Like it or not, science is the hotbed, the nursery, the arbiter, and the repository of knowledge. We need to bear this in mind as we ponder the roots of our beliefs. Many of the new atheists Dan Seeger discusses in his essay (Friends Journal January 2010) are scientists with convictions rooted in a profound incoherence shared by many Friends. They believe that any reasonable belief must be something known, and hence proven or provable. No human being behaves in a manner that accords with this conviction. That is why it is incoherent. Many, including prominent Quaker scientists such as Arthur Eddington and Kenneth Boulding, share this conviction. That is why it is worth examining.
Notice that the conviction itself has no scientific value. The belief that untestable beliefs are unreasonable is not itself known, or even knowable, since the words “reasonable” and “unreasonable” express value judgments rather than measurements or observations. Consider an alternative conviction – namely, that it is entirely reasonable to have a robust sense of reality even though unable to define or explain reality. These two convictions are incompatible, but neither is provable. The scientistic conviction is profoundly skeptical while the alternative conviction is profoundly pragmatic. Their contrast becomes clearer (though not decidable) through a closer look at divergent conceptions of doubt and experience.
The opposite of doubt is certainty. So to test your own conception of doubt, think of what you take to be the opposite of certainty. It is doubt, no doubt. But does that mean actual doubt or possible doubt? A scientifically minded person will point out (it is quite true) that many things that are not doubted could be doubted, and should be. From the scientist’s point of view, a reasonable person will conceive of doubt and certainty as involving the presence or absence of possible doubt rather than of actual doubt. Descartes made this conception of doubt the linch-pin of his philosophy when he pretended (he admitted pretending) to regard everything that he could doubt as really doubtful. He further held that only what survived this examination could be known or be reasonable. This conception of doubt and reason has remained deeply embedded in Western thought right up to the present day. It is central to the power of science and to the thinking of scientistic atheists, as well as to skepticism in general.
In the 1920's Arthur Eddington used this conception to shake confidence in ordinary pre-scientific thinking. He contended, on the basis of atomic physics, that what appears to be a solid oak plank is “really” mostly empty space. The moral is that Friends should be careful not to take for granted common ordinary notions – surely a useful caution. But oak planks really are solid, aren’t they? You do not doubt that, do you? A more pragmatic conception of doubt might lead one to respond, “Humbug!” – as Susan Stebbing did so admirably, at greater length, in her book Philosophy and the Physicists (London 1937).
One of the most-quoted remarks of George Fox is, “And this I knew experimentally,” (Journal, ed. Nickalls, p. 11). Since scientists also know things experimentally, Kenneth Boulding and others have urged Friends to consider George Fox as thinking scientifically. But science and mysticism are experimental in different ways, and emphasis on experience is insufficient reason for conceiving Quakerism as a sort of science of the soul.
It is true that science relies on experiments, but it is equally true that experience, such as the “openings” of George Fox, plays only a very minor role in science. Specifically, such experience can suggest hypotheses but never provide proof. Such experience differs sharply from experiments, and it is experiments that matter in science. Experiments in science are designed to test hypotheses, and the great experiments in the history of science have often refuted hypotheses rather than confirmed them. The famous Michelson-Morley experiment, for example, refuted the widely held hypothesis that light travels through a “luminferous ether.” This happens so often, even with such giants as Isaac Newton, that some scientistic thinkers, such as Karl Popper, regard the body of scientific knowledge as what has not yet been falsified rather than as what has been proven. In any case, what a scientist knows is known through testing hypotheses experimentally. What Fox knew experimentally he knew by direct acquaintance rather than by testing hypotheses. In both cases we can speak of something being known experimentally, but the word “experimentally” has radically different meanings in the two cases, as does the word “know.”
We all now know about the interaction of tectonic plates that causes earthquakes, mountains, and continental drift. No one had any idea about these things 100 years ago, but today no informed person doubts them. This advance is a remarkable scientific achievement. Using the language of Fox, we can say that the hypothesis was a great “opening” to the geologist who first put it forward. But it is not through any such experience that you or I, or even that brilliant geologist, knows about tectonic plates. None of us has had direct experience with tectonic plates. Scientific knowledge comes through a certain sort of marshaling of hypothesis and evidence, never through direct experience.
Fox’s openings and scientific knowledge are utterly different phenomena. They may both settle doubts, but in entirely different ways.
The power of scientific knowledge lies beyond calculation. As is the case with any sort of power, the benefits and burdens of such power depends on how it is used. I like to remember that the objective observation on which scientific knowledge depends can transcend politics and ideology and can therefore be an instrument for peace. Two examples come to mind, the Pugwash conferences that led to the ABM treaty, and the World Bank resolution of the conflict between India and Pakistan over the Indus River in 1960. In the first case the USA and the USSR were refusing to agree to a test ban treaty on the ground that cheating could not be detected. In-depth discussions and calculations by the Nobel physicists Andrei Sakarov (USSR) and Hans Bethe (USA) produced a solid scientific agreement that tests above 5 tons could be detected with near certainty – and the politicians were forced to conclude the treaty. In the second case, Pakistan said that India’s use of upstream water from the Indus to irrigate the Ragisthani dessert would be an act of war, since Pakistani farmers would be devastated. The World Bank marshaled scientists and engineers to show that the water used by India could be replaced by a series of dams and canals within Pakistan, which would be financed by the World Bank if a treaty were concluded. Again the political and ideological objections collapsed.
Friends would do well to keep abreast of scientific details and to bear in mind the power of science to resolve political and ideological stand-offs.
It is because of its reliance on objective evidence that scientific knowledge has a coercive dimension. Continental drift may be an hypothesis, but those who doubt it need either education or psychiatric help. Society is not gentle about knowledge. Whatever is knowledge for anyone is knowledge for everyone, and we are not left free to doubt it. Fox, on the other hand, described his experience but does not suppose that it is the same as someone else’s. Nor does his experience come with a definition or analysis of the experienced reality. Fox’s experience, in contrast to scientific knowledge, influences us persuasively rather than coercively. It works on us through example rather than proof.
Science provides analysis and explanation of realities we are acquainted with. Science presupposes acquaintance with reality but does not provide it. Acquaintance with reality does not count as knowledge in the scientific sense. When George Fox speaks of “knowing” experimentally, he is not claiming knowledge in the scientific sense, any more than he is speaking of experimental testing.
There are two quite distinct sorts of certainty that lie beyond the domain of science. One is the acknowledgment of what lies right in front of our noses, and the other is openings and revelations like those of George Fox. Kant planted a seed for distinguishing reason from knowledge when he said that he needed to deny knowledge (not reason) in order to make room for belief (Critique of Pure Reason, 2nd edition, Introduction), but it is likely that he had only the second sort in mind. It was not until the very late work of Wittgenstein (On Certainty) that the seed grew into a powerful case for the formative role of the first sort of certainty, the kind that operates in the learning of language, before any knowledge or reasoning.
Wittgenstein is the philosopher who has insisted most persistently that we base our language and thought on what we never doubt, and hardly think of, because it is right under our noses. In the major philosophical work of his later years, Philosophical Investigations, this emphasis comes out in his references to the “natural history” of humanity, to language-games, and to “forms of life.” At the very end of his life he focused even more dramatically on the point, by challenging G. E. Moore’s famous “Proof of the External World.” In perhaps his most famous lecture, Moore held up his right hand and said, “I know for certain that here is one hand.” Then his left hand, and that led into the proof. Wittgenstein had no doubt about the hands, but he was not buying the proof. The opening sentence of the book On Certainty, on which he was still working the week he died, reads: “If you do know that here is one hand, we’ll grant you all the rest.” There is no doubt about the hand. The issue is whether the certainty here amounts to knowledge. Wittgenstein insists that it does not
In a case of genuine knowledge, the report of its being known is different from the report of the fact itself. One way to see this is to ask whether there are any plausible answers to the query, “How do you know?” With respect to tectonic plates, there are interesting answers, and most of us would learn a great deal by hearing a scientist explain how we know about tectonic plates. Moore, however, would have no story at all to tell about how he “knows” that here is one hand. That is part of the reason why Wittgenstein, later in the book (§308) writes, “‘Knowledge’ and ‘certainty’ belong to different categories.” It is difficult to imagine a more profound rejection of the main current of Western philosophy from Descartes to Moore. And yet it is entirely pragmatic and down to earth.
Fox’s openings represent the other sort of belief that lies outside the domain of science. Here the guide I favor is Elias Hicks: “Reason is the recipient of revelation. Take away reason and there is nothing left for revelation to act on.” What an extraordinary nugget of wisdom! I don’t know that Hicks ever read Kant, or that he paid attention to that rebellious kernel in the Introduction to the second edition of the Critique, but he sees as clearly as Kant that there must be some discipline with respect to revelations or “openings,” even though it is radically different from the discipline of science. There is none of the experimental testing that allows scientific knowledge to be coercive.
To my mind there are two aspects fo this rational testing. One is whether it speaks to that of God in one’s fellows. The other is whether is leads into action. Revelations often come in moments of solitude and meditation. Whitehead said that religion is what we do with our solitude. But we must come out of the solitude, and Whitehead also says, “Expression is the one fundamental sacrament.” Consider Fox’s opening that the very same inward teacher who spoke to him exists also in every person. When he expressed this to others they responded with approbation and enthusiasm, seeing themselves as empowered. Fox also saw that a consequence of this opening was that he should not doff his hat to some persons but not others, and this action made his conviction apparent in his life. Both of these features are part of the rational integration of revelation into life.
In 1948, when I was 20 and a student at Swarthmore College, I had already met A. J. Muste, George Houser, and Bayard Rustin, and it was clear to me that  the great human potential for cooperation and fellowship was being suppressed by government-sponsored hate, and  the time was ripe for personal testimony to the pacifist alternative. This opening led me to refuse to register for the 1948 Draft, and I was amazingly buoyed by the supportive response of Friends at Swarthmore and in Philadelphia. The acclaim was not universal. An old family friend, Karl Hausauer, then commanding general of the New York National Guard, visited me in prison to offer me a commission if I would renounce my pacificist witness; when I refused, he said that I was worse than a Communist. Oddly, his negative reaction helped consolidate my sense that my conviction was reasonable. But I never formulated a pacifist ideology. To my mind the divisiveness inherent in ideology goes against the gentle witness of pacifist testimony.
Philosophical and theological doctrines generally follow a scientific model, that of analysis and explanation. They are not pure descriptions, and are not meant to be. George Fox sometimes writes in a philosophical mode, but the powerful part of his writing describes personal encounters with spiritual reality.
What I draw from these considerations are the following (often philosophical) ideas:
1. Friends should be mindful of the potential of science and scientific thinking for overcoming ideological intransigence and facilitating the resolution of conflicts.
2. Being acquainted with reality is something entirely different from understanding it.
3. By being acquainted with reality, I can come to respect it without understanding it. This is perfectly reasonable, although unscientific.
4. It is possible to believe in matter without being a materialist, to believe in mind (ideas) without being an idealist, and to believe in spiritual reality without being a spiritualist. Such beliefs are perfectly reasonable, although unscientific. So is it not equally reasonable to praise or thank God, or pray to God, or thrill in the Psalms, without having to embrace theism, or even deism?
5. Scientific thinking is the arbiter neither for “openings” nor for reasonableness.
6. The hypothetical element in scientific thinking infuses possible doubt into such thinking. Knowledge and certainty not only belong to different categories, as Wittgenstein said, but are incompatible. Anything known lies within the domain of inquiry, and thus cannot be certain; anything certain lies outside the domain of inquiry, and hence cannot be known (verified). There is no “certain knowledge.”
7. Acquaintance with reality is not hypothetical, and excludes actual doubt.
8. Neither theists nor atheists, nor even agnostics, can exclude doubt, since they reason in the scientific mode – nor (for the same reason) can they reasonably impugn acquaintance with reality or spiritual openings.
9. Although proofs sustain science and the intellect, they betray the spirit, which relies instead on persuasion.
10. Although “openings” are outside the domain of scientific evaluation, they are not exempt from rational evaluation.
11. Rational evaluation of openings involves sensitivity both to the responses of others and to pragmatic implications.
If all of this sounds exhaustingly complicated, with which I am inclined to agree, I remind you of the apology with which Spinoza closed his great work Ethics: “Anything worthwhile is bound to be as difficult as it is rare.”
February 18, 2010