Saturday, March 27, 2004

Jaw score

At first glance, it might not be clear that the discovery that we might owe our intelligence to our weak jaws has dealt a death blow to intelligent design "theory", but the day is done for the Dembskistas. Of course they won't admit it.

This post in the The Loom explains far more eloquently than I could why this is.

The whole monkey jaw thing started me thinking about science and belief. The Greeks used to reason their ethics and take huge leaps of faith in their science. Some believed stars were living beings; some that the universe was never changing; some that everything in it fell; some that the planets were perfect spheres... All of these beliefs they held fiercely, without any observational proof. In ethics, though, the Greeks were coldly logical. They stated reasonably simple axioms and then reasoned from them to whole bodies of principle. The axioms strike us as misguided more often than not but they worked to be consistent.

These days we are almost entirely the opposite. Whereas in science we do not tend to believe anything except what we can argue from relatively few axioms, our ethics are a mishmash of stuff, mostly taken on faith (oh how we laugh when we see people try to make their case for "natural rights" (there are none), "natural justice" (eat thy neighbour is nature's way, we seem to forget), "good and evil" (what we like and do not like by another name)).

Why do I say this? Well, it strikes me that the Greeks argued from the idea to the facts -- IOW, they conceived a universe and then found natural phenomena that seemed to show their conception was right. The scientific method works, in theory, the other way round -- we observe the facts and draw conclusions from them.

Intelligent design, of course, is a theory in the Greek fashion. The conception is that there is a designer and various things are taken to prove that that's so. That isn't how science works but it appeals to Christians, partly because Christianity is so strongly seamed with Platonism.

We rarely examine what we actually do believe. In my case, I've always known it's not much. I believe there is a physical world (IOW, I'm not one of those mentalists who believes the world is purely a construction of the mind) because it could hardly be proved not to exist. I believe that most other things in physics are negotiable. The scientific method provides good terms for negotiation, but I'm not convinced that anything is proved, at the end of the day. So when I say I believe in evolution, I'm always wanting to add the caveat that belief is contingent, or even that I believe it more than I don't, but the possibility of not believing it does exist. Well, none of that is to say much. Most scientifically minded people would say something similar. I accept that the standard theory of particle physics describes the world, but I don't believe it's necessarily an accurate description. I'm not sure whether it matters practically speaking, although of course in metaphysics it does. Again, standard stuff, I'm sure. I make no claims whatsoever to originality.

In ethics, I am a vague, wishywashy liberal. I believe people are inherently "good" in particular senses of being good. I don't think they generally try to do the wrong thing, but one man's right thing can be the next's evil. Understanding that is important, I believe, because the inability to put oneself in the other's shoes is the greatest curse for our politicians when they deal with one another. I believe we have an urge to cooperate that tends to make us better rather than worse (no Hobbesian strife for me, thanks) but I think that circumstances and environment can stymie that urge.

At the same time, I believe the complete opposite of all of that.


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