Faith versus fact: the problem of Native American creationism and paleoanthropology in North America

June 14, 2021 • 9:30 am

This article in Quillette caught my eye because it was about science—paleoanthropology—and its conflict with faith. The authors are a pair of anthropologists who have written a book about the topic, which is the perennial conflict between scientists on the one hand and Native Americans claiming ancient human remains that, they say, are their ancestors.

Click on the screenshot to read:

The title refers to a meeting of the SAA in April when Weiss gave a talk about the obstructionism of Native American creation myths as they affect paleoanthropology in North America. Although the talk is certainly germane, and provides food for thought (see below), it was in effect “erased” by the SAA, who refused to post it despite their pledge to do so. It was the only talk that wasn’t posted. The reason is clear: going up against the claims of Native Americans, even if those claims can’t be supported, is a no-win situation. As Weiss writes:

The new SAA president, Deborah Nichols, subsequently contacted me to let me know that the video of our live talk would not be posted by the SAA for others to view, due to reports of hurt feelings. (We had previously relied on the SAA’s emailed assurance to presenters that “sessions will be available for viewing on demand within 24–36 hours after their original broadcast, until July 17, 2021.”) Furthermore, we learned, the SAA would not even provide us with the video. (And so we re-recorded the talk, which you can find here.) Another SAA statement was then put out to inform readers that “the SAA board finds the presentation does not align with SAA’s values,” and mentioned that “the board categorically rejects the Weiss-Springer position.”

Here’s the 13-minute talk that Weiss re-recorded after the SAA refused to post it:

There was substantial other pushback on both professional and social media. Here’s an example of a reaction by an “indigenous archeologist” to Weiss’s abstract of the talk: archaeologist.”

Hurt feelings again!

Well, we all know about these conflicts, and it’s conceivable that for some of them the Native Americans have a right to the bones and artifacts found by archaeologists, who of course lose the chance to study them.  But in most cases that “right” is dubious, for the genetic connection between those claiming the bones and the person whose bones are claimed is tenuous at best. Often it rests solely on creation myths: many Native Americans claim that despite scientific evidence that the Americas were populated by “modern” H. sapiens who crossed the Bering Strait from Asia about 15,000 years ago, their ancestors have lived in America forever. Further, to establish that the bones belong to a specific tribe is almost impossible, because bones from people of multiple “tribes” have been found in one locality, and there was considerable migration within North and South America.

Genetic analysis could conceivably settle the question, but without the bones you don’t have the DNA, and even so it’s hard to narrow down ancient DNA to a specific existing group of Native Americans, who are fairly closely related to each other. It’s even worse because the U.S. government passed laws saying that establishing ancestral (i.e., genetic) affinity isn’t necessary: “cultural evidence”, like oral traditions and creation myths, is sufficient. That immediately puts science at loggerheads with superstitions, superstitions that can be demonstrably incorrect.

As an example, Weiss and Springer discuss the famous Kennewick Man, 8,400- year-old remains of a man found in 1996 in Kennewick, Washington. It’s one of the most complete ancient North American skeletons ever found (see photos at bottom), and dates pretty close to the time when Asians began populating the Americas. But the remains were claimed by several tribes of Native Americans, although, according to the authors “the oldest known American tribe, the Hopi, reliably dates its history to only about 2,000 years ago.”

This started a decade-long court case between Native Americans, scientists, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.  The case wasn’t resolved until 2004, and in favor of the scientists, though the remains have since been returned to a “coalition of Pacific Basin tribes” for reburial.

In the meantime, scientific studies of the skeleton, including use of DNA, showed that it was actually more closely related to “modern American Indian populations of Central and South America who are not ‘Native American'” by the U.S. government’s regulations. Using ancestry rather than creation myths, those other populations would have a stronger claim to the bones than would North American tribes.

In the meantime, scientists were able to find out a great deal of information from the skeleton. As the article states,

The greatly delayed scientific study was finally carried out, and the result was a magnificent peer-reviewed 2014 volume, edited by Jantz and Douglas Owsley of the Smithsonian Institution, titled: Kennewick Man: The Scientific Investigation of an Ancient American Skeleton. The studies revealed Kennewick Man’s age, sex, bone morphology, and bone chemistry, as well as modifications to the skeleton incurred during his life. This information, in turn, allowed inferences as to his food intake, food production, and other physical activities, and diseases and injuries he’d endured.

His affinities with other prehistoric and modern populations and individuals were also revealed by these studies. Kennewick Man’s dietary reconstruction from nitrogen isotopes (elements found in a variety of food sources that settle in bones and teeth, and which can be used to reconstruct eating and weaning patterns) revealed a diet composed mainly of marine foods. This differed from the previous view of Paleoindians as big game hunters. Kennewick Man also had bony growths in his ear canals called external auditory exostoses, which some have argued may have impacted his hearing and were related to chronic ear infections.

Kennewick Man had multiple injuries—including a projectile point (a spear head) in his pelvic bone. Chatters argued that this injury never healed properly and likely caused lifelong pain. Anthropologist Della Cook, on the other hand, suggested that the lack of reactive bone (which is evidence of bone healing from injury or infection) in the CT-scans suggests that Kennewick Man’s injury healed quickly. Interestingly, these two perspectives were both published in this 2014 book—an example of the open-minded manner in which science should be conducted and evaluated.

All of this information would have been lost had the repatriationists been successful. No other Paleoindian is as well studied as Kennewick Man, and many were reburied with just a simple osteological report. Such reports may include only the remains’ antiquity, sex, estimated age, and other basic information; and often are written up by undertrained students and marginal scholars who are not subject to peer review, and who do not report their findings in a way that contemporaries can validate. . .

Weiss and Springer describe other cases in which cultural tradition blocked scientific study, as well as scientific study that did succeed in finding out stuff about early Native Americans.

So what should the rule be? Of course, as a scientist who values scientific fact over creation myths or oral tradition, I’m biased in favor of empirical study. But if remains can be traced to a specific tribe or group of tribes, showing the bones to be more closely related to that group than to other tribes, one might consider tribal claims to be valid.  Even so, perhaps there should be an allowed period of scientific study, say two years, before the remains are returned to present-day tribes for reburial or various rites. After all, it’s not as if these bones belong to a present family of Native Americans, like the remains of someone’s son recovered and returned after a battle.

But I don’t think that claims based only on “oral tradition” or “creation myths,” should be honored at all. In such a case, the remains should then be available to scientists. After all, if we honor such superstitious claims, we are also tacitly honoring the creation myths of anybody, including Christians, Scientologists, and Muslims, each of which has its own creation story. That is government entanglement with religion.

And it’s a double entanglement: one with the myths of Native American groups, and the other with the religion of Wokeism, which makes the SAA into an organization that renders decisions based not on empirical considerations, but on ideology and identity politics.

Here’s the skeleton and skull of Kennewick Man:

CHIP CLARK/SMITHSONIAN INSTITUTION

Sale of fancy Faith Versus Fact book ends

December 9, 2020 • 11:00 am

We just cleared $5300 from the sale of the autographed and Kelly-Houle-illustrated copy of Faith Versus Fact (see below for winning bid); with all the proceeds going to the estimable charity Helen Keller International. Given that the Friends of Helen Keller International will match any donation, that means a total of $10,600 will go toward alleviating malnutrition and blindness throughout the world.

Thanks to all who bid, to the winner, to all those whose signatures made the item desirable, and especially Kelly Houle, whose wonderful illustrations made the book collectable and who also ran the auction.

I have no more books on tap, so this will be the last auction for the foreseeable future.  But Kelly is of course still doing paintings, drawings, calligraphy, and The Illuminated Origin project, and you can purchase her works at her eBay shop or her Etsy shop (I especially recommend the golden “Darwin grandeur cards,” which are a great thing to send to any science lover.)

Bids for fancy “Faith versus Fact” copy near $3000

December 8, 2020 • 1:45 pm

The eBay auction for the fancy autographed and Kelly-Houle-illustrated edition of Faith Versus Fact is almost at $3000, which means $6,000 in donations for Helen Keller International as the friends of the charity are doubling all donations. (Every penny of the proceeds goes to that estimable and efficient charity.)

But that’s not nearly enough, I think, since an illustrated copy of Why Evolution is True, with fewer autographs of notables, fetched over $10,300.  Most of us are too poor to bid that much, but if you know a gazillionaire who wants a unique secular item, this would make a swell acquisition.

You can see a fuller description of the book here, and below are two of its pages: one with an illustration and another with some of the signatures.  Kelly and I have signed it, along with 28 secular notables, including three Nobel Laureates and the three living “Horsemen” (horsepersons?)  I didn’t schlep this book around for five years to have it go cheap!

A charity eBay auction for a fancy autographed and illuminated copy of “Faith Versus Fact”

November 29, 2020 • 10:15 am

We have a lovely book up for auction, with all the proceeds going to charity! But first, some backstory.

In 2015, artist Kelly Houle and I collaborated to produce a multiply-autographed and wonderfully illustrated and “illuminated” copy of my first trade book, Why Evolution Is True (2009). I’d been collecting signatures of luminaries in the book for five years, and, when there were quite a few, Kelly added some wonderful artwork (see the preceding link) and we auctioned it off on eBay. All the proceeds went to Doctors Without Borders, and charity auctions on eBay are hosted for free, without eBay taking a cut.

Amazingly, we got over $10,300 for the book, and so the charity made out well. Kelly and I were immensely pleased. Here’s the 2015 auction result (click for the link to eBay):

Well, in 2015 I wrote another book, Faith Versus Fact: Why Science and Religion Are Incompatible, and again I’ve been collecting signatures for five years, schlepping the book from meeting to meeting, and friend to friend, with the plan of auctioning it off again for charity. Kelly again agreed to do the art, and so we were off.

The result is below: we have even more signatories than before, including three Nobel Laureates, and you can see a list and photos of the signatures (many signers wrote messages) below. I’m sure you’ll recognize most of the signers; my intent was to get as many secularists and humanists as possible. We wound up with 28 signatures—not including mine and Kelly’s, which are both in there too.

It’s now time to release the book to the buying public and see what they’ll offer for it.

It’s just gone up for auction now, at this link, and the auction will run for ten days. This time all the proceeds go to Helen Keller International, a wonderful and efficient charity that helps prevent malnutrition, disease, and blindness—largely in children (see below). The organization was founded by Keller herself along with George Kessler, and it’s worth reading a bit of the backstory in the organization’s Wikipedia entry. A bonus this time is that Friends of Helen Keller International will match our donation dollar for dollar, so the buyer will have twice the positive impact as usual.

The auction copy, a hardback:

Here’s the alphabetical list of signers, with Wikipedia links to each one:

Kelly also signed her cover illustration (see below):

Can you find them all?

Inside front cover:

Half title page:

Inside back cover:

Closeup: Annie Laurie Gaylor, James Randi, and Richard Dawkins:

Full title page (signed by JAC with his cat drawing):

Kelly drew a curled-up cat on the dedication page:

From Kelly (henceforth, her words are indented):

I illustrated the title page that falls after the introduction with a quote from Faith vs Fact: and my adaptation of a painting by Maria Sibylla Merian showing the stages of Cocytius antaeus [Giant Sphinx Moth] from her book Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium. Merian observed and drew insects at a time when butterflies and moths were thought to appear spontaneously from the ground.

The whole illumination is held up by a pen, an important tool of science for recording observations. The banner has another quote from Faith vs Fact translated into Latin: “fides non virtus in scientia.”

Illustrating this page was a challenge because of the paper. I wasn’t able to use my calligraphy pen, so it’s all done with a regular ball-point pen and colored pencils. I added very dry gold mica paint to the pen nib and holder.

Pupal stage as observed and drawn by Merian:

Pen nib with caterpillar, larvae, and small moth after Merian:

Jerry’s initials “JAC”: in cat calligraphy [and Kelly’s signature]:

Kelly illuminated the chapter headings as well:

Finally, we have lagniappe from Kelly:

I’ve added something special to the book, too. It’s an anamorphic mirror portrait of James Randi. The mirror will come with the book. If you go to the page with James Randi’s signature, turn the page and set the mirror down right behind it, his image appears in the mirror. Like magic, but it’s not.

Again, if you’re interested in this item, know someone who might be, or are willing to advertise the auction on social media, feel free to do so. Again, the link is here.

Further, Kelly has some auction artwork on her own eBay shop for which 10% of the proceeds go to HKI as well.  Those donations, too, will be doubled with a kick-in by the Friends of HKI.

ABOUT THE CHARITY:

We selected Helen Keller International as the recipient charity because of its good work in preventing blindness and malnutrition, its big bang for the donor’s buck, its sterling reputation, and the fact that the vast majority of its donations go to helping people, not to administration or promotion. Kelly found this charity when it was recommended as one of the best charities to donate to by Peter Singer on his page “The Life You Can Save“. As that site says,

“Our charities have been rigorously evaluated to help you make the biggest impact per dollar. Find an organization you support, or simply split your donation between them all. When you support one of the recommended charities, The Life You Can Save does not charge any fee or receive any monetary benefit from that transaction.”

The low overhead of HKI:

Every penny of the auction funds will go to HKI, and the bang is doubled because of HKI’s current donation-matching protocol.

Their work is international, and in several areas of help (click on all screenshots to go to the sites):

HKI receives the highest rating—four stars—from Charity Navigator:

If you have big bucks, or know someone who does—and who is a humanist or secularist—you might call their attention to this auction. We hope, of course, to raise as much dosh as possible.

Thanks to the signers, and to Melissa Pugh for collecting some of the signatures at the 2016 Reason Rally.

Bertrand Russell on faith versus fact

October 17, 2020 • 11:30 am

I was shocked when a reader mentioned, in a recent comment, that the famous philosopher, logician, mathematician and vociferous atheist Bertrand Russell had written a book about the conflict between religion and science. How could I have missed it when I wrote a book about the same issue in 2015, and spent two years reading before I wrote it? I was chagrined, and of course nothing would do but for me to get the book, which was published in 1935.

Fortunately, our library had it, and I got it and devoured it within a few days. I was happy to once again read Russell’s clear prose and dry wit, but also to see that while his topic was nominally the same as mine, there isn’t much overlap between our books. I’ll just highlight a few points of similarity and difference, and mention a few of Russell’s ideas that we still talk about on this site.

Below is the title page; you can still buy the book here, with the reissue having an introduction by Michael Ruse. As for whether you should buy it, well, if you’re familiar with Russell’s popular writings you’ve probably read most of it before, and a lot of it isn’t really about religion vs. science. I’ll be self-aggrandizing and say that if you can only read one book on the conflict—and you think there is a conflict—it should be Faith Versus Fact rather than Russell’s. (If you don’t see a conflict, there are other books by accommodationists you can read). I don’t make that recommendation lightly, as Russell was far brainier and more eloquent than I. It’s just that things have moved on in the last 85 years (NOMA, advances in physics and evolutionary biology, conflicts about global warming and faith-based healing, and so on), and I don’t spend a lot of time—as Russell does—dealing with stuff like the mind/body problem, demonology, the idea of a soul, and the notion of “cosmic purpose.”

There is some overlap between what Russell and I consider to be the “conflict” between religion and science. First, our differences.  I see it as a conflict in how to adjudicate what is true given the disparate “truth-seeking” methods of science and religion, while Russell sees the conflict largely as a historical phenomenon: the fact that religion and science have been at odds with each other since science became a discipline.  That is, Russell adheres to what’s known by accommodationists as “the conflict hypothesis”. Thus, he has whole chapters on evolution vs. creationism, the Copernican revolution and how heliocentrists like Galileo fought with the Church, and the scientific vacuity of the idea of “souls” and of some external “purpose of life.”

That said, Russell does recognize that the conflict arose from the different ways that science and religion determine truth, with the former relying on empirical investigation and the latter on revelation, scripture, and authority. Surprisingly, though, for a man who wrote the famous essay “Why I am not a Christian” (1927; read it at the link), Russell is surprisingly soft on religion, extolling its virtues as an arbiter of morality and saying that its appeal is emotional, having little to do with truth.

He further argues that, when he wrote the book above, the warfare between science and Christian theology was “nearly ended,” as theology was yielding territory repeatedly to scientific facts. But he didn’t know that creationism would still be with us decades later, and doesn’t discuss the fact that, even in his time many religious people, including Jews, Buddhists, Muslims, Christian Scientists, Scientologists, Hindus, and, in fact, most faiths, still held beliefs that are contradicted by science (reincarnation, souls, karma, spiritual healing, and so on). This conflict will always be with us so long as religion asserts truths that aren’t based on empirical observation and assent—i.e., “science construed broadly.”

I’ll mention just two of Russell’s arguments with which I agree, and also deal with in Faith Versus Fact. I’ll give his quotes in indents.

Is there an objective morality? Russell discusses this in detail, and although a few modern philosophers and thinkers assert that matters of right and wrong can be discerned objectively, through science, he disagrees, as do I. At bottom, “right and wrong” are matters of subjective preference, and you cannot decide which morality is objectively “better” unless you have some personal preference for what you want morality to do. (Sam Harris, for example, thinks morality should maximize well being, and what is “right” can be determined by a calculus of well being.) But well being, like all criteria for morality are at bottom simply tastes. As Russell says,

We may desire A because it is a means to B, but in the end, when we have done with mere means, we must come to something, which we desire for no reason, but not on that account “irrationally”. All systems of ethics embody the desires of those who advocate them, but this fact is concealed in a mist of words. (p. 254)

I particularly like the concise truth of the last sentence.

Russell concludes that science cannot decide questions of values, which puts both of us at odds with people like Sam Harris and Derek Parfit. So be it. But I would argue that neither can religion decide questions of values. That’s because those questions can be decided only by referring to scripture, authority, or revelation, and those are at odds with each other among religions. I would further argue that since secular ethics (which has a long tradition) is not beholden to ancient scripture or the parochialism of faiths and of their gods, it produces a morality better than that of religion. And indeed, you’d be hard pressed to argue otherwise, for then you’d have to defend all sorts of ridiculous “morality” around sex, food, and so on. Is it really immoral to masturbate? Catholicism says so, as do many branches of Judaism.

Science is the only way of knowing what’s true. We’ve repeatedly discussed whether there are other ways of “knowing” beyond science, and that, of course, depends on what you mean by “knowing”.  If you construe it, as I do, as “the apprehension and recognition of facts about the universe—facts that are widely agreed on”, then yes, I conclude in Chapter 4 of Faith versus Fact that science is the only game in town, and religion, insofar as it makes factual statements about the Universe, including about the existence and nature of God, fails miserably. (See pp. 185-196 of FvF.) Science means “the empirical method that science uses to ascertain truth”, and need not be practiced by scientists alone.

Russell clearly agrees. Here’s one quote (my emphasis):

“The mystic emotion, if it is freed from unwarranted beliefs, and not so overwhelming as to remove a man wholly from the ordinary business of life, may give something of very great value – the same kind of thing, though in a heightened form, that is given by contemplation.

Breadth and calm and profundity may all have their source in this emotion, in which, for the moment, all self-centered desire is dead, and the mind becomes a mirror for the vastness of the universe.

Those who have had this experience, and believe it to be bound up unavoidably with assertions about the nature of the universe, naturally cling to these assertions. I believe myself that the assertions are inessential, and that there is no reason to believe them true.

I cannot admit any method of arriving at truth except that of science, but in the realm of the emotions I do not deny the value of the experiences which have given rise to religion. Through association with false beliefs, they have led to much evil as well as good; freed from this association, it may be hoped that the good alone will remain.” (p. 197)

In the end, morality and “ways of knowing” converge in the last paragraph of the book proper (before the “conclusions” section):

I conclude that, while it is true that science cannot decide questions of value, that is because they cannot be intellectually decided at all, and lie outside the realm of truth and falsehood. Whatever knowledge is attainable, must be attained by scientific methods; and what science cannot discover, mankind cannot know.  (p. 255)

Here’s Russell, who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1950:

The Friendly Atheist discusses the incompatibility of science and religion

July 13, 2020 • 12:00 pm

Here’s Hemant Mehta, the “Friendly Atheist,” not being very friendly towards accommodationists in his new video, “Can science and religion coexist?” He gives a firm “no”, and I have to hand it to him: he doesn’t pull any punches.

Now if you’ve read Faith Versus Fact (and if you haven’t, why not?), you won’t find much new here: even the debunking of one miracle that helped canonize Mother Teresa (the “curing” of Monica’s Besra’s tumor) is also in my book. But for those who haven’t read it, this is as good a summary of the conflict that you can get in a 16-minute video.  I do worry that it’s so anti-theistic that it will turn off those whose minds are open, but on the other hand I appreciate Hemant’s straightforward anti-theism.

Because nearly all of this is good stuff, I have only a few beefs; in fact, they’re such small beefs that they qualify as stew meat.

Re the statement: “Religion and science offer two different ways to get to the bottom of big questions,” which Hemant sees as the heart of the matter. And he’s right—so long as by “the big questions” you mean empirical questions about the nature of the universe. It would have helped had Hemant added that caveat, for religion would claim (falsely, I think), that it can provide “true” answers to “big questions” about meaning, morals, and purpose, while science can’t. Indeed, science cannot deal with those questions, as they don’t bear on the way the universe is, but secular philosophy can, and gives better answers than any religion I know.

Second beef: There’s a bit too much concentration on miracles, which, says Hemant, are those phenomena that violate the laws of science. If miracles were observed (and I discuss this in Faith Versus Fact), one might tentatively conclude that there is something numinous out there. But Hemant declares flatly, “Actual miracles don’t happen. They never have.”  Indeed: I know of none that are so enigmatic and convincing that they make me rethink naturalism.  But I think a better tactic would be to say not only that there are naturalistic explanations for nearly all miracles, but to admit that miracles might happen but have never explained anything to the detriment of science. That is, a true scientific attitude might admit of the possibility of miracles—for science can never prove that something cannot exist—but would add that this is true in the same sense that we admit of the possibility of leprechauns and the Loch Ness Monster: things that, in view of history and empiricism, are so wildly improbable that, as with Hume, you’d put a higher probability on a lie or a mistake than on a true miracle.

At the end, Hemant has a useful discussion on why people still think science and religion are compatible despite his (and my) claim that they’re not. And he even disses the Templeton Foundation! Kudos for him!

h/t: Hugh

Faith vs. Fact out in Polish, reviewed by my surrogate dad

July 5, 2020 • 11:30 am

There’s a gynormous post on Pinker coming up shortly, and I hope to post it today. Many of you, who have sent me the Official Call for Demonization, know what this is about, but you’ll have to be a bit patient.

In the meantime, I just received notice that Faith versus Fact has finally appeared in Polish (Title: Wiara vs Fakty; this is the eighth translation into non-English languages), and although I haven’t seen it in paper, I have just received not only a photo of the cover, but also a nice review by my surrogate father and friend, Andrzej Koraszewski at the website run by him and Malgorzata, Listy z naszego sadu (“Letters from our orchard”.)

The book was translated from English by another mutual friend, Monika Stogowska, a professional translator who lives in Warsaw; according to Malgorzata, the translation is so good that it sounds as if the book were written in Polish rather than English.  The screenshot below goes to the Polish review (Google will translate it to English if you wish), and also shows the cover. I love the chessboard with religion playing against reason and science:


Because there are several friends involved in this, the review could not possibly be completely objective, and Andrzej admits this at the outset (translations of his review by Malgorzata):

“I’ve just got a book written by my friend, translated into Polish by my friend and published in Polish by another friend, and dedicated to my wife, me and to our cat, Hili. For obvious reasons this will not be a critical review. . . .”

Yes, I did dedicate the book to Andrzej, Malgorzata, and Hili, as well as to my undergraduate mentor Bruce Grant. I did a lot of reading and note-taking when I stayed in Dobrzyn for a few weeks.

Andrzej ends his review this way:

“The book was partly written in Dobrzyń nad Wisłą so I enclose a picture of the Author who in the process of writing the book was catching facts by their tail”.

And the photo: Hili and I communing! This is the best way to write:

Książka po części pisana była w Dobrzyniu nad Wisłą więc załączam zdjęcie Autora jak w trakcie pisania łapie fakty za ogon.

 

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 Academia.edu 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!

 

Jesus ‘n’ Mo ‘n’ truth

February 12, 2020 • 9:30 am

The new Jesus and Mo strip, called “source,” came with an email note, “Let us thank God for giving us all of those Perfect Words. Where would we be without them?”. And on the strip the author writes, “Yeah well, you know, that’s just like your opinion, man.”

Apropos, right now I’m in a Facebook tussle (I nearly always avoid social-media fights) with some guys who claim that religion is just as reliable a way of ascertaining truth as is science.

Commenter 1: “Jerry Coyne Conflict on metaphysical facts no more discredits religion than such conflict historically discredits science. In both cases one has to examine the claims in the light of alleged supportive evidence. Just as in science, some religious explanations fare better evidentlialy [sp.] than some others.”

My response:

Commenter 2, a believer, then chimes in: “Jerry Coyne Dying and finding out is not a good option. The question is did Jesus (whoever he was) rise from the dead or molder in the grave like John Brown’s body? Did any of his followers break ranks like Mitt Romney, or did they remain witnesses until they were martyred for their faith? There may be eternal consequences for guessing wrong. Or maybe not. Why roll the dice? I believe in science but it doesn’t promise me a thing.”

And my response to him:

I’m done now. except I sent the second commenter this Jesus and Mo strip. It’s useless to squabble about this stuff, especially on Facebook or Twitter. But like Maru, when I see a box, I must enter. It’s the laws of physics, Jake.