All posts by j'bug

I teach philosophy and build web pages.


I just got back last week from a 2400 mile trip to Virginia Beach. It was a lovely trip, lovely weather for the most part, and no accidents. I have spotted a bit of bad behavior among drivers that adds to the frustration of driving. This behavior is added on to another behavior that is frustrating as well.

The first behavior that irritates me is driving the freeway without cruise control. Here is how it plays out. The car’s speed is controlled by the driver’s foot. That foot is under stress as long as the cruise control is off. When the car goes uphill, the car naturally slows, unless the driver is attentive. This isn’t true for big trucks. They just don’t have the power to keep on speed. So the inattentive driver slows down going uphill, maybe below the speed limit, maybe not. People following have to be attentive to the changes in the road but also changes in the driver’s attention, speed, lane changing, etc. Some of that is of course necessary, but the speed can be removed from the equation by using cruise control. The following driver can set their own cruise control to mimic the driver in front, keep a safe distance, and one less variable in the risk assessment is taken out of consideration. Drivers who do not use cruise control increase the stress of other drivers on the road.

I understand. Really! Some cars don’t come with cruise control. But I think it should be a necessary addition to all cars, and the car itself should recommend its use. It saves gas, and reduces stress and road weariness, especially on long trips.

The subject of this post has to do with people who do not use cruise but also have a terrible habit. I call these people synchronizers. That is, when they start to pass a slower vehicle, they slow down to the other vehicle’s speed and just stay parallel to them for a while. It’s even worse when they are passing a truck or something and the truck is going variable speeds. The synchronizer, slows down and speeds up to match the truck. Even though they wished to pass the vehicle at first, and were going at a speed that would have done it quite happily, they then block those other vehicles behind them who also wished to pass. Now, don’t get me wrong. I am not ready to fly off the handle in road rage, but they aggravate me. Any aggravation on the road causes stress. Some aggravation is part of the territory, like following trucks, but some, like synchronizing can be eliminated.

I’m not saying that we do not all make mistakes. We do, and sometimes more often than would promote general safety and wellbeing. We are all subject to making bad judgments for a variety of reasons. I’m not necessarily a better driver than you.

OK synchronizers, get your act together and become better highway citizens. Don’t snub your nose at me. I am not a snob. I just want you to voluntarily stop being an irritant. Oh, you didn’t know it was aggravating? Now you know. Don’t care about me? That’s OK too. Think about staying home next time. You are one of the causes of road rage, and the increase of blood pressure in the general population. Want world peace? Me too. Do your part.

This can be fixed. Give these people self-driving cars. Take the incompetent out from behind the wheel.

response to an opinion

Why Our Children Don’t Think There Are Moral Facts

Times Opinionator by Justin McBrayer

This is a video of his explanation of the problem presented at Evangel University.

My response to the written piece in the NYT Opinionator

I have always maintained that the equation between truth and proof is fallacious. We’ve moved on past the simplicity of a logical proof to statistical correlations between facts, truths, and opinions. The nice thing about that is that irrespective of whether you are judging opinion or the real world, a statistical correlation gives corroboration and even warrant to the best of our moral intuitions, even as it does to our measurements of the material properties of the universe.

In this way we have learned to judge the negative value of divorce, except in the case of spousal violence. And divorce is a great example because any blanket proscription against divorce because it is “morally wrong” fails to rescue women (or men) from abusive relationships that may, and too often, result in death. Statistical correlation does give warrant for divorce. It is the moral solution in the case of abuse. It is not an opinion. (Or, if it is an opinion, it is also more than that.)

Yes, this judgment relies on the belief that all people are created equal and deserve equal judgment under the law. But even that belief has statistical warrant. It is a negative warrant, but one that has proved to be true over the many centuries when different values have been held. Other grounds for social values all end by breaking social bonds and result in logical, legal, and moral contradictions, subjecting one group to the will of another, and performing unjust actions upon them. This is not strictly a biblical value either, except by derivation. There was no proscription against slavery in the Bible, something that southern landowners knew very well.

Yes the very concept of justice relies on a belief that equity and fairness must be preserved, and that there must be redress for wrongs done, whether intentionally or unintentionally.

To think that values are simply opinions that can be dismissed because they are opinions is the shallow end of the gene pool, both intellectual and biological. They choose this path because it is deterministically simple, and no more complex thought is required, and whether they would be able to perform that complex thought is in question.

The only disappointing thing about relying on statistical correlations is that they must be worked out through arduous research. Logic is much simpler. But can we require certainty? There are plenty of examples where incomplete reasoning, false certainties, or open-ended absolutes are the cause of much abuse and damage to God’s children and the earth he has placed them on. Under which justification can a king claim divine right, the absolute rule over a subject’s life without appeal?

in response to a remark

A friend of mine said something yesterday that piqued my interest. I paraphrase: “Students in my Modern/Postmodern class will need to pray for help because the writers of the essays in our text do not give any hope of resolving a crisis of faith.” This paraphrase also contains some of what I understood him to mean, I apologize for my failure to grasp the exact thought.

He is correct when he worries for the Christian students in his class. Postmodernism does not try to sew up the cracks in our perception of reality. The reality his students have, and the reality they have constructed is largely deficient in the critical faculties necessary for the raw critique found in postmoderns, post structuralists, and literary critics like Foucault, Derrida, Lyotard, Fish, Gadamer, or even Nietzsche. That is because they have little training in classical philosophy, or the philosophes of the Age of Reason. Most of these believers have been brought up in the certainties of early twentieth-century conservative theologies.

There is nothing in particular wrong with these certainties, except when they face the much longer and more difficult philosophical conversation of the critical schools. The critical schools have little to do with conservative Christianity, and their remarks are aimed at a much broader set of issues in society. Conservative Christianity is the child of a narrow branch of conservatives, perhaps the Scottish plain language school of theology where the sentence in question just means what it says: a form of literalism. Literalism is fine for a small community that doesn’t interact with the wider world. It is too fragile for contact with uninterpreted reality, say, the truths of experience that are only found outside the covenant community. It is part of a closed system that not unlike natural systems, suffer continuing entropy for lack of a persistent source of energy.

Alongside these certainties is the vigor of youth, that turns their certainty into a weapon for defense of their knowledge citadel. This is all, at times, that their elders expect. What their elders do not expect, because they have no acquaintance, is that the knowledge they have imparted, is at best naïve, and subject to the critiques made famous in the postmoderns. In fact, the sidelong attack of the postmoderns on the knowledge of the modern era (from the Enlightenment) is particularly apt at stressing the unexamined presuppositions of the conservative Christian. This is why my friend’s request for prayer is appropriate.

Part of what has always been the character of the conservatives version of education is indoctrination. That is, flatly, “you should confess what I have told you to believe.” This works perfectly well for doctrinaire scientism as it does for conservative Christianity. Their models of knowledge are similar. Happily the attack of the postmoderns work as well on both crowds. The problem the Christian faces is the failure of their worldview, while the adept at scientism finds a new indoctrination that they naïvely see as truth in the same way as the predecessor scientism. Both reactions are incorrect.

Before we get started, let me suggest as an aside, that the initial mistake many Christians make with postmodernism is that they take it as a replacement for what they call knowledge. This is a failure to recognize the difference between theory and critique, between knowledge and skepticism. When the postmoderns speak they do so not as an authority, but as pointing out flaws in their subject’s perception of knowledge. They are not building an alternative worldview, but suggesting that the current worldview is a cobbled together piece of excrement. Some, like Foucault do this early in their careers, but after tearing down get around to building something later on. Others, like Derrida, never construct anything. They are always and forever deconstructing the precious objects. That is perhaps a bit unfair, but I have found few instances of construction in his writings. His puzzling rhetoric annoys, teases, and rejects the foundationalist certainties of an early twentieth-century worldview.

Problems in the Church with postmodernism (I am most familiar with these) range from outright rejection to reassertion of the fundamentals as a response to the critique. But the range of reactions rises from a lack of acquaintance with the material the postmoderns are critiquing in the first place. Some rail against the postmoderns, not realizing that postmodernism is unhappy with all foundationalist pretensions, not just those evidenced by conservative Christianity. But the Christians I know who reject postmodernism out of hand, don’t realize that they themselves have foundationalist pretensions. They want to say that the Bible is a reliable foundation for Christianity. OK, let them say that. They are wrong. Jesus said himself “You search the scriptures because in them you think you have eternal life, but they are the ones that testify of me.” Christ, and the revelation of Christ is the foundation of the Church and Christianity, not the Bible, (or Peter for that matter,) which by the way, the early believers only had a part of what we call the Old Testament in the Hebrew TENAK and the Greek Septuagint. So Jesus couldn’t have been speaking of the New Testament at all.

So, if Christ is the foundation for the Church, then there is no need to defend the logic of the Bible. (That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t know what it says, or understand history, context, organization, and theology.) These critics of postmodernism rightly believe that postmodernism is an attack on Christianity when Christianity has become an adherent to the text instead of an adherent to Christ. Or these believers think that they are defending Christ when they are defending a culturally inept interpretation of God’s intention, mistaking their theology for reality, they have missed Christ altogether and placed a terrible burden on reality to prove their theology. The postmoderns are correct to critique that miscegenation.

The proper view of the postmodern critique is to treat it as a skeptical instrument to call into question foundationalist assertions, that is, assertions of knowledge that rely on the annunciation and exact correspondence of our knowledge with absolutes. Any study of science or theology will reveal how terribly wrong humans have gotten it at times. The critique of the postmodern is just another instance of calling us to account for some of those errors.

What does the believer have to fear from postmodernism? Well, in my estimation, nothing. All that’s required is the kind of reading and research that is required for any other dense and often inscrutable set of texts: a healthy ego, a wry sense of humor, some fair historical awareness of the subjects of their critique, and an acquaintance with the larger conversation. If somebody mentions a writer, say Foucault mentioning Nietzsche, it would be worth your while to discover what Nietzsche was doing that Foucault critiques. If a writer mentions an essay or a book, as Foucault does when he mentions Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morals in “Nietzsche, Genealogy, History,” you will notice that he also mentions Dr. Paul Rée who is one subject Nietzsche critiques in his book. Rée is known as the subject of Nietzsche’s critique by any who have read the Genealogy, and so wouldn’t necessarily require a citation by Foucault. But for the uninformed reading Foucault’s essay, Rée is a piece of the puzzle unknowable outside of Foucault’s reference to his ideas. But this scholarly concern of mine is meant only to hint at the many ramifications possible in tracing out the meaning of any reference. Any casual dismissal of Foucault because he “attacks” conservative Christianity, has no idea what Foucault has said and so does a disservice to the hearers, in fact performs the office of lying and misleading.

I haven’t told you what Paul Rée actually said, or what Foucault or Nietzsche said. But a student who wishes to be counted, should be able to enter that conversation fairly as an observer, and later, a participant. A reader worth their salt will be able to evaluate what they say without spitting or cursing. Comprehending any writing is partly a skill that requires being able to ground the conversation in some space, taking one side or another (one of many possible sides). The tendency to see any conversation as black and white is one of the unfortunate characteristics of foundationalism. Every statement is judged to be right or wrong, fitting or perverse. One must be willing to try to see an alternative worldview. You should even try swapping out your worldview for somebody else’s. That takes strength of character, so you may have to work out for a while in simpler tasks before trying it.

Does the postmodern critique give us relativism? No, it doesn’t. Remember that postmodernism is not giving us anything but a critique of failed beliefs, systems, and ideas. You might conclude that relativism is an appropriate response to their critique, but it would be your choosing that, instead of their critique resulting in that. According to Hughes LeBlanc, probabilistic logics function as well as binary ones. And Joe Margolis suggests that a robust relativism does not preclude truth. Thinking in black and white terms is probably wrong. Just because Jesus speaks the truth does not preclude Kongzi or Plato from also speaking the truth. Just because Aristotle is wrong about one thing (actually more than that) doesn’t mean he was wrong about all the things he said. Just because you have made mistakes in the past doesn’t mean you always make mistakes, etc.

Cheer up! The postmodern conversation is a fruitful one, when you can flex like a palm tree in the wind. The practice of shoring up your defenses against a possible attack can give you insight into your form of life, and help you to be transformed and not destroyed by this contact.

a journey with ryan bell

A Year Without God by Ryan Bell

My Response:

As a critical realist, I understand the purifications you have gone through, and the difficulties of this transition. I faced the prospect of the same sort of transition early in my life of faith, say, 15 years after my conversion to Christianity. I realized as a philosopher, that the route I was taking would lead me inevitably to the project you have found yourself in. But I also realized with the passage of time, what having grown up in a scientific household made me recognize, that is, the perfect blindness of that path as well.

Thinking that people can’t change, that we are predictable, that we are the subject of deterministic forces we can’t extricate ourselves from is as good a picture as the Calvinist gives us, and is from the same source — an overconfidence in our own logical apprehension of reality.

Gödel’s and Heisenberg’s thinking should have disabused us of notions like that, but in general it is comforting for people to imagine there is a destiny and we are responsible for it only in some peripheral sense. However, the humanist has to realize as the Christian must that our freedom (a surd in any sense) allows us to construct a reality that only partially resembles the reality we are given. And that construction is often at odds with reality though it may be internally consistent. The non- or anti-scientific theist and the non- or anti-religious atheist are not consistent with reality, though their consistent logics tell them they are.

Aristotle’s law of non-contradiction is a tool for the logic of sentences, not a test of reality. Reality is full of (for the moment) unresolved paradoxes, but the mistake many of us make is to ignore the paradox, leave it unexplored. But in those paradoxes lie, like a region of Mandelbrot’s fractal, unexplored depths of knowledge. Some paradoxes can be dissolved, and some can’t. That is a tale for time to tell. But some hold the riches of knowledge we hunger for. The paradoxes of quantum reality were like that. Now we’ve explored some of those regions, but our exploration is not finished. The paradox of reality still calls for resolution. As many like John Donne, the Catholic thinker suggested, we are on a journey.

Don’t let the determinists of the agnostic sort capture you as the determinists in the church did for a time. They may provide some material comfort, but fail to fill the promise of lasting knowledge. Allow this journey to be unrestricted on top as it is on the bottom. Don’t be content to settle for less than the truth, even if that truth disallows the resolution of your dilemma. The libraries are littered with minds that can’t conceive anything greater than their own conception. Let your exploration be freed from the constraints of your own logics, though minding the consistency with reality.

Cheers for the new year!


Our use of language, words, and communication is a very spiritual affair. After all there is little material component to reality. As the physicists are noted for pointing out there really is no stuff at the bottom except fields, forces, and information. Material is so 19th century.

Michel Foucault tried to get us to consider that the practices that are most important for us, including the conversations and letters we share with each other are spiritual practices even as our poetry and prayer is. We have gotten rationality down pat in our computers. But consciousness and self consciousness, not yet. That doesn’t mean we won’t, but we don’t understand it well enough yet to program it. It may be in trying to program it that we begin to understand it better. Morality of whatever kind is for us a very spiritual exercise because its practice is the admission that there is meaning beyond the redness of tooth and claw.

How can poetry not be a spiritual affair. The modern materialists have done so much to make the precious banal. In an effort to keep God out, they have reduced themselves to plankton, all the while acting as if like gods they could banish their spiritual natures with a wave of their hand. (I don’t say “spiritual natures” like there’s a God-sized hole in us that can be filled only by following this or that rubric.) Our spiritual nature is consciousness and self consciousness, a mystery of magnificent scope.

I know Christianity and all the major religions have some take on the afterlife. But I side with Plato who says we shouldn’t be scared of it since we can know nothing about it. Even though in the mouth of Socrates he elaborated a marvelous tale of the afterlife, reincarnation, et al in the Phaedo he denied anything like knowledge about it.

Kant thought that without God, freedom, and immortality, morality couldn’t exist. I don’t know that, but as mysteries they are magnificent in scope. There is no easy answer to them, or categories we can put them in. The modern materialist would banish such language, but it persists, even if there is no resolution to debates about it. Looking for proofs for or against Kant’s foundational principles is a problem that can only be solved by taking a transcendental position (too high for mere humans.) That system in which freedom can be proven is larger than the system we live in. We can assert it. We can’t prove it. We also can’t prove that it doesn’t exist. It remains conditional in a philosophic sense, suspended without resolution, even though we act as though it does exist and hold each other accountable as if it exists.

I let the materialists have their say. It comforts them to eradicate the opposition. Hot air really.

it’s about human rights! it’s about being a good person!

(I put this on so I thought I would also put it here)

When we talk about Feminism it is not about domination, sex, or being in charge, it is about creating the situation where the rights of women as stated in the constitution are distributed as they are for men as stated in the constitution.

It’s easy to see why some men get enraged by any talk of feminism. In their minds (mistakenly) they are losing property. Under a feminist rubric, they would no longer get to treat women either as property, or as individuals with rights that are subservient to theirs. They would not be able to think of owning their women any more, or possessing their women, or as having a right to do whatever they want with or to their women. If women are individuals with their own rights, equal under the law then instinctual dominating male behavior would be marked as wrong, their violence as a violation, and their property as stolen, misused, and misappropriated.

When we talk about Gay Rights, it is not about being able to sue employers who don’t hire you, but about not being fired just for being gay. It is about having the same civil rights as those who generally conform to the CIS norm. Gay marriage is not about demeaning hetero marriage, (heretos do enough of that themselves,) but about having the same civil rights as a hetero couple: the right to raise children, visit their families in hospitals, the right to inherit from their spouse without any special codicil to their will, family health care, and dozens of other rights married heterosexual couples enjoy as citizens of this great nation. It is the right not to be imprisoned, harassed, mistreated, or relegated to second-class citizenship just because of the person they love.

For the uninformed among you: genetic and phenotypical evidence is in! Both genetic and formative processes are partially responsible for a person being gay or lesbian. On top of that, training and experience is partially responsible. Is this a fault of people or just a normal variation?

The numbers are in. We have conclusive evidence that gay and lesbian people have been around as long as we have been collecting history. It is a normal variation.

It would be easier to live in a society where all people are respected for being people, not for some secondary trait like maleness or femaleness, gay or straight, tall or short. However we should make a distinction between good and evil, right and wrong, There are good and right ways to treat people, and evil and wrong ways. Start with the universally accepted Golden rule. Treat others as you would be treated and the world will be a better place. Be one of those who adds to the goodness instead of taking it away.

#gay #lesbian #heterosexual #human rights #civil rights #normal #abnormal #gamergate #being polite #golden rule #decency #kindness #feminism

the creative power of words

We have almost but not quite forgotten that words themselves have a creative power reflective of their creator. This is the fascination we have with the best literature, our dearest loved ones, the humor of the incautious or well-crafted turn of phrase, and it is what we depend upon implicitly when we pore over the best books. The intuitive leaps made possible by an intelligence like our own when we encounter another intelligence like or unlike our own that stimulates us to make connections building knowledge in ways we didn’t imagine.…

We attribute happily a spiritual being to language that we can hardly admit as Westerners so enamored with a closed and perfected story; whether it is logic, mathematics, or theology we favor tying all the loose ends and making a consistent dead lump of a thing. We grind the soul of the poet and the artist for their extravagance and treat their work as a receptacle for our dusty commentary when all the while our brains feed on the creative heat we take from their genius. And yet their work is not diminished by our critique nor exhausted by the gift it gives. The unimaginative soul closes the book with never a glance back while the virus implanted by the words courses through the mind bringing it to a fever. Those who have woken to the power of words greedily seek out their effect and find even in the most obscure and disabused notions a very real transformation. The birth of an idea is the making of a universe. Man truly does not live by bread alone.

Language is in this sense a life of its own that partners with its auditors, listening to very sound of the universe as it expands, the keening of the earth as it bears the weight of its inhabitants.

a couple issues

My life is marked by persistent phase shifts.

One day, I can write, the next I can not, then at another time I can read, or not. I have many books left unfinished because I couldn’t tolerate the work required to finish them, they offended my sense of truth, or research, or said nothing new, or I was just too tired to sustain or feign interest. I cannot just will to do what I want without a price being exacted from me. And, I don’t want to leave behind the traces of, and carefully configured annunciated truths that have sustained me since before I can remember, you know, the innate sensibilities that I have always relied on. I know that some of them are not worth retaining. They need an overhaul, but I can only sustain so much change at one time. But then I can’t will to change some of this either without breaking much that I value.

There is a certain gracefulness in life bought with patience, paid by me or others, God, or the universe. I can’t live well without that, and I can’t trace any freedom to its source. That’s frustrating. The quandary I am in forces a certain disappointment I can’t overcome merely by willing its resolution, or striking out in a promising direction. Complicating that are the promises I have made to people I respect in full expectation of fulfilling those promises, yet I am subject to a world where I cannot will to accomplish those same promises by willing their completion.

There is some guidance brought by beauty, by truth, by the Spirit of God, by awe at the majesty of the created universe. Otherwise I’m left alone, and not willing to let others take over the job of getting me in gear for whatever purposes they think I am suitable for. I become frustrated when I have to fend off either the ghosts of my own expectations of myself or the real expectations of myself or others. I do not wish for others to experience with me the disappointment I have in my own predicament.

I have moments of fruitful productivity, but like moments of my genius, they are too few and far between. Like glimpses of heaven we all have in a dream or a vision of perfection, they ruin the hope of actually getting there from here. They perform the task of creating emptiness where a fog resided before; a tension and anxiety exist now where ignorance and the soporific laziness of summer once was. Revelation is a curse in that it promises then takes away, sucking me into the future, a phase change from a simple childhood to a complex and effortful project/process/praxis.

I would not trade what I now see for the ignorance of my predecessor self, and since I am a different person than what I was, I cannot return the greater galaxy of my thoughts into the smaller structure of its progenitor’s container. I therefore plod forward, hoping that my stupid mistakes (inevitable) do not stop the onrush of determinate action, action guided by, in cooperation with, all the realities I am associated with. I take some comfort in the Analects of Kongzi (Confucius) Book 2, Ch 4:

  1. The Master Said, ‘At fifteen, I had my mind bent on learning.
  2. ‘At thirty, I stood firm.
  3. ‘At forty, I had no doubts.
  4. ‘At fifty, I knew the decrees of Heaven.
  5. ‘At sixty, my ear was an obedient organ for the reception of truth.
  6. ‘At seventy, I could follow what my heart desired, without transgressing what was right.’

and the oft-(mis)quoted aphorism of Augustine, “Love God and do what you please.”

Some ideas are not yet ready to expose themselves.

In a discussion with my friend Mark McLean, we talked about the effect of reading on one’s thoughts, ideas, the creation of new possibilities where none existed before. We are both SF nerds with a voracious appetite for interesting new worlds and worlds that are different enough from our own to make us challenge and reconsider the world we live in. I like talking with Mark because he provides an interesting mix of experience and insight. He helps me to gel some nascent ideas.

One idea I had last night was that some ideas are so entrenched in human rationality that creating new scenarios for common ways of thinking is exceptionally difficult. Take the problem of the soul, or consciousness. Still, after thousands of years of mucking around with early science and religion, we have only begun to unearth anything like a useful metaphor for talking about this. For age upon age, we treat the problem like a flat file filled with information that is supposed to solve the riddle. But we are always surprised when the data is incomplete, either by bad theory, or bad science and religion. Since we only unhappily tolerate the tension of unresolved issues, and with our ordinary impulse to cap off a theory, it is difficult to keep exploring the issues. It’s almost like cutting oneself with the resulting shame and self loathing.

Theories are often multidimensional, and we like to reduce those theories to a single dimension because a single dimension can be encapsulated in logic. I am not the opponent of logic, but since Gödel, we must leave an object like that incomplete if we are to admit that it is larger than our system can comprehend. The systems are incomplete by nature of their proposers, either fixed in language or experience. Promoting the ethos of anxiety where resolution is not at hand seems like the promise of unhappiness to those who like a neat little package. Which of us can tolerate for long the promise of unhappiness in such a way?

Why is new knowledge so hard? Because it costs so much personally and socially, we spend most of our time figuring out whether we can pay the price or not, or whether the possible gain is worth launching out without the effort spent to know whether we can pay, living desperate lives at the edge of survival. But the trail of knowledge is strewn with the dead bodies of those whose dying breaths announced the next step, the minimalist clue to advance the discussion, a treasure map scrawled in their own blood. Not many of us can afford to live like that. Not many of us have the chutzpah to make that decision. I am one who mistrusts the engine of my rationality enough to hold back from that sacrifice. Anyway, I’m not sure it is required of me.

I will plod along.

a conversation with ken smith

This began with a birthday greeting Ken gave me on Facebook Monday, 5/5/14. I discovered that he was no longer teaching at Trinity Bible College, but that his vigorous mind was still active. I obtained his permission to include a few of his remarks. The flavor of these remarks is polemical, worrying the glib orthodoxies of the Scientific community and the Young Earth Creationist (YEC) community. I hope you enjoy these remarks as much as I do.

First I’ll post the thread from mucholderthen I found on, then Ken’s remarks. My part of the conversation seems more like minimal encouragers than substantive so I will not expand on them unnecessarily.



NEW POLL shows that a Surprising Number of Americans Distrust Science
For a change, evolution squeaked by at 55% [including 24% at “sort of confident”]
CBS News

[Many] Americans still question some of the basic concepts of modern science, according to a new Associated Press-GfK poll with a representative sample of 1,012 U.S. adults age 18 or older.

Overall, Americans show more skepticism than confidence in the scientific concept that a Big Bang created the universe 13.8 billion years ago.
There was also considerable doubt about the science behind global warming and the age of the Earth.
“It is enormously distressing that science, which is our most powerful means for gaining insight into the world, insight into truth, is so mistrusted by so many people,” Brian Greene, a professor of physics and mathematics at Columbia University, told CBS News.

Greene, who co-founded the World Science Festival and World Science U. to help educate and excite the public about science, says understanding scientific ideas is not just academic — it’s essential to a vital democracy. “Issues like climate change or nanoscience or genetically modified foods — I mean all of these issues, and a thousand others, are scientific at their core,” he said.

We chatted for a bit after that. Ken sent an article he wrote to Jim Bradford of the Assemblies of God (AG) about the problems posed by the YEC in the AG. In the article he said that he had seen the Nye/Ham debate and wasn’t impressed with either Nye or Ham. Nothing new there. I agreed with Smith, but suggested that Nye’s rational was not to argue for a proof from science that Ham was wrong, but rather to treat the debate as a conversation. So the substantive issues that the scientific community holds against the YECs were not exposed in a way that would make a slam dunk case against YEC. In response to my remarks, Ken sent the following rejoinder to the science poll from mucholderthen.

From Ken Smith:

I took a look at the confidence in science poll. Thanks for the link. My take on it might be different from yours. I hope you don’t mind a lengthy explanation. Having not been able to stand in front of a class and pontificate for a year or so, I will do so right here.

In one sense our problem with science in America (and maybe the West generally) is far far worse than is understood by the people who devised and conducted the poll and those who tweeted out laments concerning its results. That is because the nature of the poll itself—including every single question, measures nothing more than adherence to the pronouncements of authorities who claim to represent science, and has no real reference to what science actually is, which is a method and not a result. One way of saying it is that the poll reflects a naively fundamentalist conception of science that is not markedly different from the fundamentalist conception of religion. If you check the right boxes, say the right confessions, you’re considered saved.

Maybe this sounds radical but in fact it’s not radical at all. An elementary working understanding of philosophy (which is rare nowadays and alarmingly rare among people who actually work in scientific fields) would reveal deep problems with every single statement in the poll.

Take the first one, for example, “smoking causes cancer.” For anyone adequately familiar with Hume’s inquiry about cause and effect relationship, red flags go up immediately. If the statement read “there is a high correlation between smoking and various forms of cancer” or even “smoking creates physical conditions that are highly conducive to the initiation and growth of cancer” then the poller would be on safer ground. But the three word slogan “smoking causes cancer” is, I believe, quite misleading and unscientific. It may be a socially useful statement but that is not the same as being scientific.

The first five statements all have serious problems with causality and/or ontology and require clarification to be meaningful in any true scientific sense. The one about vaccines is too overbroad to be meaningful. The first red one, the one about rising temperatures, is just plain misleading. Before one can possibly answer it, one must know what time period one is talking about when one says “the average temperature of the world is rising.” If the question were delimited to, say, 1850 to 2014, the empirically accurate answer would be clearly yes, the global temperature did rise (leaving aside, for now, the vital question of whether the concept of “average global temperature” is a scientifically meaningful statement. If delimited to, say, 1930 to 2000, the empirically accurate question would be “not sure.” If one delimited the question to 1998 to 2014, the empirically true answer would be clearly, “no, it is not rising.” If one delimits the question to a period in the future, (say, 2014 to 2050, or even 2000 to 2100, one is then dealing in speculation informed by certain assumptions that may or may not be correct. One who either does not understand that this is speculation, or fails to inform his audience that this is speculation, is simply not dealing scientifically.

So the answer to the question depends first on the definition of the terms, and then one can move to the empirical evidence, which is sometimes fairly plain, sometimes quite complex, and sometimes contradictory. When people claim that the average global temperature “is” rising, but do not explain their terms, they are either deceiving themselves or trying to deceive other people.

This is not really hard to understand. Or it would not be, if people were only educated to think scientifically as opposed to trained to respond in a certain way to slogans that are backed by the force of allegedly scientific cultural authority. The trouble with Bill Nye and unfortunately with most science educators is I think that they lack the background to really go much beyond the level of parroting authorities that happen to be established at one particular time period (and they often they parrot the views established at a time period that has already slipped into the past).

When we get to the last three questions, I have no particular problem with the plausibility of any of the statements. I’m not the slightest bit phased by the reality of deep time or deep space, but the preciseness of these numbers seems to convey a sense of arrogance. But they are the “right” answers and that is apparently enough for the people who made this poll and who take it as a measure of whether people possess adequate respect for [allegedly] scientific authority. If I were examining a person for scientific literacy, I would want them to not tell me the “right” answer, but explain some of the evidence that has led to the understanding that this is, given the current state of knowledge, the most plausible answer available.

The last one, about the big bang, is deeply problematic. I have no particular problem with the big bang theory, and it may well be true as described, but I don’t think it deserves the slavish reverence that it usually gets. There are plenty of empirically solid thinkers (I prefer to use “empirically solid thinkers” instead of “scientists”) who reject it and prefer the “older” steady state theory that Thomas Gold advocated. That doesn’t mean they reject stellar expansion rates, etc., but that they interpret their significance in different ways. In relation to faith, I think it’s a mistake to marry theology with a particular theory like this, although I do think it’s fine for theology and such theories to go out on a casual date once in awhile. When I hear William Lane Craig (for example) rant on about how the big bang proves the creator of the Bible, I think “I like you, Will, I like you, but hey, you are taking this way too literally.”

Ultimately the problem with philosophy, and why it is dangerous, is that by its nature it simply can’t help but undercut the dominant assumptions of any given age or social space that it confronts. And philosophy that does not confront does not to me seem to be real philosophy. I entirely understand that there are many “scientific” circles in which a person who practices any sort of rigorous philosophical thinking–and does so out loud–will be unable to function easily within that circle. Much the same is true in religious circles.

I’m probably as disgusted as you are by the awful science and theology and philosophy that supports the YEC movement. So my criticisms aren’t the same ones that somebody like Ken Ham would launch. At the same time, I have a bit of sympathy for my YEC friends who get ragged on so much by people whose actual understandings are every bit as primitive as those of the YEC’ers themselves.

I take Ken’s point seriously. His critique of the poll is trenchant. His critique of YEC, not included here is also a well considered characterization along parallel lines with my critique. Though I have some acquaintance with the histories of the YEC position, Ken’s is more well developed. My critiques are with the poor rational skills displayed by the YECs. The Ark is too small, the flood’s probably local, literalism is unsupportable in Genesis 1-11 if the Scripture is to be considered true: logical contradictions in a literal interpretation come to the surface, etc. But Ken’s point about the poll is deeper than any supposed support of science or religion. He reminds me of the necessity for critique of the presuppositions of polls like that. His philosophical critique cuts to the issue. The poll assumes certain prejudices.

One prejudice I would like to needle a bit is the one about global warming. I think Ken made a good point with the temperature averages over time, but only obliquely. He attacks the fuzzy nature of the declaration, not the question about whether global warning is a danger.

First, it is obvious that humans are damaging the ecosystem. But to say on that account as the poll does, that “The average temperature of the world is rising, mostly because of man made heat-trapping greenhouse gasses,” goes beyond the evidence we have. Those who are convinced that humans are primarily responsible for this effect do not happily admit evidence of naturally-occurring cyclical temperature shifts. But to even suggest that temperature rising can also be natural, and that some of the rising temperature today is natural, has become the language of science deniers. Rubbish! We know we are damaging the environment and we also know that private citizens, small business, corporations, and government are all complicit in this. But to say that humans are either solely or mostly responsible for the current global rise in temperature (acknowledging Ken Smith’s critique) is irresponsible rhetorical politically correct crap. It is said in an alarmist way to generate anger against our bad behavior and get us to change. Should we change? Of course! Will we? Maybe not in time to save the planet for future generations. But if we kill ourselves off, the planet will perhaps restore itself. It might not either, but that is too fatalistic for my temper. I’m doing my part to comply with the 4 Rs and ride my bicycle, replace incandescent lights with LEDs and CFLs, maintain and drive my car as long as I can drive, etc.

More from Ken Smith:

I have been reading articles about what seems to be another change in scientific orthodoxy, as the fixation on saturated fats as causes of heart attacks is very rapidly going by the way side. But for decades informed people accepted the direct connection as an indisputable fact, and anyone who challenged the notion was regarded as a crank or a tool.

Of course I am well aware that promoting the idea of challenging orthodoxies has its own pitfalls, because it’s quite easy to challenge orthodoxies from an ignorant, knee-jerk sort of approach that doesn’t involve any real digging or critical thought. This has always bothered me about YEC’ers—sometimes they will make a valid criticism of the dominant paradigm, but it’s almost always opportunitist criticism, and not criticism that is tied to a real rational framework that could itself hold up against basic criticism. They are like a stopped clock that is bound to be right for a short time twice a day. On the other hand, sometimes their opponents come across as constantly adjusting their clocks but doing so in secret, so that nobody notices that their clocks aren’t really running quite as well as they like to claim.

This is probably enough fun for now. I need to go mow the lawn . . . I’m back and editing. I need to work. Bye.