Science and Religion: What is Science?

Both Science and Religion are words and concepts that are widely used but rarely defined. This is purposeful; the more amorphous a concept is the wider its application can be. This is also accidental; after a while the amorphous use of words become the blurry definitions people employ when they use them. If you go to any college campus and ask only the professors of the Science Department to define “science,” and the professors of the Religion Department to define “religion,” you will get a wide array of ideas, few of which will completely agree with the other in total. This is very problematic, as the drifting meaning of words can have huge consequences in how they are used in politics, law, and culture.

Let’s begin with science. It is always nice, when assessing the meaning of a word, to look it up in a dictionary, or these days, on Wikipedia. The dictionary gives several definitions linked to a branch or system of knowledge. This, however, is a dated and colloquial definition and is not how modern scientists use the word to describe what they are doing. Wikipedia’s entry is more exact: “Science […] is a systematic enterprise that builds and organizes knowledge in the form of testable explanations and predictions about nature and the universe.” This definition is good, but requires some unpacking. Below I list several aspects of what modern science is and is not.

Proposition 1: Science is not just a body of knowledge, but specifically knowledge gained by reliable, predictive rules gained by repeatable and controlled experimentation. 

This definition is a modern construction, and it should be noted that the idea of science has evolved over time. Aristotle is often called the Father of Science, simply because he is the first human being who records in writing (that we know of) a systematic approach to the gathering of knowledge and the formulation of theory. But for Aristotle, the gathering of knowledge was always a subset of philosophy. Aristotle defined science as “knowledge of the ultimate cause of things.” Aristotle’s science was highly speculative and was rooted in philosophical principles for which the gathering of knowledge was employed. Instead of performing repeated and controlled experiments testing a theory in hopes of disproving it or improving it, Aristotle would start with a philosophical first cause and then collect data that showed his philosophy to be correct. In other words, this approach is almost the exact opposite of modern science.

Aristotelian science reigned for centuries, but today Aristotle’s approach is no longer considered science. This is an important point to make, because today many people, even educated people, still employ the Aristotelian method and call it science. We shall have more to say of this below in Proposition 4.

So, according to this definition, science is the act of obtaining predictive rules, or highly informative statements which can be proved and repeated. Science does not seek generalities, but particulars. Anybody can say that it will rain next month, but this is not of interest to science. Science seeks to show that it will rain in Chicago tomorrow afternoon by 1 pm. This is a high information statement that can be proven false or true. The method by which we come to this statement must be repeatable and continue to predict high information statements.

Proposition 2: Science is NOT truth.

Science does not concern itself with truth, because truth is connected with ultimate causes and eternal principles. Truth also concerns itself with generalities. Vague statements that are true are not useful to science. False statements that are precise are useful. Science does not establish the permanency or the universality that truth seeks to establish. It is an established fact that all past scientific theory and propositions have eventually been replaced with different and very often better scientific propositions. What was thought to be true in one decade is disproved in another. Science therefore does not concern itself with truth, but with testing propositions in an attempt to disprove or improve them.

Furthermore, it should be noted that many false statements have truth content. Many false scientific theories have led to the discovery of many true scientific facts. One can disprove a person’s premises, but still have not disproved his conclusions, for in fact, the premises might be wrong but the conclusions right. In fact, most of science progresses in this way: from flawed ideas and premises to more precise conclusions as the experimentation seeks to test the premises.

Proposition 3: Science is NOT induction.

It has been taught for a very long time that the scientific method consists of gathering data, and after collecting the data, summarizing a theory from it. This is called induction, and it is complete fiction. People first put forth a theory, and then seek to prove or disprove it using the data and experimentation. Science is at all times hinged to current pre-established theories, and this is why it cannot be called truth and why it can (and does) change and improve upon itself. The invention of a new theory reorients the collection of data and the way that data is interpreted.

 Proposition 4: Science concerns itself with falsifiability. That which is falsifiable is science, that which is not, is not science.

A collection of highly informative statements that cannot be tested or experimented upon is not science. A theory which explains everything is not science. Science must be able to falsify, through experimentation, a set of statements or theories. Mind you, the statements or theories may turn out to be correct, but they must be falsifiable nevertheless. All scientific progress is rooted in falsifiability.

This is a hard parameter for people to understand, for as it turns out, this parameter disqualifies most things modern people think of as science as actually being real science. There are many large scale systems (often irreducibly complex) for which there are universal theories that are used to explain them. These universal theories are thought to be scientific, but many are not falsifiable, and therefore cannot be science.

Statistics, Economics, and Psychology are three fields which are imbued with the veneer of science, but often are couched in paradigms that cannot be experimented upon or falsified. Any current statement that says, for example, that by the year 2030 the GDP will have increased by 10% due to this or that economic policy or this or that statistical analysis cannot be falsified because the year 2030 cannot be experimented upon. These are socio-political statements and not scientific ones. When Freud introduced the concept of sexual repression as the basis of all neurosis, or when Jung introduced the idea of the collective unconscious and psychological archetypes, they proposed universal theories that cannot be falsified. They in fact can explain any data that comes into them. Therefore, their paradigms cannot be called science.

Cosmologies are enormously difficult to falsify because they are generally couched in truth statements that seek to explain everything. Geocentrism was eventually falsified, but this took centuries because of the cosmological truth statements that everyone believed in. The idea that the circle is the most perfect geometric form and therefore all things in heaven must move in circles is falsifiable, though everyone for centuries was proving that everything in heaven moved in circles (all those epicycles of Ptolemy for example). Yet the idea that the Earth is God’s grand creation and therefore exists in the center of the universe is non-falsifiable because it deals with truth statements that cannot be experimented upon (God’s grand creation).

As it turns out, we cannot experiment on or falsify the original particle from which the universe is said to have expanded in the Big Bang, and this is why the Big Bang must always be called a Theory. We can only infer the origins of the universe. Is the Big Bang Theory science? Well I think everyone at NASA would say yes, but the question is posed is it falsifiable? Actually, it is not, at least as framed, and therefore cannot be science.

The difference is this. What can be called science in BBT cosmology is all the principles and mathematical equations that can be tested. The Cosmic Microwave Radiation Background is something that can be tested and something that can help explain the BBT. However, a flawed premises can still have correct conclusions. What cannot be tested is the conceptual framework of the origin of the universe itself. A single particle that contains all the matter in the universe is not falsifiable, and therefore must remain philosophy.

What about Climate Change?  As science it must be experimented on, debated, refuted, proved, etc. Many mathematical models are being employed to do just that. However, any contrary models are being expunged. As an environmentalist, I support smart environmental policy. As an academic, I cringe when good scientific method is shortchanged by cultural and political expediency. History has shown that, even if the science is right, shortcuts in science lead to terrible suffering. Many academic papers trend to incorporate all data within their own frameworks, and as a result all weather events are made to explain climate change. This is dangerous, for it makes the theory unfalsifiable, and according to Science 101, this turns the theory into philosophy. Wed to political expediency, such a philosophy can take wide and destructive turns.

By now you can see that I am getting into real trouble. And yes, there are scores of educated academics that would disagree. But science doesn’t care. Science does not concern itself with truth. Science does not concern itself with values. Science does not concern itself with policy. Human being do, and they should. But science is simply a method of investigation which requires strict adherence to data collection and experimentation  which is always trying to disprove itself. We human beings almost always do the exact opposite, we are always trying to prove our views. There are no sacred cows in science, despite the fact that so many scientists have sacred cows and call them science.

I am not saying that science should not be used to examine our truth claims, or our values, or to inform our social policies. Of course it should. What I am saying is that science is a methodology to gain knowledge; it is not a worldview, nor is it a system for its social application. This is where philosophy, ethics, and religion comes in. Science can help build the worldview, but the worldview itself is something different than science, because worldviews have mixed within them all sorts of value statements that ultimately cannot be tested, proved, or remain un-examined.

Why is any of this important? Because, in our post-modern age, people in every sector of society are claiming that their worldviews are the ultimate truth and are doing so in the name of science. It is a good thing to know, right up front, that science has no claim on the ultimate truth.


This entry was posted in Culture.

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