Knowing the Problem of Induction
Why Science and Religion are Incompatible, Part 4761
Once you eliminate the impossible whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth (or a close approximation thereof). Almost A.C. Doyle
I have a friend who has often told me that as an atheist I rest too much on my preconceptions that God doesn’t exist for me to be open to evidence that his God does, in fact, exist. He has told me that because of the problem of induction, there is no way that I can “know” that God doesn’t exist, and that nothing in the scientific method can be used to support atheism. Since no one can be justified, apparently, in drawing absolute answers from repeated observations, then it is silly to say that there is no God just because I have never experienced “Him.”
It’s the problem of induction, again. I hesitate to discuss such a philosophical quandary among those who read this blog regularly; those who will likely school me on where my lack of formal philosophical training has failed me, but I have been thinking about the differences between science and religion as “ways of knowing.”
In order to maintain confidence that a causal relationship between natural phenomena has been established, one scientific method that I learned was to disprove a null hypothesis using statistical tools to analyze my data. If the null hypothesis is not disproved, that means that the proposed hypothesis probably establishes a causal relationship and my investigation has yielded a good answer within a specified confidence interval. In other words, by following a scientific process, an investigator has come up with a good explanation for why something is so, or how something works.
This is only one of the methods that scientists use to discover how things work, one of the ways that people discover “how the world goes.”
Religion promises knowledge based on non-verifiable acceptance of authority, resignation to “mystery,” and the record of inscripturation. Apologists for religion promise to provide “other ways of knowing” that aren’t limited to verifiable, positivistic methods. Religion, in general, tells people that we can know for certain that the supernatural exists and interacts in measurable ways with the natural. Religion explains, in its “way,” the creation, miracles, interventions in personal lives and through catastrophic natural events. The explanations are authoritative but not testable nor replicable through any reliable means.
There is a difference between the process of science and the nature of religion. Science provides the “probable” answers, while religion promise certainty as long as the seeker will accept Mystery. 1 Cosmologists have teased out most of the probable answers as to what happened following the Big Bang to within Planck Time and are still trying to determine how this universe came into being. They don’t know absolutely if the current understanding of the process of expansion has been accurately described, but they have reason to acknowledge that it has been described very accurately using the process of inductive reasoning.
Inductive reasoning, as I understand it, is the process of analyzing subsets of the whole to make rational judgments of the nature of the whole. For a common example of how inductive reasoning works, I will use political polling. A sample of the population of likely voters is queried as to how they plan to vote in an upcoming election. The larger the sample polled, the more likely the pollster is to obtain an accurate prediction of the eventual outcome. Once the sample size exceeds a certain level, the returns of accuracy and confidence change little and it would be foolish and expensive and time-consuming to sample more than necessary. A poll of all the people who will vote would be the most accurate way to predict an election, it would yield an “absolutely true” result, provided that none of those polled were deceptive or changed their minds.
The ideal sample size can be determine through some quick calculations, for example:
((The trick to stats is designing the proper formula. Once that has been done it is a simple matter of algebra.))
Nate Silver didn’t need to sample all of the voters in the 2008 election to predict that Obama would carry the electoral vote. He merely needed to analyze the polls that sampled populations within the whole of the electorate. The results he predicted were accurate to a specified confidence level, the famous “margin of error” of ±3 per cent. There was a 5% chance that he could have predicted incorrectly. In experimental design, a scientist will determine what margin of error will allow for the most probable and acceptable description of the causality of a natural phenomenon. Shorter: Is this what caused that? The possible answers are not “yes” or “no.” They are “probably” or “probably not,” or “that’s funny.”
The “problem of induction” is related to absolute knowledge. If all knowledge is tentative, then any solution is as good as any other. There is no certainty and there can be none, so my answer is as good as yours even if I haven’t done any serious investigation. If you can’t state with a 0% margin of error that something is so, then you really have no useful knowledge. I can’t predict that the sun will rise tomorrow with absolute certainty, because I can’t see into the future. I can confidently state that it will because I have an understanding that the sun doesn’t really rise, instead the earth rotates and creates an effective illusion that the sun is rising. For the Earth to stop rotating sometime in the middle of the night, events would be a bit more jarring due to the forces of momentum than I would care to deal with. I wouldn’t then be too concerned that my prediction was wrong.
The “problem of induction” has been misused to claim that since there is no way to “know” that there is no God then God is likely to exist even if there is no direct nor indirect evidence of such an entity. Not by any professional philosophers has this been done, mind you, but by friends of mine who think that they have stumbled onto something that “no atheist can answer.”
When it comes to the differences between religion as a “way of knowing” versus science as a way of understanding, religion offers something that science doesn’t. Religion offers the comfort of absolute knowledge. It offers the absolute answers, the answers that people want: there is a creator that is watching after us and providing a way for us to experience a blissful afterlife.
The conflict between science and religion is in the means of acquiring knowledge. Religious authority is often derived from personal revelations of prophets who have experienced something that to them is “real” and “true,” as true as the feeling of a burned hand in a fire. I have “felt” the presence of the Holy Spirit, but I have also “felt” the presence of the pagan Goddess in a drawing down of the moon. Both experiences were very emotional, uplifting, exciting and convincing. God’s presence was revealed to me, as was the Goddess’s. I should also note that both experiences were accompanied by prophecies from the respective supernatural agents.
Through these experiences, I found out how religious people “know” what they know. There could be no doubt, because the words came directly to me while I was experiencing the ecstasy. There was no induction needed, because through those experiences I had the Truth. As Thomas Paine wrote in The Age of Reason:
It is a contradiction in terms and ideas, to call anything a revelation that comes to us at second-hand, either verbally or in writing. Revelation is necessarily limited to the first communication — after this, it is only an account of something which that person says was a revelation made to him; and though he may find himself obliged to believe it, it cannot be incumbent on me to believe it in the same manner; for it was not a revelation made to me, and I have only his word for it that it was made to him.
I could tell you the Truth of those prophecies, but you would have to take my word for it.
Religion and science are not compatible because of the illusory nature of “truth.” We all have truths. Religion claims to provide Truth. Science is just a process that uses methods to get close to truth. Religion provides other ways of knowing. My question is in knowing what? What does religion help us know, exactly? And if induction can’t be used to prove an absolute, is that really a problem that religion can solve?
I don’t know.
- Have you ever noticed that Catholic theologians pronounced the word “mystery” with the “M” capitalized? How do they do that? [↩]
This entry was posted on Thursday, July 15th, 2010 at 5:20 am and is filed under Mike Haubrich, Science. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.