Facts, Non-facts, Science, Religion, Philosophy and All of That …

Well, you’d think I would have commented on this given that the last time Coyne went on about facts and philosophy I commented on it twice, But I’ve been a little busy with an essay and a board game and playing Dragon Age: Origins. So, a little late to the party, let me comment on Coyne’s dust-up with Ward over facts, by looking at the latest post entitled Can philosophy or religion alone establish facts?.

To start with, note that the title is misleading, and yet not misleading all at the same time (I’ll get to that in a moment). Coyne’s first line expands “fact” to mean “facts about the world or universe.” As stated in the post of mine that I just linked to, depending on what Coyne means by “world or universe” I might either agree but be completely apathetic about that, or I might disagree strongly. But it turns out that before even getting into the underlying issues there’s a fundamental disconnect between Ward and Coyne that makes that challenge pretty much pointless. In his article, Ward says this:

Scientific facts are, of course, relevant to many religious claims. But not all facts are scientific facts – the claim that I was in Oxford last night, unseen by anyone, will occur in no scientific paper, but it is a hard fact. So it is with the miracles of Jesus, with the creation of the cosmos and with its end. The interesting question is not whether religion is compatible with science, but whether there are important factual questions – and some important non-factual questions, too, such as moral ones – with which the physical sciences do not usually deal. The answer seems pretty obvious, without trying to manufacture sharp and artificial distinctions between “hows” and “whys”.

Coyne tries to contextualize his reply in terms of science, broadly construed — “Those facts, I contended, could be established only by science “broadly construed,” that is, via reason and empirical observation” — and then moves on to quote his challenge:

I challenge Ward to give me just one reasonably well established fact about the world that comes from “general philosophical views, moral views, personal experience and judgment” without any verifiable empirical input.

There are two immediate problems here. The first is that Ward is not, in fact, using that definition of science, and so never actually made that claim. Coyne, then, is challenging Ward to demonstrate something that Ward never claimed. Ward’s reply makes this even more clear (quoted from Coyne, so Coyne ought to be aware of it):

What I do claim is not so controversial, namely, that many factual claims about the world are reasonably believed or even known to be true, even when there is no way in which any established science (a discipline a Fellow of the Royal Society would recognise as a natural science) could establish that they are true or false.

So the challenge does not get off the ground; Ward and Coyne are using two completely different definitions of science to argue about what science can do or can’t do, or in Ward’s case more about what it actually does and is willing to do. Coyne’s challenge, then, to give an example of something non-empirical does not, in fact, address what Ward means by non-scientific, and Coyne needs to recognize that.

From this, we can see the other problem, which is that Ward is not, in fact, claiming that there are any facts that have been demonstrated by non-empirical means or even non-scientific means — although, put in terms of what Ward considers science, it’s obvious that there are — but is simply claiming that there are some facts and interesting non-facts (here is where it becomes clear that Ward is indeed treating the term “fact” the same way Coyne is, which is not the way people like myself or Russell Blackford use it) that cannot be done scientifically and would have to be done non-scientifically. Even if we have yet to prove one of those facts, we can clearly ask what sorts of things could not be scientifically known, once we know and agree what science is and what science is limited to. So the challenge, again, does nothing to refute the claim that Ward actually made.

From there, we can move on to other problems, the first being why Coyne thinks that he can indeed use the definition of science, broadly construed. What does his definition mean, anyway? If he means to say that any attempt to use empirical observation makes it science, then he’s unfairly limited the fields of philosophy and theology, neither of which refuse to use empirical observation when it’s appropriate. Which, it seems, would make them scientific. However, they don’t think that every interesting fact — and here I’m using “fact” more in line with what Blackford thinks it is than how Ward takes it — can be only accessed empirically. Some of them can be gotten non-empirically as well, and some of them can’t be gotten empirically at all. Which leads to the other meaning, which is that science insists on using empirical verification. This leaves more room for philosophy and theology and their work and subject matter — since neither insist on it — actually making it so that philosophy and theology can be credibly called separate ways of knowing from science, since they reject one of the fundamental assumptions of science. But then it does seem like philosophy, at least, can credibly argue that at least some of the things that they are interested in are non-empirical, but that they can still know them through non-empirical means. And this is at least part of what Ward is after.

Ward decides to respond to Coyne’s challenge thusly, but again it’s not the same sort of challenge, so we’re going to get them talking past each other again:

Here is an example: my father worked as a double-agent for MI6 and the KGB during the “Cold War”. He told me this on his death-bed, in view of the fact that I had once seen him kill a man. The Section of which he was a member was disbanded and all record of it expunged, and all those who knew that he was a member of it had long since died. This is certainly a factual claim. If true, he certainly knew that it was true. I reasonably believe that it is true. But there is absolutely no way of empirically verifying or falsifying it. QED.

Note especially the two key statements here (since the commenters, at least, didn’t catch them):

If it’s true, Ward’s father knows it to be true.
Ward reasonably believes it true.

There is nothing here about whether Coyne should reasonably believe it true, or Ophelia Benson, or anyone else. These statements are reasonable (the second may be open to some doubt, but I’ll get into that later) and Ward is claiming that there is no way to empirically verify or falsify it, as science would insist. Ergo, this is a known fact for Ward’s father, probably a known fact for Ward (depending on how one interprets “justified” in justified true belief) but empirical verification was not, in fact, required for that knowledge, and is not required now.

Coyne replies with this:

If that’s the best that Ward can do, then I claim victory. A “fact” is not a fact if all the evidence supporting it has vanished or is inaccessible. It’s the same as my baby sister’s claim that my father (whom she worshipped) could fly if he wanted to, but “he simply doesn’t want to.”

The problem is this: what is meant by “evidence” here? Coyne clearly means “empirical evidence”, but then what does he count testimony as? If Ward’s father was trustworthy, in a position to know the proposition, and there is no reason to think he is lying, why is that not sufficient for knowledge? The relation between testimony and knowledge is a complex and deep one that has been examined in detail philosophically (I once did an entire 4 month tutorial as a Masters student on that topic, where I concluded that it can give you knowledge under the conditions where testimony is reliable). Given that discussion, it’s difficult to say that it can’t be evidence at all. And it’s evidence that Ward possesses, along with the other evidence of his father’s trustworthiness as well as how it makes one incident in Ward’s life fit and explains why that happened. All of this, taken together, would, it seems, justify Ward in saying that he knows that that is true, even as it might not justify it for others. And Ward harps on this exact point when talking about the Resurrection:

When, in my Guardian piece, I described the resurrection as a ‘hard fact’, I naturally did not mean that it would convince everyone. I meant that it entails some empirical factual claims (so it is not just subjective or fictional). But those claims are not verifiable by any known scientific or historical means. That is why we make judgements about such claims in the light of our more general philosophical and moral views and other personal experiences- (i.e.) whether we believe there is a God, whether this would be a good thing for God to do, and whether we think we have experienced God.

Ward is saying that there is evidence for the Resurrection, but it is not convincing. So we decide whether to believe or not on the basis of our other beliefs, which may result in different beliefs depending on what other things we believe. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that reasonable beliefs of that sort rise to the level of knowledge, but Ward doesn’t actually say that either. While I interpreted the “Dad is a double agent” story above as a knowledge claim, it doesn’t have to be. It just needs to be, for Ward, something that he can reasonably believe. Which may mean that someone else can reasonably believe something different. Only if a knowledge claim is being made can you insist that no other belief can be reasonably believed. Which, I think, is a very important distinction to make, since it suggests that both theists and atheists can have reasonable or unreasonable beliefs about the existence of God, and it is why they believe that makes the difference, not what they believe.

Coyne goes on to talk about distinguishing factual claims from facts:

Ward and Houston should know better: a “factual claim” is not a “fact” unless there is evidence to support it. It is a “factual claim” that some people have seen fairies, or that the Loch Ness Monster swims in the vasty deep. But empirical investigation hasn’t supported these assertions. Think of all the factual claims made by those who are delusional, or mentally ill!

So, let’s distinguish the factual claims from the facts here:

Proposition: Fairies exist, and X saw a fairy.
Fact: X had a sensory experience that in some way looked like a fairy.
Factual Claim: X’s experience indicates that fairies exist.
Disputed Fact: Fairies exist.

It is true that X’s experience of a thing that looked like a fairy may well not, in fact, make the disputed fact undisputed. But the reasons why are where things get interesting, because the reasons one may dispute the fact don’t have to be empirical or scientific. One can, for example, point out that someone who clearly saw a rock couldn’t have seen a fairy since, well, fairies don’t look like rocks. One can also point out that a very blurry image at distance is under conditions where sense perceptions aren’t reliable and which might not really indicate a fairy at all. And one can do empirical investigations and find inconsistencies, where if it really was a fairy you would expect to have also seen something else — some other, new evidence — and that evidence wasn’t there. But what you cannot do is simply say “Well, you think you saw a fairy, so that’s a factual claim but the fact ‘Fairies exist’ is not true, and so you did not really see a fairy” based on whether you think fairies could exist or not. You can form a reasonable belief that he did not see a fairy based on the argument that you don’t think fairies exist — the old “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” claim — but you do have to realize, as Ward says, that that classification depends on you, and also that this does not mean that suddenly there is no evidence.

In science, there are plenty of “factual claims” that don’t turn out to be facts. Cold fusion is one, the claim that bacteria cause cancer (for which a Nobel prize was awarded) is another. That’s why factual claims require verification, and why string theory, which also makes factual claims, is still in the hinternland of facthood: there’s no way we’ve yet discovered to test those claims.

As G’Kar once said, “Commendable, but what does that have to with …?” (He was cut off at that point). Should we believe that string theory is true? I can’t imagine why not. Do we have enough evidence even without direct testing to say that we know that string theory is true? It’s quite possible we do. Are we certain that it is true? Probably not. But who cares? If we can reasonably believe it or even know it without directly testing it, then why care about direct testing? Sure, it might be nice to have the confirmation, and that confirmation will, on occasion, reveal that we were wrong in the first place. But that does not change how we act towards the proposition until that occurs, does it?

repeat again for philosophers like Ward and Houston: factual claims are not facts. It is possible that Ward’s father was a double agent, but I won’t accept its truth until there are independent ways to show that.

Bully for you. Does that mean that Ward or his father are not completely justified in accepting its truth? What you can reasonably believe and what other people can reasonable believe are not the same thing. This does not make knowledge subjective in any way, it simply reflects the impacts of points of reference and points of view. As seen, this does not address Ward’s point at all.

Increasingly, I find philosophers like Houston presenting claims of theologians like Ward sympathetically. It’s almost as if there’s a bifurcating family tree of thought, with philosophers and theologians as sister taxa, and scientists as the outgroup. That seems strange to me, as I understood that most philosophers are atheists. I’m not clear why I’m attracting increasing opprobrium from philosophers, though one reason may be their irritation that I am encroaching on their territory.

Back in the old days of the Greeks, philosophy was supposed to be part of a well-rounded life; now any scientist who engages in the practice is criticized for treading on the turf of professional academic philosophers. Suck it up, I say to these miscreants.

When you remember why you were so irritated with Jerry Fodor and “Why Darwin Was Wrong”, you’ll know why we’re so irritated with you. Hint: It’s not because you’re encroaching, but because you’re encroaching and claiming to be right about comments you are making that simply don’t address the underlying discussions. You could start proving us wrong by finally acknoweldging that how you define science is not how the people you are opposing define science, and thus finally no longer attacking your opponents based on positions they do not hold.


3 Responses to “Facts, Non-facts, Science, Religion, Philosophy and All of That …”

  1. Jim P Houston Says:

    Thank you for some clear and fair-minded thinking on this issue. Jean Kazez has written a good piece on the matter too.


  2. Caught in the net? A reply to @askegg | Things Findo Thinks Says:

    […] and Keith Ward, and if you’re interested in this stuff, then check these discussions: here, here & here. Related Posts:Naturalism and fishing netsDefining away the supernaturalLennox on […]

  3. The “Best” Defense … | The Verbose Stoic Says:

    […] of science in arguments — as being a form of scientism, and have called Jerry Coyne out on using his uncommon definition of “science” in an argument. The difference, though, is that in the cases of scientism generally I accuse them or broadening or […]

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