:

Science is not the only way of knowing and understanding. But science is a way of knowing that differs from other ways in its dependence on empirical evidence and testable explanations.

Notice that inclusion of "and understanding."

But that is really the point of the "debate" ... what is "knowledge"? Neither side has been able to give a coherent definition (other than the circular exercise of describing empiric knowledge and declaring it the only knowledge) but advocates of the more expansive view of knowledge have the advantage that their view is actually bolstered by the inability to define the term.


If the religionists are only claiming the same validity as fiction for their beliefs, who can deny them? But how many of them will be happy with that?

Does it matter if they know that? If outside observers (and liberal theologians) can recognize how it is functioning for believers, does the ignorance of the believers about that fact change either the fact or its function?
It's also getting really old that everyone Coyne disagrees with is enfeebled somehow. Today he calls Andrew Sullivan (who I have my issues with) "mushy."

I wonder if there's some kind of test that can be administered to aspiring bloggers to see if they have a predisposition to a Napoleon complex? Coyne had a decent reputation as a biologist. It would be a shame if that were obscured by this Jack the Giant Killer routine.
Not that Coyne hasn't called people names before, but in this case he didn't call Sullivan "mushy" he called his theodicy response mushy.
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