Science Is Trustworthy When It Becomes Engineering

Why do we trust science? Richard Dawkins answers in this video a friend shared on Facebook the other day. In it, Dawkins is asked how how one justifies the belief that evidence and logical reasoning are required for justified belief without circular reasoning. He interprets that as a question of how we justify our trust in the scientific method and answers “because it works.” Because planes fly, computers compute, and so forth only when they are made according to scientific principles.

There is no context given for the question or the answer, but I suspect it comes out of the epistemological realization that science is not self-authenticating. In other words, there are a lot of people who still hold to a soft logical positivism (generally the “I f-ing love science” crowd) and think that no one should ever hold any belief unless its scientifically proven. Of course, that means that this very standard for holding belief would also need to be scientifically validated, but it cannot be done by science lest it rely on circular reasoning—a self-referentially incoherent standard.

Dawkins does dodge the epistemological conundrum—his answer involves a reasoned argument (induction) and evidence to support it, so if my suspicion about context is correct, it remains circular reasoning. Nevertheless, (and I don’t say this about Dawkins very often) he does actually give a good practical answer for why science is trustworthy—provided one accepts the logical baggage that comes along with it.

We trust science because of its demonstrated ability to “work”—to manipulate the world around us and make it do what we want. This is a legitimate rationale for trusting science, but it also sets boundaries for that trust. Inasmuch as “because it works” provides the rationale for the scientific method, it also restricts the scope of its applicability to things that “work” in that same sense. Contrary to the usual rhapsodies from the adherents of scientism, this means that science cannot be an all-encompassing methodology for the universal navigation of life’s questions. There are far too many important things that fall outside of the mechanical scope of working.

Can science then tell us anything about Beauty? Not so much, as “what works” is not a primary concern in that arena. On the contrary, the bulk of our artwork could be deemed quite frivolous in terms of its functionality. Of course, one could reduce art to terms of the chemical responses to encounters with artwork that can be found in human physiology, but that would mean that the best possible work of art would be a syringe with the right cocktail of hormones and enzymes. That is not at all what people mean when they talk about beauty. This kind of mechanical thinking is a hallmark of modernism, but it amputates the humanity from our lives.

Can science tell us about truth? In a sense, but it is limited to truths about what works and what doesn’t. It can tell us how much hydrogen weighs or how it interacts with oxygen, but it cannot address the vast stretch of human life and thought that sees beyond matter and its properties.

Can science tell us about goodness? Only in terms of some of its practicality. For example, science could tell us that it is better to feed the hungry with a bowl of oatmeal than a bowl of broken glass, but only on the precondition that the scientist knows that nourishing our hungry neighbors is a good thing—a precondition that has nothing to do with “what works” and therefore cannot be supplied by science. Morality in the transcendent sense of the word does not proceed from mere mechanics.

Can science tell us about humanity? It can in some respects, because people are, in some respects, mechanical. But the social sciences are pretty soft compared to, say, physics because human behavior is so much more than just mechanical. I’ve never read a scientific study that is more informative about humanity than Anna Karenina or Hamlet.

Can science tell us about history? Again, not really. You can never say that history “works” in the sense of planes and computers and whatnot because it already happened. You cannot recreate 1517 in a laboratory to test whether your theories about the Reformation are correct. Beyond some tools for data analysis, history relies on the testimony of those who witnessed it. But this hardly means we have no historical knowledge.

Can science tell us how to govern? This takes us back to goodness and the various social sciences. It can provide some data to assist in making decisions, but it cannot supply the entire intellectual framework in which those decisions are made. It has its uses, but it is only one tool in the belt—a modest role that our soft logical positivists feel is far beneath them.

At the end of the day, the “science” for which Dawkins provides a rationale is not science in the sense that the adherents of scientism usually mean it. While I don’t think this is what he intended to say, what he is really talking about is basically engineering—the art of applying science to solve problems like how to fly, how to heal, or how to compute large amounts of data. Engineering is a wonderful thing—and not just because its my own livelihood. But engineering doesn’t answer the big questions. It cannot tell you the difference between right and wrong or ugly and beautiful. Engineering cannot tell you what your society should look like. Engineering cannot tell you where we came from, whether God exists, or whether Christ rose from the dead.  These questions are not beyond rational investigation, but science and engineering are not the only research tools.

I do trust science because it works. But when people try and make it into a weapon against disciplines like theology, history, and the humanities, “working” is no longer in the cards, and so neither is trust.

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2 Responses to Science Is Trustworthy When It Becomes Engineering

  1. tony says:

    The point about science’s inability to prove history is also applicable to evolution. The evolution of a species, for example, cannot be proven unless the science can not only trace the history of the species up to the present, but also carry its theory forward and make valid predictions which can be proven tomorrow. But despite their best efforts, evolutionary scientists have been unable to convincingly show cases of evolution in which the DNA has obtained new information that has allowed it to develop new characteristics. The best they have done is show that species adapt or utilized unused parts of the DNA that the species has always had.

    • Matt says:

      Good point, Tony. Recombination or degradation of existing DNA resulting in new traits does not account for the development of the information in the first place. Plus, the presumption that the past must be explained solely in terms of forces observed in the present is a methodological assumption made by science, not a conclusion of the method.

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