The Wedge

The Wedge Document, which appeared on the internet in 1999, is a curious thing.  I don’t want to discuss is merits and demerits in this post, but what it says about fear: on the one side of the wedge, the fear that motivated its writing, and on the other side, the fear of those who felt targetted by it.

Because even though the document itself has ceased to have force, the mutual distrust remains.

Clearly, the writers of the wedge were very frightened by the prospect of what they call “materialism”, and view as both an ideology and an approach to science – so frightened that they seem almost afraid to give credence to the science lest it let a Materialist Foot in the door.  “Materialist” science they said,

…portrayed human not as moral and spiritual beings, but as animals or machines who inhabited a universe ruled by purely impersonal forces and whose behavior and very thoughts were dictated by the unbending forces of biology, chemistry, and environment.

But more importantly they went on to allege that:

Materialists denied the existence of objective moral standards, claiming that environment dictates our behavior and beliefs.

Now, I can quite understand the fear of any science that would engender such denial. But what is also deeply frightening to some of us is the idea that any science should be suppressed for fear of its moral implications.  The Copernican model was rejected for far too long because the Church worried that it would undermine the belief that humans inhabited a universe in which they were not central.

So how to heal the rift, rather than drive the Wedge in further?  It was always part of my vision for this site that we would try to do the former rather than the latter.  It’s not easy, and we have not always been successful.  But I am not despondent. I suggest that two things are essential to the project, on the part of “materialists”:
Firstly, to make it clear that “materialism” is intrinsic to scientific methodology, not because of materialistic bias, but because scientific methodology is rooted in prediction. Contrary to the belief of many (materialists included), science does not seek to explain why things are the way they are at a fundamental level.  Feynman puts it well here:

Science cannot go beyond a fundamental description of what the universe is like.  Sure it can construct causal models up to a point, and we may keep moving that point closer and closer to the barrier, but it can’t make the barrier go away.  Instead, it constructs a set of generalisable laws that allow us to predict things, more or less reliably. And a scientific model that predicts things better is preferred to a model that predicts things less well.  No scientific model can be regarded as right, but some are less wrong than others.  And only temporarily in the lead.  All scientific models are provisional.

Secondly, I think that those of us who do not find a use for the concept of a creator God (I have worded that very carefully) need to make it clear that abandoning the idea of a creator God who made us for Her own purposes does not entail abandonment of purpose – it does not render our lives purposeless.  I can breed a llama to carry my baggage.  The llama may, and quite obviously does, have quite other ideas the purpose of her life (eating the hedge, for one).  Not believing that we were made to serve the purpose of a putative creator God does not even mean that my only purpose is to serve myself.

And I think two things are also required of those on the other side of the wedge, both to do with real asymmetries between the positions:

Firstly, I think it is important to understand that science does not, and cannot, claim that God does not exist.  Some scientists may do so – but it would not be a scientific statement.  “Strong atheists” i.e. those who actually think the evidence suggests that there is no god, are rare, although many atheists would have a strong view that certain specific gods are non-existence (e.g. a Sun god; a God that can restore amputated limbs).  But “God does not exist” is simply too vague a statement for anyone to get excited about an ism based on it.  So there is an intrinsic asymmetry here: materialists are not, in general, claiming that theism is wrong, while theists are, in general, claiming that materialism is.

And the second thing is that I think it is important to understand is  just how intrinsically provisional science is. Peer-review is imperfect, and so are the checks and balances built in to scientific methodology – but ultimately, science is designed so that mistakes are discovered.  It lies behind all the tedious methodological procedures we have to go through – null hypothesis testing, blind rating, random sampling, replication, meta-analysis, funnel plots. Sure it is harder to get findings published that overturn consensus than those that support it – but that is as it should be, human nature being to err, and the quid pro quo is that if you do get it published, it will probably be in Nature.  The big rewards in science are for the new and dramatic, not the been-there-done-that.  In fact, I’d say that a much bigger problem in scientific publishing is the difficulty of getting replications published than the difficulty in getting novel work published. And again, there is a real asymmetry here: “materialists” are all too keen to engage with the “other side” – we are the ones regularly banned from discussions, not ID proponents; we are the ones with lax moderation policies, with “comments allowed”.  Yes, we are frightened, but generally, fear takes the form of desire to engage, not refusal (and btw, no, Barry, I am not frightened to post at UD; I just see no point when I can post here where I know my words will remain undeleted).

Anyway, I’d be interested to hear from other people why they fear, or are angry, at the people on the other side of the wedge.  Or, better still, if they are neither.

174 thoughts on “The Wedge

  1. If the argument against ID is not based on science, what is it based on? Personal dislike of the goddess?

  2. And the final case Elizabeth sets forth in the OP, the second suggestion for the ID side of the debate:

    And the second thing is that I think it is important to understand is just how intrinsically provisional science is..

    Yes, we on the ID side have been saying that for some time. It seems odd to us that you would think this is something our side needs to amend.

    Peer-review is imperfect, and so are the checks and balances built in to scientific methodology – but ultimately, science is designed so that mistakes are discovered.

    This isn’t something that is the sole domain of science. One might even say that scientists are only doing what comes natural. As Alan Fox recently said, “Otherwise you might, for example, drown if you believed you could walk on water.”

    … human nature being to err…

    Sounding more and more like KF every day. Next you’ll be asserting that for science to exist, error must exist.

    Error originated with humans, did it?

    The big rewards in science are for the new and dramatic, not the been-there-done-that.

    Indeed, The big rewards are for new models that advance understanding. This has nothing to do with “consensus science.” IDists understand this.

    And again, there is a real asymmetry here: “materialists” are all too keen to engage with the “other side” – we are the ones regularly banned from discussions, not ID proponents; we are the ones with lax moderation policies, with “comments allowed”.

    Whatever.

  3. William J. Murray: EL said:

    Most ID critics do not claim that the science supports the case that theism is wrong.

    Citation?

    Don’t have one. But I don’t know of one who does. Not believing in God is different from believing that science has disproved God.

    Not even Dawkins thinks that.

    My own criticism of ID is not of the conclusion, but of the flaws in the argument.

  4. Mung: Yes, we on the ID side have been saying that for some time. It seems odd to us that you would think this is something our side needs to amend.

    It needs to be amended, be cause “your side” often writes as though it was something that “our side” didn’t know – as though “our side” is the one making the strong claim.

    Mung: Indeed, The big rewards are for new models that advance understanding. This has nothing to do with “consensus science.” IDists understand this.

    Well, they often write as though any challenge to the consensus is rejected, or “expelled” – whereas in fact, it’s where the rewards lie.

    But you are incorrect that the fact that “The big rewards are for new models that advance understanding” has “nothing to do with “consensus science”. From what I read at UD, I do NOT think that IDists, in the main, understand this.

    And for what it’s worth, it’s not what Kuhn meant when he talked about the difference between “revolutionary science” and “normal science”.

  5. William J. Murray: The fact is that these people are actively working to destroy science education materialist indoctrination masquerading as science in this country.

    Fixed it.

    Could you (as I asked Mung earlier) say what you mean by “materialism” exactly?

  6. Mung: Hi Lizzie,

    Fair enough. I don’t care to go back to the OP at this time to see where you defined how you were using the term, so I haven’t tried to be precise. I have explained how I think it is being used by “my side” and provided supporting references.

    There is no article titled materialism at SEP, instead there is a link to the article on Physicalism.

    So generally I take materialism to by synonymous with physicalism. I am however willing to accept the existence of nuances. So if I wanted to argue explicitly about materialism I would take the position taken in the book The Waning of Materialism.

    “…materialism is a certain view, or family of views, in the metaphysics of mind. Specifically, materialism is a certain view, or family of views, on the Mind-Body Problem, which concerns the ontological status of, and fundamental metaphysical relationship between, the mental and the physical …”

    But I honestly haven’t seen the need for such nuance based on anything I’ve read here yet.

    Regards

    Thanks, Mung. I’m away for the weekend now, but will return to this.

  7. Neil Rickert: String theory: science without intentionality;
    Biology, physics, chemistry: mainly science with intentionality;
    The social sciences: mainly science with only derived intentionality.

    It would be more precise to say that, according to Rosenberg, since “the physical facts fix all the facts,” and since there is no intentionality — no “aboutness” or “content” — at the level of fermions and boson, then there can’t be any intentionality anywhere else in our empirically-constrained descriptions and explanations of reality.

    It is both good and bad that Rosenberg says all the things that anti-materialists think that materialists should say. Good, insofar as it is good for our intellectual discourse that the extreme view is out there and a case made for it as well as any such case can be made. Bad, insofar as anti-materialists can point to Rosenberg and say, “this is where materialism leads!”, and neglect more moderate positions — such as Kitcher or Dennett.

    Unfortunately, more extreme positions crowd out more moderate positions in the marketplace of ideas. I suspect that the polarization intrinsic to social media plays a big role in this.

  8. Mung,

    Yes, Patrick, I understand you.

    The “facts” don’t really matter. All this talk about “facts” is just so much smoke and mirrors. All that matters is them v us, even if they did not start it.

    And truth? Just another victim. Far be it from anyone to ask you to demonstrate the truth of your claims. So skeptical of them. Hah.

    Drive that wedge boy!

    All the facts are readily available to any objective observer, starting with the transcripts and ruling of the Dover trial.

    The truth is that intelligent design is just the latest incarnation of creationism. It is nothing more than a political ploy to attempt to get around the separation of church and state in the U.S. You can squirm all you want, but you can’t avoid the clear evidence.

  9. Kantian Naturalist: It would be more precise to say that, according to Rosenberg, since “the physical facts fix all the facts,” and since there is no intentionality — no “aboutness” or “content” — at the level of fermions and boson, then there can’t be any intentionality anywhere else in our empirically-constrained descriptions and explanations of reality.

    The obvious problem with that, is that there are no physical facts.

    We can talk about fermions and bosons. But nothing physical assigns names “fermion” or “boson” to anything. We cannot have facts without conventions (such as naming conventions). So when we talk of fermions and bosons, we are already going beyond what the physical facts allow.

    This is why I deny that I’m a materialist or a physicalist. But I allow that I am some kind of behaviorist (though not the Skinner kind). Naming things is behavioral rather than physical.

  10. Mung:
    If the argument against ID is not based on science, what is it based on? Personal dislike of the goddess?

    The opposition to ID is based on the fact that it has not produced any science. That is not opposition to theism.

    That sort of jumping to a silly conclusion based on misunderstanding and logical fallacies interferes with serious discussion.

  11. Elizabeth,

    Materialism is the view that everything that exists and occurs in the universe is caused (both immediately and ultimately) by physical matter and physical energy interacting according to mechanistic, non-teleological natural laws and stochastic processes.

  12. Mung:
    If the argument against ID is not based on science, what is it based on? Personal dislike of the goddess?

    It’s based on the fact ID is a religious political movement, not a scientific one, and is using dishonest tactics to try and force its way into public school science classes when it has zero scientific support.

    But you already knew that.

  13. Patrick, I can clearly see the shifting goalposts. But if that’s all you’ve got, well, that’s all you’ve got. I wouldn’t put Dominion Theology high on my list of things to be concerned about if I were you. Best to you and your children.

  14. Mung,

    Patrick, I can clearly see the shifting goalposts. But if that’s all you’ve got, well, that’s all you’ve got. I wouldn’t put Dominion Theology high on my list of things to be concerned about if I were you. Best to you and your children.

    Fundamentalists are a bit problem in the U.S. They are pushing to have their sectarian beliefs taught in science classes, to have real science excluded, to restrict women’s reproductive rights, and to refuse equality to homosexuals, just to take four off the top of my head. Intelligent design creationism is one weapon they are using in their culture war.

    The facts are that IDC is solely a political movement and that there is no scientific hypothesis of IDC. If you’re not willing to address those two points, blathering about supposed flaws in evolutionary theory will do nothing to reduce the size of the rift.

  15. Kantian Naturalist: Bad, insofar as anti-materialists can point to Rosenberg and say, “this is where materialism leads!”, and neglect more moderate positions — such as Kitcher or Dennett.

    But what if he’s right? 😉

    Seriously, I do find the idea that the truth must lie roughly mid-way between two extremes a bit simplistic. It can be a bit more nuanced than that.

  16. Neil Rickert: This is why I deny that I’m a materialist or a physicalist. But I allow that I am some kind of behaviorist (though not the Skinner kind). Naming things is behavioral rather than physical.

    Some day I want to post an OP asking who’s afraid of B.F. Skinner, and why.

  17. Alan Fox: Seriously, I do find the idea that the truth must lie roughly mid-way between two extremes a bit simplistic. It can be a bit more nuanced than that.

    That’s quite right. I should have not put my criticisms of Rosenberg in terms of extreme or moderate. I should have said, rather, that I have criticisms of Rosenberg’s views. Specifically, I think his “eliminativism” about intentionality rests on an overly narrow conception of intentionality. As I see it, Rosenberg’s eliminativism about intentionality relies on the following argument:

    1) Intentionality requires that the basic units of thought are sentence- and term-shaped representations located “inside” or “within” an individual cognitive agent;
    2) If intentionality is real, then it must be empirically identifiable;
    3) Hence the most plausible candidate for being the bearer of intentionality is the primate (perhaps even human) brain;
    4) But cognitive neuroscience shows that brains do not represent their environments in sentence-shaped representations – there are no propositions in the prefrontal cortex;
    5) So, there is no such thing as intentionality.

    In other words, “Cartesian materialism” (as Dennett calls it) is incoherent — you can’t take the Cartesian conception of the intentional cognitive agent, ascribe those powers and abilities to the brain, and hope everything will work out. (John Searle, on the other hand, has precisely that view!) But my response is to begin with rejecting (1): the Cartesian conception of intentionality. We have no idea if a non-Cartesian view, based on Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, or Wittgenstein, is or is not consistent with what we know from ecology and neuroscience. There’s a lively debate being engaged on precisely that point in philosophy of cognitive science.

    I should note that Rosenberg’s eliminativism about intentionality is logically distinct from his reductionist view that all empirical facts are supervenient on facts on fermions and bosons. I think that’s wrong, too, but it’s a different argument that needs a different criticism.

  18. Kantian Naturalist: In other words, “Cartesian materialism” (as Dennett calls it) is incoherent

    Interesting.

    So I looked up “Cartesian materialism”. And Wikipedia says this (among other things):

    In philosophy of mind, Cartesian materialism is the idea that at some place (or places) in the brain, there is some set of information that directly corresponds to our conscious experience.

    It seems to me that philosophy (and AI) has a poor understanding of “information”. If we look at public use of information (books, newspapers, technology, etc), it could be said to depend on derived intentionality. That is to say, that it depends on meanings that come from a shared culture or that are carefully define in a technical protocol. But that won’t do for a brain or for a young child who has not yet absorbed cultural meanings. A young child has to make her own meaning as a prerequisite to making sense of culture.

    John Searle, on the other hand, has precisely that view!

    I’ve just finished reading Searle’s book on perception. And, indeed, he does defend that view though he would probably object to the name “Cartesian materialism”. I thought Searle’s account was not satisfactory. I seem to recall that his earlier “Intentionality” book mentioned “the background” which at least seemed to offer a bit more flexibility.

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