Science and Religion: A Small Patch of Common Ground?

If someone argues for common ground between science and religion, some people will resist, and some people—maybe the same ones—will misunderstand. And so it might help to point out what I’m not about to do. I’m not offering a defense of theism. In fact, if someone insists that the point I’m making isn’t really about religion, I’m not necessarily inclined to disagree. But I suspect many scientists hold beliefs that go beyond anything the evidence could ever show, and that they hold them because they think the world wouldn’t make sense without them. And even though it doesn’t exhaust religion, a religious outlook is partly a matter of thinking that the world makes sense in a way that isn’t just a matter of our projecting sense onto it.

My point takes us back to my favorite philosopher, David Hume. Hume is my favorite not because I agree with him (I often don’t) but because the question “What would Hume say?” is so often so useful. It’s a reminder that many of the things we think are a lot less obvious than we’d like.

In particular, I want to focus on what Hume had to say about cause and effect, and about laws of nature. I won’t worry about whether what I say captures what the real Hume thought. My Hume is the one most philosophers met as undergrads. It’s also the one behind David Lewis’s term “Humean supervenience.” This Hume believed that there’s no such thing as causal connection. There’s no “nexus” between cause and effect that connects them and underwrites the production of the effect from the cause. If this Hume is right, then we can talk of forces and powers as shorthand ways of describing regularities in the phenomena, but we have no good argument for thinking of them as something that glues things together and keep the world running. The world, on this view, is just one damn thing after another. As it happens, the damn things form patterns—or at least so they have so far in the parts of the whole that we have access to. But there’s nothing deep about this; there’s no underlying necessity. To use Lewis’s useful word, there’s just the mosaic—the totality of events, with whatever regularities it contains. To put it another way, Nature doesn’t have a nature.

I don’t have data, but I’d bet that most scientists don’t see the world that way. I’d bet a great many scientists think that forces, structure, causes, laws underly the patterns we see rather than being exhausted by them. One reason is that it’s hard to keep the Humean picture in your head. Hume—unlike many Humeans—was honest about this. I sometimes suspect that he was the only Humean in history devoid of bad faith. If the Humean picture is correct, then the way events in the world are arranged just is; there’s no deep difference between a world with laws and a massive cosmic coincidence. We count patterns as laws, and we describe things with causal talk when the patterns happen to turn out in certain ways. But in Hume’s wonderful phrase, all things really are loose and separate. Even the fact that the end of your sentences bear a rational relationship to their beginnings is, sub specie aeternitatis, just a lucky fluke.

I doubt that any of us can seriously see ourselves as Humeanism requires. Insofar as we take ourselves to be rational agents, we can’t also see ourselves as Humean congeries. But my guess is that when scientists think about the world beyond themselves, they also reject the Humean view. I’d expect this to be particularly true of physicists. I’d expect them to be particularly inclined to think that our best theories are getting at something deep. Nonetheless, there’s no empirical justification for looking at the world that way. Nothing that could ever turn up in ordinary observation nor in the lab is incompatible with Humeanism. There’s at least a logically possible world where Humeanism is true and all the appearances are exactly as they are in this one.

I sometimes joke that my religion is that I’m not a Humean. The point is that I don’t think I can show that the Humean picture is false, but I can’t shake the thought that the world makes more sense than Humeanism allows. If naturalism is the view that everything important about the world is scientifically accessible, then I’m not a naturalist.

This doesn’t add up to religion. Religious believers have more elaborated views of what gives the world its sense. But unless you’re a rare sort of person, I’m betting you’re not a Humean (maybe even if you say you are!). And so I’m betting that you think there’s more to the world than science can tell us. At least to that extent, you have something in common with religious believers even if you usually think otherwise.


Doctors and Torture

Count me among the many people who were disgusted to read about the role of physicians and psychologists in torturing supposed terrorists. This post isn’t remotely intended to defend them. It’s on one of those picky and perhaps perverse hypotheticals that philosophers tend to spend their time on. In particular it’s about a post by Bill Gardner on the excellent blog The Incidental Economist. Here’s a link:

Bill distinguishes two questions: (1) “is an extenuating circumstance defense of torture ever morally valid?”, and (2) “is an extenuating circumstance defense open to physicians and psychologists?” Bill thinks the answer to the first question is no, and he provides links to two papers by Henry Shue for his reasons. We read Shue’s argument somewhat differently; I don’t think Shue means quite what Bill thinks he does. However, that’s not important for present purposes. Bill’s argument doesn’t depend on answering “No” to question (1). What he says is this:

The answer to the latter question is clear. Physicians and psychologists cannot participate in torture.

To make his point, Bill quotes from the explicit, written ethical codes of doctors’ and psychologists’ professional associations. Here are a couple of salient bits. First, from the AMA code of ethics

Physicians must oppose and must not participate in torture for any reason.

Second, from the American Psychological Association’s code of conduct:

Torture in any form, at any time, in any place, and for any reason, is unethical for psychologists

Bill sums his point up this way:

The extenuating circumstances defense has been anticipated and is explicitly ruled out. You cannot be an ethical physician or psychologist and participate in torture.

We may be almost in agreement. I find it hard to imagine any circumstances that would justify a doctor or psychologist participating in torture. I might even be persuaded that there aren’t any such circumstances at all. But I’m not satisfied with the form of the argument.

Suppose a physician or a psychologist binds herself in good faith to the Code of Conduct of her association. Suppose she’s taken an oath. No doubt about it: oaths create moral obligations. But so do other things. And sometimes obligations come into conflict. If the oath a physician took comes into conflict with another obligation, the fact that she took an oath doesn’t tell us what she should do all things considered.

Lest we get sidetracked into questions about whether moral obligations can ever really conflict, let me put the point in a slightly different way. Taking an oath (or binding oneself to a code of conduct in whatever way) creates a pro tanto obligation. That’s the term people tend to prefer nowadays for what W. D. Ross call prima facie obligations. Whatever we call them, the point is that they can be overridden. And to use the language Bill has already invoked, when they are overridden, it’s generally due to what we call exenuating circumstances.

The idea is straightforward. Suppose I’ve promised to drive you to the airport. I’m in my car on the way to pick you up and I see someone collapsed in the middle of the road. It’s pretty clear that I don’t do wrong if I stop and help the person, even if the result is that I can’t get to you in time to take you to the airport. I haven’t kept my promise to you. But (adjust the circumstances to suit your mileage) I’d be a worse person if I had. In fact, all things considered, I would have made a morally bad decision if I’d stood by my promise.

Now the language of the AMA and APA codes may seem to defeat my point. The codes are written in absolute terms: under no circumstances will a doctor or psychologist do such and such. Now there may be very good pragmatic reasons for writing the codes in that way. Doing what they forbid is very likely to be very wrong. But considered purely as moral demands, the codes overstep. Considered purely as moral demands, they assume that the code-makers have sorted out in advance what morality would demand of us in all possible cases. Don’t know about you, but there’s nobody I have that much moral faith in. No one is morally bound to refrain from doing what emerges as the right thing because of a prior commitment that couldn’t reasonably have been expected to anticipate every potential extenuating circumstance.

This mean that if there really are cases where torture is the least bad alternative, then that could be a reason for the doctor or psychologist to set her oath aside. Keep in mind: I’m not saying there really are any such cases. But I am saying that I don’t know that there aren’t.

The final point has to do with how Bill words his conclusion. He says that “You cannot be an ethical physician or psychologist and participate in torture.” There are two ways to understand this. One is that if you’re a doctor or psychologist, you can’t participate in torture and be in compliance with the stated ethical code of your profession. That I grant, but it doesn’t get to what I see as the nub of the matter. The other reading is that if you’re a doctor or psychologist, you can’t participate in torture and be doing the right thing, all things considered. To repeat, there may not be any cases that rise to the right level of extenuation. I don’t think for a moment that the ones described in the Senate report do.What makes what those post-9/11 doctors and psychologists did wrong is not just that they violated an oath. It’s that what they did would have been wrong even if they hadn’t taken any such oath.  But the question is whether an appeal to  codes of professional ethics can make the case all by itself. I’m saying it can’t.