Politics, Technology, and Language

If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought — George Orwell

Creationism, geology, and a scientist’s soul

Posted by metaphorical on 14 February 2007

At first, I thought Marcus Ross was an idiot and the University of Rhode Island was wrong to grant his Ph.D. in geosciences. But then I started to think about my mathematical logic professor, Andrzej Mostowski, and I’m not entirely sure.

As described the other day in a NY Times article (“A creationist takes a place in the world of fossils,” reprinted in the International Herald Tribune here):

Ross is hardly a conventional paleontologist. He is a “young-Earth creationist.” He believes that the Bible is a literally true account of the creation of the universe and that the Earth is at most 10,000 years old.

For him, Ross said, the methods and theories of paleontology are one “paradigm” for studying the past, and Scripture is another. In the paleontological paradigm, he said, the dates in his dissertation are entirely appropriate. The fact that as a young-Earth creationist he has a different view just means, he said, “that I am separating the different paradigms.”

A friend of mine believes this to be possible to do, comparing it to believing “both Euclidian and non-Euclidean geometries as valid in their own contexts.”

Of course, on the face of it the paradigm talk is absurd, and the comparison to geometry inapt. Plenty of people, such as another friend, a retired geology professor in Connecticut, believe the Bible and contemporary ideas of evolution and geologic history to be true, but they believe the Bible to be allegorically true, or true in principle, but not literally. To say you are a “young-Earth creationist” and the Earth is at most 10,000 years old is to believe that the Bible is literally true. And if the Bible is literally true, it’s not just one of several paradigms in the sense of alternate geometries, it’s true, as in a-man-is-on-trial-for-murder-and-you-as-a-witness-have-to-tell-the-truth true.

So really, for Ross only the paleontological paradigm is a paradigm, something that can be supposed for the sake of argument to be true, in the same way that when Hilbert came along with non-Euclidean geometries at the turn of the 20th century, everyone still believed Euclidean geometry to be true-true, while Hilbert spaces were “interesting” and “valid,” meaning self-consistent and internally coherent.

And so I thought the paradigm talk to be bullshit, and a smokescreen, and the university to be complicit and culpable.

But then I remembered Mostowski. When I met him, it was the summer of 1973, between my freshman and sophomore years of college. For some reason I had got it into my head to spend the summer at Berkeley. Mostowski was teaching a math logic class, which I was utterly unprepared for, even more than I knew beforehand. I also signed up for an epistemology class, which I wasn’t worried about it, but the math class had me terrified as well as excited.

I knew that set theory, or “abstract algebra” as it was called at my school, was absolutely required for the class, but in my program it was taken in the first semester of the sophmore year; I was already enrolled in it for the following fall semester. Nevertheless I bought the textbook that was used in that spring and read it in the weeks before Berkeley’s summer term began, hoping for the best. 1973 was still, culturally, the summer of love, for me at least. The day before seeing California for the first time it occurred to me that everyone at Berkeley would have a pony tail and I told my stepmother to cut mine off.

The first day, I figured out I was the lone freshman in the whole class, and when Mostowski asked if any in the class hadn’t had topology, only a few of us raised our hands. I went to see him in his office. He listened patiently and then told me that he would explain all the topology concepts as he used them, and topology wasn’t very hard anyway. I realized almost instantly that he was one of the kindest, clearest men I would ever meet, and I was suddenly filled with confidence that he would make those explanations and I would understand them. I also realized, somehow, without seeing the numbers on his arm, that he had been in a Nazi concentration camp. It didn’t surprise me, even though I knew little of his background.

Mostowski was the youngest of the great Polish logicians, the greatest school of mathematicians of the early 20th century. As a group they took the unfinished science of mathematical logic, as formed by Frege and Russell and Whitehead and Hilbert and others, and turned it into a mature branch of mathematics. One of their number, Tarski, came up with a functional definition of truth that’s still used today. He also worked with von Neumann on applications of these math subjects to physics. The Polish logicians broadened the connections between logic and algebra to include geometry and topology, which was another branch they contributed to greatly. Tarski’s mentor, Stanislaw Lesniewski, invented probability logics, about which I had written a term paper in the spring—which is how I first discovered the Polish logicians.

As it turned out, in 1944 Mostowski was deported, assigned to a concentration camp, and had a number tattooed on his arm, but two nurses helped him escape back to Poland, where he hid till the end of the war.

Rather than hardening his heart, Mostowski’s was as open as an angel’s wings.

Early on in our class, he started talking about the Intuitionists. This was a school of mathematicians that believed in unbounded sets but didn’t, strictly speaking, believe in infinities. Intuitionism is a form of constructivism, in which a mathematical entity can be said to exist only if it can be constructed, so among other things, intuitionists don’t believe in negative proofs. (A negative proof is one in which a theorem can be proven by first supposing it is false and then deriving a contradiction.)

Mostowski wasn’t himself an intuitionist but he was extremely concerned that some of his students might be—even if they didn’t know that about themselves yet. So he carefully distinguished all proofs as being ones that intuitionists couldn’t accept from ones that everyone could. He would sketch out alternative, constructivist proofs, whenever possible. He tried at all times not to, as he put it, crush the intuitionist student’s soul. I will always think of him as a kind of mathematical bodhisattva.

When I think of Mostowski, the Euclidian vs. nonEuclidean comparison to Marcus Ross doesn’t seem so inapt. Mostowski wasn’t an intuitionist and yet was prepared to accept it as true for his students, and not merely as some abstruse theory bearing no relation to reality. Indeed, the intuitionists rather aggressively make existence claims for the entities their theorems describe; they feel entitled to do so by their constructivist methodology.

In the end, I still think very little of Marcus Ross. I don’t trust his motives—I think he will take his degree and wield it as a credential in the creationist war against science, and, indirectly, the university that awarded it to him in good faith. I also think any Bible literalist wanders dangerously on sad and shaky ground, lost to himself intellectually and ethically, because fundamental beliefs about science, reality, and morality are too important to be grounded in the circular logic of believing the Bible is the word of God because God, in the Bible, says it is.

In the end, though, I have only sympathy for the University of Rhode Island. Withholding a degree from someone it accepted into a program, even when the person has fulfilled all the requirements of the program, would be troubling. Perhaps it hopes that Ross will wake up one day and be freed of promises he made to his evangelical family when he was, surely, too young to know any better. Perhaps it took pity on a soul that must be, intellectually, in torment, and decided, like Mostowski, not to be the one to crush it.

34 Responses to “Creationism, geology, and a scientist’s soul”

  1. augustrose said

    “To say you are a “young-Earth creationist” and the Earth is at most 10,000 years old is to believe that the Bible is literally true.” Hey, guys, I’m no geologist or even familiar with the ins and outs, but I do know the earth is more than 10,000 years old and the Bible even shows that. It’s a pretty detailed study into Genesis and another old testament book. If anyone is interested I can get you the info.

  2. fredericthewise said

    Augustrose, what are you saying the bible shows the earth to be over 10,000 years old? The bible shows the earth to be closer to 6000 than 10,000 – 10,000 is the upper limit that could be deduced by the biblical chronologies.

    And metaphorical, it would be nice if you’d explain why evolution is ‘science’ and creationism not. They both are based on unprovable, and in evolutions’ case, improbable hypotheses.

  3. The fellow in question believes that the Bible says the Earth is less than 10,000 years old, and it’s his beliefs that are the ones at issue. Furthermore, if a person finds his geology lessons in the Bible instead of the modern science of geology, then it hardly matters what those lessons turn out to say, he’s looking in the wrong place and any correct beliefs he has will strictly the result of accident and coincidence.

  4. fredericthewise said

    What I was saying was that though I do use the bible as my basis for belief and interpret the evidence accordingly, there is much evidence to substantiate my belief.
    The evolutionary geologist does the same, he believes the earth to be millions of years old and twists the evidence to fit. Some evidence does appear to fit this paradigm but to me it just doesn’t appear to fit very well.

  5. Frederic, this blog isn’t the place to rehearse tired generic debates. There are plenty of other places that will welcome that sort of thing, and if you can’t find any I’d be happy to help you with that. The comment spaces on this blog are for comments on the posts they’re attached to, not hang-ups, pet peeves, fascinations, or idées fixe. I’m serious about this. To be a guest in this house you have to take off your shoes.

  6. fredericthewise said

    Metephorical, you were being insulting as well as false by indicating that only people using a long age paradigm were being rational in their beliefs.

    My comments were not, whatever you say ‘tired generic debates’ and were directly related to your blog.

    However, if you are upset about my comments, I can only assume that you
    cannot answer them, and will, due to your request, not post on this blog any longer.

    Best regards, frederic.

  7. I’m far from upset and there are a thousand possible things that are “directly related.” The subject of this entry was the apparent inconsistency between Ross’s professed literalist Christianity and his Ph.D. dissertation, and the propriety of URI granting him a degree for the one in the face of the other.

    I invite you to look here for an example of another potential hot-button political topic that was discussed with restraint and grace by all parties.

  8. And for how many years dinosaurs were lizards and now they were chickens?

    *running around the room in muddy shoes cackling hysterically*

  9. Blue Athena said

    I guess the only thing I’m not sure about here is Mostowski’s motivation. Might it not have been merely as pragmatic as that of the University of Rhode Island? Or might he not also have had longer term goals of persuasion?

  10. No, he was really agonizing over the possibility of damaging a student’s mathematical soul. I think he admired the Intuitionists, the way we might look at a Hindu ascetic, as people who have forgone certain conveniences and comforts. Maybe that’s the comparison: he was afraid he was making sure his class had some vegetable dishes for people whose souls would be damaged by eating meat.

  11. I hope my response to frederic hasn’t shut down the possibility of discussion. Viewership of this page is pretty high, according to WordPress’s stats, but only BlueAthena has commented today. I’m convinced the issues here can be examined rationally and reasonably.

  12. Blue Athena said

    I think this one’s just kind of heavy reading. Unless someone has a background in mathematics or philosophy they’re probably going to have to consult a dictionary here. Even with a [distant] related background, there are one or two subjects here I’m not sure I remember clearly. Good and interest post, but if you want to encourage more comments I might cut out mention of any of the mathematical or philosophical fields not directly important to the comparison.

  13. augustrose said

    Greetings again. Would you be interested in the scriptural (not chronological) information that supports the “way out” statement I made? If you’re game to be open-minded enough to consider it’s validity I will do the homework.

  14. Augustrose, I appreciate the offer, and I appreciate your asking first. I still can’t see how it matters. My first comment was directed at your original question. Either the Bible gives the same age for the Earth as geology or it doesn’t. If it does, it’s either by coincidence or not.

    To learn the age of the Earth, you start empirically, with shovels and hammers and chemicals and brushes and a thousand other tools that geologists use in the field. You can’t do geology with textual analysis.

  15. augustrose said

    I respect your stand, Metaphorical.

  16. ClaireDePlume said

    at issue here are two diametrically opposed systems of viewing our world. we all know these two opponents, and we all come to the table with a reasonable view of each side of the story.

    there is room for both to be heard, for both viewpoints to be expressed. is it essential for us to “take sides”? no. we should learn from the example of Mostowski in this piece. while he may have favoured his own interpretations of his chosen field of expertise, he honoured himself and others too, those who held seemingly conflicting views of their worlds. he accomplished this equilibrium by not being owned by his own convictions. it requires true adherence, true core authenticity to love all knowledge, and be true to one’s own values in a balance of embodying power without yielding to one’s own force.

    this post’s message – i think – is a simple lesson in higher wisdom; a wisdom which supersedes all other reactions to blind faith in any discipline no matter the root.

  17. Blue Athena said

    When you say that you think that if the university didn’t grant the degree it would be “troubling”, do you mean as a precedent for future academic integrity, or as a political move that could cause a rallying point for fundamentalists?

    If it is the first, what do you mean by “fulfilled all the requirements of the program”? Do you include having a relevant dissertation as a requirement?

    If it is the second, do you think it is worth it? Or might the precedent do more harm than good?

  18. Athena, I meant that if someone writes a dissertation that would stand up to an oral defense on its merits, and if he university withheld the degree for some reason that didn’t concern its merits (and was illegal, etc.), then the university would have trouble justifying itself, to itself, and to the outside world. Certainly if I were a Ph.D. geology student one year behind Ross, I’d find it pretty disturbing to see Ross’s thesis turned down even though it was a perfectly valid thesis.

    I have no doubt it would be a rallying point for fundamentalists as well, but that’s not the university’s concern, per se, and it’s also worth noting that they’d be screwed either way, because Ross’s every pronouncement, CNN interview, etc., will now be a fundamentalist rallying point in another way, now that he has the Ph.D.

  19. [...] Creationism, geology, and a scientist’s soul [...]

  20. Re: granting the degree:

    My undergraduate institution faced the same problem with a fundamentalist MA candidate in biology who didn’t out herself as a nutter until she’d almost finished the degree, then announced she didn’t “believe in” evolution. Many of the faculty were very reluctant to grant the degree, but agreed she’d met the legal requirements. Some felt it was their fault for setting the requirements for the degree in such a way that a nutter could meet them, but, as was apparently the case with Ross, it would always be possible for somebody to simply fake it until they got the degree and then renounce their own studies. I don’t think there’s a requirement that you believe your own thesis or dissertation (though one could make an argument that submitting one you don’t believe in is a form of academic dishonesty).

    Re: Mostowski’s tolerance:

    I think there are several things going on here that are important, and make the case of your logic class very different from that of a nutjob religious rockhound.

    First, as I suggest above, while one can admire the rigor of logical theories, that is not the same as agreeing they reflect physical reality. So one can acknowledge theoretical standpoints on purely logical issues that would not be rational for observation-based empirical descriptions of the world. Second, both of the alternative viewpoints Mostowski highlighted existed within the realm of an ongoing debate within the professional community that was conducted under standards of reasoned professional discourse; neither position claimed non-rational access to special knowledge that is incompatible with rational thought. (If the Intuitionists had claimed they could just “intuit” proofs, or that certain theorems should be accepted because they “just knew” they were true, or “God said so”, I’m sure Mostowski would never have countenanced their bullshit.) Third, Mostowski was in a pedagogical role, not simply acting as a professional in his field; he therefore had at least some obligation to accommodate respectable alternative beliefs within his field. I presume he did not express open-mindedness about proof methods in his own published works, but in the classroom he, properly, did not shut out students who might be inclined to hold (rationally-defensible) beliefs he did not share. Fourth, as Mostowski noted, the students themselves were in an unformed state regarding their understanding of the field and its controversies. To insist upon only one resolution of such controversies would be indoctrination, not teaching. Although he may feel strongly that one particular answer to such a controversy is correct, his perception that the controversy is a live one in the field – that rational and knowledgeable persons are not in consensus regarding it – should raise for him an obligation to maintain the students’ intellectual “equipoise” on the subject until they are ready to come to their own informed opinions. Finally, and not insignificantly, the “alternative” beliefs Ross endorses are empirically testable and factually false even on the grounds its supporters claim make them true – they can only be held consistently by invoking nonsensical special pleading (such as that God made fossils and distributed them as they are specifically to fool us); the theory of logic Mostowski opposes at least has the advantage of resting on assumptions that are not observably in conflict with the way the world actually is.

    For all these reasons, there is justification for Mostowski’s behaving in the classroom, with regard to a theory he does not endorse, that does not apply to Ross either inside or outside the classroom.

    Re: Ross’s “paradigms”:

    As an academic philosopher, I’m certainly sympathetic to the belief that philosophical and logical proofs are (in many cases) at least as reliable as scientific ones, often more so. I’m even willing to grant the realist position about the subjects of those proofs, though I’m still vague as to exactly what it means to say numbers “exist”. But that does not mean that just any internally consistent (and let’s skip even that question in regard to the Bible) description of how the world might be is an equally valid description of how the world actually is.

    Scientific descriptions of physical reality beat carefully crafted Just So Stories all hollow. The logic used to structure both is the same, but only one insists on points of contact between the theory and the actual, physical world, and objective (i.e., not easily misinterpretable) demonstrations of the truth of the claims the theory makes at those points of contact. And I take Quine’s point that we can resolve contradictions in any theory by making the necessary “adjustments to the web” of facts and beliefs, but even he was forced to add that that adjustment could in some cases require “pleading hallucination” about our observations. Logically, he’s right, but I think we are entitled to be skeptical of theories that require us to plead hallucination about otherwise obvious physical facts, and even more skeptical (to the point of dismissal) of ones that exist only on the evidence that God spoke to you. The lunatics’ world is just as real to them as our world is to us, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t lunatics, and if your scientific theory involves supernatural beings telling you things secretly then you’re one of them.

    Finally, I’ll note that Ross’s use of the term “paradigm” (as with so many others who have picked up on it) is at odds with the meaning intended by Kuhn, who introduced it in that context. For Kuhn, “paradigm shifts” occurred because of unresolvable tensions within a given theory, forced both by the accumulation of new data and its perception by younger, differently-socialized scientists. They were a mechanism by which theories were upgraded and improved – but fundamental to that is the traditional picture of science as upgrading and improving its theories.

    Kuhn never meant – and there is no reason to believe – that scientific theories did not become more accurate over time, or that some theories were not better than others. He was merely describing the process by which theories are compared and accepted/rejected. And if, during that process, both theories are endorsed by knowledgeable persons during some given period, that too is merely part of the process (during which the consensus will shift to one or the other theory and the less-supportable one will be dropped). He did not mean that one particular person could endorse both of them, or that there was no question of truth involved as to which one you endorsed.

    If Ross thinks you can just “switch paradigms” without switching your beliefs, he understands science in general even less than he understands geology. Saying he can work in the scientific “paradigm” in some contexts (when he’s trying to winkle a degree out of a real science program) and the supernatural “paradigm” in other contexts (when he’s using his scientific credentials to undermine science with irrationality) is just nonsense. The point to the notion of paradigms is that they are all-encompassing: they invoke a general worldview that makes it difficult to shift one’s beliefs, and from which embracing the new theory requires a radical revision of one’s sense of how large parts of the world really work. That is, paradigms exist, and there is tension between competing paradigms, because they rest on a firm belief in the actual truth of the theory one holds.

    Ross seems to suggest (and I can’t believe a fundamentalist could mean this honestly) that you can endorse both incompatible “paradigms” simultaneously. That makes no sense, and also flies in the face of the sincere conviction that makes a theoretical standpoint a “paradigm” in the first place.

    It may be unfair to say so without being more familiar with his actual work, but from what you say above, I’d go with “idiot”.

  21. Kevin, you’re absolutely right to go back to Kuhn himself to see how Ross is misusing the term “paradigm.” My impression, though, is that even though Kuhn’s model carries over imperfectly to mathematics, because it’s not grounded in the same way by points of contact between the theory and the actual, physical world, the Constructivists were, if not empiricists, skeptics (in the classical sense), who did expect there to be points of contact between theory and experience. (They remind me of Descartes, in fact, and my own flirtation with Intuitionism ended when I saw that they were no more successful than Descartes was at starting with their own indubitable experience and constructing a world much like ours.)

  22. Blue Athena said

    An interesting twist on this story is a friend of mine who was not a Christian but attended a strict Catholic school, in a largely non-Christian country. The minority status of this belief made the church relatively fandamentalist and tight in its beliefs–something not always the case in Catholicism.

    The Catholic schools, spead accross the country, had standardized religious education requirements. My friend received the first ever perfect score in religion by any student in any of the numerous schools. She was awarded with recognition for the achievement. But horror followed with the realization of just who had earned this award.

    The next year the standards were quickly changed to make perfect scores impossible, on the grounds that no one could really know that much about god.

  23. Blue Athena said

    Kevin said: “The point to the notion of paradigms is that they are all-encompassing: they invoke a general worldview that makes it difficult to shift one’s beliefs, and from which embracing the new theory requires a radical revision of one’s sense of how large parts of the world really work. That is, paradigms exist, and there is tension between competing paradigms, because they rest on a firm belief in the actual truth of the theory one holds.”

    I think this is a psychological and not a philosophical statement. The fact that it is difficult for any particular individual to make succh a shift should not be taken itself as evidence that it is difficult for any other individual to do so without some very clear evidence.

    To say that another cannot is no different than those who believe in free will saying that determinists cannot, of course *really* believe what they say they do because then they couldn’t function. It is the assumption that others suffer from your own limitations–a rather common assumption, but a dangerous one. In this case it is an argument that I think unfairly discredits a man who, I will certainly admit, may very well be a “nut job” for many other reasons.

  24. [KTK:] “paradigms exist . . . because they rest on a firm belief in the actual truth of the theory one holds.”

    I think this is a psychological and not a philosophical statement.

    Exactly – or, more precisely, it is a sociological statement. Kuhn was describing the phenomenology of “paradigm shifting” – the process whereby the scientific community as a whole abandons a once-favored theory and adopts a new one. He was not describing the truth or falsity of any given theory, or how one can prove a theory true or false. (He was mostly pointing out that the mythological view of science, whereby scientists simply confront one another with facts and then everyone immediately sees the logical implications and adopts the new beliefs automatically, is false. There is a sociological complexity to a group-wide shift in allegiance to scientific beliefs just as much as there is to a shift in religious beliefs, political parties, or what have you. But that does not mean the successful theories are not more true than their rivals, only that truth does not guarantee success, either immediately or at all.) The process depends upon human psychology and sociology as much as it does facts and logic.

    The fact that it is difficult for any particular individual to make succh a shift should not be taken itself as evidence that it is difficult for any other individual to do so without some very clear evidence.

    “Making the shift” is not the problem here. Precisely because people react somewhat differently to challenges to theories they hold, the “shift” does not occur instantly and simultaneously for all; this was Kuhn’s major observation, and it is hardly surprising. (Indeed, some never manage to embrace the new, with important examples including Agassiz on evolution and Einstein on quantum mechanics.) Because the “shift” takes place over an extended period throughout the larger scientific community, there is a period – possibly generations in length – during which both competing theories may be supported by (different groups of) knowledgeable people. Gradually, individuals may switch camps (usually mostly in one direction, as one theory supplants the other) as their personal convictions change; that process may be delayed but is usually relatively quick in completion for each individual, and usually irreversible. Thus, many individuals wind up supporting both theories at different times, but nobody should be supporting both theories simultaneously – nor should they switch back and forth frequently or without compulsion by new data.

    The problem with Ross is not that he supports one theory that no rational person supports (though you could make a case that way); the problem is that he apparently supports two incompatible theories that no rational person could hold simultaneously, and seems to suggest you can freely switch back and forth between them for the sake of convenience, and not in response to new data. That is nuts.

  25. Blue Athena said

    It’s been almost 20 years since I’ve read Kuhn, so I’m not going to argue with any quotes–especially since I do remember having a number of issues with his presentation. However, I think here you are talking about a general statement of the sociological origins of a paradigm, which will, I agree, come from those with generally a firm belief in their truth (leaving questions about Leibniz’ influence, for instance, aside).

    But this is a general sociological observation (as you yourself state). It does not necessaarily apply to each individual, who may act independently of the society in moving between paradigms, from week to week, day to day, or even hour to hour. Kuhn simply did not have the psychological data to state that this is or isn’t possible, all he can do is theorize abstractly about what he believes is happening in general.

    So is it psychologically possible? Not to hold two paradigms simultaneously (although I don’t throw that out), but to hold one at 1:00 and one at 3:00? I don’t personally see a reason to say this isn’t possible. Assessment of what counts as evidence may vary depending on your needs of the moment. If you accept, say, divine inspiration as evidence at one moment and not at the next you may logically slip between different paradigms, one which accepts this as evidence and one which does not. You can replace this suggestion with different and less controversial examples of contestable data.

    I don’t see any absolute reason why such an activity would be unacceptable.

    This mental activity, as I see it, would be fairly psychologically similar to the shift required in switching from artists (2 dimensional) to engineers (3d) perception of reality in a short period of time. Difficult and unusual, but not, from my experience, impossible. Or seeing the world as a Platonist at one moment, and only hours later seeing through Aristotle’s eyes (a vivid memory from freshman year in college). And in each case, then going back. A neurological explanation would probably involve something on the lines of coexisting networks between which one could switch. I don’t think our neurobiolgy excludes such a possibility.

    And as for picking on specific uses of the word “paradigm”, didn’t someone once do an analysis of Kuhn that found he used the word 14 different ways himself?

  26. Kevin’s the last person to need any help in a blog discussion, and certainly not from me, who misses half the nuances he sees, so I’ll just say on my own that I think Kevin has a fair point in that the very meaning of the term paradigm (or the family of 14 very closely meanings) is the sociologically-based on Kevin described. To then use it on the individual level invites misuse, and that’s exactly what Ross has done. Substitute for a moment a phrase like “worldview,” and any thoughts of holding one at 1:00 and another at 3:00, and flipping between them as often as a kitchen light quickly becomes a picture of extreme psychological infirmity, or worse.

    Put another way, because “paradigm” involves only a weak notion of group belief, some other notion is needed to capture true belief when you move to an individual. (I suggest worldview.) Ross’s statements trade on that difference; by using the word paradigm as he did we lose touch with the fact that these ideas – creationism and evolution – are ideas that are held, believed, committed to, and in fact are at the very center of an entire network of beliefs that we commit to.

    Even when cop or a spy infiltrates an organization and pretends to be a Mafia soldier, a drug dealer, a counterfeiter, or what have you, only pretense is needed, not genuine belief. I can easily believe that Ross did a great job of pretending to believe in evolution. I can’t believe he believes it.

  27. Blue Athena said

    I agree that it may be better to use “worldview” in the individual case…although it makes for less convenient transitions from general to personal examples. However, if you aren’t talking about something as all-encompassing as we think of a worldview, then even just “theory” may be a closer substitute. I’m not sure that that makes any difference to Ross’ position, since it is whether he can switch between worldviews or theories becomes the question which I see as little different given that we know exactly what aspect of reality he has issues with.

    I also think, for the record, that he is lying, but I still argue that it is not unbelievable that someone in a similar position (alternating between worldview/paradigms/theories) would not be lying. If you move from alternating to simultaneously holding I would be more hesitant.

    I also don’t know that I would diagnose the ability to make the flip in such different understandings as “extreme psychological infirmity” but might equally call it “extreme psychological agility”. Are you saying you think it would cause psychological harm to have such a capacity or that it would hinder the coherence of any arguments based on either of your worldviews?

  28. I guess I had in mind that someone that mentally double-jointed would have trouble doing the equivalent of ordinary things like throwing a baseball.

    But if I think about it, I’d say that someone can’t do that flipping back and forth without wanting to. I don’t think of beliefs and emotions as wholly separate from one another, they each imply the other. If you want x, there have to be a y and a z that you believe to support that, and vice versa. (And I think “X is good” is both a belief-statement and an emotion-statement.)

    So while I can’t really imagine the desires behind this flipping, because I don’t believe Ross or anyone could actually do it, supposing he did, I wonder what that desire is like, and what beliefs and emotions would support it. I can only imagine them to be incompatible with a sound mind.

    In Sartrean terms, this is so extreme a version of bad faith, that is, self-deception, that it’s hard to imagine someone functioning in the real world. I mentioned cops pretending to be drug addicts.

    Consider when pretense becomes belief. Consider the Jennifer Jason Leigh role in the movie “Rush,” a cop who falls into that world and becomes a drug addict herself. Supposing for a moment that she believes the things needed to be in both the drug culture and the cop culture, she’s not exactly a picture of mental health. I think also of the sister in Joyce Carol Oates’ them, bouncing between “nice girl” and “prostitute” – until her mental breakdown.

  29. Forgive me following up my own remark, but I just had one of those shower thoughts. Having taken ballet classes and been in dance concerts in college, when I see the Nutcracker, especially the Russian/candy-cane dance, I have very specific thoughts based on having done the role and danced the dance. “It’s hard to come out of that plie and into the extension…nice!” “Here’s come the fouetté turns…”

    My question is, when Ross drives past a road-cut, with 5 million years of strata exposed, what is he thinking? It seems to me that whether it’s “5-million years,” or “5000 years that god cleverly made to look like 5 million years” (or whatever his ilk of creationists thinks), he can only think one or the other, and he consistently, in the privacy of his own car, thinks only one or the other. Which is it?

  30. Substitute for a moment a phrase like “worldview,” and any thoughts of holding one at 1:00 and another at 3:00, and flipping between them as often as a kitchen light quickly becomes a picture of extreme psychological infirmity, or worse.

    This is what I had in mind (and what I meant in using the word “worldview” in expressing it).

    People can certainly change their minds – one hopes they will. But that change, to be rational, should result from an encounter with new data or a better explanation of existing data, sufficiently compelling to outweigh one’s allegiance to the old theory (and one’s socialization into having accepted it). One can even, in principle, shift allegiances back and forth between theories, but, again, in each case the shift should be in response to a new construction of the theory that is reasonably perceived as better than the old – and even here, if one is frequently shifting in response to a rapid influx of new data on both sides, it is probably more rational just to regard the issue as undecided until the balance tips definitively. But whatever one does, it should be a response to a change in the perceived evidentiary basis for the competing theories – either the accumulation of new data, the falsification of an existing datum or theoretical point, a better theoretical construction of existing data, or possibly one’s internal response to arguments that have been recognized but not fully accepted until some time has passed. In any event, something must happen that influences, in a reasonable way, one’s perception of the logical soundness of one argument or the other. That change in perception of the rational grounds for accepting a theory should then reasonably prompt a change in one’s willingness to accept theory. That is a rational process.

    What one cannot rationally do – whether or not one does in fact make these changes in belief – is shift one’s allegiance between theories, one time or repeatedly, at whim or in response to no change in the rational basis for accepting them. To do so is not rational, precisely because it is not prompted by a rational re-evaluation of the factual and logical grounds for the theory. It’s not a question whether some people (like, some people named “Ross”) are capable of believing 6 impossible things before breakfast; clearly some people are so capable. But they are not rational in doing so. It is also not a question whether they “really believe” what they claim to believe, “really believe” they’re entitled to believe contradictory things simultaneously, or in fact “really do believe” contradictory things simultaneously. Clearly many people are capable of doing those things, too. But, again, none of them are rational. And, again, whether they are rational or not is not a subjective question. Such beliefs are not rational because they do not result from rational processes. Changes in one’s beliefs that do not result from changes in perception of the rational grounds for a claim are likewise not rational. Claiming you can believe one theory at 1:00pm and a contradictory theory at 3:00pm, to be rational, must imply that something happened between 1:00pm and 3:00pm that changed the rational grounds for accepting or rejecting either theory (and that you were sufficiently insightful to perceive and evaluate that new evidence, and then revise one’s understanding of a major scientific issue, in the space of two hours). Changing back at some later time implies a similar development prior to that change back. And so on for every change in position one claims to make as a rational act.

    It’s not impossible that such changes can occur, or even that they can be evaluated and accepted rationally almost immediately, but that seems unlikely in most scientific situations. It seems vastly unlikely that such changes would be rationally justified on a daily or weekly basis for any current scientific controversy. And it’s simply false in the case of evolution – there has been no accumulation of new evidence, or even theoretical explanation, regarding the fact of evolution or its basic mechanisms that would have justified any shift away from the standard position (broadly described) for several lifetimes now. The field is certainly not in such flux that any rational and informed person should shift back and forth between evolution theory and creationism on a daily basis (or at all). And, aside from the lack of rational grounds for doing so, Ross, again, appears to claim he is entitled to do so without rational grounds, which he surely is not as a rational act. He may very well be psychologically capable of changing perspectives, but that does not speak highly of his psychology. And he is legally free to spout whatever nonsense he wants. But he cannot accurately claim to be behaving rationally in doing so, for reasons that have nothing to do with his personal beliefs or inclinations.

  31. Blue Athena said

    “that change, to be rational, should result from an encounter with new data or a better explanation of existing data, sufficiently compelling to outweigh one’s allegiance to the old theory”

    And what if the observer finds the evidence for both cases equally compelling? Leaving Ross aside, for the moment. Perhaps you answer that here:

    “it is probably more rational just to regard the issue as undecided until the balance tips definitively”

    Why? Is this the same sense of “rational”? Could not it be argued that one can better persue a line of thought and investigation by adopting a temporary belief state and taking on the worldview? I use as examples simple beliefs, such as the existence of an external world, continuation of time and the usual skeptical hand basket as examples of how psychologically it is more useful (asuming in some cases the truth of these premises) to believe them in the face of lack of definitive, or even (in my opinion) convincing evidence. If I am willing to (temporarily and tentatively) jump to an assumption of validity on such simple beliefs, why not elsewhere as it serves the purpose of usefulness? I wonder if those of us for whom skepticism is real, and not just an intellectual game, take a different view here…recognizing the need to make “irrational” choices of belief?

    “Such beliefs are not rational because they do not result from rational processes.”

    Could you define rational beliefs without reference to “rational processes”? I wouldn’t normally ask anyone to define “rational” (heck, I’m a linguistic pragmatist and this one is way out there), but since you are relying so heavily on it I think it would help.

    Actually, as something of an eliminitive materialist this belief state talk is giving me a bit of a headache. I think I really should probably bow out of this one. I’m afraid my faith in both human language and absolute progress of science are too weak to be a true participant in such discussions, and I see no real purpose to be gained in trying to convince others to abandon their faith in these niceties.

    [metaphorical...I'm not logged in, so, yes, this is serious cheating on my effort to get off the whole blog scene. But in fairness, this is just continuing a conversation...]

  32. I’ll leave the definition of rationality to Kevin.

    As to materialism, I can point out that while some people would find this problematic, you can define a belief that x fairly neutrally as a disposition to act in accord with the truth of x. If I take an umbrella today, then I probably think it’s going to rain. If I *say* it’s going to rain, that’s also a behavior that suggests I believe it will rain.

    For the rest of it, rational belief has to do with its evidentiary conditions, and for most philosophers, the outlines of that are fairly straightforward. I’ll let Kevin explain as much of that as he cares to.

    As to logging in, hey, I’m just glad whenever you come back.

  33. Blue Athena said

    I, unfortunately, am among those for whom the definition of rational belief was not clear–a large set, at least in my time, though that may have changed.

    Just to be overly picky in case anyone might misunderstand, while I work psychologically from something akin to the eliminative materialist “paradigm” (“world view” doesn’t work in this sentence), I am not actually a “materialist” in any traditional sense of that term and understand why some would prefer I simply say “eliminitivist”, though I do have reasons for not doing so. Just keeping the record straight since I have likely made negative comments about materialists somewhere out in the great void.

  34. “Rationality” here takes on aspects both of conditions for ascription of belief and of practical reason. One must be rational in granting credence to particular beliefs or scientific theories, and doing so precludes, as it happens, granting credence to unfounded beliefs or to contradictory beliefs simultaneously. One must also conform one’s behavior to conditions in the world in rational ways, such that (among other things), one does not behave in keeping with facts or conditions that do not actually obtain. Clearly, the two constraints are mutually interdependent.

    As to what it means to believe, or to act, “rationally”, I have only a loose sense of that as involving the application of fairly standard and uncontroversial rules of logic to propositions or facts encountered in the world. Which system of logic to use should not be too controversial in arguments over everyday subjects such as basic science; there is a large family of logics whose basic rules of reasoning are the same for most purposes (and whose divergence in abstruse contexts such as quantum phenomena usefully reflects the still-poorly-understood nature of those phenomena). Pranksters who claim to be operating under non-Aristotelian systems of logic or the like can easily be eliminated from the debate by virtue of the fact that their arguments lead to impossibilities when applied to simple situations in real life. (I do not think that a “true” logic can be identified by empirical test – but empirically non-useful ones can be eliminated.) As for facts and propositions, here again there is a broad enough agreement on non-controversial ones to serve as starting point for argumentation, and to which other accepted facts and propositions can be added if they pass the test of empirical grounding and logical compatibility with our existing set of beliefs. (I reiterate that Quine’s point – that it is possible to ratify any proposition by arbitrarily falsifying others, “if necessary, by pleading hallucination” – is logically true but not recommended as an empirical strategy.)

    So I don’t think “rationality” is that much of a problem, or that technical difficulties in defining it precisely preclude us from behaving rationally in everyday contexts, or distinguishing those who do and do not. (You disagree? Fine. Abandon any attempt at rational reflection on your behavior for the next few days – make all your choices without any rational process – and see what happens. If you find that doesn’t work, then the conclusion must be that rationality does work – and that there is such a thing as rationality.) To be rational, to oversimplify it, is simply to think and act logically in response to conditions in your world. It requires, among other things, that you should have logical reasons for what you believe, and you can’t believe two mutually contradictory things at the same time. That, in turn, implies that if you do rationally believe a thing, it is because you do have logical reason for believing it, and if you rationally change your beliefs it is because something about the grounds for those beliefs has changed. It means as well that if you do hold two contradictory beliefs, you necessarily aren’t being rational.

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