In my subjective world, vaccination is not a belief system – and other postures

Here is part one of this blog post, just in case you want some form of background

I started a twitter contretemps with teeth grinding and one fist clenched, I couldn’t clench the other as it hinders my typing. I still haven’t mastered punch-typing. With the quantity of aggression on the internet, I am sure a laptop manufacturer would profit from making a fist operated keyboard. As the argument continued, I began to enjoy it as it became a good mental exercise in working out why I thought what I thought I thought. 

The self-declared philosopher claimed that it took as much faith to believe in science as it did to believe in religion. He continued by tweeting that it took a lot of unwarranted assumptions about the world for either science or religion to make sense. 

At this point, I entered the fray to suggest that, an idea may start as unwarranted, but the scientific method can then be used to test it. I was already wary that this might turn into a conversation mixing postmodernism and cultural relativism. 

The philosopher returned with the idea that we cannot trust our senses, and it is only faith to believe that we can. As regular readers will know, I love thinking about Timothy Leary’s “reality tunnels”, the view that what each of us see is not some objective view of the world, but in the act of translating our experiences, our biases colour what we believe we have seen. As I have grown older, I have found it more fascinating to think that we live in a universe of probabilities, and that science strives not to be right, but to be the least wrong version of events. It attempts to be as true as possible within the limitations we have. 

I replied to the philosopher that I did not believe all perceptions were equal. We can test our subjective view points, there is not an equality of wrongness. My first example was the penicillin had proved more effective than prayer, experiment and observation can whittle down ideas to those that are less wrong. Currently, in many societies, anti-epileptic drugs are proving more effective in treating people with epilepsy than one of the previous popular cures, beating out the devils. They also appear to be a kindlier treatment. The earlier cure only resulted in stopping the incidents of seizures through the cure of killing you.  Apparently, numerous other conditions used to be cured by death. 

The philosopher replied with, “If all perceptions are based on unwarranted assumptions, I don’t see how you could prove one is more valid than another. Well maybe penicillin has, but even that observation can be doubted. If all observations can be doubted, probability is simply blind faith.”

About now I wanted my punch responsive keyboard (do hurry up inventors). 


INTERVAL from post


I have just sat down on a train and watched a man peeling off the wrapper of his KitKat and dropping it onto the carriage floor. A man older than I am. I could not help myself.

“Are you really going to just drop that wrapper on the floor?”

Nothing was said. I was ignored. A minute later he surreptitiously picked up the bits of wrapper. One day, I will be stabbed. The man is going into his bag now as we approach the station. Maybe this will be the last sentence I write.



Oh no, I have managed to get to this sentence. Phew, he’s got off now. 

And back to…

I explained that in my subjective world, vaccination was not a belief system. “You might believe that you did not die of smallpox when you were child, but actually you did. And the rest of you all died from the cholera from that dirty pump, you only believed that the cholera was linked to the dirty water”.  

By this point, the virtual brawl room was getting crowded. (@shanemuk @floatingcubes @paradiselost17 @barneyfarmer @numbdave @cathyby are amongst the roll call) 

By this point I had resorted to suggesting that the Philosopher’s tweets were amounting to a postmodern sneer, while @shanemuk came in with “science *relies* on doubt. But not any old credulous codswallop. We progress.”

I find myself when confronted by questions such as “how do we really know that medicine is better than death, that not dying in agony is better than dying in agony, that life is better than death etc etc”, thinking, “well I am going to rely on my gut instinct, mixed with reports from the grieving and seeing people in pain, to make a subjective presumption that the world seems better when it doesn’t involve as many children dying painfully in infancy, that comfort is better than being beaten repeatedly in a cage, that, though I can’t be 100% certain that people weeping and screaming and renting their clothes apart in apparent melancholy is a sign of pain rather than pleasure, I am going to make these presumptions anyway. 

Doubt does not have top lead to inaction. There is not an equality in wrongness. 

But that’s what I think, and what do I know. The more neuroscience I read, the more I find out I don’t even know my own mind. 

Philosophy asks some taxing questions. Some of them are annoying and enlightening, but some are just annoying. We’re not brains in vats, we’re minds immersed in twitter, and the demons are all around, stirring us up. Fun, isn’t it? 

I am off to Norwich, Birmingham, Falmouth, Leeds, Sheffield, Salford and a town near you soon, with my show on the mind. Details HERE

Here is trailer number 2, the Bible version, for my “out this week” DVD HERE

and Cosmic Genome, the science app with Alice Roberts, Brian Cox and more, is HERE

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13 Responses to In my subjective world, vaccination is not a belief system – and other postures

  1. @shanemuk says:

    It’s a standard postmodernist gotcha – “since all our knowledge of the outside world is mediated by our senses, there is no way of knowing about reality”. But it’s wrong. Dead wrong. Damned wrong. Yes, we know that our senses can be deceived, but in science our senses are part of the system. Heck, isn’t that what our quantum buddies have been telling us for years? If we are carrying out an experiment to test a scientific model, we can frame it (and indeed, this is implicit): “If model A is consistent with reality, then experiment B will present its results C to our brain D via our senses E in the perception F; if A is incorrect, we will perceive G.” The perception is subjective, but the modelling is not. The system behaves as it will, and the fit of A to reality can be tested via lots of different permutations of B. Subjectivity simply cancels out of the equation.

    So Jacques Derrida can kiss my jacksie derriere. Science is not simply one narrative among many equally valid wee stories – it is a model-building-and-testing exercise. Well designed experiments yield results that inform us as to how closely the model approximates the way our universe actually behaves. If someone wants to criticise a scientific theory, bring it on (please do!) – come up with experiments that the model can’t handle, and formulate and test better models. I can certainly see why lazy-verbose ineffectual postmodernists might not like getting their brains and fingers dirty with this, but who are they to step in and apply their subjective perceptions and faux-intellectual deconstructivism? Maybe their senses are lying to them? Or, more likely, they have taken leave of them altogether.

    -@shanemuk [harrumphs loudly and wanders off muttering dark mutters]

    • John Allen says:

      I think Robinince (how to reply politely to main item and author?) may be re-stating Hume’s problem of induction. Russell did it thus in “A History of Western Philosophy”.

      “It is important to discover whether there is any answer to Hume. If not, it follows that there is no intellectual distinction between sanity and insanity. The lunatic who believes that he is a poached egg is to be condemned solely on the ground that he is in a minority, … or on the ground that the government does not agree with him”.

      There is no induction, and no problem. My shot at describing Popper’s view:-

      Click to access Allen_2001_BE.pdf

      There is objective knowledge. Of the World. What there isn’t is certainty. We should not throw out the baby with the bathwater. Or the KitKat with its wrapper.

      I agree with @shanemuk. [Adds to chorus of harrumphs].

      [@ProfJohnAllen thanks @ProfBrianCox for the link here].

  2. Dave says:

    I suggest the scientific method is infallible, it works by repeatable experiment, you can argue that the perception isn’t reality, but who cares, it is repeatable perception we care about. The method has brought the tangible results that have superceded blind faith.

    That said, the practice of science is riddled with dogma because of politics.

  3. Mike S says:

    It’s Philosophy 101. You may or may not distrust your senses, but behaving as if they work is the only approach likely to be useful.

  4. Jim Bean says:

    You are living through your ego. Listen to the voice inside your head just listen don’t act. You are not that voice you are the person listening.

  5. Science believes that something must be able to be replicated to have real meaning, and science is willing to question itself and make changes when needed. Religious faith relies on never questioning.

  6. Ken Carpenter says:

    Dearest Brian, relax. and never reason with a fool.

  7. oiscarey says:

    Skepticism is always an alternative hypothesis.

    If we could not trust our senses, our perceptions of a coherent, lawful, predictable world would be a statistically incredible coincidence.

    The theory that says that our senses work is proven effective every time we test the information of our sense by making predictions, e.g. Crossing the road and not dying, cooking meals, etc.

    Derrida needs to explain how this could happen if our senses were not trustworthy.

    Note that philosophers use information supported by inductive evidence to unfairly doubt it by saying it hasn’t been proven deductively. It’s silly.

  8. Eldin M says:

    As Mike S. said, it’s Philosophy 101. Are you an Empiricist or a Rationalist, Idealist or Materialist. This guy seems to entertain some serious solipsism, so leave him to it. I personally like skepticism in healthy dosages because it helps us evolve, but taken too far it’s just silly. It’s really an excuse for passiveness.

  9. rHarry says:

    It’s not an excuse for passiveness. It’s a real philosophical problem. It seems to suggest that no matter how logical or rational we think we are, there is no way to prove it. It’s kind of annoying. But it’s not stupid or silly.

  10. Pingback: First things first | John F. Allen's Blog

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