About two weeks ago I discussed an article in the Guardian by Keith Ward. Ward’s assertion was in the title of his piece, “Religion answers the factual questions science neglects“, and I questioned Ward’s contention that faith or other non-empirical “disciplines” could establish facts about the world or universe. Those facts, I contended, could be established only by science “broadly construed,” that is, via reason and empirical observation:
I challenge Ward to give me just one reasonably well established fact about the world that comes from “general philosophical views, moral views, personal experience and judgment” without any verifiable empirical input.
Now I didn’t contact Ward to issue this challenge directly. Perhaps I should have, but I was really asking my readers to think of responses. Now, over at Talking Philosophy, Jim P. Houston takes me to task for not asking Ward directly—he calls my failure to do so “distinctly shabby”—and took the liberty of asking Ward himself.
In Houston’s piece, “Keith Ward & the Jerry Coyne challenge,” Houston gets his licks in about my “shabby” act, calls me “the New Atheist blogger-in-chief” (my vocation is a scientist, and has he never heard of P. Z. Myers?), and even implies that I was intellectually dishonest by not contacting Ward directly (really, did Hitchens write to all religious leaders asking them to produce an altruistic act that only believers could have committed?). Nor does Houston provide his own answer to the question, for he’s more concerned with showing me up than with tackling the substantive question. More important, however, is that Houston gives Ward’s response, which I quote in full:
I have been told that Jerry Coyne has challenged me to cite a “reasonably well established fact about the world” that has no “verifiable empirical input”. That is not a claim I have ever made, or ever would make.
What I do claim is not so controversial, namely, that many factual claims about the world are reasonably believed or even known to be true, even when there is no way in which any established science (a discipline a Fellow of the Royal Society would recognise as a natural science) could establish that they are true or false.
Here is an example: my father worked as a double-agent for MI6 and the KGB during the “Cold War”. He told me this on his death-bed, in view of the fact that I had once seen him kill a man. The Section of which he was a member was disbanded and all record of it expunged, and all those who knew that he was a member of it had long since died. This is certainly a factual claim. If true, he certainly knew that it was true. I reasonably believe that it is true. But there is absolutely no way of empirically verifying or falsifying it. QED.
The possible response that someone could have verified it if they had been there and seen it is one that A. J. Ayer rightly rejected as allowing a similar sort of claim about (e.g.) the resurrection of Jesus. When, in my Guardian piece, I described the resurrection as a ‘hard fact’, I naturally did not mean that it would convince everyone. I meant that it entails some empirical factual claims (so it is not just subjective or fictional). But those claims are not verifiable by any known scientific or historical means. That is why we make judgements about such claims in the light of our more general philosophical and moral views and other personal experiences- (i.e.) whether we believe there is a God, whether this would be a good thing for God to do, and whether we think we have experienced God.
Jerry Coyne and I seem to have different views about this, but neither of us have access to direct empirical evidence. We both think some empirical claims are relevant to our assessment of such claims. But as Ayer said, the concept of “relevance” is so vague that it does not settle any real argument.
“There it is.” concludes Ward: “It is interesting (and slightly depressing) that readers can exaggerate claims beyond any reasonable limits, so that they become ’straw men’, easily demolished. Closer attention to exactly what is said, and to the long philosophical series of debates about verification – on which subject Ayer wholly recanted his famous espousal of the verification principle – might prevent such an ‘easy’ way with philosophical questions which are both profound and difficult.”
If that’s the best that Ward can do, then I claim victory. A “fact” is not a fact if all the evidence supporting it has vanished or is inaccessible. It’s the same as my baby sister’s claim that my father (whom she worshipped) could fly if he wanted to, but “he simply doesn’t want to.”
Ward and Houston should know better: a “factual claim” is not a “fact” unless there is evidence to support it. It is a “factual claim” that some people have seen fairies, or that the Loch Ness Monster swims in the vasty deep. But empirical investigation hasn’t supported these assertions. Think of all the factual claims made by those who are delusional, or mentally ill!
In science, there are plenty of “factual claims” that don’t turn out to be facts. Cold fusion is one, the claim that bacteria cause cancer (for which a Nobel prize was awarded) is another. That’s why factual claims require verification, and why string theory, which also makes factual claims, is still in the hinternland of facthood: there’s no way we’ve yet discovered to test those claims.
I repeat again for philosophers like Ward and Houston: factual claims are not facts. It is possible that Ward’s father was a double agent, but I won’t accept its truth until there are independent ways to show that.
Increasingly, I find philosophers like Houston presenting claims of theologians like Ward sympathetically. It’s almost as if there’s a bifurcating family tree of thought, with philosophers and theologians as sister taxa, and scientists as the outgroup. That seems strange to me, as I understood that most philosophers are atheists. I’m not clear why I’m attracting increasing opprobrium from philosophers, though one reason may be their irritation that I am encroaching on their territory.
Back in the old days of the Greeks, philosophy was supposed to be part of a well-rounded life; now any scientist who engages in the practice is criticized for treading on the turf of professional academic philosophers. Suck it up, I say to these miscreants.
And I invite readers again to give me just one reasonably well established fact about the world that comes from “general philosophical views, moral views, personal experience and judgment” without any verifiable empirical input. By all means, ask your friends in philosophy and theology!