Notes From Babel

Empiricists Can Be Fanatical, Too

with 2 comments

Back when I was the editor of the Chapman Law Review, I signed off on the publication of an article on the issue of intelligent design. (The article, “Evolution, Science, And Ideology: Why The Establishment Clause Requires Neutrality in Science Classes,” by Stephen W. Trask, can be found online here.) Not surprisingly, the article found several critics (including this rebuttal article by fellow Chapman Law School alumnus Timothy Sandefur, published in the following issue of the Chapman Law Review).

Although shallow and ad hominem attacks abounded — including some lodged against me for having chosen to publish the article — what disappointed me, and still disappoints me, is that none of the responses to Mr. Trask’s article seriously addresses the epistemological concerns raised therein. I raised that lack of serious response in an earlier post at Ed Brayton’s site, although the discussion abruptly ended thereafter. (Even Tim Sandefur’s well-written response linked above fails to go much further down this tough philosophical road than to merely cite an anecdote by pop-atheist Richard Dawkins that “there are no postmodernists at 30,000 feet.” 11 Chap. L. Rev 129, 135 (2008). But as I had previously noted, usefulness is not the same thing as knowledge. The question is how we test whether things are useful, but how we can justify our claims to knowledge in them.)

Because I think it important to keep fanatical empiricsts’ feet to the fire on these crucial points, I am reposting it here….

I was the editor-in-chief of the Chapman Law Review, which published the paper that set off this cheery debate. One of the reasons we chose the article for publication is that it presented the vexing epistemological problem posited by Hume and Kant, and weaved it into the current debate on ID and the religion clauses. In hindsight, I would tread much more lightly into such hotly debated areas. Like any controversial work, some of the criticism is valid, and some is simply reactionary.

I took the author’s key premise to be that both science and religion require the adoption of some fundamental premises that are not subject to observation. This was the key problem submitted by Hume and which endures to this day. Trask argues in his paper that the problem basically puts science and religion on the same epistemological footing. The rest of his arguments take off from there. Love or hate that argument, it is a legitimate philosophical quandary. Ayn Rand and her followers have made light of the problem, but have done little to solve it, other than to set forth their own amalgamation of transcendental, empirically unjustifiable premises. Mixed with vitriol and indignation for good measure.

Most of the article’s critics seem to take the pragmatic approach. As I understand it, pragmatism basically takes the different systems of belief, including religious and scientific, and examines which is most practically useful. It then validates the one that provides the most useful information–which, of course, is science. Pragmatism, however, is not really epistemology, but a substitute for it. It simply redefines the term “truth.” Truth is no longer defined in the classical sense, as a logically necessary conclusion of undeniable premises. It is instead merely defined in terms of utility, and thus “truth” is recast as that which is most useful.

I doubt anyone will deny the utility of science. And that is not the subject of the paper. Recasting “truth” does not an epistemology make. Many serious philosophers are still concerned with the classical epistemological problems set off by Hume. Many folks are not, and are content with assuming the premises necessary to make science possible and proceeding with a utility-based definition of truth. So to those folks, this paper is, quite literally, written in a different language, and simply does not concern them. Ed Brayton, for example, says that “there is no such thing as a ‘scientific fact’, there are just facts.” This simply misunderstands (or ignores) the epistemic problem. A scientific worldview makes certain epistemic assumptions, such as whether impressions correspond with a physical reality, whether causal relationships exist and can be understood, whether we can expect the future to resemble the past, etc. Such premises, necessary to establishing “truth” and “knowledge,” are simply not observable, and thus cannot be explained other than by transcendental argumentation–that to make sense of anything, we must assume certain things to be true.

I do not mean to subject anyone to the convolutions of epistemological arguments. My point is that most of the criticisms against the article completely miss the point, because they fail to go toe to toe at the epistemological level. (Incidentally, I do not mean here to suggest any allegiance on my own part for or against the article or its arguments.) The criticisms instead simply assume the primacy of the scientific method for ascertaining knowledge, and then proceed to argue on the basis of that worldview. This is akin to arguing that Joe is lousy at baseball because Bob throws more touchdowns. Even the terms we use are meaningless until we are talking about the same game.

At bottom, whether or not you agree with the article, or find it persuasive, it was published because it made arguments that would stimulate thought on an important area of intellectual life. Despite Tim Sandefur’s suggestion that my colleagues and I should be “ashamed” for publishing the piece, I believe that the apparent failure to understand and confront directly the key epistemological issues it raised suggest the very reason that such articles must be published.


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  1. […] is “real science” and that intelligent design is “fake science.”  After  <a href=>I was chastised</a> by atheists for publishing an article on the subject while […]

  2. […] to learn he’s still stewing over it given he’s never replied to my responses, e.g., here and […]

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