science

Some Questions on Science

Dale Campbell, in a recent blog entry, asked three questions about science which I think probably echo the thoughts of many Christians in the Western world:

  1. How should it be defined?
  2. Is it inherently naturalistic (and if so, why)?
  3. What is the relationship between philosophy and science?

This is something I’ve written on in the past, and I think there are clear answers to these questions from a Christian point of view. Because the issue of science and religion is so important to Christians living in the Western world, I’d like to answer Dale’s questions here.

1. How should science be defined?

To answer how science should be defined, it’s helpful to know how science is defined by those who study it. Science is the effort to discover and understand how the physical world works, with observable physical evidence as the basis of that understanding.1 Integral to this effort is the scientific method. Briefly stated, this is (I) the observation of a phenomenon ? (II) the formulation of an hypothesis with testable predictions ? (III) the experimental testing of the hypothesis ? (IV) the reasoning about the new experimental data. If the data can be interpreted to support the hypothesis, it can become a theory; if not, the scientist returns to step (II).

So is this how science should be defined? Is this how we as Christians ought to think of science? Within certain constraints, I think it is. Science, biblically speaking, is what we do in the pursuit of having dominion over creation and subduing it. In this regard, practicing science is a good thing, because it is directly obedient to the command of God in Genesis 1:28. Science is a God-given tool to help us interact with creation and make use of it. That is its place. Of course, this implies that its place is not as a tool for learning ultimate truths about reality. It was not given for that purpose; only God himself can communicate such truths. It cannot answer questions like “what is the purpose of man?” or “is there such a thing as the soul?” It is a tool for learning about and using the physical world. Thus, scientific “truth” is truth about how we interact with creation. It is not necessarily truth about reality as it really is. This leads into the second question—

2. Is science inherently naturalistic (and if so, why)?

Since science is “the effort to discover and understand how the physical world works, with observable physical evidence”, the answer to this is simple: yes, science is inherently naturalistic. That is to say, science is a method or process for learning about the natural (physical) world. It follows what is called methodological naturalism. Questions about the supernatural (spiritual) world are beyond its purview, and so it cannot answer them. This doesn’t mean that they can’t be answered, of course, or that they aren’t meaningful—just that science isn’t the right place to go to for those answers.

So science is characterized by methodological naturalism. When investigating natural phenomena, scientists assume that these have natural causes. This is reasonable as far as it goes, since that is the place and purpose of science. It is not equipped to deal with supernatural causes or ask questions about supernatural things. The problem is that methodological naturalism has led, particularly in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, to philosophical naturalism. This is the view that natural things are the only things which exist. Thus, not only can science only investigate natural things, but natural things are the only things which can be investigated. Obviously, this puts science in a powerful epistemic position. Since the natural world is all there is, and science is the best means we have of learning about it, it becomes the sole standard for truth. Science, under philosophical naturalism, is really the only way we can learn anything about the world. The rise of philosophical naturalism is what has caused science to be held in such high esteem as a means of discovering truth today. Which leads me into the third question—

3. What is the relationship between philosophy and science?

A lot of people would like to say that science has no real relationship with philosophy. Scientists, in particular, are fond of distancing themselves from philosophical questions, and “sticking to the facts”. But, as the example of philosophical naturalism shows, this is a bit of a smokescreen.

Plenty of scientists are happy to affirm that only the natural world exists. They like to say that we can only explain things in naturalistic terms; that only naturalistic theories have explanatory power; and that talk of the supernatural is pointless or even meaningless. But these are obviously philosophical, rather than scientific views. Science doesn’t say that the supernatural world doesn’t or can’t exist, or that we can’t know anything about it. It just doesn’t comment on the matter, because science is the study of the natural world and it can’t answer such questions.

So for someone to say, “there is no evidence for the soul,” when what he means is scientific evidence is really just question-begging. Scientific evidence is always naturalistic, but the soul is supernatural, so obviously there can be no scientific evidence for the soul by definition. That doesn’t mean that no evidence exists whatsoever, unless he’s refusing to admit anything other than scientific evidence in the first place. But on what basis would he refuse to admit any other kind of evidence? He can’t do it on the basis of science—after all, he can’t show experimentally that non-natural evidence is invalid. So he has to make an assumption. He has to make a philosophical commitment to naturalism. In this regard, these sorts of scientists make up the rear guard of a venerable but fairly disrespectable philosophical view called logical positivism.

This is only the tip of the iceberg, though. Logical positivism is a philosophical position which claims to be based on science. But the problem runs much deeper, because science is actually based on philosophy. Science is not merely intimately related to philosophy. Philosophy is the foundation of science.

For example, the scientific method relies on some key assumptions about the universe. One of these is the uniformity of nature. This is the assumption that (a) the future will always be like the past; and (b) the laws of nature are the same everywhere. If this assumption were false, science would be futile. But it isn’t a scientific assumption, is it? It can’t be experimentally verified. We can’t run some empirical test to see whether the future will be like the past, since by definition the future is always out of reach. As soon as we try to test it, it becomes the present, and then when we’re done it’s the past, so whatever data we gathered doesn’t apply any more. Similarly, no one has tested the laws of nature in every part of the universe (or even every part of the earth). So this key assumption of science is a philosophical one. It isn’t itself scientific.

This raises some real problems for secular scientists, and leads me into my conclusion. Because science is based on philosophical assumptions, it is either naive or ignorant for anyone to claim that scientific knowledge is the only kind of knowledge there is; or that scientific truth-claims trump all other kinds of truth-claims (like religious ones). Before you can have scientific knowledge, you first have to have philosophical knowledge. Scientific truth-claims are really nothing special. Furthermore, anyone saying that scientific knowledge is the only “real” knowledge possible is fibbing through his teeth, because he is making a non-scientific statement. If scientific knowledge is the only “real” knowledge, then we couldn’t know that, because it isn’t scientifically verifiable.

So the problem for scientists (and for those who try to use science against Christianity) is that scientific truth-claims can only be as good as their philosophical foundations. If scientists can’t know that their philosophical foundations are sound, then they can’t know that their science is sound. So if the assumption of uniformity is nothing but wild speculation, then any science based on it is no better. This seems particularly problematic when you consider how utterly reasonable it seems that the future will be like the past. Surely if it’s so reasonable, we must be able to prove it? Things which are obviously true are easily proved.

Not so with uniformity. It isn’t a scientifically verifiable principle, and it isn’t logically necessary. The future could, in principle, stop being like the past, and there isn’t any real reason to think that it won’t. The fact that it hasn’t until now doesn’t imply that it won’t in the future unless we’ve already supposed that the future will be like the past. That’s begging the question. So we’re left with a quandary. On the one hand, it seems so entirely reasonable to think that all things will continue as they have from the beginning of creation. But on the other hand, how can we show that this belief is rational? That it is really reasonable? That it is actually true? How can we know it?

Well, the Christian can. The Christian knows that God has created the world, and sustains it moment to moment (Colossians 1:17). He knows that until Jesus comes again, all things will continue as they have from the beginning (2 Peter 3:4). So he knows, because God has revealed it, that nature is uniform and will continue to be. He knows that the world was created for man, and that man was created to have dominion over it. Because of this, Christians can hold a high view of science. Not as high as the their view of the Bible, obviously, since it relies on the Bible—but much higher nonetheless than what non-believing scientists can manage. Our view of science is based on the word of God, which is self-attesting and objectively true.

Secular scientists, on the other hand, ultimately base science on their gut feelings. They don’t have any assurance in the basic assumptions which underly their discipline. Even though they may take a view of science which seems much higher than that taken by Christians, their philosophical beliefs betray them. Science can only be as powerful as its foundations, and its foundations are philosophical. One can either just take these foundations on faith, having no reason to believe them except that they seem reasonable; or one can take it on the testimony of the creator of the universe. This is the relationship between science and philosophy,and it is why Christians should never be afraid of science.

  1. Wikipedia, ‘science’ (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Science; retrieved July 1, 2008).
13 replies
  1. Damian
    Damian says:

    Bnonn, in the past you have stated that you “believe that the earth is 6-10,000 years old, based on the literary use of the word yom and the approximate genealogical record in Genesis, and the interpretation of Genesis evidenced by Jesus and his apostles”.
    Do you still hold to this belief? And if so, where do you think science has gone wrong in its observations of the physical world to have come up with a figure of ~4.5 billion years?

  2. Bnonn
    Bnonn says:

    Damian, I do still hold to this belief; it is a belief which I hold presuppositionally on the basis of Scripture. I don’t have a specific alternative explanation for the empirical data surrounding the age of the earth, as I am not myself a scientist. Neither do I need any such explanation to believe the testimony of the Bible over current scientific orthodoxy.

    Regards,
    Bnonn

  3. Damian
    Damian says:

    So are you kind of banking on science eventually finding that they were woefully out in their estimations of the age of the earth or do you think that God has created the earth in such a way that it’ll always look as if it is 4.5 billions years old?

  4. Bnonn
    Bnonn says:

    Neither. I don’t really have an opinion one way or the other, since science itself doesn’t really interest me that much. It seems unlikely to me that secular scientists will come up with a theory of origins which approximates the truth, because such a theory would involve a deity. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that the interpretation of the data to which secular scientists hold must indicate something about the world, rather than the scientists’ beliefs.

    For example, methodological naturalism is not equipped to discover how man was created; yet secular science assumes that it is. Biblically speaking, investigating this is pointless because (a) it happened in the past so such inquiry doesn’t have a lot to do with subduing the world and having dominion over it; and (b) we know that man was created by God, not by a natural process. So I can safely discount any “explanation” secular science comes up with, and I need not look for a naturalistic account of my own since none exists.

    With regard to the age of the earth, this just doesn’t interest me very much. No doubt there is a lot of data which, interpreted according to certain (perhaps very reasonable-seeming) presuppositions indicates that the earth is ancient. And there is a lot of data that doesn’t. Not being a scientist, and having a field of expertise somewhat different to science, this doesn’t really bother me. Perhaps you should take up these questions with a Christian who is into science?

    Regards,
    Bnonn

  5. Damian
    Damian says:

    Neither. I don’t really have an opinion one way or the other, since science itself doesn’t really interest me that much

    You do really have an opinion. It’s that the earth is 6-10,000 years old.

    Biblically speaking, investigating this is pointless because (a) it happened in the past so such inquiry doesn’t have a lot to do with subduing the world and having dominion over it; and (b) we know that man was created by God, not by a natural process.

    Riiiiiight. And God saw fit to place in us proportionately a distribution of genes (both functional and broken and inherited retroviruses) that tapers off neatly back through the primates, mammals, vertebrates and so on? And what’s this about happening in the past? Of course it did, and so did absolutely everything else in the Bible including everything you base your beliefs on.

    Perhaps you should take up these questions with a Christian who is into science?

    I have done so and it seems that the more experienced scientist the Christian I talk to the more they agree that the earth is in fact orders of magnitude older than what you have deduced by your particular interpretation of scripture. Perhaps you need to reassess your interpretation?

    Bnonn, I think you are living in a fantasy land from which you only emerge when said land is not threatened by evidence.

  6. Bnonn
    Bnonn says:

    Damian, you seem to be confused. You asked whether I am banking on science eventually supporting my view, or whether I think that God made the world looking like it is ancient. I said I am banking on neither and don’t have an opinion either way. That is, neither is necessary to my view. To which you replied, “You do really have an opinion. It’s that the earth is 6-10,000 years old.” Well, yes, but this is irrelevant to the original question on which I had no opinion. Why the bait-and-switch?

    As regards the rest of your comment, it’s irrelevant to the actual topic of this article. You’re trying to get me to engage with scientific evidence which is based on philosophical precommitments. Precommitments you’re obviously very keen to avoid talking about, judging from the way you’re pressing the evidential side of things. But the evidential side is based on the philosophical, so that just won’t do. I wonder if you even read the article.

    I should clarify what I said about things happening in the past. I am not suggesting that the study of history is not useful or warranted. But the study of history is not science; and it’s debatable how much historical science fulfills the charge of having stewardship over the earth. Furthermore, you can’t very well treat an eyewitness testimony of recent historical events (Scripture) as if it’s on the same level as speculative interpretations of historical empirical data (science).

    Regards,
    Bnonn

  7. Dale Campbell
    Dale Campbell says:

    No offense, Bnonn, but I’m not sure you’re having the same conversation as Damain. :) Yeah, he might have misplaced his question a bit, but he’s trying to get at why (scientifically) you hold your belief about the earth’s age; which is a scientific question, not a biblical one – unless you really strain out an interpretation out of texts which are themselves not concerned with “how many years old the earth (really) is” at all.
    [on this, interestingly, Jacob Neusner was asked (by Ray Vander Laan) about the creation debate, and ‘how long were the days of creation’ etc. The reply of this brilliant, voluminous, expert Jewish writer demonstrates just how little {at least in his view} the Scriptures are concerned with “how long” creation ‘took’: “I never thought about that.”]
    You seem to not have any (scientific) reason for this (scientific) question Damian has asked – and you seem not to care either. Has not God given us all good things – including the tool of science (including ‘methodological naturalism’) to discover His good creation?

    [And yes, I do agree that science cannot operate without some basic philosophical assumptions (order, intelligibility, etc.)…]

  8. Bnonn
    Bnonn says:

    Dale, regardless of whether the primary intention of Scripture is to speak to the age of the earth, the fact remains that this can be deduced by good and necessary consequence from it. The question Damian asked is not scientific, per se; it is simply historical. Scripture addresses it; indirectly, true, but I believe that only the young earth creationist interpretation is reasonable. Therefore, I believe it.

    Regards,
    Bnonn

  9. Dale Campbell
    Dale Campbell says:

    “I believe that only the young earth creationist interpretation is reasonable. Therefore, I believe it.”

    Thanks Bnonn, but this comment leads immediately to the rejoinder ‘ok, so what is the resonable-ness of the young earth creationist based on?‘…
    I think we all agree that believing the most reasonable interpretation of an issue (whether biblical, scientific, historical or otherwise) is indeed the way to go. But I encourage you to reflect on why you think the YEC interpretation is the most reasonable.

  10. CN
    CN says:

    From my reading, there really is no agreed-upon definition of “science “. I think Jonathan Wells defined science as “the search for truth”. I like that, because it is simple, but is it really sufficient as a definition?

    Is science “inherently naturalistic”? Well, I guess your definition from above will tell what you think about that, but SHOULD it be inherently naturalistic? Certainly — if we can prove there is no God. But since that is (logically) impossible, science MUST leave open the possibility of reality being, to some degree, non-naturalistic.

    Those of us who do science would certainly practice “methodological naturalism” — that is, we don’t assume the apple fell to the ground because God supernaturally intervened to make it happen. We look for natural explanations unless there is no way to proceed (enter Intelligent Design). There are many scientists however who practice “metaphysical naturalism”, where they a priori rule out ANY possibility of the supernatural.

    How do science and philosophy relate? Well, some parts of science (math?) seem to be relatively free from philosophical interpretation while others are steeped in it. I think that science must succumb to philosophy, but also philosophy needs to be corrected by science. They need to develop together and keep each other in check. But this would seem to be a near-impossible task. Given that many philosophies are derived from imperfect understandings, personal biases, and so on, where does this leave us?

    Those of us with philosophies driven from the Bible, and especially those who believe in the noetic effects of sin, are going to claim that all non-Biblical philosophy is wayward (which seems to correspond quite well to reality:-) ). I guess then that it is easy to be a Christian presuppositionalist (which I am not), in which case you can take Bnonn’s tack above and reject any demand for correspondence between Scripture and reality (as it seems).

    Finally, could the earth really be young? Well, one top secular physicist thinks it is at least possible, and makes sense from the data… but he rejects it anyway — because of his philosophy I guess :-)

  11. Dale Campbell
    Dale Campbell says:

    Hi CN,
    Thoughtful comment.
    Regarding whether science is inherently naturalistic, I would say that the methods, by nature (pun intended) are – i.e. as you say ‘methodological naturalism’. The key distinction in my mind is that while the methods, practise and scope of the scientific enterprise is indeed naturalistic, the persons doing the science do not need to have naturalistic views. Another way to say this is that the work of the scientist (observations, experimentation, etc.) ought not be changed at all by whether or not they view nature as ‘all there is’ or (the C.S. Lewis-ism) ‘the whole show’.
    You say that “We look for natural explanations unless there is no way to proceed (enter Intelligent Design). There are many scientists however who practice “metaphysical naturalism”, where they a priori rule out ANY possibility of the supernatural.”
    This is where I would say that we depart from science proper and enter into philosophy. Both ‘intelligent design’ and ‘metaphysical naturalism’ are philosophically based views, not ‘scientifically’ based ones. I know many of my fellow Christians may not agree here…
    Also, can you give the name of the ‘top secular physicist’ who admits for the possibility of the earth being young?

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