Question: How do you recognize truth when it is upon us?
A simple question: How can we recognize truth? But there are a few simple rules. The truth ought to be logically consistent. It should not contradict itself; that is, there are some logical criteria. It ought to be consistent with what else we know. That is an additional way in which miracles run into trouble. We know a great many things - a tiny fraction, to be sure, of the universe. A pitifully tiny fraction. But nevertheless some things we know with quite high reliability. So where we are asking about the truth, we ought to be sure that it’s not inconsistent with what else we know. We should also pay attention to how badly we want to believe a given contention. The more badly we want to believe it, the more skeptical we have to be. It involves a kind of courageous self-discipline. Nobody said it’s easy. I think those three principles at least will winnow a fair amount of chaff. It doesn’t guarantee that what remains will be true, but at least it will significantly diminish the fields of discourse.
From The Varieties of Scientific Experience - 1985 Gifford Lecture
Your Royal Highness,
Your Reith lecture saddened me. I have deep sympathy for your aims, and admiration for your sincerity. But your hostility to science will not serve those aims; and your embracing of an ill-assorted jumble of mutually contradictory alternatives will lose you the respect that I think you deserve. I forget who it was who remarked: ‘Of course we must be open-minded, but not so open-minded that our brains drop out.’
Let’s look at some of the alternative philosophies which you seem to prefer over scientific reason. First, intuition, the heart’s wisdom ‘rustling like a breeze through the leaves’. Unfortunately, it depends whose intuition you choose. Where aims (if not methods) are concerned, your own intuitions coincide with mine. I wholeheartedly share your aim of long-term stewardship of our planet, with its diverse and complex biosphere.
But what about the instinctive wisdom in Saddam Hussein’s black heart? What price the Wagnerian wind that rustled Hitler’s twisted leaves? The Yorkshire Ripper heard religious voices in his head urging him to kill. How do we decide which intuitive inner voices to heed?
This, it is important to say, is not a dilemma that science can solve. My own passionate concern for world stewardship is as emotional as yours. But where I allow feelings to influence my aims, when it comes to deciding the best method of achieving them I’d rather think than feel. And thinking, here, means scientific thinking. No more effective method exists. If it did, science would incorporate it.
Next, Sir, I think you may have an exaggerated idea of the naturalness of ‘traditional’ or ‘organic’ agriculture. Agriculture has always been unnatural. Our species began to depart from our natural hunter-gatherer lifestyle as recently as 10,000 years ago - too short to measure on the evolutionary timescale.
Wheat, be it ever so wholemeal and stoneground, is not a natural food for Homo sapiens. Nor is milk, except for children. Almost every morsel of our food is genetically modified - admittedly by artificial selection not artificial mutation, but the end result is the same. A wheat grain is a genetically modified grass seed, just as a pekinese is a genetically modified wolf. Playing God? We’ve been playing God for centuries!
The large, anonymous crowds in which we now teem began with the agricultural revolution, and without agriculture we could survive in only a tiny fraction of our current numbers. Our high population is an agricultural (and technological and medical) artifact. It is far more unnatural than the population-limiting methods condemned as unnatural by the Pope. Like it or not, we are stuck with agriculture, and agriculture - all agriculture – is unnatural. We sold that pass 10,000 years ago.
Does that mean there’s nothing to choose between different kinds of agriculture when it comes to sustainable planetary welfare? Certainly not. Some are much more damaging than others, but it’s no use appealing to ‘nature’, or to ‘instinct’ in order to decide which ones. You have to study the evidence, soberly and reasonably - scientifically. Slashing and burning (incidentally, no agricultural system is closer to being ‘traditional’) destroys our ancient forests. Overgrazing (again, widely practised by ‘traditional’ cultures) causes soil erosion and turns fertile pasture into desert. Moving to our own modern tribe, monoculture, fed by powdered fertilisers and poisons, is bad for the future; indiscriminate use of antibiotics to promote livestock growth is worse.
Incidentally, one worrying aspect of the hysterical opposition to the possible risks from GM crops is that it diverts attention from definite dangers which are already well understood but largely ignored. The evolution of antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria is something that a Darwinian might have foreseen from the day antibiotics were discovered. Unfortunately the warning voices have been rather quiet, and now they are drowned by the baying cacophony: ‘GM GM GM GM GM GM!’
Moreover if, as I expect, the dire prophecies of GM doom fail to materialise, the feeling of let-down may spill over into complacency about real risks. Has it occurred to you that our present GM brouhaha may be a terrible case of crying wolf?
Even if agriculture could be natural, and even if we could develop some sort of instinctive rapport with the ways of nature, would nature be a good role model? Here, we must think carefully. There really is a sense in which ecosystems are balanced and harmonious, with some of their constituent species becoming mutually dependent. This is one reason the corporate thuggery that is destroying the rainforests is so criminal.
On the other hand, we must beware of a very common misunderstanding of Darwinism. Tennyson was writing before Darwin but he got it right. Nature really is red in tooth and claw. Much as we might like to believe otherwise, natural selection, working within each species, does not favour long-term stewardship. It favours short-term gain. Loggers, whalers, and other profiteers who squander the future for present greed, are only doing what all wild creatures have done for three billion years.
No wonder T.H. Huxley, Darwin’s bulldog, founded his ethics on a repudiation of Darwinism. Not a repudiation of Darwinism as science, of course, for you cannot repudiate truth. But the very fact that Darwinism is true makes it even more important for us to fight against the naturally selfish and exploitative tendencies of nature. We can do it. Probably no other species of animal or plant can. We can do it because our brains (admittedly given to us by natural selection for reasons of short-term Darwinian gain) are big enough to see into the future and plot long-term consequences. Natural selection is like a robot that can only climb uphill, even if this leaves it stuck on top of a measly hillock. There is no mechanism for going downhill, for crossing the valley to the lower slopes of the high mountain on the other side. There is no natural foresight, no mechanism for warning that present selfish gains are leading to species extinction – and indeed, 99 per cent of all species that have ever lived are extinct.
The human brain, probably uniquely in the whole of evolutionary history, can see across the valley and can plot a course away from extinction and towards distant uplands. Long-term planning - and hence the very possibility of stewardship - is something utterly new on the planet, even alien. It exists only in human brains. The future is a new invention in evolution. It is precious. And fragile. We must use all our scientific artifice to protect it.
It may sound paradoxical, but if we want to sustain the planet into the future, the first thing we must do is stop taking advice from nature. Nature is a short-term Darwinian profiteer. Darwin himself said it: ‘What a book a devil’s chaplain might write on the clumsy, wasteful, blundering, low, and horridly cruel works of nature.’
Of course that’s bleak, but there’s no law saying the truth has to be cheerful; no point shooting the messenger - science - and no sense in preferring an alternative world view just because it feels more comfortable. In any case, science isn’t all bleak. Nor, by the way, is science an arrogant know-all. Any scientist worthy of the name will warm to your quotation from Socrates: ‘Wisdom is knowing that you don’t know.’ What else drives us to find out?
What saddens me most, Sir, is how much you will be missing if you turn your back on science. I have tried to write about the poetic wonder of science myself, but may I take the liberty of presenting you with a book by another author? It is The Demon-Haunted World by the lamented Carl Sagan. I’d call your attention especially to the subtitle: Science as a Candle in the Dark .
“Sure, if you just read those scientists like Dawkins and Harris, you are going to think that science disproves God, but you need to study what philosophers have to say about God!”
I have seen a number of apologists make this appeal to authority and even encountered a few who have quite arrogantly and condescendingly made it against myself . The typical approach in this argument is to claim that science does not explain everything (an issue I will address more in an upcoming blog) and that once one opens herself up to philosophy, she will see how philosophy can reconcile a skeptic to god and religion.
What puzzles me most about this argument is that my main objections to the existence of a deity are in fact philosophical. I am not a scientist by any stretch of the imagination, and I mostly refute apologetic arguments about god that are based in history and, yes, philosophy. Further peculiar is this notion that professional philosophers are all shaking their heads at skeptical scientists, who supposedly don’t understand philosophy and thus have poor reasons for doubting the existence of a deity.
Unlike science, does studying professional philosophy increase one’s chances of believing in monotheism or religion? Nope, and in fact positive trends towards atheism, and even naturalism, are almost as strong among professional philosophers as they are among professional scientists. Is philosophy the magical tool that can save belief in god in the modern age? I don’t think so, and it turns out that most professional philosophers agree with me. This does not make me right in any sense at all. Most professional philosophers could be wrong, but it does show that apologetic appeals to authority in the field of philosophy are wrong not only due to the fallacious nature of the argument itself, but even due to the flawed premises assumed by the apologist…
…We’ll start with the basics. How many professional philosophers believe in a god? The PhilPapers study shows:
God: theism or atheism?
Accept or lean toward: atheism 1257 / 1803 (69.7%)
Accept or lean toward: theism 295 / 1803 (16.4%)
Other 251 / 1803 (13.9%)
Wow! So virtually 70% of professional philosophers are atheist? That puts Plantinga and Swineburne in quite a minority. Now, an astute religious studies expert might point out that atheism does not necessarily entail naturalism. There are after all atheistic but non-naturalist worldviews. So even if most philosophers are atheist, are naturalists still philosophical bumpkins with no support among professionals? Well, the study shows:
Metaphilosophy: naturalism or non-naturalism?
Accept or lean toward: naturalism 912 / 1803 (50.6%)
Accept or lean toward: non-naturalism 474 / 1803 (26.3%)
Other 417 / 1803 (23.1%)
I once heard an apologist repeat the following quote about atheism and philosophy:
“A little philosophy makes men atheists: A great deal reconciles them to religion.” (Attr. to Augustine by Hume)
Well, is this true? The numbers strongly suggest otherwise. The PhilPapers survey shows the following trend regarding belief in god as one’s degree level in philosophy increases:
Accept or lean toward: atheism 135 / 217 (62.2%)
Accept or lean toward: theism 44 / 217 (20.3%)
Other 38 / 217 (17.5%)
Accept or lean toward: atheism 527 / 829 (63.6%)
Accept or lean toward: theism 173 / 829 (20.9%)
Other 129 / 829 (15.6%)
Faculty or PhD
Accept or lean toward: atheism 1257 / 1803 (69.7%)
Accept or lean toward: theism 295 / 1803 (16.4%)
Other 251 / 1803 (13.9%)