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Friday, June 08, 2012

Confused About Evidence

Bernd Heinrich is an absolutely wonderful nature writer. I am now reading my third book that he has written, and everyone has been a pleasure.

But as happens so often, when scientists turn to philosophy, they tend to make a botch of things by treating it as if it is just another branch of physical science. Heinrich quotes Goethe saying "It is so arranged, that the trees do not grow up into the heavens." But, he says, Goethe got it wrong: "There is not one shred of evidence that nature arranges anything at all."

What in the world is he thinking here? (He is not, by the way, complaining about the anthropomorphism of using the word "arrange," since he immediately claims it is actually all of the individual organisms in the forest that do the arranging.) Does he expect to find that lady in the white dress from the margarine commercial slinking through his forest, or see her footprints in the grass when he wakes up? Does he look around for an invoice from her?

It seems to me rather obvious that what Goethe means is something like, "Given what the sun, the wind, the rain, the snow, the ground, carbon atoms, and so on are like, there is a real limit on tree height." All of those factors are nature, and given the way they are, they have "arranged" how high trees can grow.

Think of someone who looks at The David and says "Nice rock formation."

You tell him, "No, it's a sculpture: Michelangelo created this."

"Oh, is 'Michelangelo' the name for some geological process?"

"No, he was a human being: he deliberately made this."

"I don't see any evidence of that: it just looks like a rock to me."

"But what are the odds that a rock would come out looking so precisely like a man?"

"Hey, given that we are here discussing this man-like rock, the odds are one. There are probably an infinity of universes so that all possible rocks are realized somewhere or other."

Similarly, there is no "evidence" that one could point to in order to convince someone who has firmly decided that Chinese is just a jumble of sounds and that the people who seem to be "speaking" it are really just automatons, that it actually is a language with meaning. For every single thing you could point to, he has the ready response, "Oh, that's just the way those automatons respond to that sound." One has to first be willing to believe that Chinese is a language, and only then can one begin to learn it.

One must have faith so that one can know.

1 comment:

  1. I think something like this, is what made me chuckle when Daniel Kuehn said he thinks there is a 9 - 12% chance there is God (he didn't give those precise numbers but instead said a range like that). As one who flipped from atheism to theism, I can attest that I thought the cases were overwhelming when I had each position. What happens is that if you are a hardcore atheist, you literally cannot see what (now appears to me) is such obvious evidence that God exists.

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