A belated reply from Francis Spufford, who defends his faith

Christian writer Francis Spufford sent me an email calling my attention to a post on his blog, Unapologetic, in which he belatedly answers two critiques I’d written of his pieces—one essay in the Guardian and the other his infamous “Dear Atheist” letter in New Humanist. You know what you’re in for when you see the title: “Dear Jerry Coyne [Caution: long]” And oy, is it long: 3620 words! This does not bode well for his new book.

I’m not getting into a back-and-forth with this man, who apparently wants me to help publicize his new book, but I’ll highlight just two points, neither of which is new. The real value of Spufford’s verbose post in serving as an exemplar of how a smart and literate man can justify Christianity in the complete absence of evidence for its tenets.

From his new blog post:

Truth, meanwhile, is just a state of affairs, something which is so whether we currently know it or not.  You would like it be the case that evidence is the only means of approach we have to truth, and that conversely truth is the kind of thing we can only approach through evidence – in which case you can indeed treat them as terms which are effectively substitutable.  But this is a philosophical position, not a scientific one.  It is a philosophical picture of the world that gives science a monopoly position as the supplier and definer of truth, but that does not make the picture, itself, scientific.  It is only one of several possible pictures, all of which are compatible with the known facts of the case, and all of which are compatible with loyalty to the scientific method.  So science does not in itself provide a criterion for choosing between the pictures.  Neither does holding to an ideal of fidelity to the real compel one to choose your favoured picture.

I am SO tired of this trope.  It may indeed be the case that we can’t justify a priori via philosophical lucubrations that we arrive at the truth about nature only by using the methods of science. My answer to that is increasingly becoming, “So bloody what?”  The use of science is justified because it works, not because we can justify it philosophically. If we are interested in finding out what causes malaria, no amount of appeal to a deity, philosophical rumination, listening to music, reading novels, or waiting for a revelation will answer that question.  We have to use scientific methods, which, of course, is how causes of disease are found.

Look at evolution: before Darwin, the appearance of “design” in organisms was taken as evidence for God’s handiwork.  That was “one possible picture compatible with the known facts of the case.”  And if religion was the only way of knowing we had, that’s where inquiry would stop. It was science that told us that the appearance of design actually came from the interaction of a random process of generating variation and a non-random process of disposing of that variation—in other words, natural selection. And you can make predictions and retrodictions from the scientific theory: predictions that we will see natural selection in action (we do) and retrodictions that we will never see adaptations evolved in one species that are useful only for members of another species (we don’t). And we can then find a parallel to natural selection in animal breeding.

The point is that science helps us move forward—to find the truth about nature. Those other “pictures” are science-stoppers. They leave us hanging with our questions either unanswered,”answered” only subjectively, for individuals, or answered by the nonsensical “God did it.”

The justification of science is simply that it works for everyone. Philosophers, please butt out on this one!  It’s time for the a-priorists to stop promulgating their base canard, which increasingly seems like a way to justify the irrelevance of such philosophy—or, in the hands of the faithful, to impugn science and justify religion.

If those philosophers had their way, we’d sit around the lab all day scratching our butts and wondering if we really should do those experiments. Maybe we could find the answer simply by musing about it. But we proceed as if evidence gives us truth, and—sure enough—it does.  As Stephen Hawking said, “Science wins because it works.”

But what about those other methods, which, for Spufford, obviously involve committing oneself to Jebus and then simply intuiting the truth? Here’s what he says about these other ways of “knowing”:

We can’t verify or falsify our beliefs the way we can our knowledge. But that doesn’t mean there are no criteria we can bring to bear to distinguish between beliefs.  We can ask whether belief pays due and scrupulous attention to what can be known.  We can ask whether belief is equipped with, as it were, some of the proper humility owed to the provisional – with a continuing willingness to change, to notice, to be wrong.  We can ask whether beliefs are generous or mean, altruistic or self-serving, frightened or hopeful, candid or self-deceiving.  We can be intelligent and nuanced about belief.  But to do this we need not to dismiss the whole inevitable human activity of belief-formation as nonsense.  This is one of my reasons for preferring my picture of the world to yours.

Notice how the real question at issue, “which belief is true?” subtly morphs into the less interesting question, “can we distinguish between beliefs?”  It’s the usual theological bait-and-switch.

Of course we can distinguish between beliefs! Quakers are humble and nonprosyletizing, Muslims and Scientologists think it’s their duty to spread the faith.  Methodist beliefs are more malleable than those of Islam. Muslims want to kill those who reject the faith; Catholics merely excommunicate them.

But distinguishing between beliefs does not tell us which of them (if any) are true. This exercise can’t tell us whether there’s an afterlife or not, whether Jesus really was the son of God (much less even existed), whether the dictates of Orthodox Jews conform better to God’s will than those of the hadith,  whether there even is a god, and so on. Indeed, religion can’t even answer the question of “which actions are moral”. Science can’t do that, either, but the fact remains that religion can’t answer either questions of fact or the “big questions” about purpose and meaning.  Sects like Mormonism and Islam have fractured into sub-sects, sometimes dozens of them, because they can’t decide what the “truth” is—even within a faith.

If you can’t falsify a belief, but can only distinguish between different beliefs, then there is no way of knowing whether your belief is true. Period.  That’s why science wins, for it gives us tools for testing different hypotheses.

I’d like to ask Mr. Spufford whether he knows that the tenets of his Christianity conform to reality more than the tenets of say, Hinduism. Does Jesus pwn an elephant-headed God?

I reiterate that it’s time for philosophers to stop their finger-wagging about science’s ability to find truth being a philosophical assumption—one that we can’t justify it a priori. Maybe it is philosophical, but frankly, Francis, I don’t give a damn.  If philosphers want to defend their turf that way, or diss science and empower faith, fine. In the meantime, science blithely goes ahead and helps us understand the universe, while religions like Catholicism are still debating the same points they did before the Enlightenment. We’re on Mars; they’re still pondering God’s nature and wondering if there is a hell.

141 Comments

  1. Posted October 2, 2012 at 1:03 am | Permalink

    Hey Jerry,

    You wrote: ‘My answer to that is increasingly becoming, “So what?”’.

    I feel your pain.

    I think the ‘so what?’ criticism is legitimate. It can be used against cartesian philosophers who argue that a neurobiology of consciousness (e.g., David Chalmers) is a priori impossible because it is a hard problem to solve, a really, really hard problem to solve. The only merit in this complaint – and Spufford’s by implication – is this: given the current state of neuroscience, it is very hard to predict what the explanation of consciousness will look like — extremely hard. But so what? It is always extremely hard to predict the course of a science, and especially hard to predict what an immature science will look like when it matures.

    When not much is known about a topic, don’t take too seriously someone else’s ‘intuition’ (a priori speculation) about what is scientifically possible. Solution? Learn science, do science, and see what happens. Simple prudence, really.

    Cheers, Simon

  2. logicophilosophicus
    Posted October 2, 2012 at 1:28 am | Permalink

    “The use of science is justified because it works, not because we can justify it philosophically. If we are interested in finding out what causes malaria, no amount of appeal to a deity, philosophical rumination, listening to music, reading novels, or waiting for a revelation will answer that question.”

    Practical medical help in sub-Saharan Africa was, until very recently, explicitly inspired, funded and delivered by Christian medical missionaries. In that sense religion, too, “works”. Think of Schweitzer and leprosy, for example.

    • whyevolutionistrue
      Posted October 2, 2012 at 1:32 am | Permalink

      Give me a break, please; you know precisely what I’m talking about! And that is whether religion vs. science can tell us what is true. Yes, religion can inspire people to do good, but it hasn’t told us what is true–like whether there’s a God, and if so, what’s it like.

      And don’t forget where those medicines came from.

      • logicophilosophicus
        Posted October 2, 2012 at 8:08 am | Permalink

        Would that be “came from” as in who devised them, or “came from” as in who paid for them?

        I do know where you’re coming from, and insofar as Spufford implies that science (say The development of medicines) requires an input from theology, he’s talking some kind of nonsense.

        My simple point is that there are also moral truths, and that Christians (for example) have often been morally motivated through their religion.

        It needn’t be Africa. Come this winter, there will be winos and bag ladies dying in alleys, and others eating and sleeping in Salvation Army shelters. I think there’s a danger of casually condemning the good when we make blanket condemnations of the mysticism.

        • Scott near Berkeley
          Posted October 2, 2012 at 8:41 am | Permalink

          And did not the Aztec priests find “moral truth” in cutting the beating hearts out of sacrificial youths? Certainly, they were motivated by the morality of their religion. And their gods showed them “the way” just as distinctly as jesus of nazareth did.

          logico, you are using phrases and logic that have no foundation in the real world…only in imagined worlds are they usable.

          • logicophilosophicus
            Posted October 2, 2012 at 9:25 am | Permalink

            I don’t see a logical connection between Albert Schweitzer and human sacrifice. I don’t condemn medical science because some of its manifestations have been horrific (from the dissections of live slaves in Hellenistic Alexandria to the deliberate infection of POW’s under the Japanese). There’s no logical link.

            Mind you, there is a logical link between Christians and the SUPPRESSION of human sacrifice among the Aztecs, I suppose. But I don’t think we can implicate Albert Schweitzer in that, either.

            • steve oberski
              Posted October 2, 2012 at 4:03 pm | Permalink

              You’re joking, right ?

              The Portuguese and Spanish aided and abetted by the Catholic church and European diseases wiped out the indigenous populations of central and south America.

              The population declined by over 90% after 1500.

              You really are a clueless gob-shite.

    • Alexander Hellemans
      Posted October 2, 2012 at 1:35 am | Permalink

      Yes, medical care from Christian organisations “works” because they rely on science. Schweizer used medical drugs as any other doctor.

    • Ichthyic
      Posted October 2, 2012 at 1:51 am | Permalink

      Practical medical help in sub-Saharan Africa was, until very recently, explicitly inspired, funded and delivered by Christian medical missionaries. In that sense religion, too, “works”. Think of Schweitzer and leprosy, for example.

      explain how prayer cured leprosy then?

      was it missionary faith in whatever gospel they had that actually did the work to help sub-Saharan Africa, or was it simply investment of time and effort?

      what, exactly, does religion have to do with it, other than spreading what amount to DAMAGING memes in Africa?

      • logicophilosophicus
        Posted October 2, 2012 at 8:40 am | Permalink

        “Damaging” compared to what? A natural state of harmonious rational atheism?

        The Christiam medical missionaries, unlike the indigenous witch doctors, brought modern medicine with them, rather than relying on ritual. Even then, Christian rituals were rather less harmful than, say, murdering and dismembering witch children.

        Still, if Christianity must be condemned at all costs, you go for it! Personally, I’m one of those pragmatic atheists: I’ll happily tolerate Oxfam’s Quaker roots, for example.

        • darrelle
          Posted October 2, 2012 at 11:36 am | Permalink

          You are the one who brought up the off topic argument, christian medical missionaries have done good inspired by their religion, presumably to make the point that “there are also moral truths”. Then when someone points out that the medical aid christian medical missionaries accomplished was made possible by the application of the methods of science, and that the missionaries applications of the methods of their religion where often damaging instead of beneficial you go with . . .

          <blockquote“Still, if Christianity must be condemned at all costs, you go for it!”
          . . .?

          I hope that little jolt of justifiably manufactured indignation felt good.

          “Moral truths” are things we just make up, derived from both deliberate and indeliberate processes. In many societies throughout human history slavery of various sorts was a “moral truth.” There have been, and are, many “moral truths” held by societies that most people in modern cultures consider unsavory at best. And as a tool for arriving at what most people in modern societies would consider to be decent “moral truths,” religions’ track records are not good.

          What does that kind of truth have to do with the OP’s argument? Not a thing. Except as an example of the kind of carny, shell game tactics that apologists have used since there have been religions to apologize for, to try and sneak false equivalencies past their audiences in order to justify their belief system.

        • gr8hands
          Posted October 2, 2012 at 1:33 pm | Permalink

          logicophilosophicus, perhaps you are unaware that the “christian medical missionaries” that promoted abstinence only programs (or said that one should not use condoms) did not stop the AIDS epidemic or cure a single person. No, they only made the epidemic worse, causing more death and disease.

        • steve oberski
          Posted October 2, 2012 at 3:14 pm | Permalink

          You apparently know as much about current African xtian evangelism as you do about Albert Schweitzer, which is not very much.

          African xtianity is a syncretism of older indigenous religions and various flavours of xtianity and witchcraft is very much alive and actively practised, to the detriment of many children being branded as witches.

        • Ichthyic
          Posted October 2, 2012 at 4:12 pm | Permalink

          “Damaging” compared to what? A natural state of harmonious rational atheism?

          damaging compared to the culture they had already evolved for themselves, which worked quite well for them.

    • Dominic
      Posted October 2, 2012 at 1:59 am | Permalink

      Those missionaries were interested most in their god & promoting ‘its’ message which is “come & join us” – their god showed its superior powers by healing people. Modern medicine relies on science so what has a god got to do with it?

      • Ichthyic
        Posted October 2, 2012 at 2:04 am | Permalink

        their god showed its superior powers by healing people

        you mean, not, since it never did, because it doesn’t exist.

        the deity defined by missionaries to Africa never healed a single person.

        • Scott near Berkeley
          Posted October 2, 2012 at 8:44 am | Permalink

          Indeed! Bring forward one, just one, amputee, whose missing digit, limb, was restored by prayer.

          There are zero. Absolute certainty.

    • Linda Grilli Calhoun
      Posted October 2, 2012 at 3:56 am | Permalink

      Practical MEDICAL help would not have been available without science.

      Hocus-pocus religious interventions are not effective. L

    • Newish Gnu
      Posted October 2, 2012 at 5:59 am | Permalink

      “Practical medical help in sub-Saharan Africa was, until very recently, explicitly inspired, funded and delivered by Christian medical missionaries.”

      Would the outcomes have been any different if the “practical medical help” had been inspired, funded, and delivered by Muslims, Zoroastrians, Wiccans, or atheists?

      • logicophilosophicus
        Posted October 2, 2012 at 9:29 am | Permalink

        I don’t know. We’ll just have to have a look at all those Wiccan, Zoroastrian, etc hospitals in colonial Africa and make a judgment.

        • Ichthyic
          Posted October 2, 2012 at 4:16 pm | Permalink

          you really don’t even remotely grasp the point of what you replied to, do you?

          maybe if phrased differently?

          there is NOTHING UNIQUE about the fact that the missionaries were christians. there is nothing relating to their RELIGIOUS BELIEFS that resulted in them promoting the building of hospitals.

          the same would have been done by any other, it’s just that xians are the more common type of missionary.

          are you really this dense?

    • JonLynnHarvey
      Posted October 2, 2012 at 6:03 am | Permalink

      Not to mention that Albert Schweitzer was hardly at all a conventional traditional Christian!!! More of a “belief-in-belief” kinda guy in several ways.

    • Posted October 2, 2012 at 6:27 am | Permalink

      “Christian medical missionaries” acting as believers would use prayer, invocations, appeals to god for miracles, appeal to belief by savages, etc., which would be worth zip to stop hunger and disease.

      • logicophilosophicus
        Posted October 2, 2012 at 8:45 am | Permalink

        You have evidence for this? Schweitzer is reckoned to have decided to study medicine after deciding to be a missionary. You have a counter-example?

        • Ichthyic
          Posted October 2, 2012 at 4:18 pm | Permalink

          how is this even relevant to what you replied to?

          Schweitzer indeed studied MEDICINE after doing missionary work.

          the conclusion being:

          missionary work FAILED to accomplish what was needed.

    • Peter Ozzie Jones
      Posted October 2, 2012 at 6:47 am | Permalink

      mmm, thinking of Schweitzer takes me to what is said about him in the journalist James Cameron’s 1978 book “Point of Departure: Experiment in Autobiography” [p 174]:

      …the Schweitzer Hospital was no place of light and healing but a squalid slum, from which the Doctor excluded all the advantages he was forever being offered simply because he did not personally understand them;

      In spite of Schweitzer’s reputation for embracing his “younger” brothers (the natives in French Equatorial Africa) he would not even contemplate sitting down to a meal with them.

      • logicophilosophicus
        Posted October 2, 2012 at 8:49 am | Permalink

        Indeed, a selfish bastard:

        http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/peace/laureates/1952/schweitzer-bio.html

        • Ichthyic
          Posted October 2, 2012 at 4:19 pm | Permalink

          and mother Theresa?

          she won a great many awards too.

          are you as ignorant of her behavior as well?

          • Peter Ozzie Jones
            Posted October 2, 2012 at 7:12 pm | Permalink

            Not ignorant of Agnes Bojaxhiu from Albania, myth or fact!
            Christopher Hitchens details alarming issues involving Mother Teresa in his 1997 book
            “The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice”.
            He observes that while the poor of Calcutta did not receive even simple medical care
            Mother Teresa herself always sought world-class medical care at overseas clinics.
            She accepted generous contributions from fraudsters, gangsters and dictators;
            she refused to either account for that money or return it to the rightful owners.
            Then in 2007 we learn from a book of her letters,
            “Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light – The Private Writings of the Saint of Calcutta”,
            that she doubted her own faith.
            These were letters to her superiors and religious confidants over a period of 66 years.
            She said that while she felt that she was doing God’s will,
            she experienced the absence of the presence of God.
            See the article “Mother Teresa’s Crisis of Faith,” by David van Biema, Time, 23 August 2007.
            In a letter to Rev. Michael van der Peet:

            Jesus has a very special love for you. . .
            But as for me, the silence and the emptiness is so great, that I look and do not see,
            listen and do not hear—the tongue moves in prayer but does not speak . . .
            I want you to pray for me—that I let Him have a free hand.

    • Rhetoric
      Posted October 2, 2012 at 11:52 am | Permalink

      But heaven forbid you inform them about sexuality and birth control. Who cares if a woman who already has trouble feeding her three children has two more… as long as she has found Jesus, right?

    • steve oberski
      Posted October 2, 2012 at 3:02 pm | Permalink

      Would this be the Schweitzer who wrote: “The Jesus of Nazareth who came forward publicly as the Messiah, who preached the ethic of the kingdom of God, who founded the kingdom of heaven upon earth and died to give his work its final consecration never existed.”

      He denied, for instance, the divinity of Christ, the virgin birth, the atonement, the miracles, and the inerrancy of the Scriptures. (http://www.religion-online.org/showarticle.asp?title=1834)

      But if you want to call him an xtian, by all means, knock yourself out.

      And if we are to fully consider the medical “help” delivered in sub-Saharan Africa by xtians, we can’t exclude the genocide promulgated by the Catholic church via their insane campaign against sexual prophylaxis and birth control.

      Then there are the xtian evangelical pastors in Nigeria branding children as witches leading to the abuse and the murder of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of children.

      And let’s not forget the efforts of US xtian evangelical groups busy “fanning the flames of the culture wars over homosexuality and abortion by backing prominent African campaigners and political leaders.”

      I’d say that sub-Saharan Africa would be far better off with a whole lot less xtian medical or any other type of “help”.

    • steve oberski
      Posted October 2, 2012 at 3:23 pm | Permalink

      I have to say that it would be difficult to think of a worse justification for the usefulness of xtianity than xtianity’s track record in Africa so in that sense you are to be applauded.

      That poor continent has been and still is being fucked up one side and down the other by xtians and touting xtian medical missionary efforts is a bit like putting a band-aid on a cancer patient.

      Is this really the best you can do ?

    • J.J.E.
      Posted October 2, 2012 at 4:08 pm | Permalink

      There is no hint of “truth” here. Religion hasn’t generated any knowledge here, unless knowledge is taken to be mean different things to different people for the same referent. Religion can motivate, it can communicate, it can fabricate so-called “moral truths” (which have nothing in common with anything resembling knowledge), etc. But religion doesn’t generate knowledge.

      There is nothing universal about religion. Individual religions yield no useful predictions, don’t explain our experiences better than alternative religions, provide nothing that fiction and ideology don’t etc. Again, if religion provides “knowledge” in any sense, then so do do other human activities like short story writing and club membership, etc. No, this conflation of what religion “offers” with knowledge is a pernicious misuse of the word “knowledge”.

  3. Dawn Oz
    Posted October 2, 2012 at 1:29 am | Permalink

    I’m sorry Jerry that you confabulated philosophy and religion (upset even!). Religion wants to push a particular barrow and philosophy wants to differentiate between the barrow and the pusher (at least that!)

    The study of philosophy leads to clearer thinking, whereas the study of religion, leaves one with a detailed knowledge of mud. They are just so different.

    Philosophy is a meta-subject of concern. How do we differentiate between the assumption and the logic? How can we analyse this statement, so we can separate major concerns?

    Religion never gets out of its assumption that not only is there a deity, but as you are so fond of saying (and I of repeating you), that deities lead to ‘ergo Jesus’.

    Having studied a few years of philosophy at uni, it would be hard to not come out quite skeptical of many sentences. Philosophy and science are colleagues. Philosophy, especially after our dear Wittgenstein, critiques our language and helps us beware of what a legal friend of mine calls ‘alleged sentences’.

    • whyevolutionistrue
      Posted October 2, 2012 at 1:33 am | Permalink

      Umm. . .I disagree somewhat. Philosophy has been used repeatedly to buttress faith, as in the cases of Michael Ruse and Elliott Sober, which have been discussed on this site. If philosophy and science are colleagues, then philosophy and religion are just as close colleagues. What is theology, after all, but the application of philosophy to faith?

      There are, of course, perfectly good and useful secular applications of philosophy, but the field is not unsullied by pure secularism!

      • Dawn Oz
        Posted October 2, 2012 at 3:38 am | Permalink

        I’ll prepare a more detailed answer, however all the philosophy I ever studied made one wary of any assumptions about imaginary beings. I guess I see philosophy as the ability to question everything, and certainly philosophers are wary of the word ‘faith’. They would certainly want to deconstruct it, whereas religious people seem to revel in it. We studied the ancient Greeks, Romans, and later Germans (as well as formal logic – which I found very difficult). I was particularly enamored with the Existentialists. There were some Xtian philosophers, however we didn’t study them at uni. I think in Oz we followed a UK version, and philosophy was seen as the enemy of received religions. I’ll look up Michael Ruse – and see how he uses philosophy to ‘buttress’ his assumptions. I can imagine people having a good debate about Deism, however not ‘received’ idiocy.

        Theology is a set of assumptions written in a way that is often obscure and caught in circular definitions. It may mirror philosophy in terms of some of its terms, however it isn’t open to falsification. In a philosophical debate, once the assumption is uncovered, then there is nothing to say – you accept the assumption or not. The best friends philosophy had was Bertrand Russell and Ludwig Wittgenstein, although there is an amazing story of them meeting in a fiery exchange.

        Anyone can claim they are arguing philosophically, however, who would agree with them? Philosophy is secular – some people will use anything to ‘buttress’ their position. I feel sorry for the US, as religion has sullied so much and reached into the very core of the universities. Perhaps they are hijacking philosophy to their own ends.

        Thanks for your interest, I’ll have a look at Ruse. I’m sure Russell and Wittgenstein would have had Ruse for breakfast.

        • Dawn Oz
          Posted October 2, 2012 at 3:45 am | Permalink

          PS

          There are also scientists who are Xtians – this doesn’t lessen science. Most scientists are atheistic, as are most philosophers. You can’t look at a couple and damn the whole discipline.

          • Notagod
            Posted October 2, 2012 at 10:31 am | Permalink

            But Dr. Coyne didn’t damn the whole discipline in this post and has noted in his comment to you and in prior postings that philosophy can be helpful at times.

          • Ichthyic
            Posted October 2, 2012 at 4:22 pm | Permalink

            There are also scientists who are Xtians

            so?

            just because one can compartmentalize effectively, doesn’t mean it’s a recommended practice.

      • Reginald Selkirk
        Posted October 2, 2012 at 6:03 am | Permalink

        “Philosophy has been used repeatedly to buttress faith…”

        But Prof. Coyne, DO is of course referring to ‘true’ philosophy, kilts and all.

        • whyevolutionistrue
          Posted October 2, 2012 at 7:50 am | Permalink

          Ummm. . . the unctuous and muddle-headed Alvin Plantinga, who does some of the world’s worst philosopphy, was elected President of one division of the American Philosophical Association. Is the APA not engaged in honoring those doing “true” philosophy? It’s as if some scientist were given a religious award for doing a kind of science that is inextricably intertwined with religion. That doesn’t happen.

          No, I’m sorry, Plantinga counts as a real philosopher–for he’s been honored by them for his work on God.

          • eric
            Posted October 2, 2012 at 8:13 am | Permalink

            It’s as if some scientist were given a religious award for doing a kind of science that is inextricably intertwined with religion. That doesn’t happen.

            You mean like a Templeton grant for Ehrenreich?

            Sadly, it does happen. But this is just a quibble; Dawn is indeed using a ‘no true philosopher’ argument, and pointing at people like Plantinga (or pointing to philosophy journals that publish his stuff) is really the only response needed. You folk obviously consider him one of yours, so why are you so upset that we consider him one of yours?

          • Posted October 3, 2012 at 5:58 am | Permalink

            Yes, I think Reginald was making the same point, humorously accusing Dawn of committing the No True Scotsman fallacy (kilts and all).

            • Posted October 3, 2012 at 6:01 am | Permalink

              …and eric made the same point I did. Read first, comment later…

      • Myron
        Posted October 2, 2012 at 11:12 am | Permalink

        What are colleagues are naturalistic philosophy and natural science. And the former is not a colleague of supernaturalistic philosophy, part of which is theistic philosophy (of religion).
        For example, here’s a quote by one the leading contemporary metaphysicians/ontologists, whose new book is an example of contemporary naturalistic philosophy at its best:

        “Hume and Kant were right to be sceptical of the idea that metaphysics could provide a direct, unfiltered pipeline to reality. What knowledge anyone has of the universe is grounded in experience and observation tempered by scientific enquiry. When our interest is in the nature of things we turn to the sciences. When our interest extends to the deep story about those things we turn to fundamental physics. Fundamental physics provides an account of the truthmakers for scientific claims generally.”

        (Heil, John. The Universe As We Find It. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012. p. 3)

        That said, Heil, being a philosopher himself, certainly doesn’t think that there’s nothing for metaphysics/ontology to do anymore but to hand over the entire inquiry to empirical science and then to shut up. If he thought so, he wouldn’t have written that (brilliant) book.

        “Ontology sets out an even more abstract model of how the world is than theoretical physics, a model that has placeholders for scientific results and excluders for tempting confusions. Ontology and theoretical science can help one another along, we hope, with minimal harm.”

        (Martin, C. B. The Mind in Nature. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007. p. 42)

        Quine is right in stating that metaphysics and ontology are continuous with science. One can regard the former as theoretical science in its most abstract and general form.

        • Dawn Oz
          Posted October 2, 2012 at 6:47 pm | Permalink

          I’ve tried to post three times and my posts have not appeared.

      • Dawn Oz
        Posted October 3, 2012 at 7:17 pm | Permalink

        I have tried to reply in detail, however the post disappeared, and when I tried to repost, it said I was repeating myself! This was yesterday.

    • Marella
      Posted October 2, 2012 at 3:59 am | Permalink

      confabulated

      That word doesn’t mean what you think it means. The word you want is ‘conflated’, confabulate means to think up stories to explain things when you’ve lost your memory.

      • Dawn Oz
        Posted October 2, 2012 at 4:02 am | Permalink

        Thanks Marella, you are right! Neurone gets flabby.

    • Posted October 2, 2012 at 1:12 pm | Permalink

      I still think that “philosophy” is a term that’s long since lost any meaning. Any more, defenders of philosophy are merely engaged in turf-grabbing, akin to the attempts of theists to claim everything for the glory of their gods.

      There are a great many valid disciplines taught in philosophy departments: logic, ethics, scientific methodology, and the like. But, just as chemistry and physics are no longer properly understood as exercises in natural philosophy (even though they once were), it no longer makes sense to grant philosophy dominion over these other disciplines.

      Logic properly belongs as a subset of math and computer science.

      Ethics is an applied observational science that’s closely associated with medicine and political science.

      The “philosophy of science” again is a matter for the empiricists. Do we get better results with for-profit or open-access journals? No philosopher can answer that question, but a methodological study can.

      And so on.

      Take those disciplines away from philosophy and you’re left with pointless navel-gazing bullshit, such as “metaphysics.” And cosmologists and quantum mechanics are doing far more to answer those “deep foundational questions” that metaphysicians are supposed to be the experts on than any quack in an ivory tower ever did.

      Cheers,

      b&

      • JamesM
        Posted October 2, 2012 at 5:35 pm | Permalink

        Beautifully said.

        • Posted October 3, 2012 at 10:25 am | Permalink

          But wrong. Obviously if you remove from philosophy all the parts of philosophy which are useful, the remainder is useless. If you did the same with science you’d end up with the same results.

          (I also think your characterizations of ethics and philsci are misleading. So-called naturalistic ethics/philsci are… let’s say “hotly contested” positions and leave it at that.)

  4. NewEnglandBob
    Posted October 2, 2012 at 1:33 am | Permalink

    This is a powerful post that shows the difference between those who do and those who dance around life.

    Yes, it is frustrating to see people like Spufford use their mealy words to twist reality into a shape they prefer but when it comes down to it, science works.

    I watched a debate last night between 2 candidates where one didn’t answer more than half the questions and spewed sound bites about his philosophical positions while the other candidate answered the questions with “I did this” and even one “I don’t know”. The facts won in my opinion and I will for for the straight forward answers, although that race is in a dead heat.

    Keep it up, Jerry, we need your clear thinking to keep us from believing the philosophical twisting.

    • Scott near Berkeley
      Posted October 2, 2012 at 8:54 am | Permalink

      It is more than just “mealy words”. It is an abuse of the language, and should be recognized for the abuse that it truly is: an attack on the progress toward a more just, more joyous, happier, and more peaceful world than the world that now exist.

      It is nothing less.

      That’s what “Gnu Atheism” is really about: zero tolerance for those who would keep humanity from embracing a far better world.

  5. Posted October 2, 2012 at 1:36 am | Permalink

    “Muslims want to kill those who reject the faith”

    Can I suggest this be amended to “There are some Muslims who want to kill those who reject the faith”? It would be unfair to cast all Muslims in this light.

    • phar84
      Posted October 2, 2012 at 2:33 am | Permalink

      J, you may suggest but it would be out of context. The point was to show that we can distinguish between beliefs, not whether ALL muslims want to kill apostates, (although it would be technically correct if they were to consider themselves true adherents).

      • Posted October 2, 2012 at 3:07 am | Permalink

        I’m afraid I don’t understand your objection. I understood what the point was, but I think an unfair generalisation was used to illustrate the point.
        It is also dangerous to go into “No true Scotsman” territory!

        • darrelle
          Posted October 2, 2012 at 6:35 am | Permalink

          J, are you not also concerned about each of the other demographic groups that were unfairly generalized in the other similar examples JC gave in that same passage?

          Why did you feel it necessary to single out muslim’s?

          • Posted October 2, 2012 at 6:47 am | Permalink

            Because saying that a particular group want to kill other people is a much stronger & accusatory* statement than saying that a group of people want to spread their faith or are humble, and is unfair given that it is only a subset of those people that do wish this.

            *Now it sounds like I’m accusing Jerry of accusing all Muslims of wanting to kill apostates, which I’m not. I just think it could have been phrased differently to avoid any ambiguity. A reader not familiar with this website might read it as an accusation & I think it’s easier to avoid misunderstandings than attempting to clarify them!

            • tomh
              Posted October 2, 2012 at 9:40 am | Permalink

              As long as we’re objecting to generalizations, I object to Quakers being identified as “humble and nonprosyletizing.” This may have been true once, (I doubt it), but today, 40% of Quakers belong to the Evangelical Friends branch of Quakerism. They regard Christ as their savior and have similar views to other evangelical Christians. They believe in, and place a high regard for, biblical infallibility and believe that the purpose of the Friends Church is to evangelise and transform others through love and service. Their missionaries perform baptisms. The largest Quaker church in the world is an evangelical Quaker megachurch located in Orange County, California.

              Evangelical Friends of North America belongs to the National Association of Evangelicals, a huge umbrella organization of evangelicals, that attempts to shape public policy from a biblical perspective, mainly by pouring large amounts of money into lobbying efforts.

    • Thanny
      Posted October 2, 2012 at 9:09 am | Permalink

      Without the qualifier “all”, statements about a group of people are reasonably interpreted as descriptive of the average or typical member. For example, “men are stronger than women” and “women live longer than men” are not statements about every man or woman.

      So, does the typical or average Muslim believe that death is an appropriate punishment for apostasy? According to a 2011 Pew survey, yes. It is therefore entirely appropriate to generalize in the way that Jerry did.

      • Posted October 2, 2012 at 9:47 am | Permalink

        I don’t think that’s a fair defence when the subject of the generalisation is a strongly negative one.
        Also, do you have a link to the Pew survey? Because there are several questions that I would ask about it. Where was the research carried out? How was the question asked?
        Furthermore, what percentage of the population justifies “typical”?

  6. Posted October 2, 2012 at 2:19 am | Permalink

    Hey Jerry,

    I sympathetic toward your frustrations with these silly, tired remarks by Spufford, but I would like to point out that most philosophers have long since abandoned the foundationalist project of discovering an a priori ground for the sciences. The idea of a first philosophy, famously dreamt of by Descartes is more or less dead. So, I don’t know which philosophers you have in mind as the targets of your rebuke–I suppose it’s these guys like Spufford with a religious axe to grind– but no serious philosopher, in my view, would impugn the integrity of science, merely on account of the lack of an a priori foundation. Indeed, the vast majority philosophers, in my experience, pay lip-service to some form of naturalism, which, broadly construed involves a kind of epistemic respect for the results and methods and results of the sciences.

    Penelope Maddy, I think paints a sort of picture of this kind of naturalism, which would be acceptable, at least in part, I believe, to many philosophers in her book “Second Philosophy: A Naturalistic Method”. The book is rather long, but, if anything, I recommend the first couple of chapters. Herein, she describes a kind of inquirer, the Second Philosopher, whose epistemic stance is much different from that of Descartes. As the name suggests, the project of first philosophy is abandoned by the Second Philosopher. Allow me to quote at length a few illustrative passages:

    “This inquirer is born native to our contemporary scientific world-view; she practices the modern descendants of the methods found wanting by Descartes. She begins from common sense, she trusts her perceptions, subject to correction, but her curiosity pushes her beyond these to careful and precise observation, to deliberate experimentation, to the formulation and stringent testing of hypotheses, to devising ever more comprehensive theories, all in the interest of learning more about what the world is like” (14).

    “The Second Philosopher’s position comes down to this: she has some well-honed ways of trying to find out what the world is like; they have delivered a picture of the world that is stable, predictively useful, admirably coherent, and explanatory; these methods are fallible, always subject to improvement;indeed, they can’t be defended at all against various, carefully constructed skeptical scenarios, nor can they be justified ‘from the outside’; and finally, no one, including the skeptic, has proposed a more promising way of going
    about her investigations” (33-34).

    “The Second Philosopher sets aside this [skeptical] objection with the now-familiar observation that her methods are the best she knows…” (35).

    And in fact, Maddy even hints that any sort of “justification” offered for scientific practice itself would take a similar form to the one you have already suggested: look, man, science works! The methods of science have proved to be reliable in granting us fruitful, coherent, unified, parsimonious [insert whatever theoretical virtues you like, here] theories, on the basis of which we are able to predict, explain, and control the the natural world. So, aside from a healthy falliblism about our beliefs, we needn’t bother ourselves with either the Cartesian skeptic, or the Spufford religiously-inspired skepticism about science (if that is Spufford’s contention; I haven’t bothered to read his stuff).

    I suppose the purpose of this post was to serve as a reminder that MOST philosophers are NOT attempting to impede the progress of science by pontificating about whether we SHOULD do experiments. Nor are they wagging their fingers at scientists demanding some unshakable, a priori justification of the scientific enterprise. You’re right, we certainly don’t need philosophers to come in and save science from the skeptic. However, I don’t believe most philosophers think science needs to be saved.

    • whyevolutionistrue
      Posted October 2, 2012 at 2:22 am | Permalink

      I hate to take issue with your contention, my friend, but I hear this criticism of science from many REAL philosophers. I believe Massimo Pigliucci, for example, has made it repeatedly. Perhaps other readers can weigh in with examples, as I’m in Portugal and away from any real resources. I believe this criticism is often part of criticisms about “scientism.”

      • Posted October 2, 2012 at 3:11 am | Permalink

        You’re right Jerry.

        Many academic philosophers working in philosophy of mind and also ethics still endorse a conception of ‘first philosophy’ relative to the sciences of mind and ethics; namely, the very status of science depends on how the metaphysical answers turn out, and thus ultimately to depend on the beyond-science introspective methods of metaphyiscs. Unfortunately, Aristotle’s rather innocent term ‘first philosophy’ is still tagged with a self-importance associated with suprascientific methods and principles. Philosophers of mind who strongly endorse nonphysical qualia are an example, as are philosophers of ethics who endorse Hume’s ‘Is-Ought Gap’.

        Cheers, Simon

        • Christian
          Posted October 2, 2012 at 6:47 am | Permalink

          Which reminds me of the quip by Wolfgang Pauli (I think) that…
          “Philosophy is the systematic abuse of a terminology specifically designed for that very purpose” 😀

          • Posted October 2, 2012 at 5:16 pm | Permalink

            Hey Christian,

            Aristotle’s use of ‘first philosophy’ in his Metaphysica is intended very loosely to describe the generality of the topics he discusses there (e.g., logic, ethics, the weather, physics, animal reproduction etc). He saw them as relevant to all sciences. Concerning this discussion – Aristotle did not suppose that the topics in Metaphysica were beyond the methods of science or different in kind from the questions of the particular sciences. Later philosophers commonly did, however – and still do.

            On a positive note, the growth in philosophy of neurophilosophy, neuroethics, neuroaesthetics, etc etc, is encouraging (my own PhD concerns neurophilosophy), and means – cue *hunch* – that the heyday of unfettered and heavy-handed philosophical speculation has gone the way of the divine right of kings.

            Cheers, Simon

    • eric
      Posted October 2, 2012 at 8:21 am | Permalink

      no serious philosopher, in my view, would impugn the integrity of science, merely on account of the lack of an a priori foundation.

      Oh come on. Feyerabend and Kuhn did it back in the 70s. While their attacks were considered radical for their time, their material is taught in basic philosophy of science classes now. Its core curriculum stuff taught in philosophy classes today.

      Now, those two did not have a religious axe to grind and I’d put them into the category of ‘sincere questioners of scientific assumptions’ rather than ‘apologists bent on justifying a preconceived position.’ But yes, lots of philosophers have and continue to challenge the integrity of science as a methodology.

  7. Posted October 2, 2012 at 2:37 am | Permalink

    Yes, I remember that Massimo has taken you and others to task a few times for perceived “scientism”. But, from I remember, by the term “scientism”, he means the view that science exhausts the domain of rational inquiry–a view which seems to be prima facie false. In no obvious sense does mathematics or logic fall under the purvey of scientific inquiry, broadly construed to mean empirical investigation primarily by means of observation and experiment. If you think philosophy or ethics can provide genuine knowledge, then those are some other examples. I cannot speak for Massimo, but I doubt he believes that the enterprise of science is in want of or could be improved by an a priori philosophical justification. In fact, I think I recall him expressly disavowing these sorts of foundational projects.

    • Posted October 2, 2012 at 3:31 am | Permalink

      In no obvious sense does mathematics or logic fall under the purvey of scientific inquiry, broadly construed to mean empirical investigation primarily by means of observation and experiment.

      I beg to differ. Where do the axioms of maths and logic come from? I don’t think they’re entirely arbitrary, I think they come from empirical investigation of our world.

      Since axioms are distilled empiricism, maths and logic are part of scientific enquiry as you’ve construed it.

      • Posted October 2, 2012 at 5:13 am | Permalink

        This can’t be right – there are many, many logics with different axioms (and rules). It seems that we make them up to systematize what we take to be good deductions, as well as for other purposes. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: science is no more empiricist than it is rationalist.

        • Posted October 2, 2012 at 6:10 am | Permalink

          there are many, many logics with different axioms (and rules).

          Are there really? I accept that there are in the sense of different subsets of axioms (for example Euclidean geometry axioms are a special case of a more general geometry). But all such systems are important only because they apply to different aspects of empirical reality.

          It seems that we make them up to systematize what we take to be good deductions

          How do we define “good” here, except in some relation to empirical reality?

          • truthspeaker
            Posted October 2, 2012 at 7:32 am | Permalink

            Mathematics now contains a lot that is very abstract. But it started with people counting things.

          • logicophilosophicus
            Posted October 2, 2012 at 7:40 am | Permalink

            I’m with FVIII and KD on this. Scientists are accused of “scientism” (I hate this use of the word, but it’s the current jargon) when they claim that the only truth is necessarily empirical/materialist. Mathematics certainly is not – hence Wigner’s remark about its “unreasonable effectiveness”: the physical sciences have a remarkable record of discoveries which are well described by pre-existing (you might say previously useless) math.

            In fact I’d go so far as to say that the great majority of really eminent modern physicists are strongly philosophical in outlook, and the less eminent should be aware that when they accept or endorse constructs beyond experimental demonstration – such as Many Worlds or Strings/Branes – they are in philosophical territory.

            (Of course, that doesn’t mean physicists are likely to tolerate philosophers of dubious scientific literacy who encroach on topics requiring such understanding.

            • whyevolutionistrue
              Posted October 2, 2012 at 8:06 am | Permalink

              Ummm. . .. I doubt that any physicist would say that string theory or the many-worlds view are anything more that guesses or speculations. If you call such interpretations “philosophy,” then fine. But nobody says that they are either “true” or accurate descriptions of reality.

              You’re stretching philosophy just so you can justify its existence and value for scientists. I doubt that science would be much different if the formal discipline of philosophy never existed. We’re able to think up stuff like string theory and the many-worlds hypotheses just fine, without any need to study formal philosophy. Indeed, you could say that Darwin was engaged in philosophy the first time that he thought about natural selection, before it was tested, documented, and accepted as the general cause of adaptation.

              I’m sorry, but I’m not impressed when you subsume “making hypotheses” as an act of philosophy. We do that just fine on our own.

              That’s not to say philosophy is useful in sharpening our logical skills and dispelling illogical arguments. But it’s not as valuable to scientists as philosophers like to think.

              • gr8hands
                Posted October 2, 2012 at 1:40 pm | Permalink

                Most scientists I know have never taken a single philosophy class.

            • Posted October 2, 2012 at 8:47 am | Permalink

              Mathematics certainly is not – hence Wigner’s remark about its “unreasonable effectiveness”

              And the puzzlement over its “unreasonable effectiveness” disappears once one realises that maths is just distilled empiricism.

              the physical sciences have a remarkable record of discoveries which are well described by pre-existing … math.

              By “pre-existing” maths you mean “previously distilled from empirical enquiry” maths.

              should be aware that when they accept or endorse constructs beyond experimental demonstration – such as Many Worlds or Strings/Branes – they are in philosophical territory

              Most physicists are rightly sceptical about such things, and will indeed require empirical verification before “accepting or endorsing” them, though they might advocate or explore them as avenues of enquiry.

          • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
            Posted October 2, 2012 at 8:34 am | Permalink

            The empirical side of mathematics is most clearly seen in proofs. Many elementary steps are “obvious” by mutual agreement in order to glue steps together in an almost darwinian fashion between axioms and results.

            What a fun observation to make on this site: mathematics is “biological” at hearth.

          • Posted October 2, 2012 at 8:46 am | Permalink

            Are there really? I accept that there are in the sense of different subsets of axioms (for example Euclidean geometry axioms are a special case of a more general geometry). But all such systems are important only because they apply to different aspects of empirical reality.

            I agree broadly with your point. However, there have been several cases where logical systems (or for that matter other axiomatic systems: like geometries with different versions of the parallel postulate) have been studied as mathematical curiosities well before any practical correspondences with reality were found. Examples are the different kinds of non-Euclidean geometry, and more recently, so called Intutionistic Logic which has found applications in the the design of type systems of modern programming languages like Haskell.

            • Posted October 2, 2012 at 8:52 am | Permalink

              … have been studied as mathematical curiosities well before any practical correspondences with reality were found.

              Agreed, but physicists do this also, with there being many examples of “physical curiosities” being proposed before empirical support came along. Dirac’s postulation of anti-matter is one.

              Of course one can argue whether Dirac’s prediction came from maths or from physics, but that just supports my point, that both have the same empirical roots.

  8. Posted October 2, 2012 at 3:04 am | Permalink

    Thank you for this post; this is one of the reasons I have no patience with people who try to engage me with “harmonizing of science and religion” exercises. I am just not interested.

    And I am not in the least interested in whether some philosopher thinks about the “truth” of a given scientific discovery.

  9. Posted October 2, 2012 at 3:23 am | Permalink

    May I humbly suggest people stop taking idiocy seriously.
    No more links to flawed arguments by people who, de facto, are only using the debate to promote themselves and sell their wares. That has been the nature of religion and those who use it to garner power and money from the start.
    Most of the time, I read garbage like Spufford’s and think ‘he can’t possibly believe this rubbish he’s written’.

    • Marella
      Posted October 2, 2012 at 4:03 am | Permalink

      Oh yes, please do! It’s all so goddam repetitive and tedious.

      • Cliff Melick
        Posted October 2, 2012 at 12:17 pm | Permalink

        +1

  10. Linda Grilli Calhoun
    Posted October 2, 2012 at 3:53 am | Permalink

    “And if religion was the only way of knowing we had, that’s where inquiry would stop.”

    For a lot of them, that’s where it DIES stop.

    The thing that always jumps out at me about religious people is their mental laziness. And, a lot of them are very threatened by others who don’t share that mental laziness.

    Of course, they are more than willing to avail themselves of the positive results of real scientific inquiry. L

    • Linda Grilli Calhoun
      Posted October 2, 2012 at 3:54 am | Permalink

      DOES stop. Early. Contact lenses have not settled yet.

    • Scott near Berkeley
      Posted October 2, 2012 at 9:04 am | Permalink

      I speculate that this laziness is merely a method of holding close the idea of immortality through eternity, without having to trotting it out for scrutiny.

    • Posted October 2, 2012 at 5:40 pm | Permalink

      “Most people would rather die than think; in fact, they do so.” – Bertrand Russell

      /@

  11. BMcbart
    Posted October 2, 2012 at 4:00 am | Permalink

    ‘You can never change a true believers mind with evidence or a rational argument, because belief is not rational’

    • gluonspring
      Posted October 2, 2012 at 9:22 am | Permalink

      I do not think this is true. It may feel that way, because the success rate is low and the changes, when they come, come long after the evidence was presented.

  12. DrDroid
    Posted October 2, 2012 at 5:58 am | Permalink

    I liked your reply, Jerry. And no apologies necessary for being upset with this wooly-headed word-twisting.

  13. Reginald Selkirk
    Posted October 2, 2012 at 6:02 am | Permalink

    It is a philosophical picture of the world that gives science a monopoly position as the supplier and definer of truth, but that does not make the picture, itself, scientific.

    Note the false dichotomy in the making. This is the ‘ways of knowing’ argument. But – suppose we cede that there might be ‘ways of knowing’ other than scientific investigation. Why should we believe that religion in general, or Francis Sufford’s religion in specific, constitutes one of those conceivable ‘ways of knowing’? He leaves out any argument or evidence* that his ‘way of knowing’ is valid.

    * Yes, I understand that the need for evidence is the very thing Spufford is trying to circumvent. Too bad for him.

  14. JonLynnHarvey
    Posted October 2, 2012 at 6:19 am | Permalink

    This is potentially an area where !*psychological*! criticisms of religion become more relevant than !*scientific*! ones. Unfortunately, there isn’t a lot of clear consensus in the field of “psychology of religion”.

    However, it is worth pointing out that while Friedrich Nietzsche critiqued (psychologically) the most obviously toxic & morbid forms of Christianity, the thinking of the philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach is in many ways a claim made (on psychological grounds) that there is a crippling quality to even the most morally benign forms of Christianity.

    Spufford seems to be making a form of the argument of William James’ “The Will to Believe”, but even James felt unable to commit himself to any one specific religion as having universal validity. He felt all religions were essentially blind men feeling an elephant (though that begs the question of whether there is an elephant.) (James described his position as “piecemeal supernaturalism” while rejecting “universal supernaturalism”.)

  15. JamesM
    Posted October 2, 2012 at 6:23 am | Permalink

    Theists and philosophers are quick to denigrate science by calling just another religion or just another philosophy. But no one ever says, “well that’s just another science,” or “you’re just being a scientist,” as an insult. It really makes you think.

  16. Ludo
    Posted October 2, 2012 at 6:35 am | Permalink

    – “Muslims want to kill those who reject the faith; Catholics merely excommunicate them.”-
    The Catholic Church is just much cleverer: their violence and killing is done by proxy. Witches were ‘unmasked’ by priests and tortured and killed by secular officials. The hatred of Jews (and of atheists) was fueled by priests, but the resulting killing was to be left to others: the Vatican supported Franco and Hitler because they expected that they would exterminate all their enemies, the atheists, Jews, socialists and communists. Today Vatican officials oppose homosexuality – and then wash their hands when gay people are mistreated, for example in Africa.

  17. Posted October 2, 2012 at 8:09 am | Permalink

    Jerry,

    I don’t feel that you’ve fully answered the foundational challenge to science. I really value your opinion in this area, so I hope you’ll have the time to discuss this a bit further.

    The use of science is justified because it works, not because we can justify it philosophically [Emph. orig.].

    The challenge comes in several forms:

    (1) How do you know that science works? This requires an answer to external-world skepticism, which science cannot provide on pain of circularity.

    (2) How do you know that things that “work” are epistemically justified? This requires an epistemological principle concerning epistemic justification, which is a normative fact that eo ipso science cannot justify.

    (3) If circular arguments in defense of science are epistemologically permissible, why not circular arguments in defense of the Bible or religious experience? (“Religion is justified because it works. I know it works because of religious experience.”)

    (4) Distinguish realism from instrumentalism about science. Here, realists say that scientists acquire knowledge about the world; instrumentalists say that scientists participate in an activity that does not produce knowledge about the world, but instead does something else, something that “works.” You sound as if you embrace instrumentalism. That might be okay, but I thought many scientists were realists. And if science is actually supposed to be acquiring knowledge, then the foundational challenge applies.

    Overall, I think it’s easy to justify realist science, but that’s because I think it’s easy to use philosophy to do so. I wouldn’t worry that philosophers think they are criticizing science when they pose the foundational challenge; instead, they are simply pointing to an area where philosophy is helpful.

    • Posted October 2, 2012 at 8:16 am | Permalink

      I’ll let the readers handle this one because I’m sightseeing in Portugal. We know science works because malaria goes away when we deal with the causes that we’ve uncovered, for chrissake. And everyone who studies the problem knows that malaria is caused by mosquito-borne protozoans. That’s truth. Religion may “work” in providing solace for individuals, but it doesn’t “work” in telling us the truth about the universe. Is there a god? If so, which one? Truths are truths for everyone if they’re objective truths, and religions can’t agree on anything.

      If philosophy is so helpful to scientists, how come we’ve been able to get along without studying philosophy for so many decades? Do you really think science would have advanced less far had we paid less attention to people like Kuhn, Feyerabend, and Lakatos? I don’t think you can make even a remotely convincing case for that. But if you mean that “philosophy” (i.e. making hypotheses) is part of the scientific method itself, I say “big deal.”

      I am beginning to realize that philosophers keep sticking their noses into the tent of science because they feel that they are now being marginalized in our endeavors and want to get some kind of academic recognition.

      As Truman Capote said, “The dogs bark, but the caravan moves on.”

      That’s as far as I’ll answer your challenge.

      • Occam
        Posted October 2, 2012 at 10:56 am | Permalink

        http://xkcd.com/836/

        “This world is amazing, and I’m going to live to experience more of it thanks to people who refused to gracefully accept the ineffability of reality.

        I find my courage where I can, but I take my weapons from science.”

        http://xkcd.com/54/

        (Gee, this> should have been the real xkcd thread!)

      • Posted October 2, 2012 at 2:49 pm | Permalink

        Jerry,

        Thanks for your reply.

        Your appeals to evidence that science works depend on trusting empirical observation, which science alone can’t justify on pain of circularity.

        Yes, religions disagree, but most agree about, e.g., an afterlife, and a “spiritual reality” (whatever that is), and about theism. Why not trust their circular arguments? (The answer to that question is philosophical, not scientific.)

        I’m not claiming that philosophy is helpful for scientists as they do instrumentalistic science. I’m claiming that philosophy is necessary for scientific discoveries to count as knowledge. If scientists are happy to say that no one is justified, for all they know, in believing the propositions they tell us science reveals, then they don’t need philosophy.

      • infiniteimprobabilit
        Posted October 2, 2012 at 11:49 pm | Permalink

        My *car* works, dammit. And it does so by using hundreds of scientific discoveries which have become technology. It doesn’t matter a damn to the car whether some philosopher feels like providing a logical foundation for its working.

        And I doubt whether a single one of those discoveries that are used in the design of my car, required any philosophical input whatsoever.

        Philosophers of science who say to science “You need us” are (IMO) just like evangelists who say “You NEED Jesus” (or Baal, or Moloch, or Sun Myung Moon)… the correct answer to them is “Nope, don’t think so”.

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted October 2, 2012 at 9:15 am | Permalink

      This is boring, because these arguments pop up after being whacked so many times and, especially here, since the post already sketched the reply.

      But since we are asked, again, we answer, again:

      (1) We know that science works by observation. It expands over time, and it is used to (say) put rovers on Mars.

      (2) – (4) These questions are irrelevant for (1). The reason they are irrelevant is because they are philosophical instead of empirical.

      • Posted October 2, 2012 at 2:50 pm | Permalink

        Torbjörn Larsson,

        My original comment answered your point (1), where I noted that science alone cannot justify trusting the observations that allegedly suggest that science works.

        I don’t agree that philosophical questions are irrelevant. All I see is argument by assertion on your part.

    • JamesM
      Posted October 2, 2012 at 10:01 am | Permalink

      (1) How do you know that science works? This requires an answer to external-world skepticism, which science cannot provide on pain of circularity.

      By repeated use of the methods. How do you know tieing your shoes keeps your shoes on your feet? By tieing your shoes and seeing what happens. We know science works because we tried it. That is not a circular argument.

      (2) How do you know that things that “work” are epistemically justified? This requires an epistemological principle concerning epistemic justification, which is a normative fact that eo ipso science cannot justify.

      Justified by whom? Philosophers? Do I need to justify that tieing my shoes keeps them on my feet to a philosopher of shoes before I know that It works? No.

      (3) If circular arguments in defense of science are epistemologically permissible, why not circular arguments in defense of the Bible or religious experience? (“Religion is justified because it works. I know it works because of religious experience.”)

      Because you or whoever wrote this can’t tell the difference between a circular argument and an argument they just don’t want to accept because it hurts their feelings. See answers to 1) and 2) above

      (4) Distinguish realism from instrumentalism about science. Here, realists say that scientists acquire knowledge about the world; instrumentalists say that scientists participate in an activity that does not produce knowledge about the world, but instead does something else, something that “works.” You sound as if you embrace instrumentalism. That might be okay, but I thought many scientists were realists. And if science is actually supposed to be acquiring knowledge, then the foundational challenge applies.

      Who cares what these imaginary caricatures have to say about anything? “You sound as if you embrace instrumentalism.” You sound as if you enjoy straw-manning people into a stupor.

      “Overall, I think it’s easy to justify realist science, but that’s because I think it’s easy to use philosophy to do so. I wouldn’t worry that philosophers think they are criticizing science when they pose the foundational challenge; instead, they are simply pointing to an area where philosophy is helpful.”

      You can use philosophy to justify any position or belief that you hold. That is what philosophy was invented for, that is what philosophy is used for, and that is what makes philosophy useless.

      • Posted October 2, 2012 at 2:56 pm | Permalink

        JamesM,

        (1): I don’t understand your response here. How do I know I can trust what I seem to see–that it’s not just deception or illusion?

        (2): I mean ‘justified’ in the sense that the belief that the Theory of Evolution is true is a justified belief, and the belief that Creationism is true is an unjustified belief. What scientific observations are observations of the presence of this justification? What does it look like in a microscope?

        (3): ‘Observation is accurate. We know this because observation tells us that observation is accurate.’ How is that not circular? If that’s not your argument, what is your argument?

        (4) and “You can use philosophy to justify any position or belief that you hold”:

        If you had any evidence for your position here (instead of your position being based on faith alone), I imagine you would have presented it.

        • Posted October 2, 2012 at 3:38 pm | Permalink

          I don’t understand your response here. How do I know I can trust what I seem to see–that it’s not just deception or illusion?

          If you would but take the proverbial long walk off a short pier, you will understand exactly how much trust is appropriate to place in your observations.

          In this case, circularity is not merely irrelevant; it’s exactly the point. Science is nothing if not a feedback loop.

          If philosophy has a problem with that, then philosophy itself is more than welcome to take a long walk off a short pier.

          Cheers,

          b&

          • steve oberski
            Posted October 2, 2012 at 4:21 pm | Permalink

            Indeed, you never see creationists who reject the theory of evolution stepping out of a 10th story window because “gravity is just a theory”.

            The feedback for rejecting the laws of gravity is immediate and usually lethal and tends to have a beneficial effect on the gene pool.

            Sadly this is not the case for those who reject other scientific theories, although I suspect that the price is paid by the children of such wilful idiots long after fact due to the abuse of religious indoctrination and lost educational opportunities.

        • JamesM
          Posted October 2, 2012 at 4:58 pm | Permalink

          **(1): I don’t understand your response here. How do I know I can trust what I seem to see–that it’s not just deception or illusion?**

          Ben Goren hit the nail on the head. You have the misconception that if you are not epistemologically satisfied in the arcaneness of your philosophical obfuscations, the the only other choice is solipsism. I refuse to have that debate. Tour solipsism is not my problem. The very fact that you are able to send this message on this forum is a direct consequence of and a profound demonstration of science working. Quantum Mechanics to create the solid state devices in your computer, Large Molecule Chemistry that forms the physical backbone of your computer, Information Theory that forms the language of communication, the list goes on and none of this requires philosophers to justify science working.

          **(2): I mean ‘justified’ in the sense that the belief that the Theory of Evolution is true is a justified belief, and the belief that Creationism is true is an unjustified belief. What scientific observations are observations of the presence of this justification? What does it look like in a microscope?**

          Justifications of science are the predictions of the models that explain observation being observed and so validated. Evolution predicted tiktaalik in the correct stratum. Tiktaalik was found and so TOE was further validated. It was predicted that two human chromosomes must have fused at some after our split from the last ape common ancestor to account for the reduced number of chromosomes compared with all the other primates. The fused chromosomes were found, TOE further validated.

          **(3): ‘Observation is accurate. We know this because observation tells us that observation is accurate.’ How is that not circular? If that’s not your argument, what is your argument?**

          Isn’t that a basic, blatant straw man? No where did I say that, yet you put it in quotes and ask me to justify your caricature as if it was me?

          **(4) and “You can use philosophy to justify any position or belief that you hold”:

          If you had any evidence for your position here (instead of your position being based on faith alone), I imagine you would have presented it.**

          Certainly! ALL OF PHILOSOPHY. There are as many different and contradictory philosophies as there are philosophers. Philosophy is used to justify Dualism. Philosophy is used to justify monism. Philosophy is used to justify naturalism. Philosophy is used to justify supernaturalism. Philosophy is used to justify theism and deism. Philosophy is used to justify atheism. And which philosophy is correct? You can’t tell by using philosophy. Philosophy is belief justification and is ultimately useless. That is a repeatable observation.

          • phar84
            Posted October 2, 2012 at 9:00 pm | Permalink

            Your last paragraph is superb, Kudos! Philosophy, religion’s only friend.

            • Posted October 3, 2012 at 7:45 am | Permalink

              Amen. As I just wrote elsewhere on some other post, an explanation that explains everything explains nothing. Philosophy is the ultimate example of that problem, as JamesM just so eloquently demonstrated.

              b&

    • eric
      Posted October 2, 2012 at 12:36 pm | Permalink

      (1) We humans develop metrics by which we measure “works.” Then we compare the results of science to the results of other methods (like religion) using those metrics. It turns out that for many of the
      metrics humans really care about, science works the best. Now sure, you can argue that some other metric of “works” would give a different result. Like, you could say “works to cure disease” should be measured by number of converts to chrisianity rather than number of people no longer sick. You merely have to convince humanity that your alternative metric is a more valuable one that they should pay attention to.

      (2) Formally, you don’t. Informally, you go with the one that is best justified given the evidence you have at hand.

      (3) Sure, you can do that. As I said for (1), you just have to convince humanity that your alternative metrics and definitions of “works” are more valuable to them.

      (4) How is this even a challenge to the day to day activities of scientists? If we cannot distingish between them, what changes?

      Ultimately, I think the problem with your “foundational challenge” is that any decision-making under uncertainty would fail it, because it is a test for the presence of uncertainty. Yet pretty much all human endeavour (including science) involves decision making under uncertainty. So it really begs the question – okay, if we fail your challenge, what do you want us to do about it? Stand paralyzed until we determine whethe science is realist or instrumentalist? That doesn’t seem like a very smart option. Perhaps a better thing to do is to keep doing science the best way we know how while looking for the answers.

      Which is exactly what humans are doing.

      • Posted October 2, 2012 at 3:01 pm | Permalink

        eric,

        (1) What I’m really asking here is why we should trust observation in the first place: why we should think it’s not all illusion or deception. I think any argument for observation that takes observation for granted is circular.

        (2) How does scientific observation detect this property of “justification”? What does it look like, e.g., in a microscope? What particles does it emit? If it can’t detect justification, then doesn’t it follow that science alone can never tell us which beliefs are justified and which are unjustified?

        (3) I guess I think that science is more justified than religion, and that that’s an objective fact, not just a matter of what humans prefer.

        (4) It might not be a challenge to the day-to-day activities of scientists. I don’t mean to issue any such challenge. Instead, I want to point out that there’s no good reason to trust that scientists are discovering knowledge unless we have a philosophical foundation. All scientists who think there’s no such thing as scientific knowledge are free to ignore my challenge.

        Last: Once again, I don’t think scientists should cease doing science. My central point has been throughout that scientific discoveries are not knowledge unless we have a philosophical argument to back them up.

        • hotshoe
          Posted October 2, 2012 at 8:55 pm | Permalink

          Jayzuz, you’re a persistent wanker, aren’t you.

          If you don’t ordinarily “trust observation in the first place” then you would never get out of bed to eat breakfast; you would already have died of starvation and you wouldn’t be here typing your nonsense.

          If we can’t agree on the premises that some reality exists external to one individuals subjective perceptions, and that individuals’ sensory perception of that reality are in general trustable, then we have absolutely nothing to discuss. If you don’t accept that, be quiet and let the grownups talk.

          And if you do accept that, you owe us an apology for wasting our time responding to your demands that science come up with a justification that you don’t demand of yourself re your trust in your own observation that getting out of bed and eating breakfast is a good way to keep yourself from starving.

          Feel free to keep wanking if you must, but please be aware that most children past the age of three learn not to do it in public. Don’t know how your parents failed you …

        • Posted October 3, 2012 at 8:35 am | Permalink

          “(1) What I’m really asking here is why we should trust observation in the first place:…”

          We have come to specially VALUE and have substantial CONFIDENCE in (but NOT unquestioningly trust or infinite confidence in) observations because observations have proved more reliable than any other non-empirical means by which to discover what is going on in the world.

          Empirical science has not placed either BLIND trust nor absolute trust in observations (we have learned that SOME observations can be misleading) and we hold all scientific knowledge to be forever fallible to some non-zero degree or other and revisable (even abandonable) as future observation may warrant.

          In short, you question a straw man of empirical-based epistemology. Modern science rejects philosophical “justified true belief.” (Give a thoughtful read to Karl Popper’s OBJECTIVE KNOWLEDGE; or not — most folks do not.)

          And if you think we should NOT specially value observations (and experiments, which are special kinds of observations in which some variables are “controlled” in order to observe the nature of influences of other variables even more clearly), then what (AND WHY), I beg you, should we value MORE than observations as the primary means for producing (later if not sooner) reliable knowledge of reality!

          “…My central point has been throughout that scientific discoveries are not knowledge unless we have a philosophical argument to back them up.”

          I cannot agree. IF under conditions W we (me, you, others) observe X acting on Y we observe Z to be produced, THEN that under W, X acts on Y to produce Z constitutes bona-fide (but not certainly and forever infallibly correct) knowledge WITH or WITHOUT the backing of any philosophical argument.

          I will agree that philosophical backing can render particular knowledge more satisfying (and maybe even more useful), but the backing of philosophical argument is not required for observationally produced knowledge to be bona-fide knowledge (though forever fallible, just as is even philosophically-backed knowledge) that I can see.

  18. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted October 2, 2012 at 8:57 am | Permalink

    I purr at this.

    But you know that Sophisticated Philosophers™ will endlessly claim that they are needed to make science, understand science and most importantly, protect “other ways of knowing” from science by impermeable boundaries between different “kinds” of factual knowledge – all without observational evidence of course.

    Let me try on Spufford’s “kinds”:

    We can’t verify or falsify our comics the way we can our knowledge. But that doesn’t mean there are no criteria we can bring to bear to distinguish between comics. We can ask whether comics pays due and scrupulous attention to what can be known. We can ask whether comics is equipped with, as it were, some of the proper humility owed to the provisional – with a continuing willingness to change, to notice, to be wrong. We can ask whether comics are generous or mean, altruistic or self-serving, frightened or hopeful, candid or self-deceiving. We can be intelligent and nuanced about comics. But to do this we need not to dismiss the whole inevitable human activity of comics-writing&reading as nonsense. This is one of my reasons for preferring my comics of the world to yours.

    So Spufford is not saying anything at all here, a preferred pastime of philosophers.

    Besides, everyone knows, a posteriori of course, that Jesus and Mo is the comic to prefer!

    • Occam
      Posted October 2, 2012 at 11:20 am | Permalink

      Excellent hofstadterisation!
      “This is one of my reasons for preferring my picture of the world to yours.”
      Quelle surprise: Master Spufford finds that he agrees more with his own “Weltanschauung” than with JAC’s. Moreover, he finds the fact so remarkable as to deserve an explicit statement. This alone should suffice to revoke his licence to spill.

      Besides, everyone knows, pace Torbjörn, that xkcd is the comic to prefer.

      • Mark Joseph
        Posted October 2, 2012 at 10:12 pm | Permalink

        Thesis: Jesus and Mo
        Antithesis: xkcd
        Synthesis: Both!

        That’s all the philosophy I’m going to indulge in.

  19. Posted October 2, 2012 at 9:01 am | Permalink

    “”We’re on Mars; they’re still pondering God’s nature and wondering if there is a hell.””

    Speaking about Hell, I remember William Whinston wrote on his “A New Theory of the Earth” that Hell is a meteor orbiting the Sun in a irregular orbit.

  20. raven
    Posted October 2, 2012 at 9:02 am | Permalink

    But that doesn’t mean there are no criteria we can bring to bear to distinguish between beliefs. We can ask whether belief pays due and scrupulous attention to what can be known.

    Spufford is just one logical fallacy after another.

    This one is quite funny.

    It rules out much of xianity and Islam. The creationists and Geocentrists for sure.

    But to do this we need not to dismiss the whole inevitable human activity of belief-formation as nonsense.

    All faith claims are just voices in someone’s head. Whatever you call them, they are unprovable and there a millions of voices in people’s heads…all saying different things.

  21. Posted October 2, 2012 at 9:05 am | Permalink

    It is a philosophical picture of the world that gives science a monopoly position as the supplier and definer of truth, but that does not make the picture, itself, scientific.

    […]

    So science does not in itself provide a criterion for choosing between the pictures.

    Actually, science as philosophical method is not the supplier or definer or truth. The defining of “truth” is by mathematics, which science implicitly takes for granted.

    Moreover, science indeed does provide a criterion for choosing between competing pictures: Parsimony, or Simplicity. (Popper noted this, even if he got the philosphical reasons wrong.)

    But that doesn’t mean there are no criteria we can bring to bear to distinguish between beliefs.

    Once again: Parsimony.

    This is one of my reasons for preferring my picture of the world to yours.

    Oddly, all of those attributes seem to better support choosing science over religion.

    But as a quibble or two for Dr. Coyne….

    Notice how the real question at issue, “which belief is true?” subtly morphs into the less interesting question, “can we distinguish between beliefs?” It’s the usual theological bait-and-switch.

    Actually, Rice’s Theorem indicates that in the general case, distinguishing between two beliefs is a problem as hard or harder than whether a belief is true, which arguably makes it a more interesting question.

    However, I think he’s not so much referring to distinguishing between, as distinguishing as to which is more likely. Contrariwise, I may well be misreading his intention.

    I reiterate that it’s time for philosophers to stop their finger-wagging about science’s ability to find truth being a philosophical assumption—one that we can’t justify it a priori.

    Actually, science’s ability does not need to be taken as an a priori assumption. It can follow instead as an inference from more fundamental a priori assumption — loosely, that the universe has some manner of pattern. Make the philosophers sit on horns of the dilemma from that assumption — either take it in Affirmation and be stuck with Science, or take it in Refutation and be stuck with no prospect of telling a hawk from a handsaw.

  22. raven
    Posted October 2, 2012 at 9:07 am | Permalink

    If you can’t falsify a belief, but can only distinguish between different beliefs, then there is no way of knowing whether your belief is true. Period.

    The usual way religions determine which one is true is well known.

    They used to fight wars. The winner’s faith was always The One True Religion.

    A few centuries ago, everyone got tired of it and took away the church’s armies and heavy weapons.

    It doesn’t stop the religions and sects from massacreing each other but it keeps the body count down. Except in places like Bosnia and Iraq.

  23. Jim Jones
    Posted October 2, 2012 at 9:27 am | Permalink

    Quote: “Of course we can distinguish between beliefs! Quakers are humble and nonprosyletizing, Muslims and Scientologists think it’s their duty to spread the faith. Methodist beliefs are more malleable than those of Islam. Muslims want to kill those who reject the faith; Catholics merely excommunicate them.”

    All religions are spread by the same four tools. Here they are in order of application:

    Deceit (lying).
    Fear.
    Torture.
    Murder.

    Few religions can resist using them all if given the opportunity. Most will only avoid the latter two when society insists. None will reject the first two.

    • TJR
      Posted October 2, 2012 at 9:38 am | Permalink

      Don’t forget tax breaks (in the case of Islam).

  24. Posted October 2, 2012 at 9:37 am | Permalink

    Science is the “definer of truth.” At least, science broadly conceived, as Jerry often writes.

    Theists can’t escape this. Even they have to say “assertion x is true because blah, blah, blah…” As soon as they say “because”, they are appealing to evidence.

    It’s just that they appeal to super crappy evidence. And they would be the first to admit it in a different context:

    “Mr. Francis Spufford, you have been found guilty on the grounds that Mr. Theist had a revelation about your guilt, and Mr. Theologian determined your guilt by sitting at his desk, armchair fantasizing, and not consulting any objective, physical evidence. You are sentenced to death.”

    Spufford would immediately raise all the same objections we are raising.

  25. Posted October 2, 2012 at 9:59 am | Permalink

    The false claim seems an ontological fallacy. Because natural language words are used at all in evidence creation and fact- finding, thus it is no more valid, carries more information or meaningful than any other declaration using natural language.

    So the two statements – Germs cause most disease and the tooth fairy talks to me are equally contingent on subjective strengths and weaknesses of language-philosophy.

    This is false, formally and obviously.

    Statements of fact, even those expressed in natural language, have data behind them. Statements about the tooth fairy or philosophy have none.

    In addition, we need to use very little language to make successful predictions about germs and illness.

    The goal of all knowledge and knowing is to predict the future. There can be no “knowing” without successful prediction of future events.

    It is not “science” that challenges natural language “knowledge” but the consistent lack of any predictive validity and usefulness.

  26. Roux Brownwell
    Posted October 2, 2012 at 10:08 am | Permalink

    IIRC, it was Mrs. Malaprop who was amazed to discover that she had been speaking prose all her life without realizing it. It seems that Mr. Spufford (& some of the pushback commenters on this thread)are hoping that their words will lead an arrogant scientist somewhere to the humbling realization that he has been doing philosophy all his life.

  27. krzysztof1
    Posted October 2, 2012 at 10:23 am | Permalink

    “Loyalty” to the scientific method? That’s like being loyal to the heat source that brews your coffee. . . . but that’s just what you pointed out: Science works.

  28. Posted October 2, 2012 at 10:34 am | Permalink

    Reblogged this on thewordpressghost and commented:
    Anyone,

    Can you tell me who this Jebus is which Jerry alludes to?
    As for the rest, it is an interesting logic practice, don’t you think?
    Ghost.

    • Alex T
      Posted October 2, 2012 at 11:40 am | Permalink

      I think “Jebus” is Simpson’s reference to Jesus.

    • raven
      Posted October 2, 2012 at 12:28 pm | Permalink

      Jesus real name is something like Yeshua.

      Which means Joshua in Hebrew.

      Despite the claims the he is god, the English speaking world didn’t even get his name right, using a badly translated koine Greek version.

      And oh yeah. Jesus is also a guy who mows lawns and trims hedges among other activities. It’s a very common Latin American name.

  29. Myron
    Posted October 2, 2012 at 10:46 am | Permalink

    “It may indeed be the case that we can’t justify a priori via philosophical lucubrations that we arrive at the truth about nature only by using the methods of science. My answer to that is increasingly becoming, “So bloody what?”  The use of science is justified because it works, not because we can justify it philosophically.” J. Coyne

    The methods of science are, as Nicholas Rescher puts it, “retrojustified”:

    “The substantive picture of nature’s ways that is secured through our empirical inquiries is itself ultimately justified, retrospectively as it were, through validating the presuppositions on whose basis inquiry has proceeded. As we develop science there must come a ‘closing of the circle.’ The world-picture that science delivers into our hands must eventually become such as to explain how it is that creatures such as ourselves, emplaced in the world as we are, investigating it by the processes we actually use, should do fairly well at developing a workable view of that world. The ‘validation of scientific method’ must in the end itself become scientifically validated. Science must (and can) retrovalidate itself by providing the material (in terms of a science-based world-view) for justifying the methods of science.
    The rational structure of the overall process of justification accordingly looks as follows:

    1. We use various sorts of experiential data as evidence for objective fact.
    2. We do this in the first instance for practical reasons, faute de mieux, because only by proceeding in this way can we hope to resolve our questions with any degree of rational satisfaction.

    But as we proceed two things happen:

    (i) On the pragmatic side we find that we obtain a world picture on whose basis we can operate effectively. (Pragmatic revalidation.)
    (ii) On the cognitive side we find that we arrive at a picture of the world and our place within it that provides an explanation of how it is that we are enabled to get things (roughly) right—that we are in fact justified in using our phenomenal data as data of objective fact. (Explanatory revalidation.)

    The success at issue here is twofold—both in terms of understanding (cognition) and in terms of application (praxis). And it is this ultimate success that justifies and rationalizes, retrospec-
    tively, our evidential proceedings. Though the process is cyclic and circular, there is nothing vicious and vitiating about it. The reasoning at issue is not a matter of linear sequence but of a systemic coherence prepared to accept the circles and cycles of cognitive feedback.
    We thus arrive at the overall situation of a dual ‘retrojustification.’ For all the presuppositions of inquiry are ultimately justified because a ‘wisdom of hindsight’ enables us to see
    that by their means we have been able to achieve both practical success and a theoretical understanding of our place in the world’s scheme of things.”

    (Rescher, Nicholas. Reality and Its Appearance. New York: Continuum, 2010. pp. 61-2)

  30. Alex T
    Posted October 2, 2012 at 11:38 am | Permalink

    It may indeed be the case that we can’t justify a priori via philosophical lucubrations that we arrive at the truth about nature only by using the methods of science.

    Here’s the thing. Science doesn’t tell us when we have the Truth, it gives us increasingly accurate descriptions. Some of them might actually be true, but we can’t say for sure. Maybe you think that’s a bad thing.

    But let’s look at the flip side, let’s say that we want something better. I claim that whatever alternative we might consider, if it has any chance of arriving at the Truth, it must be compatible with science. The principles of science are not sufficient to guarantee Truth, but we know that without them we are going to derive falsehoods (since they are, at heart, a list of fallacies and techniques to avoid biases).

  31. flies01
    Posted October 2, 2012 at 12:12 pm | Permalink

    I believe this is the link Jerry wanted for “base canard”: https://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2009/02/14/post-hoc-ism-in-apologetics/

  32. KP
    Posted October 2, 2012 at 2:25 pm | Permalink

    And oy, is it long: 3620 words!

    Seriously?? The manuscript I’m polishing up to send to a journal right now is 5,369. That’s a full scientific paper, references, figure legends, titels, and all. Spufford’s reply is over 2/3 the length of a full scientific paper.

    I think I’ll skip this one and check out one of your posts on biology. 🙂

  33. Posted October 2, 2012 at 4:34 pm | Permalink

    Reblogged this on Pretentious Ape and commented:
    Jerry Coyne has an excellent post at Why Evolution is True, responding to a Christian writer who trots out the “evidence is only one way to approach the truth” meme that Christian apologists love so well, the idea that insisting upon evidence is “a philosophical picture of the world that gives science a monopoly position as the supplier and definer of truth.” Coyne’s reply is worth reading in full, but here’s a taste: “The use of science is justified because it works, not because we can justify it philosophically.”

  34. Kevin
    Posted October 2, 2012 at 8:12 pm | Permalink

    answered by the nonsensical “God did it”

    Because of course that is how Christians think. Western criminal law, for example, was developed by a bunch of Catholic jurists shrugging their shoulders and saying, “Nothing to see here, folks”. People that believe in free will are naturally the type to blame God for everything.

    On the other hand, there are some people out there publicly claiming that “Nothing did it”. By definition, they are not theists.

    Also, why do you keep claiming credit for getting to Mars? Evolutionary theory is a hypothesis of which rocket scientists have no need. Heck, medical professionals do not even need it. Why? Because medicine works.

  35. Mark Joseph
    Posted October 2, 2012 at 10:26 pm | Permalink

    Dr. Coyne:

    I think I appreciate this post the most of all the ones I’ve read here in the year or so I’ve been following. The paragraph beginning “I’m SO tired” and the last paragraph are going, along with Raven’s brilliant statement, “All faith claims are just voices in someone’s head. Whatever you call them, they are unprovable and there a millions of voices in people’s heads…all saying different things” on to my list of quotes that will be used. Superb.

    Besides the literally hundreds of fundamentalists I know (though they mostly avoid me now), I actually know one Sophisticated Theologian™. Nicest guy in the world, and plenty open-minded (he even read Sam Harris’ “The Moral Landscape” when I gave him a copy), but we (mostly I) gave up trying to discuss weighty matters. I was never able to figure out how he was using his terms, and could not get even the simplest direct statement from him. It was all I could do to verify that he believes that the earth revolves around the sun–not because he might have been a closet geocentrist, but because that kind of direct statement of fact does not fit into his Weltanschauung, in which truth only exists in the interpretation of a community (in his case, of believers). However, one thing that riles up him up good is a justification of science using the “it works” argument. So, if and when it comes up again, I will give him this post to read. Don’t know if it will do any good, but it can’t hurt, and it is certainly better stated than I could do. Keep up the good work!

  36. Posted October 3, 2012 at 7:42 am | Permalink

    Wow! When I first read Jerry’s blog entry above on Spufford’s latest, I thought: Jerry has expressed my own personal sediments perZAKly!

    Then I read all the commentary.

    Now, my own sediments are STILL perzakly expressed by Jerry!

    I find it absolutely mind-boggling that so many sophisticated theologians (among many others) cannot plainly see the elephant in the room when they try to wax confident in the chimera of non-empirical epistemological efficacy; really, I am totally embarrassed for them!


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