Monday, November 4, 2013

The epistemological differences between religion and science

From guest blogger, Danny.

In Richard Dawkins’ paper, Science vs. Religion, we are offered an argument about the epistemological systems espoused by science and religion, respectively. Dawkins contends that science and religion essentially depart from common ground over their disparate methods of forming and holding beliefs. Before we focus on the respective methodologies, I think it might help clarify future discussion if we first characterize our two groups—science and religion—in more fine-grained, specific terms. Science is, perhaps, a more well-known and uniform discourse community; when discussing science we want to focus on scholarly science which adheres to the scientific method of hypothesis-testing (and rejecting) and involves a rigorous peer-review process. As for religion, there is much more diversity among the various belief-forming and “quality-control” practices. While there are large majorities of the “religious” community who hold beliefs that are rooted at least partially in religious canon, I want to distinguish between two broad classes of epistemic camps within religion: those who hold beliefs (1) solely based on faith; and, those who hold beliefs (2) based on rational arguments for religious beliefs. Although faith-based arguments for God (or various facts about or stemming from God) seem to permeate almost every argument a theist raises, it is important to understand the belief-forming methodology of the theologian, which relies on logical arguments for various beliefs that reference the existence of a divine entity. Thus, the primary aim with this post is to unpack the epistemological virtues and methods of science and religion (faith-based and reason-based methods).

Dawkins suggests that religion and science are diametrically opposed in the belief-building apparatuses each institution employs; he argues that science uses inductive, statistically-verifiable arguments which comment on objective data. Thus, science aims to build hypotheses (i.e., beliefs) and reject them based on statistical tests based in probability and statistically-significant differences in empirically-validated events. This type of method involves looking at normal distribution curves (or frequencies of a given event) and judging how similar or distinct given events are in relation to one another. The farther apart events are on some continuous, objective measurement, the more “different” the events are, and thus beliefs about cause and effect (or at least correlation) can be formed. In other scientific methods, Bayesian principles are used which generate the probability of some event occurring (i.e., the probability that event X is true) based on past experiences of event X. Hence, a statement such as “if PàQ” becomes “if Pàthere is a specific probability that Q is true given event probabilities”. Thus, the scientific method often cannot invoke deductive arguments, but rather hinges on inductive arguments that are deemed sound only when they meet a certain threshold of statistical validation. In summary, it seems like science relies on empiricism and inductive arguments to generate beliefs. However, it should be noted that science only contains hypotheses which have not been proven wrong with further empirical evidence—thus, science contains sets of beliefs that have varying degrees of empirical support.

On the other hand, faith is process of making a statement about a belief which does not rely on empirical proof. The lack of empirical, observational data does not seem to alter the beliefs that are held purely on faith. Some might suggest that this lack of virtue for an empirically-grounded epistemological process is wrong—insofar as human beings require some empirical understanding of an event for it to be meaningful for us. Faith seems to be grounded outside of logical inference, outside of empirical experience, and beyond statistical/probabilistic models of knowing. Faith seems to be grounded in something purported to be spiritual and cognitively registered in a priori fashion. So, can we even explain beliefs that are known only by faith? This raises questions about the functions of beliefs; do we require beliefs to be verifiable on a communal scale or is it sufficient to have individual-centered beliefs? It seems like faith-based beliefs cannot be disproven or proven by any community. Similarly, faith-beliefs exist in the mind of the individual conscious being and can only be justified in virtue of that observer having a specific cognitive experience which either does (or has the façade of) reporting on the divine. Thus, it seems like faith-based beliefs lack empirical validation, do not use any logical means of arriving at a sound conclusion, and preclude any form of public confirmation of the belief.

It seems like many beliefs in theological discourse communities are conclusions that are reached by rational processes. Many of these arguments are valid, yet rely on premises that are synthetic statements. For example, the following premise might come up in a deductive argument for God’s necessary existence: “if there are certain perfect laws in the universe, then there must have been divine influence during creation”. However, the truth of the premise cannot be verified empirically—so, how do we verify them? It seems like some arguments about different facts of our world will also have the implicit premise that “God exists”. In such arguments, it seems like faith is being invoked again. However, faith (as discussed) seems to operate beyond human logic or empiricism, so how can we assess truth value for such a premise?

So, I’ve made little progress other than confirming that science holds empirical evidence as an epistemic virtue, whereas religion holds faith to be an epistemic virtue. Does anyone thing I’m mischaracterizing either the religious or scientific spheres? If anyone can provide better interpretations of faith, that would make things a little more interesting. Specifically, it would be great to hear arguments for why faith could give us true belief about God’s existence, and provide reasons why that qualitative feeling of “faith” wouldn’t allow us to believe just about anything (including things that are empirically false). Any thoughts or comments would be great; this piece was meant to generate discussion around empirical vs. faith approaches to epistemology. 

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