Margaret Somerville's Other Ways of Knowing

Margaret Somerville’s Other Ways of Knowing from

Reason is the primary “way of knowing” in science and it is fundamental to the scientific method that produces scientific knowledge. Mr. Dawkins’ mistake is to see reason (and probably science) as the only valid way of human knowing and, consequently, as the only appropriate tool to explore non-scientific questions, such as profound ethical and existential issues.

Our multiple ways of human knowing, in addition to reason, that are essential to ethics include human memory (history, looking back seven generations); imagination and creativity (looking forward seven generations to hold our world in trust for them); intuition — especially moral intuition; experiential knowledge; and “examined” emotions.

Oh, great. The “other ways of knowing” fallacy. I have to once again defer to Skeptico’s classic post dismantling that Big Lie. The “appeal to other ways of knowing” amounts to an immunomemetic response which defends the sentimental, relativistic and social constructivist ontologies. You know, “my truth,” vs. “your truth.” I’m amazed it keeps coming up–kind of like a bad case of dengue fever.

These other ways of knowing generate our “gut reactions” that we check out with reason to make sure those reactions are on track, whether ethically, legally, spiritually, emotionally or in some other relevant way.

We’ve seen how President Bush thinking with his ‘gut’ has produced national disgrace and ruin. People who think with their ‘gut’ usually don’t check it with reason. Otherwise, they would just be using reason. I can’t even muster the requisite sarcasm to respond to this absurd statement.

Very recent research published in Nature, backs this up. In an article, “The Moral Brain,” researchers reported that people with the reasoning parts of their brains intact, but who had damage to the emotional centres, could not make good ethical decisions.

In the example used by Somerville from the Nature article, the ‘correct’ emotion-based logic would prevent someone from sacrificing a single life to save many, even if inaction would cause the entire group to die. I don’t see this type of flawed logic as being worth defending. Triage and other difficult situations require these kinds of cold calculations to be made. Reason always trumps emotion in these cases. If my life was at risk, I wouldn’t want someone thinking with their ‘gut.’

This line of reasoning is also fallacious because emotions are not separate from thoughts. Refer to Marvin Minsky’s book on brain function The Emotion Machine. Minsky demonstrates how these two types of cognition work together. If we start with false premises or bad data, neither type will yield effective results.

Basic presumptions matter in decision-making because they allocate the burden of proof. When there is equal doubt about an issue, the basic presumption prevails. Mr. Dawkins’s basic presumption is that there is no God and, therefore, that those who believe there is must prove it. The equally valid basic presumption is that there is a God and those who don’t believe that must prove it.

Because neither basic presumption can be proved or disproved, both are tenable and, therefore, both must be accommodated in a secular society.

The presumptions do not have remotely close to the same probability of being true. This is equivocation (previous post), presuming the existence of god to be a falsifiable premise, which it is not. It’s conflating positive proof with negative proof, the latter being logically impossible.

I propose that what we need to search for a shared ethics that can accommodate as many people of goodwill as possible. We will never find a universal ethics and we will never be able to accommodate fanatics at either end of the spectrum of human beliefs, but we can articulate and develop an approach that will accommodate many more people in a big ethical tent than is at present the case.

An “ethical big tent” inevitably leads to coddling some people’s beliefs independent of their truth-value. It’s an irretrievably relativist position. I think the search for a workable universal ethics rooted deeply in human nature is indeed possible. It’s very likely the only broad philosophical goal of definable value to humanity.

Hitchens, Dawkins, Dennett and Harris argue forcefully for establishment of such a truth-based ethics. Somerville argues against this goal, in favor of prolonging the same subjective, untethered, and divisive codes of religion which threaten to ignite human civilization into its final conflagration. On mountains of historical evidence, it’s pretty clear unsupported and unsupportable belief systems are incompatible with a safe and sane human future. Therefore, I’m throwing down the red card on her dangerously manipulative opinion piece.

Comments (5 comments)

tobe38 / July 24th, 2007, 3:40 pm / #1

Very nicely critiqued, Sean. I found Someville's article via my daily "atheism" Google News Alert (which I'm convinced may lead one day to me being diagnosed with high blood pressure, at the very least!). I'm glad to see someone responding on behalf of the sane.

BlackSun / July 25th, 2007, 10:02 am / #2

tobe, thanks. The atheism and religion news alerts are deadly for that reason. Every once in a while I take up the challenge. Problem is, these nasty editorials cropping up everywhere are in large-circulation media. At least it places the response nearby in the google search. That’s some consolation.

J_Brisby / August 21st, 2007, 8:08 am / #3

I saw that article too. This is the letter I wrote to the editor:

With all due respect to Margaret Somerville, she does not show herself to be the most disciplined thinker.

For starters, she states that “Reason is the primary way of knowing in science,” which is not true. Evidence is.

She seems blithely unaware of the irony in claiming that there are many other ways of knowing, besides science, and then immediately attempting to bolster her argument with a scientific study. For all her bluster, she obviously understands and tacitly admits that until you bring the science, it ain’t nuthin’ but opinion.

Finally, she attempts to argue that atheism and theism are equivalent because both are based on faith, and neither can be tested. She doesn’t seem to notice that having started with the claim that there are many ways of knowing, she is now saying the opposite — that there are no ways of knowing!

I think that to claim the statements “God is real” and “God isn’t real” are equally valid with no way to choose between them is either shockingly naive, or disgracefully lazy. Perhaps the troubles of believers today have less to do with anything Richard Dawkins has written, and more to do with their own tendency to say things about their faith which are superficial, incoherent or just plain silly.

BlackSun / August 21st, 2007, 4:12 pm / #4


Nice rebuttal. Did they publish it?

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