There is no question that the modern world, with its technological wonders, advancements in medicine, and discoveries that reshape our understanding of the universe, is greatly indebted to the sciences. From the Large Hadron Collider that has opened up the subatomic to advanced telescopes that peer out to the very edge of the universe, from penicillin to the latest breakthroughs in cancer treatment, there is virtually no part of the modern world that has not been, directly or indirectly, dramatically impacted by science.
It is with good reason, then, that science enjoys quite a high status in the twenty first century. In many ways science is considered to be the master discipline within academia. One cannot spend much time at all at a college or university without encountering and utilizing the scientific method in some form or other. Its presence is felt in disciplines that are as obvious as biochemical engineering and nuclear physics to less than obvious disciplines like history and economics. There is even a field of study referred to as Political Science, although that may be stretching the definition a bit.
From electron microscopes to radio telescopes, science clearly has an extremely powerful ability to provide insight into the universe and explain phenomena. Indeed the depth and breadth of understanding that science has provided would have been unimaginable even fifty years ago. This power along with the pervasive influence of science within academic disciplines has led many to conclude that science, particularly empirical science, is the only means by which one can acquire any knowledge about the universe.
The 19th century philosopher David Hume and the 19th and 20th century philosopher Bertrand Russell both made statements that paints science as the sole purveyor of truth, that it is wholly an empirical exercise that has not place or need for faith. Faith, it is claimed, is believing in something without scientific proof or in spite of proof to the contrary. The logical issues with these statements were addressed in What Is Truth? Besides these logical issues there are deeper problems with the common view of science’s intellectual superiority. There are at least three points that demonstrate that this view of science is rather unscientific.
Scientific inquiry begins, in one way or another, with observation. When Nicolaus Copernicus, with the aid of a primitive telescope, observed objects orbiting Jupiter it lead ultimately to his monumental work, De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium (On the Revolutions of Celestial Spheres), which, quite literally, turned the contemporary understanding of the solar system and the universe upside down. What lead to the, so called, Copernican Revolution was the technology that augmented his powers of observation. What this means is science is necessarily limited by human powers of observation.
However, it gets worse! These powers of observation cannot be independently verified through science. That is to say that there is no way that science can prove that the eye provides a true depiction of how the universe really is, or taste, or touch and so on. This is the case, if for no other reason, because one would have to make observations in order to critique the validity of those same powers of observation that he or she is using to make the critique. This isn’t to say that these powers of observation are, in fact, unreliable. Rather, the point is that science can provide great deal of understanding regarding observations, but it cannot validate that those observations have any correspondence with reality.
The second major issue, which is in many ways connected to the first, is the question of the reliability of the human mind, the cognitive faculty, altogether. The issue is a philosophical one and will be addressed more specifically in a later post. The short version is this. Naturalism, which is a view that the universe consists of matter and energy only, is held by a majority of scientist. One of the crowning theories in science is evolution, which, generally speaking, is the process by which all life, including the human mind, has developed. It is an unguided, purposeless process. However, Alvin Plantinga, professor of Philosophy at Notre Dame, has pointed out that if naturalism and evolution are true, then there is strong reason to doubt the reliability of the human cognitive faculty since it is the product of an unguided, purposeless process that operates on a principle of what is beneficial for survival. That is, evolution isn’t concerned with producing a mind that can be relied upon for ideas and perceptions that are true but rather a mind that is concerned with producing ideas and perceptions that enhance survivability. Ultimately any truth claim within science, including that of naturalism and evolution, cannot be arrived at purely through scientific empirical methods.
Lastly, there is the question of ethics. Admittedly this may be a more precarious point that is open to greater scrutiny and debate. However, it does seem that there must be some ethical framework within scientific inquiry in order for it to be meaningful. Scientists are expected not to falsify their findings or purposely skew and manipulate data. This is a moral imperative. Morality, however, is an issue about what is good. Science can provide data about the specifics of a phenomena, but it cannot provide whether or not a fact has the value of being good or bad. At the very least this is a question that philosophy can answer, but not empirical science.
None of this is to say that science in any capacity is wrong, invalid or incapable of providing reliable understandings of the universe. Since the adequacy of observation, reliability of human cognition and ethical standards cannot be established purely through empirical science, then they must be accepted and believed to be true. Otherwise science is nothing more than a system of convention that has no necessary connection to the real universe, and would, therefore, be relative. As such, it is a system of faith itself that is no more rational to hold than any other. Ultimately, the contemporary view that science is the only means by which one can have knowledge about the universe collapses under its own weight because it cannot fulfill its own criteria and remain logically coherent.