Knowing me, knowing you (Eureka!)

If there is “more than one way of knowing”, then how can you know that that is true? Presumably, if you know that it is true, then I can simply ‘know’ that it is not true. And I can further simply choose to ‘know’ that I am right in a way that is irrefutable. Therefore, I can know that you are wrong. Although you can respond by saying that you know that I am wrong about me knowing that you are wrong. But then I can respond by saying that I know that you are wrong in a way that is impossible for you to understand. You see? I know that. Therefore it’s true.

I really enjoy the clarity that this “more-than-one-way-of-knowing” narrative introduces into everyday discourse. Here’s a letter from today’s Irish Times, in response to David Robert Grimes‘s article of last last week:

Sir, – According to David Robert Grimes, he is displeased with the Giant’s Causeway visitor centre’s questionable decision to include a creationist explanation alongside a scientific evolutionary explanation because of the absurd subjective beliefs of evangelical creationists compared to the utter objectivity of empirical scientists’ theories of evolution.

He asserts that people’s subjective worldview – how one interprets and perceives the world – applies exclusively to non-scientists. However, all people misleadingly believe in their own objectivity because we are each beholden to our personal and cultural biases or assumptions that unconsciously influence and determine how we interpret evidence.

All scientific facts are the result of human interpretation because “man always believes more readily that which he prefers” (Sir Francis Bacon) and “men believe willingly that which they desire” (Julius Caesar). The winner of the 1960 Noble Prize for medicine, Sir Peter Medawar, insightfully stated that in both science as well as the humanities “there is no such thing as an unprejudiced observation since every act of observation we make is biased”.

Mr Grimes hopes that we learn something from history so I commend the Giant’s Causeway visitor centre for providing contrasting and conflicting explanations because what one today may consider to be absurd subjective beliefs or theories could, in the future, potentially become scientifically validated explanations, such as occurred when Galileo in the 17th century “absurdly” claimed that the Earth moved around the Sun.

Whether one agrees with either the creationist or evolutionist explanation for the Giant’s Causeway, at least having both explanations enables active exposure to alternative perspectives. – Yours, etc,

MARK C NOLAN,

Model Farm Road,

Cork.

Here’s why the above argument is incoherent:

  1. All people misleadingly believe in their own objectivity“: Presumably, either (a) the letter-writer is uniquely immune to this problem and so the statement is false, or (b) the letter-writer is subject to this self-delusion and so the statement is not to be trusted.
  2. All scientific facts are the result of human interpretation“: Er, not exactly. First of all, there is no such concept as a “scientific” fact. Facts are facts. Secondly, it is a fact (okay, then, a scientific fact) that 2 is greater than 1. A bird looking at her nest will recognise that 2 eggs are more than 1 egg. This is how the bird will recognise if one of her eggs is missing. Admittedly, the bird may be misleadingly deluded as to her own objectivity and beholden to cultural biases in a way that unconsciously influences how she interprets evidence. But the (scientific) fact that 2 eggs are more than 1 egg is not the result of interpretation. For one thing, it can be verified by a disinterested third party. That is actually the crux. We establish objectivity when disinterested third parties can corroborate our observations.
  3. What one today may consider to be absurd subjective beliefs or theories could, in the future, potentially become scientifically validated explanations, such as occurred when Galileo in the 17th century ‘absurdly’ claimed that the Earth moved around the Sun“: Actually, there was a lot more to the Galileo episode than that. However, the key point about Galileo is that he used empirical evidence — objective data, in other words — to trump the previous subjective belief regarding geocentricity. He employed independent research methods to test the validity of a previously widely regarded traditional story. Just like David Robert Grimes is recommending. Giant’s Causeway creationism is another one of those centuries-old traditional beliefs that has been debunked in the light of objectively corroborated data. So full marks for bringing that up.

You sometimes wonder whether folks like this think that all contemporary wacky beliefs will one day become “scientifically validated explanations“. The argument seems to be, “People thought Galileo was wrong, but he turned out to be right…therefore we should respect all claims that people think are wrong…because they might be right.” So, by that logic, Scooby Doo exists. Because I say so.

Grimes, and other scientists, are not objecting to Giant’s Causeway creationism because they disagree with it. They are objecting to it because it is inaccurate. And they know this because the evidence for it has been carefully gathered and scrutinised, and double-checked and corroborated by disinterested observers. It has been shown to be wrong. If the ‘evolutionary’ explanation is ever shown to be wrong then that should be removed as well.

The argument is not for one piece of knowledge over another piece of knowledge.

It is for the concept of knowing over the concept of supposing.

scooby

Good ol’ Scoob. I know he’s out there…



Categories: Confirmation bias, Conservatism, Evolution, Irish Times, Paleontology, Religion, Science, Scientific literacy

2 replies

  1. So is there a “scientific evolutionary explanation” for the Causeway? If not, then maybe I’ll make one up (in my “theory” of Evolutionary Geology new rocks evolve from their ancestors based on some form of Darwinian selection). I trust Mr Nolan will respect my new, entirely subjective, belief system.

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