Chapter Summary: This chapter examines how science decides what’s true. It begins by describing the four elements of science’s way of knowing. It describes various kinds of sciences, and then discusses shortcomings of science’s way. Finally, it compares science’s ways of knowing with religion’s.
Three principles of the revelational way of knowing make it a faulty way of knowing. First, the principle of divine authorship forces it to enshrine errors and mistakes. Second, the principle of consistency and truthfulness forces it to ignore or explain away inconsistencies and untruths. Lastly, the principle of completeness and finality makes it unable to evolve and adapt, to directly address new issues and problems. And while the fourth principle doesn’t hinder the search for truth, it does deny heaven, salvation, or enlightenment to anyone who doesn’t possess the one, perfect revelation, that is, to almost all of the people who’ve ever lived.
Is science’s way better? Let’s examine it and see. We’ll begin with its history and then discuss its elements. We’ll see there are various kinds of sciences. And after discussing some of its shortcomings, we’ll compare the scientific way of knowing to the revelational way.
The ancient Greeks established science’s goal: understanding the universe, what Einstein described as the ([E03],49) “rational unification of the manifold.” The goal assumes, of course, that the universe is understandable. So science, as Schrodinger pointed out, rests upon the assumption, the belief—the faith, if you wish—that
. . . the display of Nature can be understood. . . . It is the non-spiritistic, the non-superstitious, the non-magical outlook. ([S05],88).
Unlike religion, which demands belief before, independent of, or even contrary to, understanding, science seeks to understand first. With science, belief is based on understanding. With religion, it’s based on faith.
Since science values understanding it must reject blind acceptance and insist on testing statements for itself, not accepting them on faith. It accepts as true only what it has tested and proven. Certainly, science admits that truths exist which aren’t yet understood. And it may admit the existence of truths which are forever beyond the reach of human understanding. But, unlike Justin Martyr, science doesn’t forever blindly accept “truths” which it can’t test. Science is founded on understanding rather than blind faith.
Science’s foundation was set many centuries ago when the ancient Greeks arranged geometric rules into a logical system of axioms, theorems and—most important—proof. Before the Greeks, Egyptians discovered many geometric facts but gave them no proof, no logical foundation. Something was true because it worked, that is, it gave a useful answer. Or it was true because some authority said it was. The Greeks replaced blind acceptance with reasoned proof. In their system, a few self-evident principles, axioms, were accepted as true. Other statements, theorems, were accepted only after they were deduced, i.e., logically derived, from the axioms. The logical derivation was the theorem’s proof. An illustration may be helpful.
Suppose we accept as two axioms that no person has more than one million hairs on their head, and that New York City has at least a million and two people. Then, like Sherlock Holmes, we can deduce—logically prove—the theorem that at least two people in New York City have exactly the same number of hairs on their head.
Why? Because there just aren’t enough different numbers to go around. In the best case, the first person has zero hairs, the second person has one, all the way up to the millionth and first person who has a million hairs. Now the next person has either more than a million hairs or exactly as many hairs as a previous person. But no person has over a million hairs. Therefore, the last person’s hair count must exactly match a pervious person’s count. End of proof.
The Greeks established science’s goal and, in their emphasis on the importance of proof, established part of its method. Science’s explanations were to be logically deduced from its axioms, its laws, just as our theorem was logically deduced from our axioms. Geometric reasoning was, and still is, a model of scientific reasoning. But how can science find its axioms and laws in the first place? How can it find the laws which govern phenomena like motion, heat, and light? How can we be sure that no person has more than a million hairs?
It seems obvious that principles and axioms must be based on observation. So it seems logical to answer “How can we find the facts?” before we ask “How can we find the laws and axioms which describe the facts?”
How are we to discover what the universe does? A commonsense answer is: Look and see. In other words, observe, experiment.
Surprisingly, the ancient Greeks failed to see this. They disdained experimentation in practice:
Simple experiments with tools and vessels and mechanical contrivances they felt to be slavish and degrading . . . ([T02],21),
and in theory:
The Aristotelian tradition . . . held that one could work out all the laws that govern the universe by pure thought: it was not necessary to check by observation. ([H02],15).
In effect, before the Greeks decided “How are the facts to be found?” they asked “How are scientific laws and axioms to be found?” and came up with the wrong answer. Their answer was very much like the revelational way of knowing. Aristotle taught in effect that the laws and axioms that describe the physical universe were “revealed.” The difference was that pure thought revealed the laws rather than some god. Had he understood the necessity of observing and experimenting, certain sciences might be much more advanced today.
Aristotle greatly hampered physics and astronomy by building a system on two assumptions which he omitted to check by experiment. . . . the speed of fall of a body was (1) proportional to its weight, (2) inversely proportional to the resistance of the medium. . . . Consequently mechanics had to wait nearly two thousand years to make a start. ([T02],31-2).
Though flawed, the ancient Greek intellectual tradition greatly influenced the Roman, Byzantine, and Islamic civilizations which followed. Each of these civilizations made important contributions to the general store of knowledge. It was medieval Europe, however, that firmly united reasoning and proof with observation and experimentation. Welding reason and experiment created the scientific way of knowing.
The complete scientific method, combining systematic experimentation with analysis and proof, has been used consistently only since the 16th Century. ([M04],77).
Or in Albert Einstein’s words,
. . . Development of Western Science is based on two great achievements, the invention of the formal logical system (in Euclidean geometry) by the Greek philosophers, and the discovery of the possibility to find out causal relationship by systematic experiment (Renaissance). ([M04],77).
Medieval Europe discovered a way of knowing which had largely eluded other civilizations, for example, those of Rome, Byzantium, Islam, China and India. It’s interesting to speculate why. Three possible factors come to mind. They are scholasticism, alchemy and the invention of printing.
The first factor is Scholasticism, a philosophy based on the writings of Christian thinkers and Aristotle. During Europe’s “Dark Ages,” when much ancient learning was lost, Scholasticism preserved the belief that the universe was understandable. As Dampier writes:
. . . Scholasticism upheld the supremacy of reason, teaching that God and the Universe can be apprehended, even partially understood, by the mind of man. In this it prepared the way for science, which has to assume that nature is intelligible. The men of the Renaissance, when they founded modern science, owed this assumption to the Scholastics. ([D01],xv).
Alchemy is the second factor. It gave Europe the practical techniques of experimentation which later proved so essential to scientific experimentation. Alchemy had long been practiced in Europe and other parts of the world. Alchemists had examined matter in depth, seeking the secret of turning lead into gold. Their experiments had taken almost every conceivable form. As a by-product ([M04],46-7), they developed some of the apparatus and experimental techniques later used in sciences such as chemistry.
The last factor is printing, which helped spread scientific ideas. For centuries, books had been copied by hand, a time-consuming process. They were so expensive that only a privileged few could afford them. The invention of the printing press in Germany, however, coupled with the Chinese invention ([F03],62) of inexpensive, quality paper, allowed books to be produced quickly and cheaply. Now, researchers could publish and share their experiments. Participation in science opened to practical people from the crafts and trades, who could now afford scholarly publications. The participation of craft and trade people was to have a radical and invigorating effect.
The academicians, who had been arguing theories with brilliance and insight for hundreds of years, found their ranks infiltrated by a new type of practical personality, often of lowly birth, whose characteristic attitude was: “Let us cease arguing and find out. Let us experiment.” ([M04],81).
Such people realized the importance of exact observations that establish the pure and simple facts. But they were, fortunately, too “unsophisticated” to tolerate torturous “prophetic reinterpretations” that deform facts to fit cherished theories. Rather, ideas and beliefs now became subject to what Dampier calls ([D01],xv) the “tribunal of brute fact.” Thus, science
. . . does not, like medieval Scholasticism, accept a philosophic system on authority and then argue from the system what the facts ought to be. ([D01],xv).
. . . observations or experiment is the starting-point of the investigation and the final arbiter. ([D01],xv).
Now that we’ve seen how science’s way of knowing originated, let’s examine how it works. We’ll begin with its starting-point, observation and experiment. First of all, how do they differ? Observation is passive. When the sun rises, we observe it. On the other hand, experimentation is active. If we throw a ball and examine its behavior, we’re experimenting.
Observation and experiment establish the facts, science’s raw data. The facts science studies seem to be of two different kinds, objective and subjective, probably because we look out on two different worlds, an outer world of people and things and an inner world of emotions and thoughts, feelings and beliefs.
Inner world facts—subjective facts—vary from person to person. One person says an chocolate ice cream tastes good; someone else says it tastes terrible. Someone says a room is cold; someone else, warm. These are inner world facts even though they aren’t stated as such. The ice cream doesn’t taste good or bad. Rather, someone finds its taste good or bad. The room is a particular temperature, but is that temperature warm or cold? It depends on the person. When a person says good or bad, warm or cold, they’re describing their feelings. They’re making an inner world statement.
Unlike subjective facts, outer world facts—objective facts—are the same for everyone. After it’s measured, everyone can agree a certain ice cream has this many calories and this much butterfat. With an accurate thermometer, everyone can agree a room is 20 degrees centigrade, even if they can’t agree if that’s cool or warm. Calories, butterfat, and temperature are objective quantities.
Sciences that treat objective facts have been more successful than those that treat subjective facts. For example, “hard” sciences like physics and chemistry have been very successful: they’ve achieved a deep understanding and can make precise predictions. In contrast, social sciences, which study subjective phenomena, haven’t been as successful: they haven’t the deep understanding and aren’t as predictive as the hard sciences, probably because understanding subjective phenomena is a more difficult task. Strangely, mathematics, which treats numbers, ideas, and concepts—all far removed from the “real” world of hard objective fact—has enjoyed great success.
Because it’s had more success with objective facts, science tends to turn subjective facts into objective facts whenever possible. For example, even though ice cream’s taste is subjective, the fact that twenty people say it tastes good and five, bad is objective. So “In one taste test, 80% liked our ice cream.” is an objective, outer world statement, while “This ice cream tastes good.” is an inner world, subjective statement.
Another way of making a subjective fact objective is measuring it, attaching a number to it. For example, the feeling of oppression that often precedes a storm and the feeling of lightness that often follows one are subjective, even if people generally agree they exist. When atmospheric pressure is measured with a mercury barometer, however, they become objective facts. The number of inches a column of mercury rises in a tube is an objective indicator of air pressure, just as how high the mercury rises in a thermometer is an objective indicator of temperature. Moreover, facts like air pressure and temperature are more than objective, they’re also “operationally defined” or “procedurally defined.” Temperature is an operationally defined fact because it’s defined and measured by following a procedure: by reading a thermometer. Similarly, air pressure is found by reading a mercury barometer. However, not all operationally defined facts are simple to measure: finding the charge/mass ratio of the electron was so difficult that Joseph Thomson ([M04],189) won the Nobel Prize for physics for doing so.
There’s a gray area between objective and subjective facts, a kind of fact that seems partly subjective and partly objective. For example, imagine a image from a bubble or cloud chamber. Such images are used in sub-atomic research. To an educated physicist, the image may be objective proof of some sub-atomic particle interaction. To the uninitiated, however, the image is a curious graph of straight lines and spirals which proves nothing. Suppose a physicist says, “This is a picture of a sub-atomic interaction.” Is that an outer world, objective statement of fact? Or is it an inner world, subjective statement of belief? If the physicist is wrong about the picture then the statement is an inner-world statement; it expresses a wrong opinion, an erroneous inner-world state of mind, rather than any objective, outer-world reality. But what if the physicist is right?
As it’s practiced today science’s way of knowing has four parts: 1) observations and experiment, 2) hypothesis, 3) law, and 4) theory. After observation and experiment have established the starting-point, the facts, a scientist creates a hypothesis, a general rule that describes the facts. After a rule is tested and proven it becomes a scientific law. Facts lead to hypotheses which lead to laws. Let’s look at an illustration.
We put a thermometer in water and heat the water to boiling. The thermometer registers 100 degrees centigrade. We repeat the experiment, in many different rooms with many different pots on many different stoves, and observe that from day to day water boils at a temperature very close to 100 degrees. So, we hypothesize “Water boils at about 100 degrees with slight day-to-day variations due to cause or causes unknown.”
Our hypothesis is a rule that describes many different facts, the result of many different experiments. And our hypothesis is tentative; it’s a kind of educated guess that must be tested further. If it passes testing—that is, if it continues to describe the facts accurately—then it’s promoted to scientific law. Before that can happen, however, other scientists must test it, too. Therefore, once we confirm our hypothesis we publish it so that other scientists may test and confirm it, too. Testing an hypothesis is called “replication” since the aim is to replicate, to reproduce, the facts that led to the hypothesis. Replication ensures the observations or experiments are real objective facts, external world facts that anyone can observe.
Of course, replication isn’t always successful. Sometimes it disproves the hypothesis. Returning to our illustration, suppose a scientist in Denver, Colorado ([M04],33) finds water boils at about 95 degrees. Suppose one in Quito, Ecuador, sees it boil at about 90 degrees. Suppose one on Mount Everest sees it boil at about 71 degrees. And suppose each scientist sees the same day-to-day variation around the different temperature. Clearly, something is wrong with our hypothesis. So, we propose a better one: for any one place water boils when it’s heated to near a certain unvarying temperature, but the temperature may vary from one place to another.
Our new hypothesis describes the facts better but also introduces some questions: Why does the boiling point of water vary slightly from day to day? What hidden factor or factors control it? Why does it vary from one place to another, for the same reason it varies day to day, or for entirely different reasons? The questions suggest more experiments.
Notice the interplay between hypotheses, and experiment or observation; not only do experiments and observations lead to hypotheses, but hypotheses lead to experiments and observations. In fact, all four elements of science’s way of knowing interact. Science’s way of knowing is more than four separate elements—it’s the dynamic interplay of those four elements. Freshly uncovered facts suggest new hypotheses, or force changes in laws and theories. Hypotheses and laws suggest new theories, experiments or observations. Theories suggest new experiments as well as new or revised hypotheses. Rather than independent elements, the four “parts” are four sides of the single entity that is science’s way of knowing.
After our hypothesis has been repeatedly tested and confirmed, it becomes a scientific law. But the process doesn’t stop there, because we can still ask “Why? Why does the boiling point change from day to day and from place to place?” Science seeks connections, reasons. Let’s continue our illustration. Suppose we know that air pressure also varies from day to day. We might wonder if air pressure is the hidden factor that causes the day to day variations, the place to place variations, or both. In other words, we’d hypothesize “Variations in air pressure cause variations in the boiling point of water” and then go about testing our hypothesis. First, we might observe if air pressure and boiling point always rise and fall together. If they didn’t that would be strong proof our hypothesis is wrong. But suppose they did, suppose we perform experiments and find they do. Because air pressure at a particular place varies from day to day, we have an explanation of why water’s boiling point varies. But air pressure also varies with altitude above sea level. As elevation rises, air pressure decreases. And water’s boiling point decreases along with it. So our new hypothesis also explains the wide variations in boiling point from place to place, from Denver to Quito to Mount Everest. After experiment, hypothesis, replication, amended hypothesis, and further experimentation we have arrived at a much improved hypothesis: water’s boiling point is governed by local air pressure. The hypothesis is much more general than the one we began with. It describes water’s behavior at different places on earth, in space and on other planets, too.
In the illustration, our hypotheses were based on inductive logic, the type of logic that reasons from the particular to the general. Inductive logic’s input is facts; its output is a general rule that describes the facts. This cat has four legs and a tail, that cat has four legs and a tail, any cat I’ve ever seen had four legs and a tail, therefore inductive logic says that all cats have four legs and a tail.
Hypotheses can also be based on deductive logic, the opposite of inductive logic. Deductive logic reasons from general principles to a particular fact. Suppose we know that all cats are mammals. And suppose we know that of all mammals only the duckbill and the spiny anteater are born as eggs. Then we can deduce with deductive logic that kittens are not born as eggs. Hypotheses are sometimes deductively derived from theories, which we discuss later.
With deductive logic we can be absolutely sure of the conclusion—if we are absolutely sure of our principles. On the other hand, with inductive logic we can never be absolutely sure. As we see more and more cats with four legs and a tail, we naturally feel surer that our hypothesis is correct. But we can never be absolutely sure that all cats have four legs and a tail. (In fact, some types of cats don’t have tails.)
Because inductive logic can’t yield absolute certainty, nature’s “laws”—which are based on inductive logic—might better be called “habits.” We know the “laws” describe what usually happens. But we can’t be absolutely sure they describe what always happens, what must happen.
The inherent uncertainty of inductive logic is one reason for science’s skepticism and humility. It’s why science’s beliefs remain open to challenge, criticism and improvement, and why science sees itself as moving closer and closer to, but not actually in possession of, the ultimate, unchanging, and absolute truth. It’s also why science continually tests its hypotheses, and even its laws.
Once an hypothesis has been repeatedly tested, refined, and confirmed, it becomes a law. At this point, inductive logic has fulfilled its mission. Now deductive logic is used to exploit the law and to re-test it, too. Let’s look at an example.
James Maxwell discovered the laws that describe light, electricity, magnetism and other electromagnetic phenomena. Maxwell expressed those laws in the form of mathematical equations. By examining Maxwell’s equations, Heinrick Hertz logically deduced that certain electromagnetic waves can travel not only through empty space, but also through solid material like wood. Using Hertz’s work, Guglielmo Marconi devised a way to use electromagnetic waves for communication; his invention is called the radio. (Radio waves can travel through wood and brick—that’s why a radio works inside a home.) Later, television was based on Maxwell’s equations, too.
Our example shows not only how facts are logically deduced from laws, but the use of inductive and deductive logic, as well. Based on studies of light and magnetism, scientists used inductive logic to discover laws. Based on those laws, scientists used deductive logic to discover radio waves, a previously-unknown type of electromagnetic radiation. (By the way, some people fear the word radiation and believe all types of radiation are harmful. Not so. Light is a type of electromagnetic radiation.) Our example also shows an international group of scientists testing, replicating, building on and applying each other’s work, in a joint search for truth.
Technological advances based on the systematic application of scientific laws are powerful proofs of the laws’ validity and accuracy, are also one of science’s most visible consequences. Scientific advances have touched all our lives and, literally, changed the face of the earth. The application of Newton’s laws led to machines of all kinds. Maxwell’s laws led to radio and television. Einstein’s equations led to atomic energy as well as the atomic bomb. The laws of quantum mechanics led to the transistor, computer and laser. In each case, the applications are not only useful in themselves but further prove the law.
Nonetheless, laws always remain open to test, criticism, and challenge. If one ever fails then it’s revised to describe the new facts, or it’s abandoned entirely. Science accepts no sacred cows. Sometimes laws aren’t so much abandoned as absorbed, as when an existing law is discovered to be special case of another, more general law. For example, Galileo found a law that describes the changing speed of a falling body. Later, his law was derived as a special case of Newton’s law of universal gravitation. In a sense, Newton’s more general law absorbed Galileo’s law.
The laws of Galileo and Newton express measurable quantities, such as speed and time. Not all scientific laws describe such quantities, for example, evolution’s “survival of the fittest” law does not. When a law does involve measurable quantities, however, it may be expressible as a mathematical equation. Newton’s law is expressible as a mathematical equation, as is Einstein’s famous E=mc2 law that describes a relation between the measurable quantities of energy, matter, and the speed of light. Such equations not only describe the facts, but may also reveal unsuspected phenomena, just as Einstein’s equation first predicted atomic energy. Einstein deduced the E=mc2 law from theories he invented. Theories are the fourth and last element of science’s way of knowing; we discuss them next.
Observation and experiment establish facts, and facts describe a particular what. It’s a fact that the earth and moon have a mutual pull towards each other, an attraction. Hypotheses and laws describe whole classes of whats. Newton’s law of gravitation precisely describes the attraction of all material bodies, including earth and moon. But it doesn’t explain why the pull exists, or how it travels through empty space from one object to the other. Facts, hypotheses and laws give knowledge but not understanding. They describe the what but don’t explain the why. Theories explain why.
A theory makes sense of and explains a vast body of scientific knowledge, including both laws and the facts dependent on the laws. ([B12],16).
Einstein’s theory of relativity, for example, explains gravitation as a kind of bending of space itself. (Nowhere is it written the explanation must be simple!)
While hypotheses and laws concern facts and express our knowledge, theories concern ideas and concepts, and express our understanding. Science’s theories embody its mental model of the universe. They fulfill the original aim of science—partially, not completely because science doesn’t completely understand ourselves and our world. Because science’s theories are still incomplete, its understanding is still incomplete.
Yet, some theories are more complete and therefore more valuable than others. Science has various ways of judging the value of a theory. We’ll discuss five: accuracy, simplicity, predictivity, invariancy, and scope.
Accuracy is the first and most important criterion. No matter how simple, predictive, or invariant a theory is, no matter how wide its scope, if it isn’t accurate—if it isn’t truthful to the known facts—then it isn’t very valuable to science, which values truthfulness above all else. To illustrate, a few hundred years ago Nicolaus Copernicus devised a theory that explained the motion of the planets. The theory assumed the sun, instead of the earth, was at the center of the universe. It also assumed that the planets follow simple circular orbits around the sun. From these two assumptions, Copernicus explained (that is, logically deduced) the observed motion of the planets. Copernicus was attacked because his theory broke with the millennia-old theory of Ptolemy which placed the earth in the center of the universe. Many scientists fought long and hard for Copernicus’ theory. Yet, when Johann Kepler advanced a more accurate theory, which replaced circular orbits with elliptical orbits, science accepted it.
But what if two theories are equally accurate? Then science values the simpler theory over the more complex one. This preference is often called “Occam’s razor,” and is ([C06],686) one of the “fundamental principles of the scientific method.” Another way to express this principle is that science prefers the theory that has the fewest or simplest theoretical constructs; we’ll discuss theoretical constructs soon. The story of Copernicus also illustrates science’s preference for simplicity and its use of Occam’s razor. Copernicus’ theory—with the planets in simple circular orbits around the sun—is simpler than the theory of Ptolemy—which requires ever more complicated circles and circles upon circles, called epicycles, to explain the orbits. Though neither perfectly agrees with the facts, both theories come reasonably close. But Copernicus’s theory is simpler and more elegant, so scientists prefer it over Ptolemy’s.
Predictivity is yet another way of measuring the value of a scientific theory. Science values predictive theories above those that only describe or explain. Why? Because predictive theories are more testable and more powerful—testable because experiments can test their predictions and prove them right or wrong, powerful because such theories often predict unsuspected, useful facts, as did the theories of Maxwell and Einstein. Non-predictive theories are less valuable but they are still useful. For example, though the theory of evolution is non-predictive (because it doesn’t predict how species will evolve in the future), it’s useful because it explains why species have evolved in the past. It organizes the facts and gives them coherence. But a theory that explained and predicted would be more valuable still.
Our fourth criterion is invariancy. A theory that’s true regardless of time, place and condition is more valuable than one that depends on time place, and condition. By the way, Einstein thought “Relativity Theory” a poor name for his ideas and preferred “Invariant Theory” because the theory concerns quantities (like the speed of light) that are the same for different observers, moving at different speeds. A simpler example is distance. Ships may take different routes from one island to another, but if they measure accurately they’ll find the islands are the same distance apart. So length and time of travel may vary for different ships, but distance is invariant.
Even a theory that’s entirely invariant may not have much scope, however: 2+2=4 is very invariant but not very broad. Scope, our last criterion, refers to how much a theory explains. The more facts a theory explains, the more valuable it is to science. For example, Newton’s law of universal gravitation explains more than Galileo’s law of falling bodies. Therefore, science values Newton’s law more than Galileo’s.
The quest for maximum scope motivates one of science’s goals: the search for a “unified” theory, a single theory that absorbs the theories of gravitation, electromagnetism, and nuclear phenomena. Such a “super-theory” would explain almost all known physical phenomena. Its scope would be enormous and its value to science correspondingly high. A more distant goal is a single theory which explains everything. Even if this goal isn’t reachable, it’s still an ideal towards which science strives.
Though theories represent the pinnacle of science’s understanding, they often contain “theoretical constructs,” that is, ideas that require an unscientific, almost religious, kind of “faith.” To understand this “faith” we must first understand theoretical constructs. So, what are theoretical constructs? Let’s begin with an illustration.
Primitive people sometimes explain thunder as the sound of gods at war. Thunder is the fact. Theory is the explanation—the mental creation—that explains the fact. Here, theory contains an unproven idea: that gods are at war. Because no one has ever seen the gods at war, the idea is a theoretical construct, an unproven part of the theory.
Scientific theories often contain theoretical constructs, also called “inferred entities” for which there is no direct proof. In fact,
[I]nferred entities . . . are usually a critical working part of . . . theory, despite their unverified status. The atomic theory of matter explains Dalton’s law of fixed proportions, but at the time the theory was formulated and for long afterward, there was no direct evidence of the existence of atoms. Genes were first posited in theories about genetics long before their physical nature was discovered. ([B12],16-17).
No matter how much atoms and genes explained, they remained theoretical constructs until they were actually detected.
Today, science accepts other theoretical constructs, ideas for which there is no direct proof. Scientists accept them and work with them daily. The “faith” of scientists in theoretical constructs is in some ways similar to the faith of the religious believer. Yet there are important differences. The scientist’s “faith” is tentative: if something seems to exist, if it explains the facts, then a scientist may assume it exists until proven otherwise. But the issue usually doesn’t rest there; proof of existence or non-existence may become a major goal, as in the case of the neutrino. In the long run, science demands proof before belief. In the short run, it tentatively accepts theoretical constructs. Although such acceptance could be called a kind of faith, it radically differs from the kind of religious faith which is unbending, and, if need be, fact-ignoring.
It’s interesting that theoretical constructs also occur in religion. For many believers, God is a theoretical construct, an idea that explains the world and the things they directly experience. Only the person who has had direct experience of God (for example, Moses before the burning bush), can know that God exists. For others, God is a theoretical construct.
It’s interesting, too, that a few centuries ago a pair of Western philosophers, John Locke and George Berkeley, showed (refer [C06],206-210) that matter is also a theoretical construct! To paraphrase loosely: we never experience the external world directly but only experience our own senses. The senses are not matter. Therefore, we do not directly experience matter! We directly experience the senses and create the idea of matter, a theoretical construct, to explain what we experience. To elaborate: when we see a seashell, we see light. Light is not matter. When we hold a seashell and feel its solidity, we feel a push, a force which isn’t matter either. When we drop a seashell and hear it hit the ground, we hear sound, not matter. We have no direct and immediate experience of the seashell. We only have direct and immediate experience of light, touch and sound. But the sensations agree—we can touch what we see, and hear what we see hit the ground. So we theorize that something, a seashell, is the cause of the sensations. We invent a theoretical construct which neatly accounts for our sensations. Nevertheless, it remains a theoretical construct.
Now that we’ve seen how science’s way of knowing originated and how it functions, let’s discuss its scope, strengths and weaknesses. We’ve seen that the scope of a theory is how much the theory explains. What is the scope of science’s way of knowing, that is, how much can it explain? In other words, how many fields can it be successfully applied to? So far, science’s way of knowing has been very successfully applied to the physical world where it’s uncovered a great deal of accurate, consistent knowledge. It’s also been used to try to understand the human psyche, but there it hasn’t been quite as successful. Why? Because the human psyche is too complex and science’s way of knowing isn’t equal to the task of exploring it? This question suggests another: Can science’s way of knowing be used to explore any and all fields of knowledge?
Francis Bacon and Rene Descartes ([M04],82) were two early scientists who believe that it can. A contemporary author agrees, partially.
In theory, almost any kind of knowledge might be made scientific, since by definition a branch of knowledge becomes a science when it is pursued in the spirit of the scientific method . . . ([M04],75).
The quote makes an important point so let’s digress to consider it.
We’ve seen that the fundamental difference between science and religion is not so much what they know but how they know. That is, the fundamental difference lies in their different ways of knowing, not in their fields of knowing. Any field of knowledge becomes a science if it uses science’s way of knowing. Therefore, any religion could become a science—if it abandoned the revelational way of knowing and used science’s way, instead. Or science itself could examine religious questions, questions of values and ethics, and ultimate questions—just as it has examined many other fields of knowledge, by using the scientific way of knowing. Beliefs that science’s way of knowing proves are scientific beliefs, no matter what the field of knowledge. Therefore, in principle science’s way of knowing can be applied to ultimate questions. Any difficulty lies not in principle but in practice. So, the question isn’t “Can science’s way of knowing be applied to ultimate questions?” but rather “How can science’s way of knowing be applied to ultimate questions?” Subsequent chapters attempt to answer that question. Let’s return now to the question of scope.
Bacon and Descartes thought science’s way of knowing could be applied to any and all fields of knowledge. Experience has shown, however, that
. . . not all the subjects practiced as sciences have proved susceptible to full treatment by the scientific method. ([M04],76).
Therefore, we must revise our definition of scope. Scope includes not only how many fields science’s way of knowing applies to, but how well it applies to them, too. Depending on how well the scientific way of knowing applies to a particular subject matter, a particular field of study, a science may be classified as descriptive, experimental, explanatory, predictive, and/or exact.
All sciences are descriptive because they all make accurate, objective observations and classify the results. A paleontologist describes where a dinosaur bone was found, its appearance and condition, the surrounding geological environment, etc. An oceanographer describes ocean currents, temperature, depth, etc. In fact, there’s a science, taxonomy, whose entire purpose is classifying living beings in terms of the kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus, and species hierarchy that many students encounter in high-school biology courses.
Some descriptive sciences aren’t experimental. A geologist describes the creation and evolution of a mountain; an astronomer, the creation of a supernova. But the astronomer can’t perform direct experiments with supernova, nor the geologist with a mountain (although computer simulation offers an indirect kind of experimentation). Other sciences allow direct experimentation; such sciences are experimental science, as well as descriptive sciences. In experimental sciences the investigator can devise experiments that answer questions and test hypotheses. In such sciences, experiments can test hypotheses about falling metal balls, chemical interaction, and (within the bounds of certain ethical and humanitarian limits) living organisms, including human beings.
Once an observational or experimental science begins to devise tentative explanations of the facts—theories—it becomes an explanatory science, as well. Its theories strive to account for the facts, to explain them. To illustrate, a paleontologist who often finds the bones of a certain species of dinosaur in pre-historic swamps may deduce the species often died in swamps. A few questions might naturally follow: Were most of the deaths natural? If so, why would such a dinosaur seek out swamps when it was old and ready to die? Because some physical characteristic, such as dry skin aggravated by age, made swamps attractive? Or did the species usually die in battle? Would the creature have been particularly vulnerable in swamps? Such questions lead to theories that explain the observations. Such theories make an observational science an explanatory science, too.
Sometimes theories merely explain what has already happened, without explaining or predicting what will happen. Evolution, for example, doesn’t help scientists predict what new forms of life will arise. Other theories, however, give such insight and understanding that prediction becomes possible. Therefore, some sciences are predictive sciences, too. For example, meteorological theories are used to predict the weather—with varying success.
When a number can be attached to the results of observations and experiments, then hypotheses and laws may be expressible in the exact language of mathematical equations. In such cases, exact prediction is possible. Such a science is not only predictive but exact. Physics is such a science. Newton’s law that force equals mass times acceleration expresses an exact, mathematical relationship. The great value of an equation is that it enables exact prediction. The force required for a given mass to achieve any acceleration is easily calculated. The ability to perform such calculations has directly led to the creation of new or improved machines of all kinds. Similarly, an exact understanding of heat, electromagnetism, and atomic phenomena has led to devices undreamt of just one or two centuries ago.
Exact sciences are fields of knowledge to which science’s way of knowing fully applies. Not all sciences are exact, however. That is, science’s way of knowing doesn’t apply equally well to all fields of knowledge. This is one shortcoming of science’s way of knowing. Let’s examine a few more.
The scientific way of knowing is often called the scientific method but “method” implies a definite procedure or plan of operation, and is too strong a word. Rather than a sure and certain method, science’s way of knowing is a philosophy, a value system, an attitude of approaching the unknown in a rational way, intent on uncovering its secrets, on discovering truth. It isn’t a sure, cut and dried method of discovering truth. This is another shortcoming of science’s way of knowing.
Another shortcoming is that science has no place for the emotional, poetic, dreamer type of personality that religion often attracts. True, it does allow participation to two quite different personalities: the practical, fact-oriented person and the abstracted, idea-oriented type. In fact, a scientist is often classified as either an experimentalist or a theorist. Experimentalists observe and experiment, verifying facts and testing hypotheses. Theorists spin the theories that explain the facts.
It is a great triumph of the scientific method that it enables these two extremes of talent, the data-gatherers and theory-makers, to complement each other. ([M04],51).
Yet, science’s way of knowing fails to make full use of some important human talents. Some types of persons feel excluded. Therefore, it’s less than ideal.
Yet another shortcoming, or rather, entire class of shortcomings, involve not the scientific way of knowing itself, but science as it’s practiced today. Once, scientific knowledge was pursued by the solitary scholar or small team, often inadequately equipped and funded. Starting about the time of World War II, however, science changed. Scientists charged with the development of an atomic bomb organized into large teams, generously supported with equipment and funds. Such an environment was then the exception; it eventually became the rule.
Today, scientific knowledge is pursued by full-time, career scientists, supported by grants from government, industrial, or academic institutions. Limited grant monies foster intense competition, a “publish or perish” environment where published papers establish the recognition so necessary to win financial support. Betrayers of the Truth ([B12]) describes the dishonest practices that intense desire for recognition and success sometimes foster. Such practices include concealment of raw data ([B12],76,78), slight “improvement” of raw data ([B12],30-31), unfair denial of credit to associates ([B12],ch.8), outright theft of other scientist’s work ([B12],ch.3), and even wholesale fraud ([B12],ch.4,5,11) in the invention of data and experiments. Even the vital areas of food, drugs, and pesticides testing ([B12],81) aren’t immune to such problems. Dishonesty isn’t a recent problem, by the way. Ptolemy, Galileo, Newton, Dalton, Mendel, Millikan and others ([B12],22-3) falsified and misrepresented their research.
Scientific abuses are a cause for concern. During the flowering of monasticism in 11th and 12th century Europe, religion was the leading, most influential state-supported ideology. And religion’s full-time practitioners, monks and nuns, were sworn before God to poverty, chastity, and obedience. Yet they often succumbed to the allurements of money and prestige. Eventually public support waned and religion ceased to be Europe’s predominate ideology. Science today is the world’s most influential state-supported ideology. And while medieval monks and nuns were sworn before their God to an above average morality, the personal morality of scientists is often no higher than average. Therefore, it’s not surprising that science’s full-time practitioners sometimes succumb to the allurement of money and prestige.
If not corrected, might not scientific abuses someday so erode public confidence and support that science ceases to be the leading and most influential state-supported ideology? Will the desire for money and prestige injure the scientific enterprise even as it injured Christianity and other religions in the past? Can anything be done to help scientists resist what monks and nuns could not? Betrayers of the Truth offers a few remedies.
The picture is much brighter when we turn from the failings of individuals to flaws inherent in the scientific way of knowing. The inconsistencies and lies of Ptolemy, Galileo, Newton, Dalton, Mendel and Millikan are acknowledged, not “reinterpreted.” We’ve seen how the revelational way of knowing itself forces Augustine to ignore a clear contradiction. I know of no comparable instance where the scientific way of knowing itself—as opposed to the prestige and money that reward scientific accomplishment—forces, or even promotes, untruth, or blindness to contradiction and falsehood.
Scientists have their share of failings. But human failings don’t invalidate science or its way of knowing, even as the failings of religious men and women over the ages don’t invalidate religion or its way of knowing.
Science’s way of knowing has some shortcomings: it’s not a certain method, it denies full participation to the emotional, poetic, dreamer type of personality, it could do more to prevent fraud. How can it be improved? That’s an interesting and important question that is, unfortunately, beyond the scope of this book.
Both the scientific and the revelational ways of knowing have shortcomings; neither way is perfect. Which is the better way? How do the two ways compare? We’ll compare the two ways of knowing by measuring science’s way against the four claims made for the revelational way of knowing, beginning with the claim of divine authorship.
The revelational way of knowing claims that God wrote scripture, or caused it to be written. How does science regard its own expressions of truth? It claims no divine sanction or authorship for its beliefs.
A fundamental feature of science is its ideal of objectivity, an ideal that subjects all scientific statements to the test of independent and impartial criteria, recognizing no authority of persons . . . ([S03],1).
Scientific truth is discovered and tested through natural, human means, which are usually, but not necessarily, rational processes: flashes of intuition and insight are included, too. What science denies is not the existence of the prodigy or genius, but their supernatural origin.
For example, although Wolfgang Mozart was a musical genius, he was still a man fathered by another man—not an incarnation of Music. And although the six year old Carl Gauss devised a clever method of almost instantaneously calculating 1+2+3+…+99+100 (the answer is 5050) and turned out to be one of the greatest mathematicians who ever lived, when he died his body suffered the usual fate and did not ascend into higher Mathematical realms.
Science accepts no supernatural persons, authority or writings. In contrast to religion’s claims of divine authority, science bases its claims on observation and reason, and demands no perpetual faith in “things unseen.” Scientific truths can be demonstrated and checked by anyone with sufficient time, equipment, and education.
Moreover, science’s way of knowing is the more mature way because it demands judgement and discernment. In contrast, the revelational way of knowing is the more juvenile way. A young child has only one way to decide if something is true or not—they ask someone they trust. Ask a child why they believe something, and they’ll answer “Because Daddy said so” or “Because Mommy said so.” Ask a believer why they believe something and they’ll answer “Because God said so.” Each person bases belief on authority, and has no way of finding or testing the truth for themselves.
To illustrate, Brad and Dan are seven years old. Brad believes his town has a very good mayor because his father says so; Dan believes the town’s mayor is incompetent because that’s his father’s opinion. Brad and Dan have just discovered they hold different beliefs. Who’s right? Can they decide rationally?
No, they cannot. They have no basis for deciding if the mayor is good or not. All they can say is “I’m right, you’re wrong,” or “My father’s right, you’re father’s wrong.” Not surprisingly, their discussions may lead to fighting. Not surprisingly, too, the same dynamics have often occurred on a much larger scale: religious disagreements have led to much bloodshed.
If they were more mature, Brad and Dan might decide to respect each others faith. “I believe this, you believe that. Each faith is worthy of respect. Let’s not discuss the matter further.” This is often the religious situation today, perhaps because people are more mature about religious matters, or perhaps because religion no longer matters very much to most people. After all, people are still quite willing to fight and kill for things that really matter to them: political ideology or material resources, for example.
In contrast to religion’s way of knowing, science’s way allows the discussion and resolution of differences. If they were older, Brad and Dan might discuss their criteria for judging the mayor. Of course, they still might disagree; Brad might value the city’s financial state, while Dan might rate city services the best measure of the mayor’s ability. However, each would be able to rationally discuss, to have a give and take, and, most importantly, to change their mind if they decided they were wrong. In contrast, the younger Brad and Dan can only cling to the “faith of their fathers.”
Science bases its claims on demonstrated fact; it accepts genius but doesn’t demand belief in supernatural events; it’s open to disagreement, discussion, and improvement. In this respect, science’s way is the better way of knowing.
Another claim of the revelational way of knowing is that scripture is consistent and truthful. Are science’s beliefs more consistent and truthful than religious beliefs based on scripture? Yes.
Science’s theories—unlike religion’s—are truthful to the known facts. When something is discovered false, science acknowledges it as false, even if a famous person once declared it true and millions of people believed it for hundreds of years. Special Relativity and Quantum Mechanics are excellent examples, as we’ll see.
By 1900, scientists had found in the theories of Newton and his successors an unparalleled understanding and mastery of the natural world. Yet, the orbit of the planet Mercury disagreed with the predictions of Newton’s theories. Slightly. Nonetheless, the orbit disagreed. Einstein introduced a new theory, the theory of Relativity, that better explained (i.e., predicted) Mercury’s orbit. But Relativity fundamentally disagreed with Newton’s theories. That is, it contradicted what science had accepted as true for over two centuries. Science eventually acknowledged the superior truth of Einstein’s ideas.
In contrast, it’s instructive to imagine what might have happened if science acted like religion. Had Newton been considered a saint or divine Incarnation, had his theories been considered Eternal Law, Einstein might have been ignored, banned, perhaps even tortured and put to death. But science values consistence and truth more than religion does. It values them above any historical person and above any fixed set of beliefs. Therefore, Einstein’s theories were eventually acknowledged to be true. A small disagreement of Mercury’s orbit with Newton’s theory led, not to a “prophetic reinterpretation” of the orbit, but to a revision of the theory. A simple regard for the truth led to a superior truth. And this superior truth—Einstein’s theories—opened the way to undreamt-of power, the power of the atom and atomic energy.
The story of Quantum Mechanics—although not as well-known as Relativity—also shows science at its best. There are many good books that tell that story, the story of scientists groping for a truth they couldn’t fully understand (and don’t fully understand even today). Again, scientists refused to bend the truth to their beliefs, but rather modified their beliefs to conform to the truth.
We find another example of science’s truthfulness (but not, unfortunately, consistency) when Relativity and Quantum Mechanics are compared.
A scientific theory describes a certain part of the universe. It must be self-consistent. Ideally, it should also be consistent with other scientific theories that describe other parts of the universe. Unfortunately, Relativity and Quantum theory do not fully agree with each other. As Stephen Hawking observes:
Today scientists describe the universe in terms of two basic partial theories—the general theory of relativity and quantum mechanics. . . . Unfortunately . . . these two theories are known to be inconsistent with each other—they cannot both be correct. ([H02],11).
Could the two theories be brought into perfect agreement if scientists allowed truth to be bent a bit, if they ignored certain facts, facts that are, perhaps, “insignificant”? No. To science no fact is insignificant when it contradicts belief. In every case, belief must make way for fact. Science does not intentionally ignore facts. Relativity and Quantum Mechanics disagree. Scientists acknowledge that simple fact, instead of ignoring and hiding it, like a scandal. Science’s search for a genuine “unified” theory that describes the entire universe is still in progress.
In its expression of “Truth,” religion has sometimes done violence to the simple and humble truth. Science’s devotion to truth is higher. In its single-minded devotion to the plain and simple truth, science’s way of knowing is superior to the revelational way.
A third claim of the revelational way of knowing is that scripture is final and complete. Are science’s beliefs also final and complete? No. In fact, scientists explicitly deny that their laws and theories are final. For example, one writer has:
To propound one’s beliefs in a scientific spirit is to acknowledge that they may turn out wrong under continued examination, that they may fail to sustain themselves critically in an enlarged experience. ([S03],1),
[i]f I put forward a hypothesis in scientific spirit, I suppose from the outset that I may be wrong, by independent tests to which I am prepared to submit my proposal. ([S03],10).
Therefore, Stephen Hawking writes:
Any physical theory is always provisional, in the sense that it is only a hypothesis: you can never prove it. ([H02],10).
Instead of being the last and final word, theory is science’s best current approximation to truth, always open to revision and improvement. As a consequence, science’s world view remains open to challenge and criticism, to revision and improvement. Science’s openness to more and better truth is the opposite of religion’s fixed, final and closed-minded world view.
More properly, perhaps, “the scientific method” should be called “the scientific spirit.” Its antithesis is the sort of closed philosophical system which caused the Church to forbid the great Galileo to argue that the earth moves around the sun. Its wellspring is . . . unswerving dedication to truth . . . curiosity . . . open-mindedness and a skepticism which refuses to accept as truth anything which cannot be demonstrated. ([L02],31).
Science’s openness greatly contributes to its consistency and truthfulness. Because it sees itself as an ongoing, imperfect, human approach to truth, it avoids the closed, fixed nature of revelation. While religious truth has remained stagnant for centuries, science has provided ever-increasing insight into, and control of, the natural world.
Because science is open to, and indeed eager for, new discoveries and truths, it’s superior to the revelational way of knowing.
The last claim we’ll discuss is that revelation is required for salvation, enlightenment or liberation. How does science measure up to this claim? Science doesn’t consider its truths necessary for salvation, enlightenment, or liberation. In this, science’s way of knowing is again the superior way. For science refuses to condemn most of past and present humanity to eternal torment simply because they were unacquainted with some scripture, or refused to believe it.
Yet, science entirely ignores questions of salvation, enlightenment, or liberation, as well as questions about our place in the universe, how we should live our lives, and what happens after death. In this ignorance, this voluntary limitation, science is inferior—vastly inferior—to religion.
Strange. Ask what happens in an electrical circuit, a supernova, or the heart of an atom and science has much to say. Ask why we were born, how we should live, what happens after death, and science says “I don’t know” or even “I don’t know and I don’t care. That’s none of my business.”
How can a discipline that seeks to understand us, our world, and our place in it say such questions are none of its business? Couldn’t an endeavor whose goal is an explanation of the “whole working of the universe” address questions such as “What is my place in this universe?”, “Is there an optimum way to live my life?” and “What happens after death?” Couldn’t science make such questions its business?
Of course, many people believe such “supernatural” questions are beyond the reach of natural philosophy, i.e. of science and its way of knowing. Their opinion, however, isn’t shared by everyone. In fact, Dampier writes
. . . philosophers are coming to see that, in a metaphysical study of reality, the methods and results of science are the best available evidence. . . ([D01],vii).
At the very least, science could study religion in a descriptive way. It could describe and classify various religious beliefs. But such a study would only produce a descriptive science that was a second-hand account of beliefs in existing religions. It wouldn’t yield a new, living religion which was, in addition, a science.
To create a living religion which was also a science, science would have to explore the religious domain actively, directly, first-hand. It would have to apply its way of knowing to religious issues. If it did, the laws and theories it found would be both religion and science—science because they are a product of science’s way of knowing; religion because they deal with questions in religion’s domain. In addition to being a descriptive science, such a scientific religion would be experimental and explanatory. Perhaps it would even be predictive or exact.
In this and the last chapter, we investigated the religious and scientific way of knowing. We found science’s way of knowing superior. Because of this superiority, scientific knowledge is often of a higher quality than religious knowledge. That is, scientific knowledge is often true when religious “knowledge” is not. Why this is so follows directly from science’s way of knowing.
First, science’s knowledge is based on experimental evidence that others may repeat and test, not on hearsay reports and ancient records that may or may not be true.
Second, scientific theories are tested, not blindly accepted on faith. A theory must prove itself by answering criticism and challenge before science accepts it as true. Science has no “sacred cows,” no beliefs above question and criticism. It accepts no theory merely on the authority and prestige of some scientist.
Third, as far as possible, scientific knowledge is consistent; where physics and chemistry intersect, for example, they agree. And it’s universal; quantum mechanics and relativity apply equally well in China or Spain.
Lastly, scientific truth is always open to revision and improvement. It isn’t frozen and final, forced to ignore new knowledge that doesn’t fit its theories. Science bends its beliefs to fit the facts rather than bending the facts to accommodate its beliefs.
Not only is science’s way of knowing superior, but the two different way of knowing are what truly separate science and religion. Science and religion fundamentally differ in how they know. Moreover, the scientific way of knowing is what makes a science a science. If a religion adopted the scientific way of knowing, it too would become a science.
But don’t science and religion also fundamentally differ in what they know? After all, religion talks about God; science doesn’t. So how could a religion adopt the scientific way of knowing, even if it wanted to? Isn’t it ridiculous to think science could test religious claims like “There is no God but Allah” or “There are Three Persons in One God”? Yes, it is. But there’s no need to test any and all religious claims. For many people it would be enough if science addressed questions such as Who am I? Why am I here? and What happens when I die? As we’ll see, science can address these questions and many more. To understand how, we must first discuss the domain—the what—of science and of religion. We must investigate how these two domains differ and, more importantly, what they have in common.
The next chapter discusses the scientific domain of knowing, with emphasis on a portion which borders on the philosophical and metaphysical. The subsequent chapter discusses the religious domain of knowing, also with emphasis on a portion which borders on the philosophical and metaphysical. Then, after a chapter about knowers, we discuss the application of the scientific way of knowing to religious questions.