Comment on “We Cannot Afford to Indulge this Madness”

The following is a summary of the logic of an article opposing gay marriage by Cardinal O’Brien with commentary by me in italics. The original article is here:

The Government will consult the public on gay marriage.

The Cardinal wishes the public to sign a petition `in support of traditional marriage’.

Argument 1: When civil partnerships were introduced, supporters said they did not want gay marriage. This disbars them from now seeking it.

Comment: Why? Does the Cardinal believe he has a contract founded on statements made by supporters of civil partnerships?

Argument 2: Since civil partnerships confer `all the legal rights of marriage’, supporters of gay marriage are not making a proposal to equalise rights.

Comment: One of the `legal rights of marriage’ includes the right to call the ceremony `marriage’. Any other term is certainly different and the difference allows for different classes of rights. Gay people may then say their position is inferior.

Argument 3: Because of argument 2, the proposal “is an attempt to redefine marriage for the whole of society at the behest of a small minority of activists.”

Comment: This assumes that marriage of heterosexual couples is changed by the marriage of homosexual couples. No argument is supplied for this claim. If the proposal is as the Cardinal claims a minority view, then it will fail at the consultation and the Cardinal does not have a problem.

Argument 4: The proposal represents a redefinition of marriage. “It will redefine society since the institution of marriage is one of the fundamental building blocks of society.”

Comment: Unsupported. The marriage rate has been in any case declining rapidly. ONS: `the provisional 2010 general marriage rate for England and Wales still represents one of the lowest rates since they were first calculated in 1862”.

Argument 5: The repercussions of enacting same-sex marriage into law will be immense.

Comment: Why? What are they? And will they be bad? How do we know that?

Argument 6: “[W]ords whose meaning has been clearly understood in every society throughout history [cannot] suddenly be changed to mean something else.

Comment: This is just false.

Argument 7: [T}eacher[s] who want[…] to tell pupils that marriage can only mean – and has only ever meant – the union of a man and a woman will be in difficulty.

Comment: not obvious what the problem is here. It looks as though the teacher will be making a false statement. The modal claim is falsified by the proposition’s passing. The historical claim is true. It is unclear what the penalties are for teachers making false statements, but I doubt they are that severe.

Argument 8: Universal Declaration of Human Rights defines marriage as a relationship between men and women.

Comment: True, but how do we know that document is right?

Argument 9: Changing the meaning of the term redefines reality, which is insane.

Comment: it changes the meaning of a term, which seems to happen a lot. It would be unfortunate if that sufficed for insanity.

Argument 10: Marriage existed before Governments, so they cannot change it.

Comment: This again is just false. The Cardinal will later introduce the example of slavery. That also existed before governments, but he is against it.

Argument 11: People previously thought that marriage should be between a man and a woman.

Comment: It appears they have changed their minds. Is there a problem with this?

Argument 12: The purpose of marriage is to ensure that children have a mother and father.

Comment: How do we know that two homosexual people cannot raise children as well? The Cardinal owes us some data here. My understanding is that the data points the opposite way to what he would wish.

Argument 13: If marriage can be between two men, we will have to allow three men or a woman and two men to marry as well.

Comment: This seems false to me, but if true, who cares? It seems odd to me, and I wouldn’t do it, but I don’t have clear grounds for preventing others from doing it. Perhaps my small-mindedness in this respect will be shown to be such by future practice.

Argument 14: In Massachusetts, homosexual fairy (sic) stories appeared in schools after gay marriage was legalised.

Comment: I greatly enjoy the Cardinal’s pun at this point. This is a separate issue however. If you don’t want this, it does not seem to be entailed by gay marriage. Also an argument as to why it would be bad is needed.

Argument 15: The Government is arrogant when it says that churches can opt out, because churches have moral authority and the Government does not.

Comment. This seems rather churlish as a response to what appears to be the Government allowing churches to make their own decisions, even if society thinks they should not.

Argument 16: Gay marriage being legalised in this way is like slavery being legalised with the proviso that no one will be forced to keep a slave.

Comment: It is not, because no parties to gay marriage enter the agreement without consenting to it. Also society thinks slavery is wrong; we will find out whether it thinks the same about gay marriage.

Argument 17: The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is correct (again).

Comment: see above.

Argument 18: It is self-evident that argument 17 is correct.

Comment: false.

Argument 19: The success of the proposal will forfeit the trust the people have placed in the Government.

Comment: This seems radically implausible, since it would mean that the respondents to the consultation blame the Government for the responses they themselves gave.

Argument 20: The success of the proposal will shame the UK in the eyes of the world.

Comment: This is perhaps true, though I do not know what national shame is, why we should care about it, what it would be based upon, and whether it is a price worth paying.

I conclude that none of the Cardinal’s arguments go through.

Comment on “The Folly of Scientism”

This post is in response to a piece in New Atlantis by Austin L. Hughes:

The central question is something like `can science answer all questions?’, a much discussed topic. Note that it is not the question `is science the best way of answering all questions in its relevant domain?’ a question to which we can be sure the answer is positive. It is more about the scope of that relevant domain, and in particular whether there is anything outside of it. Scientists sometimes confuse the two. A good example of the sort of area where this may be false is ethics. If a scientist holds that only scientific claims are truth evaluable, you can ask him whether it is true or false that it is wrong to torture cats for fun. The choices are to claim that the statement is not truth-evaluable (not in fact a position to be quickly dismissed but unlikely to be chosen) or to allow that it is. If it is, then one can enquire of the scientist what data could be collected to establish the truth of the claim. There seems to be none. Thus we may make out the claim that science, while superb within its relevant domain, does not answer all questions of interest. That result may be confirmed by observing a group of scientists in the pub, and measuring the proportion of the time that they discuss questions which have an empirical answer: not a high proportion. In fact — why discuss such questions at all? Why not go and perform the appropriate measurement?

Hughes notes that science has taken over a lot of territory from philosophy. This is true, but should concern no-one. Philosophy which conflicts with science is valueless. Where it is useful is in the wider domain of non-empirical questions, which is why the domain question above is of such importance. Science will also tend to develop more than philosophy does — parts of philosophy of mind may be resolved by psychology for example. Note again that this is different process to the one where science gradually answers all questions of interest or provides a complete account of everything. How will science answer the question as to why there is something rather than nothing? (A question Hughes later raises.) What would a scientific answer to that question even look like?

Hughes is slightly unfair on scientists when he writes that they “confus[e] correlation and causation, or confus[e] implication with a bi-conditional. The former is barely a confusion, though it is true that some scientists may be unaware that all they can ever measure is correlation and causation is not an observable quantity. The latter error is probably less frequent. In scientific rather than philosophical terms, it means deciding that if A then B and B, A may be concluded when there may be other causes of B. Scientists however are quite good at looking at several possible explanations for their data.

Hughes claims that philosophy can assist science by deciding what are the proper boundaries of science. This as I outline above is true, but I think he weakens his case by introducing Popper’s falsification requirement: only hypotheses which can be falsified are proper science. One problem with this is that it renders much of or many of the string theories non-science which seems like an odd result — but not an impossible one. The worst problem though is that Popper may not be being philosophical. Many scientists would agree with the criterion but also count is as part of science — or at least meta-science, in that it is something that emerges from their general practice even if it cannot itself be subjected to scientific test or subjected to itself. That causes a problem of supportability because if the test of what is scientific is not itself a part of science, then what has been achieved?

Hughes is unfair to Quine in criticising the latter’s use of `nerve endings’ as an explanation for certain biology. This is just a placeholder for the biology that transpires to be true in the relevant domain. Philosophers also speak of `c-fibres firing’ for whatever mechanism transpires to be the physiological underpinning of pain. Philosophers cannot be expected to do the biology better than the biologists, and are interested in different questions, such as: `if we had a complete physiology of pain, would it be sufficient for someone to feel pain that they replicated that physiology?’ Answering these questions does not require a detailed knowledge of the physiology which may not in fact be available.

It is definitely correct, as Hughes says, that assuming that scientists are right on non-scientific questions is a mistake. But plenty of action is still in science — climate change, whether stem cell research will provide useful results, vaccination, radio masts — and the problem here is that the public accords too little weight to the views of scientists, for reasons that escape me, but which may be connected to the difficulties in defining the correct domain for science.

Hughes goes on to challenge Hawkings’s rather poor grasp of philosophical questions in three areas: metaphysics, epistemology and ethics; these are basically the questions `what exists?’; `how do we know anything?’ and `what should we do?’. As he points out, Hawkings’s idea that by positing the multiverse as an explanation for the existence of this and perhaps other universes merely moves the `why is there anything’ question one level back. Hughes is also right to dismiss the idea that evolution explains why we can understand the universe because it does not explain why the universe is governed by stable scientific laws.

Hughes is right to note that the claims that evolution should select us to believe only and always the truth are questionable. He might go further though and note the work of McKay And Dennett in `The Evolution of Misbelief’ on the fitness enhancing nature of certain false beliefs. For example, a healthy level of delusion about one’s own capacities is associated with optimal mental health. Hughes might also consider the extensive work of Gilovich (`How we know what isn’t so’) on the vast amount of things people believe — religions, astrology, tarot, healing power of crystals, interviewing candidates produces better hires — which are simply empirically false. Hughes does note Trivers’s work in this context though.

Hughes is wrong when he says “it is very hard to see such an advantage to DNA sequence analysis or quantum theory”. While he is right strictly speaking that evolution could not possibly have selected us to be good at quantum theory, it is entirely plausible that it could have selected us for ever more and improved information gathering capacities, and that those have after many years led us to quantum theory.

Hughes makes his strongest point when he attacks naturalism, the view that what is natural is right. Why would it be? If what our ancestors did was selfish and driven by natural selection, why would our current views be any less driven by natural selection or any less wrong?

Hughes is wise to challenge utilitarianism, because it tends ti be widespread outside philosophy and especially appealing to scientists, because they think they can measure things to answer the question as to what is the greatest good for the greater number. Anyone in philosophy can provide dozens of fatal counterexamples. One of the simplest ones is the christians and the lions: if the value to each of 100,000 spectators of seeing a christian torn apart by a lion is greater than the disvalue/100,000 to the christian, utilitarianism (in simple versions) supports it. Avoiding that conclusion requires some fancy footwork, particularly when one notes that 100,000 can be made arbitrarily large. Also one can ask utilitarians why they think an infinite number of people is a better result than a smaller number.

There is an immediate counter to Hughes’s claim that “both states and countries with high rates of reported “happiness” also have high rates of suicide suggest that people’s answers to surveys may not always provide a reliable indicator of societal well-being, or even of happiness.” To be sure, he may be right in his premise that high happiness countries are high suicide countries. But is not a more reasonable interpretation of this not that people do not know if they are happy, but to bear in mind that the number of people who commit suicide is very small, and perhaps inequality in societies is a factor? Perhaps a society in which some people are very happy because they are rich, and most people are quite happy because they are quite well off, is very difficult for very poor people to live in?

I do not understand Hughes’s complaint that “Harris seems to think that free will is an illusion but also that our decisions are really driven by thoughts that arise unbidden in our brains.” He seems to think that these claims are in tension when I think they are entirely consistent. Perhaps Hughes thinks that if a decision arises in my brain, then ipso facto I have free will, but that is in need of an argument and contrary to views in which the subconscious is prominent.

Hughes’s conclusions is well made and supported by his arguments. He writes: “Continued insistence on the universal competence of science will serve only to undermine the credibility of science as a whole.” This is surely true. In fact, would not the credibility of science be enhanced by acknowledging the proper restriction of its domain? Within the empirical arena, it is supreme and unchallenged. But that’s not all there is.