Philosophy, Science, Real Life, and God


Bas van Fraassen (Princeton) is interviewed by Richard Marshall at 3:AM MagazineThe whole interview is chock full of interestingness. Here are three brief and possibly provocative passages from the interview.

1. On what philosophers have to offer scientists:

RM: Ok, so the idea of ‘laws of nature’ belong to submerged metaphysical assumptions that contemporary science has rejected. Metaphysics needs to heed science is the lesson to be learned here. But coming from the other direction, should scientists heed (some) metaphysics, in the same way we exhort philosophers to stay in touch with contemporary science?

BvF: Once in a symposium in the Netherlands an older, in his own field very well known, theoretical chemist was in the audience. He challenged me to mention just one way that philosophy of science could ever help him in his work. What could I say?

It does not make sense for a scientist to look outside scientific practice for any direct help with his day’s work. Instead, philosophy could help if he wanted to understand better what he was doing, when he engaged in scientific inquiry. That might not have practical value, but could bring some intellectual good.

Now I think that this reply is at once too harsh, too unsympathetic, and too modest. For metaphysical ideas have always played a quite public, salient role in some scientists’ thinking, whether to help or to hinder. For such scientists it would be important to understand the array of criticisms that philosophers can aim at those ideas. And in addition there are fascinating examples of very insightful interactions with philosophy, that philosophers can learn from, not just by such great thinkers in our past such as Einstein and Weyl but also by contemporaries such as Rovelli and Smolin.

2. On “real life” problems versus philosophy’s “self-created problems”:

RM: Why are you dubious about analytic metaphysics and ‘objectifying’ epistemologies, worrying that they end up parochial or/and trivial?

BvF: When analytic philosophy developed in the early 20th century, at the hands of Russell, Moore, Wittgenstein, and Carnap (and in fact in many small centers of philosophical discussion in Europe), it was largely in reaction to a previous metaphysics. That included the Idealism of the preceding century as well as the neo-Kantian tradition which was at least perceived to be repressively dominant. In the case of Russell, however, that reaction included a return to something like pre-Kantian realist metaphysics. This turned out to be disproportionately influential in the second half of the century with, for example, Quine’s idea that philosophy could be science carried further by other means.

To me this historic development is very disappointing. It seems to me to have degenerated into solving its self-created problems. I remember a paper, for example, that argued very cleverly that there are only ‘simples’, that is, that nothing has parts. What supported this thesis was that it solved various problems about the part-whole relationship. But those problems arose in the first place from taking the word “part”, which in ordinary use is very context-dependent, and treating it in some abstract way as a context-independent transitive relationship. It is probably a good exercise for the mind, but why not turn to the problems that arise already in real life, problems of art, religion, science, mathematics, and animal rights, as well as existential problems of death and suffering?

3. On empiricism and theism:

RM: Many would think that an empirical stance was one that left one in a secular position. After all, empirical science has not been able to discover a God or a theological realm. You dispute this though don’t you? Can you sketch why you don’t think the orientation of the empirical stance allows for just a secular orientation, and why do you think some theological options are still open and important for the contemporary philosopher of science?

BvF: Critics of religion seem typically to know very well what it is to be religious, to know what sort of thing God would be, and what is believed by people who are religious. That they are sure they know this is clear from what they are criticizing. But I wonder, how did they get to know all that?

As example, consider your statement that empirical science has not been able to discover a God or a theological realm. By saying that, you convey to me that you know what it would be for empirical science to discover a God or a theological realm. And really, just what would it take?

To design an experiment is to set a question for nature to answer, but a question is not well-defined unless the set of its possible answers is well-defined. The NSF would surely not fund an experiment unless it was made clear beforehand what its possible outcomes were, and what significance each of these outcomes would have for the topic of inquiry.

It is just here that the difference between religious and secular comes to the fore. If we are to put nature to the question, both the question and the meaning of each of the possible answers nature could give, must be clear to all sides. That is, all of this must be formulable in secular language, for it must be a language that both secular and religious can understand. The secular could not be satisfied with an experiment whose outcomes have their significance specified in religious language. So for this sort of enterprise to get off the ground at all, we would first of all have to accept that religious language, the language in which religious express their faith, is reducible to secular language. And that is a tendentious claim, on the face of it that does not seem to be the case at all.

I have a very low opinion of the intellectual quality of almost all of the science-and-religion literature, however well intentioned (not only of the ‘new atheism’ but on both sides).

To come back to your main question, though, why needn’t empiricism lead to a secular orientation? As I understand empiricism, and what empiricism can be now in contrast to how it got sidetracked into in the past, it is a philosophical stance that prizes experience above all, favors experience over theory, rejects overriding demands for explanation that could only be satisfied by postulates about the unknown, refuses to get drawn into philosophical fictionalizing, into what Kant rightly called the Illusions of Reason. That implies that the empirical sciences, as understood by an empiricist, are a paradigm of rational inquiry. But none of these elements in an empiricist stance need be foreign to the religious.

The whole interview is here.

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Sam Duncan
Sam Duncan
3 years ago

I’ve always found a lot to like in van Fraasen’s work, so I find this very interesting. But I really don’t think the blanket dismissal of pretty much all the science and religion literature is fair, and it’s certainly not constructive. At the very least I’d like to hear him say more on this point. Why is it bad? What might good work on science and religion look like?
And what does van Fraasen’s own philosophy of religion look like? Is it the sort of rational religion one finds in Kant, which isn’t committed to making any sort of historical claims about the past? Or is it the more traditional sort that one finds in orthodox versions of the Abrahamic faiths, which is very much committed to such historical claims? If it’s the former then it does seem that one could claim that empiricism and religion simply can’t conflict, but if it’s the latter then it seems that empiricism and its claims could butt into one another very quickly. Report

Ross
Ross
Reply to  Sam Duncan
3 years ago

van Fraassen is a Roman Catholic convert, so I’m pretty sure he’s committed to historical events. However, it isn’t clear to me at all why you think his (constructive) empiricism would cause conflict there. So feel free to elaborate.

I certainly think his dismissal of the new atheist science/religion literature (e.g. Harris, Dawkins, Dennett) is spot on. I’d be interested to hear his views on more sophisticated works in science and religion, such as Plantinga’s (I assume that he has a much higher opinion of that (that it is one of the exceptions) – but, of course, being friends doesn’t entail having a high view of another’s book!). Report

Benji
Benji
Reply to  Ross
3 years ago

I had a reaction similar to Sam’s so maybe I can venture an elaboration.

van Fraassen expresses skepticism about the possibility of settling the theist-atheist issue by conducting a public experiment, since the religious and the secular are using different conceptual schemes or whatever, and would interpret the nature of the experiment and its results differently.

If we are talking about deciding the truth of some set of historical claims – that Jesus was resurrected, that there was an ark that carried two of each animal, and so on – then van Fraassen’s skepticism seems totally unwarranted. So it’s more natural to assume that vF has some other set of religious claims in mind – for example, “that the best things are the more eternal things, the overlapping things,” a claim that William James argues *can* be perceptually verified, but not in any straightforward scientific sense.Report

Steve
Steve
3 years ago

I would say his inclusion of D.Z. Phillips’ “From Fantasy to Faith” in his list of recommended books gives some idea of the sort of approach to religion and reason that van Fraassen favors.Report

Sam Duncan
Sam Duncan
3 years ago

The basic idea of Philips’ work– at least as I understand it and I’ve always had trouble understanding Wittgensteinians– seems to be that none of these religious claims are literally true, but they sure are nice ways of talking nonetheless. (If I’ve gotten him wrong then someone please correct me.) I wouldn’t assume that that’s van Fraasen’s position since it doesn’t really line up with anything a Catholic might believe, but then I’m left wondering what it is.
I guess what I’m wondering basically is whether van Fraasen’s position is. Is it: The believer and the non-believer don’t have a common conceptual scheme or even concept of what counts as evidence and so agreement on how to interpret the same facts will be elusive if not impossible. Or is it something closer the Jamesian option that Benji mentions. I think the first is more likely but I’m really not sure, which is why I’d really like to hear more. Report

Steve
Steve
Reply to  Sam Duncan
3 years ago

Except that van Fraassen distances himself from the pragmatist-Jamesian stance and says he’s more of an existentialist.. Is it easier to imagine a catholic who’s a religious existentialist? Maybe, if only for historical and geographical reasons. An interesting question is whether van Fraassen’s nuanced views on representation in scientific theories line up in any systematic way with Phillips’ wittgensteinian-inspired views about religious symbols, imagery, and language. Report

Michael Morales
3 years ago

I was a student of van Fraasen’s in SFSU’s master’s program. He and I chatted about how it was existentialism that pulled us into philosophy before making the jump to analytic philosophy, among other things. I never pressed him further, but I do know that existentialism has two strands, the theistic and atheistic. Generally speaking, people seem more familiar with atheistic existentialism, e.g. Jean-Paul Sartre. It seems fewer people are aware of Kierkegaard’s theistic existentialism or Gabriel Marcel’s conception of it. One of the main ideas for a theistic existentialism is that God made us so free that our existence always precedes a human conception of essence because we are all free, so free in fact that Abraham was able to go against God’s command to kill his son, Issac. God’s “test of faith”, Kierkegaard argues, is really a test of that freedom to do what’s right, and not merely kill one’s own son because God, or any other authority, commands it. And this goes hand in hand with van Fraassen’s conception of empiricism.Report