Eric MacDonald, author of the Choice in Dying site, recently wrote two posts, “How several misunderstandings led Megan Hodder to faith,” and “On not replacing one system of doctines [sic] with another”. As I pointed out in the first part of my critique, these pieces espoused three themes: the failures of New Atheism, especially its inability to replace what religion gives people; the dangers of scientism, which Eric apparently sees as a pervasive and destructive attitude; and the fact that there are Ways of Knowing other than science. Yesterday I analyzed—and disagreed with—Eric’s claim that New Atheism is an abject failure because it a). criticizes simplistic caricatures of religion rather than serious theological thought, and b). tears down religion without replacing the essential human needs that religion meets. This morning I’ll address “other ways of knowing.”
Since yesterday Eric has posted “An explanatory note” arguing that I misunderstood him. He doesn’t see New Atheism as a failure, he says, and says this about “ways of knowing”:
I do not speak in terms of “ways of knowing.” That, I think, is the wrong way to frame this issue. There are different methodologies, but these do not constitute ways of knowing.
Well, I’m not going to get into a back-and-forth with Eric on that; I urge you to read his original two posts and his “explanatory note” and see if the second comports with the first. I stand by my critique, and add that yes, Eric does appear to see other realms of human endeavor as “ways of knowing”. Here’s one excerpt that explicitly uses and accepts the idea of “claims to know”, and also singles out some areas that, says Eric, yield genuine knowledge that doesn’t come from science (my bolding below):
. . the assumption that lies behind the premises of scientism is that knowledge is accessible apart from all other aspects of human life, all other dimensions of human knowledge. Of course, I know that by putting it in this way that someone is going to say something like the following. There is only one “way” of knowing, and that is by means of the provision of empirical evidence, and anything that uses empirical evidence is scientific; therefore, science is the only “way” of knowing. If this is true, then all the arguments and knowledge claims included within the body of, say, Catholic theology, cannot constitute knowledge. It is merely a kind of elaborate hand waving, and may be simply dismissed as “woo” or “Sophisticated Theology™”, both terms implying empty verbiage. The problem here is complex. In the first place, the claim that science is the only way of knowing is not itself a proposition of science.
For the scientistic position also fails to account for other things we may justly claim to know. For example, Mozart was a greater composer than Hummel, even though some of Hummel’s compositions are quite charming. We cannot demonstrate this scientifically, but we can know it with a fair degree of assurance. History is also a field of knowledge in which scientific verification is largely irrelevant. Indeed, knowing, in Ranke’s sense, wie es eigentlich gewesen ist, that is, how things actually were (in the past), has only an indirect relationship with empirically verifiable states of affairs. The significance of a document for the understanding of past events is not something that can be determined empirically, even though the document itself, and its authenticity, may in part be determined by the use of scientific methods.
And perhaps more important for all of us is the question about the best way to live, and whether there are principles of morality (governing our relationships with others) or ethics (governing our own self-understanding and the construction of our “best” selves), that can be in any sense known.
There are other areas in which, Eric says, knowledge exists without having been derived from science:
I think we can have true beliefs which are not verifiable by the methods of science, and yet can be as objective as our scientific beliefs. I have already suggested over the last year or so a number of such beliefs, and no one has yet shown me both why they may not be taken to provide true beliefs, and how they can be shown to be so by the methods of science. I have mentioned aesthetic judgements, moral judgements, law, history and other disciplines within the Geisteswissenschaften, which are reasonably thought to encompass truths of their own outside the realm of science. I think the epistemological gap that people are ignoring is the one that lies between science and other fields of knowledge, all of which require evidence, but not all of which can be based upon the scientific method of theory construction and their verification by means of empirical testing and confirmation.
So here is a list of areas where Eric thinks “knowledge” or “truth” can be obtained without using “empirical testing and confirmation”:
- Aesthetic judgments
- Moral judgments
I believe he’s also mentioned archaeology in other posts. Let me first construe “science” broadly and confect a definition of science, for today’s discussion, that incorporates both my and Eric’s criteria. Science is a method rather than a body of results or a coterie of Ph.D.s who practice as card-carrying scientists. That method involves “evidence”, as Eric says, but also the verification of that evidence “by empirical testing and confirmation”. Evidence that cannot be tested and confirmed by others is not reliable evidence: it falls into the purview of things like religious revelations, which many theologians do see as “evidence.” Construing science broadly, one can consider things like auto mechanics, plumbing, and so on, continuous with academic “science” in the sense that hypotheses about what is wrong with your car or your pipes derive from principles of mechanics, hydraulics, and so on. And when your mechanic or plumber tries to fix a problem, he does it by making hypotheses (“is it the wiring or the fuse?”) that can be tested and even confirmed by others.
In this sense, history and archaeology are also “ways of knowing” that use the methods of science. We can, in principle, test hypotheses like “Julius Caesar was assassinated” or “there were humans in North America 10,000 years ago” using empirical observation and confirmation. Those are, indeed, ways of knowing that overlap with science. Archaeologists and historians often act as scientists when trying to determine truth about the past. Indeed, that is the only way they can be credible.
I don’t see, however, that aesthetic or moral judgments (which feed into laws) are in this class of “knowledge” or “truth”. If one accepts a certain set of criteria for what is “beautiful” and “moral”, then one can see whether a given judgment or decision meets those criteria. But you have to set up the criteria in the first place, and those criteria are subjective. There will always be people who think that Beethoven is better than Mozart, and how can you convince them otherwise? There are no objective criteria for such a decision. And, as someone pointed out, there may be many who see Tuva throat-singing as better than Mozart, for that is their preference, conditioned by their culture and upbringing.
It is similar with morality. Are there really “objective” moral truths, as Sam Harris seems to feel, or are there only dicta that conform to a subjective set of criteria about what is good? “Killing is wrong”, for instance, is not something I see as a “moral truth”, because in some circumstances it may be good for society (i.e., killing a terrorist about to kill others). (Note: I am a moral consequentialist.) Even things that seem more obvious, like “don’t harm innocent children” are not accepted as truths by some people, like those odious members of the Taliban who think it’s okay—indeed, good for society—to throw acid on schoolgirls who seek an education. The point is that while many of us can agree on such things, there is no universal and objective standard to appeal to, in cases involving morality and aesthetics, where everyone can agree. (If, however, you think morality consists of actions that are “good for society,” then one can in principle test moral judgments empirically. But not everyone accepts that kind of consequentialism.) There is a subjectivity in morality that does not, for instance, apply when we’re trying to find out the molecular structure of water.
What about other things touted as “ways of knowing,” like philosophy, mathematics, or literature? I think philosophy and mathematics are “ways of understanding”, and come close to science in that one can demonstrate truths within an accepted system of logic. The Pythagorean Theorem, for example, is something that falls out of geometry and algebra, and is not immediately obvious from simple assumptions. That’s a way of understanding, and indeed perhaps even a way of knowing, but it’s not a way of knowing about the external world. There is no world in which the Pythagorean Theorem (under Euclidean geometry) could not be true. It is an observation about what follows from assumptions about a logical system, not something that can be verified by observing nature. Ditto for the Euthyphro argument, one of the great contributions of philosophy. If you accept certain logical propositions, then you can show that morality cannot come from a God. Again, as Sean Carroll has pointed out, these are not “scientific truths” in the sense that there is no world in which they could not be true.
Literature, I think, doesn’t tell us any external truths about the world unless it portrays things that can be checked by other means, in which case it’s a quasi-science. James Woods told me that Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilych was once used in medical schools to teach students what it is like to die. Well, its value in that respect must come from doctors and others observing that the process of Ilych’s dying corresponds to reality—to what other people go through. If it didn’t it, would be useless as a teaching tool. Absent things like that, art and literature are ways of communicating feelings between people and stimulating the emotions. They may also stimulate thought, but they aren’t ways of knowing anything about our universe—at least nothing that can be verified by objective, independent observers.
What I argue, then, is that anything that is claimed to exist in our universe can be verified only with the methods of science, broadly construed. I don’t see that Eric has convincingly demonstrated that there are real and objective moral and aesthetic judgments that can be demonstrated by “evidence.” How can you test your claim that Mozart is better than Hummel by checking it against the real world? All you can find out is that many people think that Mozart is better than Hummel. But others may dissent, and who can prove them wrong? How can you prove someone wrong who says that it’s immoral to abort babies after the first trimester?
Finally, although this isn’t Eric’s aim, much of the “other ways of knowing” palaver is used to advance the “truth claims” of religion. But I hardly need to add that I don’t think religion is a way of knowing anything about the real world. That’s simply a truism, for our understanding of any divinities, transcendent beings, or “moral truths” derived from faith alone has not advanced one iota since the ancient Greeks. Hell, after millennia of apologetics and “proofs” of God, we don’t even know whether there is a god, much less one god or many, or what said gods are like or want us to do.