The Problem with Philosophy: Elliot Sober

Elliot Sober is an important philosopher who appears to be widely respected in the philosophy community. So when he comes up with a really silly position on the compatibility of science and religion, we should all take notice. What does this say about the discipline?

Jerry Coyne comments on a recent talk by Sober at the University of Chicago [Can God create mutations? Eliottt Sober says we can’t rule that out]. Unfortunately Jerry wasn't able to attend but here's the video: "Naturalism and Evolutionary Theory."

I urge you to read the comments on Jerry Coyne's blog website and join the discussion over there. There are two important questions: (1) Does Sober's argument make any sense to a scientist?, and (2) What does this say about the state of philosophy of science?

With respect to the first question, it's easy to paraphrase Sobers argument ...
Imagine that there are evil aliens who want to destroy human life on this planet and take it over for themselves. These are very patient evil aliens and, furthermore, they don't want us to recognize what they're up to.

They have chosen to manipulate evolution by gradually introducing mutations into our genome that will lead to destructive behavior and by inserting mutations that cause diseases. They do this in a very subtle manner so that we can't distinguish between random mutations and a very small number of directed mutations. The bad alleles are indistinguishable from those that are occasionally fixed by random genetic drift so that, over the course of millions of years, we don't notice anything unusual.

Since science is incapable of detecting the actions of these evil aliens, it follows that science is perfectly compatible with the existence of evil aliens who want to destroy us by manipulating our genome.
We all recognize, I hope, that the argument is silly. It's just as silly if you substitute some kind of God in place of evil aliens.

The second question is more of a challenge. I can see why philosophers want to rule out unprovable claims such as "I know for certain that there are no evil aliens." You can't prove a negative and maybe there are some people out there who need reminding. However, the same logic applies to all kinds of claims including the existence of Santa Claus and the tooth fairy. It even applies to homeopathy and weapons of mass destruction. You can't prove conclusively that homeopathic remedies will never, under any circumstances, cure someone of asthma. You can't prove, beyond a shadow of doubt, that there were never any weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

Philosophers can make an important contribution by explaining why, and how, we make decisions based on probability and not on mathematical proofs. They could explain why nobody really believes in the existence of evil aliens, tooth fairies, and Santa Claus, in spite of the fact that you can't conclusively prove their non-existence.

This is where science comes in. The scientific way of knowing operates on the quaint notion that extraordinary claims (e.g. evil aliens) require extraordinary evidence—with the emphasis on evidence. Beliefs that are held in the absence of any favorable evidence are not beliefs that are worth holding, especially if those beliefs are going to rule your life. What if you encountered a cult that was building a large spaceport in Saskatchewan in order to welcome the aliens after we have all died in a nuclear holocaust? What would you think of their sanity? Would it help to know that philosophers think their core belief is rational?

I think we need a pragmatic philosophy for the 21st century. One that can actually help us make rational decisions without focusing on sophistry or on pedantic issues that are only of interest to a handful of naive philosophers who are way out of touch with reality. Science and the existence of "evil aliens" are incompatible because there's no need for the "evil alien" hypothesis to explain the world as we see it. There's no evidence for evil aliens. They appear, to all intents and purposes, to be delusions. We don't need to prove their non-existence in order to recognize the incompatibility.

Same thing for gods.

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