By Dr. Free-Ride
Before I have a go at addressing some of the comments from the original post, I need to express my gratitude (and frankly, my amazement) at the quantity and quality of those comments. Long live civilized discourse in cyberspace!
Questions and comments that can be answered briefly, answered briefly.
1. In comment 69, Janus said:
“I have never read anything by a theistic scientist who understands the scientific method so well.”
I never said I was theistic. And, while I was trained as a physical chemist, I am not a working scientist. I am currently working as a philosopher of science — which is to say, understanding the scientific method is part of my job.
2. I am not claiming that atheists don’t take a lot of crap in the U.S. at this moment in history. They do. Nor am I claiming that “believers” are persecuted in the halls of science. To the best of my knowledge, they are not.
My initial post wasn’t trying to establish a point about current power relations in American society at large, nor in the community of science in the U.S. Rather, it sought to establish that proper use of scientific methodology to answer scientific questions need not keep a scientist from holding certain beliefs that aren’t certified as knowledge by the scientific method.
3. Hank Fox, in comment 8:
“The generosity you allow religious, faith-based, subjective believers is not shared by the other team. AND … all of this takes place against a political backdrop — a statistical field in which, no matter the eventual real-world benefits and results of the two mindsets, NUMBERS of believers on both sides matter.”
I agree that, in the current political landscape in the U.S., religion has an unfair advantage and appealing to folks on the basis of reasoned arguments is generally not a winning strategy. This depresses me like you would not believe. (Lately, I have this hunch that the real reason Socrates drank the hemlock was that he was fed up with folks who should have been susceptible to reasoned arguments but stubbornly resisted them.) However, I think it would be unfair to cast all the “faithful” as enemies of reason. (The Jesuits who trained my dad, for example, were huge fans of reasoned arguments.)
Even if the “faithful” fight dirty, I personally am not ready to say that scientists and science fans should sink into the mud as well. To my mind, intellectual honesty and fighting a clean fight go hand in hand. Then again, there’s probably a reason that the whole “philosopher kings” idea never caught on, so don’t let me stop you from formulating your own political strategy.
4. Several commenters raise the issue that various flavors of religious belief involve a deity who intervenes upon the material world from time to time. Religious beliefs of this sort would seem to have an empirical content that might render them testable using scientific methodology, thus making them eligible to be supported or undermined as “knowledge”.
I purposely avoided using any beliefs of this sort as examples in the original post because I agree that there’s a serious challenge in maintaining these kinds of beliefs while still embracing scientific methodology. But this is not the only sort of belief to which the hard core scientific-method camp objects. (And, there are people who identify themselves as believing in a deity who don’t believe in an intervening deity.)
5. In response to the fine points raised by Aloysius (comment 42ff.), I won’t make any further claims about David Bowie’s best album. While I have strong opinions on this matter, it’s really not my area of expertise.
The issues that require longer responses:
1. Christian H. in comment 3:
“I disagree that the belief in the existence of God, for example, is the same kind of belief as the belief that the laws of nature are homogeneous in space and time. The former cannot be disproved even in principle; the latter can. If objects suddenly started falling upwards next week, scientists would quickly (before they all die) change their opinion on the immutability of the laws of nature. So while it is certainly true that science rests on certain assumptions, those assumptions have largely been made explicit and can therefore be argued (maybe the one exception is the scientific method itself).”
What should we say about beliefs for which there could someday be relevant empirical evidence that might support (or undermine) them? Are these relevantly different from beliefs for which, in principle, there could never be any relevant empirical evidence one way or another?
I think it depends.
If one were to treat beliefs that are (at least potentially) susceptible to empirical test as being stamped with an expiration date, beyond which date if no empirical support has presented itself the belief will be kicked to the curb, then I think you can make the case that these beliefs really are different. They would be acting as place holders or promissory notes for “knowledge” produced with the appropriate empirical and logical support, and a failure to produce the right kind of support in a reasonable amount of time would be taken as a strike against the belief.
But I don’t think a scientist’s belief that the laws of nature are homogeneous in space and time works this way. It is not sufficient to line up all the empirical support for this claim to date and holler “QED!” If spatiotemporal heterogeneities in the laws of nature presented themselves, we’d certainly have good reason to modify our belief, but the mere fact that such heterogeneities have not yet presented themselves is no kind of proof that they will not. And what that means is that while we are holding the belief, we can’t be sure it won’t turn out to be false. Which is to say: it’s still functioning as a belief rather than as knowledge.
I tend to agree with Christian that scientists at least try to make their assumptions explicit so that they can be scrutinized. However, scientists being human, it would be surprising to me if there weren’t at least some implicit assumptions that aren’t laid out or even noticed by the scientists. Possibly they aren’t laid out because they seem so utterly obvious to the scientists, so very difficult to doubt. The laws of logical inference work. The future will be like the past. I’m not just a brain in a vat. I’m not saying scientists are wrong to believe such things — I believe them too! But a quick visit to Descartes’ first Meditation reminds us that even such sensible beliefs can be doubted.
(Getting out of doubt, and to the point where you can identify your belief as knowledge, is no mean feat. Descartes thought it required a proof of the existence of a God who is not a deceiver, so that we could count on our clear and distinct perceptions as building blocks for knowledge. I daresay this is not a move most empirical scientists today would be inclined to make in order to support their practice.)
Finally, I should note that some people are counting on their belief (or non-belief) in the existence of God being susceptible to empirical testing of a sort — it’s just that they’re expecting the decisive data to come in when they die and end up someplace heavenly or hellacious.
2. The epistemic underpinnings of science are part of our toolbox even when we confront the world in non-scientific contexts. (Brian, comment 30)
“[I]t seems to me that the strong form of the ‘living a lie’ argument is that if you are committed to things like logic, reason, and observation (which in order to be a scientist you need to be), then you should be just as committed to them when addressing questions outside the purview of science as in.”
I think I agree with Brian about this, largely because I see scientific methodology as a more rigorous relative of common sense. So a crucial question here is just what “faith” involves.
Some people use “faith” to mean a belief that goes against what reason (and empirical evidence and such) would tell you. Exercising this kind of faith might well put some pressure on a person’s other epistemic commitments. How could you know when it was appropriate to go with the deliverances of reason and when it was appropriate to go against them? Maybe one wouldn’t necessarily be living a lie, but one would certainly be walking a tightrope.
But there’s another sense of “faith” that indicates beliefs one has for which reason (and empirical evidence and such) cannot conclusively settle the matter. Different possible states of affairs fit with the available evidence, and reason does not anoint a single one of these as correct. In such a situation, you can form a belief which reason neither supports nor undermines.
The uncertainty in such a situation bugs a lot of people. Why not wait to form a belief until reason and the available evidence can eliminate all but one of the possibilities? Why not remain agnostic in the meantime rather than preferring one of the possibilities over the others? My sense is that this comes down to a disagreement about where to place the burden of proof. Should we refrain from holding beliefs until we are forced into them by something like the methodology we use to build scientific knowledge? Or, is it acceptable to hold beliefs in matters where the scientific method hasn’t yet weighed in, always with the understanding that future information might undermine those beliefs?
And, in areas where science by its own lights cannot weigh in (because there’s nothing like empirical evidence to get our hands on), are we allowed to form beliefs? Or ought we to treat those areas as suspect because science cannot grapple with them?
Now I loves me some science, but I don’t know that we do ourselves a service if that’s the only tool in our box. And, since the scientific method itself is not something that we could count as supported by the scientific method, I think a push for too much epistemic purity might leave us with no tools at all.
Responses to “More Science and Belief.”