Wednesday, April 3, 2019

Responding to Ron Garret's Distinction of Science and Religion

The question “Why?” can be answered in terms of causation or purpose.  The question “Why do I exist?” can be taken to mean “What caused me to exist?” or “For what purpose do I exist?”

Ron Garret is to be commended for seeking a respectable reason to explain the wide divergence of beliefs held by good-willed, intelligent thinkers.  At one point in our extended conversation, I responded defensively to an innocuous statement which Ron had made, because I assumed he was looking for an unrespectable reason to explain our divergence, as some other atheists have in the past.  It is very comfortable for certain people on either side of any issue to cast their adversaries as unintelligent or dishonest people.  Of course, that will sometimes be the case.  But if your goal is to actually learn something when talking to someone, it is best to at least start out giving them the benefit of the doubt.

Easier said than done, sometimes.  I am glad that Ron has been so quick to forgive.

In this case, I am still trying to understand Ron’s distinction between what he supposes to be the scientific mindset and the religious mindset.  It may be that I am misrepresenting him here.  As I understand it, it seems to still entail a little bit of a caricature of the religious person.  Not so much of a caricature that I would cast doubt on Ron’s good will, but enough to warrant some discussion.

Ron begins with the observation that explanations come in both “causal” and “teleological” flavors.  It seems that Ron sees the "Scientific" mindset as primarily concerned with causation, and the "Religious" mindset as primarily concerned with teleology, or purpose.  Now, that’s a bit of a restatement of Ron’s position, so he will have to correct me if that is wrong.

As far as I understand him, neither mindset is supposed to ignore their secondary questions.  Religious people can explore causation, and Scientists (capitalized to distinguish philosophical from professional scientists) can explore questions of teleology.  I don’t think Ron meant to imply otherwise.

One point that I disagree with is that, as Ron says, teleology has to be accepted as an axiom.  Ron is correct to note that teleology is not a given: purpose is only possible where intelligence exists.  Thus, if the First and Ultimate cause either (A) does not exist, or (B) is not intelligent, then there can be no purpose except those we determine ourselves.

It follows that the possibility of purpose is not axiomatic, because the possibility of purpose depends on the possibility of intelligence.  Since we are intelligent (remember, “we can know things”), then intelligence is clearly possible.  Thus, purpose is possible.

I wonder if the reason Ron perceives an inordinate preoccupation with teleology among the faithful, is because he is accustomed to making so little of it?  Given evolutionary presuppositions, the "appearance of design" in nature must be viewed as a sort of optical illusion.  Might it be the case that naturalists so often must resist the allusion to intelligence, that any suggestion of design or purpose comes to appear almost offensive?

In fact, teleological presuppositions are, in the context of this discussion, proximal to the more general "worldview" which all must bring to scientific study.  We all have to interpret the evidence through the lens of our worldview.  Thus, it is not the case that the "Scientists" search out causal explanations free of any teleological presuppositions.  Instead, they have brought the presupposition of non-teleology to their search of causal explanations.  In reality, those who practice science and think scientifically include those who hold both kinds of teleological presuppositions, and neither brand of scientist should be considered prima facie superior in their ability to practice science.

There may be more to be said on this.  And I'm not quite sure that I have understood the important points that Ron is trying to make here.  For my own part, I have been surprised to find that Ron's basic assumption that "experiment is the ultimate arbiter of truth" is more or less prevalent among scientific academia.  To me, this assumption is, by itself, sufficient to explain the divergence of the religious minded and those opposed.

Truth absolutely could include facts which are not testable or verifiable by human beings.  Whatever can be tested, absolutely should be tested.  But to say that nothing is true which cannot be tested is plainly self defeating.  For that truth, itself, has not been verified through experimentation!  This assumption conceals an unjustified endorsement of naturalism as a default belief, and thus would be sufficient to explain the overwhelmingly naturalistic bent of explanations arrived at by so many modern scientists.


  1. > neither mindset is supposed to ignore their secondary questions

    Exactly right. The difference (I am hypothesizing) is just in where you *start*, and as a consequence, in how much intellectual scaffolding you already have in place by the time you get around to considering the other question.

    > teleology has to be accepted as an axiom

    No, I'm not saying that. What I'm saying is that *if* you *start* by asking, "What is my purpose?" then you are more likely to conclude that you *do* in fact have a purpose and to have that conclusion firmly entrenched in your mind by the time you get around to considering physics.

    > he is accustomed to making so little of it

    I'll have to write a separate blog post about this, but just for the record: I am not "accustomed to making so little of it." I've given a *lot* of thought to teleology.

    1. >for the record: I am not "accustomed to making so little of it." I've given a *lot* of thought to teleology.

      I knew there was a chance that I was misrepresenting you there. And this makes sense given your other clarifications here. As with "meme-ism", I think your approach here is at least interesting, even if I don't ultimately get on board, I want to at least understand it.

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