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The Bullshit Guide to Bullshit pt 3

\”Q: You identify some strategies people use to defend black hole beliefs. Tell me about one of them – \’playing the mystery card.\’
A: This involves appealing to mystery to get out of intellectual hot water when someone is, say, propounding paranormal beliefs. They might say something like: \’Ah but this is beyond the ability of science and reason to decide.You, Mr Clever Dick Scientist, are guilty of scientism, of assuming science can answer every question.\’ This is often followed by that quote from Shakespeare\’s Hamlet: \’There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy\’. When you hear that, alarm bells should go off.\”
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We\’re looking at another rhetorical trick here, apart from the ever-popular guilt by association (vide \’playing the mystery card\’ – ah, they\’re just card-sharps you see…) While he attributes childish insults to the wicked heathen propounders of the paranormal (Mr Clever Dick Scientist), Stephen Law is in a bit of trouble here. There are indeed questions science can\’t answer. It is indeed scientism to claim that it can.
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Famously, science can answer questions about \’what\’ and \’how?\’ Generally, it\’s much less good at answering the question \’why?\’ Normally philosophy does that.
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Most obviously, science really can\’t answer questions like \’why is there something rather than nothing?\’ or \’is there actually some kind of God?\’ These questions are not falsifiable. You can\’t run experiments. Any argument you can come up with that\’s pro-God can be answered by another one that\’s anti. And frankly these are boring questions in a scientific context. Science has more interesting and answerable questions to deal with such as \’what went on 13.4 billion years ago and how did galaxies happen?\’ – though as a slightly embarassed article in the same issue explains [Mystery of the Pristine Spirals p 32], everybody\’s suddenly got a bit less sure of the answer due to new data. But that\’s science for you. Always (and rightly) changing its collective mind in the light of new data.
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Rather than deal with the fact that these are perfectly reasonable points to make, Law swings the argument sideways into the question of how much does science as a philosophy actually know for sure. The answer to that is, happily, not as much as it likes to think. There are indeed more things in heaven and earth than we are currently dreaming of.
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By crashing together two separate points about what questions can science answer and how much do we actually know, Law is really avoiding both of them. That\’s what should make your alarm bells sound.

2 Comments

  1. William says:

    Science insists on framing the debate in its own terms – a belief stands or falls according to ‘scientific method’. Karen Armstrong writes interestingly on this in, inter alia, ‘The Case For God’. And not only that – the history of science is just a succession of discoveries that the orthodoxy is wrong after all. How wrong can they get? Answer: very wrong every time. The earth isn’t flat, earth round sun, bumblebees can fly, sub-atomic particles break the Newtonian rules. Law shouldn’t dismiss the weird stuff so readily – although if it suddenly became clear that the whole shebang was the work of a white-bearded old man on a cloud, no doubt scientists would be on hand to ‘discover’ this for us. They’re so sure of themselves; I imagine God smiling indulgently.

    1. Patricia says:

      Hm, yes, I get the feeling God also subscribes to New Scientist so He can quietly come up with something new to entertain everybody and bamboozle the priests in white coats…

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