"The trouble with the world is that the stupid are cocksure and the intelligent are full of doubt." -- Bertrand Russell

Saturday, December 1, 2012

How to Respond to an Arrogant Catholic Newspaper

Francis Philips recently wrote an article called "How to respond to a young friend who has come under Dawkins's spell" for the Catholic Herald. In the article, Philips presents the following sort of argument (where I'm probably being more charitable than I should be):

1. Scientism, the view that science is the only legitimate source of knowledge, is false.
2. If (1) then science cannot tell us about whether God exists.
3. Therefore, science cannot tell us about whether God exists.

In support of premise (1), Philips only offers the story of a neuroscientist who recently made a visit to Lourdes and remarked that they had not ruled out the possibility for people to have immaterial spiritual experiences of some kind (whatever that is supposed to mean).

In response, I will first discuss scientism and it's relation to theology. Then, I will discuss religious experience and whether such experiences give us good reasons to conclude that God is likely to exist. I will forego discussing whether or not Philips accurately represents the view she attributes to Dawkins*.

Scientism is likely false, but not for the reasons given by Philips. Scientism is the statement that science is the only legitimate source of knowledge, but is not itself a scientific thesis. It is therefore self defeating.

But whether or not scientism is false has nothing to do with whether or not there is a god. Whether or not there is a god is a proposition which one has to argue for independently of arguing for the falseness of scientism. Even though scientism is likely false, it could still be true that science could tell us whether or not God, under a particular conception, actually exists. That would just be to say that although there are interesting and legitimate non-scientific questions, God's existence is not one of them.

In order to support the idea that science cannot answer questions about God's existence, theists have to actually argue either that:

4. The evidence raised by science that is supposed to show that God does not exist does not actually support a thesis of that kind, or;

5. Not only is scientism true, but any statement about God whatsoever will be independent of science.

Notice that even if one could show (4) and (5), one would only justifiably end up with a weak form of agnosticism (and here I mean "agnosticism" in the sense of Huxley). All it would show is that science doesn't answer the question of whether God exists. And, despite the protestations of some theists, one can happily be an agnostic without ever wanting to jump ship; for some people, agnosticism really is the final conclusion on the matter. To support theism, one would need to show that:

6. It is likely that God exists based on such-and-such an argument.

One cannot simply state that scientism is false and then justifiably jump to (6); (6) requires it's own degree of evidence and/or argumentation. And even if one could show (6) to be the case, one should not jump to:

7. It is likely that Catholicism is true.

The burden of proof is still on the theist. The theist might want to assert that science cannot answer theological questions. But without actually arguing for any of the relevant points (4)-(7), all the theist has is empty assertion.

As for the claim that some experience of some kind tells us anything about whether there is a God, one can simply argue that the best explanation of the available facts is that such experiences have non-divine origins. Note that**:

8. The particular kind of religious experience that one has is aligned with one's culture (Amazonian tribes who are isolated from Western society do not spontaneously start having dreams about Jesus);

9. Psychological and/or anthropological explanations of religious belief are capable of explaining the global diversity of such beliefs in great detail and even capable of predicting what sort of beliefs are likely to appear in various cultural contexts (Boyer, 2001). Theistic belief systems are typically unable to explain such diversity and are incapable of predicting what sort of beliefs one would find where (or why it is that the beliefs found in different cultures are mutually logically incompatible);

10. Explaining such experiences in terms of theism introduces additional objects (namely, supernatural beings) into our ontology that we could have done without.

(8)-(10) are enough to support the thesis that the best explanation of religious experience is naturalistic (namely, that the experiences reflect something about the kinds of animals human beings are, rather than something supernatural). (8) and (9) state facts which are difficult to explain on theism, while (10) is supposed to introduce an intuition about parsimony (i.e. if we can explain all of the relevant facts without positing a god then god should not figure into our best understanding of the world).


* Dawkins does not appear to have ever claimed that religion disproved the existence of God.
** This is similar to an argument presented by David Hume in his "Natural History of Religion".


Pascal, B. (2001). Religion explained. New York, NY: Basic Books.

Philips, F. (2012, November 30). How to respond to a young friend who has come under dawkins’s spell. Retrieved from http://www.catholicherald.co.uk/commentandblogs/2012/11/30/how-to-respond-to-a-young-friend-who-has-come-under-dawkinss-spell/


  1. You dismiss scientism out of hand. You state, "Scientism is likely false, but not for the reasons given by Philips. Scientism is the statement that science is the only legitimate source of knowledge, but is not itself a scientific thesis. It is therefore self defeating."
    What this argues is that:
    1) If scientism, then all knowledge comes from science.
    2) The statement of scientism is a piece of knowledge.
    3) This statement does not come from science.
    4) Therefore, scientism is false (MT 1,3).
    You suppress premise 2, but I think that one is controversial. We can maintain scientism as a methodology and not claim it as a piece of knowledge. By your reasoning, there is no reason that empiricism should not fall to the same dilemma:
    1) All knowledge comes from (sensory) experience.
    2) This statement of empiricism is a piece of knowledge.
    3) This statement of empiricism does not come from sensory experience.
    4) Therefore, empiricism is false (MT 1,3).
    We could accept scientism (or empiricism) as an a priori constraint on, or necessary condition for, knowledge without considering knowledge.

    Though I will say that your attempt at dismantling scientism is far better than Philips's, who basically just says "This neuroscientist thinks we can religious experiences!"
    Her article is littered with fallacies.

  2. ANONYMOUS -- Your argument functions under a few assumptions that I find objectionable.

    First, if scientism were known to be true, the statement S: "scientism is true" would surely count as knowledge. But S is not a scientific statement as far as I can tell. As you would construe things, S would be a fact that would be known about a priori constraints on knowledge (albeit a weird kind of fact). As a *known* fact, I think that we would normally classify it as knowledge. The same is true for empiricism and I would argue that empiricism actually does suffer from the objection that you point out (at least if we construe empiricism in a particular kind of a way. I think that empiricists could -- and probably have -- develop a more sophisticated system that meets these sort of objections). Someone who claims that E: "all knowledge comes from experience" needs to meet the objection that, were E the case, they could not actually know that all knowledge comes from experience. While sophisticated empiricists might be able to meet this kind of objection, I don't think that scientism, as normally construed, can do so.

    Second, that a given methodological principle is sound is surely a piece of knowledge, is it not? If I didn't at least feel confident that some methodological principle worked then surely I wouldn't be justified in using it. I don't see why the claim that scientism is a methodological principle would count as an objection to anything that I said.

    Third, that modus tollens has the requisite truth preserving properties that we want to make deductive arguments seems to be a kind of knowledge about deductive (and not ampliative) systems. Unless you would like to maintain that our knowledge about deductive systems are themselves the result of scientific research, you used a thoroughly non-scientific approach in your rebuttal. This means that, should your rebuttal count as knowledge, scientism is false. And therefore your rebuttal would be false.

    Additionally, I see no reason why I couldn't simply relax what I claimed and simply maintain the same conclusion. After all, instead of saying that "scientism is likely false", I could have just said something like "even if I grant that scientism is likely false..." But notice that we routinely take for granted that scientism is false. We do mathematics, philosophy, literary theory, and any number of other academic disciplines without thinking of them as science. Moreover, we usually think that at least some of those disciplines are doing something productive; i.e. they are telling us new information. Under any relevant use of the word "knowledge" I think this is sufficient to tell us that we normally construe plenty of non-scientific areas as providing us with knowledge.

    One should notice that my argument against scientism is similar to one of the reasons people often give for rejecting logical positivism. Logical positivists thought that all non-verifiable language is meaningless. But that all non-verifiable language is meaningless is itself meaningless. Thus, the verifiability criterion for meaning is self-defeating.

    1. "But that all non-verifiable language is meaningless is itself meaningless."

      Erm. I mean that all non-verifiable language is meaningless is itself non-verifiable. And thus, by the lights of verificationism, non-verifiable.

  3. "As you would construe things, S would be a fact that would be known about a priori constraints on knowledge (albeit a weird kind of fact). As a *known* fact, I think that we would normally classify it as knowledge."

    I feel that this is where your error comes in. Not everything that we are AWARE of, we could be said to KNOW. Skill would be such a thing. We say that a person "knows" how to play trumpet, for example, but I would object to this being considered knowledge. Certainly under the typical JTB account of knowledge, this could not be counted as knowledge given its lack of propositional structure.
    As far as scientism goes, we can consider it an epistemological constraint. That we have verbalized it does not make it knowledge, and indeed it seems a strange thing to call "knowledge" (as justified true belief, anyway) because we can't show it to be JTB. That is, if we assume scientism, then we cannot state that the statement of scientism is knowledge-- we're stacking the deck for the MT move in this case. Our second premise is blatantly inconsistent with our assumption, as so smacks of uncharity.
    The charitable thing is to consider that proponents of scientism should reject the statement of scientism to be considered knowledge. It is not knowledge. Rather, scientism is a constraint on knowledge (i.e., a category). More clearly, we can see it as stating (loosely speaking) a metaphysical constraint that in order for something to count as knowledge, it must come from science. This must be taken as a priori, given that it purports to organize experience.
    Logic is just another such metaphysical constraint on the world, and is a priori.