Claims which recede -- apparently by design -- from scrutiny

So, the GAE has me thinking about a sort of philosophical problem in relation to discernment of reality.
There can be belief systems which involve things which, for practical reasons, cannot find confirmation in evidence. Huxley’s classic remarks about “lunar politics” come to mind:

“If a man asks me what the politics of the inhabitants of the moon are, and I reply that I do not know; that neither I, nor any one else, has any means of knowing; and that, under these circumstances, I decline to trouble myself about the subject at all, I do not think he has any right to call me a sceptic. On the contrary, in replying thus, I conceive that I am simply honest and truthful, and show a proper regard for the economy of time. So Hume’s strong and subtle intellect takes up a great many problems about which we are naturally curious, and shows us that they are essentially questions of lunar politics, in their essence incapable of being answered, and therefore not worth the attention of men who have work to do in the world.”

The politics of the inhabitants of some distant planet are, of course, not unknowable in principle, but they are unknowable in practice. In fact, we now have good reason, which Huxley did not have, to conclude that there are no inhabitants of the moon into whose politics we may inquire; practical obstacles that he faced have now been removed. As to some other distant celestial body, there may be answers, and there may be good ways to find them, but not by any craft we here possess.

But religious thought tends to be characterized by claims which, by their authors, are constructed so as to be unknowable, not only in practice but also in principle. Take, for example, transsubstantiation. By ordinary standards, one should expect that the miraculous transmutation of wafers into meat is just the sort of thing which science could evaluate. But this claim is couched in the terms of Aristotelian essentialism, so that the “accidents” – a slightly odd word for “every last thing we can possibly observe,” but, okay – of the host are all waferish while the unseen, unmeasurable, untestable and unknowable reality of it is all meatish.

I have a brother who is a Mormon, having converted to his wife’s faith; this is a bullet he might have dodged, had he married his previous fiancee, who was Jewish. Joseph Smith, of course, is said to have translated tablets found in a mound in upstate New York, and discovered that these tablets, written in a script never seen elsewhere called “reformed Egyptian,” bore the story of descendants of the Israelites who came to America and who were visited by Jesus at one point. Can we scrutinize the tablets? No; God needed them back, but we do have the testimony of witnesses that the tablets did exist. Is Smith a good translator of ancient documents? No; we have the original and his translation of some actual Egyptian papyri, and with the benefit of the Rosetta Stone we now know his translations to have been wildly inaccurate. But while these circumstances might strongly suggest fraud and incompetence, and while the convenient disappearance of the supposed tablets makes the non-Mormon guffaw, people do believe these things; and it is possible to believe them, if one simply does not give much weight to the contrary evidence. As my wife says of many claims which are not credible, the claims violate no law of physics. They share the same bare philosophical possibility of being true with transsubstantiation, or indeed with most other paranormal claims.

In practical terms, and when we do not come to the matter with strong prejudices, we tend to treat claims which are crafted so as to recede from scrutiny with great caution. When it is pointed out, for example, that Uri Geller DOES get caught cheating sometimes, the ad hoc response is sometimes given that, well, you know, his powers aren’t completely reliable, and so he does sometimes cheat so as not to disappoint those who have come to see the miracle. While that claim may find some traction with the most dogmatic Gellerite, it will make a person of reasonable intelligence roll his eyes. The claim is not merely regarded as empirically unverifiable; it is regarded as obviously false.

Now, the thing is: there is no problem, in terms of pure reason, with transsubstantiation being true or with Geller sometimes being honest. Both of these unverifiable ad hoc excuses are intelligible, and there is no a priori objection that can be offered to them. Things might have a dual nature, with one side being real but undetectable; Geller might indeed cheat, yet have the power to bend spoons with his mind.

But should not the eye-rolling that follows naturally from the Geller case follow just as naturally from the transsubstantiation case? Is there any consideration, outside of politeness, which ought to preclude a person from laughing out loud at the latter?

It seems to me that, at a minimum, the cost of crafting a claim to recede from scrutiny is that one can no longer make any good argument for its truth, because no evidence for its falsity can possibly exist.

Can such claims have a use? I know that the objection which is often raised is that one cannot scientifically test such things as love, and love is important to us. But while one may not be able to slap a truth-telling helmet onto someone’s head and read the love on a meter, the fact is that we judge such things as love by actions and statements; we may not see the thing itself, but we can observe all of its manifestations, and it is from those manifestations that we judge. And it bears mentioning, at this point, that we do this while in possession of excellent reasons to believe that other people exist; it is not the sort of act of speculation which theological propositions inevitably must boil down to.

There are things we cannot directly witness for practical reasons, e.g., the inner emotional reality of other people, but we can form reasonable beliefs about them from the evidence we do have. There are propositions we cannot immediately test, e.g., “there are intelligent beings on other planets,” which are testable in principle but tough to test in practice. These things, it seems to me, do not give us reason for suspicion or amusement. But when the claim is crafted in a way that withdraws it from scrutiny, this gives us very good reasons to suspect that it is ill-founded. When it is crafted in a way that withdraws it from scrutiny while leaving the claimant in a position to make firm statements about it (e.g., the theologian who claims first that God is inscrutable, and second, that God may be scrutinized through scripture), this, it seems to me, rings every alarm bell in the neighborhood.

Is there a reason it should not?


I believe it’s couched in terms of Aristotelian, not Platonic, metaphysics.

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Ah! You are correct. I will edit that…

Bear in mind that there are people here who think Aristotelianism is perfectly good science, and that it is in fact even better than modern science. You’ll find they do a quick shuffle when their claims are scrutinized. First they claim that Aristotelian science explains the world better than modern science, then when it is pointed out that Aristotelian science is gibberish they switch to the position that it isn’t really science, it’s just metaphysics, so they don’t need to defend it as science. Then once that’s over they go back to challenging modern science with Aristotelian science again.

The problem is of course that there’s a lot of traditional theology (such as transubstantiation), which rests on Aristotelian science being actual science, not merely metaphysics. Consequently they can’t actually give up Aristotelian science without giving up traditional theology, and that would mean chunks of traditional theology are wrong, and if they acknowledge that then they would have to acknowledge it could all be wrong, and no one wants to pull that thread.

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Ah, yes, the circle of rhetoric. We have spoken of this in other contexts involving creationism, I think. From position, to fall-back position, to fall-back position, to fall-back position, and then to a fall-back position which is the same as the original position. It’s like a chronic hysteresis in Doctor Who.

There certainly are phenomena which seem different when differently observed. In high-frequency electronics, for example, things look very different in “frequency domain” measurements from how they look in “time-domain” measurements. If I were trying to justify some sort of accidents/essentials dichotomy, I’d look to things like that, or the particles/waves ways of looking at light. But the difference is that in these sorts of examples, we can show that both ways actually produce consistent, measurable results. When we look at transsubstantiation, we just have crackers, crackers, and crackers, no matter what tools of analysis we use.

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