Corey Miller, Ratio Christi CEO and President
How should we think about the relationship of faith and science? I lay this out in three articles. In the first article I discussed the nature of faith and how it is viewed through various lenses, including the contemporary, historical, biblical, and philosophical perspectives. This second article shifts the focus over to science. While the enterprise of science has enjoyed many past and present successes, we must exercise caution and not place it on too high of a pedestal. Science, like any producer of knowledge, ought to be examined at its foundations to understand its strengths and weaknesses. Let’s look at some of the inherent limitations of science. Let’s examine some of the philosophical assumptions underlying science.
The Limitations and Philosophical Assumptions of Science
It has been said that people who lived during the American Civil War had more in common with Moses or Abraham than with us. This can largely be attributed to the explosion of information and technology produced through science. But perhaps we let this word ‘science’ roll a bit too easily off our tongues. What is science? From there, how should science and religion interact, if at all? And is creation or theistic science a science or a religion? Queries of this sort are philosophical in nature and not scientific.
The practice of science is carried out within the context of a worldview. Many assume that when a scientist puts on a white lab coat and pulls measurements, she merely gathers evidence, faithfully delivering objective facts to the end users – you and me. But this is an oversimplification. Objectivity is a myth. There are limitations internal to science that, for example, prevent true objectivity. There are also external philosophical presuppositions underlying science.
As an example, let’s look at the issue of certainty. We can all agree that we are more likely to accept or believe something as our certainty in it increases. We might even suggest that the highest form of certainty is when we can attach a particular word to it: proof. Who hasn’t seen a news story suggesting science “proved this or that is true.” But there is a problem. Science does not prove things true. Science cannot prove things true. Why? Because science relies on inductive reasoning. Inductive reasoning in science commonly works by examining repeated instances of an event, and then drawing a conclusion about what must be true for that event to happen again. This is a method of inference. While this form of reasoning is powerful to science, it is a limitation in that we must be content with probabilistic conclusions, not proof or absolute certainty. The word “proof” is reserved for another type of reasoning, called deductive reasoning. We find this method used in various fields of mathematics and logic. This reveals something very significant. There are certain things science cannot know and science cannot know anything for certain. In addition to internal limitations, science is also limited by several external underlying philosophical presuppositions, which cannot be settled by science.
There are certain things science cannot know and science cannot know anything for certain.
First, the scientific enterprise assumes that nature exists independent of our minds. While this may seem like common sense, this is taken for granted. How do you know that you’re not being deceived by an evil demon, or in a dream state thinking this is reality? Or perhaps your brain is in a vat controlled by a super scientist who is plugging you with electrodes to provide you with virtual images, and not any real reality? Many do not, and have not throughout history, believed in the full reality of the external world. This is typical for eastern thinkers. It cannot simply be assumed; it needs argument.
Second, science assumes that nature has an intelligible order that can be known. But appearances and reality aren’t necessarily the same. Again, this seems to be just plain common sense, but it too is embedded in philosophical framework. A helpful example is the periodic table. The story of its development is fascinating, but did you know that the idea of laying out the elements into rows and columns came about before many of the elements were actually discovered? The table had holes where no elements fit, yet the brave assumption was that there must be missing elements just waiting to be discovered. And they were right! Is it not interesting how this points to a deep assumption that nature has an intelligible order?
Third, science assumes the existence and applicability of the laws of logic, a category presumed central to rational thought. But note that this is a category of philosophy, not of science. Scientists borrow from philosophy and use the laws of logic, such as the law of non-contradiction, the law of identity, and the law of excluded middle. They use these in discussing their experimental observations, inferences, and conclusions. Since knowledge of the world itself is questionable, then the status of scientific statements about the world is also questionable. These entities are the preconditions of thought including scientific thought. They are inescapable truths known with certainty, unlike in matters of science, and are not known by science but are instead rationally discerned. But this assumption makes best sense given a certain worldview. Again, it is philosophical.
Fourth, science typically assumes the reliability of our senses — such as taste, touch, sight, hearing, and smell. They generally assume that our senses accurately deliver bits of truth about the world to us. But how do we know that our faculties provide information about the external world that is accurate? And even if they do, how do we know whether they are truth-conducive, which is to say, whether they are aimed at giving us true beliefs? This is not unimportant. If scientific naturalism is true, then perhaps they are aimed at survival instead, in which case it is possible that giving false perceptions of the world could provide survival advantage? Having a false sense of depth perception where you think a predator is much closer than it really is serves an example that would send you into flight for survival. This might seem to undermine our confidence in sense perception beliefs.
But it is worse for naturalists who embrace evolution. It is perhaps self-defeating. As atheist philosopher of science, Alex Rosenberg says, “natural selection sometimes selects for false beliefs and sometimes even selects against the acquisition of true beliefs.”1 One implication of this is that the composed beliefs of naturalism plus evolution, or naturalistic evolution, seem to carry its own defeater. Namely, on this model how can we know that any of our beliefs formed by natural selection, including beliefs about naturalism and evolution, are true? We cannot. Furthermore, although most won’t deny the reliability of our sense perceptions in practice, our rational justification for them seems to rest on a circular argument. One cannot justify one’s sense perceptions without appealing to some sort of track-record argument such as “they’ve been reliable in the past.” Again, these are all philosophical considerations that take place prior to science and can’t be settled by science.
These various assumptions or presuppositions can only be justified by a prior commitment to a larger philosophical or theological view. Thus, science is dependent upon underlying philosophical commitments just like other areas of human inquiry. Science is in a position of trust or, faith, not unlike religious commitment. Clearly, it is important to consider the philosophical nature of science. One must engage in philosophical discourse or make philosophical assumptions about such views before a scientist can even begin to do her work. It is interesting to note that many scientists, if not most, do not formally train in coursework that examines the philosophical foundations of science. They simply conduct science with an unawareness of the assumptions that underlie their field.
Unfortunately, our modern notion of science has largely come to mean whatever can be explained in terms of chemistry and physics. But science was not always this way and has taken a decidedly naturalistic philosophical turn. Science comes from its Latin origin, scientia, which denotes all fields of knowledge—not just the hard sciences or those who want to be so associated. The Greek equivalent of scientia is episteme, or epistemology, the second major branch of philosophy pertaining to theories of knowledge.
The Medieval thinkers, who founded the modern universities, used to say that “theology is the queen of the sciences [scientia] and philosophy is its hand maiden.” Imagine the hub of a wheel representing theology and the spokes representing the diversity of academic disciplines like economics, psychology, language, and mathematics. It is the glue of philosophy that anchors the diversity of disciplines into the unity of knowledge constituting the university. This explains why everyone who possesses a PhD, whether formally trained in philosophy or not, possesses a Doctor of Philosophy in their respective field. Unity in diversity forms the university, the modern university being largely a product of faith seeking understanding.
In these first two articles we have now surveyed the depths of both faith and science. One final article will serve to bridge these two areas and show how they complement each other. Move on to Part 3 here.
1 | Alex Rosenberg, The Atheist’s Guide to Reality: Enjoying Life without Illusions (NY: Norton, 2011), 112.
Corey Miller is the President and CEO of Ratio Christi. Corey is an Adjunct Professor of Philosophy and Comparative Religions at Indiana University-Kokomo. His educational background includes Masters degrees in philosophy, biblical studies, and in philosophy of religion and ethics. His PhD is in philosophical theology from the University of Aberdeen, Scotland. Corey can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.