What is Science?

A common topic of discussion, not only in apologetic circles and academia, but also in mainstream media and education, is the relationship between science and religion, or science and faith, or some such thing. Questions like the following pervade these discussions: Do the findings of the scientific community make trouble for religious belief? Is the practice of scientific research compatible with faithful religious practice? Do science and religion operate in similar, or separate, terrain? Are they in conflict with one another, or do they complement one another?

 

I am interested in spending a good deal of time in the near future blogging about these (and related) questions. I think they are incredibly important questions — not least because our answers to these questions can radically alter the way we do and receive both science and religion. There are more than a few who reject religion because of their answers to these questions; just as there are more than a few who reject science (or at least a lot of good science) because of their answers to these questions.

 

In this present post, I am only interested in pursuing a very preliminary matter: the question, What is science? Obviously we need some answer to this question if we are to get anywhere in discerning the relationship between science and religion. But it turns out that this question is much harder to answer than we might think.

 

I think most would agree that, for instance, Einstein’s work with General Relativity, or Darwin’s work in the Galapagos, or what’s going on in the Higgs Boson Particle Accelerator are examples of science. Most would agree, further, that “science” covers a number of traditional disciplines: e.g. biology, chemistry, physics, geology. We can pretty well point the finger at clear cases of “science” and find little by way of disagreement. But there is all sorts of disagreement to be found as soon as we attempt to define science, or offer anything more than an ostensive characterization.

 

When scientists or philosophers attempt to define science, they tend to agree on this much. Science is a disciplined and systematic enterprise that involves the production and unification of various theories based on a substantial amount of empirical research/investigation. In short, most folks agree that science involves us poking around in the world with our eyes and ears and noses and fingers, and then coming up with stories as to the significance of what we’ve found. That much is kosher. But the handholding stops just as soon as folks attempt to say what exactly the goal of this enterprise(s) is — what exactly all this empirical investigation and theory-making aims at — what exactly provides us with our scientific “standard of success”.

Science Dialectic

Consider the following list of competing theories as to the goal of science:

 

  • The discovery of truth — that is, the goal is for the theories to accurately describe the way the world in fact is.
  • The production of empirically-adequate theories — that is, the goal is for the theories ought to “fit” the observations, regardless of whether these theories accurately describe the way the world in fact is.
  • Usefulness – the goal is to produce theories which help us in some way or other, regardless of truth or empirical-adequacy.

 

Within these demarcations, there are plenty more demarcations to be found. By way of example, many scientists would accept that the aim of science is the discovery of truth, but would add a qualifier: these theories that aim at truth must be such that they make reference only to physical/observable entities. The aim is not just the production of true theories, but the production of true theories with a referential limitation attached. (A qualification like this would, of course, rule out by definition anything like Intelligent Design – which posits a non-observable Intelligence – or Newton’s theory of planetary motion – he thought God occasionally readjusted the orbits of the planets – or anything remotely Platonic as a potential candidate for the title “science”.) Likewise, many scientists view the aim of science as bounded, not only by certain qualifications on the theories to be produced, but also by certain qualifications on the observations that can play a role in theory-production or on the background beliefs that can brought to bear on those observations. Do a priori intuitions get to play a role in the practice of science? Sacred texts? Religious experience? Different answers to these questions lend to different views as to the aim of science: a “methodological naturalist”, for instance, will insist that something is science only if there is no reference to anything supernatural in one’s observations, one’s background beliefs, and one’s theories — anything remotely like God is not to be permitted a foothold at any part in the scientific process.

 

It is clear, then, how one’s view as to the definition of science could radically affect one’s answers to the questions with which we started: Do the findings of the scientific community make trouble for religious belief? Is the practice of scientific research compatible with faithful religious practice? Do science and religion operate in similar, or separate, terrain? Are they in conflict with one another, or do they complement one another?

 

This is certainly not the place to settle the question as to the proper definition of science (as though it could be settled to everyone’s satisfaction). But, since this open question makes some difficulty for us as we proceed, I will go ahead and simply state how I see the matter, and how I will be using the term “science” henceforth (those interested in pursuing the matter more fully should refer to the references at the end of this post). I am not inclined to think that any one of the above three “goals” of science rightly describes the goal of science. Rather, I think “science” is a term that covers a number of different practices, all of which are related by close analogy to one another or by a common core, but which may have somewhat different goals. The cosmologist who conducts his experiments and his theorizing with the aim of uncovering the deep truths of the universe seems to me quite clearly to be doing science; but so too does the cancer researcher whose only goal is the production of a successful treatment, or the quantum physicist who is concerned only with “empirical adequacy”.

 

So that’s a bit of framing for my next few blog posts. Thoughts?

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1 Comment

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    D.J. Clark - October 29, 2013, 10:46 pm

    I mentioned references. Here’s a few good starters: Bas Van Fraassen, “The Scientific Image”. Alvin Plantinga, “Where the Conflict Really Lies” or “Games Scientist Play”.

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