Monday, November 3, 2008

Evaluating the Unfalsifiable

A few weeks ago my friend John Shook, who serves as a vice president at the Center for Inquiry (a kind of atheist think tank), shared on this blog site his frustration with the ways in which Christianity and other religions render themselves unfalsifiable to critics.

My own view is that the doctrinal component of religion, at least as that component is understood and explicated by progressive theologians, is not a hypothesis about the world, but is rather an overarching interpretation of the world as we experience it—what might be called a worldview. And I think it is a feature of any good worldview that it track onto the empirical world as it is, that is, to fit with the empirical facts whatever they turn out to be. And if this is the case, then any good progressive theologian will be continually shaping and reshaping their religious worldview in the light of the scientific facts, rendering the broader religious thesis--that there is some supernatural dimension to reality--scientifically unfalsifiable.

To think more carefully about this, I want to consider naturalism for a moment. In at least one sense of that word, "naturalism" names a worldview. It says, basically, that the world that we encounter in empirical experience, and which can be studied by science, exhausts what is real. Supernaturalism, by contrast, holds that there is more to reality than meets the empirical eye.

Both of these views have in common the fact that science cannot investigate them. After all, naturalism and supernaturalism are alternative answers to the following question: Is there more to reality than science can discern? Obviously, science cannot discern whether there is more to reality than it can discern. And so it follows that science cannot decide between naturalism and supernaturalism. Neither one is empirically testable.

But what I say here about supernaturalism in general does not necessarily apply to all species of supernaturalism. A species of supernaturalism is more than just a general claim to the effect that there is more to reality than meets the empirical eye. While naturalism has clear implications for the meaning (or lack thereof) of our lived experience, the bare assertion of supernaturalism isn’t very helpful in this regard, and so can hardly qualify as a worldview at all.

To offer an interpretation of experience, the supernaturalist needs to say more. There needs to be some kind of account, however vague or incomplete, of what this something more (“the transcendent,” if you will) is like. And sometimes when people speak about the transcendent, they say things about it which, if true, would have empirical implications—that is, scientifically discernible effects. And so while a bare supernaturalism is as empirically unfalsifiable as naturalism, specific elaborations of supernaturalism may fit or fail to fit with the empirical facts.

Now here’s what I think about that. Whenever someone offers a worldview, that is, an interpretation of human experience, a minimum requirement for adequacy is that this worldview be consistent with what we can discern empirically, in particular what science teaches us. Naturalism, of course, will always be consistent with what science teaches, since it has nothing to say beyond the claim that the empirical facts are all that is the case (once again driving home the fact that naturalism is empirically unfalsifiable). But supernaturalist worldviews might or might not cohere with human experience. Hence, supernaturalists need to study what science teaches us about empirical reality and make sure their worldview fits with what we know. Whatever species of supernaturalism they adopt will need to be treated as tentative, as something to be adjusted and refined as new empirical facts become known.

If supernaturalists follow this course—if they fit their account of supernaturalism to the empirical facts and constantly refine their worldview to accommodate new empirical discoveries—then their supernaturalism will meet the minimum condition necessary for a worldview to be acceptable: coherence with the empirical facts as we know them.

Supernaturalists who do this should not be viewed as “slippery” or as “moving the goal posts.” Instead, supernaturalists who take this approach should be appreciated for taking science seriously and making sure that their worldview meets the minimum requirement for a worldview’s adequacy. If naturalists aren’t called slippery for holding to an unfalisifiable doctrine, then neither should supernaturalists who revise and interpret their worldview to assure consistency with the empirical facts--even if this means that at no point will the falsification of a particular formulation of their supernaturalism require that they give up belief in the transcendent.

But consistency with what we have discovered about the empirical world is only one criterion for the adequacy of a worldview. There are others. Two are especially important. The first, which I want to focus on for the remainder of this post, is this: our worldview needs to help us make sense of the whole of our experience, not just its empirical dimension.

Clearly, there is more to human experience than empirical experience. For example, we experience the world as value-laden in various ways. And then there is our experience of consciousness. We’re not just aware of the empirical world around us, but also aware of our own awareness. That awareness of the world is what we call consciousness. Furthermore, we experience our consciousness as unified, as all of a piece, in the sense that all of it is ours. Put simply, we have the experience of being subjects of consciousness. Subjectivity is in a sense the knot that ties our conscious states together. Some of us, furthermore, have mystical experiences of varying degrees of intensity—that is, we have experiences that feel as if they are encounters with Truth or Reality, but which are non-empirical in nature and cannot be adequately described in terms of the concepts derived from our engagement with the empirical world.

Now naturalists have strategies for accomodating all of these aspects of our experience, of course. Naturalists are quite adept at providing, for example, Darwinian explanations of the origins of our disposition to experience the world as value-laden (they have been less successful in explaining consciousness).

But when they explain the value dimension of our experience in evolutionary terms, they are in effect saying that our experience of the “value-ladenness” of the world is not an encounter with values that are in some way real independent of us. Instead, the experience of value-ladenness is the product of something our brains do, and our brains are disposed to do these things because of the forces of random mutation and natural selection. Our brains impute to the objects of experience values that aren’t really “there” at all, and our brains do this for one of two reasons: either (a) the tendency of our brains to do this provides some advantage in passing on our genes and has therefore been preserved and refined through millennia of random mutation and natural selection; or (b) the tendency of our brains to do this is a side effect of other processes that were selected for. The latter option is especially common when it comes to explaining aesthetic experience.

But here’s the thing. When naturalists explain our experience of a value-laden reality as nothing but a by-product of blind evolutionary forces (or the result of cultural conditioning, as is often also the case), they aren’t exactly explaining this dimension of our experience. They are, rather, explaining it away. That is, they are explaining how we could come to have such experiences even though they are not veridical.

According to naturalism, the objects of our experience are not in fact value-laden at all. My daughter is not objectively valuable. Donizetti’s magnificent opera, Lucia de Lammermoor, does not in itself embody aesthetic greatness. An astonishing gesture of mercy isn’t good in itself. When you say that an act of child abuse is wrong, you aren’t saying anything about the act of child abuse as such. When it feels experientially as if we're recognizing value properties possessed by these things, we are (according to these naturalists) suffering from a delusion that natural selection (or cultural conditioning, or some combination of the two) has predisposed us to have.

And it may well be so. Every worldview will be a mix of explaining and explaining away. But it seems to me that one measure of the adequacy of a worldview is how well it balances these two things. The more a worldview can explain, and the less that it has to explain away, the better the worldview is (all else being equal). Given how much of our experience naturalism may need to explain away, it may be worthwhile to consider seriously the explanatory power of supernaturalist worldviews, at least those that fit with the empirical facts (and so satisfy the first criterion for the adequacy of a worldview). In short, there may be broadly philosophical reasons for favoring one empirically unfalsifiable worldview over another. And when it comes to deciding which worldview to go with, it is such broadly philosophical concerns that we should look to.

There is, however, another important criterion for assessing the adequacy of worldviews, one which I haven’t yet discussed. It is the pragmatic criterion: What implications does a worldview have for our behavior, for how we live our lives, and how well does the behavior inspired by this worldview actually work? This criterion is sufficiently important that I want to treat it in its own right. It is with respect to this criterion that John Shook’s comments about the Christian doctrine of original sin are most salient. Stay tuned, then, for a future post exploring “Pragmatism and Original Sin.”

No comments:

Post a Comment