Link and Comments: Dawkins, via Coyne, on Science and Truth

Today Jerry Coyne’s site (even though it’s a blog, with chronological posts every day, sometimes several a day, he’s obstinate about not calling it a blog, but a site) links an article by Richard Dawkins at the UK magazine The Spectator: The insidious attacks on scientific truth.

(Dawkins has gotten a reputation in certain circles for being intemperate, especially in his Twitter posts, but that doesn’t detract from his scientific expertise or arguments. Newton, he mentions, was not a very nice person, yet he revolutionized physics and mathematics. Dismissing someone’s argument for being, or accusing them of being, a bad person is, of course, the classic ad hominem fallacy.)

The theme of Dawkins’ piece is about the supposed “different ways of knowing,” different from scientific investigation and confirmation. These different ways supposedly include religious revelation and intuition.

Dawkin’s take is very familiar; Coyne himself addressed these issues in his book Faith vs. Fact. But here are some key passages.

The physics of the very small also goes beyond Newton. Quantum theory is too weird for most human brains to accommodate intuitively. Yet the accuracy with which its predictions are fulfilled is shattering and beyond all doubt. If I can’t get my head around the weirdness of a theory which is validated by such predictions, that’s just too bad. There’s no law that says truths about nature have to be comprehensible by the human brain. We have to live with the limitations of a brain that was built by Darwinian natural selection of hunter-gatherer ancestors on the African savanna, where medium-sized things like antelopes and potential mates moved at medium speeds. It’s actually remarkable that human brains — even if only a minority of them — are capable of doing modern physics at all. It is an open question whether there remain deep truths about the universe which human brains not only don’t yet understand but can never understand. I find that open question immensely exciting, whatever the answer to it may be.

This goes to my theme about how human intelligence is perhaps not capable of understanding the entirety of reality. Already, quantum mechanics is a mystery, confirmed from evidence but not through any intuitive understanding by human minds; and at a mundane level this is analogous to how too many people disbelieve anything they cannot personally feel or touch: thus Flat Earthers, and all sorts of other conspiracy theorists.

Theologians love their ‘mysteries’, such as the ‘mystery of the Trinity’ (how can God be both three and one at the same time?) and the ‘mystery of transubstantiation’ (how can the contents of a chalice be simultaneously wine and blood?). When challenged to defend such stuff, they may retort that scientists too have their mysteries. Quantum theory is mysterious to the point of being downright perverse. What’s the difference? I’ll tell you the difference and it’s a big one. Quantum theory is validated by predictions fulfilled to so many decimal places that it’s been compared to predicting the width of North America to within one hairsbreadth. Theological theories make no predictions at all, let alone testable ones.

And this is the obvious response from any rational personal to the fantastic claims of religions. …I’ve seem timelines about the progress over the past two millennia of science, and of religion. The former has brought about our modern understanding of the universe, and through technology, our modern interconnected world. The latter is empty. Religion has no more verifiable answers than it did two millennia ago.

And finally, about truth.

A layperson’s version of the pernicious philosophy I mentioned earlier is the familiar bleat of: ‘Well it may not be true for you but it is true for me.’ No, it’s either true or it isn’t. For both of us. As somebody once said (authorship multiply attributed), you are entitled to your own opinion but not to your own facts.

Some of what I have claimed here about scientific truth may come across as arrogant. So might my disparagement of certain schools of philosophy. Science really does know a lot about what is true, and we do have methods in place for finding out a lot more. We should not be reticent about that. But science is also humble. We may know what we know, but we also know what we don’t know. Scientists love not knowing because they can go to work on it. The history of science’s increasing knowledge, especially during the past four centuries, is a spectacular cascade of truths following one on the other. We may choose to call it a cumulative increase in the number of truths that we know. Or we can tip our hat to (a better class of) philosophers and talk of successive approximations towards yet-to-be-falsified provisional truths. Either way, science can properly claim to be the gold standard of truth.

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