Ryan O’Connor, peeved, responds to my Templeton post

by It will fluctuate

I once wrote a post in which I expressed bafflement at how someone as eminently rational as Sir John Templeton could be religiously credulous. Recently, Ryan O’Connor, twitted a Templeton phrase: “If we become increasingly humble about how little we know, we may be more eager to search”. I tweeted back, saying that, unfortunately, Sir John did had not applied that dictum to the “Big Questions”, and linking to my post.

Ryan then wrote back. I was a bit surprised by the number of ad hominems in his reply and its condescending tone, but I won’t dwell on that because it’s always nice to find people who are interested in the same things one is, and who make their case powerfully without worrying about hurt feelings.

So, I thank Ryan for taking the trouble to write, and, as he requested, I’ll address his points:

Once again I’m amused that you fail to see the irony of your implied statement. But I’ll be somewhat charitable because I have no desire, nor the time to get into a flame war atm. Of course Twitter is the worst medium on the planet to do this even if I did but I digress.

I agree that Twitter wouldn’t be ideal; hence this post.

I’ll just say that I disagree with your premise concerning both your definition of knowledge and the query on your post, which is in my experience hilariously off base. I’d guess it’s probably something closer 70/30 with 90% of the 70% being Orthodox Jews/Catholics and the rest agnostic or atheistic. Just my 2 cents.

Here Ryan is referring to my guess that the majority of elite value investors are not religious. It was only a guess, and Ryan’s numbers might well be more accurate. Like I said in my post, it would be nice to see a poll.

Then Ryan asks this double question, and this is where the real fun beings:

Anyhow, answer me this, if the claim that the only things that can be known are those “proven” by math or the scientific method, do you find it the least bit funny/ironic that the claim is itself unscientific and hence self-refuting?

Well, I don’t think science is in the business of “proving” things, but rather of producing, based on the available evidence, the best tentative, incomplete, and provisional models of how the world works.

But, let’s leave that quibble aside and answer the first part of the question: yes, I think that reliable conclusions about how the world works require a combination of rational thinking, observation, and testing, which is science broadly construed. If Ryan thinks otherwise, let him answer my earlier challenge, now reworded: please name one demonstrably true fact we have learned through theology by any other means.

Science, as defined above, is practiced by chemists, but also by detectives, doctors, historians, value investors, and all of us in our daily lives when we want to distinguish false from true, because it’s the only reliable way of doing it.

To those of us who’ve debated “sophisticated” religious people, the second part of Ryan’s question give us a hint of what might come next: a tu quoque attempting to equate confidence in science to religious faith, accusations of scientism, the dissing of science because it’s epistemologically bankrupt, the idea that we could be brains in vats, the presentation of “other ways of knowing” (i.e. religion) as methods that are just as legitimate as science, and a final attempt to connect that to Jesus/Krishna/Allah.

And Ryan doesn’t disappoint, although he stops short of mentioning Jesus (but we might still get there if he’s kind enough to answer the two questions I ask him at the end.)

This is all, of course, an exercise in distracting us from the real issue, one that doesn’t require a philosophy degree to recognize: it’s good to have reasons for what one believes, and the religious don’t have any.

But let’s address Ryan’s points. First comes that silly old argument:

In other words, the claim itself cannot be tested by either one – so on “scientific” grounds, your claim is unprovable and hence an article of faith by definition. Which, for those of us trained in logic, is what’s known as a non-contradiction.

Meaning it by definition can’t be true by the rules of logic. Hence the irony of your silly, absurd dogma.

Which just goes to show the truth of Chesterton’s dictum that there are only two types of people in this world – those that believe in dogma and know it, and those that believe it and don’t know it. You my friend are clearly in the latter camp. So now you know, and as G.I. Joe would say, knowing is half the battle.

In sum, we can clearly see the falsehood of this by looking at the nature of science itself (properly understood), as it’s a practice that rests on underlying presumptions, such as a world outside our minds, the regularity of universal laws, and the ability of the human mind to discover those laws. Given science rests on those assumptions, it cannot prove them without assuming what it sets out to prove — in other words, arguing in a circle.

All right, science can’t be justified from first principles. So what? As Stephen Hawing put it, “science wins because it works”. Or, in the words of Ben Graham, “we think that the strongest logic is that of experience” (who knew Ben Graham could be invoked in epistemological disputes!).

Ryan’s point is just philosophical obfuscation, and, even if he pretends not to, he agrees with me: that’s why he doesn’t worry about the unjustifiable premises of science when he prefers to fly on airplanes over levitating, or when he takes antibiotics over faith-healing, or when he chooses value investing instead of astrology investing. When you need to decide on your next investment, Ryan, will you assume “the regularity of the universal laws” and use the methods of science, or, since you think it will require just as much faith, are you as likely to consult a medium?

Ryan is wrong: we don’t need a philosophical justification to show science beats faith at producing knowledge; we just need to show that one works and the other doesn’t, and that’s easy. Spend your life looking for a philosophical justification if you want – in the meantime, I’ll be making investments by relying on reason and evidence, and scientists will be discovering new cures, while those not relying on reason and evidence will make bad investments and no cures. Ye shall know them by their fruits.

Ryan next hits us with this other bit of wisdom, as if he had never heard a good counterargument:

Truly intelligent minds with razor sharp reasoning capabilities understand this. Which explains why the vast majority of the greatest scientists in human history (throughout the ages), indeed the fathers of every scientific discipline known to man, have been overwhelmingly devoutly religious – most of them where priests.

As a student of logic, Ryan surely knows why arguments from authority, like this one, don’t fly. That’s probably why he wasn’t convinced when I mentioned that today’s elite scientists, who know a lot more than Newton and Kepler, are overwhelmingly unbelievers.

If you doubt that, please, only say the word and I’ll flood you with a list so deep that the twitterverse will know beyond a shadow of a doubt who’s swimming without clothes (read; who knows their scientific history and who reads hack propaganda that no serious scholar believes to be true anymore).

(Cue some howler on Galileo)

Yes, until a few hundred years ago, almost everybody was religious, and yes, some scientists worked ad maiorem Dei gloriam. They also used to believe a lot of other stuff we now consider to be patently false. Today many scientists aren’t religious, because we now know better. Unlike theology, science progresses.

And the scientific method has nothing to do with the idea of God, and scientific progress has come from individual scientists saying, with Laplace, je n’avais pas besoin de cette hypothèse-là“.

Ryan continues:

So to revert back to Chesterton, wise men with superior intellects realize that reason itself is a matter of faith, as it’s an act of faith to assert that our thoughts have any relation to reality at all.

I already answered this: confidence in science is provisional, and justified by experience, unlike religious faith.

Now before you respond, read all of the above twice and then two times more for good measure. I promise it will do you a world of good.

I did as instructed, and the promised “world of good” hasn’t materialized. Maybe I should read it again, but now with an open heart?

Of course make sure to address these exact arguments if you do, otherwise I won’t waste my time responding.)

I think I did.

Then comes the inevitable accusation hurled by “sophisticated” believers:

Bottom line is that I think you’d think/reason much better if you’d dampen your fundamentalist zeal vis a vi preaching the gospel of Scientism, which so clearly blinds you to obvious truths that any logic 101 course would slap right out of you. If only because like with most half baked, suffocatingly narrow ideologies that turn people’s minds to cabbage, it poisons your ability to be TRULY rational and is nothing but an Achilles heal.

I accept the charge of scientism if by it Ryan means that I think the only way to know how the world works is trough reason and observation. But I’d be happy to be shown why that’s silly (it’s easy, just answer my earlier challenge by providing one example of something we’ve learned through other means).

Last but not least, please stop trolling my tweets as if your some courageous, truth telling happy warrior standing athwart the legions of superstitious hordes in the name of Truth. It’s unbecoming and once again deliciously ironic. After all, I’m glad to discuss this stuff offline but it irks me to no end the way you link your second rate sophistry to attack a man far more intelligent, and more importantly, wiser, than you will ever be.

I’ve replied to exactly two of Ryan’s tweets, with a 10 months hiatus between the two. On both occasions he answered back, and because of that, so did I. Most people wouldn’t call that trolling.

But I understand why he’s irked –  it’s a common reaction to criticisms of people we admire and, especially, of our religious beliefs – and am glad that he’s finally dropped the pretense of feeling amusement and hilarity.

I agree with him that Sir John was a far better man than me. But surely he doesn’t mean to say that one should only criticize one’s inferiors?

So as Burry say’s, check your premises! .

P.S. Funny too that you espouse a dogmatic investment philosophy that takes on faith hidden laws that can’t be proven by the scientific method yet are nonetheless obvious truths, you know, such as those superstitious, loony toons ideas like the fact that price and value will always converge given enough time.

Which brings up the question, do you believe in the dogma of reversion to the mean?

If so, based on what?


Same reason: it works.

I’ll be popping some popcorn in the meantime. Your explanations should be entertaining to say the least.

Class closed.

I hope Ryan reopens it, and, now that I’ve answered his questions, allows me two of my own:

  1. Do you, Ryan, believe in the miracle of the resurrection, or in any other miracle? If not, do you have any religious beliefs?
  2. Do you have any evidence for them? Or do you think that you can get away believing stuff without evidence just by questioning the epistemology of science?