Scienceblogger Josh Rosenau has a post up where he claims that there are other valid ways of knowing, apart from science. Regular readers will know that woos make this claim all the time, which is why I think this subject is pretty important. So much so that I wrote about the fallacy that is The appeal to other ways of knowing - the claim that the tools of critical thinking and science are not sufficient to evaluate the believer’s claim; therefore the believer's claim has validity despite the lack of evidence for it. It’s generally not worth making a new post about this every time someone mentions it, but Josh, as well as being a blogger with the generally awesome Scienceblogs, is also Public Information Project Director at the National Center for Science Education (NCSE), the organization that works to keep evolution in US public school science education. So when Josh suggests that religion might provide one valid way of knowing, it’s relevant.
Josh’s (first) post on this subject is On vampires and ways of knowing. It was written in response to Jerry Coyne’s post How many “ways of knowing” are there? (which is how I found it). You have to scroll down a few pages in Josh’s post before you get to where he starts to support his “other ways of knowing” argument. If you read those two posts (especially Jerry’s), you’ll realize that what’s behind this discussion is the recent argument about so called “accommodationism” – the idea that science and religion need not conflict. Accommodationists think that the “new atheists” with their harsh criticisms of religion, are making it harder to get people to accept evolution. (I’m simplifying the discussion. If you’re been reading PZ, Larry, Jason or Jerry Coyne, you’ll know what I’m talking about.) The accomodationist stance does appear to be the NCSE’s position, although Josh’s post is not an official NCSE statement.
The reason for that preamble, is that before Josh gets to his “other ways of knowing” arguments, he takes a dig at the people who don’t approve of accommodation, or as Josh refers to them, “enablers”:
This is all part of the long and tedious battle between a clique of atheists who seem intent on enabling creationists in their muddling of the nature of science (enablers) and people who think it's possible for science and religion to exist without meaningful conflict (so-called accommodationists). [My bold.]
He repeats this “enablers” wording later, and in comments.
First of all, you’ll note that Josh in no way demonstrates that the new atheists are “enabling creationists,” (he even says that they only “seem intent on…”) and yet he immediately follows by assuming his point is proven and henceforth labels the people he disagrees with as “enablers” – which is ad hominem, since he didn’t justify the wording. As a further sign of his dishonesty, he doesn’t even use the much less pejorative (and more accurate) description of his own side, which would be “accommodationists.” Instead he uses “so-called accommodationists.” Weasel wording at best, and hardly a positive sign.
More to the point, “enablers” seemed like a strange label to apply to the anti-accommodationist people. It’s a specific term used by psychotherapists and the like, and has a specific meaning. I looked up “enabler” in several places. This one is fairly typical, where it defines enablers as people who:
…allow loved ones to behave in ways that are destructive. For example, an enabler wife of an alcoholic might continue to provide the husband with alcohol. A person might be an enabler of a gambler or compulsive spender by lending them money to get out of debt.
In this fashion, though the enabler may be acting out of love and trying to help or protect a person, he or she is actually making a chronic problem like an addiction worse. By continuing to lend money to the gambler, for example, the gambler doesn’t have to face the consequences of his actions. Someone is there to bail him out of trouble and continue to enable his behavior.
Looking at that explanation, it seems to me that if anything, the real enablers are the accommodationists. Think about it. They (the accommodationists) tell the addict (religious believer) that their religious delusions are OK and totally not inconsistent with science at all. They (the accommodationists) are the ones who actually do enable the addicts (religious believers) by providing them with their drugs (rationalizations for belief in both religion and evolution). They are certainly protecting religious believers from having to face the consequences of their beliefs. I’ll leave you to decide which side is actually making a chronic problem worse. Regardless of what you think, it’s pretty clear that Josh has made no attempt to justify calling his opponents enablers. His argument by label is lazy and not a little sleazy. And since he’s really describing what his side does, it’s actually also projection. (Hey, I can do psycho-babble too.)
OK, so what are Josh’s other ways of knowing? Essentially, it’s what we get from fiction:
…telling stories about vampires is a great way to convey certain truths about the world we all live in. These aren't truths that science can independently verify, but they are still true in a meaningful way.
No one should watch Buffy the Vampire Slayer they (sic) way they would watch a documentary, but they should certainly watch the show. It's brilliant, and it uses this exact sort of literary truth to tackle tricky subjects like drug addiction, spousal abuse, peer pressure, bullying, and the challenges of adolescence in late 20th century America with a sophistication and humor that would be impossible in any other form.
Oh dear. It’s hard to believe a smart person could make such a bad argument. He’s saying (and he further clarified this is the comments and in subsequent posts) that works of fiction tell us truths, make us think of things, or in a way, that perhaps we wouldn’t be able to otherwise. Maybe, but he’s confusing a way of knowing something with a way of having it explained. Reading fiction may be a way of understanding something – but it’s just an explanation of what is already known by some other means. It’s not a way to determine what is true in the first place.
For example, in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, one of the characters gets so heavily into magic that it messes up her life. Nothing else has meaning for her anymore, she lies to her friends, she puts herself and her friends in danger, nearly gets someone killed, damages her own physical and mental health. This is obviously an allegory about drug addiction. From this we learn that drug addiction is bad. But we don’t know that drug addiction is bad from this episode of Buffy. We know that drug addiction is bad from stories about drug addiction, from people we have known who were addicts, from reports on addiction etc. We already knew this from some other way of knowing – one based on observation, verification and replication (aka “science”). The fictional Buffy the Vampire Slayer just explains this – gets us to remember and understand these facts that were already known before by some other means. But we only get the allegory, and register the fact that addiction is bad, because we already know addition addiction is bad. If we didn’t already know addition addiction was bad, the allegory wouldn’t make sense.
Buffy also tells us things that are not true. For example, that vampires exist. And yet we don’t learn from Buffy that vampires exist - we already know they don’t.
Josh must know this, but he digs himself in deeper in one of his follow up posts, Defining terms:
To return, then, to ways of knowing, I'll define them as systematic methods of evaluating truth claims against new sources of knowledge
For once I agree. But how do you use Buffy to evaluate the truth or otherwise of the statements:
- Drug addiction is bad
- Vampires exist.
You can’t do that from watching Buffy – you have to go outside of the fictional TV program, and check what they’re telling you against the real world. That is, you must do some form of science (informally defined), to check what Buffy is telling you – to “know” what is true, if you like. Therefore Buffy is not a way of knowing, by Josh’s own definition.
The peculiar irony here is that the talk Jerry is complaining about was delivered at DragonCon, a science fiction/fantasy convention filled with people celebrating the truth of unreal things. I didn't see Genie's talk because I was manning NCSE's booth, watching a parade of costumed fans wait in line to get autographs from William Shatner (James T. Kirk), Leonard Nimoy (Spock), Kate Mulgrew (Star Trek Voyager's Capt. Janeway), and Patrick Stewart (Jean-Luc Picard). These fans are devoted to the various incarnations of Star Trek, and were willing to spend $40-75 for just one signature from one of the Star Trek captains. And they don't all want the same signature. Some think Picard is the greatest captain in the Star Trek Universe, some think Kirk is the better captain, and a few prefer Janeway.
These, again, are truth claims…
Again, oh dear. No, these are not truth claims. These are opinions.
In any event, science as a "way of knowing" does not produce truth. People have known that since the failure of logical positivism in the early 20th century; science can lead us away from untruths, and lets us narrow in on the truth, but science can only approach truth asymptotically, and rarely as any sort of smooth function. Furthermore, the truths that other "ways of knowing" aim to provide are of a different sort than scientific claims. As a scientific claim, "vampires fear crosses" is as meaningless as "Picard is a better captain than Kirk" or "The Cubs are the greatest team in baseball's history," and none of those is any more scientifically meaningful than "Jesus is my personal savior." [My bold.]
Tell that to people who believe, literally, that Jesus is their personal savior.
"Picard is a better captain than Kirk" is an opinion only, not a scientific claim as Josh proposes. "The Cubs are the greatest team in baseball's history," might be just an opinion, or perhaps it could be verified empirically by tabulating numbers of games won or lost, numbers of home runs scored or whatever. Then it would be a scientific claim. If it were, then it would clearly be more meaningful, scientifically, than the Jesus statement. Either way, Josh is wrong again.
I like novels. I like TV. I like art. I like baseball. I think there is truth to be found in such endeavors, and I think any brush that sweeps away the enterprise of religion as a "way of knowing" must also sweep away art and a host of other human activities. I've tossed out the comparison before, and have yet to get any useful reply to it.
OK, here’s a reply. Novels and art are not ways of knowing – they can be ways of explaining what is already known, ways to make us think, or pure entertainment only, but they are not ways of knowing. So when we say religion is not a way of knowing, we clearly do not need to sweep away novels or art as a way of knowing, because they were not ways of knowing in the first place.
Novels and art do not usually make empirical claims. In the rare cases where they do (for example, many people believe The Da Vinci Code is based on fact), those claims can be tested. Where they are false, the claim can be dismissed, but that doesn’t require us to “sweep away” the rest of fiction that is just fiction.
I hope those replies were useful.
Josh continued to defend his idea in comments, and in further posts. (You should read the comments – most disagree with Josh.) In one comment, Josh writes
How do we decide that some non-empirical ways of knowing are OK, while others are incompatible with science?
The only basis Coyne offers, and the only one I can recall being offered by other enablers, is that religion and science are incompatible because religions can make false empirical claims.
No, that’s not it. The problem with religious ways of knowing are:
- There is no basis for making most religious claims. They were essentially made up, usually by ignorant ancient peoples with no idea of how the world actually works. Some of these claims are actually known to be wrong, and
- There is no mechanism to change religious claims when new information is discovered that shows they were wrong. On the contrary, religious believers go to great lengths to cherry pick the things that they think supports their position, while ignoring what contradicts it. And then they lie about the whole thing.
Obviously, science works in the exact opposite way from points 1 and 2 above. It’s disturbing that someone who works for the NCSE (and blogs at Scienceblogs) doesn’t know this.
Jerry Coyne ends his post with:
As for “ways of knowing,” my response is always, “What do you find out? What do you “know”? And how would you know if you were wrong? Was Jesus the son of God? Christians’ “way of knowing” tells them, “Yes, of course!” But Islamic “ways of knowing” say, “No, of course not, and you’ll burn in hell if you believe that.” Revelation, dogma, and scripture are not in fact ways of knowing; they are ways of believing. There are no “truths” that religion can produce which are independent of truths derived from secular reason.
Precisely. Josh’s piece is a totally muddled post relying on little more than equivocation between different things that can appear in fiction, compared to things you can find in religious texts. He just took a blog post from someone he says is an evangelical Christian, and repeated that blogger’s points uncritically (and at great length). It was such a poorly thought out piece that Josh wrote four more posts in the three days following the original one, to try to reply to criticisms raised in the comments and rescue the jumble of the original post. Which wouldn’t matter if Josh were a regular blogger, but he’s Public Information Project Director at the National Center for Science Education! While he does state that his blog is not official NCSE policy, it gives a worrying insight into the way they may be thinking.
In my view, the only interesting thing to come from Josh’s piece was the insight that the NCSE and other “so-called accommodationists” are enablers – that is, they’re enabling religious people to continue with their destructive delusions. Apparently it’s a part of being codependent. (I didn’t “know” that from Josh’s post, by the way. I had to check external sources.)
Other bloggers on Josh’s post:
Jason Rosenhouse - Ways of KnowingOphelia Benson - Ways of whatting?