Obfuscating Religious Bluster and the Accusation of Scientism

[Page copied from archive.org, original article (http://choiceindying.com/2011/12/11/obfuscating-religious-bluster-and-the-accusation-of-scientism/) being now offline ; see my own Comments on Ian Hutchinson's book "Monopolizing Knowledge"]

11 December 2011

Scientism is, first of all, a philosophy of knowledge. It is an opinion about the way that knowledge can be obtained and justified. However, scientism rapidly becomes much more. It becomes an all-encompassing world-view; a perspective from which all of the questions of life are examined: a grounding presupposition or set of presuppositions which provides the framework by which the world is to be understood. In other words, it is essentially a religious position.

That is the opening paragraph of Ian Hutchinson’s series of articles on “scientism” over at Biologos, the Francis Collins-Templeton sponsored blog whose motto (under the Biologos “About” tab) is:

BioLogos explores, promotes, and celebrates the integration of science and Christian faith.

Not, notice, integration of science and religious ways of knowing, but the integration of science and Christian faith.

While, without a doubt, Ian Hutchinson has stellar scientific bona fides as Professor of Nuclear Science and Engineering, Alcator C-Mod Tokamak Plasma Confinement Experiment Co-Principal at MIT, one wonders what he is doing at Biologos. But then, of course, as his CV shows, he has been there before. In 2010 Professor Hutchinson was commissioned by Biologos to write an essay in a series entitled “Engaging Today’s Militant Atheism.” Perhaps it was this commission which started him on the course, now come to fruition, that led to a new book entitled Monopolizing Knowledge: A Scientist Refutes Religion-Denying Reason-Destroying Scientism. A title scarcely gets to be clearer than that. But of course it wasn’t that this essay started him on the course which led to the book; the essay was based upon the book, which, as he says in a footnote, was ”currently in preparation called Monopolizing Knowledge which addresses scientism on a broader canvas.” So we have, as it were, a before and after Monopolizing Knowledge. Looking forward to the book Biologos published his first essay about militant atheism — for, as he says, and as most “new” atheists have said — there really is not a great deal that is new in the “new atheism.” Then, following publication of the book Biologos has given him one more kick at the can, possibly because the book itself did not make a very big splash in the world of religion v. atheism, standing, as it does, #100,503 in Amazon books sales.

Consider, first, Hutchinson’s commitment as a Christian. His MIT page links to another page listing a number of Hutchinson’s essays and talks which are relevant to his book Monopolizing Knowledge. One of them is aggressively entitled “Science: Christian and Natural”. To claim that the so-called new atheism is militant, but then to yoke Christianity and science together under the heading “Science”, is exceptionally aggressive. It is to make a claim for Christianity which, I daresay, he would not be prepared to make for Hinduism or Islam. His trajectory towards Christian faith seemed to follow closely the model of Alister McGrath, though at least he has the decency not to speak of his teenage doubts as atheism. However, he was brought up in the shadow of Worcester Cathedral in a school closely related with it: The King’s School, Worcester; and from there he went up to King’s College, Cambridge. Despite his early exposure to Christianity, he testifies in this essay, he was almost entirely ignorant of “the historical message of Christianity.”

That’s a strange turn of phrase in itself. What could he possibly mean? Well, by the end of the paragraph he is telling his readers this:

The ideas that seemed so novel to me were, for example, that there are strong historical reasons to believe that Jesus was who he said he was; that the theological teachings of Christianity had an inner consistency that made sense of the world and of human experience; and strangest of all, that a personal relationship with God was possible, entered into by faith, but lived out in action in the world.

While that is ringing endorsement of Christian faith, it hardly rises to the level of science. I challenge him – rhetorically, of course — to provide strong historical reasons to believe that Jesus was who he said he was. For this is precisely what is lacking. The gospels themselves, in which we read about Jesus, his words and his doings, are all of them late and conflicting. The accounts of the birth of Jesus and his resurrection are missing from the oldest gospel, the gospel according to St. Mark. Indeed, the ending of Mark, where the resurrection is recorded, is almost universally regarded, by biblical scholars, as a later interpolation. But nowhere does Christianity rise to the level of science and scientific knowledge. To assimilate Christianity to science in the way that Hutchinson does is to attempt to use science in the very same way that he accuses atheists of using science to monopolise knowledge.

There is, however, an important difference. Hutchinson claims that scientism goes much further.

Scientism is, first of all, a philosophy of knowledge. It is an opinion about the way that knowledge can be obtained and justified. However, scientism rapidly becomes much more. It becomes an all-encompassing world-view; a perspective from which all of the questions of life are examined: a grounding presupposition or set of presuppositions which provides the framework by which the world is to be understood. In other words, it is essentially a religious position.

Now, here’s the strange part. The claim that it becomes “an all-encompassing world-view” — leaving the reference of “it” unclear for the moment — is very odd. For, consider what Hutchinson himself meant when he argued, in his essay “Science: Christian and Natural”, that “there are strong historical reasons to believe that Jesus was who he said he was.” What do those words ‘strong historical reasons’ refer to if not to the kinds of empirical evidence necessary in both science and history in order to claim truth for propositional claims? Hutchinson cannot claim that he is providing a completely new way of knowing, not dependent, in the way that science is, upon empirical evidence.

Strong historical reasons just do consist in empirical evidence left in the historical (written) or archaeological (physical) record. In the trial in which David Irving’s claim to have been libelled by Deborah Lipstadt, who called Irving a Holocaust Denier, the question at issue was whether Irving had falsified the historical record for the purpose of denying that something of the scale and horror associated with what is ordinarily associated with what has become known as the Holocaust of European Jewry had ever occurred. Justice Gray’s judgement is important testimony that, in fact, while the interpretation of historical events may be very diverse, the facts upon which those interpretations are based are more or less solidly rooted in the empirical witness to the past, and, while not scientific in the sense of the natural sciences, still depends upon the critical assessment of in Leopold von Ranke’s words, ”wie es eigentlich gewesen ist” — how things have actually been.

This is important, for Hutchinson wants to claim something entirely different. As he says in his current essay over at Biologos:

Enlightenment writings helped to insinuate scientism as an unacknowledged presupposition into much of the intellectual climate of the succeeding two centuries. From Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary (1755), through historians such as Thomas Babington Macaulay (1848), and in vestiges even into the mid twentieth century, “science” was held to refer generally to formal, intellectual learning, yet when specific examples of science are cited these are almost all natural science.

These are almost all examples from natural science. That in itself gives the game away. Of course, the model for successful knowledge claims comes from natural science, but this does not mean that all successful knowledge claims are made by the natural sciences. What is significant is that the closer a discipline comes to the natural science model the more reliable its knowledge claims are held to be — and with good reason. Hutchinson himself should know this, since, as a physicist, he must know that his work as a scientist provides more undisputed knowledge claims than his role as a Christian believer. Why? Because his science is based in repeatable experiment and confirmation, and his Christian belief is not. Not only are his Christian beliefs open to question; they are immediately confronted by the fact that all other religious beliefs contest them. And even within Christianity there is an incredible range of interpretation as to what is in fact held to be true.

No one, as the Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy puts it, professes scientism. It is a pejorative expression, nothing more, nothing less. There is no one who claims, as Wittgenstein tried to in the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, that everything that can be said is summed up in the propositions of natural science:

6.53 The correct method in philosophy would really be the following: to say nothing except what can be said, i.e. propositions of natural science — i.e. something that has nothing to do with philosophy — and then, whenever someone else wanted to say something metaphysical, to demonstrate to him that he had failed to give a meaning to certain signs in his propositions.

This was a entirely extreme form of logical positivism which, as Wittgenstein himself recognised, cannot be meaningfully said:

6.54 My propositions serve as elucidations in the following way: anyone who understands me eventually recognises them as nonsensical, when he has used them — as steps — to climb up beyond them.

But this, of course, would reduce everyone to silence, and so it is unsurprising that Wittgenstein lapsed – as a philosopher, anyway — into silence, until he realised that there was more to be said!

Hutchinson makes the following claim:

The continued robustness of scientism is surely partly attributable to this terminological confusion. If science means simply knowledge, then scientism is merely tautologically true. End of story. But if science means a particular type of knowledge, as it does today, then it is essential to recognize that meaning and stick to it.

But he must show — and I do not think that he can show — that amongst the “militant atheists” there are any who profess scientism as he defines it. There is a clear recognition that there is a continuum of statements which are more or less well grounded in the way things are seen to be on the basis of our experience of the world. As knowledge claims go, the propositions of natural science are obviously the most securely grounded: confirmed and reconfirmed by observation and experiment. At the other end of the scale we find things like the so-called “paranormal”, ghosts, poltergeists, out-of-body, near-death experiences, and other beliefs which, try as they might, believers in such “phenomena” have not been able to establish by empirical means.

Religious beliefs fall along this continuum. What seems to give them the greatest force is the fact that entire civilisations have been, in effect, built upon them. Or, at least, so it seems. Religion has played such a central role until now that it is hard to imagine a society without religion. It may be, of course, that religious belief is, in some sense, a psychological imperative, but, if so, it is hard to understand why so many people are now moving away from it. In the first article in Hutchinson’s series of Biologos articles based on his book Monopolizing Knowledge, Hutchinson gets lost in a discussion of whether the accolade of “scientific” on a department of knowledge should be restricted to the natural sciences, or whether it can be extended to other kinds of knowledge, like history. He remarks on the position of an early president of the American Historical Society, Edward Cheyney, who wrote the preface to the 1898 edition of Macaulay’s history of England:

As president of the American Historical Society, twenty seven years later, Che[y]ney would champion an explicitly scientistic view of the historian’s task as to discover law in history, “… natural laws, which we must accept whether we want to or not, … laws to be accepted and reckoned with as much as the laws of gravitation, or of chemical affinity” 3 The view is not convincing. The supposed distinction between scientific and unscientific history bears no discernible relationship to the methods of the natural sciences. It is mostly a substitution of “scientific” for “correct” for rhetorical effect.

No, this view is not convincing, as later historians have recognised. But Cheyney’s view was not scientistic. His 1927 Presidential Address to the American Historical Society (founded in 1884), entitled “Law in History,” while it does seek to find what he thinks are fundamental laws governing the history of nations and peoples, is no more scientistic than Hutchinson’s own attempt to assimilate Christianity to science in his essay “Science: Christian and Natural.”

Of course, Hutchinson wishes to carve out space for another kind of knowledge. As he says in the just mentioned essay:

I take the position that science and faith are complementary views of the world; that science studies the world insofar as it behaves in regular ways readily investigated using the reductionist methods of the physical sciences, and that theology finds its place along with many other disciplines, in understanding the human, personal, purposeful, and spiritual aspects of the world, which are not describable in reductionist terms.

The division of kinds of knowledge into reductionist and non-reductionist is deeply questionable, however. He asks the question:

“Is there such a thing as a Christian science?”

and then goes on to explain what he means:

By this phrase I mean not the peculiar sect with which it unfortunately has become associated, but natural science within the mainstream of scientific thought (or, at least, not off in some fantasy land like so-called “Creation Science”) that is distinctively Christian.

He immediately dismisses attempts to find scientific data in the scriptures or other religious authority, and states that

God intends the unwritten book to be read, as he intends the Bible to be read: on its own terms, before all else.

And this is just where the questions arise. How does he know that there is a God or what that God, if we can know that such a being exists, intends?

The hurdle — “How do you know?” — is one that Hutchinson refuses to jump over. Indeed, he goes on, almost immediately to make claims about the close relationship between Christianity and science, by claiming that Christians are over-represented in science compared to other academic departments, and, moreover, to suggest that

… there is a deeper reason why scientists are puzzled about how one might pursue a Christian science distinguished from what has been the approach developed over the past half millennium. It is that modern science is already, in a very serious sense, Christian. It germinated in and was nurtured by the Christian philosophy of creation, it was developed and established through the work of largely Christian pioneers, and it continues to draw Christians to its endeavors today. [my bolding]

Now that is, in a strict sense, scientistic. The claims made by religious scientists, such as Arthur Peacocke, John Polkinghorne, etc., that there is no inconsistency between Christianity and science, is ludicrous. That there is simply no evidence for such an event as the resurrection of Jesus, is sufficient to squelch any such claim.

However, as to the historical claim, that Christianity itself gave birth to science, the evidence is simply not strong enough to support it. There may indeed have been reasons, within the developmental history of Christianity, why the natural sciences came to birth in parts of the world dominated by Christianity, but it simply does not follow that these reasons have to do with Christianity as such. It may be, and it seems to me much more likely to have been, due to the breakup of Christianity, and the consequent need that Christians felt to provide justifications for particular interpretations of Christianity — justifications that have never been made good — that led Christian believers to raise, once again, questions that had been raised, long before, by Greek and Roman philosophy and science, and had remained unanswered and largely (though not entirely) unaddressed by the intervening Christian centuries. The seeds may have been already laid by medieval theologian-philosophers, but it may be that it took the heat of Reformation disagreement to germinate those seeds. The claim that “modern science is already, in a very serious sense, Christian,” goes far beyond the evidence, and Hutchinson would know this, I think, if he were a historian.

In short, to bring this already overlong consideration of ”scientism” from a deeply biased point of view to an end, Hutchinson simply cannot make his point. He wants to claim that “militant atheists” are “scientistic” — notice that the most natural way to refer to them in English would be “scientists” – but this is something which he is unable to show, because none of the so-called new atheists deny that there are other aspects of culture that give us a non-scientific understanding of what it is to be human. All the new atheists want to claim is that in order to know that something is true we need to have evidence. Some claims to know provide the kind of evidence that entitles a field or discipline to be called “natural science’, because they provide the basis for law-like statements about the natural world. Other claims, while providing evidence, do not rise to this level. History, textual criticism — biblical criticism, if it comes to that — all work within the scientific paradigm, but do not establish “laws of nature.” That they do provide evidence that some statements are true is undisputed. However, in order to establish his claims about scientism, Hutchinson must establish that there is some dispute about the possibility of the truth of other claims that are not, as Wittgenstein put it, propositions of natural science. This, I suggest, he cannot do, and so his claims are so much obfuscating bluster by a scientist who wants to hold on to his religious beliefs, but does not want to be put on the spot by those asking for evidence that those beliefs are true.


26 thoughts on “Obfuscating Religious Bluster and the Accusation of Scientism

  1. What the hell is “Monopolizing Knowledge” supposed to mean? Are all the evil scientistists hoarding all the books now, and not letting anybody else read them? Naughty scientistists!

    Seriously, is this the way we are supposed to address intellectual disputes in this day and age? By whinging about how our opponent is being tremendously hectoring and unfair by having the temerity to disagree?

    This is not the first time an accomodationist has made me feel faintly disgusted with this attitude. It evidently doesn’t occur to them how weak and ineffectual it makes them look when they repeatedly lead with veiled allusions about how all the horrible atheists are bullying them and trying to steal their lunch money. How about sucking it up and addressing the actual argument like grown-ups?

  2. The “other ways of knowing” trope seems to be a flailing attempt to justify Christian belief while claiming that “religious knowledge” requires no justification. The National Academy of Science trots this out in their attacks on creationism, but while describing in detail how science acquires knowledge, never mention how religion does so. The stated “knowledge” in these cases is always religion specific – it is never universal. For instance, one can obtain “Christian knowledge” by reading the Bible, but one has to first believe the Bible contains “knowledge” without any mean of justifying that belief.

  3. Eric, I think we’re missing personal experience from the equation. Meaning, that the religious world view is based on feeling or religious experience. I think that is a valid way of knowing, it just can’t be verified objectively. Hence why it’s verified among the religious community as a shared identity. But that is where it immediately goes horribly wrong among the religious, as inauthenticity replaces authentic experiences and authority figures and politics takes over the community.

  4. Perhaps we ought to talk about ‘natural knowledge’ and ‘human knowledge’?

    Natural knowledge being facts about the world that are true, whether or not there is a human being to observe them. Things like the charge on an electron or the composition of a molecule.

    Human knowledge would be events and objects augmented with human values and meaning, and which would therefore not exist if there were no humans. Beauty, love, moral values…

    Where religions struggle is they take their particular elements of ‘human knowledge’ and try to treat them as ‘natural knowledge’. They try and make this jump using the ‘supernatural’ flourish, trying to make an ‘is’ from an ‘ought’. It worked well enough when so much ‘natural knowledge’ was undiscovered, but now even churches have lightning conductors…

  5. Egbert, yes, I understand what you are saying, but I’m not sure that it is a valid way of knowing. To give you an example, my brother believes — and believes it true — that he is the reincarnation of the twin brother of Jesus Christ. I can see how he might think that this is the outcome of his experience, in some general sense of experience, but I do not think that he either knows this or that it is true, and I think it is vital that we retain this distinction. Nor, I think, can we speak validly in terms of “human knowledge” here either (DJ). Knowledge is justified true belief, and it is difficult to see how experience justifies belief unless, in some intelligible sense, we can speak of a shared experience, and the only way that that seems to me possible if there is some objective reference of the inner experience. Otherwise, what we have is opinion, not knowledge. That’s pretty rough and ready, but does, I think, reflect the way the word ‘knowledge’ functions in the language. As to human values, I would still hold out for some kind of cognitivist understanding of value, and not one simply based on psychological preferences or biases. It is more than just a individual preference that torturing sentient creatures is wrong.

  6. I’ve often – idly and without pursuing the idea – thought that Christianity’s great contribution to the rise of science was that its tenets regarding the creation of the world, the virgin birth, the divinity of Christ, the triune God, the Resurrection came to appear so obviously ridiculous that intelligent people started looking elsewhere and in other ways for answers.

  7. Eric & DiscoveredJ,

    I think DiscoveredJ makes a better distinction to me, but basically I agree with what he’s saying. He’s talking about things like love, sadness, the colour red, the sound of a bird. In other words–direct experience. That’s another way of knowing.

    And Eric, actually your example is a way of knowing if your brother really was reincarnated, and had all his past memories and identity! But of course he could instead be mentally ill, creating it from his imagination.

    I remember a long time ago seeing a ghost in my room. I’ve always considered it an hallucination, because that’s the best way I can explain it, but for some, it would be a conformation that a spiritual realm existed. In a sense, that is why people are religious, or spiritual or superstitious–it’s how they interpret their personal experiences and how strong those experiences reinforce their identity and therefore their worldview.

  8. Egbert. First, I do not think that experience is a way of knowing. I don’t know that I am in love. I am in love. I may know, and give you reasons for supposing that someone loves me, but that is a different question.

    Second, the example of my brother is not a way of knowing if he really was reincarnated, for knowing is justified true belief, and justification is intersubjective.

    Third, of course your seeing a ghost was an hallucination (thank you for the ‘an’). There is no reason to believe that there are ghosts or spirits of the dead. An interpretation of a “spiritual” experience in terms of the supernatural is simply going beyond the evidence. It is superstition.

  9. Of course, it’s a classic fallacy of the excluded middle.

    Either scientism is true or Jesus is totally real.

    Um…how about neither?

    It’s just another blatantly fraudulent attempt to sneak Jesus in by deriding a strawman’s view of the scientific method. Even if his analysis is real and atheists are all mouth-frothing scientism-ists (whatever), how does that get him any closer to the “truth claims” of Christianity?

    I call on him to answer the simple question: What “knowing” does religion provide that can’t be found any other way? What “truth” does it tell that is absent empirical foundation? He himself states that there is historical evidence that the truth claims are real…how in the world is that not a statement of belief that can be empirically studied and verified?

    Unless he’s talking about the ability to express loving affection for a fictional character, I can’t think of a thing.

    And once again, it’s credulity on display, not “faith”.

  10. Eric, I’m truly puzzled as to why you reject experience as a way of knowing. Indeed, it’s not the same way of knowing as in knowing facts, but I do know my own private world directly. I guess we’ll have to agree to disagree on that one!

  11. Egbert: “Experience” is, of course the only valid way of knowing anything. The scientific method relies on it almost exclusively. All of our tools and techniques are useless without experience. A microscope does precisely nothing unless there’s a scientist there peering through the eyepiece.

    What you’re going on about is not “experience”, but subjective intrapersonal (inside yourself) feelings, which cannot be independently verified through any external process.

    And the reason it’s not a valid way of knowing is because subjective experiences are almost always interpreted in ways that are almost guaranteed to be dependent on the person’s culture, heritage, education, brainwashing, etc. And cannot be externally verified.

    It’s called “Argument from Personal Experience”. Argument from personal experience is a logical fallacy not because people aren’t having experiences. They have them galore. The experiences are “real” as far as they go — they’re emotive. But the fallacy is imputing a nonverifiable source for those experiences.

    Argument from personal experience is the fall-back position of charlatans like William Lame Craig. They “know” Jesus is real, they’ll say, because they can “feel him work in their hearts.”

    Problem is, Hare Krishna’s make the same claim. And $cientologists. And the Heaven’s Gate cultists (the few of them who didn’t kill themselves to ride the comet). And est adherents. And on and on.

    Argument from personal experience is invalid when it seeks to overlay an unverifiable (and often supernatural) explanation on top of the experience. That’s what’s invalid. And that’s exactly what religious apologists want to claim as being “real” or “truthful”. It’s not. Full stop.

  12. Four things:

    1) I have recently seen (but I can’t remember where) an argument that the claim that “science is just another religion” has it backwards – instead we ought to regard religion(s) as poor science to the extent that they make claims about the world. Does anyone know where one can find this argument developed further?

    2) Even if “science is just another religion” what good is that argument for a religious person? If that is supposed to denigrate it as a belief system, that is, if one argues against subscribing to “scientism” because it’s a religion, isn’t that just an argument against religious belief? If not, the only place I can see this leading is to a Karen Armstrong type of ecumenism.

    3) I remember when the phrase “way(s) of knowing” was a buzzword in Christian circles – if you saw it used in your child’s textbooks, it was evidence that the state was pushing godless cultural relativism. It may just be that liberal Christianity has had to go pomo to survive at all, but it’s telling to me that phrases like “ways of knowing” and “personal knowledge” are common currency in accomodationist writing.

    4) Some German might help – Egbert, maybe you’re describing the difference between “kennen” and “wissen.” I think you “know your own private world” in the “kennen” sense, and it would just be a mistake to use “wissen” there at all.

  13. Another Matt: I like the way you think.

    1) This seems a natural opening, but I haven’t seen it explored.

    I was raised Mormon, and Mormons are especially prone to arguing that their religion can be “scientifically” verified (by faithfully carrying out the “Moroni challenge”). Even physics majors during my undergrad years at Caltech insisted on this line of argument. *phpht*

    2) I think pulling science into the religion camp is partly an attempt to make it play by religion’s rules. If it’s no BETTER than religion, then it can be rejected by the same arguments used to reject other competing religions. It’s also an attempt to dethrone science, partly from a mistaken view that science pretends to a supra-religious throne.

    I think it’s also partly psychological. Challenged by a science-based worldview, God-believing science-lovers naturally feel a kind of pressure against their ideology. They feel this pressure against “religious” parts of their psyche… against some of the foundational stories they tell themselves to explain reality. (Incidentally, we all have these kinds of internal narratives, similar to the Autobiographical Self [cf Antonio Damasio, The Feeling of What Happens], but describing the external world rather than the Self or internal world.)

    So… in anxiety to protect their beliefs, they are convinced this ideological pressure arises from a “religious” attack.

    3) [Nice recap on buzzwords...] Like “non-overlapping magisteria”? Not that you’re likely to find any of these in Texas textbooks anytime soon.

  14. Eric, the references to Wittgenstein in this blog reminded me of Wittgenstein’s not-well-known philosopher half-brother who never acheived the fame of Ludwig, because he was forced to publish under the name of Half-wittgenstein.

  15. One of the things that made me atheist is that I have very powerful experiences of things that can’t possibly be true. For instance, the other day I was watching a documentary about something but I can’t remember what because of what happened next.
    For some reason my mind flashed back to a late night watching a Godzilla movie and I was seized by the certain knowledge that that movie was in fact a documentary and that Godzilla was real.
    Just as Hutchinson declares that there is strong historical evidence for the christian miracles, the proof of Godzilla was right there. Could Tokyo have been so badly trashed by an imaginary atomic lizard? I don’t see how. Were all those soldiers in the tanks and the airmen shooting at him suffering from the same delusion? If they were shooting at an imaginary being they would be each shooting at where they each imagined he was but, in fact, THEY WERE ALL SHOOTING AT THE SAME POINT IN PHYSICAL SPACE!!!
    QED
    Godzilla is real and so is Jesus

  16. Egbert, (#11), I do not dismiss experience as a way of coming to know — in the German sense of kennen you already have someting to work with that may lead to wissen (thank you Another Matt), but you need much more than just experience for it to rise to the level of knowledge as a rule. Experience is vital for knowledge, but it is not the basis for it. Epistemically, without the possibility of confirmation from some other source, experience is an orphan. That is at least one of the things that is wrong with James’s “will to believe.” It’s not enough to have the experience, you must be able to show to someone else’s satisfaction either (i) that such experiences are evidence for something (external), (ii) that the experiences (if about something not identifiable in the outside world) are repeatable, and upon repetition provide a basis for making objective claims about subjective experiences (this is true about a number of psychological phenomena, and helps psychiatrists diagnose psychological problems).

  17. Another Matt #13

    I remember when the phrase “way(s) of knowing” was a buzzword in Christian circles – if you saw it used in your child’s textbooks, it was evidence that the state was pushing godless cultural relativism. It may just be that liberal Christianity has had to go pomo to survive at all…

    Excellent point. Absent total submission to authority, any Christian must eventually face the realization that their beliefs cannot be justified in any conventional sense. Some – kids, mostly – are led thereby to let go of the beliefs, but many must feel tremendous pressure to defend them. The defenses may be eloquent and seemingly rooted in philosophy, but they can never be clear. Hutchinson illustrates that here.

  18. Thank you Eric and others for these threads. Having had no formal training in philosophy I am only now coming to realize that I have been misusing the word experience. I have always confined my use of it to things real vs imaginary. For instance I experience a wind on my face or the sensation I get when I see pretty girl. If I’m just daydreaming I don’t call that experience. You seem to be saying that an experience is the sensation itself and not the proximate cause.
    Maybe this is why I get kind of confused when Eric talks about experiences without evidence being short of knowledge compared to experiences with evidence. I’ve always thought that, without evidence, it’s not experience let alone knowledge.

    Now I’m going to testify. After I wrote my last post I went back to bed. About an hour later my dog jumped up on the bed and began to nuzzle me under the covers, tickling me on the small of my back. I wanted to shout to him to get off the bed because he stank so bad and I could feel the grit from his paws on the sheets—–but I couldn’t because I was still in the sleep paralysis stage. Eventually my struggle got my muscles going and, as I pushed against him, he vanished.
    Farley’s been dead for thirty years.

    Calling what happened to me an experience is just what makes it so hard to argue with the religious. It’s why Eric can’t get the religious to see the difference. They think that just because they experience something, that’s evidence.

  19. Eric, I understand what you’re saying, but I still have to disagree. I actually think personal experience is an important source of knowledge, but of course it’s not scientific.

  20. Egbert, of course it’s an important source of personal knowledge, since if you have repeated experiences, you do learn something about yourself, your capabilities, how you respond in certain situations, etc., and of course many other people may know these things about you. So experience is certainly foundational for any knowledge claim. The trouble is that if you want to make an objective claim about yourself and your abilities, your own experience isn’t enough to go on. That’s why there are so many tests that people are put through in forming relationships so that others can judge whether, in fact, your own self-assessment is correct. It very often is not. So experience, while certainly a basis for making knowledge claims, still needs confirmation if it is going to function as knowledge as such.

    The point is that we live a double life. We look at the world from a point of view, a personal perspective, but we also look at it from an objective point of view, what Thomas Nagel calls a view from nowhere. In order for something to be placed securely in the knowledge bin, it must be related, somehow, to that view from nowhere. That’s the point I’m trying to make. I do not want to say that personal experience has no probative value for our own convictions as to what is or is not true, but in order to function as a knowledge claim, it must be able to be externalised somehow, so that others can either confirm or disconfirm it.

  21. There are thousands and thousands of religions. If religion is a ‘way of knowing’, how is it they are all ‘knowing’ something different? Is there something religion qua religion can point to and say ‘we have contributed this piece of important knowledge to society’? Something universal? Something verifiable, something like – you put two parts hydrogen to one part oxygen you get water. That Jupiters moon Io has ten times the volcanic activity of earth. That a teaspoon of soil contains more bacteria than there are humans on planet Earth. What can religion demonstrate? What predict? I would love to know.

  22. clod, exactly… Unless by ‘knowing’ we mean yet a third idea beyond wissen and kennen—certainty. The problem is, if we admit that notion then plenty of people ‘know’ things which are mutual contradictions (sometimes contradictory within in one individual’s mind), not confirmable, or even patently false.

    My Mormon brothers and sisters are fond of saying they ‘know’ God exists (as Carl Jung, not Mormon, also asserted late in life), that they ‘know Jesus was the Christ, that Joseph Smith was a true prophet of God’, and so forth. They like to say this A LOT.

    This use of the word ‘know’ or ‘knowledge’ is commonplace and popular, but it is not very useful in discussion. As clearly delineated by previous commenters, this kind of ‘knowing’ relies exclusively on internal, subjective phenomena for verification. It may pass William James’ test for mystical knowledge, but persuades no person but its possessor. Or the already converted.

  23. Unless by ‘knowing’ we mean yet a third idea beyond wissen and kennen—certainty.

    Well, there is the “biblical” sense of “knowing.” =o)

  24. Lately some good books on the nature of certainty, exploring this elusive feature of cognition. Books on knowing and certainty could now fill a shelf in a library, but early in the latest boom is On Being Certain Believing You Are Right Even When You’re Not, by Robert Burton. I love How We Decide by Jonah Lehrer (since deciding is closely related to feelings of certainty). I’m also seeing glowing early praise for Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman.

  25. Eric, my post didn’t work last night, so I’ll try again–basically we now seem to be somewhat in agreement! Everything you said is perfectly reasonable.