Saturday, August 24, 2013

Empiricism: good for tiny and unimportant things!

Baseball succumbs to the video replay.

One attitude that intrigues me in discussion with defenders of religion is their appreciation of logic and science. They are often effusive about its value and relevance to all kinds of practical and mundane things. But when it comes to the so-called "big questions" and super-important topics, well, then intuition and whatever-I-feel-in-my-gut rules the day.

It is as if the enlightenment and multiple scientific revolutions came and went, in one ear and out the other. As if humans hadn't learned they are fallible, and do not intuitively come up with all the right answers about the structure of reality, automatically, by sheer inspiration. As if they still had an imaginary friend.

This all came to mind again when I read that baseball is finally giving in to the instant replay. Spectators at home watching their Tivo'd HDTV games can see all the bad officiating in excruciating detail, and the league can no longer hide behind a best effort / intuitive model of officiating. They are forced to deal with the actual truth, which may not come from the eyes of umpires, but more reliably from the unblinking camera. Like countless areas of science, sports is (reluctantly) transformed by instruments that improve on our natural endowments, and help us see new things, or the familar in new ways, with greater accuracy.

Similar progress is afoot in law, where the reliability of eye-witness testimony has over the recent decades come to be recognized as among the worst evidence, while technological marvels like DNA identification provide a whole new level of accuracy.

So, what about religion, the exemplary province still ruled by intuition? By coincidence, Steven Pinker wrote a strong plea in TNR recently for a truce between science and the humanities, including religion, to cooperate rather than hiding in mutual ignorance, hurling meaningless language such as "scientism". His point was not only that science has had important humanistic underpinnings and effects over the last several centuries, but that those humanities most vexed by "scientism", such as postmodernist philosophy and theology, have not had a lot of accomplishment to crow about themselves. They had better learn from other fields and take what is useful, rather than take obscurantist potshots.

In return, it is obvious that science and scientists need to be careful about what they have expertise in, and what values they and the humanities respectively bring to the table. But one important point here is that, under the cover of "hard" sciences and objectivity, science has made great strides in recognizing human cognitive limitations, both explicitly in the fields of psychology, and implicitly in the other sciences, whose whole modus operandi is built around the recognition of human weaknesses, which require constant vigilance, by open argument between competitively motivated scholars, by mathematical formulations where possible, by the discouting of authority, by careful and public documentation, and, most notoriously of all, by empirical experiment.

Have enough experiments been done to say whether prayers work? Have enough experiments been done to say whether god saves its chosen people, favors one team over another, or one nation, or one religion? Have enough experiments been done to indicate that religion has a deep psychological basis that belie its florid claims to objective truth?

Yes. We know all these things, and much more. For those viewing at home, the primary property of god is its "hidden-ness". For those rewinding and watching in depth and slow-motion, another primary property is the abundant anthropomorphic projections and wishes (and fears) attached to "Him". It is quite clear where all this comes from, and it isn't from telescopic observation.

Connected with this, we also know that we are fundamentally alone. While there may (or may not) be other intelligent beings in the universe, we know already that they won't be genetically or cognitively related to us, and will be so distant as to be fundamentally cut off from interacting with us. There is no one else to turn to.

Part of being existentially alone is having no outer standard of morals or other subjective values. We answer to no god or other being, we go to no Valhalla after death. Part of what we have learned is that for all the objective reality out there, the values and desires we have are our own, part of our subjective (and biological) makeup, in a constant dance with the wisdom (and desires) of those around us, and with those who have gone before and cultured our way through the world. This is the one place where intuitions really do rule supreme, since they make up our values by necessity ... there is nothing else to go by.

One can sense the discomfort of those yearning for something more certain to hang on to- a father totem to tell them what to think and how to feel. But, checking the instant replay, god is still dead and gone ... the movements of theology, postmodernsim, religious "discernment", and post-60's backlash are made up of people working out their own issues, groping in the dark without help from above. A key tipoff is their moralism. What is real or not is secondary to whether their communities live in a properly patriarchial moral order agreeable to them.

Incidentally, Steven Pinker discusses the fascinating issue of "explaining away", which is a common fear coming from the humanities. If we understand some interesting topic in a fully worked-out reductionistic sense, does that rob us of some aesthetic appreciation, of some of our humanity? Does music theory kill one's appreciation for Bach? Does knowing molecular biology kill one's appreciation for biology, or does instant replay destroy our appreciation for baseball? I don't think so.

What empiricism and science in general do "explain away" are ... bad explanations. There may be a certain charm in thinking that hurricanes are caused by immorality, birth defects by sins in a past life, that prophets received divine "revelations", or that god forms us in "His" image, (take note, females!), but we have to make do without such tales when we learn more about how things actually work. If you value "inspired" scriptures, mystical "forces", and folk theories about all and sundry, then yes, we lose something by this rationalistic, reductionistic, remorseless instant-replay process of enlightenement. And, frankly, good riddance.

  • "Intellectually unsubtle"!, fumes Russ Douthat. Of all people.
  • God still hanging around in some very small council chambers.
  • Dawkins: evil, or just right?
  • Why are attitudes about science shifting.. or are they?
  • At least some fields (cougheconomics) could use another dose of empiricism.
  • Malthus and modernity. Why does population outrun development in some countries, not others?
  • Fannie and Freddie should be made entirely state run, not destroyed.
  • The brotherhood's gamble.
  • When will Egypt get a competent civilian government?
  • Republicans... still the party sort of opposed to governing.
  • On the values of leadership.
  • We have to take nuclear seriously. After we get that carbon tax, of course.


  1. "Similar progress is afoot in law, where the reliability of eye-witness testimony has over the recent decades come to be recognized as among the worst evidence, while technological marvels like DNA identification provide a whole new level of accuracy"

    There are a whole slew of problems with DNA as 'evidence'. Try this: '..while technological marvels like DNA assays provide a whole new dimension of measurement'.


  2. Hi, CC!

    I think DNA as used in forensics really does constitute evidence. Not that it is immune to all the issues of investigator integrity, technical sloppiness, etc. But its ability to exonerate people convicted on other evidence is a strong indication that, as the word is generally used, it constitutes evidence. You'll recall the OJ case as an excruciating exercise in weighing how good it is as evidence.

  3. Perhaps I don't quite understand what you mean. Are fingerprints evidence? Well, in a certain context of being picked up at a relevant scene by competent investigators, and interpreted according to standards of the field... blah, blah, blah... yes, they are. Ditto for DNA.

  4. I think you're correct - DNA is a category of evidence. But too often juries assign too much weight to it, and the 'probability' of a negative, than is actually the case. Here's an example: