KARL JASPERS FORUM
Commentary 43 (Reply to C42 by Patlavskiy)
SCIENCE DOES DIFFER FROM RELIGION
by William A. Adams
27 August 2009, posted 5 September 2009
Thanks to Serge for a thoughtful rejoinder, as always. I said that in arguments about religion (such as in the interview between Dawkins and Collins), the religious point of view often retreats behind the walls of a formal system. Axiomatic first principles (what Serge calls metatheoretical assumptions) establish the rules of discourse, much as rules do for any game (e.g., “The Bible is the word of God.”). The rules are not negotiable within the context of the game.
Serge agrees, but maintains that the same is true of science. Science also has non-negotiable, extra-theoretic assumptions, such as those of observational objectivity, materialism, epistemological absolutism, numerical realism, and many others. Yet I suggest that science and religion are not equivalent in discourse because science can escape the charge of being merely a formal system of argument.
Empiricism is knowledge derived from observation, and for science, observation involves stimulation of the biological sense receptors (often enhanced by technology, such as eyeglasses, Geiger counters). Conversation is also embedded in biological processes (such as talking, hearing, reading, writing), so it is self-contradictory in a conversation to deny the role of biological processes in grounding knowledge. In other words, the epistemological contribution of the human body transcends the metatheoretical assumptions of any human discourse.
Because science is grounded in empirical observation, whereas religion is not, science can claim a non-arbitrary basis for knowledge. Religion has nothing like that. I am sure that is why science has triumphed in the past 500 years. Prior to wide acceptance of empirical knowledge, the king or the pope would tell you what is true. Since the Enlightenment, epistemology has shifted resolutely to empiricism, in government, economics, history, jurisprudence, and of course, in all the sciences.
Advocates of science, such as Dawkins, often devolve into scientism, which is blind to the arbitrariness of its metatheoretical assumptions and unaware of science’s constrained scope. By the very fact of empiricism, scientific methodology is simply not germane to problems that do not involve stimulation of the biological receptors, such as the question of God’s existence. Dawkins’ scientism is therefore an error in thinking.
Serge argues that he would be kicked out of the scientific club if he denied Darwinian evolution or Big Bang cosmology. That, he believes, illustrates the social rather than empirical basis of scientific orthodoxy. Thomas Kuhn argued this point eloquently (The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 1962). Scientific theory and scientific orthodoxy are fruits of long (sometimes centuries long) conversations about the meaning of empirical observations. Yet the observations themselves are not in dispute. There are fossils, and there is a cosmic radiation background level. We cannot find a parallel foundation in religion. There are no empirical facts supporting religion.
Serge doubts that science and religion necessarily differ in their use of critical thinking. In both domains, one can reason logically from first principles to arrive at valid conclusions. I agree. I use “critical thinking” to describe informal logic, exemplified by science, in which formal logic is blended with empirical evidence to produce truth claims. Pure logic is a formal system, a game educated people can play to establish validity, but not truth. Certainly IF God exists, THEN religion is justified. But the truth of the first premise is the question at stake, and there is no empirical evidence to support a truth claim.
I agree with Serge that both religion and science can produce practical results that benefit humankind. But so can music and poetry. We are concerned here about understanding and articulating what we believe to be true, not merely what makes us feel better (although the two are not unrelated).
I make no claim about whether God exists and religion is justified. My point is that since there is no empirical evidence for the existence of God, no discourse adhering to critical thinking can justify religion.
Serge’s list of criteria for a scientific epistemology strangely does not include empirical observation. Without that, I do not think the list is definitive. Science without observation is indeed no different than philosophy or religion.
But I do agree with Serge’s conclusion that scientific practice does not even satisfy its own criteria. I agree wholeheartedly that this is the main reason why fields such as Consciousness Studies have made no progress. We need consensus around some small but important modifications to the philosophy and methodologies of science if we ever hope to make progress on such matters. I think some tacit progress in scientific methodology has been made by cognitive psychology, but more is needed. I humbly offer my suggestion, “Empirical Introspection,” at https://sites.google.com/site/billadamsphd/works-in-progress .