Opinions
Jonathan Lawrence

Limits of the scientific method

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Where does science really fit in? To be able to discuss the validity of science, we must first determine to which shelf of truth science belongs. In other words, how far science can go in asserting certain things to be true. In which realms may science find itself at a loss for words or out of its depth? Should it be given the place of a god, the main generator of metaphysical and epistemological beliefs? Or must it assume to more humble position of a worker, as a technological and medical force? It might also be helpful to explain what exactly we mean by science. It is usually used to refer to the natural and physical sciences. And to keep things a bit un-scholarly, I'll stick to the definition that seems to usually be in people's minds.

As usual, there are differing opinions as to the place of science in our view of reality. An influential view, found among the legendary New Atheists, has a general tendency to assert science as the primary arbiter of truth and knowledge. Daniel Dennett, one of the so-called "Four Horsemen," wrote the bestseller Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon. He forwards the opinion, in the tradition of sociobiology and evolutionary psychology, that religion is a product of nature. Richard Dawkins also forwards an opinion similar to this, using his concept of the "meme." Sociobiology or evolutionary psychology, pioneered by the American biologist e.o. Wilson, is an influential view in popular discourse on science, positing that all aspects of human social interaction are a product of natural processes, most primarily, evolution. Their counterparts, including the proficient debater and apologist, William Lane Craig and the veteran philosopher Alvin Plantinga, among others, assert a less grandiose position for science in reality. Religious fundamentalists espouse that science is completely subject to a very narrow interpretation of Scripture, resulting in young-earth and old-earth creationism.

However it seems to me that something more moderate is needed. What follows is the reasons that lead me to believe that science is extremely important in both practical and theoretical matters, but not so important as to be the ruling staff by which we keep and throw out our beliefs, especially those concerning the ultimate.

Reason is and will always remain the father of science. It does not make too much sense to conceptualize science as an independent academic institution. After all, it works only by the logical syllogisms that drive it, and of course these did not fall from the sky, or were delivered to us by extra-terrestrials. The scientific method emerged out of the work of Aristotle, Islamic philosophers such as Ibn al-Haytham, and European philosophers such as Roger Bacon. The distinction between philosophy and science is not so old. In many historical societies philosophy and science went together. A famous philosophical problem with the scientific method is called "the problem of induction" (Induction is the logical foundation for the scientific method.) It is found in the work of the historical Scottish philosopher David Hume, and re-emphasized in the work of the Austrian-British philosopher Karl Popper. Basically, the argument asks this question: how do we know that simply because we have a representative sample of something, that all those outside the sample conform to this sample? Because all the swans that we know of are white, we naturally assume that all swans are white. But in reality, there really are black swans (in Australia). In Hume's own words from A Treatise on Human Nature, "that instances of which we have had no experience, must resemble those of which we have had experience, and that the course of nature continues always uniformly the same. We usually look down on stereotyping racial and cultural groups. But what are stereotypes but generalizations? Without generalizations science would not exist.

Another problem with science is its changeability. The famous American philosopher Thomas Nagel, in speaking about "scientism‚" gives this assessment: "At its most myopic it assumes that everything there is must be understandable by the employment of scientific theories like those we have developed to date -- physics and evolutionary biology are the current paradigms -- as if the present age were not just one in the series.‚" The variant and indecisive nature of science is a known fact. History is full of it. There is the French chemist, Antoine Lavoisier, who destroyed the phlogiston paradigm and inserted his own oxidation theory. There is old Nicolaus Copernicus, horrifying the church and positing that the earth is not, after all, the centre of the universe. And which list would be complete without the famous Charles Darwin whose controversial theory still echoes through modern society. There is always the chance, if not the high probability, that some guy (or girl) is going to come along and destroy an idea that the scientific community holds dear. Science, on the whole, seems to have a difficulty making up its mind.

So science is a crucial part of modern-day life. Its capacity to ever astound us with its technological brilliance is almost miraculous -- like a magician or a wizard earning the audience's wonder with extraordinary tricks. Without it, western medicine would probably be nonexistent. However, the tendency of the hypnotized masses in popular intellectualism to give it the high seat of honor in metaphysics and epistemology, like an unwitting deity, is not wonderfully rational.

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Comments

I am not sure I understand the reasoning of the editor. If we beleive there are only white swans, there is at least a foundation in that there are a whole lot of white swans. Why should I now believe in fictitious blue swans? Black swans are progressive insight, great.
As to the dynamics of real scientific knowledge, that is progressive insight as well, and no reason to believe in traditional views that have not been substantiated and cannot be substantiated nor be proven wrong, as they are not tangible. Hence those so do not change.
I would always suspect non changing views.
The position of science should not be on a pedestal, but on the ground as a very useful method giving great benefits, that can be substantiated. That many people find relief in believing strange things of all kinds is not to be compared with the real benefits of scientific knowledge.
Bob Hoekstra

The difference between the scientific method, and the mystical beliefs of faith and spiritualism, is that the scientific method not only allows for mistakes, but expects them. You bring up that science is not the be-all-end-all of knowledge because it is in a constant state of correction and revision, but it is this very fact that leads it to be the most important basis upon which we place our view of the universe. We do not try to build our airplanes based on outdated theories of two hundred years ago simply because those theorists were \"ancient\" and therefore \"wise\". Nevertheless, this is what the institutions of religion demand of us -- an expectation to place our lives and moralities in the hands of words said by men who lived thousands of years ago, those words given value merely because of \"tradition\" and age. If we do not understand the words, all the better -- we are not meant to understand. We are to accept on faith, to exchange knowledge for a \"superior\" sense of anti-knowledge, to accept that for something to be unknown makes it holy and worth our worship. And if any knowledge emerges to conflict with it, then it is the knowledge that is in error, designed by sinners to test the strength of your faith.
When the men of science discovered dinosaurs were discovered, the men of religion declared it the work of Satan.
When astronomers discovered there were objects in the Kuiper Belt larger than Pluto, science changed its definition of a planet.
It is, in fact, because science changes and progresses, rather than be bound to doctrine and dogma, that it has become the most valuable practice in the improvement of human life.