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Physicist David Deutsch says really dumb stuff when outside his field of expertise?

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The Beginning of Infinity. by David Deutsch (Allen Lane Science)

It’s hard to imagine someone getting so much wrong in a single review of David Deutsch’s new The Beginning of Infinity, but Victoria Pyncheon gives it a good stab in “Galileo And the Woes of Quantum Physicists” at Forbes blog “SheNegotiates” (November 22, 2011):

Deutsch believes in the existence of objective, verifiable scientific truth for everything – including morality – an area of human life almost no one agrees is subject to proof. Except for Deutsch. It is an article of faith (or science) for Deutsch that we progress from moral wrong to moral right. As examples he cites the current consensus ”that slavery is an abomination, that women should be free to go out to work, that autopsies should be legal, [and] that promotion in the armed forces should not depend on skin colour.” These truisms, Deutsch notes, were “highly controversial only a matter of decades ago, and originally the opposite positions were taken for granted.”

Nonsense. Leave the shrinking Western world, and you will find no such consensus even today. And the consensus that exists in the fading West was achieved, most often, in the teeth of the science of the day. It was Christians, black and white, who said slavery (and segregation) were an abomination; scientists were either silent or on the side of racist eugenics. Remember, eugenics was once a science.

It was Western women who decided that women were equal, not scientists, and it takes no great amount of historical digging to discover that most of the early women’s rights activists were explicitly Christian or Jewish – in an age when a lot of “science” suggested that women couldn’t handle the stuff men did.

How did we reach near consensus in such a short period of time? By applying the scientific method to social, cultural and political problems. Deutsch explains that any truth-seeking system works toward consensus because everyone working in the system is gradually eliminating errors and converging on objective truths. But not any truth will do. To achieve consensus, truth must seem useful to a large number of people. If it is not useful, it will not be adopted.

Then Deutsch doesn’t have anything useful to tell us. In a number of African countries today, slavery is “useful to a large number of people” and emancipation is not. In a number of Middle Eastern communities, honor killing is “useful to a large number of people” and safety for women is not.

Note that none of that is due to a lack of science, as such. One of the most oppressive countries for women is Iran, which is a credible nuclear threat. And you don’t get to be a credible nuclear threat by dancing around a fire, mumbling spells.

If Deutsch’s formula is as Pyncheon describes, it will do no good at all, and maybe harm. She should stick to writing about negotiation.

Hat tip: Stephanie West Allen at Brains on Purpose

Here's a site where some historians run over some claims made by Pinker in particular, since his book primarily mounts a historical argument. The results are interesting. Incidentally, “African slavery, cruel punishments, despotic monarchs and the execution of witches and heretics” cannot be justified when under ‘scrutiny by disinterested, rational and informed thinkers.’ What counts as rational with regards to moral questions given materialism and atheism? What counts as informed? Heck, what counts as "justified"? It’s true that I am not an expert in science, but my law school education and legal training is all about the application of theory to fact – a scientific method for the humanities. Right. ;) nullasalus
Deutsch’s formula is as I describe so I have gotten Deutsch right.
I wonder if "news" will get round to admitting this rather obvious error? If there are faults then they are not in the review. markf
Deutsch's formula is as I describe so I have gotten Deutsch right. The question is whether Deutsch has it wrong. As I understand your argument, Deutsch has the reasons for increasing morality in Western civilization (anti-slavery, pro-rights)wrong because religion, not science, accounts for the betterment of society. Deutsch is not saying that when a society "gets" science it also "gets" morality. He is saying that the scientific method can be and has been employed in the moral sphere by testing moral hypotheses against benefit or detriment to the community and then falling into line with those moral decisions that are proven to make life better for the largest number of people. You'd have to read the book to follow his logic, which I highly recommend. I also highly recommend Steven Pinker's The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. I don't agree with everything each author said, but they have both made compelling cases for moral advancement in which religion plays no role whatsoever. Pinker mirrors Deutsch when he asserts as follows: "When a large enough community of free, rational agents confers on how a society should run its affairs, steered by logical consistency and feedback from the world, their consensus will veer in certain directions. "African slavery, cruel punishments, despotic monarchs and the execution of witches and heretics" cannot be justified when under 'scrutiny by disinterested, rational and informed thinkers.' "Science is thus a paradigm for how we ought to gain knowledge - not the particular methods or institutions of science but its value system, namely to seek to explain the world, to evaluate candidate explanations objectively, and to be cognizant of the tentativeness and uncertainty of our understanding at any time." Neither suggests that we have succeeded in eliminating violence, repression, murder, war, torture, slavery or inequity, but both authors see genuine progress based upon the rise of democracies, free trade, stable governments, the development of empathy through literature and the civilizing influence of women when they are not suffering from oppression, repression and suppression. It's true that I am not an expert in science, but my law school education and legal training is all about the application of theory to fact - a scientific method for the humanities. I also possess a legal masters degree in dispute resolution. Because negotiation is the primary means to peacefully resolve disputes between free actors, "stick[ing] to writing about negotiation" includes reading evaluating and writing about the ways in which human societies can successfully organize themselves to increase the potential for the peaceful resolution of their conflicting interests. Victoria Pynchon
All true, but "science" was never the answer. Science was always on the side of oppression. Freedom came from a new - usually religious - vision. News
Let's not white-wash history (no pun intended). Christians were also responsible for slavery in America, and in particular, the fight to protect it against the campaign of Christian abolitionists:
Resolution On Racial Reconciliation On The 150th Anniversary Of The Southern Baptist Convention, June 1995 ...WHEREAS, Our relationship to African-Americans has been hindered from the beginning by the role that slavery played in the formation of the Southern Baptist Convention; and WHEREAS, Many of our Southern Baptist forbears defended the right to own slaves, and either participated in, supported, or acquiesced in the particularly inhumane nature of American slavery; and...
See also Southern Baptist Beginnings by Robert A. Baker. Likewise, Christine Rosen documented many sad examples of Christians defending eugenics in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in her book; Preaching Eugenics: Religious Leaders and the American Eugenics Movement. rhampton7

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