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A Rational Look at Christianity; Basing Reason in Truth

Now that school's out, I'll be able to blog more! In this post I share some thoughts in kernel form that I hope to flesh out soon in full size posts.



There are two interesting varieties of scientism: epistemological and ontological. The former claims that the methods of the (natural) sciences are the only reliable ones for obtaining knowledge of the world. The latter claims that the only things that exist in the world are those which are transparent to the methods of the sciences. Note that the two must be distinguished, as one could hold to epistemological scientism without ontological scientism (there may be entities other than scientific ones, but we don't know anything about them).

Epistemological scientism is vulnerable to at least two objections: 1) the claim that the methods of the sciences are the only reliable ones for obtaining knowledge of the world cannot itself be assessed using those methods, as one would have to assume their reliability prior to making this assessment. In other words, epistemological scientism is self-referentially incoherent. 2) Before we can even engage in science we must presuppose a host of knowledge which we did not arrive at scientifically, so science cannot be the only reliable source of knowledge. Working scientists must rely on sense perception, memories and the authority of other scientists in order to get on with their work. More interestingly, there is a good case to be made for aesthetic and moral perception as revealing truth about the world (see below).

Might one modify epistemological scientism to the thesis that, while we do sometimes obtain knowledge by other means, these means are quite fallible and that scientific methods are the MOST reliable? But this reply would fall afoul of the first objection again. How do we assess the reliability of scientific method? Any such procedure would involve relying on other sources of knowledge.

A further and more comprehensive objection is that there may be no useful way to distinguish scientific from other methods of investigation. This is known in philosophy of science as the demarcation problem. As Samir Okasha put it in his excellent Philosophy of Science: A Very Short Introduction:

Is it actually possible to find some common feature shared by all the things we call science, and not shared by anything else? Popper assumed that the answer to this question was yes. He felt that Freud’s and Marx’s theories were clearly unscientific, so there must be some feature that they lack and that genuine scientific theories possess. But whether or not we accept Popper’s negative assessment of Freud and Marx, his assumption that science has an essential nature is questionable. After all, science is a heterogeneous activity, encompassing a wide range of different disciplines and theories. It may be that they share some fixed set of features that define what it is to be a science, but it may not. The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein argued that there is no fixed set of features that define what it is to be a ‘game’. Rather, there is a loose cluster of features most of which are possessed by most games. But any particular game may lack any of the features of the cluster and still be a game. The same may be true of science. If so, a simple criterion for demarcating science from pseudo-science is unlikely to be found. (pp.16-17)
If this is the case, we might realize that science is not discontinuous from other ways of knowing. It seems more likely to me that science is basically continuous with our everyday methods of reasoning (involving such practices as induction and inference to the best explanation), focused and refined by concentrating on questions that are uniquely amenable to empirical investigation. If science has been so spectacularly successful, that is because it has focused on questions which admit of quantification and manipulation by statistics and other technical tools (see also Susan Haack, Defending Science-Within Reason: Between Scientism and Cynicism).

Ontological scientism is vulnerable to the 'fish-net' objection: it is like a fisherman proclaiming that fish under two inches in length do not exist because all he has ever caught using a net with two-inch wide gaps are fish greater than two inches in length! Moral facts, if they exist (and I am increasingly convinced that this cannot really be doubted), are not the kinds of facts that can be discovered simply by reading off a list of energy exchanges. A rape can be described in terms of the biology of the victim and the perpetrator without once making reference to how heinously wrong (indeed, abominable) this act is. However we come to know moral facts, they exist and thus making this a 'haunted' universe from a naturalistic perspective. Good testimonial evidence for the presence and influence of spirit-beings would also constitute a decisive challenge to ontological scientism.

The refutation of vulgar materialism

By vulgar materialism I mean a metaphysical view governed by the basic image that all the things we see around us are built up from fundamental building blocks like elementary particles, which interact mechanistically (that is, strictly according to physical principles that are 'blind' to final causes or any kind of intentionality) and combine in various ways to form the structure of the world.

There are various criticisms one might make of this view, but one that has recently been forming in my mind, which is not often encountered, is that it may be a mistake to start from the bottom when trying to understand the complexity of the world. The 'building block' model is appealingly simple, but perhaps too simple. What if fundamental particles are not actually fundamental building blocks, but merely a convenient abstraction from the more organic, continuous, intentional structures that make up the world of everyday experience? Take my arm, for example: while it makes sense for certain purposes to speak of it as if it were a detachable limb, would it really still be an arm if severed from my body? Is it not only an arm in the context of its organic connection to the rest of my body? Similarly, elementary particles can be said to be building blocks, as it is a heuristically helpful image, but perhaps we should take a top-down instead of bottom-up understanding of matter, where instead of viewing objects as composites of fundamental building blocks, we should view them as objections which can be heuristically decomposed into various components, but the reality is at the macro rather than the micro-level.

I know this would be a pretty big departure from standard ways of thinking about the world, so take this with a grain of salt. But it seems that some approaches such as Whitehead's process approach move in this direction, and Whitehead was no scientific slouch.

12 comments:

Good post!

Also, thanks for your past couple of posts on this VSI book as well Le Poidevin's Agnosticism: VSI.

I have put in ever possible keyword to find a response to a particular argument, but nothing has come up. That argument is chapter 12 in Loftus's "The Christian Delusion." That chapter argues that Jesus was a doomsday prophet who predicted that the world would end very soon. When the world did not end, and he was crucified, the apostles used cognitive dissonance to come up with the resurrection story. I have searched all over this blog for a response to that argument and have found nothing. Therefore I must conclude that there is no response to the argument.

I haven't read Lofuts book, and I don't mean to insult you, but I have to assume your rendition of what he says is accurate so I will assume so.

First of all, the eschatology of the early is clearly put into Jesus mouth. Was Jesus really saying the world will end soon, or was the early chruch expecting to hear it so they didn't see anything wrong reflecting their expectations in the spin they put on his words?

Remember Jesus is probably the only such prophet who actually admitted he didn't know the day or the hour. Maybe he was also hinting that he didn't know the century.

The idea that it was the failure of the world to end that triggered the resurrection story is pretty illogical considering the vast body of testimony to the fact that they preached he resurrection from the earliest movement. See Helmutt Koester Ancinet Christian Gospels(1992) where he demonstrates that the story of the empty tomb circulated in writing as early as AD 50.

see my article in Holdings defending the Resurrection where I defend Koester's view and harmonize it with Raymond Brown's view.

Cognitive dissonance is not something one uses, it's not a game plan or a warranty, it's something that uses you; a psychological process. It doesn't make any sense to say the failure of the eschatology expectations was the cause of their cognitive dissonance and not Christ's death itself.

There's no reason to assume and no way to prove that cognitive dissonance would issue force in the form of belief in the resurrection and not in the eschatology expectations. Although such expectation were hart of the Judaism of that day, it could as easily be that the communal living and the immediate expectations of Messiah's return were part of the reaction to his death, not "making up" the resurrection.

There's not doubt they had some cognitive dissonance, it's a natural psychological reaction. You can't control or predict what will result form it. Even Lotus's book writing could be cognitive dissonance in reaction to his lose of faith.

J.D. excellent article. I appreciate it becasue it timely for me. I'm now involved in a two projects along similar lines.

Also more on Loftus and CD

Moreover, cognitive dissonance was one of the first counter theories I thought of when I got saved. I considered it because at the time I was a sociology major, and we had just read Leon Fetinger's When Prophesy Fails for some class. That was the work that established the theory of cognitive dissonance. I considered it as a counter to the resurrection as I was in the throws of thinking through my conversion to Christ. One of the major reasons I rejected it is that Festinger contaminated his data. He had infiltrated a flying saucer cult. The cult kept running past the dead line for the end of the, but world every time it proved wrong they became more committed rather than less. That's because, the theory explains, they were so committed they had to rationalize their commitment by becoming more committed. Festerger brought in so many other infiltrating psychology students he was actually bolstering the group and giving the reason to assume their message was spreading. So he actually kept things going. That's not cognitive dissonance that's encouragement.


That might explain why they "mad up" the resurrection if that's what happened, but it doesn't explain why others believed it. The basic arguments about the necessity of a known empty tomb in order to procure belief obtain here. So the use of the theory doesn't really explain anything. Furthermore, apart from the Apostles the committment senero is backwards. The committment for most of the early chruch came before their hopes dashes, not after. First they believed the resurrection then they committed all their goods to live communally then the end of the world failed to come. By that time the theory of the resurrection part of their initial commitment so that doesn't even explain most of them.

From what I heard, the commitment scenario was the apostles themselves, and when Jesus was crucified instead of bringing about the end of the world, they became more committed and gradually came up with the resurrection story. Maybe I haven't read enough on the particulars.

Is it me, or did this discussion get derailed already?

On your final arguments about ontological naturalism, your push in a positive direction seems a lot like Merleau Ponty from his book Phenomenology of Perception. Did you really mean to talk about the world as having intentional structure? That seems a bit strange. Perhaps you meant the 'manifest image' of the world of medium-sized dry goods that we inhabit from birth (from Sellars' Phil and the Sci Im of Man)).

Ignoring issues about fundamental particles, I'd say that if you look at biological tissue you literally see cells and such. They don't seem like constructed heuristics. My worry is that you would head toward a more postmodern wishy-washy idealism away from realism, even about things like neurons, ion channels, and the like. Even if we don't have a fully worked out final physics, that doesn't mean we don't have a really good understanding of how neurons fire action potentials.

Your fishing net concern is interesting, but it isn't as if (most) people are just dogmatically saying 'That's it, that's all there is'. I have always been open to evidence that naturalism is false: indeed I used to be a non-naturalist but just didn't find the evidence or argments held up to my satisfaction, so I changed.

This isn't to say that there isn't a rational worldview that holds naturalism is false, but I also think that it is uncharitable to paint ontological naturalism as a case of confirmation bias, which is basically what that net argument is.

I think that phenomenology independently of neuroscience effectively kills methodological naturalism.

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Philosophers make too much of the demarcation problem. It is hard to demarcate life from non-life, but that doesn't mean there isn't a real difference. I think the main problem is that most people try to use a single non-vague demarcation criterion rather than see reality: a polydimensional space of quantitative differences, corners of which are the canonical cases of science/non-science.

Some dimensions include: experimental evidence rather than theory is King; strives to make empirical predictions and perform experiments to determine how good an idea is; attempts to build quantitative models; uses statistics to justify claims; killing pet theories is encouraged and rewarded...I'm sure I've left some out.

Hi BDK,

Thanks indeed for bringing the conversation back on track! It was a bit frustrating to be hit with a completely irrelevant first comment.

You're on the right track, I was thinking of some of Merleau-Ponty's ideas, as I've just been reading a book which features them quite prominently. I'm still very much a realist, even a scientific realist, although quite honestly I'm less confident than I used to be. The history of science and the problem of underdetermination seem to loom larger than before. It would probably be better to say that I'm a realist: there is a world, and an ordered world, independently of how we perceive it, but whether the natural sciences are converging on a comprehensive, metaphysically adequate description of that fundamental order seems doubtful. Or at least, the sciences may be advancing in describing certain aspects of that order, but I'm increasingly convinced that the world goes deeper than what the sciences describe. Kind of like how if you only observe pawns moving on a chessboard before they reach the edge, you would be pretty confident that all they can do is move forward one square at a time, either straight forward or diagonally, not suspecting that it can become a queen! More things in heaven and earth, and all that.

I grant that not all naturalists are naturalists because of confirmation bias. But I do think that a certain interpretation of the natural sciences tends to make them less likely to take certain evidences seriously. Take moral perception, for example. I think the case for moral realism is strong, so strong that it effectively refutes any kind of naturalism in which everything in the world can be accounted for in terms of mechanistic processes, and all that exist are physical particles and fields. But many naturalists won't take the case seriously, partly because they just don't see how moral realism could be accounted for scientifically. That, and the testimonial evidence for certain paranormal events is looking increasingly impressive to me.

What you say about the 'polydimensional' criteria to distinguish science and nonscience seem to confirm my point, that science is just a particularly rigorous extension of our ordinary methods of sound reasoning, successfully applied to particular cases that are amenable to quantitative, rigorous investigation. But scientism can't get off the ground without a very rigorous demarcation criterion. What you describe in your last comment as 'science' is just good, critical thinking sense.

JD yes my stuff on demarcation criteria didn't contradict you directly. I think you are right that science is basically common sense that has become extremely focused and refined in a particular direction (to the point where it can loop back and kill certain aspects of common sense, and also where it cannot be understood by people simply using common sense (e.g., very high-level mathematical theories)).

That said, I do think there are clear cases of non-science and clear cases of science. But also fuzzy cases. I suppose the methodological naturalist would just say that the theories we should take seriously should come from the 'science' region of this high-dimensional space of inquiry methods. I agree, for many target phenomena, but not all (e.g., phenomenology).

Will post more later, those are just my first thoughts. Will need to think more about the other stuff. Good to see you still posting. Hope you enter the sciences and not the humanities, not sure what your plans are. :)

More on the fishing net concern: I think there is a continuum here as well. There are people that are fairly open to anything, have not settled into a worldview yet, are not particularly committed. They tend to be ripe for pulling in a particular direction. This holds for any topic, not just naturalism/antinaturalism.

Then the people that have settled into a worldview to greater and greater degrees. Someone like me, who is fairly settled into naturalism, will naturally interpret things in that light, make sense of new data.

This isn't specific to naturalism or antinaturalism, Christian or non Christian. It seems an unavoidable consequence of having a perspective and striving to be rational. It's like trying to subsume everything under a law in physics: sometimes it can't be done, but it isn't bad to try to do it. It doesn't make it false or ad hoc: it may work because it is true.

On the other hand, some beliefs should be let go eventually. E.g., phlogiston. Vital fluid. God? One person's explanatory lever is another's epicycle. When it comes to God v not-God, there are rational people who believe both. Which side you end up on is probably 3/5 arational factors like personality style and individual history.

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