Getting Science Off the Ground, and Staying There

Man’s imagination to fly with the birds has a long history – remember Icarus and his wings made of feathers and wax. The realistic idea of human flight has always required some concept of a person affixing themselves to some complex apparatus in order to get off the ground, stay aloft and maneuver in the air. Much life and limb has been lost in the discovery of all the right pieces which must be brought together in one place to make human flight a reality.

A similar relationship exists with the endeavor of science. While science as we see it now seems to move deftly through the atmosphere of figuring out our universe (though some will debate that), it does not do so independently. Science depends on a complex system of a priori commitments in order to do its work. While essential to the success and operation of science, none of them can be derived or verified by science itself. Here is a brief outline for ten of these in no particular order:

  1. Existence of a theory-independent external world – that there is a physical world which truly exists outside of my mind with which I am free to examine.
  2. Orderly nature of the external world – there is a consistent, dependable progression of cause and effect which allow us to explain everyday occurrences.
  3. Knowability of the external world – not just that the universe functions in a way that can be understood, but that we possess minds capable of understanding it.
  4. The existence of natural laws – that even though we are imperfect in our ability to describe them, there are rules by which our universe is governed – rules that cannot be broken.
  5. The laws of logic – science relies heavily upon inductive arguments to posit explanations, but the premises themselves and the manner in which we arrive at conclusions are not derived by science.
  6. Reliability of our mind and senses. We know that we can sometimes be fooled by our senses, but we also recognize that this can be overcome by careful inspection and collaboration with others.
  7. The adequacy of language to describe the world. While this seems intuitive to most, it is the questioning of this presupposition in our post-modern era which threatens our ability to access truth and knowledge like no other.
  8. Existence of values used in science. If there are two theories which purport to explain the very same observations, something outside of science itself must be used to determine which of the two theories is correct.
  9. The uniformity of nature and induction. Not only do natural laws and laws of logic exist, they operate consistently throughout time and space in the universe.
  10. The existence of numbers – that numbers and mathematics reside separately from both our minds and the physical universe, but have an uncanny way of bridging the gap between the two.

One of the reasons the ancients were unable to get science off the ground is they had no clear support for several of these presuppositions. In their worldview, the gods were unknowable and capricious which in turn made the world controlled by the gods equally unknowable. In an unordered world, natural law could not be defined let alone be relied upon.

Slowly, the western mindset began to cast off the influence of this worldview and made the work of science possible (see my previous post, Rejecting Aristotle). Science began to flourish in the Christian era to a great degree because these presuppositions were affirmed by theological commitments derived from Scripture. As Alfred North Whitehead noted, the origin of science came from “the medieval insistence on the rationality of God, conceived as with the personal energy of Jehovah and with the rationality of a Greek philosopher. Every detail was supervised and ordered: the search into nature could only result in the vindication of the faith in rationality.”[1]

Those first humans who explored human flight were vitally aware of the equipment required to put them in the air. In our modern era of commercial flight with its additional complex systems, it is quite easy for a person to fly from one place to another without any awareness of all those systems which make flight possible. As a passenger, I may succumb to a false sense of autonomy: I buy the ticket, I get on the plane, I fly.

Much in the same way, the early scientists were keenly aware of the philosophy and theology which supported their work. But now that science has gotten off the ground, there are those in our contemporary culture who are either doing science or are science observers who do so without an awareness of these presuppositions – they have become ingrained into our thinking, and are taken for granted. The effect of this is a belief that science is autonomous in its efforts – that science is independently sufficient to answer every question (given enough time) – that it is the only way to really know the truth. But this is a false perception as well.

Fortunately, the lack of awareness on the part of passengers in a commercial airplane has no bearing on the ability of the plane to fly. There is still a set of people who do know what is really going on and can keep the plane in the air. While many scientists find themselves distant from theistic convictions, the philosophical underpinnings of science rooted in theistic belief are embraced by at least a minority of scientists who help sustain the basis for science.

An added consideration here is the limits of the ability to deliver on ultimate goals. A commercial airplane may be able to take you from airport to airport, but it can’t take you all the way home – something other than the airplane is required. In order to obtain a complete worldview, science is capable of delivering only a part of our understanding – the notion that science is the only way to really know the truth is a premise which cannot be verified by science. Science must cooperate with other ways of knowing to “take us home”: religious beliefs, history, economics, psychology, the arts, etc.

Sadly, the intellectual commitments which ground science (and other intellectual disciplines) are under attack from the influence of post-modern (aka post-truth) beliefs. Purveyors of postmodernism insist that: a) reason and science are ideologies created by man in order to acquire power rather than being objective foundations of knowledge, b) there are no eternal, independent truths – at least we don’t have access to them – so the world is not knowable, c) language is arbitrary, so we are unable to transmit truth or meaning, and d) the external world is no more real than the fantasy world I create in my mind – my feelings supersede any facts about the world. Ultimately, these overtures are self-refuting, but they are having a powerful influence in our contemporary culture. People of faith and science need to be on guard to defend the truth. I suspect those who are unaware of what sustains their practice are most susceptible to fall, like Icarus, from the sky.

[1] Alfred North Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, Lowell Lectures, 1925 (New York, NY: Macmillian, 1931), 18.

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