Saturday, January 12, 2013

Should We Only Believe That Which Can Be Scientifically Proven?

The philosopher is the lover of wisdom. To not think, is his worst crime. 

Consider the following proposition:

  • We should only believe to be true that which can be scientifically proven

And now ask yourself:

  • Is this proposition self contradictory due to the believed inability to scientifically prove that we should only believe that which can be scientifically proven? 
  • Is this a case of positivism? 
  • Does the existence of transcendent experience, moral experience, philosophical and metaphysical facts, and historical facts exist beyond what science, or knowledge gained through our senses can measure?

Perhaps my bias as a naturalist will become apparent, but I generally agree that we should only believe what can be scientifically proven, because if something can be scientifically proven, we can know it is true. And unless there is some invisible force deliberately messing with our senses (whose existence we could never prove) we can reliably trust that our cognitive faculties are accurate.

Now there are areas of knowledge where science gives partial explanation, but falls short of proving it. For example, the multiverse theory hasn't been proven but is speculated within the laws of physics. A lot of science is theoretical in the sense that it is not yet a valid scientific theory. That's fine, every scientific theory starts out as just a regular theory. When something falls short of being proved, then we should also consider the theory not as fact, but as a possibility.

One thing is for sure, and that is science works. Science has been the most successful method for discovering facts that mankind has ever utilized. Science is the reason why most of us exist, and it is the reason why we have the modern world. Now to say that it is a logical contradiction that we should only believe what can be scientifically proven because we can't prove that we should only believe what can be scientifically proven, is a philosophical and logical play on words, as I shall examine.

If you're going to say that personal intuition, or that revelation is a better way of coming to know truth, I am sorry to say, but this is demonstrably untrue.

  • Personal intuition and revelation are about as reliable as guess work is when it comes to finding the truth. 
  • If you grant one revelation, why not grant all the others? The fact that revelations contradict each other and sometimes even contradict themselves, is reason to question their validity. 
  • If revelation and intuition are contradicted by science, we always go with science because science is evidence based. 
  • If science ever gets something wrong, and it does all the time, the scientific method has a built in self-correcting mechanism that revelation doesn't have. In fact, we use science to disprove revelations when they make scientific claims larger than they can justify.

So I want to examine a few of the areas that are believed by some that are said to transcend the domain of science.

The Transcendent
First, I have established that science works. It is the best method we have for finding empirical truth. Second,  personal experiences like the transcendent, or moral intuition can also be explained by science. The transcendent experience that theists always talk about is not something unique unto one religion, it is an experience just about anyone can have within many contexts, religious or not. The fact that the Buddhist and Hindu can experience the transcendent in such ways that strengthen their faith, and thus take them further away from Christianity or the god of Abraham, shows you that there is a universality to the experience and that it is not something caused by the god of Abraham or any other god. Indeed, the causes of transcendent experience are rooted in the neurological components of the brain as I will explain. That means the atheist too can have this experience, and so what this shows is that the transcendent is a product of our evolved human consciousness. No god is required.

Several years ago neuroscientists Andrew Newberg and Eugene D'Aquili wrote a piece for a PBS special on god called Wired for the Ultimate Reality: The Neuropsychology of Religious Experience where they explain some of the neurochemical bases for transcendent experience. They write:

It has now become possible to consider asking questions regarding how complex behaviors, thoughts, and feelings occur, even when they are associated with religious and spiritual experience. Our research has been devoted to elucidating the nature of these experiences by determining their underlying biological mechanisms.
We have generally proposed that there are two classes of neuropsychological mechanisms which underlie the development of religious experiences and behaviors. These two classes of mechanisms represent two lines of neurological development involving the evolution of brain structures that comprise what we have previously referred to as the causal operator on the one hand and the holistic operator on the other. "Operators" refer to networks of nerve tissue in the brain which perform specific functions — in the first case allowing us to perceive causality and in the second allowing us to perceive wholeness in the midst of diversity. There is growing evidence that such overarching functions exist in the brain. In considering these two operators, we are led to the heart of why human beings use the concept of supersensible forces or powers (i.e. the concept of a deity) to help control their environment in such a way as to attain those needs which the culture defines as fundamental.
Based on our model presented in prior works as well as our book, it seems that all unitary experiences — ranging from mild aesthetic experiences such as watching a beautiful sunset to the most profound states that may occur only after years of meditation — may have their basis in neuroanatomy, neurophysiology, and the flux of neurotransmitters. We have even suggested that there is an aesthetic-religious continuum that is based upon the progressive activation of the holistic operator such that the more profound the experience, the greater the sense of unity.

They also note the critics of this kind of research:

Many find it deeply disturbing that the experience of God, the sense of the absolute, the sense of mystery and beauty in the universe, the most profoundly moving experiences of which humans are capable, might be reducible to specific brain functions that may even be measurable on advanced brain imaging studies.

The fact that science is now able to explain that which was only explainable by invoking the supernatural is an astonishing achievement in the capability of the human intellect. So as we can see, the transcendent is not something that lies beyond what science can explain.

Moral Experience
Moral experience, or the internal feeling of moral virtues, are also explained by evolution, which would also fall under what science can prove. Morality is indeed the byproduct of our evolutionary development, and all the scientific evidence shows this. Evolution by natural selection shaped us into moral beings, and it went something like this.

Our primate ancestors lived in small social groups. Although there was sometimes fierce fighting over mates and territory, they naturally conformed to a social code of ethics and behavioral norms. These proto-ethics form the basis of what our current morality evolved from. What enabled our ancestral primates to survive and evolve into us was a code of ethics and behavioral norms that allowed for social groups to exist without self destructing. That means as a social species that they were not simply all out for themselves or their own self interests. They had to sacrifice their personal desires at times for the well being of the group. Altruistic behavior evolves out of this sacrifice for the group because each group member's mutual interest was in the survival of the group. The strength of the group was always important because there was always competition from rival groups.

Millions of years later, prehistoric man worked in much the same way with his tribe, and slowly as tribes evolved into chiefdoms and then into states and empires, this in-group vs. out-group idea still held. The lines were drawn in ethnicity, language, geography, religion and social class - distinctions ancient man thought justified his hostile treatment towards the other. As we got closer to the modern era, mankind's intellect forced him to rationally justify why discrimination based on ethnicity, language, geography, religion and social class was moral. Being that science has shown our common ancestry, and that we are much more alike than we are different, the rationale for this discrimination evaporated. And thus we have a more humane and ethical world. Mankind was always able to behave morally with his in group, we just never really extended that to members of the out group. Once we got over our fear of the out-group, we learned to treat all people morally.

Now if this was true, we would expect natural selection to have selected for people who were able to live with others and who were naturally tuned for certain behavioral traits. Willful murder, rape and theft, would always be considered wrong in a social society, because no one would ever be able to know who's going to be next, and this would break down the social order. Since we are social primates by nature, we require a social order.

Now you might be asking yourself - what about male aggression? If a male rapes many females, won't his DNA will be more likely to succeed to the next generation as is evident in many species of animals? Why isn't male aggression also selected by natural selection? Well, it actual is, which is why males are more aggressive than females in almost all species. Although male sexual aggression helps the male spread his seed better, in practicality, human infants are among the most helpless of all species, and need as much help from as many parents as they can. So a male who impregnates a dozen women, is never going to be able to raise and provide for all those babies, and they will likely die as a result. And a male who rapes a female already paired up with another male also risks retaliation by the other male. So the biological nature of the human species forced males to invest in a relatively small number of offspring that they could ensure the survival of, and that forms the basis of pair bonding and love to keep mother and father together to raise the young.

Now the theist will complain that our evolved morality doesn't have any transcendent cosmic significance, but I say "Who cares?" Our morality is only relevant to our species, it doesn't apply to aliens on some other world, it doesn't apply to other species of animals. I even ask theists who the ten commandments would apply to in a universe without humans, and they admit that they wouldn't apply to anyone. In order for moral truths to exist you must begin with a certain set of variables existing. Each hypothetical species that could have evolved in our place might have their own moral codes that uniquely apply to the nature of that species. The bottom line is that our moral gut intuitions are the product of millions of years of evolutionary selection that had a bias in favor of those who could live civilly with others in relatively small social environments. Our intellect, which also was selected by evolution, enabled us to consider morality from the perspective of reason and logic. And it's funny how if you look at any rationally justified moral, it is justified under a given set of prerequisite variables like the laws of physics and the biological nature of humans.

Philosophical and Metaphysical Facts
So if moral experience doesn't require anything supernatural beyond which science can prove, we are left with philosophical and metaphysical facts. Well I think philosophy too is constrained by what science says to be true. Philosophy cannot contradict the laws of physics, it must work within it. With philosophy we can derive an ought from what science can tell us is what is, but any objective truth philosophy can show us, will also have to be measurable by science. For example, if philosophy can tell us what system of morals leads to be least amount of misery and suffering among humans, that can be scientifically demonstrated.

With metaphysics we are concerned largely with ontology. Ontological arguments for the existence of the supernatural amount to nothing more than philosophical wordplay. Just because I can say something exists, or can conjure up the idea of something in my mind, doesn't mean it does or can exist. In other words, when we are dealing with metaphysical concepts that exist beyond of domain of empirical science, we are dealing with conjecture. They can be about as real as any far fetched idea the human imagination can come up with that is short of being proved. And that is to say, not real at all.

The human mind can conjure up a lot more than gods and goddesses. Abstract mathematical or philosophical concepts like logic itself need not require a god. Logic is considered to be transcendent in the sense that if something is demonstrated to be logically true, there can be no possible worlds where it can't be true. Others consider logic only to be true depending on a certain set of conditions preexisting, such as our universe's laws of physics, and that logic will differ depending on the laws of physics differing. If this is so, logic is relative and not an absolute. However, the law of non-contradiction to me seems to be a transcendent concept where there can be no possible world where it can be violated. Our application of logic therefore is only limited by our understanding of the natural laws of physics, and any logical theory that is not corroborated by physics is deemed illogical. So logic, philosophy and metaphysics all operate within the the domain of science where their truth can be demonstrated.

Historical Facts
Many historical "facts" bare no physical evidence backing them up. Often the only evidence backing them up are the written accounts by eyewitnesses. That being said we can never empirically prove that they actually happened, we can only be reasonable sure that they did. We don't know for example if Socrates ever existed, we only know of him as a character in Plato's dialogues. It is possible he could have been invented. Short of empirical verification, we cannot reasonably say certain historical events are facts, we can only give their truth a level of probability. But if they involve the supernatural like the story of Jesus, we must apply a stronger lens of scrutiny. Carl Sagan famously said "Extraordinary claims demand extraordinary evidence." Jesus is only known to us through third person written accounts written 70 years or so after the events allegedly happened.

Now I'm not a biblical scholar, but considering that we know the human imagination can run wild, and that mass delusion exists, and that mankind invented every other religion using his own imagination, willfully or not, it seems the most likely plausible explanation for Jesus' resurrection is that it is born out of myth. Therefore, the books of the New Testament, just like much of the Old Testament, all stop short of being considered "facts". To further this point, Israeli archaeology has even been able to show contradictory evidence for many of the most important Old Testament stories.

And if any god did exist, why wouldn't he just make his existence scientifically verifiable? One reason I'm told over and over again is that it could be that god has sufficient reasons to do so beyond which we can know.  But that's basically like saying "The lord works in mysterious ways." In other words, it gets us no where intellectually. You only dig yourself a hole to be filled with anyone's conjecture. And considering that, it seems more feasible for me to assume that god remains mysterious and beyond what science can prove because he doesn't really exist.

Considering the proposition, positivism goes a step further and says that what science can prove to be true is the exclusive source of all authoritative knowledge. In other words, beyond what information science can confirm through our senses, there exists no obtainable knowledge. This would of course discredit god, and the supernatural since they exist outside what science can confirm. I would not commit myself to positivism as I would not commit myself to saying I know for a fact that there is no god. I say that it cannot be proved, tested or observed and thus I am within my rational faculties to conclude its existence is false.

Any concept or idea whose existence or truth lies beyond that which can be proven scientifically, is always open to conjecture or imagination. We can imagine a multitude of different gods and possible universes, but that doesn't mean that any of them can be true. Just because the human imagination can think it, doesn't mean it can translate to reality, even if it is not self contradictory.

So finally, here is what we are left with. There is a group of people who claim that the existence of many different gods or many different versions of the same god exists. They each insist they're right, and the other believer's gods are false. They also say that the existence of their god or gods lies beyond the domain of science and thus cannot be empirically proven. At best, the evidence for their god's existence is circumstantial. So their god must be believed in on a statement of faith, and according to some of them, if this leap of faith is not taken, you might be given an eternal sentence of conscious torture.

There is another group of people, who say that we can only know what is true by what can be scientifically demonstrated. Anything else lies beyond our current scope of knowledge and should be considered theoretical, speculative or something that exists in the realm of subjective opinion. If and when it becomes scientifically proven, it will become part of what we know to be true. There is no place of eternal misery for not believing in this method of verificationism, or if any currently unproven theories are believed. You are free to believe what you want.

Science is the best method for finding empirical truth. Other methods of finding "truth" such as intuition and revelation have been about as successful as making guesses is. And if any information gained by revelation is contradicted by science, almost all logicians will go with science over the revelation. Since science always reigns supreme, we might therefore be able to say that we can scientifically prove that we should only believe that which can be scientifically proven. Now of course it would be a little arrogant for an atheist like me to say I know for a fact that nothing lies beyond the domain of science. However, it is reasonable and rational to be skeptical that these domains exist, especially when considering the supposed intuitions that indicate that they do exist, can all be explained by science.

No comments:

Post a Comment


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...