Empiricism and human fallibility

One of the regular sentiments of atheists is that certain forms of thinking and knowing are superior to all others. Typically they laud those beliefs which are derived empirically (usually they really mean scientifically) or through rationalism, that is deriving the beliefs one holds through human reason or logical. As one atheist recently put it, “The best knowledge is had through a combination of empiricism and logic”. In the same vein, atheist Jerry Coyne recently criticized “other ways of knowing” as inferior to science as a way of knowing.

What is missed in these sentiments, as is often missed in points made by atheists, is the failure to go further than the surface in terms of their considerations. It is a form of thinking bereft of depth or seriousness. They laud science against Revelation and faith, unaware apparently that science is based on certain assumptions itself, which are the product of a faith. These faith-based assumptions include the idea that the universe operates according to certain rules. That from our observations and experiments we can infer what these rules are, and that our minds are capable of comprehending these rules of nature and developing accurate ideas about how nature operates. Also that the recording and publishing of these investigations, coupled with the peer-review is sufficient over time to provide us with an accurate picture of how nature operates.

So science itself is the product of certain metaphysical and un-provable assumptions, immediately undermining the notion that it is the ‘best’ way of knowing. Also, we know now that historically science is simply not sufficient for any number of critical human endeavors. Whether we are talking human relationships (marriages, parenting, social relationships), political philosophies, liberties, rights, law, social issues, economics, personal fulfillment, the nature of beauty, happiness, etc. all of these resist scientific analysis and mere rational derivations, at least when we try to limit their consideration within a solely naturalistic milieu.

Pascal (no stranger to empirical thinking in his mathematical work) put it this way in his Pensees:

“I spent a long time in the study of the abstract sciences, and was disheartened by the small number of fellow-students in them. When I commenced the study of man, I saw that these abstract sciences are not suited to man, and that I was wandering farther from my own state in examining them, than others in not knowing them.”

As Pascal detailed throughout his writings, science failed in regard to what was perhaps the most important study, that is, the ability of man to understand himself.

And this is established historically as well. As much as Coyne and others wish for our species to simply ‘grow up’, the reality is that some of the most tragic events in history have been in some of the most ‘scientifically’ enlightened nations in the world. Whether we are talking Hitler’s Germany, or eugenics in general, or the communist nations of Stalin and Mao, mere ‘science’ has not been sufficient to prevent human tragedy. Indeed, many times it has contributed to it. One need only consider the fact that even as we speak that there are highly trained scientists in North Korea and Iran building nuclear bombs to be used by fanatical leaders to realize that science, uncoupled from the ‘other ways of knowing’ is potentially devastating.

In addition, invested as they are in empiricism as a way of knowing, atheists put great faith in that which is perhaps the most unstable of all instruments, that being the human intellect. This too is an act of faith, and one which is immediately suspect – because empiricism itself proves again and again how wrong our ideas have been in the past. Of course it doesn’t tell us how right our current ideas our, and so every confidence we have into today’s knowledge is an act of faith, as is our confidence that our cognitive equipment is sufficient to produce accurate beliefs in us. As atheist JBS Haldane acknowledges it in his essay Why I am a Materialist:

The light which reaches my eyes causes nervous impulses in about half-a-million fibres running to my brain, and there gives rise to sensation. But how can the sensation be anything like a reality composed of atoms! And, even if it is so, what guarantee have I that my thoughts are logical! They depend on physical and chemical processes going on in my brain, and doubtless obey physical and chemical laws, if materialism is true. So I was compelled, rather reluctantly, to fall back on some kind of idealistic explanation, according to which mind (or something like mind) was prior to matter, and what we call matter was really of the nature of mind, or at least of sensation. I was, however, too painfully conscious of the weakness in every idealistic philosophy to embrace any of them, and I was quite aware that in practice I often acted as a materialist.

It is in part this acknowledgement, that a pure materialism or naturalism causes us to doubt our very ability to discern reality accurately that leads us in part into faith. Indeed, Hebrews suggests that is the very definition of faith:

Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.

As has been noted, the atheist already has faith – they are confident the universe can be apprehended through observation and experimentation, faith that their minds our sufficiently able to accurately derive true beliefs about the world around them. The Christian of course has the same faith – the difference between the two is that while the Christians belief is warranted by what he has faith in – a God who created the universe and the human mind, the atheist’s belief is not warranted within atheism or naturalism.

In the end of course, true faith derives from the intellectual humility of realizing the limits of human derived knowledge – even if one accepts that ‘other forms of knowing’ – like Revelation, and the Spirit, historical, philosophical and personal experiences have value, all of them can be corrupted by the tendencies of human nature. This is why Proverbs implores us to,

“Trust in the Lord with all your heart and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge Him, and He will make your paths straight.”

Not only because we are told to so, but as a matter of intellectual necessity.

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11 Responses to Empiricism and human fallibility

  1. bZirk says:

    Good stuff, Jack. I wish I were more eloquent, but just suffice to say I’m enjoying your blog and so are some others I know. Unfortunately, most of them rarely surf the web, so I have to print these things and pass them around. Oh well, they’re still gettin’ it. LOL.

  2. jackhudson says:

    Thanks! Maybe I will have to do a print edition someday. 🙂

    Happy New Year by the way.

  3. Whether we are talking Hitler’s Germany, or eugenics in general, or the communist nations of Stalin and Mao, mere ’science’ has not been sufficient to prevent human tragedy. Indeed, many times it has contributed to it. One need only consider the fact that even as we speak that there are highly trained scientists in North Korea and Iran building nuclear bombs to be used by fanatical leaders to realize that science, uncoupled from the ‘other ways of knowing’ is potentially devastating.

    1. Yes, science can be used in many different ways. It is not a normative process, just a factual one.

    2. Any example of war would do, so why choose Hitler and Mao?

    3. Never mind. It’s because you think they somehow derived their evil from atheism and you want to deride atheism by association, as if that’s a valid argument. You really need to knock off this political and rhetorical bullshit. It’s tiring. Hitler was a creationist and atheism does not motivate anyone to do anything because it is not a philosophy or a belief system. If it was, there would be far more organization (think about the fact that there are more atheists in the world than Jews).

    Anyway.

    As Coyne points out, science has built-in methods for determining what is right or wrong. If the Universe did not act according to certain rules, that could be discovered through science. For example, the rules of quantum mechanics, as far as we currently know, show only the rules of probability are followed on the quantum level, not anything more specific. At its base, the Universe is random – and science tells us that.

    But I’ll put Coyne’s question to you: How would you know if you were wrong about the religious truths you apprehend?

  4. jackhudson says:

    1. Yes, science can be used in many different ways. It is not a normative process, just a factual one.

    That really isn’t the question; the question is whether it is, generally speaking science the preferable way of knowing.

    2. Any example of war would do, so why choose Hitler and Mao?

    3. Never mind. It’s because you think they somehow derived their evil from atheism and you want to deride atheism by association, as if that’s a valid argument. You really need to knock off this political and rhetorical bullshit. It’s tiring. Hitler was a creationist and atheism does not motivate anyone to do anything because it is not a philosophy or a belief system. If it was, there would be far more organization (think about the fact that there are more atheists in the world than Jews).

    Actually, while it is true that Mao and Stalin were overtly atheistic (I never claimed Hitler was), as were the societies they created, the point is that science itself doesn’t prevent the sort of violence they perpetuated. I am just demonstrating that the atheist’s faith in science isn’t warranted.

    As Coyne points out, science has built-in methods for determining what is right or wrong. If the Universe did not act according to certain rules, that could be discovered through science. For example, the rules of quantum mechanics, as far as we currently know, show only the rules of probability are followed on the quantum level, not anything more specific. At its base, the Universe is random – and science tells us that.

    Science is a method for testing certain specific claims about testable natural phenomena; beyond that science is weak or useless for determining what is true. And whatever the universe is ‘at its base’ (which almost certainly exists beyond the quantum level), our ability to ascertain that still depends on certain realities which we apprehend by faith.

    But I’ll put Coyne’s question to you: How would you know if you were wrong about the religious truths you apprehend?

    How does Coyne know that his mind is accurately ascertaining truths about the universe? Or that the universe is even amenable to accurate observation by humans? That is part of how I know about the Spiritual truths I apprehend. The whole point of this article is that Coyne (and yourself) hold certain truths by faith, a much as any religious person.

    Of course, there are other truths that would undermine my basic beliefs. If it was shown Jesus didn’t exist or didn’t rise from the dead. If it was shown life arises as a product of natural phenomena, or that moarilty wasn’t a neccesary component of human life and society. If there existed completely godless societies that weren’t destructive of human libery and life, the truths I apprehend would be lessened.

  5. That really isn’t the question; the question is whether it is, generally speaking science the preferable way of knowing.

    Citing its abuse or potential abuse doesn’t say one way or the other if science is an accurate way of knowing as compared to other ways. If you want to contest that, then please show how the use of Tiger tanks demonstrates that science may not operate as an accurate way of knowing.

    Actually, while it is true that Mao and Stalin were overtly atheistic (I never claimed Hitler was), as were the societies they created, the point is that science itself doesn’t prevent the sort of violence they perpetuated. I am just demonstrating that the atheist’s faith in science isn’t warranted.

    No one ever claimed that the normative value of what humans do with science is important. The claim is that science offers the best way of knowing whether something is true or not. Your examples are irrelevant.

    Science is a method for testing certain specific claims about testable natural phenomena; beyond that science is weak or useless for determining what is true.

    The alternatives for their respective fields (for example, personal experience for determining happiness) do not offer any method for knowing whether something is objectively true or not.

    And whatever the universe is ‘at its base’ (which almost certainly exists beyond the quantum level), our ability to ascertain that still depends on certain realities which we apprehend by faith.

    Yes, yes, the Universe operates by certain laws. Of course, that isn’t faith and science could show it to be wrong, as it has to the extent I described within quantum mechanics. In short, the repetition of your original point to my counter does not operate as a second counter of your own.

    Of course, there are other truths that would undermine my basic beliefs. If it was shown Jesus didn’t exist or didn’t rise from the dead.

    This could never be shown to you. This is actually pure faith for you; no amount of evidence would matter. With Coyne (and myself), it could easily be shown that the Universe does not operate on physical laws or with any consistency. That would specifically change his (and my) view about the effectiveness of science. That is the antithesis of faith because we would both change our positions based upon evidence. No evidence could exist that could ever show Jesus did not raise from the dead.

  6. jackhudson says:

    Citing its abuse or potential abuse doesn’t say one way or the other if science is an accurate way of knowing as compared to other ways. If you want to contest that, then please show how the use of Tiger tanks demonstrates that science may not operate as an accurate way of knowing.

    I don’t even think this statement even makes sense. Obviously science is a great way to know certain things; it is not however either the primary way, or only sufficient way to know all or most things of import.

    No one ever claimed that the normative value of what humans do with science is important. The claim is that science offers the best way of knowing whether something is true or not. Your examples are irrelevant.

    Actually, science doesn’t do all that well with ‘truth’ either. It does a pretty good job concerning whether or not our current understanding of certain natural phenomena is accurate, but beyond that it is a fairly weak way of knowing. But what humans ‘do with science’ is exactly why science isn’t the best way of knowing – we also need knowledge that tells us what to do with our scientific discoveries, knowledge that, by your own admission, science can’t give us.

    The alternatives for their respective fields (for example, personal experience for determining happiness) do not offer any method for knowing whether something is objectively true or not.

    Actually, I think Revelation, faith, history, and experience can do exactly that – they can tell us the truth about what makes us ultimately happy. Obviously, science cannot do this at all.

    Yes, yes, the Universe operates by certain laws. Of course, that isn’t faith and science could show it to be wrong, as it has to the extent I described within quantum mechanics. In short, the repetition of your original point to my counter does not operate as a second counter of your own.

    If the universe didn’t operate by certain laws, science couldn’t ‘show us that’ because science depends on that being true – if it weren’t true, science wouldn’t have any validity.

    Science assumes that, and quantum mechanics operates according to certain principles that can be understood mathematically – it is not contrary to the underlying assumptions of science.

    This could never be shown to you. This is actually pure faith for you; no amount of evidence would matter.

    You asked what set of facts would show me I was wrong about what I believe in regard to my faith; whether you believe I would accept such evidence is another question – you and Coyne are plainly wrong on this count.

    With Coyne (and myself), it could easily be shown that the Universe does not operate on physical laws or with any consistency. That would specifically change his (and my) view about the effectiveness of science. That is the antithesis of faith because we would both change our positions based upon evidence. No evidence could exist that could ever show Jesus did not raise from the dead.

    I find it to be ironic that you claim quantum mechanics does just this (contradicts that scientific notion that the universe operates by certain laws) and yet your faith in science isn’t shaken. But it is silly anyway – science can’t ‘show’ something it assumes to exist.

  7. jackhudson says:

    The argument being made is that science is the best way of knowing whether or not something is true. There are other ways, but they are not as rigorous or accurate as science. You then introduced bad ways in which science is used. That point is irrelevant to the argument.

    Again, science is a great way to know whether our understanding about certain aspects of nature is accurate. Once one moves away from those certain aspects (typically readily observable natural phenomena) science is fairly useless as a way of knowing.

    Your creationist hostility to the field that conflicts with your religious dogma aside, science is why you won’t be dead within 5 years in all likelihood. I would call that pretty strong.

    Your mischaracterization of my feelings for science aside (as someone who studied biology and continues to stay scientifically literate, I actually rather enjoy science) the reality is I will be alive in 5 years for a number of reasons – my lifestyle informed by my moral beliefs, the country in which I reside which protects my rights and freedoms keeping me from being enslaved or imprisoned according to the whims of the rulers, the fact that the market driven economy provides abundant food, technological and medical advancements, and the fact that there is a strong volunteer military keeping the borders of my country safe.

    Science certainly has helped with medical and technological advancements, and I think that is laudable and notable; but the reality is if the ‘science’ Dawkins and PZ Meyers supposedly practice were to suddenly disappear from history or human knowledge, none of our lives would be diminished one bit.

    How we determine what to do with science is a process which is not consistent or very concerned with even knowing. In the Western world it largely comes down to the democratic process, not any actual knowledge.
    But I renew my objection to this irrelevancy.

    This is an odd statement; democracy itself exists as a product of certain knowledge (historical knowledge, philosophical knowledge, ideas about human nature and society) and people act within a democracy according to various ideas, beliefs, and information – i.e. knowledge, including scientific knowledge. How you can say all that action, informed by specific knowledge, doesn’t come down to any ‘actual knowledge’ is beyond me.

    Revelation, as sought through holy text, offers no method for resolving anything which is not trivial. The “revelation” that Adam and Eve were the first humans, made from dust and then ribs, is flatly false, but what’s more, there’s no way to resolve that by only referring to the Bible. The same is true of a great deal in holy texts, hence all the religious sects out there.

    I would say understanding human nature, human motivation, human weakness, the value of a human life, and human purpose is hardly ‘trivial’ – indeed, our society exists as it does, with it freedoms and liberties, in part because of such knowledge.

    Faith is believing without evidence and useless. It offers nothing valuable, much less a way of knowing jack.

    Science requires faith, as I have shown – if you find that useless, that is your opinion.

    Experience is limited – namely to one’s own life. That’s largely anecdote. It takes something more concrete to know anything significant about an experience beyond “I liked/hated/think X of that”.

    Actually, experience can be recorded and transmitted across generations. Learning from experience and the experiences of others and acting according to what one has learned is called wisdom, and were it in greater supply, there would be significantly less suffering in the world.

    And ultimate happiness? What makes us happy at 5 is different from what makes us happy at 15 is different from what makes us happy at 25 is different from what makes us happy at 35 is different from what…and so on.

    Well, what makes us ultimately happy is something that can’t be informed merely by age. Making wrong choices at 15, 25, and 35, etc, can lead to great misery.

    And the method of repeatability – a hallmark of science – would fail, thus revealing that little to nothing can be known about the Universe. Science once thought the Earth was the center of everything. All the laws concocted to show that were proven false because they weren’t there.

    The ‘method of repeatability’ assumes that the universe acts the same way everywhere or it would be useless because the actual practice is limited small number of repetitions.

    What you listed is immune from discovery by virtue of being built upon nothing more than faith. You may as well have said “If my faith is shown wrong, then I will change my faith.” Okay, great. Now compare that with this statement: “If evolution is shown wrong, I will reject evolution.” That means nothing. However, if I say “If a dolphin is found in the Precambrian, I will reject evolution”, I’ve actually put some meat out there. What would actually make you reject the resurrection of Jesus? A lack of a tomb? Inconsistencies in the Gospels?

    I could think of a number of ways the resurrection could be falsified; the discovery of Christ’s body, the discovery of falsification of the gospels by those who were witness to the events, a demonstration that Jesus never existed at all, etc.

    And again, of course science can assume that the Universe operates on certain laws and then show that it doesn’t. That has been shown again and again with the discovery of alternative laws. Those alternative (modern) laws could be thrown out (and with that bath water, the baby too) if there was no rhyme or reason to what happens. And again, it was assumed at one point that there was a direct rhyme and reason, a one-to-one cause and effect, at the base of the Universe. Science has shown it comes down to chance and probability. That soundly defeats your entire argument.

    There is a difference between determining that it operates on ‘certain laws’, and determining that, as I said, it operates according to some laws which can be discerned and understood by the human mind. And the ideas that it comes down to ‘chance and probability’ (a mischaracterization of quantum mechanics by the way) doesn’t defeat what I said any more than find out that a dice game come down to chance and probability contradicts the notion that it operates according to certain rules and that we can understand and operates within those set of rules. If there were no rules in operation, and if we didn’t by faith assume those rules were ascertainable by the human mind, science would be useless.

    And ironically, if the world was at it’s base truly the product of ‘chance and probability’, our experience of it would require more faith, not less.

  8. You said almost nothing worthy of my time. And I’m not even busy right now.

    I would say understanding human nature, human motivation, human weakness, the value of a human life, and human purpose is hardly ‘trivial’ – indeed, our society exists as it does, with it freedoms and liberties, in part because of such knowledge.

    Revelation offers no way of knowing or understanding any of these things. It has no built-in method. It states things, often ambiguously, and then people are off to the races with no possible way to resolve their idiocy.

    Well, what makes us ultimately happy is something that can’t be informed merely by age. Making wrong choices at 15, 25, and 35, etc, can lead to great misery.

    You’ve only offered a definition of “ultimate happiness” as being what would happen to make us the most happy when we die.

    The ‘method of repeatability’ assumes that the universe acts the same way everywhere or it would be useless because the actual practice is limited small number of repetitions.

    There is plenty of science which shows that the Universe does act the same everywhere. There is no contradictory evidence. Of course, if such evidence does show up, science is equipped to recognize it. How about your faith? What does a zombie Jew tell you about anything important like that?

    That’s it. You said nothing else not already refuted.

  9. jackhudson says:

    You said almost nothing worthy of my time. And I’m not even busy right now.

    You aren’t obligated to respond.

    Revelation offers no way of knowing or understanding any of these things. It has no built-in method. It states things, often ambiguously, and then people are off to the races with no possible way to resolve their idiocy.

    Scripture, which is Revelation as Christians understand it, absolutely tells us these things; that we have value because our design reflects God, that we were designed to give glory to God and enjoy His presence, and are happiest when we do so, but were corrupted from that purpose. It also tells us that this matters to God to the point where He was willing to sacrifice ultimately to restore us to that purpose. And it is from this notion of original human design that we (in the West at least) derive our notions of human worth, equality, liberty, and understanding of freedom. The fact that you are unfamiliar with both Scripture and history doesn’t change this; and science does nothing to add to it.

    Now you may not agree with the knowledge given, but saying it, “offers no way of knowing or understanding any of these things” is either ignorance or dishonesty.

    You’ve only offered a definition of “ultimate happiness” as being what would happen to make us the most happy when we die.

    That seems to be the best definition of ‘ultimate’ happiness.

    There is plenty of science which shows that the Universe does act the same everywhere. There is no contradictory evidence. Of course, if such evidence does show up, science is equipped to recognize it. How about your faith? What does a zombie Jew tell you about anything important like that?

    Actually, it is impossible to test how the universe acts ‘everywhere’, or how it acted it might have acted differently in the unknown past, or might act in the future. We assume it acts consistently and that the principles are consistent throughout time and space.

    Unlike pagan societies that believed the universe acted according to the whims of the Gods, the Christian West believes in a lawgiving and abiding God who acts consistently – and from that understanding, the earliest scientists derived their modern notions about the nature of the universe. True, we haven’t found after a couple of hundred years anything to contradict the truth of the first assumption, but that just affirms it all the more.

  10. jackhudson says:

    And Tolkien told us all about Middle Earth and how evil the ring really is. Of course, there’s no internal method for determining the LOTR is false. Not to mention the fact that Gandalf is far more impressive than that zombie Jew.

    Actually, Tolkien would disagree with you on both counts. That aside unlike Christ, Gandalf was never said to exist in a specific place and time in history with which we can study and investigate. Israel however actually existed in history, and we know at what point in time Jesus walked, talked, actually did miracles and rose from the dead.

    Quite different, even if you don’t believe it’s true.

    First of all, that’s a terrible definition. It’s inherently subjective. Second, you don’t even know what you think. Christians define ultimate happiness as what will be had in Heaven. That should be your definition. Of course, if you want to offer a varying definition that depends not only upon individual person, but also upon the age of the individual person, you’re welcome to speak with such vagary and meandering mealy-mouthed, ultimately – and hugely – subjective terms.

    Well, Michael, I, like most Christians will experience heaven when I die. You said the definition I offered “as being what would happen to make us the most happy when we die.” – since what happens to us when we die is either going to an eternity with God or apart from Him, what would make us happiest at that point would be the former. I am not sure where your misunderstanding is there.

    And there is nothing ‘subjective’ about any of that, again, even if you don’t believe it.

    No. Christians believe in a God who violates the laws of physics with miracles, C.S. Lewis’ pathetic attempt to say otherwise aside.

    What miracles ‘defy physics’?

  11. jackhudson says:

    Yes, yes, I’ve run into this terrible argument in the past. Because the book purports to be true, it is true or is more likely to be true. This is easily shown false by the fact that contradictory holy texts of other religions purport to also be true. They can’t all be right. You need some other method for determining what is true. Theology offers nothing.

    No, the argument is ‘. Because the book purports to be true, we can consider whether it is true by examining its historical claims’. It isn’t necessary at all to compare it to other holy texts, whose historical claims can be examined as well.

    And it is stupendously bad logic to say, “Text A makes certain claims, Text B makes contradictory claims, therefore, both must be false!”

    The misunderstanding is yours. I specifically listed out ages (and even went back and add “happen”) because your definition only speaks of what would make a person happy at the arbitrary age at which s/he dies. In other words, what would make me most happy at 15 is likely far different from what will make me happy at 35. If, say, doing field research makes me happiest at 35, then that is “ultimate happiness” by your crummy definition. Years ago at 15, it would have been playing music or something else relatively mundane by my current standards. That’s all you’ve offered here.

    Micheal, whatever age you die, the experience is the same; age doesn’t have anything to do with it.

    Walking on water, water into wine, rising from the dead, etcetera, etcetera. If they don’t defy physics, then it’s up to you to show how they are possible. Theology offers no explanation nor has any method for discovering anything relevant here. And faith, that laughable little pet of those with no evidence, is of equal value here as if one were to claim pigs could, in fact, fly.

    Well, I am not sure those necessarily ‘defy physics’ (though obviously raising someone from the dead is something beyond physics) but instead are a matter of physics and chemistry we don’t have the power and mental wherewithal to comprehend.

    But even if they do suspend physics, so what? The whole idea of a being of infinite power and knowledge exists above nature would include the notion that that same being has the power to alter nature when it suits Him. In fact, I am quite certain if no miracles were recorded, atheists would use that fact as evidence that a supernatural being didn’t exist, as in “See! If such a being existed we would expect He had the power to defy natural laws!”. And that is why atheism is rather silly I that it sees all evidence, even contradictory evidence, as somehow proving atheism.

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