Friday, November 24, 2006

Are there any convenient truths?

Not according to Steven Pinker, professor of psychology at Harvard University. Here is a quote from his article in the Harvard Crimson in which he defines what it means to be educated:

Also, the picture of humanity’s place in nature that has emerged from scientific inquiry has profound consequences for people’s understanding of the human condition. The discoveries of science have cascading effects, many unforeseeable, on how we view ourselves and the world in which we live: for example, that our planet is an undistinguished speck in an inconceivably vast cosmos; that all the hope and ingenuity in the world can’t create energy or use it without loss; that our species has existed for a tiny fraction of the history of the earth; that humans are primates; that the mind is the activity of an organ that runs by physiological processes; that there are methods for ascertaining the truth that can force us to conclusions which violate common sense, sometimes radically so at scales very large and very small; that precious and widely held beliefs, when subjected to empirical tests, are often cruelly falsified.

I believe that a person for whom this understanding is not second-nature cannot be said to be educated.


It is a view that puts science and education at odds with the revival of religious sensibilities that see the loss of cultural certainties at the hand of science to be a betrayal of Western civilization. But it is not a betrayal of Western civilization, but a defining element, this tension between faith and reason. It is a tension that won't allow for a convenient separation of spheres between the Church and the Academy. Pinker makes a valiant argument in defense of this separation:

My second major reservation concerns the “Reason and Faith” requirement.

First, the word “faith” in this and many other contexts, is a euphemism for “religion.” An egregious example is the current administration’s “faith-based initiatives,” so-named because it is more palatable than “religion-based initiatives.” A university should not try to hide what it is studying in warm-and-fuzzy code words.

Second, the juxtaposition of the two words makes it sound like “faith” and “reason” are parallel and equivalent ways of knowing, and we have to help students navigate between them. But universities are about reason, pure and simple. Faith—believing something without good reasons to do so—has no place in anything but a religious institution, and our society has no shortage of these. Imagine if we had a requirement for “Astronomy and Astrology” or “Psychology and Parapsychology.” It may be true that more people are knowledgeable about astrology than about astronomy, and it may be true that astrology deserves study as a significant historical and sociological phenomenon. But it would be a terrible mistake to juxtapose it with astronomy, if only for the false appearance of symmetry.

Third, if this is meant to educate students about the role of religion in history and current affairs, why isn’t it just a part of the “U.S. and the World” requirement? Religion is an important force, to be sure, but so are nationalism, ethnicity, socialism, markets, nepotism, class, and globalization. Why single religion out among all the major forces in history?


It is perhaps ironic that Pinker is trying to excise the religious viewpoint from the educational mission of an institution that was originally founded to provide a source of well educated, home-grown clergy for the Puritan Massachusetts Bay Colony. But it is an inevitable irony for a culture that is informed by the heritage of both Athens and Jerusalem. It is a culture built upon a faultline.

One simple way to look at this faultline is to contrast the objects to which each culture aspires to gain knowledge of. For Jerusalem the object is God. For Athens it is the self. The ancient Greek aphorism "Know Thyself", which was inscribed on the lintel of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi, summarizes the Greek philosophical project. It is most famously remembered in Socrates' dictum "the unexamined life is not worth living".

When one examines the self, one examines the aspirations of the self, including the aspiration for God. The Western religious tradition has always maintained an uneasy coexsistence with Athenian reason because of this. As long as reason is turned outward from the self towards the phenomenon of the world, it supported the religious aspiration. When it was allowed to be turned inward at the self and the religious aspiration itself, it "broke the spell".

Western culture is a divided house. Pinker is right to complain that the attempt to reintegrate the house by a clumsy attempt to inject faith into the Academy is futile. Reason and faith really are two opposing ways of looking at the world. The fact that most people are capable of employing both modes in different contexts just speaks to the divided, compartmentalized nature of our psyches. They coexist, but they operate differently. How they do this is a mystery. But you can't teach an institution to do it.

28 Comments:

Blogger David said...

The real irony is that one suspects that Pinker is not, by his own definition, an educated man. I doubt that his deeply felt beliefs are ever subject to skeptical examination.

People of faith who live, more or less, within the ambit of Reason (like, say, Peter and me) can't help but go through this process of self-scrutiny. The Pinkers and Dawkins and their ilk are never seriously challenged to perform this same self-examination.

November 24, 2006 10:33 AM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

Before he went off the deep end, Carl Sagan had a nice book about not reasoning beyond your data.

This is, for example, the besetting sin of the global warmers. Orrin is right to say that, no matter what the climate models say, next July will be hot.

How hot? Neither the reasoners nor the faithful can say very precisely.

There are lots and lots of important sociopolitical matters that are not susceptible to reasoned single answers, because we do not know how to assign values to the factors. For me, it's health policy. Damned if I can tell whether national health insurance is a good idea or not.

This is not an argument about faith at all.

Some (not all) of the faithful make an even more egregious mistake when they assume that they have answers that trump the answers reason gives when reason is operating within known factors. ID comes to mind here.

November 24, 2006 11:52 AM  
Blogger Bret said...

David wrote: "The real irony is that one suspects that Pinker is not, by his own definition, an educated man."

Well, I have to admit laughing out loud when I read Pinker's "I believe that a person for whom this understanding is not second-nature cannot be said to be educated" sentence. Certainly a rather narrow definition of "educated".

But on the other hand, his requirements for being one of the "educated" seem rather tame to me. For example, there's not even the requirement to accept non-God directed Evolution. Just curious David, which items in the list don't you agree with? For example, do you take exception with "our species has existed for a tiny fraction of the history of the earth?"

Pinker wrote "Faith - believing something without good reasons to do so - has no place in anything but a religious institution..."

Unless humans were created in the instant, complete with full reasoning capacity along with all of the requisite knowledge for using that reasoning capacity, faith would very likely have had a major role in the cultural evolution and survival of primitive humans, who had overwhelming complexity to deal with and extremely little knowledge with which to help make decisions affecting survival.

I think that modern man is in essentially the same boat. Sure, we have more knowledge, but it's still a drop in the bucket compared to the complexity of the world and universe. Faith, without having good reasons, can still form the basis for choices, even for the educated, even outside of religious institutions, indeed, even for the non-religious.

November 24, 2006 11:08 PM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...

Nice comment, Duck.

What a pompous prig. Oh well, at least his ego isn't yet so gargantuan that he felt compelled to hand us down his personal ten commandments.

No medieval Pope could have commanded obedience based on Authority more starkly than this. But note how the impact of his light/dark, ignorance/knowledge dichotomies really only works when he pits his team against know-nothing white American evangelicals with all their attendant stereotypical characteristics. I'd love to see him go into a black church in rural Georgia or south side Chicago, or maybe even a rigorous New York yeshiva, and tell them they are believing "without good reasons to do so".

And my goodness, he's got the whole bloody history of Christianity in front of him and what does he choose to illustrate the forces of darkness--Bush's faith-based initiatives! Whatever happened to our beloved Inquisition?

I certainly agree with Bret that an inability to admit ignorance and explore the implications of that honestly seems to characterize much modern science as much as it does or did religion, but I suspect something else is going on here that explains the angry intolerance of guys like Dawkins, Dennett and Pinder and their rage at the spirit of the heartland. They must know that the limits of our ability to comprehend through rational inquiry are being stretched and questioned in sage-land and that the theoretical foundations are getting wobbly. Bing bangs, dark matter, string theory, neuroscience and genetics, Darwinian history etc.--all seem to be challenged and revised with increasing frequency and often with unsettling or confusing theoretical implications. This might not be apparent to your ordinary, everyday bright who is still very comfortable with, and comforted by, 1970's certainties, but minds are starting to be bent out of shape in the tenured Academy. As a result, science and rational inquiry seem to slipping into a kind of ultramontane, reactionary stage led by immature heros like these guys who would rather lash out and bolt the door than engage and debate, and who knash their teeth at people who demand the best of modern medicine for their very sick child and also say prayers for him.

Here is a quote from Tom Wolfe's "Sorry, but your soul just died", an exploration of where neuroscience may be leading us, that I would love to hear Pinder et. al. respond to: (Note to Skipper: This is not first-order evidence. This is literature!!!)

"Recently I happened to be talking to a prominent California geologist, and she told me: "When I first went into geology, we all thought that in science you create a solid layer of findings, through experiment and careful investigation, and then you add a second layer, like a second layer of brickss, all very carefully, and so on. Occasionally some adventurous scientists stacks the bricks up in towers, and these towers turn out to be insubstantial and they get torn down, and you proceed again with the careful layers. But we now realize that the very first layers aren't even resting on solid ground. They are balanced on bubbles, on concepts that are full of air, and thoose bubbles are being burst today, one after the other."

"I suddenly had a picture of the entire astonishing edifice collapsing and modern man plunging headlong back into the primordial ooze. He's flondering, sloshing about, gulping for air, frantically treading ooze, when he feels something huge and smooth swim beneath him and boost him up, like some almighty dolphin. He can't see it, but he's much impressed. He names it God."

November 25, 2006 3:32 AM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

'Faith, without having good reasons, can still form the basis for choices, even for the educated, even outside of religious institutions, indeed, even for the non-religious.'

Yes, but are they good choices? See Islam.

Yes, Peter, we all know how the bottom course of bricks is so unstable that, for example, semiconductors are unreliable.

If this woman is a geologist, exactly which fundamental 'bricks' of geology does she think are now uncertain?

Old Earth? Mechanical strength of rock? Natural fission? Inquiring minds want to know.

November 25, 2006 10:12 AM  
Blogger Bret said...

harry eagar asks: "Yes, but are they [faith based choices] good choices?"

Sometimes they are, sometimes they aren't, that's the nature of evolutionary processes. The best faith based choices win out in the long term.

harry eagar asserts: "See Islam."

Well, if everybody remaining are all followers of Islam in one-hundred years, then basing choices on Islam, from an evolutionary perspective, will turn out to have been an excellent approach. The point is that you can't know, via reason, ahead of time.

I think a better example is climate change. You either have faith in the abilities of scientists to adequately model the climate of the earth (a system of mind-boggling complexity), or you can have faith in the ability of the planet to adapt to changes in levels of certain gases as it's done for billions of years (assuming you believe the earth is billions of years old, of course). There are other choices as well, but these are beliefs that ultimately rest on faith. Not religious faith (at least not necessarily), but faith nonetheless. Only time will tell which faith was most accurate, but in any case we're all taking action (or not) based on faith.

November 25, 2006 11:07 AM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

I think you are confusing faith with evidence.

The evidence that the globe is warming unusually, or even at all, is very thin. No faith need be invoked to decide that, if it isn't happening, it doesn't need to be fixed.

I disbelieve in GCMs not because I believe the scientists are incapable of modeling systems but because I KNOW they are incapable (as yet and maybe forever) that system.

As for my example of Islam, the kicker is the word 'good.' People may live as Muslims just as they live with malaria. There are better options in each case.

November 25, 2006 12:31 PM  
Blogger David said...

Bret: I suspect that Pinker fails the last clause of his test: I doubt that he believes that his precious and widely held beliefs, when subjected to empirical tests, [could be] cruelly falsified.

It is true, though, that he is wrong about "our planet [being] an undistinguished speck in an inconceivably vast cosmos," other than in the most trivial and unimportant sense.

November 25, 2006 6:57 PM  
Blogger Bret said...

harry eagar wrote: "As for my example of Islam, the kicker is the word 'good.'"

'Good' seems subjective in the context to me except for one objective definition: the meme that is most widely adopted is the 'best' meme. Islam is doing pretty well in that category of 'goodness'.

With regards to climate change, your side is pure reason and the other side is faith? Hmmm, both sides sound pretty much the same to me. Just as they can't possibly know that doom is around the corner (unless we take action), you can't really say that we aren't having an adverse effect.

November 25, 2006 10:27 PM  
Blogger Bret said...

david: Okay, I think I agree with both.

November 25, 2006 10:28 PM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

Instead of using the terms
"faith" and "reason", how about "ignorance" and "knowledge", the test being the ability to assign different truth values to competing statements.

Just as with statements based upon ignorance (e.g., competing statements about the origin of life), it is impossible to ascertain the relative truth of statements based wholly upon faith.

Pure faith and pure ignorance are indistinguishable, except that the former more often fails to exhibit the humility that is its due.

I think what gets Dawkins, Pinker, et al so exercised is the profoundly idiotic nonsense that is the consequence of ignorance tarted up as faith. The link above is absolutely certain in its truth, and absolutely contradictory to equally ignorant, and certain, claims.

While Pinker and Dawson could choose their words far better, e.g. I believe that a person for whom this understanding is not second-nature can be considered at least mildly delusional.

In their defense, though, one should allow for a certain measure of annoyance when faced with one version of faith as ignorance that wants them dead, and another that would if it could still get away with it.



David:

It is true, though, that he is wrong about "our planet [being] an undistinguished speck in an inconceivably vast cosmos," other than in the most trivial and unimportant sense.

That is a faith-based statement; which is to say, wholly ignorant.

Whose to say that each galaxy in the universe does not harbor one such insignificant speck with intelligent life?

I say there are, you say there aren't.

We completely disagree, and there is no telling which is least incorrect.

Statements of faith = statements of ignorance.

November 26, 2006 1:52 AM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

Bret:

'Good' seems subjective in the context to me except for one objective definition: the meme that is most widely adopted is the 'best' meme. Islam is doing pretty well in that category of 'goodness'.

That sounds an awful lot like the moral relativism OJ has fallen into lately with respect to Shias and Sunnis.

Is it not possible to conclude, full stop, that any religion directing, for just one example, beating disobedient women is not good?

November 26, 2006 2:05 AM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...

Why the strict dichotomy, Skipper? I thought you and your new pal Benedict were into synthesizing faith and reason these days. Are you not ignoring the sub-text of Pinker's lament, which is that he thinks everybody should defer to his authority rather than to religious authority? (Note his deft use of the archaic, capitalized "Academy" in opposition to "Church". It brings to my mind St. George and the dragon and I bet to Pinker's mind too.) And, as with Dawkins, that authority is based on throwing up simplistic and rigid dichotomies that pit him against anti-intellectual, fundamentalist American Protestantism with an unstated assumption his audience will lump all religious thinking therein. It's a trick well known to Duckians.

All his examples of beliefs that constitute the sine qua non of the educated mind are largely inaccessible to the average joe and, frankly, of limited practical interest to him. Science is long past the germ theory or "How do trees drink?" stage. These faith vs. knowledge debates are often covers for appeals to authority between those who say "Trust me, I have knowledge you can't understand I acquired through faith" and "Trust me, I have knowledge you can't understand I acquired through empirical study." It's a bit like the old joke about how the definition of an alcoholic is someone who drinks more than his doctor. In this case, the definition of an uneducated person (or religious person--same thing for Pinker) is anyone who rejects or even doubts anything fundamental Pinker has convinced himself is true. And boy, is he cranky about it. Pinker's religious analogue is no longer the contemplative theologian, it's the parish priest frantically competing with the bloody Prots down the street.

A key one in his list is that there are methods for ascertaining the truth that can force us to conclusions which violate common sense. I assume he is using common sense as a metaphor for sensual and experiential knowledge. Sure, some discoveries are counter-intuitive, but when you assert that to be a baseline principle of scientific inquiry, not to mention the human condition, you sure shut out the lay inquirer, no? I suspect Pinker would pull intellectual rank even on Harry with his famous library if Harry dared question the master's sagacity. Dawkins certainly would.

So, a lot of modern, secular beliefs are faith-based, not because they can't be supported empirically to some degree, but because they are based on faith in the authority of the Pinkers of the world by brights who have little or no means (or inclination) to assess them critically. They choose Pinker over the Pope on any given subject, not because of his evidence or even his logic, but because they choose Pinker over the Pope on every subject. Remind you of anyone else?

As to life elsewhere, surely you see you are arguing just like a young earth creationist. Leaving aside the old "proving a negative" problem, do you feel intellectually entitled to reject the implications of Fermi's musings and call it an even-money bet because we can't say conclusively? I hope that Fed-ex job works out well for you, but if not, there might be a position available at the Discovery Institute. (I must say the most fun thing about this issue is the palpably deperate yearnings almost all scientists seem to have to believe there is life out there, for reasons that have little to do with science. I shall miss that if we do ever discover life elsewhere, but it won't make much difference to me otherwise.)

Finally, Is it not possible to conclude, full stop, that any religion directing, for just one example, beating disobedient women is not good?. The answer is, most definitely, but only from another religious perspective or impulse.

November 26, 2006 4:24 AM  
Blogger Duck said...

I think what Pinker was trying to get across is that there are certain facts that are so well established that you can't really be considered educated if you either deny them through a faith claim or if you are just unaware of. The vastness of the universe is one of those facts. Now he goes astray when he concludes that our insignificance in the face of this vastness is a fact. That is a value judgment, not an observation. There is no "significance" particle. Significance is a quality that we are wholly free to bestow upon whatever we like.

It is hard to judge Pinker's reaction without access to the text of the requirements. Is the requirement that the student learn about faith, or that he demonstrate faith? Is it to make him faith-full? I imagine not, but it is probably intended in some sort of half-hearted way to make the university more friendly to "people of faith". Which is one of those horrible euphemisms, like "people of color". There are no people of "faith". There are people of the Christian faith, or the Muslim faith, or the Jewish faith. But noone worships "Faith". I'm with Pinker in that if by faith they mean religion, then they should just say so.

My guess is that it is a requirement put in place to mollify the kind of people who think that science and Christian faith are inseparable representations of Truth, and that the university should not separate them. It's a fool's errand, because those people would not be satisfied unless Harvard went back to being a Bible college.

November 26, 2006 9:06 AM  
Blogger Bret said...

hey skipper asks: "Is it not possible to conclude, full stop, that any religion directing, for just one example, beating disobedient women is not good?"

I'm not sure exactly what "full stop" means in this context, but if it means that starting with universally accepted premises, a set of objective, rational arguments could be created to convince nearly every one in the world that beating disobedient women is not good, then no, it's not possible, almost by definition if some religion directs that it is good. The problem is that they'll simply not agree on the starting premises, in which case your carefully reasoned argument is stillborn.

Is it moral relativism? Once we start pondering such questions outside our moral box and try to objectively discuss such things, then it almost has to be. But then we retreat into our moral boxes and declare that beating women is evil and so is Islam and we should do everything we can to stifle its advance. And I don't see any hypocrisy in having different subjective and objective viewpoints.

November 26, 2006 10:20 AM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

I don't know anything about Pinker, except that I don't accept that he speaks for all evidence-based thinkers -- or even belongs to the club.

Oddly, from this little taste here, he seems to be like that proudly conservative guy -- what's his name? -- who wrote a book listing all the 'things' an educated person should 'know.' (I scored 100%: I had heard of every single one, although I could not have told you very much about some of them, but I think the point was simply that one had to have been aware that X had existed. No one, including the author of the book, could have told you something significant about all of them without going to the library.)

As someone else said, there are known knowns, known unknowns and unknown unknowns. It's a wise child who can tell which is which, for him.

Sherlock Holmes famously said he did not know or need to know whether the moon revolved around the earth or the earth around the moon. Nothing stupid about that position.

But if you are going to have an opinion, it had better be that the moon revolves around the earth.

By definition, a person whose knowledge comes from faith is locked into one position or the other and cannot -- without damaging something vital in the faith -- change, even if pretty persuasive evidence suggests he ought to.

The Catholic Church does not understand much, but it has always understood that. Which is why it has, for 1,500 years, denied the validity of evidence over faith.

Maybe the Truth does not make us Free. But being Free does make us susceptible to (some forms) of Truth.

Faith is the other way round.

November 26, 2006 10:54 AM  
Blogger David said...

Skipper: I really do think that all the evidence is on my side.

Also, even if there were one intelligent species per galaxy -- a faith based statement if there ever was one -- it still wouldn't make ours "an undistinguished speck in an inconceivably vast cosmos." Rather, Earth would be one of a relatively small list.

November 26, 2006 12:33 PM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

There is a classic example of what's wrong with faith as a guide to behavior, just out today.

Glenn Reynolds reports that 2 top Islamic guides (head of the top university, a top theologian) have issued a fatwa that female genital mutilation is unislamic.

Whoopee. You don't need religion to tell you that. In fact, you probably need religion to tell you to do it; it isn't something that would occur to a secular and evidence-based thinker, probably.

But here's the kicker: if the Koran or hadith had said mutilation was OK or required, then Muslims would have had to accept that -- or reject religion.

That's the bind faith always puts you in. Inevitably, and sooner rather than later, you have to decide between what you personally think is right and what some moldy old priest says is right.

November 26, 2006 4:39 PM  
Blogger Brit said...

There is a name for a person who makes his choices based on faith. The name is ‘lunatic’.

I agree that the distinction between faith and religion is an important one. For the most part, religion is ok. It’s about tradition, ritual, weekly routine, friendships, group identity and can sometimes provide a handy hook on which to hang moral rules – so long as the religion is, like Christianity, readily adaptable to secular morality.

Faith, however, is a problem. Nobody who is not a lunatic makes everyday decisions based on faith alone: non-lunatics stay out of the way of buses rather than relying on guardian angels to protect them; non-lunatics take medicine instead of just praying for health; non-lunatics look at the weather forecast instead of doing a rain dance.

Pure faith is a really, really bad way of making choices and decisions, and of answering questions, at the everyday level. So why would anyone think it a good basis for answering big philosophical questions about morality, humanity and the nature of the world? Yet people do think that faith is the best way of answering these questions, or they claim to, even if they don’t actually use it.

The trouble with using faith for these questions is that literally anything, from Noah’s Ark to suicide bombing, is allowed in, so long as an individual professes faith in it.

A 9/11 hijacker has as much faith as the most tolerant, gentle protestant minister. With faith alone – that is, without invoking reason – it is impossible to say that the former is a lunatic and the latter is not.

November 27, 2006 6:00 AM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

Peter:

Why the strict dichotomy, Skipper?

In part, due to employing rhetorical shorthand. Given the time stamp, I didn't have a whole lot of brain bytes left to work with.

Secondarily, though, almost all religious claims are, by definition Faith claims. Absent historical narrative, virtually everything in the Bible must be taken on Faith, because any equally based, but contradictory, claim would have no distinguishable truth value.

I am sure you would assert that every Faith claim in the Q'uran is simply wrong. A Muslim would say exactly the opposite. Who's to tell which is objectively true? There is, after all, an answer to that question, even if not humanly knowable: the former, the latter, neither.

Clearly, almost everything we do is a combination of Faith and Reason; or, to leave off the euphemisms, Ignorance and Knowledge. For example, a priori, asserting my family will not die in a horrible car wreck on the way to the movies is an Ignorance statement, the truth of which can only be known in hindsight. However, we will go to the movies anyway, due to the likelihood we will enjoy the movie due to its favorable reviews. That decision is a mixture of Ignorance and Knowledge. I don't know what the future will hold, and am therefore unable to distinguish between competing statements. I do know, however, the outcomes of similar past incidents, leading to an expectation of how this will transpire.

Religion, in contrast (eschatology, I am looking straight at you), is full practically to the rim of claims that are both wholly ignorant, and which also have absolutely no experiential track record upon which to base expectations.

Given that the questions Religion attempts to answer are humanly unanswerable, yet we nonetheless insist on asking them, there is no alternative. Unfortunately, as a Knowledge statement, I can say with fair certainty that Religions never exhibit the sort of humility that should attend erecting baroque structures upon phantasms.

This does, I think, highlight a significant difference between Christianity and Islam. The former no longer possesses the certainty of its claims required to impose them through coercion upon those who are disinclined to believe. Unlike centuries past (including, in some parts of the US, the 20th), I need not fear for my life or livelihood due to my skepticism.

In many parts of the Muslim world, that cannot be said.

These faith vs. knowledge debates are often covers for appeals to authority between those who say "Trust me, I have knowledge you can't understand I acquired through faith" and "Trust me, I have knowledge you can't understand I acquired through empirical study."

Ignorance vs. Knowledge is independent of how arcane the subject is. No doubt I take the truth of Knowledge claims on faith, because I accept (on Faith) that within the realm it is possible to distinguish between competing statements, and, more importantly, if I was to take the time and effort required to learn the subject, I could do the same.

In contrast, that can never be said about an Ignorance claim. After sufficient study, I might come to agree with the claim, but I, nor you, could ever be able to refute a contrary Ignorance claim. There simply is no such thing as truth through revelation.

Despite that, though, people, through nothing more than heaps of ignorance continue to create heaps of corpses. Has it not occurred to you that the Sunni v. Shia murder fest is much ado about absolutely nothing?

November 27, 2006 7:52 AM  
Blogger David said...

Brit: Now that is the authentic voice of Britishness. I could get many of the words right, I could get within spitting distance of the cadences, but in my hands that would seem like both a cheap knock-off and a crude stereotype. Good on ya.

November 27, 2006 1:15 PM  
Blogger Brit said...

I endeavour to give satisfaction, David.

November 27, 2006 2:17 PM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

Peter, David:

Also, even if there were one intelligent species per galaxy -- a faith based statement if there ever was one -- it still wouldn't make ours "an undistinguished speck in an inconceivably vast cosmos." Rather, Earth would be one of a relatively small list.

Of course it is a faith based statement (I think that was my point); if true though, it would make Earth one of billions of such planets in the universe.

Far many more billions than there are people.

As to life elsewhere, surely you see you are arguing just like a young earth creationist. Leaving aside the old "proving a negative" problem, do you feel intellectually entitled to reject the implications of Fermi's musings and call it an even-money bet because we can't say conclusively?

No, I am not. Rather, I am highlighting arguments from Ignorance. I feel intellectually entitled to reject Fermi's paradox because it contains a Faith based entering argument: given enough time, all things are possible.

However, there are plenty of Knowledge based reasons to suggest that interstellar travel will be forever impossible. The lack of alien visits suggests that is one answer to the Fermi paradox.

But is it? Who knows. It is an Ignorance statement whose truth value is indistinguishable from other, contradictory, statements.

Peter, you often insist scientists speak with far too much certainty and arrogance. Too often, that is true.

Why is it you do not insist clergy speak with less certainty and arrogance?

November 27, 2006 3:07 PM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...

I try, Skipper, but when I do all my Duckian friends just tell me there is really no difference and besides, the arrogant ones understand their scripture better.

November 28, 2006 3:10 AM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...

Via Orrin

November 28, 2006 3:44 AM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

Yes, I understand the so understanding professor is converting to Anabaptism and is going to live on a farm without electricity or schools that no past 8th grade.

November 28, 2006 8:43 AM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...

Here is an interesting debate involving one of Duck's favourite theists and here is a report on what appears to be the Lambeth Conference for brights.

November 28, 2006 11:00 AM  
Blogger David said...

I love the phrase, from Peter's first link, "passionate thinkers." I'm not sure what we're supposed to conclude from that description.

November 28, 2006 6:31 PM  

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