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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