Monday, May 07, 2012

The Problem with Philosophy: Elliott Sober

Elliott Sober is an important philosopher who appears to be widely respected in the philosophy community. So when he comes up with a really silly position on the compatibility of science and religion, we should all take notice. What does this say about the discipline?

Jerry Coyne comments on a recent talk by Sober at the University of Chicago [Can God create mutations? Eliott Sober says we can’t rule that out]. Unfortunately Jerry wasn't able to attend but here's the video: "Naturalism and Evolutionary Theory."


I urge you to read the comments on Jerry Coyne's blog website and join the discussion over there. There are two important questions: (1) Does Sober's argument make any sense to a scientist?, and (2) What does this say about the state of philosophy of science?

With respect to the first question, it's easy to paraphrase Sobers argument ...
Imagine that there are evil aliens who want to destroy human life on this planet and take it over for themselves. These are very patient evil aliens and, furthermore, they don't want us to recognize what they're up to.

They have chosen to manipulate evolution by gradually introducing mutations into our genome that will lead to destructive behavior and by inserting mutations that cause diseases. They do this in a very subtle manner so that we can't distinguish between random mutations and a very small number of directed mutations. The bad alleles are indistinguishable from those that are occasionally fixed by random genetic drift so that, over the course of millions of years, we don't notice anything unusual.

Since science is incapable of detecting the actions of these evil aliens, it follows that science is perfectly compatible with the existence of evil aliens who want to destroy us by manipulating our genome.
We all recognize, I hope, that the argument is silly. It's just as silly if you substitute some kind of God in place of evil aliens.

The second question is more of a challenge. I can see why philosophers want to rule out unprovable claims such as "I know for certain that there are no evil aliens." You can't prove a negative and maybe there are some people out there who need reminding. However, the same logic applies to all kinds of claims including the existence of Santa Claus and the tooth fairy. It even applies to homeopathy and weapons of mass destruction. You can't prove conclusively that homeopathic remedies will never, under any circumstances, cure someone of asthma. You can't prove, beyond a shadow of doubt, that there were never any weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

Philosophers can make an important contribution by explaining why, and how, we make decisions based on probability and not on mathematical proofs. They could explain why nobody really believes in the existence of evil aliens, tooth fairies, and Santa Claus, in spite of the fact that you can't conclusively prove their non-existence.

This is where science comes in. The scientific way of knowing operates on the quaint notion that extraordinary claims (e.g. evil aliens) require extraordinary evidence—with the emphasis on evidence. Beliefs that are held in the absence of any favorable evidence are not beliefs that are worth holding, especially if those beliefs are going to rule your life. What if you encountered a cult that was building a large spaceport in Saskatchewan in order to welcome the aliens after we have all died in a nuclear holocaust? What would you think of their sanity? Would it help to know that philosophers think their core belief is rational?

I think we need a pragmatic philosophy for the 21st century. One that can actually help us make rational decisions without focusing on sophistry or on pedantic issues that are only of interest to a handful of naive philosophers who are way out of touch with reality. Science and the existence of "evil aliens" are incompatible because there's no need for the "evil alien" hypothesis to explain the world as we see it. There's no evidence for evil aliens. They appear, to all intents and purposes, to be delusions. We don't need to prove their non-existence in order to recognize the incompatibility.

Same thing for gods.


10 comments:

  1. Personally, I think all the argument really says (and I must admit to only judging the paraphrase) about the state of the philosophy of science is that really, really bad philosophers can end up teaching students.

    Simply put, he is correct about the compatibility issue. So long as he is just some random philosopher who doesn't accept the scientific view--ok, I suppose that can be enough. If he is indeed a philosopher of science though he should be continuing on to show why the compatibility argument itself is incompatible with the scientific paradigm.

    Honestly, I'd expect him to also explain why the compatibility argument should remain unconvincing to anyone...in that it's no reason to believe that the statements are true even though they are compatible with scientific finding.

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  2. "You can't prove conclusively that homeopathic remedies will never, under any circumstances, cure someone of asthma."

    Sorry for the double post, didn't take note of this statement right away.

    I think this is also a flawed view of the scientific method. Scientific method doesn't say homeopathic remedies do not work. It says they don't work any better than nothing.

    http://crazyeddiesbrain.wordpress.com/2011/11/26/in-defense-of-scientism/

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    1. Eddy,
      When homeopathy keeps a person from seeking out therapies known to be effective it is worse than nothing.

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  3. Scientific method doesn't say homeopathic remedies do not work. It says they don't work any better than nothing.

    Well, colloquially, to do better than nothing is exactly what most people who use the word work mean by it. Are you really arguing that there is a definition of work in which one can do worse than nothing and yet still be deemed to work?

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  4. You can't exclude the possibility that God creates mutations to guide evolution. But to believe it is pure creationism, just not of the Young-Earth kind. That God or the aliens do something of the sort is not incompatible with scientific fact. Estimating the probability of this actually being true given the evidence we have as being greater than 10^ minus{some large integer} is incompatible both with the facts and with the core epistomology principles of science.

    Which, BTW, is why anything short of pure deism is still creationism regardless of the label used to describe it - the neutral theory of molecular evolution is absolutely incompatible with a personal God who set thing in motion knowing the outcome in advance. He must be intervening, but if you posit that he is intervening, then you are a creationist, no matter how you try to spin it. Not an Young-Earth one, but still a creationist. That, unfortunately, includes some quite prominent names. for which, and other reasons, it will never be politically acceptable to call such views creationism, but this does not change their nature.

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  5. It seems to me that a notion of science as a process of falsifying hypoetheses is causing some confusion. Science is about showing how nature works. There's no reason for the evil aliens hypothesis, therefore it's not a scientific hypothesis.

    But if you misconceive science as a falsication process, then you can pretend that the evil aliens are just a different kind of explanation, that precisely because it is unfalsifiable is therefore not part of science.Nonetheless evil aliens would be part of the world and science has explained a great deal about how genes work. In the context of that knowledge, it is not just that there is no reason to hypothesize evil aliens: Any conception of how the evil aliens could work is incompatible with what science has already explained.

    Unfortunately I can't agree that a probabilistic standard saves science from Sober's argument. We would naturally think that extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof, but highly improbable events do occur. There are major conceptual difficulties in determining what counts as probabilistic proof of an improbably event, I think, but another problem is whether we can equate extraordinary with improbable.

    In practice, "extraordinary" is most useful when we mean it as a catchall term for supernatural causes. But then the extraordinary claims mantra is little more than another way of saying science rejects supernatural causes.

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  6. "You can't prove a negative..."

    Can you prove that?

    Either there are some negatives you can prove (there are), or the truth of this sentence is unknowable.

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  7. It's tempting to say that Sober's argument doesn't say much about the state of modern philosophy, but when you remember that Sober is one of the big names in modern philosophy, it really does cause some concern. Also, that most of the criticism seems to be coming from outside of modern philosophy is a bit disconcerting too, where's the self-correction?

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  8. Science and the existence of "evil aliens" are incompatible because there's no need for the "evil alien" hypothesis to explain the world as we see it.

    A major point of Sober's talk was that evolutionary theory (and all theories by extension) is not causally complete. So all theories do "need" more hypotheses. So, rejecting some hypothesis by claiming it is not needed is wrong.

    In saying that, Sober would also reject the evil alien hypothesis for the same reason that he rejects intelligent design (and for a reason Larry talks about): there is no independent evidence that there are any aliens in the first place, even less any evidence that they are doing anything here.

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  9. I think that Hawks is right and that the idea (in the comments) that Sober is a bad philosopher is crazy. Nobody has shown a flaw in his argument. Saying that he should have taken things further or in a different direction depends on his goals. If Sober's goal is to have more religious people accept evolution, then the very limited kind of compatibility (logical compatibility) he is arguing has a practical function (or at least could). If one's goal is to challenge religion, then it makes sense to push for more evidential kinds of incompatibility. Sober's approach is hardly an embarassement to philosophy of science or to anything else -- what's more embarrassing is how at least some scientists seem to reason about philosophy.

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