Daniel F. Ippolito is a Professor of Biology at Anderson University.
Modern science rests on three foundational assumptions which are ultimately unprovable, by which I mean that they cannot be demonstrated irrefutably in the sense that a mathematical proof can be demonstrated irrefutably. Two of these assumptions (uniformitarianism and the Principle of Parsimony) will be considered later in this paper. The third assumption is the most foundational of all; it is the belief that the universe is rationally ordered and therefore accessible to human reason. In the words of John Haught,
Science … cannot even get off the ground without rooting itself in a kind of a priori “faith” that the universe is a rationally ordered totality of things. Scientists always rely on a tacit faith … that there is a real world “out there” … that the human mind has the capacity to comprehend.1
This is clearly a faith assumption implicitly or explicitly made by most practicing scientists.2 Hugh Gauch goes so far as to say,
Expressed as a single grand statement, science presupposes that the physical world is orderly and comprehensible. The most obvious components of this comprehensive presupposition are that the physical world exists and that our sense perceptions are generally reliable.3
Because human reason is limited compared to the immensity of the universe (and of God), however, John Haught embraces a critical realist stance. He defines critical realism as maintaining that “our understanding, both scientific and religious, may be oriented toward a real world,” but that because “the universe and God are always too colossal for the human mind to encompass, our thoughts in both science and religion are always open to correction.”4 This view contrasts with Thomas Kuhn’s conclusion that science, like life on Earth, does not evolve toward an objective, true account of nature, but only away from something.5
N. T. Wright reasoned along similar lines to Haught, defining critical realism as
a way of describing the process of “knowing” that acknowledges the reality of thing known, as something other than the knower (hence “realism”), whilst also fully acknowledging that the only access we have to this reality lies along the spiraling path of appropriate dialogue or conversation between the knower and thing known (hence “critical”).6
The fact remains, however, that it requires an act of faith to believe that knowledge actually concerns realities independent of the mind of the knower. The observer must have confidence that reality is indeed knowable, and that she is not being deceived by something like Descartes’ Malignant Demon, or, to put it in more contemporary parlance, that she is not living in the Matrix. Science, perhaps more than other disciplines, requires an act of faith just in order to get started. In this regard it is analogous to C. S. Lewis’ concept of the Tao elaborated upon in The Abolition of Man.7 The Abolition is a long polemic against the relativism that was already gaining cultural traction in the 1940s. To this relativism Lewis contraposed the many human traditions, past and present, which affirm objective value and the possibility that our thoughts and emotions can indeed align (or fail to align) with external reality; “This conception in all its forms, Platonic, Aristotelian, Stoic, Christian, and Oriental alike, I shall henceforth refer to for brevity simply as ‘the Tao.’”8 Lewis goes on to write, “It [the Tao] is the doctrine of objective value, the belief that certain attitudes are really true, and others really false, to the kind of thing the universe is and the kind of things we are.”9
I am proposing to substitute “trust that external reality is real and knowable” for Lewis’ “objective values.” This is what Lewis has to say about objective values in the Abolition:
Unless you accept these [objective values] without question as being to the world of action what axioms are to the world of theory, you can have no practical principles whatever. You cannot reach them as conclusions: they are premisses [sic]. … You may regard them as … things so obviously reasonable that they neither demand nor admit proof. If nothing is self-evident, nothing can be proved.10
The above statement could easily be applied to the scientific enterprise. The belief that reality is real and the trust that it is accessible to reason are “things so obviously reasonable that they neither demand nor admit proof. If nothing is self-evident, nothing can be proved.” One might quibble with the word “proved” in my restatement, in light of the widely recognized probabilistic nature of science, but other than that, the analogy is hard to avoid. This analogy, of course, would have been considered “fighting words” in the 1990s, at the height of the “Science Wars” between postmodernist critics of science and their adversaries. Claims to scientific objectivity may still be considered “fighting words” in some circles within the world of the humanities, but on the whole, the controversy has abated significantly. “The postmodernists ignored the challenge and kept producing the same dense academese as before, while occupying the same tenured chairs. Scientists remained blissfully unaware of the dispute and publish the same research as always.”11 While the “Science Wars” have mostly disappeared from the headlines, however, something has changed in the public’s perception of and confidence in science. A clear example of this change in perception is exemplified by the controversial “War on Science” March 2015 issue of National Geographic magazine, which lamented the widespread popular skepticism of the scientific consensus on a number of issues of great public importance, such as vaccinations and climate change. The causes for the public’s distrust of science are numerous and diverse – populist skepticism certainly cannot be laid exclusively at the doorstep of Thomas Kuhn and his postmodernist followers, but French philosopher and sociologist of science Bruno Latour could not help voicing some second thoughts:
Entire Ph.D. programs are still running to make sure that good American kids are learning the hard way that facts are made up, that there is no such thing as natural, unmediated, unbiased access to truth, that we are always prisoners of language, that we always speak from a particular standpoint, and so on, while dangerous extremists are using the very same argument of social construction to destroy hard-won evidence that could save our lives. Was I wrong to participate in the invention of this field known as science studies? Is it enough to say that we did not really mean what we said? Why does it burn my tongue to say that global warming is a fact whether you like it or not? Why can’t I simply say that the argument is closed for good?12
A standard defense of scientific objectivity against its critics (postmodern and otherwise) has been to argue that science “works,” that is, that it makes testable predictions that can be found to support or fail to support an initial hypothesis. Postmodern philosophers claimed that this is a case of the Fallacy of Affirming the Consequent – one can never be absolutely certain that the cause specified in the hypothesis is responsible for the observed effect. This criticism loses some of its power when different lines of evidence converge on the same conclusion, as was pointed out, inter alia, by Pope John Paul II when he addressed evolutionary theory in his 1996 address to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences:
In fact it is remarkable that this theory has had progressively greater influence on the spirit of researchers, following a series of discoveries in different scholarly disciplines. The convergence in the results of these independent studies—which was neither planned nor sought—constitutes in itself a significant argument in favor of the theory. 13
A more common rebuttal to the Fallacy of Affirming the Consequent critique involves invoking the Principle of Parsimony, traditionally known as Ockham’s Razor. Simply put, while it is very remotely possible that some obscure, complex and hitherto unthought-of mechanism may be responsible for the observed results, the simplest, most parsimonious explanation is probably the best; that is, it is the one that most probably corresponds to reality. Elliott Sober struck a cautionary note regarding the Principle of Parsimony in From a Biological Point of View,14 and Francis Crick, of double-helix fame, wrote in his autobiography What Mad Pursuit that “elegance and simplicity are, in biology, dangerous guides to the correct answer.”15 Most of the founders of modern science, however, affirmed the Principle of Parsimony, often without explanation or qualification. Galileo asserted in Two New Sciences that nature “habitually employs the first, simplest, and easiest means,”16 while Sir Isaac Newton reminded us in his Principia that nature was pleased with simplicity.17 Charles Darwin wrote in the Origin of Species that “natural selection is continually trying to economize every part of the organization,”18 and Einstein himself admitted to having “deep faith that the principle of the Universe will be beautiful and simple.”19 Even Rosalind Franklin, who supplied the necessary experimental background for the Watson and Crick model of DNA, differed with her colleague Francis Crick when she said that the double helix was “just too pretty not to be right.”20 What is striking about these statements is how intuitive, how resistant to analysis, and how foundational most scientists’ commitment to the principle of parsimony appears to be. It reminds one of C. S. Lewis’ “things so obviously reasonable that they neither demand nor admit proof.” Additionally, especially in Einstein’s and Franklin’s formulations, one catches definite Platonic overtones to the effect that beauty and truth are somehow related, if not altogether synonymous. As an aside, and in the context of discussing parsimony, it may be worth mentioning that the “multiverse” model proposed by some modern physicists is definitely not parsimonious. One might even say that postulating the existence of a multitude of parallel universes whose existence, even in principle, could never be empirically demonstrated is the very antithesis of parsimony.
I will only briefly allude to a third foundational assumption of modern science, namely, that of the spatial and temporal invariance of natural laws – what Stephen Jay Gould calls “methodological uniformitarianism.”21 Gould distinguishes methodological uniformitarianism from what he calls “substantive uniformitarianism,” which postulates the uniformity of rates in geologic processes. Gould dismisses substantive uniformitarianism as empirically untenable, while emphasizing the crucial importance of methodological uniformitarianism not just to geology but to science in general. “Without assuming this spatial and temporal invariance, we have no basis for extrapolating from the known to the unknown and, therefore, no way of reaching general conclusions from a finite number of observations.”22 Gould is implicitly conceding the probabilistic nature of science; most scientific conclusions must be held somewhat loosely, because a hitherto unknown observation (or, more likely, a number of hitherto unknown observations) may lead to the overturning of a cherished theory.
In conclusion, it appears that the modern scientific enterprise rests on a three-legged stool of foundational assumptions, namely, trust that the universe is real and accessible to our senses, trust in the Principle of Parsimony (whether or not one couches it in aesthetic terms), and an a priori belief in the spatial and temporal invariance of natural laws. These assumptions “neither demand nor admit proof” – they are beliefs about the sort of thing the Universe is and how it works. Ultimately, the scientific effort to further our understanding of the Universe is rooted in these faith assumptions. As St. Augustine said many centuries ago: Crede, ut intelligas – “Believe in order that you may understand.”23
Cite this article
- John F. Haught, Science and Religion: From Conflict to Conversation (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1995), 23.
- George. G. Simpson, “Historical Science,” in The Fabric of Geology, ed. Claude C. Albritton, Jr. (Stanford, CA: Freeman, Cooper, and Company, 1963); Stephen J. Gould, Time’s Arrow, Time’s Cycle: Myth and Metaphor in the Discovery of Geological Time (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1987); Hugh G. Gauch, Scientific Method in Practice (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003).
- Gauch, 154.
- Haught, 20.
- Thomas S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1962).
- Nicholas T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1992), 35.
- C. S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man (New York, NY: HarperOne, 1944).
- Ibid., 18.
- Ibid., 18.
- Ibid., 40.
- James Franklin, “Science wars: last round?” The New Criterion, May 2011, http://www.newcriterion.com/articles.cfm/Science-wars–last-round–7043.
- Bruno Latour, “Why Has Critique Run Out of Steam? From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern,” Critical Inquiry 30 (2004): 227.
- Elliott Sober, From a Biological Point of View: Essays in Evolutionary Philosophy, Cambridge Studies in Philosophy and Biology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994).
- Francis Crick, What Mad Pursuit: A Personal View of Scientific Discovery (New York: Basic Books, 1990), 141.
- Galileo Galilei, quoted in Michel Blay, Reasoning with the Infinite: From the Closed World to the Mathematical Universe, trans. M. B. DeBevoise (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998), 16-17.
- Isaac Newton, Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica (London: Royal Society, 1687).
- Charles Darwin, The Origin of Species, 6th ed. (London: John Murray Publ., 1872), 117.
- Rosalind Franklin, quoted in Nicholas Rescher, Aesthetic Factors in Natural Science (Lantham, MD: University Press of America, 1990), 1.
- Stephen J. Gould, “Is Uniformitarianism Necessary?” American Journal of Science 263 (1965): 223-228.
- Stephen J. Gould, “Is Uniformitarianism Necessary?” American Journal of Science 263 (1965): 223-228.
- Richard A. Muller, Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1985).