Karl Giberson’s affectionate sobriquet has been permanently retired on the grounds of intransigent and senseless accommodationism, and has been transferred permanently to the estimable and avuncular Eric MacDonald, who will henceforth be known as “Uncle Eric.”
I am quite fond of Eric because he is smart, because he knows a lot about theology, because he has kindly served as a sort of theological tutor for me, because he gave up his job as an Anglican priest in the face of insupportable stupidity on the part of his church, and because he turned his sorrow over his wife’s illness (and her choice of euthanasia) into a wonderful website crusading for assisted suicide.
And like me, Eric’s original mission has expanded to cover the evils of religion, as well as philosophy and related topics (he hasn’t yet gotten to cats). We usually agree on stuff, but, as he points out in a new post at Choice in Dying, we differ on the issue of scientism. His post, “On the strangely beguiling notion of scientism,” takes the stand that there are indeed ways to apprehend objective truth beyond the purview of science, and that those who claim otherwise are guilty of scientism.
We still disagree about this. I’m sorry to say that Eric’s piece, like nearly all pieces on scientism, fails to make a case for (or even give more than one example of) “truth” apprehended by other than scientific means—and I’m defining “science” as the combination of empirical observation, reason, and (usually) replicated observation and prediction that investigates what exists in the universe.
I’ll be brief here, as I’ve posted a lot on this topic lately, but I want to discuss what Eric sees as “objective knowledge” that goes beyond science.
It’s “moral knowledge”:
And though Jerry Coyne (this is one of the small number of areas where he and I differ significantly in our approach to things) may dismiss ideas concerning value as matters of opinion, it is very doubtful that girls in Afghanistan, who have acid thrown in their faces or see their schools being destroyed, share that view. It is not just a matter of opinion that their right to learn should be recognized and honoured; how we establish what can justly be considered objective moral understanding is something worthwhile considering.
(Eric also mentions “value-laden domains such as ethics, politics, the law, arts, and religion” as possible domains of knowledge, but gives no examples of the “knowledge” that these areas have gleaned from our world.)
Now I agree, of course, that throwing acid in the face of Afghan schoolgirls for trying to learn is wrong. But it is not an “objective” moral wrong—that is, you cannot deduce it from mere observation, not without adding some reasons why you think it’s wrong. And those reasons are based on opinions. In this case, the “opinion” is that it’s wrong to hurt anyone for trying to go to school. In other words, Eric claims that moral dicta are objective ones, on the par with the “knowledge” of science.
But such dicta are not “truths,” but “guides for living”. And some people, like the odious Taliban who perpetuate these crimes, do disagree. How do you prove, objectively, that they’re wrong? You need to bring in other subjective criteria.
The problem with “objective” moral truths is much clearer in less clear-cut cases. Is it objectively true that abortion is wrong, or that a moral society must give everyone health care? You can’t ascertain these “truths” by observation; you deduce them from some general principles of right and wrong that are, at bottom, opinion. (Of course, some opinions are more well-founded than others, and that’s what philosophy is good for.)
In other words, Eric is committing here the very sin he decried (as I recall) in Sam Harris’s book The Moral Landscape: he is saying that there are scientifically establishable truths about ethics. And if that’s true, then let Eric tell us what those truths are—without first defining, based on his taste, what is “moral” and “immoral.” Let him give us a list of all the behaviors he considers objectively immoral.
Now, I maintain that there is no objective morality: that morality is a guide for how people should get along in society, and that what is “moral” comports in general with the rules we need to live by in a harmonious society—one with greater “well being,” as Harris puts it. A society in which half the inhabitants are dispossessed because they lack a Y chromosome is not a society brimming with well being, and I wouldn’t want to live in it. And yes, what promotes “well being” can in principle be established empirically. But that still presumes that the best society is one that promotes the greatest “well being,” and that is an opinion, not a fact. To be sure, in some cases better societies may require decreases in overall well being, as utilitarians have noted. As Dostoevsky asked, would it be all right to kill a single innocent child if it would save millions of lives? That would promote general well being, but is it right?
I don’t know the answer,, nor how to weigh the various forms of “well being” against each other, but I do know that the criteria of maximizing “well being,” while being generally good guides to morality, are still judgment calls and not objective facts. And of course people disagree violently about “objective” morality. Just look at how the various religions (or even the various sects of Christianity) differ on issues like stem-cell research, abortion, gay marriage, divorce, war, or even masturbation.
Eric tries to finesse this difficulty by some logic-chopping:
To take but one example, it is widely thought, without any reference to moral philosophy, that morality is just a matter of opinion, or that it is entirely relative. Given disagreements in morality this is surprising, for genuine disagreement is only possible where we think we are saying something substantive, and subject to standards of truth.
Note the elision here between “saying something substantive” and “truth”! This is an unwarranted extrapolation often committed by critics of scientism; I believe Phil Kitcher makes a similar argument. And yes, of course moral judgments can hinge on matters of real scientific truth! If you think that abortion is wrong because fetuses feel pain, that’s something that science can, in principle, find out. But in the end that still depends on an opinion: causing a fetus pain, even though doing so comports with the mother’s wishes, is immoral. Just because a disagreement is “substantive” (whatever that means) does not mean that it can be resolved by determining objective truths.
So Eric, in claiming that there are objective moral truths, seems to have violated his own reason for criticizing Sam Harris. As for the “truths” of law, art, religion, and politics, I’ll leave it to Eric to tell us what they are.
I want to differ with Eric on one other point: his claim that there’s no way to show a priori that science provides truth about reality. (Well, I agree with him in principle, but think it’s completely irrelevant as a criticism of science.):
Certainly, science works, as Hawking said. There is no question that science has discovered hitherto unknown facts about the natural world, and that scientific knowledge seems, at least, to be growing exponentially, or very nearly so. There are two things wrong with this. First of all, it does not tell us how we know that science provides the ”truth” about “reality.” [Note the admission that science "works".]. . .
And he then quotes Susan Haack:
“No scientific investigation can tell us whether science is epistemologically special, and if so, how, or whether a theory’s yielding true predictions is an indication of its truth, and if so, why, and so on …”
and criticizes Peter Atkins:
So it turns out that Peter Atkins [sic] famous paper, “Science as Truth,” is, in fact, though Atkins seems not to have noticed, philosophy and not science, and, if true, an example of non-scientific truth. Moreover, it is self-defeating, for, if he is claiming that science alone can provide truth, he is making a claim to truth which is not scientific.
Eric should be careful here, because he’s beginning to tread the road paved by people like Alvin Plantinga—theologians who try to drag science down to the level of faith because science can’t justify logically that it can finds truth.
My answer to this claim is this: “so fricking what?” While philosophers draw their pay by arguing interminably about such stuff (and achieving nothing by so doing), science goes ahead and accomplishes things: we find out what causes disease and then find cures; we put people on the Moon; we build computers and lasers. In other words, by assuming that there are external truths that are apprehended by science, we accomplish what we want to do, including alleviating suffering that no faith-healing could ever relieve. The tuberculosis bacterium is not an illusion. I don’t give a rat’s patootie for the philosophers who tell us that we can’t justify science’s ability to find truth by a priori lucubration. Let them squabble while science moves on. The success of science justifies its assumption of objective truths and its program for apprehending them.
And note that, at the outset of his essay (see above), Eric does admit that science “works.” Later on, however, he’s not so sure:
And the frequent remark that science will win because it works, is, from the standpoint of truth, neither fish nor fowl, for a great deal in need of explanation is hidden in that simple phrase ‘it works,’ and how that relates to the concept of truth.
I’ll tell Eric what we mean by “science works” (even though he seems to have understood why in his remarks above): our understanding of what is in the universe advances.
Does religion “work” that way? Well, if by “work” you mean only, “makes people feel better,” “gives them a sense of purpose,” “consoles them when they’re low,” or “inspires them to do good works”—maybe. But in many cases this is the consolation of alcohol to the alcoholic, and in no case does it show that the claims of faith are “true.” In fact, they can’t be, for while Muslims are consoled by one set of tenets, Christians are by another. Christians are consoled by the possibility of an afterlife, but Jews aren’t, because most Jews don’t believe in one. Even within Christianity, some are inspired to do good works for the sake of helping others alone, while others do so only because they think they’ll gain heavenly grace.
If religion really worked, then our understanding of whether there is a God, whether there is more than one God, what kind of God he is, whether he’s a personal god, a theistic, one or a deistic one—all of this would have advanced over the years. And we’d know more about what God “wants” for us, and which religion, if any, is the true one. Needless to say, we know no more about this than did medieval theologians. Sure, what theologians say about God has changed (not, of course, in a universal way), but that’s not because of theology, but because of currents of modern secular thought. Few people now think that the idea of hell is supportable, but that’s not because evidence has established that there’s no hell. There never was any evidence for it! No, it’s because we now think the idea of hell is immoral on secular grounds: it would be a horrible deity that would torture people forever for not believing in him, or for having sex with someone of the same gender. Our theological understanding of God is exactly where it was in 1300.
So no, religion doesn’t work—not in the sense of finding truth. And I’ll challenge Eric, as I’ve challenged Philip Kitcher, to give us a list of the “objective truths” that come from morality, from politics, from law, and from the arts. If these disciplines do produce truth, it should be easy for Eric to enumerate some examples.