Philip H. Wiebe is Professor of Philosophy at Trinity Western University, Canada. We invited him to answer the question “What norms or values define excellent philosophy of religion? as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.
With a growing understanding of the importance of theories that postulate the existence of unobservable objects in science, and the (near-) demise of positivism half-way through the 20th century, recognition of Principles that have a bearing on the evidence for theories has grown. If religion is construed to postulate the existence of spirits (cf. Daniel Pals, Seven Theories of Religion, OUP 1996), which are more-or-less unobservable minds, it can benefit from a survey of the Principles that guide science. The following are readily found in philosophical discussions of science:
A. Principle of Positive Instances: A hypothesis is supported by its positive instances, e.g. ‘All ravens are black’ is supported by the observation of black ravens.
B. Special Consequence Condition: If evidence E confirms (increases the firmness of) a hypothesis H, and ‘H’ → ‘I’, then E confirms I.
C. Converse Consequence Condition: If evidence E confirms (increases the firmness of) a hypothesis H, and ‘K’ → ‘H’, then E confirms K.
D. Confirming Evidence Principle: If evidence E confirms (increases the firmness of) a hypothesis H, then Prob (H,E) > Prob (H).
E. Entailment Condition: If ‘E’ → ‘H’ then E confirms (increases the firmness of) H.
F. Assessment of Probabilities: The axioms of the probability calculus offer methods by which probability values can be determined, estimated, or conditionalized. Not all interpretations satisfy the calculus:
a. Relative Frequency: e.g., Probability of purchasing defective tires
b. Equiprobable Case: e.g., Probabilities re throwing dice
c. Subjective: e.g., “Gut feeling” re some future event
d. Personal: Forcing subjective probability values to conform to the Probability Calculus (Axioms & Theorems derived therefrom) or some other factors deemed rational
e. Logical: Prob (H,E) is the evidential support of evidence E on hypothesis H
f. Propensity: Physical tendencies of one thing to cause another, e.g., propensity of dynamite explosions to produce avalanches
G. Principle of Classical Empiricism: Data items consist minimally of sense perception, memories, feelings and other states of supposedly “immediate” awareness.
H. Division of Evidence: Evidence can be classified as (i) Experimental, (ii) Semi-experimental, and (iii) Anecdotal.
I. Semi-experimental evidence: If the amount of semi-experimental evidence is large, it has significant evidential value.
J. Theory-laden Data: All data items are set within a framework (paradigm, worldview, conceptual scheme) in which certain theories about the nature of the world are already presupposed.
K. Principle of Credulity: The way things appear are probably the way they are, unless we have reason to question this.
L. Principle of Testimony: Reports from those who claim to have directly experienced something ought to be accepted, unless we have reason to question these reports.
M. Principle of Cumulative Effect: The cumulative effect of separate items of evidence confirming of a hypothesis, is greater than the mere sum of these individual items.
N. Extreme Illuminates Obscure: Examining an extreme phenomenon can illuminate cases in which that phenomenon also occurs, but in more obscure form.
O. Principle of Simplicity: A hypothesis that is simpler than another is more likely to be true.
P. Principle of Naturalism: Natural explanations should first be sought for phenomena, before considering any supernatural one.
Q. Principle of Modest Hypotheses: When attempting to explain a phenomenon, it is more plausible to form a hypothesis with respect to a smaller reference class than a larger one. E.g., when we discover that a thing of a certain shape, size, build, etc. has a certain color, it is more plausible to conjecture that all things of that shape, size, build, etc. have that color than that all things have that color.
R. Comparative Falsifiability: Theory T is preferable to theory S if T is more falsifiable than S (perhaps because T has more content than S)
S. Explanatory Power: A theory T that provides a single explanation for diverse phenomena is more plausible than a theory S that provides a single explanation for fewer of the phenomena that T explains.
T. Clarity and Precision: A theory T that is more precise or clearer than a competitor theory S is more plausible than S
U. Ad hoc hypotheses: Hypotheses that are advanced only to accord with known data are less plausible than hypotheses that have considerable import beyond the data already in hand.
V. Comparative Plausibility: A paradigm that prevails in the completion of paradigms is rendered more plausible by doing so.
I offer the following observations concerning these Principles and their possible applicability to religion:
1. These Principles are central to an empirical epistemology, and speak to (a) descriptions of phenomena, (b) theories advanced to explain phenomena, and (c) paradigms (conceptual schemes) within which descriptions and theories are found.
2. More Principles than these could be found. No way of limiting their number seems feasible. They appear to be obtained in much the same way that theories are, and are both confirmable and falsifiable. They are constraints on rationality, not its formal definition.
3. Some proponents of religion make much of the paradigm featured in it, and add that paradigms are not testable in the way that theories are. This seems flawed, for paradigms in science have given way to evidence just as theories have; also, this view removes religion from criticism, and encourages the imposition of a religious paradigm on data.
4. We cannot say that every critical inquiry embraces all of these Principles, e.g., the theory postulating the Higgs-Boson particle was confirmed, but was (arguably) not falsifiable. Comparable expectations are appropriate for religion.
5. Identical subsets of these Principles will not be found in every critical inquiry, e.g., Ernst Mayr argues for a distinction between functional biology and historical biology, and holds that biology differs methodologically from physics (“The Autonomy of Biology,” Quart. Rev. Biol. 1996).
6. The empirical epistemology I am sketching here (cf. my God and Other Spirits, OUP 2004) cannot be applied to a Being whose attributes are infinite, for no empirical distinction between a very large powers and an infinite power is determinable. Such a Being might exist and interact in the cosmos, however.
7. A detailed study of religion would reveal the plausible (and implausible) Principles adopted in it; this work has hardly begun.