Faith & Reason

Timothy Sandefur has a fantastic post up on faith, reason, epistemology and political liberty.

The opponents of evolution education are not disputing the facts of any particular scientific conclusion—that’s why they don’t do experiments, or publish research. What they are want is “equal time”: equal time between religious dogma and science—between faith and reason—between provable theory and unprovable assertion. The basic principle they are seeking to establish is the equivalence between the approach of reason and science on one hand, and the approach of tradition and mystical revelation on the other—and that means, between the careful, precise process of science on one hand, and the emotive utterances of religious authorities on the other. They want to snatch the mantles of respectability that science has earned, and wrap it around the pronouncements of their prophets.

What would this equivalence mean in practice, if it were followed consistently? For one thing, it would mean the end of political freedom in America. Political freedom demands a skeptical populace, open to dissent and reasoned discussion; it is incompatible with the intellectual attitude of authoritarianism, dogma, and enforced tradition.

It is deeply unfortunate that even otherwise outstanding defenders of science—even many scientists themselves—are willing to accept that compromise. Unable or unwilling to defend the reliability of reason, they hang it up with their lab coats when they leave for the day. They understand that one cannot operate a particle accelerator on faith; that one cannot interpret a fossil by asking some prelate to pronounce on the issue in Latin; that one cannot predict how a medicine will work by consulting a 5,000 year old scripture. Yet when it comes to the nature of reality, let alone morality, they are willing to defer to just these things. As Coyne writes, “Accepting both science and conventional faith leaves you with a double standard: rational on the origin of blood clotting, irrational on the Resurrection; rational on dinosaurs, irrational on virgin births.” While these scientists apply the tools of reason to everything from the atoms to psychological reactions, they are willing to accept the baseless claims of religious authorities on equal terms. They turn off the skepticism just when it matters most. And that is all that religious authorities demand of them.

If science is ever destroyed, this will be why. It will be because the defenders of science opened the city gates from within to the forces of unreason, admitting them on the terms of this false equality.

Sandefur articulates the conflict between reason and faith and deftly illustrates why the conflict matters. It’s an absolutely excellent piece.

The following, in particular, illustrates the fundamental incompatibility between faith and reason,

Then there is Miller himself, who insists once more on his right to have his reason and eat it too. “What science does require is methodological naturalism,” he writes. But why does it require that? That commitment is not an arbitrary postulate—it is an epistemological position, imposed on us by the nature of knowledge and of reality. Miller recognizes this when he acknowledges that “[w]e live in a material world, and we use the materials of nature to study the way nature works.” But of course he then flies to a higher strain—by assuming, without any evidence, that there is some other kind of world in which we also live (a world which, if it is immaterial, by definition has no interaction with our own and would therefore be inaccessible to our knowledge). He, arbitrarily and without foundation, asserts that there is some other world, which he arbitrarily and without foundation asserts can be known by some other method—a method which he arbitrarily and without foundation asserts is religious knowledge. These are three separate assertions about reality which he is willing to endorse not only without reasons, but without even acknowledging the need for reasons. And this he amazingly calls “honest and open empiricism”!

If there is one point in which I disagree with Sandefur, it is only in a matter of emphasis. He says, “It’s the fact that these two ways of knowing are and always have been, incompatible by their nature, and that those who pledge allegiance to both are either dishonest or simply wrong.” I think “simply wrong” is by far the more common cause. Sandefur’s point is deeply philosophical and very few scientists are deeply philosophical. Those scientists who do explore philosophical issues, who attempt to reconcile faith and reason… well, they’re guilty of some pretty deep evasion.

Faith as an epistemological tool is indisputably useless, but the common conception of faith is so inextricably tied up with the particular social structures that we (in the West) call religion, that it’s easy to forget that faith has any political or epistemic content at all. There is a large part of the Western public–into which I think many scientists fall–that reserves its faith for what they consider to be decidedly un-epistemic pursuits: communal confirmation of moral intuitions, ritual ceremony, and personal reflection/meditation.

I don’t think any of those actually are un-epsitemic, but I can understand a perspective (even if I don’t agree with it) that considers science and resaon to govern a kind of exteroceptive knowledge and faith to rule in a proprioceptic (or maybe kinesthetic) world. “Reason is for the external world, but my faith is personal,” is a common sentiment. And of course, to the extent that faith is a private avocation, then I follow Jefferson’s dictum, “But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.”

But to the extent that issues of faith are public, then as a polity we must choose how to resolve conflicting claims. The standard on which we should rest, the ultimate arbiter, should resolve to reason.