Draft chapter on Humanism, Science and Skepticism for comments….

 

 

Humanism: Science, Reason and Skepticism[1]

 

What are science and reason?

 

Humanists expound the virtues of science and reason. But what are science and reason? And we should we think it wise to rely on them?

 

By science, I shall mean that approach to finding out about reality based on the scientific method. This is a method that was fully developed only a few hundred years ago. Science, as I’ll use the term here, is a comparatively recent invention, its development owing a great deal to 16th and 17th Century thinkers such as the philosopher Francis Bacon (1561-1626).

 

So what is the scientific method? Here’s a very rough sketch.[2] Scientists collect data through observation and experiment. They formulate hypotheses and broader theories about the nature of reality to account for what they observe. Crucially, they also test their theories. Scientists derive from their theories predictions that can be independently checked by observation.

 

Take for example, the old Aristotelean theory that all heavenly objects revolve around the earth. With the aid of an early telescope Galileo observed that Jupiter had moons that revolved around it, not the Earth. He thereby falsified Aristotle’s theory.

 

Theories can also be confirmed or supported by observation. To say a theory is confirmed by a piece of evidence is not to say that it has been established as true. Even false theories can be confirmed. To say a theory is confirmed is just to say that it is supported by evidence, even if just to a small degree.

 

If you can derive from your theory a prediction that is unlikely to be true if the theory is false, then discovering that the prediction is true strongly confirms your theory. For example, to explain the erratic orbit of Uranus given Newton’s Laws of Gravitation, astronomers posited the existence of an as yet undiscovered planet. From their theory, they predicted the location of this new planet, looked, and discovered a planet there (Neptune). Because it was unlikely that there should just happen to be a planet at that position if their theory was false, this observation strongly confirmed their astronomical theory.

 

Notice that for a theory to be confirmed, it must make predictions – predictions that observation might reveal are false. That’s to say, the theory must be falsifiable. If a theory can’t be falsified, then neither can it be confirmed.

 

Systematic and rigorous testing, rooted in what we can directly observe of the world around us, is the cornerstone of the scientific method and thus science as I define it. Emphasis is placed on formulating theories and predictions with clarity and precision, focussing wherever possible on phenomena that are mathematically quantifiable and can be objectively and precisely measured, e.g. using a calibrated instrument.

 

True, scientists are human. They are vulnerable to various social, psychological and financial pressures. They have their biases. Still, rigorous application of the scientific method is able to reveal such biases. No matter how psychologically wedded the scientific community might be to the hypothesis that blancmange cures baldness, and no matter how much money the blancmange manufacturers might pump into their research, if blancmange doesn’t cure baldness, a properly conducted scientific investigation will eventually reveal that fact.

 

Non-scientific approaches to rationally assessing beliefs

 

The scientific method is a powerful tool, but surely not every reasonable belief is arrived at by means of it. People held beliefs, and held them reasonably, long before the appearance of science.

 

Suppose my friend tells me he has an elephant in his trouser pocket. Given the absence of any enormous bulges round his middle, it’s entirely reasonable for me to reject his claim: there’s no elephant there. True, I make this judgement on the basis of what I observe, but what I’m doing here could hardly be called science – certainly not as we defined the term above. We were making these kinds of judgement long before the development of the scientific method.

 

Let’s also remember that beliefs can also be supported or refuted by non-empirical means (that’s to say, without appeal to observation). Take mathematical truths, for example. That twelve times twelve is one hundred and forty-four is something you can establish from the comfort of your armchair by reason alone. So too can other conceptual truths. It’s possible, for example, to figure out whether my great grandmother’s uncle’s grandson must be my second cousin once removed by just unpacking these concepts and examining the logical relations that hold between them. Again you can do this from the comfort of your armchair. No empirical investigation is required. Or suppose an explorer claims to have discovered a four-sided triangle in some remote rainforest. Do we need to mount an expensive expedition to check whether this claim is true? No, again we can establish its falsity by conceptual means, from the comfort of our armchairs.

 

So, even while acknowledging that science, as characterized here, is an extraordinarily powerful tool, we should acknowledge that other non-scientific but nevertheless rational methods also have their place when it comes to arriving at reasonable belief – including armchair methods. Science is merely one way – albeit an important way – of arriving at reasonable beliefs.

 

What’s so great about reason and science?

 

Why should we favour the application of science and reason over other methods of arriving at beliefs, such as picking them at random, believing what we would like to be true, or accepting whatever some self-styled guru or psychic tells us?

 

Advocates of science often point to its extraordinary track record of success. The scientific method, in its fully developed form, has only existed for perhaps 400 or 500 years – just a few of my lifetimes. Yet in that short time it has utterly transformed our understanding of the world and the character of our lives. Five hundred years ago, Westerners believed they inhabited a universe just a few thousand years old, created in just a few days. They possessed almost no effective medicine and relied on their own legs or horse power to travel the country. By means of science we have discovered the universe is about 13.75 billion years old, developed electricity and computers, unravelled the genetic code, created vaccines, and visited the moon.

 

True, scientific theories are overturned, and it may well turn out that some of our current theories are mistaken. Scientific theories are often adopted only tentatively and cautiously. Nevertheless, the scientific method has allowed us to overturn a great many myths and make enormous progress in understanding the nature of the universe we inhabit. While what scientists assert is sometimes dismissed by critics as being “just a theory” (that’s often said about the theory of evolution, for example), a great many scientific theories are extraordinarily well-confirmed. It is always possible that any given scientific theory, no matter how well-confirmed, might turn out to be false. That does not mean it’s at all probable. Many scientific claims and theories, such as the germ theory of disease or the claim that the Earth goes round the sun rather than vice verse are now so well confirmed it would be ludicrous to suggest they are false.

 

Science, and reason more generally, are valued by Humanists because of their ability to reveal, or at least get us closer to, the truth. Science and reason offer us truth-sensitive ways of arriving at beliefs.

 

Humans have a remarkable capacity for generating false but nevertheless impressively rich and seductive systems of belief. Almost every culture has evolved beliefs in invisible and supernatural beings, such as ghosts, spirits, demons or gods. Belief in the magical objects, psychic powers, precognition end-of-world prophecies, etc., remains widespread across much of the developed world. Belief in non-supernatural but nevertheless bizarre phenomena such as Nessie (the Loch Ness monster), alien-piloted flying saucers, alien abduction and conspiracy theories involving 9/11, the moon landings and the Holocaust, is also rife. Our vulnerability to such false belief systems is well-documented. Even the intelligent and well-educated are vulnerable. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of that quintessentially rational fictional character Sherlock Holmes, believed in fairies, and was successfully hoaxed by two little girls who faked photographs of fairies with their box brownie camera.

 

Very many of these beliefs systems are rooted in testimony – reports supposedly originating with eyewitness to events such as miracles, amazing cures, precognition, and bizarre objects in our skies. One particularly striking series of reports concerned an object that appeared over the building site of a new nuclear power station back in 1967. Sanitation workers claimed they saw a large lighted object hanging over the plant. A guard confirmed the sighting. The police arrived. An officer said the object “was about half the size of the moon, and it just hung there over the plant. Must have been there nearly two hours.” The object vanished at sunrise. The next night, the same thing occurred. The county deputy sheriff described seeing a “large lighted object”. An auxiliary police officer reported “five objects – they appeared to be burning. An aircraft passed by while I was watching. They seemed to be 20 times the size of a plane.” A Wake county magistrate who arrived on the scene claimed to witness “a rectangular object, looked like it was on fire… We figured it about the size of a football field. It was huge and very bright.” In addition, there was hard evidence to support these claims. Local air traffic control also reported an unidentified blip on their scope.

 

A local news team finally arrived to investigate. The object appeared again at five a.m. When they attempted to chase the object in their car, the news team found they couldn’t catch up with it. Eventually, they pulled up and looked at the object through a long camera lens. “Yep, that’s the planet Venus alright,” noted the photographer.[3]

 

Though this might not have struck you as remotely likely, those various eyewitnesses to a large illuminated object hanging over the nuclear plant had seen nothing more than the planet Venus. That anomalous radar blip was just a coincidence.

 

What’s interesting about this case is that if it had not been solved by a bit of good luck – by those reporters showing up and publicizing the truth – it could easily have gone down in the annals of UFO-logy as one of the great unsolved cases. UFO buffs would no doubt have seized upon it and said something like this:

 

“Here we have, sincere, multiple, trained eye-witnesses – workers, policemen, a deputy sheriff and a even magistrate. They have produced broadly consistent reports of a large lighted object hanging over a nuclear plant. They have no motive to give false reports (indeed, such officials are often hesitant and embarrassed about giving such reports). It’s absurd to suppose they might just have just seen a planet. Don’t forget their claims were supported by hard evidence in the form of that radar blip. Surely the best explanation of this testimony is that there really was a large lighted object hanging over the plant.”

 

Fortunately, we got lucky and now know the truth about this particular case. It illustrates the point that human beings are remarkably prone to generating such false testimony, and for a wide variety of reasons. This particular example was produced by an optical illusion and a coincidence (that radar blip), but take out a subscription to Skeptical Inquirer (published in the US) or The Skeptic Magazine (UK) and you will discover such amazing reports are constantly being explained by reference to a wide variety of other far-too-easily-dismissed-or-overlooked mundane mechanisms.

 

The moral is obvious: a significant number of such otherwise-unexplained reports are likely to be made anyway whether or not there really are any visiting alien spacecraft, psychic powers, or miracles. But then the existence of such testimony is not good evidence that such phenomena are real.

 

True, it’s often reasonable to take testimony at face value. If Ted and Sarah, a couple I know well and have learned to trust, tell me that a man called Bert visited them last night, I’ll rightly take their word for it. But if Ted and Sarah add that Bert flew round the room by flapping his arms, died and then came back to life, and then finished temporarily transformed their sofa into a donkey, it’s no longer reasonable for me to just take their word for it that these things happened. When it comes to such claims, we should raise the evidential bar much higher because we know that such reports – including reports that might seem very hard to explain in mundane terms – are going to be made from time to time anyway, whether or not they are true.[4]

 

One variety of false belief to which we’re exceptionally prone is belief in hidden agency – in hidden beings with their own beliefs and desires. We’re particularly quick to appeal to hidden agency when presented with significant questions to which we lack answers. When we could not understand why the heavenly bodies moved in the way they do, we supposed that they must be other agents – gods. When we could not explain natural diseases and disasters, we supposed they must be the work of malevolent agents, such as witches or demons. When we couldn’t explain why plants grew, or the seasons rolled by, we supposed that there must be sprites, or nature spirits, or other agents responsible for these things. As a result of this natural tendency to reach for hidden agents when presented with a mystery, we have populated our world with an extraordinary range of unseen and mysterious beings and developed extraordinarily rich and complex narratives about them.

 

Those who are broadly skeptical about claims such as those described above often disparagingly refer to them as “woo”. As we have seen, woo claims – or W-claims, as I’ll call them – are a diverse bunch, involving psychic powers, alien abduction, cryptozoology (Big Foot, Nessie, etc.) past life regression, end-times prophecies, miracles, ghosts, fairies, demons and gods. They are claims with which we are peculiarly fascinated (which explains why they feature so much in tabloid newspapers, fiction, films, and so on), and to which we are easily drawn. Clearly, while not all may be false, many are. Large numbers have been debunked. Many are incompatible. Many god claims, for example, are mutually exclusive. A large number of them must be false.

 

The Humanist position is that we should take a skeptical attitude towards W-claims. We should not just assume they are false (some may not be). However, Humanists, as a rule, believe we should subject such reports and claims to close rational and scientific scrutiny, and acknowledge that our inability to find a plausible-sounding but mundane explanation for a report of a miracle or flying saucer is not, as it stands, good evidence that it is accurate.

 

Note the reason outlined above for being skeptical about such reports is not that what is reported is impossible or even improbable (some religious folk insist that if there is a miracle-performing God, then such miracles are neither impossible nor improbable; thus those who are skeptical about miracle reports because they assume miracles are impossible or improbable are guilty of presupposing there’s no such God). It’s not impossible or even particularly improbable that there exist bizarre and as yet undiscovered creatures that humans occasionally glimpse. The reason we should nevertheless be pretty skeptical about such cryptozoological reports (Nessie, Big Foot, and so on) is that they are likely to be made pretty regularly anyway whether or not they’re true.

 

The scientist and Humanist Carl Sagan once said, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”. Under the heading “extraordinary claims” Sagan would certainly include what I am calling W-claims. Sagan is correct about W-claims. We should raise the evidential bar much higher than usual before accepting them. Why? If for no other reason than that we have an extraordinary track record of unreliability when it comes to making them.

 

In addition, we also possess excellent evidence that many specific W-claims are false. If someone claims they can successfully dowse for water, we should be pretty skeptical about that claim, not just because we know such claims are likely to be made anyway whether or not dowsing works, but also because we now possess ample scientific evidence that dowsing doesn’t work.

 

The world is chock full of competing W-claims, including religious claims. They are, as I say, claims to which we are easily drawn and peculiarly vulnerable. If we step out into the marketplace of ideas as willing to accept someone’s testimony that they have psychic powers or a direct line to God as we are their testimony that they had baked beans for lunch, our heads are soon going to fill up with nonsense. If we value truth, it’s important we apply science and reason as best we can – as, if you like, a filter. False beliefs may still get through, but subjecting claims – especially W-claims – to rigorous rational and/or scientific scrutiny before accepting them gives us our best chance of having mostly true beliefs.

 

It is for this reason that Humanists insist on subjecting religious claims to such scrutiny. For of course religious claims usual are or involve W-claims. Let’s now turn to some examples of religious claims that have failed to pass the test.

 

Science as a threat to religious belief

 

Many religious claims have been falsified, or at least shown to be rather less well-founded than previously thought, as a result of scientific investigation. Here are three examples:

 

Young Earth Creationism. Young Earth Creationists (YEC) assert that the entire universe was created by God approximately 6,000 years ago (certainly less than 10,000 years ago). This estimate is based on Biblical sources. In the 17th Century, using the Old and New Testaments as his source, Bishop James Ussher calculated that the moment of creation to be during the night before the 23rd October 4004 BC. Young Earth Creationism has since been empirically falsified in numerous ways by the cosmological, geological, biological, archeological and various other sciences. 

 

An Earth-centered universe. Back in the early 17th Century. The dominant cosmology, endorsed by the Catholic Church, placed the Earth at the centre of the universe. The other heavenly bodies, including the sun, revolved around it. This view was supposedly supported by scripture. For example, Psalms 96:10 says, “the world is established, it shall never be moved.” And in Joshua 10:12-13, Joshua commands the sun to “stand still”, which suggests that the sun moves. This cosmology was rejected by Galileo (who was accused of rejecting it without proof, and was subsequently shown the instruments of torture and condemned to house imprisonment as a result). Science has, of course, established beyond any reasonable doubt that Galileo was right and the previously dominant religious view wrong.

The power of prayer. Many people believe in the power of petitionary prayer. For example, it’s often claim that praying for people with a disease improves their chances of recovery. Yet recent rigorously-conducted large-scale scientific studies do not support this view. Indeed they undermine it. In 2006, American Heart Journal published the results of a $2.4 million experiment involving 1,802 heart-bypass patients, conducted under the leadership of Herbert Benson (a specialist who also believes in the medical efficacy of petitionary prayer). The results were unambiguous: prayer had no beneficial effect.[5] A similar large-scale trial of patients undergoing angioplasty or cardiac catheterization also revealed prayer had no effect. That prayer has beneficial medical effects is a religious belief that can be scientifically tested. Tests strongly suggest it’s false.[6]

 

The development of Darwin’s theory of natural selection has also posed significant challenges to religious belief. Most obviously, Darwin’s account is incompatible with the Bible-literalist account of how the different species came into existence – including our own species with the creation of Adam and Eve. It is also incompatible with the doctrine of the Fall, according to which the entire world is corrupted by the sin of these, it turns out, non-existent individuals. Darwin’s theory also provides a naturalistic explanation for the existence of things that, many theists had previously argued, could only reasonably be attributed to some cosmic intelligent designer. William Paley, for example, famously drew an analogy between the eye and a watch. Suppose we find a watch on a beach. Given it has a purpose for which it is well-engineered, it is more reasonable to suppose some intelligence designed it for that purpose than that it is a mere product of natural forces such as the wind and waves. Ditto the eye, thought Paley. Darwin succeeded in undermining this particular design argument for the existence of God. He says,

 

The old argument of design in nature, as given by Paley, which formerly seemed to me so conclusive, fails, now that the law of natural selection has been discovered.

 

Of course, many contemporary theists accept the theory of evolution. Some also maintain there is no tension between Darwin’s theory of natural selection and the thought that God has guided the evolutionary process by directing mutations to a particular end – the emergence of human beings. However, Darwin himselfconsidered the hypothesis that God guides the evolutionary process in this way is antagonistic to his own theory[7]. On the theory of natural selection, the mutations that drive the evolutionary process are random in the sense that they are not goal-directed, e.g. towards either the adaptive needs of organisms or the production of a certain sort of species. To the extent that mutations are selected by some sort of transcendent being, they are not selected naturally.[8]

 

Religious belief is itself now increasingly a focus of scientific investigation. In some cases what is discovered is potentially a threat to the beliefs in question. One example much discussed in the media is the so-called “God helmet” developed by Koren and Persinger. The helmet produces a weak magnetic fields around the wearer’s head. About 80% of subjects report a “sensed presence” which they interpret as an angel, a deceased person, etc. About one percent say that they sense the presence of God. When the Humanist Susan Blackmore tried the God helmet, she said it produced “the most extraordinary experiences I have ever had”.[9]

 

How might these and similar findings threaten religious belief? Not necessarily by demonstrating such beliefs are false. As the psychologist Justin Barrett points out:

 

Having a scientific explanation for mental phenomena does not mean we should stop believing in them. Suppose science produces a convincing account for why I think my wife loves me — should I then stop believing that she does?[10]

 

Obviously, even if we could show that experiences of God, angels, or the dead walking among us have a natural, scientifically identified cause, that would not establish that there is no God, that there are no angels, or that the dead don’t walk among us. However, were we to discover that these experiences have such an explanation, and also that, given certain natural facts, people are likely to report such presences anyway whether or not they exist, that would demolish whatever support such experiences might be thought to give such beliefs. The reassurance offered by the mantra: “Lots of people have these experiences so surely there must be something to it” would be entirely undermined.

 

Other rational threats to religious belief

 

So, science has threatened and indeed has falsified various religious beliefs. But that’s not to say they can’t be threatened and undermined in other ways too.

 

Surely we don’t need to apply the scientific method in order reasonably to rule out the hypothesis that one universe is the creation of a supremely powerful and evil deity. While the universe contains a great deal of pain and suffering and moral evil, it also contains an enormous amount of good (in the form of love, laughter, ice-cream, kindness, rainbows, etc.): far too much good, arguably, for us reasonably to believe this is the creation of such an evil deity. Perhaps an evil god would allow some good as the price paid for greater evils, but such is the scale of the good that exists that it is absurd to believe this world is the creation of such a malevolent being.

 

I suspect most of us can immediately recognize this just isn’t the sort of world an evil deity would create. Here, it seems, is a god hypotheses we can reasonably set aside even without bringing the scientific method to bear. Observation of the world, I suggest, allows me reasonably to rule out an evil god in much the same way that my observing your trousers allows me reasonably to rule out the presence of elephant in your pocket.

 

But if it’s true that we can observe that this is not the kind of world an all-powerful and supremely evil deity would create, why might we not also observe that it’s not the kind of world an all-powerful and supremely good god would create either? Surely, given the quantity of pain and suffering we see around us, it’s also reasonable for us to cross that deity off our list of likely candidates? This is, of course, the evidential problem of evil – perhaps the most significant threat to belief in an all-powerful and supremely benevolent god.

 

The problem of evil may not pose a scientific threat to belief in an all-powerful, all-good god, but that’s not to say that it can’t be significantly enhanced by science. Science is able to reveal vast hidden depths of pain and suffering. It has revealed, for example, that for the two hundred thousand years we humans have lived on this planet about a third to a half of every generation has, on average, died before the age of five (from disease, malnutrition, etc.). The vast scale of this suffering of both children and parents over such a long period of time before the one true God finally got round to revealing himself, his one true salvific religion, and the fact that all this horror is ultimately for the best, strikes many Humanists as further excellent evidence that there’s no such deity.

 

While science and observation are undoubtedly capable of undermining god beliefs, they are not the only threat. Armchair methods are also capable of refuting a god hypothesis by, for example, revealing that the hypothesis involves an implicit logical contradiction or incoherence (in much the same way that that the hypothesis that there exists a four-sided triangle does).

 

So, to conclude, science, and reason more generally, are able to threaten, and indeed demolish, religious beliefs.

 

Immunizing strategies

 

When religious and other W-claims are challenged by science and reason, various strategies may be employed in their defence. Here are four examples.

 

(i) Selective skepticism

 

When your W-claim is challenged by reason and science, it can be tempting to play a skeptical card. There is, for example, a well-known philosophical puzzle about how to justify our belief that science and reason are reliable methods of arriving at true belief. Surely, any attempt to justify reason by making a case for its reliability will itself employ reason. But then the justification will be circular and thus as hopeless as trying justifying the belief that a second hand car salesman is trustworthy by pointing out that he himself claims to be trustworthy.

 

Similarly, pointing out, as we did above, that science has a great track record when it comes to exposing falsehoods and revealing the truth is to employ exactly the sort of inductive reasoning on which science is itself based. So it might appear that this kind of justification is also hopelessly circular.[11]

 

Do these puzzles constitute an insurmountable problem so far as justifying the Humanist’s belief that reason and science are reliable methods of arriving at true beliefs? That’s debatable. But they do at least provide those whose beliefs are challenged by reason and science with a nice rhetorical move. They can now say, “Ah, so it turns out that reason and science are faith positions too. And thus so are all beliefs based on them. So, in terms of reasonableness, we’re all square. My beliefs are no less reasonable than yours. It’s leaps of faith all round!” They can then head out the door leaving you to solve the thorny philosophical puzzle they have just thrown in your lap.

 

I call this strategy “Going Nuclear”. Those employing it aim to achieve what during the Cold War was called “mutually assured destruction”. Kaboom! By exploding this skeptical device they aim to bring all beliefs down to the same level of (ir)rationality.

 

The key point to notice about this popular ruse is that the person who employs it almost certainly doesn’t believe what they say about reason. If they really believed all beliefs are equally reasonable, then they would suppose, say, that it’s as reasonable to believe that milk will make you fly as that it won’t. But of course they don’t believe that. They constantly place their trust in reason. Indeed, they regularly trust their lives to reason whenever, say, they trust that the brakes on their car while bringing them safely to a halt.

 

In fact, your opponent was almost certainly happy to employ reason up until the point where they started to lose the argument. Only then did it occur to them to get skeptical. You can also be pretty confident that they’ll try using reason to prop up their belief again once the intellectual threat has been forgotten about.

 

In short, your opponent’s skepticism about reason is not sincere. It’s just a smokescreen device – a position they selectively adopt in order to avoid having to admit that, according to the standards of rationality that they employ in every other corner of their life, what they believe is false. That’s intellectually dishonest.

 

(ii) Reinterpretation

                                            

When a prophecy or a piece of religious scripture is contradicted by evidence, it will often be reinterpreted by believers to make it consistent with – or “fit” – the evidence after all. Take failed end-times prophecies, for example. Nostradamus’s famously prophecied:

 

The year 1999 seven months,
From the sky will come the great King of Terror.

 

This was widely claimed to be a prediction of Armageddon. When July 1999 came and went and Armageddon failed to materialize, the passage was simply reinterpreted. More recently, the Christian Harold Camping used the Bible to predict that rapture and Judgement Day  would occuron May 21st 2011. When May 21st arrived and nothing happened, Camping insisted that Judgement Day had indeed occurred, only in a “spiritual” way (which is why no one noticed). He insisted that the Bible was clear that end of the world would then arrive on 21st October 2011.

 

The Genesis account of a six-day creation is no longer taken literally by all Christians (though it still is by many). It too has been reinterpreted. The more sensible Christians now insist that such passages should be understood as poetry, a metaphor, etc.

 

Notice that once reinterpretation is adopted as a blanket strategy for dealing with any potential conflict that might arise between science on the one hand and religious claims and prophecies on the other, the latter become unfalsifiable. Whatever evidence shows up will be shown, one way or another, to “fit”. And, as we noted earlier, if a claim is unfalsifiable, then not only is it not confirmed, it cannot be.

 

(iii) Explaining away

 

For Bible literalists, the suggestion that Genesis should not be interpreted literally is not an option. Evidence supporting a billions-of-years-old universe in which life has existed for billions of years must be made to “fit” with their religious belief in some other way. Contemporary Young Earth Creationists (YECs) have developed a raft of explanations for why scientific discoveries concerning the light from distant stars, carbon-dating, ice cores, chalk deposits, plate tectonics, the fossil record and so on do not, after all, constitute a threat to their belief in a young universe.

 

The fossil record, for example, is now usually typically explained by YECs by reference to the Biblical flood on which Noah floated his ark. The deluge created mud deposits which formed many of the sedimentary layers we now find beneath our feet. It also drowned many creatures, including dinosaurs, which become buried and fossilized with those sedimentary layers. The ordering of fossils within the layers is explained in terms of different ecological zones being submerged at different times, in terms of the differing ability of creatures to escape the rising waters, and so on (man, being the smartest, would be last to drown, which explains why we only find traces of man in the topmost sedimentary layers).

 

Of course, such explanations usually just raise a host of other problems for YEC. The Flood theory for example, raises some interesting puzzles regarding the Ark. How did Noah get two of every “kind” of creature (including the dinosaurs, such as argentinosaurus at100 tons and 120 feet long each) into a boat with a cross section not much bigger than that of my Victorian terrace house? After the Ark was finally deposited on Mount Ararat how did Noah get the creatures back across vast oceans to their various habitats? Visit a YEC website and you’ll discover much speculation and theorizing about such questions. What you can be sure of is that the YECs will be able to cook up some sort of explanation. One way or another, they will find a way to make the Biblical account of creation “fit” the available data. Achieving this kind of “fit” is something YECs pride themselves on. Here’s Ken Ham, a leading YEC:

 

Increasing numbers of scientists are realizing that when you take the Bible as your basis and build your model of science and history upon it, all the evidence from living animals and plants, the fossils, and the cultures fits. This confirms that the Bible really is the Word of God and can be trusted totally.[12]

 

What Ham doesn’t mention here is that any theory, no matter how ludicrous, can be squared with the evidence given enough ingenuity. Believe that the Earth is run by a secret cabal of alien lizards? Or that the Holocaust never happened? Or that dogs are spies from the planet Venus? Or that the universe is the creation of a supremely powerful and evil deity? All these beliefs can ultimately be made consistent with – be made to, as Ham puts it, “fit” – what we observe around us, given sufficient patience and imagination. One way or another, every last anomaly can be explained away.

 

There is a popular myth about science that if you can make your theory consistent with the evidence, then you have shown that it is confirmed by that evidence – as confirmed as any other theory. The proponents of many ludicrous belief systems exploit this myth.

 

But the truth, as we have seen, is that a theory can only be confirmed by the evidence if it is falsifiable. Ham’s strategy of endlessly explaining away any counter-evidence that might crop up renders his theory unfalsifiable. Thus, unlike theories that take genuine risks with the evidence (such as the theory of evolution), Ham’s version of YEC not only is not confirmed by the evidence, it cannot be.[13]

 

(iv)The accusation of scientism

 

Those who have subjected religious and other W-claims to critical scrutiny and found them wanting are sometimes accused of an irrational bias towards scientism – the view that all meaningful questions can in principle be answered by science.

 

Scientism is almost certainly false. Many questions appear to reach beyond the ability of science to answer. Consider the question of why the universe has the most fundamental laws that it does, or why it exists at all. These do not appear to be the kind of questions science might, in principle, answer. Any scientifically established law or principle that supposedly accounted for the existence of the universe would merely postpone the mystery – for what, in turn, would explain why that particular law or principle holds?

 

The most fundamental moral questions are also widely considered to be questions to which science cannot supply answers. As Hume points out, science reveals what is the case, whereas morality is concerned with what ought to be the case. And it appears one cannot justify “ought” conclusions by appeal to such “is” facts (though Sam Harris has recently challenged this view in his book The Moral Landscape[14]).

 

Mathematical and conceptual puzzles would also seem to be the kind of puzzles that science can’t answer. Indeed, many classical philosophical puzzles appear, at core, to be conceptual puzzles the solutions to which will require the armchair methods of the philosopher to deliver.

 

So I think we should acknowledge that there are questions science can’t answer (at least some of which can perhaps be answered in other ways). However, none of this is to say that science, and empirical observation more generally, are incapable of supporting or refuting religious and other W-claims.

 

When your belief in a W-claim is threatened, it can be tempting to place its subject matter behind a protective veil. Many insist that claims about gods, ghosts, psychic powers and so on are immune to scientific refutation because they are claims about a realm to which science is necessarily prohibited access.

 

True, such beliefs may concern a part of reality that is supposedly unobservable. But the unobservable is not scientifically off-limits. Subatomic particles and the distant past of this planet cannot be observed either, but, because theories about them often have empirically observable consequences, they are still capable of being empirically falsified or confirmed. The same is true of religious and other W-claims. If someone insists there exists a God who answers petitionary prayers, we can check and see if such prayers are answered. If it is claimed that psychics can communicate with the dead, we can test whether the information they supposedly receive is reliable, and also whether it might have been acquired by some other means. If it is claimed that there exists an all-powerful and supremely evil creator, we can check whether the universe has the sort of character we should then predict it to have. The fact that something is, even in principle, unobservable does not entail that it is not scientifically or empirically investigable.

 

Admitting that science and reason have not supplied, and perhaps cannot supply, answers to certain fundamental questions does not entail that science and reason can’t pretty conclusively rule certain answers out. Suppose I acknowledge that I currently have no satisfactory answer to the question, “Why is there something rather than nothing?” Does it follow that I should, then, acknowledge that the Christian answer a serious contender? No. Suppose Sherlock Holmes is having a bad day. He can’t figure out whodunnit. Still Holmes might still be able reasonably to rule out the butler, who has a cast-iron alibi. Similarly, Humanists may not be able to answer all of life’s big questions. It does not follow that they cannot reasonably rule certain answers out – including religious answers.

 

Who’s being reasonable?

 

Just how reasonable are the religious in believing what they do? The Humanist answer is: not very. They suppose it is in each case unreasonable for Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Bahais, Quakers and Scientologists to believe what they do.

 

Of course, a religious person will likely come to a different assessment of the reasonableness of their own religious belief. Most religious people suppose their own brand of belief is either supported, or at the very least not undermined, by science and reason.

 

On either side of such disagreements about the respective reasonableness of Humanism and religious belief you find smart educated people doing their best to think carefully and objectively. Yet at least one side has to be mistaken. Who is more likely to be mistaken?

 

If we Humanists are mistaken, what, according to the religious, explains our error? Here are four answers regularly offered by Christians (and others) for the failure of Humanists to recognize the reasonableness of their belief:

 

(i) Humanists fail to recognize the reasonableness of Christian belief because they are ignorant of the Christian message and/or that strength of the intellectual case in its favour.

 

Is this true? A recent U.S. study found that those self-identifying as atheists and agnostics scored better on average on a general religious knowledge quiz than did the religious. They also had a better knowledge of Christianity, on average, than did those self-identifying as Christian.[15] It does not appear to be ignorance of the Christian message that accounts for widespread lack of belief.

 

So is non-belief better explained by a lack of appreciation of the power of the arguments for the existence of God and the truth of Christianity? You would expect professional philosophers and philosophy graduate students to have a fair knowledge of those arguments. Yet a recent PhilPapers survey suggests that, globally, only 14.6% of professional philosophers and philosophy graduate students favour or lean towards even theism, let alone Christianity.[16]

 

The above statistic prompted some Christians to claim that the proportion of theists is at least higher among those specializing in the philosophy of religion and this in turn suggests that a greater familiarity with the arguments for theism does lead to an increased likelihood of belief. However, even if it were true that a higher percentage of philosophers of religion are theists and Christians, that would not, as it stands, support the conclusion that this is a result of them having acquiring a better appreciation of the strength of the case for theism and Christianity. For of course philosophy of religion is much more likely than other branches of philosophy to attract committed theists and Christians in the first place.

 

(ii) Humanists reject Christianity not because it is unreasonable, but because they don’t want it, or theism more generally, to be true.

 

Those attempting to explain Humanist non-belief as a product of wishful thinking often quote the atheist philosopher Thomas Nagal, who once said:

 

It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God, and naturally, hope there is no God. I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that.[17]

 

But is this the view of most Humanists? I doubt it. It’s certainly not my view. I would dearly love Christianity to be true. The Christian message is one of hope. It provides numerous attractive reassurances, especially about death and justice. In particular, it promises that we can be reunited with our dead loved ones beyond the grave, that we and they can live in joy forever, and that bad people will ultimately get their just deserts. These are appealing beliefs for many of us.

 

Nor am I particularly prone to wishful thinking when it comes to metaphysical beliefs. For example, I really don’t want it to be true that I lack free will, yet I am inclined to think I do, because that, it seems to me, is what the arguments suggest.

 

Indeed, that Christianity is not, as a rule, the sort of thing people want to be true is fairly obviously contradicted by the manner in which Christians tend to promote it. They tend to be place at least as much emphasis on how wonderful it would be if Christianity were true as on any intellectual case that might be made in its support.

 

Wishful-thinking-based explanations for the failure of individuals to appreciate the reasonableness of Christian belief also run into trouble with those tortured individuals who struggle valiantly to keep their faith but (often as a result thinking critical thinking about what they believe) eventually lose it nonetheless. Their rejection of Christianity does not appear to be motivated by wishful thinking. Quite the opposite.

 

(iii) Humanists have a faulty God-sense.

 

Another explanation for Humanist non-belief turns on the thought that some people can know directly that God exists virtue of their possessing a reliable sensus divinitatis or God-sense. Such lucky individuals do not need to reason their way to belief in God. God just directly makes himself known to them via this extra sense. Their belief in God is also reasonable given that it’s generally reasonable to believe that how things appear is how they are (it’s reasonable for me to believe there’s a cup on the table if, other things being equal, that’s how things look). So why is it that I fail to have this direct awareness of God’s existence? According to Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga, because my sensus divinitatis is malfunctioning as a result of sin. According to Plantinga, my failure reasonably to believe in God is, at least in part, a result of my faulty, sin-corrupted connection with God. Plantinga offers a similar explanation for my failure reasonably to believe the great truths of the Christian Gospels.

 

(iv) Humanists are led astray by devils.

 

In the U.S. Bible belt you will find church signs that read, “A free thinker is Satan’s slave”. The devil is often credited with blinding many to the truth of Christianity. In The Screwtape Letters, for example, the author and theologian C.S. Lewis, who really believed in devils, illustrates how he supposes devils mess with our minds and lead us away from the truth. So perhaps part of the explanation for my failure to recognize the reasonableness of Christian belief is that I have allowed myself to be seduced by the diabolical trickery of Satan’s minions.

 

The four explanations sketched out here, even in combination, are weak. Yes, some of the claims made above, if true, would account for the failure of reasonable people to believe in Christianity assuming Christianity can be reasonably believed. However, there’s little reason to suppose the claims are true (what independent evidence is there for the existence of either devils or a faulty, sin-corrupted sensus divinitatis?). In addition, there’s pretty good reason to think at least some of the above explanatory claims are false (as we saw above the evidence tends to undermine the suggestion that failure to believe in the truth of Christianity, given Christian belief is reasonable, is in large part due to ignorance of the strength of the case for Christianity and/or wishful thinking).

 

This, I suggest, is true of such religious explanations of atheist and Humanist belief more generally. There’s no very good reason to expect atheism and Humanism to appear reasonable to a great many otherwise reasonable people if such beliefs are not, in fact, reasonable.

 

True, people can be psychologically manipulated into believing atheism, as has happened under several atheist totalitarian regimes. Under such a regime, it would be unsurprising if people considered atheism reasonable even if it was not. But of course the atheism of most Westerners can’t plausibly be put down to the use of such totalitarian methods. I wasn’t raised mindlessly to recite an atheist creed and told I would be executed if I failed to believe.

 

Let’s now turn to the suggestion that, actually, it is the Christian, Jew or Muslim, etc. that is mistaken about how reasonable their particular variety of religious belief is. How plausible is that?

 

Highly plausible. After all, all the major religions are focused on W-claims – claims about Gods, miracles and so on – about which we’re notoriously unreliable. Human beings have an impressive track record of being remarkably easily convinced of the reasonableness of such beliefs quite irrespective of their actual reasonableness.

 

Almost everyone, even the religious, is prepared to acknowledge the power of many religions to convince people of the reasonableness of claims that are, in reality, unreasonable. Many Christians believe Islam unreasonable. Many Muslims consider Christianity unreasonable. Almost all Christians and Muslims acknowledge that what Scientologists believe is unreasonable. A great many religious people, including even many Christians, also recognize that Christian YEC is absurd, despite the fact that polls consistently indicate that about 45% of U.S. citizens believe YEC and do so primarily on religious grounds.

 

Let’s summarize. There is no particular reason to expect atheism or Humanism to appear reasonable to a great many people if they are not in fact reasonable. Neither atheism nor Humanism are built round W-claims. Nor, unlike religions, have they an established track record of deluding large numbers of people about the reasonableness of their claims. On the other hand, there’s every reason to expect a religion like Christianity, or Islam, or Judaism, to appear reasonable to a great many people even if it is not, in fact, reasonable.

 

This strongly suggests that it isn’t the atheists and Humanists who are deluded about the reasonableness of what they believe; it’s the Christians, the Muslims, the Jews, and so on.

 

 

 

 

 

 


[1] My thanks to Richard Carrier, Bob Churchill, David Papineau, Luke Tracey for helpful comments on previous drafts.

[2] Nothing I say here should be understood to commit me to the view that, say, observation is not theory-laden, that scientific progress is uniform, that the method demands that any falsified theory should be abandoned, etc.

[3] Philip J. Klass, UFOs: The Public Deceived (Amherst NY, Prometheus Books 1983), p 83.

[4] This paragraph is drawn from my paaper “Evidence, Miracles and The Existence of Jesus, Faith and Philosophy 2011. Volume 28, Issue 2, April 2011. ppages 129-151

[5] H. Benson et al., “Study of the Therapeutic Effects of Intercessionary Prayer (STEP) in Cardiac Bypass Patients: A Multicenter Randomized Trial of Uncertainty and Certainty of Receiving Intercessionary Prayer,” American Heart Journal 151 (2006): 934–42.

[6] M. W. Krucoff et al., “Music, Imagery, Touch, and Prayer as Adjuncts to Interventional Cardiac Care: The Monitoring and Actualization of Noetic Trainings (MANTRA) II Randomized Study,” Lancet 366 (2005): 211–17.

[7] Darwin (1868), p. 236. – (1868). The Variation of Animals and Plants Under Domestication. New York: Appleton, 2nd edition, 1876.

[8] For a more detailed discussion of this a related issues see Herman Philipse, “The Real Conflict Between Science and Religion: Alvin Plantinga’s Ignoratio Elenchi” (forthcoming).

[9] Roxanne Khamsi (December 9, 2004). “Electrical brainstorms busted as source of ghosts”. BioEd Online. http://www.bioedonline.org/news/nature-news/electrical-brainstorms-busted-source-ghosts/

[10] Quoted in an email exchange with Robin Marantz Henig in latter’s “Darwin’s God” New York Times 4th March 2007.

[11] For an explanation of this problem of induction see the chapter “How Do I Know The Sun Will Rise Tomorrow?” Stephen Law, The Philosophy Gym: 25 Short Adventures in Thinking (London: Headline, 2003)

[12] http://www.answersingenesis.org/articles/lie/root-of-the-problem

[13] For a much fuller explanation of what is wrong with Ken Ham’s strategy and why, unlike Ham’s version of YEC, the theory of evolution is indeed very strongly confirmed, see the chapter “But It Fits!” in Stephen Law Believing Bullshit (Amherst: Prometheus, 2012).

[14] Sam Harris, The Moral Landscape (London: Black Swan, 2012).

[15] Results of a 2010 survey conducted by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life – results summarized at: http://www.pewforum.org/U-S-Religious-Knowledge-Survey.aspx

[16] Results of the Philpapers survey are at: http://philpapers.org/surveys/results.pl

[17] (Thomas Nagal, The Last Word (New York: Oxford `University Press 1997). p130).

About Stephen Law
  • http://somewhatabnormal.blogspot.com/ Robert Oerter

    Nice work, Stephen. A couple comments:

    1) It seems to me that this is really about atheism, rather than humanism.

    2) I would like to see some consideration about ruling out God on the basis of what we know about intelligent beings: no immaterial beings, need a brain for intelligence, etc. This ties in with some of the things you said (e.g. ruling out an elephant in the pocket on similar considerations), but might be worth bringing up as a positive argument for atheism.

  • Bradley Bowen

    Stephen Law wrote:

    “Let’s now turn to the suggestion that, actually, it is the Christian, Jew or Muslim, etc. that is mistaken about how reasonable their particular variety of religious belief is. How plausible is that?

    Highly plausible. After all, all the major religions are focused on W-claims – claims about Gods, miracles and so on – about which we’re notoriously unreliable. Human beings have an impressive track record of being remarkably easily convinced of the reasonableness of such beliefs quite irrespective of their actual reasonableness.

    Almost everyone, even the religious, is prepared to acknowledge the power of many religions to convince people of the reasonableness of claims that are, in reality, unreasonable. Many Christians believe Islam unreasonable. Many Muslims consider Christianity unreasonable. Almost all Christians and Muslims acknowledge that what Scientologists believe is unreasonable.”

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

    I think this stuff in the section ‘Who’s being reasonable?’ could be strengthened by consideration of some points raised by John Loftus concerning ‘the outsider test for faith’. Specifically, the fact that the accident of the geographic location of a person’s birth largely determines which religion one will believe in as an adult.

    The point might also cast some doubt on atheism and humanism, in so far as it supports the idea that humans are generally irrational in how they form worldview beliefs, but I think it would still strengthen your case.

    Even if one concludes that most atheists and humanists have irrationally adopted their worldview, just as most theists and religious believers have irrationally adopted their worldviews, this is still a reason for being skeptical and leaning on science and reason to help lift oneself out of the general human tendency to unthinkingly believe whatever it is that we were raised to believe, even when those beliefs are clearly unreasonable.

  • http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/User:Dianelos Dianelos Georgoudis

    Stephen,

    You write “By science, I shall mean that approach to finding out about reality based on the scientific method.”

    Well, there is problem right here, since you are conflating science with scientific realism. Or perhaps suggesting that science entails scientific realism, which is false.

    I understand that when one writes for the popular press one must simplify things, but one must find a way to do so that does not mislead people.


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