Determinism and evidentiary value of belief based on personal experience

BBC - Five Live - Mark Kermode film reviews included this and last week an interesting exchange. First, the reviewer claimed that watching the film The March of the Penguin makes it possible to assume some level of intelligent design (while criticising some American views stating essentially the same thing). Predictably, in the subsequent program, a discussion on this topic ensued which bore some interesting gems.

To a reasonable email from a biologist who pointed out that the theory of evolution can explain any behavior displayed by the penguin, Mark Kermode responded with a great quote:

"The great problem with determinism is that it means you can never say thank you for passing the sugar."

Of course, this does not make his original claim any less ridiculous but it does encapsulate the central problem scientific and moral view of human nature face when juxtapposed.

Equally, interesting, or rarther illuminating was the continuation of Kermode's self-defence.

"It is possible for anybody to look at a rose and say that there is an absolutely rational explanation and that is all there is. And it is possible for somebody to look at it and say you know I don't think that happened by chance. And I have one view and he has the other view and that's fine. I'm not promoting a particular view. It's just honestly, I think, you look at some of the things nature does and say 'and that's an accident?"

It is easy to dismiss this as silly. And indeed, if this level of research into the natural world is enough to assume intelligent design, such a claim can be discounted as simply idiotic. However, since so many people are willing to make similar claims based on their personal experience, it might be dangerous discounting this as a matter of principle. (And yes, this second quote is simply idiotic.) In particular, since scientists often arrive at significant conclusions through identical routes. Kuhn, of course, has things to say here. But more interesting and detailed accounts can be found in Gould' Time's arrow, time's cycle: myth and metaphor in the discovery of geological time and Gerald Holton's Thematic origins of scientific thought: Kepler to Einstein. Both of these works amply demonstrate that a scientist's thought processes are not necessarily different from those of somebody like Mark Kermode. It bears repeating, that it does not necessarily invalidate scientific views but that their defense (and the debunking of nonsense such as that curtesy of Kermode) has to rely on foundations other than those of the ineffably inevitable and exalted scientific method. 'Scientific method' only offers a set of hermeneutic and heuristic benchmarks but it stands within rather than without the cognitive domain of science. That's why E. O. Wilson's elevation of science to the ultimate hermeneutic role in Consillience was completely misguided (more on that some other time; this post is also relevant here).