Tetralogue by Timothy Williamson is a philosophy book for the commuter age. In a tradition going back to Plato, Timothy Williamson uses a fictional conversation to explore questions about truth and falsity, knowledge and belief. Four people with radically different outlooks on the world meet on a train and start talking about what they believe. Their conversation varies from cool logical reasoning to heated personal confrontation. Each starts off convinced that he or she is right, but then doubts creep in. During February, we will be posting a series of extracts that cover the viewpoints of all four characters in Tetralogue. What follows is an extract exploring Bob’s perspective.
Bob is just an ordinary guy who happens to be scared of witches. His beliefs are strongly rooted in personal experience, and this approach brings him to blows with the unyieldingly scientific Sarah.
Sarah: That’s unfair! You don’t expect all the scientific resources of the Western world to be concentrated on explaining why your garden wall collapsed, do you? I’m not being dogmatic, there’s just no reason to doubt that a scientific explanation could in principle be given.
Bob: You expect me to take that on faith? You don’t always know best, you know. I’m actually giving you an explanation. (Mustn’t talk too loud.) My neighbour’s a witch. She always hated me. Bewitched my wall, cast a spell on it to collapse next time I was right beside it. It was no coincidence. Even if you had your precious scientific explanation with all its atoms and molecules, it would only be technical details. It would give no reason why the two things happened at just the same time. The only explanation that makes real sense of it is witchcraft.
Sarah: You haven’t explained how your neighbour’s muttering some words could possibly make the wall collapse.
Bob: Who knows how witchcraft works? Whatever it does, that old hag’s malice explains why the wall collapsed just when I was right beside it. Anyway, I bet you can’t explain how deciding in my own mind to plant some bulbs made my legs actually move so I walked out into the garden.
Sarah: It’s only a matter of time before scientists can explain things like that. Neuroscience has made enormous progress over the last few years, discovering how the brain and nervous system work.
Bob: So you say, with your faith in modern science. I bet expert witches can already explain how spells work. They wouldn’t share their knowledge around. Too dangerous. Why should I trust modern science more than witchcraft?
Sarah: Think of all the evidence for modern science. It can explain so much. What evidence is there that witchcraft works?
Bob: My garden wall, for a start.
Sarah: No, I mean proper evidence, statistically significant results of controlled experiments and other forms of reliable data, which science provides.
Bob: You know how witches were persecuted, or rightly punished, in the past. Lots of them were tortured and burnt. It could happen again, if they made their powers too obvious, doing things that could be proved in court. Do you expect them to let themselves be trapped like that again? Anyway, witchcraft is so unfashionable in scientific circles, how many scientists would risk their academic reputations taking it seriously enough to research on it, testing whether it works?
Sarah: Modern science has put men on the moon. What has witchcraft done remotely comparable to that?
Bob: For all we know, that alleged film of men on the moon was done in a studio on earth. The money saved was spent on the military. Anyway, who says witchcraft hasn’t put women on the moon? Isn’t assuming it hasn’t what educated folk call ‘begging the question’?
Sarah: I can’t believe I’m having this conversation. Do you seriously deny that scientific journals are full of evidence for modern scientific theories? Isn’t all of that evidence against witchcraft?
Bob: How do we know how much of that so-called evidence is genuine? There have been lots of scandals recently about scientists faking their results. For all we know, the ones who get caught are only the tip of the iceberg.
Sarah: Well, if you prefer, look at all the successful technology around you. You’re sitting on a train, and I notice you have a laptop and a mobile phone. Think of all the science that went into them. You’re not telling me they work by witchcraft, are you?
Bob: Lots of modern science and technology is fine in its own way. I went to hospital by ambulance, not broom, thank goodness. None of that means modern science can explain everything.
Have you got something you want to say to Bob? Do you agree or disagree with him? Tetralogue author Timothy Williamson will be getting into character and answering questions from Bob’s perspective via @TetralogueBook on Friday 6 March 2015 from 2-3 p.m. GMT. Tweet your questions to him and wait for Bob’s response!