Knowing What We Know, part 2: "Congruence"

In part 1, I talked about how the raw sensory data that we take in is categorized by our brains into patterns,  how sometimes we make the mistake of imposing patterns on the randomness of nature, and how methodological naturalism is a means for explaining the patterns we see by producing falsifiable mechanisms with predictive utility. This gives us a reliable understanding of the world – we can predict, for example, that objects will fall when we let go of them. We can predict how fast they'll accelerate and how wind resistance will affect the rate of descent. All knowledge attained through methodological naturalism is provisional, because we don't know everything. There may be some unknown law of physics that, starting tomorrow, will cause the force of gravity to work in reverse. But based on empirical observation with predictive utility, we can make a valid provisional assumption that such a change is highly implausible.


Jerry Coyne writes a lot about "accommodationism", which is a popular new buzzword for the old "NOMA" argument put forward by the late Stephen Jay Gould. This is the idea that science and religion are "non-overlapping magisteria" – that both are valid, but different, means of understanding the world. In both cases, I'm treating these terms very broadly: I'm taking science to mean "empirical observation and rational inquiry" (basically, methodological naturalism), and I'm taking "religion" to mean "spiritual experiences and theology". I don't want my use of the word "science" to be confused with a bunch of guys in lab coats shooting lasers and mixing vials of smokey green liquid, and I don't want my use of the word "religion" to be confused with guys in goofy robes or people waving their arms while they sing cornball hymns. Humanities, such as historical inquiry, are still subject to the rules of empirical investigation; and spiritual experiences are by no means confined to religious dogmas.

With science, we have a sound methodology for attaining knowledge not only by validating claims with predictive utility, but by identifying and discarding erroneous or superfluous information. This creates a consensus. Einstein's theories of relativity were met with skepticism, as they radically re-wrote many of the assumptions underpinning Newtonian physics, which had been robustly substantiated through empirical evidence. But Einstein's theories improved on Newton's, and as more and more empirical confirmation was obtained, poorly supported alternative ideas such as the "aether" were discarded in favor of a consensus favoring relativity.

This is important for several reasons. Most often, when we hear the arguments of accommodationists, they sound something like this:
  • "We have to recognize the limitations of science"
  • "There are other ways of knowing besides science"
  • "There are many great mysteries that seem to hint at spiritual realities"
  • "Science can tell us how, but it cannot tell us why"
If indeed there are "other ways of knowing", it must be demonstrated that such "other ways" produce reliable and valid results. It is folly to assume that because science has not offered an explanation, that no scientific explanation exists (to do so is an argument from ignorance); it's similarly foolish to assume that religion can answer questions simply because science can't.

Validating claims about reality

Believers often have very powerful (and personal) "spiritual experiences", and they want to believe that these experiences correspond to a metaphysical reality – perhaps one that eludes understanding with the tools of science. But in every case, these mysterious "other ways of knowing" turn out to be rather familiar: subjective experiences, intuition, emotional appeals, and personal revelation. It's important to point out, for the sake of avoiding the genetic fallacy, that simply because knowledge comes from these sources does not make that knowledge invalid. I mentioned intuitive physics in part 1, and that's a great example of something that we learn intuitively that does indeed correspond with an objective understanding of reality. But things like intuition and revelation are, in themselves, insufficient to establish a claim as objectively true.

This can be illustrated in the distinct lack of consensus among the world's religious faiths. Christianity alone has some 16 broad branches of theology, with over 30,000 denominations. There is not, and has never been, any world-wide consensus on what God is, what God does, or what God wants from us. Two geographically isolated cultures will form conceptualizations of spirituality that are so dissimilar as to be absurd, ranging from the worship of ancestral spirits to pantheistic paganism. But that's not the only problem: there is no methodology by which we can objectively discern the validity of such information. The faithful often talk about mankind's seeming propensity for spirituality; but if this really corresponded to a metaphysical reality rather than simply being a by-product of evolution (namely, the categorical and pattern-recognition errors I discussed in part 1), we ought to expect not only a great deal more consensus on spiritual matters, but a means by which to objectively evaluate, confirm and falsify spiritual claims to knowledge. Otherwise, there is simply no way to determine whether someone is just making it all up.

We intuitively strive for the greatest possible congruence between the raw sensory information we are bombarded with, and a reliable understanding of the patterns we observe. Sometimes, we form assumptions that are incongruent with reality – for example, we might be convinced that we have experienced the presence of a spirit or deity. When these kinds of sensory-pattern interpretations cannot be validated through any objective mechanism, we create rationalizations to preserve congruence between our beliefs and our experiences. There is perhaps no greater example than that of prayer:
  • Joe has stage 4 leukemia, so we are praying for him
  • Joe did not get better, and eventually died
  • (Rationalization) It was not God's will, we didn't have enough faith, etc.
Prayer has never been demonstrated to have any effect that transcends mere coincidence, and has failed empirical investigation repeatedly and miserably. But that doesn't stop believers, who count the "hits" – no matter how trivial – and simply rationalize away "the misses".  If prayer really worked – if appeals to deities had a real effect on the natural world – we would be able to validate such a fact through the tools of science. Believers, though, want to have it both ways: God does intervene in the physical world, but not in any way that can be empirically observed. It's an absurd paradox.

I can't throw a rock at a conversation with a believer without hitting claims about how concepts such as the self, love or morality are things we necessarily accept as true, but elude empirical inquiry. This is simply false. What we call the "self", or "I", is simply a category of sensory information – those who attach mysticism to individuality would do well to bone up on some basic cognitive psychology. Abstractions such as love and morality, if they are to be useful to us, must correspond to objective facts about the human condition. (There's more to be said about those topics specifically, but I've covered them extensively in past posts.)

The limits of knowledge

Scientific inquiry is the only means we humans have of attaining reliable, valid knowledge about our experiences. We do not possess some sort of spiritual "sixth sense" that allows us to objective discern the truth or falsity of supernatural claims, and this is evident in the growing discordance, rather than consensus, that emerges as human spirituality "evolves". Methodological naturalism gives us the greatest possible congruence between our experiences and our beliefs, since it is the only means by which we can objectively validate or falsify our assumptions. It might not give an answer to something like, "Why do we exist" that alludes to some grand purpose that transcends human interest; it can, however, demonstrate that even if such a grand purpose does exist, it eludes our capacity for reliable, valid knowledge – in other words, that it's a pointless question.

We can't disprove subjective claims about personal spiritual experiences. What we can do, however, is demonstrate that we have no reason to assume that such claims are in any way representative of an objective reality. Time after time, I encounter believers who misguidedly attach mystery to abstractions like love, creativity and morality, and claim that such mystery is evidence of spiritual realities. I encounter many who claim to have experienced this god or that, and who don't seem to mind when the assumptions they derive from their experiences conflict with other people's spiritual experiences – but of course they pay great attention to even trivial similarities. In the intellectually honest spirit of methodological naturalism, I can't discount the possibility that spiritual realities exist. But if they do, the burden to prove it falls squarely on the ones making the claims: how do you know what you think you know?


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