Back in October, philosopher Michael Lynch published thie essay in The New York Times He was discussing the problem of finding an epistemic justification for our confidence in science. A few days ago The Times continued the discussion with this exchange between Lynch and physicist Alan Sokal. The two pieces together are rather long. There is a lot to discuss, too much, in fact, for just one post. It seems to me, though, that both gentlemen are wrong about a central point in the discussion.
Here’s Lynch, from his original essay:
Rick Perry’s recent vocal dismissals of evolution, and his confident assertion that “God is how we got here” reflect an obvious divide in our culture. In one sense, that divide is just over the facts: Some of us believe God created human beings just as they are now, others of us don’t. But underneath this divide is a deeper one. Really divisive disagreements are typically not just over the facts. They are also about the best way to support our views of the facts. Call this a disagreement in epistemic principle. Our epistemic principles tell us what is rational to believe, what sources of information to trust. Thus while a few people may agree with Perry because they really think that the scientific evidence supports creationism, I suspect that for most people, scientific evidence (or its lack) has nothing to do with it. Their belief in creationism is instead a reflection of a deeply held epistemic principle: that, at least on some topics, scripture is a more reliable source of information than science. For others, including myself, this is never the case.
In a moment I shall explain why I believe this is mistaken. First, though, let’s consider what Sokal says on the same question:
I think you are absolutely right that the core disagreements between, to use your example, fundamentalist Christians and the rest of us are ultimately over epistemic principles. But I would argue that the epistemic challenge from fundamentalist Christians (and more generally from religious people of all kinds) can be fairly easily answered — where here of course I mean giving a logically efficacious answer, not necessarily a psychologically or politically efficacious one.
The point is, simply, that fundamentalist Christians’ epistemic principles are not, at bottom, so different from ours. They accept as evidence the same types of sense experience that the rest of us do; and in most circumstances they are attentive, just like the rest of us, to potential errors in the interpretation of sense experience.
The trouble is not that fundamentalist Christians reject our core epistemic principles; on the contrary, they accept them. The trouble is that they supplement the ordinary epistemic principles that we all adopt in everyday life — the ones that we would use, for instance, when serving on jury duty — with additional principles like “This particular book always tells the infallible truth.”
The question neither Lynch nor Sokal asks is: Why do fundamentalist Christians have so much confidence in the Bible? Lynch gives the impression that he thinks it’s just a first principle, something they accept without proof as the basis for all further reasoning. Sokal gives a very similar impression, by describing their faith in the Bible as an additional epistemic principle tacked on to the standard canon.
This is not correct. As fundamentalists see it, their confidence in the Bible is the most rational thing in the world. They talk more about facts, logic and evidence than just about anyone else you’ll ever meet. It certainly is not the result of blind faith or anything like that.
When I lived in Kansas I became a regular listener to a fundamentalist radio station. It seemed like every third sermon was about proving, rationally, the divine authorship of the Bible. When I went to creationist conferences and discussed this question with the attendees, the better informed among them would unleash a barrage of arguments meant to convince any reasonable person that the Bible is the Word of God. Go to any fundamentalist bookstore and look at all the books devoted to apologetics. None of them argue that faith in the Bible should be taken as an epistemic first principle.
In short, their view is that any reasonable person in possession of the facts should conclude that the Bible is the Word of God.
Their arguments are not very good, of course. One of their favorites involves the many instances of prophecies in the Old Testament that came to pass in the New. They never seem to consider the possibility that the New Testament accounts were specifically written with the Old Testament prophecies in mind.
An especially delicious argument they often use is this: They note that the Bible teaches that the Earth is young and that species don’t evolve. Then they summon forth the usual canon of creationist scientific arguments to show that the Biblical account is vindicated. The final step is to point to the eerie scientific accuracy of the Bible as further evidence of its divine authorship. It’s quite brilliant in its way. I’m sure, though, that I don’t need to point out that their scientific argument are really, really bad.
The arguments made by creationists in defense of the Bible’s divine authorship are very weak, but they are rational. They are not appealing to esoteric forms of evidence or taking an approach to the facts that is fundamentally different from what the rest of us do.
With regard to evolution, as creationists see it the dispute is not so much about the facts as it is about how one interprets them. The facts are the fossils, the minutiae of the genetic and anatomical comparisons among species, and so on. But what do the facts mean? To creationists the problem is that evolutionists simply impose on the facts a theoretical superstructure that does not make sense. They are driven to do this, creationists continue, because they are forced by their materialist blinders to accept any explanation that allows them to reject the existence of God.
Finally, they do not assert as a fundamental epistemic principle that scripture trumps science. What they actually say is that if science and scripture appear to be in conflict, then one of them has made a mistake. It is possible that the mistake is in our Biblical interpretation, as was the case when people said the Bible taught that the Sun orbited the Earth. In the case of evolution though, they are very confident they have Genesis right, and it is the scientific consensus that is mistaken.
My point is that it is a mistake to think that our arguments with the creationists are primarily about different epistemic first principles. The real sources of conflict are far more mundane. The creationists are misinformed about many basic facts, frequently misunderstand the theoretical constructs scientists use to explain those facts, and are rather undiscerning in deciding who to trust on these issues. It is giving them far too much credit to suggest that their intransigence stems from deep reflection on first principles.
I have belabored this point because it seems relevant to the broader question Lynch and Sokal are discussing. But I shall save that for tomorrow’s post. In the mean time you can go have a look at Jerry Coyne’s interesting take on the discussion.