By N.S. Palmer
Militant atheists are feeling smug. People of faith are feeling defensive.
Atheists consider themselves fearlessly honest and tough-minded because they embrace materialism and meaninglessness. By contrast, theists allegedly seek refuge in childish fairy tales about kindly, bearded, white-robed father figures who live in the clouds.
Scientists who believe in God are supposed to be particularly ashamed of themselves. They leave the logical, intellectually honest world of their day jobs to go to church or synagogue. There, the story goes, they must “check their brains at the door” to enter a world of superstition and intellectual evasion. The unlettered yahoos who’ve never been inside a college classroom at least have an excuse. People with Ph.D.s are expected to know better.
But is the story true? Is scientific inquiry the only path to real knowledge, and religion a disreputable third cousin selling snake oil to the gullible? And how different are science and religion, anyway?
I’ve argued in another article that science and religion are simply different ways of describing and experiencing the world. They no more contradict each other than quantum physics contradicts classical music.
However, many disputes between science and religion stem from a more specific error about both. Unknown to most scientists and religious believers:
- Scientific and religious belief systems have the same structure.
- Scientific and religious beliefs are justified in the same ways.
- Scientific and religious beliefs serve different purposes in life.
- Neither scientific nor religious beliefs can fairly be evaluated by standards appropriate to the other kind of belief.
Let’s examine these points.
Structure and Justification of Belief
Long before the atheist scientist Richard Dawkins, and even before the Bible-believing theist scientist Isaac Newton, the Jewish philosopher Maimonides (1135-1204) gave a very modern-sounding explanation of how beliefs could be justified.
In his Letter on Astrology, Maimonides lists what he sees as the only valid sources of knowledge:
“It is not proper for a man to accept as trustworthy anything other than one of these three things. The first is a thing for which there is a clear proof deriving from man’s reasoning – such as arithmetic, geometry, and astronomy. The second is a thing that a man perceives through one of the five senses – such as when he knows with certainty that this is red and this is black … The third is a thing that a man receives from the prophets or the righteous.”
And he adds a comment that could easily have come from the mouth of Richard Dawkins:
“Anyone who accepts as trustworthy anything that is not of these three species, of him it is said: ‘The simple believes everything’ (Proverbs 14:15).”
As for physical science, Maimonides recommends it:
“How many amazing conditions are made intelligible by this science, all of which is undoubtedly true?”
Ways of Knowing
Let’s unpack those statements. Translated into modern terminology, Maimonides says that there are only three ways to justify a belief:
By direct intuition and logic
This applies both to formal propositions of logic and arithmetic, and to some empirical propositions. Anyone of normal intelligence can see without proof that if whatever is A is also B, and X is A, then X is also B. That’s an example of a logical principle (modus ponens) required for any thinking at all. Such logical principles are self-evidently true to anyone who understands them. If you start from true premises and apply self-evident logical principles correctly, then your conclusion must also be true.
Direct intuition also applies to some empirical statements. A person who sees a yellow object knows by direct intuition that the color yellow exists. If he has experienced the color yellow, then no proof of its existence is necessary; if he cannot experience it, then no proof of its existence is possible. Or consider the example given by Maimonides:
“… a thing that a man perceives through one of the five senses – such as when he knows with certainty that this is red and this is black.”
You can know by seeing that X is red and Y is black. But what you cannot know merely by seeing is that red and black are different: that item of knowledge comes from direct intuition. This is a subtle point. You see the red thing and the black thing. What you do not see, at least not with your eyes, is their difference. The difference is a meta-fact, a fact about other facts. You can only “see it” with your mind.
If you sense the presence of God in the world, you know something* by direct intuition. If scientists see that a piece of data is consistent with a hypothesis, they know it by direct intuition of the logical relationship.
By empirical verification
This is the usual method of science. For example, you hypothesize that an unknown sub-atomic particle called a Higgs boson is responsible for the behavior of other sub-atomic particles. You then think of a way to test for the existence of the Higgs boson. If the test confirms your hypothesis, you assume that the Higgs boson is real unless contrary evidence or a better explanation comes along.
At a more familiar level, observing cat hair on the floor might lead you to hypothesize that your cat is hiding under the bed. You get down on your hands and knees, and you look under the bed. That’s an empirical test for the presence of your cat. If you see the cat, your hypothesis is confirmed, and you are justified in believing that the cat is under the bed. Of course, getting the cat out from under the bed is an entirely different and much more difficult problem.
If you see the effects of God’s love on people and their lives, you know something by empirical verification. If scientists see the results of experiments, they know something by empirical verification.
By testimony from credible sources
Most of what we know about the world comes from the testimony of other people. It’s impossible for us, as individuals, to verify the course of the Nile, the principal export of Norway, and most of the other facts we count as knowledge. Likewise, no scientist personally verifies every fact or principle used in his or her work. All scientists rely on the testimony of others for most of the things they know.
If you accept the Bible’s claims about God’s love, you know it by testimony from credible sources. If scientists accept claims in professional journals about results of other scientists’ work, they know it by testimony from credible sources.
Even militant atheists like Richard Dawkins agree with this list. They might argue about the reliability of religious evidence, but they can’t claim that theists are doing something crazy, or something completely different from what secular scientists do. They’re not. They using very similar methods to achieve knowledge in very similar ways.
Those are the ways, according to both Jewish philosophy and modern science, in which beliefs can be justified as knowledge. But not all beliefs require justification. Beliefs that we treat as not needing justification are called foundational propositions.
No journey has only a destination: it must also have a starting point. Likewise, no chain of reasoning has only a conclusion: it must have premises that lead to and justify it. In turn, the premises themselves must be justified, leading us backward until we reach an axiomatic set of ideas that are either self-evidently true or are simply accepted on faith. Whether in science, ethics, or religion, all knowledge depends on some premises that have no prior logical justification.
For science, two key axiomatic beliefs are induction and the uniformity of nature, neither of which can be proven without circular reasoning. For Judaism, two key axiomatic beliefs are the Divine inspiration (however interpreted) of the Torah and the special responsibility of the Jewish people.
Samson Raphael Hirsch, one of the founders of Modern Orthodox Judaism, recognized the foundational status of beliefs that we simply accept or don’t accept. Making the same point as the Christian theologian Saint Augustine, who said that “I believe in order to understand,” he argued that “belief in the Divine origin of the laws must precede the search into their inner meaning … The human intellect should be used for the exposition of the mitzvoth and for penetration into their meaning, but not as arbiter of their acceptance or rejection.” (Horeb, p. lxxxvi. Soncino Press, New York, 1994)
The important point is that every system of knowledge depends on faith in some axiomatic beliefs. Science relies on faith just as much as religion does.
How Can We Justify Foundational Propositions?
In science or in religion, we can’t justify foundational propositions by appealing to logic or empirical evidence. If we do, then we’re not treating the propositions as foundational and we often fall into the trap of circular reasoning.
For example: How can we justify induction, the scientific assumption that patterns seen in the past will repeat in the future? I’ve seen 100 apples and they’ve all been red. From that evidence, I reason by induction that the next apple I see will be red.
However, if I use the same method to justify induction, my logic is circular: I assume that induction is true in order to prove it’s true. I can accept induction on faith or I can reject it, but in no case can I prove it. It’s a foundational proposition.
So how can we assess foundational propositions? If we can’t use logical proof, then it seems like anyone could propose anything. Why not believe that the world was created by a giant turtle who smokes cigarettes and speaks Japanese?
Dawkins gives the right answer, though he applies it only to scientific assumptions. He argues that the appropriate test is “It works, bitches!”
That’s entirely accurate: Physical science and the scientific method, together with the unproven assumptions on which they rely**, do indeed work. However, they work only for their specific purpose: to understand and control events in the physical universe.
They don’t work at all for questions whose answers transcend the physical universe — including the question of whether there is anything that transcends the physical universe. Even within the physical universe, they don’t work perfectly, as the history of discarded scientific certainties, harmful medical treatments, and malfunctioning technologies demonstrates. But they work well enough to be helpful.
Foundational propositions are justified pragmatically if they reliably produce the desired results — reliably enough to be helpful.
Therefore, to assess foundational propositions, you need to know what the desired results are.
For science, as I said, the desired results are to understand and control events in the physical universe. Religion isn’t much good for that. However, to criticize religion because it won’t help you build an airplane is like criticizing a Volvo because it won’t give you a haircut.
The Purpose of Religion
The purpose of religion is not to help us understand and control the physical universe. It’s to help us understand and live with our spiritual universe, both internal and external. It’s to give us a peek, however dimly, into the eternal, and to connect us with the love of God. It’s to help us become better people. It’s to help us find courage and hope in our darkest hour.
Science is absolutely terrible at those things. Its best advice is to commit suicide now, because according to the Second Law of Thermodynamics, things will only get worse.
Does religion succeed in achieving its purpose? If so, then its foundational propositions are justified.
And that depends as much on us as it does on God.
* Critics fairly point out that the exact nature of the “something” is open to dispute.
** Before the year 1905, when Albert Einstein published his work on Brownian motion, most scientists believed atoms did not exist. They considered atomic theory just a useful (but false) assumption that helped in their work.
Copyright 2013 by N.S. Palmer. May be reproduced as long as byline, copyright notice, and URL (http://www.ashesblog.com) are included.