Philosophy is Better Than Creationism

Posted by the inimitable PZ Myers at

Plaintive logic

It’s phrased as a syllogism, so William Lane Craig ought to love it.

Also, 100% of all creationist arguments. Therefore, philosophy is better than creationism.

I agree, except I think the 99% figure is just a tad on the high side. But PZ knows that – he’s just messin’ with ’em. But I have no quibble with skipping 100% of creationist arguments.

You can Google William Lane Craig. Or you might try Googling “Broken Record” or “Pompous Asshole.”

. . . . .

Given my tendencies and proclivities, philosophy should appeal to me: I have never shied away from difficulty or complexity, and syllogisms do not flummox or intimidate me. Actually, philosophy does appeal to me, although mostly in principle. After all, it was the precursor of science.

Unfortunately, when I venture into the philosophical realm, I usually come away with this reaction: WTF??? What has this got to do with anything that matters? What has this got to do with making better real-life decisions? And most importantly, what has this got to do with understanding the natural world?

Now It’s important to define understanding: I think we can be said to truly understand something only when a proposed explanation passes the test of prediction – better yet, prediction and control. Of course some sciences are predominantly descriptive – astronomy and paleontology come to mind. In those sciences, control is not possible, but prediction is. So I’m arguing that to qualify as a science a field of inquiry has to do more than just make observations. We can claim to understand something when we are able to predict outcomes or actually use our knowledge to cause specific outcomes.

Therefore it seems to me there’s something fundamentally wrong with the idea that we can learn anything about the nature of reality only by thinking and arguing. Our thoughts and arguments have to be grounded in and supported by reliable observations and measurements, observations and measurements that constitute our premises, if you will. Deductive logic can’t tell us if premises are true.

And if someone makes a deductive error, someone else will point it out sooner rather than later. So I figure I’m covered without having to expend much time wrestling with the fine points of deductive reasoning. There is this emerging field called experimental philosophy that sounds promising, and I’ll be reading and writing about it.

As far as I know, philosophy per se never gave us any accurate predictions. You simply can’t think your way to an understanding of the natural world, aka all there is. To quote Thomas Huxley, “The great tragedy of Science: the slaying of a beautiful hypothesis by an ugly fact.” I would add that many beautiful hypotheses and theories are confirmed by facts – facts that came from observation and experiment, a recent example being the Higgs particle. Will the fallout from this discovery serve to draw physicists into another, deeper, more complex level of potentially discoverable reality? Scientists will love that.

So if there is some something or other besides the natural world, or if there is some way to divine useful, i.e., predictive, facts about the world from an armchair, I would like to know about it. Now some might be tempted to say that that’s just what the theoretical physicists did with respect to the Higgs particle. But of course their mathematical equations didn’t come from thin air but were grounded in and consistent with mountains of observational and experimental data. The interplay of theory and experiment defines science at its best.

To repeat: if we truly understand something, we should be able to make accurate, reliable predictions and, where possible, use that understanding to make things come out as predicted. Reliably.

So science works in the only ways that count. And does it ever work! Some would argue it works too well for our own good, that it has given us Sorcerer’s Apprentice power over nature that we are not mature enough to handle responsibly. There is undeniably much truth in that assertion, and now we’re at the point where we have no choice except to turn to science to help save us from the harm we’ve done to ourselves through the inadequately restrained use of its progeny, technology. It’s all summed up very well in E.F. Schumacher’s ironic expression, “A breakthrough a day keeps the crisis at bay.”

On second thought, more science (i.e., reliable knowledge and understanding) won’t be enough; there must be a basic change in human nature. I’m not talking about genetic modification, which is a ways off, but behavioral change: we must use our hard-won knowledge and understanding to transcend our natural intuitions and tribal impulses. We must adopt a rational, evidence-based approach to decision-making at both the individual and collective levels. There is no better source for this argument than Keith Stanovich’s marvelous book, “The Robot’s Rebellion: Finding Meaning in the Age of Darwin.”

The combination of advanced technology and unenlightened, dogmatic human nature (i.e., conservatism) has certainly brought us to the brink of catastrophe.

Humans must change in fundamental ways or they are fucking doomed.

This entry was posted in mockery FTW, science, there is cool stuff on the internetz, Uncategorized by SJ. Bookmark the permalink.

About SJ

I'm an older married guy, a former college psychology instructor and editor at a national magazine. Every stage of my very full life has been dominated by a passionate interest – from chess to distance running to photography (my current interest). I write under a pseudonym because the opinions I express, particularly about religion, might very well cause problems for my wife and me. I plan to "come out" after she retires. In the meantime, I'll do my best to defend and promote science and reason and to help keep power out of the hands of the proto-fascists who have declared war on just about everything I value.

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