Thursday, June 01, 2006

Practical Truth

This post is part of an ongoing dialog between my friend Ernie and me about the validity of Christian belief.

As I noted last night, Ernie had gotten two posts in and I only replied to the first. Tonight, I will tackle the second one, Of Truth and Trust.

As often seems to be the case, Ernie is worried that I committed an category error in my comparison between the Standard Model of physics and any "Standard Model" of Christianity. But I think it is Ernie that has misunderstood my point. In describing the Standard Model of physics, I was not referring to all of physics but to a specific theory, a theory that Ernie brought up and described as "wildly successful and universally believed". My contention is that there is no corresponding theory in Christianity. Yes, there are a variety of orthodoxies, but not a single universally believed orthodoxy, a point the Ernie acknowledges and indeed emphasizes. His mention of string theory and the dispute among physicists as to whether or not it is a valid scientific theory is irrelevant to the universal acceptance of the Standard Model.

(As I re-read the paragraph Ernie quoted, I can see why he might think I was conflating Christianity with orthodoxy, as I was not careful to distinguish throughout that I was intending to compare the physics Standard Model with any theory of Christian orthodoxy, rather than with everything that is labeled Christianity. I started well, but ended poorly.)

The main point of Ernie's post seems to be this:

I assert that the ultimate test of "justified belief" in physics -- and, I wager, everywhere else -- is not formal or empirical, but social. In the sciences, the strongest test we can devise is being published in a peer-reviewed journal; mere experiment by itself is hardly sufficient (remember cold fusion? :-).

I agree that there is a social element here, but I think Ernie has undervalued the experimental evidence. Granted, the initial cold fusion claims were based on experiments, but the eventual consensus of the scientific community was based not just on the experiments described by Pons and Fleischmann, but on numerous failed attempts to replicate those results in experiments performed by other scientists, as well as criticisms by the community of the execution of the original experiments.

Ernie does ask a good question when he asks, for the purposes of peer review, who counts as a peer? And what do we do when there is not universal agreement?

When peer review is done for scientific journals, the reviewers are generally supposed to be scientists with expertise in the subject of the paper under review. Chemists do not review physics papers, and in fact, solid state physicists do not review plasma physics papers. Still, this review is only one step in the process and papers must withstand the scrutiny of skeptical experts and further experiment.

Ernie asks us to consider what effect non-believers and heretics should have on our own beliefs. Should disbelief by non-experts give me reason to disbelieve? Ernie says no, and I fully agree. What about a (small) minority of experts that disagree with the (vast) majority? Should their disbelief mean I should also disbelieve? Again, I agree with Ernie that we should consider their case, but that justified belief can remain in the face of such disagreement. On the other hand, continued skepticism by a significant minority would likely cause me to withhold belief. In all of these cases, belief remains contingent. Even the vast majority can be wrong.

There will always remain, then, the possibility of being wrong, of believing something untrue, even in science. In other venues like history, there will often be substantially greater uncertainty because the available information is usually incomplete, biased, sometimes fraudulent or otherwise inaccurate and imprecise.

Ernie also asks "on what basis can we assert that science is really correlated with truth, as opposed to just a 'comfortable myth, held by a self-selected group, which seems to work much of the time'?" My answer is pragmatic: who cares? If a theory works (and that is the crucial qualification), it is useful and if another theory works better, it is more useful. I do think that science is correlated with truth in the realms it can address, simply because it works so well, but there is not a necessary causal relationship between "works" and "true", a point that came up yesterday in relation to the historical success of Christianity.

Am I being inconsistent then to disbelieve Christianity in the face of its historical success? I think not. It has been successful in the sense of surviving and even growing, but I believe it has had and continues to have significant failures in the sense of promoting the welfare of humankind. I think there are alternatives that work better.

Ernie finished with a few questions about what, who and how I trust. At this point, I'll have to postpone answering them until I have more time.

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