It isn’t that science plays doesn’t role in supplying evidence relevant to undecidable propositions. For example, science can lay out the mechanics of the human brain systems that contribute to our making moral judgments (at least two are currently identified, one running off rational assessment circuitry, and another more snap judgment system riffing off our emotional amygdala network). But even knowing the neural source of our actions still doesn’t answer whether those actions are right or wrong — those judgments are matters of belief (taking a stance in the undecidable realm) and should never be thought of as being knowledge in the sense decidable notions ought to be.
And you may notice how I couldn’t avoid using “should” and “ought” just now, once more stepping across the NOMAD line. It’s really easy to do, and complicates a lot of the discourse that takes place on Science versus Religion.
Here again, though, William James comes in handy to offer a way out of this maze. His idea of pragmatism may be employed: looking at the history of a belief, how it has been used before, and what the consequences of that belief led to in the way of action, and using that historical example to inform the decisions we make today on those (still “undecidable”) issues. So knowledge of the decidable realm can’t decide for you what to believe when it comes to undecidable propositions, but it can suggest what might happen if you chose to believe a certain way.
Free will is an example. Philosophers and scientists tie themselves in knots debating whether we actually do have a measure of free will, which may be a clue that this is an undecidable proposition. Purely mechanistic systems, as the Qualia problem shows (do all people have the same experience when we see the same color or hear the same sound, and how you can’t really figure that out by any empirical measure). So our brains could be fully naturalistic systems and yet still have features about their operation that must elude our scientific grasp in the decidable realm.
However undecidable the existence of free will may be, its consequences drop into the decidable realm of observation, for scientists can pragmatically measure what happens when a person believes in free will. There’s already a pile of technical literature on this topic, prompting some coverage in the June 2014 issue of Scientific American. As it turns out people who believe they have free will tend to be less likely to cheat you than people who don’t, and so if you think less cheaters ought to be the case, you should encourage belief in free will, independent of whether we really do have free will.
And aren’t we now caught in a spiraling storm drain of contradiction: would your affirmation of the desirability of free will belief be an act of free volition or not? Welcome to the rabbit hole.
In this way ideas (and our beliefs about them leading to action) have definite and usually very important consequences, so no one should think that the taxonomy of “undecidable” is either dismissive or trivializing. In fact, it is quite the opposite. The knowledge that science culls from the decidable realm may not affect our behavior at all: how many people behave differently based on a refinement of the mass or the proton, or whether Pluto qualifies as a planet or not?
But the “undecidable” conundrums of ethical and esthetic reasoning (what is “evil” or “art” and can you know them when you see them?) almost invariably impact our actions.
- Ask An Atheist: What if I Believe in Reincarnation? - September 19, 2019
- Ask An Atheist: I don’t know vs. I don’t believe - July 5, 2019
- Ask An Atheist: Did Jesus Christ Exist? - June 13, 2019
- Ask An Atheist: What Are The Concrete Beliefs of Atheists? - May 5, 2019
- Ask An Atheist: Reincarnation - March 31, 2019
- Ask An Atheist: Is homosexuality logical? - March 17, 2019
- Ask An Atheist: Defining Life - March 9, 2019
- Ask An Atheist: Don’t you have to acknowledge God to deny God? - March 2, 2019
- Ask An Atheist: Explaining without offending - February 22, 2019
- Interfaith For All—When you like it … and even more when you don’t - February 10, 2019