Foundational Commitments

So, where were we. Here’s one thing JS said in the discussion.

The other general point is that I think people make the best cases for
scientific method when there are genuine threats to the scientific process.
I don’t think having imaginary arguments does the job nearly as well. So,
for example, Dawkins, Dennett, Jones, etc., are all doing what they’re doing
at least in part because they think that evolution is under threat as an
accepted truth. So there’s an instrumental reason for wanting dissent.

That did make sense to me, and since that made sense to me, I was better able to see what he was getting at in the interview. (The interview, being so brief, was a little cryptic. I think the subject probably needs more room to breathe than that.) I don’t really know for sure that Dawkins, Dennett, Jones and co are doing what they’re doing better than they would be doing it if they did not think evolution was under threat as an accepted truth – but I think it’s at least possible. Because for one thing the misunderstandings that ID-defenders keep kicking up perhaps show what needs explaining. (On the other hand, I know PZ for instance thinks those misunderstandings are just repetitive and futile and a waste of time that biologists could be spending on research rather than on endlessly arguing the same points over and over again with ID-defenders who will just repeat the process tomorrow. But the two needn’t be in contradiction. It could be that people who write about the public understanding of science are in a way helped by misunderstandings while people who are doing research are not. It could be a matter of division of labour.)

There’s a lot more, but we ended up pretty much agreeing, I think, except possibly on some not particularly important details. There’s an issue about what foundational beliefs B&W takes for granted, or is committed to, and whether they are rationally grounded or not – but it probably doesn’t matter all that much, because I certainly see the point at issue even if I’m not sure I agree with him on the details. The details have to do with my view that apart from a commitment to rational inquiry, which I don’t think could be revisable even in principle, the other truth-claims B&W perhaps takes for granted are nevertheless in principle revisable, if new evidence turned up. His view is that many foundational truth claims aren’t really revisable even in principle, or (stretching) that they just barely are in principle but not psychologically. I can buy the second version, the in principle but not psychologically one; but the first one, I don’t. Maybe that’s just because I’m too ignorant! That could be. It could be that I’m so ignorant that all my foundational beliefs about how the world is are quite loosely held, simply because I don’t know enough to hold them more firmly. But I think it’s also simply because I can imagine in a thought-experiment way some sort of inside-out universe evidence that could turn up; but I can’t imagine deciding that rational inquiry is systematically wrong, because I don’t see how one could get there except with some kind of rational inquiry. If I try to imagine it I always end up with some version of rational inquiry at some stage – and some pretty early stage at that. The very idea of revising a commitment to rational inquiry involves rational inquiry – so – I can’t get my mind around it, it keeps sliding off.

But that’s a detail. (We talked about it while writing the book, too, I think. Went round and round for awhile and then gave it up and went back to work.) But I find this kind of thing inexhaustibly interesting, so I thought you might too. Anyway there’s no need to produce one of those nice Erratum slips to shove in the remaining copies of WTM saying ‘Never mind’. Amusing though that would be.

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