Evolution News and Views (ENV) provides original reporting and analysis about the debate over intelligent design and evolution, including breaking news about scientific research.

Evolution News and Views
Science NEWS

Jerry Coyne Ponders the P-Value of Motherly Love


In case you thought that Jerry Coyne's bizarre denial of free will was an isolated cognitive hiccup, Coyne reminds us of his much deeper misunderstanding of man and nature. Writing at Why Evolution Is True, he has this to say:

Skeptic asks Deepak how to distinguish real truth from that garnered by "other ways of knowing"

In 2010, skeptic and manga artist Sara Mayhew got a chance to ask Deepak Chopra a question after his ABC News debate with Sam Harris and Michael Shermer. The topic of the debate was "Does God have a future?", and Chopra teamed with philosopher Jean Houston...

Here's Sara's question, which is quite good, and one that I'm currently preoccupied with:

"I heard Deepak mention that there are deeper ways of knowing, and I get the impression that this is based on intuition and the subjective. And I'd like to know if we don't use the objective scientific method, how do we distinguish what is true from what we simply want to be true?" 

My answer would be that we can't -- if we construe science broadly as "the use of reason and empirical evidence to understand the universe." Truth isn't truth, even if it's suggested by intuition, until it gets science's stamp of approval. But of course Deepak doesn't say that. Listen to his 45-seconds of blathering, and tell me if you see an answer in there. 

Okay, I'm Deepaked out for the nonce, but wanted to note that Mayhew zeroed in on the critical difference between not only science and religion, but also between reason and superstition. Theology is a giant machine for buttressing our desires, while science is indifferent to them.

Oh, where to begin...

A few problems:

1) Coyne ignores subjective first-person human experience -- a mother's love for her child, a husband's love for his wife, a partisan's disdain for his opponents, a man's experience of a toothache, a woman's appreciation of the beauty of a sunset, etc. -- all of which are known with certainty because they are directly experienced, and none of which are demonstrable by the scientific method. We do not compute p-values for mother's love or experience of beauty in a sunset. Such experiences are simply real, and beyond scientific confirmation or denial. There are most definitely "other" ways of knowing, besides those of science. And they are much more reliable ways of knowing. The theory of relativity may turn out to be wrong, in important ways. That I am experiencing pain in my tooth is undeniable, and no "theory" at all. Subjective experience is a direct knowing, and is not a scientific knowing. 

2) Coyne's assertion that science is indifferent to our desires is bizarrely ignorant. Scientific endeavor, like all endeavor, depends on a simulacrum of belief, faith, culture, temperament, and desire. The scientific method has proven to be a fine method for investigating some aspects of nature, but it is not self-explaining nor self-justifying. The scientific method is a human creation, and the scientific beliefs that arise from it are human creations, and all are subject to human motives, including desires. The rise of Darwinism in the mid-19th century is a superb example of a scientific theory whose time had come -- it dovetailed nicely with the desire of 19th-century atheists to explain biology without invoking God, just as Marxism and Freudianism dovetailed nicely with 19th-century atheists' desire to explain history and psychology without invoking God or an immaterial soul.  

3) The application of the scientific method to our own subjective experience -- to our love for our families or to our experience of beauty in art or music or literature, for example -- would not only be inappropriate, but justifiably understood as crazy. Asking a mother to provide the p-value and standard deviation of her love for her newborn would warrant a psychiatric evaluation, not a research grant. 

4) Even Coyne's invocation of induction as the irreducible bedrock of science is an ignorant misunderstanding of the relevant philosophical issues. As Hume pointed out, induction is logically problematic, because the very belief that nature is predictable based on the past (which is the heart of induction) is itself an induction. We inductively assume the truth of induction, which is to reason in a circle. This is not to say that induction should not be used to study nature -- we cannot do without it -- but that the very "reason" on which we base induction is itself illogical. 

Coyne again:

Truth isn't truth, even if it's suggested by intuition, until it gets science's stamp of approval.

Coyne presumably accepts his mother's love without waiting for a scientific imprimatur. 

Coyne's application of the scientific method to all of human knowledge is breathtakingly ignorant. To call it a misunderstanding credits it unjustifiably. It is akin to a delusion. The scientific method is a quite successful approach to the study of some aspects of nature, particularly third-person experience that can be quantified. But the scientific method is applicable in only a small part of our lives, and it is one of our least reliable ways of knowing. Most ways of knowing -- our actual subjective experiences day in and day out -- are not scientific, yet we know them to be true -- true with certainty -- because we actually experience them.

Most ways of knowing -- our most certain ways of knowing -- are not scientific.  

Image source: Wikicommons.