Saturday, June 17, 2023

What Science Is

 From First Things:

First: Science is not merely an accumulation of observed facts. Scientific observation is enhanced by instruments. Our knowledge of microorganisms and deep space is entirely mediated by technical artifacts. Scientists have to be trained to use instruments, and the instruments themselves are always subject to interrogation: What does the instrument capture, and what does it leave out? Does the apparatus itself affect what we’re observing? Is it properly calibrated?

Besides, scientists aren’t content to gather and arrange facts. That’s for amateurs, and even amateurs have to interpret what they learn: Which butterfly should be pinned where? Real scientists theorize, and, as Wilfrid Sellars points out, theories often explain perceptible phenomena by reference to imperceptible entities and forces: Apples fall (perceptible) because of gravity (imperceptible). Theories aim to provide simple, elegant explanations that “save the appearances.” Theorizing is always a speculative reach beyond the data. And then theories rebound and affect what we see and how we interpret it. None of this is a problem; it’s the way modern science works. But it means there’s always space for interpretation and guesswork. Even at its most empirical, science isn’t “just the facts.”

Second: Science is, in Steven Shapin’s words, “never pure.” Scientists are human, driven by all the normal human drives—ambition, rivalry, love, hatred, desire to know. Like everyone else, scientists have basic beliefs about how the world works. A materialist scientist may proffer a materialist theory because it fits his assumptions, not because it makes best sense of the data. Scientists come to their work with an implicit world picture—nature “red in tooth and claw,” or nature as a divinely ordered hierarchy that mirrors the hierarchy of the virtuous soul, or nature as a nurturing if sometimes tempestuous mother, or nature as a machine. The scientist assumes some implicit relation to the object of study: Does nature yield her secrets generously, or does she need to be interrogated, even tortured, to remove her veil? Is the scientist Orpheus, enchanting nature, or Prometheus, dominating it, or Oedipus, tricking it?

Even scientific methods rest on substantive commitments. As Alvin Plantinga and others have argued, “methodological naturalism” excludes certain categories of truth from the realm of “science.” Plantinga asks the obvious question: In trying to understand reality, shouldn’t scientists make use of everything they know, including truths like “The Word became flesh”? Scientific methods make theological assumptions. Insofar as it depends on the concept of “natural law,” science implicitly accepts the existence of a law-giver. Sometimes a method is theological in being anti-theological. “God is irrelevant to this phenomenon” and “all things do not cohere in the Son” are theological statements. (Read more.)


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