bookmark_borderA Scientific Question? Part 9

One way of understanding “science” is that it is concerned with the discovery and verification of facts. If God exists, then the existence of God is a fact. If there is no God, then the non-existence of God is a fact. Either way, there is a fact to be discovered and verified. So, it looks like under this conception of “science” the question “Does God exist?” would be properly categorized as a scientific question.

But, what is a “fact”? This is itself a problematic and ambiguous word. It might, on closer inspection, turn out to be as unclear and problematic as the word “science” and thus not provide much help or clarification about the nature of science.

The word “fact” has different meanings or shades of meaning, depending on what it is that we are contrasting with “fact”. Here are a few common contrasting concepts:

A. Fact vs. Fiction
B. Fact vs. Opinion
C. Fact vs. Value
D. Fact vs. Theory

A. Fact vs. Fiction
Sometimes “fact” is contrasted with “fiction”. In this sense of the word, it refers truth, and means something like a true claim. Agnostics do not assert that the claim “God exists” is false; rather, they believe that while it is possible that the sentence “God exists” is true, we human beings are in no position to determine or know that this sentence expresses a true claim or fact.

If “fact” is understood to mean true claim, and if some true claims are unknowable by humans, then some facts are unknowable by humans and thus some facts are beyond the reach of scientific investigation, at least scientific investigations conducted by humans. If agnocitism is correct, then the question “Does God exist?” would not be a scientific question, because any investigation or reasoning about this question would fail to discover or establish the existence or non-existence of God as a fact.

Another skeptical position, held by many philosophers in the 20th Century, is that the sentence “God exists” does not express a meaningful claim. If this view is correct, then the sentence “God exists” does not express a true claim or fact, and the sentence “There is no God” also fails to express a true claim or fact. If this skeptical viewpoint is correct, then the question “Does God exist?” is not a scientific question, because any investigation or reasoning about this question would fail to discover or establish the existence or non-existence of God as a fact.

However, if there is a God, or if there is no such being as God, and if human beings have the ability to determine or know that there is a God or that there is no God, then the question “Does God exist?” would be a scientific question, on the above interpretation of “fact” and “science”.

B. Fact vs. Opinion
In rhetoric there is a widely referenced distinction between “fact” and “opinion”. I think this distinction is so unclear as to be worthless. However, it does suggest a number of other distinctions, which are a bit more clear and also a bit more helpful. It suggests the distinction between “fact” and “value”, the distinction between “fact” and “theory”, the distinction betwen “fact” and “conjecture”, and it also suggests the distinction between “fact” and “reasoned judgement” (e.g. when diagnosed with a serious illness, one should seek a second “opinion”), as well as the distinction between “fact” and “probability”.

The unclear distinction between “fact” and “opinion” will not be useful for clarifying the words “fact” or “science”, but it does point us to other distinctions that are worth a closer look.

C. Fact vs. Value
The distinction between “fact” and “value” seems relevant to the task of clarifying the word “fact” especially in the context of using this word to define what we mean by “science”. As I pointed out in Part 6 of this series of posts, Stephen Gould in his book Rocks of Ages, focuses heavily on the fact vs. value distinction in order to distinguish science from religion.

Stephen Gould and Richard Dawkins appear to be in agreement that questions about the acceptability of moral principles and judgements are not scientific questions. Gould bases this view on the fact vs. value distinction, and he points to the descriptive nature of scientific claims in support of his view that science does not deal with questions of value.

If “fact” is understood in contrast with “value”, then it refers to description, and means something like a descriptive claim, as opposed to an evaluative or normative claim. So, on this understanding of “fact” and on the assumption that science is concerned with the discovery and verification of facts, science would be concerned with the discovery and verification of descriptive claims, but not with evaluative claims.

On this understanding of “science”, the question “Does God exist?” would not be a scientific question, in my opinion, because the word “God” is not a purely descriptive term. Something is “God” only if it is a perfectly good person. If science does not deal with evaluative or normative claims, then science cannot determine whether there is a person who is perfectly good.

However, one can re-define the word “God” to eliminate any normative or evaluative criteria, and thus produce a purely descriptive concept of “God”. That is what Dawkins does in The God Delusion. Dawkins eliminates the normative criterion of “goodness” from his concept of “God” and puts forward a definition that appears to involve only descriptive criteria.

So, given that Dawkins’ has provided a purely descriptive definition of “God”, the question, “Does God exist?” would properly be considered a scienfitic question, based on the view that science is concerned with the discovery and verification of true descriptive claims. However, this is subject to the qualification that Dawkins definition of God makes it so that the claim “God exists” is not only a meaningful claim, but is one that human beings can potentially determine to be true.

D. Fact vs. Theory
Another distinction suggested by “fact” vs. “opinion” is the distinction between “fact” and “theory”. What I have in mind here is the idea that direct observations are where the rubber meets the road in science. Theories can be tweaked, revised, and even rejected, but “facts” or direct observations are not so easily adjusted or rejected. While it is true that a theory can be used to cast doubt on a specific observation, that is only the case when the theory has been well-established on the basis of a large number and variety of observations.

To be continued…

bookmark_borderA Scientific Question? Part 8

There are four different possible kinds of questions, in relation to the categories of “scientific questions” and “historical questions” (prior to doing an analysis of these concepts):
X.S…..H
1. T…..T
2. T…..F
3. F…..T
4. F…..F

(1) both scientific and historical
(2) scientific but not historical
(3) not scientific but historical
(4) not scientific and not historical

I am going to make a few plausible assumptions about what sorts of questions exist:

(a) There are some scientific questions.
(b) There are some historical questions.
(c) There are some questions that are niether scientific nor historical (such as moral questions, e.g. “Is it always wrong to to tell a lie?”).

Based on these assumptions there are five logical possibilities for the distribution of questions in relation to the four categories of questions.

Zero categories/regions have instances.
This possibility is ruled out by the assumptions above.

One category/region has instances.
This possibility is ruled out by the assumptions above.

Two categories/regions have instances.
There is only one possible distribution of questions of this sort, given the above assumptions.

Three categories/regions have instances.
There are three possible distributions of questions of this sort, given the above assumptions. One of these possible distributions corresponds to a NOMA (non-overlapping magisteria) type of view about the relationship of science to history:



Four Categories/Regions have an instance.
There is just one possible distribution of questions of this sort:

bookmark_borderGoodbye to All That

Over the past ten years I have published, in one venue or another, about twenty things on the philosophy of religion. I have a book on the subject, God and Burden of Proof, and another criticizing Christian apologetics, Why I am not a Christian. During my academic career I have debated William Lane Craig twice and creationists twice. I have written one master’s thesis and one doctoral dissertation in the philosophy of religion, and I have taught courses on the subject numerous times. But no more. I’ve had it. I’m going back to my real interests in the history and philosophy of science and, after finishing a few current commitments, I’m writing nothing more on the subject. I could give lots of reasons. For one thing, I think a number of philosophers have made the case for atheism and naturalism about as well as it can be made. Graham Oppy, Jordan Howard Sobel, Nicholas Everitt, Michael Martin, Robin Le Poidevin and Richard Gale have produced works of enormous sophistication that devastate the theistic arguments in their classical and most recent formulations. Ted Drange, J.L. Schellenberg, Andrea Weisberger, and Nicholas Trakakis have presented powerful, and, in my view, unanswerable atheological arguments. Gregory Dawes has a terrific little book showing just what is wrong with theistic “explanations.” Erik Wielenberg shows very clearly that ethics does not need God. With honest humility, I really do not think that I have much to add to these extraordinary works.
Chiefly, though, I am motivated by a sense of ennui on the one hand and urgency on the other. A couple of years ago I was teaching a course in the philosophy of religion. We were using, among other works, C. Stephen Layman’s Letters to a Doubting Thomas: A Case for the Existence of God. In teaching class I try to present material that I find antithetical to my own views as fairly and in as unbiased a manner as possible. With the Layman book I was having a real struggle to do so. I found myself literally dreading having to go over this material in class—NOT, let me emphasize, because I was intimidated by the cogency of the arguments. On the contrary, I found the arguments so execrably awful and pointless that they bored and disgusted me (Layman is not a kook or an ignoramus; he is the author of a very useful logic textbook). I have to confess that I now regard “the case for theism” as a fraud and I can no longer take it seriously enough to present it to a class as a respectable philosophical position—no more than I could present intelligent design as a legitimate biological theory. BTW, in saying that I now consider the case for theism to be a fraud, I do not mean to charge that the people making that case are frauds who aim to fool us with claims they know to be empty. No, theistic philosophers and apologists are almost painfully earnest and honest; I don’t think there is a Bernie Madoff in the bunch. I just cannot take their arguments seriously any more, and if you cannot take something seriously, you should not try to devote serious academic attention to it. I’ve turned the philosophy of religion courses over to a colleague.
As I say there is also a sense of urgency. I just turned 58 and I want to devote the relatively few years remaining in my scholarly life to what I not only respect, but love. I love astronomy; I love geology; I love paleontology, and I find the history of those fields fascinating. I also am very interested in philosophical problems associated with the historical sciences. How we understand and reconstruct events that took place in deep time is a deep and abiding interest for me. I have published two books on the history of dinosaur paleontology, and I am going to get back into stuff like that.
So, with the exception of things I am finishing now I am calling it quits with the philosophy of religion. I might also reply to a few criticisms of things I have already published. For instance, the Secular Web has a long critique of my essay “No Creator Need Apply,” and I might respond to that. I’ll continue to post things occasionally on Secular Outpost. As for the rest of you who are fighting the good fight against supernaturalism, please do carry on. Somebody needs to oppose this stuff. It just isn’t going to be me.