October 1, 2005

Theism, Empiricism Mutually Exclusive?

Parableman points to an anti-intelligent design petition circulating among academic scientists. The text of the petition reads:

We, as scientists trained in fields that utilize evolutionary theory, do not consider Intelligent Design to be a fact-based science appropriate for teaching in public schools because it is theistic in nature, not empirical, and therefore does not pass the rigors of scientific hypothesis testing and theory development. As such, we petition that Intelligent Design not be presented in public schools as a viable science within the scientific curriculum. (emphasis original)

Parableman points out the very strange phrase "it is theistic in nature, not empirical," which implies that "theistic" and "empirical" are mutually exclusive categories. Someone hasn't been reading philosophy.

The "empiricist" movement in the history of philosophy occurred primarily (though not exclusively) in 18th century Britain, and was a reaction against the "rationalist" movement of the 17th century, which took place primarily on the continent. The rationalists believed in a "faculty of pure reason" and/or "innate knowledge," so that there existed what Immanuel Kant would later call "synthetic a priori" knowledge - that is, knowledge not contained in the definition of the word (statements like "all bachelors are unmarried" are called "analytic," as opposed to synthetic, truths because the predicate is contained in the subject, to use the technical terminology - interestingly, on famous rationalist, G.W. Leibniz who I am studying this semester, believed that all truths were analytic) which we could learn in a manner independent of experience of the world. The empiricists rejected this, claiming that all ideas (where an "idea" is defined as a direct object of the mind) were gained originally from experience.

The three greatest empiricists are usually listed as being (in historical order) John Locke, George Berkeley, and David Hume. Now, I personally think there's some doubt about Hume being an empiricist properly so-called, but we won't argue about that. Other people think there's some doubt about Berkeley being a proper empiricist, but these people are clearly wrong. Berkeley reasons from human experience exclusively, with no appeal to a priori knowledge to get where he's going, and just because he isn't a materialist doesn't make his position any less based in experience.

This last statement gets us to the crux of the issue: being an empiricist is not synonymous with being a pure materialist (in Berkeley-world, being a "materialist" = believing in matter at all, not necessarily believing in matter only, hence I say "pure materialist"). In fact, as any student of Berkeley can explain to you, there is no good empirical reason to believe in the existence of matter! Descartes struggled with this and ended up famously concluding that matter existed because "God is not a deceiver." Even well over a hundred years before Berkeley Descartes can't figure out how to prove the existence of matter without apppealing to God, Who is immaterial! Even Locke confessed that he didn't have an idea of matter (or what he calls the "material substratum"), strictly speaking (see Essay Concerning Human Understanding, I.23). Why? Because matter doesn't meet the standards of empirical truth. So Berkeley, the real empiricist, rejects it. After all, why should we believe in something, when we don't know what it is, especially if, as Berkeley argues, it is unhelpful in explaining our experience?

The key point, however, is that even Berkeley, who is willing to doubt the existence of matter (Locke's definition of matter as a "material substratum" consisting of solidity and extension [i.e. stuff that takes up space] and "supports accidents" [i.e. has properties] is of course meant - Berkeley certainly does not mean to say that the stuff of perception is not "real," simply that it is mind-dependent) on the grounds that he can find no empirical evidence for it, believes in God. Is Berkeley's theory not "empirical" because it is "theistic?" Certainly not. In fact, Berkeley makes an empirical argument for the existence of God in his Treatise on the Principles of Human Knowledge (1710) and Three Dialogues Between Hylas and Philonous (Hylas being Greek for "matter", Philonous for "lover of mind". The subtitle reads "Against Skeptics and Atheists". Published 1713). Berkeley believes that the fact and fundamental nature of our perceptions is best explained by the existence of God (it is a fascinating argument - I reccomend the "Dialogues" for those who have not read Berkeley before).

Now, to return to the point: it is absurd that this many intelligent people (7702 academic scientists) would sign a petition implying that theism and empiricism are mutually exclusive. Perhaps some of them will argue that I am equivocating on the use of the word "empirical" by bringing in the history of the empiricist movement, and perhaps some will argue that Locke and Berkeley (both orthodox Christians, and Berkeley a bishop) were biased by their faith, but I don't think that either of these arguments holds water. Firstly, "empirical" means "based on observation," and that is exactly the primary characteristic of the philosophy of the 18th century empiricists: it is based on experience, i.e. observation. Secondly, Locke's and Berkeley's arguments stand or fall on their own, independent of the faith of the arguer (this objection is in fact ad hominem), and Berkeley at least sincerely believes that his belief in God is based on reasoning about his experience (I am less familiar with Locke's statements about belief in God, but I think they are somewhat more reserved).

What all of this says to me is that scientists need to study more philosophy. How, after all, are you to interpret your research, and the world you live in, and make new and interesting hypotheses, without a thorough grounding in the history of human thought? If you are going around claiming that theism and empiricism are mutually exclusive you clearly don't know what you are talking about, and if you are a scientist this knowledge, which you lack, is pertinent to your field! Furthermore, as Parableman points out, and as was argued in the article I am still raving about, Del Ratzsch's "Natural Theology, Methodological Naturalism, and 'Turtles All the Way Down'" in the October 2004 edition of Faith and Philosophy, this makes really unacceptable pre-empirical assumptions about what empirical reasoning will find. In fact, it seems rather rationalist to assert that as a matter of definition theism and empiricism are mutually exclusive. This claim would seem to be made a priori. And here I thought the scientists were supposed to be the proponents of empiricism...

One more brief note: Parableman also points out the blatant misrepresentation by the anti-ID petition of the Discovery Institute, which says in its FAQ that it does not support mandating the teaching of intelligent design in public schools.

Posted by Kenny at October 1, 2005 11:22 AM
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