Adventures in Ethics and Science

Science and belief.

Given that in my last post I identified myself as playing for Team Science, this seems to be as good a time as any to note that not everyone on the team agrees about every little thing. Indeed, there are some big disagreements — but I don’t think these undermine our shared commitment to scientific methodology as a really good way of understanding our world.

I’m jumping into the fray of one of the big disagreements with this repost of an essay I wrote for the dear departed WAAGNFNP blog.

There’s a rumor afoot that serious scientists must abandon what, in the common parlance, is referred to as “faith”, that “rational” habits of mind and “magical thinking” cannot coexist in the same skull without leading to a violent collision.

We are not talking about worries that one cannot sensibly reconcile one’s activities in a science which relies on isotopic dating of fossils with one’s belief, based on a literal reading of one’s sacred texts, that the world and everything on it is orders of magnitude younger than isotopic dating would lead us to conclude. We are talking about the view that any intellectually honest scientist who is not an atheist is living a lie.

I have no interest in convincing anyone to abandon his or her atheism. However, I would like to make the case that there is not a forced choice between being an intellectually honest scientist and being a person of faith.


Scientific discourse.

Fans of science claim that science makes knowledge. Often, they claim more — that science provides the best way to build knowledge, or even the only way to build knowledge. What, precisely, counts as knowledge is one of those pesky philosophical issues that some philosophers spend their whole careers trying to work out. One flash card definition people seem to like is that knowledge is justified true belief, but it’s not an unproblematic definition (see “Gettier problems”).

Even if it were an unproblematic definition philosophically, when scientists are being careful, they don’t claim that they’re making anything this strong.

Let’s back up for a moment and look at the rules of the scientific discourse. Science is engaged in a project of trying to build reliable accounts of phenomena in the world — depending on the scientists, these will be phenomena in the physical world, the biological world, or the social world. Regardless of the sort of phenomena with which particular scientists grapple, there is a shared commitment that these phenomena are publicly accessible — that they are features of a world we share with others.

One reason this is important is that in building their accounts of the world, scientists are aiming for a kind of objectivity. They are trying for something that goes beyond a subjective report — how the world seems to them. Instead, scientific claims reach for what anyone with well-functioning sense organs could observe — hoping, of course, that the observable features of the world we can agree on are features of the world as it really is, existing outside our heads.

The impulse to demonstrate that your account of the world is not merely a subjective account is central to scientific discourse. It explains the importance of empirical evidence — evidence that anyone could observe given the right circumstances (circumstances which scientists take pains to specify precisely so other scientists can replicate their experiments) — in grounding scientific claims. It also explains why scientists try to be explicit in setting out their chains of inference from the empirical evidence. If your goal is to build good accounts of the world outside your head, it is useful to have others working toward the same goal checking your work to ensure that you haven’t leapt to any unwarranted conclusions. Since seeing the world as we want or expect to see it is a constant danger, scientists need each other to work out what the empirical facts are, and how much can be justifiably inferred from those facts.

Since there are always more empirical data to be had — and since the danger of drawing conclusions that outstrip the empirical data in evidence is always near — scientific conclusions are always tentative. If “knowledge” is a success term that asserts the truth of a claim, scientific knowledge is knowledge with an asterisk, for scientists recognize that their claims are tentative — inferences judged to be well-grounded in the empirical evidence available right now. In light of new evidence, claims might be updated. As well, scientists might decide a particular inferential chain is not as reasonable as they first thought it to be.

In other words, while scientists may be hunting truth, they understand something about how hard it is to be sure they’ve found it.

The skeptical attitude is something scientists feel they ought to put on, like a lab coat and safety glasses, when they are on the clock as scientists. In their capacity as scientists, they don’t think they should accept claims until those claims have something like proof behind them. Because the evidence is still coming in, the proof will hardly ever be once-and-for-all proof. Maybe to compensate for this, scientists try to impose a high burden of proof that a claim must meet before it is deemed scientifically credible.

A good scientific claim has to convince a whole passel of skeptical scientists. The case for that claim has to be grounded in publicly accessible evidence from the world, and the way that evidence counts as support for the claim must be made transparent. An undeniable part of the appeal of science is its democratic potential: if your sense organs work and you’re able to set out logical inferences, you can help build and test claims about the world. Because any human with good sensory apparatus and the rational powers could participate in the scientific discourse, scientists are inclined to think that scientific arguments ought to be persuasive even to non-scientists.

To the extent that such arguments are set out in ways that make the ground rules of the scientific discourse transparent, they frequently are persuasive to non-scientists.

There are moments, though, when enthusiasm for scientific discourse may manifest itself in ways that overlook what scientists think they know when they’re on the clock as scientists. When folks claim that science is a guaranteed route to truth, we’re dealing with a claim of a different nature than the claims that scientists are hammering out in their accounts of the world.

Scientific knowledge, or scientific faith?

Are we warranted in calling scientific claims knowledge – that is to say, identifying them as true claims that we are justified in believing to be true? Isn’t the methodology of science as powerful an apparatus for building knowledge as we’re likely to get our mitts on?

Maybe we’re as justified as we can be in believing the claims we come to through scientific discourse. Maybe a good number of those claims are even true. Certainly, within the bounds of the scientific discourse, there is a methodological commitment that the claims that remain in play must stand up to certain kinds of scrutiny, and meet a certain burden of proof on the basis of empirical data and inferences that can be publicly interrogated.

To assert that this methodology succeeds in establishing truth depends on certain kinds of metaphysical commitments.

You think the data we collect today can help us make good predictions about what will happen tomorrow? That reflects a metaphysical commitment you have about what kind of universe you’re living in. And there’s nothing wrong with having that commitment. Indeed, it’s what helps some of us get out of bed in the morning. You want to show me the analysis that shows your results are statistically significant? Fine, but don’t forget that the claim of statistical significance rests on metaphysical commitments about the normal distribution of data in the bit of the world you’re studying. If you didn’t start with some metaphysical hunches, there would be no way to do any science. Some folks are happy to acknowledge that these hunches are methodologically useful, but that they aren’t proven to be true or guaranteed not to fail us. That they have worked so far shows them to be useful, but it would be unwarranted to infer from their usefulness to their truth.

In scientific discourse there’s a serious attempt to do the job of describing, explaining, and manipulating the universe with a relatively lean set of metaphysical commitments, and to keep many of the commitments methodological. If you’re in the business of using information from the observables, there are many junctures where the evidence is not going to tell you for certain whether P is true or not-P is true. There has to be a sensible way to deal with, or to bracket, the question of P so that science doesn’t grind to a halt while you wait around for more evidence. Encounter a phenomenon that you’re not sure is explainable in terms of any of the theories or data you have at the ready? Because the scientific rules of the road insist on claims grounded in evidence that is accessible to others, it is methodologically out of bounds to assert “A wizard did it!” Instead, scientists are bound to dig in and see whether further investigation of the phenomenon will yield an explanation. Sometimes it does, and sometimes it doesn’t. In cases where it does not, science is still driven by a commitment to build an explanation in terms of stuff in the natural world, despite the fact that we may have to reframe our understanding of that natural world in fairly significant ways.

Some scientists and friends of science believe the methodology works because the metaphysical hunches that get the discourse off the ground are true. Maybe they are. But because these are metaphysical claims, you can’t establish their truth scientifically. Taking on these metaphysical commitments is an exercise of faith.

Beliefs we come to by other than officially approved scientific methods (i.e., faith).

If the hallmark of scientific claims is their grounding in empirical data and the ability to interrogate them publicly with some hope of coming to a conclusion that will be persuasive to all the parties involved in that interrogation, our non-scientific beliefs do not have the same publicly accessible character. They are not grounded in empirical evidence that others can examine, nor do they offer logical chains of inference others may check for mistakes. They are subjective, not objective.

They are my beliefs.

But if my experience of the world is not the sort of thing someone else could pick up, examine, or have herself, that does not mean that my experience does not exist. Nothing could be realer to me. I just cannot make others feel its pull. To do that, I would need to be able to make my personal experience an object of public scrutiny, something that others could actually experience for themselves.

It wouldn’t be enough to describe my experience, or to spell out what I believe. This falls short of others being able to have my experiences. It doesn’t transmit the impetus that gets me to my belief.

For those who hold that the methods of science are the only good ways to come to beliefs (or to hold onto those beliefs once you notice that you have them), the common line is that any belief that you cannot ground in the empirical facts and good logic does not warrant your belief. This presents a bit of a problem when one holds a belief that the scientific method can be counted on to produce true claims, or even that the laws of nature won’t change next Tuesday. Both are fine beliefs, but neither is grounded in the empirical facts and good logic.

Knowing the difference between public evidence and private belief.

One of the things that scientists learn in their training is how to frame arguments that are persuasive to other scientists – arguments that attend to the empirical evidence and draw the right kind of inferences from such evidence. They discover early on that arguments from authority or from intuitions don’t have the same persuasive power among their fellow scientists. In other words, they learn what kinds of evidence count in the scientific discourse. They understand that claims without the right kind of grounding will not be counted as scientific claims.

This need not stop scientists from believing things that might not stand up as scientific claims – whether believing that there could be immaterial stuff in the universe, or that everything in the universe is at least in principle empirically accessible, that the laws of nature can be counted on to be stable and regular, or that we’ve been on a long run of apparent stability that might soon run out. The crucial thing for the scientist as a scientist is to recognize that these beliefs stand outside of scientific discourse. They don’t count as evidence that ought to persuade anyone else.

An intellectually honest scientist can believe in a deity; she just can’t deploy that belief in a scientific argument. Similarly, an intellectually honest scientist can believe that there’s no deity, but he can’t use that belief to undermine the empirical evidence or logical inferences of a scientist he knows goes to church. If there’s something wrong with the churchgoing scientist’s data or arguments, the problem should be detectable with no recourse whatsoever to the non-scientific beliefs that might be in his head.

What matters, from the point of view of engaging in the scientific discourse, is what you can demonstrate to other participants in that discourse. As far as your scientific activity is concerned, your other beliefs are your own private affair.

Comments

  1. #1 Vitis01
    March 24, 2008

    It seems to me that the characteristics of a deity that an intellectually honest scientist might believe in would be constrained by what they “know” as a scientist. Does that assertion hold water? If it does, it seems to me like a scientist’s deity might begin to look pretty insignificant or at the very least look very different than a xtian fundie’s god.

    I’m suspicious of this conclusion because I like it so much. I feel that science does diminish god and I like it that way.

  2. #2 Russell
    March 24, 2008

    Janet D. Stemwedel:

    One of the things that scientists learn in their training is how to frame arguments that are persuasive to other scientists.

    But doesn’t that include one’s self? The problem with the demarcation you try to draw between private and public belief is that it is drawn so broad that it seems to distinguish also between private and public arguments. I’m a bit leery of that distinction. Yes, we each individually ponder and criticize our own beliefs. Are not the arguments and methods we make for those thoughts that we can express and make public and include in the broader discussion of methodology?

    I understand the notion of private evidence. There are singular events that simply aren’t capable of repetition. An angel visited Pascal in his bedroom one night, and had discussion with him. There is no way for any of use to reexamine that event. Even were we one of Pascal’s contemporaries, our access to it would have been fairly limited. It was Pascal’s private experience, and he had to ponder, as we each do with such experiences, whether it was dream or delusion or miraculous intervention.

    But surely the arguments one makes with oneself in such ponderings, the reasoning, is the kind of thing that can be expressed publicly? And if not, why not?

  3. #3 Steuard
    March 24, 2008

    This presents a bit of a problem when one holds a belief that the scientific method can be counted on to produce true claims, or even that the laws of nature won’t change next Tuesday. Both are fine beliefs, but neither is grounded in the empirical facts and good logic.

    Isn’t there a fairly firm scientific basis for the claim that the laws of nature won’t change next Tuesday? If the laws of nature were at all likely to change from time to time, we should observe those changes either in our own experiments or in our observations of historical phenomena (carbon dating, for example, or big bang nucleosynthesis). As it is, we have very strong evidence that the laws of nature have been essentially unchanged for billions of years. That can be interpreted as a sequence of hundreds of billions of experiments: “Will the laws of nature change next Thursday?” Given that each of those experiments thus far has had the same answer, it seems scientifically well supported to claim that the next one will, too.

  4. #4 Matt Penfold
    March 24, 2008

    Janet,

    I think part of the problem is that while religion need not be in conflict with science, something even Richard Dawkins will admit, it very often is.

    Religions often make claims of god intervening in the universe , be it creationism, answering prayers, virgin birth or any of a number of other similar claims. Now those claims are in conflict with science. For a religion not to be in conflict with science it must be devoid of any claims of divine intervention, but such a religion is not the sort of religion normally practiced. In “The God Delusional” Dawkins makes it clear that he is addressing those religions who do make claims for divine intervention and states that he does not have the same issues with religions that make no such claims.

    Now it is possible to be a scientist and think there is an interventionist god. However I am pretty confident that no such scientist will allow for a interventionist god in their particular field. Can you imagine a biologist specialising in mammalian reproduction accepting that Mary really was virgin ? Or a geneticist accepting that sometimes god tweaks the genome of species to give them a hand ?

    So I would agree that in principle religion and science need not be in conflict, but argue that the type of religion we see most often is in conflict as it makes claims that science can investigate, and indeed has done and found wanting for lack for evidence.

  5. #5 Spaulding
    March 24, 2008

    Every experiment ever conducted has also tested the hypothesis that the “laws” of nature have been consistent across time and location. The consistency of these laws is therefore the scientific claim MOST supported by evidence.

    But if my experience of the world is not the sort of thing someone else could pick up, examine, or have herself, that does not mean that my experience does not exist.

    No, but it means you have no mechanism for detecting errors in your observation or interpretation. That’s the problem with faith – when you just pick an idea because it is the most satisfying to emotion or tradition, you lack a means to distinguish truth from error.

  6. #6 PhysioProf
    March 24, 2008

    Is there a coherent philosophical stance available that would justify not concerning oneself at all with the foundations of scientific knowledge? I am thinking of some sort of pure pragmatism.

  7. #7 Steuard
    March 24, 2008

    Matt Penfold wrote:

    Now it is possible to be a scientist and think there is an interventionist god. However I am pretty confident that no such scientist will allow for a interventionist god in their particular field. Can you imagine a biologist specialising in mammalian reproduction accepting that Mary really was virgin? Or a geneticist accepting that sometimes god tweaks the genome of species to give them a hand?

    If I had to guess, I would not expect that specialists have an especially strong aversion to “miracles” in their own discipline. In the end, science can only make strong statements about repeatable general trends, not about individual cases. If some process (natural or not) led to a virgin birth somewhere in the world once per century, we would probably never know. Even if such an event happened to occur (by a freak coincidence) under controlled scientific conditions, we would probably just conclude that we had overlooked some mistake in our methodology. (A mathematician might say that scientific truths are established over some region of space and time “except possibly for some set of measure zero”: a few isolated points within the continuum.)

    So there is plenty of room left by our scientific evidence for rare “miracles” that violate natural laws. The most basic scientific question is whether such miracles are necessary to explain any observed phenomena. Thus far, it is my strong impression that the answer is no: electricity explains lightning with no need for Thor, evolution explains biological diversity with no need for special creation, and so on.

    But I think it’s another step to claim that there must not be any isolated exceptions to natural laws. We can probably put scientific limits on how frequent they could be and still avoid detection, but I doubt that we could ever rule out, say, a one-time virgin birth. It is Occam’s razor that leads us to claim that isolated exceptions to natural laws do not occur (as opposed to simply being both very rare and unnecessary for explaining the broad features we observe in the world). If we do not have clear evidence that such exceptions exist (which is essentially their definition), that may be a reason to conclude that they do not (otherwise, why not believe in the invisible pink unicorn?). But I am still on the fence about whether that is a necessary part of a consistent scientific world-view.

  8. #8 Neuro-conservative
    March 25, 2008

    My sense is that PhysioProf is onto something important. Does the vaunted self-correcting mechanism of science really get us closer to “truth”? Or merely that much closer to the next Kuhnian revolution? Does it matter?

    Ultimately, the proof is in the pudding — the impact that a particular scientific inquiry has on the larger world. I would argue that the word for that impact is: “technology.”

    Thus, any particular scientific formulation in early-20th century particle physics is neither true nor false — it either is or is not relevant to the development of the atomic bomb.

    All of which is irrelevant to questions of religion, faith, and morality, to which “science” cannot speak.

  9. #9 Hayden
    March 25, 2008

    I recently had a conversation that made me realise something along the lines of what you get at here Dr Freeride. While not a religious type myself, I know have a better understanding of why so many people are.

    http://youngfrankenstein.wordpress.com/2008/03/21/refreshingly-frank-religious-discussion/

  10. #10 William Haberer
    March 25, 2008

    “This presents a bit of a problem when one holds a belief that the scientific method can be counted on to produce true claims, or even that the laws of nature won’t change next Tuesday.”

    If the laws of nature can change next Tuesday it would invalidate both the special and general theory of relativity. I don’t have the exact wording but Einstein gave the following general descriptions in a book written for the non-scientist

    All of the special theory of relativity is included in the statement:

    The laws of Nature are invariant with respect to the Lorentz transformations

    The fundamental idea of the general theory of relativity can be stated:

    All Gaussian co-ordinate systems are essentially equivalent for the formulation of the laws of nature.

  11. #11 William Haberer
    March 25, 2008

    Have you read THE NATURE OF KNOWLEDGE by R. A. Lyttleton?

    It was in THE ENCYCLOPEDIA OF IGNORANCE, edited by R. Duncan and M. Weston-Smith, 1977 Pergamon Press Ltd, Oxford UK pp13-14

    Here is a short excerpt http://amasci.com/freenrg/bead.html

  12. #12 Anonymous
    March 25, 2008

    Scientists (real scientists, I mean, not “Team Science”) have this attitude that your productivity in the lab determines your value as a human being, and whether you should be treated like a celebrity or a leper. In general I consider that a disgusting way to behave and try to avoid it, but in this particular squabble I hope God will forgive my occasionally busting it out.

    The bottom line is that anyone whose opinion I value can look at PubMed and see that I’ve had a successful, productive, exciting scientific career while PZ Myers has produced essentially nothing, and his groupies have produced absolutely nothing. What do I possibly care whether “science fans” think I’m a “serious scientist” or not, except to the extent that I care what all the taxpayers who support me think? My first Science paper released me from having to care about the opinion of anyone without one.

  13. #13 Anonymous
    March 26, 2008

    Incidentally, I can’t help noticing that the people who profess to be so concerned about promoting diversity and underrepresented groups in science seem completely unconcerned about letting a bunch of fat, angry, mostly useless, white men appoint themselves the gatekeepers of who is and isn’t welcome in science.

    What do you think is the effect on a Latina or black science major (regardless of how devout she herself is) of making Professor OnePublication the leader of Team Science and telling her that science isn’t about curiosity and discovery, it’s about antagonizing everyone in her family?

  14. #14 Hap
    March 26, 2008

    Did Carl Sagan produce so much? I’m certain that this blog requires time as well, and mgmt. factors it in to review (as said before). Part of the utility of scientists is in explaining science to people, what it is and is not and what it can and can’t do. Much of science’s public support depends on its output, on publications and their eventual implementation in technology useful in everday life – however, people’s understanding of science is important, both for their own understanding of what it can do (to judge drug/supplement claims, for example), to judge the (moral) consequences of particular technologies, and to give or designate the money that will end up in your next paper. If people willfully misunderstand the limitations and capacities of science, they are not doing so for reasons that will benefit science or society as a whole, and the clarification of such is useful in its own right.

    As a secondary question, how are moral beliefs classified? Everyone has some system of behavior, but how do we know (if at all) what codes are correct, or when one is better relative to another? We make moral assumptions, and presumably follow them to logical conclusions, but how do we test their correctness (or can we)? What differentiates moral beliefs from religious ones (well, non-falsifiable religious ones)?

  15. #15 Bee
    March 26, 2008

    “What do I possibly care whether “science fans” think I’m a “serious scientist” or not, except to the extent that I care what all the taxpayers who support me think? My first Science paper released me from having to care about the opinion of anyone without one.” – Anonymous

    How nice for you. Has it occurred to you that some of the taxpayers who supported you are, in fact, ‘science fans’? Good to know our opinions mean nothing to you. Does this affect the kind of research you produce? Since no one’s opinion of your work matters (except, apparently, those taxpayers who are oblivious to the importance or frivolity of your work), are you out there producing scads of climate change denialist research, or seabed mining research that ignores the harm that might be caused by such, or are you producing papers that might be useful medically or in terms of better crop yields?

  16. #16 Anonymous
    March 26, 2008

    How nice for you. Has it occurred to you that some of the taxpayers who supported you are, in fact, ‘science fans’? Good to know our opinions mean nothing to you. Does this affect the kind of research you produce?

    Bee, this is a precise inversion of my point. As I said, I do recognize that all taxpayers, regardless of their views on this or that, are my benefactors. It’s of the utmost importance to me that I give them their money’s worth, and that they understand the value of what they’re getting. That I’m “producing papers that might be useful medically” while Professor OnePublication makes a public spectacle of himself is the entire point.

    What is not of any concern to me is what we’re discussing here: the insistence of various loudmouths and crackpots that I’m letting down Team Science by holding unacceptable theological views. If they have issues with my research, on the other hand, I’ll be glad to hear them. As, again, I said in the first place.

  17. #17 Helen
    March 26, 2008

    This is a rather off-topic meander, just as a heads-up.

    My first reaction to any argument that faith and science are inherently at odds with each other is always surprise, mostly because I went to a Catholic gradeschool that started teaching us how faith and science go hand in hand from first grade on. Evolutionary theory started in second grade. How the Bible can be true and science can be true at the same time was always up for discussion. So I get surprised, because if small children can have no problem with it, I wonder why it’s so hard for adults.

    My school was also big about teaching us all along about other religions and how you can believe yours is right while still having deep respect for the fact that other people think theirs is right. Young kids can wrap their minds around this just fine. It takes a lot of discussion and being willing to spend time on it, but it works.

    Most people seem to think these concepts and the apparent paradoxes in them are too complicated for young children to handle. My school assumed they weren’t. I wonder if what we really need is more faith in the understanding of children in general, that they can grapple with these concepts from a young age and will benefit lifelong from doing so.

    Sorry for the ramble.

  18. #18 LP
    March 27, 2008

    I think Dr. F-R gets it about right, and would add that it’s not just ‘religious’ beliefs we’re talking about here — there are many many private beliefs a person might choose to have even though they’re either (a) demonstrably false, or (b) radically unverifiable. Examples might include:

    -I am a good person to whom good things will come
    -I am the kind of person who exercises every day
    -Everything happens for a reason

    These beliefs are all shown to have positive effects on the believer’s well-being, whether they’re true, false or indeterminate. I guess it comes down to, what is the purpose of your beliefs? Is it to have an accurate model of reality, or to feel happy, or something else? A rationalist is often tempted to argue that only well-grounded, justified beliefs can lead to happiness, but this seems to have been pretty well disproved by psychology at this point.

  19. #19 Bee
    March 27, 2008

    Thanks for clarifying, Anonymous.

    What I wish theists, with whom I have no scientific beef if they aren’t promoting creationism, would remember when they get all worked up and insulted by ‘loudmouths and crackpots’ (disregarding their publication record – some people serve in other ways, you know, like teaching and writing), is that atheists do have as much right to preach as anyone else, and in fact may need to do so, given the very low opinions many theists hold in regard to atheism in general.

    Why is it all right for millions of people to hear the message every Sunday from preachers that ‘not believing’ is the very worst thing you can do, but not all right for those of us ‘not believing’ to be happy about someone speaking up loudly to say, no, it isn’t the worst thing you can do, in fact it has distinct advantages?

    There’s probably one loud atheist for every couple hundred loud preachers, if that.

    My experience exists, too. It happens to be godless.

  20. #20 eclipse
    March 28, 2008

    I think this is an interesting post that addresses an apparent schism. I disagree with scientists who say you must be atheist to do good science, or be a scientist. I am both religious and a scientist, and I have known many other scientists to be religious. Historically this is certainly the case. I disagree with religions which try to put religion into the [public school] science classroom. I think there are far too many preconceived notions on each “side” for the people who feel the need to take sides (as Hayden’s youngfrankenstein link above discusses). Even among different religions, I’ve found a lot of preconceived notions just don’t hold water. But the extremists often get the most attention, and are often loudest in the crowd.

  21. #21 Anonymous
    March 30, 2008

    Why is it all right for millions of people to hear the message every Sunday from preachers that ‘not believing’ is the very worst thing you can do, but not all right for those of us ‘not believing’ to be happy about someone speaking up loudly to say, no, it isn’t the worst thing you can do, in fact it has distinct advantages?

    Bee, I tried to be gracious and give you the benefit of the doubt the first time you pretended I said something in order to take exception to it. I’m not going to play along a second time.

  22. #22 Will
    March 30, 2008

    Every intellectually honest scientist, indeed every thinking person, is an atheist with respect to some beliefs. As Dawkins notes, “We are all atheists about most of the gods that humanity has ever believed in. Some of us just go one god further.”

  23. #23 Jim Thomerson
    April 5, 2008

    Was having a a conversation with a Dutch colleague. Started to say, “I believe . . .” He cut me off and said, “I don’t want to know what you believe. I want to know what you think.” So I try not to say, “I believe”, any more. Any system of logic or investigation is based on assumptions which cannot be tested or verified within the system. So, instead of having beliefs, I have assumptions, and I have thoughts based on those assumptions. I have something like faith in the asumptions where they work. It is OK with me that my house was built on a flat earth, for example. Perhaps Faith, with a capital F, is the retention of an assumption (now a “belief”) after it has been shown not to give good results. A Flat Earther has Faith that one can build a highway across the country without making a 0.6 ft/mile correction for the curvature of the earth, for example.

  24. #24 pseudonym
    April 24, 2008

    What you are all arguing over is really interesting. The concept of faith is something that can not be described only lived. Does one have faith, well show me, rather, show yourself. I think therefore I am is nothing, Kierkegaard showed this. His life as well as Socrates, Jesus, and Lao Tzu all say the same thing, what is highest, faith, can not be said; but they tried anyway because they had nothing else to do. Somehow once they conceived the highest, everything else in the world becomes worthless.

  25. #25 ganv
    May 24, 2008

    This very interesting post describes essentially what I believed a few years ago (but in much clearer language than I probably could have used.) Essentially I bought into the presuppositionalist approach that you can’t think without presuppositions, and so science has its presuppositions like any other viewpoint. This view was quite attractive to me since I was brought up in an evangelical/fundamentalist Christian home and it allowed me to treat my Christian presuppositions as parallel to the presuppositions I use as a scientist.

    But lately I have begun to see problems with this parallel. We don’t start with presuppositions or ‘faith’. We start trying things–first as infants trying to put everything in our mouths and later as scientists trying to make measurements with the smallest measurement error possible. Some ideas work for making sense of the world (think object permanence), and other ideas are not so helpful (think belief in imaginary friends). (Also, evolution has resulted in our brains being hardwired with quite of bit of circutry that has been found to be useful for making sense of the world.) Our parents teach us many things that work pretty well most of the time, and so we add on many beliefs that we haven’t justified ourselves. We slowly build a partially coherent conceptual web for understanding and manipulating the world we find ourselves in. We don’t have presuppositions. We have ideas that are part of coherent explanatory webs, and human inquiry can be understood as an attempt to improve the coherence and comprehensiveness of our explanatory web.

    Most of the things you call “methodological commitments” are not really presuppositions but rather are techniques that have been found to be effective in making sense of the world. They are not justified by direct recourse to empirical measurements, but nothing is ever justified in that way. They are justified by their coherence with an amazingly successful scientific research program (using Lakatos’ definition of research program). Thus I have good reasons to say that I know that the laws of physics will not change next Tuesday. It is not just an assumption or presupposition. Belief in the approximate stability of physical law is an essential component of a coherent set of beliefs that have been amazingly successful in predicting and controlling the world. While I don’t know this to be true with the deductive certainty that some enlightenment philosophers tried to demand, it is among the things that humans can be most certain of.

The site is currently under maintenance and will be back shortly. New comments have been disabled during this time, please check back soon.