Review of Varieties of Scientific Experience

So, another of the books that Jerry Coyne recommends reading — and so that one should read if one wants to understand the atheistic position — is done. I finished Carl Sagan’s “Varieties of Scientific Experience”, and didn’t find it particularly enlightening. It’s not really fair to criticize it for not saying anything new, because these are a set of lectures first given in 1985, so at the time some of the things said might well have been. That being said, a lot of them weren’t even new then, and that doesn’t mean that people haven’t said the same things better, with more nuance, and with a better appreciation for the responses than you’ll find in this book. Also, it’s not really fair to criticize it for not being a deep examination of the issues, because as a set of lectures it has a limited time frame to work with and so won’t be able to examine things as deeply. But, again, that doesn’t mean that others haven’t done deeper examinations that are more worth reading that this is. In terms of style, Sagan is not particularly snarky towards religion but at times drifts into it, which are probably Coyne’s favourite parts, as Coyne seems to really appreciate snarky, sarcastic attitudes and arguments. So, it was a fairly neutral read; I wasn’t taken to new heights by the scientific wonders he talked about, nor did I find the book either particularly challenging to my beliefs nor particularly egregiously wrong. However, there are a few points that I want to highlight.

In the Q&A, there is one question about the burden of proof. The questioner says that he thinks that the person who says that God does not exist has an equal burden of proof to the person who say that God does exist. Sagan falls back on the old line that the person making the contention has the burden of proof, but tries to defend it by saying that we can’t do otherwise, else someone could toss out a number of contentions and, essentially, leave the opponents with the burden of proof. This then ties in to his overall contention about the person in that position having to provide sufficient evidence. But the key is that if the person making the contention doesn’t provide sufficient evidence, that does not mean that the opposing viewpoint is justified. In this case, just because I cannot provide sufficient evidence that God exists does not mean that, therefore, the proposition “God does not exist” is justified, or that someone saying that has no burden of proof. All that it means when sufficient evidence cannot be provided is that the contention isn’t proven, so all you are strongly justified in saying is “I don’t believe you”. But just because you may be justified in lacking belief does not mean that you are justified in believing in lack … and if we’re going to talk about belief, that doesn’t mean that they aren’t justified — in the sense of being reasonable — in believing.

This, I think, carries on to the chapter where Sagan looks at the actual theology. In that chapter, he constantly brings up theological arguments, finds faults in them, and then declares that they are unconvincing … and does nothing else. Yet he brings up the Problem of Evil as a problem for theism … despite the fact that there are as good reasons to doubt its truth as there are for most of the theological arguments, and so good reasons to theists to find it unconvincing. This should lead to a stalemate; no good arguments for or against. But it doesn’t seem that Sagan thinks of it that way, probably because he thinks that the theist has all of the burden of proof. However, atheists who want to claim that God does not exist or even that theism is not reasonable/rational share the burden of proof to demonstrate that. It’s no wonder that theists often find the atheist arguments shallow and naive when they start from the position that all they have to do is find a flaw, any flaw, in the argument, and then they can declare victory. In short, they hold that all they need to do is show how the argument might be wrong, or as Sagan does that there might be a natural or scientific explanation that he personally finds credible, and the theist is refuted. Simply showing that the theist might be wrong only forces you back to the stalemate, unless you show an argument that supports the contention that God doesn’t exist beyond that.

This carries over to what probably should have been the most interesting and useful part of the series, but which was sadly addressed far too briefly: what Sagan thinks skepticism entails. But even here, Sagan shows his own failings at skepticism, and the tendency for science to declare old answers irrational and unscientific even if they were as valid scientifically as the theories that replaced them. His big example is of the purported discovery of the canals on Mars, and he essentially says that the people who thought that they were there as opposed to those who thought that it was just a trick of the human eye were letting their desire for a particular answer cloud their judgement because they wanted there to be alien life on Mars … in the same chapter where he points out that many people, for religious reasons, wouldn’t want there to exist life on other planets in an era at least as religious as the one we have now, if not likely far more so. So, then, why doesn’t he also charge those arguing against the canals with also potentially acting on personal bias? The biggest bias one could charge the scientists who accepted the canal theory with is the bias of wanting to discover something scientifically revolutionary … and if that bias is as strong as Sagan suggests, then this puts any revolutionary scientific discovery under suspicion.

But it isn’t clear that the people who thought that there really were canals on Mars were preferring the theory that was less scientifically supported. I’m not an expert on the history of that discovery, but from what Sagan says they saw canals that were too long and straight to be natural, and thus concluded that they were made by intelligent life. The counter was that maybe it was an artifact of the human eye or of the equipment or of something else. But the scientists pointed out that this was seen by many scientists in different areas independently, and so wasn’t likely to be simple human error. Thus, their only counter was that there was some fundamental flaw in the sensory organs or in the telescopes used to look at Mars, but their only reason for asserting that was, essentially, that they didn’t like the results they were seeing. It is not a good idea to undercut the accuracy of the very things required to get any data at all just because you don’t like what they’re telling you, and it looks like the opposition was doing exactly that. Sure, the theory ended up being wrong and ended up being due to other factors, but at the time it doesn’t seem like it was an unreasonable theory … and might have even been the one that was the best supported. That it ended up being wrong doesn’t mean that it was unreasonable or an example of science done badly.

I find that this is common with scientists and scientific theories: the desire to ditch theories that today look ridiculous and insist that they weren’t really scientific theories, while accepting conceptual and common sense arguments that happened to be right as properly scientific, as long as one adjusts the meaning of the word “science” accordingly. Democritus’ atomic theory — one of Sagan’s favourites — is a prime example of the latter. Democritus and his mentor did not have any real empirical evidence for atoms, just equally philosophical speculations … and yet their results are considered “scientific” because they happened to be right. Plato and Aristotle appealed as much to the empirical as they did, and yet are claimed to not be doing science at all. For the former, the dismissal of phlogiston and caloric shows how scientists, typically, want to deny that those were even scientific theories, at least in my experience … and yet they were, at the time, just as valid scientific theories as the ones that eventually won out. They just happened to be wrong, but that doesn’t make them unscientific.

Which reveals, I think, an underlying and unspoken foundational principle of science: the desire to be right. Sure, when pressed scientismists will accept that science has been wrong, but then immediately jump to a defense that science, at least, finds out its own errors, unlike theology or philosophy … who, in fact, often do find out their own errors. The only errors that science finds out for them are the ones based on clashes with empirical fact … and since that’s all science does, it had better be the one finding those most of the time. At any rate, if science cannot dismiss an error as not being “truly” scientific, it consoles itself with saying that its method finds the truth anyway, so it is, in fact, right … and scientism is based on science taking the right answers and right methods and claiming that that was part of science all along.

At any rate, I can’t really recommend this book, because again I’m not sure what audience would appreciate it. Anyone who is already interested in the topic will probably already know everything Sagan is saying, and someone unfamiliar with the debates won’t find enough depth in the discussion to really learn anything. The discussions around science are probably the most interesting, but he neither prompts me to share in his wonder of the natural world nor talks about science itself in detail enough for me to take a philosophical approach to it. It is, however, a most inoffensive book, so you won’t toss it against the wall too often, and it’s a relatively easy read, so you could do worse than read it.



2 Responses to “Review of Varieties of Scientific Experience”

  1. Héctor Muñoz Huerta Says:

    “Which reveals, I think, an underlying and unspoken foundational principle of science: the desire to be right.”

    Well, I have yet to meet someone who want to be wrong ;-P

    The point of scientism being autistic is clearly made in this article though.

    • verbosestoic Says:

      Everyone wants to be right, but perhaps it might be better to describe it as a phobia about being wrong. Most others can accept that maybe they’re wrong, but that’s okay and they’re just going with it for now. Science and scientismists especially can’t accept that.

      Also, I don’t see the link between scientism and autism.

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