Friday, May 21, 2004

Sandefur on Chesterton

Tim Sandefur criticizes one of my Chesterton quotes below. I think his criticism is misguided:
The point Chesterton is trying to make is that science cannot tell us whether the soul survives death, therefore scientists shouldn’t express certainty on the subject. This argument is nonsense, as has been shown many times, but Chesterton conveys it with enough stuff to cover that fact.
No, Chesterton's argument doesn't have anything to do with certainty or uncertainty. Rather, it's about authority. If a doctor doesn't believe in the soul, it's not for medical reasons within his area of expertise. It's not that someone can disavow the soul if they have made a careful study of arthritis or heart disease or vascular conditions. Rather, the doctor's belief is for the same philosophical reasons that anyone might accept (or reject, as the case may be). When it comes to those reasons, the doctor might speak with as much certainty as anyone else.
In the absence of such a showing, it’s as irrational to believe that the soul survives death as it would be to believe that there is a teacup orbiting Pluto. No, you can’t prove that it isn’t so, but you can never prove a negative, and no person seriously interested in the truth will suggest that you do so. Rather than confront these epistemological problems, Chesterton simply characterizes this position as insufficiently imaginative: “there is nothing to make a medical man a materialist, except what might make any man a materialist.”
This point is mystifying. Chesterton said nothing about imagination, and he wasn't even trying to confront any "epistemological problems," for the simple reason that he wasn't trying to prove the existence of a soul in the first place. Rather, as stated above, his point was purely concerned whether science can claim any special authority on the subject. Thus, if a "medical man" is a materialist, it's for philosophical reasons that are open to anyone, not because of any specialized scientific expertise. His humorous examples -- about the surveyor and the fourth dimension, or the laborer and the solidity of matter -- make this clear. I.e., when it comes to the philosophical question whether matter is illusory, you can't resolve the issue by bringing in an "expert" laborer who has dealt with a lot of matter.


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