Saturday, April 23, 2011
Two For the Price of One
Conor Cunningham is humping his book, Darwin's Pious Idea: Why the Ultra-Darwinists and Creationists Both Get it Wrong, at something called The Other Journal, which bills itself as "An Intersection of Theology and Culture."
I didn't get very far into the interview because I ran into this:
Richard Lewontin offers us two very interesting confessions regarding the relation between science and materialism: on the one hand, "It is not that the methods and institutions of science somehow compel us to accept a materialist explanation of the world, but on the contrary, that we are forced by adherence to materialist causes to create an apparatus of investigation that produces materialist explanations." And on the other hand, "We take the side of science in spite of the patent absurdity of some of its constructs, in spite of its failures to fulfill many of its extravagant promises [. . .] in spite of the tolerance of the scientific community for unsubstantiated just-so stories, because we have a prior commitment to materialism [. . . .] Moreover that materialism is absolute, for we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door." Imagine if a creationist had said something similar! We would all be laughing into our glasses of Oxbridge sherry.Worse, that footnote reads:
 ... Lewontin, quoted in James Le Fanu, Why Us?: How Science Rediscovered the Mystery of Ourselves (New York, NY: Pantheon Books, 2009), 232; and Lewontin, "Billions and Billions of Demons," review of The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark, by Carl Sagan, New York Review of Books 44.1(January 9, 1997): 31.You may remember Le Fanu. He was, as was suspected, the litigious gitt who threatened New Scientist with a defamation suit over Amanda Gefter's article on "How to spot a hidden religious agenda," causing it to be taken down for a while but which has since been restored with a comment by Le Fanu denying any "hidden religion agenda." Of course, the Discoveyless Institute, which is nothing but hidden religion agendas, quickly picked up on Le Fanu's book and extolled it.
The important point is that, if you go to Lewontin's original article, easily available online, and actually read it, you'll see that Lewontin is, in fact, mocking a certain attitude toward science
As I said in a comment at The Other Journal, "This is all I need to judge Cunningham's intellectual integrity and scholarship." Pretty much Le Fanu's too.
That saves me having to hunt up either of their books.
Yes, but the attitude that he's mocking is the one that asserts that science doesn't rely upon authorities, and that doesn't put "materialism" ahead of science's "absurdity" and failures. He's mocking Sagan's view, and, indeed, the usual pop science attitude toward creationism, UFOs, etc.
In one sense, Lewontin's piece is a great deal more sophisticated than Sagan's usual treatment, mainly because he gets into the sociology of both the US and of science. In another sense, he opts rather simplistically for certain post-modernist claims about science that superficially are supported by the data he discusses, but which really do fail in the broader view of science.
Sagan's right that science delivers the goods. Do we really have to care that science often overpromises, and that what seem even to be reasonable expectations fail frequently enough in science? The point is not so much how much science actually delivers the goods, it's that science is all that delivers the goods where the "facts of nature" are at issue (rather than engineering ultimately based on these facts, but which may progress without much of any new scientific knowledge), and religious notions such as ID do not and cannot.
Lewontin does explain why we "believe in materialism" in a not very well-done discussion of epistemology. We "believe in materialism" scientifically because the Divine can be anything and everything. To bring it home to our fights, obviously God or any other god-like being who "could be the Designer" can do anything it wants, hence it can make life appear to have evolved, with all of the defects of evolution appearing, so that then evidence of evolution means nothing with respect to evolution. Any other science could as easily and sleazily be so destroyed by such junk, hence we, in Lewontin's words, "have a prior commitment to materialism."
But that's the result of using bad terminology on Lewontin's part. "Materialism"? What's that, really, except what Sagan himself was touting instead, science's methods? Sagan isn't going to allow little green men or god either, without sufficient evidence, and that's just a matter of good epistemology without a priori demands that we leave out God. We simply don't get to decide a priori, as apparently Lewontin does, that God opens the door to anything and everything. God might be constrained by logic and decency to skip the constraints of evolution, and to reveal fantastic intelligence instead.
To be continued.
Indeed, most of us recognize that, effectively, the God of most Christians, Jews, and Muslims would indeed be constrained by morality and intelligence to make organisms that don't include the constraints of evolution. Lewontin's god that opens investigation to anything and everything is the IDiots' smokescreen to avoid falsification.
I can't go into all that Lewontin writes in his article, but he generally fails in his criticisms of science. Science is not beholden to authority, not because we can avoid taking many things by authority in many cases, but because the social structure of science means that any crucial science developments must be verified by more than one individual and by more than one experiment, and because the relevant experts review matters to come to a reasonable agreement.
Some replicable results may indeed be set aside for a time, such as the "dauer-modifications." Well, why? More to the point, why does Lewontin refer to Baconian science, which, as he asserts, is not what is followed today?
"Fertility" or "fruitfulness" is a reasonable word for what is going on when replicable results end up on the ash heap of history. And, arguably, we might have gotten to epigenetics earlier had those results not been more or less set aside at the time. However, dealing with such enduring non-genetic modifications remained outside of scientific understanding at that time, and genetics was probably enough to deal with in the 1930s and beyond. Epigenetics almost certainly could not have been fruitfully researched much earlier than it was--more contextual evidence had to make such replicable evidence meaningful. Lewontin does say this, true, but seems to be calling into question the importance of replicability, when of course the only real issue is that these matters are a good deal more complex than Sagan's depictions suggests (and how could he get into these complexities in his popular accounts?).
It really is a matter of evidence, and of replicability, it's just more complex than many think that it is.
Assertions without evidence in the literature? Naturally, but do many scientists pay much heed to such baseless assertions, or do they winnow out what is supported from what is not. The evidence, IMO, is that it is more the latter than the former.
To be continued.
Lewontin admirably notes that science is more complex than Sagan portrayed it to be, and certainly in some cases he is guilty of unsupported assertions ("Indeed, he [Sagan] believes that 'a proclivity for science is embedded deeply within us in all times, places and cultures.'" Had he said that a proclivity for religion is embedded in us, he'd be closer to the truth). Yet Lewontin gets in over his head, bringing up complications in science that really don't threaten Sagan's depiction of science and its methods, provided that we understand the latter to be simplifications.
Lewontin does know far better what actually drives anti-science beliefs, however, including matters of class and identity, while Sagan seems constantly amazed and annoyed at humans acting like humans do. Indeed, Gnus generally have as little sympathy for the lower classes and their concerns as Sagan evinced.
On those issues, Lewontin is far better informed than any people who impatiently try to sweep aside religion. I'm just sorry that Lewontin points to the frequent excursions from the fictive ideal of science as if they truly threaten the objectivity of science (or, at least, are likely to be read as such by ignorant UDites), when he evidently knows that they do not.
I often over-simplify science, mainly because describing the complexity of science and its sociology takes far too much time and effort. Yet, for example, science is not beholden to authorities, we simply accept authoritative statements when the proper observations and analysis suggest that it is best that we do so. I wish that Lewontin had never suggested otherwise.
Cunningham could have criticized Lewontin's views all he wanted if he had fairly represented them in the first place.
But I thought you'd adequately made the point that he was a rather dull flea, and so I wanted to deal with the more substantive issues raised by Lewontin that continue to be misconstrued by various opponents of science. I think Lewontin's partly to blame, but UDiots, Cunningham, and the like, are more to blame.
So what exactly is the mispresentation you apprehend?
So what do you object to,
Follow the larger argument Lewontin is making:
Most of the chapters of The Demon-Haunted World are taken up with exhortations to the reader to cease whoring after false gods and to accept the scientific method as the unique pathway to a correct understanding of the natural world. ...
Sagan believes that scientists reject sprites, fairies, and the influence of Sagittarius because we follow a set of procedures, the Scientific Method ... For Sagan, the method is the message, but I think he has opened the wrong envelope. ...
There is no attempt in The Demon-Haunted World to provide a systematic account of just what Science and the Scientific Method consist in ...
Then, after pointing out that that some of Sagan's assertions about science are, in his opinion, wrong, comes the crucial quotes:
With great perception, Sagan sees that there is an impediment to the popular credibility of scientific claims about the world, an impediment that is almost invisible to most scientists. Many of the most fundamental claims of science are against common sense and seem absurd on their face. Do physicists really expect me to accept without serious qualms that the pungent cheese that I had for lunch is really made up of tiny, tasteless, odorless, colorless packets of energy with nothing but empty space between them? Astronomers tell us without apparent embarrassment that they can see stellar events that occurred millions of years ago, whereas we all know that we see things as they happen. When, at the time of the moon landing, a woman in rural Texas was interviewed about the event, she very sensibly refused to believe that the television pictures she had seen had come all the way from the moon, on the grounds that with her antenna she couldn't even get Dallas. What seems absurd depends on one's prejudice. Carl Sagan accepts, as I do, the duality of light, which is at the same time wave and particle, but he thinks that the consubstantiality of Father, Son, and Holy Ghost puts the mystery of the Holy Trinity "in deep trouble." Two's company, but three's a crowd.
Our willingness to accept scientific claims that are against common sense is the key to an understanding of the real struggle between science and the supernatural. We take the side of science in spite of the patent absurdity of some of its constructs, in spite of its failure to fulfill many of its extravagant promises of health and life, in spite of the tolerance of the scientific community for unsubstantiated just-so stories, because we have a prior commitment, a commitment to materialism. It is not that the methods and institutions of science somehow compel us to accept a material explanation of the phenomenal world, but, on the contrary, that we are forced by our a priori adherence to material causes to create an apparatus of investigation and a set of concepts that produce material explanations, no matter how counter-intuitive, no matter how mystifying to the uninitiated. Moreover, that materialism is absolute, for we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door. The eminent Kant scholar Lewis Beck used to say that anyone who could believe in God could believe in anything. To appeal to an omnipotent deity is to allow that at any moment the regularities of nature may be ruptured, that miracles may happen.
Lewontin then turns to the "the confrontation between elite culture and popular culture," with the "sense of an embattled culture" leading to "a fundamentalist revolt ..."
In their parochial hubris, intellectuals call the struggle between cultural relativists and traditionalists in the universities and small circulation journals "The Culture Wars." The real war is between the traditional culture of those who think of themselves as powerless and the rationalizing materialism of the modern Leviathan. There are indeed Two Cultures at Cambridge. One is in the Senior Common Room, and the other is in the Porter's Lodge....
On the one hand science is urged on us as a model of rational deduction from publicly verifiable facts, freed from the tyranny of unreasoning authority. On the other hand, given the immense extent, inherent complexity, and counterintuitive nature of scientific knowledge, it is impossible for anyone, including non-specialist scientists, to retrace the intellectual paths that lead to scientific conclusions about nature.
What is at stake here is a deep problem in democratic self-governance....
Conscientious and wholly admirable popularizers of science like Carl Sagan use both rhetoric and expertise to form the mind of masses because they believe, like the Evangelist John, that the truth shall make you free. But they are wrong. It is not the truth that makes you free. It is your possession of the power to discover the truth. Our dilemma is that we do not know how to provide that power.
In short, the rhetoric ... the short cut, if you will ... that "material explanations, no matter how counter-intuitive, no matter how mystifying to the uninitiated," have to be accepted is part of the problem!
A couple of thoughts:
- On the surface, from the passages you quoted of Lewontin, I see a similar argument that (I think) you or Chris Schoen have made that most people rely on authority for their scientific information. That only a few are actually engaged in real discovery and then reporting it. I'm not saying that authority is baseless, just that it's second-hand information.
- I don't see the quote mining from what you posted. Again, I need to read the whole thing in context so I apologize if I'm being stupid here. But while Le Fanu might be hiding a religious perspective, Cunningham seems to be clearly looking at things from a theological perspective. And, in context, there is some truth to "magine if a creationist had said something similar!" We would be questioning their motivations, seeking to find out if they want to teach religion in public schools.
If that's Cunningham's intention, I'm right with you. If he's speaking theologically, well, regardless, I now have some reading to do.
[W]e have a prior commitment, a commitment to materialism. It is not that the methods and institutions of science somehow compel us to accept a material explanation of the phenomenal world, but, on the contrary, that we are forced by our a priori adherence to material causes to create an apparatus of investigation and a set of concepts that produce material explanations, no matter how counter-intuitive, no matter how mystifying to the uninitiated.
Contrasting that with Lewontin's denial that science is "a model of rational deduction from publicly verifiable facts, freed from the tyranny of unreasoning authority" shows, I think, that he is not arguing for philosophical naturalism, as he is invariably characterized by the quote miners.
That part where he says:
...[Sagan] thinks that the consubstantiality of Father, Son, and Holy Ghost puts the mystery of the Holy Trinity 'in deep trouble.' Two's company, but three's a crowd.
... is, I think, a definite signal that he is mocking the simplistic association of philosopical naturalism with science.
I didn't see that. I'll read the articles, because I don't know if that implication has to exist for the point he's trying to make to be valid.
I did find that Biologos did a series on the book. They seem to be critical of Intelligent Design over there, so I'll see what they say.
No question. But he calls it "materialism," and he writes it so that when taken out of context it sounds as if he's committed to materialism for the sake of not acknowledging God, when in fact it's all for the sake of proper epistemology.
The trouble with both "materialism" and "naturalism" is exhibited in the fact that they become interchangeable. That is, they don't mean anything by themselves, since you can't invoke "nature" or "matter" without first defining them in accordance with scientific methods. Hence Lewontin's rhetoric invoking "materialism" as a priori becomes a ready target for quotemining, even though Lewontin is really only appealing to inevitable epistemological limitations.
But is Lewontin here arguing that science is methodologically materialistic as a consequence of an a priori (i.e. philosophical) materialism or that science operates on methodological materialism because only material causes are amenable to science's methods?
"It is not that the methods and institutions of science somehow compel us to accept a material explanation of the phenomenal world, but, on the contrary, that we are forced by our a priori adherence to material causes ... "
to Pigliucci et al, Society for the Study of Evolution:
"science works by applying a practical naturalism in which scientists seek natural explanations, not because these are the only ones possible, but because they are the only ones we can test by reason and evidence (i.e., scientifically)."
If Lewontin meant to argue for a methodological materialism in science that is not dependent on an a priori commitment to philosophical materialism, he's doing so in very confusing language that could just as well be saying exactly what it seems to say on its face and what Cunningham quotes it for: that science's methodological materialism is dependent on philosophical materialism.
He's arguing from a theological perspective, which is kind of refreshingly honest, actually. Being from England, he doesn't seem to think much of our separation between Church and State.
If Lewontin meant to argue for a methodological materialism in science that is not dependent on an a priori commitment to philosophical materialism, he's doing so in very confusing language ...
That is not an unusual aspect of quote mines. How "confusing" are Darwin's frequent statements of how little he knows or the insurmountable objections to his theory? Lewontin piece is worse because he is off on some not-too-clear rant that has little, if anything, to do with Sagan's book ... a fairly common phenomena in the NY Review of Books. I agree that Lewontin is not being clear, but anyone with any pretense to intellectual integrity and scholarship can't hide behind Lewontin's opaque rhetoric when they pretend he is clear and straightforward.
I don't see Cunningham making any such claim that Lewontin is clear and straightforward. Cunningham's claim (and the claim is vague and implicit) comes within the range of meanings Lewontin's words will bear.
"I think his "prior commitment ... to create an apparatus of investigation and a set of concepts that produce material explanations" is an argument for a method rather than a philosophy ..."
I'm not saying Lewontin isn't arguing for methodological materialism. I'm saying that he is arguing that science's methodological materialism flows from the "a priori" commitment to material causes.
Lewontin expressly denies that science's methodological materialism flows from science's methods and expressly attributes the creation of the methods (the 'apparatus') to the a priori commitment to material causes:
"It is not that the methods and institutions of science somehow compel us to accept a material explanation of the phenomenal world, but, on the contrary, that we are forced by our a priori adherence to material causes to create an apparatus of investigation and a set of concepts that produce material explanations, no matter how counter-intuitive, no matter how mystifying to the uninitiated."
BTW, Lewontin's insistence that the assumption of material causes must be absolute and thus rule out the possibility there are miracles suggests that he is talking about philosophical materialism as the basis for science because methodological materialism can survive the occasional minor miracle (e.g. The Resurrection as opposed to The Flood) but philosophical materialism can't.
I disagree. Cunningham lumped Lewontin in with "Daniel Dennett’s idea of universal acid, for one thing, not to mention selfish genes and all that hokum, both of which are merely there to prop up materialism."
Cunningham's claim (and the claim is vague and implicit) comes within the range of meanings Lewontin's words will bear.
That is the insideous thing about quote mines. The words almost always comes within the range of meanings the words will bear ... as long as you are willing not to read the words in context.
Lewontin expressly denies that science's methodological materialism flows from science's methods and expressly attributes the creation of the methods (the 'apparatus') to the a priori commitment to material causes
And, in that, I agree with him. The reason we have developed MN as an a priori commitment to material causes is because it works, as Lewontin acknowleges (even if he ignores the lesson), in the example of Laplace and Newton.
Lewontin's insistence that the assumption of material causes must be absolute and thus rule out the possibility there are miracles suggests that he is talking about philosophical materialism
I insist the same thing in my support of MN ... as long as we are talking about the results of science. The sticking point is whether we should insist that science is the be all and end all of human "knowledge." It seems to me that, in the end, Lewontin is denying that it is. In that, he's saying the same thing as I've always said about MN.
1) That short an interview does not allow for the kind of chewing over meaning that we're doing here. If there are questions about meaning - as there are and they're legitimate - then we need to go ask Conor Cunningham what he meant. I found his contact information online - I'll email him.
2) After reading all that, I get the feeling Cunningham isn't criticizing Lewontin, but the fact that Lewontin gets to make those criticisms. Cunningham lumps Lewontin and Ruse in with Dawkins and Dennet - something I wouldn't normally do, so that's a "tell." He's identifying an "old boy" network of materialists ... "Imagine if a creationist had said something similar!" In that way, he's demanding a place at the table for his theology. And he's from England, so I don't know that he cares what that means here in America legally.
3) The footnote for Le Fanu is troubling for John, and with his experience it should be taken seriously. However, Biologos did a series on the book and they're not in agreement with the IDers generally. I'll go through the series. You know, for a casual blog this place sure has a lot of required reading :)
"Cunningham writes, “There are two types of naturalism: methodological and ontological. The former is the approach science must take when it engages with the universe insofar as it will fail to make any progress unless it brackets the divine. The latter holds that bracketing the divine is not merely methodologically necessary but constitutive of reality as such. . . . While methodological naturalism issues no philosophical or metaphysical opinion on what exists, ontological naturalism suffers no such shyness. It tells us not only that science must stick to what we take to be natural but also that the natural is all there is, indeed all there ever could be. Moreover, ontological naturalism deposes philosophy’s ancient position as the final arbiter of our understanding of existence to which even science is subjected (what is called first philosophy)” (pp. 265-6)."
That note refers to this sentence: "The sixth chapter provides an all out assault on ontological naturalism*, and ironically, some of its likeminded theological partners in movements like Creation Science and Intelligent Design."
One post down, five more to go. Haven't emailed him yet.
However, from part four of the series
"Cunningham shows that Intelligent Design rightfully argues that neo-Darwinianism is “not sufficient to explain the natural world” (p. 277). Yet it is not a science. It must appeal to a non-empirical cause for creation – and thus, like the Neo-Darwinianist, seeks to extract a metaphysical position from science. The resultant god of Intelligent Design (is) more pagan than Christian, or as Cunningham writes, “more Homeric than Abrahamic” (p. 279). "
I found that to be amusing - doesn't Cunningham know Intelligent Design isn't religion?
At any rate, between his endorsement of methedological naturalism and squashing of ID it seems he's in the right side of science,, even if he doesn't like atheists.
So, why quote Le Fanu? (continued)
James Le Fanu for the past twenty years has contributed a twice weekly column on medicine, science and social policy to the Sunday and Daily Telegraph.
According to the Amazon description, he's also appeared in the New Statesman, The Spectator, GQ, the British Medical Journal, and the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine.
There are claims about his medical contributions, but in the little I've read he's a gadfly against the medical establishment, supporting homeopathy but stopping just short of being an anti-vaccer.
His previous book, The Rise and Fall of Modern Medicine, won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize in 2001.
His direct links to the Discovery Institute and Intelligent Design aren't apparent, although there's a review from a DI person at the Amazon page.
I'm going to check Le Fanu's book to see, but I suspect that it was he who quotemined Lewontin. If that's the case, then Cunningham could be an unknowing victim of that
After all, we still don't know what Cunningham meant by using the quote. He emailed me back and nicely and politely invited me to read his book and the more than 100 pages of endnotes for the context.
Serves me right for asking :)
OK back to your regularly scheduled Coyne, NCSE dustup.
Unknowing but not innocent. It wasn't like Lewonting was writing in a foreign language of hard to find source. He is, at least guilty of poor scholarship.
But you put in more effort than I probably would and thanks for that.
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