Saturday, May 02, 2015

Does science explain anything?

What we now call 'science' was once called 'natural philosophy.' But although in one sense these two terms mean the same thing, there is a sense in which they are still very different. Modern science came out of natural philosophy, but has changed into something else.

In the old natural philosophy, the purpose of inquiry into nature was to better know what creation is. It taught nomenclature (the names of things), taxonomy (how the thing fits in with other things), morphology (how things are internally structured), and scientific method (how to investigate natural things). It was focused on the wonder and mystery of creation itself. It was focused on apprehending the natures of natural things and thereby appreciating them. It was a philosophy of wonder.

Much of modern science, however, has a different agenda. Francis Bacon (and, in a different way, RenĂ© Descartes) began to change the very purpose of investigation into nature. For the first time, the belief arose that nature was not there primarily to be known, but to be used or controlled. Bacon said he wanted to put nature on the rack to give up its secrets—not primarily so that we could understand or behold it, but so that we could use it for our own betterment or advantage.

"Knowledge," Bacon said, "is power."

Bacon and Descartes seem to have meant well: They wanted to use science to improve the human condition. But once science came to be seen as an instrument to control nature for an extrinsic purpose—which it has done rather convincingly—the other purposes, such as that of understanding and wonder, tend to get shunted to the side.

Its success in accomplishing its new purpose has also caused science to develop a rather big head. Many modern scientists have become so enamored of the power of science that they now think that scientific inquiry can answer all of our questions. This belief—that science is the chief or even the only way to determine truth—is called "scientism": the religion of science.

Whereas in the old natural science there was no competition between belief in God and the study of nature, the scientism that began to gather strength in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries eventually resulted in the view that science and theology were competing modes of belief and that as science gained explanatory power, it would eventually push out religion.

It is said that Pierre-Simon Laplace, the famous French scientist, once gained an interview with Napoleon in order to present him with a copy of one of his books. "They tell me," said the Emperor, "that you have written this large book on the system of the universe, and have never even mentioned its Creator."

"Sire," Laplace famously responded, "I have no need of that hypothesis."

The "God of the gaps"
In fact, one of the arguments offered by non-believing scientists against religious belief is called the "God of the gaps" argument. If you look at the history of science, they say, what you see is that, at first, there were many questions which science could not answer. These questions were simply dismissed as unanswerable and attributed to God.

In other words, if there was some question science couldn't answer, we would simply say, "God did it," and that was considered the final word.

But, say these scientists, as science has grown in power and subtlety, there are fewer and fewer questions science is unable to answer. There are fewer and fewer mysteries about which we have to resort to the "God did it" solution. Furthermore, if we follow this trajectory into the future, we can see that, as science continues to grow in its explanatory effectiveness, it will one day be able to answer all the questions about nature that we have formerly had to invoke God in order to explain.
In short, soon science will have explained everything and God will be made irrelevant.

We will have "no need for that hypothesis."

But is this true? Are these scientists right to say that the fund of unanswered questions about nature is being slowly diminished by science, and that it will one day have answered all of these questions?

The answer is "No."

Why the "God of the gaps" argument does not work
There is an assumption underlying the "God of the gaps" argument that is ridiculous on the face of it. In fact, it is a great example of the static analysis fallacy—the fallacy of assuming that what you are examining is somehow fixed and not in the process of changing.

The assumption of the "God of the gaps" argument against religious belief is that there is a fixed number of questions about the natural world, some of which have been answered and some of which have not, so that every question that is answered reduces the number of unanswered questions by one.
Now this is obviously absurd, since science does not operate in a world in which there is a fixed and unchangeable number of questions. In fact, as science proceeds in its path of discovery, it not only discovers answers to unanswered questions, it discovers new questions which it never would have thought to ask. New discoveries not only answer old questions, they produce new questions.

This problem becomes even more pronounced after a scientific paradigm shift. When Einstein's theory of relativity displaced Newtonian mechanics, it offered an improved system of explanation. But it also redefined mass, energy, time, and space, creating a whole new set of problems needing a solution. Quantum mechanics too introduced a whole new set of questions which no one would ever have thought to ask until Neils Bohr, Wolfgang Pauley, and Werner Heisenberg thought to ask them.
Some would argue that the number of unanswered scientific questions is not diminishing at all—that, in fact, because of the rate of the appearance of new questions compared to the number of questions having already obtained answers, the number of unanswered questions is actually increasing all the time. Natural mysteries for which science has no answer, far from being eliminated, are actually multiplying.

Think of it this way: If you take a flashlight and point it straight down, close to the ground, you will see a small circle of light. And if you raise the flashlight higher from the ground you will see a much larger circle of light. Our scientific flashlight today illuminates much more than the small circle of knowledge we had in the past. But notice this: The small circle of light borders only a small portion of darkness, but the larger circle of light reveals a much larger circumference of darkness. So, too, does the circumference of our ignorance increase as the area of our scientific knowledge becomes greater.

The more we know, the more we realize how much we do not know. Science is a light in the darkness of physical reality, but as its light increases, so does its estimate of the amount of darkness that is in need of light.

Many scientists postulate that they are in the process of closing in on some ultimate terminus in which our understanding of nature—and our ability to control it—are perfect: a sort of scientific utopia. But the idea of arriving at some position of full knowledge of nature becomes increasingly implausible as we see such a terminus move further away from us the closer we think we're getting.

This problem—of never being able to make headway toward a comprehensive explanation of nature—has been underscored by the investigations of quantum physics. According to many of its chief architects and many of its most devoted adherents, quantum mechanics has not only failed to make the nature of reality clearer, but has fundamentally undermined confidence in science as a mode of explanation at all.

Can science explain anything?
One of the themes of modern science has been that a knowledge of the parts of things reveals more clearly the nature of the things themselves. This is why much of modern scientific investigation involves analyzing the most elemental parts of something. This is just what quantum mechanics has done. The problem is that when they finally found the tools to investigate the behavior of the subatomic world, scientists did not find what they thought they would find. What they found, far from making nature more understandable, has made it even more paradoxical.

Light, which logically cannot be both a wave and a particle, is both (a photon). Certain particles disappear and then reappear somewhere else instantaneously (a quantum leap). Subatomic particles do not exist anywhere until we observe them (said Neils Bohr). Measurement defines what is being measured (said Heisenburg). "The more successes the quantum theory enjoys," said Einstein, "the more stupid it looks." But even Einstein could not stop it. Though he rejected it until the day he died, he could not refute it.

As with relativity, quantum physics redefined basic scientific concepts—'particle,' 'wave,' 'position,' 'momentum,' 'trajectory'—all had to be given new meanings. As it turned out, many of the old questions that had been "answered" were not the right questions to ask in the first place.
Not only did quantum physics show that many of the assumptions of classical Newtonian physics were incomplete (and in some cases simply wrong), but it brought the whole purpose of science as an explanatory construct into question. Events at the quantum level, it found, are governed by the rules of probability. At the level of the smallest and most elemental things—where we finally get to the bottom of things—it turns out that nature does not follow the scientific script.

So confounding have been the findings of quantum physics that its original and chief exponent, Niels Bohr, finally gave up on science as an explanatory discipline altogether. He talked of a new "epistemological situation" brought about by particle physics in which we can no longer apply the concepts of causality at all. And with causality goes logic itself. "Anyone who is not shocked by quantum theory," said Bohr, "has not understood it."

Traditional Christian theism does not believe in a "God of the gaps" whose relevance can be eliminated by the progress of science. God is not there to answer our "how" questions in the first place. Many of these can be explained by studying the world He created, complete with the inherent mechanisms implanted in it that make it go. God is there to answer our "why" questions—the questions science can't even begin to answer.

Science, in Bohr's view, is no longer in the explanation business. "It is wrong to think that the task of physics is to find out [what] nature is. Physics concerns what we can say about nature." All it can do is describe and predict. It can only say "how," it can never say "why."

Modern science began with mysteries it could not explain; it has brought itself full circle. When science launched off on its own and shed the label 'natural philosophy,' it set off on a journey to explain everything. But here we are at the beginning of the twenty-first century and we are still being told by Bohr's scientific descendants that not only can science not explain the why of everything, it can't explain anything, a position that radically undermines the rationalistic pretensions of many modern scientists.

Maybe the goal of science should not be to resolve mysteries. The classical view of nature—as something to wonder at instead of to take apart—has virtues that we would do well to remember.
Under the classical view, the role of science is not to solve every question presented by nature, but rather to bring us face to face with things themselves—things which are essentially mysterious. Science tells us how the mystery operates; philosophy, why it is here at all; and theology, Who it is Who is behind it all.


Art said...

Shorter Martin:

We cannot know everything, therefore we know nothing, therefore God.

Color me very impressed ...

Daniel said...


God is there to answer our "why" questions—the questions science can't even begin to answer.

Out of curiosity: What are some of the "why" questions science can't answer?

Also, can you give me an example of a thinker who was working in the older mode (of natural philosophy rather than modern science)? It'd be interesting to compare the two ways of approaching nature...