Turf war?

There is some substance to the perennial debate over whether the existence of gods is largely a philosophical problem or a scientific matter. But I also wonder whether much of the debate is an artifact of existing academic disciplinary boundaries.

So here’s a suspicion to consider: most of this dispute is due to an artificial, socially constructed and historically reinforced separation that makes philosophy and the sciences separate cultures with their own sets of habits (“methods”). Our educational process certainly reinforces this sort of separateness, where talking across disciplinary boundaries becomes very difficult due to different established subcultures. In other words, I suspect a much of the dispute over whether supernatural beliefs should be evaluated within philosophy or within science is a useless turf war.

I further suspect that most people who have something serious to say about the question of the gods would agree—broadly speaking, and subject to the usual disagreements about matters of emphasis. After all, you can’t launch into a scientific critique of the gods while ignoring the tendency of theological claims of all levels of sophistication to become insulated from reality checks. And you can’t get anywhere understanding why “a supernatural agent did it” has become implausible as an explanation without availing yourself of the immense background knowledge due to the naturalistic development of modern science.

If we organized intellectual life differently, maybe we’d have less of these unproductive turf wars. Right now, our training in various disciplines perhaps focus too much on clusters of habits (“methods”) and a particular research tradition. But at least in my experience in the sciences, productive crossing of disciplinary boundaries often comes about when people get interested in a particular question or puzzle, and then don’t feel constrained to be exclusively channeled into existing traditions when figuring out ways to approach that puzzle. If research is driven by a particular question rather than an established tradition, it might have a better chance of avoiding getting trapped in various turfs.

So if the alleged reality of supernatural agencies is the puzzle facing us, I would expect that anyone interested would gather a variety of tools for themselves. They would avail themselves of the philosophical tradition, yes, but they could hardly overlook physical cosmology, evolutionary biology, cognitive science, sociology of religion, etc. etc. and so on and so forth.

Again, I hardly think this is to say anything controversial. And yet, I still regularly read articles by philosophers griping about someone in the “New Atheist” orbit supposedly naively taking God to be a scientific problem (John Shook in the latest Free Inquiry, for example). So I suspect there is a turf war hidden in these disputes. And like most academic turf wars, this one is largely bullshit.

About Taner Edis

Professor of physics at Truman State University

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/07559081710058635050 Pulse

    You make your case that philosophers should open up to scientific evidence when considering the "reality of supernatural agencies", but when is the reverse true? Under what circumstances should scientific questions open up to philosophical methods?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10778996187937943820 Taner Edis

    Pulse: "Under what circumstances should scientific questions open up to philosophical methods?"

    I don't see any reason to restrict these circumstances. Anyone can jump in. (Though they are not guaranteed success.)

    After all, there are good examples in, for example, the philosophy of physics, where a philosophical perspective can be helpful. Sorting out the nature of time, etc.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10965786814334886696 Infidel753

    The nature of the question makes it a scientific one because it boils down to a claim about objective reality which could in principle be proven true or false. The claim "a supernatural being with qualities X, Y, and Z exists" is, properly considered, a hypothesis, just like the claim "humans and chimpanzees have a common ancestor" or "the Earth is 6,000 years old", and equally susceptible to proof or disproof by evaluation against the evidence. As you say, such religious claims tend to be formulated so as to render them immune to such evaluation, but in practice most specific religious claims carry implications which can be compared with the world we see around us.

    It's hard to see what philosophy would have to offer since, as far as I know, philosophy can't (or, at least, never has managed to) nail down the truth or falsity of any proposition with the degree of certainty that the scientific approach allows. If philosophers did do that, they'd be doing science, not philosophy.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09773324482031159784 Philip K

    It begs the question to say that “a supernatural entity did it” is implausible as an “explanation,” since explanations are what scientists specialize in. If religious claims are mythological and meant to ground a way of life in certain attitudes, such as faith-based humility that there’s a reality that transcends anything we can conceive of and thus anything human scientists can figure out–what philosophers calls “mysterianism”–then scientists don’t speak to religious questions–unless you think scientists, as such, have the authority and the expertise to tell people how they should live.

    If God is supposed to be this ultimate mystery, rather than a being that exists in the way we understand how natural things exist, the question of God’s “existence” isn’t scientific, and the dispute doesn’t reduce to a useless turf war. In other words, to the extent that theology is mystical or mysterianistic, the best way to rationally deal with theology is with philosophy, not science, because philosophical methods (intellectual habits) are broad enough to entertain the question of whether what there is is encompassed by what we can know. Meanwhile, science is methodologically naturalistic, so mystical ontology isn’t a scientific subject matter (it’s ruled out straightaway).

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10965786814334886696 Infidel753

    If religious claims are mythological and meant to ground a way of life in certain attitudes,

    This would be a rather staggering way of framing the issue. A society's way of life should be grounded in attitudes derived from claims which are beyond anyone's ability to figure out whether they are true or not?

    This is certainly not how religions have traditionally framed the issue. Pre-modern religionists mostly believed that Jehovah (or Zeus or Odin or whatever) existed in the same sense that the chair I'm sitting on at the moment exists. It was only after advancing human knowledge made such claims implausible that they started coming up with all this murky stuff about things being true in different senses or in ways exempt from the tests by which we would assess the truthfulness of any other kind of claim.

    If religionists want to claim that the entities in their hoary mythologies exist in some sense beyond "what we can know", then they can't know anything about it either, and so the claim collapses.

    "What I'm saying is beyond the power of human knowledge to determine whether it's true or not, but I'm telling you it is true, and even if it isn't, you should base your attitudes and values on it" isn't much of a basis for burning people at the stake, or even for deciding whether to use birth-control pills or not. I see no basis for giving such claims any value at all.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09773324482031159784 Philip K

    Infidel753,

    Here’s an analogy to think about. Western cultures have a romantic view of love, deriving from the trubadours. Courtly, romantic love is a way of life. Is this way of life based only on what can be proven? On the contrary, romantic love is spoiled if it’s reduced to a pragmatic question of the evidence of love and so forth. You have to trust that the partner loves you and isn’t playing you for a fool. It’s the same with the mystical traditions in most religions. This is where religious faith comes in, and it’s why religions conflict much more with science than with philosophy.

    Now, as a matter of fact, I think you’re mistaken when you say religions don’t actually frame the issue in terms of a faith-based way of life. Clearly, eastern religions are much more about ways of life than about empty adherence to a creed. Islam is the same way, and so is Orthodox Judaism.

    Christianity is the major example of a religion that has actually been concerned more with belief than with practice. This is because the literalistic, exoteric, “Catholic” side of that religion won out against its mystical, Gnostic side, so that the religion could serve the oppressive purposes of the declining Roman Empire. But even in Christianity, there’s talk of the need for a way of life and not just for a set of beliefs. You can find this in the Epistle of James (“faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead”) and in Jesus’ talk in Matthew of the need still to follow every jot and tittle of the Torah. And don’t forget the Christian monasteries.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09773324482031159784 Philip K

    Infidel753,

    Also, I think you’re mistaken when you say that premodern religionists believed their gods exist in the same way that chairs exist. Certainly, Buddhists and Hindus had no such crude, literalistic understanding. Otherwise, they wouldn’t have talked about encountering God (Atman/Brahman or nirvana) subjectively, in meditation. For them, chairs and all other material things are illusions rather than ultimate realities; moreover, for them God is as mysterious as consciousness, and you can’t sense consciousness in the same way that you can sense a chair. For example, you can’t sit on consciousness.

    No, I think, rather, that the whole notion, of God’s existing in the same concrete way as a chair, derives from modern science. It’s only after modern scientists showed the materialistic basis of the natural world, that the concept of purely concrete, natural (nonteleological, nonspiritual) existence had any place. And so it’s only relatively recently that someone could ask whether God exists in the same sense as purely natural things exist. (The notion makes no sense, of course, if God is assumed to have created the natural order, which is why science-minded atheists tend to bark up the wrong tree.)

    The ancient Romans often thought of their myths in historical terms, but like any imperial religion, theirs was nationalistic and thus geared, above all, towards a specific way of life: supporting their homeland. Roman religion had its mystical side too, though, as found in the mystery cults, which were also about inspiring a way of life, not just instilling a set of useless beliefs.

    Sure, it would be self-contradictory to say, “No one knows whether God exists, but I do know and I’m telling you God exists.” But this is a strawman argument. Mystics may claim to know that God exists, but they do so based on subjective experience that calls for faith.

    Religion is supposed to humble people so they can live together in society; it’s supposed to make people submissive rather than arrogant, and it works by getting people to identify their society's conventions with a reality that is beyond them in every way: beyond their power, their knowledge, their imagination, their virtue, and surely their science. Thus, they should submit to society’s rules and live in peace. And if the human leaders of society say someone needs to be burned at the stake, God wills it, so submit!

    Not to recognize these mystical and social sides of religion is to argue against the scientistic strawman that’s been made popular in so-called new atheist circles. By the way, I’m an atheist and I’m defending not religion so much as philosophical atheism against the annoying too-scientific kind.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09773324482031159784 Philip K

    Infidel753,

    Also, I think you’re mistaken when you say that premodern religionists believed their gods exist in the same way that chairs exist. Certainly, Buddhists and Hindus had no such crude, literalistic understanding. Otherwise, they wouldn’t have talked about encountering God (Atman/Brahman or nirvana) subjectively, in meditation. For them, chairs and all other material things are illusions rather than ultimate realities; moreover, for them God is as mysterious as consciousness, and you can’t sense consciousness in the same way that you can sense a chair. For example, you can’t sit on consciousness.

    No, I think, rather, that the whole notion, of God’s existing in the same concrete way as a chair, derives from modern science. It’s only after modern scientists showed the materialistic basis of the natural world, that the concept of purely concrete, natural (nonteleological, nonspiritual) existence had any place. And so it’s only relatively recently that someone could ask whether God exists in the same sense as purely natural things exist. (The notion makes no sense, of course, if God is assumed to have created the natural order, which is why science-minded atheists tend to bark up the wrong tree.)

    The ancient Romans often thought of their myths in historical terms, but like any imperial religion, theirs was nationalistic and thus geared, above all, towards a specific way of life: supporting their homeland. Roman religion had its mystical side too, though, as found in the mystery cults, which were also about inspiring a way of life, not just instilling a set of useless beliefs.

    Sure, it would be self-contradictory to say, “No one knows whether God exists, but I do know and I’m telling you God exists.” But this is a strawman argument. Mystics may claim to know that God exists, but they do so based on subjective experience that calls for faith.

    Religion is supposed to humble people so they can live together in society; it’s supposed to make people submissive rather than arrogant, and it works by getting people to identify their society's conventions with a reality that is beyond them in every way: beyond their power, their knowledge, their imagination, their virtue, and surely their science. Thus, they should submit to society’s rules and live in peace. And if the human leaders of society say someone needs to be burned at the stake, God wills it, so submit!

    Not to recognize these mystical and social sides of religion is to argue against the scientistic strawman that’s been made popular in so-called new atheist circles. By the way, I’m an atheist and I’m defending not religion so much as philosophical atheism against the annoying too-scientific kind.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09773324482031159784 Philip K

    Infidel753,

    Also, I think you’re mistaken when you say that premodern religionists believed their gods exist in the same way that chairs exist. Certainly, Buddhists and Hindus had no such crude, literalistic understanding. Otherwise, they wouldn’t have talked about encountering God (Atman/Brahman or nirvana) subjectively, in meditation. For them, chairs and all other material things are illusions rather than ultimate realities; moreover, for them God is as mysterious as consciousness, and you can’t sense consciousness in the same way that you can sense a chair. For example, you can’t sit on consciousness.

    No, I think, rather, that the whole notion, of God’s existing in the same concrete way as a chair, derives from modern science. It’s only after modern scientists showed the materialistic basis of the natural world, that the concept of purely concrete, natural (nonteleological, nonspiritual) existence had any place. And so it’s only relatively recently that someone could ask whether God exists in the same sense as purely natural things exist. (The notion makes no sense, of course, if God is assumed to have created the natural order, which is why science-minded atheists tend to bark up the wrong tree.)

    The ancient Romans often thought of their myths in historical terms, but like any imperial religion, theirs was nationalistic and thus geared, above all, towards a specific way of life: supporting their homeland. Roman religion had its mystical side too, though, as found in the mystery cults, which were also about inspiring a way of life, not just instilling a set of useless beliefs.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09773324482031159784 Philip K

    Infidel753,

    Sure, it would be self-contradictory to say, “No one knows whether God exists, but I do know and I’m telling you God exists.” But this is a strawman argument. Mystics may claim to know that God exists, but they do so based on subjective experience that calls for faith.

    Religion is supposed to humble people so they can live together in society; it’s supposed to make people submissive rather than arrogant, and it works by getting people to identify their society's conventions with a reality that is beyond them in every way: beyond their power, their knowledge, their imagination, their virtue, and surely their science. Thus, they should submit to society’s rules and live in peace. And if the human leaders of society say someone needs to be burned at the stake, God wills it, so submit!

    Not to recognize these mystical and social sides of religion is to argue against the scientistic strawman that’s been made popular in so-called new atheist circles. By the way, I’m an atheist and I’m defending not religion so much as philosophical atheism against the annoying too-scientific kind.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/03979486158632953954 Joshua

    I think you are correct in saying that our university departments are in a turf war over what is the truth. The battle between Creationism and Evolution can be seen almost daily in the news. There is always one side or the other trying to gain an inch over the other.

    Several educational disciplines cross when discussing these issues, philosophy, science, and ethics. When discussing religion one cannot avoid these different educational areas. A turf war is almost certain to happen with these disciplines pulling at each other for power.

    I agree, any person who is wanting to understand a side to an argument, must recognize the importance of understanding all the different disciplines associated with that topic. By having a good understanding of these disciplines, once can be logical in his or her conclusions.

    Its a large problem that academics must face each day. There are many people who think they know what they are talking about but have no background study in that particular topic. You won't see a scientist discusses the natures of philosophy or vice versa. But it happens. This is where the turf wars begin. When people discuss topics that they do not know anything about and it causes issues amongst the student body.

    Good article, very interesting.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05211466026535549638 Bradley Bowen

    Taner Edis said…

    I suspect a much of the dispute over whether supernatural beliefs should be evaluated within philosophy or within science is a useless turf war.
    ============
    Comment:

    This strikes me as a self-undermining statement.

    If you are correct that supernatural beliefs should be evaluated primarily by means of an interdisciplinary (philosophy + science + history + psychology + ???), then the discussion about whether science or philosophy is the most appropriate discipline to use is NOT "a useless turf war" because it is precisely this discussion that needs to happen in order for people to come to agreement that an interdisciplinary approach is best (if you are correct in that assumption).

    The real question at issue, as you are indicating, is this: What is the best approach to answering questions about the existence of God and other supernatural beings/forces? One position is (a) science is the best approach; another position is (b) philosophy is the best approach, and you are suggesting that (c) an interdisciplinary approach is best.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05211466026535549638 Bradley Bowen

    Infidel753 said…
    The nature of the question makes it a scientific one because it boils down to a claim about objective reality which could in principle be proven true or false.
    =========
    Comment:

    If "the question" here includes 'Does God exist?', then your statement begs some important philosophical questions:

    (1) Is the sentence 'God exists' a meaningful sentence?
    (2) What precisely does the sentence 'God exists' mean?
    (3) How can we be confident that we have correctly interpreted the meaning of the sentence 'God exists'?
    (4) Assuming that the sentence 'God exists' is a meaningful sentence, does it make a statement (a claim that could be true or false)?
    (5) Assuming that the sentence 'God exists' does make a meaningful statement, is the statement coherent or does it contain a logical contradiction (like 'A four-sided triangle exists' or 'A married bachelor exists')?

    Are these questions scientific questions? They strike me as being philosophical questions, not scientific questions.

    I don't see how you can intelligently deal with the question 'Does God exist?' unless you can provide plausible and well-supported answers to the above questions.


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