Once Again, Does Science Produce Knowledge? (Part 1)



Patrick McNamara straddles the line between science and religion. He's
a professor of neurology at Boston University as well as editor of a series of books about Where God and Science Meet. He asks:
But surely it is POSSIBLE that religion MIGHT yield some sort of worthwhile knowledge for humankind. After all would not Coyne agree that music yields a form of knowledge for humankind or that poetry does? What about novels? Surely science is not the only reliable way to knowledge that there is?1

The question was directed at Jerry Coyne, self-described stableboy to the Four Horsemen of new atheism2 and Professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolution at the University of Chicago. Coyne was having none of it: 
...music, literature and poetry don’t produce any truths about the universe that don’t require independent verification by empirical and rational investigation: that is, through science (broadly interpreted).  These fine arts don’t convey to us anything factual about the world unless those facts can be replicated by reason, observation or experiment.2
I stumbled on this exchange in Joseph Hinman's upcoming book, in a passage where Hinman questions Coyne's core assertion.3 I'm going to dissect Coyne's argument further.

The first problem I'll hit in passing is a trick of language. To McNamara's question about knowledge, Coyne responds by switching terminology twice in short order: "music, literature and poetry don’t produce any truths... fine arts don’t convey to us anything factual about the world" (emphasis mine). By limiting his definition of knowledge so narrowly, he creates all sorts of problems for his own argument. For illustration, let's take the two atomic bombs that were dropped on Japan at the end of World War II. Those bombs used nuclear fission to weaponize mass-energy equivalence (Einstein's E=mc2). Mass-energy equivalence says that a small amount of matter is equal to a large amount of energy. Each atomic bomb converted part of a volleyball-sized piece of uranium into enough energy to level the core of a city. Physicist Leo Szilárd began development of the atomic bomb with research to create a nuclear chain reaction in 1934. His inspiration wasn't something he deduced from a mountain of data. His work was inspired by The World Set Free, a 1914 novel by H.G. Wells that presciently described "artificial atomic weapons" being used in a devastating world war.4

By Coyne's definition, the "truths about the universe" in The World Set Free weren't knowledge because they required independent verification. While events proved that it was possible to create and use an atomic bomb, that verification did not change reality. What was true after verification was true before it. It seems that, in some sense, H.G. Wells' novel contained a truth about the universe.

Now, let's peel away another layer. While it's arguable that if Wells hadn't written the novel (or Szilárd hadn't read it) that someone would have eventually discovered the idea of nuclear chain reactions, it's extremely unlikely the research would have begun soon enough for the U.S. to use the atomic bomb to end World War II. In that case, World War II and world history would have been rewritten in innumerable ways. When the atomic bombs weren't used, the United States would have invaded Japan with a death toll estimated by both sides in the millions.5

Are things like the events of history and mass deaths classifiable as knowledge?


part 2 appears next Wednesday


1 - Patrick McNamara, "Jerry Coyne's No Dialog is Possible Stance," the Examiner, http://www.examiner.com/science-religion-politics-in-national/jerry-coyne-s-no-dialog-is-possible-stance (no longer accessible) as cited in Jerry Coyne, "Once again: does religion produce knowledge?" Evolution is True (May 4, 2011: https://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2011/05/04/once-again-does-religion-produce-knowledge/ (accessed 12 August 2019)
2 - Jerry Coyne, "Once again: does religion produce knowledge?" Evolution is True (May 4, 2011): https://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2011/05/04/once-again-does-religion-produce-knowledge/ (accessed 12 August 2019)
3 - forthcoming on GrandViaduct press. For full disclosure, I'm involved in the editor and design of the book.
4 - Ashutosh Jogalekar, "Leo Sziland, a traffic light and a slice of nuclear history," Scientific American (February 12, 2013): https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/the-curious-wavefunction/leo-szilard-a-traffic-light-and-a-slice-of-nuclear-history/ (accessed 12 August 2019).

Comments

I really like your essay Tim. Thanks for posting.
BK said…
Coyne apparently has a very, very limited view of knowledge. I agree that he intentionally changed terms to suit his definition, but knowledge is not confined in virtually anyone's universe to facts verifiable by science. Can Superman fly? Although Superman is a fictional character, the answer is clearly yes, but even though it is a fact about a fictional character that fact is a fact of the real world that science can never prove empirically. There are so many more examples that we could write all day about them. (Oh, and if you try to argue that Superman's ability to fly is not fact, that simply demonstrates your narrow view of facts.)

Well written. I hope you post more.
Anonymous said…
Patrick McNamara: But surely it is POSSIBLE that religion MIGHT yield some sort of worthwhile knowledge for humankind.

Absolutely! If God is real, then we would EXPECT that he would communicate universal truths to his followers, and that those universal truths would ALWAYS turn out to get confirmed.

However, that that is not the case, leads me to think God is not real.

Tim Wood: His inspiration wasn't something he deduced from a mountain of data. His work was inspired by The World Set Free, a 1914 novel by H.G. Wells that presciently described "artificial atomic weapons" being used in a devastating world war.

Are you actually claiming that Wells' book produced knowledge? Do you think it also produced the knowledge that Martians will attack the earth in giant tripods?

I would suggest that atomic energy only become knowledge when it was conformed by science, not when it was in a work of fiction. But perhaps you think the spells in Harry Potter are facts in some sense (as BK says above)?

Tim Wood: While events proved that it was possible to create and use an atomic bomb, that verification did not change reality.

But it did change our knowledge about reality. A stopped clock is right twice a day, but looking at the clock will not give you any knowledge about the current time. I can guess what number will be rolled on a six-sided dice. One time in six I will be right. Did I have knowledge of what would happen prior to the roll on those occasions?

Pix
Tim Wood said…
Pix,

Thanks for commenting.

The H.G. Wells novel you're referring to is called "The War of the Worlds." As I note, I was discussing was "The World Set Free." One portion of my argument is that ideas are a form of knowledge; in this case ideas that are then the direct inspiration for research to make the idea real.

Vis-a-vis verification, you're a quarter right. In the minor sense that the researchers made decisions about how they were going to proceed, verification did change reality. To give you a little ammo, opening the book to verify if schroedinger's cat is inside changes reality (the cat is now either alive or dead). Of course, you'll need a cat inside the box that isn't an observer... However, in the sense that atomic weapons are something allowed and functional under the "laws of nature," verification doesn't change a thing. Verification only verified what was already so. Your examples point to the same thing. The act of verification didn't stop the clock or change the roll of the die. Verification doesn't change reality. At best, going back to Schroedinger's fur ball, it collapses the probabilities to a definite outcome.
Tim Wood said…
BK,

The ultimate version of your Superman point is probably Yes, Virgina, there is a Santa Claus. I wanted to keep my argument fairly narrow rather than debating whether there's knowledge gained in the mythological stage of development or via the suspension of disbelief.
Tim Wood said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
BK said…
Tim wood, no, the point I am making is actually quite different from the Virginia/Santa Claus letter. But I was intentionally vague because I will make my point later. I certainly didn't mean to distract from your point which is very different.
Pixie says: Patrick McNamara: But surely it is POSSIBLE that religion MIGHT yield some sort of worthwhile knowledge for humankind.

Absolutely! If God is real, then we would EXPECT that he would communicate universal truths to his followers, and that those universal truths would ALWAYS turn out to get confirmed.

However, that that is not the case, leads me to think God is not real.

How do you know that? Put your money where your mouth is, another one of your ill considered runnings off at the mouth,
The Pixie said…
Tim: The H.G. Wells novel you're referring to is called "The War of the Worlds." As I note, I was discussing was "The World Set Free."

Sorry, yes, I confused the two - though the image at the top of your post IS of a Martian tripod, I think, so I may not be the only one...

But the point remains. Is the attack on Earth by Martian tripods in "The War of the Worlds" knowledge?

If so (and you seem to take that view), then all fiction is knowledge; how can we differentiate between what is true and what is not? I would say there is a qualitative, essential and all-important difference between the "knowledge" that Earth was attacked by Martian tripods and the knowledge that man landed on the Moon in 1969.

Tim: One portion of my argument is that ideas are a form of knowledge; in this case ideas that are then the direct inspiration for research to make the idea real.

I take this as confirmation that you believe all fiction is indeed knowledge.

Tim: Vis-a-vis verification, you're a quarter right. In the minor sense that the researchers made decisions about how they were going to proceed, verification did change reality. To give you a little ammo, opening the book to verify if schroedinger's cat is inside changes reality (the cat is now either alive or dead). Of course, you'll need a cat inside the box that isn't an observer... However, in the sense that atomic weapons are something allowed and functional under the "laws of nature," verification doesn't change a thing.

I thought we were talking about knowledge. Of course the laws of nature did not change. However, our knowledge of them did.

Tim: Verification only verified what was already so.

And in doing so turned the unknown into knowledge. Not the BS kind that is anything you make up, but the real kind of knowledge that we have good reason to think is actually true.

Tim: Your examples point to the same thing. The act of verification didn't stop the clock or change the roll of the die. Verification doesn't change reality.

It changes our knowledge of reality. And that is the topic of the discussion.
The Pixie said…
Pix: Absolutely! If God is real, then we would EXPECT that he would communicate universal truths to his followers, and that those universal truths would ALWAYS turn out to get confirmed.
However, that that is not the case, leads me to think God is not real.


Joe: How do you know that? Put your money where your mouth is, another one of your ill considered runnings off at the mouth,

How do I know? If I look at the Bible, and find a single instance where the universal truth turned out to be wrong, then that is enough.

How about Jesus saying the generation would not pass before the apocalypse? How about every reference to the firmament, or how the world stands on pillars? How about the claim that plants existed before the Sun did?

All failed. Each one enough to prove my point.
Pix: Absolutely! If God is real, then we would EXPECT that he would communicate universal truths to his followers, and that those universal truths would ALWAYS turn out to get confirmed.
However, that that is not the case, leads me to think God is not real.

Obviously he has done that. It's called morality also Judaism,Christianity, Unitarianism, humanism (read the history it began as religious thought) even Islam.

Joe: How do you know that? Put your money where your mouth is, another one of your ill considered runnings off at the mouth,

How do I know? If I look at the Bible, and find a single instance where the universal truth turned out to be wrong, then that is enough.

You have yet to show one



How about Jesus saying the generation would not pass before the apocalypse?


that is a legitimate case of the Text being emended

How about every reference to the firmament, or how the world stands on pillars? How about the claim that plants existed before the Sun did?


Man you really don't now shit do you? Ok crash course modern theology. People who believe that the Bible is 100-% true in every word are called "fundamentalists." I am not one, get it? That means we can expect mistakes especially in the OT. The whole point of it all is Jesus. You can;'t show Jesus saying that kind of stuff, Jesus get's nothing wrong,

All failed. Each one enough to prove my point.

a shallow, superficial,and self serving treatment,

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