Ward's main assertion was this: "many religious statements are naturally construed as statements of fact...." More precisely, they're naturally construed as purporting to be statements of fact. You can't state a fact if it's not a fact--so the "purporting" part is important. Like (Ward's example): "Jesus healed the sick, and rose from death." Obviously, we can all agree only that this purports to state a fact. So that's stage 1 of the argument: religious statements purport to be fact-stating.
Stage 2 is this: "A huge number of factual claims are not scientifically testable." Why? "Many historical and autobiographical claims, for instance, are not repeatable, not observable now or in the future, and not subsumable under any general law." Somebody a long time ago saw something, and told someone else, and we've been playing whisper down the alley for 2,000 years. Science can't go back and confirm or disconfirm. According to Ward, whether we believe the report--for example, about Jesus healing the sick--will depend on "general philosophical views, moral views, personal experience and judgment."
I read Ward as allowing here that someone like me is going to reject Jesus healing the sick as having occurred, because I'm philosophically disinclined to believe in miracles. But someone open to the possibility of miracles might think there really is a reliable chain of reports going back to Jesus healing the sick, and so may think "Jesus healed the sick" not only purports to be fact-stating but states a fact. At any rate, our reasoning about this long ago event falls at least partly outside the domain of science. That's the main assertion in the column--Ward is not here trying to defend specific Christian beliefs.
Stage 3 gets much more exciting. Now Ward says that "God created the universe for a purpose" purports to be fact stating as well, and says that science has nothing to say about that. "The physical sciences do not generally talk about non-physical and non-law-like facts such as creation by God."
My take on all this is-- Stage 1, check. Stage 2, check. Stage 3, groan.
Jerry Coyne (11/6) reacts very differently. Stage 1, check. Stage 2, groan. Stage 3, groan. Stage 2 doesn't pass muster because --
All “facts” must be empirical facts, susceptible to empirical investigation, confirmation by several lines of evidence, and the possibility that the claim can be falsified. That goes for the claim that Ward was in Oxford the night before he wrote this [this is an example of Ward's]. There are many ways to investigate that question, including eyewitness accounts, travel receipts, videos, and so on.He then issues a challenge to Ward--
I challenge Ward to give me just one reasonably well established fact about the world that comes from “general philosophical views, moral views, personal experience and judgment” without any verifiable empirical input.Coyne's response strikes me as being off the mark for two reasons:
First, the challenge is odd. That quoted bit from Ward was merely an allowance that a person's receptivity to testimony about past events will depend on their general philosophical views, etc. He never said those views and judgments could be formed "without any verifiable empirical input." In fact, most people will form those views with input. My "no miracles" view is partly based on my observations, and someone else's "yes, miracles" view will probably turn partly on their observations. Ward's point is only that these views, whatever they are, will influence whether a person believes testimony about the long ago event of Jesus healing the sick.
Second, Coyne's paragraph about "facts" is perplexing. What are these "facts" that must be "susceptible to empirical investigation, confirmation by several lines of evidence, etc."? If by "facts" he means states of affairs in the world, then all that's obviously false. Ward could sneak into Oxford unbeknownst to anyone. That state of affairs doesn't hinge on anyone being able to confirm it.
What Coyne really seems to mean is something like "known facts." But known by whom? A fact known by all of humanity might need to be "susceptible to empirical investigation, confirmation by several lines of evidence," etc. We're not going to put Ward's trip to Oxford into the common repository of knowledge unless it measures up to those kinds of intersubjective standards. But someone could personally know about the trip with much less ado. Like Ward, for example, and he could share that knowledge with anyone who has good reason to trust his veracity. It would be extraordinary if nobody could ever know any facts in the absence of "confirmation by several lines of evidence," etc.
Now the plot thickens. Jim Houston, a blogger at Talking Philosophy, passed along Coyne's challenge to Ward, who said he'd never said anything like that. Ward reiterated his points from stage 2 of his argument, giving an example of "personal knowledge" that can't meet scientific standards. His father told him, and him alone, something on his death bed. Since he has good reason to trust his father, he can know X, but it doesn't follow that X should wind up in the common repository of knowledge. It's not susceptible to enough scientific corroboration for that.
Jerry Coyne responded here, saying "A 'fact' is not a fact if all the evidence supporting it has vanished or is inaccessible." Further down, he writes--
I repeat again for philosophers like Ward and Houston: factual claims are not facts. It is possible that Ward’s father was a double agent, but I won’t accept its truth until there are independent ways to show that.(Not to be fussy, but I don't think either Ward or Houston are professional philosophers. One's a theologian and the other is a philsophy blogger.)
He then excoriates people who come to the defense of theists like Ward--
Increasingly, I find philosophers like Houston presenting claims of theologians like Ward sympathetically. It’s almost as if there’s a bifurcating family tree of thought, with philosophers and theologians as sister taxa, and scientists as the outgroup. That seems strange to me, as I understood that most philosophers are atheists. I’m not clear why I’m attracting increasing opprobrium from philosophers, though one reason may be their irritation that I am encroaching on their territory.And then we get some more scolding--
Back in the old days of the Greeks, philosophy was supposed to be part of a well-rounded life; now any scientist who engages in the practice is criticized for treading on the turf of professional academic philosophers. Suck it up, I say to these miscreants.Finally, the challenge is repeated, despite the fact that it has no connection to anything Ward said, as Ward already explained--
And I invite readers again to give me just one reasonably well established fact about the world that comes from “general philosophical views, moral views, personal experience and judgment” without any verifiable empirical input.
Let's skip the challenge, because, as I said, it's a red herring. Furthermore, I think very few philosophers see much of their reasoning as being entirely a priori -- free of "any verifiable empirical input." Third, to understand how philosophers make progress and "establish facts" would take deep involvement in the discipline. You can't answer this challenge effectively in the space of a comment at a blog, or even a lengthy post.
I already responded above to the business about facts. Discussing Ward, stage 2, becomes hopelessly confused and confusing if we don't carefully distinguish facts (states of affairs in the world), from knowledge-claims. I also think we need to distinguish personal knowledge claims from knowledge that's the common possession of humanity--stuff that goes into science and history books. I know what my father said to me in private conversations he can't remember, like Ward knows what his father told him. We all (uncontroversially) have lots of unsharable, not-scientifically-confirmable knowledge like this.
So what's left is Coyne's puzzlement that atheist philosophers come to the defense of people like Ward.
Well, it's like this: when I teach a philosophical argument, I take my task to have two parts. First, I've got to fairly represent the argument, capturing exactly what the philosopher had in mind. It's a deep-seated occupational habit, I think, to take this duty very seriously, and try to execute it without regard to whether I'm for or against what the philosopher is arguing for. So: we've got to understand what Ward's saying, before we object. Second, it's a sacred duty to be adversarial--strongly inculcated by the guild of philosophers. We need to figure out if there are problems with an argument (whatever we think of the conclusion), and if so, exactly what they are.
In light of all that, if Coyne misrepresents Ward and misidentifies the problem with his argument, a good philosopher is going to say so--even if, ultimately, they're closer to Coyne's intellectual outlook than to Ward's.
"Opprobrium"? Well maybe, just a bit. Because running through some of Coyne's posts is an intermittent skepticism about the value of philosophy. And yet this whole debate about Ward makes it clear why philosophy is so valuable. To discuss all these things productively, we need to have a good grip on: facts, claims, knowledge-claims, evidence, scientific knowledge, empirical knowledge, a priori knowledge, etc.. Whose job is it to sort out how we think about and talk about all of those topics? It's the job of a (wait for it) ... philosopher!
In fact, all this confusion about facts (and the irrelevant "challenge") distracts attention from what's really wrong with Ward's view. I think what's really wrong with it is that while he does show there could be facts (states of affairs) that are known about by some people, but not susceptible to scientific confirmation, he does nothing to show any of these science-eluding facts are "religious facts."
There are lots of good philosophical arguments establishing interesting categories of science-eluding facts*, but also good philosophical arguments establishing that these are not about gods or souls or miracles and such. So: atheism will win in the end, I think, but we don't need to be sloppy about what Ward really said, or discredit everything he said, to make that case.
* Reading suggestion: Frank Jackson, "What Mary Didn't Know"