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April 20, 2007

Comments

Nato

"1% of an eye is not useful"
Light sensitive patches are certainly useful. And so on:
http://www.simonyi.ox.ac.uk/dawkins/WorldOfDawkins-archive/Catalano/ridley_eyes.gif
But Nathan has probably seen something like this before.

"Or else they could dodge the question by saying, "What's your alternative?""

How is that a dodge? If it seem plausible that some process could have made something, and there aren't any plausible alternatives, then it would seem that the plausible one 'wins'. It's the same general logic as Sherlock Holmes' much-quoted "when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth." Of course, if...

"...a prudent man must content himself with the austere diet of skeptical scruples"

Then there is a great deal about which we can never make a decision.

Basically, if we applied Nathan's level of skepticism to everything, we would be crippling ourselves. After a certain point you just have to take something as "proven" until a sequence makes it clear that there was a mistake. If one doesn't, it's very difficult to reason to any higher level until empirical evidence becomes mountainous. In the meantime, since it would seem we shouldn't be using our contingent conclusions to improve our predictions of where additional empirical data is to be found or reasonable ways of interpreting it, we would be hopelessly awash in irrelevancy.

But then, I suppose the small-scale social darwinism Thomas sees in the future of laissez-faire education might take care of that by starving to death (literally or figuratively) those fragments that showed their approach to be less successful (like Communism!). Assuming those fragments accepted their fate peacefully.

Nathan Smith

Holmes' aphorism seems like a very poor rule of thumb, particularly for anyone whose mind is less acute than the legendary Holmes. First, does the elimination of the impossible usually-- ever?-- narrow down the possibilities to one? Second, what if we haven't taken all the possibilities into account? What if there is something we haven't thought of? Maybe that never happened to Sherlock Holmes, but it happens to most of us.

In any case, whatever its merits, the aphorism is clearly not applicable here. Acts of special creation by God, or repeated intervention in Earth's natural history by extra-terrestrial beings, may seem odd or implausible or lacking in evidence, but hardly anyone claims that they are impossible. Nor are we certain that the evolutionary account *is* possible. That is part of what is at issue. Moreover, the murder mysteries Holmes was dealing with were much closer to home. The rules that apply to interactions of people in 19th-century England were pretty well understood to Holmes on the basis of everyday experience. The rules that apply to the transformation of organisms and ecoysystems over millions of years are not.

And while Nato is certainly right that "there is a great deal about which we can never make a decision," especially when it comes to the past (or, even more, the future), I think that applying my level of skepticism to everything would be less crippling than Nato supposes. Physics, chemistry, and biology (except for the historical extrapolations that have been appended to it) come through the Popperian test with flying colors. Mathematics and logic are not at all threatened, and there is a good deal that we can know through introspection which is not subject to the constraints on induction.

Nato

"Acts of special creation by God, or repeated intervention in Earth's natural history by extra-terrestrial beings, may seem odd or implausible or lacking in evidence, but hardly anyone claims that they are impossible."

They don't appear to predict anything(so far), however, and are thus empirically indistinguishable (so far) with the null hypothesis. Well, I suppose there are circumstances that certain forms of both would predict, but no matching features have been found. As always, this does not refute them so much as mean they fail to get off the ground.

Anyway, what about the historical extrapolations appended to nuclear physics that we use to date the Earth, stars, galaxies and so on? Probably we need to throw out astrophysics as well. And geology. A great deal of archaeology...

No, this doesn't sound attractive to me.

Nathan Smith

I'm not sure how to apply the Popperian falsifiability criterion to claims about *history*. Something to think some more about...

Nato

By the way, birch is very common around London.

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