We have the extraordinary evidence! (Part 1)

TAM talkThis post and the next constitute a version of my talk delivered at TAM 2013 – this year’s iteration of The Amazing Meeting. The talk was entitled: “We have the extraordinary evidence! Science, skepticism, and denialism.”

As I never simply read a paper, but always extemporise to some extent, what I produce here is not exactly what I said, but is based on my notes and my memory – it’s pretty close, but you can watch for yourself when the talk makes it to YouTube some time down the track. Meanwhile, here is my reconstructed Part 1, in which (to adapt some wording from Damion Reinhardt’s summary) I discuss how our modern, scientific picture of the world did not come intuitively to individuals and cultures, but was hard won.

Indulge me while I say how pleased and privileged I feel to be at this great event. Though I’ve flown nearly 8000 miles to attend, I feel very much at home among all you welcoming, friendly, and refreshingly rational and reasonable people. When DJ Grothe invited me to speak at TAM, I felt honoured but also felt some trepidation: I am not a magician, a scientific investigator, or indeed any sort of scientist, so what sort of contribution could I make to your theme of fighting the fakers, addressing a group of hardened and seasoned scientific skeptics? Perhaps, however, a philosopher can offer you a perspective that’s of general interest.

To do that, I’d like you to cast your minds back about 500 years. Now, I know none of us are quite that old, and I don’t believe in reincarnation, as will come up again later in this talk. But we have a pretty solid historical record of the past five centuries, at least for many parts of the world. So I’m going to make some comparisons between, let’s say, 1513 and 2013.

The lesson here is that what seemed like an ordinary, or at least acceptable, claim in 1513 might be an extraordinary claim now, and what would have seemed an extraordinary claim then might now be, in the relevant sense, an ordinary one. This is not because I take some of relativist approach to truth, but simply because the reasonably available evidence has changed enormously over five hundred years.

In particular, I’d like you to think of European civilization in 1513. This was four years before Martin Luther confronted the indulgence seller Johann Tetzel with his famous Nine-Five Theses, catalysing the Protestant Reformation. It was thirty years before the publication of Copernicus’ major work, On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres, and about a century before Galileo’s great scientific discoveries that arguably mark the beginning of modern science. Charles Darwin’s work was over three hundred years in the future.

People in Europe five hundred years ago were, in effect, living in another world. That is, the information available to them was radically different from what is available to us today. No wonder they understood the world very differently.

The celebrated Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor has carried out a similar exercise to the one I’m asking of you, though his exercise relates specifically to the existence of God and the truth of Christianity. Taylor is himself a religious believer, but his 2007 book, A Secular Age, discusses how things changed over the past five hundred years to enable a movement from a society where belief in God is essentially unchallenged to the current situation in Western societies where it is, as Taylor puts it, “understood to be one option among others, and frequently not the easiest to embrace.” For Taylor, it was virtually impossible, or unthinkable, not to believe in God five hundred years ago, whereas today, as he puts it, “many of us find this not only easy, but even inescapable.”

As I said, Taylor is not an atheist, and nor is it my purpose today to put an argument for atheism – for that you’ll need to see my new book with Udo Schuklenk, 50 Great Myths About Atheism.

But it was not only belief in God that came easy in that era — all sorts of beliefs that seem bizarre to scientifically educated people today were commonplace, while the foundation stones of the modern sciences had not yet been laid. Taylor identifies features of life in early sixteenth-century Europe that made the existence of God just obvious to everybody, and importantly some of them apply more widely than belief in God.

First, the natural world was seen as testifying to divine activity, whether it was the appearance of order or the occasional extraordinary events that could not be explained by human knowledge at the time — whether plagues and natural disasters or years of exceptional fertility.

Second, if you lived in Europe in the sixteenth century the political and social systems were still closely integrated with the religious system. At all levels of society, it was assumed that human activity was underpinned by the activity of God, and all communal life was pervaded by religious ritual and worship.

Third — and this is very important — there was a strong sense for sixteenth-century Europeans of living in an enchanted cosmos, full of miraculous beings and powers.

Fourth, as Taylor adds, there was simply no well-developed naturalistic, secular alternative to religion and to what we’d now regard as superstition.

In my view, Taylor understates the degree to which science (in particular) changed things. There were undoubtedly other factors involved in the changes to how we think and understand world, but science as we know it was incredibly transformative. And in 1513, science as we now know it was in the future, as were modern styles of moral and political philosophy. Even humanistic learning, such as various kinds of textual and historical scholarship, was at a relatively early stage, despite the revival of classical learning that we know as the Renaissance, which had begun in Italy in the fourteenth century, but then proceeded through Europe in a very patchy way.

If you were living in the early sixteenth century, you’d have had no real reason to doubt stories of supernatural events, such as miracles, hauntings, and the effects of evil spells cast by witches.

Let me qualify that. It was quite well known that, for example, some seeming miracles probably had more ordinary explanations. There was also some cynicism and suspicion — it was well known that some holy relics were fakes and that some supposed miracles were fraudulent. You can find reference to this in Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, written over two hundred years before — and even in the work of St. Augustine well over a thousand years before. (Some of you will be especially familiar with Chaucer’s crooked Pardoner, often referenced by the late Christopher Hitchens in his debates.)

Still, the late medieval world was a world without professional scientists, paranormal investigators, and the like. Even if you thought that some specific purveyors of miracles and relics were fakers and frauds, you probably didn’t doubt that there really were miracles, ghosts, witches, and demons. There was no well-developed body of investigation and thought that you could draw upon for skepticism about all that, even if you were in the more educated classes of society. All the intellectual authorities that seemed trustworthy would have advised you, even required you, to believe in these things.

Today, of course, ordinary people still have problems knowing who to trust, who has genuine expertise. We live in a propaganda society, and we know that much of what we read or hear is misinformation. But at least we are in a position to examine who might genuinely be qualified to talk on a particular topic.

In the sixteenth century, there was no particular reason for an educated person to doubt that she lived in a world where supernatural forces were at work and supernatural events took place — even if not right here today, probably not far away or all that long ago.

Conversely, there would have been no reason to trust anyone who made such seemingly bizarre claims as that the earth revolves around the sun and rotates on its axis, that the earth is billions of years old, that human beings are descended from apelike forebears, or that the sacred history contained in the Hebrew Bible is highly inaccurate. From the point of view of someone living in early sixteenth-century Europe, all of these claims would have seemed extraordinary.

If I had time, I’d go into detail about the dramatic claim (so controversial in the era of Galileo) that the earth rotates on its axis. In the early sixteenth century and even a hundred years later at the time of Galileo’s discoveries, the idea that the earth rotates scarcely seemed to make sense. Galileo had to do much arguing and much hard-core science to challenge the seemingly commonsense view. If you’ve never done so, please read some detailed accounts of how he went about this, such as that in Philip Kitcher’s wonderful book The Advancement of Science (published in 1995).

For example, Galileo had to respond to the argument that an object dropped from a tower must fall “behind” the tower if the earth rotates. He used the example of an object dropped from the mast of a moving ship: for a sea-faring culture, this analogy had some imaginative salience. But in the end, he had to make extraordinary advances in physics, subsequently improved upon by Isaac Newton in particular, to create an imaginative picture of the universe within which the earth’s rotation was no longer an extraordinary claim. Similarly, the idea that we are descended through a naturalistic process from earlier primates was truly extraordinary until the evidence was gathered — and of course, that evidence has been vastly augmented since the time of Darwin, about 150 years ago.

The point of this talk is that the modern, naturalistic picture of the world that even most religious people accept for most purposes, most of the time, did not come naturally to us. It was hard won.

It was won through extraordinary efforts — by Copernicus, Galileo, Newton, Darwin, and many others, including people whom we’d normally regard as philosophers and humanities scholars rather than scientists. For someone in 1513, many of the most basic claims in our modern, scientifically-informed understanding would have been extraordinary. The reason why we now, quite rightly, accept them is because we actually have the extraordinary evidence, accumulated over hundreds of years.

(Part 2 (which is considerably shorter) follows tomorrow.)

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  1. Excellent summary. The ‘hard won’ bit seems to be missed by many critics of science. It also goes to show how trivial much theology, and even some philosophy, is by comparison.

    As hard as philosophy is, at its most rigorous and sceptical, that is only a shadow of what is required to actually demonstrate that the philosophical ideas have any bearing on experienced reality. It always strikes me as marvellous that with the instruments of their time the likes of Galileo made any headway at all.

    And theology is basically no more than a Rorschach interpretation of experience.

  2. It seems that even before Galileo a new skepticism was brewing among the best minds of Europe.

    Niccolo Machiavelli (1469-1527)
    Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592)

    I’m not enough of a historian to say what gave rise to this skepticism, which of course was confined to an elite of great thinkers, but it’s always fascinating to see how truly giant minds seem to anticipate the zeitgeist.

  3. swallerstein,

    I suspect that despite the lucky guesses where astounding claims actually and coincidentally matched reality there were enough instances of amazing claims turning out to be actually false, or merely unsubstantiated, that it started to dawn on people that the most consistently verified claims were in fact the ones that were verifiable. A bit tautological perhaps, but not necessarily so obvious at first.

    The other feature of those times is that following the dark ages full of strange stories, as populations increased and the remnants of the Roman Empire started to form and communicate, it became clear that creatures like the ‘dogheads’ that were reported to be ‘in distant lands’ where never actually found: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cynocephaly.

    Eventually it becomes clearer that many ‘facts’ are actually myths. Scepticism is easily aroused by persistent failure to confirm claims.

    It’s not really surprising in that context that the last myths to stand tend to be those that cannot be verified or falsified – typically the religions, where the claims about facts still relate to distant unreachable places, or beings that are right here but still unreachable and unfalsifiable.

    If beliefs in myths like astrology can withstand science in the brains of its believers, then it’s not surprising that religious myths remain most resistant. All the scepticism in the world isn’t necessarily enough to overcome the unfalsifiable.

  4. Ron Murphy:

    What I’m saying is something very simple: that the writings of both Machiavelli and Montaigne are those of a “Secular Age”.

    Read or try to read Dante or Aquinas. It’s difficult because neither write from the point of a view of a secular age.

    On the other hand, pick up Machiavelli’s The Prince or Montaigne’s Essays: both observe the world with a secular eye; in many senses, both could be our contemporaries, in fact, more contemporary than Charles Taylor.

  5. Thank you for this article. I have made this exercise in my mind multiple times, and what always fascinates me is the question:
    How our world migth be in 2513? What would the key ideas be? How much of our current beliefs would be discarded and considered primitive?

    In my mind this shows the impermanence of our points of view as well as their limits to represent reality. It completely shatters any dogmatic and rigid attitude to our connection with reality, and leaves me with a more kind and comapssionate point of view

  6. you have nothing and you are a LIAR!


  7. and I want to make this clear

    russell, you win NOT BE SAVED

  8. JJM

    I couldn’t agree more. Five hundred years from now how many of our current beliefs and certainties will remain. Cells might not be considered as fundamental to evolution. The missing link could be found, but not in the outer cosmos. It might be known what is responsible for forms and the stability of forms, even though everything is in flux. Sound and light might be perceived as fundamental to mass and charge. If hyperspace has elements subtler than the macro elements of the outer cosmos,consciousness and mind might be considered elemental, making hyperspace the brain of the cosmos. Nothing, not even the evolution of energy and form might be understood to be limited to or indigenous to the outer cosmos. The physical and mental human powers or elements could be perceived as borrowed from the macrocosm (outer and inner) leaving the microcosm with nothing that is indigenous to it; its only option being alignment. What a blow that would be to the hubris of today’s science! Still such future knowledge would be scientific.

  9. @Vina

    I’m going to hedge and just say that in 500 years more people will have a better grasp of what it means to interpret evidence.

    I would like to have a micro-level explanation of macro-level pattern and stability, though. All bets are off as to what contemporary science is going to get debunked until we at least have that.

  10. @Dregs

    All bets are off until we have a greater understanding of the metaphysical realm. Now it is mysterious because there is nothing tangible and as physicists have discovered, investigating the micro realm is a very different thing to investigating the macro realm; observation, inference, and calculation is much more difficult. What is observed changes; it is hard to infer anything about what does not stay put; calculations at the fifth macro element: ether, (renamed the quantum vacuum) keep coming up with the infinity symbol which cannot be put in an equation. Also the observer appears to be part of the process, so it is harder to have the subject-object relationship which science has relied on up to now. However, this does not mean that science has reached the last frontier at the fifth macro element.

    It will probably take longer than 500 years to even have answers to the basic question. In the meantime, less dogmatism from science would be welcome. Such dogmatism is reminiscent of the Medieval Church which expected laws applicable to the inner cosmos to apply in a similar fashion to the outer cosmos. They painted themselves into a corner with their dogmatism. Being a fan of science I hope it is not doing something similar. Feeling threatened by new information can increase dogmatism. Assuming that certain questions are already answered shuts off possibility.

  11. @Vina

    Full disclosure: I’m extraordinarily skeptical of granting existence to anything apart from physical phenomena. Hence, the idea of anything metaphysical is mysterious to me. Same thing with an inner/outer distinction as anything more than a matter of reference-framing.

    This isn’t to say that there can’t be meaningful uses of these words, just that I need their usage specified in order to understand them.

    That said, I’m very optimistic that it will take much less than 500 years to answer the questions we currently know to ask.

    Broadly speaking, the more our technology advances, the more refined our observations, the more constrained the possible answers.

    The pace at which our ability to make more varied and more accurate observations has been increasing…is breathtaking, really.

    Barring tragedy, 500 years more will see so much.

  12. An annoying aspect of the ‘metaphysical realm’ being raised here is that it has no merit to have ‘answers’ sought for its proposals. What defines the success of science is the method. The results (insofar as accuracy testing and reporting allows) are robust; it’s the theories that are transient. Hypothesis-driven theory testing has produced the solid progress we can all (*all*) experience. A key aspect is that faith is not necessary; the tides work, the sun risis and sets, the radio works etc etc in precisley known ways whether you ‘believe’ in the scientific method or not.

    The drag with the metaphysicians is that they (in various ways) claim knowledge of things that are definitively not amenable to the scientific method. Often they triumph in this ‘property’ – ‘it is beyond science’. The spooky input claimed to be ‘informing’ their thinking often includes a degree of preciseness about the metaphysical that (literally) beggars belief.

    What scientists ‘claim’, by contast, is effectively ‘certain ignorance’. Science lets us know what is incorrect (i.e. by what has been disproved). The reigning theory is the present best summary of our knowledge. In the very real sense, science thus doesn’t make claims to know what is right/true/correct since (in the Popperian model at least) it relies on refutation to be able to detect and dismiss what is wrong (through hypothesis testing). So no chance of hubris here! We’re wrong, we know that and deploy it to be ever-less ‘wrong’.

    Thanks to the scientific method, the true ‘answers’ can be shown (proven, if you will) to lie in an ever-better circumscribed region of ‘possible’ answers. The scientific method’s ability to cut through the crap and reveal where the answers will lie is its abiding glory. Contrast this beauty and function with trite and untestable metaphysical assertions.

  13. By metaphysics I did not mean the supernatural or unearthly. If something exists, its existence is independent of belief, disbelief, or sense perception. Emerson and physiologist Charles Robert Richet saw metaphysics as the science of the future. Through computer analysis astrophysicists and cosmologist have posited that primordial sound contained the ‘seeds’ of matter; this appears to go beyond the material and empirical as does research into energy fields or the L-field. It does not deny what is material or empirical; what will always be true to common sense perception, it does correspond to the definition of metaphysics as a reality that is not perceptible to the senses, or as the study of the ultimate causes of the nature of things; which is what the scientific method is supposed to be about.

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