Spend any time immersing yourself in science/religion disputes and you will quickly encounter the idea that “science is not the only way of knowing.” Nearly always this is intended as a way of carving out intellectual space for religion. For atheists like me this claim raises a red flag. I want to know what ways of knowing religion contributes to the discussion, and what sorts of things we learn from these methods. The problem is that one of the biggest ideas religion offers, especially in the West, is that of revelation. Apparently God sometimes talks directly to certain human beings, and at least some of the time these conversations get recorded in holy books. I talk about red flags because this sort of thing has a very poor track record, but is still taken very seriously in some quarters.
In this context, arguments about “ways of knowing” are really arguments about “ways of defending knowledge claims.” If the best findings of science suggest the Earth is over four billion years old, while the Bible strongly implies that it is less than ten thousand years, then among educated people it is the Bible that must yield. When dealing with empirical claims about nature, science is a far more reliable way of knowing than is reading the Bible.
What, then, are these other ways of knowing we all must acknowledge on pain of being accused of something unsavory like “scientism”? What sorts of things do we know by taking advantage of them? How am I to defend a claim of the form “I know X” if I do not avail myself of the sorts of evidence that scientists use in their work?
Josh Rosenau offers some candidtaes in this lengthy post, written in reply to some earlier remarks from Jerry Coyne. According to Josh there is something called “literary truth,” which stands in contrast to the empirical truth so beloved of science. Let’s turn the floor over to him:
To call these [certain purported truths gleaned from non-literal readings of the Bible] “empirical” claims then seems to miss the point. They are certainly truth claims, but not claims about what literally happened. I like to compare this to the non-literal truth claims of good novels, or good stories more broadly. I think we can all agree that literature offers a different “way of knowing” than science does.
I’m pretty sure we can not all agree to that, since I can not imagine what it means to say literature offers a way of knowing. Perhaps I should read further. Referring to this post from a blogger named slacktivist Josh writes:
Vampires don’t exist, and slacktivist makes it absolutely clear that he knows this. But telling stories about vampires is a great way to convey certain truths about the world we all live in. These aren’t truths that science can independently verify, but they are still true in a meaningful way.
No one should watch Buffy the Vampire Slayer they way they would watch a documentary, but they should certainly watch the show. It’s brilliant, and it uses this exact sort of literary truth to tackle tricky subjects like drug addiction, spousal abuse, peer pressure, bullying, and the challenges of adolescence in late 20th century America with a sophistication and humor that would be impossible in any other form.
Slacktivist, himself an evangelical Christian, truly does seem to read the Bible through the same literary lens that he uses for vampire stories. For instance, he has offered a sensitive reading of the story of Noah’s flood, again making the point that it is not true in the sense of actually having happened, but it is still true in an important and interesting sense.
I think those two posts (and many others) give a pretty good example of what one might mean by a “way of knowing” other than science. Is it literally true that “selfishness is destructive” (slacktivist’s summary of the story of Noah’s flood)? What would it even mean for that to be “literally” true?
If we are really going to be this casual with language, then just about anything can now be construed as a way of knowing.
A while back I was participating in a chess tournament. In one of my games I had gotten myself into a bit of a pickle with sloppy opening play. I had defended grimly for a few hours and had worked my way down to an endgame that was objectively lost but posed some challenges for my opponent. Then he blundered and allowed a small tactical combination in which, after sacrificing some material, I was able to win my opponent’s queen. One of the crucial moves in my combination was made by a lowly pawn. I went on to win the game.
Just look at all the fundamental human truths revealed in this one game! I learned that you can recover even from serious mistakes if you stick to it and remain patient. I learned that the meekest among us can have a profound impact on life, as exemplified by my humble pawn. I learned that fortunes can change quickly and that one must be ever vigilant for opportunities. I learned that cockiness and overconfidence can get you into trouble (the look on my opponent’s face when I sprang the combination on him was truly a sight to behold).
Is playing chess now to be considered a way of knowing? If it is, then the phrase has truly lost all meaning.
Josh has simply confused a “way of learning” with a “way of knowing.” Fiction can be a marvelous device for conveying truths, it can call your attention to truths you had not previously considered, and it can present familiar truths in insightful new ways. There is much to be learned from reading great literature. But it is simply bizarre to say there is something we know from reading great literature that we can not verify in more conventional ways. Would anyone want to be Smith in the following conversation:
SMITH: I know X is true.
JONES: How do you know X is true?
SMITH: Because I watched an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
I wonder how many Christians would be happy to hear that extracting truths from the Bible is the same kind of thing as extracting truths from Buffy the Vampire Slayer. This hardly seems like the refutation of the claim that religion contributes nothing to the store of human knowledge. If reconciling science and religion means reducing the Bible to the level of Aesop’s fables (fictional stories from which we can nonetheless extract important lessons), then I think the anti-reconcilers can comfortably declare victory.
Trivial abstractions like “Selfishness is destructive” (which is certainly untrue as a general proposition and, at any rate, seems perfectly clear when taken literally) are not really what is at issue in science/religion disputes. Instead, how ought we to react to someone who says, “Jesus loves me this I know, because the Bible tells me so?” Science can not comment on whether Jesus actually loves him (though it can certainly make some of the more flamboyant stories about Jesus seem pretty unlikely). Is that person in possession of a way of knowing that the rest of us should take seriously? Can he plausibly claim to know something that nonetheless has no meaning for the rest of us?
This is not just an academic question. People like Alvin Plantinga have argued that what Chrisitans “know as Christians” ought to be considered perfectly reliable knowledge for the purposes of doing science. Is he right?
We judge the truth of a novel differently than the truth of a documentary. Nothing that happens in a novel need ever have happened, but a novel must hang together in a certain way for it to feel true. Fictional characters can feel false or true based only on how they are written. Even though they have no empirical, objective reality, they have a reality that readers can use to measure the characters’ validity, the truth of the story, and the truth of the author’s underlying intent. To top it off, different readers can react very differently to a story, or to a character in a story, despite working from the same source material.
Josh continues to use language in ways I don’t understand. What does it mean to judge the truth of a novel? Surely it makes more sense to talk about the level of realism in a novel. It is an outright category error to talk about the truth of an author’s intent. An intention is not a proposition, and therefore is not the sort of thing that can be true or false. And I can’t imagine what an invalid character would be.
You can certainly argue that a given work of fiction is weakened to irrelevance by its manifest departures from reality or believability, but what has that to do with literature as a way of knowing?
But the weirdness just keeps on coming:
These fans are devoted to the various incarnations of Star Trek, and were willing to spend $40-75 for just one signature from one of the Star Trek captains. And they don’t all want the same signature. Some think Picard is the greatest captain in the Star Trek Universe, some think Kirk is the better captain, and a few prefer Janeway.
These, again, are truth claims, but none of those fans is objectively, empirically wrong, nor are any of them objectively right.
Let’s get the important point out of the way first. There is an unambiguously correct ordering of the various captains in the Star Trek universe. Captain Kirk is first. Period. Captain Janeway is a distant second, followed by Sisko. Pussy Picard, meanwhile, ranks somewhere behind Chekhov’s hapless captain from the start of The Wrath of Khan.
Okay, back to business. I can’t believe Josh is serious when he says that assertions about the merits of Starfleet captains are truth claims. Isn’t it obvious that they are statements of opinion? We all understand that I was kidding a moment ago when I talked about an unambiguously correct ranking, right? I suspect even the most diehard Trekkie understands that when he says, “Captain Kirk is the best captain,” (which all sensible Trekkies do say), he is really just saying, “I like Captain Kirk the best.”
Josh also seems to have some strange ideas about the empirical basis for Judaism and Christianity. He writes:
This is an odd claim. From what I know of religions like Taoism, Buddhism, and Hinduism, empirical claims are not so central (unless you think reincarnation, kharma, etc. count as empirical claims, which I don’t). Nor do I think that’s a fair assessment of Judaism or Christianity. It’s certainly true that the Jewish Bible can be read as making a number of empirical claims, for instance about the timing of human origins, whether bushes can burn without being consumed, that thousands of people wandered the Sinai for decades without leaving any obvious archaeological evidence or human records in nearby civilizations, etc.
But that’s not how Jews have understood the Bible for the last couple thousand years. Maimonides, writing well before any of the modern squabbles over evolution, explained:
Ignorant and superficial readers take them [certain obscure passages] in a literal, not in a figurative sense. Even well informed persons are bewildered if they understand these passages in their literal signification, but they are entirely relieved of their perplexity when we explain the figure, or merely suggest that the terms are figurative.
Augustine of Hippo has made comments similarly supportive of non-literal (non-empirical) readings of the Bible. For more on this topic, NCSE has a nice article on the history of non-literal Biblical interpretations.
Josh obviously likes the kind of religion that treats its holy texts as ciphers into which you can read whatever you like. The fact remains, however, that this paragraph is a ludicrous distortion of both Judaism and Christianity.
The whole foundation of Judaism is the idea of a covenant between God and the Jewish people, in which we agree to live according to God’s law in return for which we are guaranteed the land of Israel. This is a literal covenant, not a symbolic one. Furthermore, the Torah has traditionally been understood as the history of the Jews, and not as a bunch of fictional stories designed to teach us spiritual lessons. It is not a figurative exodus we commemorate on Passover.
Maimonides endorsed the idea that the findings of reason ought to be taken into consideration when interpreting scripture, but he was not some theological liberal. He was not just tossing out non-literal interpretations of scripture willy-nilly. And since Josh specifically talks about how Jews have interpreted the Bible for thousands of years, we should note that Maimonides was bitterly opposed by many of the rabbis and scholars of his day.
As for Christianity, has Josh not read the Nicene Creed? It is chock full of empirical claims. Jesus was resurrected, not “resurrected.” That they are not the sort of things that science can resolve once and for all does not make them non-empirical. As for Augustine, he, like Maimonides after him, was willing to countenance non-literal interpretations of scripture when a literal interpretation was contradicted by reason. But he was also perfectly convinced, based on scripture, that the Earth was on the order of 6000 years old. He was also not the last word on proper Christian practice. For example, St. Basil’s homilies on Genesis (Basil was a contemporary of Augustine) sound a lot like what modern YEC’s say.
And let us not forget the big empirical claim at the heart of both Judaism and Christianity: that God exists. That’s usually taken to be a literal God who literally exists. I’d like to know what way of knowing undergirds such a claim.
Granted, most modern American Jews would reject the claim that there is a covenant between man and God, just as many Christians dissent from points of doctrine. The fact remains that it is absurd to say that Judaism and Christianity do not rest on a foundation of empirical claims (highly dubious ones in my opinion.)
Josh’s defense of religion, such as it is, comes at a very high price. We religion-bashing types take religious claims seriously, consider the evidence for them, find them wanting, and argue that they ought to be dismissed on that basis. We do not strip Judaism and Christianity of all their most interesting assertions, and cherry-pick the most liberal folks we can find as representative of the religion generally. (And in the case of Maimonides and Augustine they weren’t even all that liberal.)
As a further example of what I mean, consider this:
As a scientific claim, “vampires fear crosses” is as meaningless as “Picard is a better captain than Kirk” or “The Cubs are the greatest team in baseball’s history,” and none of those is any more scientifically meaningful than “Jesus is my personal savior.”
I know a lot of Christians who would be insulted by this. “Jesus is my personal savior” is not the same kind of statement as any of those other three. Rankings of sports teams and Starfleet captains are matters of opinion (more precisely, they are based on standards the worthiness of which are matters of opinion). Assertions about vampires only make sense in the context of certain fictional narratives.
Someone who claims Jesus as his personal savior, by contrast, typically envisions that Jesus literally exists and has literally caused some change in his life. It is usually accompanied by the claim that anyone could experience the same change by accepting his own need for a savior. It entails certain empirical claims about the world. The other statements do not.
If we are specifically discussing the world of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, then the statement “Vampires fear crosses,” is readily defended by the meticulous collection of evidence. To discuss rankings of Starfleet captains or sports teams we would first have to agree on some rating criteria, but once we agree on a set of criteria we can presumably come to some agreement about the proper ranking with respect to them.
But since this is a post about ways of knowing, I would like to know how someone claiming Jesus as his personal savior purports to know the empirical claims on which that assertions is based.
Let’s wrap this up:
I write this not to defend the latter claim, but to defend the worthiness of non-scientific enterprises. I like novels. I like TV. I like art. I like baseball. I think there is truth to be found in such endeavors, and I think any brush that sweeps away the enterprise of religion as a “way of knowing” must also sweep away art and a host of other human activities. I’ve tossed out the comparison before, and have yet to get any useful reply to it.
What a bizarre conflation of ideas. I’m pretty sure that even the most aggressive atheists spend most of their time indulging in nonscientific pursuits. Arguing that science is the only reliable way of knowing is hardly the same as saying that science is the only thing that is worthy of our consideration. I also like novels, TV and art, and while I don’t care for baseball I am a big fan of Ultimate Fighting. In a trivial sense there is truth to be found in almost any human endeavor, but there is a big difference between finding truth and defending what we believe the truth to be. There are far more ways of learning than there are ways of knowing.
My reply to Josh’s comparison is that he does not do justice to religion. The ways of knowing that are unique to religion, namely revelation and the words of holy texts, have today been utterly discredited. If we are talking about religion without those attributes then we are talking about something vastly different from the mainstream of religious belief, at least in America.
In short, if Josh wants us to take his comparison seriously, he needs to answer some simple questions. What do we know from religion that we do not know by other means? What lessons can we learn from the alleged insights of the world’s religious traditions that we can not learn more clearly in other ways?
I don’t think Josh, or anyone else, can give a compelling answer to those questions.