they don’t speak as loud as my heart

This entry was posted by on Sunday, 28 October, 2007 at

It goes without saying that my one year of physics at university gives me the authority to write a definitive post about the nature of science. I’ll wait for WhyNotSmile to come round here with her science PhD and give me a beating.

When people suggest that the scientific method of “evidence based enquiry” should govern all questions of truth, I have two issues with the suggestion. One is that I’m not convinced that the approaches which are appropriate within science are appropriate to many other areas of life, including not only religion, but also art, ethics, friendship, romance etc.

But my other issue is that I’m not convinced that science itself is as purely objective or evidence-based as we are often led to believe. I’ll make three small points and then await your abuse.

1. The whole scientific enterprise is based on assumptions which can never be proved by empirical methods. In fact, modern science would never have got started it if it wasn’t for assumptions drawn from the Judeo-Christian world-view (such as the reliability of human reason/logic, the possibility of understanding the material world, and the non-divinity of nature). Once science was up and running, we discovered that it worked and produced reliable results – so it was possible to discard the underlying world-view and keep doing the science. But it remains true that the empirical method itself is based on beliefs and assumptions which are embarrassingly non-empirical.

2. Science doesn’t proceed by a simple process of observing the evidence, then following a process of logical deduction which leads us inevitably to our conclusion. The evidence is often complex and contradictory, and the best scientists have to make imaginative leaps to come up with a hypothesis, which is then tested by looking at the evidence through its lens. So Charles Darwin was not simply a rigorous empiricist who followed the evidence where it clearly and inevitably led. He was also a creative genius who took a brave and imaginative leap well beyond what was obvious from the evidence.

Successive generations of scientists have found that when they look at the evidence through the lens of this theory, there is a kind of resonance – it makes remarkable sense of a lot of the data. They often find evidence which doesn’t fit the theory neatly, and while some Christians triumphantly take this as proof that evolution is discredited, the scientists quite rightly don’t abandon what remains the best available theory. If enough evidence accumulates which sits awkwardly with the theory, adjustments are made, leading to various revised forms of neo-Darwinism. But the whole process involves creativity and imagination as well as empirical observation and logical deduction.

3. Scientists are human beings. So they are not capable of achieving total, dispassionate, detached objectivity. They come to the evidence with their own pre-commitments, as people who are part of various relationships and communities (family, friends, culture, scientific community, etc). The same is true of those of us who read the results of science as lay-people. All knowledge is personal knowledge and happens in the context of relationship and community. Total objectivity is neither possible nor desirable.

None of these observations is intended as a criticism of science. In fact, I think they restore the dignity of science as one of the highest and most glorious of human pursuits, rather than something engaged in by robots or machines.

The other thing is that these are not points being made primarily by Christian apologists with an axe to grind. They are a well-established part of mainstream discussion in the philosophy of science (see Michael Polanyi as one prominent example). It puzzles me that someone like Richard Dawkins, entrusted with a high profile role in improving the “public understanding of science,” often seems to be willfully ignorant of the past century of intellectual history.

Of course he would probably say that this is all arty-farty philosophy, and he is a scientist. But then he should stick to what he does well and not write books that are 90% philosophy (or rather anti-theology). Just like I should stick to writing posts about beer and CS Lewis and depressing novels where nothing happens.

Tread gently, for you tread on my ignorance.

3 Responses to “they don’t speak as loud as my heart”

  1. I mostly agree. Arts, literature and humanities are vitally important to our lives and help us determine all manner of truths, through abstraction and even just though benign emotional manipulation. I know that it brings richness to my life, I would even go as far to say its AS important as science. The establishment of common morals and community ethics are the essence of that it is to be human. But one thing that its crap at doing is determining historical facts or investigating the physical realities of life on earth.

    Your local, respectful, rent a sceptic with too much time on his hands

  2. JayberCrow, I’m preparing to give give you a beating. Not because of what you said, which was top banana, but because you got my web address wrong.

    But I am trying to get some thoughts together on some of this stuff, and will keep you posted. Think I’ll wait till QMonkey goes on holiday though, or gets a job or something (seriously QMonkey, do you ever do ANY work?)

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