Explicit & Tacit Positions of Science & Philosophy on Reason & Religion

Ralph Dumain Responds to a Questionnaire

RD responds to a series of questions by RB, question by question, 27 January 2007. Responses slightly edited.


I. Are the following propositions true or correct?
A. Proper Stance of Science/Reason Towards Claims

1. Is it correct to say that the proper stance of Science (and, more generally Reason) towards any and all truth-claims about reality is that the burden rests entirely on the claimant and unless and until the claim is substantiated by the normal means, with the normal criteria of science and reason, to the satisfaction of the scientific community (or accepted representative group thereof) is to consider the claim invalid unless and until adequate evidence or other substantiation is provided and properly evaluated?


I'm not sure what to say about "reason", but I suppose this is correct viz. science. Karl Popper would say that a scientific claim is one that could be falsified; if not, it's not a scientific claim.

As for what reason says about all truth claims, I can't be sure, but I would say that all claims are made against a background of assumed knowledge. So I would say that if said background knowledge is basically sound, a truth claim that is consistent with it is more acceptable than one that violates it; an extraordinary claim demands a higher standard of evidence. But I doubt the scientific community would be the adjudicator of all claims, since many truth claims cannot be readily sustained by the current state of scientific knowledge, or may not depend at all (some factual claims) on scientific knowledge.


2. Is this case, would this be in effect a rejection of the claim as invalid or is there a meaningful distinction between not accepting a claim as valid and, at least implicitly or effectively rejecting it?


I would think there is a meaningful distinction. That is, I can see a distinction between the reasonability of a claim and the validity of a claim.


B. Stance of Reason/Science Towards Religious Beliefs

1. When religious belief is comprised of truth-claims, such about the existence, nature, actions or will of God or gods, what is the proper stance of Reason and Science toward such claims? The same as towards any other truth-claims?


I would think this is different, as science implicitly is based on a naturalistic world view, whatever scientists believe in their non-professional lives. Science doesn't accept the validity of such truth claims, but whether it rejects them is a matter of interpretation.


2. If Science & Reason’s proper stance towards religious truth-claims is the same as towards any and all truth claims, has Science or other so-called "upholders and practitioners of reason," such as Academia, Philosophy (can I safely assume Philosophy would fall into this category) in any formal, official way taken a clear-cut position on religious claims, in the way, say it might on Astrology or extra-terrestrial beings? Say through official pronouncements of associations or organizations, through academic courses, etc.—in any definite way?


This has never happened in the USA or any other western democracy that I know of. Part of this may be cowardice, but there are other interpretations of the goal of science for which science would not have to take a stand on anything other than what passes for science. Philosophy as a discipline takes no stands on anything, though philosophy departments do have their biases in different countries.

The question would be, of course, whether a religious claim is the same as a parascientific claim (astrology, ESP, etc.) My guess is, that "science" would avoid taking a stand on anything other than truth claims which directly interfere with it, e.g. the heliocentric theory, natural selection.


3. If the proper role of Science/Reason towards religious truth-claims is the same as towards any other and the answer to #2 is no, then why not? Why hasn’t such a clear-cut position been taken?


See my previous response, and my following responses.


4. Is Stephen Jay Gould’s formulation of the separate (but equal?) Magisteria of Science and Religion compatible with Sciences normal stances towards truth-claims and what it properly should be towards religious truth-claims?


I don't believe Gould's claim is warranted or valid. It is one thing to be tolerant of religion, but the magisteria business is an affirmative claim about truth which has no basis. Science may take a hands-off attitude toward religion, but it is going to far to make any positive claims for religion, even as a separate magisterium. It's intellectually dishonest. The AAAS is also guilty.


a. If Gould’s formulation is a proper and compatible one from the perspective of Reason and Science, then would not other sorts of things and things, such as astrology, mythology, literature, art, voodoo, dreams, Polytheistic religions, cult religions, all also just as properly belong in that "other" Magisteria, along with Religion? If so, any idea why Gould failed to mention this?


This is a good point, whether or not all religious truth claims are equivalent to parascientific and paranormal claims. Of course the separate magisteria claim is nonsense, since there are direct contradictions between most religious claims and scientific knowledge.

But at this point, I'm going to splice in something else I wrote, on Jan. 12, that gets to the heart of these issues:

Let's take a look at what activism is, as a prerequisite for assessing "our" activism. Atheism/etc. is more or less a single-issue movement. Well, not exactly. But its core consists of: (a) separation of church and state, (b) elimination of religious and supernatural criteria in the functioning of the public sphere, (c) combating the pariah political and social status of atheists. For some purposes, I will treat this as a single-issue cause. At other times I will introduce distinctions.

The first distinction to make involves an issue that is more serious now that at any time since the 1920s—the religious interference with science. This seems like a straightforward enough core issue. But when we look at how it breaks down politically, we will see some fissures. I want to illustrate with three examples.

(1) AAAS [American Association for the Advancement of Science]: The scientific establishment has a vested interest in protecting itself from the destruction of its own profession via anti-scientific interference. It also has a number of good reasons not to attack religion, because this would hurt the scientific establishment politically, but also because its own members consist in significant numbers of scientists who believe all kinds of nonsense outside of the specialized work they do. Scientists are not necessarily great philosophers who uphold a scientific world view on principle. And considering who employs them, they do not necessarily uphold any principle of integrity outside of the narrowly defined professional integrity of being able to do the work they are assigned responsibly and competently. Politically speaking, the AAAS seems to be liberal in the limited sense in which professional organizations are liberal, e.g. viz. affirmative action, the role of minorities and women. Beyond that, they're not about to bite the corporate and military hand that feeds them.

Now in defending themselves from interference in their profession, they have enlisted the aid of liberal religionists, some of whom are themselves scientists, some who are both scientists and clergymen, all of whom hold to the strict integrity of the scientific enterprise, eschew creationism, etc. This is an acceptable political strategy.

But there's more. Representatives of AAAS not only choose to refrain from picking a fight with religion, they positively declare that there is no conflict, and they issue publications promoting a rapprochement of religion and science. I know what they do from my attendance of numerous dialogues between religion and science taking place in Washington over the past few years. I think they would do better holding a dialogue between Philosophy and science rather than theology and science, but there is an interesting philosophical limitation that the atheist scientists and the religious scientists in this dialogue share, that you need to see in action to really grasp. But let's move on.

Now I find this strategy cowardly, dishonest, and unacceptable, because while these people's professional interest leads them not to oppose religion, they should refrain from commenting one way or another, instead of committing themselves to the lie that religion and science can co-exist without contradiction.

(2) Chris Mooney, The Republican War on Science: Mooney gave a brilliant talk on this subject in DC. I found it philosophically intriguing in ways that did not sit comfortably with me. His spin was somewhat different from AAAS, in that he did not make the positive assertion that religion and science are compatible. He also did not assert they are incompatible. His position basically relegated the issue to irrelevance because procedurally, science is pragmatic and does its work in a particular way and thus theological claims don't enter into it one way or another. Now this is more sophisticated, but I view it differently. I see this claim as both true and false.

It is true in that science involves procedures and institutions that do not stake out explicit philosophical claims beyond those minimally necessary for it to operate, not even those philosophical claims that would implicitly underlie the scientific enterprise. Historically, this way of thinking, which goes back at least to the establishment of the Royal Society, was a strategy for securing the autonomy of scientific research from religious interference, with the side benefit of securing religion from scientific interference. Institutionally, science must function without declaring an allegiance to its own philosophical principles, or else other considerations might come into play formally in a way they do now only informally and implicitly. Philosophical interference in the sciences produced some disastrous results in fascist and Stalinist dictatorships, for example.

However, Mooney's claim is also false in that it intellectually censors the full story, as you might see from the foregoing paragraph alone. For this way of thinking about science is a political adaptation to bourgeois democratic, pluralistic society that declares neutrality and even-handedness as a formal principle without taking into account the actual balance of forces that tip what actually happens in a particular direction. The United States was founded as a secular government sans a secular populace, a situation which in fact is historically unstable.

(3) Richard Dawkins makes a public assault on religious and theistic belief in the name of science, refusing to soft-pedal his message and compromise, and attempting to influence public opinion not merely to be tolerant, but to reject religious belief as ignorant, false, and harmful, and incompatible with the scientific world view. Dawkins is actually quite charming in person, but he is accused of being strident and hurting the cause—hurting activism—by turning too many people off. Dawkins admits of this possibility, but it doesn't deter him.

Now I agree with Dawkins wholeheartedly. Criticisms of his stridency, "intolerance", etc., are off-base. From a strict philosophical view, some of his arguments are lacking, but he is not a professional philosopher, and considering the idiocy he has to combat, he can be allowed a lack of philosophical nuance. Some of his cleverer theological opponents will pick holes in his arguments, but as most are morons, his lapses hardly make a difference.

Now, from the point of view of activism, which of these three scenarios is the correct example to follow? The answer can only be: it depends on your sphere of action, your specific role and purpose.

So here are three different approaches to the defense of science, and in Dawkins' case, more, as he wants to do more than simply keep religion out of government and keep religion out of the public business of science.

So while we can introduce distinctions to divide up the discrete and sometimes conflicting tasks of the secularist "movement", we can also consider it as a continuum, or a lump sum of related interests which are all in some way interdependent with different emphases depending on goal, occasion, and sphere of action.

Of the three scenarios I presented above, #2 is the classic strategy of the scientific establishment. #1 represents an unacceptable compromise. #3 may be the most philosophically principled, but curiously, science as an institution doesn't have to take a philosophical stand on anything other than what is necessary for it to function. There are limitations to this perspective, but there are also limitations to the natural-scientific model of knowledge. Dawkins and all the rest, when they apply their limited specialized knowledge to an analysis of history and society, are all incompetent and ideological themselves.


C. Truth and Reason

1. Is Reason and its various necessary prerequisites, manifestations and applications (Science, Logic, Critical thinking, etc.) the only proven, reliable dependable means, with a proven track record, humanity has developed to ascertain truth and apprehend Reality (not in an absolute way, of course)?


Reason, by itself, no, but reason in combination with empirical knowledge. As for "science", this depends on your model of scientific knowledge, and its application to social analysis.


2. If #1 is true, is for all Reality or just for physical, material existence?


Rational methods, I suppose so. "Science"—I think the natural-scientific model has its limitations with respect to historical and social analysis. Most of our leading secular humanists are morons in sociological matters, esp. this miscreant Michael Shermer.


3. Is the pursuit of truth, apprehending of reality (as best as can be approximated at any given time) a bedrock, fundamental value of Reason and Science, which guides their enterprises? Is it the single most fundamental and highest governing value?


Science as an institution, or science as a philosophical ideal? They are not the same. Most science is done by hacks who don't have either reason or science as their highest governing value.


4. If Reason is not the only valid, reliable means to pursue or ascertain truth, what are some of the other ones?


Some would say faith, which is out. Others would say intuition, which has a checkered history and usually serves unreason.


D. Society and Valuing of Truth and Reason

1. Has there ever been a society or nation (or even a part of a society) in which the pursuit of truth through the means of Reason (and solely or primarily through Reason) has been the primary, dominant, guiding value? If so, which ones? Could this be said of Ancient Greece, say, during Aristotle’s time?


I doubt it. Greece had religion, not just philosophers. The leaders of the French Revolution made a virtual god of Reason. And then there's the USSR, which had an official philosophy it claimed to be scientific. Naturally, there is a difference between claiming to be guided by reason and actually being guided by it.


2. If so, has there been such a society or nation like this in, say, the past 200 years?


See above.


E. Advancement of Reason or Logos Through History

1. Tonight on the news a possible "quantum leap" breakthrough in microprocessor chip design was announced. Obviously, Reason and its application have advanced quite far since, say, Aristotle in certain areas, like science and its application. However, I think it is fair to say that it has lagged way behind in other important areas, such as governance, managing human affairs, public policy, politics and informing how people should live—individually and collectively in a more general way. Any thoughts as to why this very uneven development of Logos may have happened?


It's rather obvious. The scientific revolution was good for economic and technological development, but a potential threat to social order, a threat that had to be contained. Thinkers as diverse as Karl Marx and John Dewey have weighed in on this issue.

But at the same time, the technocratic mentality spread to the administration of society. This mentality saw its birth in the French Revolution but only came to intellectual fruition with the positivist movement in France and the utilitarian movement in the UK in the first half of the 19th century. This latter "scientific approach" requires an intellectual-administrative elite, i.e. a monopoly on reason.

Universal reason, depending on how you conceive it, is an obvious threat to the status quo, to the rulers of society, primarily, but also to the subordinate classes who also need to preserve their illusions.

Addendum: Disciplinary Boundaries & a Unified Theory of Reason

This problem was posed by RB following a then-recent philosophical discussion:

There seemed an inordinate focus on what issues or questions should be the proper domain of Psychology vs. which should be pursued by Philosophy. Now, I see some merit in this, but in later reflection, it seems to me that too much focus is thereby shifted onto these disciplines themselves, when they are really only the means to the end, which is understanding questions of interest. That is, it would seem to me that these turf sort of questions are less central than the question of what questions one wishes to explore and why, and only secondarily how, i.e. through one or more disciplines or however.

Now I realize that people with some professional interest or stake in given professions might feel differently, that it is essential to specify what questions their discipline and domain should pursue and how. However, I don't feel any such loyalty to this or that discipline since I do not have any professional or financial or other interests tied to this or that discipline; something I'm increasingly appreciating as benefit more than a loss. For a very long time I did want to go into academia and was about to 13 years ago, but couldn't go in the end. In some ways, I now feel glad that I didn't or couldn't go, even though that had been a longstanding dream—for the reason above and probably other reasons.

But in any event, aside from issues like discipline loyalty, does anyone else see anything wrong with this sort of focus on the discipline almost over the questions they supposedly are going to address?

Perhaps this is a parallel issue or concern to the one I've heard raised more than once in response to my proposal for a unified theory of thought, including a general theory of critical thinking in these terms, across disciplines and domains. Most recently [. . .] I was debating this very issue with [. . .] a physicist [. . . ] who attended the discussion. He insisted that Critical Thinking (CT) in science and certainly Physics is specific to that field, but he couldn't really say anything about what, then, CT would look like when applied in other areas. [. . . .]

I guess I believe I've already demonstrated that, in fact, you can show how the same general CT applies across all sorts of domains—basically to all truth-claims, even though I haven't written most of those demonstrations here, as they are still mostly in my head. And I wonder why so many scientists are so quick to say that underlying epistemology of the scientific method should or cannot properly be applied to truth-claims that fall in domains outside the normal purview of science? If so, there would seem to be a fundamental problem, since this would really be saying that different sorts of truth-claims cannot be addressed in an epistemologically consistent way.

For example, if a truth-claim fails to meet the burden of proof, as established by the normal criteria of science or reason itself, then why should not the claim be discounted, no matter what discipline it normally would be considered under the purview of? Wouldn't to say otherwise again be a case of making the discipline the central issue, rather than the issue of how do we evaluate a truth-claim and arrive at truth in general? John pointed out that one needs to do experiments to employ the scientific method, but surely we don't want to say that one cannot think critically outside of the specific scientific method, do we? In fact, I just gave an example of a generalizable principle—the key one about rejecting claims that fail the burden of proof. And, in fact, this is done in the law, for instance.

So is there perhaps some jealous turf-guarding going on in order to preserve some unique hold on critical thinking? How could a scientist who believes in CT and uses it to study natural phenomena NOT think the same general approach should be applied, to the extent it can, in all other areas?

Or, perhaps, could it be that even good scientists who are experts in using the scientific method, aren't fully aware, or don't fully grasp, the underlying epistemological grounding the scientific method expresses? Is, for instance, the ability to do experiments the sine qua non of CT? I don't see how that could really be the case, but maybe I just don't understand.

After all, I'm not a scientist. So where would that leave all the truth-claims outside of science? Does that mean that truth and evaluating truth-claims can only occur within the rather narrow domains science looks at or chooses to look at, in the broad sweep of things?

Does that mean if I say I am the son of God and was sent to earth to bring my theories to the world in order to save it, this claim cannot be evaluated because it is beyond the scope of what science normally looks at? If so, what other discipline, if any, should be evaluating my claim to be the real Messiah?

No doubt some of impatience with the claims of self-importance of some of these disciplines—maybe all of them—stems from the fact that I stand outside of them and outside most everything else. But perhaps that's an advantage, especially for someone looking for ways to unify and simplify things. If that is the quest in Physics—for a Grand Theory to explain diverse, dis-similar phenomena, why should such a quest outside of Physics be, per se, not feasible, even foolhardy? Chomsky, for example, did do it for grammar, so it can be done in the arena of human behavior. And, no doubt, various psychologists, starting with Freud, have claimed to have done this, over some questions within Psychology.

This is my response of 17 July 2007:

I don't think there is a clear line between philosophy and science in the social sciences, not the kind of line that can be more easily drawn around the natural sciences. The question is not so much one of turf, but of the nature of the abstractions, methods, and research associated with different disciplines.

The question of how physics relates to other areas of inquiry brings up the same issue. Different philosophies of science will approach the relation between philosophical and scientific questions differently. However, there are also procedural characteristics of scientific research that function regardless of the philosophical ideas people have in their heads. This is a two-edged sword, as it insulates much of science from other ideologies, but also aids in the compartmentalization of life insulating other areas of life from scientific or even rational accountability.

Physics—and science in general—is heavily tilted towards operational and empirical considerations. Strictly metaphysical questions are not directly amenable to scientific research methods and thus require an overall conceptual analysis which some consider to be outside the purview of science. The existence of God, for example, might be considered an empirical question—i.e. a being like other beings which interacts in causal ways that can be evaluated. However, there are logical and metaphysical dimensions to the concept that may not be matters of empirical evidence. The existence of God could be challenged on purely conceptual and logical grounds as on evidentiary grounds. Is such a being even intelligible as a concept and thus logically meaningful?

The question is, what is the underlying epistemology of the scientific method? The positivists had one conception, Popper another, and there are yet others. Are the various areas of enquiry qualitatively different even if connectable by an overarching ontological schema? Should science be more broadly defined so that social theory need not imitate physics? Or if not, should the conception of rational inquiry still be delimited as broader than science but still subject to rational critical scrutiny? What is the nature of concept formation in criticizable science, ontology, or epistemology as opposed to the status of abstract concepts in speculative metaphysics (cf. your question about Platonic essences)? If reason is just logical deduction, then metaphysical speculation is rational, as it in fact is.

"Reason" alone as the master principle doesn't solve the problem, because reason has to pass additional tests of adequation. 'Reason' can be completely nuts, as you will find if you ever encounter disciples of Ayn Rand.

Even Popperians, who have developed their entire philosophy around a non-justificationist conjectures-and-refutations model of critical and scientific thinking—which they think is a unified theory—can be just as obtuse as all allegedly liberal, open-minded thinkers who adhere to scientific method and rational enquiry. Which is why I don't believe in a unified theory of critical thinking as a generally applied approach.

Your obsessive focus on questions and 'critical thinking' and a unified theory of everything needs to take into account all these factors before your theory becomes workable and you can successfully challenge physicists, psychologists, philosophers, and others.

Philosophers ought to be prepared for such queries, but I don't think they are, not because they have nothing to say about any of this necessarily, but because they don't focus on what philosophers are generally trained to focus on—questions so obvious no one thinks to ask them. There are fundamental questions here of the nature of concept formation and its relation to the empirical world, certainly one treated by most philosophies, but rarely addressed in an elemental way that summarizes what I think we should have learned from 5000 years of intellectual inquiry.

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