Internet Goosing the Antithesis

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

"Everything can be shown to be incoherent"

I thought about framing this into a question of the day, but I don't think I can. I don't really have a specific question. I'm just more interested to hear people's reaction to this.

I was having a pseudo-debate with someone who does not want to be identified, because he works in the film industry. Anyway, he's one of these guys who isn't a theist but feels that science is a faith and is thus oppressive. In a very vague sense, I can understand what he's saying (i.e., I understand the nature of his mistake), as he simply whipped out the all-too-typical questions like "How do you know science is right?"

I tried to explain that the methodology of science is simply trial-and-error reduction, which human beings have no choice to do otherwise. To me, accusing people of being dogmatically scientific is like accusing someone of dogmatically appealing to his cognition, or as John Dill put it, accusing someone of being human.

So this guy... We'll call him "Nick". I tried to get Nick to explain what science was being oppressive of, and he said metaphysical knowledge. I asked him to explain. He simply said it's knowledge of that which is beyond physical. I immediately asked him for a more coherent description of "beyond physical". Nick's reply was, "if you define the 'beyond physicals' with attributes and categories that belong to the physical and matter... its like making it physical too isn't it?".

Circular logic! Wonderful! This was supported by numerous appeals to ignorance, (i.e., "There's something inside of me, I can't explain, that tells me it's wrong to kill."). In other words, he knows it's wrong to kill, but he can't explain why, but then I was able to explain to him why it's wrong to kill. He did that about two or three times, and I was always able to explain his "unexplanable feelings" in an intelligable context.

Then he says, "my point is, about anything can be proven incoherent, so if you simply dont believe in what is not coherent then there is no science to begin with, and nothing at all that can be known." And predictably, he brings back his insistance that science is faith, but he doesn't seem to understand the category error he's making. We have no choice but to accept the physical universe as real and to use tentativeness to learn things, so in order to even get to his point-of-view, he has to pass through mine.

It was a fairly jovial conversation, but I found it just a little frustrating, because I couldn't even figure out what his point is. He doesn't seem to believe in any specific god or non-material beings. It seems that his only point was to perhaps place science on equal footing with religion, which is both misinformed and insulting.

About the only time I actually got mad is when he accused me of being an agnostic. Why is whenever I say I don't know something, people regard it as a weakness of my position? (Wait, don't answer that. That's a future QotD!)

I'm certainly not an expert debater, so I was a thrown by Nick's approach, but I definitely found some circles. He basically argues like a Christian, only he's not a Christian, and he doesn't seem to realize the irony of his position, using an instrument created via science to marginalize science.

What do you guys make of this? Do you think there are some good responses I missed out on? What would you say to someone who defends his incoherent beliefs by saying "Everything can be shown to be incoherent."?

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At 1/18/2006 1:08 AM, Blogger Francois Tremblay declaimed...

"Why is whenever I say I don't know something, people regard it as a weakness of my position?"

Because doubt makes people uncomfortable. Doubt means you might be wrong.

At 1/18/2006 6:01 AM, Blogger BlackSun declaimed...

The "nothing can be known" argument is a great way of lumping all uncertainty into the same category. That way such a person can stay in the warm, fuzzy vagueness that swirls around their head like a cloud of flies... ;-) and lets them sit in church with a straight face, or keep believing in whatever new age fantasy makes them feel comfortable.

Another favorite of mine is the "even scientists can't agree, so how can you say that science proves anything?"

I think both of these usually come from people who don't really understand science. They feel intimidated by the fact that there are people who actually understand stuff like quantum physics and string theory. They don't understand that science is a method, not a collection of knowledge.

When they hear of substantive scientific disagreements, (such as when Stephen Hawking lost his bet about black holes), they think to themselves "those guys aren't so smart after all" and it makes them feel a little better about themselves.

Another thing such people seize on is whenever there is a POLITICAL controversy in science, such as when cloning was recently faked, or when drug companies cover up their research about risky medications, they say it is a failure of SCIENCE rather than of politics. Over time, this allows non-scientists to build up a resistance and cynicism about accepting anything scientific at all.

Another way they do this is when there are failures of ENGINEERING, such as the space shuttle disaster. Again, they make all the right noises about being saddened at the tragedy--but deep down they take subtle satisfaction that the "rocket scientists" aren't as smart as they seem.

Then you have the ontological arguments about observation--how do we know we're not in a simulation a la "The Matrix?" how can we know that our eyes aren't lying to us? etc.

All of these are covering up for a lack of mental discipline. Because mental discipline would force certain observations and conclusions which are not comfortable. It would force people to use the scientific method, which is not subject to their whim. I think deep down, what we are really seeing is a coping mechanism for avoiding existential pain.

So though I really sometimes enjoy making fun of such people as I did in my first paragraph, I realize that this lack is simply a lack of capability for handling the theory and abstract thinking needed to apply the "method". The pre-abstract thinking stage is a developmental stage that people seem to have to go through. It's almost like drug addiction. At some point the addict began to find that it was easier to use the drug to avoid their pain than to learn to deal with the pain. Thus in order to overcome the addiction, the addict has to turn around and walk all the way back to the point of departure, which is probably somewhere in their childhood.

With beliefs, the same is true. The reason I think some people are hopeless is that they just can't stomach the idea of retracing their steps--as Neil Peart said "turn around and walk the razor's edge." For these people, it's just too hard. I hope your friend is not in that category.

At 1/18/2006 6:11 AM, Blogger BlackSun declaimed...

One more thing: sometimes "I don't know..." IS the right answer. Again, people who don't understand the method don't get the fact that you don't get bonus points for KNOWING.

In science, you get your bonus points for keeping all things on the correct side of the "I know" vs. "I don't know" line.

At 1/18/2006 11:49 AM, Blogger Mr. Neil declaimed...

"They don't understand that science is a method, not a collection of knowledge."

Yep! He made sure to explicitly state that science = knowledge, by playing the etymology game that you normally hear from apologists.

I was fairly satisfied that I was able to find the hole in his argument, but I was getting a little annoyed that he kept trying to bring me down to his level. The method of trying to justify bad thinking by defeating good thinking is directly out of the apologetics play book.

Nick thinks its arrogant to try qualify one worldview as superior to all others. The funny thing is that I got him to agree that he has to pass through all of my presuppositions to get to his (again, thank you, John Dill), but I don't think he understood that by doing so, he was doing something unwarranted and extra in contrast to what I do when I make assumptions.

Anyway... Thanks, guys. There'll be a few QotD's based on this little encounter. Some of them are facetious. Some aren't.

At 1/18/2006 1:49 PM, Blogger gonesavage declaimed...

Science is a process, not knowledge itself. Science can help someone attain knowledge. "Believing" in science is about as absurd as "believing" in the process of making coffee.



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