Science has become an unreliable epistemological resource for several reasons. First, the assumptions of science are suspect. Second, the scientific method exhibits narrow limits to the acquisition of universal knowledge. Third, the conclusions of the scientific community at large are questionable and inadequate. Fourth, the practice of science has developed a particular perspective about its place in the world of knowing that diminishes all other avenues of knowledge, to its detriment. Finally, the practice of science involves a philosophical approach which makes scientism and "pure science" hard to differentiate. Thus, science itself, as an epistemological discipline, has been discovered to be unworthy of the extreme admiration granted it by the present technology-loving world.
1. The assumptions of science are suspect.
Historically and philosophically, empiricism has been shown to have clear limitations, since many persons recognize that reality consists of things which can be known through the human senses as well as things which are not known by them. In fact, the very foundational assumptions of science are suspect. Markos indicates that "many of the givens we take for granted (most notably, that the foundation of all true knowledge is material, empirical, and quantifiable) are as recent as they are unproven" . There also appear statements that seem to indicate that scientific assumptions should not be challenged. "No one would today think to ask why the interior angles of a Euclidian triangle sum to precisely 180 degrees. The question is closed because the answer is necessary ". The answer may be necessary but perhaps is not true; perhaps it is only a convention for the use of the tool; perhaps only an arbitrary designation. Clearly, the notion can be challenged.
2. The scientific method exhibits narrow limits to the acquisition of universal knowledge. "The basic principle, the starting point of all science, is the idea that the universe can be studied by observation and experiment" . Does this statement limit itself to the physical aspects of the universe? Can't the non-physical be studied by observation and experiment? The whole point of the use of senses is to employ them in the study of our existence in the universe, which includes non-physical phenomena. Even the effort to "experiment" can be done with human experience, such as in psychology, para-psychology, religious experience, and even normative religious testimony, such as the countless millions of people who testify to the same result when converted to religion. The so-called "scientific method," which appears objectively effective, has not been so practiced. The limitations of this method make it, from the very start, subjective.
Consider the aspects of the scientific method. First is the recognition of a problem or issue. These issues not always universally acknowledged. The researcher, the scientist, must recognize the issue, which requires a human decision, a human perception, that all humans may not so perceive. Then the researcher thinks of an hypothesis to resolve the problem. These hypotheses depend on the philosophical presuppositions and perspectives which the researcher brings to the research. The presuppositions follow logic trees, branches of thought flow which, when diagrammed, look like tree branches. At each fork in the branch, when one line of thought proceeds in one direction and another line in a different path, the philosophy of the researcher, not just the gathered data or accumulation of information, provokes the direction of thought. As well, the next step, the gathering of more data, depends on the direction of the hypothesis which is structured by the researcher. Then the choice of experiment and how it will be done is further decided by the researcher, based on the direction of the hypothesis. Finally, the interpretation of the data and experimental information is the most arbitrary, philosophical step of all. Hence, the conclusion can be as logical and as false as Linus' Great Pumpkin, if the philosophical basis is faulty. It need not be reiterated here the massive amount of work done in the history of philosophy, begun even before Plato, to indicate that empiricism has its challengers in rationalism, existentialism, and other epistemological methodologies.
Though some insist that the testing of any hypothesis, objectively derived or not, is itself objective, all objective testing is an illusion. The acceptance of an hypothesis depends on a subjective philosophical perspective. A good example appears in history when the inquisitors looked through Galileo's telescope, saw mountains on the moon, yet refused to believe the obvious evidence. The same could be said for many scientists who, until recently, rejected the idea that the universe demonstrates the evidence of Design rather than Randomness in its origin. We know some things without systematizing the process, such as love, fear, the presence of someone in the dark, when such knowledge is clearly empirical. As well, only so much data can be gathered. Even in research projects, researchers know that they must stop gathering at some point and interpret or they will forever be gatherers. Thus limitations of the process must be identified. Not all reality can be tested or described in 'laws' that can be controlled or be made predictable. Science is simply another effort on the part of humans to control and manipulate the universe, which will always be an incomplete and fallible endeavor.
" [Wilson]... provides a template that can be held up against claims to see if they belong in the realm of science. How well the template fits comes down to two questions: Is it possible to devise an experimental test? Does it make the world more predictable? If the answer to either question is no, it isn't science" .
Then scientists should resist the temptation to prognosticate about things outside of their field. The reason this problem emerges now is that science, at least for the last few hundred years, has either attempted to achieve or been given a highly exalted status as the source of truth. At least, the scientific method has been argued as the best process, sometimes the only process, that provides reliable truth. The chief philosophical problem, however, is not just the neglect of some empiricists to recognize the limitations of their methodology, but the idea that the scientific method itself is the best empirical avenue for epistemology. "We live in a world of matter and energy, forces and motions. Everything we experience in our lives takes place in an ordered universe with regular and predictable phenomena" . To say such a thing, to imply that only empirically obtained information is reality, is to deny all the other possibilities of knowing reality. Even in empiricism, the scientific method demonstrates weaknesses and limitations. For instance, the concept of irreducible complexity, popularized by Michael Behe, demonstrates conclusively that the world of microbiology exhibits mysteries that scientific methodology can only begin to consider. The smaller we go, the more diverse and complex the world is, and the explanation for this complexity, according to Behe, is Design. This notion throws science into a quagmire of perplexity, since irreducible complexity challenges long-held Darwinian explanations for life in the universe.
We must expand our vision of possible explanations for things. We must not adopt an answer just because it is necessary to make out theories "work." Even if physicists discovered the grand scheme of a unified theory of the physical universe, we would still not know all there is to know. The definition and methodology of scientific knowledge limits the scope.
"We learn about the universe around us by experience and observation on the one hand, and by thought and deductive reasoning on the other" . Is that all? Are those the only tools we have? Can there be no place for spiritual discernment, revelation, existential experience, emotion, intuition, or other non-empirical methods? Could not all these methods be combined to give us a more complete understanding about the nature of reality? We "experience" a starlit night sky. What does that word "experience" mean here? We observe the dark sky with various bright objects in it; we feel the cool, crisp night air and the quiet atmosphere brought by the repose of all life; we imagine dreams of unexplored worlds or previous pleasant nights in some other places; we sense the presence of the spiritual, unseen life all around us. These and other possible aspects of our experience cannot be totally described by the mathematical measurement of the distances to the nearest stars or the explanation of the silver moon as merely the reflection of the light of the sun. All that is true, but reality is not only physical.
3. The conclusions of the scientific community at large are questionable and inadequate.
Thomas Kuhn declares that the power of science in the world at this time is due to the acceptance of science's paradigm. "Paradigms gain their status because they are more successful than their competitors in solving a few problems that the group of practitioners has come to recognize as acute" . Why are we so enamored with science? Because it "works" and we're a pragmatic, technologically-oriented culture? We're usually eager to defend science and math against all epistemological comers, such as religion, reason, intuition, and personal experience. We've given scientists the status of the ancient Druid or shaman, the fountain of accuracy, certainty, and authority over human society. Consider a characteristic statement found in the Time Life Science Library:
Though mathematics presents a viable description of our technological culture, is it not possible that, if alien intelligent life exists in another possible world, mathematics and logic might not be intelligible to them? What if the alien world is emotional, illogical (from our frame of reference), intuitive, and poetic? What if they think in completely unfamiliar patterns? It sounds like the height of arrogance to claim that we know the universal language and that we have designed a system of communication that will "apply to every possible world and universe that might be imagined along logical lines." As well, though some philosophers have claimed to be above truth and morality to their destruction and disrepute, we find that truth matters. Science and mathematics define themselves as tools for the pursuit of truth, not just mental exercise.
4. The practice of science has developed a particular perspective about its place in the world of knowing that diminishes all other avenues of knowledge. Science is done within the paradigm selected by the scientific community, and "to desert the paradigm is to cease practicing the science it defines" . Indeed, the paradigm structures the very questions and problems identified by the scientific community, which become "the only problems that the community will admit as scientific or encourage members to undertake. Other problems... are rejected as metaphysical, as the concern of another discipline, or sometimes as just too problematic to be worth the time" . The problem for modern society is that scientists often claim knowledge or authority in problems which do not really fall into the arena of scientific empiricism, such as origins of the universe, the existence of God, the purely material nature of all existence excluding spiritual existence, and others. If this wasn't enough, the massive use of metaphor in science reveals that we just don't really know as much as people think we do. Light is not a wave nor a particle; time is not a dimension; even the structure of atoms is described in terms which those elements are not. Granted, language itself requires that knowledge in all fields use metaphorical images to convey understanding. That use should tell us, though, that all fields of learning have limitations and inscrutable aspects. However that is not the message that emerges from the public statements of scientific writers. Consider the following pronouncements from Trefil and Hazen's textbook published in 2000 for college classes in science. "Science represents our best hope to solve pressing problems" in society. Science plays a "central role" in modern society. "Our approach recognizes that science forms a seamless web of knowledge about the universe."... Science provides the most powerful means to discover knowledge that can help us understand and shape our world" .
Because the human mind is logical and reasonable, we can organize and structure entire systems of theories and ideas that "logically" flow from completely false presuppositions. Step 1, though false, leads to an inevitable logical second step, equally false, and then to other erroneous steps which lead to the false conclusion. Examples of such action are the phlogiston conclusion of science in the 18th century, the ether, the Great Pumpkin, Communism, phrenology, and a host of other recognizable errors in human thought. Americans have been systematically brainwashed as a society to believe in the absolute authority of empiricism and mathematics as arbiters of all truth, simply because the results of such methodology "works" in the building of technology. That kind of pragmatic result is the demonstration of the limitations of the methodology — technology is what empiricism and math produce, but they are not the only sources of ultimate truth.
5. The practice of science involves a philosophical approach which makes scientism and "pure science" hard to differentiate.
"The central role of science education must be to give every student the ability to place important public issues such as the environment, energy, and medical advances in a scientific context" . Science claims to "never stop questioning the validity" of its conclusions, theories, and laws and that "every theory and law of nature is subject to change, based on new observations" . Yet, claim certain theories, such as human macro-evolution, as fact, not to be questioned, because "virtually all scientists accept" the theory as fact . This kind of statement sounds like scientism, contradictory to the very definition and so-called basic principles of science itself as a field of epistemology. "Science is the systematic enterprise of gathering knowledge about the world and organizing and condensing that knowledge into testable laws and theories" . Must all knowledge of reality be "systematic"? There is an ultimate level of reality and human beings have access to it but science claims to have access to this ultimate level when in fact it does not. Not all knowledge can be systematized since other epistemological avenues such as intuition, pure reason, existentialism, et. al. are valid sources of knowing reality. Science, by definition, can not be extended to include these other arenas. Science must be limited to the empirical observation and repeated experimentation of physical phenomena, to determine the "how" of reality, not always the "why." Not all things can be predicted, hence another limitation of the scientific effort. We can be fooled by our observations and our judgments, but there is something real about aesthetic, religious, and emotional experience. These non-scientific experiences have been repeated by countless people for centuries and should be considered essential for a more complete knowledge of reality.
William James' book on religious experience clearly indicates a commonality in non-empirical knowledge of people all over the world . Though materialists have argued for a view of the world that includes only the reality of physical phenomena, too many people have recognized that there are other dimensions to the nature of reality. Besides James and other scholars in the psychology of religion, we include Rudolf Otto and Friedrich Schleiermacher who both delineated the existence of some being "wholly other" than humans, an existence of the reality of feeling connected to a greater existence .
The issue of probability surfaces here. What evidence is necessary to make something probable? "Most of what we believe about the external world is received at second hand and rests on the prior belief that some men are more trustworthy reporters than others. The conclusion to be reached, in view of our individual mental poverty, is that we cannot avoid reliance upon some sort of authority" . The evidence itself must be interpreted, which again requires philosophy. If one holds to the view that there is no spiritual world or spiritual beings, then no amount of evidence will force that one to believe in miracles. "Seeing is not believing," said C.S. Lewis. "What we learn from experience depends on the kind of philosophy we bring to experience" . We must find the philosophy that enables us the understand our experiences and bring it to the experience. Most likely, it will take all our epistemological methods, not just one, to encompass such a diverse and complex range of human experience.
1. Louis A. Markos, "Myth Matters," Christianity Today, Christianity.com, 16 April 2002.
2. David Berlinski, "God, Man, and Physics," The Weekly Standard, 18 February 2002, p. 38.
3. James Trefil and Robert M. Hazen, The Sciences: An Integrated Approach (New York: John Wiley and Sons, Inc., 2000), p. 7.
4. Robert Park, Voodoo Science (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), p. 39.
5. Trefil and Hazen, p. 2.
6. Jagjit Singh, Great Ideas of Modern Mathematics (New York: Dover Publ., Inc., 1959), p.1.
7. Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, (New York: New American Library and University of Chicago Press, 1986), p. 19.
8. David Bergamini, Mathematics in The Time Life Science Library (New York: Time Incorporated, 1963), p. 9.
9. Kuhn, 28.
10. Kuhn, pp. 30-31.
11. Trefil and Hazen, pp. v and vii.
12. Trefil and Hazen, p. vi.
13. Trefil and Hazen, p. 6.
14. Trefil and Hazen, p. 588.
15. E.O. Wilson from his book Consilience, quoted in Robert Park, Voodoo Science (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), p. 39.
16. William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience, (New York: Collier, 1961).
17. Rudolf Otto, The Idea of the Holy: An Inquiry into the Non-Rational Factor in the Idea of the Divine and Its Relation to the Rational, (London: Oxford University Press, 1970) and Friedrich Schleiermacher, On Religion: Speeches to its Cultured Despisers, (New York: Harper and Bros, Publ., 1958).
18. D. Elton Trueblood, Philosophy of Religion (New York: Harper and Bros., Publ., 1957), p.67.
19. C.S. Lewis, Miracles (New York: Macmillan, 1978), p. 3.
Bergamini, David. Mathematics. The Time Life Science Library. New York: Time Incorporated, 1963.
Berlinski, David. "God, Man, and Physics," The Weekly Standard. 18 February 2002.
James, William. The Varieties of Religious Experience. New York: Collier, 1961.
Kuhn, Thomas. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. New York: New American Library and University of Chicago Press, 1986.
Lewis. C.S. Miracles. New York: Macmillan, 1978.
Markos, Louis A. "Myth Matters," Christianity Today. Christianity.com, 16 April 2002.
Otto, Rudolf. The Idea of the Holy: An Inquiry into the Non- Rational Factor in the Idea of the Divine and Its Relation to the Rational. London: Oxford University Press, 1970.
Park, Robert. Voodoo Science. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.
Schleiermacher, Friedrich. On Religion: Speeches to its Cultured Despisers. New York: Harper and Bros, Publ., 1958.
Singh, Jagjit. Great Ideas of Modern Mathematics. New York: Dover Publ., Inc., 1959.
Trefil, James and Robert M. Hazen. The Sciences: An Integrated Approach. New York: John Wiley and Sons, Inc., 2000.
Trueblood, D. Elton. Philosophy of Religion. New York: Harper and Bros. Publ., 1957.