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Nov 23 2011

Thinking about thinking about thinking

More discussion of facts and belief, of Ward and Coyne, of science and philosophy, of evidence and reasons to believe. Jean Kazez did a post a couple of days ago, which I didn’t see until today, and Russell Blackford did one at Talking Philosophy.

I find Jean’s post very interesting because it talks about the same things I talked about in Ward’s brief Comment is Free piece replying to Julian Baggini. Ward’s piece might seem too slight to bear all this examination, but it’s about the place where some fundamental and important disagreements are born, so it’s worth all the close peering.

One interesting item:

So what’s left is Coyne’s puzzlement that atheist philosophers come to the
defense of people like Ward.

Well, it’s like this:  when I teach a philosophical argument, I take my task to have two parts.  First, I’ve got to fairly represent the argument, capturing exactly what the philosopher had in mind. It’s a deep-seated occupational habit, I think, to take this duty very seriously, and try to execute it without regard to whether I’m for or against what the philosopher is arguing for. So: we’ve got to understand what Ward’s saying, before we object. Second, it’s a sacred duty to be adversarial–strongly inculcated by the guild of philosophers. We need to figure out if there are problems with an argument (whatever we think of the conclusion), and if so, exactly what they are.

I asked if philosophers experience those two parts as pulling in different directions, if it’s hard to do both and do them well. I asked because sometimes (not to say often) in arguments people actually obscure their own meaning, by accident or by design, and that can make it very difficult to do both: to take seriously the duty to capture exactly what the interlocutor had in mind and to figure out if there are problems with the argument and if so what they are. Ward does that a lot. That makes it difficult to do both for practical reasons – it’s just plain hard to pin down exactly what he meant – and for emotional ones: it’s hard to damp down the irritation enough to make the effort to be fair.

Another interesting item was directly about this place I mentioned, where the disagreements are born. Jean broke Ward’s argument into stages.

Stage 2 is this: “A huge number of factual claims are not scientifically testable.” Why? “Many historical and autobiographical claims, for instance, are not repeatable, not observable now or in the future, and not subsumable under any general law.” Somebody a long time ago saw something, and told someone else, and we’ve been playing whisper down the alley for 2,000 years. Science can’t go back and confirm or disconfirm. According to Ward, whether we believe the report–for example, about Jesus healing the sick–will depend on “general philosophical views, moral views, personal experience and judgment.”

I read Ward as allowing here that someone like me is going to reject Jesus healing the sick as having occurred, because I’m philosophically disinclined to believe in miracles. But someone open to the possibility of miracles might think there really is a reliable chain of reports going back to Jesus healing the sick, and so may think “Jesus healed the sick” not only purports to be fact-stating but states a fact. At any rate, our reasoning about this long ago event falls at least partly outside the domain of science. That’s the main assertion in the column–Ward is not here trying to defend specific Christian beliefs.

My take on all this is–  Stage 1, check.  Stage 2, check. Stage 3, groan.

Jerry Coyne (11/6) reacts very differently.  Stage 1, check.  Stage 2,
groan.
  Stage 3, groan.

I said I lean toward the groan at Stage 2. Jean said “our reasoning about this long ago event falls at least partly outside the domain of science” – and that’s the place – the spot where the paths veer off and fundamental disagreements start. I think what it boils down to is whether that reasoning really falls outside the domain of science – or what is meant by “outside”; on where and how the borders are drawn. I think the domain is right next door and the border is sloppily marked and unpatrolled. I think “outside” isn’t really outside but rather beside. The two are related. Massimo Pigliucci was talking about this yesterday – on Twitter! the worst possible place to talk about such a thing, as he pointed out himself – and he said something to the effect that “Coyne wants to make science mean all of empiricism, and that’s not kosher.” The idea, I think, is that scientists need to be able to recognize when they’re doing philosophical reasoning, partly so that they’ll do it better. I get that, I think. But at the same time, people in general need to be aware that the two ways of reasoning are related and genuinely compatible, while religious reasoning may not be.

Jean said she is ”philosophically disinclined to believe in miracles” and other people aren’t, and I pointed out that her reasons for being philosophically disinclined are better than other people’s reasons for being inclined, and those reasons are as it were next door to science. I think that relation is where the break is, not between science on the one hand and philosophical reasoning on the other. I’m thinking Barbara Forrest on methodological naturalism here: because it has such a good record, it provides good reasons to buy into philosophical or metaphysical naturalism too. There’s a relationship. I think Ward and people like Ward want to suggest that there’s a radical discontinuity.

 

 

31 comments

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  1. 1
    Laurence

    Jean made me realize that I need to be fair when judging the arguments of people that I disagree with no matter how hard it is.

  2. 2
    Ophelia Benson

    Yeh. I really liked

    when I teach a philosophical argument, I take my task to have two parts. First, I’ve got to fairly represent the argument, capturing exactly what the philosopher had in mind. It’s a deep-seated occupational habit, I think, to take this duty very seriously, and try to execute it without regard to whether I’m for or against what the philosopher is arguing for.

    That gets the point across especially vividly.

  3. 3
    Laurence

    And I need to really try to apply it since I’m thinking about going back to Grad School to get a Master’s or Ph.D. in Philosophy if I can’t find a job in an academic library (I’m almost finished getting my Master’s in Library and Information Science).

  4. 4
    ewanmacdonald

    Jean said she is ”philosophically disinclined to believe in miracles” and other people aren’t, and I pointed out that her reasons for being philosophically disinclined are better than other people’s reasons for being inclined, and those reasons are as it were next door to science.

    Bingo. Absolutely bingo. Any two non-testable hypotheses are not necessarily created equal. Where “philosophical inclination” comes from is… surprise… weighing up probabilities based on other empirical observations, the examination of which is indeed science’s next door neighbour (and not quite, as Coyne might have it, science itself.)

  5. 5
    roger

    “A huge number of factual claims are not scientifically testable.” Why? “Many historical and autobiographical claims, for instance, are not repeatable, not observable now or in the future, and not subsumable under any general law.”

    However they are testable by probability or likelihood, both in the claim itself and in the source of the claim. If a book says there was a man named Jesus alive around 2000 years ago- about 100 years before the book was written- then that is a factual claim that is not scientifically testable and may or may not be true. If the book ascribes a great many unlikely but unverifiable feats to Jesus we become more dubious. When it acribes behaviour to Roman governors and to Jewish priests contrary to everything we are told about them by other sources at that period we are sceptical about every claim in the book, including Jesus’s actual existence.

  6. 6
    Ophelia Benson

    Mmmmyes but then “testable” isn’t the right word, is it? Evaluatable is more like it, except for the minor detail that it’s not a word. There must be a word that is a word, but I can’t think of it.

    “Testable,” like “science,” is too specific for the purpose. But yes that doesn’t mean there’s nothing…which I think is what Ward was trying to nudge us into thinking.

  7. 7
    Caryn

    aka “the principle of charity”. You’ll see philosophers use this term especially frequently when dissecting an argument they are not at all inclined to favor.

  8. 8
    roger

    Examinable? Verifiable?

    I think testable does well enough. The fact that we cannot reach scientifically valid conclusions as to truth of a statement doesn’t mean we must accept every statement as equally likely.

  9. 9
    Fin

    With regards to history, the “science” of history is of making things fit. Not in the sense of a grand historical narrative, but with regards to the context that surrounds it. When something stands out, in a historical context, it is generally a sign of error – kind of like a trick I learnt back in my fine arts degree: If you are drawing an observational image, and look at it cross-eyed, or out of focus, and something stands out, it’s something that’s wrong.

    Most of Jesus’ miracles stand out – not because they are miraculous, after all, someone curing an illness, or even resuscitating someone else from death, are not all that miraculous by today’s standards – they stand out because they are completely out of step with what was going on in that time.

    Of course, this is not a death knell to the idea of some historical event, there’s all sorts of weird anachronisms in history. Such as the Athenians developing a steam engine, or the Antikythera mechanism (the earliest known analog computer). It is, however, a good general indicator of a problem.

    I would agree generally, that the activity of history is not science, but it is – unless you’re a revisionist – definitely science-like and relies on many of the same processes of logical inquiry that science employs.

    As to the characterisation of arguments and understanding them fairly, I don’t think that they’re pulling in different directions. I think the first part, understanding an argument in its strongest form, is a necessary precondition for being able to criticise it properly. If you misunderstand an opponent’s argument, intentionally or otherwise, they will always be able to pull out the refutation that your lack of understanding means that your criticisms fall flat (whether that is fair or not is another matter – I’ve encountered many philosophers who will pull this particular nugget out regardless of whether or not you’ve understood their argument). In addition understanding an opposing argument will allow you to see many flaws that – standing on the outside, as it were – are usually invisible.

  10. 10
    Ophelia Benson

    roger –

    The fact that we cannot reach scientifically valid conclusions as to truth of a statement doesn’t mean we must accept every statement as equally likely.

    Of course it doesn’t, but that doesn’t make testing the only way to evaluate the truth of statements. I guess “testing” can be used loosely, but for this discussion – the larger one, not the one right here – surely we want to be as exact as possible, because it’s all this slopping around by people like Ward that gets things so muddled. We can’t literally “test” Ward’s claim about his father, but we certainly can evaluate it. There’s a difference, and since it is precisely the difference that he’s using to muddy the waters, we need to be exact about it.

  11. 11
    roger

    But someone open to the possibility of miracles might think there really is a reliable chain of reports going back to Jesus healing the sick, and so may think “Jesus healed the sick” not only purports to be fact-stating but states a fact.

    Someone open to the possibility of miracles would surely be persuaded by other chains of reports as well and believe that other alleged instances of miracles- by Jim Jones or Mohammed or Mrs Eddy, say- also stated facts. If they do not, then we can assume that it is not their openness to the possibility of miracles in general that persuades them but their certainty as to these miracles in particular that persuades them the reports are reliable.

  12. 12
    roger

    Olivia:
    “We can’t literally “test” Ward’s claim about his father, but we certainly can evaluate it. There’s a difference, and since it is precisely the difference that he’s using to muddy the waters, we need to be exact about it.”

    We can test the likelihood of Ward’s claims and the honesty of Ward’s methods of discussion, though.
    Actually, though, I accept your suggestion to use other words to ‘test’ with people like Ward because we should not allow them to evade the issues.

  13. 13
    ewanmacdonald

    I favour “examinable”. I would advocate “bloody thinkable” except I think I might be criticised for my tone were I to do so.

  14. 14
    sailor1031

    Facts have evidence, scientific, historical, archaeological etc. to support them. All else is subjective opinion. And we should bear in mind that studies show that eye-witness testimony is most unreliable, on a par with hearsay.

    Anyone going blind yet?

  15. 15
    Keith Harwood

    As a physicist (gone over to the Dark Side, engineering) I think that historical studies can be just as scientific as the hard sciences. The historian can study existing material and make a deduction, say, that at such and such a time Jesus existed and did whatever and that that event had repercussions which would be observable. It’s a prediction that new material would record those observations. Then, with a bit of luck, some shepherd boy exploring caves along the Dead Sea, or Time Team digging up Roman Britain, or shopping centre developer in central Rome will dig up a scroll or incription or statue that will confirm or refute the prediction.

    OK, such events are rare, but they are no more rare than supernovae and not as rare as comets crashing into Jupiter and no one disputes that astronomy is a real science.

  16. 16
    Pogsurf

    Beautifully written Ophelia. I am going to put one of your books on my Xmas wish list.

    PS In case you hadn’t noticed, my blogger ID is Martin (that’s my real name). I have made a couple of comments on Jean’s blog.

  17. 17
    tealogar

    roger says:

    Olivia:

    Looks like you got your Butterflies & Wheels confused with your Law & Order :)

  18. 18
    Ophelia Benson

    Ha! That happens a lot.

  19. 19
    bad Jim

    Or Hamlet with Twelfth Night

  20. 20
    roger

    Looks like you got your Butterflies & Wheels confused with your Law & Order

    No, Tealoger, Hamlet andTwelfth Night

    The historian can study existing material and make a deduction, say, that at such and such a time Jesus existed and did whatever and that that event had repercussions which would be observable. It’s a prediction that new material would record those observations. Then, with a bit of luck, some shepherd boy exploring caves along the Dead Sea, or Time Team digging up Roman Britain, or shopping centre developer in central Rome will dig up a scroll or incription or statue that will confirm or refute the prediction.

    It’s rather different, Keith Harwood: evidence for the existence of Jesus, or someone of the same name at the right time, might be found, but it almost certainly wouldn’t be evidence for any of the the alleged miracles- a lawsuit by an aggrieved ex-leper for being deprived of their livelihood might do, perhaps. Nor would it be evidence for other claims in the gospels. On the other hand, the evidence that at a later date people believed Jesus was god and that what the gospels said was true is overwhelming. Equally- as the example of recent observations of neutrinos at CERN shows- a scientific theory could be destroyed by a small discrepancy, whereas quite large changes to historical truth- the revelation that Julius Caesar was nurdered a year later than everyone thought he was up to now, say-wouldn’t makemuch difference to history as we know it.
    More complications come because theological truth is different from scientific truth and historical truth. Ward and other sophisticated contemporary christians believe that Jesus is god, but they use “believe”, “Jesus”, “is” and “god” in a completely different way to literal-minded contemporary cheistians and to christians a few hundred years ago- and probably to one another- but they don’t actually say so. For example, a modern theologian might say that whether Jesus existed, whether he performed miracles and whether he was both god and the son of god are separate questions and the last two could be true even if the first isn’t.

  21. 21
    tealogar

    There’s a Benson in both Hamlet and Twelfth Night?

  22. 22
    Keith Harwood

    I doubt if the miracles had much in the way of observable consequences. The plight of the ex-leper has been explored elsewhere, but it’s not likely to change history. I’m thinking more of events like the entry into Jerusalem celebrated on Palm Sunday. Historian deduces it took place on a particular date. That’s his scientific prediction. Later the logs of a guard house in Jerusalem covering that date turn up. If they say, “Big crowds today, bloke having procession all on his own, riding a donkey. Everyone cheering. Send more pepper spray” this supports his hypothesis. On the other hand if it says, “Caught that bloody Brian writing graffiti, gave him a Latin lesson he won’t forget in a hurry, God it’s boring here” hypothesis pretty well blown out of the water.

    Or a more realistic example: Caesar crosses Rubicon on such and such a date. Pretty mundane, not even a miracle. But it should have observable consequences, like lots of people in Rome getting their knickers in a twist. We dig up contemporary accounts of the period and what do we find? Lots of people getting their knickers in a twist. Hypothesis supported.

    My point is that even though the events can’t be replicated, the historical sciences are just as much real sciences as physics and chemistry, just more difficult to do well. But for theologians to claim that the events can’t be replicated therefore history is no different from theology is just plain wrong.

  23. 23
    bad Jim

    I didn’t know how poor the evidence for the existence of Jesus was before I read this in an adjoining blog. It’s pointless to discuss purported facts when their provenance is nonexistent.

    We can’t say we weren’t warned. The two gospels that tell us of our savior’s virgin birth also give two different genealogies that show that He was descended from King David through His father Joseph. Sure, this is logically problematic, but in law it’s permissible to argue in the alternative: my client never borrowed the item in question, he returned it unbroken, and it was broken when he borrowed it.

    Let’s be generous: the Bible is a both/and sort of anthology. Two slightly different creation stories, two slightly different accounts of the flood? No problem! Include them both! That editors back then were not overly concerned with narrative consistency should not offend a post-Rashomon reader, who couldn’t take every account entirely seriously.

    In any event, it’s far from clear that anything in the Abrahamic tradition actually deserves to be evaluated as a fact. It’s not just that miracles ought to be distrusted because of their improbability; at best there’s less than no reason to suppose that they ever happened at all.

  24. 24
    Dunc

    Somebody a long time ago saw something, and told someone else, and we’ve been playing whisper down the alley for 2,000 years.

    That popping sound you hear is the sound of a thousand historians’ heads exploding.

    Yes, there are doubtless a great many real events in history which are beyond the reach of historical investigation because they weren’t adequately recorded, or the records have subsequently been lost. That’s just tough luck. You don’t get to throw the entire discipline overboard any more than you get to dismiss astronomy because it can’t find Russell’s Teapot or every near-earth asteroid. In the absence of evidence one must withhold judgement, not just make stuff up.

    Of course, when it comes to the historicity of the Gospels, there actually is a fair bit of evidence – it just doesn’t point in the direction that believers want it to. As to whether there actually was a historical Jesus, I don’t know and I doubt anyone ever will, but even if there was, we can still be pretty certain that the Gospels are not historically accurate descriptions of him.

    Then, of course, there’s the question of what exactly you mean by “a historical Jesus”, once you accept that the various stories we have about him aren’t actually true.

  25. 25
    Richard Wein

    Jean said she is ”philosophically disinclined to believe in miracles” and other people aren’t, and I pointed out that her reasons for being philosophically disinclined are better than other people’s reasons for being inclined, and those reasons are as it were next door to science. I think that relation is where the break is, not between science on the one hand and philosophical reasoning on the other.

    That’s a good point. I would put it a bit differently, though, and say that the good reasons (for being disinclined to believe in miracles) are more scientific than philosophical.

    As I see it, thoughtful scientifically-literate people are generally much less likely to believe in miracles today than people were before the scientific era. And it seems to me that it’s the progress of science that has made it more difficult to believe in miracles. Science has shown us the enormous success of a naturalistic approach to the world, and the general failure of supernatural explanations and miracle claims. To the extent that we have learnt from science, we come to see the extraordinary nature of miracle claims, and the failure of the evidence to meet the stands appropriate to justify such extraordinary claims.

    No doubt some philosophers (such as Hume) have drawn attention to these facts. But most people don’t need the work of philosophers (or explicit argument of the sort made by philosophers) for the advance of science to rightly disincline them to believe in miracles. In any case, the most important part of the work has been done by the advance of science.

    On the broader subject of thinking about thinking… I would say it’s scientists rather than philosophers who have done most to show us how to think about the world. Philosophers discuss the subject a lot, under the headings of “epistemology” and “philosophy of science”. But these musings have done relatively little to advance our knowledge. It’s largely scientific practice that has revealed the best ways of studying the world, and scientists have got on with improving their methods with relatively little input from philosophers.

    A lot of people seem to feel that science must somehow be underpinned by philosophy, because science needs some justification, and philosophy is more foundational than science, so can justify it. But this is a misguided foundationalist way of thinking. We can’t possibly justify our beliefs all the way down, since the attempt must lead to infinite regression or circularity. All we can do is follow experience, and use the methods which seem to have worked best in the past. Science is our most successful way of thinking, so we must take science as our best guide. Philosophers need to look more to science for guidance than the other way around (though it needn’t be all one way).

  26. 26
    Ophelia Benson


    Science has shown us the enormous success of a naturalistic approach to the world, and the general failure of supernatural explanations and miracle claims.

    Exactly Barbara Forrest’s point in Methodological Naturalism and Philosophical Naturalism: Clarifying the Connection. I cited her in the post.

    I keep thinking I shouldn’t have said science and philosophy are beside each other – it’s more that they overlap. (Russell did a graphic that made that point some time ago, I think while discussing Pigliucci on Coyne.)

  27. 27
    Ophelia Benson

    Dunc – look again at the (quoted) sentence before the sentence that made the heads explode – Ward said many historical and autobiographical claims – not most or all. Jean was glossing the former, not the latter.

  28. 28
    Caryn

    Richard – that’s called “naturalized epistemology”. Aka Quine.

  29. 29
    Dunc

    Yeah, I got that Ophelia – my point was basically “whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.” A good part of the study of history is figuring out which topics one can sensibly speak about and winnowing out the ones about which we must remain silent.

    To be clear, it’s Ward I’m having a go at here. I maybe should have chosen a different quote to illustrate that.

  30. 30
    Richard Wein

    Ophelia,

    I was already acquainted with Barbara Forrest’s paper, but I’m no fan of it. Though she makes some useful points (and has some good quotations) I disagree with much of it, particularly on the subject of methodological naturalism.

    Caryn,

    Thanks. I was aware of that, and probably should have said so. I didn’t mean to take credit for having invented these ideas myself!

  31. 31
    Pogsurf

    “whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.”

    This may be a good priciple for an adult to adopt, but there will always be some who don’t quite know what they are saying, and who go ahead and say it anyway. It can lead to disputes.

    In the case of an annoying child, I would say bugger off and go and do something useful, but in a nice way.

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