Against Faith and In Defense of Naturalism and Induction

It should not be necessary for understanding this post, but in case you’d like to catch up on the full debate with Camels With Hammer Reader/Debate Spar Extraordinaire Shane leading up to this post, here are the previous installments:

Objections to Religious Moderates and Intellecuals 1

Objections to Religious Moderates and Intellectuals 2

Objections to Religious Moderates and Intellectuals 3

Objections to Religious Moderates and Intellectuals 4

On Teleology and Intellectual Virtues and Vices

How Faith Is Not Like Other (Revisable) Reflexive Assumptions

Shane replies to my latest salvo:

“Methodological Naturalism when it proves the only reliable way of categorizing and explaining the world that we have yet devised proves itself as the best metaphysics we have . . . The simple reality is that scientists are not just methodologically pretending the world follows strict causation but giving powerful evidence for the inference that it does.”

I’m not sure I understand exactly what your argument is here. It’s supposed to be an argument for the truth of a strong metaphysical claim, but you’re talking here about methodological naturalism. So I’m confused.
The last sentence though makes it sound like an inductive claim.

1. a can be explained naturalistically.
2. b can be explained naturalistically.
3. therefore for all x, x can be explained naturalistically.

No, the argument is a, b, c, d, e, f…z can all be explained according to fundamental causal principles, the probability of deviation from which is 0.  Therefore, there is a nearly absolute probability of causal necessity, which leads to a presumption in favor of a closed-naturalistic order of natural causes.

That’s an inductive argument, but as you know inductive arguments are the weakest kind of arguments because their premises don’t guarantee the truth of the conclusion.

1. a is a swan and white.
2. b is a swan and white.
3. therefore, for all x, if x is a swan, x is white.

The crucial point about inductive arguments is that they have to be open to falsification. If I show you a black swan, then I’ve proven that not all swans are white.

But, earlier you were wanting to rule out the very possibility of miracles a priori. “There just can’t be any miracles or other non-natural phenomena because they violate the laws of nature; and because there are no supernatural phenomena, therefore Naturalism is true.” But you can’t say this on pain of vicious circularity. It would be like saying: “All the swans I’ve seen so far are white, therefore by induction all swans are white, therefore if somebody tells me he has seen a black swan I know he’s lying because all swans are white.” Well that’s just obtuse; you can’t get an a priori dismissal of black swans from the inductive argument that all swans are white. In just the same way, you can’t get an a priori dismissal of the possibility of miracles from an inductive argument for metaphysical Naturalism.

I’ve granted you that methodological naturalism is a valuable research strategy in the natural sciences, but I have yet to see a really strong argument from you, or anybody else as to why metaphysical naturalism is supposed to follow from methodological naturalism. And, of course, methodological naturalism, by itself causes no problems for a religious person.

Scientific theories are only falsifiable in the first place if you assume a world of causal regularity.  If when my theory gets falsified I can post that a witch doctor must have cursed my experiment I can rationalize it away.  The reason I cannot do that is that the witch doctor is not a testable causal mechanism that can explain with any reliability why my theory’s predicted results failed to manifest.

I am not able a priori to say that it is completely conceptually 100% certain that there is not some supernatural realm or some possibility for a miracle.  But there is (a) no probability in favor of it.  (b) No reason to positively affirm such a realm, given that lack of probability.  (c) Everything we know about this universe and all of the scientific knowledge we have of it rests on the implicit metaphysical assumptions of naturalism.  While the naturalism itself is not falsifiable, it undergirds every theory which is falsifiable.

You want to point up the bare possibility, however miniscule (however close to zero), that the laws of nature as they are always, reliably observed to function could deviate due to a supernatural influence which somehow could effect the natural realm without itself being composed of natural substance itself (because if the “supernatural” were composed of natural elements and followed natural processes it would simply be another feature of the natural).  And these non-natural forces?  What do we even call the non-natural?  Is it mathematizable?  Does it introduce new energy into the universe?

You simply cannot talk about such things as probable or improbable without incorporating them into categories of the natural order.  I cannot even wrap my mind around how these miracles are even to be conceived.

But, since our knowledge of causes is only incredible probability, that “weak” induction that actually has led us to figure out how to split the atom and fly to space, there is always the barest possibility that these causes are not necessary and that they could experience hiccups which accommodate some human beings favored by the divine.

But if you really want to be that Humean and point out the limits of induction, it’s hypocritical to turn around and trumpet faith which isn’t even probabilistic as somehow an acceptable category of reasoning.  Induction is inadequate for perfect knowledge.  That’s not a license for an even worse kind, the bare authority of 1st century religious zealots.  Seriously, for 6 posts I have raised examples of bare, baseless authoritative religious assertions and you have insisted they are not to be dismissed as completely arbitrary.

So, explain to me, how did the ancient Israelites know that the creator of the universe held their moral failings against them but could be appeased by the spilling of calf blood?  How did Paul know the arcane cosmic legal standards by which the substitution of Jesus could provide propitiation (or is it expiation?) for all who believe in him.  Naturalism is not a certain induction.  I grant that, I hold it provisionalliy as the best way of thinking I know of.  Now, make the positive, constructive case to me about how Paul is a reliable authority on the cosmic justice system.  Please explain how exactly you verify the Israeli interpretation of themselves as God’s chosen people.  How is that a better inference about the nature of reality than these weak, weak inferences of mine that the success in assuming a naturalistic metaphysics for actually gaining falsifiable and powerfully predictive theories implies as a likely inference that the assumed metaphysics undergirding those theories is itself true.

Waving the flag of infinitesimal open possibility as the tiny crack by which it is merely possible that non-natural events happen or that ancient nomads intuit cosmic justice systems for dealing with their cosmically interpreted sins is simply not enough.

About “prejudices”.

I see my earlier example above wasn’t clear. science also relies upon a sort of prejudices. Once upon a time, long long ago we thought there were two different things: theories and observations. You formulated a theory, then you went and tried to get observations to verify it through empirical experiments. But, lo and behold, all observations already depend upon prior theories. Say I’ve got a theory about how far a ball will shoot out of a cannon. I set up my experiment and run it and observe that the ball goes exactly where I predicted. The prejudices latent in my observation here are my mathematical beliefs (the ones I used to run the calculation in the first place) and the prior theoretical belief in the accuracy of my senses. NB I’m not saying that sensation itself is a kind of prejudice; I’m saying that my view about the veracity of what I sense, when I’m healthy, sane, etc. is a kind of prejudice.

You are competely murkying the waters by equating non-inferential knowledge with prejudice.  Prejudice is when you are disposed against seeing anything differently even in the face of evidence.  A theory or a raw sensation both incline you to see things a certain way but they can also recognize anomalies.  While theories are slow to change, they can at least countenance anomalies and they recognize a pressure to solve them.

Theoretical and perceptual assumptions also have to have been confirmed by previous experience.  They are wholly different than arbitrary authorities telling you that God wants blood for your sins–be it yours or Jesus, doesn’t matter, he just needs blood.

To compare a baseless speculation like the latter to a theoretical assumption based on naturally accessible evidence, mathematical models, inferences about probability, etc. is to compare apples and oranges.  And, far, far worse, you are exploiting the limitations on our ability to know with certainty to justify our ability to claim to know according to the anarchy of arbitrary posits.  In other words, even rigorously empirical scientists have to deal with theory-laden observation that has to be balanced by careful tests of coherence.  To then take this as a justification that the bald, baseless assumptions of ancient people about cosmic matters are as justified as scientists too since, just like scientists they are incorporating assumptions into their thinking is, again, a farce.

Theories, perspectives more broadly, condition what we can see, but within theories we can also see anomalies.  Scientists, social scientists, and ideally philosophers respond to anomalies not with simple rationalizations but with new hypotheses that have to respond to the realities of the world and the evidence.

The process is less conclusive in some cases than in others, but in none of these fields is there a communal commitment in advance to have to believe what a 1st century thinker thought on pain of hell.  In none of these fields are these assumptions deliberately further complicated by tying their answers to people’s propensity to worship.  In none of these fields are people encouraged to make the leap of logic you offered the other day—the priest is a happy guy, therefore, his abstract theoretical formulation of the point of life is likely to be true, even if it involves fantastical, archaic, pre-scientific superstitions.

In none of these other fields are a particular theory inculcated into children as unrevisable accounts that they must cling to in the face of all evidence.  No scientist teaches people to say, “but you just must believe.”  They say, these are the best, most predictive, explanatory models we have.  These are the most likely explanations we have.  And that’s it. These are not the life and mind-dominating and constricting kinds of assumptions that faith is.  None of these commit you eternally to the cosmic fantasies of archaic people.

The point is a very simple one but examples are easy to find in the history of science. Take astronomy for another example. We’ve got optical telescopes that we use to make observations to test our astronomical theories. But our ability to use optical telescopes depends upon the correctness of another theory: our optical theory, which depends upon our knowledge of geometry and a whole other series of experiments and observations which themselves also depended upon some prior theoretical commitments. More generally, a contemporary philosopher of science might say: all observation is theory-laden.

The hermeneutic point I’m trying to get across about religious, moral, aesthetic and cultural beliefs is closely linked to that point in the philosophy of science.

Religious theories are nowhere near as responsive to reality as scientific, moral, aesthetic, or other cultural beliefs are.  Religion calcifies belief in its centuries old forms, even when other spheres of inquiry soundly discredit it.  We do not live in the supernaturalistic world it posits or naturalism wouldn’t even work in the laboratory. And even if that inference of mine is wrong, there’s no positive reason to think that it is.

“What’s wrong with having religious beliefs in this way is that those beliefs purport to be about (a) metaphysically true propositions whose only source of claimed authority are ancient people wildly speculating without arguments about the nature of mysterious realms and the nature of cosmic sin and cosmic propitiation, etc. Also (b) religious beliefs, unlike aesthetic and moral ones, flat out contradict the natural order and therefore must be rejected as false.”

Well, I think (b) is wrong for the reasons I adduced just above. You are seeming to want to rule out religion a priori because of your prior commitment to metaphysical naturalism. But you haven’t given me any good argument for the truth of metaphysical naturalism yet. So (b) is out.

(a) is also a non-starter. “Look how stupid religion is–those sheeple will believe anything.”

I didn’t call you “sheeple,” I said you believe in things that were wild speculations without evidence.  That’s a fact.  What is your evidence that God demands blood to atone for sins?  Prove you’re not a sheep who just “believes anything” if that’s so foolish.  What’s your source outside of “ancient people wildly speculating without arguments about the nature of mysterious realms and the nature of cosmic sin and cosmic propitiation.”   Let’s have it already.  Let’s see the derivation from your free thought or your credible experts.

This is the same kind of rhetoric one commonly sees in political discussions: “Those damn {liberals/conservatives} just aren’t reasonable. They just arbitrarily believe whatever foolish nonsense people tell them to in {Manhattan/Kansas}.”

However, as I’ve already described earlier, this simply isn’t how or why people come to be religious (or how we come to hold the moral or political beliefs we hold either). I don’t believe the things Christianity teaches just because some crazy people in ancient Palestine said so.

Okay, explain to me your independent reasons to think that

(a) the divine requires blood sacrifices to save sins.

(b) Virgin Births are coherently consistent with the natural order as we know it.  In the world you dream of where everyone is properly educated in science, how will they see this as possible.

(c) a God could impregnate a woman.

(d) there is a hell

(e) there is an afterlife at all

(f) a human being can raise from the dead

(g) a human being can fly up into the sky without an airplane and wind up in heaven

(h) a blazing chariot can swoop down from the sky and take a human being up to heaven

(i) the divine sends bears to eat children who make fun of his prophets.

(j) the divine commands the genocides we read about in Genesis.

(k) the Bible contains the Word of God.

(l) a being exists that not only is a principle explaining the eternity of existence (G0d) but that this being is simultaneously also a person with human form and, on top of that, another separate third Spirit person). Explain how that squares “coherently” with logic and how it is metaphysically plausible, probable, or in any other way, credible.

(m) a being existed that was not only a god and a man but fully both.  Explain how that squares “coherently” with logic and how it is metaphysically plausible, probable, or in any other way, credible.

Since you don’t believe these things on “authority” explain to me the reason and evidence you have for these positions.  Make your case that these things are compatible with a world of gravity, atmospheric pressure, conservation of energy, mitosis, etc.  I really want to hear these physical explanations and metaphysical inferences. since they don’t at all rest on the bald assertions of crazy people in ancient Palestine.  Enough with saying you don’t rest your arguments on authority, let’s see the non-authoritative appeals.  No reference to the Bible, no reference to theologians, just us and our free minds.

And each of your explanations have to be more likely than the premise that if naturalism as an underlying assumption can teach us how to split the atom, build an ipod and go ot the moon, then that is inductive reason to posit (provisionally) that the fundamental metaphysics of the world is itself naturalistic.

Explain to me how these other propositions are not just .00000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000001 probable to be true but actually more epistemically rigorous and justified than my “weak” inductive inference.

I believe it because it makes sense to me, it coheres with my experiences (religious experiences, moral experiences, perhaps aesthetic experiences) and because nobody has ever given me a /good/ reason to think that it is false. Look, I’m granting you that these reasons I have to be religious in no way guarantee that my beliefs are true. But neither you, nor Clifford, nor Dawkins, nor Mackie, et al have given me any /good/ reason to think any of my religious beliefs are false.

It coheres with your experiences only if you rationalize the superstitious fantasies away.  Unless you want to ditch all the literalism and just start saying it’s a book of literature, in which case you would just be an atheist who likes Christian ethics and ritual, but I don’t think that’s your take.

Chris further chimes in to ask:

This discussion is moving in an interesting direction. Dan, in relation to the first points raised in Shane’s post, I wonder if you could comment on the possibility that naturalism (as defined above) and religion represent non-overlapping magisteria (NOMA). This possibility was raised by Stephen Jay Gould and criticized by Daniel Dennett. It holds, I believe, that when religion makes claims about things outside the purview of naturalism, then naturalistic evidence can neither confirm nor disconfirm these claims. If this were true, it seems that arguments about naturalism (such as those considered above) would not be decisive in the debate about faith, and that other arguments for and against faith as an additional source of knowledge would need to be considered.

Hi Chris, the problem is epistemic, there is no reason to postulate that religion has any special claim on anything.  Scientists cannot use the scientific method to do ethics but that certainly does not translate into religion having authority over the field.  It’s up to rational philosophical investigation that appeals to an understanding of our psychology, our biological and social needs and conditions, investigations into our possibilities for actualizing various possible excellences in accord with the functions of our powers. It involves reconciling our moral feelings and a priori intuitions about things like “Fairness” with competing claims, circumstances, and needs.

On and on, there can be rational, evidential, logical, and intuitional inference and argumentation without any deference to holy men or holy books.  Insofar as there are ethical insights in those holy books or from holy men, we can incorporate them if they can be defended rationally.

But there is no basis to posit that there is any such realm of the supernatural over which the church may have magisterium or that there is any realm of life over which it has any justified authority.  Where does that authority come from?  God?  Who says?  How can you confirm that?  That’s the most audacious powerplay imaginable to claim to speak on God’s authority and to rise above question thereby, with not so much as a shred of evidence beyond the bald word of ancient text writers to go on.

You wouldn’t believe Obama or W or Clinton or anyone alive today if they told you that they are the son of God or that they have seen God and are relaying his new message to you.  You wouldn’t accept it today.  You don’t believe it when Mohammad claims it or when Joseph Smith does.  You don’t believe it when L. Ron Hubbard makes up fantastical stories about our cosmic origins.  None of this is remotely plausible.  Even if we were to grant the possibility that there is some metaphysical principle worth calling the ground of all being or “God” the idea there is no basis for the enormous leap from that it communicates to specific human beings who need give no corroborating evidence for their claims about the cosmic court system or about a God that is both God and man (which, of course, is gibberish).

Check out the comments section below to see Shane and my final remarks for the time being as we suspend “The Shane Series” indefinitely.

And then go read If Faith Isn’t Publicly Justifiable How Can It Provide Justification? for my reply to Chris’s remarks in the comments below this post.

And, as always, I’d love to see Your Thoughts in the comments below this and all posts.

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About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.


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