I teach a course on critical thinking about scientific issues such as evolution/creationism. Most (all?) of the "scientific" debates that enter the public realm can be divided into two groups: those where one side is right and the other side is wrong, and those where the issue is controversial. From a personal perspective, that means you can have three responses when asked if you agree with a scientific argument: "yes," "no," and "I don't know."
Some issues seem to be pretty much settled. For example, the Earth is billions of years old, not 6000 years old. You're on pretty safe grounds if you call a Young Earth Creationist a silly poo poo because in order for them to be right you would have to discard most of science and abandon rationalism. I think this is a case where there's a right answer and a wrong answer for all practical purposes.
However, there's always a "however" when talking to philosophers. If one is going to defend the scientific way of knowing—evidence-based, skeptical, rational thinking—then one also has to admit that the knowledge we get from this way of knowing is always provisional. It can turn out to be wrong. In this particular example, it is at least conceivable (therefore possible) that everything we think we know is an artifact and the Earth really was created in 4000 BC.
How do we reconcile this apparent conflict? I think it's time we started to draw a distinction between pragmatic, day-to-day, rational thinking and the kind of exercises we might engage in if we were in a philosophy lecture. In most cases, we do this without thinking about it. How many of you have debated whether that chair actually exists or whether your perception of "red" is the same as mine? We know these questions can't be resolved unequivocally—there's no "right" or "wrong"—but we don't suspend judgment about chairs and colors in our everyday lives.
Now, you could argue that our acceptance of chairs and the color red is an unfounded premise, or bias, that resembles a "belief" more than it does rational thinking, but I don't think that's very helpful. I think we operate in a pragmatic world where we can confidently accept certain concepts based on the evidence that they work and they are consistent with all the rest of our knowledge. Thus, I don't have any real doubts that the chair I'm sitting on will continue to support me while I finish this post. I don't have any real doubts that the red light I stop my car at is the same color seen by every other human.1
If this sounds confusing, it's because it is, and that's the fault of philosophers! :-)
We've gotten used to ignoring some of the more meaningless philosophical debates like whether the chair exists or not. We're pretty comfortable with some truth claims, such as the age of the Earth, because we don't quibble about all knowledge being provisional. On the other hand, pragmatic philosophy doesn't seem to work for questions like the existence of supernatural beings!
Let's look at some specific examples about how we settle scientific debates. I teach my students that there are such things as genuine scientific controversies where neither side is right or wrong because we just don't have enough information. It's important to recognize the difference between such genuine scientific controversies and pseudo-controversies since so many of them spill over into the public domain.
The existence of junk DNA is not controversial. We have enough data to conclude, with confidence, the some of the DNA in our genome is nonfunctional. Anyone who says that none of our genome is junk is wrong, speaking as a pragmatist. On the other hand, whether only 5% or 90% of our genome is junk is a genuine scientific controversy. There are two legitimate sides to that debate and even though I feel strongly that the number is closer to 90% than to 5%, I have to admit that I just don't know for sure. That does not prevent me from attacking and ridiculing some of the arguments from the other side (e.g. The Myth of Junk DNA by Jonathan Wells). The arguments can be dead wrong even if the issue is still a scientific controversy.
Now let's get to the points that John Wilkins makes on his blog.
So I owe it to Larry to try, one more time, to explain my views. This time, I will do it carefully and not at all sarcastically. I will explain it as if I were talking to a… scientist, and not to a philosopher. This might help. That’s not being sarcastic; that is a recognition that the rules of debate in science (and in common life) are often very different from those of philosophy.
I'm not sure I understand all of the points you make about "reasoners for" and "reasoners against" but I agree with you that there are statements that we put into the category of "truth" or "knowledge" and there are statements that are just hypotheses or tentative models. In the latter case, we just don't know (for now) whether these statements are correct (= "truth").
I like your idea that we are only dealing with ideas that are coherent and possibly true—I think this rules out meaningless debates over whether you or I actually exist, right? I like the idea that you have divided the set of debatable issues into two categories. One of them, according to your division, is "consistent with known facts" and the other is "consistent with unknown facts." I don't accept that distinction. My division is between "consistent with available evidence" and "we don't have enough data to reach a conclusion." I don't think it's possible to have a category where something is consistent with something else that's unknown but that's really just a quibble.3 I get the point.
Let's see how your distinction plays out in a scientific debate.
Consider a parallel case to clarify this. I think that, circa 1982, AIDS might be caused by lifestyle factors, and you think that it might be caused by a virus, but as yet nobody has shown one belief to be factual and the other false. So it is rational at that time to think either view, and disputing the environmental factorist by calling them irrational, at that time, would simply be to beg the question. This is not rational behaviour.I agree with you. In 1982, we just didn't know what caused AIDS so it would have been irrational and unscientific to claim that there was a right answer and a wrong answer. The correct response was "I don't know." I don't think there are very many scientists or philosophers who would disagree, do you?
I also agree with you that by 1990 the situation had changed because we had more data. Today, it is rational to say that HIV deniers are irrational, silly poo poos but only if you are operating in the pragmatic world. If you were to claim that it's impossible for lifestyle factors to cause AIDS, in the absence of HIV, then you are affirming a negative and, sure as heck, some philosopher is going to call you on it. And if they don't call you out on that, they'll be sure to point out that all scientific conclusions are provisional so you can never say "impossible." Philosophers can be a real pain in the butt! :-)
My point is that in 1982 nobody should have been making a "truth" claim or a "knowledge" claim. If they did that, they were wrong, no matter which side they supported. It was okay to defend a hypothesis (and attack your opponent) but you had to recognize that the issue was still up in the air. Things had changed by 1990 and it was then possible to assert that HIV causes AIDS—this was a "truth" claim, not a hypothesis.
When two sides are making conflicting claims about "truth" then either both sides are wrong or one side is wrong and one is right. There will never be a situation where both sides could be right when the data is in and they both say the issue has been settled.4
Now let's look at the existence of supernatural beings.
Now consider whether God exists. Can we say absolutely that God does not exist?No, that would be irrational, in my opinion. However, in the real, pragmatic world, it is irrational (delusional) to believe in any of the common gods that most people believe in. There are some theoretical versions of theism that can't be ruled out (deism is one) but these are null sets. As far as I know, nobody actually believes in those gods.
Is it therefore irrational to believe in gods that do not require facts not to be facts? I cannot say this, and I think it is wrong to try.Is it irrational to believe in things for which there is no evidence? Yes, it is. Just as it's irrational to deny that all gods exist, it's also irrational to make a "truth" claim that some do.
We agree that there are two types of gods. One type is those that have been discredited like Zeus and Mithras. Anyone who claims that the discredited Judeo/Christian god of the Bible actually exists is wrong. The other kind of god is the fuzzy kind like the deist god or the gods of the philosopher and the "sophisticated" theists. Those kind of gods can't be disproved—that's why they were created in the first place—but they can't be proved either. Anyone who makes a "truth" claim about their existence is wrong. (This means that theists are always wrong when they claim that supernatural beings actually exist. The best they can hope for these days is that the existence of some fuzzy gods remains a distinct possibility.)
The only rational response to the question of whether a deist god exists is "I don't know."5 I admit that, while still maintaining that I am an atheist because I don't believe in any of the gods. I don't know any theists who admit that all personal gods have been disproved and most (all?) still believe in (i.e. worship) such gods. Some theists claim that they only believe in the gods who fit exclusively into the tiny subset that haven't been discredited. John, do you know of any theists who actually believe in those non-personal gods? If they claim that such gods actually exist (a truth claim) would their position be rational according to your definition?
This leads to the white area of our universe of statements: some views just lack warrant but may one day have them, for or against. AIDS in 1982 might have been caused by all kinds of things; when we discovered the cause, the statements it is not caused by HIV were moved to the incoherent bucket, and the statement that it is moved to the green section. Until then, though, we suspended judgement. Since, as of now, there are no telling facts that rule out gods completely (and I invite those who think otherwise to argue that case), it is rational to suspend judgement. As I have said before: philosophy is what you do when facts don’t fix the solution. When they do, follow the facts.I agree with you, wearing my (amateur) philosopher's hat. There's no dispute here.
However, it still leaves one issue unresolved. Let's say it's 1982 and some people are proposing that AIDS is caused by male homosexual behavior. We may not have been able to resolve that question, but I was skeptical. I did not buy into the idea that there was a direct cause and effect relationship between behavior and AIDS. Was I being irrational because I declined to adopt that position? I don't think so. Would I have been irrational to declare that their claim was absolutely impossible? Yes, that would have been a bit premature even though all the data was pointing toward that conclusion.
Back in 1982, did we invent a word to describe our lack of knowledge of the cause of AIDS (e.g, "AIDS agnostic"). Were we fixated on the group that suspended judgment? No, we didn't invent a word for those people. There was no reason to do so since we have perfectly good answers to all truth claims about the disease: "yes," "no," and "I don't know."
Back to the existence of gods. Am I being irrational because I decline to adopt the position that some supernatural beings exist (i.e. atheism)? I don't think so. Did we invent a word to describe the fact that we can't disprove each and every claim of supernatural beings? Yes, we did. It's called "agnosticism". For some reason, when it comes to the existence of gods there's a special word for those who "suspend judgment." And now "agnosticism" is elevated to a sort of truth claim; namely, we must suspend judgment and it's irrational to not believe in gods. In other words, because of the invention of that word, we now have the situation where declining to believe in gods—my version of atheism—is supposed to be irrational, according to some philosophers.
Aside from the issue of defining "atheism" (see below) I'm seriously worried about whether the entire debate about agnosticism isn't just an example of philosophical nit picking. Is it very different from saying that you can never disprove Young Earth Creationism? My concern increases when I hear agnostics making the truth clam that we can never resolve the existence of god problem. That's true in the same sense that I can never prove that you or the chair exists. It's not pragmatic philosophy.6
I won’t go into the debate here about how to define the words “atheist” and “agnostic”, based on the writings of authorities. Authorities are either only a guide to actual practices and stances (which has no weight if you are trying to work it out yourself), or they are the outcome of arguments that we can attend to ourselves. While I appreciate Larry’s reading of some internet articles by philosophers (good ones too), I remind him that if I were arguing with him about, say, junk DNA, my citing the internet articles of some scientists might not carry a lot of weight. To be happy with the usages, one must examine the analysis given. I think that philosophers, like every other profession, can sometimes rely too much on established practices (a task of philosophy is to disentangle these prior uses of terms), and it is this I am disputing. So appealing to these articles doesn’t resolve my problems. Nor should it; philosophy is about the debate, not the authority. Maybe it’s different in molecular biology…I don't understand this point. Using my definition of "atheist," I can be both an atheist and a (very weak) agnostic. Using your definition of "atheist" you can't be agnostic and an atheist. Either we have to agree on a definition or we have to qualify our arguments by noting that they depend entirely on what definition you are using.
I'm not sure where you stand on this, John. Are you arguing that your definition of "atheist" is the only correct definition or are you conceding that Larry is being perfectly rational because he uses a different definition of "atheist"?
1. Did you read that sentence and immediately start to compose a comment based on blind people and those who are color blind? If so, you are part of the problem.
2. To complete the picture, there are times when creationists are quite justified in saying that some arguments from evolutionists are stupid and wrong.
3. There may be a small category of claims that are "consistent with unknown facts." John is probably thinking about the claim that Macs are better than PCs.
4. The tricky part is deciding when a genuine scientific controversy ceases to be a controversy. This is when it moves from the white part of John's diagram to the green part. There are no rules about this but we usually recognize when it happens. It happened for evolution in 1859, it happened for the Big Bang around 1970, and it happened for the role of humans in global climate change in about 2000.
5. Note to readers, let's not quibble about this. I know there are good, rational, reasons for denying the existence of even the deist god. That's not really the point of this discussion. Think of it as a thought experiment where "deism" stands for any version of the supernatural that you cannot rigorously disprove.
6. Please don't assume that I'm an expect on pragmatism. I'm using the term in the colloquial sense that scientists, not philosophers, might use it. John has kindly agreed that we can do this.