Tuesday, 22 November 2011

On Facts

Jerry Coyne is a biologist and author of the best selling book "Why Evolution is True". He runs a blog by the same name. He got into a discussion about the nature of facts, with a theologian Keith Ward, following a Guardian Comment is Free article of Ward's.

Jerry's blog is lively, with a well informed readership who share Jerry's passions for science, atheism and skepticism. It has an informal style, so readers can feel happy discussing the topic at hand, discussing side issues or taking part in witty banter, just along as things don't get too heated.

I have a bachelor of science degree in Maths and Philosophy. Don't ask me what the mark was, I only just survived to the end of the course after resitting my final exams. I would describe myself as an atheist, take a broadly scientific view of the world and enjoy thinking games, so when Jerry offered a specific challenge, I was interested.

He challenged:

"... I invite readers again to give me just one reasonably well established fact about the world that comes from “general philosophical views, moral views, personal experience and judgment” without any verifiable empirical input.  By all means, ask your friends in philosophy and theology!"
From some dim and distant memory of my time at university, I knew there is a philosophical problem called the Other Minds problem. Put in a simple form it amounts to the claim is that any one individual can know they have a mind, but proving that anyone else, or other sentient beings like animals have minds, is somewhere on the scale of extremely difficult to impossible.

Before Jerry's challenge came along, I had done some preliminary thinking on this issue, which is recoded in a post I called: I think therefore I question. René Descartes had been a hero of mine when I was at school, for the following three reasons. He made a huge contribution to mathematics. Similarly, he made a huge contribution to philosophy. Whilst all the time, he knew the importance of practical tasks too. When I read:

"I entirely abandoned the study of letters. Resolving to seek no knowledge other than that of which could be found in myself or else in the great book of the world, I spent the rest of my youth traveling, visiting courts and armies, mixing with people of diverse temperaments and ranks, gathering various experiences, testing myself in the situations which fortune offered me, and at all times reflecting upon whatever came my way so as to derive some profit from it." (Descartes, Discourse on the Method).
I couldn't help but think he was a giant of a man, who really understood what it was to live well.

People who hold theistic beliefs sometimes claim that they should not be criticised for holding strong beliefs based on faith, because atheists hold similar beliefs, but they never acknowledge them. I used to think that was a nonsense claim, then I came to realise that I could only dismiss it if I had actually examined my own beliefs to see if that were the case. I was reminded of Descarte's "I think therefore I am", and I realised that my own formulation of an ultimate truth would come out differently.

Mine is:

"Something exists."
This of course is an utterly bald assertion, but I think it must have the property that it is true. It also lead me to the understanding that I did indeed hold a belief which I only hold through faith, and that is:

"I am not alone."
So now I do understand that I hold at least one belief through faith alone, and that I cannot criticise a theist who asserts this as a proposition. However, I strongly believe that my position is somewhat more credible than the person who says "I believe in God through faith". My leap of faith is extremely difficult for the theist to disprove, because it seems a necessary condition of being part of a social dialogue, so that they must believe that an almost identical claim is true for themselves (it differs in only the fact that they are the subject, clearly).

Having reached these conclusions, I hit upon a widely believed proposition that could meet Coyne's challenge, which cannot be proved as true. Because it is basically one of the building blocks of what it means to be a social animal, it at first seems very unpromising.

It reads:

"The “fact” is that there is more than one human in the world. I think that most of us establish this fact through personal experience and judgement at around age 3. Those of us who do not grasp this “fact”, to whatever degree, are given the label autistic."
Following further discussions at Ophelia Benson's FreeThoughts blog Butterflies and Wheels, I now realise that my understanding of what a "fact" was, was not complete at the time. This was the reason that I needed to place the word in quote marks in the above paragraph, to identify I was talking about a fact like thing, rather than a fact itself.A rather ratty conversation at Talking Philosophy, where I challenged the use of the term "fact" by another author, and along the way his understanding of what manners and morality were, did also help me to eventually concentrate on the precision of my argument, and not the relative merits of one or other's reputation or standing.

The conversation at Ophelia's blog is proving to be quite extended. This appears to be because Ophelia and a couple of others are interested in what I have to say, but have a growing list of questions as to whether my claims are consistent. I will blog further about this discussion on a later occasion.

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