Posted by: dacalu | 26 February 2013

Beyond Science?

Science is powerful.  Science is powerful practically because it allows us to predict events (like hurricanes), manipulate our environment (like indoor plumbing and pasteurization), and make new things (like electric power and computers).  Because of it’s great success practically, science is also powerful rhetorically.  Most of us are familiar and at least partially sympathetic to arguments along these lines:

“Scientists have proven…”

“Science shows…”

Actually, I’m very unsympathetic to both those lines; I want to know which scientists and how before I give it credence.  Nonetheless… science “proves” things.  Or, if we want to be more careful in our language, we say that science gives us confidence that certain things are true.

This means people will, and do, fight over who has the right to call their work science.  The “creation scientists” want their work to be considered scientific, while the “scientific establishment” argues that it isn’t.  The vast majority of climate scientists claim that the opinion (or data) of the vast majority is the opinion of “science,” while the small minority want their data (or opinion) included as well.  For the record, I think those are both clear cut cases – “creation science” is not science and we have strong confidence in global warming.  I can say those things because in those two cases the predictions, power to manipulate, and power to create are all on one side of the debate.

Other cases are more problematic.  Questions of physicalism (only physical things exist), agency (our ability to effect changes in the world), miracles (as God’s intervention), and countless other topics in science and religion deal with the boundaries of science.  Popular speakers and writers on these topics frequently make appeals to what science does or does not say.  Meanwhile questions such as when life begins, where we came from, and whether we have a purpose clearly invoke both religious and scientific knowledge, but the interface seems blurred – dangerously so, in my opinion.

What exactly are the boundaries of science?

First, a small digression.  It seems trivial at first, but it’s terribly important.

Science has boundaries.  More to the point, science has properties that distinguish it from other endeavors.  Aristotle would call them differentiae.  If science has no boundaries, we would have no ability to say “that is not science” or “that’s pseudoscience.”  Similarly, without differentiae, the statement “science shows,” would have no weight beyond “someone has said.”  Science must have edges for us to get any use out of it at all.  It must have boundaries both practically (what it does and does not do) and rhetorically (what it may and may not mean).

Some of my colleagues in philosophy will point out that science changes through time.  I agree with this, wholeheartedly.  I agree that the boundaries will shift over time.  Isaac Newton thought alchemy was solid science; who knows what scientists will be saying 500 years in the future.  Nonetheless, we can have a local definition of science, perhaps what has been called “modern science.”  We can talk about what science does now and what sorts of things it may do in the near future – at least until such a time as it has evolved into something we would no longer recognize.   This is exactly the same as how one might refer to Taoism, or the United States, or even a friend who may (or may not) undergo a sex-change operation.  The future is open, but we can draw up some useful boundary conditions for the present day.

Having said that, let me suggest three possible (and popular) current boundary conditions for science.

A) Science uses a specific methodology.

B) Science includes explanations of a specified class of phenomena.

C) Science produces a specified kind of result.

I believe we get into trouble when we explicitly claim to have one definition and then sneak another one in the back door.  For instance

Dawkins has argued that science is anything that produces a specified result (C), namely truth about reality, but has quietly inserted a methodological claim (A) that we can only scientifically observe natural objects.  He then comes to the conclusion that only natural objects exist.

Alternatively, Michael Behe has started with the claim (A) that science starts with sense observations, but inserted the idea that science includes (B) all explanations of biological phenomena.  Ergo, design arguments must be scientific.

This is a most unfortunate mixing of kinds and it leads to sloppy reasoning.  Of course you can set more than one boundary condition.  It may be  that science is both the pursuit of all truth and the methodology of observation and induction, but in that case, you will need to defend both assertions as well as the interaction of the two.  Here, one would need to tackle the strong (epistemological) claim that only physical things may be known.  Every boundary condition has benefits and challenges that should be identified.

In the next few posts, I hope to take a look at details for each of the three kinds of boundary conditions.  Above all, I want people to think critically about their assumptions when they think that science does or does not “prove something.”

Special thanks to Konrad Talmont-Kaminski, whose book, In a Mirror Darkly started me thinking about this topic.

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