Saturday, September 25, 2010

You Are Free To Consult Your Own Experience And Conscience And To Decide For Yourselves [Anthony McCarthy]

For anyone who might have been following that long argument I’ve been having at Sean Carroll’s blog, it ended Thursday, when Carroll finally gave me an answer to a question I’ve been asking in the argument since September 6th, over and over again, in various wordings, Is there a single object that physics knows comprehensively and exhaustively?

Just to come clean, being too busy to go down another proposed dead end, I did intentionally bribe him. His answer, given when I offered to not post anymore comments on his blog if he’d finally answer it, was “no”

Since Carroll’s blog is about physics and it's read by many people conversant with physics, it is rather remarkable that none of them would answer that very simple question.

My participation in the argument began when someone e-mailed me to say that Carroll’s video endorsement of Hawking’s theological argument out of very theoretical physics, would clinch the materialist argument. I watched it and wasn’t impressed. As I said in the first comment in the argument, the first I ever posted on his blog:

So, a physicist studying the physical universe, with methods and tools that rigorously include only information about the physical universe only finds the physical universe as defined with those methods and tools. I'm waiting for the man to bite the dog in this.

For a physicist, who begins by throwing out anything that doesn’t directly address the physical universe to reach a result, extremely tentative in this case, and suddenly pull a theological conclusion out of it is, frankly, irrational. As I continued in that first comment:

I'm also wondering where the place of equal protection under the law or freedom of association, etc. are in your universe since those aren't required under this scenario either.

Carroll had a marginally interesting fight with Sam Harris about the possibility of founding moral holdings in science, earlier this year. I tended to agree with Carroll but only in a general way about the beginning of his argument. I think Harris is more than a little bit wet in that area, his arguments based in something very close to what many contemporary materialists would call “woo” if it was said by a theist and, to my reading, not exactly coherent.

In the second post, linked to above, this week, which I suspect might have something to do with my side in that long argument, Carroll made this rather sweeping statement of his materialist faith:

All we need to account for everything we see in our everyday lives are a handful of particles - electrons, protons, and neutrons - interacting via a few forces - the nuclear forces, gravity, and electromagnetism - subject to the basic rules of quantum mechanics and general relativity. You can substitute up and down quarks for protons and neutrons if you like, but most of us don't notice the substructure of nucleons on a daily basis. That's a remarkably short list of ingredients, to account for all the marvelous diversity of things we see in the world.

So, where would those two items of secular, civic morality I mentioned be found in Carroll’s universe? His sweeping, materialist faith, stated in his terms in two different arguments raises a very fundamental question, does any kind of morality really exist. This is especially troubling because in his answer to Harris he says this:

Morality is not part of science, however much we would like it to be.

I'll let you see how he addresses it for yourselves. I don't find it very convincing, though I agree with that last statement entirely.

I reject the idea that atheism is inherently amoral, basing that position not on any theoretical or rational analysis but on something as real as could be. I’ve known some very moral atheists who do not simply profess but practice a high standard of moral conduct. Professions of belief are nothing as compared to moral conduct. I don’t question the origin of their morality anymore than I do the moral conduct of religious people, I’m not especially interested in the question of origins, especially when those are unknowable. But for a scientist in Carroll’s position to hold those two positions, in public debates, asserts a position I can’t square, either rationally or in the observation of real life.

I think the problem with materialistic scientism is that it fails to take into account how science was invented by people, for what purpose, and how people came to believe what science said was reliable. No science that came after those first tests of its reliability, as it became a professional system, can escape that origin. The early assertions that were made as science were accepted because what it claimed, within the limits of what was studied, worked. It produced predictable results that were beneficial, it helped people avoid results that were not beneficial. And those results were only reliable within the limits of what was studied, what was able to be reliably studied with the methods of science. If extended past what the evidence produced showed, the results were not reliable.

Along the way scientists and their admirers seem to have developed a confusion about many things related to methods, the scope of what was studied, the rational application of what was learned and the limits of what could be concluded. Somehow, today, the philosophical ideology of materialism seems to have replaced the merely pedestrian fact of what a scientist uses in the practice of their trade. As Eddington pointed out more than eighty years ago, a businessman doesn’t necessarily make religious assumptions on the basis of their trade, they don’t enter those into their balance sheets. Though many businessmen have certainly held themselves to be in divine favor, they don’t put it into their ledgers. I think a lot of scientists, perhaps too busy to really understand the most basic facts of their work, make a similar mistake about what that work rationally encompasses.

I’ve never seen any evidence that scientists are more moral, more virtuous or more honest than people in other walks of life. The number of scientists who derive their incomes from weapons research, the production of dangerous chemicals that are regularly discharged into the food chain and the environment, often on the reassurance of scientists with a financial or professional interest, none of whom are then thrown out of science by their colleagues, is certainly conclusive evidence that the normal practice of science doesn’t produce morality as a reliable result. To think that a profession which has that record can then go on to tell us anything about the enormously important issue of civic or other morality is unfounded in evidence.

If one of the most extensive, sophisticated and massively respected areas of science has not completely and exhaustively understood even one of the objects which it has studied, at enormous expense in time, intellectual consideration and money, for to assume it has the answers to “all we need to account for in everyday life” is massively absurd. A claim like that, made out of a would-be rationalist frame of mind, should be as self-impeaching as the lapses in religious authorities when they prove to be morally compromised.

It was the “ignorant church lady” remark I mentioned here, in the first post in this Hawking inspired fight that has fueled my anger enough to sustain my part in this argument for more than two weeks of intense effort. I know that clerk in the grain store, I can see how she acts, I know she is far from ignorant and I know she knows the difference between the everyday scope of her work and how she should treat other people and the animals she keeps. She is the best judge of what she believes and it seems to produce pretty good results that are beneficial for those around her. And she seems to do it all on her own, without theoretical physics or David Hume or the moral systems of rigid religion. That is where I’ll take my instruction, thank you.