KARL JASPERS FORUM
Commentary 46 (to C45 by Patlavskiy)
ARE ALL EXPLANATIONS EQUIVALENT ?
by William A. Adams
10 September 2009, posted 19 September 2009
Serge Patlavskiy argues that science and religion are fundamentally compatible because they are both intellectual products of the human mind. They both attempt to describe the one, true reality. But by this criterion, astrology is equivalent to astronomy, dictatorship to democracy. If no distinction makes a difference, then yes, science and religion are compatible. The air is too thin to breathe at this level of abstraction.
Religion has a descriptive level as science does. However, my argument is that religious descriptions, lacking an empirical basis, cannot be communicated in a way that promotes consensus. Religious descriptions are of private experience that cannot be observationally compared across individuals. Any consensus about the descriptions comes either from social persuasion or by chance, not by way of the phenomena themselves. By contrast, scientific observations entail physical stimulation of the biological sense receptors. Since all human beings have about the same biology, consensus about scientific descriptions is based on similarity of observations. This is the fundamental difference between science and religion. Both have phenomena of interest, both have descriptions of those phenomena, but descriptions of religious phenomena have no intrinsic basis for generating consensus in a conversation.
It is possible that you describe a litmus paper as blue while I describe it as pink. In that case, our biological individuality, or perhaps language socialization, has failed to generate expected consensus about the description of the observation. But that would be unusual. We would gather a team of observers to vote, each vote determined by similar biology and common language. However, if you say God is tripartite and I say God is unitary, how can we resolve these descriptions? We cannot rely on species-specific morphology to generate consensus.
Just to be clear, I affirm that consensus is necessary. Conversation is pursuit of mutual understanding. Science is a large, long, highly specialized form of conversation, as is religion. In both cases we are engaged in a social epistemology, a shared effort to arrive at consensus beliefs about what is true. It is no good to say each person has their own description of reality and leave it at that.
Consensus is not unanimity. We achieve consensus when most members of the germane community agree, usually tacitly, sometimes explicitly, on what is true. That’s why evolution is true and Big Bang cosmology are true for us, because we agree. And we agree because our biological sense receptors and language cultures are similar. Biology is the common denominator.
Religious individuals might agree that God exists, along with heaven, hell, and the efficacy of prayer. For that consensus community, these are true descriptions of real phenomena. These individuals can agree only on the basis of a shared language culture however, because the descriptions are not derived from physical stimulation of biological receptors. In other words, they have no empirical evidence to support the descriptions, and apparently do not require any. Every defined community of interest has its own consensus and its own truth. However, it is not possible for a scientist and a religionist to reach consensus on fundamental descriptions because despite a shared language, one group does not make use of the consensus-generating layer of biological commonality. That is why no conversation, respectful and tolerant as it might be, can resolve the differences.
Serge (in his <4>) emphasizes the importance of very complex descriptions such as explanations of phenomena and accounts of causality. How theories and explanations are built from observations is a complex topic. I would like to restrict my reply to the simple process of how a community reaches consensus on descriptions of simple observations. Later, it may be possible to ask further questions about inferences derived from the basic data, what John Locke called “secondary knowledge.”
Serge (in his <4>) emphasizes that “all systems of knowledge are the results of attempting to explain the observable facts (as of the outer, so of the “inner” worlds). But my main point here is that there ARE NO observable facts for religion. In order to argue the contrary, Serge would need to provide a definition of “observation” cogent to spiritual matters. That definition could not appeal to stimulation of the biological sense receptors, which are only sensitive to stimulation from the perceptual world, and could not plausibly depend on proprioception, which is sensitive to the internal state of one’s physiology, so it is difficult to understand what a “spiritual observation” could involve. The same would be true for “observation” of dreams, intuition, or consciousness in general. If someone has an opinion about God, surely that does not constitute an “observation” in the usual sense of the word? The “facts” of religion arise from tradition, not from observation. Do you disagree?
I agree (Serge’s <5>) that the so-called triumphs of science are often exaggerated and that there are many unanswered fundamental scientific questions. But that is not relevant to the distinction I draw between an empirically based body of knowledge and a non-empirically based one. An empirically based set of descriptions can be communicated and demonstrated in a way that produces consensus. A non-empirically based set of descriptions must be accepted on faith or because of one’s predisposition.
I am skeptical about the usefulness of constructing a revised metatheoretical starting point for a new or modified explanatory environment (Serge’s <5>). We could say, as Berkeley did, that to be is to be perceived. That leads to a different explanatory framework. Or we could say, with Plato, that observed things are but the shadows of Formal reality, or with Herbert Müller, that phenomena are merely “as-if” constructions of the human mind. Such metatheoretical starting assumptions lead to new explanatory frameworks, but there is no compelling reason and no evidence for why anyone should accept them. They are arbitrary. To have meaningful effect, alternative explanations should begin at the descriptive level we already consensually accept. In the case of science, this involves a basis in empirical observation, grounded in human biology. From a known starting point, we can examine corollary processes and assumptions, see where they are lacking, and modify them.
Probably this last dispute is based on a false dichotomy derived from preconceptions about “levels” and hierarchy. My point is that to exclude the D-level in attempting to revise the communal epistemology is a mistake. I think a better strategy is to examine in detail exactly what constitutes an empirical observation and its description.