The Predicament of Belief: Science, Philosophy, and Faith

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Indeed, we consider them among the most meaningful and pressing of questions. Sam Harris, in his book The Moral Landscape , recently developed a version of that view. Science remains capable of playing an important role in justifying and challenging many moral beliefs, most obviously those who justification depends in part upon empirical assumptions.

If I believe women ought not to have the vote because I believe both that people of low intelligence ought not to have the vote and that women are of low intelligence, then my justification can be straightforwardly shown to fail by scientific evidence that women are not of low intelligence.

Science might also reveal that, say, at least some of moral intuitions are not to be trusted, by showing that what is actually shaping our intuitive moral responses is, in some cases, morally irrelevant. On my view, philosophical questions are for the most part conceptual rather than scientific or empirical and the methods of philosophy are, broadly speaking, conceptual rather than scientific or empirical. Could there have been only four people present at that gathering?

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At first glance, there might seem to be a conceptual obstacle to there being just four people present — surely, more people are required for all those familial relations to hold between them? But in fact the appearance is deceptive. There could just be four people present. To see that there being just four people present is not conceptually ruled out, we have to unpack, and explore the connections between, the various concepts involved. That is something that can be done from the comfort of your armchair.

Many philosophical puzzles have a similar character. Consider for example this puzzle associated with Heraclitus. If you jump into a river and then jump in again, the river will have changed in the interim.

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Being forced into such a paradox by a seemingly cogent argument is a common philosophical predicament. This particular puzzle is fairly easily solved: the paradoxical conclusion that the number of rivers jumped into is two not one is generated by a faulty infere nce. Philosophers distinguish at least two kinds of identity or sameness. Numerical identity holds where the number of objects is one, not two as when we discover that Hesperus, the evening star, is identical with phosphorus, the morning star.

Qualitative identity holds where two objects share the same qualities e. Having made this conceptual clarification, we can now see that the argument generating that generates our paradox trades on an ambiguity. Perhaps not all philosophical puzzles can be solved by such means, but at least one can. So some philosophical puzzles are essentially conceptual in nature, and some well, one at least can be solved by armchair, conceptual methods.

Still, I have begun with a simple, some might say trivial, philosophical example. The mind-body problem, or at least a certain versions of it, also appears to be essentially conceptual character. On the one hand, there appear reasons to think that if mental is to have causal effects on the physical, then it will have to be identical with the physical.

On the other hand, there appear to be conceptual obstacles to identifying the mental with the physical. Of course, scientists might establish various correlations between the mental and the physical. Suppose, for the sake of argument, that science establishes that whenever someone is in pain, their C-fibres are firing, and vice versa. Would scientists have then established that these properties are one and the same property — that pain just is C-fibre firing — in the way they have established that, say, heat just is molecular motion or water just is H 2 O?

Not necessarily. Correlation is not identity. Of course, the intuition that certain things are ruled out can be deceptive. Earlier, we saw that the appearance the concepts son, daughter, etc. Has Kripke here identified a genuine conceptual obstacle? Or perhaps not: perhaps it will turn out, on closer examination, that there is no such obstacle here. The only way to show that, however, will be through logical and conceptual work.

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Just as in the case of our puzzle about whether only four people might be at the family gathering and the puzzle about jumping into one and the same river twice, a solution will require we engage, not in an empirical investigation, but in reflective armchair inquiry. So, many philosophical problems — from some of the most trivial to some of the hardest — appear to be essentially conceptual in nature, requiring armchair, conceptual work to solve. Some are solvable, and indeed have even been solved the puzzle about the river. On the other hand, it might turn out that at least some philosophical problems are necessarily insoluble, perhaps because we have certain fundamental conceptual commitments that are either directly irreconcilable or else generate unavoidable paradoxes when combined with certain empirically discovered facts.

But is that all there is to philosophy? What of the grander metaphysical vision traditionally associated with academic philosophy? What of plumbing the deep, metaphysical structure of reality? But how are philosophers equipped to reveal such hidden metaphysical depths by sitting in the armchairs with their eyes closed and having a good think? If we want to find out about reality — about how things stand outside our own minds — surely we will need to rely on empirical methods.

There is no other sort of window on to reality — no other knowledge-delivery mechanism by which knowledge of the fundamental nature of that reality might be revealed. This is, of course, a traditional empiricist worry. There is no mysterious extra sense, faculty, or form of intuition we might employ, while sat in our armchairs, to reveal further, deep, metaphysical facts about external reality.

If the above thought is correct, and armchair methods are incapable of revealing anything about the nature of reality outside our own minds, then philosophy, conceived as a grand metaphysical exploration upon which we can embark while never leaving the comfort of our armchairs, is in truth a grand waste of time.

Philip Clayton on Confronting the Predicament of Belief

So I have a fairly modest conception of the capabilities of philosophy. Yes, I believe we can potentially solve philosophical puzzles by armchair methods, and I believe this can be a very valuable exercise. However, I am suspicious of the suggestion that we should construe what we then achieve as our having made progress in revealing the fundamental metaphysical nature of reality, a task to I which suspect such reflective, armchair methods are ultimately hopelessly inadequate.

After all, scientists sometimes employ the same methods, and with scientifically valuable results.

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Galileo is credited with constructing a thought experiment by which he established that the Aristotelean theory that heavier objects fall faster than lighter ones in direct proportion to their weight is mistaken. This theory could be empirically tested of course, and some suppose Galileo tested it by dropping objects from the top of the leaning tower of Pisa. However, Galileo himself records no such an experiment.

What Galileo did do was perform a thought experiment.

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He imagined the hypothetical balls of different weights now chained together. But then the balls combined should fall more slowly than did the heavier individually. Thus it cannot be true. In so far as it targets a scientific theory — a theory about how physical objects behave — perhaps it belongs more properly to science.

However, the same armchair method employed by Galileo is also regularly employed by philosophers. I turn now to Richard Dawkins.

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To what extent is Dawkins wedded to scientism? In I engaged in a public discussion with Dawkins on this subject. So, Dawkins is not dismissive of philosophy as I understand it and in the form I would wish to defend it. Having said that, I suspect that, insofar as philosophy is understood as an activity aimed at revealing how things stand in reality, Dawkins would dismiss armchair philosophy as a waste of time. I turn now turn to religious, New Age and forms of popular divine or supernatural belief, and the suggestion that those who are critical of such beliefs from a scientific perspective are often guilty of scientism.

A thought often employed by those who make the accusation of scientism in defence of such beliefs is that reality is divided by something like a veil. On one side of the veil lies the empirically observable, investigable, material world. On the other side lies a divine or supernatural realm. Occult forces and energies are also supposed by some to operate behind such a veil. Usually, some sort of super-sense is invoked. Others believe they are able to sense the presence of guardian angels or other spirit guides or beings. The Delphic oracle of ancient Greece received communications from the god Apollo while perched on a tripod placed over vapors rising from a chasm. Some religious believe also at least some of us possess a reliably functioning god-sense or sensus-divinitatis by means of which the Judeo-Christian God reveals himself.

The empirical sciences, by contrast, are incapable of penetrating the veil. The proper province of those sciences lies this side of the veil.

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But then, they quickly a dd, neither can these beliefs be refuted by such means. The veil effectively immunizes beliefs about what lies beyond against any sort of scientific, empirical refutation. A version of this thought that there are these two domains, of which the methods employed by empirical science are suited to investigate only one, is presented by scientist Stephen J.

Science is concerned with the age of rocks, etc. Religion is not well-equipped to address questions about, say, the way the Earth was formed and life appeared. That is the proper business of science. But then similarly, the empirical sciences are in no position to address questions about meaning and value or the existence of, say, souls or God.