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For Skeptics




Scope of Science

Religion without science is  powerless, science without religion is blind.                                                                              Albert Einstein

Aristotle claimed "all men have a natural desire for knowledge", Metaphysics, (980a1). Skeptical philosphers would contest this claim as neither possible or desirable. Sextus Empiricus describes a tripartite division of philosophical systems; dogmatism, academic skepticism, and pyrrhonic skepticism. Dogmatism, exemplified by Aristotle and later Stoics, claims to have found the truth. Academic skeptics, particularly Arcesilaus and Carneades, assert truth cannot be apprehended and are content to deal strictly with appearances and more pragmatic concerns. Skeptics, literally "inquirers", keep searching. What does this have to do with science and worldview (or religion)? Everything. Science, literally "scientia", means knowledge and today we most often identify our best (and only?) knowledge with science; what the current scientific community unaminously accepts is considered our most reliable body of knowledge.

Yet in our society science occuppies a paradoxical position. On one hand, it is reified as the ultimate way of knowing about anything worth knowing about. This extreme is often called scientism. On the other hand, our culture is profoundly un and even anti-scientific; witness the popularity of herbal remedies, new age channeling, and "scientific" creationism. Scientists are both honoured and ignored. Rational thought and scientific reasoning co-exist with an appetite for the National Enquirer. I contend that a proper grounding of science within knowledge can go a long way toward to avoiding misleading extremes.

Returning to the views of Sextus, scientists need to come clean regarding the status of scientific information (and with it the method of aquiring and testing new knowledge); some claims are as close to truth as we are ever going to get while others are more speculative and even other areas may lie outside the purview of empirical science altogether.

  • Core Science-Newton's Laws applied to everyday objects, chemical properties of Na... These beliefs are not being challenged, although some extensions and minor clarifications are possible.
  • Fringe Science-asteroid extinctions, source of geo-magnetism...
    These are more speculative (often historical phenomena) and may aquire enough precision. and confirmation to become core beliefs (like Wegener's continental drift theory which was not accepted by the scientific community until thirty years after he died)
  • Non-science-values such as preservation of the environment or "from each according to his ability to each according to his need" and ultimate worldview issues (who are we, what is our purpose, what kind of universe is this?) This is philosophy masquerading as science which is somewhat akin to pseudoscience.
    *Of course it is in no way obvious or easy to categorize the specific pronouncements made by a scientist. Where would you place Hawking's conclusions that there is "nothing left for a creator to do" or Black Holes can emit radiation.

The Re-cognition of Science as Knowledge

Our post-modern culture has mounted a needed critique on science or the misuse of science from feminist, Marxist, humanist, historical, philosophical, linguistic and other grounds. But we need not throw out the baby with the bathwater. Science itself has a heuristic device which can correct itself--ask for the evidence or "show me the money". A skeptical attitude to the over-confident assertions of experts especially when they are speaking outside their field is essential. Popper claimed it was "always rational to suspend belief" and this critical judgement can lead us to recovering a healthy view and role for science. The critique on science reminds us that knowers are more than just rational entities (we are not Data) and knowledge has elements of love (Maslow), commitment and passion (Polanyi), faith and community dimensions (Kuhn), human interest (Habermas) and experience (Dewey). The university campus (with its many faculties) also illustrates the place science should occupy. If physics is the "queen of the sciences" the royal family remains quite large and even boisterous.

"As evolution is the unifying theory for biology, so naturalism is the unifying theory for all of science. In his book Chance and Necessity, biochemist Jacques Monod called this basic assumption "the postulate of objectivity" since it assumes that the universe as a whole is dispassionate of, indifferent to, and unswayed by human concerns and beliefs about its nature. Its inverse -- in which the universe is passionately involved in, partial to, and swayed by human concerns and beliefs about its nature -- is the basic assumption that underlies the supernatural, religious worldview. We call it the "postulate of design." "Science, properly understood, presents a world view which can and should replace religion as the source of the defining vision for both individual and cultural life." Dr. N. Hall (www.godless.org)

I believe whatever is supported by evidence. I do not believe something because of faith or revelation, or because of tradition. . . It might indeed be comforting to believe in a god, but just because something is comforting, that doesn't make it true. Truth means scientific truth'. Richard Dawkins

Dr. Hendrik Hart comments that when scientism establishes itself as a religion it undermines itself. "When an ideology views all that is  not scientific as unscientific it closes the road to recognizing itself as religious prejudice." See Mayr for a more balanced view on science.

  • Coming soon...The implications of evolution.

If scientific theories attempt to function beyond their realm of applicability all kinds of nonsense can occur (see Evoluton as Religion).

    "The idea that one species of organism is, unlike all the others, oriented not just toward its own increased prosperity but toward Truth, is as un-Darwinian as the idea that every human being has a built-in moral compass--a conscience that swings free of both social history and individual luck."
    Richard Rorty

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Last modified: February 05, 2001