Saturday, 12 January 2013

What does science know about anything?

David Hume: the original pro-science troll
Science lovers reckon scientific evidence is the only way to know anything. Other people call them arrogant, and say there are other ways of knowing, beyond science. Could both views be right?

With such polarised debates it is all too easy to sit in one corner and wave your fist at the other. It doesn't get us very far. It is more helpful to figure out exactly what the other side is thinking, and talk about why they think it.

In this case, perhaps the debate hinges on a definition. What do we mean by knowing?

When a scientist says they know something, they mean an idea has been shown to be consistent with observations by somebody trustworthy using a rigorous and reliable method. (Observation, by the way, is not limited to literally seeing things. It includes any reliable method for data collection.)

There is an assumption in this definition of knowing: the idea has to be unambiguously defined, in such a way that its implications can be observed. If the idea itself is so vague and open to debate that no implication of the idea could be observed, then a scientist would say you could never know the idea to be true.

Ideas, however, do not fit neatly into science's box. There are plenty of vague ideas out there, and many of their implications are difficult or impossible to observe with any certainty. Areas of thought such as economics, politics, theology and art contain a mishmash of ideas, some of which can be tested, others of which cannot. Progress in such areas works less like science and more like the law: a continual process of building upon precedent and examining one idea in the light of another. Ideas are rarely right or wrong, just fashionable and unfashionable.

There is also the realm of subjective experience. Whereas science hones in on tightly defined ideas and controlled observations, fighting to remove subjectivity, postmodernism revels in differences of opinion. No two lives are identical, and two people can perceive the same thing in quite different ways. The postmodern position is that no-one's experience is more valid than anyone else's.

When a postmodernist says they know something, they mean an idea is consistent with their own, subjective experience, even if the idea is not fully defined, even if there is nothing they could possibly provide as evidence to support the idea.

This version of knowing is so very far removed from the scientist's version, no wonder there is disagreement over how we can know things. Of course both sides believe they are right, because by their own definitions both sides are right.

So far, so much fence sitting. But it doesn't end there, because the point is not moot: there are implications.

In the real world, there is a crucial difference between the two kinds of knowing, and that is an ethical difference. If you know something in the postmodern sense, it only applies to you, because your knowledge is subjective.  If you know something in the scientific sense, because you have removed subjectivity, you can use that knowledge to act in other people's interests.

This is not to deny the presence of subjective components within scientific arguments - you cannot prove something does more good than harm without a subjective definition of good and harm - but you can move an argument on from a simplistic 'I know this is right' to a nuanced 'I know this is right because...' and reduce the level of subjectivity by making as many concrete observations as possible.

As an example, if you know in the scientific sense that vaccinations do more good than harm (defining good  as reducing disease and preventing illness and death), you can justify a programme of compulsory vaccination, because the observational evidence is objective and its truth is universal.  If you only know it in the postmodern sense, you can only justify vaccinating yourself, because your subjective experience and opinion is yours alone.

So if you think science lovers are arrogant to claim they know the truth, remember that they are only talking about a very specific kind of knowledge, and consider that science's knowledge is universal and objective in a way that other kinds are not.

And if you are a science lover, frustrated with others' disdain for empirical evidence, remember that they have in mind a much more general class of ideas for which evidence is hard to come by, and consider that such ideas, being the stuff of human life, are the basis and the purpose of all scientific enquiry.

Saturday, 24 November 2012

I'm not being sexist but women can't be bishops

vintage-sexist-ads (36)As the result came in from the General Synod's vote, against women bishops, the air was rent by the sound of an almighty facepalm - not the hand of God beating her omnipresent brow, but the simultaneous arm-to-forehead muscle spasm of millions of English citizens in utter disbelief. The Archbishop's sphinctral contraction at the thought of the oncoming furore would have dwarfed a catastrophe at CERN.

In reality, the decision says far more about the Church's peculiar political structure than it does about anyone's views on the actual issue. The vast majority of Church of England leaders and followers want to kick out this archaic tradition of sexism, but the way the Church works means practically everybody has to be happy with any changes to the status quo. Such a system has its merits - it encourages compromise and debate and prevents the back and forth between opposite extremes one tends to see in systems where the majority (or the biggest minority) rules - and those who have called for it to be thrown out should pause to consider that the alternatives have problems of their own.

Regardless of the majority view, there remains a significant minority in the C of E who believe in complementarianism, the belief that 'God has created men and women equal in their essential dignity and human personhood, but different and complementary in function with male headship in the home and in the Church'.  Interestingly, it seems the people who hold this view don't like to be called 'sexist'. I discovered this by reading Krish Kandia's blog post Grace, Truth and Synod.

The OED definition of sexism is 'prejudice, stereotyping, or discrimination, typically against women, on the basis of sex'. So the definition of complementarianism abolutely fits that of sexism. If you're a complementarian, you - by definition - believe God is sexist.

This is a bitter pill for people to swallow, as we all know is it bad to be sexist, and if someone calls you a sexist you feel insulted - even if you are sexist. The thought of God being sexist gives a Christian a right headache, because God is supposed to be perfectly good, but sexism is seen as a bad thing. There is only one way to deal with this problem, which is the standard authoritarian trick of partitioning your mind: in the 'bad' partition you put sexism; in the 'good' partition you put your own beliefs; you never let the two partitions overlap.  So you are complementarian AND you're not sexist.  You love and respect women as equals AND a woman cannot do a man's work.

This kind of thinking goes on all over the place.  It is not far from: 'I don't mind gays, I just hate campness'; 'Nothing against immigrants, but they don't accept our culture'.  Even as these arguments deny being homophobic and racist they manage to be exactly that. There is a parallel in the offence taken by homophobic Christians at Stonewall's Bigot of the Year award: if you are offended by the title 'bigot', why would you continue to be a bigot?

Perhaps the offence these people feel is the key to changing their minds, a chink in their psychic armour. Deep down, they know the views they hold are wrong, and they only continue to hold them by artificially separating their own ideas from the bad stuff. How strong can those mental barriers be? Even if sexists will never be changed, it is important to shine a light on their self contradiction. Nobody is born a sexist. The more we publicly challenge sexist ideas, the fewer people will be persuaded to accept them.

Complementarians are dinosaurs, struggling to survive in a world which will no longer support them. Even with the Church of England's 'rock in a storm' approach to values, change will come.  There'll be a woman Archbishop before long.

Sunday, 1 April 2012

Praying for good governance?

Recently, a court ruled that a local council did not have the right to hold prayers in their meetings.

Whilst I agree with the ruling, I find it deeply sad that it came to law at all. Secularism is all about religious freedom; we shouldn't be in the business of 'banning' things.

You could argue that this is a trivial matter, and that secularists shouldn't make such a fuss, but if the prayers really are so trivial, they can surely be held outside the meeting without complaint. If, on the other hand, the prayers are significant, then it is essential they are not held as part of the meeting, as they symbolically exclude the majority of UK citizens from local governance. Either way, it should be simple. Hold prayers before the meeting, not during the meeting.

The problem comes because some people think, just because they are generally free to do a thing, they should be allowed to do it whenever and wherever they like, regardless of the implications for other people. This applies to many issues of freedom, not just this case. Commonly, this is known as bad manners. If people have good manners and are considerate of other people, you don't need to make rules to govern their behaviour.

We shouldn't have to prevent councils from holding prayers in their meetings, for the same reason we shouldn't have to prevent them from playing football. "Why shouldn't I play football in council meetings? We've always played football - it's a tradition going back hundreds of years. This is a football playing country. What do you mean it excludes people who don't want to play? How dare you challenge my right to play football whenever I want? You should respect and tolerate my football playing."

Obviously Christian councillors should hold their prayers, and their football matches, outside of the meetings. There should be nothing more to say on the matter, but if Christian councillors are going to be selfish and continue playing football during the meetings, we're going to have to make a rule saying they can't do that. It is just a shame we could not rely on common sense and good manners to get the same result.