The Limits of Science (Part 2)

By Brett Williams. Read Part 1.

Science and Certainty

With culture, the logical induction of the scientific method has won. Most believe that Bacon’s method, as refined for centuries, is the best way to speak to certainty. All other ways, such as faith and philosophy, speak to subjective or personal things, whereas science speaks to things as they are. Even when theology boldly speaks of understanding God and truth, it dares not do so with the same gravitas as one would speak of gravity. We know that gravity acceleration equals 9.8 meters per second squared; we believe that Jesus rose from the dead. One is certain and objective, the other only hope.

Not everyone has bought into the epistemological superiority of induction. Karl Popper, the Austrian-born British writer, was once considered the greatest philosopher of science of his time. Popper critiqued the scientific method and rejected its dominance over other methods of knowing. In his book The Logic of Scientific Discovery (1959), he said that “it is far from obvious, from a logical point of view, that we are justified in inferring universal statements from singular ones, no matter how numerous; for any conclusion drawn in this way may always turn out to be false: no matter how many instances of white swans we may have observed, this does not justify the conclusion that all swans are white” (27). Until the 17th century, all recorded and observed swans were white, and the term “black swan” was used colloquially to denote something that is impossible. Swans were white, period—until explorers discovered black swans in western Australia. Scientific certainty is such until observation changes. This doesn’t negate the scientific method, but it does show that induction is never certain.

Another European, physicist Hans Reichenbach (a friend of Einstein’s and proponent of the scientific method), admitted, as recorded by Popper, “We should say that it [the scientific method] serves to decide upon probability. For it is not given to science to reach either truth or falsity … but scientific statements can only attain continuous degrees of probability whose unattainable upper and lower limits are truth and falsity” (29). The scientific method cannot speak to certainty, only probability. Truth and falsity are philosophical categories. Hard science seeks to understand the how but can never stray into the area of why.

Scientific Progress

The final tenet of scientism is the idea of scientific progress. Most people see science as the gradual increase of knowledge along a historical spectrum. As experiments are done and discoveries are made, scientific knowledge increases, resulting in the cumulation of correctness. Scientific revolutions such as the Enlightenment are viewed as milestones in the always advancing assimilation of knowledge. This results in what C. S. Lewis called “chraonological snobbery,” the false belief that the now is always superior to the then. In science, it manifests as the arrogance of advancement: “We know more now than they knew then.” “We now understand, while they were ignorant.” From geodes to germ theory, progress is the hubris that remains a hallmark of modern science.

Thomas Kuhn, a physicist and philosopher at Princeton and MIT, demonstrated in his landmark book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962) that the idea of science as a progressive accumulation of knowledge is a myth. Rather, scientific revolutions occur when new ideas upend accepted assumptions. This is because all science is closely connected with an underlying philosophy. Scientists operate in an accepted philosophical paradigm that is known to them as “normal science.” Observations nicely align with assumptions until a new philosophy or set of assumptions challenges the accepted paradigm. The paradigm then shifts, and scientists are forced to approach the observation with a new set of assumptions. Kuhn wrote, “Confronted with anomaly or with crisis, scientists tend to take a different attitude towards existing paradigms, and the nature of their research changes” (91). A change in philosophy results in a change in the paradigm. A new set of assumptions results in a different observation. In other words, observation follows philosophy. What people assume is progress is actually a new set of assumptions that result in a different observation. Aristotle challenged Plato; Descartes challenged Aristotle; Copernicus challenged Ptolemy; Newton challenged Copernicus; Einstein challenged Newton; string theory challenged quantum mechanics and so on. Progress is less about new evidence and more about new assumptions. Philosophy precedes observation.

Modern science is of great value, but the idea that it is somehow distinct from philosophy is fanciful. The scientific method, while beneficial for gathering and collecting data, is not a closed system with the interpretation of said data. Facts never interpret themselves. Knowledge is not separate from belief; it is entirely dependent upon it. Scientific statements, so prevalent in our society, can speak only to probability, never to certainty or truth. Discoveries are not the summation of knowledge but are shifts in assumptions and observations. What we will think may be different from what we know now. After all, imagine what our descendants will think of our theories, consumed in present confidence. In the midst of all the marvelous discoveries of modern science, the discovery of humility remains aloof.

As the plane began the slow descent to our destination, the neurobiologist and I were still discussing the concepts of memory and the mind. For her, much of her mother’s personality lay in the synapses and countless contours of her brain. One thing puzzled the daughter, however; there was no scientific explanation for her mother remembering Bible verses and songs she had learned as a child. Augustine may not have spoken to Alzheimer’s, but his ideas about memory and metaphysics are perhaps more insightful than amyloid beta proteins. When the wheels touched down, she looked at me and asked, “Would you pray for my mother?”

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.

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