Sunday, 31 March 2013

Psychology and the Science debate: A reply to Alex Berezow

The question as to whether psychology is a science is something of a cliché.  It is asked as though one is expected to obtain brownie points by just mentioning it, used to re-enforce one's opinion about what and how science should operate, and at times is used as an example to justify one's own profession.  It is hence evoked with little to no thought about the 'nature' of psychology and takes for granted how science operates.

When people speak about something not being 'scientific', they tend to look down on the subject and disregard it as if it has fallen from the grace of truth and correctness.  Indeed, the term science itself is also taken for granted as it is blindly absorbed into 'everyday speak' to the extent that when someone hears something being 'scientifically proven', they automatically assume its superiority over and above things that are deemed unscientific, when in reality science doesn't really prove anything at all.

Personally, I don't believe it is of any benefit (other than perhaps the need to vent one's agression) to treat psychology like a 'tug-of-war between being a science or not because in almost all cases people - scientists included - summon the term rather blindly.  Those (scientists) that are familiar with the role that science plays in their own field loosely take it and try to fit it in, or apply it, to psychology without giving any consideration or thought about the complex subject matter psychology is actually dealing with.  The primary sin they are committing is to pass judgement from something they know to something they don't.

Alex Berezow, who holds a microbiology doctorate, is, I believe, one such person.  In his reply to psychologist Timothy Wilson's resentment at being dismissed as a scientist at a university meeting one day, Berezow claims that such a dismissive attitude scientists have toward psychologists isn't rooted in snobbery [As Wilson claims], but is rooted in intellectual frustration.  Berezow then cements his position by proclaiming that psychologists fail to acknowledge that they don't have the same claim on secular truth that the hard sciences do, and then goes on to sympathise with the tired exasperation that scientists feel when non-scientists try to pretend they are scientists.  Berezow then asserts provokingly: [T]hat's right.  Psychology isn't science. 

Perhaps he is right.  But I do not care whether psychology is to be regarded a science or not.  What I do care about and oppose is the attitude levelled against psychology when it is disregarded by those like Berezow - the so called holders of secular truth - when they feel that it doesn't fit in with their own view of things.  

Given Berezow's academic credentials - a doctorate degree - I find it quite striking that he has taken the time to publish his article in the Los Angeles Times, given his lack of psychological knowledge and somewhat unsympathetic view to its method of investigating psychological 'data'.  But whether he holds a doctorate or not, to come from a different profession and attack another without qualification is like searching for a hated Youtube channel and leaving a nasty comment before logging off.  Incase Berezow hasn't noticed: Psychology is not a chemistry a physics or a biology.   It is no geology and certainly no astronomy.  Psychology is very different in that its subject matter is concerned with human behaviour and, indeed at bottom, the mind.  This is perhaps the most important point and one that seems to have slipped Berezow's mind completely.

The problem thus facing psychology is not the discipline itself, but its subject matter.  Berezow perhaps takes for granted the fact that when he goes to the lab and observes cells and other biological entities down a microscope, he is directly observing the intricacies of nature.  How great is that! Psychologists on the other hand, despite the technological advancements over the years, are inherently stumped in making any such observation other than inferring from behaviour.  Indeed behaviour itself is troublesome because people might not always behave in definite and predictable ways; indeed they can be very impulsive.  This isn't a problem with whether psychology is scientific or not, but a problem inherently bound up when one tries to explain and/or examine human behaviour either by a 'scientific' method or not.  I do not want to give the impression that psychology has not been able to predict human behaviour because it has.  Studies in social psychology, for example bystander behaviour, has demonstrated that patterns in human behaviour do exist.

Under such circumstances, it could well be argued that psychology is an even harder subject than the likes of biology in that its data is less objectively driven.  It is far easier to observe test and reproduce experiments to check for patterns in biology because there is no complex human mind operating behind the data.  Should Berezow ever feel tempted to dip into conducting a psychological study, then I'm sure he would appreciate the difficulties facing it.

In saying all this Berezow has 5 reasons why psychology isn't a science.  These are listed below
  • clearly defined terminology
  • quantifiability
  • highly controlled experimental conditions
  • Reproducibility
  • predictability and testability.

Now, I am not going to go through them all because as much as they do pose problems for psychology, I don't think any psychologist would seriously disregard their field as a science because of them. Yet in saying that I think there are studies out there demonstrating that psychology can incorporate these criteria to a certain extent anyway.

To support his claim, Berezow provides us with the example of happiness as being a great example of why psychology isn't a science.  Happiness cannot be defined because it differs from person to person and especially across cultures, and cannot be quantified because psychologists cannot use a rule or a microscope, so they invent an arbitrary scale. 

The great thing about Berezow's chosen example is that it shows how out of touch he is with what psychological research is all about.  Should he had read a little before hastily sending his article for publication, he would have seen little to nothing on studies on 'happiness', and more about cognition such as memory and intelligence research e.t.c.  How on earth are we supposed to take happiness as a prime example in refuting the entire subject of psychology when it bears no resemblance at all to what psychological research is all about?  Indeed, a part of me is crying out: 'is this guy serious?!'

But let us take his chosen example anyway.  Even though happiness might vary across cultures and that one cannot objectify happiness in-itself (whatever that might mean), but instead see it's effects - such as smiling or laughing - doesn't that allow us to infer that the person in question might be feeling, well, happy?  Indeed, perhaps the definition of being happy is in the word itself.  But I think this notion of inferring effect from cause is crucial to science across a range of subjects.  Take the electron or a black hole as a prime example.  Are they clearly defined?  And if so how clear is clear?  Niether electron(s) or black holes have ever been observed, but rather they're existence is inferred from the effects they make - cathode rays and the bending of light for example.  The same is true of happiness, we presume people are happy from some sort of effect.

Scales are common in measuring psychological data.  But if they are so detrimental to 'science', what other alternatives are there for psychology? Should psychology not bother at all, is that what Berezow is suggesting?  The mistake he is making yet again is to take something concrete from the physical sciences and apply it to psychology.  That is like trying to compare chalk and cheese.  All scales are in some way arbitrary.  Take the thermometer as an example.  A thermometer is just a tool used to extend our experience of the world.  Whether one records a temperature of 25 or 25.4 degrees, I don't think many people would really care.  But we associate a rise or fall in temperature with the rise and fall of 'numbers' - that in itself is completely arbitrary even though it might help give us a perspective of things.  Again the same is true in psychology.

Because Psychology fails to meet clearly defined terminology and quantifiability, Berezow claims that this makes it almost impossible for happiness research to meet the other three criteria.  

I don't think this is necessarily true.  I think it is possible to produce controlled experiments, reproduce, test and make predictions in terms of happiness research; but the real question is to what degree.  Remember, we are dealing with humans here.   So what is going to be happy for one person will differ to another for a whole heap of reasons - mood, life-style quality e.t.c.  But that shouldn't put us off being able to examine it in some sort of methodological way.  Indeed, there is no other way.

There is no reason for Berezow to be intellectually frustrated.  The label 'scientist' isn't reserved for people in particular.  It doesn't belong to anyone, nor should he feel that it is something only a minority of people can have access to if they study the right subjects.  In my view historians can be scientific in their own way just as biologists are in theirs.  But to claim that the so called hard sciences have unequivocal access to secular truth is disrespecting other researchers in other fields, and that calling psychologists pretend scientists is nothing less than ignorance.

© 2011 Roberto Nacci All Rights Reserved  

Monday, 18 March 2013

Freud and fairness – a reply to Marc Smith’s ‘Teaching Psychology isn't about Freud’, profiling serial killers or reading body language

Freud tends to receive in large doses both extremes of criticism; he is loved by some, notably by his ‘followers’ – the Freudians - and hated by others.  Hated so much so that there is a Facebook group dedicated to anyone willing to ‘like’ the ‘I hate Freud’ page.  Though it is clear that the majority of those deciding to ‘hate’ someone they don’t even know are college students, and for that reason are largely ignorant of the man’s work, there are others – those more academically and/or professionally qualified – who also choose to disparage Freud’s work without giving the man a fair assessment of his place in history and that of his contributions to the field of psychology.

One such person, an A-level Psychology teacher and chartered Psychologist, Marc Smith, who wrote a short article in the Guardian entitled: Teaching Psychology isn't about Freud, profiling serial killers or reading body language, argues that the general population do not understand what academic psychology entails and as a result tend to approach the subject with misconceptions.  As a teacher in the field, he says that many students expect to learn how to read people and interpret body language or profile a serial killer, and that he already knows that the first week of class will be spent dispelling the many myths that surround my discipline.

One such myth, according to Smith, is the widely held belief that Sigmund Freud was a psychologist.  As a result of people’s knee jerk reaction in answering ‘Freud’ to the question: name a famous psychologist? Smith believes that [T]his perhaps exemplifies some of the main problems with psychology today, in that the public has been raised on a sugary diet of pop psychology and self-help manuals. The reason for this, Smith believes, is that Freud wasn’t really a scientist because he didn’t gather and analyse evidence in an objective or scientific manner.  And that most of his theories were based on a small sample of middle-class Austrian women.  He then ends the article by suggesting that although Freud might come up in one’s study of psychology, this will probably be due to an attempt to compare his unscientific methods to those of the more evidenced-based cognitive and biological ones. 

As a psychology graduate myself, it is true that people hold misconceptions about what psychology is and more often than not, in my experience, they confused it with psychiatry.  However, I do not see, or have yet to come across, angry psychiatrists who feel the need to point this out.  Not everyone should understand a subject before they study it, especially at A-level.  True, misconceptions exist.  They exist everywhere.  But based on Smith’s article, it is clear that he too shares a common, be it lay, misconception about Freud, his ideas and his rightful place in the history of psychology as an influential psychological thinker. 

So the aim of this essay is to give Freud a fair, indeed, a more balanced assessment in the light of Smith’s rather dogmatic, and rather typical, college style arguments. 

Smith clearly draws a line between what he sees as a ‘proper’ psychology – i.e. the psychology of his own profession – and that of the less intellectually stimulating pop or quasi-psychology – such as the numerous ‘self-help’ books that fill book stores – with which he also associates Freud’s works as sharing this common unscientific category.  It is certainly not hard to sense intellectual prejudice being exercised here.  Psychology, for Smith, exists on a higher intelligence plain than does Freud’s fifty or so years of work in psychoanalysis.  And he disparages him by alleging in the name of science that his work is clearly of a lower standard, and hence should only be seen in comparison with how psychology is really researched and conducted academically.

Though Freud was no chartered psychologist and certainly not accredited or endorsed by any organization such as the BPS, it is ridiculous to judge the man by the standard of contemporary academic psychology.  Freud, if Smith had been bothered to read him, throughout his twenty-three volumes or so of work, was, though a trained neurologist, always concerned that his work be regarded as being a psychology.  His chief concern was with that of psychical reality and its development throughout one’s life.  Thus he was always questioning the role of external reality, hereditary factors, and perhaps most importantly, early infantile experiences, which all have the capacity to influence our psyche – such problems that to this day still plague contemporary psychology.  He was clearly one of the pioneers in elucidating the notion that early childhood experiences contribute to the shaping of the mind in later adulthood, an idea that seems universally taken for granted today – even by ‘professional’ psychologists.  Indeed, his contribution has had huge implications, especially in the growth of developmental psychology in which Attachment Theory plays an important rôle – as devised by John Bowlby (a psychoanalyst by training) and later by the work of Mary Ainsworth’s Strange Situation.  This in itself shows the influence Freud has had.

But Smith goes on to say that many in the profession would dispute and even reject outright his [Freud’s] psychological credentials.  Smith here is not talking about Freud’s theories, but is casting doubt on Freud’s authority as a psychological thinker and professional.  He is wrong to say so.  Freud was doing psychological work based on the method of psychoanalysis he devised in 1895 and constantly revised throughout his lifetime.  Though it must be said that it isn’t a perfect method – Freud himself  became sceptical of the notion of achieving a psychoanalytic cure for example – this method was used to investigate the intricacies of the mind – namely the unconscious and its connection with consciousness – in which he claimed to have discovered within the unconscious the inherent driving forces of pleasure (as well as aggression), forces that originate so far back in our early childhood, that a large portion of it remains shrouded in obscurity when one attempts to think back to such a time.  We can therefore thank Freud for his contribution to what is now called, and I think generally accepted, as being childhood amnesia.  In this regard Freud was going beyond psychology and delving into the depths of metapsychology (As can be seen in his metapsychology papers at the turn of 1914).  And perhaps this is the reason why people like Smith discredit him.

Psychoanalysis was indeed the psychological procedure Freud eventually came to adopt and use to conduct his work in the field of neurosis, work that helped bring mental conflicts to the fore and their concomitant irrational tendencies, impulsivities and desires which Freud came to recognise as fundamental problems for the psyche to master.  If it be the case that Freud has been very influential in building psychology to the state in which we view it today, how can it be justified to disregard his psychological credentials just because he is not a modern psychologist ? If many in the profession, as Smith likes to call them, believes we can totally reject Freud’s psychological credentials, then what of the many thousand of other professionals who claim the opposite – namely those practising as analysts in the Institute of Psychoanalysis and the British Psychoanalytic Association?  Should we slide them into the same bin as Freud and devalue their work as popular nonsense? In fact, I defy anyone to read Freud’s 1915 essay The Unconscious for example, and tell me that one derives the same sense of ‘ help’ as that afforded by reading Sassy, Single & Satisfied, Secrets to loving the life your living type books.  Freud was arguably even more academically stringent than most psychologists today.   
But it is the two very typical college-type evaluative criticisms that Smith regards as giving good reason to discredit Freud – namely, that his method wasn’t scientific and that the sample of cases on which he developed his conclusions was biased.  To my mind this indicates how poorly read Smith is in this subject.  Indeed, if Smith believes that such arguments can easily persuade us to drop Freud into the waste paper basket once and for all, then he has a huge mountain to climb in order to persuade the hundreds of psychoanalytical societies across the globe to embrace this stance.

We must remember that at the time Freud was practising, his method was centred on talking and listening to his patients.  His method was a therapeutic, not a strictly academic, one, which gave him insight into his patients’ personal thoughts about their paternal relationships and the transferences they projected out toward him. Although I am not a practising psychoanalyst, I have read a lot of Psychoanalysis and, with an open mind, can appreciate that Freud developed psychoanalysis over many years of seeing many patients.  It is only natural that sooner or later patterns in the subject’s free associations and/or transferences would soon emerge.  From these patterns, Freud undoubtedly drew inferences and hypothesis.  One such hypothesis he developed during the early years of psychoanalysis was the existence of infantile sexuality (c. 1905), and it was through the analysis of the case of little Hans in 1909 (an analysis established through Han’s father) that he went on to confirm it.  But even therapeutically, Freud adopts a method of obtaining data from such free associations and utilises the force of suggestion as a tool in gaining an insight into the psychological realm.  In both these approaches I would agree with Freud’s claim that he was being scientific in his approach to his patients.  Though it is clear he is not adopting statistical analysis nor designing research methodologies, as psychologists today tend to do, Freud is conducting his own method of investigation as based, fundamentally, on one person at a time.  In my view it is misplaced to disparage Freud as being unscientific, as Smith thinks, because insofar as a form of therapy, it provided at that time a relatively valid basis for his theories, and a way of obtaining and interpreting universal psychological phenomena.  Though one can question and indeed argue that fundamentally Freud’s theories boil down to subjectivity and interpretation, contemporary academic Psychology faces precisely the same problem save that statistics now provide a firmer indication of the degree of confidence one can place in one’s hypotheses.  Such confidence though relies on the strictness of the research methodology in question and might therefore appear to be more scientific to the eye.  But I would challenge the notion that this gives Smith the right to presume psychological superiority over Freudian thinking.  It is surely indisputable that Freud’s pioneering psychological work has yielded rich ideas and theories which still hold today despite its lack of a significant p value. 

In considering Freud’s way of conducting psychoanalysis, how objective was his gathering and analysing of evidence ?  Clearly, one can only infer from observing the actions of people that something is going on inside their heads.  For Freud these actions consisted of free associations, transference and dreams.  Although the latter appears to send shivers down the spines of psychologists as being mystical hocus-pocus, modern Psychology also ‘observes’ people and their actions, leading to hypotheses and inferences based on observations – just as psychoanalysis does.  Though it might be able to ‘control’ certain variables and test them in specific ways, psychoanalysis allows for some freedom of movement in such variables. 

But still, and more to the point, if Smith had actually read Freud he would have noticed that he too was fully aware of the problems and limitations psychoanalysis had to offer.  Though he was adamant that his work be considered scientific, he was fully aware of, and also pessimistic, to the view that his theories could be ‘proved’, or at least corroborated, during his own lifetime.  As a result of this he claimed that ‘proof’ of his theories lay in the future – something neuroscience is now beginning to take notice.

The second and final argument put forward by Smith is one routinely levelled at Freud and, I think, starting to become a habitual knee-jerk reaction by those studying or familiar with the A-level in Psychology. It is the classic sample bias argument: because Freud mostly analysed Austrian middle-class women his detractors allege that his theory is unscientific and therefore bogus.  If only it were as simple as that.  Freud could only analyse those willing to come to his practice and these happened to be Austrians because, surprise surprise, he was practising in Vienna, Austria.  It would have been nice if he had had access to Italians, Americans and Asians but being restricted to a particular place and period in history he unfortunately didn’t have access to Easy Jet – though he did analyse Carl Jung, a Swiss, on a ship halfway across the Atlantic; doesn’t that count?  Still, the fact that Freud analysed middle-class women in the early 1900’s doesn’t detract from the fundamental tenant of his theories ; on the contrary, ‘his sample’ provides us with a historical perspective about the society the man was practising in at the time.  Indeed, in discussing the possibility that his critics would be shocked at his open discussions of sexual matters with a young girl in his practice, Freud quoted Schmidt: but let no one reproach me on this account but rather accuse the spirit of the age. And so we should not blame Freud for his so-called biased sample, but rather exult in the fact that it allows us a deeper insight into the zeitgeist of the times save the analytical work he also conducted on men. 
But, more importantly, this criticism does little or no harm at all to Freud’s ideas about the unconscious aspects of sexuality, because, for Freud, the unconscious and its contents remains the same for everyone. 

I agree with Smith that contemporary psychology and Freudian thinking are inherently different subjects.   But whereas Smith is adamant in separating Freud from what he believes is a real and more honest psychology, I personally would like to see more psychologists – not only read Freud – but take a more balanced view of his ideas and attempt to incorporate the results of his work – as the International Neuropsychoanlysis Society attempts to do – into their own field.  

References to Smith's article:

And for those who hate...

© 2011 Roberto Nacci All Rights Reserved

Sunday, 17 March 2013

Can scientific theories describe an unobservable reality underlying the phenomena?

Can scientific theories describe an unobservable reality underlying the phenomena?

Theoretical claims in science concerning unobservable entities, such as electrons, have sparked an on going debate between realism: the notion that such unobservable entities are real, and anti-realism: the notion that they are not real[*].
This essay will firstly outline a general definition of a scientific theory before moving on to give a brief account of Bas Van Fraassen’s theory of constructive empiricism.
Lastly, this paper will attempt to argue against this theory by claiming and concluding that the progress and success of science provide us with a good reason to believe that such entities are real.

What is a scientific theory? It is a scientific model which follows a specific cycle.  Firstly, some regularity in nature is observed before theories are inferred from observation.  In the majority of cases, scientific theories often postulate entities that are unobservable but deemed real by realists.  However, anti-realists disagree; they argue instead that such entities are not real.

One such anti-realist is Bas Van Fraassen.  He argues that, contrary to the realist position, the aim of science is not literal truth.  Hence accepting a scientific judgement or theoretical position entails that one suspends judgement of the term.  For Van Fraasen ‘a scientific theory is empirically adequate exactly if what it says about the observable things and events in this world is true – exactly if it saves the phenomena’.[1]  This is Van Fraassen’s own version of anti-realism, and he calls it ‘constructive empiricism’.  Scientific theories, for Van Fraassen, are only empirically adequate if it can explain observables in the phenomenal realm.  Therefore, we cannot know and should not excite any tendency toward any entity beyond the ‘realm’ of observables.


Van Fraassen makes a pseudo-Kantian distinction between an observable and unobservable realm[†], and claims that it is ‘naïve’ to think that the entities postulated by theories are real things.  For example, in 1897 J.J Thompson theorized that the only sound explanation for the behaviour of cathode rays was down to tiny charged particles called electrons.  Although they were inherently unobservable, the electron provided the best explanation for the behaviour of such rays.  Though electrons are inherently unobservable, physicists take such entities seriously and consider them as real entities though not strictly observable.  They are not agnostic about them since they have reason to believe that such things are real in the world (beyond the phenomenon). 

One of the reasons they have this belief is because they believe such theories are successful, to a certain extent, in explaining observable phenomena[‡].  For example, Einstein’s theory of relativity has been deemed successful in explaining how gravity operates even though we cannot observe gravity directly as something observable in itself.  Of course, this is not to say that the theory is perfectly accurate, it may well not be.  But generally speaking, it doesn’t matter whether theories such as these are completely accurate – indeed can this be ever the case? – what matters is that they tend toward, or converge to a high degree of accuracy.  Contrary to both Van Fraassen’s claim that science aims to describe literal truths and Laudan’s assertion that because the history of science is packed with successful but incorrect theories, it is wrong to suggest that these theories refer to real entities[2]; these arguments do not show that entities postulated by scientific theories are not real and neither do they suggest that as a result we should propose an agnostic stance toward them.   Scientists must always allow for misinterpretations or miscalculations of the thing in question.  This could well be due to a lack of understanding the entity or due to the current limitations of technology that inhibit us in gaining a deeper insight into them. 
What is important is that theories are converging toward, or, at least, tracking[§] the truth within a certain degree of accuracy.  Van Fraassen’s claim that science aims for literal or complete truth is far too strong an assumption for realists to take seriously.
Others such as McMullin have argued that scientific theories are progressively successful in terms of their fertility: they are productive and inventive, and that they bring with them many avenues for further development.  This seems to suggest that ‘structures postulated by the theory correspond reasonably well to the structures of the real’.[3]  Because we have theories that postulate entities like quarks, dark matter, and protons; their power of explanation leads us to believe in a reality underlying our level of the phenomenon[**]

Admittedly, Van Fraassen would probably claim that such theories are fertile, or tracking the truth only in an empirically adequate way; that is, they are tracking the truth within the realm of observational entities, and not tracking the truth in terms of these unobservable ones.

But what does he mean by observable? In Van Fraassen’s words: ‘all observable phenomenon are as if there is a mouse in the house”[4], meaning that we should only be concerned with theories that help us explain the observable entities in question. 
But suppose we take Van Fraassen to his word and observe a mouse that just happened to trot along the floor while I write this essay.  Does this stop me from inferring further things about the mouse? Suppose I infer that the mouse has lungs.  Should I be agnostic because they are inherently unobservable to the naked eye?  No, of course not.  Although I cannot observe the mouse’s lungs directly, I can detect them if I look closer, for example from its breathing.
We can also extrapolate this analogy to a more scientific example like our electrons.  Although no one has ever observed them directly since their discovery in 1897, we are still able to detect them and use this knowledge to create things like computers.  Therefore, given the choice between agnosticism or the belief that they are real features of the world it is entirely rational to assume the latter.

Hilary Putnam argues similarly, that if we don’t at least believe in the reality of such entities, then the fact that they can explain things would be miraculous[5].   Although Van Fraassen agrees that the success of science cannot be miraculous, he instead offers a Darwinian explanation for their success.  Like organisms, scientific theories struggle for survival, and therefore, the ones that survive are the ones that are successful in explaining the phenomena, while the others die away.  It is inevitable then, that the theories that survive are the successful ones.  Although it is difficult to compare the likes of an organism to a scientific theory, it is my interpretation that Van Fraassen is accepting the theory of evolution as only ‘empirically adequate’ without believing its truth.  This is surely problematic; for if he doesn’t believe in its truth, then how can he use it confidently to explain the success of scientific theories?  Van Fraassen must have a belief, vague or otherwise, in the power of evolutionary processes, even though such processes are inherently unobservable.  I see no reason how one can accept a theory, use it for argumentation or to make a point without actually holding a believing in them.  Any element of belief surely deviates, one way or another, from strict agnosticism. 

In this sense, I see no problem with scientific theories attempting to describe an unobservable reality behind the phenomena.  I say it is attempting to describe because it is impossible to be absolutely certain that theories are completely accurate.  Nevertheless, this element of scepticism should not necessarily lead us to agnosticism, for there is much reason to believe that unobservable things are real in an implicit sense - scientific progress shows this.

No doubt, many physicists today would claim that things such as electrons and other small particles like photons are now part of our phenomenal world; since machines can now detect them.  In the past, such entities were undetectable and hence no scientific indication for their existence could be put forward, but that didn’t mean that they didn’t exist at that time.  Over time, then, unobservable things shift to being observable.  If that is so, is Van Fraassen justified in making such a distinction between them in the first place? Grover Maxwell argues that we have no criteria in drawing such a line since there is a continuous state of transition between them[6]
Maxwell is saying that everything in the universe has the potential of being observed at one time or another.  For example, we can observe and detect things far out in the cosmos now which the ancients could never have done, but the potential for observing these things have always been possible.
Van Fraassen argues against Maxwell by claiming that such a distinction is possible.  He gives an example of a charged particle traversing inside a cloud chamber.  While travelling it leaves behind a trail.  Van Fraassen states that ‘while the particle is detectable by means of the cloud chamber, and the detection is based on observation, it is clearly not a case of the particle being observed’[7].  Admittedly, we can’t observe such small particles with the naked eye, however if the aid of instrumentation provides us with a certain amount of confidence in that something is causing this trail, then is it not reasonable to assume that there is something real going on?  What is interesting about this example is that Van Fraassen is perhaps inexplicably admitting that the cause of this trail is due to a charged particle although he cannot ‘see’ it directly.  Such a claim, then, is not a totally agnostic one; it would seem that the particle is more likely to be a real entity than not. 

To summarize, this essay argues against Van Fraassen’s constructive empiricism while arguing that the success of science provides us with grounds for believing, at least, that unobservable entities are real in the sense that science tracks or converges toward truth.  It has argued that his agnosticism cannot be totally sustained given the progress of science, and distinctions between what is observable and unobservable.  Both provide us with sound reason for the belief that entities postulated by theories are more real than not.

© 2011 Roberto Nacci All Rights Reserved

If you would like to use this essay for academic or other purposes, please contact the author for permission first.


[*] In the remainder of this essay, I will take real to mean something that exists in the world as opposed to something imagine or supposed.
[†] Pseudo because, unlike Kant, Van Fraassen does not make the distinction between the world as it appears to be and the world as it really it in reality.  He, instead, makes the distinction between observables and unobservable time.  But such ‘realms’ exist in space and time.
[‡] Known as: the success of explanation argument.
[§] Tracking the truth is a phrase initially coined by Robert Nozick – knowledge is belief that tracks the truth – since we cannot claim that scientific theories literally describe the truth as complete; instead they track it within a certain degree of accuracy – the history of science shows that progress is being made. See: Robert Nozick, Philosophical Explanations. Harvard University Press. (1981)
[**] Some anti-realist philosophers of science have pointed to the fact that the ether theory (that light travels in a medium named the ether) was never found.  Indeed, it is true.  But, this could well be due to the lack of understanding the nature of light at the time.  But this isn’t so detrimental to realists as it allows, as science progresses, to create more accurate theories that tracks truth.

[1] Van Fraassen, Bas (1980): ‘Arguments concerning scientific realism’, In Curd & Cover (1998): Philosophy of Science; the central issues, p. 1069
[2] Laudan, Larry, “A Confutation of Convergent Realism”, Philosophy of Science, 48 (1981), pp. 19 - 49
[3] McMullin, E. (1976), ‘The fertility of theory and the unit for Appraisal in Science’, in R.S. Cohen, P.K. Feyerabend and M. W. Wartofsky (eds), Essays in Memory of Imre Lakatos, In Robert Seagull, Fertility and Scientific Realism, British Journal of Philosophy of Science, 59, (2008), p.237
[4] Op cit. Van Fraassen (1980), p.1077
[5] Putnam, H, (1975), Philosophical papers, Volume 1, Mathematics, Matter and Method, Cambridge: Cambridge University press.
[6] Grover Maxwell, On the ontological status of theoretical entities, In In Curd & Cover (1998): Philosophy of Science; the central issues, pp. 1055 - 1056
[7] Op cit. Van Fraassen (1980) p. 1073

Saturday, 16 March 2013

Evaluating the effectiveness of the Design argument as a pointer to the existence of God

Evaluating the effectiveness of the Design argument as a pointer to the existence of God.

In his article, Astronomical evidence for the God of the bible, Hugh Ross argues that since ‘the characteristics and parameters of the universe and our solar system are so finely tuned to support life that nothing less than a personal, intelligent Creator can explain the degree of fine-tunedness’[i].  The first part of this essay will describe to the reader what the ‘fine tuning’ argument is.  The second part will describe all of Ross’s arguments for the existence of God, and the third and final part of this essay will critically evaluate Ross’s arguments and conclude that it is far too easy to suggest that the argument from fine-tuning points to the existence of God.


In recent times, scientists have been unravelling evidence showing that the laws of nature are so finely tuned that if such laws were a fraction off balance, then life as we know it would not haven be able to come into existence.  For example, if the decay rate of a proton was slightly higher, then life would long ago have been quickly eliminated by the release of radiation.  On the other hand, if the rate of decay was slightly lower, then life would never have come about in the first place.  Further evidence for fine-tuning has also been noted in other areas of cosmology, for example, the ratio of the electron mass to the proton mass, the magnitudes of force strengths, and the smoothness of the early universe[ii]. Such examples are taken as evidence that the universe is a finely-tuned system of precise cosmological constant.  Should any of these cosmological constants be different, then life would never have been able to come into existence.  Additionally, and perhaps more perplexing, such constants appear to be dependent upon each other’s own precision: if, for example, the strength of the strong force was more or less off its current value, then, so it is said, none of the other laws would hold either, making the universe’s existences an impossibility.  There appears to be an endless list containing hundreds of examples like these but they all share the same conclusion: each law sits within its own ‘goldilocks’[iii] zone, thus enabling life to flourish as we see it today.  For theists such as Ross and others who believe in God, this endless list provides reasonable grounds to suggest that something must have designed these laws, as they find it extremely improbable that they just happened to be finely tuned by blind chance.  In a nutshell this is the argument from fine-tuning:  God sets up the universe in a way that will allow it to evolve and produce life.


Interestingly, or ignorantly depending on which way you wish to look at it, Ross believes that the existence of a finely tuned universe is evidence for Design[iv]; for example, he states that if the expansion rate of the universe was slightly larger, no galaxy formations could ever occur.  Or that, on the other hand, if the rate of expansion was slightly smaller, the universe would have collapsed upon itself rendering the impossibility of the formation of galaxies and, consequently, life.  At awe with the sheer amount of evidence for such fine-tuning, he picks up on one example, the strong nuclear force, and goes on to state that if this force happened to be two percent stronger or two percent weaker, then the universe would never have developed the capability to support life[v].  In a different example he makes a similar point that reaches the same conclusion. This time he argues in terms of chemistry, that the ground state energies for the chemical elements 4He, 8Be, 12C, and 16O are so well balanced that if either of these values exceeds their current value by approximately plus or minus four percent, then life as we know it would not have been able to come into existence.[vi]  From both these observations Ross concludes that: ‘Clearly some ingenious Designer must be involved (my italics) in the Physics of the universe’.  However, Ross does not stop there.  Not only is it ‘clear’ that an ingenious designer (God) involved himself in the laws of physics, he is also certain that these laws provide us with an inkling as to the designer’s characteristics or personality.  One characteristic that stands out for Ross is God’s ‘care for living things and particularly for the human race’[vii].  The argument, if it can be called an argument, is once again derived from the appearance of fine-tuning.  This time, however, Ross describes the fine balance of deuterium, an isotope claimed to be important in the formation of stars in the Universe.  Too much deuterium will cause stars to burn out too quickly, eradicating the possibility of producing life, while too little deuterium in the universe will halt the production of the ‘heavier elements’ that are needed for life to emerge in the first place. According to Ross, the billions of stars that reside in space are needed for life to be possible.  Ross concludes that:

‘Evidently, God cared so much for living creatures that He constructed a hundred billion trillion stars and carefully crafted them throughout the age of the universe so that at this brief moment in the history of the cosmos humans could exist and have a pleasant place to live’[viii]


Currently there seems to be a general consensus amongst both physicists and philosophers that the Universe appears to be a finely tuned system as the above evidence
Suggests.  There is no debate on this issue.  However, there is a debate as what extent, or to what degree, fine tuning holds.  Ross effectively argues that if the degree of the strong
force and ground state energies surpass, in one way or another, a two or four percent threshold, then life would not be able to come into existence.  With this in mind, let us assume that these laws were only one percent plus or minus off their current value.  For example, that the strong nuclear force were instead one percent stronger or one percent weaker than its current value?  Surely this result would not have much of an effect on the plausibility of life, since it would still lie within the thresholds that Ross initially maintains.  Assuming that Ross is correct in his analysis, one can build a case to show that the universe is not finely-tuned enough.  Why is the strong nuclear force only finely-tuned to a plus or minus two percent threshold instead of a more cohesive and accurate 0.1? Would this not build a better if not more persuasive claim that the universe in finely tuned as opposed to Ross’s two percent claim?

Even though we must allow for measurement error when attempting to calculate the degree of fine-tuning, this doesn’t and shouldn’t detract us from the thesis that such laws could be more accurate.  And it becomes even more perplexing when one realises the possibility the cosmological constants have in existing as even more accurate, and so on ad infinitum.  Interestingly, it has not taken long for physicists to pounce onto this issue, and by doing so they have produced bags of evidence to show that life –despite being so finely-tuned – could still be a tenable outcome.  To give but one example, if the energy level in carbon were substantially altered by approximately 20 percent, then it is believed that life’s development would not be inhibited[ix].  Amid such evidence, it is no wonder Richard Dawkins scoffs at the theists God for being an ‘underachiever’[x] in his ‘design’. 

However, the term ‘life’ should be taken critically, for the form of life that would become possible could well be different to the carbon based life we are all familiar with here on earth.  Of course, it could well be a totally different form altogether.  If this is true, then how are we to know how ‘fine’ fine tuning is for the purpose of life?  At present we have no capability for independently verifying how fine it appears to be.  It is not as if we can venture outside our universe run some checks and compare them to our own.  It could well be that we live in a universe amongst many other universes, and that this one appears finely-tuned to us.   However, we have no idea whether other Universes, if they even exist, have the same or different sets of cosmological constants in comparison to ours.  For all we know, they might be completely different but still have the capability to produce life.  But without independently checking, the notion of fine-tuning, fundamentally, remains a matter of human judgment which is liable to error – especially when something as large as ‘the Universe’ becomes the subject of our work. 

But in saying all that let us assume that we did have the capability to measure the degree of fine-tuning of such laws.  Let us assume that we compared our laws of nature to those belonging to other universes, and let us say that we discovered all our laws as being finely-tuned to an astounding 0.00001 percent threshold, whereas other Universes possessed a totally different set of laws and hence didn’t get the opportunity to produce life at all.  What could we conclude from this scenario? Ross would conclude, as he already does, that this would be de facto evidence, or to put it more mildly, better reason for believing in a timeless God that created these laws, since life appears to be the only factor that makes the difference between our Universe and all other Universes.  However, what compelling evidence would there have to be to suggest that the laws of nature have been stamped with the signature, and therefore seal of approval, of a timeless God? No evidence can be brought forward to suggest that God created the universe because we have no idea, through science, philosophy, or reason, what a timeless God would be like to produce something!  Indeed, even if we should grant the possibility that a timeless God created and finely tuned the Universe for life to flourish, it is still inconceivable to the human mind as to how this occurred.  If we cannot conceive of such a thing, how can Ross conceive that the laws of nature, whether they are finely tuned or not, are a product of design from a timeless God?  It appears to me that Ross not only prematurely assumes that fine-tuning and the outcome life must be connected to a creator ‘God’ of some sort, but that he also confuses and displaces the notion of fine tuning to that of evidence of divine design.

Now, since there is the possibility that some laws, if not all, could well be more finely tuned than they currently are, what does this tell us about Ross’s argument that evidence for fine-tuning provides us with an indication that they were designed and created by a timeless God involved in the physics of the Universe?  The implication that immediately springs to my mind is that Ross’s God is an imperfect one.  For, according to scientific research, God could have created a more accurately re-fined version of the laws instead of the ones we have at present.  But let us say, for the sake of the argument, that God could not have done a better job because in the moment of creation He had only one chance to express himself without knowingly realizing what the consequences would be, and that in a short burst that was the Big Bang, the universe as it is came into being.  In this respect I am thinking of the analogy that: God strikes the match but leaves it to burn accordingly.  The immediate problem here is that if God is supposed to be timeless, how can God involve himself in something that is inside time let alone leave a trace of his signature behind?  Surely there is a contradiction here.  Being timeless means that this ‘something’ is not affected by time, but strictly speaking, if something is not affected by time, it cannot be affected by space either, so if something is timeless then surely it must also be space-less, rendering God as an inconceivable nothing to our minds.  So, despite Ross’s conclusion, it is very much unclear how a timeless and space-less God could have involved himself in the creation of the laws of nature and leave his mark – a finely-tuned universe as a system of precise cosmological constants -  for us to infer.
In fairness to Ross though, his conclusion that a ‘Designer must be involved in the Physics of the Universe’ could well be a correct one, but not necessarily correct in the meaning Ross takes as a ‘designer’ to be.  I grant that there is at least the possibility that a Designer, or group of Designers, in the form of extra-terrestrial beings, either somewhere in our own Universe or from another could well have created and fine-tuned these laws to hold.  This ‘hypothesis’ could well explain the origin of such laws without the need for evoking Rossian God who crafted the laws of nature for the purpose of life.  This possibility could well end the crave some theists have for an overly complicated timeless God, a God who created the Universe for the purpose of life.  But still the problem is not solved here, for the next question to be asked is: where did these ‘aliens’ come from, and for what purpose?  The idea that aliens created the universe, as Swinburne rightly points out, only pushes the problem back further, so far back that eventually we are mentally forced to imagine sitting outside the boundary of space and time.  Like a solid brick wall, we cannot observe what is beyond it, yet we are lead to conclude that this wall must have been placed here by something beyond it… And the idea is that we must call upon or evoke a ‘God’ to stop this infinite regress of walls.  So eventually we come to the old argument that something must have come out of nothing to kick start the whole process of the Universe, and consequently life, in the first place.  But then this contention doesn’t really have anything to do with Ross’s, or any other argument, from fine-tuning or design, in general, and so to invoke this argument would be to ‘go off topic’, as it were, and into an argument from first cause which is not only irrelevant but also beyond the scope of this essay.  Indeed, the argument from first cause might well be related to the argument from design; but it differs since, in my view, it wrongly assumes that things originate from the ‘divine’.  But when we think about it, when we ask ourselves the deep and troublesome questions of how something can come out of nothing there are only three possibilities, all of which lead to agnosticism or even scepticism about the origin of existence:  Firstly, that the notion of time and space emerged out of nothing  - doesn’t make sense to a human mind.  Secondly, that time and space have always existed  - again doesn’t make sense how something can exist forever without a cause.  And thirdly, that if time and space have an origin then we are stuck with the fact that how does this something originate out of ‘nothing’.  Even if we evoke God – where did He come from?
Ultimately, we have simply no idea how we got here. 

People who design usually take time to think about the thing they are designing; they usually draw up a plan and build a prototype to ensure that their design is as flawless as it can be.  But a designer in this anthropomorphic sense cannot be applied to a designer in an atemporal ‘Godly’ sense.  If God did indeed design the laws of physics then he could not have thought about it because this requires time; he could not even act to design something because this too, not only requires time, but also the space to accommodate this act.  Now, Ross could well argue that I am an anthropomorphizing the notion of God and his ‘creation’, that is to say, that I am understanding creation and design on my own humanly interpretation of space and time.  Ross might well argue that God creates timelessly in a way that humans can’t comprehend, perhaps in a way where God cannot understand what he is doing.  Well, firstly if we grant this then there would still be no ‘evidence’ from fine-tuning that conveys Gods ‘expression’ within the laws of nature.  Since God wouldn’t know about the consequences of his act, how would we be able to recognize the laws of nature as a product from God?  More so since life doesn’t seem to be a necessary prerequisite for creating a Universe since things could well exist without life – rocks for example.  Secondly, if we are unable to comprehend creation from God, then how are we to pass any judgment on the matter at all?  It is not as if I can see the world from many different perspectives, like from the perspective of other animals, or from the perspective of cosmological objects in the Universe.  It would be as if the only way in coming to understand a God that creates in a timeless way would be to ‘see’ the world as it were through the perspective of God.  We simply cannot see the world through any other perspective than through our own, much private, human senses.  Something that creates in a timeless way is not only unintelligible to us, it is also very much unimaginable.  In this respect, we have no way of knowing why the laws of nature are the way they are, nor can we comprehend their origin whether they are finely-tuned or not.  We could, in principle, evoke design by God on probabilistic grounds, but by doing so we would really have no idea what this would mean while we run the risk of posing a ‘God of the Gaps’ argument for the existence of things.  Hence, I cannot see how it is clear to Ross that the argument from design points to the existence of God.

Though there are many problems inherent in evoking the notion of ‘God’ as creator of a finely tuned cosmological Universe, Ross’s further claim that it can only be the God of the Bible as investing this amount of care into humanity’[xi] is the one that is most perplexing, worryingly ill thought out and totally bizarre.  So bizarre that I find it impossible that such a person could ever come to be so short sighted of the infinite problems associated with this, dare I say, argument. 

Although it might be well be true that the God in the Bible preaches a certain kind of love for ‘his’ people, it is very unclear why Ross links the balance of deuterium to the same caring and loving God since such a balance shows no sign of permeating any of these characteristics, nor does the Bible mention any affiliation to deuterium specifically.  In fact, from observing such a balance, it is more reasonable to suggest that there is no connection between the balance of deuterium and God’s care for humanity; all that the balance evidently shows is that it is fine enough for stellar formations to occur and nothing else.  This is a very poor, and if I should state, rather reckless connection to make.  As already argued, there is no way for distinguishing God’s signature within the fine tuning of the laws of physics, let alone distinguish a signature that shows, or at least could be inferred from, what personality he holds. 

But even if we are willing to allow God to posses the capacity to care and to love and hence craft things out of this care, then this assumes that God has the potential to imbue such emotions and sentiments.  But even if He had such potential, Ross unknowingly contradicts himself, because if God be something outside space and time then how on earth can Ross give this ‘Being’ character and personality?  There is no way.  Ross is evidently taking a giant leap of faith between the premise of his argument, that balance of deuterium is just right for stellar formation, and its conclusion, that a caring God is required for this balance.  How could there be ‘evidence’, as Ross thinks, of a caring God?  Ross maintains that God created the stars so that humans could have a pleasant place to live, but if God really wanted to give us a pleasant place to live, why not eradicate the apparent endless suffering in the world instead of giving us shiny balls of plasma to look at in the night’s sky?  If anything, the world is not a pleasant place to live in at all.  It is both painful to mind and body, and at most dangerous and threatening to life both on a worldly and cosmic plain.  Suffering is rampart – be it in the third world or the more advanced countries, and the inability to attain material and/or spiritual satisfaction, or even tame our instincts provide the soul with anything other than pleasure. 
In the grand scale of the Universe there is no notion of good or bad, care or neglect; the laws of physics are just the way they are with no meaning attached to them, it is us instead who accord them meaning. 

In Victor Stenger’s article, is the Universe fine-tuned for us?, Stenger attacks the notion that life, that is our understanding of life, is the tour de force product of fine tuning, for, as I have already argued, a different life form could well evolve if the laws of nature were different.  Furthermore, in his analyses of over 100 model Universes with different cosmological constants, he argues that over half of the stars could survive to at least a billions years[xii].  Since, it appears that long stellar life times are a requirement for life to emerge, a billion years for Stenger, is seen as ample time to allow stars to evolve and nucleosynthesis heavier elements for life to occur[xiii].  Since Ross assumes that the laws of nature are finely tuned for human wellbeing, it is he who is taking a very anthropomorphic and bias perspective by thinking that God designed the laws of nature for the sake of human prosperity.  Indeed, this argument is similar to the one Hume under the guise of Philo uses against Cleanthes.  Philo argues that Cleanthes interprets the designer God in an anthropomorphic and imperfect way[xiv], a God who is, essentially, personified by humans as a deity for humans. This argument is exactly the same as the one Ross takes – the laws of physics, for Ross, are finely balanced for the sake of human wellbeing.  Not only is Ross yet again taking another leap of faith, but he is also taking a prejudiced view in that we humans are superior in comparison to all other animals, rocks, and other inorganic material.  Again, there cannot be any form of evidence from fine-tuning that would logically infer this conclusion to be the case.  Surely, since humans have only been around for a few thousand years and were preceded by other species that became extinct (e.g. dinosaurs and the woolly mammoth) who is to say that God created for humans when it only takes a ‘finely-tuned’ asteroid to wipe us out into extinction and, therefore, allowing us to share the same fate as the dinosaurs of millions of years ago? Since there is neither evidence nor reason to suggest that human life will forever continue to exist here in the Universe, there is therefore no reason to suggest that human life is the highest achievement mustered by fine-tuning, or even God.

To summarize, this essay has argued against Ross’s idea that fine-tuning points toward the existence of God.  It has argued the following points: Firstly, that the universe could have been more accurately refined, yet still leaving the possibility open for the emergence of life, carbon based or not.  However, either way, there is nothing to suggest the appearance of God’s hallmark or signature that inevitably points to his existence.  Secondly, since invoking aliens as designers of our laws only pushes the problem back further, we are faced with the problem of how something can come from nothing.  But to invoke a God who is not affected by time, is to effectively render him as a ‘nothing’ since he is neither in space nor time.  Hence, we are faced with an unsolvable contradiction of how a timeless God can involve himself in things that occur in time.  Thirdly, we have no way of knowing why the laws of nature are the way they are, nor can we discover their origin.  By invoking a God we could well fall into the ‘God of the gaps’ argument.  Lastly, since there is nothing to suggest from the laws of nature that God possess a personality of some sort, Ross takes a giant leap of faith by linking the balance of deuterium and the love of God, and is effectively taking an anthropomorphic stance on the idea that the laws are finely-tuned for human wellbeing.  Why we are here is a mystery, where we came from is a mystery.  It could well be that ‘something’ ‘somehow’ put us here intentionally or otherwise.  But, in all honesty, we simply do not know the answer to these questions.

© 2011 Roberto Nacci All Rights Reserved

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[i]Ross, H., (1992), date accessed: 6/04/2011, p. 9
[ii] Tegmark, M. (1997). On the dimensionality of spacetime. Class. Quantum Grav. 14: L69-L75
[iii] Dawkins, R., The God Delusion, London: Bantam Press, (2006), p. 147
[iv] Ross, H., The Fingerprint of God, second edition, Orange, CA: Promise publishing (1991), pp.120-128.
[v] op.cit Ross, H (1991) p.122
[vi] Ibid. p.10
[vii] ibid. p.11
[viii] ibid. p.11
[ix] Livio, M, Hollowell, D, Weiss, A & Truran, J W: The anthropic significance of the existence of an excited state of 12C, Nature vol 340, No. 6231, 27, (1989)
[x] op.cit Dawkins, R. p.119
[xi] ibid. p.11
[xii] Stenger, V. Is the Universe fine-tuned for us?, In Matt Young and Taner Edis, eds., Why Intelligent Design Fails: A Scientific Critique of the New Creationism. New Brunswick NJ: Rutgers University Press: 172-84
[xiii] Op.cit Young & Edis. p. 176
[xiv] Hume, D, Dialogues concerning natural religion, in Stump, E., Murray, M.J., Philosophy of Religion the big questions, Oxford: Blackwell publishing, pp. 94-99