Monday, June 15, 2009

Putting epistemology first

The debate over so-called accomodationism (notably between Chris Mooney and Jerry Coyne, with significant contributions by Russell Blackford, Jason Rosenhouse and P.Z.Meyers) has, fortunately, raised what I think is the fundamental issue between naturalism and supernaturalism: how we know what's real. The National Center for Science Education and the National Association of Science seem to grant religion a special domain of epistemic competence in being able to decide the question of whether the supernatural exists, a domain in which science, they say, has no competence. But this seems wrong, as argued here. Science can investigate supernatural hypotheses if they have testable content, and religion has no special reliable mode of knowing which shows that something beyond nature exists, although theologians such as John F. Haught try to make the case that it does.

Of course there are important questions we can ask about reality outside the direct purview of scientific theorizing. Supernaturalist Ken Miller suggests some: "Why does science work? Why is the world around us organized in a way that makes it accessible to our powers of logic and observation?" And he points to "the deeper questions of why we are here and whether existence has a purpose." To the extent these questions involve matters of fact, or that they imply a factual state of affairs within which we ask them, we'll want to use our most reliable mode of knowing to ascertain those facts, which is science. What is the nature of existence, that it might or might not have a purpose? What is it about the methods of science that explains why it works so well? Science, and more broadly intersubjective empiricism, obviously has a role in investigating the nature of existence and the nature of scientific practice itself since these are empirical questions. To the extent these questions aren’t directly factual, but involve conceptual analysis, they are ordinarily deemed philosophical. But the neat distinction between empirical and conceptual investigation has been blurred considerably by the naturalistic turn in philosophy over the last century, so that we might call Miller’s questions “philo-scientific” questions, ones which arguably require the collaboration of science and philosophy to address.

What Miller and other supernaturalists such as Francis Collins at Biologos seem to suggest, however, is that religion and religious faith have some additional expertise, knowledge or epistemic competence beyond what science and philosophy have to offer in answering such questions. They believe that there are specifically religious, non-scientific ways of reliably knowing reality that can help answer the questions of why the world is accessible to logic and observation, and of ultimate meaning and purpose. If so, how do these ways of knowing work, such that we can see that they’re trustworthy? Does theology, usually in the business of defending the existence of something beyond nature, have a special philosophical or epistemic competence such that it provides insights into reality not available to naturalistic philosophy? If so, what is this? In a must read essay on naturalism, Barbara Forrest quotes Sidney Hook asking the crucial question:
“Is there a different kind of knowledge that makes ... [the supernatural] an accessible object of knowledge in a manner inaccessible by the only reliable method we have so far successfully employed to establish truths about other facts? Are there other than empirical facts, say spiritual or transcendent facts? Show them to us...”
This is a reasonable demand that any cognitively responsible supernaturalist should be able, and feel obligated, to meet. Of course it isn’t as if naturalists claim to have all the answers to the big or even middle-sized questions, but the methods of inquiry we stick with have been proven pretty reliable. If there are any rival methods that establish the existence of something beyond nature that informs such answers, we want to know about them. If there aren’t, then supernaturalists are skating on thin epistemic ice.