Sunday, April 29, 2018

Scientific Limitations, Theoretical Hypotheses, and Christianity (Draft Version)

Clearly science just like religion believes there are certain premises which function as starting points--these are basic axioms, hypotheses or working assumptions (archai). Scientists who militate against these conventional premises usually are castigated and anathematized as it were; science's guild does not allow wayward dissent. The paradox of this situation is that scientific progress has often transpired because an inquiring mind was willing to go against the paradigmatic grain (e.g., the Copernican Revolution); paradigms in science usually shift when a courageous individual becomes unafraid to swim against the tide. But when paradigm shifts occur, this does not necessarily mean that a total discontinuity with past ideas has to occur.1

After the momentous work of Albert Einstein in the early 1900s, other significant developments took place in science, many of which attempted to modify or subvert Einstein's view of the universe. But I have not seen anyone completely accomplish that task yet. Granted, quantum physics did yield new aspects of "reality" and Einstein apparently was mistaken about particle physics as shown by the two-slit experiment; however, Einstein has not been toppled. To the contrary, relativity theory still has immense explanatory power. This is not to say that one day, the paradigm will not shift again. We likely will find out more about the nature of black holes, the second law of thermodynamics, the "twin paradox," the two-slit experiment and the notion of simultaneity. Nevertheless, although our paradigm might shift once more, we will not wholly disassociate ourselves from past ideas in toto.

Despite the progress that science has made, as we can see, she is not without her limitations. Paradigmatic changes are common in science and science just like religion works from a given set of presuppositions. Science has made a clean break with religion, and it has endeavored to eschew metaphysics, but without much success. What accounts for metaphysics rearing its head in scientific discussions? One reason has been due to the fact that science has its own inherent limitations. For instance, science can tell us how a particular planet or star moves, but science cannot tell us why a celestial body moves (its final cause). Empirical investigation cannot tell us why out of all the vast reaches of space, we as minute earthlings are here on this specific rock. What is the purpose of life? Why do we die? Paul Davies has indicated that science frequently runs into "turtle trouble" when it delves into metaphysics. In other words, science has an epistemological boundary when it comes to explaining things; it cannot answer the infinite regress of questions that arise from reflection on sensory experience.

Eventually we get to a point where it's no longer possible to empirically investigate certain questions any further. The problem of infinite regression inevitably arises. As one woman reportedly told Bertrand Russell, the earth is not just hanging in space, but "it's turtles all the way down." We may chuckle at such an idea since we know that the earth is not supported by turtles. Yet while we may ridicule an infinite regression of turtles, we find that science runs into the same "turtle trouble" whenever it tries to explain, for instance, the origin of life. There are obvious limitations to science, yet this paper about science is not meant to polemicize empirical investigations. Rather, the point has been 1) to show that science has inherent limitations; (2) to demonstrate that science, when kept in its proper sphere is good, but becomes less utile when one tries to make it an explanatory tool for all things related to human existence; it can become the proverbial knife that cuts the hand of its wielder; (3) to illustrate how rightly utilized science can enhance our view of the cosmos.

Personally, I love science, but know its limitations. I do not believe that we should put complete trust in science when interpreting the Bible--nor should it be ignored. A vital balance is needed: both scientism and its converse should be avoided.

"A mind all logic is like a knife all blade. It makes the hand bleed that uses it." - Rabindranath Tagore, Stray Birds

The classic statement on paradigm shifts was made by Thomas Kuhn. See his reflections on that important work here:

1 comment:

tom harley said...

Almost nothing that Jesus says would satisfy today's devotee of critical thinking. He spins parables that he almost never explains. He responds to questions with counterquestions. He even goes in for what would be called today 'ad hominem attacks.'