Tag Archives: science

Objective Definitions

I was asked on another website how we should treat definitions that aren’t strictly convertible with the concepts that they define. In other words, in mathematics and logic, you can generally just substitute a concept whenever its definition appears, because there is nothing more to the concept than its definition states. You can’t do that with a lot of definitions elsewhere. For example, a horse without hooves is still a horse even though it doesn’t strictly meet the definition of a horse.

However, even when we define a term in mathematics, we don’t generally do so as an end in itself, and if we did our definition would quickly be forgotten or discarded. We formulate our definitions in order to prove things from them. The definition names a useful starting point in our reasoning for seeking out and identifying logical connections that exist objectively.

So, on the view I’m defending, our main goal when we define something isn’t necessarily to come up with a definition in which the subject is strictly convertible with the predicate, it is to identify the essence of the subject. This is a true proposition, in genus and differentia, from which the most of the subject’s known attributes follow, whether causally or logically. If the definition is convertible with the concept it defines, great, but if not, that’s fine too.

So, when we’re defining, say, a horse, the goal shouldn’t be to come up with a proposition that’s true of every horse, although it would be great if we could. We want to find the essence, a proposition which identifies the genus and differentia from which the most of the attributes of horses follow. We want the definition to do this because it will enable us to draw the most true generalizations about horses in our subsequent research, although we may have to take particular exceptions like the occasional horse without hooves into account when we are reasoning about them specifically.

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Science and Philosophy

In an earlier post, I argued that neuroscience was relevant to philosophy of mind, because neuroscience provided support for the claim that the brain is not unified in the sense that consciousness is, which is an important claim in philosophy of mind (see the post for elaboration).

I have reconsidered this, because it occurred to me after a discussion with one of my professors that we don’t need neuroscience to know that the brain is not unified like consciousness is. Anyone can see, from the most elementary, pre-scientific knowledge of what the brain is, that the brain is not indivisible. You can’t have half of a mind, but you can have half of a brain.

This is part of a consistent pattern I have observed. Scientific experiments which claim to contribute to philosophical debates always, in my experience, end up falling into one of two traps:

  1. Triviality: The philosophical point the scientific experiment attempts to prove could be argued for equally well from pre-scientific knowledge.
  2. Ambiguity: The scientific experiment can be re-interpreted by opponents of the philosophical claim it attempts to prove.

I’ve yet to see a scientific experiment that didn’t fall into one of these two traps. However good it may be as science, when it is interpreted as an argument for or against a philosophical position it always turns out to be trivial or ambiguous.

This is not to say that you can’t make it easier or harder to hold a philosophical position using science. I would say that scientific discoveries like the theory of evolution have made it harder – not impossible, but harder – to believe in God. I do not mean to say that there is a deductive argument for atheism here, but familiarity with the theory of evolution could give a person the sense that the world is entirely explicable naturalistically, or knock out primitive forms of the teleological argument that formerly served as a basis for faith.

Free Will is Scientific

Determinists often attempt to associate determinism with science. The idea is that determinism is scientific and free will is not, because the laws of physics as we currently understand them are deterministic.

I think one fact this overlooks is that science requires the concept of intellectual responsibility. A scientist is expected to look at the evidence and draw only the conclusions that it warrants. Scientists who draw unjustified or irresponsible conclusions are criticized for doing so, and scientists who draw the correct conclusions from the evidence are praised and sometimes idolized.

A determinist might respond that it would be useful to praise and criticize scientists on the basis of whether they drew the correct conclusions from the evidence even if we didn’t have free will. The problem with this response is that it assumes that the speaker has free will and can choose whether or not to praise and blame the scientists. You can’t say that no one has free will and then tacitly assume that you have free will.

So, I think belief in free will should be seen as the scientific position, not determinism.

My Objections to Hume

I posted the following in response to a request for my thoughts on Hume:

My main two objections to Hume are his view of induction and his view of morality.

I don’t agree that inductive inferences are merely a matter of habit – we do perceive causality, although we perceive it originally in specific instances and then abstract the concept of causality from those instances. Causality isn’t immediately perceivable like the color red is, but we can learn of its existence by inference from things like pushing a ball and watching it roll, and scientific theories are broader generalizations induced from numerous directly perceivable causal connections like this.

I also don’t agree that morality is a matter of the sentiments rather than of relationships between things. We do originally become aware of moral distinctions by means of the sentiments – I don’t like being hurt, so I conclude that that’s bad, and I like having friends, so I conclude that that’s good. However, there is an objective moral standard that we can infer from these primitive moral beliefs, based on a specific kind of life that it is best for a human being to have, one centered on our own self interest.

So basically, I think Aristotle has better positions on these issues than Hume does. I might do a longer post on Hume later.

Evidence: A Definition and Example

There was a discussion of the concept of evidence on one of the forums I post to, so I posted the following analysis.

Evidence is a body of observations that have been logically integrated to their cause. I will give an illustration using one of Jerry Coyne’s lines of evidence for the theory of evolution in Why Evolution is True.

According to Coyne, the species of animals found on islands near continents bear significant similarities to the animals on the mainland, but they differ from the animals on the mainland in ways that allow them to fill the specific niches available on the island, and the only species of animals found on the island are ones small enough to be blown by the wind or carried on driftwood to the island. Therefore, they must have been carried from the mainland to the island and evolved into a variety of new species once there.

Let’s take this apart into its components.

First, Coyne’s argument depends on observation. Scientists had to make countless measurements of species that live on islands near a continent and the species on the nearby mainlands to arrive at this conclusion. For example, in one case, they had to measure the beaks of birds on the island to show that they were adapted to eating nuts as opposed to the beaks of the birds on the mainland.

Second, Coyne’s argument integrates these observations. The observations are put together into a coherent whole that encompasses the fact that the species on the island are similar to the species on the mainland, the fact that there are specific niches on the islands that these species have adapted to fill, and the fact that the species on the island are all relatively small or have the ability to swim. These are all made part of a unified narrative.

Third, Coyne’s argument integrates these observations in accordance with logic. Coyne does not appeal to mysticism to explain the observations he cites, and he does not invent his explanation out of whole cloth. Rather, he logically infers the conclusion that is necessitated by the available facts.

Finally, Coyne’s argument logically integrates these observations to their cause. Causality is an entity acting according to its identity. Coyne’s argument reveals that the observations he cites are all manifestations of entities acting in an orderly fashion, according to their identities. The only entities that get to the islands are the ones that have the ability to do so due to their size or ability to fly or swim, and the only entities that survive on the islands are the ones that are adapted to fill the available niches, in obedience to causality.

I hope this has helped clarify the concept of evidence for you.

Response to Coyne on the Humanities

I wrote the following in response to this post on Jerry Coyne’s blog, Why Evolution is True. Coyne said, among other things, that “science is the only game in town if you want to ascertain what’s real in our universe,” and he seemed to base this partly on the failure of the humanities to reach consensus.

I’m majoring in computer science and philosophy. I have some thoughts on this.

If you ask a philosophy professor a philosophical question, then they will say “well, first what are all of the possible positions on this issue that don’t contain explicit contradictions, and how many ways can we divide those up? what did Kant say and is that the right interpretation of Kant, because heaven forbid we ignore what Kant said? I have an intuition that this and that are true, and my colleagues have all of these other intuitions and we have to juggle them all.”

By contrast, if you ask a computer scientist a question about computer science, then they will immediately defer to reality. They will run the program or do the math, regardless of what other computer scientists have said. Quicksort is accepted because it works when we run the program, not because it’s been accepted by some authority.

This is the difference between the sciences and the humanities, in my view. It’s not that the humanities can’t make progress, it’s just that the humanities have accepted toxic patterns of reasoning that inhibit progress. I can’t help noting, by the way, that Dr. Coyne’s example of postmodernism is a perfect illustration of my point here.

Originally, the concept of philosophy was awesome. The idea of developing a way of living that is based on facts is what draws a lot of people into studying philosophy in the first place. But I think that got corrupted at some point into a sterile academic exercise.

Evidence that there is no Evidence for God’s Existence

In this post, I will explain why atheists like myself are justified in saying that there are no good arguments for God’s existence. I will not be engaging with any specific arguments for God’s existence in this post, but merely justifying the inference from a specific atheist’s not having come across a good argument for God to the conclusion that there are no good arguments for the existence of God.

First of all, atheists who are familiar with science usually feel that believing in God is profoundly unscientific and therefore unlikely to have good arguments in its favor. There are a number of good reasons to think this.

  • Science is explicitly naturalistic, at least in methodology. For several hundred years, explanations in terms of God or the supernatural have been automatically ruled out by almost all scientists. The belief that God exists seems to be in tension with the naturalism of science in a fairly straightforward way, namely that science would probably not have set up a rule explicitly barring appeals to God if God played a significant role in the operation of the world.
  • Science uses an epistemology that is inherently hostile to belief in God. Science requires empirical evidence for every claim, and most claims that are made in science have to be supported with numerous experiments and agreed upon by all relevant experts before they are regarded as established. The belief that God exists transparently does not meet these criteria, and the success of science gives us a very strong reason to think that these criteria are the ones we should use.
  • Science has constructed a nearly comprehensive view of the world with an unprecedented degree of coherence, detail, and independent support that never appeals to God at any point. The fact that we can construct a comprehensive view of the world that is this powerfully supported without ever appealing to God is a pretty strong reason to think that God doesn’t exist.

These reasons are so powerful, especially in conjunction, that an atheist could reasonably conclude that there are no good arguments for the existence of God on the basis of these reasons alone, without doing a serious investigation of the arguments for the existence of God that philosophers have put forward. If he did investigate the existence of God, he would be justified in operating with a strong presumption in favor of naturalism and atheism.

If an atheist does consider the arguments for the existence of God, he will find ample reason to think that they all fail.

The original versions of the classic arguments for the existence of God, like the cosmological, teleological, and ontological arguments, have well known refutations which are very forceful and can be found easily by doing a search on the internet. This justifies an atheist in thinking that there are no good arguments for the existence of God because these arguments are still usually the ones put forward by theists who want to argue for their faith. If there were significantly better arguments for the existence of God, then we would expect them to spread rapidly through the theist community and come into wide use.

An even stronger reason to think that there are no good arguments for the existence of God is available to the atheist who chooses to review the contemporary academic debate about God’s existence. The arguments for God’s existence that contemporary academic philosophers put forward are typically just variants on the classic arguments for God’s existence mentioned above, and even these sophisticated variants have all been refuted dozens of times by atheist philosophers of religion. For example, William Lane Craig’s kalam cosmological argument, a variant on an argument put forward a millennium ago by Islamic philosophers, has been refuted many times in the literature, such as Michael Martin’s refutation in Atheism: A Philosophical Justification and the very detailed refutations given by Graham Oppy and Jordan Howard Sobel.

The repeated failure of theistic philosophers of religion to provide tenable arguments for the existence of God is very strong evidence that there are no such arguments, since they are in the best position out of anyone in the world to provide good arguments for the existence of God. They have been immersed in theology and philosophy of religion for decades, they can explain the ins and outs of Augustine and Aquinas, and they generally have much more familiarity with modern science than most theists do. If they can’t do it, then no one can.

To recap:

  1. Atheists have no intellectual obligation to investigate the issue of God’s existence, since having a decent familiarity with science should give them a good reason to think that there will be no good arguments for God.
  2. If atheists do investigate the issue of God’s existence, a rudimentary review of the classic arguments for God’s existence should tell them everything they really need to know about the issue.
  3. If atheists decide to investigate the issue in detail, which is well beyond what they are obligated to do. they will find only confirmation of their atheism in contemporary philosophy of religion.

This is not to say that atheists never have a good reason to study the arguments for God’s existence. There are two types of atheists who have a moral obligation to study the arguments for God’s existence: Atheists who are trying to get a degree in philosophy or have some other academic obligation to study the arguments for God’s existence, and atheists who intend to publicly advocate atheism by debating formally or arguing with a lot of theists. An atheist can also have a good reason to study the arguments for God’s existence, albeit not a moral obligation per se, if they want to become more familiar with how people thought about the world in the past.