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Science as a Way of Knowing

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December 30, 2009 Tags: Science & Worldviews
Science as a Way of Knowing

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

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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John Kwok - #1399

December 30th 2009

Bravo, Dr. Benner, well said with regard to Meyer’s ignorance. But I wished you would have emphasized my friend Ken Miller’s point that Intelligent Design is a “science stopper”, which Ken expresses with ample eloquence in his “Only A Theory: Evolution and the Battle for America’s Soul”.

And those for your who wonder why Intelligent Design is a “science stopper”, it is simply because Intelligent Design, like other forms of creationism and pseudoscience, lacks the “intellectual discipline” which Benner describes here in this essay with ample grace and eloquence. A distinction which Meyer has yet to learn, and which, alas, he may never learn.

John Kwok - #1402

December 30th 2009

@ my prior comment -

Just saw a few typos, so the final paragraph should read:

And for those of you who wonder why Intelligent Design is a “science stopper”, it is simply because Intelligent Design, like other forms of creationism and pseudoscience, lacks the “intellectual discipline” which Benner describes here in this essay with ample grace and eloquence. A distinction which Meyer has yet to learn, and which, alas, he may never learn.

Meyer’s woeful lack of intellectual discpline is readily apparent in the “technical” appendix of “Signature in the Cell”, betraying a gross misunderstanding of what science is and what it can accomplish with respect to biology. Since Meyer is a former geophysicist, he should have known better than to conceive of such an intellectually-flawed piece of “scientific” reasoning as that which exists in the appendix of his book.

beaglelady - #1415

December 30th 2009

Dr. Benner,

This is a thoughtful and comprehensive post and I wish you would also post it on Amazon.com, as a review of Signature in the Cell.

Brian - #1419

December 30th 2009

Thanks for the interesting post.  Questions:

1. Given what he calls a “a considerable amount of intellectual tyranny in the name of science,” I’m wondering if Dr Benner has ever observed such tyranny at work in the field of evolutionary biology?  If so, would he be willing to provide a couple examples of this? 

2. Dr Benner says:  “anyone who declares that a science is “settled” has lost the intellectual discipline needed to be empowered by science.”  Would this criticism also apply to those who accept the settled “fact” of macroevolution?  If not, why? 

3. Would his criticisms of advocacy apply to if the ideological tables were reversed?  For example, would his statement

also be valid?  “ is an advocate. He knows the final result that he wants (

). He cherry-picks conclusions provided by modern science to support it (mostly of the “time, chance and natural law can do it all” 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.” 



John Kwok - #1421

December 30th 2009

@ Brian -

If you are referring to the traditional creationist canard that macroevolution is simply the origin of new species and that it is wrong since we don’t see new species evolving in nature, then you are either a fool or delusional or both to bring it up in this context. We have already a very good idea as to how speciation does work, including Natural Selection’s role, in an extensive body of biological scientific literature.

If, on the other hand, you are referring to macroevolution as evolution above the species level, then you are correct to note that macroevolution is not “settled” as fact, but could be potentially, part of a new, more broadly “expanded”, Extended Modern Synthesis theory of evolution, which some are working on.

Your substitution of Dawkins’s name for Meyer’s is quite simply absurd (and I make this observation as someone who strongly disagrees with Dawkins’s New Atheist views) and not really worthy of comment, since, as a scientist (or rather, when he was working as a young brilliant evolutionary biologist), Dawkins has never demonstrated the very traits so noted by Dr. Brenner with regards to Meyer’s own commitment to intellectual, especially scientific, honesty.

immunochemist - #1422

December 30th 2009

A nice article overall, but if I have one teeny little gripe it’s that in my opinion it’s a mistake to dismiss the rest of the field of philosophy of science along with Meyer.  Like science, philosophy is often badly practised, but it can also involve the discipline you speak of if its practitioners keep their minds free of final conclusions. 

At its best, philosophy can both provide science’s logical foundations and even suggest whole new lines of enquiry.  Descartes, Galileo, Darwin and T.H. Huxley all successfully made contributions to the philosophy of science on top of their research, and even non-scientists like Aristotle and Popper have arguably made large contributions to our methods for ensuring we can confidently make statements about reality.

Darrel Falk - #1425

December 30th 2009

Response to Brian (1419):

I doubt that Dr. Benner will have time to respond, but your questions are typical of the sort that many would ask, so I want to address them.

1.  I think there have been times when evolutionary biologists have let their personal philosophies influence their conclusions in the way that Dr. Benner outlines.  Richard Dawkins’ statement about “blind pitiless indifference,” comes quickly to mind.  Evolutionary biologists are not immune to the sorts of forces that Dr. Benner describes.
2. Dr. Benner was not implying that science never leads to “settlement.”  Quite the opposite. For example, science shows with virtual certainty that HIV causes AIDS.  The fact of macro-evolution has been settled with the same degree of certainty. 
3.  I know of many scientists, including those who are agnostic about theism, who think that Richard Dawkins and others like him,  take on an advocacy role that extends well beyond the bounds of the scientific data.


Glen Davidson - #1426

December 30th 2009

Good article, but I have to wonder at the apparent dismissal of the philosophy of science as if it were a field that is ignorant of science.  Meyer’s ignorance is not due to a paucity of knowledge about science in the areas of philosophy which deal with it, although it’s true enough that many “philosophers of science” are not well acquainted with their subject.

Science is to some degree kept honest by philosophy, after all.  Proper thinking is essential in science, and logic is the province first of philosophy.  On the other hand, I do believe that philosophy should be informed by science better than it often is.  Nevertheless, it is no accident that many of the best thinkers in science have been well-informed by philosophy, including Newton, Einstein, and quantum theorists.

Also, the pseudoscience of society is no excuse for someone who claims the mantle of the philosophy of science.  He was supposed to learn the subject better at Cambridge, and I cannot believe that his teachers are wholly responsible for the dreck in Signature.

I realize that Dr. Benner, like Dr. Falk, wish not to attack Meyer, but both seem to excuse him too much, at least in my opinion. 

Glen Davidson

Glen Davidson - #1427

December 30th 2009


Meyer does make many mistakes, including the (mis)use of obsolete methodologies practiced by Lyell and Darwin.  The fact is that classical science today relies upon discovering specific causes which are considered to be at least plausibly operative in a certain time and place, and matches these to their expected effects, in other words, to their entailed predictions.  Meyer does not bother with this at all, rather he relies upon vague analogies between human activity and an “intelligence” for which he has no evidence (as a primary cause in our universe).  That really is very little different from homiletics or sympathetic magic.  He essentially imported religious thought which has never produced scientific results into science, and dressed it up with a lot of science jargon and flim-flam to cover up such an illegitimate action.

The philosophy of science, whatever its faults, is not responsible for that.  Neither is the unscientific nature of our society.

Glen Davidson

Francis Beckwith - #1428

December 30th 2009

Although I am critical of ID, I think this is just the sort of essay that does not advance the conversation in a constructive way. Let me explain.

1. The author accuses Dr. Meyer of “displaying his ignorance.” But that relies on the belief that ignorance is a mental state that one ought not to have. But that’s not a claim of science. It is a normative claim about the intrinsic purposes of persons and the sorts of ends that are appropriate to persons. That is a claim of philosophy, not science.

2. The author writes: “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.”  The author is assuming that having methodological constraints prevents one from arriving at pre-ordained or desired conclusions.  I’m not sure that’s true. Consider an example the author himself uses, the Galileo controversy.

(continued in next post)

Francis Beckwith - #1429

December 30th 2009

(continued from #1428)

If anything, Galileo’s use of the telescope inserted into science a tool that was contrary to the methodological constraints of his contemporaries. And the reason why science advanced was precisely because Galileo forced a paradigm shift which opened up new questions that could not be answered under the Ptolemaic paradigm.  In this case, methodological constraints impeded rather than advanced discovery. As many readers of BioLogos know, the Galileo case is much more complicated and fascinating than it is usually depicted in popular culture. My former colleague, Maurice Finocchiaro, in his book, The Galileo Affair (U. of California Press, 1989), provides an account of the theoretical, historical, and sociological issues that really set the stage for the Galileo controversy.

I will soon be publishing a piece, “How to Be An Anti-Intelligent Design Advocate,” in which I explain my own misgivings about ID while critiquing the New Atheists’ misuse of science and their misunderstandings of the classical theistic view of design in nature, which, ironically, they share with the ID advocates!  The article is set to be published in a few months in the University of St. Thomas Journal of Law & Public Policy

Glen Davidson - #1430

December 30th 2009

(as a primary cause in our universe).

Sorry, that came out exactly opposite of what I meant.  I meant as “proximal” or “secondary” cause evidence of God’s activity is absent.

Glen Davidson

Mark - #1437

December 30th 2009

Francis Beckwith wrote: “Although I am critical of ID, I think this is just the sort of essay that does not advance the conversation in a constructive way…”

I completely agree.  In my opinion BioLogos and its champions should be extending an olive branch to all groups and individuals that share its love for Christ. This guy’s article here only widens the chasm between believers and in the process feeds the blood thirsty lions of the new atheist movement a five course meal that will surely be regurgitated and used against Christians who dare to cite the complexity of a cell as one of their reasons for their beliefs.

Having said that, I FULLY understand—and agree with—Collins’ warnings about “God of the gaps” science (by the way Francis Collins: the new atheist movement has officially adopted that term as their own and they use it quite frequently to degrade Christianity and anything that even vaguely resembles and argument pro design-by-an-intelligent-being”)... CONT’D due to annoying character limitation

Mark - #1438

December 30th 2009

CONT’d due to annoying character limitation…

HOWEVER, while we should be careful not to embrace ideas simply because science has not yet explained them, we should also be mindful of the big pink elephant in the room called “academic freedom” and champion its cause intelligently and with great respect whenever we can

In other words, the increasingly negative articles about Meyer here are doing NOTHING to help the design by a supreme being movement. All they are doing is criticizing it—and likely in the process discouraging others from positing their own ideas. It’s one thing to have the opposition blast your work, it’s quite another to have your own Christian brothers blast it FOR the opposition!

There is a fine line between criticism that ENCOURAGES people to rise to a higher level of spiritual and academic excellence, and criticism that belittles them, and I think you guys have crossed it. I don’t like the negative vibe I am picking up here at all. Please stop.

Brian - #1439

December 30th 2009

Darrel @1425,

1. “Evolutionary biologists are not immune to the sorts of forces that Dr. Benner describes.”  Agreed. 

2. While I appreciate your reply, I don’t see any such qualification in a face-value reading of Dr Brenner’s statement, which is why I asked the question. 

Having said that, what do you mean when you refer to the “fact of evolution?”  Just a day or two ago on this site there was a lengthy conversation about OOL research, which was introduced and discussed in the broader context of evolution, but which—even for the most optimistic of advocates—cannot in any way be considered settled.

“Evolution” is quite malleable and holds a huge range of meanings; without a clear definition, it’s easy for folks in these sorts of discussions to talk right past each other.  I’m particularly interested in how your definition might differ from that of say someone like Dawkins or PZ Meyers, and how your definition is informed by your theism, if it is at all. 

3. “Richard Dawkins and others like him, take on an advocacy role that extends well beyond the bounds of the scientific data.”  Well beyond.  Couldn’t agree more. 



John Kwok - #1440

December 30th 2009

@ Brian -

Hopefully Darrel’s view of evolution is not shaped by theism. Why? Simply since evolution is science, while theism is faith, and the two should not intertwine. I know religiously devout scientists who recognize the scientific validity of evolution, and, moreover, who, as scientists, consider only scientific issues under consideration, not their religious thought, when they are working as scientists.

Last June at the World Science Festival here in New York City, I heard two scientists assert that for them, as scientists and religiously devout individuals, science comes first and foremost while they work as scientists, with no consideration whatsoever for their personal religious convictions. Who were they? Brown University cell biologist Ken Miller (a personal friend) and Vatican Astronomer - and planetary scientist and Jesuit brother - Guy Consolmagno. Moreover, Ken has declared that those who belong to faiths hostile to science should discard their memberships in such faiths.

We don’t inquire about one’s theistic views when discussing astrophysics or structural geology. Why should it be any different for a scientist - religious or otherwise - who recognizes that evolution is a valid scientific fact?

John Kwok - #1441

December 30th 2009

Brian -

Evolution is not malleable; it is quite simply descent through modification via inheritance and variation sas een through the dual prisms of space and time, which will lead ultimately to adaptation.

Darrel Falk - #1442

December 30th 2009

Mark 1437.

I appreciate your concern about extending an olive branch.  However, most non-scientists do not understand the scientific process.  Dr. Benner’s essay is the best I have ever read in explaining how science works.  Why would we want to hold that back?

We exist to bring harmony between science and faith, but not at the expense of truth.  Read the essay again carefully.  I doubt you’ll ever again read anything which more clearly lays out the process of how the culture of science works.  The sort of knowledge gained through this process does, of course, have boundaries…but that’s another essay.


John Kwok - #1446

December 30th 2009

@ Darrel -

I completely endorse your remarks addressed to Mark (@ 1437). You have no disagreement with me there.

Brian - #1448

December 30th 2009

John 1440

We don’t inquire about one’s theistic views in other scientific disciplines because the advocates of those disciplines (most of them anyway…) understand that science and world view are distinct in a way that many evolutionary biologists do not. 

I’d like to be able to agree with you, but the fact is that theology is introduced into these discussions all the time—and not from the sources one might expect.  Consider, for example:

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