The Limits of Science (Part 1)

By Brett Williams

Several years ago, while on a lengthy flight to a conference, I found myself sitting next to a young neurobiologist. To some, a theologian and scientist on a plane may sound like the beginning of a poor joke. To me however, it was a fascinating confluence of contrary epistemologies (“studies of the method and grounds of knowledge especially with reference to its limits and validity”).

After polite pleasantries, she disclosed her reasoning for studying neuroscience: for many years, her mother had suffered from dementia and was nearing the end of her life. That passenger and I had an instant human connection the moment I shared that I had lost my grandmother to the same terrible disease. This connection produced a respectful and congenial conversation about neurology, synapses, the nature of the soul, and whether or not memory is mere physiological mechanics, mysterious metaphysics, or both. Eventually this debate expanded to whether or not science or faith is best suited to understand truth.

Ours is an age of science. Its preeminence and power are undisputed, particularly in relation to other so-called soft disciplines like philosophy and religion. These disciplines, we are told, explore the realm of the relative and subjective. Science, on the other hand, exists in the territory of the testable and observable. One belabors belief; the other reveals reality. Philosophers and theologians are thought to have their heads in the clouds, speculating into the unknown, while scientists rest squarely upon terra firma, exploring the known facts of the universe. Not only does so-called hard science sit atop the hierarchy of disciplines, but it has also achieved cultural hegemony (“preponderant influence or authority”), bidding the masses to follow. In fact, an August 2019 Pew research study revealed that Americans overwhelmingly trust scientists (86 percent) above other professionals, especially religious leaders (57 percent).

People look to what they trust in order to determine truth. Science is often seen as the discovery of self-interpreting facts—phenomena that can be observed, hypothesized, and tested. This process of discovery results in immutable natural laws. These laws exist independently from belief. They are inviable and irreversible. They are true. Observable verifiability equals verity. Religion and philosophy, on the other hand, deal with a different aspect of truth—things that are either believed or felt. Philosophy and religion pontificate on the nature of truth, while science discovers the truth of nature. This nuance of truth in modernity has produced a sort of epistemological dualism; natural or physical truths can be known differently from and better than metaphysical truths.

The notion that science, because of its superiority to other disciplines, is best suited to reveal truth is known as scientism. In a 2017 video, famed astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson said that “the good thing about science is that it’s true whether or not you believe it.” To Tyson, science itself is “an entire exercise into finding what is true.” Specifically, scientism holds that science is able to discover truth because of the supposed superiority of the scientific method. Chemist Peter Atkins said that science, “by its combination of careful experimentation guided by theory, and its elaboration and improvement of theory based on the experiments it has inspired, … has shown itself to be of enormous power for the elucidation and control of nature. There appear to be no bounds to its competence” (“Science as Truth,” History of the Human Sciences, 8, no. 2 [May 1995]). In other words, science is superior because, unlike philosophy, it is based upon a self-correcting and closed method. It is epistemologically pure. Philosophers merely speculate, while scientists actually know.

The scientific method, as every high schooler knows, is not just the foundation of modern science, but is also the result of the Enlightenment. After millennia of superstitions, we are told, brave researchers like Copernicus and Galileo stoutly stood up to the religious ruling elite. Science prevailed against mystery, and knowledge broke the chains of ignorance. Centuries later, advancements in medicine and technology stand as abiding proof of science’s illumination and superiority. Modernity is so pervasive that even Christianity has become thoroughly indoctrinated into its dogma. The belief that science is somehow distinct and epistemologically pure is grounded in four key ideas: separation of knowledge and belief, the scientific method, science and certainty, and scientific progress.

Knowledge and Belief

Ironically, the idea that science is distinct from philosophy (and therefore knowledge is distinct from belief) comes from a philosopher, René Descartes. This Frenchman remains the father of modernity and one of the most influential thinkers in history. For Descartes, the dualistic ideas of knowing and believing began with trying to answer what was known as “the mind-body problem.” This age-old question was asked as far back as Plato or even the Buddha: How can a thought, which isn’t seen, result in observable movement? If thinking occurs in the conscience, how can it produce a physical, corporeal response?

In 1641, Descartes published Meditations on First Philosophy, in which he proposed a radical new answer to the mind-body problem. He simply separated the mind from the body. The mind was to be seen as abstract and internal. The brain/body, on the other hand, was believed to be extended from the physical. This solution, known as Cartesian dualism, created two distinct realms: the subjective mind and the objective real world. Some facts of the extended world do not depend on the interpretation of the mind or cognition. These facts correlate with one another independently of human comprehension and can be recognized accordingly. The only way to understand them as they truly are is to first doubt your own subjective mind and then corroborate truth through extension. Descartes encapsulated this idea in his famous saying, “I think, therefore I am.” As this dualism began to take hold, the separation of philosophy and science began to take shape. Philosophy and theology belonged to the subjective world of the mind. Science, contrarily, existed as an extension of the natural, objective world.

Conversely, a millennium before Descartes, Augustine surmised the idea that faith and knowledge were inextricably connected and that faith, being the reflection of God’s truth, must logically precede knowledge. The physical world could not be known independently from one’s beliefs and presuppositions. Faith and philosophy were the starting points of understanding, not distinct from it. Anselm’s famous words were “I believe so that I can understand.” This dictum did not presume that faith and knowledge were somehow epistemologically pure, only that faith and philosophy were necessary for understanding. You cannot have one without the other. Everyone approaches the natural world with presumptions and beliefs. No one has a blank slate.

Some early scientists, such as the German astronomer Johannes Kepler, also rejected the separation of knowledge and belief. Kepler is best known for his ideas about planetary motion, especially in clarifying Copernicus’s heliocentricity. Modern scientists often cite Kepler as a bastion of rationality against the folly of faith and have even referred to his notions as “Kepler’s laws.” What is lesser known is that Kepler believed that reality is sourced in the transcendent mind of the Creator and is imprinted upon humanity through the imago Dei. These divine truths, called archetypes, are readily available to the human mind because humans were created in the image of God. Observations of order and syntheses in nature (such as heliocentricity) can be trusted, not because they are distinct from belief, but because they are sourced in the belief of the Creator. Nature is not ordered by itself, but is orderly because it reflects the Creator. Patterns exist in nature because patterns exist in the mind of God.

These patterns are demonstrated clearly in Kepler’s planetary geometry, specifically in his well-known work Harmony of the World (1619). Kepler said, “Geometry, which before the origin of things was coeternal with the divine mind … , supplied God with patterns for the creation of the world, and passed over to man along with the image of God; and was not in fact taken through the eyes” (304). Geometry, as observable and testable, is not independent of theology; it is the result of theology. For Kepler, at least, geometry, among other disciplines, is to be seen as a priori, that is, deduced through theory and theology and applied to observations. Mathematics and cosmological order are to be trusted, not because they are independent of philosophy and theology, but precisely because they are sourced in philosophy and theology.

The Scientific Method

Possibly the most practical way in which knowledge and belief have been separated in scientific understanding is with the development of the scientific method. In 1605 Sir Francis Bacon wrote, “If a man will begin with certainties, he shall end in doubts; but if he will be content to begin with doubts, he shall end in certainties” (The Advancement of Learning, Book I, V. [8]). Before Bacon, Aristotelian philosophy reigned in educational institutions. Aristotelian philosophy used an a fortiori method for inquiry into nature. This method begins with assuming universal elements known as first principles, thought to be sourced in the mind of God, and then correlates the lesser, natural elements to the first principles. This is known as deduction, the idea that knowledge begins with assuming a theory or revelation and applying it to observations.

Bacon scoffed at this idea. In his aptly named work The New Organon, published in 1620, Bacon reacted to Aristotle’s axiom by offering his own. This method, he said, “derives axioms from the senses and particulars, rising by a gradual and unbroken ascent, so that it arrives at the most general axioms last of all. This is the true way, but as yet untried” (“Aphorisms concerning the Interpretation of Nature,” Book 1:19). For Bacon, philosophy must begin with doubting first principles, focusing on natural or secondary elements, and then extrapolating from the lesser to the greater. This was the birth of the modern scientific method of doubt, hypothesis, and experimentation. It assumes the truth of local phenomena by repeated testing and then moves to making generalized statements about external or greater phenomena. What Bacon proposed, and what the scientific method relies upon, is known as logical induction. Induction is the method of inference of a generalized conclusion from observing specifics and then proposing a theory. One could even summarize the battle between premodern and modern methodologies as a fight between deduction and induction.

No examples of this methodological melee are as entertaining and well written as the two fictional sleuths Sherlock Holmes and Father Brown. Both series were written at the height of modernity in the early 20th century. The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, written by physician Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, chronicles an irascible intellectual who solves confounding crimes by noticing details that others miss. These “elementary” details, as he was fond of saying, inevitably lead to a correct hypothesis and, after some misadventure, the revelation of the truth. Holmes always discovers the truth through induction—through observing the details in nature and extrapolating these to inviable truths.

Sherlock relies on observation, data, and the scientific method. Father Brown, a crusty cleric, came from the mind of Catholic philosopher G. K. Chesterton. Brown solves crimes not only by relying on induction and the scientific method but also by having a masterful understanding of theology and human nature. Brown understands human actions, including crime, because he understands human nature. He arrives at the specifics by understanding the first things. Truth is uncovered not because it is elementary but because it is eternal.

Republished with permission from Baptist Bulletin © Regular Baptist Press.


Brett Williams (PhD, Central Baptist Theological Seminary) is provost and executive vice president of Central Baptist Theological Seminary.

1779 reads

There are 16 Comments

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

I appreciate attention to the topic. Our culture seems to be suffering from two equal and opposite woes regarding science.

  • An idolizing of "science" that comes partly from naturalism and partly from propaganda.

    • Naturalism: Since science can only study the world of the senses, claiming that the natural world is all there is/all that can be known makes science "the study of absolutely everything"... which it can't really be.
    • Propaganda: Since "science" can't really say anything (I think owe Dallas Willard on this point)--only individuals/groups who do science--the abundance of claims that this or that is "scientific" or "what the science says," are really recharacterizations of what individuals and groups are claiming. These individuals/groups have practiced science in varying degrees, if at all. So... everywhere we see claims like "science says" or "science tells us," the more accurate language would be "some scientists say" or "some scientists tell us." In some cays "most scientists" or maybe even "nearly all scientists." In theory, it could even be "all scientists," but the fact would remain that this is not science speaking; it's humans speaking--who always do science imperfectly.
  • An intense antipathy toward/dismissal of science. This isn't much better. It's understandable, because all humans know intuitively that naturalism is not true (e.g., Romans 1), so there's a backlash. It's also understandable because of populism: our deep-seated but recently resurgent resentment of "elites"-- and science is perceived to be the work of elites.
    • This is destructive and wrong for multiple, weighty reasons. For one thing, a better "cure" for the perception of elitism in science is better education of the nonelites. But use of the God-designed and created intellect to study the creation is a wonderful thing and a Christian duty. We should admire and appreciate the pursuit of excellence evident in the work of so many who do science rather than rush to attribute ugly motivations to them and make hasty "common sense" rejections of their findings.

Views expressed are always my own and not my employer's, my church's, my family's, my neighbors', or my pets'. The house plants have authorized me to speak for them, however, and they always agree with me.

dcbii's picture

EditorModerator

Having been educated in STEM fields (I was, at various times, a chemistry major and physics major before settling on mathematics and computer science), I neither dismiss science nor treat it as a god, or even the source of all truth.

I do admit, however, to "an intense antipathy toward/dismissal of" those who either have a purely naturalistic view of science (as you've described it above), or who use science for propaganda, which applies to many of the uses of "science" during the whole Covid event.  Not only do we need to educate non-elites better in science, we need to much more strongly call out and oppose misuses of science by the elites as a club to beat everyone else into submission.

Dave Barnhart

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

As far as COVID science goes, I just didn't experience it that way. I mostly saw negativity toward, and failure to understand, the science involved. ... that and political types, of both the elected variety and the pundit variety, cherry picking and oversimplifying to advance their narratives.

But I'm sure the perception of what most needs pushing back on depends a lot on what most hits you. I have never gotten around to tuning in to CNN, MSNBC, ABC, NBC or CBS during this thing... and could only stomach a tiny bit of Fox either. The more politically-driven sources all seemed to be trying to outstupid each other. Still do, but less so lately on that topic.

Views expressed are always my own and not my employer's, my church's, my family's, my neighbors', or my pets'. The house plants have authorized me to speak for them, however, and they always agree with me.

dcbii's picture

EditorModerator

Aaron Blumer wrote:

... that and political types, of both the elected variety and the pundit variety, cherry picking and oversimplifying to advance their narratives.

Bingo.  Read lots of that (some from both sides, but mostly in favor of lockdowns).

Quote:

I have never gotten around to tuning in to CNN, MSNBC, ABC, NBC or CBS during this thing... and could only stomach a tiny bit of Fox either. The more politically-driven sources all seemed to be trying to outstupid each other. Still do, but less so lately on that topic.

Can't really argue with you there.  I don't tune in ANY of the American sources, including Fox.  I can't take watching almost any coverage these days, as they can't usually even get past the first sentence without mixing opinion into whatever facts they want to present.  I do occasionally watch Tagesschau to get German news, as they can still mostly present facts, even when you can tell they have a bias.  I now get all my US news online mostly from content aggregators, >95% written, only watching a very occasional video (and not usually to the end, except in rare cases).  When reading, I can easily skip opinion and slanted sentences, to drill down to the actual facts presented.  Still takes time, but much less than watching, and with reading, it certainly is easier to avoid the "outrage" factor that video news is always trying to incite.

Dave Barnhart

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

...we need to much more strongly call out and oppose misuses of science by the elites as a club to beat everyone else into submission.

I don't really understand this narrative.

For one, I saw far more cherry picking of evidence and overgeneralizing on the right from the anti-lockdown  crowd. I saw more "panic" about the economy and religious liberty than I did about the virus. 

As for beating into submission... where did that happen? You have elected officials with the responsibility of making these decisions who in most cases (as far as I can tell) looked for the best information they could find and then made the decisions only they could make. Before that, as well as after, you had business leaders and owners also in roles of decision-making responsibility who decided what seemed most prudent and made their decisions accordingly.

So... I don't see anything inappropriately coercive in how the science was used. Should people in positions of responsibility have taken a popular vote on what to do, in order to balance out the influence from experts? I'm glad they didn't. That's not how leadership is supposed to work.

Views expressed are always my own and not my employer's, my church's, my family's, my neighbors', or my pets'. The house plants have authorized me to speak for them, however, and they always agree with me.

TylerR's picture

Editor

JP Moreland's book "Scientism" is very frightening. Scientists, from both hard and soft scientific disciplines, are the priests of secularism who mediate "truth" to Western society. What to know truth? The scientist will tell you ... He is all-wise.

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

Mark_Smith's picture

TylerR wrote:

JP Moreland's book "Scientism" is very frightening. Scientists, from both hard and soft scientific disciplines, are the priests of secularism who mediate "truth" to Western society. What to know truth? The scientist will tell you ... He is all-wise.

And then you meet a scientist...

Mark_Smith's picture

suggests that rather than science being the "boogey man" the scientific revolution has led to the "data revolution." Everyone wants data. You can't do anything without "data." You go to some meeting and out of nowhere, 3 people have "data" showing your idea is wrong and theirs is right. Common sense means nothing. You need a site survey, references to 5 Harvard studies, and 2 publications. I hear "well the literature says..." three times a day. And "the literature" always says I'm wrong, tradition's wrong, the old way is wrong... What is "right" is some new way.

Everyone wants "quantifiables" and "measureables." Are you are good worker? There's some statistic somewhere that some computer system evaluated. Are you a good teacher? Some survey is given to students asking whether their "felt needs were met."

This has infected the church as well. Elders all want "measurables" to evaluate programs and pastors.

 

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

 

TylerR wrote:

 

JP Moreland's book "Scientism" is very frightening. Scientists, from both hard and soft scientific disciplines, are the priests of secularism who mediate "truth" to Western society. What to know truth? The scientist will tell you ... He is all-wise.

Thing is, very few scientists talk like that. Their work is full of words like "suggests"... "high probability" ... "low probability"... "if" ... "supports"... "is consistent with"... "points toward"... and so on. Real scientists hardly ever use the language of certainty.

People confuse scientists with popularizers (some of whom also happen to do a little science, or once did).

Much of the ire that gets aimed at scientists would be much more effectively aimed at those who "market" it for the masses.

Data... only exists because God created a measurable, predictable material world that follows patterns. It's just a plural word for "fact," though of course not all fact claims are actually facts.

"Using data" = "trying to do better than wild guesses, hunches, and personal feelings." It's possible to be lazy with data, but usually the lazy choice is to not gather it or use it. 

Views expressed are always my own and not my employer's, my church's, my family's, my neighbors', or my pets'. The house plants have authorized me to speak for them, however, and they always agree with me.

dcbii's picture

EditorModerator

Aaron Blumer wrote:

Much of the ire that gets aimed at scientists would be much more effectively aimed at those who "market" it for the masses.

I can't speak for anyone else, but I agree with this, in large part.  And I agree with Mark above about the scientists themselves.  As I pointed out to you in another thread, the masses don't get their data directly from the scientists.  They listen to media rather than read scientific journals or papers (and those who want the real thing are going to pay for it, because much of it is behind pay walls).  Any real scientists that do appear in the media are usually heavily controlled or edited, but in the main, it's the talking heads that present their version of "what the scientists really said," or worse "what the scientists that said that really mean."  I'm perfectly happy to be called a "science denier" by those who are not the actual scientists and who are abusing the research to try to force me into the conclusion they want to make.

And don't even get me started on the fact that much research being done is being paid for by various entities that want an argument in their favor.  An honest scientist will present the data he sees, but that doesn't stop it from being used in ways other than he intended.

Dave Barnhart

dcbii's picture

EditorModerator

Check out this article in National Review:

https://www.nationalreview.com/news/de-blasio-tells-covid-contract-trace...

Money quotes:

“No person will be asked proactively if they attended a protest,” Avery Cohen, a spokesperson for de Blasio, told THE CITY about the directive. “If a person wants to proactively offer that information, there is an opportunity for them to do so.”

And:

New York City officials have taken a soft stance over fears that mass protests could lead to a spike in coronavirus cases. “Let’s be clear about something: if there is a spike in coronavirus cases in the next two weeks, don’t blame the protesters. Blame racism,” Mark Levine, head of the city council’s health committee, tweeted earlier this month.

By not allowing contact tracing to ask about attendance at a protest, they've just thrown out all pretense at trying to actually do any valid science on the spread of Covid, but I'm sure DeBlasio will still claim that Reopen protestors are "ignoring the science."

Dave Barnhart

Mark_Smith's picture

find a secular university faculty lounge somewhere and just sit there and listen... then we'll see if your generous perspective holds up.

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

@Dave: Another example of abuse of "science." But no number of examples of selective appeal to "science" for political purposes can argue against science itself as a human endeavor.

@Mark: My "generous perspective"... I'll happily own that characterization! But it comes from reading published research. I don't doubt that people are less restrained in the lounge, but random conversation is not the same as the work of the discipline itself. And of course examples can be found of scientists lauding the glory of "science" in near theistic terms (you can find plenty of them in Behe, Pearcy, Craig, Plantinga, et al).  Acknowledged that in my first post in this thread: we have two damaging extremes going on.

The path to fully embracing our opportunity to glorify God in this area is to fully embrace science within its boundaries, and wherever possible, framed in a Christian worldview.

An analogy...

Take the discipline of architecture. There are opportunities to express big ideas, worldview ideas, even religious ideas through architecture. It overlaps with beliefs about human nature, the nature of society, and aesthetics, among others. It would harm both architecture as a discipline/activity and people who depend on it if  people tried to use it to exhaustively explain the human condition, or solve crime problems, or develop vaccines, or teach life skills.... or explain why everybody should vote for them in the next election.

Most things are great for what they're great for and get useless or harmful fast when taken beyond that... right tool for the right job.

But the tool is not to blame for what morons (or brilliant deceivers) do with it.

Views expressed are always my own and not my employer's, my church's, my family's, my neighbors', or my pets'. The house plants have authorized me to speak for them, however, and they always agree with me.

TylerR's picture

Editor

I'm thinking particularly of the soft sciences, like psychology. We have had two cases at work now where an individual files discrimination allegations against major insurance companies because they were denied breast reconstruction surgery while identifying as transgender.

Do you know what the trigger is for requesting sex reassignment surgery? Among other things, one major component insurance companies require is a diagnosis from a licensed mental health professional. WA State, depending on the particular license sought, requires an MA or PhD, with associated years of supervised practice.

The DSM-V is the Bible, and the mental health professional is the high priest dispensing the sacrament. With the letter in hand, the doors are open to validating felt gender identity.

People look to what they perceive to be an objective standard to make moral value judgments. Having rejected divine revelation, they'll look elsewhere. Today. they often look to the sciences. Transgender is a valid paradigm. Why? The mental professional says! See, here's the diagnosis letter ...

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

josh p's picture

Can you explain this comment further? Just curious what is meant by it. Thanks.

"And of course examples can be found of scientists lauding the glory of "science" in near theistic terms (you can find plenty of them in Behe, Pearcy, Craig, Plantinga, et al).  Acknowledged that in my first post in this thread: we have two damaging extremes going on."

dcbii's picture

EditorModerator

Aaron Blumer wrote:

@Dave: Another example of abuse of "science." But no number of examples of selective appeal to "science" for political purposes can argue against science itself as a human endeavor.

In case I haven't yet made myself clear, I do think the pursuit of science itself (or knowledge in general) is a useful endeavor (within its known limitations, of course).  Although there may be some Christians arguing against actual science, like was done in the days of Copernicus or Galileo, that's not true in general today, and it's not true of me.

What I abhor is the abuse of science (or even simply claiming "But...SCIENCE!" when trying to silence legitimate questions or objections, when the actual science doesn't actually support what they are trying to make it say).  And unfortunately, "abuse of science" is the public face of science today as least as much as, if not more than, the real thing.  That shouldn't stop us from supporting the real thing.  But we shouldn't be blinded into accepting the conclusions of those simply claiming "science" either.

We wouldn't accept a pastor at the end of a sermon coming to the conclusion by only stating what he wants us to believe and then saying, "This is settled theology.  95% of theologians agree.  If you disagree, you're denying scripture.  And you're not a theologian so you can't possibly understand this for yourself."  The sermon needs to lay out the arguments from the scripture for all to see and only then attempt a conclusion from what scripture actually says.

Any time someone names "science" and does the former is, frankly, not worth listening to even if what they say is true, because I have no basis to know from what they are saying if it is true or not.  And those who practice real science (in contrast to science abusers) don't simply attempt to simply silence those who don't agree with the conclusions of other scientists -- they work at disproving it using the data, rather than simply saying it's disproved because other scientists disagree.

Just like what you said above, science is great when used for what it's good for.  When wielded as a propaganda tool, it's as at least as harmful as just using a ouija board, and actually more so, since invoking the magical incantation "SCIENCE!" grants the speaker some measure of believability and authority, even when it's illegitimate, where we already know to discount something from a ouija board.

Dave Barnhart

Help keep SI’s server humming. A few bucks makes a difference.