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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. My latest books are THE TYRANNY OF OPINION: CONFORMITY AND THE FUTURE OF LIBERALISM (2019); AT THE DAWN OF A GREAT TRANSITION: THE QUESTION OF RADICAL ENHANCEMENT (2021); and HOW WE BECAME POST-LIBERAL: THE RISE AND FALL OF TOLERATION (2024).

Thursday, November 25, 2010

More on Wagg's nonsense

Wagg says:

I believe that if you equate skepticism with anything other than science, you’ve missed the point. As for Christianity, skepticism has nothing to say except about testable claims associated therein. Bleeding statues? Yes, skepticism comes into play. Jesus rose and is in heaven? Seems unlikely, but there’s not a lot more to say.

This seems like a very good time to bash our heads against the desk. First, we don't encounter claims such as those about Jesus' alleged resurrection in isolation. We encounter them in the context of entire systems of thought whose plausibility on any one claim can depend on their plausibility across a whole range of issues. That is, in fact, one reason why religions take work to refute: a claim about Jesus' resurrection may be made by many different theological systems, and its plausibility within any one system will depend on whether the system as a whole seems plausible. If your claim that Jesus rose from the dead depends on the plausibility of your total system, but that in turn depends on a whole range of other dubious claims - perhaps, for example, claims about the age of the Earth or the provenance of the Bible - then the claim about Jesus will end up being in trouble. Sorting out the logic of this kind of thing can be quite tricky, and it goes far beyond the sophomoric "Seems unlikely."

Yes, it does seem unlikely. But there's a lot more to say about why it really is unlikely.

But set that aside. Here's the important point that I want to make. Why should skepticism just be about science? Why shouldn't it be about rational inquiry generally, including the kinds of rational inquiry carried out within the humanities?

Now maybe Wagg doesn't mean "science as opposed to the humanities". Perhaps  by "science" Wagg really meant "rational inquiry" and he actually meant to say:

I believe that if you equate skepticism with anything other than rational inquiry, you’ve missed the point.

But there is a great deal that can be said by rational inquiry in general about the plausibility of the claim that Jesus rose from the dead. For Zeus's sake, why doesn't Wagg go and read a few books by Bart Ehrman to get a sense of what we know through the humanistic part of rational inquiry - meticulous examination of texts and their provenance, for example - about how reliable the biblical accounts of Jesus' resurrection are likely to be?

He can't have it both ways. If he's going to use "science" in its common sense of what goes on in science faculties rather than, say, humanities faculties, there is no reason at all to confine skepticism to science. There are many extraordinary claims that are best examined via the rational methods used in the humanities, e.g by textual-historical scholars.

If, on the other hand, he wants to use the word "science" to mean the entirety of rational inquiry then there is a great deal that "science", as so defined, can say about a claim such as the one that Jesus rose from the dead.

This brings me back to another point from a couple of weeks ago, that there are many things that we know via the humanities and many other things that we know by ordinary kinds of observation that are not, in my view, sufficiently sophisticated or systematic to be termed "science". Some readers, particularly over at RD.net, seem to have interpreted that as an attack on science or some sort of defence of  accommodationism in the manner of Eugenie Scott. It was, of course, the exact opposite.

My point was that non-accommodationists don't have to deny the obvious fact that the humanities, as well as the sciences, have something to offer us in obtaining knowledge of the world. Which techniques are most effective in making progress will depend on the circumstances. There are also circumstances where we can gain knowledge without doing anything as rigorous or systematic as what is done by either competent working scientists or by reputable scholars in the humanities.

However, science, the humanities, and ordinary experience are all continuous with each other and can be informed by each other. There are no sharp dividing lines. Nor are there any spooky, yet reliable, "other ways of knowing" that are discontinuous with them, enable us to take huge epistemic short-cuts, and give us knowledge of a supernatural world. At least, I don't see any reason to believe that there are.

Contrary, to what some accommodationists seem to think, non-accommodationists are not committed to denying the value of, say, rigorous textual scholarship, or that of highly-trained reading of literary texts to get a sense of their rhythm, tone, and dramatic intent (one of my examples was making a judgment about how to say a particular line in Macbeth). The idea that non-accommodationism about religion commits us to saying silly things about, for example, the uselessness or charlatanry of the humanities is simply false. It's a straw man argument, and we shouldn't give it credence.

(That's not to deny that a certain amount of what we've seen from the humanities in the last few decades really has looked like charlatanry, but the tendency seems to be receding to some extent, and the Sokal hoax and the circumstances that led to it shouldn't be allowed to put genuine scholarship in disrepute.)

This business with Wagg is a case in point. Rational inquiry has much to say about the alleged resurrection of Jesus. Much of what it has to say comes from that area of rational inquiry that we normally classify within the humanities rather than the sciences. If Wagg doesn't recognise the value of the humanities in the process of skeptical inquiry, or in the skeptic movement, so much for Wagg.


Blake Stacey said...

In his essays, Sokal himself tends to use the word "science" in a broad way, so that, for example, a plumber figuring out why a drain is blocked is doing "science" (in an unrefined, less-than-formal way). He is, however, explicit about using such a broad definition — one which is more closely coterminous with "rational inquiry informed by empirical observation" than it is with "what goes on inside a laboratory".

josef johann said...

This brings me back to another point from a couple of weeks ago, that there are many things that we know via the humanities and many other things that we know by ordinary kinds of observation that are not, in my view, sufficiently sophisticated or systematic to be termed "science".

I think there is a problem with the word knowledge- we have an everyday usage of the word knowledge (I "know" my kids are at school) and then we have scientific "knowledge" with very high standards. Kind of like the difference between the folk and scientific uses of "theory."

Problems come when people get myopic and mistakenly think that all things called "knowledge" are united in some sort of fundamental equality, by virtue of all falling under the umbrella of a single word. Therefore, there are "other ways of knowing" than through rational inquiry and that they all stand on a level.

Do I "know" my spouse loves me? I have some understanding that is good enough to get by with. And if ever I would use a word such as "know" in that context, it would be to inflect emotional significance. Introducing another parcel of value for consideration among many in a web of interactions with another human that all constitute the relationship. Not standing outside it and offering confidence intervals.

And I think, like in free will debates, people are under the (again, myopic) impression that they have to defend art, hope, and the rest, as if they are at stake in some literal sense and will vanish should you lose the argument.

We really should say that for all these things we claim to know, we have some workable understanding that we cannot easily graduate to scientific knowledge, and then acknowledge that it "pays" to use the word knowledge, not because of any epistemological divide between the science and the other-than-science, but because in the lived life it pays to attribute different degrees of confidence to a wide range of human activities. We stand to benefit in from living and going on living too much to hesitate in the face of imperfect knowledge.

So I think there is something deeply emotional and value-oriented in all other-than-scientific uses of the word knowledge, which is why people are so concerned to defend the various claims of humanities as knowledge.

Especially with personal relationships, with love. To say you "know" something is, I think, akin to saying "this is significant enough to me that it is work the risk to treat it as true." And so we will mistakenly think that if we call everyday affairs by some other name than knowledge that we are passive in the face of profound things.

Of course, that is then the caricature of scientists that "other-ways-of-knowing" proponents are eager to differentiate themselves from.

Nick Barrowman said...

It seems to me extremely unhelpful to define "science" in so broad a way that a plumber figuring out why a drain is blocked is considered to be doing "science". Certainly such an activity falls under the category of "rational inquiry informed by empirical observation", but science as it is generally understood is more specific than that. I would point out, however, that science goes far beyond the stereotype of "what goes on inside a laboratory". Much of science is observational rather than (what is typical in a laboratory) experimental, and it often takes place in less controlled conditions than a laboratory.

Russell Blackford said...

I dunno, Josef. I think that the evidence that certain people love me is just as powerful as the evidence of many things that we call scientific knowledge, bearing in mind that scientific knowledge is, in principle, always provisional. The problem may be more that we receive and process the evidence subconsciously, to an extent, in the first sort of case, and we may not be able to explain how we did some of the processing, and some people are better at it than others.

There are plenty of things that literary and textual scholars have very powerful evidence for. E.g. the evidence that the author of the Gospel of Matthew lifted huge chunks of material direct from the Gospel of Mark is pretty overwhelming.

Even the evidence for a claim such as "the main character of Macbeth is Macbeth" seems to me to be overwhelming. The difficulty is more in nailing down exactly what it means than in worrying about whether it's true or false.

It's true, though, that a statement such as "the second most important character in Macbeth is Lady Macbeth" may not be the sort of thing we can "know" exactly. Unlike the claim that Macbeth is the main character, which is evidenced by the title of the play, the way characters who are playing such a role within narratives were historically regarded, the overwhelming number of lines spoken by Macbeth or about him, etc., any claim about who is second most important (Lady Macbeth? Macduff? Malcolm? the witches collectively?) seems more like an invitation to read the play in a certain way. Such invitations can be supported by reasons, but there's a sense in which accepting them or not is ultimately a matter of subjective choice.

The same thing happens in the law. Some claims are pretty much certain, such as "Human reproductive cloning is currently illegal in Australia." Other claims are, I suppose, more like invitations to integrate the law in your mind in a certain way (though again they can be backed up with reasons).

josef johann said...


If Laplacian determinism were true (and we had a lot of free time,) one could imagine an alternative study of history, where investigators looked at the positions and forces of every molecule in the present and worked backward from them into the depths of history.

We could imagine that after some time they might close in on historical facts. If they did, it would be much closer to "knowledge" than reliance on historical documents.

This would be a higher standard of evidence. And surely we wouldn't reject it! We wouldn't say "oh no, that's just physics, our knowledge of historical events is a different kind of knowledge." Or, as you might be saying, a different way of carrying out "rational inquiry."

It just never occurs to us to insist on this level of evidence for facts about history, because it's impossible at the practical level (and we don't live in Laplace's universe).

So too, I think, with psychological facts about ourselves and friends. If one is trying to discover whether someone is lying, wouldn't they look for activity in the anterior prefrontal cortex if only they could? Or would they say "oh no, I have this other way of coming to knowledge- I look at their facial tics and evaluate their story and think of their personal history."

No! We would include these higher standards of evidence if only we could. But we can't, and so we take these diminished estimations of facts and hold them close, and call them by the name of "knowledge" when we really mean they are good enough to get by with. I think that's what's going on here:

I think that the evidence that certain people love me is just as powerful as the evidence of many things that we call scientific knowledge, bearing in mind that scientific knowledge is, in principle, always provisional.

I think here, "powerful" does not indicate likelihood, but reward * likelihood. So emotional "power" can count towards something's being good enough to live by. Where "good enough to live by" isn't knowledge but is related to knowledge.

josef johann said...

The problem may be more that we receive and process the evidence subconsciously, to an extent, in the first sort of case, and we may not be able to explain how we did some of the processing, and some people are better at it than others.

I think if we could offer an explanation that did any justice to the subconscious processing, we might indeed walk away satisfied that our standard criteria for rational evaluation have been met.

Of course a great deal of subconscious processing gets things wrong. And if we could do equally well describing these things out in the open, we might discover where they go wrong.

In any case it seems we give naked reasons the last word, so far as we can.

In cases where we can't, we make take whatever happens to be the best available evaluation of the facts. Then we have a whole bunch of different "best available evaluations" for a whole bunch of different questions, some closer to being knowledge than others, but equal in being the "best." This equality, I think, misleads.

Anonymous said...

I disagree with equating skepticism to science OR rational inquiry. It might be credible -- and some, like Larry Moran, think it is true -- to claim that science is, in fact, skeptical, and follows skeptical methods. I'm willing to concede that for the sake of argument, but think that even that is debatable. But I have a hard time accepting that anything that could be called "rational inquiry" has to be skeptical. I think that you can, indeed, get a valid "way of knowing" that isn't skeptical. I also think that every day reasoning, clearly, is not skeptical.

I'm also not sure that we shouldn't be skeptical of skepticism as a useful component of science and rational inquiry.

I'm also not sure what role skepticism CAN play directly in the epistemic work of forming or not forming beliefs. Skepticism seems to me to work on doubt, but when I say "I believe that X" and refuse to say "I know that X" I think that I implicitly carry a "I have doubts about X" qualifier there. I won't say "I doubt that X", but is that the same sort of doubt that skepticism advocates, or is that a stronger statement equivalent to "I believe that X is false"? But, then, I'm not actually clear on what skepticism really means, but I'm not convinced that skeptics have any better idea.

And I find it decidedly odd that it would be reasonable to say that philosophy had a general project to remove or avoid skepticism -- as in the work trying to reply to solipsistic and Matrix-style arguments, Descartes' work against his own skepticsm, Hume's conclusion that he couldn't maintain his skepticism when he interacts in the world, and so much more -- and now, somehow, that very thing that was so fought against has now become a virtue. How does that not run into the same problems? I'm not convinced that it doesn't, but that instead skeptics avoid them by simply not being skeptical enough.

Nick Barrowman said...

Further to the issue of "plumbing as science", see Massimo Pigliucci's new post Why plumbing ain't science.