“Fact, fact, fact!” said the gentleman. And “Fact, fact, fact!” repeated Thomas Gradgrind.
There’s been a flurry of activity over the meaning of the word ‘fact’, and how this little word should be used in either theological or secular/scientific contexts. It all began with Keith Ward’s Guardian article in which he purported to show how “religion answers the factual questions that science neglects.” I responded to Ward on 1 November 2011 with a post entitled “Imaginary Homelands. Keith Ward Struggles with the Facts.” Jerry Coyne responded on the 6th of November with his post “Guardian writer foolishly claims that religion answers factual questions, in which he makes the following challenge:
I challenge Ward to give me just one reasonably well established fact about the world that comes from “general philosophical views, moral views, personal experience and judgment” without any verifiable empirical input.
This challenge was answered, in turn, by Jim Houston in The Philosophy Magazine blog Talking Philosophy, in which he takes Jerry Coyne to task for not having contacted Ward about his challenge, when, in fact, making the “challenge” was obviously rhetorical. To this Jerry Coyne replied with his post “Can philosophy or religion alone establish facts?” I’m not quite sure why Jerry decided to include philosophy either in his original challenge or in this response to Jim Houston’s Talking Philosophy gig, because yoking philosophy and theology together is really mixing apples with oranges, especially since the kind of thing Jerry is attempting to do here is, quite simply, philosophy, and no doubt he thinks that it has some “factual” content. And, not to leave out another important contribution to the conversation, Ophelia Benson has just posted her take on the issue over at Butterflies and Wheels with the catchy title, “Facts and Beliefs.”
I put ‘factual’ in scare quotes, because it is not at all clear what anyone means by ‘fact’ and ‘factual’ by this stage. A fact, in ordinary parlance, is simply whatever it is that makes a proposition true. So, it is either a fact or not a fact that Jesus rose (or was raised) from the dead, that Hitler did, or did not, precipitate the Second World War, that 2+2 is, without delving more deeply into mathematical theory, equal to 4. These are facts, or, perhaps more cautiously, it is possible that these are facts, just as it is a fact, or at least it is possibly a fact, that Keith Ward was in Oxford on the day and at the time that he says he was. It is also an undoubted fact that the life forms which populate the earth came to be as they are by a process of evolution by natural selection. Whether there are moral facts or not is something that is open to question or dispute, but it would be altogether too extreme to say, as Jerry does, that
A “fact” is not a fact if all the evidence supporting it has vanished or is inaccessible.
The fact that evidence for something has vanished does not turn something into a non-fact, although the absence of evidence for something’s being a fact is usually enough for us to say that, other things being equal, we do not have sufficient grounds on which to base our belief in its being a fact. But it is, arguably, a fact that the lack of evidence for something’s being a fact is a good reason not to attach too much credence in the belief that it is a fact. Take the prime suspect in a murder. The fact that all the evidence was somehow spirited away, or the chief witness disappeared, does not suddenly make the suspect an upstanding member of society. It may just mean that there is insufficient evidence to convict him. O.J. Simpson was acquitted of the murder of his wife, but this does not mean that it is not a fact that he killed her.
In other words, the word ‘fact’ has a greater range of application than just empirically substantiated states of affairs. This is precisely why Keith Ward thinks he is justified in his claim that religion answers the factual questions that science neglects. However, Ward is just wrong about this, though not for the reasons that Coyne suggests. Ward suggests that
The physical sciences do not generally talk about non-physical and non-law-like facts such as creation by God.
But this, as I pointed out earlier, is just silly. If it is a fact — putting all the emphasis on ‘if’ here — that God created the universe, then it is a fact for which we have no evidence, and therefore no reason to believe it. In other words, this is something for which evidence is necessary, and Ward’s claim that religion deals with “facts” is deeply questionable, because we do not know how we could establish the truth of such a non-physical and non-law like fact. Indeed, by saying that it is both non-physical and non-lawlike Ward is actually giving us good reasons to believe that there are no facts of the matter here at all. For what would it be like to establish the truth of a non-physical, non-lawlike fact?
Take answers to prayer, for example. Many religious people pray — and I recall reading a short essay by Marghanita Laski (who was an atheist) in which she acknowledged having prayed during a stay in hospital and finding it calming and reassuring — and yet, if prayers are answered, no reason can be ascribed to the fact, if it be a fact, that some prayers are answered and some are not, which leads to the inevitable conclusion that there is simply no reason to believe in answered prayer. So speaking of a non-lawlike fact is simply speaking of something for which we have no evidence — since evidence is lawlike — and therefore something the truth of which there is no reason to believe.
Ophelia nicely eviscerates Ward’s argument. She points out, for example, that Ward is guilty of smuggling religion into contexts where the language of fact is at home, without issuing a warning that there is some skullduggery going on. As Ophelia says:
The claim that Keith Ward was in Oxford on a particular night is not inherently implausible; it goes against no known public facts about nature or the social world or geography. The same cannot be said of “the miracles of Jesus.”
What makes the miracles of Jesus improbable is complicated, but it includes absence of evidence, the fact that the testimony to the miracles is of little probative value now, centuries after the supposed miracles, as well as the fact that miracles, by definition, are non-lawlike events, and, as Hume says, we have more reason to believe that the witnesses were either duped or lying than that the laws of nature had been broken.
The other point that Ophelia picks out so nicely is the equivocation in Ward’s claim that
Much history, like much religion, is evidence-based, but the evidence is not scientifically tractable.
How did history and religion get yoked together? Ophelia’s “Objection, your Honour,” is more than justified. History is evidence-based. Were there no evidence for past events, history would become impossible, which is why Ranke’s “wie es eigentlich gewesen ist” (as it actually was) was such an important maxim for modern history, and sent historians on a hunt for primary sources, back to the things themselves. So we can speak reasonably about the facts of history — which, like the facts of science, are always subject to revision upon the discovery of new evidence — but, while Ward may speak about history and religion as evidence-based, theologians and religious believers have yet to produce any evidence at all, whilst historians can point to undoubted evidence which can make their claim to know what actually happened as well-established as any scientific theory. This is, of course, why Dawkins’ comparison of creationists to Holocaust deniers (in The Greatest Show on Earth) was so effective.
But notice. Saying all that I have just said is neither history, nor theology, nor science, but, effectively, philosophy, which at the very least is an attempt to clarify what it is that we mean when we speak about all these various pursuits. Philosophical theology, for instance, effectively shows, if it shows anything at all, that theology itself, as the rational study of the beliefs of a particular religion and its attendant practices, is essentially empty, while the philosophy of science, even though scientists may sometimes find it unhelpful, is (amongst other things) the endeavour to lay bare the structure of scientific theories and how theory is grounded in empirical reality. In this respect I find many of the things that Susan Haack has to say about the foundations of science most helpful, and her idea of science as being like a giant crossword puzzle, in which new discoveries may cohere or not with what is already thought to be established, and how new discoveries in science, just like a new answer to a crossword puzzle clue, might lead us to correct other entries (discoveries) that were thought to be already answered (firmly grounded in empirical reality). She calls her theory “foundherentism” to distinguish it from foundationalist and coherence theories of truth and to combine them.
To make what could be an even longer story short, what is factual cannot be restricted to empirical facts. This is one reason that Ward thinks he can get away with smuggling religious “facts” into a claim about history. It is also why Jerry can speak intelligibly about things which are not related to science, and make truth claims about such things. It is also why philosophy is so important. Of course, lots of philosophy, undoubtedly like some science is just junk science, is just junk philosophy. But philosophy allows us to talk about the differences between science and theology, for instance, without saying anything that is empirically verifiable yet is at the same time true. If it is true, it is simply a fact that religion, for all its claims, makes no legitimate claim to answer factual questions that science neglects.