Reality and Its Rivals: Putting Epistemology First

Being epistemically responsible – not taking appearances at face value and seeking external confirmation for belief – inevitably pushes us toward intersubjectivity and science. This in turn increases the plausibility of the claim that there’s nothing over and above the natural world, what science shows to exist.


About the most crucial distinction we can make as cognitive creatures is between appearance and reality, between how things seem and how they really are, between subjectivity and objectivity. We learn, often the hard way, that our impressions and cognitions are sometimes biased, truncated, or in the worst case simply missing. We reach what we assume is the bottom of a stairway, stepping confidently out onto the floor, only to find ourselves plunging yet another step down. We’re sure Congress will pass the (first) 700 billion dollar bailout bill, only to discover in the closing minutes that Republican constituencies will have none of it. For a century we blithely go about our energy consuming, carbon-emitting ways only to discover we’ve been heating up the planet. It seemed our way of life was sustainable; in reality it wasn’t. It seemed (at least to some of us insouciant investors) that unregulated mortgage-based securities could coexist with a stable financial system, that they represented real wealth, but in reality they didn’t. In countless matters great and small we stand corrected in our perceptions and assumptions by feedback from the world. With some notable exceptions to be discussed below, we are perforce commonsense empiricists, wanting to operate under the guidance of an adequate model of reality so that our projects come to fruition. The possibility that we could be mistaken in our modeling should always be present to us, prompting us to gather data in advance of action. If we’re smart we test the waters – depth, purity, temperature – before diving in.

The empirical imperative, with us since the first mobile creatures started making a living on Earth, is now a collective human project in the practice of science. Over the past 300 years we’ve seen the rise and refinement of scientific methods of inquiry that give us ever more precise models of how things work, allowing unprecedented prediction and control over many aspects of nature, including ourselves. The vast reach of technology and the reliable power it gives us are the practical proof that science often gets reality right, at least in the domains that human perception, aided by instruments, has accessed thus far. But this success has only been achieved by cognitive humility before nature: many models have been tried and found wanting (phlogiston, luminiferous ether, protoplasm, élan vital) and no model is ever immune from further questioning and experiment. Always the suspicion lurks that we might be wrong, that even our best theories might be superceded by more accurate successors.

Disdaining empiricism

This attitude, and the scientific, empirical methods of inquiry that increase accuracy and allay doubt (at least temporarily), are among our most precious cultural resources. But although there are many organizations promoting science, and more broadly an evidence-based, factual approach to knowledge claims, the explicit case for empiricism as a central cognitive virtue doesn’t get much attention. Science has great prestige, but the reasons for its success, which lie in acknowledging our fallibility in modeling the world, need to be explicitly championed. This has become necessary because opposite attitudes – of religiously inspired anti-empiricism, of populist anti-intellectualism, of disdain for “elite” expertise, of supposing that we can “create our own reality” as one Bush administration official put it – have gained ground. Contempt for intellectual prowess is now a badge of honor on one side of the culture wars, worn even by Hillary Clinton in her primary campaign when she labeled Obama’s economic advisors “elitist.” It was vividly on display during Sarah Palin’s vice-presidential candidacy, beginning with her assertion of the virtue of unalloyed self-confidence. Asked by Charles Gibson of ABC News if she had any doubts about her qualifications, she responded: “I didn’t hesitate… I have the confidence and that readiness…you can’t blink, you have to be wired in a way of being so committed to the mission that we’re on… so I didn’t blink then even, when asked to be his running mate.”

As Chris Mooney documents in his book The Republican War On Science, anti-empiricism is driven by ideology and profit as well as by its role as a cultural identifier. Christian evangelicals, who believe the planet and its life forms are God’s creations, and that Darwin’s theory of natural selection inevitably leads to moral decay, have a religious stake in science being wrong about evolution and cosmology. They work tirelessly to inject young earth creationism and its offspring, intelligent design, into school curricula, neither of which have any empirical basis (although they’re claimed to, a point to which we’ll return below). Religiously motivated opponents of birth control, abortion, stem cell research and gay marriage have sought to disseminate information at odds with science: about the supposed inefficacy of condoms in preventing the spread of HIV, the purportedly dire psychological impact of having an abortion or growing up with two mommies or daddies, and the supposedly superior feasibility of some alternatives to embryonic stem cells. Seeking to avoid regulation, oil and tobacco companies and other businesses with investments at odds with public health and environmental sustainability have sought to bar the release of, or weaken, scientific findings about smoking, pollution, global warming, and other threats. Religious and business interests have made common cause in making war on science, or at least filtering its findings through the lens of a worldview or a corporate prospectus. As a result, public health has suffered and we’ve lost valuable time in responding to climate change.

This statement of the obvious – that respect for empiricism matters, crucially – simply sets the stage for the central argument of this paper: that when it comes to representing reality, there is no coherent, ethically responsible substitute for science and other empirical disciplines. The alternatives – faith-based religions, empirically unfounded secular ideologies, and commercial agendas hostile to evidence – often claim to be objective representations of how the world is in various respects, but have no entitlement to such claims. The only reliable basis for knowledge, the only route from subjectivity to objectivity, is to relentlessly subject a belief to doubt, then to allay the doubt (or confirm it) by gathering evidence that’s independent of one’s commitment to the belief. To the extent that worldviews, however widely held, fail to test their factual claims using publicly available evidence, and to the extent these claims are incapable of being tested, they fail as contenders for truth. To make this point, openly and unabashedly, is simply to take epistemology – the basis for knowledge – as seriously as it deserves to be taken. If we’re interested in knowing what’s real and how things work, finding reliable grounds for beliefs is of the first importance. And in the public domain, where belief-based actions have the greatest consequences, there is, or should be, no greater interest. We must put epistemology first and get it right, and make no bones about it.

Misplaced concessions to non-empiricism

Most organizations in the U.S. that champion science take the politically safe route of conceding a certain respect to their biggest epistemic competition, traditional faith-based institutional religions such as Christianity. A popular rationale for such respect is that science and religion don’t conflict since science can’t evaluate religious claims about the supernatural; it’s only concerned with the natural, material world. This suggests that religions have epistemic authority when it comes to the supernatural. Some recent statements about the relationship of science and religion make this point: 

Science is recognized internationally as the best way to find out about the natural world. But the natural world is not the only thing that human beings ask questions about…[M]ost people believe that there is a universe or world or something beyond or other than the material one, which is populated by gods, spirits, ancestors, or other non-material beings. Science doesn’t tell us anything about this world; this transcendent world is the provenance of religion. – Eugenie C. Scott, Evolution vs. Creationism, p. 47, original emphasis.

Because science is limited to explaining the natural world by means of natural processes, it cannot use supernatural causation in its explanations. Similarly, science is precluded from making statements about supernatural forces because these are outside its provenance. Science has increased our knowledge because of this insistence on the search for natural causes.  - National Science Teachers Association, in Teaching About Evolution and the Nature of Science p. 124

At the root of the apparent conflict between some religions and evolution is a misunderstanding of the critical difference between religious and scientific ways of knowing. Religions and science answer different questions about the world. Whether there is a purpose to the universe or a purpose for human existence are not questions for science. . . . Science is a way of knowing about the natural world. It is limited to explaining the natural world through natural causes. Science can say nothing about the supernatural. Whether God exists or not is a question about which science is neutral.  - National Academy of Science, also in Teaching About Evolution and the Nature of Science, p. 58 

These statements suggest that faith-based religions, or more broadly, non-empirically based worldviews, might have domains of epistemic competence, for instance in knowing about the supernatural, paranormal or astrological. This in turn suggests that there might be reliable and objective understandings of these domains, lending support to the idea they actually exist. In the last quote above, the National Academy of Science (NAS) contrasts religious and scientific ways of knowing, and says science can’t pronounce on the nature and existence of the supernatural. This implies that religious ways of knowing can, and might be authoritative in confirming its existence the way science is when describing nature. But this is exactly what should not be conceded. By implying non-empiricism might have some epistemic merit as a route to objectivity in certain realms, the NAS and other science-promoting organizations miss the biggest selling point for science, or more broadly, intersubjective empiricism: it has no rival when it comes to modeling reality in any domain that’s claimed to exist.

The reason is simple but needs to be made explicit: religious and other non-empirical ways of knowing don’t sufficiently respect the distinction between appearance and reality, between subjectivity and objectivity. They are not sufficiently on guard against the possibility that one’s model of the world is biased by perceptual limitations, wishful thinking, uncorroborated intuition, conventional wisdom, cultural tradition, and other influences that may not be responsive to the way the world actually is. Faith-based religions and other non-empirically based worldviews routinely make factual assertions about the existence of God, paranormal abilities, astrological influences, the power of prayer, etc. So they are inevitably in the business of representing reality, of describing what they purport to be objective truths, some of which concern the supernatural. But having signed on to the cognitive project of supplying an accurate model of the world, they routinely violate basic epistemic standards of reliable cognition. There’s consequently no reason to grant them any domain of cognitive competence. Although this might sound arrogant, it’s a judgment reached from the standpoint of epistemic humility: that beliefs worthy of being called knowledge must submit to the tribunal of intersubjective, that is, publicly observable, evidence. Objectivity is only gained through intersubjectivity. It is therefore well within the purview of organizations promoting science to call their non-empirical rivals to account instead of granting them implicit dispensation to make truth claims about the supernatural and paranormal. Not only that, it’s arguably an ethical obligation. Coming clean about the failure of non-empirical ways of knowing is an essential step towards assuming our collective cognitive responsibilities in the age of science and globally interconnective technology, when beliefs can have instant and far-reaching worldwide effects. This is Sam Harris’s crucial point against the politically correct public respect for faith, and it needs support and amplification, but in a way that doesn’t further alienate opponents of empiricism.[1]

Appropriating science

Most thoughtful religionists, paranormalists, New Agers, or adherents of other non-science based worldviews feel, at least to some extent, the force of the empirical imperative: that beliefs need validation independent of one’s subjective convictions. There are two main ways that they attempt to satisfy this requirement. One is to claim to be doing science, the other is to claim that there are reliable non-scientific ways of knowing which reveal truths that science can’t capture.

(As Tom Gilson at Thinking Christian rightly points out, religionists also justify and validate their beliefs using philosophical arguments and historical evidence, see our three part exchange on naturalism.)

The first strategy is exemplified by creationists and proponents of intelligent design, who argue that science, were it honestly and properly conducted, would consider and confirm supernatural explanations of phenomena, for instance the appearance of life on earth and the diversity of species. Science, they say, has been hijacked by philosophical and metaphysical naturalists, who conspire to discount evidence that the earth was created 10,000 years ago, or that the human form is the result of supernatural agency, not the historically contingent process of natural selection. The difficulty with this line of argument is that science as it’s commonly practiced manifestly does not make any commitment to naturalism (see here and here). Scientists should be, and generally are, interested in coming up with an empirically-based catalog of what exists and clear explanations for how things work and how their various characteristics arose. In these pursuits, hypotheses stand or fall simply on the basis of their evidential support and how well they hew to canons of explanatory adequacy, not their metaphysical motivation or worldview implications.

Despite what some science-friendly organizations claim (see the quotes above) it is perfectly within the competence of science to evaluate a supernatural hypothesis so long as it has testable content, for instance that God created the earth 10,000 years ago.[2] In fact, that hypothesis has been considered and soundly rejected for lack of empirical support in the literature that’s accumulated in response to creationism.[3] Likewise, mainstream scientists, some of whom are religionists, have considered the evidence for intelligent design and found it fatally wanting (see note 3). These supernatural explanations make empirical claims and thus are in direct competition with commonly accepted scientific theories, so they can’t escape the judgment of science. And thus far there is simply no rigorously empirical, intersubjective support for them (thus far: it can’t be ruled out, which is why science can’t be accused of dogmatism). So it isn’t as if scientists nefariously restrict the scope of what science can consider to what’s “natural” in some philosophically or metaphysically biased sense, and therefore miss out on important parts of reality in their investigations. It’s just that what science confirms to be the case is what we ordinarily call the natural world, or nature (hence the name of a premiere science journal). Should science find public, reproducible evidence for intelligent design, including a specification of the designer and a clear account of its mode of operation, all this would perforce be incorporated into our best intersubjective picture of the world. The more reliable and convincing this account, and the more integrated with the rest of what we reliably know, the less tempted we would be to call such design supernatural. By illuminating the connections between phenomena of vastly different scales and types, science is inherently monistic in showing the unity of reality. So it’s hard, perhaps impossible for purportedly supernatural phenomena to survive clear explanation and empirically-based understanding; instead, they get naturalized.[4]  This is why supernaturalists wanting the imprimatur of science, such as William Dembski, should be careful what they wish for.

The same points hold against New Agers, paranormalists, spiritual gurus, and other varieties of dualists and mysterians who claim the mantle of science (see here for some examples). In every instance, the science appealed to is either of the fringe variety, with very sketchy evidential backing, or it’s misinterpreted or misapplied to support a desired conclusion about reality. A recent example, documented by New Scientist, is a movement initiated by some anti-materialists to overthrow what they believe are naturalistically biased explanations of mind and consciousness – the “materialist paradigm.” They are bent on finding empirical confirmation for the dualist hypothesis that a non-physical mind (some would say the soul) controls and shapes the physical brain using its contra-causal free will. Like the proponents of creationism and intelligent design, their motive is obvious: to defend a more or less dualistic, supernatural worldview against naturalistic explanations which have no need of the soul or anything immaterial or contra-causal. And they run up against the same problem: scientific theories rule out any appeal to an explanatory agency or power, whether it be God, the soul or free will, for which there is no good evidence or testable specification. Scientists don’t get to use unexplained or unspecified powers in their account of mind and behavior and still call it science, for the obvious reason that it’s an unilluminating explanatory dodge, the only purpose of which is to make room for something supernatural. Science isn’t in the business of defending or rejecting a worldview, whether naturalism or supernaturalism, scientology or Briantology. It’s in the business of generating reliable, evidence-based explanations that model reality as accurately as humanly possible, as judged by our ability to predict and control events. Should something categorically immaterial someday play a role in scientific explanations, so be it, but for the time being there’s no indication that dualism will carry the day.

Theological alternatives to empiricism

In seeking to appropriate science for their own ends, creationists, New Agers and anti-materialists implicitly concede the force of intersubjective empiricism, but end up with failed science. Some theologians, rightly unimpressed with this strategy, try a different tack in establishing the existence of God and the supernatural: letting science be, they defend an alternative epistemology – a religious or spiritual way of knowing – which they claim reveals truths about realms inaccessible to science.

Theologian John Haught, for one, understands that appeals to faith establish nothing, in which case religion must have recourse to a framework that justifies belief. In his book God and the New Atheism he writes: 

If faith in God is truthful, then, as the new atheists rightly point out, there must be something in reality that corresponds to the idea of God…Since faith gives rise to all sorts of fantasies, how do we know that the idea of God is not just as wild and removed from reality as belief in the tooth fairy? As [Sam] Harris insists, in order to be accepted as true there has to be a way of confirming the reality of God independently of faith. (pp. 44-5, emphasis added)

Having posed the basic epistemological challenge, Haught then attempts to establish that religious experience – the felt presence of God – is trustworthy evidence of God’s reality. But his defense of a specifically religious brand of cognition fails on several counts, an object lesson in the unavoidability of intersubjective empiricism in the quest for objectivity. Here I will simply summarize the conclusions of my critique – the full story is here and here.

In light of the appearance/reality, subjective/objective distinction mentioned at the outset, we know that any personal experience that purports to represent the world outside our heads is possibly mistaken, and the religious experience of God’s presence is no exception. Our conviction that an experience of God appearing to us is a truthful indication of his reality might be due to the sheer intensity of the experience (a feeling of indubitability), or perhaps the result of a strong expectation that God exists, or our life-long immersion in a religious tradition. To back up our claim that experience captures reality we must rule out such influences, insulating our beliefs as best we can from subjective bias and possibly mistaken conventional wisdom. This, what I’ve called the insulation requirement, is what Haught manifestly fails to respect in his insistence that religious cognition instead requires “a posture of receptivity and readiness to surrender to [God’s] embrace.” Such receptivity and surrender is patently to let down one’s cognitive defenses, quite the opposite of vigilance against bias.

Not only must we do our best to insulate beliefs in God, the soul and the supernatural from sources of potential bias, we must find evidence for them outside private subjective experience, evidence that’s publicly observable by those who haven’t experienced God’s embrace. Unless there’s intersubjective data, a public object of some sort we can all in principle see or sense in some fashion and thus agree exists, it doesn’t matter how many millions of individuals report subjective experiences of God or the soul: they could all be mistaken, just as all those reporting experiences of alien abduction could be (and likely are) mistaken. I’ve called this the public object requirement, and along with the insulation requirement it constitutes basic epistemic good practice, without which no factual claim about the world has credibility. But Haught categorically dismisses this requirement when it comes to religious cognition, saying that the truth about God can’t be based on the “vulgar” and “cheap” intersubjective evidence amassed by science. This of course leaves religious experience – the appearance of God – perilously unsupported by any external validation, and thus highly suspect as grounds for the actual existence of the divine or supernatural. So even though Haught is rightly concerned about “confirming the reality of God independently of faith,” his religious epistemology fails to confirm it in some fundamental respects. He’s given us no good reason to believe that there’s more to reality than nature.[5]

A similar failure to sufficiently respect the appearance-reality distinction comes up in a recent book on naturalism by two theologians, Stuart Goetz and Charles Taliaferro. Since the details and supporting arguments of my critique can be found in a review and a multi-part exchange with them, here I’ll just mention one central conclusion. This is simply that their conception of what counts as good evidence is at odds with basic canons of empirical adequacy. They hold that our subjective feelings, intuitions and judgments of being immaterial souls with contra-causal free will[6] are incontrovertible “first person data” that any theory of mind, and therefore any conception of reality, must accommodate. The “natural” (as they put it) and dualistic intuition that we are souls encased in bodies has epistemic priority over any third-person account of how such intuitions might be mistaken, for instance that the feeling of being a soul with free will might be the result of having no introspective access to the neural machinery that instantiates thought and volition. But why accept this priority? As I hope is obvious, the idea that subjective impressions about the soul, however widely shared, are necessarily trustworthy indicators of what’s really the case is epistemically unwarranted. The history of progress in understanding ourselves and our world is one of relentlessly second-guessing, from a third-person, intersubjective perspective exemplified by science, what seems intuitive and obvious from the first-person subjective perspective. Just as belief in God needs support by public observation to be warranted, so too does belief in the soul and free will. The fact that billions of us believe that there’s something immaterial and causally privileged inside us, riding herd on the brain, cuts no ice with the responsible empiricist. We can’t get to objectivity (reality) directly from subjectivity (appearance) since the latter is notoriously prone to error, even in, perhaps especially in, some of its fundamental convictions about the self and the world.

The empirical plausibility of naturalism

Like Haught, Goetz and Taliaferro have no argument with science, but, again like Haught, they champion a way of knowing in addition to science that they think establishes the reality of supernatural entities inhabiting a supernatural realm. But because it fails to accord sufficient respect to the appearance-reality distinction, their non-scientific way of knowing isn’t a reliable route to objectivity, even about the supernatural. Were they to begin to doubt the deliverances of first-person intuitions, and seriously consider scientific debunkings of the soul and free will, they of course would be moving toward mainstream empiricism. This is to say that being epistemically responsible, not taking appearances at face value, inevitably pushes us toward intersubjectivity and science. This in turn heightens the plausibility of the claim that there’s nothing over and above the natural world, what science shows to exist.

It’s no wonder then that anti-naturalists have a big stake in defending an alternative epistemology, one that’s independent of science but that’s equally plausible. Such a way of knowing, were it available, would give us confidence that God, the soul, contra-causal free will, and perhaps other phenomena science can’t confirm (paranormal powers, astrological influences, etc.) actually exist. The difficulty, however, is that there’s no epistemic space in which to construct such an alternative. As Sidney Hook once asked rhetorically: “Is there a different kind of knowledge that makes ... [the supernatural] an accessible object of knowledge in a manner inaccessible by the only reliable method we have so far successfully employed to establish truths about other facts? Are there other than empirical facts, say spiritual or transcendent facts? Show them to us...”[7] Intersubjective empiricism has no competition because it’s already covering the bases of what any claim to knowledge, about any realm or phenomenon that’s purported to exist, must cover to have credibility. Therefore the naturalistic conception of reality, reality as modeled by science and kept honest by philosophy and critical thinking, really has no rival if we take the appearance/reality distinction seriously. And of course we do, or should at any rate.

Why epistemology matters

Many of us can’t help but want to know what’s real, as opposed to how things seem. But this desire for objectivity has a very practical rationale that gives it normative force: only by seeing things as they are do our projects come to fruition. As Ted Slingerland put it at the 2007 Beyond Belief conference, a respect for intersubjective evidence is motivated by wanting to be “well situated with regard to the structure of the world.” In order to act effectively we must see things objectively; it’s simply the most rational thing we can do. But the empirical imperative is not only rational, it becomes a positive ethical obligation when we engage in collective projects that affect the lives of millions. Elected officials and administrative appointees have a cognitive responsibility to be empiricists to the best of their ability. In matters of public policy, any deliberate departure from what we have good reason to believe is our best model of reality – that given by scientific investigation – is immoral since it jeopardizes the well-being of the entire community.[8] Indeed, a case could be made for the criminal prosecution of altering scientific reports with the intention of hiding or softening their findings, as happened under the Bush administration with respect to climate change and other issues. More generally, any ideological bias against the necessity for empiricism, such as faith in God’s providence, should be seen as a disqualification for public office. Not that this recommendation will catch on any time soon in a society with “In God We Trust” on its currency and where paying lip service to religion is necessary for getting elected; but it’s something to shoot for.

Of course, many non-empirically based convictions are relatively harmless as guides to behavior so long as they’re confined to our private lives. Beliefs in God, astrology, psychic powers, cosmic consciousness and so forth can be the epistemic equivalent of victimless crimes. But the presumption of such beliefs – that there are reliable alternatives to empiricism – isn’t so benign when carried into the public arena. Indeed, the Palinesque parochialism that disdains correction by science and knowledge-based expertise is manifestly dangerous. To imagine that one’s worldview, whether religious or secular, is beyond disconfirmation helps to license an absolutism which brooks no dissent and countenances the demonization of those with different ideas. It’s no coincidence that calls to “Kill him!” (Obama) surfaced at some McCain-Palin rallies. A little epistemic humility would go a long way toward reducing the ideological tribalism underlying the culture wars. (What’s ironic is that populist suspicion of bi-coastal know-it-alls gets it precisely backwards: empiricists are just those who realize they don’t know it all. More on how a good dose of empiricism might reduce tensions in the culture wars is here.) In this regard, it's encouraging that president-elect Obama admitted fallibility concerning his religiously grounded beliefs:

" is my obligation, not only as an elected official in a pluralistic society but also as a Christian, to remain open to the possibility that my unwillingness to support gay marriage is misguided, just as I cannot claim infallibility in my support of abortion rights." - quoted in Hopefuls differ as they reject gay marriage, by Patrick Healy,New York Times 11/1/08.

Another important (but partisan) reason to champion empiricism is that it supports progressive political systems and social policies. The primary justifications for discrimination against women, racial, ethnic and religious minorities, atheists, homosexuals, and other out-groups are found in traditional faith-based religions such as Christianity and Islam, and in non-empirical secular ideologies such as Nazism, social Darwinism and white supremacy. There are no good science-based reasons for such discrimination, so to the extent that we can divest people of their factually unfounded prejudices we’ll move toward a more tolerant, pluralist, egalitarian culture of universal human rights. Empiricism and equality go hand in hand (see here). Along the same lines, the scientific debunking of the ultimately self-made self and its contra-causal free will undercuts a main justification for punitive and laissez-faire attitudes and social policies: that everyone, by acts of determinism-defying free choice, can transcend their criminogenic and poverty-inducing circumstances, so if you fail to do so you strongly deserve punishment or marginalization. The fact-based challenge to the supernatural soul and its equally supernatural freedom, now slowly getting underway, therefore bodes well for progressive economic, criminal justice, and behavioral health policies (see here, here and here).

What to do

Given that so much of importance hangs on getting epistemology right, we mustn’t shrink from making an explicit case for science and other forms of empiricism. Although organizations promoting science shouldn’t be contemptuous of religious faith and revelation – that’s counter-productive and unwarranted – they should challenge the idea that non-empiricism has cognitive competence in some purportedly real domain, such as the supernatural. Those interested in seeing empiricism win the day, however long that takes, shouldn’t concede the supernatural to religion by ruling it out of bounds to science. Science can, and must, evaluate supernatural hypotheses so long as they have any testable content. As noted above, hypotheses such as young earth creationism and intelligent design are in direct competition with mainstream scientific theories. They can’t be politely ignored on the politically correct grounds that they only concern supernatural affairs since they manifestly concern worldly affairs: the origins of the planet and its life forms. They might be religiously motivated but they are empirically insupportable, and to say so isn’t to attack religion; it simply pays proper respect to canons of epistemic and explanatory adequacy that everyone, religionists included, have good reasons to accept. If we take ourselves to be governed by rational rules of evidence, then as Victor Stenger argues we should agree that God is a failed hypothesis.

What science-promoting organizations should do is claim the epistemic pre-eminence of science, kept honest by philosophy: that its empirical, intersubjective way of knowing is unrivalled in giving us a reliable model of reality, period, with no exception for the supernatural. They should say, openly and justly, that if you want your beliefs to track the world you should take all feasible steps to insulate them from sources of bias, and you should seek publicly observable evidence for them. Only this sort of intersubjective empiricism prevents subjectivity, wishful thinking, tradition, and arbitrary authority from mistaking itself for what’s real. Note well: there is nothing about worldview naturalism in any of this, only a quintessentially rational desire for trustworthy grounds for belief. Non-empirical ways of knowing fail to meet worldview neutral standards of epistemic adequacy, which is how we judge between competing ways of knowing. Were they to champion empiricism as the most reliable route to objectivity, science-friendly organizations wouldn’t thereby be promoting naturalism.

Of course, most religions and non-empirically grounded worldviews also claim objectivity; after all, that’s a primary function of a worldview: to provide a picture of what’s real. But these worldviews sometimes claim modes of knowing that reveal the existence of realms outside nature, or that support understandings of nature, and human nature, that sometimes contradict mainstream science. Scientists, science-promoting organizations, and those interested in getting at the truth about the world have a direct interest in assessing the reliability of such modes of knowing, as I’ve done above. Why? Because they want to make sure they’re not missing the cognitive boat in some respect. To openly question religious epistemology isn’t an unfair inquisition against religion or an attack on First Amendment freedoms of conscience, but a necessary defense of a precious and hard-won cultural resource: the epistemic virtue of submitting factual claims to tests which best insure their reliability.[9] If there are other or better tests than what intersubjective empiricism, exemplified by science, has devised, scientists and other free inquirers want to know about them. On the other hand, if a religious or otherwise non-empirical epistemology isn’t a reliable guide to reality, that’s vitally important for people to know. In an interconnected global society, too much depends, both practically and ethically, on staying undeceived about the nature of the world and ourselves. The question of epistemology – of how we know what we know – has to be put front and center.

This needn’t involve any heavy philosophical lifting (only light), since as I noted at the outset there’s commonsense behind the basic epistemological concern: we often mistake how things seem for how they really are. Knowing this uncontroversial, undeniable fact, we’re motivated to seek out methods that reliably distinguish appearance from reality. But we must make epistemology an explicit focus of public consciousness and conversation. As philosopher Harvey Siegel suggests, it should be taught at pre-college levels, capitalizing on young people’s natural interest in justifying their beliefs as they discover that others often harbor radically different convictions. Epistemology, he argues, is essential to the primary educational goal of fostering critical thinking: “If we regard critical thinking as an important educational aim, it is incumbent on us to understand and keep in view the centrality of epistemology to its proper understanding – that is, the way in which critical thinking is responsive to and guided by epistemological criteria concerning the goodness of candidate reasons for beliefs, actions, and judgments.”[10]

Likewise, high school science education could profitably include explicit instruction about the scientific method itself, a paradigm instance of real world epistemology in action. The reliability of scientific knowledge comes from imposing certain constraints on belief – of evidence, observation, testability, reproducibility, explanatory transparency, parsimony, etc. Science could be contrasted with non-empirical modes of justification which relax these constraints, thus leading to unreliable beliefs, such as in pre-scientific alchemy, astrology, and witchcraft.

The viability of naturalism

Of course, those who would support such educational initiatives are already on one side of the debate about epistemology, the side that acknowledges our cognitive limitations, our fallibility, and therefore the need for intersubjective empiricism exemplified by science. The other side sometimes construes fallibilism as an invitation to nihilism. After all, if science can’t get us to God and supernatural (and it doesn’t seem it can), and if nothing rivals science in getting us truths about the world (and thus far no rivals are in sight), then it seems we can’t be sure God and the supernatural exist. Likewise for the soul and its contra-causal free will. If nature – the scientific conception of reality – is all there reliably is, then we’re bereft of God’s authority in justifying morality, of the existential meaning of knowing we’re part of his plan, and of the dignity of being souls with supernatural freedom.

This certainly seems a recipe for nihilism, so those wanting to press the epistemological question in service to empiricism should have a response to such fears. This involves providing reassurance about the existential, ethical and practical viability of worldview naturalism: that without God, the soul and free will we’re still moral agents bound by ethical norms, fully capable of leading meaningful lives and fully engaged with our human communities and concerns (see here for instance). Since we don’t need the supernatural to ground meaning and morality, we don’t need to defend modes of knowing that purportedly guarantee its existence. We needn’t pretend that any of our factual beliefs require, or could find, confirmation in ways that empiricism doesn’t afford. This vastly simplifies the project of knowing: we’ll no longer be torn between science and faith, and it puts our factual claims on a surer footing.

Making the case for science-based naturalism as a viable worldview is of course a long-term project of cultural education, one that’s just begun. As it advances, naturalists and their allies – humanists, secularists, atheists, free-thinkers and skeptics – must conduct themselves in light of naturalism itself and its epistemic foundations: with cognitive humility born of understanding our fallibility, and with empathy born of knowing that, but for the luck of the draw, we could have been the supernaturalists struggling to defend our beliefs against the rise of empiricism. So naturalists shouldn’t get on their high horse about naturalism, nor should they feel contempt for its competitors. They should simply feel grateful for being on the cutting edge of empiricism, the human version of nature coming to know herself, arising in this particular corner of the galaxy.

TWC, November 2008


Clifford, William K., The Ethics of Belief, at the Secular Web.

Dacey, Austin, The Secular Conscience, Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2008.

Fishman, Yonatan, Can science test supernatural worldviews?, Science and Education, 2007.

Forrest, Barbara, Evolution vs. Creationism: An Introduction, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004.

Forrest, Barbara, Methodological naturalism and philosophical naturalism: clarifying the connection (2000), at the Secular Web.

Goetz, Stuart & Taliaferro, Charles, Naturalism, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing, 2008.

Gross, Paul & Forrest, Barbara, Creationism’s Trojan Horse: The Wedge of Intelligent Design, New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.

Harris, Sam, The End of Faith, New York: W.W. Norton, 2004.

Harris, Sam, Letter to a Christian Nation, New York: Knopf, 2006.

Haught, John F., Is Nature Enough?, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006.

Haught, John F., God and the New Atheism, Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008.

Miller, Kenneth R., Finding Darwin's God, New York: Harper Perennial, 2007.

Mooney, Chris, The Republican War on Science, New York: Basic Books, 2005.

Siegel, Harvey, Why teach epistemology in schools?, in Philosophy in Schools, Michael Hand and Carrie Winstanley, eds., London: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2008.

Stenger, Victor, God: The Failed Hypothesis, Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2008.


[1] In Letter to a Christian Nation, Harris writes: “[I]t is now a moral necessity for scientists to speak honestly about the conflict between science and religion.” (p. 62)  My point here is that this conflict is essentially epistemic.

[2] For a detailed defense of this point, see Yonatan Fishman’s 2007 Science and Education paper “

[5] In his book Is Nature Enough?, Haught describes four modes of knowing (“fields of meaning”) which he says constitute a “richer empiricism” than science, so he’s acutely aware of the need for intersubjective validation of belief. But these modes of knowing don’t have public objects to keep subjective impressions in check, so they end up being faux empirical at best.

[6] There are different conceptions of free will, some of which are compatible with determinism. In this paper the conception of free will that’s in question (the sort Goetz and Taliaferro defend) involves an individual’s purported capacity to contravene or transcend causation and determinism in making choices, hence “contra-causal.”

[7] Quoted by Barbara Forrest in Methodological Naturalism and Philosophical Naturalism: Clarifying the Connection (2000), a must read for those interested in the philosophical justifications for naturalism. 

[8] The classic essay on the immorality of non-empiricism is William K. Clifford’s 1877 paper “The Ethics of Belief.”

[9] On justifying the necessity for open, public criticism of religious belief, see Austin Dacey’s The Secular Conscience as well as Sam Harris’s The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation.

[10] Harvey Siegel, Why teach epistemology in schools?, in Philosophy in Schools, Michael Hand and Carrie Winstanley, eds., p. 81.

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