Thursday, September 30, 2010

Sola scientia: the doctrine that science alone is the means to truth

Many Protestant Christians talk about the doctrine of sola Scriptura to mean the belief that the Bible alone is the source of knowledge. But many scientists have their own such doctrine: sola scientia: that science alone is the source of all truth. There is a very interesting article on modern cosmology in the Chronicle of Higher Education by Carlin Romano, professor of philosophy and humanities at Ursinus College. He discusses Stephen Hawking's cosmological assertions in his new book The Grand Design and puts them in the wider context of cosmological speculation in the 20th century. He especially emphasizes Hawking's scientistic views in relation to 20th century developments in the philosophy of science, much of which Hawking ignores. He focuses on the reaction to the rising influence of science by Ludwig Wittgenstein and his student Stephen Toulmin:
Toulmin urged scientists to learn from other intellectuals. In ancient times, Toulmin pointed out, cosmology meant more than how the universe mechanically operates. Rather, it captured the Greek notion that the entire world "forms a single, integrated system united by universal principles."

For Toulmin, that "traditional world picture" happily combined "an astronomical, a teleological, and a theological picture." Unfortunately, Toulmin argued, the rise of Cartesian modern science undermined this tradition of broad-based cosmology and interest in "cosmic interrelatedness." Eventually, "nobody in the sciences any longer needed to think about 'the Whole.'"

But Toulmin ended his story on an upswing. Developments in 20th-century philosophy of science—from Thomas Kuhn's vision of a historical practice with changing paradigms to quantum theory's uncertainties—invited a return to traditional cosmology. According to Toulmin, sophisticated scientists increasingly recognized that "Laplace's ideal of the scientist as 'an unobserved, uninfluencing observer'" was "unattainable in principle for reasons of basic physical theory."

Hawking seems to have ignored these philosophy-of-science developments as he focused on such hypotheses as splintered string theory and the vaunted M-theory of everything. Ironically, as some reviewers have pointed out, it is he who seems not to have kept up with philosophy. Hawking insists that any notion that is "incompatible with modern physics" must be wrong. But the history of science's errors and misconceptions shows that extraordinary confidence to be unjustified. In arguing for a cosmology that's not exclusively scientific, Toulmin warned that the "disciplinary specialization of the natural sciences can no longer intimidate us into setting religious cosmology aside as 'unscientific.'"

Read the rest here.

1 comment:

tinque said...

Defining thought. Defining consciousness. So elusive. So tempting.

Just ...

Be careful what you wish for.