Assumptions, Questioned and Un-

Assumptions, Questioned and Un-

What counts as knowledge – that is, knowledge of reality? This is a question for the philosophers, in the end; but, as Gramsci said, everyone is a philosopher, so it’s a question for all of us. And while Gramsci’s point was that everyone has a philosophy, one they live by, some philosophers are better than others. Some philosophers have had better training in logic, and are better at spotting the flaws in our implicit syllogisms, for instance. Some have learned and practiced spotting the assumptions we make in our philosophies, and at ferreting out the grounds, however firm or in-, on which we make them.

We all know what we know, and most of us know plenty, not all of which is true. As my former boss Keith Reinhard once said about the marketing research department, “they tell us which part of everything we already know about the consumer is wrong.” Similarly, we all know what we know, and not what we don’t. “What is lacking cannot be counted.” Someone allegedly even wiser than Keith Reinhard said that.
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Professor Jerry Coyne, author of Faith vs. Fact, is an evolutionary biologist by profession. That makes him a philosopher of science and an epistemologist in that first, Gramscian, sense. His project in the book is a philosophical, epistemological one, but he approaches that project more from the perspective of a working scientist than of a professional philosopher, making assumptions that probably seem incontestable to a working scientist. Those same assumptions would seem less incontestable to at least some professional philosophers. They make the book a nice demonstration of how intelligent people can talk right past one another.

Coyne’s stated purpose is to demonstrate that science and religion are incompatible, because humans obtain their knowledge of reality in one way, and one way only, and because the methods in use by science produce knowledge, while the methods of the world’s religions do not. A central claim in that demonstration, and a fundamental assumption, is that:

religious claims are empirical hypotheses. This is not a profound realization. After all, it’s palpably clear that most religions make claims about what is true in our universe – that is, empirical claims (47).

In other words, Coyne automatically equates “claims about what is true in our universe” with “empirical claims.”

But, as most religious people, all of whom are at least the Gramscian kind of philosophers of religion, probably know, the most centrally important claims of the world’s religions are not empirical claims, although they are claims about reality. They are what Kevin Schilbrack, the professional kind of philosopher of religion and the author of Philosophy and the Study of Religions, A Manifesto, felicitously labels “superempirical.” [And by the way, if anyone were going to read just one book on the philosophy of religion, Schilbrack’s ought to be it.]

Moreover, in most cases those religious claims don’t function like hypotheses. They function like premises, the background network of assumptions about reality (empirical and possibly super-) against which functional hypotheses are formed and hypothesis test results are interpreted. They lie at the center of what another professional philosopher called a “web of belief.” They make up the region that’s never or almost never questioned, because it would require massive cognitive remodeling to question it, and no plan for that remodeling is at hand.

That is, they function in much the same way as Coyne’s premise that empirical reality is all the reality there is.
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This fundamental clash of assumptions about the scope of reality, more than anything else, seems to define the core problem that goes by the name of “science vs. religion.” Signs of that underlying difference in outlook and basic project surface repeatedly. Professor Coyne says, for instance, that “Science and religion – unlike, say, business and religion – are competitors at discovering truths about nature (27).” Religious people would probably say religion doesn’t so much “discover” as “communicate” or “pass on” ancient or even eternal truths, and not just about nature. He also says the problem for religious people is that science has “the ability … to erode the hegemony of faith – but not vice versa (27).”

But as Coyne points out further on, the ability of science to erode the hegemony of faith is less absolute than many people wish it were, whether those people are scientists or the “liberal” religious types who side with data over tradition. He notes the large percentage of people in the United States, for instance, who reject well-documented empirical findings in favor of accounts of reality based on sacred texts. [Young earth creationism is a particular case in point. That kind of thinking is bound to dismay a professional evolutionary biologist.] The problem of “science vs. religion” is not just a problem for the religious; it’s a problem for the scientific, too.

The phenomenon of religious people’s refusal to abandon their trusted metaphysical premises, inexplicable to some, points to another contributor to the conflict between religion and science, namely “authority.” That is to say, politics: how people work out what they will accept as decisive for them and for their groups.

In Professor Coyne’s account, scientists do not rely on authority at all. They rely on evidence instead. He describes the conflict of science and religion as a conflict between evidence, which is one kind of thing, and authority, which is something else.

A more comprehensive [and political] account, however, would describe this dimension of “science vs. religion” as a conflict of authorities. We can see it as a conflict between the authority of empirical evidence and some other authority. For empiricists, the authority of empirical evidence is absolute. As Keynes or someone said, “When the evidence changes, I change my ideas. What do you do?” For religious people, it is invariably something less than that. [How much less, though, and in what areas, leaves room for plenty of argument – or, politics – among religious people themselves. For instance, not every Christian thinks the young earth creationists down the road at the Ark Encounter have struck a defensible balance between the empirical and the superempirical.]

Acknowledging this conflict of authorities makes for less satisfying rhetoric, but greater epistemological clarity. For it is not strictly true that “there are no ‘nonnegotiables’ in science (84).” Without the widespread acceptance – the Gramscian hegemony, if you will – of the facts as the final authority on any question, there could be no science as we know it. That nonnegotiable defines science for us, along with the character of its claims to truth.
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This is not an indictment of science. Scientific objectivity is one of the very things people who love science love about it. But it brings us to another intractable question, that of what counts as evidence. “Facts” in the context of science are the evidence given by public, independent, empirical observations. Religious people would likely find that description limiting.

This disagreement about what counts as evidence is undoubtedly one of the things Coyne has in mind when he claims that religion and science are incompatible

because they have different methods for getting knowledge about reality, have different ways of assessing the reliability of that knowledge, and, in the end, arrive at conflicting conclusions about the universe (87).

In particular, scientists like Coyne are bound to reject what they would call “private experience” as non-evidence. Religious people, on the other hand, will often accept such “private experience” as evidence, and as persuasive and authoritative evidence at that, at least part of the time or for some purposes. They may take seriously as evidence their inner sense that a passage in the Bible or the Qur’an is true as well as beautiful, for instance. Or they may be willing to attribute a sudden feeling of peace, accompanied by the profound conviction that “all will be well and all will be well and all manner of things will be well,” as evidence of the activity of a superempirical reality outside themselves. A scientist, on the other hand, would demand independent observational corroboration; they would seek to rule out competing explanations, like transient neurophysiological states, before they’d accept such private perceptions as evidence of something real.

Coyne quotes at length the philosopher L.R. Hamelin, who proposes a scientific protocol for establishing the strictly naturalistic believability of God. In the course of that discussion, Hamelin asserts that a God who “doesn’t do anything” empirical or who only does things that can be tested by private revelation, doesn’t matter for the purposes of validating the “hypothesis” that God is real (49). Aside from the problem of the difference between a hypothesis and a premise, as noted above, this seems to be a place many religious people will think something like “you just don’t get it, do you?”

A religious person will think to themselves something like: “Private revelation is precisely what I care about. Because the difference between me living drunk and me living sober, the difference between me being a happy and valued participant in a committed religious community and me being an isolated and alienated cipher in an existence I was none too sure about the value of, the difference between me caring about other people and me caring about nothing, are significant differences. Those differences matter to me. I understand you don’t count all that as evidence. But I do. I count them, as evidence, of God, who makes a difference. Furthermore, your assertion that I can’t or shouldn’t strikes me as remarkably unconvincing. Because it appears to depend on a premise that I don’t accept. Namely, the premise that all the reality there is must be, is only allowed to be, empirical and publicly [universally] accessible. Why would I have to accept that? If there’s a reason, I fail to see it.”
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This brings us to the place where intelligent people stop communicating with each other. The premise that reality exceeds the horizon of empirical observation is not untenable. Possibly more arguably, neither is the premise that it doesn’t. But between those two premises lies an abyssal absence of common ground.

Whether that abyss is the Kierkegaardian kind, that must but also can be overleapt from the empiricist side, or the Aristotelian/Thomist kind, that supports cantilevers from the religious side, or the Nietzschean ineluctable modernist-postmodernist nihilist kind that widens out under everyone’s feet indiscriminately, is a question for another time. But whatever its character, it’s bound to get in the way of communication.

A working scientist might not have to insist that empirical reality is all the reality there is, even though it is the only kind they control for in the lab. An observant religious person might not have to insist that the authority of private revelation – including the kind found in sacred text and embodied in religious communal norms – invariably must supersede the authority of public empirical evidence. Some religious people can and do change some of their religious ideas when the facts change. No doubt we could find places where this abyss between epistemological regions is narrower and shallower than others.

But Coyne’s point is that the abyss is there. And despite his unquestioned assumptions, I think he makes his point. Or maybe because of those unquestioned assumptions, which act like a string of lights along the empiricist edge of the abyss. Plenty of scientists do insist on the unreality of the superempirical. Plenty of religious people do accept claims about the empirical world, including ones that have been falsified by empirical evidence, on the authority of their private or superempirical sources. Science and religion do accept different evidential criteria. And although Coyne himself doesn’t name the conflict between science and religion as a conflict of incompatible metaphysical premises – since he seems to think science has no metaphysical premises – or a conflict of authorities – since he seems to think science has no authorities – he clearly illustrates how both of those incompatibilities operate. In that way, Faith vs. Fact supports its thesis by direct demonstration.
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We all know what we know, and not what we don’t; “what is lacking cannot be counted.” I myself think like a religious person; my unnoticed assumptions are not Professor Coyne’s. So Faith vs. Fact told me more than I knew before about how a scientist like Professor Coyne does, and doesn’t, think. That seems like valuable knowledge, about something real and important, for a religious person to have.
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Notes on: Coyne, Jerry A. Faith vs. Fact: Why Science and Religion are Incompatible. Penguin Books. 2015. [An installment of the Read Me Project.]
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interior of a hollow tower of stacked books

Image: Book Tower in the Prague Library, an image by Deror_avi [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons

9 responses to “Assumptions, Questioned and Un-”

    • Hi, CS, thanks for commenting. Depends on the claim, eh? But agreed, religion is not exactly known for producing universal consensus.


      • Yes, I think the disagreement between religious and non-religious people of what constitutes “evidence” is profound.

        I know there are at least some philosophers of religion who would argue that there is convincing “evidence,” in the sense of public rationality, at least for some core metaphysical claims. (I posted notes on a book by someone like that last month, as a matter of fact. ) The disagreement between religious and non-religious at that point is more about whether those arguments succeed, than it is about what counts as evidence, I think.

        But honestly, I was mainly thinking that Christians have largely managed to “convince each other” that Jesus was a historical figure, had a life story largely as described in the Christian gospels, and is centrally significant for humanity. In light of that, “various claims” seemed a little broad to me.


      • public rationality? That humans make up similar things doesn’t mean that there is magic. This ” there is something rather than nothing; for that to be the case, there must be something in reality that is capable of being on its own, independently of anything else. ” is no more than the first cause argument, and we have no evidence that this is true or required.

        Yep, Christians have indeed convinced each other. That doesn’t make it true in the least.

        I’m not sure why yuo think various claims is too broad. I said “that Christians can’t show that their various claims are true or convince each other of them seems to make religion no way to know what reality is.”

        They cannot show that their god exists, did anything as describe in the bible, is the source of “objective morality”, has some magical afterlife carrot/stick, etc.


      • a point on evidence. Theists all love to claim evidence, but they will not accept the same “evidence” from another theist as they expect me to accept from them. The definition for evidence isn’t even the same among theists.


  1. CS, it seems to me that you are confirming my original point: that there is a fundamental disagreement with respect to metaphysical premises and acceptable standards of evidence between religious and non-religious people.


  2. Coyne’s position seems to be a version of naïve realism.
    When someone like John Searle claims that ground, they seem to be making the claim that our representations are all we get.
    That seems a cautious and reasonable position to take. But the other version, which Coyne seems to hold, claims that our representations are strictly reflective of some hard, underlying reality, and that’s why we get our representations.
    The latter version seems to have the same weaknesses as transcendence or logical positivism – it claims something that it can’t establish.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for the comment, Keith – it’s an interesting point, and I think correct, although I don’t think he would label himself that way. In my own mind, I think of him as a Popperian falsificationist. Either way, I don’t think he attends to the way his own account incorporates unquestioned assumptions. Like most people, I suppose.

      Liked by 1 person

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