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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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Brian - #1449

December 30th 2009

Cont’d from above…

“Darwin knew that accepting his theory required believing in philosophical materialism, the conviction that matter is the stuff of all existence and that all mental and spiritual phenomena are its by-products. Darwinian evolution was not only purposeless but also heartless–a process in which the rigors of nature ruthlessly eliminate the unfit. Suddenly, humanity was reduced to just one more species in a world that cared nothing for us. The great human mind was no more than a mass of evolving neurons. Worst of all, there was no divine plan to guide us.”
(Biology: Discovering Life by Joseph S. Levine & Kenneth R. Miller (1st ed., D.C. Heath and Co., 1992), pg. 152; (2nd ed.. D.C. Heath and Co., 1994), p. 161; emphases in original.)

When your friend’s textbook claims that an acceptance of evolution REQUIRES (his language, my emphasis) an acceptance that “there was no divine plan to guide us,” my question is legitimate.


Brian - #1450

December 30th 2009

Cont’d again…

“Simply since evolution is science, while theism is faith, and the two should not intertwine.”

Couldn’t agree more.  Next time you talk to your friend Dr Miller, make sure and express this notion to him.  I’d be curious to know his response. 

-B


John Kwok - #1451

December 30th 2009

Brian,

I strongly beg to differ. Darwin was right because he was seeking some rational explanation for common descent without resorting to an Intelligent Designer, which, incidentally, eminent evolutionary geneticist Francisco J. Ayala has noted as Darwin’s recognition that there can be “Design without a Designer” (Incidentally a view which Ken endorses too.). Were you and I may find agreement is recognizing that the New Atheists have gone too far in expressing their religious views and inserting them into their scientific worldview. But otherwise, I should remind you that Darwin was well within his right for making that conclusion.


Brian - #1452

December 30th 2009

You confuse the goal—which for many evolutionary biologists is to support what Dawkins has famously called an intellectually fulfilled atheism—with the evidence for that goal, which is severely lacking. 

Of course Darwin, Miller or anyone else has the right to adopt whatever worldview he wants to.  But to claim that the tools of science somehow demonstrate the absence of a divine plan is complete and utter balderdash. 

If you wish to claim otherwise, please, please point me to the peer-reviewed articles in the professional literature that demonstrate this. 

Again, I posed the question for Darrel since he has somehow managed to do what Miller has not:  accept what he believes to be the scientific evidence for evolution while not buying into the whole purposeless-heartless-no-divine-plan philosophy that almost always gets bolted on to it. 

-b


John Kwok - #1463

December 30th 2009

@ Brian -

Ask any credible scientist and he or she will tell you that the tools of science can’t “demonstrate the absence of a divine plan”. Why? It isn’t science’s job to do this. Instead, for that you need to go to a theologian…. and even a theologian like Jesuit Brother Guy Consolmagno (who has a Ph. D. in planetary sciences, is the Vatican Astronomer and the curator of the Papal Meteorite collection at Castel Gandalfo, the papal “vacation” residence in Italy) would tell you that, as a scientist he does not entertain any theological considerations. It is only when he serves as a Jesuit Brother free of his scientific duties that he can consider theological issues.

The approach favored by virtually all scientists, including Brother Consolmagno, is methodological naturalism, or rather, the “scientific method”, which has worked well for scientists for centuries. This approach, however, is at odds with official Discovery Institute policy, as stated in the now infamous Wedge Document, in which Discovery Institute “scientists” like Meyer seek a more expansive definition of science that would include research into the supernatural. Were they to succeed, it would change science completely beyond anyone’s recognition.


Brian - #1469

December 31st 2009

John,

“Ask any credible scientist and he or she will tell you that the tools of science can’t “demonstrate the absence of a divine plan”.

So, Miller, in your view, is not a credible scientist? 

For the record, I have no qualms with methodological naturalism whatsoever.  But I’m sorry to say, regardless of whether it’s at odds with DI policy (something I don’t care much about), it is squarely at odds with mainstream evolutionary biology, of which Miller is only one small representative drop very close to the main stream.  Philosophical materialism is what he’s advocating and according to him acceptance of Darwin requires signing on to this particular world view. 

Read it again; I’m not making this up.


John Kwok - #1471

December 31st 2009

Brian -

No, Ken Miller advocates methodological naturalism, and has stated so in his recent public comments. To say that Ken is an evolutionary biologist, however, is not correct, since he is by training a cell biologist. He is well versed in evolution as demonstrated by both his writing and his frequent lectures and past debates against creationists around the country.

Let’s not quibble over definitions. The fact remains that Darwin sought some rational explanation for descent with modification via natural law, not via the unseen hand of an Intelligent Designer (though originally he did accept Paley’s thesis as one that was quite valid. It wasn’t until he embarked on HMS Beagle and did substantial field work in South America and the Galapagos Islands did he realize how wrong Paley was.).

There is nothing I know of in evolutionary biology that should shatter your religious worldview, unless that view is one that is conflict with mainstream science. If that is indeed the case, then I strongly advise you to heed Ken’s advice by changing your faith to one that doesn’t reject science as a means for discerning rational explanations for what we observe in the natural world.


Steve Benner - #1474

December 31st 2009

Let me comment to some blogger points; see Chap 1 to 3 of “Life, the Universe…” for more discussion. Even “settled” propositions (e.g.: “HIV causes AIDS”) can be revisited and potentially rejected. However, as science extends its network of logically interconnected propositions, more and more of what we think is true must be rejected to deny any single proposition within that network. Scientists eventually decide to move on (“How Experiments End”, by Peter Galison, a physicist-philosopher-historian whose field I should not have perfunctorily dismissed). Responding analogously to Brian, it is conceivable that the Earth was created 6000 years ago. If it was, however, many well supported propositions within empowering models must be wrong. If New Earth Creationism were correct, Aristotelian logic would require that our view of radioactivity be profoundly wrong; wrong must be theories used to build nuclear power plants, describe stars, and take dental X-rays, inter alia. Given the manifest fact that those theories are empowering in many areas outside of geology, those seeking to support New Earth Creationism have a lot of work to do to overturn the general picture of Earth’s history, and still be consistent with logic.


Mark - #1476

December 31st 2009

Steve, I appreciate your comment. Very well stated.


Gregory Arago - #1480

December 31st 2009

Hi Folks,

After reading this article it is not clear to me if the author believes there is *only one* ‘scientific method’ or of there are *many* ‘scientific methods’? For example, he seems to be in contradiction with the title of his book, since here he writes that there are many methodologies, but the title suggests a single entity called ‘the scientific method.’

Dr. Benner: “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.”

Why not instead title the book, “Life, the Universe and Scientific Methods”?

He also seems to hold a negative view of philosophy of science (PoS), as discussed in other comments, for ‘unscientific’ reasons. That is fine by me, i.e. to hold a negative view of PoS, as long as one realizes why they hold such a view. PoS has exposed the myth that not only the triad of ‘physics, chemistry and biology’ are ‘sciences’, which Benner acknowledges, but adds such things as cognitive sciences, ecology, ethology, behavioral genetics, and perhaps even evolutionary psychology, which Benner doesn’t discuss.


Gregory Arago - #1481

December 31st 2009

One’s view of ‘a dialogue between science and religion’ stated in such a way (i.e. dualistically) does not serve to welcome the participation of philosophy and philosophers, which, e.g., the Dutch reformed Christian perspective does, i.e. this tradition discusses sciences, philosophies *and* religion/faith/theology/worldviews seeking a holistic view.

Benner seems to oppose PoS rather than accept that PoSs may have some knowledge to contribute that he does not possess. It may even be important knowledge to share, though it doesn’t necessarily help with the ‘practice of doing sciences’ other than to aid scientists with their self-understanding.

When Darrell Falk writes, “I doubt you’ll ever again read anything which more clearly lays out the process of how the culture of science works,” there is nothing ‘scientific’ in this statement. But that doesn’t make any less important his views and opinions about philosophy of science and culture.

Meyer and Benner are both ‘advocates’; the main issue is what they are respectively advocating.

Just to end with a question (since to me ‘science’ is about asking questions and seeking answers): If ‘science’ is about ‘reality’, then what are philosophy and religion about?


Gregory Arago - #1485

December 31st 2009

p.s. is Dr. Benner suggesting that one can obtain a PhD degree in History and Philosophy of Science from Cambridge University, as Meyer did, while lacking in ‘intellectual discipline’?


Brian - #1489

December 31st 2009

Steve,
Thanks, but I don’t even know how to respond.  To reply to me with a swipe at young earth creationism—a position I do not support and no one in the discussion even mentioned—is a complete non-sequitur. 
-b


Michael Thompson - #1493

December 31st 2009

Just to end with a question (since to me ‘science’ is about asking questions and seeking answers): If ‘science’ is about ‘reality’, then what are philosophy and religion about?
- Gregory Arago

Good question! my guess is he means Objective reality, that which has, or may be in the future, verifyable by science, while philosphical and theological are subjective reality, though real in how they affect us in powerful ways, can never be proven true with science.

MT


Mike Gene - #1496

December 31st 2009

Dr. Benner,

Very nice essay.  I’m curious as to how you would classify your own essay.  You are attempting to convey knowledge about the world (the practice of science is a human behavior that is part of our world).  Would you say that in writing your essay for the internet, you were doing science?  Is it possible the essay contains some element of advocacy?

I would also point out that religious faith is empowering.  Many Christians can testify to the fact that their faith may not only embolden their sense of meaning and purpose in life, but also sustains them through many of their darkest moments in life.  Perhaps you mean “empowerment” more in the sense of manipulation?


beaglelady - #1507

December 31st 2009

Brian said (to John Kwok):

When your friend’s textbook claims that an acceptance of evolution REQUIRES (his language, my emphasis) an acceptance that “there was no divine plan to guide us,” my question is legitimate.


I questioned Dr. Ken Miller via email about this quote.  He replied with the following:

  The quote is genuine – but it’s still a case of mining a few sentences out of their context in the narrative.

  It comes from page 152 of “Biology: Discovering Life.”  This was a college textbook published nearly 20 years ago (it appeared in 1990) by the DC Heath Co.

  I’m attaching a scan of the complete page, so you can see the full context in which it was written.

  As you will see, we did NOT mean to imply that there is “no divine plan to guide us,” which would be a conclusion outside of science.  Rather, we sought to explain some of the cultural shock that appeared when The Origin was published – and also to affirm, as Darwin did, that evolution is not necessarily a threat to faith.


beaglelady - #1508

December 31st 2009

(Continuing…)

Dr. Miller is correct.  At the end of the section he includes a quote from Darwin,
“I see no good reason why the views given in this volume [Origin Of Species] should shock the religious feelings of anyone.

Miller concludes with the following (emphasis added):
Like religious scientists of many faiths today, he found no less wonder in a god that directed the laws of nature than in one that circumvented them.

And Miller is famously a devout Roman Catholic Christian, as everyone knows (or should know).


beaglelady - #1509

December 31st 2009

To make it clearer, I would like to say,

Miller concludes the section in his textbook with the following (emphasis added):

Like religious scientists of many faiths today, he found no less wonder in a god that directed the laws of nature than in one that circumvented them.


John Kwok - #1513

December 31st 2009

beaglelady,

Thanks for contacting Ken, and having him confirm what I have said about him.


beaglelady - #1514

December 31st 2009

John,

You are most welcome.  I’ve never heard of Ken Miller being quote-mined before, but I guess there’s a first time for everything.


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