Wednesday, March 08, 2006

That Berlinski interview

I wasn't even going to read Berlinski interviewing himself, but when RSR, Ed Brayton, and PZ Myers mock something, I feel obliged to join in. Consider this passage:
But why should we take seriously religious beliefs that are lacking in evidence?

DB: We shouldn’t. But asking someone like Richard Dawkins about the evidence for God’s existence is a little like asking a quadruple amputee to run the marathon.

The interesting point is elsewhere. There is no argument against religion that is not also an argument against mathematics. Mathematicians are capable of grasping a world of objects that lies beyond space and time ….

… Come again …

DB: No need to come again: I got to where I was going the first time. The number four, after all, did not come into existence at a particular time, and it is not going to go out of existence at another time. It is neither here nor there. Nonetheless we are in some sense able to grasp the number by a faculty of our minds. Mathematical intuition is utterly mysterious. So for that matter is the fact that mathematical objects such as a Lie Group or a differentiable manifold have the power to interact with elementary particles or accelerating forces. But these are precisely the claims that theologians have always made as well – that human beings are capable by an exercise of their devotional abilities to come to some understanding of the deity; and the deity, although beyond space and time, is capable of interacting with material objects.
All ellipses and asinine self-importance original.

I'm guessing that Berlinski spent weeks, perhaps years, developing his quadruple amputee analogy. So it's worth spending some time understanding why it's irrelevant. A quadruple amputee cannot run a marathon because he lacks certain essential body-parts. The desire may exist, but the physical capacity is lacking.

Clearly, Dawkins is not lacking some essential physical capacity or body-parts. Dawkins is capable of perceiving any objective physical evidence of the world that Berlinski is. They both see trees and puppies and groups of four things exactly the same way. In a question about evidence, this is what matters.

But Berlinski finds the analogy relevant, so let us press on. Clearly, what he thinks Dawkins lacks is not physical ability, but some mental ability. He lacks something, but what exactly? As an atheist, Dawkins lacks religious belief. This is what all atheists lack. That's the point.

But the question was why Dawkins ought to take belief seriously without evidence. If his lack of belief is an impediment to his seeing the evidence for belief, that's rather circular.

Now, math. Math is fascinating. Why does math work? This is a question that's plagued us since we were able to figure out that putting one stone next to another next to another next to another gives you "four" stones. But is the problem with recognizing "four" different from recognizing the universal abstract "stone." My inclination is to think not. Humans are good at abstracting. Every stone, every group of four things, every individual of a species shares some essential characteristics. The human mind is good at that.

What science does very well is separate coincidence that looks like a result of abstract pattern from real effects of some abstract similarity. That's what falsification does. It means that something has to produce a set of predictions which might be wrong. Math does that, and does it time and time again. Is the abstraction of "Math" true in some cosmic sense? Maybe, but I don't care. As an abstraction, it consistently describes the universe accurately. That's enough for me. It works, and if it didn't work, we'd be able to find that out, too.

Where is the analogy for religious belief there? What empirical evidence is Berlinski pointing to that Dawkins can't see? Nothing. Dawkins lacks religious belief. Others don't. That's fine. I don't think that's good or bad, and it doesn't matter to science.

Inquiry wheelThis analysis also applies to Berlinski's half-assed critique of "Darwinism." Who knows what it is he means by that term? He dismisses the scientific method by pointing out that sometimes people use intuition to arrive at a hypothesis. His understanding of what scientists do seems to end there. What else can we make of this passage:
Where science has a method, it is trivial – look carefully, cut the cards, weigh the evidence, don’t let yourself be fooled, do an experiment if you can.
No. This is embarrassingly wrong. If you think back to sixth grade, the process is presented as a very linear approach, but the cyclical approach in the figure here may be more accurate. In either case, experimentation is not incidental, it's vital. Experimentation is how you test what you think against the real world. Anything one can reasonably call "Darwinism" is based on extensive experimentation and the scientific method. This is why We can be confident that Dawkins is (broadly speaking) right about biology, but we can't be sure whether he's right about religion.

Why anyone, even Berlinksi, would want to interview David Berlinski is beyond me.