Thursday, April 28, 2011

Forrest on Science and Faith: In Response to Matthen

First, I should like to defend the view that Forrest’s piece, 'The Non-Epistemology of Intelligent Design: Its Implications for Public Policy', may be reasonably viewed as making substantive philosophical claims, and not merely as 'contemporary historical research' (Matthen, Leiter Reports). I shall simply quote one of Forrest’s statements about her aims and findings for this purpose. (Those interested in further assessing this claim are directed to the second section of the paper, where Forrest outlines her argument.)

‘I examine the ID movement’s failure to provide either a methodology or a functional epistemology to support their supernaturalism, a deficiency that consequently leaves them without epistemic support for their creationist claims.’ (331)

I would also defend my assessment of the paper as philosophical, and the fairness of criticising it as such, on the basis of the nature and scope of the venue on which it appeared. Stating the full name of the journal should do the trick: Synthese: An International Journal of Epistemology, Methodology, and Philosophy of Science.

Second, I will turn to defending the style of objection I briefly made to her paper in a previous post. The cleanest way to do so, I think, is just to critique what she says in greater depth. I hope thereby not only to show that the issue of the nature of faith and its epistemic role arises in her paper in such a way to make the regress problem relevant, but also to further defend my overall reaction to her paper (which I think is weak, at best, from the point of view of general philosophy of science and epistemology). (I should perhaps mention that very little work from the philosophy of science and epistemology is referenced in the paper. As far as philosophy of science goes, for example, only one piece by Haack, in The Skeptical Inquirer, is cited. Perhaps some will see that as supporting the aforementioned view that the piece shouldn’t be judged as philosophical, rather than as an indication that it is not well grounded in the pertinent literature. But even if that’s right, it is surely reasonable to criticize some of the paper’s claims from a philosophical perspective.)

Let me just kick off with a quotation:

‘The epistemological problems generated by supernatural theism necessitate the faith commitments required of believers. The insufficiency of human cognitive faculties for knowing the supernatural demands willful assent without conclusive evidence—faith—from those who seek temporal meaning in a transcendent reality.’ (332)

What Forrest says here, in the first sentence, is that supernatural theism generates epistemological problems, and that this brings about a need for faith (or an appeal to faith). The suggestion of course, is that such faith is not otherwise required; or, at least, is not required in science. The worry, in short, is that this is false.

Some serious problems with the way Forrest sets up this issue become apparent in the second sentence. First, the demand for conclusive evidence seems quite inappropriate, in science or elsewhere. I take it that I do not need to argue for this in any depth on a philosophy of science blog; I will just list a few ‘greats’ who spring to mind in this context: Peirce, Russell, Carnap, Neurath, Ayer, Popper, Kuhn, Lakatos, and Feyerabend. Second, to foreshadow a later discussion, note the use of ‘willful’ here. As I will show with a later quotation, Forrest appears to just assume doxastic voluntarism, although this thesis is highly controversial (and the balance of opinion is that it is false). Third, notice that ‘faith’ in the way Forrest has defined it may not require commitment, and certainly does not require commitment come what may. So why mention ‘faith commitments’ in the first sentence? We will return to this too.

For the moment, let’s move back to Forrest’s prose, to see how she continues:

‘The significance of such commitment lies in the sustained effort it requires and the hoped-for recompense that believers see as its culmination. The U.S. Constitution was written to safeguard such commitment against government interference. However, it was also intended to insulate public policy from religious influence given the social tension— sometimes conflict—that results from the inability of believers to resolve disputes over doctrines that some of them would force upon others. The fundamental cause of such disputes is the lack of both a methodology and a [sic] epistemology that would enable believers not only to demonstrate to other knowers the existence of the supernatural object of their commitment, but also to reach consensus among themselves concerning the doctrinal corollaries of their belief.’ (332)

Remember that Forrest is drawing a contrast with science. So Forrest’s claim here, in the final paragraph, appears to be that scientists can resolve disputes because they have both, or at least one of, (a) ‘a methodology’ and (b) ‘a [sic] epistemology’, which fulfil the further criteria she mentions. I am not sure what to make of this somewhat cryptic prose. I do not think scientists study either methods or knowledge. Nor do I think that scientists have explicit theories of method or explicit theories of knowledge. They do, of course, have methods. (And they may, of course, have knowledge.) And there are sometimes procedural norms that may be used to enable consensus. But there is considerable dissensus in science too, and the balance between these two aspects of science is complex and difficult to understand; it is pretty much the central subject of an excellent book by Laudan, namely Science and Values, for example. Forrest makes it all look far too easy.

Here's a case in point. Some contemporary scientists think they can demonstrate the existence of virtual photons, by experiments showing the Casimir effect. Others think not. This kind of dispute is not uncommon, in the history of science, either. (What about so-called extraordinary science, imagining that something resembling this sometimes exists? Don’t the methods change over time? What consequences does this have for the suggested demarcation strategy?) In short, this is just a much more messy business than Forrest’s treatment allows. (The use of ‘demonstrate’ in the quotation needs serious unpacking too.) I emphasize I am not saying that this kind of approach is entirely without merit; it’s just that Forrest does no justice to it, or the intricate questions surrounding it. For example, still further, why not think about Kuhnian exemplars in this instance? And might Kuhn not have been right that what drives science is not rule following, but something more like pattern recognition? (At least, this is the interesting reading of Kuhn given by Alexander Bird, e.g., in his book on Kuhn.)

Let me also note that some of the things Forrest says in the piece directly question whether there is no method to (or are no methods in) ID. For example: ‘since ID ultimately rests on the special revelation of scripture—the Gospel of John—it is grounded on faith at its most fundamental level.’ (339) (Later still, Forrest mentions that ID relies on ‘faith and scriptural authority’ (354) [emphasis mine].) Isn’t there a method, namely reading the gospel, that here underpins ID? (And why are there not corresponding methodological rules, such as 'consult the gospel to resolve disputes'? Forrest does quote Dembski, saying that this is not a matter of textual interpretation, at one point. But this does not defeat the present point.) And can its advocate not invite me to read the gospel? I may not think it shows what the ID theorist thinks it does. But maybe that’s because observation is theory laden? Again, this is a tricky issue. I cannot find any argument against this view in Forrest’s piece; in fact, I find no mention of the idea that observations are theory laden at all. (On this issue, I’d also point to an interesting paper by Ward Jones in the special issue of Synthese that I edited with Otavio Bueno. Do ID theorists have different stances to scientists? Are observations actually stance laden?)

I have taken rather a detour from the issue of faith, I confess, but I think it is important to defend my overall view of the quality of the piece, and in particular to focus on the overarching charge of false (or better, unargued for) contrasting. So let’s get back to what Forrest says on faith. Here’s another key passage:

‘A virtue faith may be, but not an epistemic one. It is not a cognitive state in any identifiable sense, but an act of volition, a decision to believe when one lacks the requisite cognitive capability and evidence to be able to say one knows.’ (339)

I have several problems with this passage. Let’s begin with the issue of doxastic voluntarism, mentioned earlier. Forrest clearly says that faith is ‘a decision to believe’. I submit that it cannot be that, or rather that if it is then ID theorists do not have faith. The arguments are well rehearsed, e.g. by Alston. I cannot elect to believe that my daughter is not crunching on an apple as I type, any more than I can elect to believe in God. (I will note that some people think religious beliefs are special cases. But again, this should be discussed in proper depth in a paper such as Forrest’s.) What one might do, of course, is take actions designed to prevent one's beliefs changing, and so on. In fact, this makes pinning down what it takes to be genuinely open-minded - or critical - a tough problem. (It's one of the things Timothy Williamson pressed me on when we were discussing a draft of a section of my book, 'How to Be A Pancritical Rationalist', which appears at the end of the first chapter. In short, there are lots of strategies one can adopt to shield one's beliefs from criticism. There's a wealth of literature on this, by philosophers in the critical rationalist tradition, such as Bartley, Miller, Agassi and Jarvie.)

Now let’s go on to the next problem. The formulation appears to assume luminosity, i.e. that one is aware of knowing when one does; ‘one is able to say one knows’. I therefore think it also assumes internalism, i.e. that one must have internal access to reasons in order to know. But of course, nowadays, there is a strong externalist movement in epistemology (and in certain quarters in philosophy of science, especially realist ones). Besides, for the internalist, such as Forrest (on my reading) the problems with the formulation are clear. How about so-called basic beliefs, e.g. in simple observation statements such as “There is a table before me”? Do I have evidence 'to be able to say' I know that is true? What does that consist of? Now in the context of a contrast with ID, the significance of such concerns should be reasonably obvious. What grounds do we have for saying that forming beliefs by reading scripture is different? What is the nature of the ‘evidence’ that is present in the simple observational beliefs, but not in the simple revelational ones? (I submit an externalist route, e.g. a reliabilist one, may be easier to take.) I might mention the issue of theory ladenness again here; the route from retinal images (or even just firing of rods, cones, etc.) to observation statements is a difficult one.

Again, I could also point out the imprecise English used by Forrest, which often makes her claims difficult to nail down. Does she really mean ‘cognitive capability… to be able to say one knows’? Surely one can have that without knowing? So I presume she means something else; I am not sure what.

I have to stop somewhere (and I don’t want to turn this into a paper). So let me just finish by discussing one more quotation, which I think again supports my viewing the paper as philosophical:

‘My criticism is directed at ID proponents’ shirking their intellectual responsibility as scholars by elevating faith to an epistemic status it does not truly have, a move that prompts legitimate public concern given their efforts to translate personal conviction into public policy.’ (366)

Forrest needs to show that faith does not, in any interesting sense, have a role in science. She does not, and does not even attempt to. And there may be all kinds of ways in which it does. Perhaps we do have faith, in Forrest's sense, in universal theories. Perhaps, moreover, it is reasonable to believe in such theories in the absence of any evidence in their favour provided one also lacks evidence against them and there is a clearly specified way in which such evidence might arise. Of course, this is one way of taking Popper’s stance (or a Neo-Popperian stance) on science. (Like Herbert Keuth, whose The Philosophy of Karl Popper I heartily recommend for your students, I think it’s a good one; I defend it in my book.) Deny the thesis of evidentialism – this is something else that Forrest just appears to assume – which is roughly that ‘one should not believe in some proposition without evidence in favour of it’ – and instead say that it’s OK, for example, to believe in universal laws despite their logical probability being zero relative to any finite evidence.

On a related note, it is easy to conflate faith with commitment come what may, or faith with blind faith; but these are not the same. In short, some of what Forrest says appears to suggest that ID theorists are committed come what may to the truth of specific propositions in way that scientists are not. (Again, I think the hard arguments need to be made that scientists are not committed come what may, for instance, to metaphysical claims about the existence of spatio-temporally invariant laws of nature. I think such arguments can be made successfully, for what it's worth. And indeed I have tried to argue as much, e.g. in my recent book. The underlying idea is that this is a working assumption, made on functional rather than evidential grounds.)

What I say here also fits with putting a focus on the context of justification. Arguably faith is part of the context of discovery. But we might legitimately ignore that, according to many philosophers of science. We might look at what scientists do with their beliefs when they have them, and contrast that with what ID theorists do with theirs when they have them.

In summary, I do not think this paper is a good work of philosophy. Given the context, I should emphasise that this is purely an academic judgement of this particular paper. I do not intend it to reflect on Forrest, on the accuracy of her historical claims, or anything silly like that.


  1. Well, clearly you're just some kind of ID enabler and sympathizer who is out to muddy the waters and open doors for creationism in our schools.


  2. Well, I am sure Nick is joking--he tags his comment as sarcasm--but I'll rise to his bait anyway and say that there is no evidence Darrell is anything like an ID enabler.

    But I was struck by the following from Darrell's post:

    "Perhaps we do have faith, in Forrest's sense, in universal theories. Perhaps, moreover, it is reasonable to believe in such theories in the absence of any evidence in their favour provided one also lacks evidence against them and there is a clearly specified way in which such evidence might arise."

    Can Darrell give a single example of a scientific theory that is believed for reasons of the above sort? Or am I missing the point?

  3. The short story is this: (a) I don't think appeal to theoretical virtues (e.g. Kuhn's list)/IBE is truth conducive; (b) I also think that there are infinitely many conceivable alternatives to some of our universal theories relative to any finite evidence (which is, I take it, all we can possess).

    (I use 'perhaps' in the quotation, of course, because I don't expect everyone to agree with this! But I think it's a reasonable philosophical standpoint, and I think a good demarcation account/strategy would be consistent with it.)

    I have a worked example in my book, where I present a countably infinite 'number of' alternatives to Newtonian mechanics. (Obviously we have to imagine we're back in the nineteenth century, or some such, for it to have bite. No real problem there.) The basic idea is just that we always measure average, and never instantaneous, velocities. So our observations are always consistent with small periodic fluctuations in velocity occurring. (We may measure average velocities over smaller and smaller periods, ruling out more and more possibilities - putting aside problems such as Duhem's thesis - but still infinitely many will remain.)

    I discuss this in the context of Popper's arguments for the zero logical probability of universal theories, relative to any finite evidence, which I think go through. (Actually infinite evidence won't necessarily prevent the probability being zero either, but that's somewhat of a moot point.) Incidentally, I don't think that using the modern alternative to the logical interpretation, i.e. the objective Bayesian one, helps with this issue. (I have problems with the principle of indifference and maximum entropy principle, as it happens, so don't really like these interpretations of probability. But for present purposes, I'm happy just to forget all that.)

    (Maybe I should add that don't think we should be interested in 'personal evidence', i.e. on a subjective interpretation of probability, here. ID theorists may have this too. And there *are* non-probabilistic ways to go on saying what evidence is, but I don't think they are as well developed, or as popular, as the probabilistic routes.)

  4. Darrell, let C be classical mechanics and C* be one of your alternatives. Given that there are infinitely many alternatives, the probability of (C and ~C*) is vanishingly small for all C*. But does it follow that there is no evidence in favour of C. Or that there is no evidence in favour of the disjunction of C and all the C*s?

  5. Let me rephrase that slightly:

    For any C*, Pr(C and ~C*) = Pr (~C and C*)

    So no evidence for C over C*. Does it follow that there is no evidence for the disjunction of all the Cs?

  6. It doesn't follow, no.

    However, typically observations are theory laden. (One could use Duhem's thesis here instead.) So those theories used to make observations in tests of 'all the Cs' - a 'level down' - may also have infinitely many alternatives. And we'll only have finite observation statements which are relevant to those, unless we invoke further theories...

    This may well happen all the way down to the ground, even if we allow that some (very simple) observation statements are not theory laden. Clearly those observation statements will be finite.

    I have a rather clearer discussion of this - clearer than what I've quickly typed here, I think! - in a f/coming BJPS paper on P's corroboration function.

  7. Oh dear, I hope I don't get tempted to do another separate post, this time on the thesis that observation is theory laden. In one way, it is. When I say that I observe a collision between two neutrinos, some theory is involved. But as you acknowledge, there are "ground"-level observations: when I observe two spheres next to one another, or see that the left one is blue and the right one green, no theory is involved.

    Now, I am not sure why you think that the disjunction of Cs requires infinite observations. I see a white furry animal with long ears and cottontail bounding through the foliage. That single observation confirms the infinite Quinean disjunction of rabbits bounding or undetached rabbit parts R bounding or undetached rabbit parts R' bounding or . . . .

  8. I think When Forrest uses "faith" she means the conjunction of i) unverifiable and ii) relying on scripture. This is clear from p. 354. If we allow her that stipulation, then much or her argument can be salvaged, although these days few are fans of verificationism.

  9. Mohan: The disjunction of Cs in the mechanics case does, I think. For example. classical mechanics doesn't tell us what forces there are.

    But in any case, we disagree about when theories are involved. I think it's possible to see a square without seeing that it is a square, for example. And one can see a hare and think it's a rabbit, because one lacks theories about hares. (This isn't just about fallibility, although naturally we are fallible even in claims like "I see something blue".)

    Your example also concerns a singular statement, not a universal one. Plus there's a leap from experience to an existential component.

    Eric: I think that's a bit charitable. If anything, Forrest's use of 'faith' is not consistent through the piece. In any event, I don't think 'ii' is a sensible convention, because religions need not rely on scripture.

  10. Darrell, Forrest is explicitly arguing against Christian ID. (In fact, if I recall correctly, at some point in her piece she faults the Creationist agenda for excluding non Christian -- I believe she explicitly mentions Buddhist -- viewpoints.) So, she is trying to capture the notion of faith suitable to characterize her opponents. If seen in that light, her use is systematic. (Of course, it is puzzling she did not signal this at the start of her paper.)

  11. That still seems odd to me, Eric, e.g. given the quotation: 'The epistemological problems generated by supernatural theism necessitate the faith commitments required of believers.'

    No need for scripture, surely.

  12. Darrell, what I have in mind (and misremembered!) was this passage on p. 354: "As long as supernatural claims remain unverifiable, resting on faith and scriptural authority, they fall under the Establishment Clause and cannot be taught as true in a public school science (or any other) class."
    Again, verificationism is not my philosophy of science (not to mention that I think supernatural claims are, in principle, subject to verification). But the way she is using "faith" is not so mysterious. (Now scientist also rely on faith -- as you point out in Nietzschean vein -- but Forrest need not deny that.)