Facts and belief

Keith Ward wrote a short piece for Comment is Free, a couple of weeks ago, saying something about religion and science and claims and facts. (I put it loosely that way because Ward oscillates between terms a lot, so it’s not easy to specify exactly what he’s claiming. The title of the piece is “Religion answers the factual questions science neglects,” which is an ok summary, but it’s not necessarily written by Ward.) Ward’s piece was in response to Julian Baggini’s piece on whether science and religion are compatible.

Jerry Coyne wrote a piece responding to Ward’s. Jim Houston wrote a piece at Talking Philosophy responding to Coyne’s, with a response directly from Ward.

All straight? Shoes buckled? Knives put away in the basket? Off we go.

Ward said:

We need to ask if particular religious and scientific claims conflict, or whether they are mutually supportive or not. Some are and some are not, and it would be silly to say that all religious claims conflict with all scientific claims, or that they do not.

Many religious statements are naturally construed as statements of fact – Jesus healed the sick, and rose from death, and these are factual claims.

A huge number of factual claims are not scientifically testable. Many historical and autobiographical claims, for instance, are not repeatable, not publicly observable now or in future, and are not subsumable under any general law. We know that rational answers to many historical questions depend on general philosophical views, moral views, personal experience and judgment. There are no history laboratories. Much history, like much religion, is evidence-based, but the evidence is not scientifically tractable.

Wait. Wait wait wait. I spy a bit of smuggling.  “Much history, like much religion, is evidence-based.”

Objection, your honor. Bullshit (in the technical sense). Equivocation. Smuggling. Playing silly buggers with ambiguity. That claim is true only if you mean something quite eccentric by “much religion”; if you mean what is generally meant and understoody by religion, it’s not true at all. Religion in general, religion as such, is not evidence-based in the sense that history is.

Claims that the cosmos is created do not “trespass onto” scientific territory. They are factual claims in which scientific investigators are not, as such, interested. Scientific facts are, of course, relevant to many religious claims. But not all facts are scientific facts – the claim that I was in Oxford last night, unseen by anyone, will occur in no scientific paper, but it is a hard fact. So it is with the miracles of Jesus, with the creation of the cosmos and with its end.

So it is? So it is? No it isn’t. The claim that Keith Ward was in Oxford on a particular night is not inherently implausible; it goes against no known public facts about nature or the social world or geography. The same cannot be said of “the miracles of Jesus.” The mere fact (if it is a fact) that both Ward’s presence in Oxford on October 30 2011 and the miracles of Jesus are unverifiable does not demonstrate that both are hard facts.

Now, it is true that there is a fact of the matter about both. It could be a fact that Ward was in Oxford that night, or it could be a fact that he wasn’t. It could be a fact that Jesus did miracles, or it could be a fact that he didn’t. But that isn’t what Ward said: he said “it is a hard fact” that he was in Oxford that night. Well maybe it is and maybe it isn’t, but the rest of the world – on his own account – doesn’t know that. I think he wanted readers to take his “it is a hard fact” as meaning an established, public, accepted fact (despite having just said that it isn’t) and then be rushed into accepting the same of Jesus and his miracles. Tricky.

The interesting question is not whether religion is compatible with science, but whether there are important factual questions – and some important non-factual questions, too, such as moral ones – with which the physical sciences do not usually deal. The answer seems pretty obvious, without trying to manufacture sharp and artificial distinctions between “hows” and “whys”.

That’s Ward. Coyne disagreed, and ended with a challenge:

I challenge Ward to give me just one reasonably well established fact about the world that comes from “general philosophical views, moral views, personal experience and judgment” without any verifiable empirical input.

Jim Houston asked Ward to respond to the challenge, and Ward obliged.

I have been told that Jerry Coyne has challenged me to cite a “reasonably well established fact about the world” that has no “verifiable empirical input”. That is not a claim I have ever made, or ever would make.

What I do claim is not so controversial, namely, that many factual claims about the world are reasonably believed or even known to be true, even when there is no way in which any established science (a discipline a Fellow of the Royal Society would recognise as a natural science) could establish that they are true or false.

Here is an example: my father worked as a double-agent for MI6 and the KGB during the  “Cold War”. He told me this on his death-bed, in view of the fact that I had once seen him kill a man. The Section of which he was a member was disbanded and all record of it expunged, and all those who knew that he was a member of it had long since died. This is certainly a factual claim. If true, he certainly knew that it was true. I reasonably believe that it is true. But there is absolutely no way of empirically verifying or falsifying it. QED.

That seems to me to be an absolutely hopeless “example” of what he is claiming. He is claiming, in a somewhat evasive way, that it is reasonable to believe that claim. I say “evasive” because he (carefully?) put the claim in the passive voice, which enabled him to omit any believing agent or agents. Who is supposed to be doing this believing? Ward himself? Or everyone? It makes a difference, you know.

Here’s the thing. It may be reasonable for Ward to believe that story (if in fact – in fact – it really was told to him), depending on a lot of things – what he knows about his father, and the like – but it’s not the least bit reasonable for anyone else to believe it. It’s minus reasonable, because in fact it has a whiff of tall tale, or more than a whiff. Once saw him kill a man did he? My, that’s casual. And then Ward is using it to make a point. And double-agents aren’t all that abundant, and they are figures in novels and movies.

I think Ward is equivocating again: I think he’s expecting us to take the polite or social sense of “believe” which could better be called “taking his word for it,” and treat it as genuine, reasonable belief. I don’t mind taking Ward’s word for it, if there’s nothing at stake, but as for genuinely believing it…I beg to be excused.




  1. Grendels Dad says

    “Once saw him kill a man did he? My, that’s casual.”

    That’s nothing. It’s an established fact that Johnny Cash shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die.

  2. Arty Morty says

    “because he (carefully?) put the claim in the passive voice”

    Exactly, “carefully”! I’m getting a whiff of (deliberate?) dishonesty from both Houston and Ward.

    Am I the only one who often senses not just sloppy thinking but a deliberateness in the way theologians (and their apologist-philosopher counterparts) seek out and employ word-tricks and shady rhetorical devices that are well-known for their potential to mislead people?

    Appeals to emotion (“you don’t want to call my dear old dying fater a liar, do you?”), “intuition pumps”, begging the question, etc. It’s like their academic principles are a mirror-image of everyone else’s; that their explicit goal is to obscure the truth rather than illuminate it. Bizzarro!

  3. Anteprepro says

    The polite, social, “taking them at their word” kind of belief is all in the tiny, personal details about our own personal experience. We could be reasonably certain about our own, and when someone we personally trust tells us about theirs, we feel justified in considering it “reasonable” to believe it, even in the absence of verification. I find it interesting that this is the kind of belief that Ward retreats to, since it is clearly not as logically justified as common beliefs based on empirical evidence. I also think it is clear that this kind of belief is the way that religion spreads: by people trusting the word of family, friends, religious authorities, the Bible, etc. without actual supporting evidence. They esteem the communicator enough to believe them entirely based on that respect, rather than on the kind of logical and empirical support that one would expect of anyone who wasn’t as acquainted with/positively biased towards said communicator. He’s basically saying that religion and science are compatible because humans use (often unreliable) heuristics (in this case, trust) to come up with beliefs that aren’t necessarily supported by science/empirical evidence. To be honest, I almost prefer the sophists who wax philosophical about the existence of the abstract as evidence for the possible supernatural. Both arguments are transparent bullshit, but at least the latter is slightly less stupid/dishonest. Only slightly, but still.

  4. says

    Oh that’s a very good point. “I also think it is clear that this kind of belief is the way that religion spreads: by people trusting the word of family, friends, religious authorities, the Bible, etc. without actual supporting evidence.” Indeed. Well spotted.

    And it works the same way – it’s social – of course you don’t want to go around not believing things that friends or relatives tell you.

  5. SAWells says

    Ward appears to think that anything _he_ believes to be true — viz. his father was a double agent, yeah, right — must be believed to be true by the whole world.

    IOW, he’ a solipsist.

  6. says

    Yep; could be just dud theory of mind.

    But more likely is that he’s practiced at this kind of befuddlement and it works for a lot of people, so he goes ahead and does it.

  7. Michael Fugate says

    Does anyone know who Jim Houston is? He seems to have no searchable record except some post on Talking Philosophy.

  8. says

    I don’t, anyway, except I know he commented at Talking Philosophy for a longish time as “Curious Jim” (and then was invited to blog). That’s it. His comments were interesting, as far as I remember.

    I don’t agree with him about the challenge though – I take that to be just rhetorical. I think I do that kind of thing myself pretty often, and it’s never occurred to me I should address the person literally. Of course, maybe that’s horribly rude of me, but…I dunno, I think it’s just a convention.

  9. Chris Lawson says

    Ward saw his father kill a man. Therefore Ward knows one rather emphatic empirical piece of evidence supporting his father’s claim. In fact, he would know a lot more: having seen his father kill a man, he would be aware of many other pieces of evidence that would have bearing on the veracity of the story, such as whether his father reported the incident to police, what he did with the body, how he killed him (was it with a service revolver?), and so on. So there’s a ton of empirical evidence packed into that sentence that Ward knows but is deliberately keeping from the reader.

    MI6 is a real and verifiable organisation for which we have documentary evidence of running double agents during WW2.

    Ward claims the belief that his father worked for MI6 is on the same epistemological footing as belief in a divine virgin birth, a bodily resurrection plus a large number of miracles (none of which have been demonstrated in any empirically verifiable event ever), and based on a series of books written a century or more after the events.

  10. Tim Harris says

    ‘Forasmuch as many have taken in hand to set forth a declaration of those things which are most surely believed among us, even as they delivered them unto us, which from the beginning were eyewitnesses, and ministers of the word: it seemed good to me also, having had perfect understanding of things from the very first, to write unto thee in order, most excellent Theophilus, that thou mightest know the certainty of those things wherein thou hast been instructed.’

    ‘which from the beginning were eyewitnesses, and ministers of the word’; ‘having had perfect understanding of things from the very first’; ‘the certainty of those things wherein thou hast been instructed.’ And all addressed by Luke to a ‘lover of God’; it’s really much the same as Ward is saying, though Ward thinks the lapse of so many centuries means that Luke’s claims are not susceptible to empirical examination (has he not heard of the disciplines of Ancient History and Biblical scholarship?) and therefore, he supposes (while not actually coming out and saying it in so many words), the total implausibility, not to say impossibility, in scientific terms of many of the events Luke describes is irrelevant; and thus he can suggest that trivialities such as his being or not being in Oxford on a certain night or cock-and-bull stories about a cock-and-bull story his father came up with on his deathbed (a story that, contrary to what Ward pretends, is certainly susceptible of empirical examination)are no different from claims about miracles.
    How well, incidentally, Luke’s words agree with anteprepro’s excellent point about how the ‘word’ spreads.

  11. says

    I think the verb “expunge” is a bit suspect here. Ward is implying that any record of his father’s MI6 activity has vanished without trace. In reality, the records would have to located, collated and then destroyed. Several people would have to do this task, over a period of weeks or perhaps months. I doubt that the people who did the expunging were in turn expunged. If you could track them down, you could ask them what was known about agent Ward senior.

    Also I doubt very much that MI6 and the KGB had some sort of reciprical record expugning agreement for when double-agent’s sections were disbanded. The KGB’s records probably were not expunged. Probably all nicely filed in a vault somewhere. Well just possibly really, but you get my drift.

    So when Ward says “But there is absolutely no way of empirically verifying or falsifying it” he is over-stating his case. There may be some way, all he can reasonably claim is that he doesn’t know where to start.

  12. roger says

    many factual claims about the world are reasonably believed or even known to be true, even when there is no way in which any established science … could establish that they are true or false.

    Probability is part of every science, though.

    Ward appears to think that anything _he_ believes to be true — viz. his father was a double agent, yeah, right — must be believed to be true by the whole world.

    IOW, he’ a solipsist.

    Rather worse actually, S A Ward: Ward appears to think that anything he says he believes to be true must be believed to be true by the whole world.

  13. says

    The polite, social, “taking them at their word” kind of belief is all in the tiny, personal details about our own personal experience. We could be reasonably certain about our own, and when someone we personally trust tells us about theirs, we feel justified in considering it “reasonable” to believe it, even in the absence of verification. –Anteprepro

    One would think one could be reasonably certain about our own, but what if we can’t be? What if you are told you did something you don’t recall doing that isn’t too far-fetched but doesn’t feel right to you?

    I’ve had such a frustrating experience recently when someone (a particularly vile troll who goes by Justicar) claimed I said something I have no memory of saying and don’t think I would have said. He claims he knows where this quote of mine is hidden in plain sight on the Web, but I don’t believe him for a moment given his history of making stuff up. I told him to cough up the evidence, but he has refused and always becomes evasive. I never get a clear answer. Now he is using the trust of his friends to get away with his tale about me without having to verify it to them, and he is also acting like the burden of proof is on my shoulders since, he claims, I said it. It’s like living in the Twilight Zone! I didn’t know people could be this nasty!

    I also think it is clear that this kind of belief is the way that religion spreads: by people trusting the word of family, friends, religious authorities, the Bible, etc. without actual supporting evidence.

    Right. You get someone with very loose morals running around making stuff up about people he doesn’t like without ever verifying it and suddenly this thing that has been spun out of thin air or half truths becomes fact to people too lazy, too gullible, too indoctrinated, or too tribal to bother verifying it. It’s anti-skeptical behavior.

    Yes, I think Gnu Atheists aren’t welcomed by most religious folk because we dispense with the social politeness–the aversion to verification–that goes with trusting or letting slide the claims people make on the topic of religion.

  14. sailor1031 says

    @2: “It’s like their academic principles are a mirror-image of everyone else’s; that their explicit goal is to obscure the truth rather than illuminate it.”

    That, of course, is precisely the point. Obfuscation is necessary because there isn’t any truth to be illuminated – and they know it.

    As to MI6 records having been allegedly expunged, that is extremely unlikely to have happened. We know MI5 still has their records, for instance. But if one wanted the evidence about Ward’s father one should ask the russians who have recently been opening up the KGB records archive – it’s all in there. Or maybe the story is just a story?

  15. says

    Chris Lawson – good point (points). If he really saw his father kill a man – surely that’s a claim at least susceptible to empirical investigation.

    Especially since…either it happened in some open public way where the police (or some other official body) would be involved, or it happened in some private way where young Keith Ward would not have been there to see it. I mean really! What a ridiculous story! Did young Keith Ward play Robin to his father’s Batman, or what?!

    Ok let’s try to make sense of it. Young Keith Ward and his father are out for a hike on Dartmoor one day – and there is no one around, when all of a sudden there is A Man, who, young KW’s father knows, is a KGB agent sent to rub out Ward Senior. Quick as a flash, Ward Senior pulls out the revolver he always carries and shoots him dead. Then they continue their walk. Ward Senior offers no explanation until years later, on his death bed. “Oh that. I was a double agent.” “Ahhhhhhh,” says young Keith Ward, understanding at last.


  16. says

    Aratina – that sucks.

    I once had a friend who exploited this social credibility thing to play nasty tricks on people (such as his wife, for example) – and bragged about it. He did it to me once. He told me a surprising but not impossible story, and because of social credibility it simply didn’t occur to me not to believe him. He told it and I expressed interest and surprise – and then he burst into a bray of jeering laughter.

    He then explained why: it was because I value rationality and skepticism and so on, and he’d just demonstrated that I was as credulous as anyone. Except he hadn’t; he’d exploited the fact that we were on friendly terms to get me to belief something only slightly implausible and then mocked me for doing so.


  17. says


    Not hugely. There are too many factors which are highly unlikely in themselves.

    My father worked for MI6 – unlikely, but possible. People do work for MI6

    My father was a double agent for the KGB – only a tiny proportion of MI6 would be double agents, it’s a sackable offence after all

    My father killed someone – probably not that uncommon for a British male who lived through WWII, increasingly unlikely during the Cold War era

    I witnessed my father kill someone – highly unlikely event in itself

    Four very unlikely events, casually tossed out to give us all lesson in what a fact is. Crap.

    Here’s a contrast for you. My wife’s step-grandfather was a splendid man who was fit and lucid to the grand old age of 104. During the last few weeks of his life he told my wife and I that he was being attacked by poison fish and that the light from the sun was created by a collection of people who were shining lights down on earth, these people were watching over us. I am not offering this anecdote up because I want people to believe that poison fish and sun-dwellers with lamps are facts, rather it is a simple example that at the end of your life you may in fact go a bit doollaly.

    It is actually far more likely that Ward’s father lost his marbles towards the end of life than any tales of daring do as a double agent and all evidence for such lost without trace.

    If Ward really wants us to believe his tall tales, it’s actually up to him to provide some kind of evidence to back it up. Ditto for his nutty religion. This is a man who has made a career by a retreat into the fantasy world of Christianity, yet cannot preface his treatise on what a fact is with something even remotely approaching a definition.

  18. says

    Or not even evidence but just context, explanation, a chain of causality – something a good deal more than what he did provide! It was just a reply to an email question, but he knew it was for publication, even if “only” blog publication – but still. It’s just so absurdly legless in the form he gives it, yet he’s apparently so…so unaware of what legs even are that he doesn’t notice.

  19. says

    “… not even evidence but just context, explanation, a chain of causality …”

    Thanks, this what I meant, even though I put it very clumsily.

  20. says

    @Ophelia Benson

    He then explained why: it was because I value rationality and skepticism and so on, and he’d just demonstrated that I was as credulous as anyone. Except he hadn’t; he’d exploited the fact that we were on friendly terms to get me to belief something only slightly implausible and then mocked me for doing so.

    Seems like his “lesson” did nothing more than teach you to be less trusting of him. *shakes head*

    It’s like you said, “you don’t want to go around not believing things that friends or relatives tell you”. Someone who did that constantly would be quite a pain to deal with (almost equivalent to dealing with little children who just learned the magic, never-ending question: “Why?”).

    It could be a primary reason theists dislike Gnus. They’ve been telling these just-so, socially respectable religious stories almost their whole lives, and suddenly a noisy Gnu butts in and questions the veracity of their claims–that’s irritating to them no matter how much reality is on our (the Gnus’) side.

  21. Musical Atheist says

    The ‘I saw my father kill a man’ story strikes me as credible exaggeration for effect. A possible scenario:

    Dad and Son are in the park.
    D sees Unknown Man doing something antisocial and horrid, like throwing stones at the ducks and swans in the pond, and teaching his children to do the same.
    D tells UM to stop and UM starts a fight, which D feels he can’t get out of.
    D is a more skilful fighter than UM: he hits UM hard and UM seems much more injured than expected.
    D calls ambulance and UM is taken to hospital.
    S is shocked and impressed by D’s abilities in a fight.
    UM dies: blow has caused complications regarding underlying heart condition, head injury or similar.
    OMG! S saw D kill a man!
    Story is told in vague and impressive terms at dinner parties and in newspaper comment articles. Well, it’s technically true.

    Since Ward didn’t give more details, there’s no way to know what he really meant.

  22. Musical Atheist says

    I think Ward fails to distinguish between questions that are empirically scientifically verifiable in principle, and those which are verifiable in practice.

    His presence in Oxford is in principle verifiable: people who recognised him without him knowing, punched train tickets, CCTV and so on. But if none of these were available it would be unverifiable in practice. This doesn’t stop it from being a scientific/empirical question!

  23. says

    Aratina – yes, it taught me that all right. Funny thing to want to teach people, isn’t it.

    Musical Atheist – what on earth is credible about that? Especially as a story that matches the later “I was a double agent” explanation? (Hint: one problem is that there are legal implications to assault and GBH.)

  24. 'Tis Himself, OM says

    I read Houston’s blog post and was not impressed. Coyne’s challenge was obviously a rhetorical device. For Houston to pretend otherwise is distinctly shabby. But since Houston makes it obvious he dislikes Coyne and has no qualms about sneering at him, Houston claims Coyne is not “intellectually honest.” In my estimation the same charge can be made against Houston.

  25. dirigible says

    Since Ward didn’t give more details, there’s no way to know what he really meant.

    This is a feature, not a bug.

  26. says

    I have committed the dreadful sin at Talking Philosophy of suggesting that Houston is acting as the “sole arbiter” in deciding whether Jerry Coyne’s challenge is shabby and not “serious and intellectually honest.” This sort of talk is clearly beyond the pale for the delicate ears that frequent TP.

    In fact it is “non-negotiable (which means that you don’t negotiate about it or engage in a meta-discussion about it here)” according to one Jeremy Stangroom.

    Since Houston formed his opinion without knowing Coyne’s view on how likely Ward would be to hear about it, and makes no indication that he has consulted anyone else before he formed the view, and doesn’t inform us to which particular code of manners Coyne is meant to have signed up to before he is allowed to make challenges, I am left wondering in what sense Houston was not the sole arbiter of his offensive opinion. His argument adds up to saying he would have done different. He even explicitly informs me that Dawkins and Dennett can make challenges in this way, but Jerry can’t because he is “nowhere near their league.”

    Just as a warning to others, when Stangroom says:

    “You’re welcome to discuss this issue (for the meantime). But you do it under the governance of a principle of charity, regardless of whether you think the OP did the same in the case of Coyne.”

    what he really means is that he will pre-moderate your comments.

    I’m glad my parting shot was then the now expunged:

    “Yuk, your discussion stinks. I’m off.”

  27. says

    Yes, I was just reading that, while you were writing the above comment. It’s all a bit…um, weighted in a particular direction.

    I did wonder why he said Jerry Coyne is “nowhere near their league” – because that’s just really not true. He is pretty close to their league. I don’t say that out of partisanship, because we’ve had profound differences over The Great Elevator Wars and I’m pretty sure he dislikes me; it’s just true. WEIT was a best-seller, he gets asked to write for major media outlets, his blog is hugely popular, he’s at the U of Chicago, he’s a respected scientist…He just is close to their league. It seems odd that Jim H thinks he isn’t.

    The discussion over there was interesting for a bit yesterday, so interesting that I wanted to join it, so I tried, and was excited to find that I could post comments again. I thought the ban had been lifted but then my comments disappeared, and I realized it hadn’t. Sigh.

  28. says

    I wonder if both Stangroom and Houston got annoyed with me because I very pointedly indicated that Houston’s “fact” was nothing of the sort. If so, their “philosophy” is a long way from the philosophy which I learnt at university.

    For a statement like: “The fact is Coyne does not have good grounds for supposing that Ward would ever get to hear about his challenge.” to be true, Houston would have to know what Coyne’s good grounds were. Since Houston got no response when he inquired, how could he know what going on in Coyne’s mind? Houston then made the assumption that Coyne believed the possibility of word getting to Ward was as low as his own estimation. Houston was effectively placing his own assumption into Coyne’s mind, and then criticising Coyne for it.

    This makes Houston a distinctly non-leaguer. He can hoof the ball about a bit, but a lot of people’s shins get kicked unnecessarily in the process.

  29. says

    Hm. Good point. I see he replied to you, “Coyne didn’t weigh up the probabilities and decide Ward would probably hear about it.” That’s an odd way to put it in a discussion that is precisely about facts and knowledge and distinguishing between them. He can’t possibly know whether Coyne weighed up the probabilities or not. It’s odd to put it so dogmatically in what purports to be a philosophical discussion.

    There’s a lot of animus against “the new atheism” at that blog, and maybe that influenced Jim H. (Notice I say “maybe”; I don’t claim to know!) But it’s too bad, in a way, because the discussion of facts and evidence is interesting. Spitting venom at noo atheists just gets in the way, if you ask me.

  30. Musical Atheist says

    ‘I saw my father kill a man once’ seems awfully unlikely to me, and I think it’s a cheap shot to try and gain credibility for his argument by talking about how badass his father was, even if it did happen to be true. It does resemble tall stories I’ve heard told by people whose purpose is to impress. I’m reluctant to always assume it’s a flat-out lie – social belief acceptance maybe! Sometimes there’s a small grain of truth that allows the bullshitter to work the story up into something else and still tell themselves they’re telling the truth – I was just trying to think of a way that that could be the case!

  31. says

    Heh. I see. Still, even the story you did come up with is…credulity-straining. I mean if that did happen the guy would be probably be charged with involuntary manslaughter. It wouldn’t be just a shrug and walk away thing.

    It bugs me when people try to use stories or thought experiments to convince people of something but leave out a bunch of crucial details! It offends my sense of decency or something. Either give us the necessary details or shut up about it. Using a ridiculous tall tale full of gaping holes to try to clinch an argument is just coercive. Down with it!

  32. says

    Coyne can write down challenges, lock them in a box, and bury them in his garden, as far as I can see, and this behaviour would still not be either shabby or dishonest. The only way it could become wrong would be if he did bury a challenge, and then later said “I challenged Smith two weeks ago, and he still can’t come up with an answer.” So the probability that the challenge were to reach Ward is a total non-issue with respect to Coyne’s probity. (As a side issue, the Royal Mail in the UK is so bad at the moment that you can send things Guaranteed Next Day Delivery and it’s still only a vague hope it will get there, ever.)

    On facts, I have had a slight epiphany. Russell Blackford for instance says:

    “A fact is a proposition that actually is true.”

    This cannot be right, on its own, and it needs to be extended to include something about there being some sort of collection of conscious beings which can recognise the truth of the proposition. Viz:

    “A fact is a proposition that actually is true, and can be recognised as true by a consensus of conscious beings which can reliably recognise the proposition.”

    I need to expand. If I took a large rock, and placed it firmly in Germany, you could test the truth of this proposition. Now travel many eons into the future. Humans have long since disappeared, our familiar political boundaries has disappeared. Plate tectonics have done their work and the land/sea boundaries have changed vastly. No one ever moved the rock, but is it still in Germany, even though all memory of Germany has disappeared? No one could actually test the proposition that “this rock is in Germany” without being able to actually demarcate where Germany is.

    There is no reason why any of today’s familiar objects couldn’t disappear from the face of the earth. The was a time before books. Now there is an era when books are common. There will come a time when there are no books existant. In the era of books, we can easily say “I own 100 books”, and other people can easily test it, but only by virtue that they and I can easily understand what a book is and looks like. But what is the truth value of “He owned a 100 books” in a future era when books are unknown?

  33. Musical Atheist says

    @Ophelia: Agreed – it’s infuriating! And in this case, I think it’s a not-so-subtly attempted status enhancer – credibility by association.

  34. Josh Slocum says

    Leaving aside the intellectual dishonesty going on at TPM which others have pointed out, the whole discussion is just so *sniffy*. By that I mean twee, unctuous. Jim’s writing is so prissily academic you can fairly see his pince-nez. Oh, I’m sure it meets Stangroom’s exacting, consistent standards for manners, though. Those are really super important. They indicate that you’re Right and His Kind of Person.

    Don’t get me wrong—I’m not a philosophy-basher and I dislike the knee-jerk anti-philosophy sentiments that come up so frequently in these discussions. But I don’t like academic writing conventions. Despite claims that this writing style is necessary for precision/clarity/blah-blah-blah it’s in fact nothing but a status marker and it’s used that way. It’s pompous, affected, often opaque and extremely irritating.

    It’s just plain bad prose.

  35. says

    Pogsurf’s view is an interesting expression of anti-realism. His ‘rocks in post-apocalyptic Germany’ thought-experiment does raise some cool doubts. And for sure, there’s nothing stopping us from using the word “fact” in his way.

    Still, I don’t know if it’ll be enough to overcome realist sympathies. At the very least we’d need to know a lot more about what’s supposed to have gone wrong in the Germany case.

  36. says

    What cool doubts? I must be missing something. Nothing surprising in that, as I’m not a philosopher. It looks to me more like a combination of history, language, archaeology, and the like…or nothing, if there are no humans to be asking or poking or looking, and no equivalent intelligent agents either. If the rock still existed, that would be a fact. If there are intelligent agents around it might also be a fact about geology or history or geography…etc. But that seems obvious, so I must be missing something.

  37. says

    Josh –

    Another possibility about that kind of writing is just that it’s the only kind the writer knows how to do. I think that is true of a lot of academics.

    Mind you, I suspect that on that thread many of the commenters have gone into prissy-writing-overdrive in order to mark a sharp contrast with the disheveled anarchic hot-headed style of The Evil New Atheism, especially [cough] evil anarchic me.

  38. Josh Slocum says

    Ophelia – you’re right about that possibility. Should have thought of that. See how I am? Ever uncharitable:)

  39. says

    The problem depends on the idea of Germany, and what it means to refer to Germany if the world has changed enough. What’s it mean to say that the rock is in the same place in Germany, if the continents have shifted and there is no more humans around to recognize Germany?

    There are different ways of looking at it. Part of you might say, “Well, shit — it’s a nonsense question now.” If a world has changed enough, some people might be tempted to say that such thing as The Same Place.

  40. says

    Yes Josh – probably because you’re evil!

    Ben, ok, I got that much. It doesn’t seem like much of a puzzle to me. We say Ötzi was found near the Austria-Italy border and that when he died near that spot (the ice moved him a little) there was no Austria or Italy. It would be a fact that the rock was in X place and another fact that it had once been in a place variously called Allemagne, Germany, Deutschland, 德國, ألمانيا, جرمنی, etc and another fact that it had moved.

    Unless of course I’m wrong.

  41. says

    For sure, the realist can easily make sense of your example by saying that Ötzi died in a spot that eventually became the border between Austria and Italy. No puzzles there.

    But Pog’s example is interesting to me because it involves a few more wrinkles. It’s about a future event where everyone is dead, and where the terrain has shifted dramatically. These two things make a difference, because it seems as though the proper name “Germany” is meaningless if there aren’t any governments who adopt certain conventions about a definite region of space. We, the hopeless thugs of the present-day, have no access to the geography of the future (so we don’t know what it would mean to be ‘in Germany’ in the future), and we can’t presume to defer to any future-people who would have that information (since, by hypothesis, they’re all dead). We just have a weird sentence, “This rock is in Germany (during the year AD 33535)”, and nobody can explain the conditions under which the claim would be objectively true in the future.

    We could, of course, say something like, “This rock was in Germany in 2011, at the coordinates X. Then it was at the same coordinates X in 33535.” By eliminating the word “Germany”, and replacing it with a system of coordinates, we could seemingly avoid the problem of deferring to non-existent future-people. And that would be a fine strategy, so long as we knew what was involved in finding out X. But if the continents have shifted, then presumably Greenwich, the magnetic poles, and the equator are not as easy to pin down as they once were.

  42. says

    I figured out that much – I was going to say something about coordinates last time but stepped around the trap. Hence the crafty “X place” – it’s not for us to decide what X means.

    It reminds me a little of watching snow falling and deciding to try to track one flake as you look upward. It’s tricky following it all the way down – hard to keep your eye on it as your neck and head move vertically.

  43. says

    So if we don’t determine X, what does? Seemingly, nothing.

    Of course, we want to keep holding on to the conviction that there is a rock in a definite place at every moment in time, and we want to say that the rock and the place ‘where it’s at’ both exist independently of us. I think that’s the point you’re making in your snowflake example. The snowflake has definite coordinates at each particular moment — even if our necks and eyes aren’t quick enough to track it. Regardless of our lack of quickness, it seems like there really is a fact of the matter about where the snowflake was at any given time, whether or not we know what it is, because we at least know what would be involved in targeting any given snowflake and following it around.

    The difference between the rock and the snowflake is that, when it comes to the rock in future Germany, it seems like we can’t target the state of affairs in our mental crosshairs. We don’t even know what would be involved in talking accurately and precisely about the place that it’s at. It may be someplace-or-other, of course, but that’s uninformative.

  44. says

    Benjamin, thank you for the compliment of taking my idea seriously. Ophelia too, thank you for providing a space where a bit of proper thinking can take place.

    Going back to Blackford’s, shorter, realist type explanation for a fact, I think I can recognise why his and mine are different. When he says:

    “A fact is a proposition that actually is true.”

    he is implying that there is a real, hard world, out there, where all the definitions needed to make sense of “a proposition” are available for all and sundry to use and test. Well I also believe there is a real, hard world, out there, but I believe that all the definitions needed to make sense of “a proposition” are contained within language, and so ultimately they only exist within the memories of conscious beings.

    I have to admit my ignorance here, because I had never heard of the term “anti-realist” before, and so I don’t know if I am one or not. But to me Blackford’s implied assumption does not make sense because even when you encode the meaning of things into hard objects, you still find that you can only make use of these hard objects if your memory allows you correct access to them.

    Take the measurement unit the “metre”. It started life as the length of a pendulum. It got redefined as one ten-millionth of the meridian lying on a quadrant passing from the equator through Paris to the north pole. Then it was a brass bar. Then a platinum one. Then an alloy of platinum and 10% iridium measured at the melting point of ice. Then pressure was added to equation. Then 1650763.73 wavelengths of light from a specified transition in Krypton 86. Then the length of the path travelled by light in a vacuum in 1/299792458 of a second. Then a limitation to take account of the affects of general relativity (these facts supplied via Wikipedia).

    Even though we think of a metre as a simple thing that is the distance between two points on a straight line, we find that its definition has to keep changing in order to keep pace with advances in science. For a scientist to use the most current measurement, he has to retain in his memory where that definition is, as well as being able to interpret correctly what that definition actually means.

    For the rest of us, we know that we can use a variety of tape measures and rulers, because they will provide a good enough approximation for our everyday needs. And so it happens that absolutely everything that we try bundle up into “a proposition” we have to be able “interpret correctly” or to know what a “good enough approximation” is. Whatever we set out in stone in that hard, real world which is out there, we have to make sense of via the fuzzy boundaries which are ubiquitous in language and memory.

    Ulimately my thesis is this: “a proposition” as defined by a realist, is only available to use via language and memory, and so it follows that all facts are contingent upon language and memory.

  45. says

    Well someone – Jean? Ben? – disagreed with Russell’s use of “proposition” there. I’m assuming that that’s because “proposition” is social, while the point was to say that there are facts even if there is no social – the point was to distinguish between knowledge and facts. If the rock continues to exist it’s a fact that it is wherever it is even if there is no one to pinpoint its location.

  46. says

    Jean K makes the point:

    (1) Facts–they’re out there, not dependent on what evidence is available, or to whom. Some are known, some are unknown. Philosophers uses the word “fact” like they use the word “event”. Events are out there, of course. They’re not in the category that includes beliefs, claims, evidence, sentences, or other human concoctions. Likewise, facts. (I like everything Russell said above, except when he calls facts “propositions”.)

    I think there is a problem here with:

    Facts–they’re out there, not dependent on what evidence is available, or to whom. Some are known, some are unknown.

    Is this a factual statement? As soon as you bring in the idea that something is “not dependent on [..] evidence” or “unknown” you have conceded that what you are saying is not factual, and you will not be able to verify what you have said. Not a might here, as in the case of Ward’s father, but a downright not possible. At best this statement is a supposition. This will probably count as a widely held belief which is not based on empiricism.

    This doesn’t preclude the possibility that at some time in the future it may be possible to see beyond the current fact horizon, but this is an inductive claim, because we know that this type of change has occured in the past. It is also possible to envision a world where facts get much harder to come by. We live in an age when we have fantastic new discoveries every week, but there is no reason to believe that this situation can continue for ever. If you believed that the universe will suffer an eventual heat death, you have to concede a decline in the ability to determine facts at some point before then.

    Russell Blackford makes the point, responding to a line from Jerry Coyne:

    “But I don’t agree with the claim that: A “fact” is not a fact if all the evidence supporting it has vanished or is inaccessible.

    That sounds like a rather extreme theory of what a fact is and of what truth is. It makes the truth of a proposition dependent on whether it can be justified to human beings by evidence that happens to be available here on Earth in the twenty-first century. That seems almost mystical, as if we create our own reality.”

    As I’ve indicated in comments above, I don’t believe there is anything mystical going on. There is a hard, real world which is out there, but we have no way of discovering what is going on without using our senses and our brains. A fact is something which we collectively establish says something true about the world. I don’t think my position is extreme in the least. We all going about the world, bumping into things, making mistakes, getting confused, and somewhat importantly, learning new things. But a fact without someone to believe it, to test it, and to verify it, makes no sense at all.

  47. says

    Pogsurf, no, it’s not extreme, but you’re confusing facts with knowledge. Facts are independent of humans; that was Jean’s point. Of course it’s true that there aren’t things that anyone calls facts that are independent of knowledge, but there are facts that are etc.

    There are facts about the surface of Venus. Some of them are being discovered by humans because of probes, but there were facts before that. There are facts about planets and moons in distant galaxies. There are infinite facts.

  48. says

    In other words, this isn’t quite right – “A fact is something which we collectively establish says something true about the world.” A known fact is, but not just a fact.

    Think of it in terms of detective work. There are facts about a particular murder (say). Police detectives may discover them, or they may not, but there are facts whether they do or not. This is something detectives must be strongly aware of, as the core of their work – there are facts to be found; it’s the detectives’ job to find them. They sometimes fail. They don’t then conclude that there are no facts.

  49. says

    What I like about both Pog’s view and Ophelia’s view is that both agree that there is a real world ‘out there’. The issue is ‘facts’, not reality in total. So Pog isn’t an idealist who denies that there any outside world — it’s more like he’s a skeptic, who takes a miserly disposition to propositions that can’t stand on their own two feet.

    Pog says, if you have absolutely no clear idea about what would make your proposition true, how to verify it, then there is no fact of the matter about it. Such propositions just sit there like fat clumps of dirt, and we have no idea what we’re supposed to do with them. And if you have a clear idea about what proposition you’re entertaining, then the corresponding facts are always slices of reality that are framed in a certain way.

    Pog’s view is not uncommon, or even extreme (as philosophers go). e.g., Michael Dummett and AJ Ayer are other examples of people who have held verificationism in some form or other, and they seemed a bit more extreme than Pog is. If anything, Pog’s view is an expression quite like that of Hilary Putnam’s ‘pragmatic realism’.

    Still, Ophelia has rightly argued that truth and justification (or conditions for verification) aren’t the same thing. So the onus is on Pog to show how to distinguish between them without losing his point.

  50. says

    I think “facts = true propositions” is not a good idea partly because it does more or less encourage pogsurf’s position. “Propositions” are first and foremost contents of sentences and mental states like belief. So when you think of a world without people, it seems as if it’s a world with no propositions, true or otherwise. But surely there are facts in a world without people–the sky is still blue (in fact!), 2+2=4 (in fact!), etc.

    There are other tricky reasons to think “facts = true propositions” is a bad idea. Propositions are sliced a bit more finely than facts, so to speak. You can believe that Mark Twain wrote Huckleberry Finn, but not believe that Samuel Clements wrote Huckleberry Finn. On the standard view, owing to Frege, that’s because there are two different propositions involved. Yet surely those two beliefs are both correct in virtue of the same fact–that a particular guy wrote HF. So: propositions are one thing, facts are another.

    These two points are related. If there’s something different about the belief that Mark Twain wrote HF, as opposed to Samuel Clemens, it’s because there’s a different “mode of presentation” in one than the other. A mode of presentation is a pretty mind/language kind of thing–very hard to conceive of as existing before people (though not completely impossible). But facts did (surely!) exist before people. So facts aren’t best thought of as being true propositions.

    In the present context, I don’t see the need to say what facts “are”–all we need is an understanding that facts make some of our beliefs and claims true or false, that there are facts we know, and facts we don’t know yet, and facts we’ll ever know. Basically, we have to get a grip on how the concept of a fact works, and not confuse it with other concepts.


  51. says

    A mode of presentation is a pretty mind/language kind of thing–very hard to conceive of as existing before people

    Most of us might think so, but that’s not what Frege thought. In “Sense and Reference”, the sense (mode of presentation) of a referent is objective, not a mere psychological idea or symbolic representation of the thing. This point is borne out most clearly in his ‘telescope’ analogy:

    Somebody observes the Moon through a telescope. I compare the Moon itself to the reference; it is the object of the observation, mediated by the real image projected by the object glass in the interior of the telescope, and by the retinal image of the observer. The former I compare to the sense, the latter is like the idea or experience. The optical image in the telescope is indeed one-sided and dependent upon the standpoint of observation; but it is still objective, inasmuch as it can be used by several observers. (emphasis mine)

    For Frege, Gedanke (objective thoughts) occupy a ‘Third Realm’ between the mind and physical world. IEP expresses the point like this:

    Frege ascribes to senses and thoughts objective existence. In his mind, they are objects every bit as real as tables and chairs. Their existence is not dependent on language or the mind. Instead, they are said to exist in a timeless “third realm” of sense, existing apart from both the mental and the physical. Frege concludes this because, although senses are obviously not physical entities, their existence likewise does not depend on any one person’s psychology. A thought, for example, has a truth-value regardless of whether or not anyone believes it and even whether or not anyone has grasped it at all.

    Assuming IEP is correct in this summary, it appears as though Frege was probably just confused about senses. For it seems as though he is conflating the distinction between epistemic and ontological objectivity; in reality, it’s probably the case that a sense is epistemically objective, and ontologically subjective (as you seem to want to suggest).

    So if Frege is being invoked to work against Pod’s argument because the latter seems extreme, then a case is going to have to be made in favor of Frege’s dotty ideas about the objectivity of senses and thought. Otherwise, you have to distance yourself very strongly from Frege, since he seems to be an extremist all his own. Either that, or show that IEP has misunderstood Frege.

  52. says

    Phew, not sure what I’ve got myself into now.

    I’ll try and tackle Ophelia’s point about sending the probe to Venus.

    A Venus probe is constructed on Earth, and is ready to launch. But in order to show you why the surface of Venus is not a sort of virgin territory, covered in “facts” which are ready to be scoped up, I need to make a slight variation to the normal launch pattern. Two dates for possible launches are selected, which are say, a year apart. The choice of date is made by some measurement of decay of a radio-active isotope, so that no one on the launch program is able to predict in advance which date will be chosen.

    The facts collected according to whichever date is chosen will be different. The reason is that even though Venus and the probe appear to be not materially different between the two dates, the actual facts about how and when then probe travels are material to the set of facts which will be collected from the surface of Venus. Clearly the probe will take a different trajectory through space. It will suffer differing amounts of damage from space debris on the voyage. The crew which will man the control room will be different, some will have changed jobs, their effectiveness as a crew will be different, through all sorts of factors such as sick leave, knowledge and skills, disciplinary matters.

    The probe lands. Even if the idea is to try to land the probe at the same spot, the surface of Venus on two different dates will be different. Temperature, pressure, dust accumulation, heat from the sun, meteorite damage, wind conditions, light etc. will be different. It is not the case that there are loads of facts on the surface of Venus which are waiting to be discovered – it is actually the case that it is the interaction between the probe and the surface that creates the facts, and all the associated conditions of the crew. Even the signal conditions, to return the data to Earth are important as to which facts, and the actual detail of these, that are established.

  53. says

    But I didn’t say there were facts on the surface of Venus which are waiting to be discovered – I said there are facts about the surface of Venus. Some of them are being discovered by humans because of probes, but there were facts before that. The facts you cite are among those facts. Sure, when humans do things to discover some of them, what the facts are will depend on what humans do – but that doesn’t mean there are no facts about Venus until humans discover them.

    There are facts no one will ever know; that doesn’t mean they’re not facts. (I’m repeating myself…) Think of a small village in China a few centuries ago. Think of all the facts there are about that village at that time. They weren’t recorded, so no one will ever know any of them except possibly a tiny percentage that can be found via archaeology. That doesn’t mean there never were any such facts.

  54. says

    I disagree that there is some difference between a known fact and a fact.

    Before a proposition is known, there is no fact to make. The Observer Effect, which is a well established principle of physics, indicates that the act of observing something, changes that thing which is observed. The act of observation thereby creates the final conditions that are then established as the fact of the matter. The final conditions may be so similar to the conditions that would have pertained before the act of observation, that the observer would not be actually able to notice the difference, but none the less, the final conditions must be different than those that pertained before the act of observation.

    Because facts must be able to be verified, once they cease to be known, they cease to be facts. There are clearly facts that one person knows, but that another person doesn’t. All that this indicates is that knowledge is different from person to person. To say that a fact is unknown, is to say that you are certain that a relevant fact must exist now, or existed in the past, or will exist in the future, but you are not able to correctly identify the proposition which forms its basis. You may or may not be able to name the person or people who would know this proposition.

  55. says

    Ben, You quoted me as saying “A mode of presentation is a pretty mind/language kind of thing–very hard to conceive of as existing before people” but I had added “(though not completely impossible)”. That was an allusion to Frege. Most people will find his third realm intolerably weird, so that does leave us with modes of presentation being psychological in some sense. Facts aren’t, so (as I argued above), it would be problematic to equate facts and true propositions.

  56. says

    Pogsurf, but you shifted from facts to knowledge again. I’ve already agreed that knowledge depends on a knower, but facts don’t. Known facts do, but facts as such don’t.

    It’s not true that facts must be able to be verified. Fact claims have to be verified, but facts don’t.

  57. says

    Somebody should get the people who do “The Big Bang Theory” to do something about the third realm. That would be entertaining.

    They have a minor character called Kripke.

  58. says

    So far I’ve got to comment 53 in detail. I need to go to bed soon, so I’ll close for the night here.

    On the subject of what particular terms mean, I’ll try in layman’s language.

    Imagine a pub quiz night. When the quizmaster reads out a question “Who won the FA Cup in 1932?” he is giving out an unfinished proposition of the form The FA Cup in 1932 was won by ____. Thus teams are invited to complete the proposition. If the completed proposition is true, the quizmaster will say the answer is correct, and acknowledge that your completed proposition is a fact.

    I’m afraid knowledge does not have a commonly agreed definition. There is a branch of philosophy called epistemology, or the philosophy of knowledge, but I think it is fairly well agreed that all forms of philosophy study knowledge to a lesser or greater extent.

    Ophelia, I’m aware that I am taking up a great deal of your blog space. If I am boring you to tears, or you are not happy about me continuing, I’ll happily disappear off into the ether. It’s your choice either way. Goodnight.

  59. says

    Pogsurf, no, you’re not boring me and I’m happy about your continuing. I think we’re talking past each other though. I keep saying a fact is not necessarily a known fact and you keep talking about known facts. Yes sure a quiz question could be answered with a fact, but that doesn’t mean that there are no facts that don’t depend on humans.

    I’ve been using layman’s language all along (I don’t know any other), and thought you were too. What language were you using before you took up layman’s language?

  60. says

    Yeah, there’s no way I would sign off on —

    All that this indicates is that knowledge is different from person to person.

    Which is imprecise. Which aspect of knowledge is relative from person to person? Justification, or truth?

    It might be correct in the sense that justification depends on various background abilities, concepts, and orientations to the world. So, e.g, we say that a blind man’s knowledge of the sunset is different from a sighted man’s. But it can’t be correct to say that truth depends on the person. Truth, whatever it is, has to be invariant across persons and across time. So, we can’t say things like, “This is true for me, but not true for you” when we’re talking about objective claims; that’s just relativistic idealism.

  61. says

    Ok. I am going to try and clear up the language issue first. As mentioned before, I have had some training in philosophy, so when I see Russell Blackford’s statement:

    “A fact is a proposition that actually is true.”

    it is my judgement that Blackford is using language here in a precise and technical way. This is not just to do with the actual sentence, but also because of the context of where the sentence was made (comment 71 of Coyne’s blog “Can philosophy or religion also establish facts?”) I believe Blackford has crystalised a whole thought into a single sentence, and it would be wrong for me to try to alter Blackford’s sentence, and yet claim that I had not altered the idea that he was trying to express.

    On the other hand. when I said in comment 61 above that I was going to use layman’s language, I meant that it would be perfectly possible to change some of the words without changing the sense of what I was trying to convey. You can swap “pub quiz” for “maths test in a classroom” for instance, as long as you are prepared to make all the other changes to the same paragraph, so that it still makes sense. These are bits like “quizmaster” to “teacher” and “Who won the FA cup in 1932?” to “What is the square root of 17?” etc. The essential points about what is a fact and what is a proposition, and how they are linked via the logical value “true” would not be changed. I think it is clear that there is a limitless stock of changes that could be legitimately made to the paragraph without its intended meaning being changed.

    I am touching here upon that common bugbear of yours and mine, that people without formal philosophical training can find it difficult to recognise what exactly it is that philosophers do, and get very irritated by that fact. I don’t think many professional philosophers would quibble with my claim that ideas can be expressed either in a formal, technical way or in an informal, layman’s way, whilst still employing a native language such as English. Philosophers can also occasionaly express their ideas in a very precise, technical way, using representational symbols, such that the expression would look very much like a mathematical equation. Using this type of symbolism would be entirely off the planet here on this blog, because it would completely inaccessible to your readers. However this symbolism can help to iron about any problems of translation that can occur when an idea is adapted from one native language into another.

    You would presumably agree that you cannot tinker with a mathematical equation, say “(2×5).X = j”, and not expect to change its meaning in some way; but that you can express the same mathematical concept expressed in “2 apples plus 5 apples = 7 apples” even if you substituted in the word “pears” for “apples”. Technical language, touch at your peril. Layman’s language, an invitation to adapt into a more familiar form.

    If your own craft is authorship, I think there will be phrases and statements that you yourself would be able to recognise as technical. Things that might sound like “the word count is 1,500 over the limit”, “paragraph 7 contains 6 typos, and is not grammatical” or “it is a great piece of writing, but it is not suitable for our readership”.

  62. says

    Ok from comment 54 above, and the work that the police do.

    Firstly, to the best of my knowledge, I have never made the claim that in any particular situation there are no facts. This cannot ever be true. Given that we are in the universe, and that we are trying to establish conditions that hold in some other part of the universe, there must always be some facts which can be established. Sometimes though the facts we establish will be extremely unhelpful, such as “I have looked everywhere that is humanly possible, but I cannot find it.”

    Policemen collect evidence. Evidence is used to prosecute or defend a court case. In an adversarial system, the two sides in criminal case get together at the start of a case, sift through the evidence, to agree on which evidence they agree, the facts, and which evidence is disputed. The truth of the facts are agreed by both sides and are presented to court as a kind of background material (there surely is a legal term here, but I have no idea what it is). For the purposes of the court, the truth of the disputed evidence is unknown, and so it is the duty of the court to fairly present that disputed evidence, and allow a jury to make a decision on the weight of the evidence. The eventual decision of the jury creates a new fact, which is whether the defendent is to be considered guilty or not guilty.

    The fact which a policeman is crucial to determining is to whether he believes there is enough evidence to warrant a prosecution.

    I am slowly coming to the conclusion that there are three types of knowledge, or if not quite this, then there are three different perspectives upon what knowledge is.

    1, There is knowledge of the kind “I know …”. In the above the policeman is saying “I know we have enough evidence to convict”. This is utterly dependent on the skills and experience of the policeman, and his judgement about how the evidence will be used in court. Another policeman might well make a different call. “I know” statements can range from the extremely simple “[I know] that hurts!” to the highly complex “I know I can recite the Bible backwards whilst standing on one leg”.

    2, There is knowledge of the kind which is encoded into evidence or artifacts. Letters, telephone messages, blogs, diaries and books are fairly obvious kinds, but even a finger print on an item makes the statement “I was here”. A couple of interesting examples would be the Pioneer Plaques which have been placed into deep space craft, and the Rosetta stone which lead to the rediscovery of the meaning of hieroglyphics.

    3, There is knowledge of the kind which is agreed by consensus. In the above the jury must utlimately agree whether the defendent is guilty or not. The name of a baby, the result of a sporting contest, what time two people should meet and a multi million dollar financial transaction are all bits of knowledge which are created when two or more people make some sort of an agreement.

  63. says

    Um. The purport of #71 seems to be that I shouldn’t be talking about this because I have no formal training in philosophy and don’t know how to use the technical language (both of which are certainly true). Well, ok, I guess, but I like to try to understand these things even without the technical language. But if I’m just fucking it up, then ok, I’ll take the hint and stop talking about it.

    The last para of #71 is confused – the language of “the word count is 1,500 over the limit” and “paragraph 7 contains 6 typos, and is not grammatical” is that of an editor, not an “author.” I don’t know what “the craft of authorship” is – but whatever it is it’s not likely to be identical to what editors do.

    At any rate, clearly the point is that I don’t know anything. I may know how (to do “the craft of authorship”) but I don’t know anything relevant to a discussion of this kind. That’s true. Apologies for interrupting.

  64. says

    Ok I take it back, I’m not shutting up yet. For someone with professional training you’re doing a remarkably bad job of explaining things to the peasantry. I keep saying that facts are independent of humans (not known facts but facts themselves) and you keep completely ignoring that and continuing to talk about facts as synonymous with knowledge. What’s the point of that? Surely you can grasp that – however uninformedly – that’s not what I’m talking about, so why not at least tell me why it’s starkly impossible for facts to be independent of humans, instead of taking it for granted and continuing to talk about facts as synonymous with knowledge as if I’d never said a word? I can’t even tell if you’re ignoring me on purpose out of contempt or by accident because you aren’t paying attention or what. It’s annoying. Talking past people is annoying. In a professional it’s unprofessional.

  65. says

    Hi Ophelia, something has gone wrong here, and I apologise if #71 has annoyed you. That wasn’t my intention in the least, and I’m sorry if I expressed it in a silly or clumsy way.

    I respect authors, and I believe their efforts to get their ideas into print should be commended. Clearly my ideas about what an author does are muddled here. I do have a professional qualification, but not in the field of philosophy. I certainly do not look down on people according to what their line of work is, and I’m sorry if I have given you that impression.

  66. heddle says

    I challenge Ward to give me just one reasonably well established fact about the world that comes from “general philosophical views, moral views, personal experience and judgment” without any verifiable empirical input.

    How about this?– Science and religion are incompatible.

  67. sailor1031 says

    Oh poggy, dear poggy – you are incomprehensible at least to this non-philosopher. I do have a post-baccalaureate degree in Computer Science so I’m not entirely unused to logic. Perhaps if you restrained yourself to using normal english?

    Oh and the math?

    “(2×5).X = j”

    10X = Y. There – fixed it for ya! And stay away from ‘j’ which has a specific meaning in math & engineering circles, unless of course that that is what you meant.

  68. says

    Sadly sailor1031 is totally unfamiliar with Lampyard’s third postulate, and missed a rather important mathematical reference, making himself appear very drole in the process. Well done for showing off you brains, though. Next time could you try addressing me with some respect, or is that also too much to ask?

    Mathematicians who have not learnt what counts in life irritate me profoundly, especially at this time of night. Don’t bother trying to contact me personally, I’m not interested.

  69. sailor1031 says

    Well here’s your chance to enlighten us about “Lampyard’s third postulate”, go ahead!

  70. says

    Pogsurf – you haven’t done a great job of addressing people with respect yourself. You say that was not intentional, but you should at least realize that that’s the situation.


  1. […] This challenge was answered, in turn, by Jim Houston in The Philosophy Magazine blog Talking Philosophy, in which he takes Jerry Coyne to task for not having contacted Ward about his challenge, when, in fact, making the “challenge” was obviously rhetorical. To this Jerry Coyne replied with his post “Can philosophy or religion alone establish facts?” I’m not quite sure what Jerry decided to include philosophy either in his original challenge or in this response to Jim Houston’s Talking Philosophy gig, because yoking philosophy and theology together is really mixing apples with oranges, especially since the kind of thing Jerry is attempting to do here is, quite simply, philosophy, and no doubt he thinks that it has some “factual” content. And, not to leave out another important contribution to the conversation, Ophelia Benson has just posted her take on the issue over at Butterflies and Wheels with the catchy title, “Facts and Beliefs.” […]

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