Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Must Christian Beliefs be Falsifiable in Order to Be Rationally Held? Positivist Myths and Fallacies Debunked by Philosophers and Mathematicians

Philosopher Hilary Putnam

Dr. Jerry A. Coyne is a Professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolution at the University of Chicago. He earned his Ph.D. in evolutionary biology at Harvard University in 1978, working in the laboratory of Richard Lewontin. He has written over 110 refereed scientific papers and 80 other articles, book reviews, and columns, as well as the books Why Evolution is True and Speciation ( co-authored with H. Allen Orr).

In his online article, "What evidence would convince you that a god exists?" (7-7-10) he made the following assertions:

One of the big differences between religion and science as “ways of knowing” is that in science we can almost always specify what observations or experiments would prove our theories wrong. In contrast, the faithful do not (and cannot) specify what observations would disprove their beliefs—or the whole basis of their religion. . . . the faithful carefully insulate those beliefs from disproof . . . Evidence for religious beliefs is counted; evidence against them is dismissed.

. . . the faithful often won’t let themselves even consider counterevidence. . . . Religion is not a way of knowing because it doesn’t have a way of knowing that it is wrong. And without that, you don’t know if you’re right.

Granted, some of the faithful—and many of you readers—have abandoned religious belief because it either seemed irrational or was contradicted by empirical evidence. . . . How many of you, when you were believers, were brave enough to lay out the kind of evidence that would make you bail on God?

In a second article, "Seeing and Believing: The never-ending attempt to reconcile science and religion, and why it is doomed to fail" (The New Republic, 2-2-09): a hostile book review of works by theistic evolutionists Karl W. Giberson and Kenneth R. Miller, Dr. Coyne continues the same hapless, droning theme:

But no serious scientist wants evolution to become anything like a religion, or even a source of ethics and values. That would mean abandoning our main tool for understanding nature: the resolution of empirical claims with empirical data. We do not have "faith" in Darwinism in the same way that others have faith in God, nor do we see Darwin as an unimpeachable authority like Pope Benedict XVI or the Ayatollah Khamenei [sic]. Indeed, since 1859 a fair number of Darwin's ideas have been disproven. Like all sciences, evolution differs from religion because it constantly tests its assumptions, and discards the ones that prove false. . . .

What, then, is the nature of "religious truth" that supposedly complements "scientific truth"? The first thing we should ask is whether, and in what sense, religious assertions are "truths." Truth implies the possibility of falsity, so we should have a way of knowing whether religious truths are wrong. . . .

Anything touted as a "truth" must come with a method for being disproved . . .

Most scientists can tell you what observations would convince them of God's existence, but I have never met a religious person who could tell me what would disprove it. And what could possibly convince people to abandon their belief that the deity is, as Giberson asserts, good, loving, and just? If the Holocaust cannot do it, then nothing will.

I shall now cite philosophers and mathematicians (not all Christians, by a long shot), who hold that mathematics and some aspects of science (particularly at the level of grand theories) are not falsifiable; they are axiomatic or a priori forms of knowledge that are antecedent to and altogether distinct from empirical observation. Mathematics is central to much of science. Therefore, those particular branches of science are built upon a body of knowledge that is in itself unfalsifiable.

Thus, to claim that the only knowledge is that which is observable and falsifiable and to do so speaking from a scientific perspective, is to engage in vicious self-contradiction. In other words, if Christianity is unworthy of belief on these grounds, then so is mathematics, and since mathematics is crucial and central to science, the latter collapses with it (by this fallacious, incoherent reasoning). Conclusion: the argument proves too much, and so must be discarded as worthless. Christianity cannot be rationally dismissed on this basis.

[all blue color emphases my own]

1) John Passmore (philosopher), "Logical Positivism," in Paul Edwards, editor, The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Vol. 5, 52-57 (New York: Macmillan: 1967):

Verifiability. The course taken by the subsequent history of logical positivism was determined by its attempts to solve a set of problems set for it, for the most part, by its reliance on the verifiability principle. The status of that principle was by no means clear, for "The meaning of a proposition is the method of its verification" is not a scientific proposition. Should it therefore be rejected as meaningless? Faced with this difficulty, the logical positivists argued that it ought to be read not as a statement but as a proposal, a recommendation that propositions should not be accepted as meaningful unless they are verifiable. But this was an uneasy conclusion. For the positivists had set out to destroy metaphysics; now it appeared that the metaphysician could escape their criticisms simply by refusing to accept their recommendations.

Recognition of this difficulty led Carnap to suggest that the verifiability principle is an "explication," a contribution to the "rational reconstruction" of such concepts as metaphysics, science, and meaning, to be be justified on the quasi-pragmatic grounds that if we ascribe meaning only to the verifiable we shall be able to distinguish forms of activity which are otherwise likely to be confused with one another. It is not, however, by any means clear in what way the verifiability principle can be invoked against a metaphysician who takes as his point of departure that his propositions clearly have a meaning. The most that can be said is that the onus is then on the metaphysician to distinguish his propositions from others which he would certainly have to admit to be meaningless. . . .

The logical positivists themselves were much more concerned about the fact that the verifiability principle threatened to destroy not only metaphysics but also science. Whereas Mach had been happy to purge the sciences, the logical positivists ordinarily took for granted the substantial truth of contemporary science. Thus, it was a matter of vital concern to them when it became apparent that the verifiability principle would rule out as meaningless all scientific laws.

For such laws are, by the nature of the case, not conclusively verifiable; there is no set of experiences such that having these experiences is equivalent to the truth of a scientific law. . . .

For these and comparable reasons "verifiability" was gradually replaced by "confirmability" or by the rather stronger notion of "testability." Whereas at first the meaning of a proposition had been identified with the experiences which we would have to have in order to know that the proposition is true, now this was reduced to the much weaker thesis that a proposition has a meaning only if it is possible to confirm it, that is, to derive true propositions from it. Carnap, in accordance with his "principle of tolerance," was prepared to admit that a language might be constructed in which only verifiable propositions would count as meaningful. He was content to point out that such a language would be less useful for science than a language which admits general laws. But most positivists, interested as they were in the actual structure of science, simply replaced the verifiability principle by a confirmability principle.

If, however, the original principle proved to be too strong, the new principle threatened to be too weak. For, on the face of it, the new principle admitted as meaningful such metaphysical propositions as "Either it is raining or the Absolute is not perfect." Whether the confirmability principle can so be restated as to act as a method of distinguishing between metaphysical statements as meaningless and scientific statements as meaningful remains a question of controversy. . . .

Logical positivism, considered as a doctrine of a sect, has disintegrated. In various ways it has been absorbed into the international movement of contemporary empiricism, within which the disputes which divided it are still being fought out. Originally, it set up a series of sharp contrasts: between metaphysics and science, logical and factual truths, the verifiable and the nonverifiable, the corrigible and the incorrigible, what can be shown and what can be said, facts and theories. In recent philosophy, all these contrasts have come under attack, not from metaphysicians but from philosophers who would in a general sense be happy enough to describe themselves as "logical empiricists." Even among those philosophers who would still wish to make the contrasts on which the logical positivists insisted, few would believe that they can be made with the sharpness or the ease which the logical positivists at first suggested.

Logical positivism, then, is dead, or as dead as a philosophical movement ever becomes. But it has left a legacy behind. In the German-speaking countries, indeed, it wholly failed; . . .

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2) Rafe Champion (philosopher), "Agreeing to Disagree: Bartley's Critique of Reason" (Melbourne Age Monthly Review, October 1985):

Critics have demonstrated that there is no way to justify positively (certainly) the basic premise of rationality itself (or indeed the basic premises of any argument) because any attempt to provide a reason to support the basic assumption of the argument simply begs the question to provide a justification for the supporting statement, and so on, ad infinitum. This has been a continual source of irritation to rationalists whenever an opponent bothers to make an issue out of it. For Bertrand Russell, one of the greatest rationalists of all time, frustration alternated with deep despair of reason. . . .

The problem for rationalists is that the traditional dogmatic framework of thought guarantees that the irrationalists can always win, any time that they force the issue and demand that the rationalist produce truly justified beliefs. That is to say, any time that Ayer (or Stove) is asked to nominate a theory along with its warrant of verification (or its numerical probability). In this way the dogmatic framework provides the seedbed for the weeds of irrationalism and this yields the shocking discovery that dogmatic (justificationist) theories of rationality actually nurture and maintain that seedbed. Hence there is nothing very surprising about the survival of irrationalism despite the onward march of science and the generally high regard for rationality in Western civilisation (Romantic reactions not withstanding). It seems that rationalists in the mould of Bertrand Russell nurture the seeds of their own destruction by persisting in the quest for justified beliefs (in Russell's case, by encouraging others to press on in search of a satisfactory form of scientific induction), thus helping to maintain the justificationist framework of thought. In other words, the great rationalist Bertrand Russell fought irrationalism at one level but sustained it at a deeper level. . . .

Popper's ideas have failed to convince the majority of professional philosophers because his theory of conjectural knowledge does not even pretend to provide positively justified foundations of belief. Nobody else does better, but they keep trying, like chemists still in search of the Philosopher's Stone or physicists trying to build perpetual motion machines.

[see also Champion's many writings on Karl Popper]

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Someone suggested that it was a great service to remind people of the importance of logic and evidence. But how many scientists needed to be told that? The devil was in the details of the way that evidence was supposed to be used, either for verification or for assigning a numerical probability to theories. The Carnap program to assign objective probabilities never worked and the Bayesian quest for subjective probabilities appears to be on the same track.

What about the need to tame the proliferation of metaphysical nonsense? How did positivism propose to achieve that? The verification criterion of meaning never worked, it may have been finally given up but it seems that the search for a criterion of “cognitively significant” utterances continues to the present day.

There are at least two problems with the verification principle: first, many scientific propositions, such as universal laws in the form “all ravens are black” cannot be strictly verified (we can never observe all the ravens in the universe) and so are strictly meaningless according to the verification principle.

Secondly, a whole array of important principles, topics, theories and discourses were thrown into the bin of “meaningless nonsense”. In this bin we find ethical, moral and political principles, that is, the principles that determine the way we live our lives and attempt to organise our social and political arrangements. We also find the principles of method or (in more learned language) “methodology” the spoken and unspoken maxims of procedure and protocol in scholarship and research. And we also find, at a deeper level, the metaphors, themes and presuppositions which dictate the questions that we ask about our subject matter and what sort of theories and explanations are acceptable as possible answers to those questions.

Clearly, civilised life and progressive research are unlikely to prosper if all the above matters are ruled out of court as “meaningless”. Most people did not adopt the tenets of positivism and the positivists themselves had to find some way around their own doctrines. However, anyone who tried to obtain sustenance from what was supposed to be the latest in rigorous philosophical thinking could only be confused and frustrated, in precise ratio to their efforts to make sense out of the doctrines of the positivists.

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4) Wikipedia, "Falsifiability":

Falsifiability or refutability is the logical possibility that an assertion can be shown false by an observation or a physical experiment. That something is "falsifiable" does not mean it is false; rather, that if it is false, then this can be shown by observation or experiment. The term "testability" is related but more specific; it means that an assertion can be falsified through experimentation alone.

For example, "all men are mortal" is unfalsifiable, since no finite amount of observation could ever demonstrate its falsehood: that one or more men can live forever. "All men are immortal," by contrast, is falsifiable, by the presentation of just one dead man. . . .

Falsifiability is an important concept in science and the philosophy of science. The concept was made popular by Karl Popper, who, in his philosophical analysis of the scientific method, concluded that a hypothesis, proposition, or theory is "scientific" only if it is falsifiable. Popper asserted that unfalsifiable statements are non-scientific, but not of zero importance. For example, meta-physical or religious propositions have cultural or spiritual meaning, and the ancient metaphysical and unfalsifiable idea of the existence of atoms has led to corresponding falsifiable modern theories. A falsifiable theory that has withstood severe scientific testing is said to be corroborated by past experience, though in Popper's view this is not equivalent with confirmation and does not lead to the conclusion that the theory is true or even partially true.

Popper invented the notion of metaphysical research programs to name such ideas. In contrast to positivism, which held that statements are senseless if they cannot be verified or falsified, Popper claimed that falsifiability is merely a special case of the more general notion of criticizability, even though he admitted that refutation is one of the most effective methods by which theories can be criticized. . . .

In the philosophy of science, verificationism (also known as the verifiability theory of meaning) holds that a statement must, in principle, be empirically verifiable for it to be both meaningful and scientific. This was an essential feature of the logical positivism of the so-called Vienna Circle that included such philosophers as Moritz Schlick, Rudolf Carnap, Otto Neurath, the Berlin philosopher Hans Reichenbach, and the logical empiricism of A.J. Ayer.

Popper noticed that the philosophers of the Vienna Circle had mixed two different problems, that of meaning and that of demarcation, and had proposed in verificationism a single solution to both. In opposition to this view, Popper emphasized that there are meaningful theories that are not scientific, and that, accordingly, a criterion of meaningfulness does not coincide with a criterion of demarcation.

Thus, Popper urged that verifiability be replaced with falsifiability as the criterion of demarcation. On the other hand, he strictly opposed the view that non-falsifiable statements are meaningless or otherwise inherently bad, and noted that falsificationism does not imply it. . . .

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5) Charles Parsons (mathematician), Mathematics in Philosophy: Selected Essays (Cornell University Press, 2005, pp. 196-197):

But no proposition of pure mathematics has been falsified. If we view mathematics in this light, no proposition of Euclidean geometry is falsified by the discovery that physical space is not Euclidean. . . . there may be aspects of physics or other sciences today of which the mathematical content is not so neatly separable. I do not know of any example, still less an example where such a separation seems impossible in principle . . . on the general conception of mathematics I am presenting, the known or easily conceivable examples of empirical falsification of mathematical theories in science does not yield any instance or model of empirical falsification of pure mathematics.

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6) Charles Parsons, Mathematical Thought and Its Objects (Cambridge University Press, 2009, pp. xiii-xv):

I am not convinced that the notion of a priori knowledge is as clear as is often assumed. It is quite obvious that experience and perception do not play the direct role in the justification of mathematical propositions that they play in natural science or in most factual statements of everyday life. The mathematician in proving a theorem does not appeal to experimental results or other forms of observation. Rigorous proofs can generally be represented as deductions from axioms. . . .

Euclidean geometry still plays a basic role in mathematics even though the view that space is Euclidean was questioned more than a hundred years ago and abandoned in the early twentieth century. It seems that some conceptual revolution of which we don't now have an idea would be required for us to abandon Euclidean geometry as mathematics. So it may be that much of current mathematics is "contextually a priori" in a sense proposed some years ago by Hilary Putnam.

. . . a more general form of the dilemma, expressed by W. D. Hart soon after Benacerraf's classic paper, is the difficulty of giving a naturalistic epistemology for mathematics. . . . Naturalism as a philosophical tendency relies heavily on the authority of natural science. But modern science would be inconceivable without the application of mathematics. . . . To what extent we are still left with a challenge may depend on what counts as naturalistic, a matter that I leave to those who espouse naturalism to determine.

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7) Bertrand Russell (philosopher and mathematician), The Principle of Mathematics (1903, pp. 373-374):

Having found that the denial of Euclid's axioms of parallels led to a different system, which was self-consistent, and possibly true of the actual world, mathematicians became interested in the development of the consequences flowing from other sets of axioms more or less resembling Euclid's. Hence arose a large number of Geometries, inconsistent, as a rule, with each other, but each internally self-consistent. . . . In this way, Geometry has become (what it was formerly mistakenly called) a branch of pure mathematics, that is to say, a subject in which the assertions are that such and such consequences follow from such and such premisses, not that entities such as the premisses describe actually exist. . . . Thus Geometry no longer throws any light on the nature of actual space. But indirectly, the increased analysis and knowledge of possibilities, resulting from modern Geometry, has thrown immense light upon our actual space.

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8) Alvin Plantinga (philosopher), "Advice to Christian Philosophers" (Faith and Philosophy: Journal of the Society of Christian Philosophers, vol. 1, October 1984):

First, the dreaded "Verifiability Criterion of Meaning." During the palmy days of logical positivism, some thirty or forty years ago, the positivists claimed that most of the sentences Christians characteristically utter-"God loves us," for example, or "God created the heavens and the earth"-don't even have the grace to be false; they are, said the positivists, literally meaningless. It is not that they express false propositions; they don't express any propositions at all. Like that lovely line from Alice in Wonderland, "T'was brillig, and the slithy toves did gyre and gymbol in the wabe," they say nothing false, but only because they say nothing at all; they are "cognitively meaningless," to use the positivist's charming phrase. The sorts of things theists and others had been saying for centuries, they said, were now shown to be without sense; we theists had all been the victims, it seems, of a cruel hoax-perpetrated, perhaps, by ambitious priests and foisted upon us by our own credulous natures.

Now if this is true, it is indeed important. How had the positivists come by this startling piece of intelligence? They inferred it from the Verifiability Criterion of Meaning, which said, roughly, that a sentence is meaningful only if either it is analytic, or its truth or falsehood can be determined by empirical or scientific investigation-by the methods of the empirical sciences. On these grounds not only theism and theology, but most of traditional metaphysics and philosophy and much else besides was declared nonsense, without any literal sense at all. Some positivists conceded that metaphysics and theology, though strictly meaningless, might still have a certain limited value. Carnap, for example, thought they might be a kind of music. It isn't known whether he expected theology and metaphysics to supplant Bach and Mozart, or even Wagner; I myself, however, think they could nicely supersede rock. Hegel could take the place of The Talking Heads; Immanuel Kant could replace The Beach Boys; and instead of The Grateful Dead we could have, say, Arthur Schopenhauer.

Positivism had a delicious air of being avant garde and with-it; and many philosophers found it extremely attractive. Furthermore, many who didn't endorse it nonetheless entertained it with great hospitality as at the least extremely plausible. As a consequence many philosophers-both Christians and non-Christians-saw here a real challenge and an important danger to Christianity: . . . Many philosophically inclined Christians were disturbed and perplexed and felt deeply threatened; could it really be true that linguistic philosophers had somehow discovered that the Christian's most cherished convictions were, in fact, just meaningless? There was a great deal of anxious hand wringing among philosophers, either themselves theists or sympathetic to theism. . . .

By now, of course, Verificationism has retreated into the obscurity it so richly deserves; but the moral remains. This hand wringing and those attempts to accommodate the positivist were wholly inappropriate. I realize that hindsight is clearer than foresight and I do not recount this bit of recent intellectual history in order to be critical of my elders or to claim that we are wiser than our fathers: what I want to point out is that we can learn something from the whole nasty incident. For Christian philosophers should have adopted a quite different attitude towards positivism and its verifiability criterion. What they should have said to the positivists is: "Your criterion is mistaken: for such statements as 'God loves us' and 'God created the heavens and the earth' are clearly meaningful; so if they aren't verifiable in your sense, then it is false that all and only statements verifiable in that sense are meaningful." What was needed here was less accommodation to current fashion and more Christian self-confidence: Christian theism is true; if Christian theism is true, then the verifiability criterion is false; so the verifiability criterion is false. Of course, if the verificationists had given cogent arguments for their criterion, from premises that had some legitimate claim on Christian or theistic thinkers, then perhaps there would have been a problem here for the Christian philosopher; then we would have been obliged either to agree that Christian theism is cognitively meaningless, or else revise or reject those premises. But the Verificationists never gave any cogent arguments; indeed, they seldom gave any arguments at all. Some simply trumpeted this principle as a great discovery, and when challenged, repeated it loudly and slowly; but why should that disturb anyone? Others proposed it as a definition-a definition of the term "meaningful." Now of course the positivists had a right to use this term in any way they chose; it's a free country. But how could their decision to use that term in a particular way show anything so momentous as that all those who took themselves to be believers in God were wholly deluded? If I propose to use the term 'Democrat' to mean 'unmitigated scoundrel,' would it follow that Democrats everywhere should hang their heads in shame? And my point, to repeat myself, is that Christian philosophers should have displayed more integrity, more independence, less readiness to trim their sails to the prevailing philosophical winds of doctrine, and more Christian self-confidence.

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9) Hilary Putnam (philosopher), Words and Life (edited by James Conant, Harvard University Press, 1995, p. 258):

[A]s a matter of descriptive fact about our present cognitive situation, we do not know of any possible situation in which the truths of mathematics (as we take them to be) would be disconfirmed, save for situations in which the meanings of terms are (by our present lights) altered. To insist that these statements must be falsifiable, or that all statements must be falsifiable -- is to make falsifiability a third (or is it a fourth by now?) dogma of empiricism.

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10) Michael Scriven (philosopher), Evaluation Thesaurus (Sage Publications, 4th ed., 1991, p. 165):

The status of mathematics is also somewhat unclear on the falsifiability criterion, since it is widely believed to be tautological and hence not falsifiable, but it can hardly be said to have no information content in any useful sense. In fact, it is informative in much the same way that tautological scientific laws are informative.


I went to post excerpts of this research over at the combox underneath Dr. Coyne's article that I critiqued in my previous paper. When I made my initial reply there it was met with equal doses of noncomprehension, non sequiturs, and insults; for example:

"it’s our job to care about the truth. Religions have no such truth"

"religions have no way to tell . . . a correct belief from an incorrect one since a magical god can make things look however he wants."

"Now why don’t you try and answer Jerry’s question in the post instead of getting all hot and bothered because he dared ask it. Surely your beliefs don’t rely only on your bluster do they?"

"But if these outbursts make you feel better about whatever it is you believe, you go boy! What else are you going to do when the evidence doesn’t exist, eh?"

[here was my "outburst": "My points stand, and they are actually rational arguments, unlike your mere rant: filled with straw men and non sequiturs. I wasn’t trying to refute the whole statement; only a few logical holes that I viewed in it."]

"You win (in your head) because you fight a 'straw man' and not any actual point."

"In order to have rational interaction, someone other than you would need to think you are rational. I thought Todd’s post was spot on, but I understand how it would fly right over your head."

"And I think it’s obvious why others are ignoring your silly straw man rant that had nothing at all to do with Jerry’s question."

"Hey, Jean… how do DA’s posts fit in with your belief that religion makes people happier?"

"To me, religious folks go ape-shit when they realize that, from a scientific perspective, their religious beliefs are as unsupportable as all the religions they laugh at."

"(Perhaps any increased happiness of atheists around religious nutters is due to giggle fits.)"

One halfway calm, rational poster inquired if I would like to actually engage in some semblance of dialogue. I promised that I would be posting some additional material [from this present paper] shortly. But lo and behold, I discovered that my previous comment had been deleted, and that I cannot post anything now (apparently I'm banned), while the insults are allowed to go merrily on and are regarded as fit intellectual material for the combox). So much for free speech and free exchange of ideas . . .


Irritatio Perpetuum said...

How can one stop the spread of metaphysical nonsense when simultaneously attempting to undermine metaphysics? Oh the dilemmas!

Dave Armstrong said...

As of 11:22 PM, I added a "preamble" of ultra-materialist Dr. Jerry Coyne's statements about falsifiability, that the rest of the post replies to.

Dave Armstrong said...

Added an addendum at midnight telling about how I was banned at the atheist site before I could post this material, as earlier promised; while the residents continue their juvenile mocking.