Monday, September 16, 2013

How Not to Conduct a Philosophical Debate

This may be a first. Two guys standing in line for beer get into an argument over Immanuel Kant's philosophy and one shoots the other. Don't tell me nobody takes philosophy seriously anymore:
MOSCOW (AP) -- An argument in southern Russia over philosopher Immanuel Kant, the author of "Critique of Pure Reason," devolved into pure mayhem when one debater shot the other.

A police spokeswoman in Rostov-on Don, Viktoria Safarova, said two men in their 20s were discussing Kant as they stood in line to buy beer at a small store on Sunday. The discussion deteriorated into a fistfight and one participant pulled out a small nonlethal pistol and fired repeatedly.

The victim was hospitalized with injuries that were not life-threatening. Neither person was identified.

It was not clear which of Kant's ideas may have triggered the violence.
My guess is they were quarreling over Kant's theory of transcendental apperception. Or perhaps it was his categorical imperative which brought the men to blows. The categorical imperative is a rule that enjoins us to always act in ways we would want everyone to act. If this was indeed the point of contention we may presume that the shooter was arguing against adoption of the rule.

Can Science Satisfy? Pt. I

Tania Lombrozo at the Boston Review asks whether science can offer the same existential satisfactions as can religion. She answers in the affirmative but nothing in her column gives the reader confidence that her answer is correct.

Her very first paragraphs raise doubts about her grasp of the subject. She writes that:
The claim that humans evolved from non-humans is among the best established in science.... Yet, according to a Gallup survey, nearly half of Americans reject evolution, instead endorsing the view that “God created human beings pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years or so.”
There are at least two things wrong with this. First, the claim that humans evolved from non-humans may be true, but to place it among the best established claims in science is either a sign of ignorance or an indication of intellectual dishonesty. Well-established scientific claims are testable via observation and repeated experimentation, but the claim that humans evolved from non-humans lends itself to neither of these criteria. To place evolutionary descent in the company of such staples of science as the inverse square law, the value of the speed of light, Newton's laws of motion, or quantum mechanics is silly and uninformed.

In fact, human descent isn't even among the most well-established principles of biology. Biologists can be much more certain, surely, that DNA codes for proteins or of the chemical reactions involved in photosynthesis than they can be that human beings have evolved from non-human ancestors.

Second, Lombrozo's implication that one either believes in evolution or believes in Young Earth Creationism may have been true in the 1920s, but it's either dishonest or inexcusably ignorant of her to suggest that it's true today. There's a voluminous literature on this topic, and the error she commits has been rebutted so often that one wonders how anyone who has done her homework could still make it.

The contemporary discussion orbits the question whether the best explanation of origins (of the cosmos, of life, of life's diversity) is one which solely invokes physical processes and forces or one which imputes origins to the action of an intelligent agent. Among those who opt for the latter view the matter of how the agent constructed the world and living things is at most a secondary concern. The crucial, more fundamental question, as they see it, is whether the empirical evidence being discovered everyday by researchers around the globe fits more neatly the view that the universe and life are the product of blind, impersonal, mindless processes or whether it suggests the input of an intelligent mind.

There's more to lament in Ms Lombrozo's essay, and I'll have additional thoughts to share on it throughout the week.