Monday, February 08, 2016

Can theology produce true knowledge?

Matthew Cobb wasn't happy with the way Denis Alexander reviewed Jerry Coyne's book. Recall that Denis Alexander is a biochemist at Cambridge University (UK) and we had a little debate a week or so ago [Is there a conflict between science and religion?]. His position is that there's no conflict between science and religion because a person who believes in god can always make their views conform to the discoveries of science. I didn't accept his premise—that gods exist—so we had a discussion about whether there's any evidence to support his belief in god.

If you believe in such a being then that conflicts with science as a way of knowing because you are believing in something without reliable evidence to support your belief. Scientists shouldn't do that and neither should any others who practice the scientific way of knowing. Denis Alexander thinks there are other, equally valid, ways of knowing but he wasn't able to offer any evidence that those other ways produce true knowledge.

Matthew Cob wrote a letter to the editor in which he asked, "I wonder if Dr Alexander, or indeed any reader, could provide an example of knowledge gained through theology, and above all tell us how they know that knowledge is true?" [see Matthew Cobb battles with the faithful over my book].

Denis Alexander replied in another letter to the editor. He proposed three examples of knowledge gained through theology. Let's see how they stand up to close scrutiny ...
The first relates to reflection on the properties of the universe, a procedure known as ‘natural theology’. Inference to the best explanation points to a creative Mind underlying features of the universe such as its anthropic fine-tuning, its intelligibility (without which science cannot even get going), the mathematical elegance displayed in the properties of matter and energy, and the emergence of human minds by an evolutionary process that can gain some understanding of these properties. Theological knowledge here refers to interpretation not to description, but the scientific enterprise likewise involves much interpretation of data, so there are some interesting parallels, remembering of course that there are many ways of ‘knowing’.
There's so much faulty logic here that it's hard to know where to begin. The biggest flaw is that you have to assume the existence of a creator god before you would even think of interpreting the natural world as the produce of his creative mind. If you begin with the assumption that a creator god exists then, of course, you are going to think that the world looks like he/she/it made it. This is not "inference to the best explanation" because you are assuming the answer—existence of a supernatural creator—before you begin.

Theology doesn't produce the knowledge that such a creator god exists because that question isn't addressed. This is just question begging.

Besides, all the true knowledge that Denis Alexander is using in this example comes from science. The sheep herders of ancient Palestine knew nothing about the fundamental constants and they knew nothing about evolution. They did not infer these facts while watching over their sheep and thinking about god. And their god didn't drop any hints about these things even though as an omniscient god he/she/it certainly knew that chimpanzees were our close relatives and the mass of a proton is 1.672 × 10-27 kg (or whatever that is in minae and shekels).

Most of this true knowledge about physics and biology is only 150 years old. Theology (religion) did not produce any of this knowledge but religoin is obliged to recognize it and modify beliefs in order to accommodate the new truths. Denis Alexander is confused about the twisting and turning that religion needs to perform in order to adjust its views to the discoveries of science. He thinks that apologetics is a way of knowing.

Strike one.
Second, theological enquiry, at least within the Abrahamic faiths, involves historical enquiry and interpretation of their Scriptures. Christian theology includes textual analysis and study of the historicity of Jesus of Nazareth. For example, the belief of the early church in the resurrection of Christ, had it not occurred, could readily have been refuted by the discovery of the embalmed body of Christ in a Jerusalem tomb, easily recognisable by his family and disciples. The Apostle Paul clearly stated that his faith (and that of other Christians) was a waste of time if the resurrection had not occurred. Clearly we do not now have access to the data in the same way as the first century Christians, but again there are some interesting parallels here with scientific enquiry. The principle of refutation can apply (in some cases) to history as well as to science.
This is bizarre. He's responding to Mathew Cobb's request to "provide an example of knowledge gained through theology." Instead, Denis Alexander suggests that religion and theology can be falsified, just like science. Let's set aside the debate about whether falsification is a requirement for the scientific way of knowing (it isn't) and look at the logic of his claim.

He's well aware of the fact that much of what's written in the Bible has been falsified. In fact, he's written a book about it: Creation or Evolution: Do we have to choose?. Apparently it's not true that his religion is wrong when its fundamental beliefs are falsified.

He suggests that theology/religion discovers truth because, like science, it is subject to falsification but he fails to offer any knowledge that theology has produced. It's absurd to claim that the resurrection of Jesus is an example of such knowledge simply because the Bible says that the embalmed body of Christ was missing. He knows full well that much of what's in the Bible cannot be believed.

It's doubly absurd because we all know that even if those bones were, or had been, discovered, Christian theologians would immediately shift to a belief in the spiritual resurrection as opposed to a corporal resurrection. The stories in the New Testament would become metaphors or analogies not to be taken literally. That's how apologetics works. Everything can be rationalized if you have faith. Faith cannot be falsified as easily as scientific hypotheses and models.

This is not a way of generating true knowledge. Strike two.
Third, theology (which means ‘knowledge of God’) also investigates religious experience, a widespread human trait. In the Christian tradition, knowledge of God is practiced through prayer, meditation, reflection, communal worship and, in some cases, ecstatic experience. There is no particular reason why personal knowledge of God should not be included as an important ‘way of knowing’.
Yes, there is a particular reason why personal feelings should not be counted as a way of arriving at truth. We talked about this in our discussion. Denis Alexander admits that the Greeks' personal "knowledge" of Zeus and his friends is not real knowledge and he admits that the beliefs of native Americans don't count as knowledge no matter how strongly they were convinced that they were right.

I pointed out that there's a reason why Richard Dawkins titled his book The God Delusion. It's because we are familiar with delusions. We know that people believe silly things that aren't true. It's not good enough to claim that your thoughts are a way of knowing the truth—you have to prove to an outside observer that you are not deluded. The only way to do that is to provide evidence that your god is real and that's the scientific way of knowing.

I'm really shocked that "sophisticated" believers still use this argument. I guess it stems from a powerful experience they must experience whenever they talk to their gods. They probably can't imagine that their experience is a delusion even though they are perfectly willing to conclude that the ancients Greeks and native Americans were deluded.

Strike three.

You're out, Dr. Alexander. This is a baseball analogy. When I say you've stuck out it means that you have not answered Mathew Cobb's question. You have lost your wicket. You are dismissed.

You have not made a case for the ability of theology to produce true knowledge. Thus, for the time being, science is the only proven way to arrive at true knowledge.


28 comments :

  1. Alexander's approach denies science, effectively. Deeming one's own experiences valid, but denying the equivalent experiences of others, is childish reasoning at best. Accepting the validity of a claim because the evidence wanted to deny it is unavailable is celestial teapot thinking at its absurd limit. And trying to beg the question in the first instance is a pathetic subterfuge.

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  2. The example I often use: That day and night is caused by the sun being pulled across the sky by a God driving a chariot is both a scientific and theological claim. Today, pretty well all scientists and theologians agree this is a false claim.

    My question: On what basis have theologians concluded this claim is false? I am interested here in the purely theological evidence or argument that has disproven the claim. No science allowed.

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  3. RE: That personal knowledge of a divine being.

    Has Dr. Alexander made any mention of all the non-religious ways in which people can obtain the feelings caused by religion? I'm speaking mainly of drugs, brain injury, and ritual.

    What am I saying? Of course he hasn't responded to these things. Despite the fact that there are three non-religious processes (no, ritual is not religious, but it is used by religions because it evokes feelings that religion can then claim are divine) that can develop the same feelings he claims are from a deity. Oops

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    1. Apply a strong magnetic field to the right region of the cortex, and you'll feel the presence of a god. Maybe not Alexander's.

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  4. One of the worst arguments one can make, because it's rational conclusion is that not only is Theology unable to produce knowledge, but the same holds for Mathematics, Philosophy and the natural sciences. It rests on a correspondence theory of truth, which means that it only accepts statements as true that correspond to reality. But to make that call, a prerequisite is having a correct ontology to fall back on and rather obviously the correct ontology in this view also has to correspond to the real ontology, making for a circular argument. The only out is to reject any ontology and therefore all knowledge, or to indulge in special pleading.

    My view is that to avoid epistemic nihilism one has to accept a coherence theory of truth, where truths are relative to aximatic fameworks (easy to accept is you have some mathematical background and accept that the interior angles of a triangle always sum to 2*Pi given euclidean axioms, but don't given Riemannian geometry for instance) and we ask nothing more of our aximatic frameworks than consistency. It does mean that theology can produce knowledge - in the form that given the dogmata of catholicism it is true that Mary ascended into heaven - but on the upside so can mathematics, philosophy and the natural sciences. I don't think that's a pill too bitter to swallow.

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    1. It does mean that theology can produce knowledge - in the form that given the dogmata of catholicism it is true that Mary ascended into heaven...

      That would still rely on the scientific method, in the broad definition Larry favours. You can determine thru logic whether the conclusion "Mary ascended to heaven" follows from the doctrinal presupppositions of Catholicism. Demonstrating that those doctrinal presuppositions are actually true is another matter entirely.

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    2. Pretty sure that the internal angles of a triangle only sum to pi. Anyway, perhaps we need two separate meanings of "knowledge", and the one we should be talking about is knowledge about reality; inferences from premises are not that sort of knowledge unless the premises are true.

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    3. My view is that to avoid epistemic nihilism one has to accept a coherence theory of truth, where truths are relative to aximatic fameworks... and we ask nothing more of our aximatic frameworks than consistency.

      That's an unfortunate view.

      I ask a lot more of my axiomatic framework. I want to know if it produces true knowledge that all rational people can accept no matter what other axioms they believe in. That's why I try to restrict my axiomatic framework to just the acceptance of rational thinking as a premise.

      I know that philosophers can quibble about everything including the meaning of "rational" and I know that they're fond of pointing out circular arguments. It's one of the reasons why philosophy has such a bad reputation. It seems disconnected to the real world.

      I reject the idea that there's a distinction between the natural sciences, philosophy, and mathematics with respect to the search for true knowledge. They all use the same form of evidence-based rational thinking to arrive at the kind of knowledge that all objective observers will accept.

      It does mean that theology can produce knowledge ...

      Religion does not produce knowledge in any meaningful sense even if we can't specify an airtight definition of "knowledge" that will survive a sophist attack.

      Religion may produce consistency with it's premises but it's quite absurd to equate that with any practical sense of knowledge.

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    4. Well, the problem here is that in a coherence view the dogmata are true, if they are not self-contradictory. Anything beyond that falls outside of the scope of theology, in the same way that metaphysics isn't part of science in the stricter sense. Or that you can do mathematics without having to care whether numbers are real or not. The issue here is that in the broad sense of science theology is a science and does produce genuine knowledge. But the argument Larry makes above is very much about eating your cake and having it, too.

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    5. At no point does Larry's argument lead to the conclusion that Mathematics, Philosophy and the natural sciences are unable to produce knowledge. So, Simon Gunkel face-plants.

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    6. I think this comes down to a question of how one defines "knowledge". If all that is required is coherence, then by the following argument:

      If Socrates is a man, then the sky is green.

      Socrates is a man.

      Therefore, the sky is green.


      ...we "know" that the sky is green. If that is the case, then I think the problem lies with the definition of "knowledge" being used."

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    7. [i]Pretty sure that the internal angles of a triangle only sum to pi.[/i]

      You are right.

      [i] Anyway, perhaps we need two separate meanings of "knowledge", and the one we should be talking about is knowledge about reality; inferences from premises are not that sort of knowledge unless the premises are true.[/i]

      The problem is that we have no way of knowing whether premises correspond to reality. That's the key difference between a correspondence theory of truth (in which true statements must be statements about reality and hence knowledge which consists of justified true beliefs can only be knowledge about reality) and a coherence view (where statements can be true irrespective of reality. Note that for instance the different interpretations of QM have vastly different ontologies, but they make the same predictions about observations - we can not decide between them using empirical methods. A correspondence TOT would claim that therefore quantum mechanics does not produce knowledge, because only if we knew whether the copenhagen interpretation of many worlds was correctly describing reality, then we would know something).

      So you could talk about correspondence knowledge and coherence knowledge, but the key problem remains: there is simply no way to obtain correspondence knowledge.

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    8. I ask a lot more of my axiomatic framework. I want to know if it produces true knowledge that all rational people can accept no matter what other axioms they believe in.

      So, epistemic nihilism it is, then. There are no axioms that "all rational people can accept", in fact it's usually trivial to come up with an alternative axiomatic system that is equally rational.

      That's why I try to restrict my axiomatic framework to just the acceptance of rational thinking as a premise.

      Can you make this more precise? Because rational thinking alone is not a basis for natural science for instance (the minimum for natural science I would hold are 1) there are multiple observers; 2) they can communicate about observations and 3) modus ponens is a valid rule of inferrence). None of these is included in a call for "rational thinking" as far as I can tell.

      They all use the same form of evidence-based rational thinking to arrive at the kind of knowledge that all objective observers will accept.

      Neither philosophy nor mathematics uses evidence (in both cases they use deductive reasoning alone, in mathematics this reasoning is formalized). There is no such thing as an objective observer. Mathematical and philosophical knowledge is objective, precisely because it does not rest on observations. Scientific (sensu stricto) knowledge rests on observations, which renders it intersubjective rather than objective (i.e. it requires multiple subjective observers to confirm each others observations).

      Religion does not produce knowledge in any meaningful sense

      Theology and Religion are different things. Theology is a rational discourse about concepts like "god". It's different from religion, which is defined by a belief in god. The former does not require a belief in god (I do not believe in any kind of deity, but I can check whether the argument made from catholic dogma to the ascension of Mary is a valid one. I therefore find that if one was to believe catholic dogma, this belief would rationally entail the belief in the ascension of Mary.) while the latter does not require rationality. There are plenty of religious movements that reject rationality outright, but it is worth noting that they usually start as an attack on theology. If you look into the traditions that christian creationists are steeped in, they start with the assertion that god can not be reasoned about, replacing theological discourse with personal revelation and a subjective interpretation of scripture. If you look at the muslim world there are quite a few irrational movements, all of which are based on the Hanbali tradition, which is first and foremost a rejection of the 3 theological schools of Hanafi, Maliki and Shafi'i. It brands Kalam (i.e. theological discourse) and Ijtihad (independent reasoning) as kafir. Followers of the hanbali tradition started killing theologicians and burning libraries that had theological texts in the 10th century (which is pretty much right away).

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    9. we "know" that the sky is green

      Yes we do know that the sky is green, relative to the choice of an axiomatic system, in this case containing the premises that "if Socrates is a man, the sky is green" and "Socrates is a man". That is knowledge, albeit pretty uninteresting knowledge.

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    10. Simon Gunkel says,

      So, epistemic nihilism it is, then.

      Fine. Whatever.

      This discussion is pointless.

      You know full well that my definition of "science" is not confined to the natural sciences so I ignore the rest of your quibbling ... especially this part ...

      Neither philosophy nor mathematics uses evidence ...

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    11. also this part ...

      Yes we do know that the sky is green, relative to the choice of an axiomatic system, in this case containing the premises that "if Socrates is a man, the sky is green" and "Socrates is a man". That is knowledge, ...

      Is this an example of how philosophers acquire true knowledge while ignoring evidence?

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    12. Fine. Whatever.

      It's not fine. Especially not if you want Wissenschaft to mean something (it's literally knowledge making, so if you want to outright deny the possibility of knowing anything you also deny the possibility of Wissenschaft).

      I ignore the rest of your quibbling

      It's not quibbling. Your central argument is setting the bar for what constitutes knowledge so high that it is humanly unattainable. I know that 1+1=0 in Z/2. I know that water freezes at 0°C under normal pressure. By your standards neither of these constitute "true knowledge".

      If you disagree with the notion that mathematics does not use evidence, can you provide a counterexample? What evidence would have an impact on the truth of the foloowing statement: "Addition as defined for natural numbers is commutative"?

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  5. I think most of you are wrong when you say that theology can't produce knowledge. It can, in principle. It can in the same way that when you talk to someone you gain knowledge from them. If there was a god then theology would produce knowledge through our interaction with him/her. If there isn't a god theology eventually produces the knowledge that the existence of god is exceedingly unlikely

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    1. How does it do that, without using the scientific method?

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    2. If there isn't a god theology eventually produces the knowledge that the existence of god is exceedingly unlikely.

      Really.? How's that experiment working out? Theology has been working on the problem for at least 3000 years. When can we expect an answer?

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    3. I'd say we pretty much have an answer: God doesn't exist....or God doesn't exist independently of a cultural construct.
      My point is that we can't rule out theology as a way of knowing a priori. If there was a God theology would have given us knowledge of thing we couldn't know otherwise.

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    4. How would theology do that? Could you give a hypothetical example?

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    5. God 'tells' various theologians over the centuries the exact time and place of supernovae in other galaxies. If the odds of guessing all of them correctly was, say, 1 in 100,000,000,000 we'd be reasonably sure they were receiving information from some outside source. Of course, proving it was the God of the Bible would take more evidence!

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  6. YEC creationists etc insist nothing in the bible has been disproved by actual proven things. People saying they proved things wrong in the bible ain't proved it.
    Organized creationism exists to point this out.

    Creation, as noted in the bible, and by mankind historically has been a touchdown for evidence of the creator.
    Thats the proof.
    Opponents just say its from chance encounters.
    Thats what they say.
    Yet the evidence for god is still creation. its not been dismissed. its just opponents dismissing it.
    Its the scientific evidence.

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  7. "It's not good enough to claim that your thoughts are a way of knowing the truth—you have to prove to an outside observer that you are not deluded. The only way to do that is to provide evidence that your god is real and that's the scientific way of knowing."

    For clear thinkers, this is a circular argument: "truth" is defined as intersubjective agreement, so absent such agreement any observation is (potentially) a delusion.

    But in fact, since all "knowledge" of putative objects and other subjects is inescapably subjectively mediated, its ultimate veracity always remains doubtable.

    Empirical subjective observations are therefore on firmer ground than "objective" ones: thus even if everything you experience is unreal, for example because you are dreaming, the fact that experiencing is occurring is beyond question.

    This kind of investigation has been documented for thousands of years, but the principal exponents have typically been misunderstood as philosophers or religious leaders. Unless you have spent as many decades pursuing subjective enquiry as you have engaged in objective science (I have done both), you are unlikely to credit their discoveries. As a start, consider whether you can choose your own thoughts.

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  8. Isaac Newton spent decades studying the book of Daniel and the Revelation. He seemed comfortable with the idea that God could steer human history to a conclusion forecast many centuries ago.

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  9. Larry,

    If one day you've found that God/gods exist, what would be your "list of complains" as to why they hadn't revealed themselves?

    Can you think of at least 10 reasons?

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