Re: A belated addition to the Science/Religion thread

From: Jim Fehlinger (
Date: Sat Mar 31 2001 - 19:09:56 MST

In an earlier post in this thread, I wrote:

> I poked my nose a while back into an exchange between
> Damien and Eliezer in which Eliezer had displayed some
> rhetorical legerdemain by standing on its head the
> usual claim that science deals in falsifiable
> assertions and hypotheses, while relgion deals
> with inherently non-falsifiable concepts. E. made
> the statement that prior to the modern era,
> religious texts relied for their authority on
> descriptions of events (such as Moses parting the
> Red Sea) that are very concrete indeed, and thus
> falsifiable in principle, whereas it was a
> symptom of the demoralization of modern theologians
> that they shied away from such concrete statements.
> ...
> It occurs to me now that this is all really beside the
> point.
> I think the most important element of belief, for
> scientists and priests and laymen alike, for butchers
> and bakers and computer programmers, is the culturally-
> derived semantic web that people carry around in their
> heads, what W. V. O. Quine called, in a book by that
> title, "The Web of Belief".
> ...
> It fits in with [E. O. Wilson's] notion of consilience that
> educated modern people, more than people of past times, insist
> that any fact or principle in which they are expected to
> believe must be able to be integrated into a consistent
> nexus of similar facts and principles without collapsing
> or radically distorting the entire web.

I rediscovered a passage in a book today which I must
have first browsed in 25 years ago, and which first started
me thinking in these holistic terms about the notion of

In _From a Logical Point of View_ (Willard Van Orman Quine,
1951), Chapter II "Two Dogmas of Empricism", section 5
"The Verification Theory and Reductionism", Quine writes
(but the italics, **...**, are all mine):

"[T]he dogma of reductionism has... continued to influence
the thought of empiricists. The notion lingers that to each
statement, or each synthetic statement, there is associated
a unique range of possible sensory events such that the
occurrence of any of them would add to the likelihood of
truth of the statement, and that there is associated also
another unique range of possible sensory events whose
occurrence would detract from that likelihood. This notion
is of course implicit in the verification theory of

We lately reflected that in general the truth of statements
does obviously depend both upon language and upon
extralinguistic fact; and we noted that this obvious
circumstance carries in its train... the feeling that
the truth of a statement is somehow analyzable into a
linguistic component and a factual component. The
factual component must, if we are empiricists, boil down
to a range of confirmatory experiences. In the extreme
case where the linguistic component is all that matters,
a true statement is analytic. But I hope we are now
impressed with how stubbornly the distinction between
analytic and synthetic has resisted any straightforward
drawing. I am impressed also... with how baffling the
problem has always been of arriving at any explicit theory
of the empirical confirmation of a synthetic statement.
My present suggestion is that it is nonsense, and the root
of much nonsense, to speak of a linguistic component and
a factual component in the truth of any **individual** statement.
Taken collectively, science has its double dependence upon
language and experience; but this duality is not significantly
traceable into the statement of science **taken one by one**..

The unit of empirical significance is the **whole of science**."

And from Section 6, "Empiricism without the Dogmas":

"The totality of our so-called knowledge or beliefs, from
the most casual matters of geography and history to its
profoundest laws of atomic physics or even of pure
mathematics and logic, is a man-made fabric which impinges
on experience only along the edges. Or, to change the
figure, total science is like a field of force whose boundary
conditions are experience. A conflict with experience at
the periphery occasions readjustments in the interior of the
field. Truth values have to be redistributed over some of
our statements. Reevaluation of some statements entails
reevaluation of others, because of their logical
interconnections -- the logical laws being in turn simply
certain further statements of the system, certain further
elements of the field. Having reevaluated one statement
we must reevaluate some others, which may be statements
logically connected with the first or may be the statements
of logical connections themselves. But the total field
is so underdetermined by its boundary conditions, experience,
that there is much latitute of choice as to what statements
to reevaluate in the light of any single contrary
experience. No particular experiences are linked with any
particular statements in the interior of the field, except
indirectly through considerations of equilibrium affecting
the field as a whole.

If this view is right, it is misleading to speak of the
empricial content of an individual statement -- especially
if it is a statement at all remote from the experiential
periphery of the field. Furthermore it becomes folly to
seek a boundary between synthetic statements, which hold
contingently on experience, and analytic statements, which
hold come what may. **Any** statement can be held true come
what may, **if** we make drastic enough adjustments
elsewhere in the system. Even a statement very close to
the periphery can be held true in the face of recalcitrant
experience by pleading hallucination or by amending certain
statements of the kind called logical laws. Conversely,
by the same token, no statement is immune to revision.
Revision even of the logical law of the excluded middle
has been proposed as a means of simplifying quantum
mechanics; and what difference is there in principle
between such a shift and the shift whereby Kepler
superseded Ptolemy, or Einstein Newton, or Darwin


Not to give anybody the wrong impression,
W. V. O. Quine is almost out of reach of my intellect,
and is completely out of my reach in his technical
writing. However, I am sort of capable of following his
more narrative passages, in a more-or-less impressionistic
way! I was introduced to Quine by my friend F, who is
himself the smartest person I have ever known personally,
and who has been an admirer of Quine for 40 years.
F has told me that he finds no other author so
soothing in the clarity of his thought, and that he
**bathes** in Quine, as you might take a hot bath to
relax away the stress of the daily grind (this reminds
me of the Talsit treatments used by the inhabitants of
the Hexamon Nexus in Greg Bear's _Eon_ books ;->).

When Quine passed away at the end of last year, F
added an appreciation to the Web page established for
that purpose, and as a result was invited by Quine's
son to a memorial service at Harvard earlier this month.
He described the event to me thus:

> Computers do slow things down, but one thing can be said for them:
> they provide work for people who would otherwise be unemployable.
> -- W. V. O. Quine, quoted by his son...
> ...
> I had sort of expected a bunch of people standing around drinking
> sherry & trading reminiscences, but it turned out to be a program (in a
> lecture hall in which Quine himself had taught many of his courses) in
> which family & colleagues gave talks, most of them moving in spots,
> interspersed with recorded music Quine had liked, mostly Gilbert &
> Sullivan. I got to see the famous typewriter on which he had replaced
> the dispensable characters, such as the question mark, with the
> indispensible ones, such as the "implies" sign.
> I didn't see anyone I knew, but when I signed the guest book, I saw, a
> couple of lines up, the name of Julie (Skinner) Vargas, BFS's
> daughter, who had been at Putney in my time. She was the only girl in
> the ham radio club.
> --- Joe Fineman
> ||: Felicificity: Happiness per unit luck. :||

See also .

Jim F.

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