Friday, October 14, 2005

Order! Order!: Conversing with an Atheistic Evolutionist

KP: Would you say that all knowledge is founded on faith?
Nihil: No. I would say that all knowledge is to some extent uncertain, although in some cases that uncertainty is so small as to be negligible.

KP: But isn't all knowledge founded upon certain basic beliefs that are incapable of being scientifically verified?

Nihil: Depends on what you mean by verified, and your criteria for accepting something as "verified." Almost any statement you can make about the world is based on some presupposition. Even the idea of making a statement assumes that it is somehow meaningful and useful to do so.

KP: OK, let's take your means of verification. Can the foundations of science be verified empirically?

Nihil: Prediction, when it is possible, says something about the underlying foundations of the scientific method. It does not verify them absolutely, but it certainly suggests that science is, in some cases, on to a "real" phenomenon.

KP: What of the principle of induction, however. Can you offer a rational justification for it? Or what of the laws of logic - are they empirically verifiable?

Nihil: The rational justification is in the results we get by applying the method. Logic...yes, it can be empirically verified in some aspects. We can search for cases of observable phenomenon that do not follow ordinary logic whether we find them or not is a different question. 

KP: That the principle of induction works is not the same thing as offering an explanation for why it does, is it?

Nihil: Ah! I see. You want to know why? That's another question. Demonstrating that something works does not tell you much, by itself, about WHY it works. 

KP: So science believes that induction will work in the future because it has done so in the past. But this is simply to assume the principle.

Nihil: It is reasonable to expect that what has worked well, consistently and specifically in the past will continue to do so, unless something obvious has changed. Of course, we cannot prove that what "worked" in the past will do so in the future. That would be a logical fallacy of some sort.

KP: But why is it reasonable to expect that what has worked well, consistently and specifically in the past will continue to do so? 

Nihil: Because most of the time that is exactly what happens. The best guess about the future is that it will have a high degree of consistency with the observable present and known past. Why would we expect something that has worked consistently and specifically to suddenly fail?

KP: You really haven't answered my question by saying that most of the time that is what happens. All you've done is again assume the inductive principle. I'm asking for a rationale for believing in it. 

Nihil: The reason to believe it is because it gets results, it yields specific and consistent knowledge. The result is what matters. To me, a method which is capable of explaining observed events, in some cases well enough to make absolutely accurate predictions, is as proven as proven gets. The principle of induction may or may not apply, or may apply to some things and not others, I guess...but it produces the results we need. By using it, we generate valid knowledge. That's the rationale, more or less....

KP: And why do you think it yields results? Why does it work so well?

Nihil: I think it works as well as it does because it is somehow in accord with the actual material world...scientific methods provide a way for our brains to study the world systematically....maybe it "translates" between the external world and our internal world of thoughts, feelings, etc. I think it works because it's really onto something about the natural world.

KP: And why do you think the natural world is like that?

Nihil: I have no idea, and I cannot imagine what the "why" question means in this context. Actually, I do not think there is a "why."

KP: What don't you understand about the question?

Nihil: I cannot see how the question "why is the natural world the way it is" has any meaningful referent....I don't really understand what it is asking. My guess is that it's somehow based on the idea that here is purpose and intent in the natural world, or on an analogy between daily human experience and the larger natural world.

KP: Doesn't science concern itself with offering explanations for what is observed in the natural world?

Nihil: Yes, it does. 

KP: So is it outlandish to ask why it is that the natural world operates in a seemingly orderly fashion?

Nihil: No, it's not outlandish at all - and physicists can give you an explanation, of sorts, but I suspect that it would not answer the question to your satisfaction. The explanation will generate another "why" question. Why this explanation of order and not another? And why is there any order at all?

KP: I know there are physicists who would offer an explanation but I was really interested in your particular thoughts.

Nihil: It's actually pretty complicated, of course, because there are two questions at work. First, why is there order (assuming there is, which is a fairly safe assumption) and second, why do we perceive order. (It is at least arguable that order is something created or synthesized by the brain and "mind." I don't take that view myself, but the idea that perceived "reality" is a transaction between the nervous system and some essentially unknowable "external" reality is worth considering.)

KP: And then the question of why there is order in the brain could be asked. But what position DO you take?

Nihil: As to why there is order...I will have to give that some thought. I still don't think that the question is quite right. I'm not sure what a meaningful answer would be. There's order in the brain because the brain evolved to process information and it evolved to process information because information processing had survival value.

KP: I wonder why that question is so bothersome to you.

Nihil: Which one...why is there order, or why is there order in the brain? "Why is there order in the brain?" can in principle be answered, I think. Why is there order anywhere in nature? That's a different kind of question. The physicists answer it, and yet they do not because one can always say that they have explained how order works without explaining why it works that way. 

KP: I meant the question of order in the natural world. Inquisitiveness has survival value as well yet there are some questions that you think are not worth asking.

Nihil: Not all questions are meaningful. Not all questions can have meaningful answers. Because it is possible to think of a question does not mean there is any answer.

KP: Can you give me an example of such a question?

Nihil: Inquisitiveness has survival value, but that does not mean it will be efficient.

KP: Can you give me an example of a question for which there may not be an answer?

Nihil: "Why is the world the way it is?" might be a good example. "What is god?" might be another. "How should we live?" might be yet another, though as much out of too many answers as too few.

KP: You say "might." Are you uncertain?

Nihil: Of course. How can anyone possibly rule a question out as "absolutely meaningless"? Besides...meaningful to whom? And in what context? And it is possible that a "meaningful" answer could come along at some later point?

KP: So when you said that not all questions are meaningful, you were speaking only in terms of yourself?

Nihil: No, not only myself. I think some questions are in fact not meaningful at all. I cannot prove that contention, either in logic or by empirical investigation. It is probably true. Probably. 

KP: And what is the basis for your belief that that is probable?

Nihil: I have to sign off for the night. See you tomorrow, I hope?

KP: Sure, I should be on at some point. Good night.

Nihil: See you then. Good night.


Mark Hunsaker said...

—begin quote—

KP: Can you give me an example of a question for which there may not be an answer?

Nihil: "Why is the world the way it is?" might be a good example. "What is god?" might be another. "How should we live?" might be yet another, though as much out of too many answers as too few.

—end quote—

This was an interesting exchange. Nihil's world view seems to focus on uncertainty regarding metaphysical constructs (championing the only the physcial).

I would be curious what his thoughts would be if he were asked: "Where did your metaphysical constructs come from?" And then the follow up would be "how are you certain?"

Clearly, Keith, it would seem you were headed this way...I hope you get the opportunity to speak with him further, and then have the opportunity to share here.

Thank you.

Crimson_Willow said...

Wow, I have to say, this was a very interesting read. I'd hate to say it, but you did make some good points. Everything in one way or another is based on some sort of a faith. Even atheists hold tight to what science can only label as "Theories". I guess to be human is to have an opinion. Perhaps that is what separates us from the rest of the animal kingdom. I can't wait to hear more of this discussion.