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October 02, 2005

Sunday Sermonette: J.B.S. Haldane

Today's Sunday Sermonette is a prelude to tomorrow's epistemology-blogging:

Children are taught that it is a virtue to accept statements without adequate evidence, which leaves them a prey to quacks of every kind in later life, and makes it very difficult for them to accept the methods of thought which are successful in science.--J. B. S. Haldane

Revere's preaching the good word of rationality over at Effect Measure.

Brad at the AIDS Combat Zone is also sermonizing.


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Well, yes and no. It is not possible to function without being willing to accept information without evidence. I don't have "adequate" evidence that there is a city in Russia called Moscow, or that Napoleon ever occupied it. I just accept that it's true. I personally am not competent to judge that evolution is true, either. And I accept that as well.

This reminds me that I've often thought there's some advantage to being raised in a minority religion. If children are told, 'Nearly everyone is wrong about the most important questions, and only a few of us believe the truth,' they're likely to develop at least some skepticism towards other traditional and majority opinions.

But I guess skepticism about other kinds of common sense, such as one's own common sense, doesn't necessarily follow, at least not in America and Britain.

JR, I think you need a broader conception of evidence. The fact that books and articles you have read refer to Moscow, and that you've seen pictures of it on television, and that you can locate it on maps, are all very good evidence that it exists, given what you know about books and articles and pictures. You trust those sources of information because you have evidence that they're accurate in other matters that you can verify. You also trust that those books and articles were written by human beings, and you trust that human beings don't normally write things that are false about the existence of towns without making it clear that they're writing fiction. And so on and so on. Your complete web of information, and the credibility you give to it, depends in the very end on a small number of basic assumptions about the world, things like trusting in the information from your senses under most conditions, and trusting that the rules of nature are consistent and predictable, that the sun will rise tomorrow, etc. And while you can't have evidence for these very basic things, I don't imagine you can think up other assumptions that would be as useful to you in living in the world. So, pragmatically, you adopt the default ones.

Evidence is a very complex concept. In fact, most observations you make are substantial evidence for or against dozens of things, and probably small evidence for hundreds of things. A single observation can be interpreted, strictly, to be a infinitismal amount of evidence for or against most propositions (I imagine).

Gary, don't you think that the amount of cognitive dissonance it's necessary to have to believe things that very few other people believe would incline one to be less skeptical and more susceptible to dogma, and not vice versa? On the other hand, the thing that finally led me away from Christianity was the repeated assertions of my (rather fundamentalist) church that their dogma was The Truth. I thought, "Well, if it's the truth than I want to prove it." So I set out trying to understand the case against it and the case for it in as much detail as I could, and in about a year I had turned agnostic. So you may have a point.

pdf23ds you make a good point. I guess it does take extra faith to believe a minority religion.

Also, I want to take back what I said about confidence in one's own common sense. Thinking about it more, I think skepticism about all kinds of common sense is fostered by membership in a minority faith. But as you point out, there are all kinds of other influences.

There are lots of books, movies, lecturers, authorities etc etc that tell me that there is a God above who made me in his image and loves me and gave his Son to save my soul from eternal damnation. I drive past dozens of imposing buildings every day that were built pricisely in order that earnest men could teach this lesson to large crowds. Most people believe these things. Every last one of our political leaders claims to believe these things. I don't. Yet I still believe, on quite a bit less evidence, that Moscow is in Russia and that Napoleon was there. And I believe, on even less evidence than that, that the theory of evolution is an accurate description of the way in which life developed on earth.

Moscow never fell to Napoleon.

Moscow fell to Napoleon in September 1812. He occupied it until October 1812.

More to the point, J.B.S. Haldane is not a very good poster child for the Reality-Based Community. He was an unapologetic Stalinist throughout the 1930's, a stance that led him to defend Lysenko long after every other western geneticist had concluded that he (Lysenko) was a crackpot.

"authorities ... tell me that there is a God above who made me in his image and loves me and gave his Son ... Most people believe these things." (JR)

Well no, most people don't believe these things, maybe most Americans, but certainly not most people. How do I know that? Hehe, the same way I know about Moscow and Napolean.

I think what you're getting at is that empirical knowledge is uncertain, or as you call it, inadequate. So sure, though I can't doubt my own existence for example, as Descartes showed, I can doubt the existence of Moscow. But I'd be crazy to doubt the existence of Moscow as much as I doubt the existence of Santa Claus or Jehovah. With only a little understanding of the mathematics of probability and philosophy of science, I can know with certainty that my evidence for the existence of Moscow seems as good as empirical evidence gets. So changing your formulation only slightly, I say it would be foolish not to accept the most probable opinions as the best available.

About evolution, there are lots of theories. Surely you don't believe all of them?

Robert is wrong Haldane did not support Lysenkoism but split with the British Communist Party over this issue. "The rise of Lysenko’s pseudo-science, with the overt support of Stalin was the principal factor which turned Haldane away from the Communist Party."

JBS Haldane never defended Lysenko nor did he denounce him like so many other scientists did in the 1940s without even reading Lysenko's papers. Throughout the controversy, Haldane continued to express his support for Mendelian genetics which was suppressed by Lysenko in the Soviet Union. But the controversy forced Haldane to resign from the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) and the editorial board of "Daily Worker". It also led him a few years later to migrate from London to India where he died in 1964.

"Children are taught that it is a virtue to accept statements without adequate evidence, which leaves them a prey to quacks of every kind in later life, and makes it very difficult for them to accept the methods of thought which are successful in science.--J. B. S. Haldane"

With all deference to Haldane's significant scientific accomplishments, is there any evidence for any part of this statement? Taken out of context (perhaps it is the summation to a brilliant case) the assertion "children are taught" seems awfully general. Which childen?

Haldane seems unconcerned with the idea that children might need authority figures for thier psychological development. I think it could be argued that it is a lack of consistent trustworthy authority during a child's formative period that is more likely to leave her "a prey for quacks," rather than the other way around.

In either event, the defense of science using unscientific methods is something I guess I will have to resolve never to tire of.

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