2006-05-10

A Raging Moderate Searches for Truth, part 1: On the limitations of scientific knowledge

Over the centuries, many great Christian thinkers have either taught that theology is a "science", or that "scientific methods" can be used to established the truths of theology. While theology can be construed as a sort of science (i.e. following the lead of Aquinas who defined it as a "sub-altern" science), I think that to hold theology in bondage to the "scientific method" is to deeply damage both theology and science. They are simply different kinds of knowledge and different kinds of knowing, and to conflate the two, or to use one to back up the other is simply wrong headed. One look at the creation-evolution debate is a good example of how neither science nor theology come out winners when used to "validate" one another.

This question brings us to some very specialized topics in philosophy, namely that of "epistemology" and "metaphysics". These are both Greek derived words. The first comes from the word "episteemi", which means "based upon", and the word "logia" meaning "study of". Epistemology is the study of what our knowledge is founded on. It asks certain questions, such as "How do we know?", "What can we know?", and "What beliefs are justified or more probable?".

The second word, metaphysics, comes from the word "meta" meaning "after" or "beyond", and the word "physikos" meaning "physical stuff" or "matter". It is the study of what reality is after, or beyond, the physical world. Just as physics seeks to understand the reality that makes the physical world work the way it does, so also metaphysics seeks the purposes and reasons behind the physical world even existing. Another way to understand this distinction is to see reality as "empirical" or "super-empirical". Empirical reality is that which is able to be seen, touched, gathered, and tested by empirical sciences such as physics, chemistry, or biology.

Super-empirical reality is that which is real, but which cannot be directly seen, touched, gathered, or tested by science, even though we can see its effects on the empirical world around us. For instance, the laws that determine math are very real, and we can see how they affect our world as things are added and subtracted all around us. If I put my two coffee cups in front of me, they will never magically become three coffee cups. Yet, we can never reach out and grab "addition" and stuff it into a test-tube. It governs empirical reality without itself being empirical. It is super-empirical. Thus mathematics is a "metaphysical" reality (since metaphysical is another way of saying super-empirical).

Likewise, the laws of logic and non-contradiction are metaphysical realities, because they determine that physical things cannot exist and not-exist in the same way at the same time. Yet, logic is not empirical. In fact, even the laws of physics, which determine how physical matter and sub-atomic forces interact with each another, are themselves super-empirical. No one can go out and find the law of gravity, the law of relativity, or the law that governs electromagnetic forces. We only know they exist because we see their effects on the matter in our universe. These laws are all non-physical realities imposed on the physical universe to govern how it operates, but which themselves are not part of the universe they govern.

How do we know all of this? We know it because the "scientific method" tells us that this is the most probable explanation of the data we have. After thousands of tests, trained experts have determined that the laws of gravity, relativity, and electromagnetic forces are the most probable explanation for how the physical world works. We are all familiar with the scientific method as a way to gain highly probable knowledge about the world around us. It basically goes like this:

  • Come up with a problem or question that can be tested by measuring it with our physical senses.

  • Make up a hypothesis of how to solve the problem.

  • Test the hypothesis by using a "test group" and a "control group". The "test group" is a set of objects that have the hypothesis applied to them. The "control group" is a set of objects that is left alone.

  • See if the results indicate that the hypothesis has the expected effect when compared to the control group.

  • If the hypothesis is not reliable, come up with a new hypothesis and test it.

  • If the hypothesis seems to be reliable, keep repeating it until it is worthy to be considered a theory or a law.

Now, it is clear that the "scientific method" is an epistemology. It is a way of knowing some types of information, and providing a justification for believing certain types of things. What may not be clear, however, is that the "scientific method" is also a statement about metaphysical reality. It is a statement that reality is reliable and repeats itself, and because it is reliable and repeatable, it is testable. Furthermore, the scientific method itself is not something in the physical world that can be found under a rock, or deep in a lake, and then tested. It is a super-empirical statement about reality.

Another way to understand this is to say that the scientific method can be used to test all things except itself. Yet, it cannot test itself by itself, without assuming that it is correct. You can't grab the scientific method and put it in a test tube and test it against other ways of knowing, other than to start by assuming it is a reliable way of knowing!

A final way of understanding how the scientific method is a metaphysical statement is to look at what it can, and cannot show us. On the positive side, it has shown us a great deal about how our physical world works. It has yielded breakthroughs in physics, chemistry, medicine, engineering, and computers which have totally changed how we live, and enabled us to be more physically healthy.
On the negative side it develops a system of thought which rules out the reality of all one-time events, because one-time events are un-repeatable, and thus unreliable, and therefore un-testable. If followed exclusively, it effectively rules out God revealing himself through Jesus, as well as all one-time miracles and healings. If this line of thought was honestly followed to its end, it would rule out all historical information, because all historical events are also one-time events that cannot be repeated. For instance, can we re-create World War II, or Columbus' discovery of America? At the far extreme, no crime could ever be solved because it could not be exactly re-created and re-tested!

Furthermore, the scientific method is governed by super-empirical human minds. It is humans who select what questions to ask, and what to test. It is human creativity that determines what hypotheses are thought of or ignored. In fact, humans developed science out of a worldview that took it for granted that an intelligent super-empirical Mind (i.e. God) created everything, and made the universe reliable and testable in the first place. Without this belief in orderly creation, science would have never evolved (because modern science only sprung out of Judeo-Christian and Islamic cultures which shared this belief). Science is not an "objective" was of knowing the world, but a thoroughly human way of knowing from inception to completion!

Indeed, there are types of realties that even if they existed, science could not tell us about. For instance, if there are free minds that exist outside of physical reality (such as the mind of God, or of angels), science could never compel them to act in an orderly, predictable way to test them. Science cannot even make human or animal minds function in orderly ways without performing acts of cruelty and manipulation on them! How much less could it control super-empirical minds that are entirely outside of physical reality.

And then there is the issue of meaning and purpose. Science can tell us how physical things work, but not why they are here in the first place. For instance, if science is asked "Why is there something instead of nothing?", it can do one of two things. First, it may say we are here because x caused y and y caused z. But this is simply confusing how things happen (the chain of cause and effect) with why things happen (the motive for creating). Secondly, science can be honest and simply say "Why? Just because! The bare facts are all we have!". And they are right. From the standpoint of the scientific method, bare physical facts are all there are.

Yet, we know that there is more to reality than just bare physical facts. We know that there is historical knowledge, which is a chain of one-time, non-repeatable events. We know that there are a whole host of super-empirical realities that control empirical reality, such as logic, math, and the laws of physics. Furthermore, we know of a whole host of super-empirical realities that make life worth living, and without which, there is no reason to live, such as love, beauty, purpose, meaning, and truth. Finally, if we are really honest, we know deep down that there is some type of Ultimate Reality that holds together all of reality, the empirical and super-empirical.

We must come up with a way of knowing that includes all that is valuable from science, but which also allows us to really know and understand all of the other super-empirical realities we know exist as well. It is this method that I intend to outline in future posts.

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This is a collection of essays written to address issues of epistemology, metaphysics, what we can know, and what we can't, from a moderate perspective that seeks to unite the various strengths of various theories of truth around the Person of Him who is Truth (Jesus Christ), without falling into the seemingly endless debates about subjects such as science versus faith, reason verses religion, absolutism versus relativism, correspondence versus coherence, personal truth versus propositional truth, foundationalism versus non-foundationalism, realism versus anti-realism, objectivity versus subjectivity, modernism versus post-modernism, and evangelical versus emergent. These essays draw on insights from people as diverse as Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, Kant, Hume, Pascal, Descartes, John Henry Neuman, CS Lewis, John Polkinghorne, Peter Kreeft, Billy Abraham, and Bruce Marshall. But rather than footnote it into oblivion, I would rather just say that there is not an original thought in these essays, so enjoy.

Copyright © 2006 Nathan L. Bostian
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This is a bunch of stuff to make us think hard about our incredible love affair with the God of the universe, our astounding infidelities against him, and his incredible grace to heal and restore us through Christ. Everything on this site is copyright © 1996-2015 by Nathan L. Bostian so if you use it, cite me... otherwise you break the 8th commandment, and make God unhappy. You can contact the author by posting a comment.