Local reader misunderstands Philosophy, Science, Economics

A Letter to the Editor titled "Reader Warns the End is Nigh" was published in today's edition of The Times Leader:

Reader warns the end is nigh

Our time is up. Our civilization is coming to an end.

We have fallen short of our goal and purpose on this planet. In fact, we have gone in the opposite direction.

The two most powerful value systems on this planet are science and economics.

Science has replaced the mythical gods. It would have you believe that it and it alone knows what is best for each of us and for the planet. Science accepts only what can be seen and proven, otherwise it doesn’t exist. Science believes that our existence is an accident. It is the coming together of the right elements, which then form greater compounds, etc.

The economic value system has absorbed all of our institutions globally. Its creed is profit, power and greed. It is no more concerned with our well-being and with the common good of the planet than the Man in the Moon.

Together these two systems have absolutely nothing to do with our real purpose and why we are here. In fact, they have plunged us into a meaningless existence.

George Albert

Jenkins Township

As many of my readers probably already can see, many 'red flags' go up in this letter. I took some time to respond:

This letter to the editor titled “Reader Warns the End is Nigh” betrays a deep misunderstanding of science, economics, and philosophy while committing other egregious errors. I'd like to respond in somewhat of a lengthy fashion in order to dispel these gross misconceptions.

George, what in the world do you mean when you say, “We have fallen short of our goal and purpose on this planet?” Can you please state what said goal and purpose is, how you know what said purpose and goal is, and state why this said goal and purpose is important for everyone without simply asserting that there is a goal and purpose?

When thinking of whether there is purpose and meaning in life, I don't look for something that is externally imposed, but rather believe meaning, if there is any, could be subjective based on what one finds important. If there were some externally imposed meaning, I wouldn't find it very meaningful at all, anyway. I derive meaning and purpose from writing, generally enjoying life, sharing my ideas with others, pursuing knowledge, etc. This is derived from me alone.

You write, “the two most powerful value systems on this planet are science and economics.” None of these are 'value systems,' but rather branches of knowledge/systems to reach knowledge. While many value judgments may undergird scientific methodology (intellectual honesty, willingness to accept whatever conclusion study may reveal, open-mindedness, etc), it is wrong to call science a 'value system.' The same goes for economics.

While the statement, “science has replaced the mythical gods” seems quite attractive and many scientific explanations have regulated many gods 'to the gaps' or have shown persons that we no longer need supernatural explanations to explain certain phenomena, it's wrong to think this way. Science operates under the banner of methodological naturalism – the assumption that a natural explanation will be found – but this is much different than philosophical naturalism (the belief that all that exists is the natural world). One can't 'use science' to show that there are no gods, but rather one has to 'do philosophy' to reach this conclusion. While science can and certainly does inform philosophy, we can't arrive at the conclusion of 'there are no gods' from science because of its operating scope (the natural world).

Science doesn't “have you believe that it and it alone knows what is best for each of us and the planet.” Science can only tell us how the world is, but not what we ought to do; one can't go from an is to an ought though science, but rather has to posit a value judgment (thus showing that science is not a 'value system' like you propose and also showing that science doesn't tell us what is best for us). Perhaps we have a value judgment like “this life is generally worth living and we should do our best to protect this planet.” A conclusion like this is not one reached by science, but rather by moral reflection. We can use scientific findings to perhaps show us how we can protect the planet, but science can never reach a value judgment.

You note “Science accepts only what can be seen and proven, otherwise it doesn't exist.” This statement is also not accurate. Consider the famous teapot proposed by philosopher and mathematician Bertrand Russell known as Russell's teapot. Perhaps, somewhere in space, there is a microscopic teapot. We can't detect this and no matter how hard we try to find it, we fail. This doesn't mean the teapot doesn't exist, but rather that we have no good reason to believe it exists – there is a crucial difference here.

The word 'proven' that you use here also shows misunderstanding. Science tells us what, to the best of our knowledge, we can claim about the physical universe. Science doesn't set some lofty bar by saying, “This is 100% right” mainly because we understand that theories can be incomplete and possible problems can be found in the future that may force us to revise theories and discard some old ideas. As you know, much of our scientific understanding has been revised over the years. Additionally, the notion of '100% certainty' is quite useless (except for, perhaps, tautologies and mathematics).

Science also isn't only about what can be seen. Some of what we know through science is the product of inference. For example, we need not 'see' a specific transitional form of some sort of organism, but when we find some evidence that shows what an organism was mostly like (particularly vestigial organs on modern forms), we can infer what was probably the case in the past. This is similar to detective work in a way. Suppose a police officer finds a gun with fingerprints, blood on a carpet, etc. He/she can infer that a murder had taken place without actually have seen it.

Saying that our existence is 'an accident' is also overstating and misunderstanding. While “the coming together of the right elements,” as you mention (abiogenesis) can be called an 'accident,' life as we know it now is anything but. Evolution, as you may know, is the complete opposite of an 'accident.' Simply put – and I'm not going to go into too much detail here – organisms survive and organisms die. Those which are best suited to survive and live on contribute their genetic material to future generations. This is the exact opposite of an accident.

You mention the 'economic value system.' Here, you are equivocating; you use the same term twice, but with a different definition in both instances. First, you call economics a value system and then talk about the 'economic value system' of “profit, power, and greed.” Profit, power, and greed are not intrinsic to economics, but rather are individuals' motives. It is incoherent to state “it is no more concerned with our well-being” because economics does not propose to be an ethical system, but rather a means of understanding. Persons might not be concerned with our well-being, but here you see a crucial difference.

You note, “these two systems have absolutely nothing to do with our real purpose and why are here.” You are right, but economics and science never propose to have anything to do with “real purpose” or “why we are here.” Science and economics answers 'how questions' and doesn't propose that there is any 'real purpose.' It seems you are also looking for 'why questions' (about 'purpose' and 'meaning') when such questions may be incoherent/outside the scope of science and economics and instead can be examined by philosophical reflection.

Economics, for example, might answer 'why questions' of “Why do people behave in a certain way?” or “Why does demand increase when there is less supply?” but this is much different than your questions of meaning and purpose. Science might also perhaps answer “Why are the fundamental constants of the universe the way that there are?” but you won't get some answer of meaning and purpose here either. This doesn't mean that we should discard either discipline, but rather this means that you are looking for something in a discipline that is outside of its scope.

Your main argument, it seems, falls victim to a false dichotomy. You seem to argue, “Science and religion doesn't 'do it for me,' so therefore religious claims are acceptable.” This is fallacious reasoning. Just because one option is problematic doesn't mean that the other just 'wins out.' You're looking for something in science and economics that you aren't just going to get mainly because of the scope of what science and economics covers. Value, though, can be gained through philosophical reflection and we can use science and economics to inform our values.

What, I wonder, have religions to offer us? We hear all sorts of supernatural claims being made, but none of these claims as I see them are believable. The standard arguments for gods not only fail, but they fail quite tremendously. Instead of looking for some supernatural purpose or some grand designer, why don't you focus your attention on the world here and now instead of throwing your hopes and wishes to a possible supernatural world that we have no good reason to believe?

Philosopher Richard Taylor, in his book Metaphysics (4th edition) says that truth is worth seeking because “it saves us from the numberless substitutes that are constantly invented and tirelessly peddled to the simple-minded, usually with stunning success ... it saves us from these glittering gems and baubles, promises and dogmas and creeds that are worth no more than the stones under one's feet. […] Many persons spend their lives in a sandcastle, a daydream, in which every answer to every metaphysical question decorates its many mansions. … They find, in other words, a comfort born of ignorance.”

Instead of accepting what the various religions of the world have to say – often coupled with no good reason to believe these claims other than 'it's faith' or 'this feels good' – we should be concerned with what is true. The emperor has no clothes and I'm quite happy to point this out to you. Those who agree would do good service in conscientiously expressing their convictions. You're not alone.