The continuation ....

This post is actually taking an interesting comment from the post "Things I learnt I rather wish I hadn't" and writing more about it. The comments section has a limit to the amount of words and I felt it deserved a proper answer :)

The comment reads:

Debates like the kind you describe really frustrate me. It's really pointless. The discussion starts out as if everybody is speaking the same language, but they aren't.

The problem lies not in a difference of opinion, but a difference of premises. When people disagree on the premises, it's very hard to have the conversation make any sense.

These kinds of disagreements usually go unsaid. You might think it's about science and religion, but really it's about values. You value deductive reasoning. You value statistical analysis. These values are the reasons that you give science so much credence, and your arguments are made with these values in mind. Ultimately, when you follow any argument back to its origins, you find values which are simply believed without any further proof.

But if the person on the other side of the discussion has different values, they won't follow your arguments. Your arguments will sound as nonsensical to them as their arguments sound to you. It's almost as if the two sides are employing different logical systems.

Now that I think about it, perhaps they are.
 I've thought a lot about this before replying as I really understand what Keith is getting at, but I also have some reactions to certain parts of it.  So... here is my reply.


Hmm... I understand your point though I don't necessarily agree with all of it. I completely agree that in many cases (as evidenced on the forum quite often) people with opposing views will never be able to have a discussion because they do not share certain common premises or values. It's not just arguments about this sort of thing - you see it at work, in families, in politics etc.  I don't think that means we still shouldn't have the discussion though. For example, there are a large number of theists who have become rational thinkers saying that talking with people (who did not aggressively ram atheism at them but helped them to look at things from a new perspective) made a huge difference. Reason enough to keep the debates going I think ;)

As far as the example we're talking about though, and how you have described it - I think that is getting into cultural relativism. I'd like to quote Richard Dawkins here:

It is often thought clever to say that science is no more than our modern origin myth. The Jews had their Adam and Eve, the Sumerians their Marduk and Gilgamesh, the Greeks Zeus and the Olympians, the Norsemen their Valhalla. What is evolution, some smart people say, but our modern equivalent of gods and epic heroes, neither better nor worse, neither truer nor falser? There is a fashionable salon philosophy called cultural relativism which holds, in its extreme form, that science has no more claim to truth than tribal myth: science is just the mythology favored by our modern Western tribe. I once was provoked by an anthropologist colleague into putting the point starkly, as follows: Suppose there is a tribe, I said, who believe that the moon is an old calabash tossed into the sky, hanging only just out of reach above the treetops. Do you really claim that our scientific truth — that the moon is about a quarter of a million miles away and a quarter the diameter of the Earth — is no more true than the tribe's calabash? “Yes,” the anthropologist said. “We are just brought up in a culture that sees the world in a scientific way. They are brought up to see the world in another way. Neither way is more true than the other.”

Show me a cultural relativist at thirty thousand feet and I'll show you a hypocrite. Airplanes built according to scientific principles work. They stay aloft, and they get you to a chosen destination. Airplanes built to tribal or mythological specifications, such as the dummy planes of the cargo cults in jungle clearings or the beeswaxed wings of Icarus, don't.* If you are flying to an international congress of anthropologists or literary critics, the reason you will probably get there — the reason you don't plummet into a ploughed field — is that a lot of Western scientifically trained engineers have got their sums right. Western science, acting on good evidence that the moon orbits the Earth a quarter of a million miles away, using Western-designed computers and rockets, has succeeded in placing people on its surface. Tribal science, believing that the moon is just above the treetops, will never touch it outside of dreams.

I seldom give a public lecture without a member of the audience brightly coming up with something along the same lines as my anthropologist colleague, and it usually elicits a murmuration of approving nods. No doubt the nodders feel good and liberal and unracist. An even more reliable nod-provoker is “Fundamentally, your belief in evolution comes down to faith, and therefore it's no better than somebody else's belief in the Garden of Eden.”

Every tribe has had its origin myth — its story to account for the universe, life and humanity. There is a sense in which science does indeed provide the equivalent of this, at least for the educated section of our modern society. Science may even be described as a religion, and I have, not entirely facetiously, published a brief case for science as an appropriate subject for religious-education classes. (In Britain, religious education is a compulsory part of the school curriculum, unlike in the United States, where it is banned for fear of offending any of the plethora of mutually incompatible faiths.) Science shares with religion the claim that it answers deep questions about origins, the nature of life, and the cosmos. But there the resemblance ends. Scientific beliefs are supported by evidence, and they get results. Myths and faiths are not and do not.


Perhaps this is not being said, but there is the suggestion the two sides were employing two logical systems (do we want to say 'logic' instead of 'logical' here, perhaps?). The implication that because we value science is why we choose to give it credence, is what I have a problem with. Whether or not I value it doesn't actually matter - science works. I could choose to follow the flying Spaghetti Monster (bless his noodley appendage) and science would still work.

Anyway,  I think it is actually two issues - one that some people with opposing ideas may never be able to communicate because of an inability to share common premises, and the other a discussion on how science and belief systems interact (or not).



1/21/10, 2:28 PM


Indeed, there are two issues here. I'll comment on the first now and leave the other for tomorrow after I've had time to sleep on it.

The first issue is regarding debates. Indeed, that was the focus of my comment earlier. I do agree that when you have people who are open-minded, such debates can help them to see how the other side views things.

But IMO, most of the time it just solidifies the anger and further convinces each side that they are in the right. I might go so far as to say that the reason many people participate in these angry debates is to help convince themselves of their own points.

And yeah, by "logical system" I meant that it is not just the facts on which the sides disagree, but even deeper. They disagree about how facts are to be used. Frequently, this disagreement goes unspoken so the two sides aren't aware of this divide during the debate. That's when they end up talking past one another.



1/22/10, 7:44 AM

I'm going to throw down my two cents. I might be wrong (and often am). Also, this is a ramble since the box to type stuff is so small and I apologize if I get off the point. :)

Herb Silverman, the president of the Secular Coalition for America summed it up pretty neatly when he said in a recent interview: "Science works whether you believe in it or not."

Issue 1

At the very least, people with opposing ideas can't communicate if they aren't willing to define what it is they are actually debating. I'd think that in a debate format, the two people wouldn't share a common premise (god exists ≠ god doesn't exist, or democrat ≠ republican)

If Dinesh D'Souza is arguing for the existence of god, for example, before he even gets to his proofs, he needs to define the god he's defending.

Issue 2

I "believe" in science because of its ability to self correct, inductive reasoning, evidence, etc. That's rational. Disregarding evidence because it conflicts with ideas that are arbitrarily more important to you (say, the infallibility of the bible) yet have no evidence to back them up is IMHO irrational.

Like Dawkins, I'd disagree with that anthropologist too. (Though I'm not nearly as smart as he is!)

And in both of these issues, I'm not so sure that values are at their heart. Or maybe they are, but not the way they've been described.

I value science because it explains a great many things about the way the world works, and I'm comfortable with the not knowing.

But as a human, I know that I am easily susceptible to stupid ideas and have to actually think about stuff before I decide its valid or not. (I think that's similar to Morton's Demon...)

Many people aren't comfortable with not knowing and use religion or spirituality to fill in those gaps, so I guess they value religion.

Here I am, the armchair psychologist.

I'll stop and see where this discussion goes. It's awesome!


1/22/10, 1:36 PM

Ok, on to the second point.

I can't comment on the term "Cultural Relativist" because I'm not sure what it means, but I do consider myself a "Relativist". By that I mean that I don't believe that anything is perfect. Things are merely better or worse than one another.

But, in order for things to be better or worse, there must be a context. A context requires a measurement and an observer.

Unfortunately, contexts are subjective. Not only are observers (by definition?) subjective, but perhaps more importantly the choice of measurement is as well. Perhaps this choice is made by the observer himself, perhaps it comes from some cultural influence.

In Mr. Dawkins' example above of the flying airplane, there is great agreement on the measurements of success: altitude, length of flight, survival of the passengers, etc.

But for issues which are less clear-cut, the choice of measurement is up for debate. The classic arguments in the US over capital punishment, abortion, and gun control are all excellent examples of this. The opposing sides have different measurements of "better" because they hold different values.

It's these (often not cited) differences which make appreciating cultural differences so difficult.



1/24/10, 2:37 AM

I'll add a few comments in response to spajadigit above.

It appears that we've jumped into discussing science vs. religion somehow. I had been focusing on morality (as the initial post was about child brides) and so have avoided this hot topic. But no longer! ;)

Both you and Jude mention this mantra "science works". Well, I agree. But my earlier point holds here as well. The reason that you & I believe that science "works" is because we've defined "works" to be exactly the sorts of things that science excels at.

You mention a few of them above: evidence-based measurement, reasoning, blah blah, blah, all good things. And back to the airplane example, everybody agrees to some good coming out of science. When a priest's car breaks down, he might pray for it to be fixed by God. He probably also calls a mechanic.

But science doesn't cover everything. I'm trained as a mathematician and science doesn't help me a bit in that arena.

More to the point, when the issues are more difficult to measure — for example the very emotional issue of the age of consent — science can only supply part of the story. Marriage (as we've seen numerous times now) just isn't a topic where statistical data play a big role in people's convictions. (And, in my experience, this effect isn't limited to religious people.)

Now I'm not saying that's a good thing. I'm just saying it's how people work. Human conflict number five.

Ok, I'll throw in a question for discussion: You wrote about evidence. Just what constitutes "evidence"?

I don't know about you, but > 99% of what I know about science I read somewhere or was told about by someone who read it somewhere. That's evidence? Have any of us seen a quark ourselves? Oh, Brontosaur, we shall never forget you!



1/25/10, 1:34 PM

Wow... so many truly thoughtful comments. Sorry it is taking me forever to get to. I'm having some yukky days with fibro and it's been a bit rough. I'll do my best soon to get back to it as soon as. I love how much people have written, and thought in a lot more detail than I have about it. Thankyou thankyou! back when I am able....


The Out Campaign: Scarlet Letter of Atheism