Yes, Religion DOES Need to Conform to (Broadly) Scientific Standards of Evidence

Breaking off from the philosophy of punishment, I wanted to talk about the philosophy of religion. A position that I’ve encountered a lot recently goes something like this:

“Considered by broadly scientific standards, as an explanatory hypothesis, belief in a personal, omnipotent, morally perfect God is irrational and unjustified. But those are the wrong standards to apply: theism is not an explanatory hypothesis, and treating it like a scientific claim misunderstands it.”

Now, I’m conflicted about this position. I think there’s a valuable point here, but I also think it’s presented in the opposite way that I would present it – it’s presented as a defense of religion against rationalistic criticism, whereas I would seek to use it to guide that criticism more effectively.

Because the thing is, I would be quite happy to accept that statements about God are best understood not as positing ‘one more entity’ alongside the other entities in the world, but rather as making some more complex sort of philosophical point. I think such an analysis would often bring out much of what was compelling and relevant in such claims.

For example, you might take the statement “we should all be grateful to God for His creation”, and say: ‘this looks like the same sort of statement as “Brian should be grateful to Sally for her help with revision”, i.e. the application of our standard notion of gratitude to a particular case. But actually, it’s a statement about that notion of gratitude itself, telling us that it needs to be applied in a certain way, that to be consistent we should extend a foundational sense of gratitude to all objects, rather than taking some as requiring gratitude, some as worthless, and some as deserved.’ Or something like that.

Similarly, statements that “God is with your everywhere” become statements about the application of our concept of solitude; “God moves in mysterious ways” becomes a statement about the application of our concept of mystery.

I would be quite happy to interpret claims about God in these kinds of ways. Except for a troublesome fact: this is not how religion usually presents them. Religion habitually and systematically offers these as claims about the existence of a distinct entity. In doing so, IT submits them to broadly scientific standards of evidence. And it has to do so, to remain recognisable as religion.

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Logical Positivism is the Soviet Union of Philosophy

Moritz Schlick, founder of the Vienna Circle, murdered by a Nazi

Moritz Schlick, founder of the Vienna Circle, murdered by a Nazi

I was discussing logical positivism with a group recently, and it occurred to me: logical positivism is the philosophical equivalent of the Soviet Union. This claim is not entirely facetious, though also not entirely non-facetious. This post, like many on this blog, is shockingly under-researched and no doubt quite plainly wrong.

(I should clarify that in both cases there should be an ‘etc.’ – the Soviet Union [mainly later but looking also at early figures like Lenin] along with the Stalinist states in China, Europe, Cuba, etc., and logical positivism/logical empiricism and the more general philosophical project emerging therefrom, including many people who would not have called themselves positivists – e.g. Quine, Wittgenstein both late and early, Ryle, the scientific behaviourists, etc.)

So why do I draw this parallel? There are a number of reasons.

Firstly, of course, while one is philosophical and the other political, the latter’s philosophy and the former’s politics align them quite closely. In essence, they largely share a belief in the desirability and feasibility of a socialist future, and a philosophical commitment to science and to naturalism. This is reflected in them having often similar enemies – notably, fascism and organised religion.

Secondly, just as obviously, they both offered bold and hugely ambitious projects for the total reconstitution of society or thought. They both, to be frank, failed in these projects, though their deaths were slow and drawn out, lingering on beyond the effective demise of their original animating enthusiasm.

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Foucault and Carnap on the Politics of Science

For unforeseen reasons, I have found myself reading extracts from the intellectual autobiography of Rudolf Carnap, a leading member of the Vienna Circle and of the logical positivists, an early 20th-century philosophical movement that rejected as strictly meaningless all statements that could not be reduced to empirical science or to pure logic.

I came across his brief statement of the ethical and political beliefs that he felt the whole group had shared:

“[A]ll deliberate action presupposes knowledge of the world, that the scientific method is the best method of acquiring knowledge and that therefore science must be regarded as one of the most valuable instruments for the improvement of life.

It was and still is my conviction that the great problems of the organization of economy and the organization of the world at the present time, in the era of industrialization, cannot possibly be solved by “the free interplay of forces”, but require rational planning. For the organization of economy this means socialism in some form; for the organization of the world it means a gradual development toward a world government.

However, neither socialism nor world government are regarded as absolute ends; they are only the organizational means which, according to our present knowledge, seem to give the best promise of leading to…a form of life in which the well-being and the development of the individual is valued most highly, not the power of the state.

…we shall recognize the dangers lying in the constant increase in the power of the state; this increase is necessary because the national states must fuse into larger units and the states must take over many functions of the economy. Therefore it will be of prime importance to take care that the civil liberties and the democratic institutions are not merely preserved but constantly developed and improved.”

There’s a lot to comment on here, but it especially struck me because it reminded me of Foucault’s ‘Discipline and Punish‘, which I’ve also been reading recently. Foucault describes a process by which, starting around the later 18th century, institutions and habits of ‘discipline’, which were intimately connected to science, have appeared, spread, and become all-pervasive.

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Capitalism and the Industrial Revolution

I’ve recently been reading some of the work of Eric Hobsbawm, focusing on the Industrial Revolution in Britain and its causes.

Now, there’s an idea which is widespread both among ardent defenders of capitalism and among many of its Marxist and Marxist-inspired critics, that the industrial revolution, and the worldwide technological transformation which it initiated, is intimately involved with capitalism – we have capitalism ‘to thank’ for it. Mostly this is presented as a good thing, and I would overall concur with that analysis, although the environmental consequences have not been brilliant.

What Hobsbawm argues, though, is that while the industrial revolution emerged along with the growth and strengthening of British capitalism, and while the two were certainly connected, capitalism was not actually a very ‘fertile’ ground for industrial revolution, because profit-oriented production tends to be actually quite conservative. He writes:

“It is often assumed that an economy of private enterprise has an automatic bias towards innovation, but this is not so. It has a bias only towards profit. It will revolutionise manufactures only if greater profits are to be made in this way than otherwise. But in pre-industrial societies this is hardly ever the case.

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Torture and Vivisection

A final post on torture. The fact which the use of psychology for torture brought home to me, but which I was already nominally aware of, is the ethical ambiguity of science.

That is, increase in scientific knowledge is not a straightforwardly good thing, because there is no unified ‘humanity’ to make use of that knowledge – there are a collection of self-interested cliques and groups with structurally opposed interests. Any piece of new knowledge can thus be put to both malign and benign purposes.

What this relates to is then the ways that we get that knowledge. For example, the research on learned helplessness and depression – how was that acquired? By torturing dogs and seeing what mental injuries resulted. I’m not throwing in ‘torture’ as an emotive word for rhetorical purposes here; it’s a perfectly accurate description. Pain was inflicted specifically so as to cause permanent mental harm – the experiments were successful because they fulfilled that goal.

Now it’s commonly argued that animal experiments are needed because the knowledge they give us is of such value. Well certainly, to those concentrations of power backing the experiments – for them, any new piece of knowledge is an unqualified good. But for everyone else, it has the ambiguity that comes from the fact that it can be used both to refine and improve procedures of therapy, and also to refine and improve procedures of torture.

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Capitalist Philosophy of Mind, Part 3 – Communist Philosophy of Mind?

If my last two posts were right in discerning the movements of concrete social forces – feudal religion and bourgeois science, at first individual, then systemic – behind changing currents of consensus in the philosophy of mind, what does this imply about philosophy of mind under different circumstances? And what does it mean for people actually working in that field?

It might be imagined that if first religion and then science created a certain philosophy based on a certain class society, a classless society will have neither religion nor science. But this is only half true. For both of these terms, as for many others, one must distinguish two things: a reasonable, inescapable and important element of the human condition, and then a narrow and distorted worldview based on misconstruing that element and requiring all other elements to be subordinate to it.

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Capitalist Philosophy of Mind, Part 2: Descartes and the Class Struggle

In my last post I ran through the history of Western philosophy of mind. Now I want to look at how the philosophical developments mirror the social developments over the same period.

Now for each position there are positive arguments and there are negative arguments, and typically they have all been argued by someone. But what’s interesting is how some arguments, but not others, are able to win widespread support.

For example, there is a certain argument that goes something like this: “science in general, in particular physics, is bound to look for explanations of every event that happens, and we have no reason not to expect it to find them eventually. Thus for every event a physical explanation will be found, hence all the world is physical in nature, and no facts about it are irreducible to physical facts.”

This argument has been made in one form or another at many points in history. But the acceptance it’s won has varied. Prior to the scientific revolution, doctrines of this sort (like Ancient Greek atomism) were fairly minor phenomena. At the time of Early Modern philosophy, i.e. in the middle of the rise of science, the argument was strong enough to make full-on ‘materialism’ (in the metaphysical sense) a fashionable doctrine among many people. But it didn’t win majority assent until the 20th (maybe 19th) centuries.

And at this late stage, up to the present day, the argument does not even need to be made: it is now common-sense, the natural assumption. Almost all work is done within a ‘physicalist’ framework – either as an enthusiastic endorsement or a cautious criticism.

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