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Bad Science, Worse Philosophy: the Quackery and Logic-Chopping of David Foster's The Philosophical Scientists (2000)


2. Some of Foster's Strange Notions

Richard Carrier


I will begin with examples of the more trivial of Foster's strangeness, simply to prepare you for the worst. To begin with, Foster makes several amateurish philosophical errors that betray a lack of understanding of the basics of analytic logic. Foster's book is full of 'profound revelations' which are actually nothing more than statements of the obvious. He seems to be very impressed by tautologies. For instance, he declares casually on page 93 that "we are not aware of any absolute coding system which does not require agreement as to meanings," but in making such a statement it is clear that he does not understand the difference between a fact and a definition. A coding system is by definition an agreement as to meanings. That is what makes it a code. He might as well say "we are not aware of any triangles with four sides."

Another instance of this simple ignorance is found on page 105, where he makes much of his claim that "it is remarkable that my imagination is private." He seems unaware of the fact that if it was not private, he would not be able to call it 'his.' For anything that can be possessed by an individual by definition cannot be possessed by someone else, or anyone else at the same time. It is its privacy that allows the employment of the possessive adjective 'my' to something like thought. Of course, his statement is even more foolish when one takes into account the fact that brains are not physically connected to other brains, apart from the capacity for indirect forms of communication like speech, so even on empirical observation alone it should not be 'remarkable' to anyone that what brains do is 'private.'

Yet another example is found on page 14. There, Foster asserts that "What is novel is...that the most abstract thinking of human beings is in tune with truths from physical reality represented by mathematics rather than things." In other words, the most abstract thought is in tune with thought that is more abstract than it is when examining things directly. He is saying that mathematical thinking is more abstract than thinking about things that are open to direct perception. He thinks he has made a revelation, when in fact he has merely repeated himself in a statement of the obvious that has no bearing on his argument at all. Could we expect our most abstract thought to be anything but more abstract than less abstract thought? Since this follows necessarily from the meaning of the terms, it can tell us nothing about the physical world or its nature. Foster is merely telling us that A (thinking about math) is more abstract than B (thinking about things). Why would anyone consider this 'novel'?

Added to this, one of the most basic mistakes of lay philosophers is the fallacy of reification: the attributing of human motives to pure abstractions. It is common to say things like "America has imperialist intentions" or "Love wants to be felt" but no skilled philosopher would forget that this is poetry. 'America' is an abstraction that does not have intentions at all----rather, there must be certain individuals with those intentions before one can claim those intentions are in any way 'American.' Likewise, 'love' cannot want anything. Only those who can feel and want can want to feel love. Nevertheless, such distinctions are lost on Foster. On page 123 he declares that "it is difficult to conceive that a universe such as ours...could be willing to allow it all to fade and vanish." He is wrong. It is extremely easy to conceive, based on one simple observation: we have no reason whatsoever to believe that the universe has a 'will.' Even the laws of physics, by their very nature, strongly suggest that the universe has no 'will,' at least none comparable to the human will (even if the universe was created, it does not now act in any intentional way, but only with blind, mechanical predictability----see also my Review of In Defense of Miracles, and Ten Things Wrong with Cosmological Creationism). Even the laws of nature provide a firm proof that the universe is incapable of changing its mind.

Foster also seems to have some strange ideas about what really is strange. He casually remarks at one point (p. x) that "non-Euclidean geometry is bizarre." Why is it bizarre? Curved space is not limited to four-dimensional space-time, though he seems to think so at several points in his book. Non-Euclidean geometry describes ordinary experience, too, as any land surveyor will tell you, or indeed any artist who has attempted to draw parallel lines on a sphere. Mercator's projection technique for mapping the world, perfected in the 17th century, depended upon an instinctive use of the obvious common sense of non-Euclidean geometry, over a century before the term 'non-Euclidean' was even coined (in fact, the same techniques were employed by Ptolemy fifteen hundred years before that). It did not seem bizarre then. Why should it now?

But Foster is not the only person who seems overly astonished by some rather commonplace things. On page 10 he repeats a woefully common lament when he cites Eddington arguing that our 'old ideas' of substance have been replaced with the 'new ideas' of electric charge. This, Eddington said, "offers nothing to satisfy our demand for the concrete." But why not? What seems strange to me is that the resistance produced by magnetic bonding should not be concrete enough to satisfy our need to understand solidity. Apparently, both Eddington and Foster fail to appreciate that an effect does not change once it is explained----it is still the same effect it always was, just better understood. If a table is concrete, then the atomic bonds that make it so are no less concrete.

Foster also seems to take some things as more than normal that are in fact immeasurably strange. On page 161 he states that "if the Sun provides three main support aspects for organic life on Earth, it would be very odd if it did not provide the fourth, the programming of the DNA." Foster has it backwards. What would be very odd is if the sun did do this. His reasoning, as little of it as he gives, reveals a non sequitur. For there is no reason that the sun 'should' or 'ought' to provide any of the conditions for life, even those that it does provide, and Foster himself almost admits as much on page 121. So there would be nothing even remotely odd, much less 'very odd,' about other conditions coming from non-solar factors, here or elsewhere in the universe. And, indeed, although the sun does contribute to DNA programming in a less literal sense, by continually dumping energy into the Earth's ecosystem, what actually 'does' the programming is natural selection, a point that Foster never adequately addresses.

There are also old philosophical mistakes that Foster repeats. On page 140 he quotes Shrödinger as saying that since there is a "region common to all" where "the several domains of private consciousness partly overlap" then "in truth there is only one mind." The flaw in the logic here is so great it is astonishing that anyone would give the argument any merit. But Foster thinks it proves his point that the universe is mental, despite the fact that if two things have features in common it does not mean those two things are one and the same. They are still two distinct entities. To argue that because all electrons are identical, therefore there is only one electron, is an invalid argument. But Foster seems to think it is a good one.

He does not even make an argument for another of his strange contentions. On page 148, the epiphanies experienced by great minds, which led to their most monumental discoveries, is assumed by Foster to be proof that these men reached their discoveries by some sort of revelation, so that "through the mental aspect of human such moments we are unified with LOGOS in a way that is compatible with Shrödinger's 'one mind' hypothesis." Never mind that this is the same hypothesis we have just seen is invalid. What is truly bizarre here is that he thinks Einstein's inspirational grasp of relativity is somehow related to DNA and a spiritual 'oneness' with the cosmic consciousness. He completely fails to address the fact that it was not Joe the Sausage Merchant who had this revelation, but Einstein the Physicist, who had been mulling the problem around in his head for years and who had studied and thought extensively about the science of physics. That he should reach a sudden inspiration is not at all surprising, and clearly has little to do with DNA, or God. It had instead everything to do with his environmental experience: namely, his education in physics. Certainly, his drive to solve problems, even his superior imagination and IQ were perhaps genetic, but they would be insufficient alone. What truly destroys Foster's point is that even I have had numerous such experiences in my life, which can be described as just as spiritual and sudden and inexplicable, but the vast majority of them have to do with mundane things like remembering the name of an actress I saw in a movie last month, or recalling where I left my blue socks on Sunday. Why God would see fit to inspire me to discover such things on a daily basis, or why such a revelation would be considered 'union with the LOGOS' is a question that betrays the absurdity of Foster's theory.

But, alas, the ultimate example of Foster's ignorance in the field of analytic logic is provided on page 139. He uses the fact that a drawing can be seen two different ways, but never both at once, as proof that the mind is not the same as the brain. For, he argues, the brain can perceive it all at once, but the mind can only perceive one or the other aspect at a time. But this conclusion nowhere follows from the premise. The fact of the matter is, the drawing requires an entirely different system of interpretation for each view, and those two systems are logically incompatible. The reason you cannot perceive both at once is simply that you cannot picture something existing and not existing simultaneously. In other words, you cannot use two incompatible coding systems at the same time. This is a problem faced by the brain, or by any interpretive entity, including a computer or even a pocket calculator. It is not some special property of a 'mind.'

For example, the phrase "fruit flies" can be interpreted two ways: an adjective and a noun, referring to a certain insect, or a noun and a verb, referring to something like a peach hurtling through the air. You cannot read it both ways at once because to do so requires that you treat the word "flies" as both a noun and a verb simultaneously--but you cannot do that, because that would entail a logical contradiction. As for Foster's image of the stairs, the same problem is faced: to read it as an 'upside-down' staircase requires 'coding' the bottom trace of the stairs as 'farther,' whereas reading it as right-side-up requires coding the very same line as 'nearer,' but something cannot be both nearer and farther, for that entails a contradiction, and one should not be surprised that the brain is incapable of perceiving something that is intrinsically contradictory and thus cannot exist. To discredit the brain because it cannot perceive what cannot exist is a little silly, but Foster makes much of such things.

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