Monday, February 23, 2009

Knowing More than Science

It is all the rage to be critical of the scientific enterprise as a route to knowledge. Even pre-eminent scientists, rather than state the obvious that many scientifically corroborated claims disprove many of the claims made by the religious, take great pains to assure us that science and religion are compatible. See the recent Edge discussion, and also note Sam Harris’ clear take-no-prisoners answer. Here’s a simple way to think about it: Do religious doctrines make claims about what is alleged to be true? Clearly, they do. Does science make claims about what is true? Clearly it does. Do the claims about reality that religion makes ever differ from the claims about reality from science? Yes. So religion and science are not compatible—end of story.

But back to the question of this elusive non-scientific knowledge. Lots of people feel quite confident that science does a fine job at producing some knowledge of the world, but what it can’t do is lay claim to be able to know everything there is to know. There are truths, we are assured, that are beyond the scope of science. There are things we know that science can neither confirm nor disconfirm. So all that there is to know cannot be known through science alone. There are a number of candidates. In the philosophy of mind, anti-reductionists insist that there is something “it is like” to be a bat, or me, or Abraham Lincoln. There is some irreducibly subjective, first person experience to be had from inside that gives the experiencer knowledge of a special sort. And since this knowledge cannot be rendered into anything empirically observable or scientifically testable, it follows that there is some knowledge that is beyond science. Another obvious candidate is some special knowledge of God that people claim to have that science, no matter how hard it tries, cannot, even in principle access to confirm or disconfirm. Maybe knowledge of moral truths, or truths about beauty, or knowledge of special experiences like love belong on the list of special non-scientific knowledge. The list could go on.

To put this set of claims in perspective, consider a ridiculous example: “Science cannot know everything there is to know because science cannot account for my special knowledge of the future that I acquire from looking at my crystal ball. Nor can science account for my special body of unicorn knowledge. There are a great many things that I know from my crystal ball. And there are many things about unicorns, like that they are real and that they have real magical powers, but they are invisible and undetectable through any normal empirical methods, that I know that science cannot explain. Therefore, science’s claims to be able to know everything there is to know are dogmatic and exaggerated.”

What’s happened here is some serious question begging. The issue, it would appear, is whether or not his crystal ball does in fact give him any knowledge of anything. The issue is whether or not there actually are any unicorns. Those claims don’t achieve the status of knowledge just by proclamation. If they are known, then they must be true. And if they are known, then they must be justified. Without justification, one won’t be entitled to call them knowledge. Claiming that there are more ways to know that merely through science is one thing. Actually producing is another. Unless there are some extraordinary circumstances and some rather substantial burden of proof has been met, our objector here isn’t entitled to claim that these non-scientific claims are known. That’s not a scientific bias. That’s not scientific dogmatism. The need for justification in order to achieve knowledge is a demand of reason itself. Science has provided us with one resoundingly successful model for acquiring knowledge. We gather data, form hypotheses, make predictions, and then test those predictions. If they are not borne out by our attempts to corroborate, then we scrap that idea and move on. The virtue of the scientific method is that it gives us a viable way to discriminate between the justified and the bogus. It allows us to separate the mistakes, the lies, the fabrications, and the screw ups from the real.

The person of a scientific or naturalistic bent need not adhere to this notion slavishly. We can allow, in principle, that there could be other ways of knowing. What we have seen is that the scientific route succeeds. It works. By itself, that doesn’t show that no other route can work too. But the scrap heap of formerly great ideas in history that didn’t pan out does show us this. We can’t simply accept some claim that cannot be empirically corroborated at your word. We can’t assure each other that there is more to know that what science discovers and then gallop off into those hinterlands unchecked. There has to be some sort of reality check. We need skepticism, error checking, corroboration, and doubt. We’ve got to have some method for separating the authentic non-scientific knowledge claims from the bogus ones. Your crystal ball doesn’t really work. Nor are there any unicorns with magical powers. So if there is some special category of non-scientific knowledge that we can get to, and it is neither empirically confirmable, nor is it whacky like the unicorns claim, then there has to be some principled and reasonable way to check it. There has to be some method for justifying it that will also make it possible for us to reject the nonsense.

If you’ve been able to tolerate listening to or reading Deepak Chopra, you have seen just what happens with there’s no error checking mechanism in place. Chopra doesn’t concern himself in the slightest with whether or not any of what he’s saying can stand up to any rational scrutiny. He’s sure that there is a reality beyond that of science. And there’s nothing reigning him in on his wild, fanciful speculations about it. The transcendental temptation, the longing for there to be this delightful realm of the metaphysical, lures him and thousands of his avid followers out into the stratosphere. Their only guide to what’s true amounts to what’s spiritually pleasing.

Besides your favorite imaginative guru, several candidates sources for this extra-scientific knowledge come to mind: maybe you think that your special non-scientific knowledge can be found when you read your special, magical religious book, like the Bible. The thing is, a book is an empirical object. And this book makes lots of claims that are empirically disconfirmable. In fact, this book makes lots of claims that are empirically disconfirmed. So that raises serious questions about our being able to accept it as a special source of metaphysical knowledge that transcends our normal scientific methods of checking.

Maybe your special source of metaphysical knowledge about the world that transcends science is some intense feelings you have, or a voice you hear when you pray fervently, or an overwhelming sense of a presence of the Almighty. Plantinga claims he has a sensus divinitatus. Craig says he’s got the witness of the Holy Spirit that assures him beyond any possibility of empirical disconfirmation that Jesus is the Son of God. Here again, the problem is that intense feelings or voices in your head are notoriously unreliable sources of information about what’s real. We’ve got lots of other eminently plausible explanations of what might be going on here that don’t involve anything beyond the natural. So it won’t be enough to just have the feelings to know that they are authentic. What exactly is the cross checking, corroboration method that is in place here? How does one check on the authenticity of these feelings to confirm that they aren’t misguided or bogus? Do you consult your special faculty of metaphysical knowing to see if your special faculty of metaphysical knowing is reliable? Can you be sure that the voice in your head is reliable because it assures you that it is? See how inferior this absurd, circular sort of justification is to the empirical, scientific way? You can’t really expect us to believe you when you say that you know there is a God because you had a special feeling. And you know that the special feeling is reliable because it really, really feels like it is. If I told you that that’s how I came by my special, transcendent unicorn knowledge, you wouldn’t accept it for a second. You shouldn’t expect us to take you seriously with that bullshit, and you should have enough intellectual integrity to refuse to allow yourself to be seduced by it as well. Suppose that I tell Plantinga and Craig that I have my own special sensus atheistus and it assures me, beyond any possibility of mistake, that anyone who claims to have direct experience of God is mistaken. Now at least one side of this standoff of magical intuitions has got to be mistaken. If we all merely check with our magical intuitions to see if they can be trusted, we are not one step closer to sorting out the truth. And none of us are justified or entitled to call our feelings knowledge on these grounds alone.

So, in principle, we’re prepared to entertain this notion that these special, metaphysical speculations are in fact examples of non-scientific knowledge. We need not be dogmatic that there is nothing else to know except what science discovers. But be careful what you ask for. If you think you’ve got this magical knowledge, then you must also have some reasonable, plausible error correcting method. There must be some way to separate real from bogus metaphysics. You don’t think that just any idea can fly or count as non-scientific knowledge. You probably think that unicorns are not real, and that Deepak Chopra’s claims about an invisible life force permeating all of reality binding us together with love is suspicious. When Oprah got all excited about the Secret, we hope you were at least a little bit dubious. So what’s going to be the test to separate metaphysical bullshit from metaphysical knowledge?


Anonymous said...

The Truth will make it's own way.

No one can know for certain these matters of faith. e have to trust that they are true.

Same for so-called scientific theories such as big bang, and it's "possible origins".

Believers in Christ Jesus had had the Holy Spirit given to them.

Feelings, or intellectual ascent aside...I know this because it was promised to me in my baptism.

I can count on that promise. I have been given the faith to believe it, or to trust it (trust might be the better word).

Matt S said...

This is genius!

I'm going to try that one out: "well my sensus atheistus says that you're bullshitting."

Scarecrow said...

Just out of curiosity by clicking on "Steve Martin" in this thread and by clicking on "I believe that I can't Believe" on another thread it takes me to the same web site. Are you the same person?

This begs the question, why post under different names?

Josh May said...

I think you're right that the typical proposals of non-scientific knowledge from theists are usually quite bad. But I do think there are obviously pieces of knowledge that we have that aren't arrived at or due to science.

For example, I know that:
- today is February 24th,
- when there are two explanations of a phenomenon that equally well explain the phenomenon, it's reasonable for people to believe in the explanation that's simpler,
- all bachelors are unmarried,
- I get bad headaches sometimes,
- it's cruel to tease one's sister just to revel in her misery,
- the ontological argument sucks (is a bad argument).
- explaining the Knobe effect in terms of little men in our skulls that force us to say that the CEO harms the environment intentionally is a poor explanation.

Of course, I'm not trying to undercut science here or anything. And I'm not trying to push for some special metaphysical faculty of intuition. And I'm not saying that science can't be a route to these pieces of knowledge I've cited. (I'm just saying that science is not how I came to know them at least.) I'm just worried about the view that we only acquire knowledge by scientific/empirical investigation. That's one way to acquire knowledge about certain things (namely, things that are apt for that method of inquiry). But some things we can come to know in different ways. As you note, the religious person's proposal for a non-scientific route to religious truths needs to show that the route is a rational or reasonable one, not a scientific one. So the broader thing here is the idea of something's being a rational or reasonable route to a belief, not a scientific route.

I'm not trying to defend the theist here at all. I just get very worried about this extremely popular way of characterizing the theism-atheism debate in terms of science vs. religion. The real fight is between reason and religion. It's just not true that science is our only source of reasons. Thinking otherwise makes the theist think that the atheist has to provide a scientific account of everything. And if that were true, then maybe the theist would have a good argument against atheism. But it's not true, so it's all good.

But whatcha think? Thanks for the post!

M. Tully said...

"Just out of curiosity by clicking on "Steve Martin" in this thread and by clicking on "I believe that I can't Believe" on another thread it takes me to the same web site."

Yeah Carbon, you'll get the same thing if you click on "Head in the Sand." I think it's like the Union Army on Little Round Top. If he moves around enough, we'll think there are more of them.

Of course someone with a more suspicious mind set might think it was a deceitful tactic to get more hits on their blog. Not that I'm saying that but, I'm just saying.

M. Tully said...

"well my sensus atheistus says that you're bullshitting."

Matt S, that is hilarious. Can I use it or is there a copyright (I will of course give due credit).

M. Tully said...

"That’s not a scientific bias. That’s not scientific dogmatism. The need for justification in order to achieve knowledge is a demand of reason itself."

And that is one of things I have the hardest time discussing with my theistic friends. They'll tell me, "You're just as dogmatic as I am with your scientific methods."

But the truth is I'm not. I would dump the scientific methods in a heartbeat if "another way of knowing" was demonstrated to describe the world as we see it and make predictions about future states with more accuracy.

Hey, come up with a better explanation of life on earth than evolution. Show that wishful thinking gives better patient outcomes than scientific medicine. Demonstrate the ability to predict the behavior of sub-atomic particles better than the standard model and quantum mechanics.

If any group does that, I'll flip in a NY minute (and no it doesn't count if these things get over turned by later science using more accurate instruments).

Now if that makes me scientistic, well so be it.

Anonymous said...

Carbon Based,

I do use diferent names depending on the the post, or the issue. Just for fun. No ulterior motive.

Jon said...

Your right that science is "the shit". I think so far that both science and reason demolish reasons for belief in God via "rational scrutiny". Both science and reason are entangled in "rationalism" which empiricism relies. They both compliment each other when demolishing belief if God or the possibility of God existing.

Science is our great tool, and rationalism is a tool that supports it and does not go against it.

Ah well, I need sleep since I had to work and exam and be up for over 27 hours.

I'll come back and exercise some more, maybe get a clearer view after (especially after hearing the varied arguments in time).

Anonymous said...

M. Tulley,

I really do just change up the name on different posts (usually) for fun.

I don't nee any more hits on my site.

In fact, it's getting to be too much for me. I'm thinking about taking a little break from it.

This blogging thing can get out of hand if you let it.

Anonymous said...

Yes professor you make a good point. How do we weed BS metaphysical claims? Well this seems to lead us into wether reality as we know it is human constructed or discovered. If the former than it is by the conventions of thought in a given era. If the latter than we must rely on intial conventions of thought...

Anonymous said...

Atheist have just as much faith in their position as due theist. Both are firmly planted in their views. And both intially need some form of ground to plant their feet...

But of course this seems to beg the professors point...which one is BS and how do we determine this?

Anonymous said...

Josh may good point. But is the razors edge always a way to determine wether X is a rational belief? There are many scientifc theories (evolution for instance) that are quite complex.

Anonymous said...

"But the truth is I'm not. I would dump the scientific methods in a heartbeat if "another way of knowing" was demonstrated to describe the world as we see it and make predictions about future states with more accuracy."

Surely Tully you dont "know" that the scientific method is correct because it is scientific?

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Anonymous said...

"But the truth is I'm not. I would dump the scientific methods in a heartbeat if "another way of knowing" was demonstrated to describe the world as we see it and make predictions about future states with more accuracy."

Surely Tully you dont "know" that the scientific method is correct because it is scientific?

Anonymous said...

Guys and Gals,

I'll stick to one name on my comments since that seems to have been a distraction for some.Sorry for that.

Here is a very short post on another blog that I thought you scientists types might find interesting:

I'd love to know what you think about it.


M. Tully said...


"Atheist have just as much faith in their position as due theist."

OK, maybe we're into semantics. My definition of Faith: Believing in something without and / or despite credible verifiable evidence.

So, no my lack of god belief requires no faith, just as my lack of anal probing alien abductor belief requires no faith. I find insufficient evidence to give credence to either of them.

M. Tully said...


"Surely Tully you dont "know" that the scientific method is correct because it is scientific?"

I'm not even positive I know what your getting at but I'll give an explanation a shot.

Explanatory and predictive power does not define the scientific methods. It is rather a goal. A goal I also agree with but that has nothing to do with whether or not it is scientific. Although scientific methodologies will vary some due to field and circumstances, the overall process is generally along the line of observations, question development, hypothesis generation, testing, repeatability and falsification.

Now I also agree with that general framework, but only because it has been the most effective at reaching my goals. However, If "a better way of knowing" came along, which better met my goals of explanatory and predictive power, I would dump scientific methodology for that "other way."

mikespeir said...

I guess if I have a teeny quibble, it's about this suggested "sensus atheistus." (Wrong construction, BTW. "Atheistus" would be Greek, not Latin, but with a Latin declension.) What would be the source of this sense? Wouldn't it have to be extra-natural? Wouldn't it, then, be to some degree evidence contrary to what it's trying to tell you?

Anonymous said...

Steve Martin: We have to trust that they are true.

No we don't.

Same for so-called scientific theories such as big bang...

No, it's not the same. There is actual scientific evidence for the big bang.

Anonymous said...

This blog is the top Google hit for "sensus atheistus." Congrats.

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