Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Accepting science.

This is something I recommend with caution. It's an interesting discussion of the "naive physics" and "naive psychology" which we gain in childhood, and clash with scientific conclusions, and how/why we may come to accept or reject scientific claims.

The caution is the rampant scientism in the piece: the claim, implicitly made, that whenever the former clashes with the latter, the latter is always right. A striking claim is this:
Dualism is mistaken — mental life emerges from physical processes.
I'll give the authors the benefit of the doubt to the effect that they don't know what "emerges" means, metaphysically speaking; but, that said, the nature of the connection between the mental and the physical is still largely up for grabs. To my understanding, the dominant idea in philosophy of mind these days is functionalism, the view that mental states are, in some way, constituted by lower-level physical processes. But this is a staunchly dualistic view -- as I've presented it, a dualism of kinds of states, but it could be cashed out as a dualism of properties. You have to be a pretty hard identity theorist (a reductionist, really) or an eliminativist to think that any kind of dualism is wrong.

So, the mere fact that some scientists think dualism (whatever they mean by that) is false doesn't really come to anything, unless they have good reasons for the claim. Since the reasons aren't given in this piece, it's hard to say one way or the other whether they exist. Given the general collapse of identity theories in the past couple of decades, though, and the rise of functionalism, I doubt that they do.

The punchline to the discussion is this:
This resistance [to scientific claims] will persist through adulthood if the scientific claims are contested within a society, and will be especially strong if there is a non-scientific alternative that is rooted in common sense and championed by people who are taken as reliable and trustworthy.
That seems basically right: when there's controversy about a claim, there will likely be more people who don't accept it than if the claim is taken as obvious; similarly, when trustworthy sources dispute a claim, people will tend to side with them; and people tend to side with their own "common sense". What's hard to see, though, is why any of this should always be a bad thing. Again, there's this presumption that when science says it, it has to be right. Science very often is right, but not always, and not about everything; so, when there's pushback against a scientific claim, it's important to do more than try to debunk or dismiss the resistance via causal mechanisms, and examine the reasons against the claim.

That the authors don't see this is revealed here:
The community of scientists has a legitimate claim to trustworthiness that other social institutions, such as religions and political movements, lack. The structure of scientific inquiry involves procedures, such as experiments and open debate, that are strikingly successful at revealing truths about the world. All other things being equal, a rational person is wise to defer to a geologist about the age of the earth rather than to a priest or to a politician. ... [O]ne way to combat resistance to science is to persuade children and adults that the institute of science is, for the most part, worthy of trust.
So, when dealing with an issue about which a geologist is genuinely an expert, and priests and politicians are not, we should defer to the geologist. True, and a little obvious. But what about issues geologists aren't expert in? (Evolutionary theory, for example.) What about issues no kind of scientist is an expert in? (Literary criticism, say.) Who do we go to, then?

That, I think, is at the heart of the ongoing "evolution wars": the sense that biologists are speaking about something they actually don't have expertise in. It's a false charge -- biologists, when they're being biologists, aren't really saying anything about the value of human life or the nature of the soul or any of that; and thus are, indeed, speaking on issues they are expert in -- but it's an easy one to make stick. I suspect it's because of the difficulty seeing what actually follows from a particular scientific claim, and what is only claimed to follow from it. Continuing the previous, there's nothing about contemporary biology which proves the soul does not exist. You're perfectly free to go on believing in the soul while accepting everything contemporary biology tells you (i.e., although you may not have reason to do it, you don't, just from biology, have reason not to). There are those, both biologists and creationists, who claim otherwise, that accepting biology requires rejecting the existence of the soul (and a bunch of other stuff, depending on the particular biologist or creationist in question).

This is why the "just trust us" solution is no solution at all. Careening from one sometimes-untrustworthy source to another is no way to sort out which claims one can rely upon as truths.

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