Thursday, July 30, 2015

Scientific Proof - A Red Herring

In my previous post, I showed that there are people (especially creationists) who are distrustful and skeptical of the motives and methods of science because a scientific investigation of their own beliefs would cast those beliefs into serious doubt, if not destroy them altogether.  These people will do everything in their power to discredit science and anyone who thinks that its epistemological foundations (ie empiricism) are the best way to gain knowledge.  So they create a straw man view of the empiricist's epistemology that they call "scientism", and create straw man views of science itself, as IlĂ­on has done by making claims that science purports to have the same level of authority as religion in revealing "Truth".

And Victor Reppert, himself a defender of creationism and and ID pseudo-science, is playing the same game.  He would have us think that evidence as a justification for belief is logically absurd.
It's the regress problem. Here is a discussion by Maverick Christian.

Suppose we define evidentialism as follows:

A belief B is justified just in case there is a justified proposition C, which constitutes sufficient evidence for B.

I used to call this "the prove-it game." You need proof for everything you believe, and then proof of the proof, and then proof of the proof of the proof, and then proof of the proof of the proof of the proof, and then proof of the proof of the proof of the proof of the proof, until you finally get tired and give up. - Reppert
The article he cites focuses on logical proof using evidence-based justification for the assertions that are made as part of an argument.  It says that there must be three possibilities for the evidentialist:
1. An infinite regress of evidence-based beliefs
2. Circular reasoning
3. Some stopping point
He rightly declares the logical absurdity of the first two possibilities, and he denies the third as an option.  "... if we accept evidentialism any piece of evidence we have is going to suffer from some form of regress or circular reasoning."  But why he denies the third possibility is a mystery, unless, as I suspect, his real goal is to make his own epistemology seem reasonable by comparison to a straw man.  He goes on to conclude that it is reasonable to believe without evidence, and that his Christian beliefs are rational and justified.

Maverick Christian purports to be a purveyor of "philosophical musings", and Victor himself is a philosopher with a PhD.  So it seems a bit surprising that neither of them chose to discuss that third option, which in philosophy would be called a "properly basic belief".  A foundationalist view of epistemology holds that there must be properly basic beliefs, or we would have no rational basis for believing anything at all, and most philosophers (including theists) agree.  Classic foundationalism holds that properly basic beliefs are either self-evident logical axioms or the evidence of the senses, given the assumption that it is rational to believe the evidence of the senses.  And this essentially amounts to empiricism.  Other brands of foundationalism allow for other kinds of properly basic beliefs, including theistic beliefs, because that gives them license to claim a rational basis for believing things without evidence.

Some empiricists or evidentialists go one step further than classic foundationalism, and assert that logical axioms are not in fact self-evident, but our belief of their truth is ultimately based on empirical evidence.  I made that assertion in an earlier post.  And this video does an excellent job of defending evidentialism and explaining why all rational beliefs, including the validity of mathematical or logical axioms, are based on empirical evidence.  There is no infinite regress, no circular reasoning, just the evidence of our senses and a simple assumption: that it is rational to believe the evidence of our senses.  Without making this assumption, we would indeed have no justified basis for belief at all.

And this leads me to a point that no theist will ever admit: that their brand of foundationalism is actually circular reasoning.  It holds that certain (theistic) beliefs are properly basic, despite the fact that they are not based on evidence.  And why do they make this allowance?  Only because it lets them claim a rational justification for theistic beliefs, which ultimately come down to assumptions that are not supported by evidence.  So their epistemology provides rational basis for their non-evidence-based beliefs, and their non-evidence-based beliefs are the reason for having such an epistemology in the first place.  This is blatant circular reasoning.  But it's what they have to do if they want to cling to theism and continue to assert that theism has a rational basis.  Just ignore the glaring fallacy.

Whether or not you hold theistic beliefs, there must be some assumption at the bottom level.  Empiricists assume that it is rational to believe the evidence of the senses, while theists make assumptions of their own, such as the assumption that rationality itself derives from God.  Often, these assumptions are hidden in their arguments.  So an empiricist will readily admit that nothing can ultimately be proven absolutely, but a theist will insist that there is absolute proof for the existence of God, because he refuses to admit that his arguments make these hidden assumptions.  Science is based on the understanding that nothing is proven, and indeed would cease to be science if it ever claimed that anything is known for certain, because that would deny the basic scientific principle that everything is subject to doubt, and certain knowledge would necessarily end any further scientific investigation.  Religion, on the other hand, does claim to know some things absolutely, and that's why it is fundamentally incompatible with science.

Returning once again to Victor, it becomes more clear that he is attempting to discredit scientific thinking by presenting a red herring - that science can't prove anything - while at the same time glossing over the glaring fallacy in his own epistemology - that his basis for belief relies on circular reasoning.  I think that deep down inside, intelligent theists understand the problems inherent in their own epistemology, and recognize the superiority of evidence-based belief.  But theistic belief is so deeply ingrained in them that they can't possibly let it go.  So what they choose to do instead is attack the epistemology of science, attack the methods of science, and attack the adherents of scientific thinking.  As I think I have shown, these attacks are based on fallacies.  But what they do for the theist is to divert attention away from the illogical and irrational basis of their own beliefs.


  1. Each day that a new or redated OP is posted at DI, I smile and shake my head as I read the inanity and the asininity of what is purported to be either commentary from or vetted by a PhD. The fairest I can be is that a turkey with a PhD is still a turkey.

    Commentary at DI has reduced to a trickle, the site dead from the neck up, offering little by way of intellectual or philosophical import. But still I visit the site. Call it, nostalgia, for a time when the drivel was robustly challenged exposing that Christian belief is incontrovertibly a reliance on and perpetuation of primitive supernatural superstition.

    There is no question that all along the points where science and religion rub against each other, Christianity as an explanatory tool about the world ineluctably erodes by the forces of natural attrition. 'Scientism' is the last desperate and fraught attempt by the religiose to mitigate the highly erosive effect of science on the foundations of religious belief, a belief founded on supernatural superstition no less.

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    1. I know what you mean. I am often puzzled by the things Victor says. His understanding of certain philosophical issues appears to be lacking. Does he really think it's absurd to believe things based on evidence? Does he really think that removing the word "God" from teleological-based "education" on the origin of man would satisfy the court's prohibition on teaching religion in public schools?

      This isn't just an issue of having a different perspective. It's an issue of understanding perspectives other than your own. You would think that his PhD would qualify him do that.

      Or could it be that he's just feeding a little red meat to his cultists?

    2. Victor responds:
      "When I was in grad school, there was a general consensus amongst epistemologists that classical foundationalism was on its last legs. This included Christian, but also secular philosophers. Here is an analysis of foundationalism. "

      I reply:
      It is not surprising that you would reject an epistemology that requires evidence to justify your beliefs. That would mean you have no justification to believe in God. You haven't elaborated on what kind of justification for belief you do think is appropriate, or whether you need any justification at all. But I suspect that you favor reformed epistemology. This is a perfect example of the circular reasoning I spoke about in my post.

  3. Creationism: the theory that Rome WAS built in a day. :o)