Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Religious Belief and Scientific Worldviews

A couple from Hanno today. First he asks,

"Do you think that religious belief is incompatible with a scientific world view, as the fundamentalists believe? Or do you think that these are different realms of truth, like Francis Bacon believed? Or do you think that they are compatible, but only certain kinds, as truth does not conflict with truth, as Aquinas believed?"
The answer, of course, d. all of the above. It depends upon what you mean by religious belief and scientific worldview. Both notions are ambiguous and there are senses that are inconsistent, distinct, and compatible. Here are a few ways of interpreting what is meant by religious and scientific worldviews

Logical (based on the form of the sentence)
science - Propositions that are empirical
religion - Propositions for which there can be no empirical evidence
Metaphysical or unfalsifiable claims
Ethical claims

Metaphysical (based on beliefs about the nature of reality)
science - Belief that the empirical in principle and the laws by which it operates is the sum total of reality
religion - Belief in the existence of one or more supernatural beings
Belief in an inherent order or connectedness to the world

Epistemological (based upon what is knowable and how one can acquire knowledge)
science - Belief in the likely truth of propositions best supported by all current evidence
Belief in the likely truth of proposition supported by some current evidence
religion - Belief in propositions for which there is no current evidence
Belief in propositions for which there can be no possible evidence
Belief in mystically revealed truth

Methodological (based upon how one acts)
science - The process of framing and investigating empirical claims
religion - Performing of rituals associated with or prescribed by a religious structure
Reflection or introspection about one’s relationship to or place in the universe

Phenomenological (based upon human experience)
science - The Eureka moment
religion - Experience of something larger, salvation, revelation, ecstasy, or connectedness

Sociological (based upon human interactions with other people and social institutions)
science - Propositions currently endorsed by the scientific community or some portion of it
Propositions under investigation by some portion of the scientific community
The community that performs the investigations and membership in it
religion - Propositions endorsed by a religious institution.
The religious institution and membership in it

Historical (based upon a place in the record of the institution)
science - Propositions once endorsed by the scientific community or some portion of it
religion - Propositions once endorsed a religious institution

Normative (based upon how one ought to act or believe)
science - Belief that all empirical claims ought to be investigated empirically
Belief that one ought only believe that for which there is sufficient evidence to deem it likely
religion - Belief that some empirical claims ought not be investigated
Belief that one ought to believe certain propositions for which there is not currently sufficient evidence or perhaps no possible evidence

These are just a few of the ways in which one might sense of scientific and religious worldviews. Surely, some of them are perfectly compatible, while others not. Einstein, for example, held himself to be religious in the sense of experiencing awe and wonderment and believing in a well-ordered universe, but explicitly denied the existence of a God of the usual sort. One could certainly do good scientific work and have an instrumentalist view that science does not provide us with actual explanations of what happens in reality, but useful models and way of thinking about systems while claiming that mystical revelation provides us with access to the nature of reality itself.

At the same time, surely there is some inference to be made from the success of science. When a certain mindset continuously produces explanatory and predictive successes, there seems to be good reason to think there is something to it. Does that mean the materialistic metaphysic of a strong scientific point of view must be true? No. Does it give some reason for reasonable belief. Probably. Does that mean one cannot make sense of scientific progress while also holding non-materialist views? No. But it does seem that they would need to provide some sort of argumentation to fill the gap.

Hanno also asks,
"Ockham's razor seems like a good parameter for theory preference. All things being equal, reduce your metaphysical footprint. But why would this be tied to truth? Just because a theory has less metaphysical baggage on the face of it does not make it more likely to tbe true. Unless there is some philosophical underpinning to the razor (like Descartes' tried (and failed) to do), isn't the adherence to Ockham's razor simply a psychological preference, rather than a vehicle for the discovery of truth? I.e., you just like theories that have less baggage?"
This goes back to a post from last week where we discussed the view of folks like Michael Friedman and Clark Glymour who argue that theories may derive unequal degrees of confirmation from the same evidence if the two theories have different metaphysical presumptions.

Translated into that context, the question seems to be, "does increased metaphysical baggage make a theory less well confirmed or just less aesthetically desirable?" I would take the strong realist line and say that it is confirmation we are talking about here, it is likely truth. Extraordinary claims do require extraordinary proof. This version of Occam's razor is, I think, easier to defend because all that is being employed is the requirement that claims be given support -- more claims, more support needed. Note that this qualification applies to a very small group of theories -- those that are empirically equivalent, but metaphysically distinct when realistically interpreted. For that class, this use of Occam's razor seems perfectly well defensible.