On the JREF forum a poster asserted “history is anecdotal”, meaning this as a pejorative. This was my reply…
And this is the problem with anecdotal as it is often misused.
Let’s imagine this as a scene from one of those 1940′s British war films about heroic Brits with stiff upper lips giving Johnny-Hun what-for… in this film produced by the Ministry of War we see the final triumph of British Empiricism over Continental Rationalism (two philosophical ‘movements’ if you like) , at the Battle of Jutland as it should have been…
SCENE: the bridge of Sir David Beatty’s battlecruiser, 31st May, 1916. Somewhere off the dogger bank. The British Navy approaches the German Navy, in poor visibility…
Ensign – sir, look out reports Hipper’s battlegroup five miles off steaming NNW at 10 knots.
Beatty: Ermmm, well, probably not really there. Anecdotal. Anyone else see them?
Ensign. Only the lookout in the crows nest with the telescope sir. But visibility is poor…
Beatty: Human observation is notoriously fallible: full speed ahead and damn the torpedos!
TIME PASSES: STRAWBERRY MOUSSE IS SERVED
Ensign, sir, multiple reports from lookouts and crew of Scheer’s main battle fleet advancing on us now.
Beatty: Um, many trained observers?
Ensign: yes sir.
Beatty: But no replicable falsifiable physical evidence beyond imperfect human observations?
Ensign, er, no sir!
SCREEECH OF SHELL, EXPLOSION, GUN TURRET A KNOCKED OFF AND MAGAZINE CATCHES FIRE
Ensign: Sir, the Imperial German Fleet is shelling us!
Beatty: Perhaps. We have sufferred damage and an explosion, and I think I observed a gun shot and shell screech, but we must be careful in ascribing causality. Correlation is not causality. And the damage reports are anecotal. (knocks burning embers off hat, and stares glassily ahead ignoring conflagratiopn behind him).
Ensign: Sir, the ship is sinking and the Imperial Navy has surprised and destroyed the Grand Fleet. Oh, and Jellicoe is sending you signals — something about being “slightly miffed by this damned unpleasantness, bad show all round?”!
Beatty: Any non anecdotal evidence of this communication? Only science provides us with objective truth you know?
Ensign: sits down and smokes a cigar. Voiceover “Happiness is a cigar called Hamlet”, as the waters close over the bridge to Air on a G String.
Of course it did not happen like that, as any historian will tell you? But hey, how would they know? History is just anecdotal evidence ! I hope I have demonstrated this claim is silly rot anyway.
OK, another extract from the ongoing debate! Part One can be found here –
and an earlier post on a very common part of the myth, that of the Evangelical opposition to Charles Darwin and evolution can be found here–
Frazer and his Myths on Mythology
Sir James Frazer in his monumental work The Golden Bough managed to pollute the intellectual atmosphere of the world in a way few have rivaled; he did to history what Henry Ford did to our lungs. Within months of Frazer publishing his work was torn apart by serious anthropologists, but it was popular, and went through edition after edition. Frazer’s kooky ideas are with us in many ways today – Tim O’ Neil and I often note their prevalence in Christ Myther circles (as someone asked — a Christ Myther is a person who denies there was a historical Jesus, claiming Christ is a fiction) and other pseudo-historical nonsense, but I’ll briefly explain the relevance here.
Frazer postulated that religion was primitive science, and that as scientific knowledge grew it usurped the role of earlier religious knowledge. His idea, which one can still find similarities with in Gebser, Wilber and some of the transpersonalists, sees Magic as the most primitive level of human interaction with the environment. From Magic develops mythology and Religion, and these fall victim to Science. It’s a historicist, approach, deeply teleological, in which history has an onward momentum, culminating in the White Anglo-Saxon Victorian civilization of Frazer. It’s also b*****ks.
The idea is superficially attractive. Knowledge does by and large increase through history, as does technology, taken globally. Individual cultures rise and fall, and there are fits and starts, but generally we see progress through history towards greater scientific and technological achievement. That certain cultures (with their religions) favour science more than others is pretty obvious – I’ll talk about that later. Frazer however saw everything was his own position, as the logical end point of the whole progress caboodle, as do his disciples. An Inuit animist was a “primitive”, being trapped in magical thinking, a Catholic Spaniard to him “a superstitious papist, trapped in the Religion phase” and the Frazer and friends reflected the epitome of rationality and “the high point”. I think we can all see the flaw in this. Compared with what? It’s arrogant and wrong. Quite an achievement.
Still, that is not the real problem. The problem is Frazer failed to note that religion is NOT primitive science. While we may have difficulties defining science, we can all agree that science serves an explanatory function in relation to the natural world – and this was by and large not the role of magic or religion. Just as very few people really believe “thunder is angels bowling”, so generally religion has not concerned itself with explaining nature.
Confronting the errors: “what everybody knows”
“Everyone knows” that Religion is Primitive Science. My opponent in the debate has implied it. But it’s not true, as a few minutes research will establish definitively for yourself. I’m going to ask you you to think through your own assumptions here, and test them againts the empirical evidence.
Religion does not explain the natural world. Let us look at the Christian Bible, how much of it represents “primitive science”? I set this challenge at the end of my introductory post. You get off to a good start with Genesis and Creation – which I will discuss the meaning of in a future post, and show it is clearly theological NOT scientific, but for now let us accept it is “scientific”. What follows? What explanatory purpose in terms of physical phenomena do the story of the Patriarchs serve? The Exodus? What of the endless law codes of Deuteronomy, Leviticus and Numbers? Kings and Chronicles are history – any science in there? Nope. Esther and Ruth lack any explanatory purpose in terms of the physical world. Ditto the Prophets. Judaism generally is certainly not supportive of “religion is primitive science”. The claim is clearly nonsense – Judaism is not interested in explaining physical phenomena, instead Creation is invoked to support the claims of Judaism – not Judaism invoked to explain the natural world. When we move in to the Gospels we find no “explanation” material – Jesus does not, the best efforts of astrotheology kooks notwithstanding, appear to tell us anything about the natural world. You can read the Gospels, Epistles and Revelation in search of “primitive science” – but you look in vain.
Turn to the Qu’ran. Does this book purport to teach you physics, chemistry, biology? I don’t think that is the message in any way. To assert that the revelation of God, or any religious text is primitive science is to completely misrepresent most religion. In fact the natural world is large a mystery to the religious mind, but one that can be explored, and understood, because it functions by rational laws, set by God.
Now let us be fair on Frazer. Frazer was talking about what he saw of Primitive Religion, which he believed reflected a kind of mythic set of archetypes about vegetation gods and reaping, sowing, etc. Unsurprisingly he found agricultural motifs and images in many religions – because naturally enough in an agriculturally based economy these motifs will be central! Frazer saw the great monotheisms as having surpassed this stage – but ever in Greek mythology, his favourite topic, it fails. He gives the story of Proserpine and the seasons as an exemplar – the myth explains the changing of the seasons. Er, quite. Is this really an explanation? As countless students of mythology have pointed out since, Greek, Roman and Norse myth are not explanatory in this way. Not all lightning came from Zeus – he was not the embodiment of the lightning, he was a God who used lightning bolts as a weapon. How does Cerberus, Orpheus, the Titanomachy, Semele and Hera, explain anything in nature? What of Loki, what does he tell us of the physical world? What “scientific” explanation did he give us? Or Jorgumand? Fenrir? What physical principle is reflected in Mjolnir?
If you have read this far, and please do say something about this in the comment thread, please examine what you have taught and your cultural beliefs about mythology. Have you been taught to think of the Gods in this mechanistic way, with deities associated with a particular realm? We often think of “X as God of Y”, and apply this across all pantheons, as if Gods represented natural forces – “Surt was a fire demon/giant”, “Flora goddess of vegetation”, and do forth. Nope, it does nto work like that. It’s a shorthand, to explain things the Gods are associated with, but most pantheons for not follow these neat (X=”corn god”) categories – while it made the old D&D book Deities and Demigods much easier to use, it doe not reflect real mythology. Classicists (and I hope some are reading this and will jump in to tell me if i am seriously wrong!) can point out that they “unlearn” these associations early. The Gods, and religions, were never “primitive science”, and if you think they were, who is the Sun God in Norse religion? Who embodies Rain? And who embodies the Wind? Not so easy is it?
Religion is not superseded primitive science. Once you realise this, you realise that a great deal of the Dawkinite assault rests upon this thoroughly mistaken assumption, as does much of the Conflict Myth.
Please do comment if you have read this far!
A Word of Explanation
On Christmas Eve 2008 having reached 7,000 posts on Professor Richard Dawkin’s forum I publicly issued the Professor with a challenge to a debate on Religion & Science. My contention was that the supposed conflict between religion and science is a modern myth, and that furthering claims of this “inevitable conflict” is just a nonsense and a harmful one. Sadly he never got back to me, unsurprisingly really as a busy chap, and I am now developing the discussion for a TV series – so my concerns, which actually represent the academic mainstream, will hopefully reach the public after all. Here is the opening post of the debate, which finds me in a playful, whimsical mood… I will post later installments over the next few days if anyone is interested…
On the Absurdity of the Conflict Myth
I believe the notion that science and myth are in conflict is not just a myth; I believe it is an absurdity. I think the fact the notion is so widely held is simply testimony to the fact it is so rarely considered; it appears hard to believe it can be held for long, in the weight of the evidence against it. Of course sometimes science and religion are in conflict; for that matter, so is poetry and science.
When the poet tells us he ‘wandered lonely as a cloud’, I feel it would be inappropriate to inform him nimbostratus have no feelings – we would miss the point. I recognize that science and religion both make claims to objective truth. So do science and history, science and philosophy, science and mathematics, science and cookery (– and I chose those carefully – if you think mathematics is part of science, is cooking? If not, why not?) So are science and history in conflict? Science and philosophy? Science and poetry? Science and cookery?
Science and Religion
Yet science and religion are seen as in conflict… or scientists and the religious, as ideas do not fight well unaided. Well, some scientists have been in conflict with some religious folks – so have some poets. That is to be expected. Some scientists also rode bicycles, and others drank vodka. Some do ride and drink. That cases can be found where scientists clashed with theologians should surprise no one, nor is it particularly interesting.
The real question is “is there a tendency for fights? is there an underlying reason demanding fights? what is the principle fought over?” I have been interested in these questions for years, and have examined the classic “stories” one finds in popular science books, and the claims of necessary conflict. I find them a silly fairy story, one of those “things everyone knows” which turn out to be a myth when examined. Science and religion are not opposed, and conflict is uncommon. In fact modern science developed in a religious framework, and owes the great monotheisms much. After all there would be no scientists without an Anglican priest – the Reverend William Whewell coined the word ‘scientist’ in the 19th century.
The Genesis of a Myth
Two men created the conflict myth, writing within a few years of each other. The first John William Draper wrote the History of the Conflict Between Science and Religion (1874), the second Andrew Dickson White, with The Warfare of Science (1876) and A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom (1896).
This according to historians of science is where the myth arose. and It was never established in the academic specialty of historians of science – the books were dismissed as flawed and filled with canards. They were an extreme form of Whig history, and a gross form of the historicist fallacy – history is seen as teleological, as man’s escape from ignorant superstition and theism to enlightenment and science, here categorized as scientific progress. By 1918, even more 1945, such books would never have the same appeal – but in what Wells categorized as the “age of whoosh!”, before his own despair and loss of faith in progress, they were immensely popular. Bad history often is – these are the Holy Blood, Holy Grail of their day – attacking the wicked conspiracy of clerics who hold back enlightened science.
Of course they were just spouting Enlightenment myths – for is there was one place where the Enlightenment failed, and throws us in to darkness, it was in the philosophes treatment of history.
A Myth Becomes Dogma
Draper was alarmed by the declaration of Papal Infallibility in 1875; White was responding to the criticism he received from conservative Christians on his secular appointment to a University position. Neither condemned all religion – Draper was concerned only with Roman Catholicism, White’s target was Protestant fundamentalists, but this is often overlooked.
The specifics were lost in the general argument – a myth had been born. And from thesis; antithesis – Burtt (1924), Whitehead (1926) and Butterfield (1949) reversed the argument, showing how religion provides the framework for the development of modern science. By Butterfield it was clear that science and religion have a complex relationship, a relationship which can not be simplified to conflict or support.
Yet as recent studies have shown, among the public, scientists and outside of professional historians, the “conflict hypothesis” persists. No one in the academic study of history of science takes it seriously – but outside those who study these things, “everyone knows” it’s true. In my experience when a fact is something “every one just knows”, we can usually be sure it’s a culturally constructed myth. Hegemony is not a sound way of knowing.
When I say science I might mean
i) the pursuit of understanding of natural laws
ii) the application of certain methodologies to research
iii) the social institutions and cultural milieu within which certain research is carried out
iv) as including both research and development, that is pure science and technology
v) as excluding technology, pure science, typically conducted in certain institutional forms, such as the university or basic research institute.
Not my definitions but after Rose and Rose, Science and Society, 1969
Religion is incredibly hard to define – the dictionary gives me
1. a. Belief in and reverence for a supernatural power or powers regarded as creator and governor of the universe. b. A personal or institutionalized system grounded in such belief and worship.
2. The life or condition of a person in a religious order.
3. A set of beliefs, values, and practices based on the teachings of a spiritual leader.
4. A cause, principle, or activity pursued with zeal or conscientious devotion.
Nothing here seems to suggest conflict?
The notion of “religion as primitive science”, as explanatory and superseded one finds in Frazer is a myth: I shall dedicate much of my second post to demonstrating why, and scholars refutations. For now flip through the Bible, Qu’ran, and Tanakh, and underline all the “science” passages you find… How much of these scriptures is “primitive explanatory science?”
There is more of this – continued here -
In honour of Darwin 150, and those great men of Science the Young Earth Creationists – those who believe the world was created just a few thousand years ago in seven literal days by God – I thought it was the duty of an Evolutionist like me to join them this year in attempting to rip Evolutionary theory to shreds. This is not a game for Creationist types – it’s actually for the rest of us to set about trying to falsify the current Evolutionary hypothesis, which we hold true. After all, as Popper pointed out, falsification is the heart of the scientific method? So let’s try and falsify Darwin!
We can do this by either demonstrating that Darwinian Evolution is a nonsense (harder than it looks, Creationists have been trying for over a century, though for a good fifty years it did contravene the known laws of physics and was therefore “paranormal/perinormal” – ask if confused, though I will explain in a later post, or look up on Google, using search terms “+Kelvin +Darwin + Sun”) or by proposing another hypothesis that meets the evidence just as well (underdetermining Darwinian Evolution; an underdetermined hypothesis is one where another explanation can be used just as well by the same facts, or even different facts, brought as evidence.
If we are to be Creationists though rather than think up some other completely new explanation for the biological diversification of life on Earth, then hopefully we will follow the Atrahasis Epic, or the Pimander, Hindu myth or Inuit Creation stories, or something that has not been as rigorously examined as Biblical Seven Day Creation. I’m hoping most of us who reply to this are from a staid dull old Evolutionary mainstream position, as I am, but I’m looking for radical new perspectives. Aliens did it? Sure, if you can substantiate it. Evolution is caused by periods of Rapid Plate Tectonic movement combined with psychoactive mushrooms? OK – show us your argument! I don’t care if you believe a word of your outrageous theories – so long as they provide alternatives to Evolution, or are legitimate critiques of the Evolutionary consensus (but but NOT YEC – the Creationists are already doing sterling work in attempted falsification working hard to test the evolutionary hypothesis for us – sure we should give Henry M Morris a Nobel Prize for outstanding contribution to biology?)
We evolutionists are used to manning the defenses, waiting in our deep trenches, well armed with superb arguments, ready with the heavy ammunition of data and countless papers that show the strength of our walls. Tonight, let’s creep out, and rather than join the Creationist forces who assail us, let us mount our own offensive, and try to blow Darwinism sky high. It’s what Darwin would have wanted, and it’s the proper thing to do!
Science progresses through falsification, and if we can falsify our evolutionary hypotheses, we can all move on. it is kind of the Creationist bunch to take the scientific burden so hard upon their shoulders, and do so much sterling work attacking our positions, but they are not really to my mind making much of a dent. So it is our solemn duty to try and destroy it ourselves – let the YEC man the walls of our theories, if they desire – but let us hurl epistemological grenades amidst our friends, explore weaknesses in our battlements, and tear our own folk apart. I’m hoping our best evolutionists will earn their oak leaves as first through the breach of our shattered arguments!
Of course simply while the urge to destroy is a creative urge, in Science at least, we are not going to simply parrot Creationist stuff. We are going to as a group try to devise and test alternative theories that account for the diversification of life on Earth, and preferably the origin thereof as well, which is a weakness of the current theory. We are going to think outside of YEC/OEC/Natural Selection/Lamarckism, and invent whole new alternatives, and marshal interesting new evidences to support them. We will set about underdetermining our own walls, like pious Scientific Vandals, immolating our cherished beliefs in dynamite blasts of pure reason.
So who is with me for a bit of Punk science? Who has an alternative hypothesis to propose, a mortal blow to our evolutionary enemy to deliver, or some data that might show us a completely third way of addressing the issue? Let’s smash it up, and do some real science! Let’s chuck on The Sex Pistols and The Damned and set about some radical in-ya-face falsification attempts. Who is with me?
Note: I originally posted this on RichardDawkins.net in the “Debunking Creationism” section. Sadly I recieved very little response, from either side, though two noble posters did play – john and HAL. Cheers guys! Let’s hope the readers of my blog are more committed to real science, and join in. The orginal post was of course motivated at least partly by my reading Paul Feyrabends wonderful book on anarchism as theory of science, Against Method.