Thought Notes 8/11/2014: Hume, Science and Faith

I think that Hume’s problem of induction is one of the most fun and fruitful philosophical problems out there. Not because the immediate problem itself is especially edifying, but because sustained reflection and engagement with the problem will cause you to reflect on and engage with nearly every major issue in philosophy, spilling over into the sciences and even humanities. Whether or not it is an actual problem is a matter of some debate, but for the sake of argument and reflection it can be kind of assumed to be a genuine problem.

I don’t remember what brought the topic of ‘science and faith’ to my mind (a topic I honestly think is so worn out as to nearly be a dead horse) – maybe it was a random tweet or something like that. But I got to thinking about the nature of the ‘false choice’ between science and faith that many people seem to think is set before earnest young enquirers – naturally, when faced with such a choice, they opt for Science, leaving their faith behind as a distant memory of something they couldn’t ‘reconcile’ with what they took to be the modern scientific world.

A few thoughts (I sort of began thinking on this topic here): if science and faith are in conflict, and you opt for science over faith, it appears to me that what you didn’t have faith, but had a system of beliefs that was actually already quasi-‘scientific’ in nature, and not religious. Basically, it wasn’t faith you had, it was crappy science that was overruled by different science. Any given piece of empirical data doesn’t do anything to strengthen or weaken faith unless it’s already presupposed that the merit of that faith are based upon empirical evidence. Apparent ‘design’ in nature (to take one example) isn’t proof of anything – but given a prior commitment to God as a designer, it becomes something which doesn’t strengthen the actual belief but simply reinforces the underlying presuppositions. I was going to say that it confirms what you already knew, but that doesn’t work either – if you know something you don’t need it confirmed – you already know it. So it’s not even that the data confirms something to be true – it simply justifies you more in holding to the presuppositions you already hold to.

So, with that in mind: the ‘false choice’ of either science or faith becomes not a choice between science and religious belief but between science and quasi-science. If belief in God or the Resurrection or what have you can’t be reconciled with a ‘scientific worldview’ then the problem isn’t reconciling science and faith but reconciling science and quasi-science. Religious ideas have ceased to be religious and have become a quasi-scientific ideas, and since those ideas can’t (obviously) be reconciled with science, they are jettisoned.

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12 thoughts on “Thought Notes 8/11/2014: Hume, Science and Faith

  1. Kevin Davis August 11, 2014 / 3:53 pm

    A few thoughts (I sort of began thinking on this topic here): if science and faith are in conflict, and you opt for science over faith, it appears to me that what you didn’t have faith, but had a system of beliefs that was actually already quasi-‘scientific’ in nature, and not religious.

    In all of my reading on religious epistemology, mostly from theologians and not philosophers, the most rewarding and most challenging is Newman’s ‘Grammar of Assent’. It is a very dense and difficult book, though you wouldn’t have any problems. His thoughts are similar to what you write above. The problem with doubt in the 19th century, which is scarcely any different today, is not philosophical or scientific, but theological. The assent of faith was misunderstood, namely the certitude proper to it. Newman even argues for the indefectibility of faith, meaning that doubts are always about something other than faith proper. (As an aside, Newman was not thereby affirming the Reformed position, because he believed — as a good Roman Catholic — that salvation could be lost through a moral defection.) So, I would encourage you to read it, not that you don’t have enough to read already! It is right up your alley.

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    • whitefrozen August 11, 2014 / 4:12 pm

      I’ve been wanting to read that for some time now – I either started an excerpt or read something else from Newman and realized that, as you said, his stuff is very, very dense. But now that you break it down a bit I may have to acquire it. Although as I was thinking about this issue, it struck me that it’s probably not too far off from a Wittgensteinian conceptual confusion.

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      • Kevin Davis August 11, 2014 / 4:36 pm

        That may be right. When I did my MTh dissertation on Newman, I vaguely remember reading a scholar who was making comparisons between Newman and Witt, arguing that Newman anticipates Witt in certain respects. I don’t remember any details or the source, and (as with all dissertation research) I was pouring through dozens of secondary sources in short order!

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  2. SamL August 14, 2014 / 3:32 am

    I think it’s a fairly nuanced issue whether science and faith are in deep conflict, and (as per usual) depends heavily on what we mean by each. Firstly I’d say that it’s not really a case of whether they are logically *consistent* with each other — we can always make two positions consistent if we’re prepared to do enough interpretive work (whether through charitable reading or adoption of auxiliary positions on related matters). So the question is not whether they are inconsistent but whether they are in tension, and whether this tension (if it exists) is sufficient to force a choice between them.

    If science and faith are understood as epistemologies, or ways of knowing, then things could go either way. (The other way we could construe the question is as a metaphysical one: does what we’ve learned about the world from science conflict with whatever it is that faith commits us to, if anything? But I don’t think this the question you’re asking in this piece.) Science has no real unity of methodology, but I’d submit that it’s loosely unified by a pragmatic and anti-foundationalist approach to theory development — what matters is what works, and there are no beliefs about the world which are in principle immune to being swept aside by new theory. So I would say that science is liable to come into tension with any foundationalist epistemology — and this could range from crude “the Bible said it so it happened just like it says it” faith to classical foundationalism to something more sophisticated like reformed epistemology or sense-data empiricism.

    So it depends on what faith is. If faith is any (foundationalist) way of justifying claims about empirical reality, then it seems to be in tension with science (though to what degree will depend on how it’s details are worked out). At the other end we could say faith is an entirely different sort of knowing — perhaps a way of comporting oneself towards the world, of knowing as doing, or something. In this case it would not be in any sort of tension with science, as they would be concerned with entirely different things (though if this is what faith means, then it’s not clear why it should conflict with atheism or materialism either).

    I get the impression that you’re arguing that faith is a kind of foundational belief in God:

    “Any given piece of empirical data doesn’t do anything to strengthen or weaken faith unless it’s already presupposed that the merit of that faith are based upon empirical evidence. Apparent ‘design’ in nature (to take one example) isn’t proof of anything – but given a prior commitment to God as a designer, it becomes something which doesn’t strengthen the actual belief but simply reinforces the underlying presuppositions.”

    So the constrast is between someone who observes supposed design and infers God as an explanation (quasi-science) and someone who has a properly basic belief in God, and can infer from that that things are design in some sense regardless of what they look like or how science details the specifics (faith?).

    I think this is in deep tension with science — not necessarily with specific theories — but with the anti-foundationalist, pragmatist spirit of science. (I also don’t think this sort of foundational belief gets you much — of course you can hold belief in God as fixed, but as scientific theories fill in more and more of the details, and the natural order looks more and more like a causally closed domain, God looks more and more like an epiphenomenon. But that’s a different question, and is part of the reason for rejecting foundationalism in the first place.)

    Sam

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    • whitefrozen August 15, 2014 / 8:24 pm

      I’ll zero in on a couple things you said that stuck out to me (no real order):

      (1) ‘I get the impression that you’re arguing that faith is a kind of foundational belief in God:’

      I actually wasn’t arguing for any definition of faith – that paragraph was more about the ‘mechanics’, if you will, of how ‘evidence’ would ‘strengthen faith’. I’m pretty anti-foundationalist in that regard. iIn the area of religious epistemology I closely follow the reformed school of Plantinga, Wolterstorff, Alston, et al. As far as a positive definition of faith, I can only really speak for the Christian tradition, since that’s what I’m a part of – and faith in the classical Christian sense (derived from the Biblical teachings, which I think is a good place to get such a definition from) has much fewer cognitive applications and much more personal, fiduciary aspects. Much more can be said here though.

      (2) ‘Science has no real unity of methodology…’

      While science is obviously pragmatic (and, more obviously, doesn’t have a single ‘method’ insofar as actual experimentation is concerned), I don’t think it’s to the extent that you’re saying – specifically with regard to method, which I think can be contested on epistemological grounds in favour of realism. To get an idea of what I’m after, see these posts (not to bombard you with more reading material, but just so that you can better see where I’m coming from and we don’t end up talking past each other):

      https://theologiansinc.wordpress.com/2012/08/07/t-f-torrance-on-science-and-theology/
      https://theologiansinc.wordpress.com/2013/11/18/notes-on-torrances-scientific-methodolgy/
      https://theologiansinc.wordpress.com/2014/02/03/torrance-on-natural-laws/

      https://theologiansinc.wordpress.com/?s=stanley+jaki&submit=Search

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      • SamL August 17, 2014 / 4:51 am

        First a quick note about science — I didn’t really mean my invocation of ‘pragmatism’ to tie in with any kind of scientific anti-realism; it was just a comment on the justification and acceptance of new theories (which may or may not have implications for the realism debate). So the point was just the epistemological one that science is, I believe, anti-foundationalist in spirit. To take Neurath’s boat (here expounded by Quine) as a metaphor for how science works:

        “We are like sailors who on the open sea must reconstruct their ship but are never able to start afresh from the bottom. Where a beam is taken away a new one must at once be put there, and for this the rest of the ship is used as support. In this way, by using the old beams and driftwood the ship can be shaped entirely anew, but only by gradual reconstruction.”

        Anti-foundationalism appears in the analogy in the sense that there is no beam which irreplacable, and nor does there need to be — there are no properly basic beliefs, nothing is in principle off limits.

        So while reformed epistemology contrasts with classical foundationalism, it is still a kind of foundationalism in the broader sense that I am talking about, because it holds that belief in God can be a properly basic belief. I think this is broadly anti-science, not so much because of anything to do with God, but because science doesn’t and shouldn’t treat any belief as properly basic.

        From those quotes, Torrance seems to me to be taking a different sort of tack to that taken by reformed epistemologists. Rather than making a directly epistemological justification for faith and/or theology, he seems to be justifying it on the basis of a metaphysical distinction — science and theology just have different domains of study, so there’s no conflict there. Perhaps theology and science are different in the way that, say, mathematics and natural science are different.

        When he says:

        “… if we work with a deterministic and mechanistic conception of the universe as a closed continuum of cause and effect, we rule out of scientific explanation right away all the higher intangible levels of human experience and even put forward a completely impersonal view of science from which the human mind is excluded.”

        I think there are some things right about that and some things very wrong. He’s right that it would be question-begging to take it as an a priori assumption that the natural order is causally closed (though it is question-begging of him to say that this assumption would exclude the human mind). However, the causal closure of the natural order is not something which need be taken as an a priori assumption. It is, rather, an a posteriori discovery: when we look at the world, we find that all natural things with sufficient causes have sufficient natural causes. This might not have been true, but it seems to be so. This leaves little room for explanation of a different kind.

        Sam

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  3. whitefrozen August 17, 2014 / 11:07 am

    Thanks for the stimulating thoughts – a few of my own in reply:

    ‘First a quick note about science — I didn’t really mean my invocation of ‘pragmatism’ to tie in with any kind of scientific anti-realism; it was just a comment on the justification and acceptance of new theories (which may or may not have implications for the realism debate). So the point was just the epistemological one that science is, I believe, anti-foundationalist in spirit.’

    Anti-foundationalism appears in the analogy in the sense that there is no beam which irreplacable, and nor does there need to be — there are no properly basic beliefs, nothing is in principle off limits.’

    I would completely agree that in the actual sciences a spirit of foundationalism would be disastrous – laboratory work (real, actual science) would be pretty much done for if that was the reigning way of thinking. Every theory needs to be open to falsification, etc.

    ‘So while reformed epistemology contrasts with classical foundationalism, it is still a kind of foundationalism in the broader sense that I am talking about, because it holds that belief in God can be a properly basic belief. I think this is broadly anti-science, not so much because of anything to do with God, but because science doesn’t and shouldn’t treat any belief as properly basic.’

    Again, I agree that in actual lab work foundationalism isn’t a good idea. However, the difference between foundationalism and PBB is fairly significant here. I think you can argue that PBB are implicitly held by everyone but especially those working in the natural sciences, even though PBB developed as a religious epistemology (though William Alston’s work on perception actually does service to both religious and empirical data).

    ‘From those quotes, Torrance seems to me to be taking a different sort of tack to that taken by reformed epistemologists. Rather than making a directly epistemological justification for faith and/or theology, he seems to be justifying it on the basis of a metaphysical distinction — science and theology just have different domains of study, so there’s no conflict there. Perhaps theology and science are different in the way that, say, mathematics and natural science are different.’

    Without turning this into a Torrance-fest, yeah, he’s very different than RE. He takes the line that the natural sciences and theology operate with the same epistemology, based on his interpretation of Einstein, Clerk-Maxwell (Torrance is a brilliant expositer/interpreter of Maxwell),, Polanyi and what he calls ‘the new sciences’, which would be defined by critical inquiry controlled by the nature of whatever is under investigation, guided by tacit intuition. This is a rough sketch, though.

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    • SamL August 17, 2014 / 12:47 pm

      “Again, I agree that in actual lab work foundationalism isn’t a good idea. However, the difference between foundationalism and PBB is fairly significant here. I think you can argue that PBB are implicitly held by everyone but especially those working in the natural sciences, even though PBB developed as a religious epistemology (though William Alston’s work on perception actually does service to both religious and empirical data).”

      Not sure I’m quite seeing the contrast you’re drawing here — everyone has a set of basic assumptions about the world, etc., which they need to get anywhere or do anything, and scientists will likely have very developed ones, especially when applied to their research. But I wouldn’t count these as properly basic beliefs in the sense that, say, Plantinga intends, because they are subject to revision in the face of new information. If PBB’s were revisable in this way then it’s hard to see why they would be any different to any other theoretical hypotheses. On the other hand if they’re not revisable in this way, then they’re being taken as foundational beliefs.

      Sam

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      • whitefrozen August 17, 2014 / 3:55 pm

        ‘Not sure I’m quite seeing the contrast you’re drawing here — everyone has a set of basic assumptions about the world, etc., which they need to get anywhere or do anything, and scientists will likely have very developed ones, especially when applied to their research. But I wouldn’t count these as properly basic beliefs in the sense that, say, Plantinga intends, because they are subject to revision in the face of new information. If PBB’s were revisable in this way then it’s hard to see why they would be any different to any other theoretical hypotheses. On the other hand if they’re not revisable in this way, then they’re being taken as foundational beliefs.’

        Let me try and draw what I’m getting at a bit better.

        Consider Einstein’s famous statement about the belief of an external world being the basis for all natural science (Planck said similar things). This would be what I’d call an ‘ultimate belief’ (you could probably get away with calling it a ‘basic belief’). Beliefs of this kind, say, the intelligibility of the universe, that the world (universe) exists, fill what Polanyi called the ‘tacit dimension’. They provide us with an informal kind of knowledge that is by its very nature un-analyzable, because it’s basically a ‘fundamental form of recognition’ (Torrance). These beliefs are more or less forced onto us by the nature of reality, and have a formative (they affect our inquiry) and directive (they affect how we inquire). Think of them as regulatory axioms.

        What keeps them from becoming foundationalistic, however, is that eventually we reach a point where our knowledge where deep and profound epistemic changes have to be made, and these ‘ultimate beliefs’ are forced into the open and we can question whether or not these regulatory principles are grounded in reality or misleading us. Polanyi in particular wrote a huge amount about the nature of ‘personal commitment’ entailed in these kinds of ultimate beliefs.

        This is a rough and crude sketch of a rather complex philosophy of science, but hopefully I’ve been able to sketch out a conception of how there might be ‘fluid axioms’ in science (Torrance again).

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        • SamL August 19, 2014 / 3:09 am

          I agree with much of this. There are certainly deep beliefs which act as *something like* foundational beliefs — they are what is assumed in order to get anywhere with ‘higher-level’ analyses. I also agree that these will often be tacit and unvoiced (I’m sensing links here with Feyeraband, who thought that tacit beliefs of this sort were operative not just in theory but in observation, so there’s a sense in which the body of observation at any point in time is never independent of the incumbent theory).

          I particular agree with you when you say “eventually we reach a point […] where deep and profound epistemic changes have to be made, and these ‘ultimate beliefs’ are forced into the open and we can question whether or not these regulatory principles are grounded in reality or misleading us.” This lines up with Neurath’s boat, and taps into the spirit of coherentism directly. Even these deep, tacit, quasi-foundational beliefs can be dragged up and rejected (often leaving much of what was thought to depend on them in tact). When Einstein says that “the belief of an external world [is] the basis for all natural science” he is right if he is making the (historical) point that this has always been an operative assumption of natural scientists, but he’s wrong if he’s making the point that it’s *necessary* for natural science (clearly: you can be serious about science without being a realist).

          So I find this in tension with what you say a bit earlier, when you describe this tacit knowledge as “by its very nature un-analyzable”. It’s deep, it’s tacit, it’s assumptive, but it’s not un-analysable, because ultimately we can drag it up and ask whether it’s justified.

          So while the above considerations are, I think, a good way of approaching science (un-analysability notwithstanding), I’m not seeing how this is going to work for faith. If we call the things we’ve identified as tacit beliefs properly basic (but not foundationalistic) then we’re admitting that there may come a time when we need to abandon them, and this will depend on other considerations in other places, i.e. justification (science, philosophy, etc.). If faith is properly basic belief in God in this sense, then we seem to have lost a big sense of what ‘faith’ is supposed to mean (and I really don’t think someone like Plantinga would agree with this sort of characterisation — he wants to say that belief in God can be held without further justification, i.e. that belief in God is foundational).

          Sam

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          • whitefrozen August 22, 2014 / 9:48 pm

            Quick thoughts in reply:

            ‘So I find this in tension with what you say a bit earlier, when you describe this tacit knowledge as “by its very nature un-analyzable”. It’s deep, it’s tacit, it’s assumptive, but it’s not un-analysable, because ultimately we can drag it up and ask whether it’s justified.’

            Un-analysable in a formal, logical sense, not that we can’t drag them out and question/think about them. It’s not formal, propositional knowledge of the kind that we can subject to logical, deductive analysis. Since they cannot be put into logical forms by virtue of their nature as tacit beliefs, we have to analyze and question them by other means than formal/logical reasoning.

            ‘If faith is properly basic belief in God in this sense, then we seem to have lost a big sense of what ‘faith’ is supposed to mean (and I really don’t think someone like Plantinga would agree with this sort of characterisation — he wants to say that belief in God can be held without further justification, i.e. that belief in God is foundational).’

            Foundationalism, at least as far as theology is concerned, holds that a proposition such as, say, ‘God exists’ (or the existence of God in any form) is self-evident or evident to the senses. Aquinas is the classic example of foundationalistic theology. Taken from Wikipedia:

            ‘Anti-foundationalism rejects foundationalism and denies there is some fundamental belief or principle which is the basic ground or foundation of inquiry and knowledge.[6]’ (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Basic_belief)

            The difference being that PBB’s (as far as God is concerned) aren’t foundational – they reject the very thing that makes foundational beliefs foundational-istic, i.e the self-evidence aspect and the aspect of forming the axioms on which further beliefs can be based. So unless I’m really missing something, I don’t see how Plantinga’s PBB are doundational. Of course, faith is much more than simple affirmation of the existence of God – as far as classical Christian thought goes, that’s actually probably one of the less important aspects.

            ‘I’m not seeing how this is going to work for faith…’

            What I’m getting after is that both science and theology share deep methodological similarities – both recognize that knowledge of whatever reality has to be controlled by that reality as it further discloses itself to our inquiry. So the method of actually knowing God, of *doing* theology, is closely related to the method of actually *doing* science – see, for example:

            http://martinmdavis.blogspot.com/2010/01/t-f-torrance-scientific-theology-and.html

            http://martinmdavis.blogspot.com/2010/01/tf-torrance-scientific-methodology-and.html

            This takes us a bit far afield, though. The basic point is the ‘deep concord’ between the methodology of both the natural sciences as well as theological inquiry – yes, different domains of study (science doesn’t study God, theology doesn’t study science), but deep concords in methodology. Hopefully this clarifies things a bit more. Im going to try tomorrow to do a longer post explicating the views of Torrance/Polanyi, so hopefully that will both clarify and provide more conversation fodder.

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            • SamL August 25, 2014 / 3:53 am

              “Un-analysable in a formal, logical sense, not that we can’t drag them out and question/think about them. It’s not formal, propositional knowledge of the kind that we can subject to logical, deductive analysis. Since they cannot be put into logical forms by virtue of their nature as tacit beliefs, we have to analyze and question them by other means than formal/logical reasoning.”

              I’ll confess I’m a little puzzled by this line of thought. As I see it, these ‘tacit beliefs’ either have some degree of propositional content or they do not (how ‘formal’ this content is doesn’t seem relevant to me). If they do have propositional content, then all that’s needed for them to become analysable is that they be made explicit (and again I wouldn’t want to pin anything on the ‘formality’ of the analysis — the point is just that their content can be examined so as to potentially be rejected. This is sufficient to make them non-foundational). If they don’t have any propositional content, then several things become mysterious, in particular: what does it mean to reject them? how can they act as ultimate, underpinning beliefs of the those which make up the normative ensemble known as scientific method (which do have propositional content)?

              Re Plantinga — we seem to have our wires crossed here (also, I know Plantinga is not the be all and end all of reformed epistemology, but he’s the one I’m most familiar).

              Plantinga’s aim is to show that belief in God can be rational in the absence of evidence or argument, i.e. in the absence of further justification. (See, for example: http://www.iep.utm.edu/relig-ep/#SH3d — I’m not sure if you’re disagreeing with this characterisation?)

              Foundationalism is the broad view that justified beliefs (i.e. those it is rational to hold) are split into two kinds: those which are justified in virtue of being inferred from other justified beliefs, and those which are justified without needing to be inferred from other beliefs. (This is equivalent to the wiki entry you quoted, I just think it’s a more helpful way of drawing the link with Plantinga.) Anti-foundationalism then holds that there are no justified beliefs of the second kind (i.e. there are no beliefs which it is rational to hold in the absence of inferences from other rational beliefs, i.e. in the absence of justification).

              Classical foundationalism holds that the beliefs which can be held rationally without further justification are those which were self-evident (e.g. Descartes’ “I think”). Plantinga is against this, for sure, but in the sense that he wants to widen the pool of rational non-inferred beliefs to include things which are not self-evident, in particular ‘God exists’. So Plantinga is not a classical foundationalist, but he is a foundationalist — in other words, Plantinga’s properly basic beliefs may not have to be self-evident, but what makes them foundational is that they can be rationally held in the absence of justification. (Whether these beliefs act axioms or not is non-critical — we can have axioms in coherentist systems as well.)

              “What I’m getting after is that both science and theology share deep methodological similarities – both recognize that knowledge of whatever reality has to be controlled by that reality as it further discloses itself to our inquiry. […] The basic point is the ‘deep concord’ between the methodology of both the natural sciences as well as theological inquiry – yes, different domains of study (science doesn’t study God, theology doesn’t study science), but deep concords in methodology.”

              OK, well I have no particular interest in being down on faith (as far as I can tell it’s one of those things which is what people make of it). By way of a cursory remark I’d just like to note that there being different domains of study looks rather critical to this, and that’s something I find very hard to buy into. I suppose we could talk about phenomenology having a different domain of study to natural science, but this domain has an opaque context (by definition), and I don’t think it makes sense to talk about the application of scientific (or science-like) methodology in an opaque context (phenomenology is not and never will be a science, though this is not to say it lacks value). So I think that the primary task of a defence of faith of this kind has to be to explain what this domain of study is, why it’s different from from the domain of natural science, and why it makes sense to apply scientific method there.

              Sam

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