Sunday, June 24, 2012

Finding Rembrandt

"Aha!" -- Argument Against Motive

Recently I blogged on the movie Prometheus. In particular I discussed the controversial issue of Intelligent Design that the movie touched on (and was criticized for). There has been much heated debate on the topic—from scientists, philosophers, theologians to internet trolls pontificating on the matter. However, a lot of the discussion generate more heat than light.

A problem I have observed is prejudice. The issue has become so politicized that it is difficult to raise the topic without attack-dogs barking from both sides. Though I consider myself a design theorist I do not follow all that is proposed by the Intelligent Design movement. At this time I choose to remain agnostic on some of the specific points in the debate.

A problem I will address in this post is what I call MOTIVE MONGERING. When either side engages in motive mongering argument the conversation quickly degenerates from a useful discussion about the data into nasty accusations and mudslinging.

Recently I tried to engage a young and scientifically minded skeptic who aggressively promotes Darwinian evolutionary theory in his blog (he is a self-styled agnostic-atheist) and utterly despises the Intelligent Design movement. I applauded his article “Some preliminary thoughts on developing a scientific form of intelligent design” that appeared to move the discussion to a more fruitful level.

In his article he stated, “Intelligent design, as a cultural movement, is demonstrably religious in nature. The vast majority of its proponents and supporters are evangelical, conservative Christians, and a large proportion of its outreach programs are aimed at churches and other religious institutions. While the main leaders of the movement actively deny it, hiding behind a fa├žade of seeming scientific credibility, even going so far as branding themselves academic martyrs and mavericks, it is an easy and obvious conclusion to draw.”

I commented that even granting this to be true, in the end it’s an irrelevant point. I argued that this approach is in fact being used as a squid tactic to avoid any legitimate discussion on some pertinent matters.

To illustrate my point I gave this illustration – Finding Rembrandt

An important art find is being investigated by art experts to determine its date and origin. A Rembrandt scholar is among the experts investigating the find. After studying the evidence they come together and discuss the matter. The Rembrandt scholar excitedly makes his suggestion and the conversation follows –

Rembrandt Scholar (RS from here on): “This is a Rembrandt (R from here on).”

Other Art Experts (OAE from here on): “Excuse me?”

RS: “I think this is a R.”

OAE: “You think? Do you have evidence directly linking this painting to R or are you just making a ballpark guess?”

RS: “Well, I can’t make a direct physical link from this work to R but upon looking at the painting itself e.g. the theme (mythological and religious), the strokes, color combinations, materials, etc, all are consistent with what is known of R’s works. And plus the fact the dating of this art—early to mid 17th century— indicates that it matches the time when R was producing a lot of work. It is also significant that this work can be traced to have come from Amsterdam.”

OAE: “Ok, but you don’t have direct physical evidence that links this work to R, right?”

RS: “Well, that’s correct. But if it looks, sounds, feels, smells like a R then maybe it is a R—you know what I mean?”

OAE: “Tell me, what’s your expertise?”

RS: “I’m a R scholar. Did my PhD on the history of art with a focus on R. I confess I like the guy. I like his work.”

OAE: Looking at each other and some rolling their eyes mocking, “No offense but we suspect that you may be seeing what you want to see in this painting. It’s understandable, I mean, we all at times suffer from that error. This is an important find and you’re a R scholar, and so you will be tempted to see R in this work, but perhaps the things you see may not really be there.”

RS: “You’re misunderstanding me; I’m arguing that the physical data strongly suggests that this is R, and I can argue from the evidence. Of course I’m happy to see R fingerprints in the work but I’m arguing that the raw data cries R. I’m not imposing R on it.”

OAE: “I’m going to be blunt here. Being a R scholar makes your proposition that this is R very suspicious. I believe you’ve compromised your judgment by your prior commitments being a R scholar.”

RS: “Common guys, I think I’m competent enough to make my own judgments based on the evidence irrespective of my background. Critique my proposal on the basis of the evidence and not speculate on my motives, conscious or subconscious. Hey, you may be correct that my proposal may just be a projection of my own subjective desires but you will have to demonstrate that on the basis of the evidence and not just accuse me of it. I will not put up with that nonsense. I say it’s R and I am prepared to argue from the evidence. You say no. Fine. But demonstrate to me that my interpretations are demonstrably erroneous. Don’t just reject my proposal in toto on the basis of motive-mongering. How about you—what’s your proposal?”

OAE: “Well, since we do not have physical evidence, not even testimonial or literary evidence, directly linking this painting to any known artist then the best and most rational conclusion we believe is that we don’t know. Source unknown.”

Some observations: 

1.OAE may be correct but they must demonstrate their point and not simply assume its correctness.

2. Motive-mongering argument is never valid; the evidence will speak for itself irrespective of the motive. The evidence will either totally destroy the argument, exposing the motive to be erroneous, or affirm the argument and prove the motive to be correct.

3. The RS has an advantage in this scenario for his expertise is in R and so he has a keener eye to discern a R work when he sees one.

The argument cuts both ways.

Designed or Not-designed

Now to the debate on whether there is a designing intelligence behind nature or none. On the one hand the theist (who believes that God or a Supernatural Mind is behind the universe and is the source of life) may fall into the error of reading too much theism into the data. While on the other hand the atheist/materialist/reductionist (believes that there is no such thing as God or the Supernatural, that nature is all there is) may also read too much his atheism into the evidence. Both errors must be avoided and exposed. But neither is to be disqualified just because of his/her worldview background.

Some questions when dealing with the data –

> Is the data/evidence friendlier toward a design paradigm or a no-design paradigm? 

> Which paradigm best explains the data (Ockham’s Razor may be utilized here)?

There are some data that can fit neatly to either paradigm while others tend toward one of the other.

I stated that I agreed with his following statements –

“But no matter how simple it is to label the central idea behind a movement with the same characteristics as the movement itself, it should be avoided. Ideas are independent of those who put them forward, and the fair assessment of every rival idea and hypothesis is one of the best principles of the modern scientific method...”

I said that this was the right attitude.

I also appreciated his thought that, “The pure idea of intelligent design, removed from its cultural context, is not religious – not necessarily.”

“Now you’re talking!” I said.

Unfortunately, and quite uncharacteristically, for some reason he did not engage.

Any takers?

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