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Is Science Dependent on Other Disciplines?

Post Author: Bill Pratt

The use of the scientific method as a way of learning about the natural world has yielded fantastic technologies and discoveries over the last few hundred years.  Nobody can doubt the power of the scientific method – collecting data, developing hypotheses about that data, and then testing those hypotheses with empirical experimentation.

In fact, some people are so enamored of the scientific method that they declare that this is the only way we can gain true knowledge about anything.  Philosopher J. P. Moreland was once told by a man finishing his doctorate in physics that “science is the only discipline that is rational and true.  Everything else is a matter of mere belief and opinion. . . . if something cannot be quantified or tested by the scientific method, . . . it cannot be true or rational.”

Is this true?  Does science stand on its own without any support?  Is it the only way to know anything?

The answer, my friends, is an unequivocal no.

Moreland explains that the statement “only what can be known by science or quantified and empirically tested is rational and true” is self-refuting.  Why?  Because this statement itself is not a statement of science but a statement of philosophy about science.  In other words, at least one philosophical statement must be true for science to even get started.  The aims, methodologies, and presuppositions of science must be upheld by disciplines other than science, for science cannot pull itself up by its own bootstraps.  Science is like the second story of a house; it cannot stand without the first story and the foundation underneath.

What are these things underneath science, supporting it?  Moreland provides several examples.

First, “one must hold that the senses are reliable and give accurate information about a mind-independent physical world.”  This is a philosophical position and there are some in academia who would deny its truth.  The scientist must take this philosophical statement to be true before he can start doing science.

Second, “science must assume that the mind is rational and that the universe is rational in such a way that the mind can know it.  Science must assume some uniformity of nature to justify induction (i.e., science must assume that one can legitimately infer from the past to the future and from the examined cases to unexamined ones of the same kind).”  For example, just because hydrogen and oxygen have formed water in the past, why should we believe it will continue to happen in the future?  Again, this is a philosophical presupposition of science.  In fact, the assumption that the universe is rational such that we can know it is a big surprise if you are a naturalist who denies the existence of a rational creator.

Third, science assumes that “the laws of logic are true, that numbers exist, . . . that language has meaning, . . . that truth exists and involves some sort of correspondence between theories and the world.”  None of these things are demonstrated by science.  They must all be true for science to work in the first place.

Fourth, “science assumes certain moral, epistemic, and methodological values.  Regarding moral values, science assumes that experiments should be reported honestly and that truth-telling is a moral virtue.  Regarding epistemic virtues, science assumes that theories ought to be simple, accurate, predictively successful, and so forth.  Regarding methodological values, science often values such things as disinterestedness, organized skepticism, and procedural rules.”

Fifth, and finally, boundary conditions are not accounted for by science.  “The mass of a proton, the rate of expansion of the big bang, the existence of the big bang itself – in short all cases of genuine brute givens not subsumable under higher laws – are boundary conditions for science.  They are givens which cannot be accounted for by science.”

The idea that science is the only way to find truth is obviously false.  Science rests on piles of presuppositions and assumptions that science-worshipers seem to forget.  Why is this important?  Because there is a whole world of metaphysics, ethics, logic, mathematics, and linguistics that must be studied and understood.  As soon as these things are pushed aside as irrelevant, and forgotten, science dies.

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  • Steve Wright

    Do you think Moreland recognizes that the father of the scientific method, Francis Bacon, was a Christian philosopher.

    Oh the irony…

  • CogitoErgoCogitoSum

    Bravo, me likey lots. Read my post, The Nature of Reality. It pertains.

    Science is based on the philosophical roots known as empiricism and epistemology. Philosophy is the original science. And modern science is just a subcategory of an ancient idea. Religion is the same. The desire is to find truth in whatever form you can, whatever that truth may be.

    Advocating the abandonment of abstract philosophical reasoning is equivalent to abandoning a powerful tool.

    When we collect data, form hypotheses, and analyse data… for the sake of science… are we not using reasoning, the same reasoning employed by philosophers? The same abstract thoughts, the same logical approach?

    Logic itself is a philosophy… and an unproven premise.

    Did you know it was a Catholic cardinal who originated the Big Bang theory? Aristotle also had a similar theory… the Prime Mover of existence has been an inquiry since the beginning.

  • CogitoErgoCogitoSum

    You may also look to the fundamental scientific guidelines. A theory must be testable, it must be repeatable, falsifiable, and a host of other requirements. And yet the big bang and evolution do not hold up to those standards. The Big Bang and Evolution are both falsely named… their name is a misnomer, as neither is an actual “theory”… they are technically no better than mere “hypotheses”.

    And then much of science is also analysed using statistics. ALL of statistics are man-made and rather arbitrary. Its the least pure of all of mathematical reasoning. Everything in statistics, right down to the notion of an “average”, are all merely defined concepts, holding no greater meaning than the meaning we humans give it.

    And statistics holds a lot of variation (standard deviation, and all), which only puts a theory into doubt in the first place for the numbers dont mesh perfectly with prediction. When observations of empirical testing deviate from the expected, we call it a “deviation” and make it sound all scientific… and because we give it a scientific “excuse” we continue to embrace the data with without rejection. See that? Inconsistency is justified by a scientific label, and voila, the theory is not longer rejectable.

  • Bill Pratt

    I’m sure Moreland does recognize that. The science-worshipers today, however, have completely forgotten that. It’s as if science just glided in by parachute from the sky, with nothing behind it.

  • Scott Hunter

    There is a reason the scientific method wasn’t developed until about the 1600′s. These building blocks that you enumerate were required to be in place beforehand.

    Science is merely a collection of rules (which through experimentation have been found to generally work, most of the time) about how to investigate problems to which we don’t know the answers. Science should not be construed as having all the answers or being perfectly correct about all the problems all the time. Often we develop what is the best answer that can be given with the data we have. Sometimes those answers are remarkably perceptive with very little data- sometimes they are flat out wrong and will be disproven by new data in the future. It used to be in the past that scientists had the public trust. They knew it and cherished it and didn’t violate it. That is all in the past.

    When we violate the rules by doing things like extrapolating outside of our data set we tend to come up with wrong answers. Such common sense parameters have been accumulated over many years. Modern scientists stand on the shoulders of the giants who developed these rules.

    When scientists become priests for a religion (see Anthropogenic Global Warming) they lose their objectivity. They begin to break basic rules of science. They violate the trust that the public has placed in scientists to be objective and above reproach. When scientists start to believe their own press releases something bad is bound to happen. Some have even committed the morally reprehensible acts of falsifying data. Was this done for fame or power or prestige or just for the money? Scientists are people too. They are corruptible. The ends do not justify the means for anyone.

    The scientific method has also been extended to places that it doesn’t belong (“social” sciences anyone?) with horrifying results. Anytime science is applied to biological populations we are rolling the dice. Sometimes we know enough to be able to fudge the statistics enough to make us look like we know what we are talking about (pharmacology?).

    Having said all that, there are God fearing, ethical scientists in the world. There used to be a lot more, but we do still exist. Don’t tar us all with the same brush. Our society owes much of what we consider indispensable modern life to science. If you really hate it, try giving up plastic for one day.

  • Steve Wright bad. I see now Moreland is the one expressing the proper viewpoint. I read too quickly the first go through..

  • Bill Pratt

    Well said, Scott.

  • R. Eric Sawyer

    Further, the Ph.D. candidate conflates two questions that are decidedly different, though often confused.

    The first assertion is that science (aka “the scientific method”) the only reasonable avenue for reliably discovering truth.

    The second is that there is no truth outside the range of discovery by science. Most often, as by this candidate, this is stated negatively: “. . . if something cannot be quantified or tested by the scientific method, . . . it cannot be true or rational.”

    The first appears to me the more defensible. Although it does indeed rest upon assertions from other disciplines, science can in some measure pull itself up by its bootstraps in that these assertions can be evaluated by their predictive value. For example, “The universe behaves in a rational manner” is a philosophical statement. But experimental results lend increasing support to the idea. And if we use its predictive value, by working “as if” the universe follows rational laws, we find that we get along much better than if we do not. This does not prove rational behavior in a “mathematical” sense, but it does prove that, rational or not, the universe behaves as if it is rational. That is perhaps a distinction without a difference, and is of the same nature as most of the “proofs” offered by science. I have no problem with saying that the scientific method is far and away the most powerful tool for ascertaining truth proof for matters within its reach. But that leads to the second question.

    Can there indeed be no “truth” other than that amenable to the scientific method? That would seem to be an entirely philosophical assertion, the answer to which lies soundly beyond the reach of science.

  • Andrew Ryan

    “First, “one must hold that the senses are reliable and give accurate information about a mind-independent physical world.” This is a philosophical position and there are some in academia who would deny its truth. The scientist must take this philosophical statement to be true before he can start doing science.”

    I think Tim has already pointed out elsewhere that this is not actually true. Scientists know that our senses are NOT always reliable. The scientific method works because it works around our imperfect senses. Our senses are GOOD ENOUGH to make sense of the world.

    The only comparable assumption that scientists must make is the same assumption that everyone must make – that we’re not just brains trapped in some matrix feeding us completely bogus stimulus to build an utterly incorrect view of reality. That’s the only alternative to our senses being GOOD ENOUGH to give an approximate view of reality.

    There’s no half-way house between those two possibilities. If the former is true, then none of us can make any claims at all about the world, whether we’re theist or atheist. If the latter is true, then we can use the scientific method to get as close a view as possible on reality. Either you’re are using some kind of computing device right now to read my words (in which case it’s an astonishing advocate for the efficacy of science), or you’re hallucinating the entire experience – there’s no third option.

    The proof is in the pudding – science works. If anyone came up with a better method for learning about the world, they’d still have to use the scientific method to test that it’s better.

  • Tim D.

    I’m sure Moreland does recognize that. The science-worshipers today, however, have completely forgotten that. It’s as if science just glided in by parachute from the sky, with nothing behind it.

    What do you have to gain from making these vague, blanket attacks against “science” and “science-worshippers?”

    Is that, perhaps, just your way of turning your back on science just because it doesn’t tell you what you want to hear?

    This reminds me of an episode of The Simpsons, where everybody storms the natural history museum and destroys it because of similar “anti-science” propaganda reasoning; at one point Moe breaks his back while trying to destroy an artifact, and he cries out, “Oh, no, I hope medical science can save me!”

    I’d think twice before making such anti-science statements. You (and everyone else) rely on science far more than you seem to think.

    As for “evolution and the big bang being mere hypotheses, not theories,” I won’t go into the myriad reasons why that is blatantly false….instead I will simply point out that evolution — “true” or not — is still one of the most important, foundational aspects of modern biology, from literal medicine to the study of the brain and body. Evolutionary theory (and the implications it carries for the development paths of physical bodies) provide a great reference point for trying to understand how and why cellular units function the way they do, and it can (and frequently does) provide hints as to what certain cell structures do, or how they work.

    In fact, if I may be ironic, evolutionary theory is one of the prime ways that we determine what a cell or cell structure is “for.” You know, the “design inference” that ID proponents so often cite? How do you think we know what the cell/structures are “for?” Through the application of evolutionary and molecular biology at the cellular level.

    After reading posts like yours here, Mr. Pratt, I’ve become even more convinced that the only way anyone can make such statements about science as that people “worship” science, is if the person in question doesn’t understand what the science is. Like so many other Christian apologists, it seems you’re completely unfamiliar with the finer aspects of evolutionary theory.

    I mean, seriously! Gravity, by the same logic, is “not even a theory, just a hypothesis.”

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  • Jamie

    Brilliant article. Science isn’t dependent on other disciplines, but other disciplines are dependent and based on science. The history of all development is once of the scientific method. Even the ‘subjective’, like morality:

  • red beard

    I wish you would link to where you got you Moreland quote from so I could read it in context. Because, as it’s presented, it is a terrible characterization of science. Science is not in the business of telling what is true or rational, but it is a tool for plausibly explaining what is observed. Science is not the “only” way to find out what is plausible, but it is, in my opinion, the “best” way to find out what is plausible. If there is a better way, I’m open to learn about it.

  • Bill Pratt

    Red Beard,
    The quote is taken from the book Scaling the Secular City, p. 197. Moreland would agree with you that the doctoral student who told him that science is the only method for knowing what is true or rational is terribly mistaken. That is Moreland’s point and mine. Science is extremely useful in many ways, but it cannot be the only way to know anything.

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