Wednesday, February 19, 2014


"Scientists make bad philosophers."
-Albert Einstein

There was another study done recently which surveyed a few thousand people and proposes that this represents a nation of over 350 million souls.  This one is getting more attention than many because it claims several things about scientific understanding.
  1. it says that about a quarter of Americans are unaware that the earth rotates the sun, and takes about a year to do so.
  2. it says that about a third of Americans believe that astrology is scientifically valid.
  3. it shows that in these two questions, people who identify as Democrats or liberals tend to be more likely to own these scientific fallacies than those who do not.  In fact, the more conservative you self-identified as in the survey, the less likely you were to be unscientific in these areas.
Now, I'm always skeptical of this kind of thing because they smack of confirmation bias and I never trust a small group of people to accurately represent a gigantic one.  I don't care how careful your methodology is, asking just over 2000 people is not going to tell you what hundreds of millions think.
And I suspect that at least some of the answers mistook "astrology" for "astronomy" a word confusion I've heard actual professional astronomers make.  Its only one letter off and when you're tired or distracted it can happen.
And finally, the age breakdown tells a more specific story: the younger you are, the more likely you are to get these things wrong.  Teenagers and college age more so than older.  And that helps explain the political skew: younger people tend to be more leftist, older more conservative.
That doesn't say good things about the American education system, but young people are more likely to believe dumb crap like astrology than older, too often. Or at least give it a try.
What I'm reading from conservatives isn't so much "see, you're all stupid!!!1!" but rather "uh, what was that about the party of science again?  Because as the paper intimates, the stereotype is that conservatives are dumb and anti-scientific but those on the left are super rational and all sciencey.
This is based not so much on any particular scientific acumen but rather a pair of litmus tests, one of which is getting a bit tattered: evolution and global warming.  Leftists are more likely to go all in on both, and conservatives less likely.
Now, instead of attacking these beliefs or political aspects, I'd like to approach this from a different angle.  I want to assert something that people might find unlikely or absurd:
Both religion and science are inductive and share much more than most realize.
Before I start to explain that, I need to define some terms.  First off, faith.  Most people view faith in terms of Kierkegaard's concept where you abandon reason, close your eyes, and believe without thinking.  The "leap of faith" he called it.
Faith is not an abandonment of reason, it is a transcending of reason.  Something people do in error is draw a line then put faith and reason on opposite ends, like a dichotomy or a spectrum.  To the extent you have more of one, you necessarily have less of the other:
This presumes that the opposite of faith is reason, and the opposite of reason is faith.  That's utterly false and absurd.  The opposite of faith is lack of faith:
and the opposite of reason is irrationality:
Faith is not another word for irrationality, and reason is not another word for lack of faith.
To understand this, it helps to understand that everyone, everywhere, has faith.  I don't mean everyone is religious - although that's true - I mean that people hold faith in things all around their lives, every day.
Faith is simply put "the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen."  It is trust in something you have no empirical evidence for.  For example, you have faith your car will start when you turn the key.  You have faith your house will be there when you get home.  You have faith your spouse isn't cheating on you as you read this.
You may argue that this faith is based on experience and science and so on, but the truth is, when you turn that key, you don't have a shred of scientific or physical evidence it will start your car.  You trust it will, based on past experience, but you have no actual proof when you do it.  You only have faith.
It is not irrational to hold that faith, it is not devoid of reason.  It is, in fact, based on reason: its worked in the past, and keys start up an electronic sequence designed to start your car.
Other aspects of faith are less scientifically founded.  Faith your house will still be there is simply based on odds: its unlikely that something has happened in the time since you last saw the house that will have destroyed it.  It certainly isn't impossible, a sink hole or a fire or a meteor or something could have demolished the house.  But it probably will be there; probability states that it will likely be present.
And your spouse not cheating on you?  You trust them because of their statements of love and affection and their behavior.  You might fear their could be cheating, simply out of jealousy and a lack of confidence in yourself, or they might even be giving you some reason to fear, but you have faith that they are not, without a shred of scientific proof.  That's part of what makes a relationship work, the trust and confidence in each other, among many other things.
None of these beliefs are irrational, simply because they are faith-based.
And the truth is, faith is acting upon a reasonable belief in each case.  And it always is acting on a reasonable belief.  People believe things, from the Easter bunny to astrology to cars starting based on reason, even if it is flawed.  They construct a series of plausible arguments and evidences and then structure their faith around those.
Nobody simply closes their eyes and says "I'm just going to believe this!" without a shred of reason behind it.  The reason might be more rationalization, it might be specious, and it might be based on nonsense or psychological handwaving, but they offer reason and evidence for what they believe nevertheless.
In other words, Kierkegaard was wrong, at least as he's being interpreted and quoted.  There's no blind leap of faith, it is an informed, rational decision that takes you somewhere you cannot prove empirically.  In other words, its extra-rational, not irrational, to have faith.  It is based on reason, which takes a person to a place reason cannot support scientifically.
You go from "the key turns a device which sends a signal to the motor to start" to "it will work this time."  That doesn't make it irrational or wrong, simply something beyond which reason and empirical (use of the senses) measurement can define.
Now, with that in mind, lets look at science.  Science is, properly defined, the systematic examination of empirical phenomena.  That is, using system and careful examination, science attempts to understand things we can measure and sense.  It isn't supposed to deal with truth or philosophy, it doesn't deal with concepts that cannot be measured or examined by tools and senses.
To do this, scientists will propose hypotheses and through that develop a method of examining evidence to test that hypothesis.  Often, they will develop theories, which are systems of examining the evidence to determine facts.
What science does not do, at any point, when properly exercised, is declare anything absolutely.  No good scientist makes absolute total 100% certain statements.  They make statements of high probability and likelihood, but never certainty.  Good science is very well-tested and reproducible, so you can test it yourself and have a very high chance of getting the same results.
When you put a piece of copper in a flame, it will tend to burn green.  When you break down water to its basic parts, you'll tend to get hydrogen and oxygen.  When you drop two objects in a vacuum in an area with gravity, they fall at the same speed regardless of shape and weight.
Now, sometimes these results vary (the water has other stuff in it, the fuel for the flame is changing the color, etc) but when properly done the results are very predictable.
When science is done correctly, this is what you get.  High degree of reliability.
Of course, there are those who do bad science and produce poor results which cannot be reproduced in this manner, but that's a topic for another post.  This is happening more and more lately, it seems.
The reason scientists do not speak in absolute terms is that they are only reporting what they have discovered.  They cannot report The Way Things Are Absolutely because that's not what science is about.  That's the realm of philosophy or theology.
Science reports what they have found to be very likely to be true, based on their experimental work, but always leaves some small room for new information and better understanding.  For example, it was presumed for along time that atoms were the smallest itty pieces of reality, but good scientists always left room for more to be discovered, as the tools did not allow for closer examination.  Later even smaller bits making up atoms appeared to be the smallest bits, until even smaller bits were believed to exist, and so on.
Which brings us to the similarities.  Here I have to define a couple of other things: deduction and induction.  
Deduction is familiar to most people through Sherlock Holmes: its what makes him seem so very smart.  Deductive reasoning is when you systematically reduce all information you have by eliminating the things which are not true until you reach a final conclusion which in all probability is true. 
Deduction is like having a pile of beads of two colors: blue and yellow.  You remove each blue bead, until you only have the yellow beads.  Deduction works in this way: you examine all the information removing each false thing until you are presented only with true things.  From these true things you then assemble a pattern that tells you what you want to know.  Here is an example of a deductive argument:
  1. All men are mortal.
  2. Socrates is a man.
  3. Therefore, Socrates is mortal.
It takes two true statements which agree in context and produces a true conclusion out of them.  You have managed to deduce (reduce all non facts) something true from the information you have.
Inductive reasoning is different, and is rejected by Holmes in the books as insufficiently systematic and rational.  However, he did engage in it from time to time.  Inductive reasoning seeks to find an answer that in high probability is true, but is not absolutely certain to be true.  Here is an example of an inductive argument:
  1. Almost all people are taller than 26 inches
  2. Gareth is a person
  3. Therefore, Gareth is almost certainly taller than 26 inches
Notice that the inductive argument does not attempt to assert the conclusion as certain or absolute, but rather very likely.  Deduction tries to find certainty, Induction tries to find high probability. 
Are you still with me?  Deduction is the science of reducing things to a single truth, while Induction is the science of developing conclusions that are very likely but might be false.   Strangely enough these are usually portrayed as being in conflict or opposites, but they are simply two different ways of trying to achieve two different goals.  Both are useful tools in the correct circumstances.
One of my favorite teachers had a bit he used where he told people who had lost their way or weren't following him to cross their eyes.  That way he would know when he had to explain more without them having to be embarrassed by raising a hand or drawing attention to themselves.
I hope nobody's eyes are crossed at this point.
So now we come to the assertion above: religion and science are more alike than people understand, and both are inductive.  That is, both use inductive methods to reach conclusions.
Neither religion or science use deduction, neither use logical systems to weed out untruths to find an absolute truth, but instead use logical systems to examine information and come to a conclusion of high probability.
Faith in God is based not on a blind leap, but on examined information and revelation which leads to a conclusion of high probability.  If you want part of that examination, you can read all about it in a post in which I use an old method to prove a theistic creator must exist.
Similarly, science uses examined information and revelation to lead to a conclusion of high probability.   This is the basic bare bones fact of how science is supposed to be done, again, properly as I explained above.
This is not to say that faith and science are identical or interchangeable, only that each shares very much in the way of methodology, conclusion, and system - far more than most are aware of. Its merely that when it comes to their examination of claims, both use the same sort of inductive system of reasoning.
The fact that some abuse or confuse either doesn't make the conclusion less true.  Some misuse science to come to conclusions that they claim are absolute truth.  Some misuse religion by ignoring evidence and reason entirely, rejecting them as intellectual and "not spiritual."
Both science and religion deal with what seems to be true based on the best evidence to the person involved.  both science and religion respond to information.  Neither involve a blind leap of faith or absolute certainty based on systematic argument.
The difference here is not in analysis or philosophy, but in realm.  Science deals with the empirical and measurable, while religion deals with the metaphysical and supernatural. They are not in conflict at any point, they are rather two trains passing side by side, often supporting the other.
In other words, there's no real conflict between religion and faith.  Science displays faith (this will turn out the same this time) and religion displays science (we examined the facts, and here's the most likely conclusion).
Science is treated as anti- or in the place of religion, and religion the opposite.  But they are not.  Not only are there religious scientists and scientific faithful, but the two movements are doing very similar things.
There's no conflict, because they aren't even dealing with the same issues.  They can seem like it at times, but almost always that's because they are being abused.  For example; science cannot explain how everything got here.  Science does not give us origins of reality, it cannot.  That's beyond the ability of science to gather information on and test.  By definition, it cannot be examined scientifically.
And religion by definition cannot tell us the chemical composition of water or what the smallest particle is, or what light is made up of.  That's not what religion deals with.  Religion is about meaning and ethics and truth.  Science is about existence and measurement and facts.  If you confuse these two things, you get into trouble. 
Truth is not fact, and fact is not truth.  Facts are true, but that's the substance of another essay entirely.  Suffice it to remember the line from Indiana Jones: archaeology is the search for facts; you want the search for truth, that's down the hall in the philosophy department.
Its not that science cannot support or inform faith, or that faith cannot shape and inform science.  For example, the theory of Intelligent Design (ID) relies on faith that there is a theistic creator.  That can be used to interpret data in just a valid a method as evolutionary theory, both are supported by evidence and inductive reasoning.  There's a high degree of inductive probability for each, based on the work of each group.  Only one can possibly be true, since they are in conflict, but they both are inductively determined.
And in the contrary, you can have a misuse of either cause problems for your present work, which can create a conflict, such as the fight against ID by evolutionists.
Where the conflict here occurs is when science starts slouching into metaphysics and philosophy.  If you presume as a scientist that there cannot be a creator, then you're not engaging in science any longer, you're engaging in religious activity.  You are making a statement about matters which have nothing to do with science and by that violating your efforts.  Further, you are engaging in faith (no creator) and that faith is causing conflicts with your science.
Strangely enough, some people (perhaps many today) treat science as a religion without even being aware of it.  In a post-Christian culture, most people's comprehension of what religion consists of is shaped around a series of slanders and misconceptions.
Thinking religion is mindless, anti-scientific stupidity and strange ritualistic nonsense, they don't recognize the religion in what they do with science.  When a scientist says something, such people do not exercise scientific skepticism or examine the evidence, but trust it because it was stated by a scientist.  This is an example of faith.  They don't know, nor do they have evidence, they simply have faith it must be true because a scientist said so.
Further, they become defensive and abusive to people who question this dogma, asserting it with zeal and faithful certainty.  They build their life around their understanding of science, finding in it answers to philosophical questions such as "why do we fall in love" and "where does evil come from?" in what they believe to be science.  
This is where hypotheses and presuppositions constructed around a presumption of evolution come from.  The inductive chain goes like this: 
  1. We evolved
  2. We have emotions
  3. Therefore we evolved emotions (for [insert theory here] reason)
The problem is it is constructed as an inductive argument, but presented as deductive.  That is, it is set up to argue something of high probability but stated as one of absolute certainty.  The TV show CSI got bad this way in the last years of William Peterson's run on the program.
And finally, such people become so enamored of their status as being so very scientific that they become evangelists, proselytizing for their understanding of reality to everyone.  They try to convince people of their worldview in the manner of a street preacher.  They identify themselves by their Darwin fish on the car and SCIENCE!  "memes" on Facebook.  They shape their self esteem and identity group by who they attack and how, usually "those stupid Christers and their sky-god!"
On the other hand, there are those who confuse their faith with science, and try to answer all manner of scientific questions not in the context of understanding principles or philosophy but absolute factual answers.  This is where the hard core creationists come from, who reject the best present scientific likelihood of the age of the earth and assert a time frame based on an interpretation of scripture.
Ken Hamm is a good example of this; he makes very good arguments based on his presuppositions and constructs interesting inductive sequences, but then he insists these are absolutely certain and true - so much so that he casts doubt on your faith if you question them.
Both of these are irrational, and both are violating basic system they are using to come to their conclusions.
But in the end, science and religion blend quite well.  Science tends to support Biblical narrative, and religion tends to support science - when both are done properly.
And the "conservatives are non scientific" argument is absurd because it is based not on scientific acumen or understanding, but on adherence to two articles of faith disguised as science.  Belief in man-caused global warming is an example of an inductive argument insisted on as a deductive conclusion: THIS IS TRUE AND YOU ARE A PLANET RAPING MORON IF YOU QUESTION IT!!  The same thing is true about evolutionary theory.
And in the end that's where the conflict comes, not science vs religion... but religion vs religion, one masquerading as science.

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