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Accommodating science: Faith and reason

[This is the penultimate chapter. I can’t be bothered trying to get the references or footnotes included in the posts, so you’ll have to wait for the book. Some of this has appeared on the blog before in less well written form, so don’t worry about the deja vu]

All religious systems, it is confessed, are subject to great and insuperable difficulties. Each disputant triumphs in his turn; while he carries on an offensive war, and exposes the absurdities, barbarities, and pernicious tenets of his antagonist. But all of them, on the whole, prepare a complete triumph for the Sceptic; who tells them, that no system ought ever to be embraced with regard to such subjects: For this plain reason, that no absurdity ought ever to be assented to with regard to any subject. A total suspense of judgement is here our only reasonable resource. [Hume, Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, VIII]

Is faith the absence of reason?

As noted before, a belief is just a state of mind, what I referred to as a doxastic stance. It is an attitude one has in a given context, usually towards some object like a sentence, or a practice. Everyone whose brain functions has beliefs.

Some of these beliefs come along with what philosophers are inclined to call warrant, which is a way of saying they meet certain standards for accepting them as good beliefs. Some of those beliefs also happen to match the standards for being knowledge.

These standards we call reasons to believe. If you have reasons to believe something, then you are called reasonable, but the term “reason” has greater weight than this. The reasons have to be, in their own right, reasonable, and this is where things get very messy. If we have reasons for the reasons, are there reasons in turn for those reasons? This is a technical philosophical problem known as the Problem of the Criterion. You always seem to need to find yet another more basic criterion to choose.

One of the ways in which religious belief is denigrated by its critics is that it appears to have no seemingly reasonable foundations. Revelation is insufficient, because you already have to believe in the validity of the revelation for it to provide any warrant for your beliefs. In other words, it is a question-begging argument. But there are similar issues for nonreligious views; and it seems that if you want to have some kind of foundation for your reasons, there is some belief you must hold without warrant: either that the world is real, or the past is the same as the present and the future, and so on.

Now I mention this largely to show that the common misconception that the rational folk do not have faith is misleading, to say the least, but by the same token, one shouldn’t think that it is beliefs all the way down. At some point we do hit the real world in the face, and as the eighteenth century “common sense” philosopher, Thomas Reid, wrote:

A traveler of good judgment may mistake his way, and be unawares led into a wrong track; and while the road is fair before him, he may go on without suspicion and be followed by others but, when it ends in a coal pit, it requires no great judgment to know that he hath gone wrong, nor perhaps to find out what misled him. (1764, chap. 1, sec. 8)

To hold such obvious views is not a logical matter in one way – we can’t navigate around the world unless we hold something like this – but in another sense it is just the same as taking something “on faith”, as it were. The practical issues of not ending up in a ditch are different from the formal logical problem of assuming a constant and reliable world. When the religious hold to a fundamental belief that is not further supported except by personal anecdotal experience, they are doing nothing that everyone else is doing, but still, there’s a real difference here.

Part of the problem is that in addition to their religious “presuppositions”, as some like to call them, they are also doing what everyone else is doing with regards to avoiding ditches. So there is an extra loading on religious justification over and above what we all do. Being economic with our beliefs is necessary if we aren’t to have our heads allegorically explode with an exponential increase in beliefs, beliefs about beliefs, and beliefs about beliefs about beliefs, ad infinitum. So we criticise religious beliefs for being uneconomical. But that doesn’t prove they are wrong, just that if they are right (without any reasons we can all accept) we can’t show it.

So, when religion critics say that the religious have faith where they claim to have knowledge, leaving aside all the usual philosophical debates about certitude, justification and doubt, aren’t we right to say that? Well I think that we are, in the abstract, and that we aren’t in the usual course of people’s beliefs. Few people have beliefs because they have reasons for them, in the sense of well-articulated and explored reasons, let alone solutions to the Problem of the Criterion. In one way the religious can apply the old retort of tu quoque: you too! Even the most careful of scientific reasoners has unexamined beliefs of one sort or another, even if it’s just the acceptance of the laws of arithmetic. But this is a kind of false equivalence. Religious beliefs are more generalised, more influential on reasoning, and restricting than most sorts of beliefs.

In the western religious traditions, faith and reason have been opposed to each other, at least on the face of it. Tertullian, in the fourth century, said “I believe because it is absurd”, although he meant this to be evidence for the truth of the resurrection, which otherwise is so absurd to a critical Greek thinker that it would not have been invented unless true (a not very good argument, but still, he was not extolling absurd beliefs). When the Arab philosophers were handed on to the west around the eleventh century or so, the problem of faith and reason arose and set the tone for western religious philosophy from then until now. The issue over whether truth was one or two is one of those problems.

According to Aquinas, there is no conflict between faith and reason: “Since therefore grace does not destroy nature but perfects it, natural reason should minister to faith as the natural bent of the will ministers to charity.” as he wrote in the Summa [Pt 1 Q1 Art 8], a view repeated by Calvin and more recently Pope John Paul II in his Fides et Ratio encyclical letter in 1998:

The fundamental harmony between the knowledge of faith and the knowledge of philosophy is once again confirmed. Faith asks that its object be understood with the help of reason; and at the summit of its searching reason acknowledges that it cannot do without what faith presents.

Similar sentiments were expressed by various Jewish thinkers, including Maimonides (twelfth century) and modern thinkers:

Knowledge and belief do not contradict each other; they belong to different universes of discourse. Scientific knowledge is bereft of the “I” in all its fullness; it abstracts from the concreteness of both the self and outside reality; it is objective, communicable, permanent, but forever incomplete as a process. The assumption that there is an irreconcilable conflict between knowledge and belief usually stems from a misconception of the nature of religious faith. The truth of belief cannot be formulated in verifiable propositions; religious experience does not claim that it provides answers to scientific questions. (Bergman 1963, 22)

So, as long as “reason” (by which is meant secular reasoning, such as philosophy and science) does not try to do what only faith can do (usually seek divine knowledge about God and mysteries), there is no conflict. Now one can read this one of two ways. The charitable way to read it and similar comments is that faith is responsible for beliefs that are not accessible by any secular science. We’ll come back to that shortly. The less charitable reading is that there are things whereof Man was not meant to know, as the horror film trope has it. Or in other words, don’t look there, because you can’t unsee it!

The funny thing is that both readings can be supported by historical examples. Faith is seen by some theologians as something that gives us beliefs that are not scientific. Such beliefs cannot contradict science, because if they did, they would have to be scientific beliefs. “How to go to heaven, not how the heavens go” as Galileo is supposed to have said. This is fully compatibilist: no matter how many non-empirical or nonscientific beliefs you add to the set of your scientific beliefs, so long as the scientific beliefs are undisturbed, it really makes no difference (except that a religious pupil would need to be taught the science plus all the religious added beliefs, making learning somewhat harder).

The other reading, though, is malign. Faith stops investigations into things we can know through science. Intelligent design is a form of this blocking malignancy: because its default argument is that things were done by design and not the workings of natural law, in cases where we do not know what natural laws are, ignorance forces us to stop looking and rest easy on the mysterious design and designer, who need not be a deity but who can foresee the outcomes of every designed trait billions of years in advance, which is the next best thing to godhood (Wilkins and Elsberry 2001).

When we are considering the permissible role of religious beliefs in a scientific social or intellectual context, what response we give will depend upon our being charitable or not. If we think a person’s religion is their private business when they are acting in a scientific capacity, then it matters not if they believe it to be a moral duty to have sex with trees, so long as they mind the splinters. But if we think that one’s religious beliefs constrain the very autonomy of science, as for instance when it is a matter of faith that an Amerindian tribe is one of the lost tribes of Israel, doing genetic analyses is in fact a prohibited act of unfaith, and that really is malign. And there are issues of this kind in every religion I have studied: Jews have their faith in the Exodus, Christians in their virgin birth, Muslims in the truth of scientific claims in the Qur’an, Hindus that the Monkey King built a bridge we now think is a natural formation, and so on. With sufficient digging, we can find plenty of these contrary-to-fact beliefs in every religion.

But this is not the considered opinion of informed scholars in most religions. A village clergyman may not know the earth is round, but the best educated members of that religion in the cosmopolitan cities know it perfectly well. Who to take as the best example of the theology of that religion then? And things are often complicated by the fact that many religious scholars are just that: scholars only of their religion, with minimal scientific knowledge. Such authorities are worthless, both as sources of scientific knowledge and of the best theology of the religion itself. Nearly everything said by a theologian about evolution, when that theologian was not also a well educated person in the sciences, is false or so badly corrupted as to be as good as false.

This also is not new. The rabbinic tradition attacked a philosopher they knew nothing of, Epicurus, because his deities did not require worship (they were too elevated to even care about us), and so his name became the rabbinic word for heretic and atheist: apikoros. It is clear from how they characterise him they had never read him. Epicurus was also the go-to hate object for Christians and later for Muslims, and still is (Clark, Foster et al. 2007).

It should not surprise you that I prefer to deal with the charitable reading, but not because I am a “faithist”. Rather, if I am to critically analyse a view, then I will do the most useful work if the view I criticise is the strongest and the best, according to the principle of charity. If I find that the best version of a view is something I can defeat, then I have defeated all the weaker versions as well. But if I cannot, then either I must adopt it, or withhold further judgement.

Withholding judgement, or being agnostic

Andrew Brown, who writes, among other things, a blog at the Guardian newspaper, once linked to me commenting that “religion” was a mess of pottage and not a single unitary phenomenon. He made one point in particular that strikes me as underpinning a serious mistake about agnostics:

JSWilkins: I self-identify as an agnostic, and although I am definitely atheist about a good many gods, I refuse to assert that no gods exist, as that requires that I know things I do not know.

Except of course that isn’t what atheists assert. Atheists, at least this one, maintain that there is no evidence for the existence of god(s), in the same way that there is no evidence for the existence of fairies.

Are you also agnostic as to the existence of fairies?

Absent any evidence, there is no difference between fairies and gods. Of course, if you do have some evidence you can point us toward, then that would be a different matter entirely.

This seems to me to be a basic error of epistemology. I think that atheism is a denial of the existence of a god, and agnosticism is the refusal to say one way or another that a position can be taken about the existence or otherwise of a god. Here the issue is whether as an agnostic I must be agnostic about all potentially supermaterial beings.

Every claim to know X, whether X is a claim there is a god, or there is no god, or no evidence for god, is relative to the particular god being proposed. Likewise X can be about other supernatural beings, such as fairies.

Each supernatural being has some posited properties. If a supernatural being has properties that localise it in a place where it is not observed, or involve it, and only it, being the cause of some phenomenon that we can otherwise fully explain naturally (like thunder or volcanoes) then we are fully justified in saying that X is not existent. In short, if your supernatural being means that you should find it in the bottom of the garden, or making thunder, and you don’t, then you have disproven that entity.

But for suitably empirically inoculated supernatural beings, in other words, ones that either cannot make an empirical difference in their posited properties or have not yet been shown to make an empirical difference, you ought to remain undecided. The claims for each supernatural being are hence indexed to that supernatural being. If I decide that Thor is not real, I haven’t thereby decided that, say, Ahura Mazda is unreal. That is a different supernatural being.

Now you might try to argue that if an supernatural being exists only in the gaps in our empirical (i.e., scientific) knowledge, it is a pretty uninteresting sort of posited entity, and I would agree: gods of the gaps are weak and uninteresting (because there are an infinite number of states of supernatural beings that can be consonant with gaps in our knowledge). But if you think that because you have shown they are uninteresting that they can be said with any degree of confidence not to exist, that is an error of inference.

In any case, the sorts of gods that are not subject to empirical evidence cannot ever be shown not to exist, so long as their descriptions are not self-refuting (as, I suspect, all-knowing, all-powerful, all-benevolent deities probably are: pick two but not all three). For example, Epicurus’ gods, which are so far above us and so uninterested in human affairs, and which merely made the atoms in the void to exist, are beyond disproof. Likewise, Spinoza’s deity is beyond disproof. So, too, is a suitably “abstracted” Thor, where his role is not to make thunder, but (say) to make us stand in moral awe of the natural world. These sorts of deities are the kind one must be agnostic about.

So the counterargument, often made to me by atheists, that if one is an agnostic one must be agnostic about all gods and supernatural beings is a failure to index claims to specifics. I am atheist enough for most atheists – I certainly do not think that the Christian, Jewish or Islamic deities as commonly accepted are existent, because to believe that involves either believing contrary-to-fact claims about the universe (and us) or involves reinterpreting them in Spinozan fashion to not be what they traditionally (and doctrinally) are. But I remain an agnostic in general terms, and so far as I can see, there is no way that could ever rationally change. There will always be conceptually possible supernatural beings that are beyond empirical, and hence scientific, debunking and disproof. And the rational thing to do is withhold judgement in such cases. So science is not automatically disproof of deities, even if it may fairly be said to disprove un-inoculated deities.

Incidentally, as to the nature of “gods”: I apply the Greek Pantheon Test, of my own devising: If an entity would count as a god in the Greek pantheon, then it’s a god. Sprites and fairies count as gods. The Virgin Mary counts as a god. Buddhist Devas count as gods. In the Greek religious traditions, which are anyway rather complicated, what counts as a god depends on what gets its own cult of ritual worship, which is why the Titans are not gods. Otherwise, gods are supernatural beings simpliciter.

Faith versus reason again

In the medieval theologies, a distinction was made between two senses of faith (fides): trust in the belief or object of belief (fiducia, from which we get “fiduciary”), and assent to a proposition about the object of faith (assensus). This is very like the modern distinction between theory and practice. Often, the propositional aspect is of very little real weight, and what counts is the practice. For example, if you are born Jewish, the keeping the rules of kashrut matters more than even believing in the existence of God (for the reasons given in the chapter above on silly beliefs). Religious traditions are therefore most often bound together by behavioural continuity than by intellectual rigidity. Many religious adherents are more concerned with practice than doctrine, and in fact Christianity and its doctrinal offshoots are the exceptions rather than the typical forms of religion. 

There is therefore a very real sense in which faith does not contradict reason when “faith” refers to practices that have nothing to do with scientific practices or beliefs. This is not a mere dodge or trick; if most people mean by their religion the doing of ritual behaviours, and those behaviours do not, for instance, stop you from titrating a solution in the right way, then practically there really is no conflict for those people. And we need not think that these people are a threat to science, any more than the actions and rituals of some sports fan threaten their ability to do science (I have known more than a few scientists who take sports very seriously, particularly when it involves cricket).

Thus, it has to be in the sense of assent to propositions that can be seen as threatening good science; nothing else matters formally or socially. Since much of the objectionable behaviours by religious extremists objected to by critics of Islam like Hitchens or Dawkins are ethical precept based, and since, contrary to Sam Harris, science is not in the business of providing moral precepts (although it may very well explain them, and also offer practical advice about what will help humans to flourish, if your ethical system values flourishing), this is not science versus religion, but cosmopolitan ethics versus (mostly) village ethics under the rubric of religion.

Therefore, even if it were true that “religion poisons everything” any more than any other nonscientific activity, it is still not about science unless one makes the very real error of thinking that science is a kind of modernist ethical system, There are ethics in science: one of the core moral precepts is do not lie about your research. But that is not in contradiction to anything religious either. Ethical naturalism is not the same thing as doing science, and if science defenders think it is, then perhaps it is not science they are defending, but some other philosophical system.

Doxastic biases and arguments for religion (and other things)

Helen De Cruz at Oxford has conducted a fascinating survey on how various arguments for and against the existence of God are treated by philosophers… according to their general stance – atheistagnostic, or theist. Basically it considers not whether people think the arguments are right (a common mistake scientists make about philosophical arguments) but whether they think they are strong. An argument is strong if, given that the premises are true, the conclusion is made very probably true or correct. Of course a philosopher can think that a strong argument is nevertheless incorrect or that its premises are false. If you give a strong argument that the universe doesn’t exist, I might go looking for the error in your argument given the (ahem) reality check I can perform on it, but I might appreciate the subtlety and expertise of the argument the way a high diver might appreciate a flubbed difficult dive that almost worked.

What De Cruz discovered, though, is more interesting: there is a difference in the way that atheists, agnostic and theists treat the different types of argument (e.g., arguments from miracles, evil or morality). In one sense this is unsurprising: one would not be an atheist if one thought many of the arguments for God were strong, and one would not be a theist if one thought the arguments against God were strong. But she shows that atheists think arguments against God are stronger (note again: not right) than agnostics and they than theists. Likewise, theists think arguments for God are stronger than agnostics and they than atheists. This raises an interesting question, first raised by Jennifer Faust (2008): do we evaluate the strength of arguments based on our prior doxastic biases? This means, do we choose to accept arguments (which are supposed to be neutral and rationally compelling) based on what we already are inclined to believe?

There is (as my correspondent Jocelyn Stoller has shown me) a stack of literature about the height of a large oak tree on cognitive bias, nicely summarised in Kahneman’s book (2011), but this is somewhat more restricted a problem. It goes to the role of reason itself. We are told that a reasonable (or rational, but that word is too loaded) person will be convinced by a strong or sound argument that is based upon shared premises. This is the basis of teaching critical thinking and logic. Our entire educational system rests upon it. Is it true?

It seems that when one is already committed strongly to (has a high degree of confidence in, or subjective probability assigned to) some prior belief, any argument that challenges this conclusion will be deprecated, even if the argument is strong and the premises agreed upon. So theists call those who dispute arguments for God cognitively deficient and atheists return the favour in reverse (citations in Faust’s paper). In general this is an example of what I think of as the “my opponent is not fully human” strategy: if you just can’t see that what I believe is true, there must be something wrong with you. You are irrational, or have some spiritual, psychological or moral lack. This is why Christians so often state outright that unbelievers are unable to experience the full range of human emotions and moral actions, and the atheists (less often but enough to make an impact) declare that Christians are child-abusers and ignorant unreasoning fools. Agnostics, being a group defined not only by what they don’t believe but also by what they don’t think they can declare on, are not so exclusivist, or so I would like to think. If you aren’t an agnostic, there must be something wrong with you.

We also see these doxastic biases in debates to do with politics – climate change, abortion, welfare and all the other high-emotion arousal topics of human social interactions. People are rarely argued into or out of their commitments. I was one of the Christians argued into religion (by reading Karl Barth, Helmut Thielicke, C. S. Lewis and Francis A. Schaeffer) and I argued myself out of it as well, but I was a very rare exception. Most people are born into their religion, or converted through high emotional arousal. In that respect religion is a lot like one’s choice of operating system (which matters far more).

What does this mean for a rational society? What does this mean for reasoning? On the face of it, we might be despondent about either possibility, but I like to think of it this way: we are not computers or Turing machines. We are organisms that evolved in a jury-rigged fashion, and we do things well enough to get by. Our cognitive skills are natively quite good, but they have some biases that were either fitness enhancing in the past, or are current side-effects of capacities that were. In evolutionary contexts we tolerate a lot of false positives and false negatives when they don’t result in our being dead before we pass them on to Junior.

Consequently the acquisition and teaching of logical reasoning is not something we do natively. Kant thought otherwise (1885):

Everything in nature, whether in the animate or inanimate world, takes place according to rules, although we do not always know these rules. Water falls according to laws of gravity, and in animals locomotion also takes place according to rules. The fish in the water, the bird in the air, moves according to rules. All nature, indeed, is nothing but a combination of phenomena which follow rules; and nowhere is there any irregularity. When we think we find any such, we can only say that the rules are unknown.

The exercise of our own faculties takes place also according to certain rules, which we follow at first unconsciously, until by a long-continued use of our faculties we attain the knowledge of them, and at last make them so familiar, that it costs us much trouble to think of them in abstracto. Thus, ex. gr. general grammar is the form of language in general. One may speak, however, without knowing grammar, and he who speaks without knowing it has really a grammar, and speaks according to rules of which, however, he is not aware.

Now, like all our faculties, the understanding, in particular, is governed in its actions by rules which we can investigate. Nay, the understanding is to be regarded as the source and faculty of conceiving rules in general. For just as the sensibility is the faculty of intuitions, so the understanding is the faculty of thinking, that is, of bringing the ideas of sense under rules. It desires, therefore, to seek for rules, and is satisfied when it has found them. We ask, then, since the understanding is the source of rules, What rules does it follow itself ? For there can be no doubt that we cannot think or use our understanding otherwise than according to certain rules. Now these rules, again, we may make a separate object of thought, that is, we can conceive them, without their application, or in abstracto. What now are these rules ?

Kant thinks that the laws of thought and understanding are the laws of logic, a view that was most popular in the mid-nineteenth century (Boole 1958). The problem is that we are trying to run a computer program on an abacus made of straw, or more exactly a discrete Turing machine on a wet chemical network of noisy signalling. It is, in short, a skill that must be learned and practised rather than being, Spocklike, something that we do natively. Like any such skill that is not native, whether it is plumbing or reading, it takes a lot to impart this skill to developing children. I suspect it is nearly impossible to teach it to an adult who does not already have it.

We do not, I think, start by following logical rules of reasoning unconsciously as Kant thought. Nor is logic like the grammar of language if by that he means we know the rules without being taught explicitly. Reasoning is a social skill that has to be taught (like, pace Chomsky and Pinker, language). This is why fields like philosophy of religion are so barren: mostly what is happening is not reasoning but cheerleading. A philosopher, who appreciates subtle arguments and enjoys deconstructing and examining them, will find a Plantinga or a Swinburne fascinating, but they are unlikely to convince that philosopher. Arguments about religion, like those about climate change, evolution or choice of Windows over Mac or Linux, are fruitless in ground level doxastic change.

Can faith be overturned by reason?

We presume in a lot of our debates over science and religion that one or the other must triumph, because we suppose they are at odds. I have tried to show the subtle complexities in this framing and how they are wrong. Let us now ask the question which could win and under what circumstances.

In what is known as game theory – I hope I don’t have to explain this to you, but if you do not understand it, you had better get a grasp of it before continuing – it is clear that not all games have winners, and even when they do, not all winners are winning in the same way. It depends upon the structure of the game, the relative advantages or disadvantages of the players, and what counts as winning. A simple game like tic-tac-toe has one winner: whoever puts their mark in the centre square. But complex games are not like that: instead you have a solution space mapped out, and some regions are won one way, while others are won in different ways, and some simply reach a stalemate or equilibrium.

Debates are games, no matter whether they are social or abstract. And the relation of science and religion is both an abstract game, and a social game. Here I wish to ask about the abstract game. We will get back to the social game in the final chapter.

Our question is this: under what circumstances will “reason” defeat “religion” and vice versa? Assume that “reason” here is evidence-based logical inference, and “religion” here is revelation-based logic inference, and that evidence and revelation are distinct. I will include in “revelation” any such things as mystic experiences (evidence to the mystic but nobody else, and since debate involves other people, it is not evidence for them); a senses divinitatis (sense of the divine or spiritual; again, if your opponents lacks it, your own sense is not evidence) and any dispositions to interpret the world in intentional ways (sure, you see the had of God in this event but I do not, so convince me!). I will include in “evidence” only observational evidence that can be had by any fair minded observer.

When revelation has a higher weight in an argument than evidence, then all else being equal, religion “wins”. That is, the conclusions drawn by religion will outweigh, for the reasoner who values revelation more highly than evidence, the conclusions drawn solely from evidence. Likewise, if evidence outweighs revelation, then evidentiary conclusions will “win”. When disputants happen to have alternative bases for inference, then you cannot have any rapprochement. No rational solution exists. As Wittgenstein wrote in On Certainty, “Where two principles really do meet which cannot be reconciled with one another, then each man declares the other a fool and a heretic” (1969, §611).

The assumption of rationalists is that there is a single and inevitable solution to hold, or there may be a range of viable solutions but most alternatives are excluded from reasonable consideration. To some extent everyone is a rationalist in this fashion, because everyone who debates wishes to exclude at least some solutions that are on offer. That is just what it means to debate.

What it does not mean to debate is to declare yourself the winner from the beginning. That is not winning, that is avoiding debate. So, declaring that science is “just another religion” or that religion is “just superstition” is not debating, and no rational thinker is bound to accept these declarations. That doesn’t stop advocates on either side the the argument to do this, of course, but be aware that it is being done.

It is hard for somebody who adopts one or the other view to even see the virtue of their opponents’ views. Philosophers, however, are duty bound to consider an argument in its own terms, and not to reject it out of bounds, at least at first. You may not think that science is not a religion, but if you are to be philosophically honest, you have to start out not assuming your own preferences as the beginning point of the debate. 

One particular strategy used by philosophers is to do what is known as a reductio ad absurdum (all the really good strategies have Latin names, because they’ve all been around a while, and it makes us sound a lot smarter); or, literally, “to reduce to an absurdity”. This is also called a “by your lights” argument: if I assume your own premises and show that it reduces to something we can both agree is absurd, then something is wrong with your premises, and if you are reasonable, then you have to accept this. Those are just the rules of debate.

But this won’t solve everything. If the opponent is being consistent, or does not accept that the conclusion is absurd, what then? Then you have to find some way to either dislodge the premises they begin with, or walk away. At that point, the issue becomes social, and it now depends upon what we can do in terms of public policy to ameliorate the problems.

The definitions of some of the core terms in this debate are very far from being resolved or obvious. We have already dealt with “religion” and “science” to a degree. Let’s now consider two related terms: superstition and nature and their adjective forms.


Something is natural if it is not supernatural. Something is supernatural if it is not natural. This is clearly circular, and therefore empty. So the next step is usually to define “nature” and the “supernatural” becomes something defined in terms of that. What counts as nature, however, is very far from clear . The etymology derives from the Latin word for “birth”, natus. Something is natural (to a person) if it is what they are born with, and not what they acquire later, like a skill or a station in life. 

The Greek cognate term that natura translates is ousia, which is a form of the verb “to be”. But despite the role that ousia played in Christian theology (the phrase “not one iota of difference” has to do with the Eastern and Western churches disputing whether the Son was of the same nature as the Father – homoousias – or a similar nature as the Father – homoiousias – quite literally one iota of difference, which split Christendom), it is the Latin term that plays a crucial role in western philosophy.

The idea of a natural world developed in Turkey in the fifth century BCE, when a group of Greek speaking philosophers known collectively as the Milesians started to ask what stuff was made of, and how what stuff was made of gave it its properties like weight, heat, and so on. Thus, according to the standard story, science was born from philosophical assumptions that the world followed rules based on what it was made of. But like all narratives, this ignores the fact that the Milesians, along with everyone else, also thought that the gods did things too. They might be constrained by the nature of things, or they might be able to override the natures of things. Nevertheless, the gods were not excluded by this new view of nature. The change was more significant than that: instead, gods ceased to be explanations. If a deity can do things like cause a tsunami or a whirlwind just because he’s annoyed or offended, there can be no rule-like regular explanations for things. But if gods act contrary to, or within, the natural order, they become the exceptions rather than the rule-makers.

Many critics of science, including Christian philosophers like Alvin Plantinga (1996), J. P. Moreland and William Lane Craig (2003), attack something they call “naturalism”, the view that the natural world is all there is. As Papineau notes (2009), the term has no very precise meaning in philosophy, or in science. However, as he goes on to note, there are two streams: ontological naturalism (the view that all that is, is natural) and methodological naturalism (the view that all that can be known can be known via natural methodologies such as scientific method). 

Naturalism relies upon there being some meaning attached to the term “nature”. We often see advertisements that something is “all natural”, which philosophically is an absurd claim: if it exists, it is natural even if synthesised in an industrial chemical vat. And it should also be noted that arsenic is a natural substance, so make of that what you will. The word “natural” carries a lot of connotations.

John Stuart Mill, in an influential 1874 essay, noted that

As the nature of any given thing is the aggregate of its powers and properties, so Nature in the abstract is the aggregate of the powers and properties of all things. Nature means the sum of all phenomena, together with the causes which produce them; including not only all that happens, but all that is capable of happening; the unused capabilities of causes being as much a part of the idea of Nature as those which take effect.

“Nature”, however, is often held to exclude the “supernatural”, which is defined against the natural. If nature is all there is and their properties, then either the supernatural doesn’t exist, or is propertyless. This cannot be the view which Plantinga and Craig wish to defend, so the question remains: what is nature? Mill goes on to note that the natural is regular and lawful, that it behaves in ways which are predictable. This view is stressed, but not broken, by the existence of stochastic quantum properties like quantum foam and Hawking radiation. The regularities are just now the properties of ensembles of things, rather than of the things themselves.

The supernatural, then, is that which does not follow from the regularities of the properties of things. The gods may have their own natures, but these are hidden from us, and their plans are opaque.

So Mill is roughly right: nature is the inherent properties and capacities of things.But the word “nature” is much more nuanced than this bare philosophical analysis. In our modern world, it has a number of meanings. The historian of nature, Peter Coates, notes five meanings:

  • nature as a particular set of physical places, notably those parts of the world more or less unmodified by people. This meaning is captured in the phrase ‘unspoiled nature’;
  • nature as all physical places and things, including those touched and untouched by people. Nature in this sense more or less equates with the word ‘environment’;
  • nature as force or entity with almost religious qualities. This meaning is captured in the phrase ‘mother nature’ or the ‘laws of nature’ which cause certain things to happen;
  • nature as an essence, for example phrase human nature to explain certain behaviours;
  • nature as the opposite of culture, so that it is everything that has nothing to do with humans. (Coates 1998, 3–10)

Which sense you employ depends upon your aim, but Nature in our time means, broadly, the world apart from human beings. Why are humans usually exempted from nature? The roots of this go back a long way. For the bulk of our existence, we humans lived as foragers (which used to be called “hunter-gatherers” by anthropologists). Like all species, though, we constructed our environment as much as we depended upon it. We used fire farming, selective hunting, and coevolution with other species like dogs to create our environments. Around 12,000 years ago, we began to use agriculture (called the Neolithic Transition in anthropology), and this affected our environments enormously. With a larger population density, and the effects of domesticated goats and cattle, we changed a heavily wooded Europe and the Ancient Near East into sparse shrub-dominated regions. The same thing happened also in America and Australia before the Europeans arrived. Megafauna and animals like lions and bears were hunted to local extinction. We constructed a human environment rapidly.

In recent years, we have seen a trend to “naturalise” humans, however. We have discovered the natural causes of mental activities and failures, of our physiology, our evolution, and even our abilities to know the world. Philosophers have attempted (or objected) to “naturalise” our epistemology, our ethics and our behaviours. A seminal essay by perhaps the most influential of American philosophers of the last century, Quine, was entitled “Epistemology naturalized”, in which he gave an evolutionary account of how it is that we can reliably know our world: evolution has made us thus:

Creatures inveterately wrong in their inductions have a pathetic but praiseworthy tendency to die before reproducing their kind. (Quine 1969, 126)

And this brings us back to our starting point. Plantinga argues that naturalism, if true, is self-defeating. He calls this the Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism. If we evolved, then we have no warrant for our beliefs, since our beliefs are unreliable. So we cannot use evolution to reject the idea of God. Or something. But humans are a part of nature, as our present ecological crisis indicates. What we do has ecological consequences.We are just as bounded by nature as anything else, and our knowledge of the world depends on our being able to eliminate false beliefs, either through survival of the more correct, or by a process of eliminating beliefs that are unreliable (as in science).

In the end our idea of nature is either incoherent or salvageable but needs to be revised to be coherent, as Mill suggested. The world has its properties, and behaves regularly, and if there is a supernatural realm, then it cannot be investigated unless it, too, follows regular patterns.

This is not some arbitrary “presupposition”, although it has been challenged by philosophers since Pyrrhus, and more recently, Hume. It is a basic concern in questions of scientific inference by induction, as without the view that things remain regular and consistent, inference from past observations is not possible. However, for all this is a philosophical conundrum, it is not a conundrum in either science or ordinary life, as Hume noted:

… all inferences from experience suppose, as their foundation, that the future will resemble the past, and that similar powers will be conjoined with similar sensible qualities. If there be any suspicion that the course of nature may change, and that the past may be no rule for the future, all experience becomes useless, and can give rise to no inference or conclusion. … My practice, you say, refutes my doubts. But you mistake the purport of my question. As an agent, I am quite satisfied in the point; but as a philosopher, who has some share of curiosity, I will not say scepticism, I want to learn the foundation of this inference. [Enquiry, Ch 4, Pt 2]

We aren’t free to decide whether or not to accept the regularity of nature; in fact, humans always have. It is just that we are now able to decide whether or not to superadd some beliefs about agents that are irregular and apart from the regular order of things. In the distant past, this tended to be the other way around: we only adopted explanations through regularities in nature when explanations by the whims and will of deities failed or were outclassed. The tables have been, strategically, turned.

Just like the game of tic-tac-toe, who gets to set the onus of proof tends to win. If the onus is put upon the scientific position to disprove, or to demonstrate some alternative to, the theist perspective, theism wins. If, on the other hand, the theist is given to prove that something more than the natural order is required, the naturalist tends to win. So it all gets down to who sets the rules. What even counts as “reasonable” is defined from the start of the debate!

I take it that few who do not suffer from some kind of schizoaffective disorder think the world is not real, in a practical sense, but there remain some strategies for the defence of the priority of religious premises. One is that of the Mahayana Buddhist, who denies the reality of the sensible world, a view very closely approximated by Plato’s Parable of the Cave. But if this is the case it doesn’t require that science is done differently, since science is dealing with the illusory world in illusory terms. It does, or at least it should, leave investigating the world in the same terms as it would be if the scientific image were absolutely metaphysically correct; all that changes is one’s attitude towards the science, not the science itself.

Another strategy for the religious who believe contrary-to-fact things, is to make some aspects of science metaphysical while other aspects are not. This is the most common approach: those who think illness is caused by bad attitudes and not pathogens or toxins will simply bracket out human illness from science in favour of their preferred silly belief in Chi or Positivity. Those who think the world was created 6000 years ago will accept all the results of applied science unless it goes against their cherished core belief. This strategy is not reasonable, but it is understandable. Since most people’s belief set is not well-ramified, with all the implications thought through, usually people trade on some conceptual elasticity and slop to hide the conflicts between their scientific beliefs and practices and their silly-thing beliefs. This is not accommodation. This is prevarication. We need not argue for any room to do this if we are in favour of knowing about the world and not just the belief sets of a community.

In the end, though, the believer must accommodate the world, not the world accommodate the believer, and since science is our best approach for knowing the world, that means the believer must come to an accommodation of their beliefs with our best science. Some science is unsettled, yes. Some of it is still being developed and there remains rooms for beliefs that may conflict with the bleeding edge results, so long as the established results are not challenged (although if you bet the wrong way, you may find your belief-tradition falling out of relevance over time). But in the end, religion has to accommodate the science.


Generally, dictionaries define “superstition” as a belief not warranted by natural explanations, in spirits, luck, magic, and the supernatural causes of things. Dictionaries are of limited help here, though, because they map what people actually mean when they use a word, not what the best interpretation of the term is. When critics of religion call believers superstitious, it is not always clear what that means.

So far I have mentioned two kinds of superstition: the anthropomorphising of inanimate objects and non-agents, and the intentionality of the universe (Rhonda Byrne’s nonsensical universe). These are forms of projection of human traits and expectations onto the world. Much of the ordinary kind of superstition is, however, rather mechanical: walk under a ladder or break a mirror and bad luck will follow, automatically. Such superstitions as “pointing the bone” or “the evil eye” are also mechanical: if the shaman does this, then he will cause a bad outcome. These are a kind of instrumental superstition. It is usually this instrumental superstition that underlies witch crazes and hunts.

Given the idea that the natural is, as Mill had it, about regularities, this makes these natural processes (assuming there are such regularities). So in fact the dispute here is not between rational thought and superstition, but between competing claims of regularities, which can be tested – and of course, have been and science prevailed. In fact, “science” here is a post hoc value: if it works then it is science, just as if a folk medicine works we call it medicine. Were we to find that telepathy could be reliably demonstrated, then telepathy would be a scientific phenomenon. Philosophically, it is no different than a quantum field or a virus before we had electron microscopes: just another “occult” power of the universe. “Occult” means “hidden from view”, and it was common in the early days of science to refer to occult powers, which were causal powers that could not be observed. What is “occult” depends a lot on what instruments and data you can get.

Of course, telepathy, along with Chi, The Secret and a host of other competing alternatives to science have in fact been eliminated or made so improbable that they may as well not be considered. There are too many more probably and exciting things for us to investigate, to waste time once again showing that the Rhine experiments do not work.

But having said this, consider the claim that religion is superstition: Superstition carries with it a connotation of childish thinking. It is a way of saying your belief is silly, but mine is not. Mine is the belief of an adult. Many religious people dismiss the faiths of other religions as silly superstitions, but exempt their own. Atheists who think all religion is superstition simply extend it that much farther.

However, I think there are several meanings to the word: one is the automatic and unreflective ritual behaviours based upon magical (that is, mechanical but non-physical) beliefs, like crossing yourself when passing the cemetery or warding the evil eye with jewellery. Another is the belief that there even is a supernatural. The former has one application to the behaviours of people that does not necessarily include religion. The latter does. And to assume that because some behaviours are superstitious in the first sense that all behaviours of that reference group (the religious) are superstitious is, I think, bad reasoning.

There is in the philosophy of language, something known as the Qua Problem (Devitt and Sterelny 1987): when you refer to something in general, are you referring to it qua that kind of thing, or just in passing? If I say “churches are bad architecture” am I saying that if it is a church it must be bad architecture, or that it merely happens that all churches are badly designed? Here, if I say that religion is superstitious, must I be saying that if it is religion it is superstitious, or am I saying that religions so far or around me happen to be superstitious?

If I am not speaking of religion qua religion, then it is easily shown that some religions, or religious traditions, are not superstitious (and it is equally easy to show that people are superstitious in the absence of religion, as the lucky socks of basketball players indicates). If I am speaking of religion qua religion, then again I can show religious traditions that are not superstitious (such as Quakerism). Either way, the claim is not made out.

But science is the process of eliminating superstition. That is, science eliminates superficially plausible beliefs in the causal behaviour of the world, leaving the more deeply plausible accounts. And again, if a religion wishes to accommodate the world, it must do likewise. What we seem to have at any moment is a dispute over which of these superficially plausible mechanisms are still in play, and this seems to follow from the attitude of the arguer. If one is conservative, culturally and cognitively, one will tend to hold onto these beliefs long past the time when science has shown them to be superstitions. In part this is because the news takes time to get out: we typically acquire our set of “scientific” beliefs from our schooling, which is as much as half a century old by the time we learn it. But also it has to do with one’s attitude towards the new: novelty is seen as a challenge and a cost by many believers (on all sides), and disrupting a working belief set (well, a belief set that works well enough in ordinary life) brings with it trouble. Early adopters live by surfing the cognitive wave; late adopters don’t like the balancing act that causes.

Is late adoption an irrational choice? Perhaps it could be seen as a form of bet hedging. So much that has been confidently asserted in the past, by scientists as wells those claiming to speak on behalf of science, as had to be qualified or even retracted, that it might be a rational bet, if you have limited time and resources to devote to it, to believe whatever it is most people who are successful in life believe. This has the unintended side effect of making the culture resistant to advances, but from a personal perspective, it is a winning strategy. When religiously inspired epistemic conservatives are derided, I find that simple minded and insulting to those who may very well have chosen their strategy rationally. How to change that is another matter: but I do tend to think that a conciliatory approach will have better results than a confrontational one.

On the other hand, when we are faced with an obviously irrational intransigence, the fact that this might have started out as a rational bet no longer matters. At some point, the focus shifts from what the believer should bet upon, to social identification of a group, and is no longer about knowledge of the world. It is, in other words, political. When faced with political ungroup identity and special privileges, it is entirely fair to confront aggressively. So to that extent, when anti religious advocates attack religion, so long as the “religion” is a political entity that is intervening in the doing of good science, this is justified. The only difficulty is getting those who are religious to see that attacking the political interests of a group they may identify with is not the same as attacking the core beliefs that can accommodate science.

So in the end, superstition is a political description, and takes a political campaign to confront when it interferes with our knowledge of the world.


  1. Your work habits are so much better than mine that I’m rather embarrassed to venture my usual two or three paragraphs against your already well-worked out draft of a book. Still, I’m going to throw out a couple of ideas by way of suggesting that debates about faith and reason are two-dimensional conflicts that actually take place in a world with at least three dimensions.

    1. It seems to me that much of the heat thrown off by the war of faith and reason is a consequence of the fact, which is historical rather than built into the nature of things, that what we take as the paradigm of what counts as religion is basically Western Christianity, a religion that has been intimately bound up with philosophy from the outset. You’ve got to agree to disagree. Of course lots of folks have pointed out that contemporary Fundamentalists go especially far in terms of defining the faith as adherence to a set of intelligible propositions—that what part of what marks ’em off as innovators rather than traditionalists—but the mainstream of Latin Christianity blazed that trail long ago. Which is why, for example, the University of Paris and its theology faculty were central institutions of the Roman church and there were riots in the streets over iotacism. By contrast, though there were plenty of Jewish and Muslim philosophers, law mattered (and matters) a lot more than philosophy in those traditions. The rumble between science and theology in our tradition is like the struggle between Esau and Jacob—”Two nations contend in thy womb.” Twins hate one another.

    2. It isn’t just religion that gets an implicit but suspiciously specific definition in these debates. I get nervous when people talk about science (or reason or Reason) as if it were self-evidently true that the way we habitually talk about such things is unproblematic or that the big thing is that philosophers don’t appeal to revelation and theologians do. When somebody asserts that Science is the best way of knowing things, I wonder what that actually means since it’s not clear that there is such a thing as Science, i.e. a single activity and not a huge set of somewhat related but distinct activities. The demarcation problem is an effort to draw a circle around what counts as legit. Why do we think there is only one circle to draw? I also wonder who the heck does the knowing in the purportedly best way to know. I’m not a scientist myself, but I’ve written up thousands of pages on intergranular stress corrosion cracking in stainless steels as a paid fellow traveler. Do I count as one of the S’s relative to the O’s? Nobody at all knows a great deal of the results of contemporary science. In many respects it would be pointless to try. Does that matter?

    3. Note that my misgivings have nothing to do with skepticism or relativism. I don’t think there’s a better way to understand chemicals than chemistry or that philosophy is irrelevant because Mencius was doing something else. And I don’t think that the specific theories, ideas, and findings of the sciences are (merely) social constructions, but it sure looks like Science, which as far as I know nobody ever practiced as such, is a social construction, an Idol. Or maybe the better metaphor would be a puppet armed with leaden weapons to endlessly belabor another puppet named Theology. I’m aware that the politics of the issue make it impossible, but I sure wish we could visit a different booth at the carnival.

    Pardon me, John. I guess I never got over Against Method.


  2. David Duffy David Duffy

    “Now I mention this largely to show that the common misconception that the rational folk do not have faith is misleading”

    “When the religious hold to a fundamental belief that is not further supported except by personal anecdotal experience, they are doing nothing that everyone else is doing, but still, there’s a real difference here.” ?

    As you pretty well concede later, faith in regularity of the world, that the past is the same as the present and the future, and in the laws of arithmetic, are not the same kind as absurd religious faiths, precisely because they are not absurd. They are the faiths that are born out both out practical everyday experience and the web of scientific knowledge and practice that have been built atop that practical everyday experience – they are the faith in induction, which is the main tool we have to deal with premises, since it not too difficult to create indefeasible deductive arguments. Faith in induction is of the “good enough” type, confident but cautious.

    So if religions posit humans have an immaterial spirit, we ask for evidence such as verifiable memories of past lives, or out of body experiences, or encounters with ghosts, and ask about consistency with neurology and psychiatry and physics. With respect to ethical argumentation, I agree that science per se doesn’t offer fundamental premises, but, pace Sam Harris, the kind of basic pragmatic stances we associate with generally approved of applications of scientific knowledge such as medicine or engineering do. And if doctors want to do revolting things such as cut up human bodies, or hand out condoms or free hypodermics, eventually most reasonable people get used to it, because they see resulting benefits.

    “reason” here is evidence-based logical inference, and “religion” here is revelation-based logic[al] inference

  3. > There will always be conceptually possible supernatural beings that are beyond empirical, and hence scientific, debunking and disproof.

    They might be conceptually possible, but, within the ‘beyond empirical’ constraint, how on Earth (or, more likely, off it) are we supposed to conceive of Them? And of what use are They? Or, more to the point, of what use is the concept of Them?

    I’m sure, like me, most people simply cannot conceive what the square-root of minus one actually means. It just doesn’t make any sense at all. But I eventually (and happily) embraced the concept because it turns out to be remarkably useful. You can do stuff with it.

    As and when the concept of ‘supernatural beings that are beyond empirical and hence scientific debunking and disproof’ turns out to be in any way useful, I might amend my stance. But I’m not holding my breath. Until that unlikely day, lump me in with the atheists.

  4. DiscoveredJoys DiscoveredJoys

    And the rational thing to do is withhold judgement in such cases.
    While I see the point you are making, I think you need to show your workings, otherwise you have to explain how you can live with withholding judgement about so many things, or why judgement about the existence of gods merits special treatment.

    After all if you made no judgement about whether or not the earth would support your next step you would remain in place. Or eat the next chunk of chocolate because you can’t know it hasn’t been poisoned. The rational thing to do is run with pragmatic expectations.

  5. Jeb Jeb

    “I guess I never got over Against Method.”

    I started reading this a couple of days ago. Been aware of it for years but almost to scared to read it. I almost fell like I don’t have to.

    I never got over being in a university. I went late in life and already had an education which was very different. Loved what I learned but I hated it and it often felt like learning in spite of being in such a rigid ordered and intensely hierarchical setting (but I certainly learned something so it does work although I think in terms of teaching its often crude and can be brutal).

    I don’t see the distinctions in knowledge that are often made and found the professional business of knowledge seriously dishonest. Not that it can’t make perfectly valid and empirical observation. Its how it does it, its fascinating as so much of it is fictive cultural and social.

    I learn by error, making massive amounts of mistakes and slowly identifying them as such (although I am also good at identifying valid connections as error for long periods of time on occasion). I suspect the errors are as important (or maybe more so in regard to learning) as correct identification but constructing a paper that set out honestly how I arrived at making a valid empirical point, no idea how to write such a thing. It would look very very odd indeed.

    One of the things I noted about uni, academics have a tendency to teach as if they don’t make mistakes, that’s something other people or rival academic groups do.

    It presents things in story form in a very distinct manner. I am seriously generalizing but it is not a very reflective or very inward looking in regard to how it presents itself.

    But then neither am I my only excuse is I am not attempting to make the same claim in regard to authority.

  6. Richard Peachey Richard Peachey

    “If you aren’t an agnostic, there must be something wrong with you.”

    What?? Is this a typo? Or irony? It doesn’t seem to fit with your (implied negative) mention of other groups who are said to speak in that way.

    “Likewise, if evidence outweighs revelation, then evidentiary conclusions will ‘win’.”

    What about possible evidence of revelation? Is that trivially easy to rule out of order?

    “I was one of the Christians argued into religion (by reading Karl Barth, Helmut Thielicke, C. S. Lewis and Francis A. Schaeffer) and I argued myself out of it as well, but I was a very rare exception.”

    That sounds like a fascinating piece of intellectual history. Have you written it up anywhere?

    • It’s a joke…

      Evidence of revelation is just evidence. If it can be presented as evidence, then it can be weighed as evidence, even though the phenomenon it is evidence of is revelation.

      No, I haven’t written it up. And it is pure coincidence that I ceased being Christian after meeting Thielicke.

    • Michael Fugate Michael Fugate

      The problem with revelation – and we have gone over this before – is that you need to have evidence that its source is external and not internal to the mind. I don’t think you or anyone else for that matter have ever been able to do that.

      • Richard Peachey Richard Peachey

        Michael: What would you accept as valid evidence of an actual revelation from God? (I think I may have asked that before, but didn’t receive an answer. Or perhaps the lack of response was the answer.)

        To ask the same question a little differently: Given that all our perceptions and reasoning can be understood as internal events, how would you distinguish between such internal events and an external event that might be possible evidence of an actual revelation from God?

        To use a bit of philosophy-talk: In your view, is it out of the question (i.e., it couldn’t happen in any conceivable universe) that God might really exist and might really be able to reveal himself? If not, then you should be able to provide an answer to the questions above. Or, if so, then haven’t you ruled God out axiomatically rather than evidentially?

  7. Michael Fugate Michael Fugate

    It is up to you to provide the evidence Richard, give us your best shot.

    • Michael Fugate Michael Fugate

      Let me add that God is incoherent. Christian theologians (not to mention other religions) run the gamut from those who believe God exists only in our minds – a human creation corresponding to our highest aspirations – to those who believe God is an agent acting on the physical universe. If theologians don’t even know what God is, then it seems to be a concept without a sound footing.

      If we are to interact with an external something, that something must produce physical properties our senses can detect.

      • Richard Peachey Richard Peachey

        Let’s see: theologians disagree, therefore God doesn’t exist.

        Similarly, philosophers disagree, therefore reasoning doesn’t exist.

        Likewise, politicians disagree, therefore government doesn’t exist.

        Perhaps even: scientists disagree, therefore empirical reality doesn’t — no, now you’re going too far, Michael.

    • Richard Peachey Richard Peachey

      I will, Michael, once you provide me with something to shoot at.

      Why are you dodging my question?

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