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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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beaglelady - #1517

December 31st 2009

Also,  I find that I am no longer allowed to post on the original “SIg in the Cell” post here, which is frustrating.


John Kwok - #1519

December 31st 2009

beaglelady,

Nor can I post there either, and I had been blocked from posting here for a major portion of the day.

As for Ken, he’s been the frequent “victim” of quote mining from creationists of all stripes, including Intelligent Design advocates and from some militant New Atheists who think he is putting his religious faith ahead of his science (An observation which is patently false, since he has said more than once that whenever he does science, it, not religion, occupies his thought. Moreover, he believes that those who belong to faiths hostile to science should renounce their memberships in such faiths. Hard to describe him as someone who would place his religious views ahead of his scientific ones, unlike, for example, Stephen Meyer and Meyer’s “esteemed” Discovery Institute colleagues.).

Sincerely yours,

John


Steve Benner - #1527

January 1st 2010

I use the word “empowering” in an effort to find descriptions that can be “universally agreed upon”. So far, formalisms that distinguish “science” from “non-science” have not been universally agreed upon. Observers of a hydrogen bomb or life-saving medicine need not agree on a formal definition of “knowledge”. But it is hard to conceive of humans who would not say “Yup, whoever built that bomb must know something about the universe that I do not”, even if we are running for our lives as we were saying it. ). Yes, it is easier to use “manipulation” (#1496) to illustrate the concept of “universally agreed” empowerment, something that we expect “knowledge” to confer.  One cannot obtain similar common consent when someone speaks of individual empowerment (#1496). People find science distinctive (and want to apply the term “scientific” to their own activities) because it generates manipulative power that is transparent to everyone. Analogous to #1496’s comment that religion is personally empowering would be statements (such that Carl Sagan might make) that science gives us a personal sense of bewonderment, something that is more like a religious sentiment.


Steve Benner - #1528

January 1st 2010

Also: Do I suggest “one can obtain a PhD…lacking ‘intellectual discipline’” (#1481)? No, but one can obtain that degree without an empowering intellectual discipline. Do I think that more than one “scientific method” exists (#1480)? Yes; “Life the Universe” discusses this. I used New Earth creationism as an example, not a “swipe” (#1489). The question: “Is ‘macroevolution’ likely to be true” (#1419) cannot be managed in 1250 characters because ‘macroevolution’ embodies many different propositions (see #1421); I did not know which #1419 had in mind. For example, what must be abandoned to deny common descent? I would begin with the convergence of geological, anatomical, and paleontological records and DNA sequences. With an ID model, this convergence would be part of the design. Not impossible, but interesting to theology, as it would tell us something about the designer (a “deceptive God” or an Arthur C. Clarke alien). In this model, the designer placed evidence within his/her creation that would imply common descent, evidence that would become discernable only after humankind had technology to sequence DNA. This Designer evidently wanted to deceive, but only advanced humans, not the humans of the Bible.


John Kwok - #1531

January 1st 2010

Steve Brenner -

Thanks for your recent comments and my best wishes to you for the new year. I might add that, in reply to #1419, there exists a growing body of biological scientific literature pointing to recent and ongoing instances of speciation of which one of the more notable examples is the discovery by British biologists of a new species of mosquito found only within London’s Underground subway system (This was published in a British science journal around 2000 or 2001, but I don’t have the reference handy.). Am mentioning this merely to note that speciation is not rare or elusive or undetectable; it is as natural a process as planetary motion, the origin and movement of hurricanes and other severe storms, or the advance (or retreat) of glaciers.


Gregory Arago - #1533

January 1st 2010

There will never be “descriptions that can be “universally agreed upon”.” This is a human-social ‘law’ of communication and not something that a study of physical things (e.g. molecules) can ascertain.

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

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

I find the same lack of precision (and dire need for more PoS) in your claim that S. Meyer is not credible, empowered or intellectually disciplined. Cambridge University says he is intellectually disciplined, empowered and credible, especially on the ‘origins of life’ conversation. I don’t know who you are to say otherwise.


John Kwok - #1539

January 1st 2010

@ Gregory Arago -

Unlike, for example, genuine philosophers of science such as Philip Kitcher or Robert Pennock, Meyer’s “scholarship” has consisted almost primarily of partisan advocacy on behalf of Intelligent Design creationism.  If one were to glance objectively at the curriculum vitae of Kitcher’s, Pennock’s and Meyer’s, then any objective reader would recognize instantly that Meyer is not a credible philosopher or historian of science (which, I do acknowledge, is his specialty, having earned a Ph. D. degree in the history of science), especially when, in his own bibliography for “Signature in the Cell”, virtually every publication of his has been in books and journals that are aligned with Fundamentalist Protestant “Christian” religious thought, not within credible journals devoted to the philosophy and/or history of science.

It is for this reason that, I believe, Dr. Benner thinks Meyer is “not credible, empowered or intellectually disciplined”. It may be a harsh judgement expressed diplomatically by Benner, but it is a sound judgement as well, and one which I think even Darrel Falk and Karl Giberson would concur with.


Mike Gene - #1547

January 1st 2010

Dr Benner,

Thank you for your reply about the issue of empowerment.  I was just letting you know it was possible for some to read the essay and interpret you to be saying that science alone imparts empowerment.  But that is not the case. Your point about finding descriptions that can be “universally agreed upon” is a good one.  Yes, no rational person can deny the manipulative empowerment of science. 

Yet I also wonder if there really is a clear-cut distinction between science and advocacy.  It would seem to me your portrayal of science is rather idealistic and it comes across as cheer-leading.  I’m thinking of this because of your emphasis on empowerment, as it brings to mind Goethe’s poem, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.  We know that science has brought both good and bad into the world, yet, as if you were cherry picking, you chose to focus only on the good. 

As the comic book says, with great power comes great responsibility.  What sustains that sense of responsibility?


John Kwok - #1549

January 1st 2010

Mike Gene -

What you are addressing are issues pertaining to the sociology of science, and I might suggest reading Fred Grinnell’s “Everyday Practice of Science”, in which he admits that science may not always follow strictly the scientific method and that some science does involve advocacy. These are valid points and I think Grinnell’s comments are most persuasive, merely to illustrate how science can stray from the ideals implicit in its adoption of methodological naturalism (That it can stray should surprise no one since science is a human endeavor, and humans are not infallible.). However, there is a substantial degree of difference between what Grinnell recognizes as bona fide science advocacy and the kind practiced daily by Stephen Meyer and his fellow Discovery Institute mendacious intellectual pornographers (I use this term because their activities are truly mendacious strategies adopted by totalitarian dictatorship propagandists.).


John Kwok - #1550

January 1st 2010

Miike Gene (continued) -

BTW I know you are an Intelligent Design advocate, but you seem to come across as more intelligent than your peers, so I’m not going to hurl insults at you…. at least not yet.

Respectfully yours,

John Kwok

P. S. Fred Grinnell has dealt with Meyer in the past, and is not by any means, a fan of Intelligent Design.


Mike Gene - #1553

January 2nd 2010

Hi John,

I am an “ID advocate” in the sense that I like to explore the possibility that evolution may have been influenced by design.  But don’t worry, as I recognize my approach does not rise to the level of science and have made this clear.  In fact, many in the ID movement are not exactly pleased with my long-stated position that ID is not science.  It is a non-negotiable point for them.

Anyway, thanks for the recommendation of Grinnell’s book.  I do think a sociology of science approach helps us better understand science than a philosophy of science approach.  But to be clear, I am not somehow trying to defend the advocacy of the ID movement with some “everyone does it” argument.


John Kwok - #1554

January 2nd 2010

Hi Mike,

Okay, thanks for your comment, especially recognizing that Intelligent Design isn’t scientific (Though in deferrence to philosopher of science Philip Kitcher, it may have been once, as I noted in another blog entry comment, from the 16th through 18th Centuries.).  If I may offer this bit of advice, it might serve you well to remind others of this, in the event someone else mistakes you as yet another ID advocate.

As for evolution being “influenced” by design, you ought to consider what both evolutionary geneticist Francisco J. Ayala and cell biologist Kenneth R. Miller have said, that Darwin recognized the possibility of “Design without a Designer”, in which designed occurred, as an emergent property, via natural law (I think Ken does a fine job explaining this in his “Only A Theory: Evolution and the Battle for America’s Soul”.).

Sincerely yours,

John


Mike Gene - #1558

January 2nd 2010

Hi John,

Thanks for the advice.  And thanks for the recommendation of Miller’s book.  I did enjoy his first one and actually built on some of his points.  So I’ll add his second book to my “to read” list. But I am not here to advocate for my own views and will try to restrict my focus to the arguments proposed in the blog entries.


John Kwok - #1570

January 2nd 2010

Mike,

You’re welcome. I forgot to mention Ayala’s book,  “Darwin’s Gift to Science and Religion”, which emphasizes the fact that Darwin discovered that there could be “Design without a Designer”.

While I would prefer not to advocate my views, I have felt compelled to in light of those who think Stephen Meyer and his Discovery Institute colleague merit more sympathetic treatment since they are, like many posting here, Christians too (I wonder if they would receive such treatment if they were identified clearly as members of some kind of Islamic Fascist organization such as Al Qaeda or the Taliban, for example. Regrettably, as Paul Gross and Barbara Forrest, among others, have demonstrated, especially in their “Creationism’s Trojan Horse: The Wedge of Intelligent Design”, one can conclude that Meyer and his Discovery Institute colleagues are really crypto-Fascist “Christians” who see Intelligent Design as an important means for intellectual, cultural and poltiical subversion.).

Sincerely,

John


John Kwok - #1573

January 2nd 2010

Just in, even “lifeless” prions are capable of evolution:

http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/health/8435320.stm

I strongly doubt Meyer can address this.


David Opderbeck - #1647

January 4th 2010

I’m sorry I’m late to this party, but I had to weigh in on one point:  Dr. Brenner unfortunately misrepresents here what lawyers do in what seems to be an effort to establish the epistemic superiority of “science” to any other way of knowing.  As my own essays here on Biologos suggest, I too am critical of the ID movement for a variety of reasons.  One of my primary reasons for balking at ID, however, is theological, which Dr. Brenner apparently would take to mean “trivial.” 

We can do much better than this.  Check out Alister McGrath’s work on critical realism.  “Science” isn’t the only way of knowing, nor is it the “best” way of knowing.  It’s a set of tools and methods that are uniquely appropriate to one aspect of reality.  We “know” much more than what “science” tells us and we gain this knowledge through a variety of tools, including theology and philosophy.  There is harmony between faith and science, but there is no possibility of harmony between faith and positivism.


David Opderbeck - #1649

January 4th 2010

Oh yeah:  lawyers, at least good lawyers, don’t just reason to whatever result the client wants.  It doesn’t work that way, except maybe on TV.  We lawyers have to deal with facts that simply are what they are and an often enormous body of prior case law and legislative rules.  We advise our clients about likely outcomes and then work within the constraints of the facts, the existing law, and our ethical rules to present the best possible arguments leading to a result that is hopefully the best that can be obtained for the client under all the circumstances. 

In many ways, this practice of “legal science” isn’t all that different from what natural scientists do when they form theories about reality.  Based on everything you know, you formulate the best possible theory about what reality is like.  If you’re a good natural scientist, however, you don’t confuse your theory with ultimate reality.  By definition, all scientific theories are defeasible if subsequent observations prove contrary.


Charlie - #1656

January 4th 2010

To those pro-religious, anti-intelligent design people, how is religion any different that ID with respect to one’s biased conclusions about the big questions?


John Kwok - #1657

January 4th 2010

David,

Thanks for your excellent comparisons between what really good lawyers and really good scientists do. Your comments needed to be said and I greatly appreciate them.

Speaking of lawyers, you may find this fascinating as an example of the Discovery Institute’s commitment to free speech and respecting property rights of others:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A-cmHJthuq8

I know others here have found my comments critical of Stephen Meyer and his Discovery institute colleagues most objectionable, but that link I’ve just provided merely underscores what I have been saying regarding the Discovery institute’s crypto-Fascist orientation.

Sincerely yours,

John


Charlie - #1660

January 4th 2010

Science looks at evidence and from it, theories are either strengthened or weakened, leading to our scientific definitions of truth.  Science is unbiased in that it openly accepts change to “truth” if new evidence arises.  Also, science makes us humans humbly accept there is much we do not understand.  Because of the immense amount we do not understand, religion enters the lives of many to give them a satisfactory answer.  Personal interpretations are made in religion either to explain the unexplained or to support an ethical way of living.  I think religion is good for many in the sense that it develops great morals, however does everyone agree that religion explaining the unexplained is unscientific?  I feel the answers religion provides are only hypotheses lacking data.  From what I understand, Biologos interprets the Bible to support today’s scientific truths, but can anyone think of how one can determine “truth” without evidence?  Thanks.


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