The Invisible Things

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Science and Faith, Part 1 (Is Science the Only Way to Truth?)

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If you have been at all aware of the recent surge of controversy surrounding the concept of intelligent design in science, you've probably encountered the argument that such a concept should not be considered science at all, on the basis that it is itself unprovable by science. What that really means is that using the operative standard of the scientific method, the claim that the universe is far too complex to have formed from chance and random processes cannot be verified emprically.

The scientific method outlines what Isaac Newton believed to be the proper way to go about scientific research and investigation, and can be simplified in this way:

  1. Observation
  2. Hypothesis, or developing a possible explanation of observations
  3. Prediction, or reasoning the effect of the hypothesis
  4. Experimentation, or testing the observation, hypothesis, and predictions.

While many would affirm that this is the only valid method of scientific inquiry, the truth is that some of the core scientific ideas that serve as the foundation of much current science cannot be verified by the scientific method! For example, the Big Bang theory attempts to answer questions of the origin of the universe and suggests that the universe itself expanded from an initial singularity and infinitely dense state, before which was nothing. Yet, such a theory cannot be demonstrated by recreating the process in a laboratory; it is inferred on the basis of compelling observed evidence. I am not trying to imply here that the scientific method is not valid. Clearly it is a fair and logical process by which to operate, and should be used. What I would suggest is that it is not a primary means of establishing truth. In other words, truth is a concept too large and diverse to be limited by the scientific method. In fact, there are many truths that are not scientific in nature but are accepted and even serve as the basis of scientific investigation, yet cannot be proven empirically. Such truths range from the laws of logic to metaphysics.

Ethics are a particulary good example of this idea. Scientific empiricism is quite useful in determining the how things are, but is irrelevant to determining how things aught to be. Yet, at the core of scientific inquiry is the understanding that it aught to be carried out honestly. Recently, Dr. Woo Suk Hwang of Korea has been publicly lambasted for fabricating research in the area of stem cell research and cloning. He publicly admitted to this, stating in his apology that his actions were a 'blemish on the whole scientific community as well as our country,' and a 'criminal act in academia.' Clearly, honesty is a crucial element to scientific research, and without it the entire field would descend into meaninglessness. However, science cannot provide any data to lend credence to what is ethically appropriate in experimentation. This is a question of what is morally proper conduct for those involved in scientific inquiry and practice. If one were to deny that ethical truth even exists, then there cannot really be any problem with what Dr. Hwang has done.

The area of aesthetics provides another source of non-scientific truth. Our civilization has been overwhelmingly occupied with expressions of aesthetic value, with painting, sculpting, music, poetry, film, architecture, etc. Yet, without the notion of aesthetic truth, the entire field of art criticism would collapse. A skeptic might respond by saying, 'There is no aesthetic truth. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder!' But disagreement does not invalidate the idea that there is aesthetic truth. In fact, that critics might disagree on the value of a particular painting requires that they have a standard of aesthetic value in mind. Even scientists invoke aesthetics when the describe equations as 'elegant' or 'beautiful,' some even suggesting that beauty is implicit in a good equation (see It Must Be Beautiful: Great Equations of Modern Science, by Graham Farmelo)!

Even our understanding of reality itself cannot be empirically proven. For example, how can I be certain that my entire perspective on what is real is true? How do I know that I am not just a brain being stimulated to make me think that I am writing this blog entry? I can't prove this empirically, yet I am not advocating that anyone take up this philosophy. What I am trying to point out is that there are truths that are properly basic, beliefs that cannot be proven on the basis of another belief but are rationally accepted.

Science itself cannot be verified or justified by the scientific method. Science operates on many assumptions, including the Copernican principle, which states that our place in the universe is not special or unique, or the uniformity of nature, which presumes that present conditions echo past conditions. These ideas cannot be empirically verified, but are assumed to be true and are the root of astronomical and geological study.

I am certainly not trying to reject any of these scientific ideas. Rather, I am trying to show that empiricism as the only method of deducing truth is unnecessarily restrictive, and philosophically incorrect. I often laugh when I hear of efforts to produce a 'theory of everthing,' yet even if we do someday have a comprehensive scientific understanding of things, that would be only one portion of how we understand reality. We would still need our moral, aesthetic, and metaphysical knowledge (among others) to complete the picture.

Written by Christopher Butler

February 21, 2006 at 5:26 am