Thursday, June 19, 2008

God's Undertaker - The Scope and Limits of Science


Defining science

Michael Ruse: science “by definition deals only with the natural, the repeatable, that which is governed by law” (p.31). This definition is helpful because it distinguishes between astronomy and astrology. The problem is that it rules out much of cosmology.

What does Ruse mean by “the natural”? Certainly he means that the things science bothers itself with are all things found in nature. But it may imply more. For many science's dealing only with the natural means, that all of science's explanations for these things found in nature must be natural explanations. If they're not, the explanations are not scientific (p.32).

Massimo Pigliucci: “The basic assumption of science is that the world can be explained entirely in physical terms, without recourse to godlike entities” (p.33).

Christian de Duve:
Scientific enquiry rests on the notion that all manifestations in the universe are explainable in natural terms, without supernatural intervention. Strictly speaking, this notion is not an a priori philosophical stand or profession of belief. It is a postulate, a working hypothesis that we should be prepared to abandon if faced with facts that defy every attempt at rational explanation. Many scientists, however, do not bother to make this distinction, tacitly extrapolating from hypothesis to affirmation (p.33).

Paul Kurtz: “What is common to naturalistic philosophy is its commitment to science. Indeed, naturalism might be defined in its more general sense as the philosophical generalizations of the methods and conclusions of the sciences” (33).

Which comes first – science or philosophy?

Kurtz would view the philosophy of naturalism as arising from his science. But the impression of the scientist going about his enterprise with no bias or philosophical precommitments is a myth. It could very well be the other way around, with naturalism preceding and shaping one's science.
George Klein: “I am not an agnostic. I am an atheist. My attitude is not based on science, but rather on faith...The absence of a Creator, the non-existence of God is my childhood faith, my adult belief, unshakable and holy” (p.34).

Richard Lewontin:
Our willingness to accept scientific claims that are against common sense is the key to an understanding of the real struggle between science and the supernatural. We take the side of science in spite of the patent absurdity of some of its spite of the tolerance of the scientific community for unsubstantiated just-so stories, because we have a prior materialism. It is not that the methods and institutions of science somehow compel us to accept a material explanation of the phenomenal world but, on the contrary, that we are forced by our a priori adherence to material causes to create an apparatus of investigation and a set of concepts that produce material explanations, no matter how counter-intuitive, no matter how mystifying to the uninitiated” (p.34-5).

Lewontin goes on to say, “Moreover, that materialism is absolute, for we cannot allow a Divine foot in the door” (p.35).

Lennox responds: “I am not so sure that Dawkins would be as enthusiastic about eradicating this kind of 'blind faith' in materialism as he is about eradicating faith in God, though consistency would argue that he should” (p.35).

Following where the evidence leads – always?

Lennox comes up with a novel suggestion: Let's avoid begging the question by “defining science to be essentially applied naturalism” and instead “understand it to be investigation of and theorizing about the natural order so that we give weight to what is surely of the essence of true science—that is, a willingness to follow the empirical evidence, wherever it leads” (p.37).

Summing up so far

Two extremes to avoid: (1) Seeing science's relationship to religion as one solely of conflict; (2) Seeing “all science as philosophically or theologically neutral” (p.38).

The limits of scientific explanation

Science has explained so much and so helpfully. How much can it explain? Scientism answers: “ Basically everything.” Peter Atkins: “There is no reason to suppose that science cannot deal with every aspect of existence” (p.39).

Richard Dawkins' quote in the book dedication of The God Delusion: “Isn't it enough to see that a garden is beautiful without having to believe that there are fairies at the bottom of it?” (p.39).

Lennox doesn't think much of this: “It [the above quote] gives the game away. For it shows that Dawkins is guilty of committing the error of proposing false alternatives by suggesting that it is either fairies or nothing. Fairies at the bottom of the garden may well be a delusion, but what about a gardener, to say nothing about an owner? The possibility of their existence cannot be so summarily dismissed—in fact, most gardens have both” (p.39).

Regarding the claim that only science can deliver truth, this is ridiculous. Can science determine what is a poor poem and what is a good one? What about evaluation of art? And matters of morality? “Science can tell you that, if you add strychnine to someone's drink, it will kill them. But science cannot tell you whether it is morally right or wrong to put strychnine into your grandmother's tea so that you can get your hands on her property” (p.39-40).

Finally, the assertion of scientism is self-refuting, a fact easily seen by examining Bertrand Russell's assertion: “Whatever knowledge is attainable, must be attained by scientific methods; and what science cannot discover, mankind cannot know” (p.40). But the 'truth' of Russell's assertion is not itself a discovery of science which means, by Russell's own way of stating things, that the thing he has stated is unknowable.

Aunt Matilda' cake

The author proposes a simple illustration. Aunt Matilda makes a cake, which is then examined by world-class scientists of various disciplines. But no matter how good their expertise, they are not able to go beyond answering the how questions to supplying answers to the why question (why as in purpose). Does that mean that it is impossible to know why Aunt Matilda made the cake? According to Russell's earlier statement, yes, it is impossible. But this shows us how mistaken Russell is, for all one has to do is ask Matilda. Peter Medawar in Advice to a Young Scientist writes: “There is no quicker way for a scientist to bring discredit upon himself and upon his profession than roundly to declare—particularly when no declaration of any kind is called for—that science knows, or soon will know, the answers to all questions worth asking...” (p.41).

Yes, science has its limits. To suggest otherwise is to elevate science only ostensibly. Saying that science can figure out everything might appear to give it unique pride of place amongst all other disciplines, but in actual fact its reputation would fare better without such statements because they self-destruct. Lennox puts it well: “For, the statement that only science can lead to truth is not itself deduced from science. It is not a scientific statement but rather a statement about science, that is, it is a metascientific statement. Therefore, if scientism's basic principle is true, the statement expressing scientism must be false. Scientism refutes itself. Hence it is incoherent” (p.42).

To make such “exaggerated claims for science” makes “science look ridiculous” (p.43). To say that “science is limited is, therefore, no insult to science” (p.42).

Lennox notes that although revelation—not science—must determine the purpose of Aunt Matilda's cake, this does not mean that reason is not involved. No, reason must be involved. “The point is that in cases where science is not our source of information, we cannot automatically assume that reason has ceased to function and evidence has ceased to be relevant” (p.43).

One More Section

There is one more section, but it is too important to tack onto the end of an already long post. I shall quote it (almost) in full in a subsequent post.

1 comment:

Margaret said...

Forgive me for going back a bit, but one subject that jdb mentioned more than once is the scientific assumption that nature is uniform. He suggested that this assumption is difficult to jusify.

Actually, there is considerable justification for assuming that the laws of nature are constant. (If you believe in a Creator, that's what you will EXPECT.)

On August 21, 2017, there will be a total eclipse of the sun over the United States. The path of totality will stretch from Oregon to South Carolina.

My confidence that this eclipse will occur as predicted is not blind faith. It is based on the amazing success of such predictions in the past. And that success depends on the assumption that ALL the natural laws which have any bearing on the outcome are constant and reliable. Without that assumption, astronomers would not dare to predict anything. (The website is a tremendous learning tool, in case you are interested.)

No one can prove that stars are billions of years old because it takes billions of years for their light to reach earth, but I see no reason to question it.