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.