The Other I

April 19, 2010

A testable possibility

In my post yesterday I suggested one of the issues frequently – though not always necessarily – dividing science and religion was the disagreement over the existence of a supernatural world whose inhabitants may intervene directly in the operations of the natural world.*

But there is a second assumption dividing scientific thought and religious belief which seems to me to be even more fundamental.  Not only does science accept only explanations which reflect natural processes and events, those explanations – that is theories – must be testable.

We’ve already seen that scientific proof is not absolute.  There is always the possibility that even the strongest, most broadly accepted theory, will be overthrown by new observations and new theories that explain what we observe more simply or with fewer contradictions.

Nonetheless, to be a workable scientific theory taken seriously by the scientific community, it must be testable.  That is, it must make predictions which scientists can then test.  The more predictions are validated, the stronger a theory becomes.  They are, essentially, the “proof” of the theory.

If a theory cannot be tested or if its predictions fail, it is not accepted as scientifically valid.

Religious beliefs, on the other hand, are based on faith, which by its very definition, cannot be tested the way a scientific theory must be.  Religious doctrine may make a lot of sense, may explain much of what we experience about the world and what we hope for the future.  But it is accepted for reasons that are beyond proof.

To many people, this sounds like an open and shut case demonstrating the superiority of science.

But I’m not so sure.

I personally cannot argue for the infallibility of any particular religious belief.  But I have difficulty accepting the scientific method and reason as the only valid roads to understanding.  Why?

First of all, because there seem to be so many important things about which we must decide in life which are either in theory or in practice not subject to scientific or even full-scale rational scrutiny.  And some of these decisions are terribly important.  Like:  “will we be happy if I marry this person?”,  “what career path will I find fulfilling?”,  “will this investment make a profit?”  Admittedly, science can sometimes shed light on these questions, but it cannot answer them if only because in practice I cannot set up the required scientific observations.

And there are other questions which are simply beyond scientific testability.  Like “does my life have a purpose?” or “why does a child or a flower or even a frog deserve respect?”

Are the answers we give to questions sheer guess work?  or can we intuit some things, can we at least orient ourselves in the right direction?  Has, perhaps, evolution given us some wisdom to which we have access but which we do not fully understand about ourselves?  are even our scientific hypotheses based initially on intuitions which have a better chance of being validated than would mere guesswork?

And if we do possess some capacity for intuition, how do we use it? through poetry?  through music or literature?  from others? in our scientific endeavours?

If yes, how do we recognize it? can we validate these intuitions outside science in any way?  How do we distinguish between superstition and valid intuition? between wishful thinking and insight?  between fear-laden bigotry and a sixth sense that we might trust?

Given my background, I tend to approach these questions as a psychologist first, rather than in terms of theology or philosophy where I am a neophyte.

From that perspective, at this point, I don’t fully trust the announced intuitions of any one who seems to have a need for absolute certainty, who cannot consider the possibility that they might be wrong.  This is as true of scientific as religious thought.  I think it is an inescapable condition of being human that we must live with some level of uncertainty.  The decisions we make will always entail some risk that we are wrong.  That’s life.

But I also look for some coherence.  I can’t adopt a philosophy of life that broadly contradicts the assumptions and observations of modern science.  So I do not believe that the world was created in seven days some four thousand years ago, I don’t think homosexuality is intrinsically wrong or even immature, I’m open to the possibility that polygamy is a viable structure for some cultures, I don’t think any of us have a mission from God to either convert all non-believers or eliminate them from the face of the earth.

I do, on the other hand, have a sense of responsibility for earth and every one and everything in it, mainly because I can’t see any other alternative.

* There is a fuller and possibly more accurate exploration of the relationship between philosophy and religion by the author of the comment made in relation to my post yesterday.

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5 Comments »

  1. This is another essay I wrote that touches on the question of certainty and truth:
    http://ontologicalstatus.blogspot.com/2009/10/what-is-truth_6792.html

    Here is an entry on ‘scientism’ with an excerpt by Edward Feser:
    http://ontologicalstatus.blogspot.com/2010/03/recovering-sight-after-scientism-by.html

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    Comment by demian217 — April 19, 2010 @ 6:04 pm | Reply

    • Thank you for your additional post markers. You are giving me a lot of work to do – your posts are not quick reads. But over the next few days I will read all three you have noted because 1) you are asking many of the same questions I am but with a perspective and a background (and even a starting point, I think, from what I have read so far) different from my own. Which means it is unlikely that we will just end up saying the same thing. In other words, I’ll learn something. and 2) you have done a great deal of the reading in philosophy that, as you say, one needs to do if you are going to think about these issues philosophically with any complexity and depth. I recognize the difference in my own field. (I don’t know which is worse – an amateur psychologist or an amateur philosopher who doesn’t know s/he’s an amateur. And so, though it may not show, I do walk with some trepidation in the field of philosophy.)

      But it may not be a coincidence that as a psychologist my research and teaching was primarily concerned with the development of cognition and the processes involved in the development of our concepts like number, time, space, morality, art, truth.

      Off to do a little brain work. Thank you again.
      The Other I

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      Comment by theotheri — April 19, 2010 @ 7:54 pm | Reply

  2. Some familiar themes here! I agree with much of this – and you’ll know which bits. But I did find myself thinking there are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than science and religious belief.

    To assert and defend the superiority of scientific method over religious belief is one thing. But I don’t think that commits one to accepting the scientific method and reason as the only valid roads to understanding.

    Your first three examples are interesting. You talk of the role of predictions in scientific methodology, ie statements (deduced from hypotheses) which can be tested against experience. Since the test is typically something a scientist devises, plans and then carries out, the statement tested is typically a ‘prediction’ in the familiar sense of a statement about the future that hasn’t happened yet. But I don’t think a scientific research ‘prediction’ is necessarily about the future, even though it’s a ‘prediction’.

    A classic case is in the fossil record. A theory of the evolution of a particular species could ‘predict’ that there would be fossils of a particular type found in a particular stratum. The ‘finding’ may be a future event, but the fossils (if found) would have been already there. They just hadn’t been found yet.

    But I think your three examples (‘Will we be happy if I marry this person?’, ‘What career path will I find fulfilling?’ and ‘Will this investment make a profit?’) are necessarily questions about the future. If we reformatted them as indicative testable statements (‘We will be happy if I marry this person’, ‘I will find career path x fulfilling’ and ‘This investment will make a profit’) they would be necessarily predictions about the future – in a way that scientifically testable ‘predictions’ typically are not.

    This could be important because the first two at least are also situations where there is at least a measure of individual will and intentionality. That is why they have to be about the future, and also why they’re not the kind of thing that falls into the domain of science.

    (I pondered for a while before sneaking in the word individual, which seems important here. ‘I will be happy if I marry this person’ does not seem to be a scientifically testable hypothesis, because it is, to an extent at least, in my power to make it either true or false. But a hypothesis like ‘On average people are happier if they marry people who are within 10 years of their own age, than if the age gap is between 10 and 20 years’ is arguably scientifically testable – as long as eg the sample is high enough and the guinea pigs don’t know they’re being tested.)

    The third one (‘This investment will make a profit’) perhaps appears closest to a scientific prediction. It is not about an individual person or couple. But again I think it struggles to be classed as science. It is certainly ‘testable’ in that (presumably over a fixed time scale) it will turn out to be either true or false. (But so will the other two predictions.) Investment returns are notoriously dependent on a huge number of factors, including the aggregate of many people’s decisions. Some at least of those decisions are ‘game-theoretical’, ie of the form ‘what do I think my opponent will think I will decide to do…’ etc, and of course escalating to higher orders than that.

    Your next two questions (does my life have a purpose? and why does a child or a flower or even a frog deserve respect?) are of course worth a book each. (I’m intrigued by the way why you didn’t ask: why does a child or a frog or even a flower deserve respect?!)

    The reason the ‘science v religion’ debate is so fascinating is – for me – not that they are ‘Non-overlapping magisteria’ in Stephen Jay Gould’s strange phrase. But that it stimulates thinking into what science really is and what religion really is, and about all the other important things which are neither science nor religion. As I’ve said or at least implied before, the superiority of science is – for me – that it comes with its own health warning, while religion very often doesn’t. But there are lots of things which are neither science nor religion – some of which being what your questions are about.

    Thanks again,
    Chris
    thinking makes it so

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    Comment by Chris Lawrence — April 21, 2010 @ 7:46 pm | Reply

    • The problem with your comments, Chris L, is that they give me too much to think about. And if I may say so, your blog is even worse.

      Actually, in relation to your comments above, there is nothing with which I disagree. (I did, perhaps, disparage the poor frog by putting him after the flower, but I do have a particular affection for the toad in our garden, so perhaps I can make amends. ) But here are a few miscellaneous thoughts until I manage something more coherent:

      I had not really appreciated that your view of science is not that it is the only valid approach to understanding (let’s agree to avoid the word “truth”). In fact, I wondered how you managed to seem so broadly appreciative of so much that is not strictly science.

      Your exploration on your blog of what art is has created a parallel exploration in my own mind about what religion is. It seems so diverse as to be impossible to categorize. One version or other seems to be able to embrace or discard almost any aspect of human experience on offer. So it seems to be that one can really only compare a particular version of religion with science, not religion en toto.

      Enough for now. Once again, thank you.

      Like

      Comment by theotheri — April 22, 2010 @ 4:46 pm | Reply

  3. On another note, it’s interesting that in your comment you’d mention the “ferocity of earthquakes”; I just lived through the fifth strongest recorded earthquakes in history! I was (and still am) in Chile when an 8.8 magnitude earthquake hit us for three straight minutes. Of course I wasn’t thinking about adultery or anything like that, but for a second or two I did think my end had come.

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    Comment by demian217 — April 22, 2010 @ 5:26 am | Reply


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