On knowledge and consistency

Well, the cat and the pigeons are having a field day, although it is open yet to interpretation which are the cats and which the pigeons.

Josh Rosenau’s post, which I approvingly cited and riffed off, has led to a number of critical blog posts in the ongoing accommodationism war. I say war and not debate because the matter has rarely been civilly debated, but I am in fact rather impressed at the overall civility of the commentators on both sides at my previous post, but less so elsewhere. Jason Josh himself has wound it back a little, but that’s fine too. Rants and polite expressions both have their place.

Larry Moran, who despite our obvious disagreements I count as a friend (and will continue to do so despite his being clearly wrong) has responded. First he defends the Verification Principle and makes my case about the positivist basis for the incompatibilist view. Well and good. If he takes a positivist view, he has a principle that is not scientific, and upon which his entire rejection of other, non-scientific, beliefs rests.

He misreads my view that if you take this approach you have to treat the compatibility of science and religion as an empirical issue, and assumes I am making the argument that this is what it means for science and religion to be consistent. I obviously do not think that – it was a reductio. Clearly the issue is whether or not the tenets of science and religion are compatible logically or reasonably. This cannot be resolved by assertion, such as simply defining religion as irrational and eliminating it from consideration. So we must, out of necessity, insist on religious scientists and philosophers putting their views out there so we can debate the matter.

I wrote: “As an accommodationist, I think that whether or not science and religion should be treated as compatible, in fact they are, or as compatible as any potentially competing set of beliefs may be, such as the belief that science is the only way to gain justifiable beliefs, which is not, itself, scientifically justifiable.” Larry read this thus:

I argue that if you adopt science as a valid way of gathering knowledge then most everything about religion fails the tests of science. Those who claim to be scientists and still believe that there’s a God who answers prayers are expressing two contradictory positions. You can’t claim to be thinking like a scientist while holding on to beliefs that have been refuted by science.

Only I didn’t say that religion is a way of knowing. It may be, if it is true, but I have no dog in that hunt, and I don’t need to. I said that this was about ways to gain justifiable beliefs. PZ Myers, who I also claim as a friend and will be flying to meet when he finishes the Atheism Lovefest in Melbourne (no, I’m not miffed I wasn’t invited to speak, why do you ask?), makes the same mistake – he tries, as Chris Schoen discusses, to show that his love for his wife is a scientific inference. I think there’s a clear is-ought fallacy here; trial and error may explain why Paul and his Trophy Wife[tm] found each other compatible, but the justifiable belief that he loves her is not the result of anything like a scientific inference. It’s what linguistic philosophers call a “performative”: he loves her in virtue of expressing the love. How he got there is beside the point.

A belief can be justifiable in a number of ways – in Wittgensteinian terms, a belief is justified when it satisfies the criteria for that sort of belief among a language community, who have a self-contained set of rules. Chess players have beliefs about what it is wrong to do (you can’t punch the other player, for instance) that are not in any sense scientific. Religious beliefs may be of that kind; that’s for those who care to argue. I don’t need to say they must have ways of knowing, merely that they have beliefs that satisfy some criteria, and we can then talk about those criteria.

Larry thinks I am committed to arguing that Young Earth Creationism is okay, which is a bit nonplussing. I think that if a scientist holds that, say, the second law of thermodynamics is true, and yet thinks that God can overcome the second law in a miracle, he had better think something like “miracles suspend but do not falsify the laws of physics”. In other words, if Miller thinks God did things that are not physically possible, I hope he doesn’t thereby abandon the scientific enterprise, but (having met and talked to the man) I hardly suppose that he does. So he slides under my, but not Larry’s, limbo bar. But a YEC is beyond the pale, because in order to argue for their miracles, they do reject that science can tell us about the world. They have to, since everything we know about the world must be false if they are right. So why would I have to defend them? Their views just are incompatible, explicitly, with science. I am not sure this is true of Millerian views. Miller still does good science, and that’s all I really care about.

Larry also thinks that a failure to reject religion in science is an assertion that religion should be in science. The NCSE has, it seems, people asserting that science and religion are compatible, and therefore they must think that science and religion are the same sort of thing. I don’t get that at all. There is a fallacy known as the argument from ignorance in which not knowing that X is false means knowing that X is true. I think that if NCSE fails to exclude religious belief (yes, because its director and others who work there are often religious themselves), it doesn’t follow they are promoting religion in science, which is a whole other position I don’t see them take.

Then there’s the problem of what counts as “knowledge”. Larry thinks that “Knowledge, in my mind, is a form of justified belief that can be affirmed as true by all people.” There’s a studied ambiguity here. “Can be”? Well if that is the case any theist can say that knowing that God exists “can be” affirmed by all people (indeed, they claim that all people should so affirm). If he means something like must be, then he has a problem with the incompatibilities within science (or your epistemic model of choice – math, logic, whatever): just take the “Birds Are Dinosaurs” debate as an example. I think, and many BAD proponents also think, we know that birds are a clade within the dinosaur clades, and in particular in the theropod clade. But on Larry’s definition, nobody knows this. Since I think that science is fallibilistic, that is fine by me – we’ll just say it is a strong supported hypothesis, but it’s good enough for government work in my book, so I’ll call it knowledge. In fact, I think nearly all knowledge is like this.

Larry, though, wants something more, I think. He wants knowledge to be inescapable, to be a belief that imposes itself on all properly functioning individuals. And that might be fine if the individuals who were religious did, in fact, have some epistemic pathology like schizophrenia. But they don’t. If you want to say that Ken Miller is not a functioning individual, then I say there’s something wrong with your definition of “proper”. If you want to say that he’s not functioning properly in this case then we are right back to the issue at hand. What counts as “rational” is precisely the question.

I think that religion is, on the whole, not rational, as a set of beliefs (but I make an exception for some as-yet-unencountered form of elite philosophical religion that maybe Einstein held), but that doesn’t mean I think that individuals who hold religious beliefs are less rational than I am. Why this is has to do with what is called “bounded rationality” – we all have limited time, capacity and resources to work through every issue, and so I think that a religious person can be as rational as we should expect and yet hold ideas that I think are wrong. In that respect, science and religion are compatible, because we are all (Larry included), boundedly rational. Do I think the religious scientist is right? Obviously not, or I’d be religious. But, and this is the point, they also think the same about me.

Either way, Larry’s positivism, which he at least is open and honest about, is the point of disagreement. PZ is a little less obvious, but I think he, too, has a similar view of what it is to know. Whenever people are called “irrational” or “illogical” for their religious beliefs, the underlying foundation is the view that the only knowledge worth having, and the only way that beliefs can be justified, is through science. Which, to return to my point, is itself an unjustifiable and unscientific belief, about which we can have many happy debates. Civilly.

60 thoughts on “On knowledge and consistency

  1. Coherent? Well, if the notion of natural necessity is coherent, then probably the notion of a created world is coherent. But I don’t have a firm opinion about the matter. Bear in mind who raised the issue of deism as an “exception” to the incompatibilist thesis — maybe we should be asking Larry to explain deism.


  2. John says,

    It’s a matter of whether religious beliefs are thought to falsify the science. Miller’s views on the 2LoT are presumably those of any educated person, except that he thinks God can intervene from time to time. The YEC, OTOH, thinks that religious beliefs falsify science, at every level.

    Is there a principled cutoff? I do not know. This is going to have problematic border cases, but on the whole we can tolerably distinguish the two cases.

    Ken is simply not any educated person. He is an extremely competent scientist from all that I can see, and he should know better — and he has shown better when it did not interfere with his relgious preconceptions. Some folks in the ID movement are also extremely competent scientists, and they have shown better at times, but they have also shown their relgious biases biases in spades at times. Even YEC’s have done good science at times… but in the end they share a common view – supernatural beings *do* something. Fine, some of their claims are easier to dismiss through the methods of science, some are tougher (or immune to the methods) but do we really want to make claims about their motives? I know from first hand experience the power of witnessing, and I would be hesitant to make excuses if I had no solid data.


  3. Bob says,

    Coherent? Well, if the notion of natural necessity is coherent, then probably the notion of a created world is coherent. But I don’t have a firm opinion about the matter. Bear in mind who raised the issue of deism as an “exception” to the incompatibilist thesis — maybe we should be asking Larry to explain deism.

    If my Usenet history is right, Larry, will have no problem running his mouth. 🙂 Natural necessity interests me though – totally out of my depth, but wasn’t that some sort of claim about universals? Interested to see the universals that bear on various supernatural claims?


  4. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that there is some deep connection between the idea of natural necessity and universals. I may well have misused the term, but my purpose was to provide a contrast with the contingency of a created nature.


  5. Science and religion elbow each other for space on the conceptual dance floor. Sometimes they are polite about it, and sometimes not.

    I know that you’re recycling Wilkins here John (I remember reading it the last time you wrote it) but that doesn’t stop it being one of the best things you’ve ever written 😉


Leave a Reply