Monday, September 15, 2008

Scientific reductionism

Don't let the humor in this little presentation by John Cleese on scientific reductionism hide the very sophisticated observation he is making here--one which I have made before. It is a version of the "argument from self-destruction." Scientific reductionism is one of those philosophical beliefs that fails its own criterion:

9 comments:

Anonymous said...

I have no idea what is supposed to be the sophisticated observation.

1) Mr Cleese uses a very simple cause and effect model; for every behavior there is a single gene. Unfortunately some people take this simplicity to far. Real science is a lot more complex with many different interacting factors.

2) Mr Cleese just points out different genes; he offers no real evidence. That is the difference between science and faith - in science there exists evidence which a third party can evaluate.

Mr Cothran has written that science can be learned by merely reading biographies of scientists. His (and his ilk's) reasons for believing in God et al are the unverifiable 'it's obvious and intuitive' and 'you have to want to see it'.

Therefore it is not surprising that he finds some deeper message in this podcast skit.


jah


At least it's a break from "All Palin, All the Time". Perhaps the latest revelations about her political past are getting harder to defend.
The Agitator is getting cold feet (http://www.theagitator.com/)



Many of the allegations against Sarah Palin thus far have been minor, petty, or later proven false. Those in this NY Times piece yesterday are are more substantive, and pretty disconcerting:

...

My tepid defense of Palin last week was based on what information was available shortly after her nomination. I may need to rethink it.

Martin Cothran said...

Jah,

What do you think was Cleese's primary argument?

Anonymous said...

That he is still funny.

jah

Martin Cothran said...

Okay, let me explain:

The implicit argument here is that if all things can be reduced to the material operations of the brain, then the belief that all things can be reduced to the material operations of the brain can be reduced to a material operation of the brain, and therefore we have no reason to believe the belief is true.

That's what I meant by saying that it is a form of the argument from self-destruction, where you use someone's assumption to prove his assumption wrong.

Hope that helps.

kycobb said...

Martin, you seemed to have taken a logical leap there. Why is there no reason to believe that all things can be reduced to the material operation of the brain just because that belief can be reduced to the material operation of the brain? After all, all the functions of my car can be reduced to its material operation, but that doesn't mean it won't go if I turn the ignition, put it in drive, and step on the accelerator.

Anonymous said...

What kycobb said more eloquently.

Mr Cothran is leaving out the experimental step which either does or does not (will or will not for future experiments) show the statement to be true. It is not a matter of philosophical discussion or pure logic but of scientific experimentation.



[Of course this assumes that our senses/instruments provide more or less reliable observations of an external reality. That is arguable - it frequently seems that Mr Cothran and I are not reading/writing the same words.]

jah

kycobb said...

anonymous,

[this assumes that our senses/instruments provide more or less reliable observations of an external reality.]

Thats why repeatable experiments and observation are such an important part of the scientific method. If no-one else can duplicate your cold fusion results, the veracity of your claims become doubted.

Martin Cothran said...

Why is there no reason to believe that all things can be reduced to the material operation of the brain just because that belief can be reduced to the material operation of the brain?

My argument is thatif all things can be reduced to the material operations of the brain, then there is no reason to believe anything true, including the belief that all things can be reduced to the material operations of the brain.

If all things are the result of the material operations of the brain, that is tantamount to saying that all mental operations, including beliefs, are the result of a physical cause and effect relationship. In other words, you believe what you believe not because of any logical ground/consequent relationship, but because of the previous arrangement of molecules in your brain.

But there is no guarantee that the arrangement of molecules in your brain has any relationship to truth or validity. In fact, while the arrangement of molecules in your brain might yield the belief that all things can be reduced to the material operation of the brain, the arrangement of molecules in my brain might yield the belief that all things cannot be reduced to the material operation of the brain.

But if all things can be reduced to the material operation of the brain, then neither belief has any greater warrant then the other, since the arrangement of molecules is different in each person's brain. If this belief is true, then "truth" is simply whatever the previous arrangement of molecules in my brain produces, and there is no sense in even arguing about this or anything else.

So I'm left wondering, if you all believe that all things can be reduced to the material operation of the brain, why it is worth arguing with you, since my molecules are different from your molecules.

Anonymous said...

kycobb: Thats why repeatable experiments and observation are such an important part of the scientific method.

That is true and it is what distinguishes science from unverifiable claims of gods or morality.

But I was referring to senses being unreliable in those ways but also other ways:
1) Confusion - eyewitnesses giving different accounts (covered by above).
2) Optical illusions or other mass mistakes (covered by above using instruments).

3) Problems with sensory apparatus - see most any of Oliver Sacks' books.

4) Solipsism or whatever it is called or more when you can't really be sure of anything.

jah