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Science as a Way of Knowing

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December 30, 2009 Tags: Science & Worldviews

Today's entry was written by the BioLogos Editorial Team. You can read more about what we believe here.

Science as a Way of Knowing

All of our regular readers know that BioLogos exists to show that there can be harmony between the Christian faith (even in its evangelical manifestation) and science. If this is true, it Is important that we reflect on the terms themselves from time to time. What is science? What is faith?

On Monday, we posted a review of Stephen Meyer’s book, Signature in the Cell. His thesis is that the traditional science which seeks to understand the origin of cellular information has reached a dead-end. As Meyer sees it, the alternative—cellular information is produced by an intelligence— is firmly grounded in science, not faith. But what is science, and how does it differ from other approaches to obtaining knowledge? To address this question we have asked Dr. Steven Benner, to respond to Signature in the Cell. Fortunately, he had already read the book, so he responded quickly.

Dr. Benner is a Distinguished Fellow in the Foundation for Applied Molecular Evolution at The Westheimer Institute for Science and Technology, Gainesville FL. He is the author of Life, the Universe, and the Scientific Method . Steven Benner's work at the Foundation for Applied Molecular Evolution seeks to join natural history to the physical sciences to address "big" questions in science (Where did we come from? Are we alone? What is our future in the cosmos?) and in technology, including the management of complex human diseases such as cancer, hypertension, and alcoholism.

The year 1609, the year that Galileo developed the telescope, is often credited as the beginning of an intellectual process that combines observation, analysis, synthesis, theory, modeling, logic and argumentation in a package that we now call "science". Different fields captured this combination at different times in their history, as enabling technologies and concepts appropriate to those fields emerged. Nevertheless, by the end of the last century, "science" had produced models for the structures of living systems to the level of their constituent molecules, structures of molecules to their constituent atoms, and structures of atoms to their constituent particles. These models are today central in the teaching of biology, chemistry, and physics.

Whatever "science" is, one of its characteristics is clear: It is empowering. In this respect, modern science is different from all thought, philosophical, religious, and metaphysical, that occurred in the 36 centuries of human civilization that preceded Galileo. It implies no disrespect to Euclid, Archimedes, Moses, or the builders of the pyramids to observe that models from philosophy, religion, and metaphysics did nothing for the human condition analogous to what modern science has done. The ancients could not, and we can, identify the virus that causes AIDS. Construct a nuclear power plant through the fission of synthetic elements. Extract resources from the Earth's crust using models for the history of our planet.

By the end of the 19th century, as the power of modern science became evident, people attempted to understand what science did that philosophy, religion, and metaphysics had not done. A "brief history of thinking about thought" would mention efforts to construct formal attributes that distinguished "scientific" from "non-scientific" propositions, proposals of testability and falsifiability as examples of these attributes, and the recognition that these attributes do not robustly characterize successful science.

Instead, those who study science, in particular, those who study science from the vantage of themselves being practicing scientists, have come to focus on the relation that successful scientists have with their communities, authorities in their communities, and their own desires to believe. Scientists, of course, are taught by authorities. Further, in their careers, scientists often come to want to believe certain propositions, most often the proposition that their own theories are correct. Scientists, like attorneys or other advocates, can easily cherry-pick data to defend propositions that they want to defend, ignoring data that contradict those cherished propositions.

To be successful, scientists must practice an intellectual discipline that denies them these wants. They must begin by understanding that authorities can be wrong. They also must understand that their desires to believe can corrupt their own abilities to distinguish reality from fiction. Accordingly, they understand that they need an intellectual discipline that might allow the outcome of a scientific process to be, if necessary, something other than what their communities have always believed, or what they personally might want to believe.

Different scientists have conveyed this deep understanding of scientific process with pithy aphorisms. For example, Richard Feynman, the noted Cal Tech physicist, told a convention of high school science teachers in 1966 that "science is the belief in the ignorance of experts." My recent book entitled Life, the Universe, and the Scientific Method shows how different sciences, although different in subject matter and methodologies, all have developed ways to prevent scientists from deceiving themselves. "Science is an intellectual process that embodies a mechanism to prevent scientists from believing what scientists want to believe."

This intellectual discipline allows scientists to uncover reality better than lawyers, politicians, or advertisers. These professionals decide first what they want their conclusions to be ("my client is innocent", "re-elect me", or "buy my product"). They then select data to support their preselected conclusions. They allow themselves any trick to do so, suppressing opposing data, manipulating the media, and destroying opponents through ad hominem attacks. Only a robust system of controlled advocacy, where both sides must argue before a neutral authority (a jury, electorate, or free market), can prevent such an intellectual process from going bad (and often not even then).

Unfortunately, the intellectual discipline needed to support successful science is difficult to teach. It goes against powerful sociological forces, including the need to have authorities in one's field approve grants, grant tenure, or award awards. Accordingly, scientists themselves practice this discipline imperfectly, sometimes very imperfectly. Especially in matters of public policy, one can often see scientists being advocates for their theories with skills equal to the best of attorneys.

When they do, however, scientists lose for themselves the empowerment of modern science. When scientists cease to be more critical of data that support their own hypotheses than data that contradict them, they soon lose the ability to distinguish reality from non-reality.

Nowhere is this intellectual discipline more important than when addressing "big" questions, those that concern subject matter that is not readily available for direct observation. These are not the work-a-day questions that a practitioner must answer to solve a technological problem ("Doc, why am I sick?") or that a parent might field from an inquisitive child ("Mom, what makes the sky blue?").

No, these are questions like: "Do alien extraterrestrials exist?" Or: "How do galaxies form?" Or: "How did life originate?" It implies no disrespect of the ailing patient or the inquisitive child to say that "big" questions are more interesting than the work-a-day questions. Or to suggest that their pursuit is more likely to uncover more fundamental reasons why experts are ignorant. Or to expect the pursuit of "big" questions to be more likely to ignite new beacons to guide our exploration of the cosmos. Including the life it holds.

On this matter, Stephen Meyer recently weighed in with his book, Signature in the Cell. Meyer evidently views his 508 pages (with additional pages of notes) as a "scientific" argument for intelligent design. In addition, Meyer offers autobiographical digressions showing how he learned of many of the conclusions that modern science has delivered. He provides personal stories describing how he learned of the challenges in distinguishing scientific statements from non-scientific statements, how he learned why scientists view living systems as complex, and how he learned about questions current among those who seek to understand the origin of life.

Absent, however, from Meyer's narrative is any evidence that he learned about the intellectual discipline that gave science the power that it needed to arrive at these conclusions. On the contrary, Meyer is an advocate. He knows the final result that he wants (intelligent design). He cherry-picks conclusions provided by modern science to support it (mostly of the "irreducible complexity" type). He reaches his final result with no indication that he considered (or would consider) evidence that might prevent him from believing what he wants to believe.

But it is worse. Not only is Meyer ignorant of the intellectual discipline that gives science its power. He is evidently ignorant of his ignorance. He gives no indication that he knows that by being an advocate, he has denied himself the empowerment that scientific processes might have delivered to him.

In one sense, Meyer cannot be faulted. He is trained in the philosophy of science, a field that does not have many methods to prevent its practitioners from arriving at the results that they want. He is also surrounded in his culture by pseudo-scientific debate. As Feynman observed, "we live in an unscientific age in which almost all the buffeting of communications and television are unscientific. As a result, there is a considerable amount of intellectual tyranny in the name of science."

This observation remains true today. One cant hardly turn on the television without hearing that some "science" or other is "settled", from trans-fats in the food to the role of human carbon dioxide emissions in global climate change. This despite the fact that anyone who declares that a science is "settled" has lost the intellectual discipline needed to be empowered by science.

Why does Meyer write a book that puts his ignorance on such display? He answers this question on page 450. Meyer wants to believe in intelligent design because he wants to avoid an "absence of meaning in modern life". He writes, "the theory of intelligent design … affirm[s] that the ultimate cause of life is personal".

One can certainly be sympathetic with Meyer's suffering as he becomes aware of the Faustian dilemma presented by modern society. One might also object to the cheapening of modern culture, the disaffection of the youth, or the high level of teenage pregnancy. For any of these reasons, one might hope that a belief that life emerged through the hand of an intelligent designer would be mitigating, especially if it is presented as an article of faith as a mandate from a divinity.

And indeed it might. But this is not what scientists should be doing. More to the point, if they started doing so, they would stop producing what we value from science.

And so we turn to another of Meyer's interests: Education. If what experts know today about biology, chemistry, and physics were all that is to be known, then Feynman's aphorism would no longer be correct. We should not only want to believe what we are taught in school by experts, but we should believe. Indeed, we might take a short-cut directly to knowledge by believing without having reason to believe; we should have "faith". Any intellectual discipline that might disrupt our beliefs is no longer needed; indeed, it might lead us astray.

But if there is something left to be learned about the world around us, then it is appropriate to teach the intellectual discipline that is necessary for science to be empowering. Our children will almost certainly need the power of that intellectual discipline to manage the next generation of problems that they will confront. And, as Meyer's book makes clear, there is much to be learned, especially about the origins of life.


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Gregory Arago - #1672

January 4th 2010

Well said in #1647, especially paragraph 2 David Opderbeck!


John Kwok - #1683

January 5th 2010

Back in February philosopher Robert Pennock stated som important, quite valid, comments regarding mendacity displayed by the Discovery Institute and other creationists:

http://www.usnews.com/blogs/room-for-debate/2009/02/18/creation-of-christian-soldiers-a-chilling-sidelight-of-darwin-bashing.html

He concluded his commentary with these remarks, which I endorse fully:


“As I wrote in a recent op-ed about Expelled and the ID culture wars, it is hard to know how to respond in a civil manner to such ignorant extremism. Let me go further here: Such views (and I do here mean views, not people) do not deserve a civil response. They deserve more than disapproval and ridicule. They deserve the moral outrage of all who are friends of reason and truth.”

“Darwin shares his birthday with Abraham Lincoln, and the famous conclusion of Lincoln’s first Inaugural Address is relevant to the culture war that creationists and other extremists would inject into our children’s science classes. Let us forthrightly reject those false and polarizing views and hope that the better angels of our nature will eventually prevail and bring this war to an end.”

I hope there are others here at BioLogos who agree.


Brian - #1719

January 5th 2010

Hello Charlie @ 1660,

I myself became—and remain—a theist primarily _because_ of the evidence, of which there are many important lines.  Probably most important to me is the fact that the xian world view, IMO, explains the way people are (and the way I am) better than any other.  But science enters into it too.  Lately, I have found looking at “fine tuning” at the cosmological level to be both reinforcing and consistent with theism.  If you want to we can discuss more, but for now, Just Six Numbers by Rees is good on this. 

You ask, “can anyone think of how one can determine “truth” without evidence?”  I don’t believe anyone can—not me, at least.  And this is why I’m a xian. 

Recommendation:  Tim Keller, a writer I like quite a bit, was featured here several days ago.  Pick up his book; it’s a great read. 
http://www.amazon.com/Reason-God-Belief-Age-Skepticism/dp/0525950494/ref=sr_1_5?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1262700475&sr=8-5


Mike Gene - #1732

January 5th 2010

David made some excellent points.  Let me add a couple of more thoughts. Dr. Benner writes, “This intellectual discipline allows scientists to uncover reality better than lawyers, politicians, or advertisers.” 

But in a sense, this is comparing apples and oranges.  If science is the best way to ‘uncover reality,’ then why hasn’t any country replaced courtrooms and lawyers/judges with labs and scientists?  Because it can’t be done.  Science excels only as a function of its limitations.

There is a fundamental difference between scientists and lawyers/politicians/advertisers.  The latter group must make choices and decisions based on the information at hand.  Scientists have the option of saying “we don’t know, further research is needed.”  In fact, this option is essential to science.  Yet the need to make decisions, here and now, is essential to everyday life.


Gregory Arago - #1747

January 5th 2010

If you’ll forgive the repeat, I write it for Dr. Steven Benner’s education in philosophy of science, a field that he seems to dismiss condescendingly (though without a convincing reason).

Steven wrote: “Do I think that more than one “scientific method” exists (#1480)? Yes.” (#1528)

Gregory Arago: “Then why does the title of your book suggest that only a *single* entity called ‘the scientific method’ exists?”

It would help for Benner’s future communicative endeavo(u)rs to answer to this question directly and not to avoid it as a natural scientist speaking with a philosopher often does.

Among the first two questions asked in the field of ‘science studies’ are: Which science? and Whose science? One simply must admit there are *sciences* (plural) and *scientific methods* (plural).

The notion that there is ONE ‘scientific method’ is badly out of date. As it seems to me, so is the title of Benner’s book (which by the way doesn’t mean that there aren’t clever and important insights therein!). I would hope that Dr. Benner would take this into consideration in future writings.

Respectfully,
Gregory


John Blackburn - #1755

January 5th 2010

This man would do well to make his arguments genuine.


Charlie - #1821

January 6th 2010

To Brian (responding to #1719)

You stated that you found that “looking at “fine tuning” at the cosmological level to be both reinforcing and consistent with theism.”  Can you please explain how this reinforces theism.  Are you 100% certain that if any of the knobs were tweaked, life (although most it would most certainly be extremely different life) would still not arise?  I feel making a claim that life could only arise with the knobs set the way they are is making a bold conclusion that I feel us humans must humbly accept that we are just too ignorant to make.  I see a close connection between the fine tuning argument and irreducible complexity.  Just because we don’t know something, doesn’t mean that is evidence for theism.


Brian - #1847

January 6th 2010

Charlie,

Thanks for the reply. 

First, a reference (all quotations come from this piece in Discover.  I like it both because it is broadly representative of recent research, and uncontroversially in the mainstream):  http://discovermagazine.com/2008/dec/10-sciences-alternative-to-an-intelligent-creator

Am I 100% certain? 
No.  Most of the big questions of life cannot be reduced to such black and white terms, IMO.  I put this sort of evidence in the “beyond a reasonable doubt”, not “beyond an absolute doubt” category. 

If you were to rephrase your question to “Are you certain beyond a reasonable doubt that if any of the knobs were tweaked, life as we know it would not be possible,” the answer provided by the experts is a decisive yes.  Consider:  “Tweak the laws of physics in just about any way and—in this universe, anyway—life as we know it would not exist…. Atoms consist of protons, neutrons, and electrons. If those protons were just 0.2 percent more massive than they actually are, they would be unstable and would decay into simpler particles. Atoms wouldn’t exist; neither would we….”  This is but one of several examples of observed fact from the reference I could have provided.


Brian - #1848

January 6th 2010

—2—

“Can you please explain how this reinforces theism”
Theism “predicts” if you will, not only that God exists, but also that he is fantastically powerful, and damn smart.  An engineered universe like the one we live in is exactly what I would expect to see as the creative output of such a God.  Discover, on the other hand, describes fine-tuning as a “‘problem’—the baffling observation that the laws of the universe seem custom-tailored to favor the emergence of life.”  For the naturalist, fine tuning is a problem and baffling specifically because it is disconfirming.  This data is not AT ALL what was expected, working from the assumption that unguided naturalism was at the helm. 

“Just because we don’t know something, doesn’t mean that is evidence for theism.”
I agree.  But my conclusions are based on what we DO know; fine tuning is a well-established fact. It is the naturalists in this case who propose a what-we-don’t-know desperate means to insulate their world view from uncomfortable data.  Indeed, one even says, “If you don’t want God, you better have a multiverse.”  How ironic is it that when the data pushes him into a corner, it is the naturalist who resorts to a religious explanation?


Brian - #1849

January 6th 2010

—3—

A final quotation: 
“Life, it seems, is not an incidental component of the universe, burped up out of a random chemical brew on a lonely planet to endure for a few fleeting ticks of the cosmic clock. In some strange sense, it appears that we are not adapted to the universe; the universe is adapted to us.”  Wow.

IMO, this line of evidence is huge and rests squarely in the theist’s column.  Thanks for asking.


Charlie - #1900

January 7th 2010

Brian-
You explained what could not exist if you tweaked physics (atoms and life as we know it).  Do you know what WOULD exist if you tweaked physics?  The truthful answer is no, none of us do because we can’t humanly tweak it.  You said atoms would be reduced to simple particles but making such a claim is impossible because we cannot determine what an altered physical world would be.  So why do you feel it is reasonable to assume that life (I’m defining life in scientific terms, not human life) could not arise with the different physical law?  The knobs had to be set somewhere correct?  And life arose with those knobs set where they are.  You make the claim that knobs set differently would not allow life - true for life as we know it, but it’s a very risky conclusion for life simply meaning a metabolic, replicating, isolated system.  Also, I don’t see how set physical laws disprove the absence of a God.

Also, what is the “uncomfortable data” you quoted?

Last, how was your final quote evidence?  Why does it appear “that we are not adapted to the universe (but that) the universe is adapted to us”?  Just because someone said it doesn’t make it evidence.


Brian - #1950

January 7th 2010

Charlie,

“You said atoms would be reduced to simple particles…” 
Actually, I quoted Discover, who reported the testimony of experts in the field.  If you disagree, your dispute is not with me, but with the facts as reported by the scientists. 

“Do you know what WOULD exist…” 
Of course not; no one does.


Brian - #1951

January 7th 2010

—2—

“why do you feel it is reasonable to assume that life…could not arise with the different physical law?”
Even though I made no such assumption, is this really the parcel of ground you want to defend?  I will easily grant that it is _concievable_ that life could arise with a different set of physical laws, if you agree that any such conception is speculation without evidence.

“I don’t see how set physical laws disprove the absence of a God.” 
Good, because I don’t think it does either—I just think it makes it highly unlikely.  If you read the article again, you’ll note that some of naturalism’s most ardent supporters do too:  otherwise hard-boiled physicists who feel that they have no choice but to retreat to metaphysics in an attempt to explain the data: an untestable, unfalsifiable, theory of multiverses, which is preferred apparently only because it is naturalistic. 

Since both the theist and naturalist end up on metaphysical ground, I prefer the perspective which to me is more internally consistent:  detailed specification implies—doesn’t prove, but implies—a specifier.  I don’t have nearly enough faith to accept the multiverse alternative. 

-b


Steve Benner - #1962

January 8th 2010

Mr. Gene (#1547) asked if my piece was advocacy, “idealistic” and “cheerleading”. I intended it to be informative, as I was asked by the blog organizer to explain what scientists do to make “scientific” statements worthy of the special respect that they have in modern culture. That aside, scientists are human and are often advocates, especially of their own theories. When they become advocates, however, scientists lose for themselves the intellectual discipline that empowers them. Whether different ways of “knowing” and “kinds” of knowledge exist (Mr. Opderbeck #1647) is the epistemological issue at hand. I have argued (this is advocacy, not science) that only those who credit most the data that contradicts their desired conclusions, and credit least the data that confirm them, can benefit from the empowerment that modern science delivers. Philosophy has been around a lot longer without this disciplined approach to data, but did not build an atomic bomb (my using this example should lay to rest the complaint #1547 that I was cherry picking only “the good” from science). Dr. Meyer’s book suggests that he lacks the intellectual discipline of which I speak; perhaps he has other kinds of intellectual discipline (#1747).


Brian - #1978

January 8th 2010

Steve Benner says: 
“When they become advocates, however, scientists lose for themselves the intellectual discipline that empowers them.”

I agree.  Given this, would you say that the advocacy of a Dawkins or a Coyne, for example, has caused them to lose for themselves the intellectual discipline that empowers them, or does this sort of statement apply only to non-orthodox types like Meyer? 

Thanks for your contiributions.


Charlie - #1984

January 8th 2010

Brian,

Why can you say the absence of a God is unlikely?  We just discussed how there is no evidence proving or disproving God so how can it be unlikely?


Brian - #2001

January 8th 2010

Charlie,
I didn’t claim there wasn’t evidence.  I actually think the evidence from fine tuning is quite convincing.  I merely said that this evidence allows me to render a verdict which is beyond a reasonable doubt, not one which is 100% certain. Because this and other lines of evidence make God’s existence tenable—and yes, likely—I made a decision to become a theist.


Charlie - #2094

January 9th 2010

Brian,

What is the evidence?  I know there are set constants in physics, but is that your evidence?  If it is, how does that support the existence of God?


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