When Science Isn’t the Best Method

Although science does have it’s worshipers–those who see it as the absolute high point of existence from which all good things proceed–most people recognize it as one tool among many.  It has been extremely useful to humanity in many respects, and we would never want to discard it.  Nevertheless,  some tasks are quite simply beyond its capabilities.

Take, for example, everyday affairs like art or romance.  Common experience will show that these are not the results of science and science is not our guide in participating.  Those who try tend to be rather unsuccessful.  Neither poetry nor romantic love is cooked up in a laboratory by following a complicated formula.  Anyone who treats his loved one as mere matter and chemicals that follow certain laws has a relationship akin to that between two computers rather than two people.  Likewise, there is no scientific, step-by-step process to creating art.  The artistic merit of the Mona Lisa may be embodied in the arrangement of paint molecules on canvas, but it is not reducible to it.  One cannot simply replicate the results by following the same process the way the scientific method demands.  The common thread is that while science is quite effective at analyzing & describing mechanics and chemistry, not all of human experience is reducible to mechanics and chemistry.

The same thing holds true in more “high-minded” academic endeavors as well.  Take, for example, epistemology–the branch of philosophy which studies knowledge and how we know.  In the early 20th century, there was a philosophical movement called logical positivism which held that because science is the only place real knowledge is produced, the job of epistemology is merely to describe science.  The end result was a philosophy based on the idea that a statement is only meaningful if it can be empirically verified–if it can, in principle, be observed by our five senses.  At this point, logical positivism declared most other branches of philosophy obsolete.  In ethics, for example, right and wrong are not empirically verifiable, and so become meaningless terms.  What then is left for ethics to describe?  Logical positivists held that when a person says “it is wrong to murder,” all they are really saying is the imperative: “don’t murder me!”  They aren’t saying anything about murder per se, they are just giving a command.  Ethics, they held, should therefore be located in the study of the brain mechanics which cause people to want to not be murdered (psychology)–philosophy should be involved only inasmuch as it regulates the language that scientists use.

Understandably, logical positivism died a relatively quick death.  Most people are quite aware that “don’t murder me” is quite different from what they mean when they say “it is wrong to murder.”  All logical positivism proved was that science was completely incapable of accurately describing what they were saying.  Even in academia, the bastion of silly philosophies like this, logical positivism is pretty much over.  Although it still has its holdouts, most people recognize that it is incoherent and that incoherence is to be avoided.  By it’s own standard, the statement “a statement is only meaningful if it can be empirically verified” is not meaningful.  The very core of logical positivism cannot be empirically verified.

This isn’t to say that science couldn’t be somewhat helpful for issues like romance or ethics.  These things do, after all, involve people who themselves are mechanical and chemical.  Mechanics and chemistry, however, are not the whole of people.  To assert otherwise is to make a philosophical claim that is not only unverifiable by the same science in which all trust is allegedly placed, but also severely truncates human nature.

Another Application

This “limitedness” of science is also important for Christians to remember on issues that are more commonly considered its domain, such as the origins of life, the universe, and everything.  Science has quite vocally determined that the events recorded in Genesis are simply impossible to reconcile with the evidence.  Many Christians, in pursuit of the laudable goal of intellectual integrity, have therefore decided that Genesis cannot be read as history.  According to a recent NPR interview, this is increasingly common even among conservative Christians.  Their hermeneutic is determined by the conclusions of the scientific method, and they determine Genesis to be poetry or some other form of highly figurative literature.  But what if the scientific method is not the right tool for this particular job?

If you look at the petitions against intelligent design that have cropped up in academia, the cornerstone of the arguments is methodological naturalism.  Science is in the business of offering explanations for what we see around us.  Methodological naturalism is a rule that says these explanations can only be naturalistic in nature–they must consist only of mechanics which we empirically observe in the world around us.  In short, when offering a scientific explanation, one must act as though matter is all that there is.  This isn’t a completely useless rule:  it provides a check on superstition by protecting the study of mechanics from non-mechanical interference.

This makes good sense in operational science because scientists typically have no good reason to suspect that a poltergeist is interfering with their experiments.  However, this does not make good sense on the science of origins because we do have good reason to suspect that a deity was supernaturally involved in creation.  If a material state is actually the result of a supernatural act, science would be obligated to substitute a false naturalistic explanation for the true supernaturalistic explanation.  The method itself would ensure incorrect results.  If there were multiple such occurrences on a large scale, it would not take long for science to get very far off track in its explanation of the cosmos.  If Genesis gives a Christian no reason to think that God was repeatedly supernaturally involved in the creation of the world, he hasn’t simply determined that it uses figurative language, that it is poetry, or even that it is myth.  He has determined that it is false from top to bottom.  But even the nonreligious have reason to suspect supernatural intervention.  It is not uncommon for atheists to talk about the “illusion” of design in nature–that the world deceptively looks like it was designed.  Science cannot determine whether that appearance is truly deceptive or not–it can only assume that it is.

So what does that mean about discovering the truth about how the world came to be?  At the very least, it means we need a different method of investigation.  Someone more intelligent and creative than I might be able to come up with something satisfactory; but I am skeptical that it could offer the same consensus afforded to “water boils at 100 degrees Celsius.”  The process might even involve science in a substantial capacity, but science cannot be afforded the final word in the matter.  No matter how good of a hammer you have, it is not good at cleanly cutting a board in two.  If a carpenter who only uses his hammer declares that cleanly cut boards are impossible, nobody blames the hammer.  Furthermore, those who say the carpenter is in error are not necessarily anti-hammer and are not saying that the carpenter does not know how to use a hammer; they merely say the carpenter is being too narrow-minded to give a definitive answer on the subject of cleanly cut boards.  Likewise, science may be good and scientists may be good at it, but that does not mean they know how the world came to be.  Until such time as a better process is developed, I think the secular world needs to get used to being ignorant.

About Matt

Software engineer by trade; lay theologian by nature; Lutheran by grace.
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One Response to When Science Isn’t the Best Method

  1. Pingback: Apologetics: Doing the Job the ELCA Won’t Do | The 96th Thesis

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