The limits of scientific explanation. Part 3

The quote below sums up Lennox’s short-sightedness in what science is able to and will be able to do, and in the way that it does what it does. We’ll see the same short-sightedness again in the next section ‘Aunt Matilda’s Cake’, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves:

Furthermore, take the claim that only science can deliver truth. If it were true it would at once spell the end of many disciplines in schools and universities. For the evaluation of philosophy, literature, art, music lies outside the scope of science strictly so-called. How could science tell us whether a poem is a bad poem or a work of genius? Scarcely by measuring thee lengths of the words or the frequencies of the letters occurring in them. How could science possibly tell us whether a painting is a masterpiece or a confused smudge of colors? Certainly not by making a chemical analysis of the paint and canvas. Science can tell you that, if you add strychnine to someone’s drink, it will kill them. But science cannot tell you whether it is morally right or wrong to put strychnine into your grandmother’s tea so that you can get your hands on her property (40).

The first questions we need to ask is ‘How do we know if a poem is a bad poem or a work of genius? How do we know if a painting is a masterpiece or a confused smudge of colors? How do we know the morally right from the morally wrong?’ The answers to these questions evolve as our experience increases, as our knowledge increases and even as times change. There have been many works of art that were ignored in their day only later to be proclaimed as monumental. And there are also many that are lauded in their day only to fall into obscurity because they did not stand the test of time. Lennox is expecting science to be a gauge of popular opinion coupled to a time machine, and when it is not he says that science has limits.

Or maybe Lennox subscribes to the idea that beauty and morality exist objectively, and as science cannot invent an instrument for tracking down these elusive truths then again it is the fault of science. The good news is that there already is a device that does this for us. Although as I’ve shown above it sometimes doesn’t get it right immediately, but if we have enough of them we can get a snapshot of the current consensus on truth. It’s the answer to the 3 questions I asked above – the human brain. If science could read the brain, and it could read enough of them, then although science would be unable to detect truth it would be able to tell when it’s about.

Now the next question is ‘Will science be able to read the brain well enough to know when we know we’re experiencing these truths?’ I don’t know, but I do know that a few weeks ago I saw a story that I mentioned here about a woman controlling a robot arm with her mind. At the time I said that when my parents were young that story would have been believed by bugger all people. Even the fledgling sci-fi crowd would have deemed it, well, sci-fi. The doctor interviewed said that the big leap forward recently had been in the improvement of the software used to interpret the brain’s signals. Where will that software be with another 20 years of development? Another 50? Another 100? And when it is linked to other technological advances that go into making the brain / robot interface I have no idea to what depths the human mind will be able to be understood.

But my point is not to wax on the speculations of what might be, for that will surely come. My point is to show that Lennox is short-sighted in chiding science because the chemical analysis of paint or the parsing of the words of a poem lead to dead-ends in the search for truth. While they might be dead-ends he fails to acknowledge that there are other ways forward. And just to show how limited his thinking is in this area, let’s take his dead-ended claims at face value and posit some what-ifs.

What if a painting was found that was thought to be by a master. If after giving one opinion on the authenticity one is told that a chemical analysis of the paint and the canvas showed them to be an exact match for others used by that master, how would that inform one’s thinking on the quality of the work? Whatever that first opinion was this new information, information that Lennox regarded as useless in the search for these out-of-reach truths must surely inform the second opinion in some way. So yes Lennox, looking at one piece of information in isolation doesn’t put one on the royal road to truth. Fortunately most scientist have the sense not to make such an elementary mistake. Unlike Lennox whose going to use the same weak arguments in the next section.

19 thoughts on “The limits of scientific explanation. Part 3

  1. Chris Fellows (@cfellows65536)

    Good to see you back!

    I disagree with Lennox’s primary contention. I assert that only science can ‘deliver’ truth. There are plenty of other places where our only hope is to stumble across truth.

    But it is perfectly true that science ‘can’t tell us what is beautiful’ and ‘can’t tell us what is right or wrong’, as Lennox says. It is pedantic of you to quarrel with these statements on the basis that ‘science might tell us someday’ when we want answers to these questions now. If I told you ‘Dave can’t benchpress 100 kg’, it would be a bit mean-spirited of you to accuse me of being short-sighted and underestimating the value of Dave because he might take a bunch of steroids and benchpress 100 kg *someday*. My statement would be a simple verifiable statement of fact – like the ones Lennox makes.

    I don’t despair entirely of science one day developing pulchrometers calibrated to the femtoHelen, or sin detectors that can give a running total of your daily wickedness, but I think the mindreading device you postulate would not be useful in this regard. In certain times and places, it would just tell you that doing chemical weapons experiments on prisoners for the greater glory of the Empire was good; and you would know that already.

    And yes, you have gone straight for the jugular in taking advantage of linguistic ambiguities in Lennox’s examples: once the concept of ‘masterpiece’ is divorced from the work and the focus is transferred to the ‘master’, science can self-evidently be useful in determining provenance. But you know that’s not what Lennox meant.

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  2. winstoninabox Post author

    Sciencismists of the world – UNITE!

    No Chris, it is not pedantic to quarrel with Lennox on these points. It’s a fallacy of false alternatives (chemical analysis of paint or science has nothing to say, measurement of word length or science has nothing to say), and it’s a fallacy that he builds his next section on. Don’t fall into the trap of supporting Lennox’s minor points in principle, without remembering that these are used by him to build his argument. If he can get the reader to agree with the fallacy here, then the fallacy when used again for the Aunt Martha’s cake becomes a much easier sell.

    And your Dave analogue is unfair. A much closer one would be “I have sequenced the genes of this so-called Dave and find that this tells me nothing of whether he can bench-press 100kg. Therefore science is useless in this matter.” The reader needs to be shown that there are other scientific ways to solve the problem of Dave’s bench-pressing ability than gene-sequencing, and that Lennox’s failure to present or even investigate those ways is a major shortfall in his argument.

    Reply
  3. Marco

    My take home message from this section was that scientism, like logical positivism is caught in a lie. That makes it useless as a philosophy people can objectively follow.

    Or maybe Lennox subscribes to the idea that beauty and morality exist objectively

    Of course he bloody well does – If you don’t, obviously most of these arguments are lost on you.

    Obviously, it is just an obvious, non-optional social convention *Not* to murder your grandmother for money, or *to* bake a cake for someones birthday. I’m sure there are other societies, that should be left alone for obvious reasons, where these things are optional. Just note that most of us non-moral-relativists consider most of these social conventions as *objective* and that we ought to lecture those other societies about the evils of murder and the wonder of birthday cakes.

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  4. Marco

    And your Dave analogue is unfair.

    I took Dave (his ability to benchpress) as “science” (ability to explain) in that analogy, not someone that science could analyse. A perfectly valid analogy. The fact that someday science might elucidate on moral factors does not help in discussing today’s moral dillemas.

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      1. Marco

        I think the problem is that the premise (of objective existence of beauty and morality) does not work for you. If there is any objective angle on morality and beauty, you believe science will find it. If not, we can believe whatever our mix of scientific and non-scientific experience tells us to believe.

        Reply
      2. Chris Fellows (@cfellows65536)

        Lennox says: Science cannot help us with this.
        You say: You are TEH WRONGZORZ!!! Since science could, possibly, someday, help us with this.

        My analogy is trying to point out what Marco said: It is not fair to jump up and down on Lennox’s perfectly valid point about the limits of science on the basis of some hypothetical about what *could* be possible, one some distant day when whisky streams babble down the slopes of Big Rock Candy Mountain.

        Reply
  5. Chris Fellows (@cfellows65536)

    Yes, Dave = Science, as Marco says.

    Don’t fall into the trap of supporting Lennox’s minor points in principle, without remembering that these are used by him to build his argument.

    These are the words of a politician speaking, not an earnest seeker after truth! I will always seek to support or oppose minor points on principle, because that is my only true ground for supporting or opposing anything. I would do the same if they were minor points being used by Idi Amin or Margaret Sanger to build a wholly pernicious argument. (And of course, you will recall that I am favourably disposed to the greater part of Lennox’s argument and only consider that he jumps the shark much later on.)

    Reply
  6. winstoninabox Post author

    You are confusing the comments with the blog. The blog is critiquing “God’s Undertaker”; the comments seem to be enjoyably deviating into all sorts of other areas. It is unfair to critique the blog by saying that the one brick I have removed from Lennox’s wall fails to reduce the wall to rubble, whereas the intention is to explain why the book is not a good book. That involves not only looking at the faulty logic Lennox employs, but also how he applies that in rhetoric.

    Lennox fallacy is apparent. He gives one failed solution and doesn’t even hint that there might be other ways to approach the problem. If I stated that religion has nothing to say about science because I prayed for a way to detect gravitons and got no answer then it would be just as ridiculous. And while this discreet statement may well be true (it is, I prayed for it just now and am still graviton-less), it’s truth in no way allows me to continue to build upon it for my science-has-nothing-to-say-about-religion argument. Which is exactly what Lennox will do.

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      1. winstoninabox Post author

        If you don’t like think that the future-possible brain reading machine is fair the let7s cut it out. It’s gone… gone… gone… It doesn’t alter the fact that Lennox’s claim that science can’t speak on these matters rests on myopic examples of what Lennox thinks science is capable of, with NO investigation into what is actually happening in this field. It’s an argument aimed at the lowest common denominator.

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      2. Chris Fellows (@cfellows65536)

        Lennox’s claim that science can’t speak on these matters rests on myopic examples of what Lennox thinks science is capable of…

        No, Lennox’s claim that science cannot speak on these matters rests on common sense.

        Until, and if, we conclude that beauty and ethics have *objective external existence* and can be investigated by scientific methods, science cannot tell us anything about those things. Zip. Nada.

        If you are critiquing the “book”, you can nitpick his examples in this passage as much you like, which of course will be amusing enough; but if you are critiquing the “ideas in the book” you have to either admit that Lennox is right on this point, and move on, *or* engage our deviation in the comments with arguments of considerably more power – Arguments of Mass Destruction (AMDs). (You won’t find them in Dawkins, by the way: in his famous book he just blusters and emits a cloud of non-sequiturs when confronted with this point.)

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        1. winstoninabox Post author

          No, Lennox’s claim that science cannot speak on these matters rests on common sense.

          Until, and if, we conclude that beauty and ethics have *objective external existence* and can be investigated by scientific methods, science cannot tell us anything about those things. Zip. Nada.

          So which is it – common sense or objective external existence? You can’t have it both way. Well, you can, but besides being greedy it’s just not very convincing. It’s hardly common sense that beauty, truth and ethics have an objective external existence when there’s no indication of them beyond our own perception of them. You yourself have pretty much admitted that you prefer their existence because the alternative is too horrible. The onus is on him (and you) to produce something, anything, before he (and you) and make this claim. Until then common sense would say that if there’s no body then there’s no crime.

          Otherwise anyone can all get to play the make up phenomena game, and then claim that science has limits because it has nothing to say about it. This not good logic make. But it is par for the course for someone who is willing to subscribe to all kinds of phenomena that have no real world observations. Sin, the soul, heaven, hell… I’m sure Lennox believes that science has nothing to say about those, too. And while he’d be right, it’s not for the reasons he thinks.

          Reply
      3. Chris Fellows (@cfellows65536)

        That is a good comment, winstoninabox! It is crisp and hard-hitting and logical and strikes me in a sensitive spot! I see that you can live perfectly well disbelieving in beauty and good, and that you think it is worthwhile trying to persuade other people to disbelieve in them: and all I can really resort to is the blackmaily argument that if you ever are successful in my case, I will go all genocidal on you crummy humans out of spite.

        Let us let all of Lennox’s counterexamples pass into the realm of the fairies for the sake of argument. The fact remains: scientism is the belief that all features of the universe are rational and explicable. This belief is accepted as an axiom (irrationally and inexplicably) and any sense impressions or phenomena that contradict it are discarded a priori.

        Reply
    1. Marco

      Must you really unpack every argument and metaphor in the book? I nearly skipped over Aunt Mathilde’s cake when reading the book because I am just not interested in cake nor the motivations one has to bake them. It didn’t add to the argument for me – Scientism destroys itself. The examples are just for people that cannot understand the logic, but see the common sense of it when any of these types of examples are shown.

      Reply
  7. Marco

    the faulty logic Lennox employs

    I think you use a different definition of logic to me. You seem to ignore the logical truism “scientism proves itself wrong”, that is in my books, incontrovertible, yet go on about his logic, when he is cherry picking from numerous possible examples to elucidate his point. When I think he’s being political, you pick on it as a logical fallacy.

    At this point in the book, it is the premises that he has that ought to cause you not to enjoy reading, not the examples that he chooses to expand the argument.

    Reply

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