Ways of knowing

I trust you read Tom Clark’s terrific article on epistemology. I’m going to comment on just one section, ‘Misplaced concessions to non-empiricism.’

Most organizations in the U.S. that champion science take the politically safe route of conceding a certain respect to their biggest epistemic competition, traditional faith-based institutional religions such as Christianity. A popular rationale for such respect is that science and religion don’t conflict since science can’t evaluate religious claims about the supernatural; it’s only concerned with the natural, material world. This suggests that religions have epistemic authority when it comes to the supernatural.

Indeed it does, and, annoyingly and unhelpfully (not to say harmfully), it does it without actually explicitly saying it. As Tom says, it suggests it, but it doesn’t spell it out. This is not surprising because of course there is no reason to think it’s true. There is no reason to think religions do have epistemic authority when it comes to the supernatural – but if it’s suggested, perhaps they’ll calm down a little and let science get on with things. They never do seem to calm down though, and the suggestion is harmful to onlookers who could end up believing that religions do have epistemic authority when it comes to the supernatural.

In the examples Tom quotes I think the worst bit of phrasing comes from the National Academy of Science –

At the root of the apparent conflict between some religions and evolution is a misunderstanding of the critical difference between religious and scientific ways of knowing.

That comes much too close to saying explicitly that religion has a way of knowing, but that’s the very thing religion doesn’t have. It has lots of ways of claiming to know, of pretending to know, of performing an imitation of knowing; but it has no way of actually legitimately knowing. (Tom says exactly that in the paragraph following the quoted passages. I just felt like saying it too.)

By implying non-empiricism might have some epistemic merit as a route to objectivity in certain realms, the NAS and other science-promoting organizations miss the biggest selling point for science, or more broadly, intersubjective empiricism: it has no rival when it comes to modeling reality in any domain that’s claimed to exist. The reason is simple but needs to be made explicit: religious and other non-empirical ways of knowing don’t sufficiently respect the distinction between appearance and reality, between subjectivity and objectivity. They are not sufficiently on guard against the possibility that one’s model of the world is biased by perceptual limitations, wishful thinking, uncorroborated intuition, conventional wisdom, cultural tradition, and other influences that may not be responsive to the way the world actually is.

Just so – along with the rest of what Tom says about it; it’s hard to excerpt because it’s all so admirably clear and compelling. At any rate – all this is obvious enough and yet it’s kept tactfully veiled in much public discourse simply in order to appease people who are not sufficiently on guard against the possibility that one’s model of the world is biased by wishful thinking among other things. It’s all very unfortunate. The very people who most need to learn to guard against cognitive bias are the ones who are being appeased lest they get ‘offended’ at discovering that. It’s an endless circle of epistemic disability.

Faith-based religions and other non-empirically based worldviews routinely make factual assertions about the existence of god, paranormal abilities, astrological influences, the power of prayer, etc. So they are inevitably in the business of representing reality, of describing what they purport to be objective truths, some of which concern the supernatural. But having signed on to the cognitive project of supplying an accurate model of the world, they routinely violate basic epistemic standards of reliable cognition. There’s consequently no reason to grant them any domain of cognitive competence. Although this might sound arrogant, it’s a judgment reached from the standpoint of epistemic humility.

The real arrogance is the routine violation of epistemic standards of reliable cognition. There’s something so vain, so self-centered, about doing that – as if it’s appropriate to think that our hopes and wishes get to decide what reality is. It’s just decent humility to realize that reality is what it is and that we are not so important or powerful that we can create it or change it with the power of thought.

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