Review: The Empirical Stance

Renowned philosopher of science Bas C. van Fraassen (Princeton University) had long remained silent on issues of religion. So by his own admission he was surprised to learn that he had been invited to give the Terry Lectures, a lecture series dedicated to “the building of the truths of science and philosophy into the structure of a broadened and purified religion.” The end result was The Empirical Stance (Yale University Press, 2002), a book that argues for both philosophy (specifically empiricism) and religion as stance.

Van Fraassen begins his book by arguing against metaphysics. He worries that metaphysics offers nothing to humanity: it takes information already understood and interprets it in such a way that few can understand it. To illustrate his point, van Fraassen poses a simple question to metaphysicians: “Does the world exist?” He then goes through a slew of classic metaphysical theories that attempt to answer this question, showing that they can only tell us whether the world’s existence can be postulated, not whether it can be proved. So perhaps ontology – the study of things that exist and how they exist – could step in and answer this question? Van Fraassen disagrees: while ontology, like science, aims for consistency, its explanations are worthless because they offer nothing other than being “right” or “wrong” – that is, there is nothing at stake in ontology. Ultimately, van Fraassen believes, ontology is mere word play. In short, the problem van Fraassen sees in metaphysics is that it fabricates a “reality” for the sake of solving meaningless puzzles, and he is quick to draw parallels to the God of the philosophers and the corresponding puzzle of theodicy.

In Chapter Two, van Fraassen begins his constructive work of giving philosophy a role detached from metaphysics. He defines “empiricism” as the philosophical position that explicitly rejects metaphysics. More specifically, empiricism rejects (a) the demand for limitless explanation and (b) explanation by postulation. In other words, empiricism places a limit on how far explanation can go, ridding one of the need to postulate metaphysical entities in order to explain things. There is a slight problem with this model, though: empiricism appears to be a metaphysical theory! Van Fraassen answers this objection by arguing that empiricism is not a theory or a position but a stance. Philosophy as stance means that a philosophical position need not lead to a doctrine or belief because philosophy consists of a commitment, approach, or attitude. Consequently, the empiricist critique of metaphysics boils down to values, commitments, attitudes, and/or goals, not theories. Van Fraassen offers materialism as another example of a stance.

He concludes this chapter by responding to the objection that philosophy as stance spells the end of rationality, as attitudes are subjective. First, he points out that conflicting philosophies as theories are never resolved in any clear way (thus philosophies as stances can fare no worse). Secondly, he believes that stances can in fact be rationally contested. Stances lead to beliefs – not particular beliefs but rather to a wide range of beliefs that can change even as the stance remains the same.

In the next chapter, Van Fraassen confronts a more serious problem: how can one’s opinions change? Is one forever stuck in the same frame of mind? Furthermore, even if one can change one’s mind, how can one view one’s previous opinion as rational, given that it will be irrational by the new standard? All of these questions constitute the problem of “conversion.”

Van Fraassen takes up this challenge by first rejecting what he calls “objectifying epistemology.” An “objectifying epistemology” tries to provide a way of knowing that is complete and accurate. Objectifying epistemologies, van Fraassen argues, cannot solve the problem of conversion. They must inevitably be constructed with the current knowledge of the day, but if that knowledge turns out to be mistaken, the frameworks objectifying epistemologies construct will never allow anyone to realize the mistake; instead, they will see new, contrary knowledge as madness. The way around this is to admit that all epistemologies are either inaccurate or incomplete, but then they would no longer be objectifying epistemologies.

Van Fraassen’s solution is to strike a balance between seeking truth and avoiding error. This balance must be sought by each individual – no perfect ratio exists that all should adopt. Of course, the problem of conversion has not yet been resolved. To fully address the problem, van Fraassen argues that rationality by its nature grants one permission to believe something rather than compelling one to believe it. With this assertion in place, van Fraassen is set to explain how changes in opinion occur: through emotion. More precisely, it is an emotion-like function that changes one’s attitude such that the same information can be seen in a different light. This emotion-like function is the catalyst for change, rendering what was irrational rational.

In Chapter Four, van Fraassen continues his quest for a viable epistemology. Here he is primarily concerned with how a transition in one’s opinion can be aligned with reason. He sets up the problem by drawing parallels between the Jesuit Francois Veron’s criticism of the Protestant principle of sola Scriptura and postmodern criticism of empiricism. Veron’s criticism is threefold: (1) Protestants do not know how to identify a text as Scripture (i.e., there is no consistent principle by which a text is or is not Scripture); (2) texts do not interpret themselves, so Protestants are fooling themselves in thinking that all they need is Scripture – they need a method of interpretation, too; and (3) it’s not clear what the consequences of Scripture are. For empiricism, then, the problems are: (1) how to identify what exactly “experience” covers, (2) how to interpret one’s experience accurately, and (3) how to draw inferences from one’s experience.

Van Fraassen then attempts to undermine this analogy. He points out that in order for the Jesuit to escape his own criticism, the Catholic tradition cannot function as a text, for then he will find himself in the same position as the Protestant. Instead, tradition provides a framework that makes sense of text, experience, etc. – tradition provides a stance. As such, tradition by its nature cannot be anymore believed/disbelieved or doubted/disputed than one’s understanding of one’s own language; tradition provides the tools by which to face the world. Sola Scriptura and empiricism provide the tools to maintain and critique (change!) the status quo. The fact that they lead to contrary principles creates ambiguity in the question of when to apply which principle – should one’s belief be maintained or changed according to the very same principle? It’s ambiguous.

Rationality, according to van Fraassen, is not a rule, and because it’s not a rule it has ambiguity. This very ambiguity helps construct the rationale for the changing of opinions: while it was once thought that the principle (be it sola Scriptura or empiricism) supported some idea, it is now clear that in fact the principle opposes that idea. It is when the tension between these two principles is emotionally felt that a conversion can occur.

Van Fraassen concludes his book with reflections on what it is science and what is the secular. He characterizes science by its “objectification,” a term which has three meanings. “Objectification” can refer to distancing, neutrality, or inquiry. Van Fraassen focuses on objectifying inquiry, the form of inquiry that develops standardized categories by which to interpret phenomena; that is, the objective inquirer knows the limits of what can be asked: namely, whatever fits into these categories. Thus, van Fraassen states, astrology is not science precisely because it operates in terms outside of science’s categories.

This creates the problem of how novelty can exist in science if its parameters are predetermined. Van Fraassen answers this by arguing that the categories and limits of science should not be assumed to be complete. Van Fraassen believes that every academic discipline has some form of objective inquiry, but, importantly, not every stance a rational person has involves objective inquiry. In this way, van Fraassen makes room for what he calls “nonobjectifying forms of inquiry” (e.g., poetry, art, spirituality). Interestingly, by not defining their domains, nonobjectifying forms of inquiry flourish in the very scenario where objectifying forms fall into crisis: nonobjectifying forms of inquiry seek rather than dread the incomprehensible.

Secularism, then, is a stance whose participants’ curiosity is satiated with scientific answers. After people with a secular stance hear the science, their sense of wonder and astonishment dissipates. Thus, they can see God only as a hypothesis in a God-of-the-gaps manner – nothing else remains for them. Van Fraassen is quick to point out that the secular stance is detachable from science as it is but is one of several legitimate understandings of science. The problem with a solely scientific understanding of the world, as van Fraassen sees it, is that human beings themselves do not fit into that picture. No objectifying inquiry can answer the question of who someone really is. The question of personhood is important and requires everyone to take a stance (mainly due to its practical nature – e.g., are slaves persons?). Such is also the case for the personal God of the West: an encounter with this personal God is not a theory or proposition but an “existential demand” to take a stance on how we encounter ourselves, each other, and the world. The difference between the religious and the secular is the same exact difference between the empiricist and the metaphysician: a matter of stance.

Van Fraassen has skillfully argued for the intellectual viability of what he calls “stance” and how it can cover fields as diverse as philosophy, science, and religion. He successfully avoids many of the pitfalls of traditional epistemology while finding a role for religion in an era that seems so hostile to it – an outstanding accomplishment for a 196-page book! The only question that could have been more fully addressed is whether stance truly alleviates the problem it sets out to solve. While it’s clear how stance solves the problem of conversion of beliefs, is not stance also susceptible to the very same problem, even though stance is not a set of propositions but more akin to an attitude? How exactly are stances rationally compared? How does one’s stance change (e.g., how does one abandon principles like sola Scriptura or empiricism?)? What would it mean if one’s stance could not change? Overall, van Fraassen’s foray into the topic of science and religion greatly enriches the field. In the grand scheme his prolific life, he was written very little on this topic – but what he has written speaks volumes.

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