On March 11, 2012, the Opinionator, an online commentary from the Opinion Pages of The New York Times, published a dialogue between Michael Lynch (a philosophy professor) and Alan Sokal (a physics and mathematics professor) titled “Defending Science: An Exchange.” Michael Lynch initiated the dialogue by making a point about what often gets lost in the culture wars: the debate over evolution isn’t just about evolution; it is a debate about “first principles.”
Alan Sokal claimed that he could fairly easily answer the challenge of fundamentalist Christians and religious people in general, his point being that while they have the same epistemic starting points as everyone else in everyday life, they supplement the ordinary epistemic principles with additional principles like “This particular book [the Bible] always tells the infallible truth.” He then asks, “Why this particular book?” and provides evidence that the Bible has so many internal contradictions that no one could possibly consider it infallible. He then claims by contrast that science is justified in using the general epistemic principles that we all share. Therefore, in Sokal’s view, everyone should be able to understand the outlines of his argument. He attributes the major fact that most citizens don’t buy his argument to “a major scandal concerning the teaching of science.” Sokal is encouraged by a few fundamentalist Christians, like Bart Ehrman, who after having studied the Bible’s “internal contradictions and the history of its composition” realized that fundamentalist Christianity was untenable and he abandoned it.
Sokal’s argument is highly flawed.
Let me begin my critique of Sokal’s argument by articulating my own first principles and my reasons for starting with these principles. My first principles are all those basic beliefs that are necessary to make knowledge possible. No one doubts that we have knowledge, so as I see it, philosophy’s object here is to articulate what is necessary to account for our knowledge. To be clear, I accept Scottish philosopher Thomas Reid’s “Principles of Commonsense.” Reid (1710-1796) argued that the principles of commonsense are those beliefs that any sane human being must accept to make knowledge and communication possible.
For instance, one such principle is “credulity”—that is, I believe what a speaker is telling me unless I have grounds to be suspicious. In other words, I assume that speakers are trustworthy, and I only question them if my suspicions are aroused. This principle can be extended to writers. So, I believe that Alan Sokal thinks he has shown that fundamentalist Christians and other religious people can be critiqued easily and, furthermore, that he has done so infallibly. If I do not accept the principle of credulity, no communication can take place here. If I question whether Sokal is trustworthy and whether he believes his argument is true, then what’s the point? I can’t prove that he is trustworthy from the text. In addition, I accept the principle of authorial intent. I believe that Alan Sokal is making an argument against a fundamentalist-Christian epistemology. My first job as a reader, then, is to try to understand his intended purpose sympathetically.
Now I will turn to Sokal’s argument itself. First, he begins by pointing out that Christians in their everyday lives use the same first principles as everyone else, and although he never articulates these principles, I will assume that he agrees with my commonsense principles. Next, however, he claims that all religious people supplement the ordinary epistemological principles with additional ones like “This particular book always tells the infallible truth.” While I will grant that some Christians would claim the accuracy of Scripture as a first principle, many other Christians and religious people would not make that claim. I’m one of them.
Sokal then provides his critique of that supplemental principle:
But then we have the right to inquire about the compatibility of this special epistemic principle with the other, general, epistemic principles that we share. Why this particular book? Especially, why this particular book in view of the overwhelming evidence collected by scholars (employing the general epistemic principles that we all share) that it was written many decades after the events it purports to describe, by people who not only were not eye-witnesses but who also lived in a different country and spoke a different language, who recorded stories that had been told and retold many times orally, and so on. Indeed, how can one possibly consider this particular book to be infallible, given the many internal contradictions within it?
My first criticism of Alan Sokal’s argument is this: He is wrong that the scholars he points to as authorities are employing the general epistemic principles that we all share. Now, because he did not name these scholars, I will have to assume that we are referring to the same set of scholars by the conclusions that they reached.
It seems to me that one can take two positions with regard to the historical reliability of the Bible. One position is grounded in the commonsense principles I mentioned above. This position assumes that a historical document has integrity—that it attempts to relate the facts reliably—unless sufficient cause exists for suspecting the document does not have integrity as a historical document. This position, which comes from the commonsense principles I articulated above, is consistent with rationality itself.
The second position I will call a “skeptical” or “pseudo-intellectual” position. It might also be called an “objectivist’s view.” This position assumes a historical document has no integrity as a testimony to the facts unless sufficient evidence demonstrates its integrity as an historical document. This position is contrary to the commonsense principles I articulated above, and it is contrary to the foundation of human reason itself.
The academic scholars I have examined (and to whom I think Sokal is referring)—those who have concluded that the Bible is not historically reliable—have reached their conclusion from position two. Therefore, it is not surprising that they come to the conclusions that they do. But this skeptical position is not compatible with our commonsense principles. Furthermore, this approach destroys the possibility of any knowledge of history.
I, on the other hand, accept the commonsense epistemic principles. I read both Koine and classical Greek. I have been studying the Bible since the early 1980s when I became a Christian. While I do not claim the historical reliability of the Bible as a “first principle,” it is a working hypothesis. If I can be shown an error, I would abandon not only my working hypothesis but Christianity as well.
Alan Sokal next argues that science is also built on the foundation of the general epistemic principles that we all share. But that is not true. Science—at least as it is practiced and articulated by scientists—is not built on the commonsense principles. Most of the scientists I work with (I am an ecologist with a Ph.D. in philosophy of science) would claim to be objective empirical scientists. In their view, what characterizes science is a method; and by following the method of science, they believe the results obtained are more objective and more certain than other pursuits of knowledge. Most versions of this philosophy of science come either from positivism or from philosopher of science Karl Popper (1902-1994). From positivism comes the idea that science is “unbiased measurement,” an idea rooted in the skeptical philosophy of David Hume. (While Hume was not skeptical in his everyday life, his philosophy was skeptical. His point was that philosophy cannot help us get past objective facts). From Popper comes the idea that science is “hypothesis testing.” Popper’s method is based on falsifying hypotheses—i.e., finding a case that is not true and thus disproving the hypothesis. Popper’s method is skeptical; using it, we can never prove anything true; we can only say we have tested and not rejected an hypothesis. Popper’s method also replaces intellectual judgment with a statistical test. Popper’s view of science, then, is not compatible with commonsense principles, and it is anti-intellectual, replacing human judgment with a mechanical test. His view of science, in effect, rejects human rationality. For a more complete argument, see my 2006 book, Intelligent Discourse.
My second criticism of Alan Sokal’s argument is this: His assertion that no one with integrity should accept the Bible as historically reliable because of the overwhelming evidence collected by scholars implies a rejection of commonsense principles. During the Middle Ages, the authority for knowledge also rested with the community of experts: the priesthood. I view Galileo’s (and Luther’s) claim that the authority of science (and religion) rested with the individual and not the community of experts to be one of the milestones of the modern age. I believe that Galileo’s (and Luther’s) move away from the view of the medieval Catholic Church was a good and right move; the Church’s view was wrong. Yet Sokal’s implied argument regarding authority is the same as the medieval church’s position—and thus a giant step backwards. Although, he did not address this issue in science, I suspect Sokal would hold that the authority of science rests with the community of workers through the peer-review process. Again, this is a reversion to the medieval view of authority. I do not accept this move. It is against commonsense principles.
My last criticism of Alan Sokal’s argument is a bit of a quibble, but I add it because it might help open the door to real dialogue about science and evolution. Sokal acknowledges that the Jesuit astronomers were not completely irrational in doubting the reliability of telescope operations. In that I agree with him, but my reasons are different from his. Sokal argues that the astronomers doubted the telescope’s reliability because they did not understand its workings. I, however, think that the Catholic astronomers were rational in not attributing a great deal of credibility to the telescope operations because there was little to be gained. While the telescope did help break down Aristotle’s view of the heavens (perfect spheres), it did not show parallax, which, at the time, was the greatest stumbling block to the Copernican claims because if the earth moves, then we should see that motion in the stars. The telescope evidence did not tip the scale in favor of the Copernican view.
Most scientists and philosophers of science view the Copernicans as the founders of modern science. I agree. However, most scientists and philosophers of science then go on to say that the Copernican revolution is based on the new method of observation and experience. I can’t see how that is right—at least with what I take to be the normal understanding of experience and observation. To understand my point, watch the sunrise tomorrow morning. What do you see? You see the sun move above the horizon and the earth remain stationary. That is your observation and your experience. If you are an empirical scientist (an empiricist), I do not understand how you can be a Copernican. The data of your senses tells you that Ptolemy was right. To be a Copernican, you must set aside your sense data and experience for something of higher epistemic value.
Galileo expressed this best when asked why there were so few Copernicans. He responded:
Nor can I ever sufficiently admire the outstanding acumen of those who have taken hold of this [Pythagorean/Copernican] opinion and accepted it as true; they have through sheer force of intellect done such violence to their own senses as to prefer what reason told them over that which sensible experience plainly showed to the contrary. (Galileo Dialogues, p. 328)
If science is this empirical method of observation and experience, then I fail to see how the Copernicans founded this new science. I am asking for a clear articulation of this new method of experience and observation. The Copernicans fit within my epistemic first principles, but I cannot see how they fit in Sokal’s first principles based on observation and experience.
In conclusion, I find Alan Sokal’s argument highly flawed. He claims all religious people supplement their epistemic first principles with additional flawed first principles whereas historical scholars and scientists base their research only on the epistemic first principles. He is wrong on both counts.
Dewberry, Charley. Intelligent Discourse: Exposing the Fallacious Standoff Between Evolution and Intelligent Design (Eugene: Gutenberg College Press, 2006).
Galilei, Galileo. Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems (1632: reprint Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995.)