Facts and belief

Keith Ward wrote a short piece for Comment is Free, a couple of weeks ago, saying something about religion and science and claims and facts. (I put it loosely that way because Ward oscillates between terms a lot, so it’s not easy to specify exactly what he’s claiming. The title of the piece is “Religion answers the factual questions science neglects,” which is an ok summary, but it’s not necessarily written by Ward.) Ward’s piece was in response to Julian Baggini’s piece on whether science and religion are compatible.

Jerry Coyne wrote a piece responding to Ward’s. Jim Houston wrote a piece at Talking Philosophy responding to Coyne’s, with a response directly from Ward.

All straight? Shoes buckled? Knives put away in the basket? Off we go.

Ward said:

We need to ask if particular religious and scientific claims conflict, or whether they are mutually supportive or not. Some are and some are not, and it would be silly to say that all religious claims conflict with all scientific claims, or that they do not.

Many religious statements are naturally construed as statements of fact – Jesus healed the sick, and rose from death, and these are factual claims.

A huge number of factual claims are not scientifically testable. Many historical and autobiographical claims, for instance, are not repeatable, not publicly observable now or in future, and are not subsumable under any general law. We know that rational answers to many historical questions depend on general philosophical views, moral views, personal experience and judgment. There are no history laboratories. Much history, like much religion, is evidence-based, but the evidence is not scientifically tractable.

Wait. Wait wait wait. I spy a bit of smuggling.  “Much history, like much religion, is evidence-based.”

Objection, your honor. Bullshit (in the technical sense). Equivocation. Smuggling. Playing silly buggers with ambiguity. That claim is true only if you mean something quite eccentric by “much religion”; if you mean what is generally meant and understoody by religion, it’s not true at all. Religion in general, religion as such, is not evidence-based in the sense that history is.

Claims that the cosmos is created do not “trespass onto” scientific territory. They are factual claims in which scientific investigators are not, as such, interested. Scientific facts are, of course, relevant to many religious claims. But not all facts are scientific facts – the claim that I was in Oxford last night, unseen by anyone, will occur in no scientific paper, but it is a hard fact. So it is with the miracles of Jesus, with the creation of the cosmos and with its end.

So it is? So it is? No it isn’t. The claim that Keith Ward was in Oxford on a particular night is not inherently implausible; it goes against no known public facts about nature or the social world or geography. The same cannot be said of “the miracles of Jesus.” The mere fact (if it is a fact) that both Ward’s presence in Oxford on October 30 2011 and the miracles of Jesus are unverifiable does not demonstrate that both are hard facts.

Now, it is true that there is a fact of the matter about both. It could be a fact that Ward was in Oxford that night, or it could be a fact that he wasn’t. It could be a fact that Jesus did miracles, or it could be a fact that he didn’t. But that isn’t what Ward said: he said “it is a hard fact” that he was in Oxford that night. Well maybe it is and maybe it isn’t, but the rest of the world – on his own account – doesn’t know that. I think he wanted readers to take his “it is a hard fact” as meaning an established, public, accepted fact (despite having just said that it isn’t) and then be rushed into accepting the same of Jesus and his miracles. Tricky.

 The interesting question is not whether religion is compatible with science, but whether there are important factual questions – and some important non-factual questions, too, such as moral ones – with which the physical sciences do not usually deal. The answer seems pretty obvious, without trying to manufacture sharp and artificial distinctions between “hows” and “whys”.

That’s Ward. Coyne disagreed, and ended with a challenge:

I challenge Ward to give me just one reasonably well established fact about the world that comes from “general philosophical views, moral views, personal experience and judgment” without any verifiable empirical input.

Jim Houston asked Ward to respond to the challenge, and Ward obliged.

I have been told that Jerry Coyne has challenged me to cite a “reasonably well established fact about the world” that has no “verifiable empirical input”. That is not a claim I have ever made, or ever would make.

What I do claim is not so controversial, namely, that many factual claims about the world are reasonably believed or even known to be true, even when there is no way in which any established science (a discipline a Fellow of the Royal Society would recognise as a natural science) could establish that they are true or false.

Here is an example: my father worked as a double-agent for MI6 and the KGB during the  “Cold War”. He told me this on his death-bed, in view of the fact that I had once seen him kill a man. The Section of which he was a member was disbanded and all record of it expunged, and all those who knew that he was a member of it had long since died. This is certainly a factual claim. If true, he certainly knew that it was true. I reasonably believe that it is true. But there is absolutely no way of empirically verifying or falsifying it. QED.

That seems to me to be an absolutely hopeless “example” of what he is claiming. He is claiming, in a somewhat evasive way, that it is reasonable to believe that claim. I say “evasive” because he (carefully?) put the claim in the passive voice, which enabled him to omit any believing agent or agents. Who is supposed to be doing this believing? Ward himself? Or everyone? It makes a difference, you know.

Here’s the thing. It may be reasonable for Ward to believe that story (if in fact – in fact – it really was told to him), depending on a lot of things – what he knows about his father, and the like – but it’s not the least bit reasonable for anyone else to believe it. It’s minus reasonable, because in fact it has a whiff of tall tale, or more than a whiff. Once saw him kill a man did he? My, that’s casual. And then Ward is using it to make a point. And double-agents aren’t all that abundant, and they are figures in novels and movies.

I think Ward is equivocating again: I think he’s expecting us to take the polite or social sense of “believe” which could better be called “taking his word for it,” and treat it as genuine, reasonable belief. I don’t mind taking Ward’s word for it, if there’s nothing at stake, but as for genuinely believing it…I beg to be excused.



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