Resistance to evidence

Last weekend I presented at a local conference, with faculty members from various departments across campus talking about their work. Since I have been working on a paper (with Maarten Boudry) having to do with the limits of physics and how we might find a signature of a supernatural cause in data, I talked about that—nice interdisciplinary topic and all that.

Among the responses I got, a couple were interesting in their resistance to the notion of any empirical test of a supernatural claim. I’ve run into this sort of thing before, so let me attempt a rough classification of the types of resistance.
  1. Some see this as an unacceptable putting God to the test. (Though I talk about supernatural agents in general, not any specific deity.) We end up with something akin to a conspiracy theory: If you test God (or approach him with less than fully pious attitude), he will make sure your test is useless. 
  2. There’s also a more liberal-ish religious response. Since God is supposed to be metaphysical rather than physical, or because God is “the ground of Being” or for some such reason not an object among other objects, evidence has no bearing on the matter.
  3. Some atheists object, always preferring a naturalistic explanation of any evidence over any claim of supernatural agency. And there always is a naturalistic alternative. (Just like there is always a supernatural alternative: Satan planted all those fossils!) 
  4. Many, regardless of personal position, find the notion of testing supernatural claims distasteful, since it breaches a firewall they imagine exists between science and religion. Playing around with empirical data—science—can never say anything about the supernatural. Possibly because a controlled experiment cannot be ensured or some such reason.
There are probably others, but these are the main evidence-is-irrelevant attitudes I’ve encountered.
I’m not going to get into why I’m not impressed by any, since there is little in common between these positions. But I wonder if there is something psychologically interesting here. I can understand the motivation of believers; given the relentlessly naturalistic tendency of modern science, it makes sense to try to hide the gods even deeper in the Realm of the Unseen. But plenty of nonbelievers also seem to be invested in taking mere evidence out of the picture. I’m not sure what is going on—a desire for certainty allegedly achieved through philosophical considerations? (I’m willing to believe that the God Of The Philosophers is an incoherent mess. But supernatural agents in general?)

About Taner Edis

Professor of physics at Truman State University

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/12645042531440559735 Aaron Boyden

    "Natural" is a rather tricky term; it's not clear what the standards are for something to count as natural. I'm not sure I think it's absurd to just count anything that can be empirically tested as natural (empirical observation is itself surely a natural process, after all). Admittedly, that doesn't seem to be exactly what any of the four groups you mentioned are saying, but your post did leave me wondering what your method of drawing the boundaries between natural and supernatural was.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/04982524614308121228 Mark Jones

    This comment has been removed by the author.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/04982524614308121228 Mark Jones

    I'm closest to no. 3, but would note that this isn't 'resistance to evidence', per your title, I don't think, but resistance to a particular interpretation of evidence. In this respect the evidence is always relevant, and always open to a naturalistic explanation, as you accept. If we charitably allow that there could be something beyond the natural, despite the difficulties of definition, I would concede that there might be evidence for the supernatural, but since natural explanations would always be on balance more likely (by definition? I really don't know how a supernatural event could be more likely than a natural one), one would have to, in all conscience, prefer it. This logic appears inescapable to me.

    Except, possibly, for the proposal you are exploring. Tom Clark, and you and Maarten I guess, have pointed out that we cannot exclude the possibility that we could identify, somehow, evidence from the supernatural realm, whatever that means.

    If this were the case then supernaturalists would have to recant any previous opposition to science as a route to this knowledge and embrace folk such as Richard Dawkins (who would no doubt follow the evidence and rejoice in this new testable realm to explore!).

    But, as you rightly point out, many supernaturalists are resistant to the accessibility of the supernatural, so would deny any identifying mechanism (or say, "But I have access to a different supernatural realm"?). In fact, as far as the supernatural/natural debate is concerned, I fear we would be no better off with the identifying mechanism than without it. Would this suggest the problem is in the human mind rather than reality, and so insoluble through reference to the external world? Maybe.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16641266062186767500 Keith Parsons

    Taner,

    A very thoughtful post that segues with my earlier posts on testing supernatural hypotheses. As you note, it is an attitude that you can understand, if not condone, when a zealous proponent of a supernatural hypothesis resists rigorous testing. Harder to understand is the resistance of secular, liberal people. I noted the same sort of thing with respect to published responses to the "new atheists" like Harris, Dawkins, and Hitchens. Some of the most vituperative responses did not come from conservative Christians, but from left-leaning intellectuals who would no more be found at a prayer meeting than munching pork rinds at a NASCAR rally. Howcome?

    As far as I could tell from reading several of these, the chief objection was that militant atheism, under the guise of debunking God, really sought to remove every last element of mystery or enchantment from the universe. They also seemed to resist the demands of objectivity, wishing to preserve a realm for the subjective. Their objections echoed Tennyson's response to 19th Century rationalism: "The heart has its reasons that reason knows not of." In short, these critics seem to concede that rational argument and objective evidence support a consistent naturalism, but, since they do not want a consistent naturalism, then too bad for rationality and objectivity.

    It seems to me that the objections of such secular, liberal critics rest upon a common misconception–the idea that scientific understanding empties the universe of its wonder. This is the same attitude expressed in Walt Whitman's "When I Heard the Learn'd Astronomer." A good antidote to Whitman is Galileo's Siderius Nuncius, where we clearly see that discovery makes the universe far more wonderful.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/00176754512128249839 Nathaniel

    Personally, I deny the existence of the supernatural. If something exists, then it exists naturally. If ghosts or faeries exist, then there is an explanation for their existence. They inhabit the supernatural realm now simply because if/how they exist.

    Perhaps there is some underlying metaphysical structure to existence that we might not be able to directly test for. But we might still be able to make predictions about universes which certain principles would produce and test to see if our universe matches those predictions to indirectly test for these metaphysical principles. Granted, that's a bit beyond my understanding. In my mind, that's a big "might" right there.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02647353730607650698 Hiero5ant

    Sign me up for the "what does supernatural even mean" camp.

    Are ghosts, the sudden creation of the bacterial flagellum, and prophecies of a rapture "supernatural"? Then we can, must, and have tested supernatural hypotheses.

    But what is it about all three of these things that they share in common? Hell if I know.

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

    Taner Edis said…

    I can understand the motivation of believers; given the relentlessly naturalistic tendency of modern science, it makes sense to try to hide the gods even deeper in the Realm of the Unseen. But plenty of nonbelievers also seem to be invested in taking mere evidence out of the picture. I'm not sure what is going on—a desire for certainty allegedly achieved through philosophical considerations?

    =============
    Comment:

    Philosophically, one of the biggest objections in the 20th century to religion (and belief in supernatural beings/events) has been Logical Positivism, and the objection was to the meaningfulness or the coherence of the claims of theology and metaphysics:

    Do the assertions of theology and metaphysics really make coherent factual claims?

    The question is, no doubt, overly broad and pushes thinking into the black-or-white fallacy. There probably are some meaningless assertions in theology and metaphysics and there probably are some meaningful factual claims that also fall into these areas.

    But questions of meaning and coherence dominated philosophical discussion of religion for many decades, so it should not be surpirsing that many atheists and skeptics still push this sort of objection to the supernatural.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/12645042531440559735 Aaron Boyden

    The logical positivists (well, Carnap; really, one shouldn't speak of the Logical Positivists as if they were a monolithic group) thought that metaphysical claims were usually specifically disguised value judgments, not just any old kind of meaningless noises. I think Carnap was probably right about a decent number of metaphysical claims, and it probably applies to a decent number of supernatural claims as well. Whether there's such a thing as evidence for value judgments is of course a controversial question, but even if there is such a thing, it is certainly different from the evidence you'd look for to test a supposedly supernatural claim if you were taking it more or less literally and checking whether it was straightforwardly true.

    Since Carnap didn't think those engaged in this practice of disguising value judgments as truths normally understood themselves exactly what they were doing, his theory would explain not only why they think your evidence is irrelevant (it is), but also why they can't adequately explain to you why they think it's irrelevant.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16641266062186767500 Keith Parsons

    Alvin Plantinga somewhere remarks that the demise of the verifiability criterion of meaning freed analytic philosophers to take seriously metaphysical claims. That may well be, but, of course, suspicion of metaphysics extends back well before the logical positivists. I think Kant's critique is still powerful: Metaphysics uses concepts that are correctly employed in contexts where there are empirical constraints on the application of such concepts. However, in contexts, typical of metaphysical speculation, where there can be no such constraint, our normally useful concepts can lead us to Cloud-Cuckoo-Land. Robert Fogelin, in his terrific little book Walking the Tightrope of Reason, offers a cogent updated endorsement of Kant's criticism.

    That said, many metaphysical/supernatural claims seem to be straightforwardly factual claims that are testable, at least in principle. Hiero5ant mentions a good example: The sudden creation of the bacterial flagellum. Creationism, both the crude fundamentalist variety and its dressed-up cousin Intelligent
    Design, at some point will appeal to the kind of account offered in Genesis. God says "Let there be…" and POOF! there it is! Now the sudden, unexpected (on the basis of known physical law) appearance of new forms of complexity does seem, in principle, observable. If it were observed, and if no reasonable modification of known physical laws could accommodate the event as a natural phenomenon, then we would have a good candidate for an empirically-demonstrated, supernaturally-caused event. With a little imagination we could come up with a scenario that, were it to eventuate, would even impress Richard Dawkins.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09925591703967774000 Dianelos Georgoudis

    Taner,

    There are two types of tests (or of conclusive evidence): Tests which falsify naturalism (and thus prove supernaturalism), and tests which falsify supernaturalism (and thus prove rnaturalism).

    There are many conceivable scientific tests of the former kind, for example to discover a message from God within the value of a dimensionless physical constant, or, even better, within the value of some important mathematical constant. No matter what people now claim, if we had such evidence it would be irresistible to all but the most dogmatic naturalists. Another such test would be for science to prove that the probability of life starting naturalistically in a universe like ours is for all practical purposes zero. Indeed Fred Hoyle thought he had just such a proof, but I understand his reasoning is now thought to be unsound. I wonder if it won’t be possible at some stage to actually simulate a universe like ours (to simulate a small part of it would probably be sufficient) and have the computer compute the answer to this question. Incidentally should the answer come out positive, i.e. that self-replicating organisms of a kind that is amenable to natural evolution will come about naturalistically, then we will also have solved the problem of abiogenesis, i.e. we will have found out how life actually started – without the need of doing any paleontology in the field. (I suspect that such computer techniques will be used intensely in the future of the physical sciences.) Or else, similarly, science might prove that once life starts the probability that anywhere in the universe organic complexity will increase to the level required for intelligence is practically zero. In conclusion there are many conceivable scientific tests that would falsify naturalism and thus prove supernaturalism. Now if theism is true it is perhaps the case, as per objection (1), that God has designed the universe in such a way that all such tests will fail, but this possibility rests nothing from the fact that the physical sciences may yet disprove naturalism. Which is an interesting metaphysical result.

    Now, it is much more difficult to imagine the opposite kind of test, i.e. some scientific test which would falsify supernaturalism and thus prove naturalism. I can’t myself think of any general test (and perhaps the lack of even a conceivable test of this kind underlines objection (2)). I wonder Taner if in your paper you have some such suggestion? If so I’d be very curious to know about how such a test might look like. (Of course there are many scientific tests that would disprove some particular supernaturalistic claims, but that’s not what the question is about. After all there have been in the history of science many scientific tests which have falsified both specific supernaturalistic beliefs and specific naturalistic beliefs.)

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/12645042531440559735 Aaron Boyden

    Keith, some of metpahysical and supernatural claims are testable in principle if you interpret them literally and straightforwardly. The important part of Carnap's thesis still applies to these claims, though, as there seems ample evidence that this would miss the most important part of what's really going on. Those making the claims are really trying to say something about values. Consider how much creationists have to say about the supposed moral consequences of evolutionary theory; what they say about evolutionary "values" is of course false (evolution has no such consequences) but it would be irrelevant to the biological truth of evolution in any event. They talk about the values so much anyway because that's what they care about.

    Of course, they don't only talk about values, they make false factual claims (or meaningless psuedo-factual claims). No doubt the reason for this is that values are commonly treated as negotiable in a way that truth isn't, so they want to present their values in a form that has the authority of truth. So they try to "prove" their factual or seemingly factual claims, to gain the authority of truth, but they never back down if you disprove those claims, because you haven't disproven their values. Further, in trying to disprove their values (well, to them it seems like you're trying to disprove their values, no matter how much you insist that you really care about the facts; it's very important to them not to be clear about that distinction) you've shown yourself to be on the side of evil.

    BTW, on whether this point is really Carnapian, I interpret Heidegger's discussion of "Nothing" to be part of an attempt to ground a kind of moral authority. Heidegger criticized science as limited because it did not and could not produce that kind of authority, and Carnap argued that there were no metaphysical facts that one could establish which would ground such an authority. This certainly seems to be Heidegger's understanding of the debate when he tries to respond to Carnap in his later postscript to "What is Metaphysics?" I further think that if Carnap had not (with impressive foresight!) considered Heidegger's authoritarian values dangerous, he would have chosen a different example of metaphysical nonsense to be the central example of "Overcoming Metaphysics." The discussion of disguised values at the end is not an afterthought; it's a central point, as the favorable comments on Nietzsche (and the Nietzschean flavor of the first part of the title) also suggest. Nietzsche makes similar criticisms of metaphysics, perhaps most blatantly in the first part of Beyond Good and Evil. Heidegger also notices and alludes to the Nietzschean influences in his postscript discussion.

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

    Keith Parsons said…

    Alvin Plantinga somewhere remarks that the demise of the verifiability criterion of meaning freed analytic philosophers to take seriously metaphysical claims. That may well be, but, of course, suspicion of metaphysics extends back well before the logical positivists. I think Kant's critique is still powerful: Metaphysics uses concepts that are correctly employed in contexts where there are empirical constraints on the application of such concepts. However, in contexts, typical of metaphysical speculation, where there can be no such constraint, our normally useful concepts can lead us to Cloud-Cuckoo-Land.
    ==========
    Comment:

    I wouldn't be surprised to find out that some pre-socratic philosopher raised a similar objection to metaphysical or theological claims. In fact, it would be interesting to compare Zeno's paradoxes with Kant's antinomies.

    In any case, concerns about the meaning of theological claims are clearly present in the thinking of Aquinas.

    In the Coherence of Theism, Swinburne describes how Aquinas views the meaning of theological assertions. On the one hand, Aquinas, who was strongly influenced by Aristotle, makes meaning grounded in observation and experience, and on the other hand he believes that God transcends ordinary experience, and that human language cannot fully encompass the nature and being of God.

    Aquinas's arguments for God all begin with ordinary observations, but they all end with the metaphysical claim that God exists. They conclude from observed cause-and-effect the existence of an uncaused cause, an unmoved mover, etc. The tension between ordinary experience on the one hand and ultimate metaphysical beliefs on the other seems glaring in the Five Ways.

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

    Aaron Boyden said…

    The logical positivists (well, Carnap; really, one shouldn't speak of the Logical Positivists as if they were a monolithic group) thought that metaphysical claims were usually specifically disguised value judgments, not just any old kind of meaningless noises.
    ============
    Response:

    I'm not familiar with Carnap's view that metaphysical claims were usually disguised value judgments. I will take your word on that. However, Braithwate held the view that theological assertions were really value judgments (ethical/moral judgements), and I'm inclined to agree with Swinburne's critique of that view of theological assertions.

    By 'Logical Posivism' I had in mind Ayer's book Language, Truth, and Logic. His objection to metaphysical and theological claims appears to be an updated version of Hume's fork.

    Metaphysical claims are neither 'matters of fact' nor 'relations of ideas' and so should be ignored as being a conglomeration of words that cannot possibly be true (or false).

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/12645042531440559735 Aaron Boyden

    Bradley, Ayer was just the English-language popularizer (and over-simplifier) of Logical Positivism; Carnap is considered by most to have been the greatest of the actual Logical Positivists. An example of the difference is their favorite examples of nonsense. Ayer takes an example from Bradley without any context or hint of an effort to figure out what Bradley was up to. Carnap goes out of his way to find some sensible interpretation of his main example (Heidegger, of course) before concluding (partly with the help of strong textual evidence!) that no sensible interpretation is tenable.

    I am curious as to where Swinburne replies to Braithwate, by the way. I usually don't find much that Swinburne says very convincing, but I don't recall reading what he said on this particular subject, and I guess it could be an exception.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02647353730607650698 Hiero5ant

    I see the apologists' trap has already been sprung here.

    No one has to mention "positivism" or "metaphysics" to address the issues in the OP.

    OK, positivism was a dead end. Positivism was notorious for claiming that metaphysics was meaningless on account of its unverifiability. But it drives me up the wall when I hear this used as some sort of silver bullet argument in favor of obscurantism. It's not like "that doesn't make any sense" is the exclusive property of positivism!

    For crying out loud, I can say "my ex-girlfriend drunk dialed me last night but she was incoherent; she wasn't making any sense" without hearing someone shoot back "oh, you still rely on outdated positivist dogma."

    The targets of the verificationists were things like "the Nothingness itself nothings" or the filioque debates. Carnap and Russell and crew weren't taking aim at things like ESP, dowsing, or faith healing.

    It's important for antitheists not to let themselves get sucked into this cul-de-sac. Don't let apologists or their accomodationist allies reframe creationism or NDEs as "philosophical theses".

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

    Hiero5ant said…

    The targets of the verificationists were things like "the Nothingness itself nothings" or the filioque debates. Carnap and Russell and crew weren't taking aim at things like ESP, dowsing, or faith healing.

    It's important for antitheists not to let themselves get sucked into this cul-de-sac. Don't let apologists or their accomodationist allies reframe creationism or NDEs as "philosophical theses".
    ===========
    Response:

    Don't creationists argue for the claim that 'God created the heavens and the earth'?

    Carnap might not have attacked the meaningulness of such claims, but Ayer certainly did in Chapter 6 of Language, Truth and Logic, esp. the last few pages of the chapter.

    I wish that creationism was simply a bad empirical theory, but if one of the key claims of creationism is that 'God created the heavens and the earth' then I'm not at all confident that creationism is just a bad empirical theory. Longstanding philosophical concerns about the meaning of theological assertions, going back at least as far as Aquinas, suggest that creationism might have a deeper problem than just being false.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16641266062186767500 Keith Parsons

    Some of these debates about creationism were hashed out between Michael Ruse and Larry Laudan in the late '80's following the ruling of Judge William R.Overton in the "Scopes II" trial, McLean v. Arkansas. Overton's opinion declared that creationism is not a science because it fails to have what he alleges are five essential characteristics of science:

    1. It is guided by natural law.
    2. It has to be explanatory by reference to natural law
    3. It is testable against the natural world.
    4. Its conclusions are tentative…
    5. It is falsifiable.

    Ruse supported Overton's opinion and Laudan criticized it. Laudan argued that among philosophers of science it has long been realized that there is no clear demarcation criterion between science and nonscience. Falsifiability, for instance, is either too loose or too strict a criterion, depending upon how it is interpreted. It taken too strictly, it would rule out unquestionably legitimate sciences, if too loosely, then creationism would pass the test. Laudan argued that the main problem with creationism is not that its claims are untestable, but that they have been checked and found to be false.

    Basically, I agree with Laudan. I think the most effective arguments against creationism are not a priori ones, but arguments that do the hard and dirty work of checking the scientific credentials and showing how woefully creationist claims fail. For instance, there is the uber-absurd creationist claim that he features of the fossil record can be explained in terms of a single, universal flood. This is a testable claim, and is massively refuted by the evidence.

    Now, admittedly, creationism is such a pastiche of absurdity, that it probably contains claims that are simply incoherent and other claims that are either untestable in principle or surrounded by a vanguard of ad hoc qualifications that make testing a practical impossibility. That is, creationism is an amalgam of so many ridiculous claims that there is no simple account of its manifold epistemic sins.

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

    Aaron Boyden said…

    I am curious as to where Swinburne replies to Braithwate, by the way. I usually don't find much that Swinburne says very convincing, but I don't recall reading what he said on this particular subject, and I guess it could be an exception.
    ===============
    Response:
    See Chapter 6 of The Coherence of Theism (revised edition), called 'Attitude Theories'.

    It's a short chapter, and Swinburne does not do a careful and thorough job in his critique. He mostly relies on counterexamples.

    Nevertheless, I'm inclinded to side with him in this area, and to accept the counterexamples he gives.

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

    Keith Parsons said…

    Basically, I agree with Laudan. I think the most effective arguments against creationism are not a priori ones, but arguments that do the hard and dirty work of checking the scientific credentials and showing how woefully creationist claims fail. For instance, there is the uber-absurd creationist claim that he features of the fossil record can be explained in terms of a single, universal flood. This is a testable claim, and is massively refuted by the evidence.
    ===========
    Comment:
    I agree that the empirical issues with creationism should be the primary focus of atheists and skeptics.

    However, the assertion that 'God created the heavens and the earth' is obviously a key idea in creationism, and it is is not at all obvious that this assertion is a factual claim that can be true (or false).

    In fact, given that 'God' implies 'perfectly good person' it seems clear to me that this claim is beyond the power of science to verify, although perhaps partial confirmation/disconfirmation is possible. Because a moral concept is imbedded in the idea of 'God', this concept cannot be fully explored and understood by science alone.

    I suppose that science might be able show that the universe is (or is not) the product of the activity of a person, but science can never establish the claim that 'X is a perfectly good person'.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02647353730607650698 Hiero5ant

    @Bradley Bowen

    Don't creationists argue for the claim that 'God created the heavens and the earth'?

    I don't understand. Why are you repeating my point back to me as though it were its own refutation?

    Not a day goes by that we don't have to decide whether a tree fell over or was cut down, whether a person was murdered or died of natural causes etc. No one wrings their hand about whether these are "philosophical" or "theological" assertions.

    I am as confident that God did not create the heavens and the earth as I am that he did not send Katrina to punish the gays, and my reasons have nothing to do with Biblical hermeneutics or the authority of the Pope.

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

    Hiero5ant said…

    "Don't creationists argue for the claim that 'God created the heavens and the earth'?"

    I don't understand. Why are you repeating my point back to me as though it were its own refutation?
    ===========
    Response:

    I'm not sure if I was trying to refute something you said, but my point was that one key claim made by creationists is a paradigm theological claim, and as such it is subject to longstanding philosophical doubts about the meaningfulness and coherence of theological claims.

    Do you deny that this is a key claim made by creationists?

    Do you deny that this is a paradigm case of a theological claim?

    If you agree with me that this is a key claim made by creationists, and that it is a paradigm theological claim, then we may have no real disagreement.
    =============
    Hiero5ant said…

    Not a day goes by that we don't have to decide whether a tree fell over or was cut down, whether a person was murdered or died of natural causes etc. No one wrings their hand about whether these are "philosophical" or "theological" assertions.
    ============
    Response:

    The claim that 'X was murdered by Y' is clearly NOT an example of a theological claim (unless you fill in X or Y with the word 'God').

    The claim that 'That tree was cut down by X' is clearly NOT an example of a theological claim (unless you fill in X with the word 'God').

    So, I don't see the relevance of your two examples. Nobody wrings their hands over these sorts of claims, because they are not theological claims.
    ==========
    Hiero5ant said…

    I am as confident that God did not create the heavens and the earth as I am that he did not send Katrina to punish the gays, and my reasons have nothing to do with Biblical hermeneutics or the authority of the Pope.
    ==========
    Response:

    I'm not sure of the relevance of your comments, esp. the reference to 'Biblical hermeneutics' and 'the authority of the Pope'. Could you say a bit more?

    I suspect that you are reading the term 'theological claim' as meaning a claim derived by theologians in accordance with some theological/religious tradition, but I'm using this term more broadly here, to mean (roughly): claims about God.

    The claim that 'God exists' is a paradigm theological claim.

    The claim that 'God created the heavens and the earth' is also a paradigm theological claim.

    This is so no matter how one arrives at such conclusions, whether from following some particular religious or theological tradition, or by some other non-traditional or idiosyncratic or secular approach to these issues.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02647353730607650698 Hiero5ant

    Do you deny that this is a key claim made by creationists?

    No.

    Do you deny that this is a paradigm case of a theological claim?

    Of course. I don't see anything particularly theological about it. Just because the word "God" appears in a sentence is no blanket immunity to ordinary standards of empirical discourse.

    Take a nearby claim, that God flooded the earth. It is not "doing theology" to point out that at no point was the entirety of the earth underwater. So one way we can scientifically refute claims of the form "God did X" is to show that X never happened.

    Another way to scientifically refute claims of the form "God did X" is to supply an alternate model according to which X is the entailed result of anterior conditions, where this model does not feature God and its total message length is lower than ones featuring God. When you think about it, this is the only way ANYONE ever refutes the claim that someone did something. If you tell me God made the sun come up today, I can show you why you should have expected it to come up regardless.

    The claim that 'X was murdered by Y' is clearly NOT an example of a theological claim (unless you fill in X or Y with the word 'God').

    The claim that 'That tree was cut down by X' is clearly NOT an example of a theological claim (unless you fill in X with the word 'God').

    Even if you fill in the word "God", they are not theological claims. If claims of agency have any cognitive content whatsoever, it must be that some agent plays a genuine theoretical role in the inference from past observations to future observations.

    I suspect that you are reading the term 'theological claim' as meaning a claim derived by theologians in accordance with some theological/religious tradition, but I'm using this term more broadly here, to mean (roughly): claims about God.

    And in doing so eliding a crucial distinction between God-claims for which there could and for which there could not conceivably be evidence for or against. Like Taner I find this maneuver exasperating when engaged in by nontheists, being what I regard as unwittingly complicit in the theologians' attempts to immunize their dogmas from the effects of conversation.

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

    Ayer was not the only 20th century philosopher to have concerns about metaphysical claims, and about some supposedly important statements actually being meaningless, and about how to distinguish factual and scientific statements from non-factual or non-scientific statements.

    Here is a brief review of some major 20th century philosophical books that deal with those isssues:

    The Logic of Scientific Discovery by Sir Karl Popper (1935 in German, 1959 in English). One key idea: "Scientific propositions are to be distinguished from nonscientific in that only the former are empirically falsifiable."

    Philosophy and Logical Syntax by Rudolf Carnap (1935).
    Two key ideas: "Meaningful language is either the language of logic and mathematics (involving analytic sentences) or the language of science (involving empirically verifiable synthetic sentences)." "Metaphysics and ethics are not legitimate parts of philosophy for their language is meaningless."

    Language, Truth and Logic by Alfred Jules Ayer (1936). Two key ideas: "Metaphysics is impossible because metaphysical statements are meaningless."
    "A sentence is factually significant if and only if there is a method of verification an observer could adopt to determine the truth or falsity of the sentence; when experience cannot settle an issue, the issue has no factual meaning."

    An Essay on Metaphysics by Robin George Collingwood (1940). Some key ideas: "Any intelligible statement finally rests upon certain absolute presuppositions." "Ordinary presuppositions are either true or false; but absolute presuppositions are neither true nor false, for they are not factual." "Although it is a mistake to treat absolute presuppositions (such as the belief in the uniformity of nature) as if they were factual propositions to be confirmed by sense experience, it is also a mistake to suppose metaphysics impossible and to narrow rational investigation to empirical inquiry."

    An Inquiry Into Meaning and Truth by Bertrand Russell (1940).
    Two key ideas: "Empirical knowledge has its basis in percepts (sense experiences); from basic propositions about percepts empirical knowledge is constructed." "Sentences are true if what they indicate is the case; to know a sentence to be true one must perceive its verifier (the event the sentence indicates)."

    An Analysis of Knowledge and Valuation by Clarence Irving Lewis (1946).
    Some key ideas: "Empirical statements, describing matters of fact, are equivalent in meaning to hypothetical statements to the effect that if one were to act in certain ways, then one would come to have experiences of a certain anticipated sort." "An empirical statement is verified by finding out whether what is presented in experience as a result of action is what one would expect." "A priori statements (statements whose truth is independent of matters of fact) are true by virtue of the meanings of their terms and the logical relations between terms."
    "Value statements concerning objects are empirical statements to the effect that if one were to be concerned with the objects, one would be satisfied or pleased by them; values statements expressive of the value-quality of experience do not admit of error and therefore, unlike value statements concerning objects, cannot be known to be true."

    The "key ideas" quotes are from World Philosophy, Vol. 5 (edited by Frank Magill).

    Note: I'm not ignoring the above comments by Hiero5ant, just developing a different point. I will respond to Hiero5ant later, after a bit of reflection.

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

    Major works in Ethics in the 20th century also clearly show the influence of Logical Positivism and Emotivism (a view of ethics that fit well with Logical Positivism) and the general concern about the meaning and meaningfulness of moral judgements and moral principles:

    Ethics and Language by Charles Leslie Stevenson (1944).

    The Place of Reason in Ethics by Stephen Edelston Toulmin (1950).

    The Language of Morals by R.M. Hare (1952).

    The Moral Point of View by Kurt Baier (1958)

    Freedom and Reason by R.M. Hare (1963)

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

    Hiero5ant said…

    Do you deny that this is a key claim made by creationists?

    No.

    Do you deny that this is a paradigm case of a theological claim?

    Of course. I don't see anything particularly theological about it. Just because the word "God" appears in a sentence is no blanket immunity to ordinary standards of empirical discourse.
    ===========
    Response:

    Let me say this once again: by 'theological claim' what I mean is a 'claim about God'.

    (To avoid begging an important question, I should probably talk instead about 'theological sentences' being 'sentences about God'. This would avoid presupposing that such sentences do make claims.)

    Are you saying that the sentence 'God created the heavens and the earth' is NOT making a claim about God?

    I suppose that if this sentence was not making ANY sort of claim, then it would not be making a claim about God. But I don't think that is your view of this sentence.

    If this sentence is indeed making a claim, it certainly appears to be making a claim about God.

    You appear to be reading a lot more into the term 'theological claim' than what I intend by this expression.

    When I say this sentence makes a 'theological claim' all I mean is that it makes a claim about God. Saying that a sentence makes a 'theological claim' does NOT mean that the sentence is immune from empirical testing or disconfirmation.

    It is a further and different question to ask 'Are all theological claims immune from empirical testing (or confirmation or verification or disconfirmation or falsification)?' In my terminology, this further question means: 'Are all claims about God immune from empirical testing (etc.)?'

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

    Hiero5ant said…

    Take a nearby claim, that God flooded the earth. It is not "doing theology" to point out that at no point was the entirety of the earth underwater. So one way we can scientifically refute claims of the form "God did X" is to show that X never happened.

    ============
    Response:

    The sentence 'God flooded the earth' is a sentence about God. Therefore, it is a 'theological sentence', and if this sentence does actually make a claim or statement, then it is making a claim about God, that is, a 'theological claim'.

    If you can refute this sentence with empirical evidence, then you can refute at least one claim about God, that is to say, one 'theological claim'.

    If you refute this 'theological claim' by means of empirical evidence, then, in my terminology, you are 'doing theology', even though you never touch the Bible, never say a prayer, never consult the Pope, and never study the writings of Aquinas.

    It seems to me that you can show there is a problem with this theological sentence by means of empirical evidence, although I'm not sure whether it is entirely accurate to call this the 'disconfirmation' or 'falsification' of a 'claim'.

    On the one hand the theological sentence here does seem to have implications that are empirical, opening it up to empirical testing.

    On the other hand the theological sentence here does not appear to be strictly or merely a factual claim.

    It is some sort of mix of factual claim with a non-factual claim or element. Here is another example that might be more clear:

    "A perfectly good person flooded the earth."

    This is a claim about a 'perfectly good person' which is a moral concept. So, I see no way for this sentence to be verified by scientific research or empirical evidence.

    However, if we show that the earth has not been flooded, then that shows this sentence has a false implication, for this sentence implies that the earth has been flooded.

    In short, I like the way you do theology, and I think we are largely in agreement about the theological claim that 'God flooded the earth.'

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09925591703967774000 Dianelos Georgoudis

    Hiero5ant wrote: “Another way to scientifically refute claims of the form "God did X" is to supply an alternate model according to which X is the entailed result of anterior conditions, where this model does not feature God and its total message length is lower than ones featuring God.

    Right, only there are many Xs which are by nature outside scientific modelling, such as X=”free will”, X=”beauty”, X=”justice”, X=”moral value”, X=”numbers”, X=”physical laws”, “X=consciousness”, etc. And where scientific modelling is applicable I notice that naturalists fail to provide one, such as “X=quantum phenomena”.

    On the other hand I see that in all those cases where scientific modelling is not applicable, some naturalists respond by suggesting the concepts of illusion, anti-realism, non-cognitivism, mysterianism, etc. Which sounds like sour grapes to me.

    In conclusion, long before measuring the length of the message we should consider which ontology offers an adequate message in the first place. After all to remove a huge part of our experience of life, indeed the most relevant part of our experience of life, suggesting that it is all an illusion, that it’s all talk that refers to things that are not really there – does not in my judgment make for a serious ontological hypothesis. Perhaps there is a viable alternative to religious worldviews, but naturalism and its mechanistic understanding of reality is not it.

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

    General interest among philosophers in verificationism, logical positivism, and the associated objection to theological claims (or 'religious language') in the 20th century impacted, and is still impacting the philosophy of religion.

    Here are a few examples of publications in philosophy of religion that touch on these topics and the issue of the problematic meaning of 'religious language':

    Flew, A. and MacIntyre, A. eds., 1955, New Essays in Philosophical Theology, London: S.C.M. Press. Influential early collection of British philosophers where the influence of the Vienna Circle is evident in the “logical analysis” of religion. The meaning, function, analysis, and falsification of theological claims and discourse are considered.
    Neilsen, Kai. Contemporary Critiques of Religion. (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1973). In this work, Neilsen offers his own principle of Verification, which is subsequently criticized by Kenneth Konyndyk.
    Swinburne, Richard. The Coherence of Theism. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1977.
    Konyndyk,Kenneth. “Verificationism and Dogmatism” in International Journal for Philosophy of Religion. vol. 8, no. 1 (1977), pp. 1-17. In this article, Konyndyk canvasses Kai Neilsen’s attempts to formulate a successful principle of verification and argues that each formulation is unclear and ambiguous.
    Nielsen, Kai, 1985. Philosophy and Atheism. New York: Prometheus. A useful collection of essays from Nielsen that addresses various, particularly epistemological, aspects of atheism.
    Alston, William P. “Functionalism and Theological Language.” In Divine Nature and Human Language: Essays in Philosophical Theology. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1989a.
    Alston, William P. “Can We Speak Literally of God?” In Divine Nature and Human Language: Essays in Philosophical Theology. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1989b.
    A careful and comprehensive work that surveys and rejects a broad range of arguments for God’s existence. One of the very best attempts to give a comprehensive argument for atheism.
    Martin, Michael, 1990. Atheism: A Philosophical Justification. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1990.
    McInerny, Ralph. Aquinas and Analogy. Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 1996.
    Swinburne, Richard. “God-Talk is not evidently nonsense.” In Philosophy of Religion. Ed. Brian Davies. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000. pp. 147-152In this extract from his book, The Coherence of Theism, Swinburne argues that weak Verificationism is founded on a false premise.
    Nielsen, Kai, 2001. Naturalism and Religion. New York: Prometheus. Defends naturalism as atheistic and adequate to answer a number of larger philosophical questions. Considers some famous objections to naturalism including fideism and Wittgenstein.
    Weintraub, Ruth. “Verificationism Revisited,” in Ratio. Vol. XVI, (March 2003), pp. 83-98. In this paper, Weintraub points out that almost no one defends Verificationism in the contemporary philosophical community.
    Alston, William P. “Religious Language.” In The Oxford Handbook of Philosophy of Religion. Ed. William J. Wainwright. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005. pp. 220-244.
    Drange, Theodore, 2006. “Is “God Exists” Cognitive?” Philo 8:2.
    Drange argues that non-cognitivism is not the best way to understand theistic claims.

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

    Here is a helpful annotated bibliography of some major 20th century philosophical books and articles dealing with the problem of 'religious language' esp. in view of objections based on verificationism and falsificationism:

    http://people.bu.edu/wwildman/WeirdWildWeb/courses/lang/lang_resources_biblio.htm#5. PHILOSOPHY OF LANGUAGE AND LOGICAL POSITIVISM


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X