If it’s not science, it’s crap

by | August 26, 2014

Richard Dawkins and twitter are the fun, there is no doubt about that. Most recently he stated that failing to abort a Downs Syndrome fetus was immoral.

Oh boyo.

Now, I actually agree with him on one level. A fetus is not a person. So he is not advocating the extermination of any people. And really, I think its good advice for most people. There are those who are happy to embrace the harder path… of raising a child with this condition. (I’m sure I’m being politically incorrect.TFB.) Good on them. But they are the minority, and raising a child is a huge undertaking as it is.

That said, I can certainly understand how those with Down’s syndrome, as well as people close to them, might be offended by his ‘moral’ imperative. This is why people who are experts in a field, should probably stick to their field of expertise, instead of pontificating… especially on twitter. Being moral, at least according to quite a few, involves empathy, something Mr. Dawkins sometimes isn’t really brimming with. How immoral of him.

Down’s syndrome people are not worthless. Nor should they be bullied, mocked, discarded… and nor should their existence be associated with the idea of immorality.

The ethics here are not easy though. Female feticide in certain places is a serious demographic problem, and one can bet if there ever is a test for the gay, lots of parents will be lining up to ensure only straight children happen. As parents, that should be their choice, but one informed by facts, not silly moralizing, so Mr. Dawkins should really know better.

Meanwhile… back at the ranch…

Over at why evolution is true, more silly scientist stuff.

The question is: How has the ‘academic discipline’ of philosophy helped science?

Gotta give him credit, it’s the right way to load…. I mean… phrase the question.

So what is so wrong about this… wisdom seeking… question?

First, if one were to ask, how has ‘philosophy’ helped science, you run into a nonsense question. Science is the result of a fusion of empirical and rational philosophies, so really it owes its entire existence to, and is merely an extension of philosophy proper.

The loaded question however is about the ‘discipline’, as in university philosophy departments, and is of course, just an extension of the ongoing pissing contest between academics of different disciplines.

The discipline of philosophy is generally located on the humanities side, because it is essentially the ‘history of philosophy’. So within that framework… we could rather ask, how does the ‘history of science’ help science? Quite a lot.

Its all about lessons learned, and the ongoing learning of the lessons from history. But you know, to learn you have to study it, or it won’t be much help.

On a side note, the ‘Euthyphro Argument’ does not “dispel the notion that morality must come from god’s dictates”.

Euthyphro was part of Socrates project of attacking the sophists(evil ‘paid’ teachers, the horror) who claimed to be able to teach virtue. In this particular case, the virtue in question was piety. Socrates, as was his style, uses rhetoric to stymie the rhetoricians, when he shows a logical conflict between ‘being good’ and ‘doing good’. The fact, the sophists can’t answer this problem indicates, to Socrates, they are not qualified to teach, let alone get paid to teach, piety.

Socrates, at least the one described by Plato, is not an atheist. He denied it, right to the end, and his last reported words were an invocation to a god. An amusing invocation, but still.

I’m not saying there is a good answer to the euthyphro problem from the religious perspective, but to a certain degree it is just a logic problem based on conflicting premises. Impressive rhetoric, but that was kinda his thing.

Meanwhile.. at the other ranch….

Someone else is sandwalking through the demarcation problem… with such ease.

‘science is a way of knowing based on evidence, rational thinking, and healthy skepticism. This includes economists, physicians, and philosophers’

Sounds fair.

But this also includes foodies, carpenters, and hair stylists… and its not really a way of knowing, it is actually at least 2 different ways of knowing, rational(based on logic) and empirical(based on evidence). Skepticism is more about the rigourous application of both… so it can help, sometimes.

But the thing is, science doesn’t actually end there. It also involves ‘intuition’, the human brain’s pattern matching ability, which can often bridge the gap to new scientific discoveries. Coming up with theories that need to be tested is fundamental to modern science and is often based on ‘crazy’ ideas. The good part about modern science is that we don’t stop at ‘crazy’. You need religion for that.

It also involves another way of knowing, argument from authority, or knowledge gained from experts. Whether its the layman reading a science article, or even the peer review process, knowledge gained from experts in the field is invaluable… and not just in science.

Philosophers of science have been trying to nail down the different aspects of both: what scientists actually do, and what they should be doing to do ‘good’ science.

How much skepticism is healthy? Which takes precedence, logic or evidence? How do we best take advantage of both? What if we only have one and not the other?

No, you probably don’t need to take philosophy of science to do lab work, but knowing how to balance a recipe of experts, intuition, observations and logic is the art of science. Something scientists often do… without thinking too much about it. But they probably should… its part of being rigourous rationalists.

Damn…. now I’m hungry.

14 thoughts on “If it’s not science, it’s crap

  1. Corwin

    …people who are experts in a field, should probably stick to their field of expertise, instead of pontificating…

    You’re no fun at all! Besides which, experts often have a perspective that is somewhat narrow and difficult to communicate to the laity. A wide freewheeling conversation both helps that process of communication and exposes the experts to outside viewpoints and arguments that will keep them on their toes and in all likelihood encourage them to pursue some interesting questions they wouldn’t have thought of themselves. But that kind of conversation can only exist if at least some people are willing to comment on topics on which they are not experts. I think Dawkins is a sharp, provocative, generally constructive public intellectual who should keep tweeting and damn the torpedoes.

    …its not really a way of knowing, it is actually at least 2 different ways of knowing, rational(based on logic) and empirical(based on evidence).

    That tidy separation strikes me as a little specious. A rational investigation of any topic related to observable reality has to examine empirical data sooner or later, and empirical data can only be fruitfully interpreted by making use of logic and reason.

    Regarding the broader demarcation problem, I’d say that reason is the magic ingredient underlying both science and philosophy. The former entails applying reason to questions that can be investigated empirically, and the latter entails applying reason to questions of a non-empirical variety. Science and philosophy are both rooted in a single worldview, one committed to the value of reason, and scepticism is the part of science and philosophy that involves testing, questioning and revising whatever ideas are placed on the table.

    1. Joe Post author

      >A wide freewheeling conversation…

      Is not twitter.

      If you choose to fling your feces against a wall… That is your business, but if you insist to me it is then art… I’m just calling it shit.

      >separation strikes me as a little specious

      It is historical and based on the idea that logic and observation are different processes. You can certainly critique it for overlap but in the sciences the distinction between theory/theoretical and practical/observed is a very important one.

      The problem with your demarcation is that quite a lot of science, theoretical physics comes to mind, would have to be reclassified as philosophy. It of course depends on how narrow your definition of empirical is… And people do not agree..

  2. billybob

    It might be that aborting a damaged fetus is just an extension of evolution?

    Just because someone “thinks” they made the decision
    it could just be natural slection carried out by
    an obscure and complicated path. We are chemical soup.

    1. Joe Post author

      Even Dawkins has said evolution is a terrible basis for morality.

      1. billybob

        A terrible basis for what does not exist? Sounds to mystical for me.

        1. Joe Post author

          Dawkins often uses ethics and morality interchangeably.

          Like Harris he seems to believe in some sort of objective moral truth.

          1. Indi

            I don’t think Dawkins’s position on the matter is very well thought out (or at the very least, he didn’t express it very well on Twitter), but his mistake isn’t believing that morality is objective. Subjective morality is absurd.

            As for Harris, his position is just silly and illogical: he wants to base morality on empiricism (aka science) alone. Morality is objective, but it can’t be based on empirical observation alone because of the is-ought problem.

          2. Joe Post author

            > Subjective morality is absurd.

            Then it fits in well with human existence. Absurd or not, it seems the only sort that actually exists.

            > Morality is objective

            Sounds like supernatural nonsense to me. I have yet to see one and the secondary evidence is contradictory at best.

            All I see is different competing strategies for assigning value that we cling to in the face of a gloriously absurd existence.

  3. KC

    Yeah I definitely don’t agree with Dawkins on this one. Kids with down syndrome can live pretty meaningful lives so I don’t think that aborting them is a moral imperative. Trisomy 18 on the other hand…

    1. Joe Post author

      A common prejudice among the ‘smart’ people I know is that intelligence is a measure of worth.

  4. Bubba Kincaid

    And of course there is the notion that “advanced” societies seem to have progressed to a level today sufficient enough to make dealing with Downs syndrome not at all that much a hassle as it might have been in the past, which only further dates the retardation waterline of Dawkins’ idea.

  5. Bubba Kincaid

    Or maybe this is just Dawkins’ own quirky way of indicating to everybody that he is drifting into thinking about the efficiency of systems via a list into climate change issues.


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