Reality Conditions

Monday, February 26, 2007

A Riff from Ross to Rorty

The topic of Marcus Ross, as Scott Aaronson has noticed, seems ideally suited for being picked up and discussed in blogs; and indeed few among those I read have said nothing about it in the last couple of weeks. (Besides Scott’s own most excellent post, see Janet (also here), PZ, Brandon, Rob Knop and Steve Gimbel for a variety of opinions). In case you have somehow missed all this discussion, Marcus Ross has received recently a PhD in geophysical science at the University of Rhode Island, after presenting a perfectly normal thesis which does research assuming the normally accepted facts about the age of the Earth. However, Ross is at the same time a Young Earth Creationist, who believes that the world was created by God a few thousands years ago, and so –one would presume- does not believe any of the things he wrote in the thesis.

Most of the discussion has centered in whether this is or should have been be grounds for denying him the degree, and whether Ross did anything contrary to the scientific ethos. While acknowledging that in the real world it is a possibility that Ross will attempt to use his scientific credentials to lend credibility to anti-scientific creationist propaganda, and this would certainly be dishonest, I side with those who see nothing wrong in doing research and completing a thesis based on assumptions one does not belief. As many have pointed out, to a lesser degree this is done all the time; it is commonplace for scientists to explore the consequences of a model they do not believe to be true. There is no rule that a scientist must believe what he publishes; only that what he publishes is research done according to the scientific method. Even more, for granting a PhD to someone it is required just that he must display understanding of the topics researched in and of the proper methods to research into them. Understanding, not belief.

Perhaps some think that Ross really believing that the Earth was created as in Genesis is a sign that he does not “really understand” the facts of geophysics he was taught or the scientific method he used in his thesis. But if the examining comitee was satisfied from the thesis that he did really understand all this, then isn’t this a much more reliable criterion? (It is not so easy to write a thesis about something one does not understand; more than “parrotting” is involved!) Others might be concerned that Ross was being untruthful, and violating scientific ethos; to this, I like Greg Kuperberg’s response to Larry Moran at Scott’s comment thread: “He is truthful in his thesis. His thesis has a series of true statements about paleontology. They aren’t statements about his own beliefs, they are statements about the history of the planet. The real issue is that he’s untruthful at other times, when he promotes creationism.”

As these arguments, and counterarguments to them, can be found already all over the place, I will try to riff from the topic of Ross’ thesis to a diferent, philosophical one. Let us ask, what does Ross really believe about the age of the Earth? Of course, I have no way to know the answer. Perhaps he believes there is a fundamental flaw in the methods used by conventional science to date the Earth. Or perhaps he is okey with those methods as far as science goes, but interprets the results in an instrumentalistic way, not as representing reality. Perhaps he is a Gossean, who believes the Earth was created by God with exact signs of old age, so the recent creation is not empirically detectable. But there is another possibility I want to explore. Could he possibly believe both that the Earth is old, and that it is young?

To be clear, I am not considering the interesting and realistic possibility that Ross does not perceive that his set of beliefs is inconsistent; that some of his scientific beliefs have logical consequences incompatible with his creationist ones. I am considering the unrealistic, purely academic and philosophical thought-experiment possibility of a Ross who avowed, loudly, clearly and self-consciously, both the old and the young age of the earth. (From now on, “Ross” will refer to this fictional Ross, not the real one.) Perhaps he avows both propositions at different times, and when pointed out the contradiction he says “I believe one thing in scientific contexts, and another I religious ones”. Moreover, suppose lying detection techinques show that in neither of both occasions Ross is counsciously lying. What would we say then?

Probably, that he is schizophrenical or has some other kind of deep cognitive malfunction. But why? Why would we not be okey with simply accepting his self-description?

The problem cuts deeper than it seems, because on some popular philosophical positions, there would be nothing wrong with the Ross I have described! I will focus on Richard Rorty as a representative of these positions, because he is the only one I have read more or less extensively. Very roughly, Rorty says that beliefs do not aim at representing the world, but are just tools we use to cope with it. Accepting or rejecting a belief is akin to using or discarding a particular tool for dealing with some problem. “Truth” is just a label we use for those beliefs we endorse. It would seem to be a consequence from this account that there is no problem in holding contradictory beliefs, as long as one uses them in strictly separate spheres. The Ross of my thought experiment could believe that the earth is old to “cope” successfully with dating fossils and rocks and publishing scientific papers, and that the Earth is young to cope successfully with reading, interpreting, and teaching the Bible, praying, etc.; and the extent to which this activities did not raise in him any doubts of consistency would not be a mark of schizophrenia but of rational sanity: the enviable ability to cope with full success in two different areas of life using two different tools.

I propose this as a reductio ad absurdum of Rorty’s philosophy. Perhaps he would say that beliefs are tools which only can function when constrained by consistency criteria, but this is a weak reply; it is true in most occasions, but if someone could manage to “compartimentalize” the scientific and the religious aspects of life in such a way that the inconsistent beliefs did not bring about any practical problems, then consistency seems not only unnecessary but positively harmful. I think that ultimately, Rorty should embrace the idea that incompatible beliefs are possible and can even be a feature more than a bug.

The problem with Rorty, of course, is that belief is not just any tool for coping, but one that has as primary purpose the grasping of true facts about the world. Coping successfully is a secondary consequence, achieved via the possesion of true beliefs. Belief, we could say, is intrinsically “truth-aimed”; and thus saying “I believe in X and also in not-X because each of them enables me to cope successfully with some things” is absurd; because one must know that the facts about X cannot agree with both beliefs. However, I don’t think this kind of argument is very good against Rorty, who has a stock-reply for it: “Perhaps with our present concepts of belief, truth, etc. what you say is true and what I want to say is inconsistent; but if we find that these concepts bring upon us too much philosophical trouble to understand what “truth” and “facts” really mean, then we may better switch to a purely pragmatic concept of belief which does not has these problems. Concepts, after all, are just tools as well. So in the future in which we all use the new concepts I propose, there will be no inconsistency.” This reply tends to irritate professional philosophers, who see it as an evasion. (John Holbo whimsically summarises it as “all your bases will have been belong to us”.) But I confess to like it to a certain extent; I do agree that some philosophical matters (unlike “factual” ones like the age of the earth –but don’t ask me to explain the difference!) can be decided pragmatically, and in particular I think this kind of move can be used (with due care) against mind-body dualism or free-will incompatibilism. So I don’t think one can refute Rorty simply by saying that the possibility of incompatible beliefs is "conceptually absurd".

What is possible, however, is to defeat Rorty in his own playing ground, and say that we do not have strong pragmatic reasons to change our concepts of belief; that we want to go on saying that my ultra-compartimentalizer Ross would be crazy instead of rational; because we find the basic concept of beliefs as tools which (unlike others) are intrinsically truth-aiming, a very useful and good one to have. For me at least, the philosophical perplexities which the notions of truth and representation may cause are a small price to pay for using these concepts.


  • I've read bout this 12-Feb over
    at Evolution Blog,

    If we accept that bipolar disorder/manic depression is a pathological condition, then this fellow
    Ross suffers from scientific bipolar disorder. I like to think of him as a "chanta" (you understand the term).


    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 9:28 PM, February 27, 2007  

  • Changcho,

    I'm not sure if the real Ross is a "chanta" (for non-initiated: this is Argentinian slang for a cheater or swindler of some kind). He would be, if he used the authority granted by his PhD to try to convince people that there are scientific reasons for Young Earth Creationism. I don't know if he has done or plans to do this.

    By Blogger Alejandro, at 10:38 PM, February 27, 2007  

  • there was a similar issue in math... around 1900. Brouwer, one of the fathers of intuitionism, obtained both a degree and a phd by using classical maths, and he was a very good 'classical' and 'formalist' mathematician, despite the fact he never believed in his theorems!

    From the MacTutor: "Korteweg urged Brouwer to concentrate on more "respectable" mathematics, so that the young man might enhance his mathematical reputation and thus secure an academic career. Brouwer (...) apparently took his teacher's advice"

    By Blogger JuanPablo, at 2:04 PM, February 28, 2007  

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