Wednesday 13 May 2015

Science, Reason and Skepticism - from Wiley Blackwell Handbook to Humanism (just out) (unedited draft, not final copy)

Source: - I've checked the Wiley Blackwell Handbook and it appears identical to this draft. 
Crabsallover, 7th August 2016

Science, Reason and Skepticism[1]

Stephen Law

What are science and reason?

Humanists expound the virtues of science and reason. But what are science and reason? And why should we think it wise to rely on them?

By science, I mean that approach to finding out about reality based on the scientific method. This is a method that was fully developed only a few hundred years ago (though of course we find elements being applied even in the ancient world)). Science, as I’ll use the term here, is acomparatively recent invention[AC1] , its development owing a great deal to 16th and 17th Century thinkers such as the philosopher Francis Bacon (1561-1626).

So what is the scientific method? Here’s a rough sketch.[2] Scientists collect data through observation and experiment. They formulate hypotheses and broader theories about the nature of reality to account for what they observe. Crucially, they also try to test their theories. Scientists derive from their theories predictions that can be independently checked by observation.

Systematic and rigorous testing, rooted in what we can directly observe of the world around us, is the cornerstone of the scientific method and thus science as I define it. Emphasis is placed on formulating theories and predictions with clarity and precision, focussing wherever possible on phenomena that are mathematically quantifiable and can be objectively and precisely measured, e.g. using a calibrated instrument.

Scientists are often able to confirm their theories. A theory is confirmed by observation if what is observed is more probable given the theory than it would be otherwise.

Notice that to say a theory has been confirmed is not to say that it has been established as true. Even false theories can be confirmed. To say a theory is confirmed is just to say that it is supported by an observation, even if just to a small degree.

Nevertheless, theories are sometimes strongly confirmed. Suppose, for example, that we can derive from our theory a prediction that is highly unlikely if the theory is false. Establishing the prediction is true will strongly confirm that theory.

Here’s an illustration. To explain the erratic orbit of Uranus given Newton’s Laws of Gravitation, astronomers posited the existence of a further, undiscovered planet tugging Uranus out of its predicted path. From their theory, they predicted the location of this hypothetical new planet, looked, and discovered a planet there (Neptune). Because it was highly unlikely that there should just happen to be a planet at that position if their theory was false, this observation strongly confirmed their astronomical theory.

Of course, theories can also be disconfirmed to varying degrees. Take for example, the old Aristotelian theory that all heavenly objects revolve around the earth. With the aid of an early telescope Galileo observed that Jupiter had moons that revolved around it, not the Earth. This observation disconfirmed Aristotle’s theory. Indeed, this observation established beyond reasonable doubt that Aristotle’s theory was false.

True, scientists are human. They are vulnerable to various social, psychological and financial pressures. They have their biases. Still, rigorous application of the scientific method is able to reveal such biases. No matter how psychologically wedded the scientific community might be to the hypothesis that blancmange cures baldness, and no matter how much money the blancmange manufacturers might pump into their research, if blancmange doesn’t cure baldness, a properly conducted scientific investigation will eventually reveal that fact.

Non-scientific approaches to rationally assessing beliefs

The scientific method is a powerful tool, but not every reasonable belief is arrived at by means of it. People held beliefs, and held them reasonably, long before the appearance of science. Beliefs can be reasonably held if they are well-supported by evidence and/or argument, or perhaps because we can just directly observe that something is the case and we have no reason to suspect we are deceived, deluded.

Suppose my friend tells me he has a real elephant in his trouser pocket. Given the absence of any enormous bulges round his middle, it’s reasonable for me to judge the claim false. True, I make this judgment on the basis of what I observe, but what I’m doing here could hardly be called science – certainly not as defined above. We made these kinds of judgment long before the development of the scientific method.

Remember, too, that beliefs can also be supported or refuted by non-empirical means (that’s to say, without appeal to observation). Take mathematical truths, for example. That twelve times twelve is one hundred and forty-four is something you can establish from the comfort of your armchair by reason alone. So can other conceptual truths. It’s possible, for example, to figure out whether my great grandmother's uncle's grandson must be my second cousin once removed by just unpacking these concepts and examining the logical relations that hold between them. Again this can be done from the comfort of an armchair. No empirical investigation is required. Or suppose an explorer claims to have discovered a four-sided triangle in some remote rainforest. Do we need to mount an expensive expedition to check whether this claim is true? No, again we can establish its falsity by conceptual, armchair methods.

What’s so great about reason and science?

Why should we favor the application of science and reason over other methods of arriving at beliefs, such as picking them at random, believing what we would like to be true, or accepting whatever some self-styled authority[AC3]  tells us?

Advocates of science often point to its extraordinary track record of success. The scientific method, in its fully developed form, has only existed for perhaps 400 or 500 years – just a few of my lifetimes. Yet in that short time it has utterly transformed our understanding of the world and the character of our lives. Five hundred years ago, many Europeans believed they inhabited a universe just a few thousand years old, created in just a few days. They possessed almost no effective medicine and relied on their legs or horse-power to travel the country. By means of science we have discovered the universe is about 13.8 billion years old, developed electricity and computers, unravelled the genetic code, created vaccines, and visited the moon.

True, scientific theories are overturned, and it may well turn out that some of our current theories are mistaken. Scientific theories are often adopted only tentatively and cautiously. Nevertheless, the scientific method has allowed us to overthrow a great many myths and make enormous progress in understanding the nature of the universe we inhabit. While what scientists assert is sometimes dismissed by critics as ‘just a theory’ (that’s often said about the theory of evolution, for example), many scientific theories are extraordinarily well-confirmed. It is always possible that any given scientific theory, no matter how well-confirmed, might turn out to be false; that does not mean it is probable. Many scientific claims and theories, such as the germ theory of disease or the claim that the Earth goes round the sun rather than vice versa are now so well-confirmed it’s ludicrous to suggest they’re false.

Science, and reason more generally, are valued by humanists because of their ability to reveal, or at least get us closer to, the truth. Science and reason offer us truth-sensitive ways of arriving at beliefs.

Humans have a remarkable capacity for generating false but nevertheless impressively rich and seductive systems of belief[AC4] [SL5] . Almost every culture has evolved beliefs in invisible and supernatural beings, such as ghosts, spirits, demons or gods. Belief in magical objects, psychic powers, precognition end-of-world prophecies, etc., remains widespread across much of the developed world. Belief in non-supernatural but nevertheless extraordinary phenomena such as the Loch Ness monster, alien-piloted flying saucers, alien abduction and conspiracy theories involving 9/11, the moon landings, and the Holocaust, is also rife. Our vulnerability to such false beliefs[AC6]  is well-documented. Even intelligent, well-educated people can be surprisingly vulnerable. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of that quintessentially rational character Sherlock Holmes, believed in fairies, and was successfully hoaxed by two little girls who faked photographs of fairies with their box brownie camera.

Very many of these beliefs are rooted in testimony – reports supposedly originating with eyewitnesses to miracles, amazing cures, precognition, bizarre objects in our skies, and so on. One particularly striking series of reports concerned an object that appeared over the building site of a new nuclear power station back in 1967. Sanitation workers claimed they saw a large lighted object hanging over the plant. A guard confirmed the sighting. The police arrived. An officer said the object ‘was about half the size of the moon, and it just hung there over the plant. Must have been there nearly two hours.’ The object vanished at sunrise. The next night, the same thing occurred. The county deputy sheriff described seeing a ‘large lighted object’. An auxiliary police officer reported, ‘five objects – they appeared to be burning. An aircraft passed by while I was watching. They seemed to be 20 times the size of a plane.’ A Wake county magistrate who arrived on the scene claimed to witness ‘a rectangular object, looked like it was on fire… We figured it about the size of a football field. It was huge and very bright.’ In addition, there was hard evidence to support these claims: local air traffic control also reported an unidentified blip on their scope.

A local news team finally arrived to investigate. The object appeared again at five a.m. When they attempted to chase the object in their car, the news team found they couldn’t catch up with it. Eventually, they pulled up and looked at the object through a long camera lens. “Yep, that’s the planet Venus alright,” noted the photographer.[3]

Though this might not otherwise have struck you as remotely likely, those various eyewitnesses to a large illuminated object hanging over the nuclear plant had seen nothing more than the planet Venus. That anomalous radar blip was just a coincidence.

What’s interesting about this case is that if it had not been solved by a bit of good luck – by those reporters showing up and publicizing the truth – it could easily have gone down in the annals of UFO-logy as one of the great unsolved cases. UFO buffs would no doubt have seized upon it and said something like this:

‘Here we have, sincere, multiple, trained eye-witnesses - workers, policemen, a deputy sheriff and even a magistrate. They have produced broadly consistent reports of a large lighted object hanging over a nuclear plant. They have no motive to give false reports (indeed, such officials are often hesitant and embarrassed about giving such reports). It’s absurd to suppose they might just have just seen a planet. Don’t forget their claims were supported by hard evidence in the form of that radar blip. Surely the best explanation of this testimony is that there really was a large lighted object hanging over the plant.’

Fortunately, we got lucky and now know the truth about this particular case. It illustrates the point that humans are remarkably prone to generating such false testimony, and for a variety of reasons. This particular example was produced by an optical illusion and a coincidence (that radar blip) but take out a subscription to one of the leading skeptic magazines [AC7] and you will discover such amazing reports are constantly being explained by reference to a wide range of other far-too-easily-dismissed-or-overlooked mundane mechanisms.

The moral is obvious: a significant number of such otherwise-unexplained reports are likely to be made anyway whether or not there really are any visiting alien spacecraft, psychic powers, or miracles. But then the existence of such testimony is not good evidence that such phenomena are real.

True, it’s often reasonable to take testimony at face value. If Ted and Sarah, a couple I know well and have learned to trust, tell me that a man called ‘Bert’ visited them last night, I’ll rightly take their word for it. But if Ted and Sarah add that Bert flew round the room by flapping his arms, died and then came back to life, and temporarily transformed their sofa into a donkey, it’s no longer reasonable for me to just take their word for it that these things happened[4]. When it comes to such claims, we should raise the evidential bar much higher because we know that such reports – including reports that might seem very hard to explain in mundane terms – are going to be made from time to time anyway, whether or not they are true.

One variety of false belief to which we’re exceptionally prone is belief in hidden agency – in hidden beings with their own beliefs and desires. We’re quick to appeal to hidden agency when presented with significant questions to which we lack answers. When we could not understand why the heavenly bodies moved in the way they do, we supposed that they must be other agents – gods, perhaps. When we could not explain natural diseases and disasters, we supposed they must be the work of malevolent agents, such as witches or demons. When we couldn’t explain why plants grew, or the seasons rolled by, we supposed that there must be sprites, or nature spirits, or other agents responsible for these things. As a result of this natural tendency to reach for hidden agents when presented with a mystery, we have populated our world with an impressive range of unseen and mysterious beings and developed extraordinarily rich and complex narratives about them.

Those who are broadly skeptical about claims such as those outlined above often disparagingly refer to them as “woo”. As we have seen, woo claims – or W-claims, as I’ll call them –[AC8] are[SL9]  a diverse bunch, involving psychic powers, alien abduction, cryptozoology (Big Foot, the Loch Ness Monster, etc.) past life regression, end-times prophecies, miracles, ghosts, fairies, demons and gods.[5] They are claims with which we are peculiarly fascinated (which explains why they feature so much in tabloid newspapers, fiction, films, and so on) and to which we are easily drawn. Clearly, while perhaps not all are false, a great many are. Many have been debunked. Many are incompatible. Many god-claims, for example, are mutually exclusive. A significant proportion of them must be false.

The humanist position is that we should take a skeptical attitude towards W-claims. We should not just assume they are false (some may not be). However, humanists subject such reports and claims to close rational and scientific scrutiny, and acknowledge that our inability to find a plausible-sounding but mundane explanation for a report of a miracle or flying saucer is not, as it stands, good evidence that the report is reliable.

Some religious believers insist that if there is a miracle-performing God, then such miracles are neither impossible nor improbable; thus – they say – those who are skeptical about miracle reports because they assume miracles are impossible or improbable are guilty of presupposing there’s no such God. We should note immediately, therefore, that the reason outlined above for being skeptical about such reports is not that what is reported is impossible or even improbable[AC10] . It’s not after all impossible or even particularly improbable that there exist bizarre and as yet undiscovered creatures that humans occasionally glimpse. The reason we should nevertheless be pretty skeptical about such cryptozoological reports (‘Nessie’, ‘Big Foot’, and so on) is that they are likely to be made pretty regularly anyway whether or not they’re true.

The scientist and humanist Carl Sagan once said, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”. Under the heading “extraordinary claims” Sagan would certainly include what I am calling W[AC11] -claims. Sagan is correct about W-claims[AC12] [SL13] . We should raise the evidential bar much higher than usual before accepting them. Why? If for no other reason than that we have a remarkable track record of unreliability when it comes to making them.

In addition, we also possess excellent evidence that many specific W-[AC14] claims are false. If someone claims they can successfully dowse for water, we should be pretty skeptical about that claim, not just because we know such claims are likely to be made anyway whether or not dowsing works, but also because we now possess ample scientific evidence that dowsing doesn’t work.

The world is chock full of competing W[AC15] -claims, including religious claims. They are, as I say, claims to which we are easily drawn and peculiarly vulnerable. If we step out into the marketplace of ideas just as willing to accept someone’s testimony that they have psychic powers or a direct line to God as we are to accept their testimony that they had baked beans for lunch, our heads are soon going to fill up with nonsense. If we value truth, it’s important we apply science and reason as best we can – as, if you like, a filter. False beliefs may still get through, but subjecting claims – especially W-claims [AC16] – to rigorous rational and/or scientific scrutiny before accepting them gives us our best chance of having mostly true beliefs.

It is for this reason that humanists insist on subjecting religious claims to such scrutiny. For of course religious claims usually are, or are built around, W-claims[AC17] . Let’s now turn to some examples of religious claims that have failed to pass the test.

Science as a threat to religious belief

As a result of scientific investigation, many religious claims, or claims endorsed by religion, have been shown to be false, or at least rather less well-founded than previously thought. Here are three examples:

Young Earth Creationism. Young Earth Creationists (YEC) assert that the entire universe was created by God approximately 6,000 years ago (certainly less than 10,000 years ago). This estimate is based on Biblical sources. In the 17th Century, using the Old and New Testaments as his source, Bishop James Ussher calculated that the moment of creation to be during the night before the 23rd October 4004 BC. Young Earth Creationism has since been empirically falsified in numerous ways by the cosmological, geological, biological, archeological and various other sciences. 

An Earth-centered universe. In early 17th Century Europe the dominant cosmology, endorsed by the Catholic Church, placed the Earth at the center of the universe. The other heavenly bodies, including the sun, revolved around it. This view was supposedly supported by scripture. For example, Psalms 96:10 says, “the world is established, it shall never be moved." And inJoshua 10:12-13, Joshua commands the sun to “stand still”, which suggests that the sun moves. This cosmology was rejected by Galileo (who was accused of rejecting it without proof, and was subsequently shown the instruments of torture and condemned to house imprisonment as a result). Science has, of course, established beyond any reasonable doubt that Galileo was right and the previously dominant religiously-endorsed view wrong.

The power of prayer. Many people believe in the power of petitionary prayer. For example, it’s often claimed that praying for people with a disease improves their chances of recovery. Yet recent rigorously-conducted large-scale scientific studies do not support this view. Indeed they rather undermine it. In 2006, American Heart Journal published the results of a $2.4 million experiment involving 1,802 heart-bypass patients, conducted under the leadership of Herbert Benson (a specialist who also believes in the medical efficacy of petitionary prayer). The results were unambiguous: prayer had no beneficial effect.[6] A similar large-scale trial of patients undergoing angioplasty or cardiac catheterization also revealed prayer had no effect. That prayer has beneficial medical effects is a religious belief that can be scientifically tested. Tests strongly suggest it’s false.[7]

The development of Darwin’s theory of natural selection also poses significant challenges to religious belief. Most obviously, Darwin’s account is incompatible with the Bible-literalist account of how the different species came into existence – including our own species with the creation of Adam and Eve. It is also incompatible with the Christian doctrine of the Fall, according to which the entire world is corrupted by the sin of these – it turns out – non-existent individuals. Darwin’s theory also provides a naturalistic explanation for the existence of things that, many theists had previously argued, could only reasonably be attributed to cosmic intelligent design. William Paley, for example, famously drew an analogy between the eye and a watch. Suppose we find a watch on a beach. Given it has a purpose for which it is well-engineered, it is more reasonable to suppose some intelligence designed it for that purpose than that it is a mere product of natural forces such as the wind and waves. Ditto the eye, thought Paley. Darwin succeeded in undermining this particular design argument for the existence of God. He says,

The old argument of design in nature, as given by Paley, which formerly seemed to me so conclusive, fails, now that the law of natural selection has been discovered.

Some contemporary theists who accept the theory of natural selection maintain there is no tension between the theory and the claim that God has guided the evolutionary process by directing mutations to a particular end – the emergence of human beings. However, Darwin himself considered the hypothesis that God guides the evolutionary process in this way is antagonistic to his own theory[8]On the theory of natural selection, the mutations that drive the evolutionary process are random in the sense that they are not goal-directed, e.g. towards either the adaptive needs of organisms or the production of a certain sort of species. To the extent that mutations might be selected by some sort of transcendent being, they would not be selected naturally.[9]

Religious belief is itself now increasingly a focus of scientific investigation. In some cases what is discovered is potentially a threat to the beliefs in question. One example much discussed in the media is the so-called “God helmet” developed by Koren and Persinger. The helmet produces a weak magnetic field around the wearer’s head. About 80% of subjects report a "sensed presence" which they interpret as an angel, a deceased person, etc. About one percent say that they sense the presence of God. When the Humanist Susan Blackmore tried the God helmet, she said it produced “the most extraordinary experiences I have ever had”.[10]

How might these and similar findings threaten religious belief? Not necessarily by demonstrating such beliefs are false. As the psychologist Justin Barrett points out:

Having a scientific explanation for mental phenomena does not mean we should stop believing in them. Suppose science produces a convincing account for why I think my wife loves me — should I then stop believing that she does?[11]

Obviously, even if we could show that experiences of God, angels, or the dead walking among us have a natural, scientifically identified cause, that would not establish that there is no God, that there are no angels, or that the dead don’t walk among us. However, were we to discover that these experiences have such an explanation, and also that, given certain natural facts, people are likely to report such presences anyway whether or not they exist, that would demolish whatever support such experiences might be thought to provide such beliefs.

Other rational threats to religious belief

So, science has threatened and indeed established beyond reasonable doubt the falsity of some religious beliefs. But that’s not to say such beliefs can’t be threatened and undermined in other ways too.

Surely we don’t need to apply the scientific method in order reasonably to rule out the hypothesis that our universe is the creation of a supremely powerful evil deity – the application of reason to our experience can tell us that[AC18] . While the universe contains a great deal of pain and suffering and moral evil, it also contains an enormous amount of good (in the form of love, laughter, ice-cream, kindness, rainbows, etc.): far too much good, arguably, for us reasonably to believe this is the creation of such an evil deity. Perhaps an evil god would allow some good as the price paid for greater evils, but such is the scale of the good that exists that it is absurd to believe this world is the creation of such a malevolent being.

I suspect most of us immediately recognize this just isn’t the sort of world an evil deity would create. Here, it seems, is a god hypothesis we can reasonably set aside even without bringing the scientific method to bear. Observation of the world, I suggest, allows me reasonably to rule out an evil god in much the same way that my observing your trousers allows me reasonably to rule out the presence of elephant in your pocket.

But if it’s true that we can observe this is not the kind of world an all-powerful and supremely evil deity would create, why might we not also observe that it’s not the kind of world an all-powerful and supremely good god would create either? Surely, given the quantity of pain and suffering we see around us, it’s also reasonable for us to cross that deity off our list of likely candidates? This is, of course, the evidential problem of evil – perhaps the most significant threat to belief in an all-powerful and supremely benevolent god.[12]

The problem of evil may not pose a scientific threat to belief in an all-powerful, all-good god, but that’s not to say that it can’t be significantly enhanced by science. Science is able to reveal huge hidden depths of pain and suffering. It has revealed, for example, that for the two hundred thousand years we humans have lived on this planet about a third to a half of every generation has, on average, died before the age of five (from disease, malnutrition, etc.). The vast scale of this suffering of both children and parents over such a long period of time before the one true God finally got round to revealing himself, his one true salvific religion, and the fact that there’s a good reason for every last ounce of this horror, strikes many humanists as further excellent evidence that there’s no such deity.

While science and observation are capable of undermining some god beliefs, they are not the only threat. Armchair methods are also capable of refuting a god hypothesis by, for example, revealing that the hypothesis involves an implicit logical contradiction or incoherence (in much the same way that that the hypothesis that there exists a four-sided triangle does). So, for example, perhaps we can show, from the comfort of our armchairs, that the very idea of omnipotence, or omniscience, or of a non-temporal agent that is the creator of the spatio-temporal universe, makes no sense.

In sumamry, science, and reason more generally, are able to threaten, and indeed demolish, many religious beliefs.

Immunizing strategies

When religious and other W-claims are challenged by science and reason, various strategies may be employed in their defence. Here are four examples.

(i) Selective skepticism

When your W-claim is challenged by reason and science, it can be tempting to play a skeptical card. There is, for example, a well-known philosophical puzzle about how to justify our belief that science and reason are reliable methods of arriving at true belief. Surely, any attempt to justify reason by making a case for its reliability will itself employ reason. But then the justification will be circular and thus as hopeless as trying justifying the belief that a second hand car salesman is trustworthy by pointing out that he himself claims to be trustworthy.

Similarly, pointing out, as we did above, that science has a great track record when it comes to exposing falsehoods and revealing the truth is to employ exactly the sort of inductive reasoning on which science is itself based. So it might appear that this kind of justification is also hopelessly circular.[13]

Do these puzzles constitute an insurmountable problem so far as justifying the humanist’s belief that reason and science are reliable methods of arriving at true beliefs? That’s debatable. But they do at least provide those whose beliefs are challenged by reason and science with a nice rhetorical move. In some theological circles a popular response to any serious intellectual challenge to their belief is to say: “Ah, but reason and science are faith positions too, aren’t they? And thus so are all beliefs based on them. So, in terms of reasonableness, we’re all square. My beliefs are no less reasonable than yours. It’s leaps of faith all round!” They then head out the door leaving you to solve the thorny philosophical puzzle they have just thrown in your lap.

I call this strategy “Going Nuclear”. Those employing it aim to achieve what during the Cold War was called “mutually assured destruction”. Kaboom! By exploding this skeptical device they aim to bring all beliefs down to the same level of (ir)rationality.

The key point to notice about this popular ruse is that the person who employs it almost certainly doesn’t believe what they say about reason. If they really believed all beliefs are equally reasonable, then they would suppose, say, that it’s as reasonable to believe that milk will make you fly as that it won’t. But of course they don’t believe that. They constantly place their trust in reason. Indeed, they regularly trust their lives to reason whenever, say, they trust that the brakes on their car while bringing them safely to a halt.

In fact, your opponent was almost certainly happy to employ reason up until the point where they started to lose the argument. Only then did it occur to them to get skeptical. You can also be pretty confident that they’ll try using reason to prop up their belief again once the intellectual threat you have raised has been forgotten about.

In short, your opponent’s skepticism about reason is inconsistent. It’s just a smokescreen device - a position they selectively adopt in order to avoid having to admit that, according to the standards of rationality that they employ in every other corner of their life, what they believe is false. That’s intellectually dishonest.

(ii) Reinterpretation


When a prophecy or piece of religious scripture appears to be contradicted by the evidence, the believer in it will often reinterpret it to make it consistent with the evidence after all. Take failed end-times prophecies, for example. Nostradamus’s famously predicted:

The year 1999 seven months,
From the sky will come the great King of Terror.

This was widely claimed to be a prophecy of Armageddon. When July 1999 came and went and Armageddon failed to materialize, the passage was simply reinterpreted.[AC19] 

More recently, the Christian Harold Camping used the Bible to predict that rapture and Judgement Day would occur on 21 May 2011. When 21 May arrived and nothing happened, Camping insisted Judgement Day had indeed occurred, only in a “spiritual” way (which is why no one noticed). He insisted the Bible was clear that end of the world would then arrive on 21 October 2011.

The Genesis account of a six-day creation is no longer taken literally by all Christians (though it still is by many). It too has been reinterpreted.

This kind of shoehorning - reinterpreting scripture, prophecy, astrological predictions, and so on to make them “fit” whatever evidence shows up - is an immunizing strategy widely adopted both inside and outside of religious contexts.

(iii) Explaining away

For Bible literalists, the suggestion that Genesis should not be interpreted literally is not an option. Evidence supporting a billions-of-years-old universe in which life has existed for billions of years must be made to “fit” their religious belief in some other way.

Contemporary Young Earth Creationists (YECs) have developed a raft of explanations for why scientific discoveries concerning the light from distant stars, carbon-dating, ice cores, chalk deposits, plate tectonics, the fossil record and so on do not, after all, constitute a threat to their belief in a young universe.

The fossil record, for example, is now typically explained by YECs by reference to the Biblical flood on which Noah floated his ark. The deluge created mud deposits which formed many of the sedimentary layers we now find beneath our feet. It also drowned many creatures, including dinosaurs, which become buried and fossilized with those sedimentary layers. The ordering of fossils within the layers is explained in terms of different ecological zones being submerged at different times, in terms of the differing ability of creatures to escape the rising waters (man, being the smartest, would be last to drown, which explains why we only find traces of man in the topmost sedimentary layers), and so on.

Of course, such explanations usually just raise a host of other problems for Young Earth Creationism (YEC). The Flood theory for example, raises some interesting puzzles regarding the Ark. How did Noah get two of every “kind” of creature (including the dinosaurs, such as argentinosaurus at100 tons and 120 feet long each) into a boat with a cross section not much bigger than that of my Victorian terrace house? After the Ark was finally deposited on Mount Ararat, how did Noah get the creatures back across vast oceans to their various habitats? Visit a YEC website and you’ll discover much speculation and theorizing about these questions. What you can be sure of is that the YECs will be able to cook up some sort of explanation. One way or another, they will find a way to make the Biblical account of creation consistent with the available data. Achieving this kind of “fit” is something YECs pride themselves on. Here’s Ken Ham, a leading proponent of YEC:

Increasing numbers of scientists are realizing that when you take the Bible as your basis and build your model of science and history upon it, all the evidence from living animals and plants, the fossils, and the cultures fits. This confirms that the Bible really is the Word of God and can be trusted totally.[14]

What Ham doesn’t mention here is that any theory, no matter how ludicrous, can be squared with the evidence given enough ingenuity. Believe that the Earth is run by a secret cabal of alien, shape-shifting lizards? Or that the Holocaust never happened? Or that dogs are spies from the planet Venus? Or that the universe is the creation of a supremely powerful and evil deity? All these beliefs can ultimately be made consistent with what we observe, given sufficient patience and imagination. One way or another, every last anomaly can be explained away.

There’s a popular myth about science that if you can make your theory consistent with the evidence, then you have shown that it is confirmed by that evidence – as confirmed as any other theory.

Proponents of ludicrous belief systems often exploit this myth. It is exploited by Ken Ham. It may also be exploited by those who reinterpret their preferred scripture or prophecy in order to make it “fit”.

In fact, achieving “fit” and achieving confirmation are not the same thing.

As we saw earlier, a theory can be strongly confirmed by making a risky prediction – by predicting something that would be unlikely, or at least not likely, if the theory were false.

The theory of evolution and common descent, in its fully developed form, does indeed make risky predictions – predictions that turn out to be true. That means it is strongly confirmed.

Take the fossil record, for example. The theory predicts fossils will be dug up in a very specific order. It predicts, among other things, that, because mammals and birds are a comparatively late evolutionary development, their fossils will never be discovered within the earlier, pre-Devonian sedimentary layers (which contain over half the fossil history of multicellular organisms). If the theory of evolution were false and YEC true, on the other hand, there would be no particular reason to expect a complete absence of mammal and bird fossils in those earlier deposits (indeed, YECs wouldn’t be at all surprised had such fossils shown up). Yet, among the countless thousands of fossils excavated each year, not a single example of pre-Devonian mammal or bird has ever been found. That’s some coincidence if the theory of evolution is false. (Note this is just one example of how the theory of evolution is strongly confirmed. There are numerous others.[15])

By contrast, Ken Ham’s brand of YEC studiously avoids making such risky predictions regarding the fossil record. Whatever order the fossils are dug up in is of little consequence to YEC. Mammals and birds in the pre-Devonian? Fine. No mammals and birds in the pre-Devonian? No problem. For this reason, while the ordering of those fossils that have been excavated does strongly confirm the theory of evolution, it does not strongly confirm YEC.[16][17]

(iv)The accusation of scientism

Those who have subjected religious and other W-claims to critical scrutiny and found them wanting are sometimes accused of an irrational bias towards scientism – the view that all meaningful questions can in principle be answered by science.

Scientism is almost certainly false. Consider the question of why the universe has the most fundamental laws that it does, or why it exists at all. These do not appear to be the kind of questions science might, in principle, answer. Any scientifically established law or principle that supposedly accounted for the existence of the universe would merely postpone the mystery – for what, in turn, would explain why that particular law or principle holds?

The most fundamental moral questions are also widely considered to be questions to which science cannot supply answers. As Hume points out, science reveals what is the case, whereas morality is concerned with what ought to be the case. And it appears we cannot justify “ought” conclusions by appeal to such “is” facts (though Sam Harris has recently challenged this view in his book The Moral Landscape[18]).

Mathematical and conceptual puzzles would also seem to be the kind of puzzles science can’t solve. Indeed, many classical philosophical puzzles appear, at core, to be conceptual puzzles the solutions to which will require the armchair methods of the philosopher.

So I think we should acknowledge that there are questions science can’t answer (at least some of which can perhaps be answered in other ways). However, none of this is to say that science, and empirical observation more generally, is incapable of supporting or refuting religious and other W-claims.

When your belief in a W-claim is threatened, it can be tempting to place its subject matter behind a protective veil. Many insist that claims about gods, ghosts, psychic powers and so on are immune to scientific refutation because they are claims about a realm to which science is necessarily prohibited access.

True, such beliefs may concern a part of reality that is supposedly unobservable. But the unobservable is not always scientifically off-limits. Subatomic particles and the distant past of this planet cannot be observed either, but, because theories about them often have empirically observable consequences, they are still capable of being empirically confirmed or disconfirmed. The same is true of religious and other W-claims. If someone insists there exists a God who answers petitionary prayers, we can check and see if such prayers are answered. If it is claimed that psychics can communicate with the dead, we can test whether the information they supposedly receive is reliable, and also whether it might have been acquired by some other means. If it is claimed that there exists an all-powerful and supremely evil creator, we can check whether the universe has the sort of character we should then predict it to have. The fact that something is, even in principle, unobservable does not entail that it is not scientifically or empirically investigable.

Admitting that science and reason have not supplied, and perhaps cannot supply, answers to certain fundamental questions does not entail that science and reason can’t pretty conclusively rule certain answers out. Suppose I acknowledge that I currently have no satisfactory answer to the question, “Why is there something rather than nothing?” Does it follow that I should, then, consider the Christian answer a serious contender? No. Suppose Sherlock Holmes is having a bad day. He can’t figure out whodunnit. Still Holmes might still be able reasonably to rule out the butler, who has a cast-iron alibi. Similarly, humanists may not be able to answer all of life’s big questions. It does not follow that they cannot reasonably rule certain answers out – including religious answers.

Further Reading

Believing Bullshit: How Not to Fall Into An Intellectual Black Hole by Stephen Law (Amherst: Prometheus, 2011) investigates many of the issues raised in this chapter. The book focuses on how belief systems can become intellectual black holes, sucking in the unwary and making them intellectual prisoners. Examples include Christian Science, Young Earth Creationism and belief in psychic powers. The book outlines eight key mechanisms that tend to be involved in both immunizing such belief systems against refutation and creating a veneer of faux reasonableness.

How to Think About Weird Things by Theodore Schick and Lewis Vaughn  (New York: McGraw Hill, 2013) is a good general introduction to philosophy of science, critical thinking and the weighing up of extraordinary claims. The book is expensive, but has been through many past editions, all of which are good and which are often available secondhand.

Anomalistic Psychology: Exploring Paranormal Belief and Experience, by Prof Christopher C. French and Anna Stone (Basingstoke UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), is an excellent textbook on the psychology of weird beliefs.

Why Statues Weep: The Best of “Skeptic”, by Wendy M Grossman and Christopher C. French (eds.) (Rickmansworth: The Philosophy Press, 2010) contains some entertaining examples of strange claims being properly investigated.

Philosophy of Pseudoscience: Reconsidering the Demarcation Problem by Missimo Pigliucci and Maarten Boudry (eds.) (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013) is a more academic book that looks at the issue of how to distinguish science from pseudoscience (the so-called “demarcation problem”.

[1] My thanks to Richard Carrier, Bob Churchill, Wes Morriston, David Papineau and Luke Tracey for helpful comments on previous drafts or partial drafts.

[2] Nothing I say here should be understood to commit me to the view that, say, observation is not theory-laden, that scientific progress is uniform, etc.

[3] Philip J. Klass, UFOs: The Public Deceived (Amherst NY, Prometheus Books 1983), p 83.

[4] Indeed, we might apply what I have called the contamination principle here: given we should be skeptical about the many miraculous parts of Ted and Sarah’s testimony, shouldn’t we also be skeptical even about the more mundane parts, such as that they were visited by a man called “Bert”? This point is developed in relation to testimony concerning the existence and miracles of Jesus in my paper “Evidence, Miracles and The Existence of Jesus, Faith and Philosophy 2011. Volume 28, Issue 2, April 2011. Pages 129-151

[5] In characterizing W-claims, I (i) say they are claims to which we are both peculiarly drawn and pretty unreliable, and (ii) provide a series of illustrations – e.g. miracle claims and claims about invisible beings. Notice I mean to define W-claims relationally. Being a W-claim is something like a secondary quality of a claim. What qualifies a claim as a W-claim is just the fact that it is a claim of a sort with which we are peculiarly fascinated and about which we are pretty unreliable. For alien beings with different fascinations and unreliabilities, miracle claims and claims about invisible beings may not be W-claims. While my characterization of W-claims is rough and ready, it is clear enough, I think, that miracle claims and claims about the existence of invisible beings do indeed qualify.

[6] H. Benson et al., “Study of the Therapeutic Effects of Intercessionary Prayer (STEP) in Cardiac Bypass Patients: A Multicenter Randomized Trial of Uncertainty and Certainty of Receiving Intercessionary Prayer,”American Heart Journal 151 (2006): 934–42.

[7] M. W. Krucoff et al., “Music, Imagery, Touch, and Prayer as Adjuncts to Interventional Cardiac Care: The Monitoring and Actualization of Noetic Trainings (MANTRA) II Randomized Study,” Lancet 366 (2005): 211–17.

[8] Darwin (1868), p. 236. – (1868). The Variation of Animals and Plants Under Domestication. New York: Appleton, 2nd edition, 1876.

[9] For a more detailed discussion of this and related issues see Herman Philipse, “The Real Conflict Between Science and Religion: Alvin Plantinga’s Ignoratio Elenchi” (forthcoming).

[10] Roxanne Khamsi (December 9, 2004). "Electrical brainstorms busted as source of ghosts". BioEd Online.

[11] Quoted in an email exchange with Robin Marantz Henig in latter’s “Darwin’s God” New York Times 4th March 2007.

[12] There are various ways in which this intuitive problem can be more precisely formulated as an argument against the existence of God. One of the most sophisticated versions is the abductive argument of Paul Draper. See Paul Draper “Pain and Pleasure: An Evidential Problem for Theists” (1989) Noรปs, 23 pp 331-350.

[13] For an explanation of this problem of induction see the chapter “How Do I Know The Sun Will Rise Tomorrow?” Stephen Law, The Philosophy Gym: 25 Short Adventures in Thinking (London: Headline, 2003)


[15] See for example the talk Origins archive entry by Douglas Theobald, 29+ Evidences for Macro-evolution Part 1: the Unique Universal Phylogenetic Tree. Available online at

[16] Elsewhere I have said that because Ham’s theory makes no predictions – takes no risks – regarding the fossil record, so it cannot be confirmed by the fossil record. See “But It Fits!” in my Believing Bullshit(Amherst NY: Prometheus Press, 2011). I now realize I did not get this quite right. Were we to start excavating fossils that were clearly stamped “Made by God in 4,004 BC”, etc., that might indeed confirm – even strongly confirm – YEC, despite the fact that YEC does not predict such a discovery. True, such a discovery may not be probable given YEC, but, given the discovery is nevertheless considerably more probable on YEC than otherwise, it would still confirm YEC to a significant degree.

[17] Also notice that each new assumption Ham introduces to try to explain away the evidence against YEC has the effect of reducing the prior probability of his overall theory. Ham succeeds in endlessly protecting YEC against empirical refutation only by endlessly reducing the prior probability that YEC is true.

[18] Sam Harris, The Moral Landscape (London: Black Swan, 2012).