Is science so limited?

I don’t doubt that religions often make factual claims, and nor do I doubt that this has always been part of religion’s social role. When religious teachers and organisations make such claims, they are not stepping beyond the role that religion has played, historically. In that sense, at least, they are not doing something illegitimate. They are not doing something that goes beyond what religion has always provided to its adherents: supposed knowledge about how the world actually works (where “the world” is to be understood as the totality of existence, including unseen realms such as Heaven, Hell, Valhalla, etc.). One of the things that religion does is answer factual questions.

For me, the more interesting issue is whether its answers are reliable. Where they conflict with those of well-established science, should we believe those offered by religion or those offered by science? Surely there’s no doubt about that – in relevant cases, we should favour the answers of well-established science.

Thus there is at least a potential for science and religion to come into conflict, and this potential is sometimes realised, sometimes very dramatically as seen in court cases over the teaching of evolutionary theory in schools.

Some religious apologists will agree with this much but deny that there is any more pervasive incompatibility between religion and science. That argument soon becomes very complex, and I don’t propose to trace all its intricacies here. However, one interesting aspect is the frequent claim that science is very limited in what it can find out about reality, which seems (so it’s claimed or insinuated) to suggest that we need “other ways of knowing”, including religious ones, to supplement science.

There is something right about this, but a lot more that’s wrong with it. What’s right about it is that we can find out many things in ways that are not distinctively scientific. What’s wrong with it is that it misunderstands the relationship between science, the humanities, and ordinary experience. In particular, it misunderstands that the rise of modern science added something to our means of rational inquiry into the world around us. It did not subtract something.

Consider the rise of science in Europe in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and beyond. This produced a new breed of empirical investigators – the breed who eventually came to be known as “scientists” – and they developed a range of techniques to high levels of precision and sophistication. These “scientists” used, for example, increasingly sophisticated mathematical models, rigorously controlled experimental design and apparatus, and new instruments that extended the human senses. They were able to engage in unprecedentedly precise and systematic study of various phenomena that had previously resisted human efforts, particularly very distant or vastly out-of-scale phenomena, very small phenomena, and phenomena from very deep in time – before human beings and written records. This enabled them to develop a radically new image of the cosmos and our place in it. By the end of the eighteenth century, it was starting to come together in a way that is still broadly recognisable, though far more has been discovered since, and it’s clear enough that far more remains to be discovered in the future.

What is often forgotten is that the distinctively scientific techniques that were refined and extended so much over the last four to five centuries were continuous with what had gone before and that, to the extent that they were new they added something. Nothing was subtracted from the tools of rational inquiry available to scholars (or to ordinary people).

Consider a question such as, “Is the translation of Tasso on my desk a literal one?” There are various ways of investigating that. One way is simply to ask an expert on the subject. Another is to learn sixteeth-century Italian, then compare the original text with the English translation. There is nothing distinctively scientific about either approach. Scholars were able to learn and use languages long before modern science (or, indeed, Tasso) was thought of. This is not the sort of thing that required a new word: “scientist”.

However, the availability of increasingly refined modelling, experimental techniques, hypothetico-deductive reasoning, consilience of more-or-less independent inductions, instruments to extend the senses, and so on, did not prevent scholars from, for example, continuing to learn languages, obtain testimony from others, or make ordinary observations of their own; or from developing the sort of expertise associated with, for example, law and literary criticism (such as expertise in how certain kinds of difficult texts are to be interpreted within a tradition of writing and understanding). All of this continued.

It still does, and there is no reason in principle why the same person can’t master all of it. The reasons are practical ones to do with such matters as the brevity of human life and the size of the human brain. Those practical reasons might prevent any one person from mastering, say, multiple languages as well as large areas of advanced mathematics (plus, say, the intricacies of contract law). However, if necessary to solve a particular problem, people can work in teams – drawing on all their intellectual resources.

Nothing about the rise of science limited the kinds of questions that could be answered through the various processes of rational inquiry. Rather, it extended the power of rational inquiry, allowing scholars to investigate issues that had long resisted their efforts, and equipping them with new understandings that might, in turn, be relevant to many pre-existing fields (to philosophy, for example, and even to theology).

It’s not a matter, then, of science being limited. Science enables some questions to be given reliable answers for the first time (the age of the Earth, for example, and composition of our solar system), but it in no way prevents answers to other questions, such as what is outside my window; how to translate Tasso into English; or what might be a “thick”, coherent, and convincing interpretation of Bleak House. Science did not render us helpless to answer these questions, though it certainly added to what we know about, say, very distant, small, or ancient phenomena.

The fact that we can still investigate some questions without doing anything distinctively scientific in no way supports the idea that there are spooky “other ways of knowing” that are radically discontinuous from science and from rational inquiry in general … and that can be relied upon.

E.g., an archeologist may use her knowledge of ancient Greek to translate an inscription, and so learn something new about what happened in ancient times, and this is not distinctively scientific; but that in no way supports the idea that there is some “way of knowing” that transcends the rational forms of inquiry carried out by scientist, humanistic scholars, and ordinary people. (Set to one side that distinctively scientific techniques may have been used to locate or map the archeological site in the first place, showing how humanistic inquiry and more distinctively scientific inquiry are now frequently entangled in practice.)

On a proper understanding, then, science is not “limited” in a sense that lends credence to supernatural “ways of knowing” such as divine revelation, mystical transport, and the like. If these are going to be justified as “ways of knowing”, it will need to be in some other manner than harping on the alleged limitations of science. E.g. it might be shown more or less directly that these spookier techniques have an impressive track record of producing genuine, checkable knowledge. I await that argument with interest.

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  1. Talking Philosophy | Is science so limited? | Technology News - pingback on November 17, 2011 at 9:52 am
  2. Thanks for this, Russell. I think some would say that science could be characterised broadly as rational empirical enquiry (Jerry Coyne, perhaps?), but the distinction you draw I think is necessary in discussion with believers, and also reflects a common sense understanding of the history of science.

    [Science] extended the power of rational inquiry, allowing scholars to investigate issues that had long resisted their efforts, and equipping them with new understandings that might, in turn, be relevant to many pre-existing fields (to philosophy, for example, and even to theology).

    I think this is the key point; we are not disadvantaged by doing science – the religious do not have access to some tool the non-religious do not. Well, they may, but as you say the success of such a tool could be determined by empirical means.

    Perhaps the believer will then say they do have a way of knowing, and, further, whether that is a successful way of knowing is not open to objective study; they claim primacy for their subjective experience over objective study? And, they may say, the fact that all our knowledge is mediated via this subjective interface, it would be self-defeating to doubt it.

    Well, I don’t know what to say to this line, other than to ask them to consider the contradictory views that this approach engenders. But many believers seems immune to such considerations.

  3. “Somebody will suggest revelation. There are scientists and people influenced by science who laugh at revelation; and certainly science has taught us to look at testimony in such a light that the whole theological doctrine of the ‘Evidences’ seems pretty weak. However, I do not think it is philosophical to reject the possibility of a revelation. Still, granting that, I declare as a logician that revealed truths – that is, truths which have nothing in their favor but revelations made to a few individuals – constitute by far the most uncertain class of truths there are. There is here no question of universality; for revelation is itself sporadic and miraculous. There is no question of mathematical exactitude; for no revelation makes any pretension to that character. But it does pretend to be certain; and against that there are three conclusive objections. First, we never can be absolutely certain that any given deliverance really is inspired; for that can only be established by reasoning. We cannot even prove it with any very high degree of probability. Second, even if it is inspired, we cannot be sure, or nearly sure, that the statement is true. We know that one of the commandments was in one of the Bibles printed with[out] a not in it. All inspired matter has been subject to human distortion or coloring. Besides we cannot penetrate the counsels of the most High, or lay down anything as a principle that would govern his conduct. We do not know his inscrutable purposes, nor can we comprehend his plans. We cannot tell but he might see fit to inspire his servants with errors. In the third place, a truth which rests on the authority of inspiration only is of a somewhat incomprehensible nature; and we never can be sure that we rightly comprehend it. As there is no way of evading these difficulties, I say that revelation, far from affording us any certainty, gives results less certain than other sources of information. This would be so even if revelation were much plainer than it is.”

    (Peirce, Charles S. Principles of Philosophy. In The Collected Papers of Charles Sanders Peirce, Vol. I. Edited by Charles Hartshorne and Paul Weiss. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1931. Bk. I, ch. 3:5, §143.)

  4. Thank you, Russell, for the delightful post. I often claim that the ontological difference between a religious belief and scientific belief is not in kind but in source and methodology. Perhaps I’m wrong, yet it seems that at the very least there’s some general acceptance that confidence into any particular set of statements (scientific or not), especially when they are brought into the everyday through various axioms (thus forming some sort of ideology), becomes very similar to a belief.
    Granted that the distinction between the goal of religion (worship, submission to a deity) and science (inquiry, knowledge acquisition) is usually quite obvious, the way their semantics overlap or contrast is often revealing. The general rule of thumb is that one should never believe anything that doesn’t make sense, but nowadays the degree of sophistication achieved in our collective knowledge makes following such a rule rather difficult. Furthermore, even if we have logical tools to distinguish between fallacious and valid arguments (thank you Mr. LaBossiere for the wonderful collection of fallacies), we still can’t explain logic. Why exactly does 1+1=2? What are the inherent properties of logic that makes it possible for us to collectively validate that indeed 1+1=2, that a triangle has 3 sides, or that “if A = B then B = A”. Why is it possible for our logic to explain the universe? Can our logic be biased, in the sense that we’ll always, and helplessly, have an incorrect understanding of certain things? Is it limited, in the sense that there are some logical structures, ideas, formulas, etc. that it will never be able to understand just like we can’t perceive colors above or below the visible spectrum? Is logic more than a feeling, a sensation?
    Alongside all these issues lies the attempt to describe the totality of the universe a priori. The “theory of everything”, if it will ever be written, would present a universe that is entirely understandable without necessitating any empirical means. The existence of such a tool would perhaps suffice to show that logic is completely in tune with the universe, and adequately equipped for grasping all its facets. It would also follow that the universe in entirely coherent (something nobody seems willing to question).
    Here’s an excerpt from my personal blog: “Our existence, as far as we can prove it, is within a four dimensional (at least) framework, a unique unmoving and unchanging background that allows for all the variations of our reality. This background is not necessarily “something”, but rather a set of rules that create entities and dictate their interaction. We know for a fact that the laws of our universe (the simplified versions which we discovered so far) are very reliable/stable, and this forms only a primitive proof of the existence of an objective background. In fact, without it I imagine there would be only chaos, randomness. This is only a glimpse into the nature of Absolute, which I define as a non-relational, non-shifting concept, towards which everything can be referenced but cannot be referenced to anything. This of course, only a much abbreviated definition, but for clarity and simplicity, we don’t need to elaborate further. If the existence of this Absolute is true, then it follows that everything is constructed upon it, meaning the Absolute has ultimate value, since it is the essence of all other things.”
    Unfortunately for us, such issues are way beyond our current capacity for empirical testing, and there are no guarantees that the vast sea of limitations will ever be crossed.

  5. “One of the things that religion does is answer factual questions.”
    One of the things that religion does is present answers to factual questions. I believe that the anti-accomdationist claim is that religion does not “in fact” answer factual questions.

    That is only one of the things that religion does. I would suggest that the main thing it does, the reason why it has persisted these many millennia, is that it provides moral instruction which (following Hume “no ought from is”) rational enquiry has been unable to do, despite the best efforts of John Rawls, Sam Harris, and a cast of thousands.

    We agree then that when rationality contradicts the factual assertions of religious dogma, dogma must give way, just as old science must give way to better science. Does that mean that all religious statements are meaningless? Me ginoito! (as Paul remarked). Take them as mythology is usually taken in its natural environment: as schoolbook parables teaching morality, or as entertaining stories that are fun to share with friends (you can tell your friends, because the share your stories). Or study them scientifically as examples of human functioning, the topic of cultural anthropology.

    A factual claim not subject to empirical justification/falsification: “The Gospel, Christianity, is the best framework for thinking about / acting out morality in a human context.”

  6. “The Gospel, Christianity, is the best framework for thinking about / acting out morality in a human context.”

    Certainly this is subject to empirical justification, and is false. In the US, the more religious you are, the more likely you are to be a pregnant teen, have a divorce or read pornography.

    Now, granted this is a simplistic refutation. But I would offer that people like Russell Blackford, Alonzo Fyfe, Daniel Fincke, Eric McDonald or Richard Carrier provide a much better framework for thinking about morality than the confusion and contradictions of the New Testament.

  7. >A factual claim not subject to empirical justification/falsification: “The Gospel, Christianity, is the best framework for thinking about / acting out morality in a human context.”

    I agree that this is not a claim that can be established as truth or dismissed as entirely false, since how people conceive of morality is grounded so much in their individual desires and preferences. But, it can certainly be subjected to empirical scrutiny and study and might even be falsified in the case of individuals, or groups of individuals, depending on what values are prominent in their conception of morality.

    For example, as a Jain, the moral values I hold particularly dear derive from Jainism’s conception of and framework for moral behaviour. The principle of ahimsa (or compassionate non-violence) is fundamental to this framework. Jainism teaches that all life has inherent value and should be protected, regardless of the form in which it is found. Jains acknowledge that some life forms, such as micro-organisms, are necessarily subjected to himsa (harm) in order for us to live, but we hold that this is no reason to abandon the ideal of non-violence and to not attempt to minimize the harm we cause to others.

    We abstain from products, whether they be food or otherwise, obtained through the killing of animals. Although our diet depends almost entirely on plants, we strive to minimize the harm we commit to them. We refrain from eating root vegetables because they sustain the lives of an abundance of micro-organisms in the soil and uprooting them would not only cause harm to those organisms, but kill the plants themselves. Human life is held in particular regard because it represents a singular opportunity to achieve genuine contentment and peace. Therefore, causing harm to other humans, whether through our words or deeds, is considered particularly egregious. Even violence in self-defense is prohibited for those who take the vows of asceticism.

    The Jain scriptures not only stress the moral necessity of non-violence and forgiveness, but also go into painful depth to explain how Jains, in their daily lives, should strive to avoid harming even insects to practice those principles.

    If one values non-violence, compassion, and forgiveness, one could well argue that those concepts, as conceived in Jainism and as practiced by Jains by far surpass Christianity’s treatment of them. This could be established through a literary comparison of the scale and depth of the exposition of those concepts in the two religions’ scriptures, the extent to which gratuitous or divinely mandated violence is present in them, etc. Or, one could compare the histories of the adherents of the two religions, compute the number of wars waged (in the name of religion or for other reasons) by one group as opposed to the other, relative to population, to gain a sense how effective each religion has been in influencing the behaviour of its adherents.

    But, if one values or desires a life not burdened by such rigorous moral strictures, or not having to worry about the well-being of ‘lesser’ beings constantly, a more expansive diet, etc., one might regard Jainism’s emphasis on non-violence and compassion to be something of a mark against it.

    But, again, all of this boils down what values individuals or societies seek to emphasize in their conception of morality. If we could enumerate the most important of those values, we could certainly engage in a historical or comparative study of religions to gain a sense of how well each reflects or propounds those values.

  8. People often make the mistake of thinking that a scientific reduction explains things “away”. But in fact it adds to our confidence of thinking something exists in the first place. For example, take inter-theoretic reduction, such as the reduction of phenomenological thermodynamics to statistical mechanics. That reduction tells us that temperature in a gas is the same thing as mean molecular kinetic energy. We don’t conclude that “there’s no such thing as temperature” but rather that we were quite right to think that temperature was a real feature of the universe, and that scales of temperature are good metrics to measure a genuine aspect of physical reality. We were right all along.

    Something similar came up recently on this blog in a discussion of love and marriage. The reduction of talk of emotions to biology allows us to say that love is the same thing as pair bonding between members of a monogamous species. We shouldn’t conclude that “love is an illusion” but rather that love is a powerful, non-illusory biological state. Marriage too must be rated as much more than a “superficial gesture imposed by society”. Instead it serves a biological function as a sort of guarantee of the pair-bonded state.

    What I just said applies to inter-theoretic reduction, i.e. the reduction of one theory to another. But much the same would apply to the reduction of a thing to its parts, as long as we are careful to include the way they are connected. My bicycle is not the same things as its parts, but it is the same thing as its parts arranged in the right way. If I have a good reason to think that all of my bicycle’s parts are arranged in the right way and attached by the lock to the railings outside, I have a good reason to think my bike hasn’t been stolen (yet)!

  9. This is not the place for me to engage Shramana as to Christianity vs. Jainism as “the best practical moral framework”. I do appreciate the point that we can have a meaningful, empirically-based discussion on the topic, although there could never be a scientifically binding resolution. Actually, that’s just my point.

    And further, that discussion is only going to be meaningful if we take each other seriously. That is, we accommodate others’ point of view. Plural “others”.

  10. On Science and What Is the Case « Choice in Dying - pingback on November 20, 2011 at 12:54 pm
  11. One might avoid some time-wasting quibbling by replacing the assertion “Truth can be discovered only through scientific investigation” simply by “Truth can only be discovered by sensing the material ‘world’, in addition to using logical deduction.”

    And so one of course can go much further back in time (as Blackford is undoubtedly aware) to the statement that an early ancestor (Homo habilis a few million years ago?) obtained truths, (say) about one type or shape of rock being superior as a tool, in a way entirely consonant with (say) Einstein helped by predecessors obtaining truths about space and time being inextricably bound together, and meaningless as independent concepts except as approximations.

    Thus present-day chimps are undoubtedly doing science in a suitably weak but real sense. And their truths are almost certainly far more reliable than any claimed by university theologians and supposedly obtained by some different means. And not just chimps of course do this.

    The hackneyed response, that the ‘quote’ I began with is therefore not a scientific truth, is manifestly false: this is one of those happy self-referentials. And the truth that it is the truth is even easier: purely logical. Etc…. However the mystery of how the passage from empirical sensing to an asserted proposition, or why logic ‘works’ (as an earlier respondent discussed), remain quite mysterious, but simply do not qualify in any way as counterexamples to this so-called ‘scientism’. Fortunately, they give philosophers something to do.

  12. distinctively scientific techniques […] to the extent that they were new they added something. Nothing was subtracted from the tools of rational inquiry available to scholars (or to ordinary people).

    Excellent point!

    +1 MYRON’s excellent comment on revelation

    Those most loudly proclaiming that “science is limited” (clue: not philosophy of science academics) ordinarily have specific “other ways of knowing” in mind which they dare not proclaim the limits of.

  13. I agree with most of what you say here, Russell, but I fail to see the relevance of your point about science adding and not subtracting. Those who claim that science is limited, or only one way of knowing, would generally agree with this.

    In fact I think it can be argued that modern science has subtracted from “our means of rational inquiry into the world around us”. It has subtracted means such as divination and scriptural revelation, which were probably once considered rational but can no longer be so considered. You may say that those methods never were rational, and so no rational means have been subtracted. But I think it may be argued that it was once rational (before the scientific era) for people to believe in the efficacy of some such methods.

    I also have a quibble over whether most religious ways of knowing really are “other”, in the sense of “radically discontinuous from science and from rational inquiry in general”. It seems to me that, if divine revelation and mystical transport turned out to be effective ways of knowing things, then observations of this type would have turned out to be useful evidence after all. Inference from such observations would then constitute “rational inquiry”.

    And how would we ever know that these religious ways of knowing were revealing the truth? It seems to me that it could only be through checking them against the empirical methods we currently trust, and achieving a new rational consilience among all trusted empirical methods, old and new. The new (formerly “religious”) methods would become a part of our secular empirical tool box.

    Divine revelation and mystical transport are not non-rational ways of knowing. They are irrational ways, in the sense that we have good reason to think they are misleading. Should they turn out to be effective means after all, they would go from being irrational ways of knowing to rational ones.

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