Saturday, June 14, 2008

Science and Faith at War?  2 What is science? What is not science?

Notes from a Sunday School that began on May 25.

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Location: Grace Baptist Chapel
805 Todd's Lane
Hampton, VA 23666
Time: 10:00-10:45 am

2 What is science? What is not science?

The philosophy of science is a rich field and we have no time to dig into its complexities. Instead we will just scratch the surface. For our purposes what is important is that we understand the distinction between two naturalisms: philosophical and methodological. The former is not science, but both anti-theistic scientists and anti-science theists, in a case of strange bedfellows, will claim it as such. It is the second, methodological naturalism, that is properly called science.

2.1. Philosophical Naturalism: The cosmos is all there is.

Last year I started to watch the Truth Project27, a video series put out by Focus on the Family. This project presented a serious distortion, though whether it was by intent or through ignorance I cannot say.

What the Truth Project did was to present as their quintessential bogeyman scientist the late astronomer and television celebrity Carl Sagan. In particular, they took great advantage of Sagan’s famous quip:28
The Cosmos is all that is, or ever was, or ever will be.
Additionally they presented another egregious example of philosophical/methodological conflation from Cornell biologist William Provine. This charming man (who also appears in Ben Stein’s Expelled) writes:29
Naturalistic evolution has clear consequences that Charles Darwin understood perfectly. 1) No gods worth having exist; 2) no life after death exists; 3) no ultimate foundation for ethics exists; 4) no ultimate meaning in life exists; and 5) human free will is nonexistent.
The Truth Project could have found literally thousands of atheistic scientists, prominent and garden-variety, who—while they may agree that the cosmos is all there is—would have been careful to point out that what they were stating was an opinion, not a scientific fact.

Philosophical naturalism is not science. It is the philosophy that everything, ultimately, has a scientific explanation. It is, quite simply, the denial of the supernatural. But science per se does not and can not deny the supernatural. By definition the supernatural, if it exists, is outside the province of science. If it could be explained and addressed by science, it would be natural, not supernatural. The miracles of the Bible are inexplicable (by science) events—they are not parlor tricks.

Officially what science has to say about the supernatural is that it has nothing to say about the supernatural.

Richard Dawkins, perhaps in his role as this generation’s spokesman for atheism, is also guilty of perpetuating this error, no doubt with malice aforethought. A central theme of Dawkins’s The God Delusion is that the existence of God is a scientific question. His motivation is rather transparent: to declare the question resides in the domain of science, so he can then state that science effectively proves the negative. In fact, the existence of God when he interacts with the world, at certain times and in certain ways, would be scientifically observable. The miracles of Jesus could have been recorded had the technology been available. But in general God is operating in a supernatural realm, and that realm is not in the domain of science. Instead we “settle” for the beauty of the secondary causes—the laws of nature God established to have an ordered universe.

The Truth Project presented scientists like Sagan and Provine as if they were speaking on science rather than on philosophy. This provided them with simple, highly unsympathetic targets. In their way the creators of the Truth Project are guilty of fomenting anti-science attitudes among Christians.

2.2. Methodological Naturalism: Let’s operate as if the cosmos is all there is.

Science and the scientific method does not state that the cosmos is all there is. Instead it operates as if the cosmos is all there is. The qualifier “as if” is small but important. It means that science says nothing about the supernatural—it simply precedes along with no expectation that the supernatural will intrude in an experiment, nor will it’s invocation be required to explain a result.

The overwhelming majority of scientists would agree that science has nothing to say about the existence of God. That is, most scientists, of all stripes, would disagree with Sagan and Dawkins and the Truth Project, and support methodological naturalism.

Examples are easy to find. Even at the National Center for Science Education, which is leading the fight in the United States against Intelligent Design, takes that position, contra Sagan and Dawkins. Eugenie Scott, the NSCE director wrote:30
Religion may use natural explanations for worldly phenomena, but reserves the right to explain through divine intervention; science has no such option. Whether or not miracles occur, they cannot be part of a scientific explanation.
That is methodological naturalism, and it is quite different from philosophical naturalism, which states “miracles do not occur, period.”

Science is indeed godless—but only in the sense that it is agnostic. And it is agnostic in the same way that theology is agnostic. Scientists can do science whether or not they believe in God. And the same goes for theologians.

2.3. Show me the experiment!

Methodological naturalism is the time-tested approach to do doing science. There is, however, a practical side of science. Science must be testable. It must make unique, positive predictions. By positive, we mean that if theory B is proposed as a superior alternative to theory A, then theory B must do more than say “theory A cannot explain this data or that data.” Theory B must state: if you do this experiment we predict you will get this result—and if you don’t, well, then I guess we’re wrong.

This can be summarized by stating that a scientific theory must be falsifiable. In a definition that we will later use to our advantage, Wikipedia states:31
Falsifiability (or refutability or testability) is the logical possibility that an assertion can be shown false by an observation or a physical experiment. That something is "falsifiable" does not mean it is false; rather, it means that it is capable of being criticized by observational reports. Falsifiability is an important concept in science and the philosophy of science.

Some philosophers and scientists, most notably Karl Popper, have asserted that a hypothesis, proposition or theory is scientific only if it is falsifiable.

Not all statements that are falsifiable in principle are falsifiable in practice. For example, "it will be raining here in one million years" is theoretically falsifiable, but not practically. On the other hand, a statement like "there exist parallel universes which cannot interact with our universe" is not falsifiable even in principle; there is no way to test whether such a universe does or does not exist.
One of the mistakes we will see that the Intelligent Design community makes is to couple their claim that evolution is wrong with an attendant claim that ID is a legitimate science. The latter is, at best, premature: Intelligent Design proposes no experiments that will confirm or refute an ID prediction.

27 See here for details.
28 Carl Sagan, Cosmos, (New York: Ballantine Books, 1985).
29 See here for more details.
30 See here for more details.
31 See here for more details.

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