Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Are philosophy and theology just "hot air"?

Among the now 66 comments on my post about the so-called "God Particle," many were posted by members the Peanut Gallery here at Vital Remnants, and all of which completely avoided my point about science now operating culturally as a religion. Instead, we had to deal with all kinds of points only indirectly related to what I actually said (after which, of course, they blamed me for not addressing what they said).

But that's fine. I'm happy to talk about some of the subjects that were brought up, one of them by our beloved Singring, a German scientist whose incantation is "empiricism." He thinks if he repeats the term enough times, metaphysics will just go away and leave him alone.

Singring (and he is representative here of many in his scientistic tribe) has two basic problems: First, he mistakenly assumes that all philosophy and theology is non-empirical; and, second, he wrongly thinks there can be an empiricism free of metaphysics.

Let's concentrate on the first of these in this post: Are philosophy and theology non-empirical?

Singring says:
What Martin seems to forget is that philosophy and theology don't make the headlines because they don't do anything useful - they just produce hot air. When is the last time philosophy or theology cured a disease, invented a new material, increased crop yields? When is the last time philosophy came up with a truth that it can show is in fact true with a reliable, sturdy and transparent methodology? 
Hmmm. I guess I could ask when was the last time science proved the existence of God or answered the question how something could come from nothing (and, no, the equally philosophically naive Lawrence Krauss's completely incompetent handling of this question [in which he doesn't handle it at all, but pretends he does] doesn't count). To ask when the last time one discipline answered the questions of a completely different discipline is hardly a competent critique of that discipline and it's not a great way to inspire confidence in your ability to deal with these questions. But Singring has always been somewhat impervious to basic distinctions.

Nor does it help his case against philosophy when he admits he's not even familiar with any works of philosophy. There's no evidence that his knowledge of theology is even better. It kind of helps to actually know what you're talking about.

He takes the naive view that philosophers think deductively and scientists think empirically:
Scientists think differently. They look at empirical evidence (not 'intuitions', 'looks' or 'self-evident facts) and they see which hypothesis it supports. It's that simple.
No intellectually serious person who has looked into this question would ever say this, of course, but it has become a sort of New Atheist mantra anyway.

Oops. Did I use the expressions "intellectually serious" and "New Atheist" in the same sentence? I promise never to do it again.

Singring talks as if a scientist just makes an observation and goes out shopping for the appropriate hypothesis, which is just sitting out there somewhere, ready-made. Either that, or maybe, poof! A hypothesis just appears in the scientists mind! To say that intuition doesn't play a major role in scientific discovery and hypothesis formation is not only to fail to make sense, but to betray complete ignorance of the history of science, another field in which Singring is clearly out of his depth. And the thing is you don't even have to know much about it to see that these kinds of statements are ludicrous. In fact, you only need to know just a little bit about, say, Einstein to know just how great a role these things play.

As Lutheran theologian John Warwick Montgomery has pointed out:
Little more that superficial naiveté lies at the basis of the popular opinion that science and theology are in methodological conflict because the former "employs inductive reasoning" while the latter "operates deductive"! In point of fact, both generally proceed retroductively, and neither is less concerned than the other about the concrete verification of its inference.
Singring seems to have dispensed with his use of the specific term "induction." Maybe it had something to do with my pointing out to him that you can't champion David Hume's empiricism and then say that induction is a rationally justified procedure, seeing as Hume dispatched that belief so decisively that no one has ever been able to answer him. But that's what happens when you say things about philosophy without actually having read it.

Like many scientific inferences, the Higgs Boson "discovery" (if that's what it is--there seems to be some lingering doubt) is a prime example, not of anything even resembling strict empiricism. It is an example of "inference to the best explanation," or "abduction" (or "retroduction").

Scientists knew (in the tentative, scientific sense) the Higgs Boson particle was there before they found it. In the case of Peter Higgs (the "Higgs" of Higgs Boson), that was 1964. Why? Because they had empirical evidence of it? Absolutely not. They knew it existed because its existence was necessary in order for their theory of how other particles in an atom have mass. They knew it in the same way they knew Neptune existed before they had empirically observed it: because the positing of its existence was the only thing that could explain irregularities in Uranus's orbit.

Montgomery again:
The essential place of "imagination" in scientific theorizing has been greatly stressed by Einstein; and its role can perhaps best be seen by introducing, alongside induction and deduction—as, in fact, the connecting link between them-Peirce's concept of "retroduction" or "abduction," based upon Aristotle's type inference. "Abduction," writes Peirce, "consists in studying facts and devising a theory to explain them .... Deduction proves that something must be; induction shows that something actually is operative; abduction merely suggests that something may be."
"Physical theories provide patterns within which data appear intelligible," says N. R. Hansen (quoted by Montgomery):
They constitute a "conceptual Gestalt". A theory is not pieced together from observed phenomena; it is rather what makes it possible to observe phenomena as being of a certain sort, and as related to other phenomena. Theories put phenomena into systems. They are built up "in reverse" retroductively. A theory is a cluster of conclusions in search of a premise. From the observed properties of phenomena the physicist reasons his way towards a keystone idea from which the properties are explicable as a matter of course.
Induction, despite all its glamour (and despite that Hume showed that it is the last thing you can make sense of if you follow empiricism to its logical conclusion), doesn't play as big a role in science as people think it does, particularly in fields like physics, where abduction seems to be the preferred methodology.

But the more relevant point here is that the same methodology used by science (and one that Singring apparently never noticed) is used by philosophy and theology as well. Scientists uses it in the context of the investigation of nature; philosophers use it to determine whether their own metaphysical explanations best explain the known facts of the world; theologians use it to make the most sense of the revelatory truth they believe they have been given.

This fact puts the lie to the idea that Singring and Art (a University of Kentucky scientist) often repeat on this blog: that science has a reliable methodology to confirm its truth and philosophy and theology don't. In fact, in many cases they use the same methodology, only they apply it to different things.


KyCobb said...

"Among the now 66 comments on my post about the so-called "God Particle," many were posted by members the Peanut Gallery here at Vital Remnants, and all of which completely avoided my point about science now operating culturally as a religion."

Actually, I pointed out the difference between science and religion in my post.

William said...

The empirical sciences usually have one crucial difference you did not mention from most other means of knowledge: confirmation via correct prediction, disconfirmation by lack of correct prediction.

Correct prophecy is the religious analogy.

Thomas M. Cothran said...


Are you saying that empirical science differs from religion because it makes arguments in the following form:

If A, then B. B, therefore A.

For example, (Premise 1): if Newton's theory of gravity is valid, then objects of different weights dropped simultaneously in a vacuum will hit the ground at the same time. (Premise 2): Objects of different weights dropped simultaneously in a vacuum will hit the ground at the same time. (Conclusion) Newton's theory of gravity is valid.

William said...

The A then B form fails to include the modality and practice of prediction.

More like:

If theoretical model M, then known facts A and B, plus unknown, predicted fact C:

Further experiment or observation shows C; Therefore M is more likely than another model which suggested that ~C.

William said...

The religious analogy is Elijah in the middle of the Bible in I Kings chapter 18. Elijah's challenge was one of practical stuff, not the static logic of the philosophy you are claiming as religion :)

Thomas M. Cothran said...


As you're taking the falsifiability route, I would think the distinction between religion, philosophy, and science is that the first two make truth claims while the last does not.

William said...

Is claiming something P has been falsified claiming that P is false? Is that the same as claiming ~P is true?

Thomas M. Cothran said...

Sure, under the falsifiability view, scientific theories can be shown to be false. But they cannot be shown to be true. Christians claim the resurrection story is true, not just that some other accounts of Jesus' last days are false. Science, however, can make no claims that a current theory is true--on your professed view, at least--only that they have not yet been shown to be false.

William said...

Theories may not be things that are possible or needed to prove as true, but data points, such as historical events, are something that scientists may and can fully believe to true.

A good theory is based on truth, even if the theory itself cannot be proven true.

As a historical event, Jesus' resurrection would be a data point, not a theory.

Thomas M. Cothran said...


I think you may be advancing a naive notion of the relation between facts and theoretical constructs (much like there is no such thing as a percept without a concept, there is no such thing as a fact without a theoretical background). It is difficult to claim that facts demonstrated scientifically are true if the scientific theories assumed in the demonstration of these truths cannot be shown true. (And if scientific theories are not necessary in the proof of factual claims, they would seem rather less useful.) But that's another discussion.

It seems we do agree that while theology and philosophy claim the truth of particular events and the associated conceptual apparatuses (i.e., dogma), science cannot claim--on your view--nearly as much. The account science gives of its objects, to the extent it is theoretical, cannot claim to be true; while the accounts given by philosophy or theology can.