In discussions with religious apologists we often hear the claim that “there are different ways of knowing!” This is often used as a counter to science. It amounts to claiming knowledge which is not based on evidence and not testable against reality.In many cases it’s a defensive argument, a retreat. It’s claiming a logic or justification for the theist belief without allowing the normal checking that should go with knowledge claims. That’s OK – if it is just personal justification. We all do that from time to time.
However, sometimes religious apologists will go on the offensive with this argument. They use it to justify a knowledge claim that conflicts with scientific knowledge. In fact, they will use it to claim they have access to knowledge which is more reliable than scientific knowledge.
Should theology trump science?
Matt Flannaghan, from the MandM blog, provides a useful example of the latter approach. In his comments on his own posts (Evolution should not be taught in State Schools: A Defence of Plantinga Part I and Part II) Matt claims that:
“If the relevant evidence points towards a theory it does not follow that all the evidence points towards it. That’s because there might be evidence which science does not consider, such as theological claims, that are relevant.”
He specifically argues for this regarding evolution:
“because on many issues the relevant scientific evidence is the only evidence, but on questions of origins that is not the case. The question of our origins is both a scientific and theological question so a correct examination of the issue will take into account both the theological and scientific evidence.
To teach evolution is the true theory of origins one would have to show it is probable on all relevant evidence, and seeing science excludes relevant theological evidence from the discussion it cannot claim to have shown its true on all relevant evidence.”
“You should not teach its true in a science if you have not examined the philosophical issues.”
Leave aside, for the moment, concepts of “truth” – the word means different things to theologians, scientists and the person in the street.
Implicit in the “different ways of knowing” argument, and hinted at by Matt in his comments, is the desire to change the science process to include theological “evidence” and claims that are not based on, or tested by, evidence. To give theology a “free pass.” This is consistent with the Wedge strategy. Matt’s ginger group Thinking Matters often pushes this line (see their comments on scientific issue on their blog Thinking Matters Talk and in the Thinking Matters Journal).
From myth, to logic to evidence
The way I see it, humanity has developed its approach to knowledge over time. Initially much of our knowledge was superstitious and mythical. Mythology provided explanations. A philosophical approach, based on logic and reason, developed in Greece and Italy from about the sixth century BCE. Today, modern science has its feet firmly placed on evidence. Scientific ideas are, must be, tested against reality.
These phases of human knowledge are not clearly demarcated. In fact many modern people still fall back on mythology. Logic and reason was heavily influenced by mythology during the 17th century when experimental science, or natural philosophy as it was then called, developed. And logic and reason play an important role in today’s scientific culture and process.
In the modern scene there is a distinction between science, which has experimental confidence, and philosophy which doesn’t. But this is not so historically. The two started to diverge from their “common ancestor,” which was heavily influenced by theological mythology, during the 17th century.
To assert today that we should revert to a pre-scientific era, that theology or philosophy should trump scientific knowledge, is to claim that mythology/logic/reason is more reliable than evidence.
Most of us, and most reasonable religious people, would not strongly defend a role of mythology and superstition in modern understanding of the world. But the claim for an overriding role for reason and logic (usually theological reason and logic) can be more persuasive. After all, we all have some sort of philosophical world outlook, and we do try to use logic and reason.
Logic must follow evidence
Of course logic and reason are important – and they can contribute to knowledge. They can provide a synthesis, an overview, and intuitions to the researcher. But they are not a substitute for evidence. In the end our reason and logic must conform to the evidence, not displace it.
The philosopher of science Alan Chalmers recently commented: “because of the stringent way in which scientific knowledge is required to pass experimental tests it is the best kind of knowledge we have.” He also pointed out that modern society and the technological experience of humanity “provides ample evidence that scientific knowledge has a validity that has no analogue in philosophy.” (Matt described these sort of comments as “just rhetoric”).
It’s not surprising that philosophy/logic has limitations. It is after all just a refinement of common sense by reason. Philosophical/logical principles arise from intuitions and may not properly represent reality. Quantum mechanics is an obvious example. Nobel Prize winner Frank Wilczek commented in an Edge interview: “The classic structures of logic are really far from adequate to do justice to what we find in the physical world.”
It also suffers from susceptibility to subjectivity – which is reinforced by the lack of testing against reality. Clearly individuals, organisations, political parties, religions will use philosophy/logic to justify preconceived beliefs. Logical distortions for ideological reasons are inherent in the process. In science the requirement of evidential input counters this subjectivity.
Today, the resort to “other ways of knowing”, to a trumping role for philosophy or even theology, is just a cheap attempt to avoid reality. To impose prejudices based on mythology and biased logic/philosophy.
So what would the trumping of science by theology/philosophy be like? We have seen some disastrous examples. Such as Stalin’s promotion of Lysenko, trumping of science by Stalinist interpretations of Marxism-Leninism. This put Soviet genetic science back many years and led to the death and persecution of many scientists. In many ways the current theological /creationist/wedge attack on science is of a similar ilk to Stalinism.
When religious apologists refer to philosophy and logic they almost invariably mean theology. It’s a deceptive way for them to try and give credibility to their theological arguments. And it can be a deceptive way of giving respectability to superstitious and mythological beliefs.
Matt, for example, has used his “philosophy” and “other ways of knowing” argument to give respectability to fundamentalism. He argues that teaching evolution is actually teaching “fundamentalist children that their religious beliefs are false.” Well, of course that is a problem for fundamentalism, not science. We cannot ignore reality because some silly people are offended by it. (And what’s with this “fundamentalist children,” Matt? Just consider the terms “Marxist child,” “post-modernist child,” “Tory child,” etc. Silly isn’t it?).
I have come to expect apologists to use the “other ways of knowing” argument, and to attempt to the trump science with philosophy, theology and mythology in debate. But I find Matt’s use of the arguments to justify withholding of modern knowledge from children particularly repulsive.
Imposing ignorance on children is surely a form of child abuse!