In yet another paper, Gregory Bassham continues his criticism of my science vs. religion work

May 31, 2020 • 1:15 pm

Two days ago I analyzed former philosophy professor Gregory Bassham’s unpublished critique of my book Faith versus Fact. (I also discovered that I analyzed the paper on this site in 2017 at greater length, so it’s been unpublished for at least three years. Shoot me for forgetting!). Bassham claimed that religion has its own “ways of knowing” that aren’t based on science, much less empirical observation. His argument, I contended, falls flat.

Now I found a similar critique from Bassham on about my argument in the book that science does not depend on faith. I won’t say he’s obsessed with me, but if he wants to get his ideas out, he should concentrate on getting them published.

You can see his second critique by clicking on the screenshot below.

My argument in the book, also made in my Slate piece “No faith in science,” is aimed at a common jab at science made by believers. “Science,” they say, “is based on faith, just like religion.” In effect, they’re saying, “See, you’re just as bad as we are!”

Read below if you want; it’s a short paper (12 pages double spaced).

In my book and the Slate article I contend that the religionists’ argument depends on two different conceptions of faith, described in the Slate piece like this:

You have faith (i.e., confidence) that the sun will rise tomorrow because it always has, and there’s no evidence that the Earth has stopped rotating or the sun has burnt out. You have faith in your doctor because, presumably, she has treated you and others successfully, and you know that what she prescribes is tested scientifically. You wouldn’t go to a shaman or a spiritual healer for strep throat—unless you want to waste your money.

The conflation of faith as “unevidenced belief” with faith as “justified confidence” is simply a word trick used to buttress religion. In fact, you’ll never hear a scientist saying, “I have faith in evolution” or “I have faith in electrons.” Not only is such language alien to us, but we know full well how those words can be misused in the name of religion.

It goes on, and I don’t want to reprise the argument, which is a short one at Slate. In the present paper, Bassham presents a variety of ways that, he thinks, science depends on “faith”, but it turns out that all of these are “confidence-justified-by-experience” construals of that word.

First, though, he reprises word for word what he wrote in the Faith vs. Fact critique when trying to argue that religion is not based on “faith = belief without evidence.” You’ve seen this before, so he’s self plagiarizing:

There are many widely accepted conceptions of faith that do not view it as evidence-free belief. Among these are the Catholic “propositional” view of faith as assent to revealed truths on the authority of God the revealer;  the Calvinist conception of faith as firm belief in key tenets of the Christian faith as a result of the internal instigation of the Holy Spirit; the modern Protestant “voluntarist” view of faith as interpretive trust in the self-revealing actions of God within human history;  and the modern “Existentialist” conception of faith as an attitude of commitment, acceptance, and “total interpretation” made by the whole person. None of these common views of faith see it as an evidence-free form of cognition, or as inherently irrational.

Where’s the beef—the bit about “evidence”? The paragraph above doesn’t do a lot of work towards showing a similarity between what scientists deem as “faith” (justified confidence) and religious faith. So let’s look at one of Bassham’s arguments that scientist really do have a religious-like faith:

Finally, what of the claims that science is based on faith because of its commitments to the orderliness of nature and an unexplained set of physical laws?

These are really separate issues, but Coyne lumps them together and dismisses both with the following quick retort:

The orderliness of nature—the so-called set of natural laws—is not an assumption but an observation. It is logically possible that the speed of light in a vacuum could vary from place to place, and while we’d have to adjust our theories to account for that, or dispense with certain theories altogether, it wouldn’t be a disaster. . . . The laws of nature, then, are regularities (assumptions, if you will) based on experience, the same kind of experience that makes us confident that we’ll see another sunrise (p. 210).

Here Coyne completely misses the point at issue. The claim that scientists’ belief in the orderliness of nature is based on faith is grounded in two obvious features of science: (1) its working assumption, based on extensive but nevertheless limited evidence, that the laws of nature always operate everywhere in the universe, and (2) its resort to inductive reasoning to predict future events based on past observations. Both points require comment.

Since Francis Bacon, it has been clear that scientists regularly make claims that are not 100 percent certain because they go beyond the available evidence. For instance, they often make universal generalizations (statements of the form “All A’s are B’s”) based upon limited evidence. This is one reason why, as Coyne himself admits (33-34), all scientific theories and claims are tentative, revisable, and falsifiable. Thus, when scientists assume that basic scientific laws like the speed of light operate always and everywhere in the universe, they are not simply, as Coyne claims, making an “observation.” It is impossible to “observe” either future events or (trivially) events in unobserved parts of the universe. Thus, when scientists assume that the speed of light is a “regularity” that remains absolutely invariant, they are making a universal generalization that goes beyond the available evidence. In other words, they are holding “a belief which is not based on proof.” This is what defenders of the “science is based on faith” argument mean when they claim that scientists’ belief in the orderliness of nature is based on “faith.”

In other words, says Bassham, our assumption that the speed of light is a constant throughout the universe is an act of “faith” comparable to the claim that “belief in Jesus as your savior will get you to Heaven”.  And that is bogus. The speed of light in a vacuum can be measured in several ways, and incorporated into physical theories that apply elsewhere than in a laboratory on Earth, and, as far as we know now, is a constant. We do have evidence, just as we have evidence that other physical constants apply in places other than on Earth. So our inference to the best explanation is that the speed of light is constant in a vacuum.

Only a faith-osculator would argue that the speed-of-light claim is bascially the same as claiming that Jesus Christ, the son of God (as well as God himself) died and was resurrected so you can go to heaven, a belief based on at least five distinct empirical claims, all of them unevidenced.

In fact, there are some who have suggested that the speed of light is variable (see here and here, for instance). I’m not sure how much credibility the VSL (variable speed of light) view has, but the important thing is that we hold to a constant c because that’s what the evidence shows, but we could relinquish it if the evidence shows otherwise.

In contrast, no Christian will abandon the Jesus idea even though there’s not a scintilla of evidence for it from the get-go.  So, “faith” in science 1, “faith” in Christianity, -100.

All of Bassham’s arguments for “faith” as a tenet of science are similar to the above, and I’ll let you grapple with them yourself.  To end, I’ll give a quote from philosophers J. P. Moreland and William Lane Craig (oy!), which Bassham quotes to show how science depends on faith:

Science cannot be practiced in thin air. In fact, science itself presupposes a number of substantive philosophical theses which must be assumed if science is even going to get off the runway. . . . Here is a list of some of the philosophical presuppositions of science: (1) The existence of a theory-independent, external world; (2) the orderly nature of the external world; (3) the knowability of the external world; (4) the existence of truth; (5) the laws of logic; (6) the reliability of our cognitive and sensory faculties to serve as truth gatherers and as a source of justified true beliefs in our intellectual environment; (7) the adequacy of language to describe the world; (8) the existence of values used in science (e.g., “test theories fairly and report test results honestly”); (9) the uniformity of nature and induction; (10) the existence of numbers.

I would claim that all of these are inferences to the best explanation, though #6 is clearly not what scientists believe since we know that in some ways our faculties are faulty (that’s what optical illusions are about).  #7 is dubious because nobody argues that (viz., quantum mechanics), and a few of the others, like “the existence of numbers” are not articles of faith.

Knock yourself out!


29 thoughts on “In yet another paper, Gregory Bassham continues his criticism of my science vs. religion work

  1. A small but telling observation- when he says ‘as Coyne admits’ when referring to your statement that science is provisional, falsifiable etc, that word ‘admit’ does a lot of heavy lifting. He’s trying to imply this isn’t something you said from the outset and constantly reiterated, as if it’s something you’d rather not state because it’s bad for your argument. Of course, it isn’t, but to anyone reading his summation that one word disingenuously suggests you were on the defensive with that statement about science being provisional, when you weren’t.

    I think this might be more widespread, too- often when articles use ‘admits’ it’s an implication that the person being referenced is wrong, embarrassed, at fault- which they may well be, of course, but it might also just be the writer being disingenuous, even dishonest.

    1. P.S. intentional or not, this is a great harsh put down: ‘I won’t say he’s obsessed with me, but if he wants to get his ideas out, he should concentrate on getting them published.’

  2. Maybe Bassham hasn’t published his critique because he knows, deep down inside, that it’s bogus. His argument that faith in Jesus is the same as confidence in the speed of light is so delirious I want to laugh.

  3. The only bad thing about arguing with a turnip is that there is always a bumper crop of turnips.

  4. Working hypotheses are not faith. They are provisional and simply a way to move forward using the best knowledge we have. If the speed of light is someday found to be variable (doubtful), science will quickly replace the constant c working hypothesis with another consistent with the evidence.

    1. Moreover, the speed of light (or rather what should be called the Maxwell-Einstein constant) constancy is a theorem in many well established theories, and hence gets support from the other truths that these theories support. (E.g., the electrodynamic theory of refraction as a subpart.)

      In fact, the subjectivist sociologist of science Harry Collins makes the same mistake: he does not seem to know (or at least didn’t in a talk I saw ~20 years ago) that Maxwell *predicted* it. It took Hertz and eventually Einstein to see what that entailed, but it was there beforehand.

      These days, it might even be *so* basic and established an idea (by these “consiliences” – not of induction, but an *abduction*) that the standard units make it actually impossible to entertain a theory where it is anything other than constant.

      1. I don’t like the use of the term “truth” in science. We can say that evolution is true because this is the best theory for explaining the diversity of living organisms. And it can be verified with the observation of generations of fruit flies. It is not an “absolute truth” as used in religious arguments. For example, we could try to use a theory of evolution to explain the existence of elements beyond hydrogen, but this would be clearly wrong, since we have a much more plausible explanation by assuming that heavy atoms are created by nuclear processes in stars and supernovea, processes that can be demonstrated in nuclear reactors, such as fusion reactors, for example. So saying the Newton’s gravitational constant is constant is not an absolute truth. There are suspicions among physicists that this constant could vary over very large distances or in very intense fields, as in black holes. Truth is a religious illusion, and not a scientific concept.

          1. Yes, it is a fact, unless proven wrong, which is highly improbable for evolution. The “truths” of religions are supposed to be facts, but there is no evidence that support these facts.

        1. I think the way out is to postulate (and work out a theory of) that truth comes in degrees. Asimov’s famous “Relativity of Wrong” is the qualitative version of the former.

  5. None of these common views of faith see it as an evidence-free form of cognition, or as inherently irrational.

    Is it just me or am I reading that as irrational people don’t think their irrational views are irrational. Yeah we already know that but thanks.

  6. Doubtless Bassham has faith in the infallibility of the gospels despite their contradictory versions of events and the startling omissions from some of them of miraculous incidents recalled in the others. His ability to apparently overlook these, but to see any admission of scientific error – whether arising from honest mistake, dishonest falsification, or
    an insufficient understanding at the time a theory gains acceptance, and which in all cases is openly admitted and corrected – as undermining science’s reliability seems like a double standard.

  7. I like the numbered list of presuppositions, one of which is the existence of numbers. It’s number 10, in fact, if you are the sort of person who believes in such things.

    1. You don’t have to be a realist about numbers to do factual science. (See, e.g., Bunge, _Treatise on Basic Philosophy_ vols., 1-2 and maybe 7.)

      As for the rest of the postulates, they are now *well established* by scientific research; they are not “mere hypotheses”.

      I would add also that induction in the narrow sense is not used much in science (abduction, or inference to the best explanation, is) – but anyone who thinks that Bacon was a good philosopher of science would make that mistake.

  8. So much wrong..

    There are many widely accepted conceptions of faith that do not view it as evidence-free belief.

    But they all reach radically different conclusions. So clearly, their methodologies aren’t converging on a single truth. This is a problem. If relgious folks were honest, it would make them rethink their religius methodologies, as at least all but one must be flawed, and it’s possible all are flawed.

    Thus, when scientists assume that the speed of light is a “regularity” that remains absolutely invariant, they are making a universal generalization that goes beyond the available evidence.

    So clearly, this guy hasn’t read Hume on induction. Of if he did, he decided to ignore the concept of induction altogether.

    Second, he needs to look up Emily Noether, symmetry, and conservation laws. It’s just not true that scientists are going beyond the available evidence when they posit regularity in areas we don’t directly observe. The evidence we can observe leads to the logical requirement of conservation laws, which in turn must logically extend to places we don’t directly observe. Noether figured this out in something like 1915. The fact that a philosopher of science doesn’t know this in 2020 speaks to his lack of education in the field in which he claims to be an expert.

    Here is a list of some of the philosophical presuppositions of science…

    What he lists are not presuppositions and thus do not ‘poison’ the methodology. They are at best provisional conclusions based on inductive evidence. The regularity of nature? This is based on what we observe, it’s not some axiom. The ‘knowability of truth’? Only theologians claim to have this; scientists talk about provisional conclusions and error bars. How about ‘laws of logic’? Like many theologians, he fails to recognize that there are many logics. We use the one that is best able to describe and help us understand a situation. Certainly, many QM observations and conclusions don’t conform to ‘original’ logical claims such as ‘something cannot come from nothing’.

    But, probably the worst part of his argument is that attempting to describe faults and problems in science (even when he gets them wrong) doesn’t actually say anything about compatibility or incompatibility. Science could have all sorts of unwarranted axioms, it could come to wrong conclusions, it could not follow logic, etc., etc., but frankly NONE of those claims would undermine Jerry’s point that the methodologies are incompatible.

    1. Yeah, Bassham & co. seem to confuse “proposition which, if false, would lead to science being disappointing” with “presupposition of science”. Science would be very disappointing without regularities of nature, but that doesn’t show that regularity is a presupposition.

      1. It is a presupposition *now*. (Having been well established by 2500 years of science.) But it is also an assumption of most psychologically normal humans when not putting on their religousity hat.

  9. I think there is really good evidence that we do accept those presuppositions because of inference to the best explanation. I would imagine that two centuries ago such a list would have been even longer as it would have included things we now reject. The acceptance of relativity, quantum mechanics and evolution entailed the rejection of things like absolute space and time, strict determinism at the microscale and the uniqueness of humans. We accepted these almost axiomatically until we had better explanations that involved their rejection.

  10. Those that can, do. Those that cannot, criticise those that can.

    Unfortunately ‘criticism’ is more eye-catching than getting on with stuff.

  11. Bassham seems to think that scientific ideas are demonstrated once and independent of any other idea in science. Okay, suppose the speed of light were variable? (Actually, it does vary depending on the medium, right? But that’s not what he’s talking about.) On what does it depend? Where are the experiments that quantify how the speed of light varies versus what independent variables? What competent scientist is doing that research?

    Also, what *consequences* are there for the speed of light being constant or variable? (Hope he doesn’t use GPS…) When I teach thermodynamics, we talk about the laws of thermodynamics, and some of my students are a bit incredulous. Okay, fine, but do you know how different your world would be if they were wrong? A LOT of our world is energy-reliant, and if we were wrong about our fundamental understanding of energy we’d be seriously f’ed up by now. Our esteemed philosopher may like to wax philosophic, but he doesn’t seem to understand the interconnectedness of scientific laws and their ultimate impacts on our reality.

  12. One problem, I think, is that many people who aren’t scientists have difficulty with probability. Concepts about the universe have a probability between 0 and 1.

    I would rate the probability that the speed of light in a vacuum is about 2.998e+8 per second is close to 1. I’d also be willing to be persuaded it’s something else if there were sufficient evidence. On the other hand, I rate the probability that there are any gods in the universe close to 0, but I suppose some evidence might show up that would change my estimate.

    Most religionists apparently rate the probability that their favorite god exists as 1, and would not care to change that estimate regardless of evidence.

    1. Keep in mind too that some things can’t be given a probability. If there is insufficient data, such as – no similar occurrences of an event, how would you put a probability on it? The proposition – Our universe is one with a god, but you can’t see, feel, hear, or taste it. The probability that’s true is impossible to establish since there is no large (or any) population of universes known to either hold gods or not, to use as a basis. Hypothetically, if half had gods, then we could say the probability of our universe having one is 50%.

      1. Well, yes, but if you can’t detect it in some way, the probability that it exists is pretty low. As a rabbi once told me, if someone tells you there’s a golden unicorn dancing in the air between you, and you can’t detect it, you’re perfectly justified to tell him you don’t believe it.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *