I’m not a philosopher, though I’ve read a fair amount of philosophy and took courses in it in college. And I respect the discipline, at least insofar as it helps clarify our thinking—especially about ethical problems. But sometimes philosophical lucubrations seem pretty useless, and that’s the case in a recent exchange between Michael P. Lynch and Alan Sokal in The New York Times.
Lynch is a professor of philosophy at the University of Connecticut, while Sokal is a professor of mathematics at University College London and of physics at New York University. Sokal is also, as you know, the author of the most famous satire of postmodernism, a phony but convincing-sounding paper paper on “postmodern physics” published in Social Text in 1996.
Their debate, “Defending science: an exchange,” is based on an earlier essay by Lynch in the NYT, “Reasons for reason.” In both pieces, Lynch bemoans the fact that we don’t seem to have any first principles that can justify the use of science to attain knowledge as opposed to other methods, especially religion. The discussion is motivated by creationists who reject science in favor of scripture (I’ll use Lynch’s quotes from both of the pieces):
. . . the public debate over evolution isn’t just about evolution. It is also about which sources or methods we should trust — science or scripture — when it comes to the history of life on this planet.
And the problem, says Lynch, is that we can’t justify using science to understand the world any more than we can justify using scripture:
Every one of our beliefs is produced by some method or source, be it humble (like memory) or complex (like technologically assisted science). But why think our methods, whatever they are, are trustworthy or reliable for getting at the truth? If I challenge one of your methods, you can’t just appeal to the same method to show that it is reliable. That would be circular. And appealing to another method won’t help either — for unless that method can be shown to be reliable, using it to determine the reliability of the first method answers nothing. So you end up either continuing on in the same vein — pointlessly citing reasons for methods and methods for reasons forever — or arguing in circles, or granting that your method is groundless. Any way you go, it seems you must admit you can give no reason for trusting your methods, and hence can give no reason to defend your most fundamental epistemic principles. . .
Debates over epistemic principles sound abstract, but they have enormous practical repercussions. For instance, in order to decide policy matters (like what to put in our textbooks and what to teach in science classrooms) we need to decide on the facts. But in order to decide on the facts, we need to decide on the best ways for knowing about those facts. And to do that, we need to agree on our epistemic principles. If we can’t, stalemate ensues. Each side looks at the other as if they inhabit a completely different world — and in a sense, they do.
This is an old debate, and one used by theologians to show that science is, at bottom, no better than faith. In fact, Lynch notes that both “methods” of attaining truth could be seen as based on faith:
According to many people, what the problem of justifying first principles really shows is that because reasons always run out or end up just going in circles, our starting point must always be something more like faith.
In contrast, Sokal argues that the conflict between faith and science doesn’t simply reflect a difference in epistemic principles, but the use of supplementary epistemic principles by the faithful. After all, religious people live their everyday lives as if they trust reason and empiricism: they fly in planes, use computers, and take antibiotics when they’re sick:
The point is, simply, that fundamentalist Christians’ epistemic principles are not, at bottom, so different from ours. They accept as evidence the same types of sense experience that the rest of us do; and in most circumstances they are attentive, just like the rest of us, to potential errors in the interpretation of sense experience.
The trouble is not that fundamentalist Christians reject our core epistemic principles; on the contrary, they accept them. The trouble is that they supplement the ordinary epistemic principles that we all adopt in everyday life — the ones that we would use, for instance, when serving on jury duty — with additional principles like “This particular book always tells the infallible truth.”
But then we have a right to inquire about the compatibility of this special epistemic principle with the other, general, epistemic principles that they and we share. Why this particular book? Especially, why this particular book in view of the overwhelming evidence collected by scholars (employing the general epistemic principles that we all share) that it was written many decades after the events it purports to describe, by people who not only were not eyewitnesses but who also lived in a different country and spoke a different language, who recorded stories that had been told and retold many times orally, and so on. Indeed, how can one possibly consider this particular book to be infallible, given the many internal contradictions within it?
Sokal notes that our methods of finding stuff out are the result of evolution, and therefore are generally reliable (this is also Dan Dennett’s argument against Alvin Plantinga‘s claim that our senses can’t give us reliable information about the world). Lynch’s response is that this is not a philosophical justification for science, but a practical one:
You point out that certain forms of reasoning are likely to promote survival. Og and his buddies had a greater chance of sticking around and making little Ogs if they relied on induction and observation to get by in the world. No quarrel there. But that is just my point: defending scientific principles of rationality by appeal to their survival value is to cite practical, not epistemic, reasons in their defense. Of course, survival value is hardly the only sort of “practical reason” we can cite on their behalf. We can endorse their usefulness in helping us build bridges and cure diseases. And we can — although this is a longer story — also defend them as having a more democratic character. What I’ve been arguing we can’t do is defend epistemic first principles with more epistemic principles.
Here Lynch is getting near my solution: we justify science rather than faith as a way of finding out stuff not on the basis of first principles, but on the basis of which method actually gives us reliable information about the universe. And by “reliable,” I mean “methods that help us make verified predictions that advance our understanding of the world and produce practical consequences that aren’t possible with other methods”. Take a disease like smallpox. It was once regarded as manifestations of God’s will or displeasure. Indeed, inoculation was once opposed on religious grounds: that to immunize people was to thwart God’s will. You can’t cure smallpox with such an attitude, or by praying for its disappearance. The disease was cured by scientific methods—the invention and testing of inoculations—and completely eradicated on this planet by the use of epidemiological methods. Science gets us to the Moon; religion can do no such thing.
Scientific understanding advances with time; religious “ways of knowing,” even by the admission of theologians, don’t bring us any closer to the “truth” about God. We know not one iota more about the nature or character of God than we did in 1300, nor are we any closer to proving that a god exists! In what sense, then, has religious epistemology brought us any closer to truth?
And do we even need a philosophical justification for using the methods of science to understand the universe? Why isn’t it enough to show that science produces understanding and religion doesn’t? Philosophers like Lynch tear out their hair in frustration because they can’t justify, a priori, why to use science rather than religion. Well, that’s how they earn their living, but I find those efforts a waste of time—at least for scientists’ own work, or for helping resolve the science vs. religion debate. You can’t do that by philosophically justifying why the methods of science are superior to those of faith (Lynch produces no such philosophical justification, by the way). Can you imagine converting creationists to evolution by presenting them with such a philosophical justification?
When Lynch asserts that “debates over epistemic principles sound abstract, but they have enormous practical repercussions,” he’s simply wrong, and merely defending his turf. These debates have no practical repercussions, because a) scientists ignore them, and rightly so, and b) the public won’t pay attention to them, either. They’re important only to philosophers.
This, while people like Lynch bemoan the lack of justification for the epistemology of science, scientists blithely ignore them and go on their merry way, curing diseases, making better crops, and understanding the evolution of both the universe and of life on earth. In this sense, Richard Feynman was right: “Philosophy of science is about as useful to scientists as ornithology is to birds.” (Note: I am not denigrating philosophy as a whole here, merely its obsession with this particular problem.)
As I said, Lynch argues that the resolution of the epistemological divide between science and faith must ultimately rest on the “democratic character” of science that can produce practical results. But even here he gets it a bit wrong:
Yet this very fact — the fact that a civil democratic society requires a common currency of shared epistemic principles — should give us hope that we can answer the skeptical challenge. Even if, as the skeptic says, we can’t defend the truth of our principles without circularity, we might still be able to show that some are better than others. Observation and experiment, for example, aren’t just good because they are reliable means to the truth. They are valuable because almost everyone can appeal to them. They have roots in our natural instincts, as Hume might have said.
Well, everyone can appeal to religious dogma as well, or to revelation. Observation and experiment aren’t just good because “everyone can appeal to them,” for many people don’t. (In fact, 64% of Americans would accept their faith over science if a scientific fact were shown to contravene their faith.) Perhaps Lynch means that “everyone who shares the scientific epistemology can appeal to the facts,” but that becomes circular, too. You simply aren’t going to convince people to abandon their faith in the scripture by citing philosophy to them, any more than you can convince them by showing them the fossil record.
(By the way, Lynch shows a remarkable ignorance of paleontology, claiming that we can’t settle questions about the fossil record because “we can’t travel back in time and use observation [another commonly shared method] to settle who is right and who isn’t about the distant past.” Of course we can! We can absolutely show that all modern groups were not created at once, and that fish evolved before mammals.)
The “democratic” nature of science is that scientists, who already accept scientific epistemology, can all appeal to the same experiments and observations (or repeat them) to determine what is true or false about the universe—noting, of course, that all scientific truth is provisional. Our society does not democratically share epistemological principles, and Lynch can’t make that happen through philosophical rumination.
When someone like Lynch or Alvin Plantinga goes after science because we can’t justify its methods through a priori philosophical reasoning, thereby justifying religious epistemology (and, to be fair, Lynch rejects religious ways of knowing, though he doesn’t really explain why), I ask them to answer the following question:
You have the choice of living in one of two worlds: a world like ours in which science had come into being but religion never appeared, or a world in which religion had appeared but science never did. Which would you choose?
I doubt that many people except crackpots would choose the religious world, for in that one they’d die at age 25 of an absessed tooth while praying for recovery. And if you favor the science world, do we really need a philosophical justification? Who benefits from such a justification besides philosophers?
In the end, Hawking is right: Science will win because it works.