Sunday, July 12, 2009

 

Joint Philosophies


That well-known New Agnostic, Larry Moran, has once again entered the Accommodationist-Incompatiblist fray with at least something new (to me, that is, as far as my memory goes), the so-called "Doctrine of Joint Belief." Larry cites to a short piece by Clay Shirky at The Edge on "Religion and Science" that asserts that:

The idea that religious scientists prove that religion and science are compatible is ridiculous, and I'm embarrassed that I ever believed it. Having believed for so long, however, I understand its attraction, and its fatal weaknesses.

The Doctrine of Joint Belief isn't evidence of harmony between two systems of thought. It simply offers permission to ignore the clash between them. Skeptics aren't convinced by the doctrine, unsurprisingly, because it offers no testable proposition. What is surprising is that its supposed adherents don't believe it either. If joint beliefs were compatible beliefs, there could be no such thing as heresy. Christianity would be compatible not just with science, but with astrology (roughly as many Americans believe in astrology as evolution), with racism (because of the number of churches who use the "Curse of Ham" to justify racial segregation), and on through the list of every pair of beliefs held by practicing Christians.

The unstated premise, of course, is that "science" is a "system of thought" on the same level as theology, i.e. that science is a philosophy or a belief. Philosophies and beliefs can be "heresies" because they go to the same level as the theology resides at. And, of course, some theologies (such as young-Earth creationism) can and do make the methodology of investigation of the natural world part of their theologies and, therefore, are incompatible with science. But other theologies don't, including Catholicism, the single largest religion in the world. It is also true that, as is the case of all philosophies, they can be misunderstood or misapplied so that there may be confusions in particular cases but the very reason for discussing these issues is to clarify them and, perhaps, reduce the tensions between scientists and the lay public.

Contrary to Larry's claim, however, if you don't accept the premise that science is a philosophy or belief, there is no logical fallacy in "Joint Belief" because no method need be applied to everything, anymore than all tools need to be hammers. The point of giving examples of religious scientists who consistently employ the scientific method to science is to demonstrate that, contrary to the claims of the incompatibilists, the method is not a philosophy.

There is no question that the method of science is "incompatible" with the "method," such as it is, that the philosophy/theology of religion employs ... a fact admitted by the "accommodationists," who clearly state that religious claims cannot be "scientific." Nor is there any question that religion is incompatible with the philosophies of some scientists.

The question is and has always been whether the philosophies of some scientists are the same thing as "science." Thus, unlike Larry, I do not see Jerry Coyne, in his post "Eugenie Scott and Chris Mooney dissemble about accommodationism," as exhibiting "a great deal of patience when he explains, for about the millionth time, why the doctrine is logically absurd." In fact, Coyne is, once again, simply asserting that his personal philosophy* is coextensive with science, without justifying that claim or reconciling it with the methodological naturalism of science that he has (sometimes) recognized.

Merely repeating the same assertions without addressing the real claim involved, as Coyne does, is not addressing the logic of anything. Instead, it bears more in common with the sort of blind assertion we expect from creationists.

That Coyne asserts that disagreeing with him on this point is "dissembling" is symptomatic of his level of intellectual discourse.

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P.S. Larry has said, in response to a comment of mine at his place:

[T]he logical fallacy has nothing do do with whether science and religion are compatible. It has to do with whether the existence of Francis Collins proves that science and religion must be compatible. Or, for that matter, whether the existence of Jerry Coyne proves that science and religion are NOT compatible.
Although I did address that above, let me expand on it yet some more. The existence of religious scientists who scrupulously apply the scientific method to science (without any objective signs of the much-misunderstood concept of "cognitive dissonance," so let's not go there) is not offered to show that science (when conceived of as a philosophy) is consistent with the philosophy/theology of religion. It is offered, instead, as evidence that science is not a philosophy but a methodology that can be utilized appropriately by many different people who have very different philosophies. Larry, Shirky and Coyne are misconstruing what the evidence is being offered for and, therefore, have not identified any logical error but their own.

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* Coyne has added yet another descriptor for his personal philosophy, "approach to the world," to go with his previous "worldview" and "scientific attitude."
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Comments:
John,

Thoughts in the haystack I can find aplenty, but no contact info. Can you email me your address (at the address on my site?)
 
Sure.
 
As often with this sort of debate, it seems to come down to quibbling about definitions. The word "science" is commonly used to denote at least four distinct concepts:

1. A body of knowledge
2. An "establishment" consisting of people and organizations, and an associated set of rough consensus views
3. A methodology for producing knowledge
4. A philosophical system of thought.

John (as well as, I assume, most religious scientists) is using definition 3; Larry et al (along with, I hope, a majority of scientists) are using definition 4.

The point is somewhat moot because most non-scientists use other definitions such as 1 or 2 (in which case "science" is obviously compatible with all but the most fundamentalist religions - no debate required).
 
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Larry et al (along with, I hope, a majority of scientists) are using definition 4.

Is it true that a majority of scientists view science as a mere philosophy? Do you have any evidence to that effect? More interestingly, would you care to do what Larry and others have failed to do and give some cogent reason to think it is better to view science as a philosophy?
 
Hmmm, your use of the phrase "mere philosophy" is curious. I see it more as a hierarchy: philosophy->methodology->knowledge where those who accept science as philosophy are bound to also accept the methodology it prescribes and the knowledge produced by that methodology, but it is possible to accept the methodology without buying into the philosophy or to accept the knowledge without buying into either the methodology or the philosophy.

I'm not aware of any statistics (hence my use of the phrase "I hope"), but my impression from reading the blogosphere is that accepting science as a philosophy (alongside everything else) is pretty mainstream among non-religious scientists. I would regard this as accepting the "whole package" of science, whereas people who accept it as a methodology but not a philosophy are only accepting part of what science is - but obviously this imposes a specific interpretation of the word "science".

Why is it better to view science as a philosophy? I can think of more than one interpretation of the question - first, in the context of the current discussion: why use the word in this way for the purpose of this debate? Well, in a debate like this we shouldn't use the word "science" in an unqualified way at all - the point is that we should be aware that different participants in the debate are using the word differently (whatever their reasons), and I think the debate itself becomes trivial once we disambiguate between the various roles of this overloaded word. Of course, it's more complicated than that because the debate is political - it's really a fight for ownership of the word "science".

Or perhaps you meant "why should a person who adopts scientific methodology consider accepting science as a philosophy?" I think the main point is that without it, it becomes hard to justify the use of scientific methodology. You may argue that centuries of success gives us a pretty good justification (and an empirical one at that, which should appeal to scientists), but empiricism is only one aspect of science and I at least feel that there should also be a rational justification.
 
Or perhaps you meant "why should a person who adopts scientific methodology consider accepting science as a philosophy?" I think the main point is that without it, it becomes hard to justify the use of scientific methodology.

I have already given my reasons (we passed in the blog mail) against the claim that one must accept science as a philosophy in order to be a "good" scientist (which is what Coyne, et al. are actually asserting). As to it being "hard" to justify the use of scientific methodology without doing so, we again have the empiric fact that some scientists, such as Ken Miller, don't find it hard at all, showing, it seems to me, that any such difficulty in coming to a "rational justification" is, at the least, overstated. Miller justifies it, as I understand it, on the rational grounds that, within the scientific process, it has been shown to work, which is pretty much how most scientists justify it, I believe.
 
Thanks for pointing to the new post - I'll comment on that separately (and I guess I should use my name if my comments are being promoted to a new post). I agree with you that one need not accept a scientific philosophy in order to be a good or even a rational scientist.

How do most scientists justify the scientific process (methodology)? In my experience most scientists are not interested in philosophical questions and simply don't put their energy into coming up with a philosophically sophisticated justification. So if pressed, perhaps you are right that most scientists would settle for "it's worked so far" - this is the most obvious way to get the pesky philosophical questions out of the way and get back to doing actual science, but it does not shed any light on their deeper, unverbalized thoughts.

But what do most non-religious scientists actually think when doing science? Do they merely assume that nature will act in a way that is consistent and predictable in the experiment at hand (scientific methodology), or do they make the stronger assumption that nature _always_ acts in a way that is consistent and predictable (scientific philosophy, or at least my off-the-cuff bite-size summary)? I think the latter. And I think they would regard the former world view (once you explain to them that there really are people who think that the laws of nature only apply some of the time) as one which, if adopted, fails to justify scientific methodology satisfactorily.

As I've said, I'm only speculating on the views of the scientific community at large - so I may be entirely wrong. But asking scientists how they justify their methodology is not a valid way of determining this.
 
Do they merely assume that nature will act in a way that is consistent and predictable in the experiment at hand (scientific methodology), or do they make the stronger assumption that nature _always_ acts in a way that is consistent and predictable (scientific philosophy, or at least my off-the-cuff bite-size summary)?

But also ask them if, should they find one instance where they honestly could not say that nature was acting in a consistent and predictable way (more nuance: that is how we identify what is "natural" -- there is no other definition), whether they would then abandon science entirely and I think you'll find that "on the ground" they find the method more essential to "science" than any philosophy.
 
John Pieret asks,

But also ask them if, should they find one instance where they honestly could not say that nature was acting in a consistent and predictable way ..., whether they would then abandon science entirely ....

Yes.

As soon as the existence of miracles has been demonstrated then it is no longer correct to assume that methodological naturalism will lead to genuine knowledge.

That's why believing in miracles is inconsistent with science.
 
Yes.

Excuse me if I don't believe you, Larry.

As soon as the existence of miracles has been demonstrated then it is no longer correct to assume that methodological naturalism will lead to genuine knowledge.

All it means is that some knowledge may not be certain, a fact that science lives with all the time. Everything in science is fallibilistic and may be wrong. There is already very good reason to believe that our present knowledge is not "genuine knowledge" (whatever the heck that might mean). If I were to believe that you'd take such an absolutist position, then I have to assume you already disbelieve in science.
 
"find one instance where they honestly could not say that nature was acting in a consistent and predictable way" - here the exact phrasing is crucial: I do not know of _any_ instances where we can say (from observations) that nature is acting in a consistent and predictable way. It's merely a working assumption (in methodological naturalism, an assumption applied only to the case under study, and only at the time of studying it; in philosophical naturalism, an assumption applied all the time).

The question would be more weighty if we change the phrasing (as I think Larry interpreted it) to: "find one instance where they could honestly say that nature was not acting in a consistent and predictable way". Here I agree with Larry, but one should add that clear-cut situations where this would apply are of the outlandish sort. Usually there is some way of explaining away an observation (experimental error) or modifying a theory to fit the observation. That's the normal scientific process. But yes, if we woke up one day and found everyone doing miracles, with rocks arbitrarily floating around in the air, etc, people would abandon science en masse. Speculating over the gray area in which some would abandon science and some not could be interesting, but lies in the domain of sociology.

Another point - if following this switch to a miracle-filled universe someone came up with a convincing overarching theory explaining it all from a standpoint of philosophical naturalism, people would again flock back to science. Philosophical naturalism gives us a reason to trust science which is absent in methodological naturalism.
 
... Philosophical naturalism gives us a reason to trust science which is absent in methodological naturalism.

That's where I disagree because philosophical naturalism is, ultimately, just as unevidence as theism. (Google, for example, Hume's "problem of induction".) It provides no "reason" to trust science except unreasoned belief in naturalism as the only reality. That's why even uber-atheists like Dawkins won't/can't say that reason or science can rule out a god (i.e. supernaturalism of some sort) ... because they know it not something that can be reasoned to. If people can't reason to the utility of methodological naturalism in the absence of assuming philosophical naturalism, philosophical naturalism is not going to help them.
 
John, the whole idea behind a "thought experiment" is to eliminate the sort of quibbles that you engaged in.

I tried to play the game by assuming that you were proposing a situation where there was solid evidence for a phenomenon that did not obey the laws of physics and chemistry.

You replied by implying that I was lying in my response and by quibbling about the assumption.

Yes, it's true that if the observation were ambiguous then I would not abandon science. But that's the normal situaton and it hardly qualifies as a real "thought experiment." You knew damn well what the answer to that question would be.

We seem to have trouble communicating with each other so I think I'll give it a rest for a few months.
 
Ok, let me rephrase: philosophical naturalism is a working assumption which, if we don't make it, leaves us with a strong reason to _distrust_ methodological naturalism. This is not to say that there are no other reasons to trust methodological naturalism, just that "it's worked so far" becomes (i.m.o.) a dubious justification if I truly expect that the case under investigation may be an exception.

On the other hand, if we do make the assumption of philosophical naturalism (itself unreasoned), the next step of trusting methodological naturalism is pretty compelling (so I either disagree with or fail to understand your last sentence).
 
John, the whole idea behind a "thought experiment" is to eliminate the sort of quibbles that you engaged in.

Larry, the whole business of asking about/speculating on what scientists think when doing science wasn't my "thought experiment" and I don't think it was well devised to avoid quibbles.

You replied by implying that I was lying in my response ...

No, that's not what I intended and if it seemed that way, I appologize. What I meant was that I don't think that a tenacious person like you would give up so easily on science in the face of the fact that it doesn't deliver "genuine knowledge" (which I took to mean cerain knowledge) in the first place.

... and by quibbling about the assumption.

I'm not quibbling, Larry, it is my point. I wasn't saying that the particular observation was ambiguous, I was saying that all our observations are ambiguous. The uncertainty of knowledge is a state we suffer from even if you make metaphysical commitment, based on uncertain knowledge, to philosophical naturalism. The possibility of there being miracles does not increase that uncertainty in any qualitive way. Thus, I do not believe that, on reflection, you would abandon science even if there was an observation that you could not honestly explain other than nature acting in an inconsistent and unpredictable way.

... so I think I'll give it a rest for a few months.

As you know, I enjoy our encounters and will look forward to your return.
 
Konrad:

philosophical naturalism is a working assumption ...

I'm sorry, I don't see the difference between a "working assumption" of philosophical naturalism and methodological naturalism which is a "working assumption" of naturalism.

"it's worked so far" becomes (i.m.o.) a dubious justification if I truly expect that the case under investigation may be an exception.

The purpose of a working assumption is say that that you don't expect that the case under investigation to be an exception. It isn't helped by making some unevidence metaphysical claim that is just saying that you don't expect that the case under investigation will be an exception.

if we do make the assumption of philosophical naturalism (itself unreasoned), the next step of trusting methodological naturalism is pretty compelling ...

I can't see how it is more compelling to make an unevidence assumption than it is to make an assumption that at least has the benefit of having worked in the past (even if that is not, itself, really competent evidence). You've merely added a layer to the justification for doing the same thing you intended to do in the first place that adds no actual substance to the argument for doing that thing.
 
The uncertainty of knowledge is a state we suffer from even if you make metaphysical commitment, based on uncertain knowledge, to philosophical naturalism.

...skepticism vs faith, n'est-ce pas?
 
Indeed, I've talked myself into a knot - thanks for pointing this out. So, I've failed to come up with a cogent argument for why philosophical naturalism _should_ be part of what we refer to with the word "science" (I should have known better than to try), which means I'll have to fall back on the empirical fact that it _is_ part of what many scientists refer to with the word science.

The meaning of a word is determined by usage, and in this case usage _among scientists_ is relevant.
 
The meaning of a word is determined by usage, and in this case usage _among scientists_ is relevant.

It's true that, in a dictionary sense, usage controls, but it isn't restricted to scientists. Open that bottle and the genii is out. If there is no logical essence to science, the usage that Answers in Genesis puts the word to is as much in play as Coyne's.

Moreover, if you are going with that sense of "science," it's hard to see how religion is "incompatible" with science. There is no logical conflict, since the usage may change and there is no "reality" to what "science" is to be in conflict with religion. All the accommodationists need do is win a public relations war to shift the usage of "science" to something not in conflict with religion. (Or change the meaning of "religion" or "incompatibility," for that matter.) Nor can the incompatibilists justly complain about the NAS or NCSE campaigns, since all they're doing is waging a counter-public-relations-war for their preferred usage.

Interestingly, the recent Pew Research poll shows that, while a majority of Americans think there is conflict between religion and science, a majority also believe that their own religion is not in conflict with science. It's going to get very confusing.
 
Odd, I typed out a short response to this yesterday but don't see it here - I must have somehow contrived not to click "publish". Here's another try:

You're making exactly my original point - the debate comes down entirely to what we mean by the word "science", and different participants in the debate are using different definitions. The only reason everyone is not just agreeing and going home is that this is really a public relations war, as you put it, which just happens to be dressed up as a debate.
 
You're making exactly my original point - the debate comes down entirely to what we mean by the word "science", and different participants in the debate are using different definitions.

No, I was pointing out the absurdity of argument. But if that is the tack you want to take, there is no incompatibility between science and religion because there is no "thing" called "science" and anything that anyone labels "science" is science. Religion can be called "science" and therefore is the same thing as science. QED.
 
Larry Moran loves a good fray. Too bad he's such a shoddy thinker.
 
No, I have to rise to Larry's defense. He is usually a very good thinker, which is why I enjoy our confrontations, since he pushes me to think harder. But he has, I think, a bit of a blind spot when it comes to religion and philosophy. It is a common human failing (that I'm sure he thinks I have -- in spades).
 
No, I was pointing out the absurdity of argument.

So was I. I never claimed that "anything that anyone labels "science" is science" - quite the opposite, I was emphasizing that debate is unproductive if one doesn't agree on definitions first.
 
... quite the opposite, I was emphasizing that debate is unproductive if one doesn't agree on definitions first.

But how can we ever agree on definitions if you say that definitions are just usages and there is no point in discussing what the "proper" definition is? The point of the debate is what the proper definition of science is. All you are doing is saying "there is a debate about the definition of science." Well, yes, that's what everyone has been going on about. As an observation, it is underwhelming and as a contribution towards resolving the debate, it's useless.
 
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