Monday, March 21, 2016

Is science based on faith?

Once again a scientist has wandered into the Land of Philosophy, thinking he knows his way around, and has instead become disoriented and confused. And not only that, but the person doing this is a repeat offender.

In a recent post, Jerry Coyne criticized Matt Emerson, whose essay "At it's heart, science is faith-based too," was recently published in the Wall Street Journal

Coyne is best know for his book Why Evolution is True. But he also frequently makes forays outside his field of expertise, some of which have proved embarrassing. His new book is Faith vs. Fact: Why Science and Religion are Incompatible. There have been several great take-downs of this book by people who actually know what they are talking about, one of which is Ed Feser's review of the book in the most recent issue of First Things magazine.

In his criticism of Emerson, Coyne employs the same fallacious reasoning that characterizes his books and that has become a fixture of his blog.

To Emerson's assertion that scientists have "faith in reason," Coyne responds by quoting his piece in Slate magazine:

Scientists don’t have “faith in reason.” As I noted in Slate:

What about faith in reason? Wrong again. Reason—the habit of being critical, logical, and of learning from experience—is not an a priori assumption but a tool that’s been shown to work. It’s what produced antibiotics, computers, and our ability to sequence DNA. We don’t have faith in reason; we use reason because, unlike revelation, it produces results and understanding.

Sorry, but this is just nonsense.

It's not completely clear what Coyne even means by the term "reason," but I'm going to take leap in the dark and assume he means something like logic in particular and rational thought in general. To say that reason in this sense is not a priori and that we only accept it because it "works" is just ignorant.

All reason in this sense is based on two axioms: the Law of Identity and the Law of Non-contradiction. To say that a belief is a priori (meaning, literally, "from the prior") means that you accept it without any prior reasoning or evidence. Maybe Coyne would like to explain what evidence or prior reasoning supports the Law of Identity and the Law of Non-Contradiction. 

In fact, there is no evidence for them. That's why they are axioms. We accept them purely on the basis of intuition: They make sense that's all. That's the problem with any system of thinking: it is based on beliefs which cannot themselves be proven. All we can conclude about a scientist who says he accepts reason because it "works" is that the scientist saying that doesn't know what he is talking about.

Science too is based on reasoning that is based on a priori assumptions. If it is based on deductive reasoning, then you have the two assumptions (and a few others) above. If it is based on inductive reasoning, there is another a priori assumption. As the philosopher David Hume pointed out, all inductive reasoning involves the premise that the future must be similar to the past. If copper repeatedly and uniformly conducts electricity in repeated experiments, then we conclude--on the basis of the assumption that the future will always be like the past--that it will always do this. But although we believe that the future will be like the past, we have no rational basis for believing it. Again, it's intuitive: It just makes sense.

In other words, at bottom, science too, insofar as it makes logical inferences, is a priori, since its fundamental tools of inference are based on a priori assumptions. 

The only question left is whether this is equivalent to faith. Coyne himself seems to think it is, since he responds to Emerson's claim that scientists have "faith in reason" by claiming (erroneously) that science is not a priori, a claim made more ironic when consider the additional assumptions science makes, in addition to its purely rational assumptions, about the reliability of our own senses.

In fact, Coyne is just proving, once again, that he needs full time philosophical care.

1 comment:

Daniel said...


What is intuition, in your understanding? Currently trying to define it...

An attempt: Intuition -- A knowledge of the truth that "appears" of its own accord, without reasoning.


Also, how does one judge the truth-value of intuitions? If something derived an intuition produces a logical inconsistency, does that make the original intuition invalid?

I need a Philosophy 101 course I think...