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Abusing Philosophy September 9, 2009

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Dwight Furrow's Posts, Philosophy, religion, Science.
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Sholto Byrnes, writing in the New Statesman, commits philosophical sins.

He begins by lamenting the lack of tolerance he increasingly finds in the writings of atheists who dismiss religion as mere superstition.

…many of those who seek to defend reason show themselves to be equally unreasonable and inflexible in their views. A gentle and accommodating agnosticism has given way to an angry and insistent atheism that sees offence as the best way to defend rationalism and science.

As he rightly points out, such dismissals fail to take seriously the beliefs of most people on the planet.

But I don’t share his lamentations. The fact that lots of people believe something doesn’t make it true, and surely it is appropriate for intellectuals to criticize conventional beliefs they think are false. If you think a belief is superstitious nonsense, in the context of a philosophical debate, I don’t see why you shouldn’t call it that if you can back it up.

But tolerance is a good thing, when it is reciprocated, and if someone objects to the “tone” of one’s remarks, in the interests of civility, moderation can often enhance a discussion. Whatever.

But Byrnes’ objections go further. He is claiming that atheists are “unreasonable” and “inflexible” suggesting that their views are held dogmatically and that their arguments are flawed. He would rather see a “gentle and accommodating agnosticism”.

So what is his argument?

Much of the current noisy argument comes down to the status of knowledge, and specifically what is commonly deemed as the unbridgeable gulf between “revealed” knowledge and that of science – which Dawkins’s ally Daniel Dennett once told me was the “only game in town” when it came to “facts, and the explanation of facts”.

But this is an overly narrow view. Religion consists of far more than “revealed” truths, which are, in any case, obviously of a different kind from those derived from theoretical and empirical study. More importantly, this is to claim far too much for that corpus of conjecture we call human knowledge. As a student, I read David Hume’s argument that although we may believe the sun will rise tomorrow, we cannot know it. For me, it was as profound and as revelatory as any religious experience, and as convincing as any scientific proof.

What is his basis for claiming revelation is a form of “knowledge” or “truth”? He never says. Instead he tries to cast doubt on the methods of induction in science.

His entire argument rests on a sophomoric understanding of the work of David Hume, the 18th Century empiricist.

Hume famously argued that our ability to make inductive inferences about the world rests on the assumption that nature is uniform and the future will resemble the past. But this assumption can’t be justified. Using past experience to justify belief in the future uniformity of nature will assume the very principle we want to prove. Furthermore, information about the interaction of physical objects goes beyond what is immediately perceived. We see the “constant conjunction” of two events—morning arriving and the sun coming up, or one billiard ball striking another followed by the movement of the ball. The events repeatedly happen at roughly the same time and in a particular order. But because we cannot directly observe all the details of the causal story that explains why the sun rises in the morning, we can’t really know it. Our belief that the sun will rise tomorrow rests on a kind of habit or custom, according to Hume.

Even if one accepts Hume’s view of induction, it still does not warrant putting science and religion on the same epistemic footing. Science is able to confirm the constant conjunction of events that are hypothesized to be related even if we don’t know the entire causal story of how they are related. By contrast, religion can claim no controlled observations of constantly conjoined events. Its so-called revelations are episodic, subjective, and enjoy nothing like the constant reinforcement of our ordinary beliefs about the causal relationships between events.

Moreover, Hume’s skepticism about induction is no longer warranted. The fact that we cannot directly experience causal connections, does not entail that we cannot know of their existence. This sort of radical empiricism was rejected by most philosophers many years ago. Furthermore, in the 18th Century, Hume had little knowledge of the micro-physical structure of reality which is inaccessible to the naked eye. Today, we have a much more thorough understanding of the causal mechanisms that explain ordinary events.

Can we be certain that nature is uniform and that the future will be sufficiently like the past to warrant belief in causal laws? No. For all we know, some unknown factor might disrupt the world as we know it and transform the laws that govern nature. But our confidence that reality is relatively stable is reinforced constantly every moment of the day.

We can’t be certain about any empirical claim but scientists and most philosophers long ago gave up the idea that knowledge claims are warranted only if they can be known with certainty. We do quite well with the trial and error, probabilistic reasoning that science employs.

There are still philosophical debates about the precise nature of causation and inductive inference but these debates don’t give rise to global skepticism about science. And they certainly give us no reason to think there is some special domain of religious “truth”.

Byrnes ruminations are not based on tolerance but on special pleading for religious claims and ignorance regarding epistemology.


book-section-book-cover2 Dwight Furrow is Professor of Philosophy at San Diego Mesa College and the author of Reviving the Left: The Need to Restore Liberal Values in America

For political commentary by Dwight Furrow visit: www.revivingliberalism.com



1. James Gray - September 10, 2009

“Religion consists of far more than “revealed” truths, which are, in any case, obviously of a different kind from those derived from theoretical and empirical study”

From the quotation, he suggests that there are non-empirical forms of knowledge other than revealed truth. He might actually agree that revealed truth is an unreliable form of justification. Calling it truth might even be an oxymoron. But what is important here is whether or not there are non-empirical forms of knowledge that is used by religion.

I suppose it is true that religion uses some kind of reflective equilibrium/coherence, but we want more than that. I’m not sure exactly what he is referring to, but some philosophers (rationalists) will certainly agree that there are non-empirical forms of knowledge. However, I would agree that it isn’t clear that religion tends to do so.

There are intellectual parts of every major religion, but I don’t know a whole lot about them, so I am not sure if they have anything interesting to say. Most philosophers act like they don’t have anything interesting to say, so that is prima facie evidence that religions tend not to produce good philosophical literature at this time.

If there is any interesting form of justification withing religion, it might be a kind of pragmatic justification. People argue that religion brings them comfort. Dawkins is not impressed with this answer, but the fact is that a theory will be more useful if it is true. (I don’t know if comfort indicates the relevant kind of usefulness, and a lot of argument would be required to know for sure.)

2. malachain - September 10, 2009

Byrnes is a pundit, so I pretty well expect him to be a fool. And so far in his accommodationist claptrap he has lived up to my low expectations. But I don’t think you’ve done anyone any favors with your purported corrective.

Byrnes is impressed by the power of Hume’s problem of induction, which as a problem he takes to be a part of the corpus of human knowledge despite itself not being scientifically grounded.

Either the problem of induction is a non-scientifically grounded part of the corpus of human knowledge in Hume’s view, or it isn’t.

On the one hand, if it is, then Byrnes’s comment is benign.

On the other hand, if you want to show that Byrnes has a sophomoric understanding of Hume, then do the work to show that. Say, “the problem of induction is not itself as significant to the corpus of human knowledge as the purported ‘solution’ of custom or habit”. And then say, perhaps, “the ‘solution’ of custom or habit is not a solution at all that we might think of as a part of the corpus of human knowledge, as it indicates that Hume was a skeptic — and far from being a part of the corpus of knowledge, the problem of induction shows the limits of it”. Or *something*.

3. Dwight Furrow - September 10, 2009


I’m not quite sure I understand what your problem with my post is. I don’t understand how a “problem” could be part of the “corpus of human knowledge”. Do you mean the solution to the problem of induction is part of that corpus?

As far as I can tell, Hume did not think science could solve the problem of induction. He seems to think it is a philosophical issue. But that would not make Byrnes’s comment benign. The fact that the problem of induction is a philosophical issue doesn’t entail that it is also theological. Hume was no fan of theology despite his worries about inductive inference.

The problem with Byrne’s argument is that he thinks quibbles about how best to understand induction somehow leads us to take seriously wildly improbable metaphysical speculations.

Hume’s solution to the problem was clearly inadequate. A customary or habitual cognitive process would not, by that fact alone, qualify as knowledge. Some habits of mind may produce knowledge but only if they satisfy justification conditions.

The point of my post was to point out that today there are perfectly good Humean-inspired accounts of science that do not lead to skepticism; and, furthermore, we needn’t accept Hume’s premises thus avoiding the problem altogether.

4. Dave J L - September 11, 2009

Byrnes’s basic mistake seems to be that which so frequently and tiresomely appears in the arguments of people like him. Fundamentally he is confusing proof and evidence, and implying that atheists have an issue with religion because it works on faith and ‘revealed truth’, not proof. This is wrong: the issue is that it works on faith and ‘revealed truth’ and not evidence.

He reads Hume to suggest that because we don’t have proof that the sun will rise tomorrow and yet we believe it we shouldn’t be so quick to criticise religion because the way of thinking isn’t actually that different. But while we certainly don’t have proof of the future event of tomorrow’s sunrise we do have good reason to believe it will happen based on past evidence within a system which has proved consistent and logical, which is why it is so crucially different from religious belief; this doesn’t have such evidence or even a rational methodology that would make sense of it.

5. James Gray - September 11, 2009


What you are saying makes sense, but it would involve a misreading of Hume. Hume said we had no reason to believe the sun will rise tomorrow. There is no evidence, according to Hume.

6. malachain - September 12, 2009

Hi Dwight,

By my reading, Byrnes views the problem itself (once grasped) as a part of the corpus of human knowledge. I don’t think he was talking about any purported solutions. That is to say, when we recognize the difficulty that Hume is talking about, and understand its implications, that realization is able to shake us to our epistemic core. Or at least, it shook me in pretty much that way, and Byrnes seems to have had the same experience. He calls it “revelatory”, which might be an objectionable use of language, but I suppose to be honest it isn’t very far off from my reaction.

By being aware of the problem as a problem, we really do seem to have gained something. But you might disagree, by saying it is a pseudo-problem, and that Hume has really only led us down the garden path by distracting us with it. At that point, though, you’re not criticizing Byrnes’s reading of Hume, rather you’re criticizing Hume himself. And of course for the sake of charity you can go on to add that it is easy to read Hume as providing solutions when (at least qua philosopher) he really hasn’t.

Surely Hume was no fan of the priests. But Byrnes does not seem to be saying that. Rather, he used Hume’s discovery of the problem of induction as an example to make his own point on principle. We might disagree with the point he is making, and Hume might disagree with it, but still it’s fair to do as far as it goes.

I don’t mean to be hectoring about this. Just my two cents.

7. Michael Mussachia - September 15, 2009

I agree that the “problem of induction” is part of the corpus of human knowledge, at least with an appropriate definition of “knowledge,” e.g., in the philosophical “weak sense,” which does not require certainty. Hume showed one of the limits of knowledge; Godel revealed another. Knowing that there are limits to human knowledge, in particular empirical knowledge, which as Dwight pointed out, always has some degree of uncertainty, does not justify skepticism of scientific knowledge and putting science on the same “based-on-faith” footing as religion. It seems to me, Dwight laid this out quite clearly. Religion is incapable of verifying the existence of any kind of empirical or supernatural patterns, i.e., the persistence of the existence of and the nature of anything. Science, on the other hand, though repeatable, rigorous test procedures, can reveal what patterns, both structural and dynamic, have occurred in the world thus far. It is, of course, an assumption, that such patterns, be they similarities in the physical nature of things or in their behavior over time, will persist into the future, but at least they can be shown by science to exist up to the present. Furthermore, we have no non-ad-hoc reasons for thinking that such patterns will not persist over time. On a practical level, we can either use past experience of the nature of things (which includes ourselves) as a guide to how they will be in the future or we can let ourselves be paralyzed by philosophical doubt. As a “habit of mind,” induction has proven thus far to be a very successful strategy for survival, and, in any case, science can increasingly provide the justification for many of our mental habits (and show that others do not meet the high justification standards philosophers and scientists have). Religion can’t do this.
Even Hume did not actually believe that there are no grounds whatsoever for believing that the nature of things tends to persist; rather he conclude that philosophical thought alone was an insufficient basis for understand human beliefs and behavior. Things like mental habits, imagination and “instincts” play a role in the “corpus of human knowledge.” Going beyond Hume, to even discuss the issue (the problem of induction and its use by Brynes to bring science down to the level of religion), to even think about it, presupposes persistent regularities of word use, i.e., both word meanings and rules of grammar. Finally, I suspect that Brynes wrote his New Statesman piece with word processing software implemented in his laptop or desktop computer, and his ability to do so shows that even he recognizes that, at least in regard to the workings of the physical world, which is the only one that can be rigorously investigated, science reveals the persistent microstructure of the world well enough for science-based engineering to produce his computer and its word processing software and, most of the time, to have it work as designed. No religion, no system of magical beliefs and practices can do this, including with regard to a hypothetical supernatural domain. We have no science of the supernatural, and we have no engineering of the supernatural. It’s all poorly thought out, imaginative speculation lacking a rigorous methodology. Educated, rational thinkers are quite aware of the lack of semantic clarity, logical consistency and rigorous testability of religious conceptions of the supernatural.
Religious people and bench-sitters often ask why atheists (especially the “New Atheists”) are so critical of the religious, why atheists seem to even lack respect for them. The answers are many, but one of the most important – one of the most persistent patterns of religious mental habits, is its twisted-to-serve-religion logic. I’ll be blunt and and perhaps even disrespectful – religion too often makes people intellectually silly, as with Brynes. As far as intellectual respect goes (in contrast to moral respect), it should be earned by demonstrating a capacity for rational thought, something religion tends to undermine.

8. James Gray - September 15, 2009

Godel showed a limitation to finite formal systems. He never said it was a limitation to human knowledge. In fact, he thought he was showing that we could have knowledge beyond finite formal systems because we could always solve the problem.

9. Michael Mussachia - September 15, 2009

James: Though I’m not a rationalist, I still take formal systems like pure math, symbolic logic and computational theory in compute science to be a type of (non-empirical) human knowledge. You’re right about Godel, but his position on this is of little concern to me. Regardless of where any of us stand on the epistemological nature of formal systems and limitations on such, the issue here is Hume’s analysis of induction and if it justifies religious faith by putting empirical science on the same level. We seem to agree in general with Dwight that it does not, and I personally believe we need to stay on the offensive against those who engage in sloppy reasoning to defend beliefs that have no rational basis. As you pointed out, there is a “comfort” factor that must be understood if we are to deal effectively with those who still push religion as a reputable alternative to or as complement to science and philosophy. Personally, I think your suggestion on that is quite interesting, but that’s another huge topic.

10. Moriae - September 16, 2009

Sounds like a lot of men here regretting having been brought up as Christians in their youth. Such resentfulness might be understandable given the often rueful exigencies of personal experience in childhood, but it really doesn’t help anyone understand what the appeal of religious experience is for the many billions of people out there. Personal trauma is ultimately anecdotal, and it must simply be faced that most religious people don’t feel any trauma in their past, nor do they have any regrets about the source or substance of their personal beliefs. I get the feeling that Michael has a more irrational animus against ‘religious people’ than these ‘religious’ people have against ‘reason.’

Hume’s book on religion is symptomatic of this kind of tone-deafness. It’s a delight to read, yet it doesn’t for a second address what the ‘religious appeal’ is at all. But this manner of addressing ‘religion’ in this blog only applies to Christianity with its preoccupation with making ‘propositional claims’ about issues pertaining to faith. This academic persiflage is inapplicable to the many other religions of the world that not only do not indulge in propositional claims, but actively discourage their usefulness fully as much as any atheist would. We study Christian claims about the existence of God in our college classes, but no other religion makes such ‘propositional’ claims other than Christianity. It is simply one of the peculiarities of Christianity that led it to become ‘theological,’ which all the other religions of the world easily avoided becoming. The Hasidic tales are great fun, but they make no propositional claims, nor are they founded on any theology.

I suppose it’s understandable to wish that people were other than they are, but it shouldn’t take too much ‘reason’ to come to terms with the elemental impotence of such desires. To persist in quixotic desires hardly seems more ‘rational’ than thinking God is reserving special rewards for people offering earnest obsequious gestures.

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