Sep 23, 2010

Paying a Friend What I Owe

When I started this blog up three days ago, I originally gave it the title "Ask a Philosopher. . .  or don't," playing off the fact that typically we philosophers aren't asked for, but give our views and observations anyway (generally for free -- we're far too generous -- a tradition going back to Socrates).

Then, I opted to shorten it, and when I posted a link to the first entry on Facebook, my old college friend Dan Callahan (a perfect moniker for a political career if I've ever heard one!), dropped a little conundrum in my lap:

suppose a 16 year old male decides that the theory of evolution is indeed factually true not because of a biology class or independent reading of scientific literature but because every sci-fi movie and TV show he has seen throughout his life has claimed it to be true. Does he "believe" in evolution or not? In either case, what consequences does this have on the current cultural clash?

Because I'm a practiced philosopher, I avoided the big-implication issue he explicitly asked me about, and focused in on what I could address fairly easily.

sure he believes in "it" -- no problem there about belief-- but probably what he believes in is not the "theory of evolution" (or a theory -- given that there's historically more than one!), but a sort of vague, ill-defined notion that evolution takes place, that it is "scientific" in some sense, that evolution explains some phenomena (which he'll call "things"), etc.

Dan was not so easily satisfied.

How can they believe in "it" when they don't know what "it" is?

Now, that there is a genuine grade-A philosophical problem.  To answer it fully requires more time and space than Facebook makes available, and honestly more than I intend to devote to it here. There's three things I do intend to say about it, though, and I responded with one of them

Because they have a vague belief, with an ill-defined object. Perfectly possible to believe all sorts of things in such a manner. One reason why belief is not the same as knowledge

And this is quite true. We often have and express beliefs about imaginary things or about real things that turn out to be quiet different than we picture them.  We don't always have a definite, clear and comprehensive mental grasp of what it is that we adopt this doxastic attitude towards, and which we express in our language. And thank God, because we need vagueness in some things and contexts.

I should point out here that at this point Dan and I have both made an imperceptible shift away from inquiring about "believing in. . . " to "believing that. . ."  It may well be that belief in. . .  can be appropriately vague, while the associated beliefs that. . . ought to be clear.  And this sort of popular-fictional-based belief which is purportedly in the theory of evolution might well fit in that category.  Dan thinks not, and he makes a key point:

Sorry, I still think it's a more interesting problem than that. If I believe in 'A' in the context that "to believe is to understand" (as is the case with science) but don't understand 'A', then the situation becomes interesting, IMHO.

To believe in the theory of evolution -- putting aside all of the problems of clarification that talking about "the theory" threatens to raise as soon as you start delving into the history of science -- does mean believing that some set of propositions (or claims, or statements, however you like to put it) are true -- a very large set if you want to understand the theory in its application, a smaller set if you're content with speaking in general.

And notice -- believing in the propositions that are supposed to constitute the theory of evolution is not the same as believing the propositions that are supplied as "proof" or "demonstration" of the theory.  Generally, if you believe one set, you'll believe the other, of course.  But logically they are not the same.

Can one claim to believe in "science" (itself a terribly vague term, as any practicing scientist who is at all reflective will tell you!), or in a theory without actually having some solid understanding of what one is believing in? Well. . .  yes, but then one is believing in a manner that goes directly against the spirit and intention that lies behind and animates science.  That is to believe in science in a very unscientific, unenlightened, irrational, uncritical way.  (and in many of the blogs and conversations dealing with evolution, that's precisely what one sees!)

So, the second thing I have to say about this:  Dan's 16 year old believes in an ideological construct (in the classic Marxist sense -- I'm no marxist, but I do think he got some things right), one which might well turn out at points to coincide with something resembling what a consensus of scientists mean when they refer to the theory of evolution, what it is that they pass on not only through teaching but through demonstration (via argument, not direct observation, of course, given the nature of the theory) to the new generation of scientists in formation.

Dan's 16 year old believes that "evolution is real," or some other analogous proposition.  Although other people may (and in my book, do) have good grounds for believing something along the lines of the propositions the theory of evolution sets out, Dan's 16 year old clearly does not. From a Critical Thinking perspective, he is as careless and sloppy as anyone else believing in something largely because of references to it in culturally-manufactured and -dependent entertainment commodities.  He has about as much warrant for his belief in evolution as he would if he believed that Fred Flintstone has a bad temper among other vices and that Wilma ought to send him to anger management classes. 

The picture does not get much better, actually, if he has had a high school class dealing with evolution.  Not from an epistemological perspective.  Unless it's a top-notch class, taught by an unusually competent and committed teacher, our 16 year old will again have only tangential contact with the theory.  He'll watch some documentaries, read a textbook, write a paper for which he copies internet resources, and promptly forget almost all he has learned by the time he is in my college class!  Most likely, the only real basis for his acceptance of the ill-defined shadows of the thing in his head he calls the theory will be Argument from Authority -- the teacher says so, the textbook says so, the scientists say so.

So, what is our 16 year old?  An ideologue, pure and simple.

I'll throw out the third remark without explanation, which can be the matter for a later post, or dealt with in comments.

 "Believe" is not a univocal term, or as the analytics who for the moment rule the Philosophy roost might say, "the grammar of 'believe' is not as straightforward and clear as we originally thought it was"