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What is Science and What Authority Does It Have?
by Philip Stott
Many Christians today hold science in awe. Many seem to have more respect for what scientists tell us than what God tells us in the Bible. How did this situation arise and how justifiable is such an attitude?
In order to answer these questions we need to look at the nature and history of science and at the trustworthiness of scientists and reporters of science.
Firstly it is worth noting Douglas Jones’ comment
"Nothing can take the puff out of the scientific chest more than a study of its history. Perhaps that's why it's so rare to find science departments requiring courses in the history of science. The history of science provides great strength to the inductive inference that, at any point in its history, that day's science will almost certainly be deemed false, if not laughable, within a century (often in much less time)." [ Jones Douglas. A Rating System for Science, Credenda Agenda Vol 9 no 1. ]
For many centuries science was a mixture of philosophy, mathematics and observation largely practiced for interest and enjoyment. Where hypotheses were put forward to explain observations they were accepted largely on their appeal to reason and aesthetics, rather than on their ability to stand experimental testing. Aristotle’s physics was thus able to reign supreme for close to two thousand years. When Roger Bacon, who is widely regarded as the "Father of Modern Science" proposed the "scientific method" he faced opposition and even imprisonment from the established Catholic Church, which accepted philosophy as the way to truth. But Bacon pointed out that nature carries "the stamp of the Creator Himself", whereas our reason carries "the stamp of our own image", and that "we will have it that all things are as we in our folly think they should be". He therefore stressed the importance of experiment, observation and exact measurement.
Such science attempts to search out the Laws of Nature - the laws which govern the workings of the physical universe by employing the scientific method, which consists of:-
(a) observing and taking measurements of some phenomenon or process
(b) studying the patterns in the observations
(c) proposing a hypothesis to explain these patterns
(d) using the hypothesis to predict the outcome of experiments as yet unperformed
(e) performing these experiments to see if the predictions are met.
If the predictions are met in these critical experiments then one gains confidence that the hypothesis could be true. If very many experiments give results which agree with the hypothesis it may be given the status of a scientific theory. If at any stage an experiment gives results which disagree with the theory or hypothesis it must be abandoned as false and a new hypothesis sought which explains both the old and the new results. It must be stressed that any endeavor which does not follow the scientific method should not be considered science. In particular any hypothesis which has not been supported by exact measurement or which has been contradicted by experiment can not be regarded as "scientific". So-called "thought experiments" are all thought and no experiment and embrace philosophy, not science. The opinion "if the mathematics is impeccable then the theory must be true" has nothing to do with science. The statement "until a better theory is proposed the present theory is acceptable" is anti-science if the present theory has been proven incorrect.
The first awakening of science is usually attributed to the ancient Greeks. The Greeks made observations of the heavens and proposed hypotheses to explain the patterns in their observations. They made great strides in mathematics - perhaps the most powerful tool in the scientist’s toolbox, but they stopped short of real scientific advance for one very good reason, they did not perform experiments to confirm their hypotheses. Pythagoras, for example, proposed a hypothesis concerning the notes ringing out from hammers of various sizes. A simple experiment would have shown the hypothesis to be false, but it was not performed.
There was a good reason. The Greeks had a pantheon of gods, each of which worked independently and sometimes capriciously. Their gods had disputes among themselves. What reason had the Greeks for believing that an experiment performed one day would give the same result if performed the next? The gods might make things work differently, perhaps to spite a rival deity or to impress the object of their latest amorous passion.
Socrates argued that the observed consistency of nature was compatible only with the existence of one God. If his stand had been accepted then perhaps Greece might have become the cradle of science - a sound basis for expecting experiments to give consistent results might have led to experiments actually being performed. Instead Socrates was executed for blasphemy and the chance for Greece to lead the way from philosophy and mathematics to science was lost.
The Hindus also made great strides in the study of mathematics - advances which would prove to be of great value to science. But as far as science itself is concerned they made little progress. They have the disadvantage of an even bigger pantheon of non-cooperating gods than the Greeks. Some of these gods have responsibilities and powers specifically opposed to those of others. Performing experiments in the hope of finding universality and consistency makes no sense in such circumstances, and as with the Greeks we see the Hindus making advances in the field of mathematics (whose rules are largely determined by the human mind, not by the workings of nature), but not in science.
Since Islam has only one god it might be expected that it would provide a suitable setting for science to develop. Indeed there was a period when progress was made towards the development of science by Islamic scholars. But there is a fatal flaw in the religion (perhaps a later modification?) which makes it unsuitable - the fatalistic conviction that "the will of Allah" has decreed an outcome , the conviction that "it is written". Examples from my own experience include a driver making no attempt to miss a chicken crossing the road explaining "if Allah has decreed that the chicken will die there is nothing I can do about it" and a friend preferring to ride with me, rather than his fellow Moslems, noting "I know my own people, they don’t put on the brake, they look to Allah".
Under the animism that still dominates Africa and much of the rest of the under-developed world there is also no basis for science. Nature is subject to the working of spirits. It makes no sense to experimentally seek for global explanations for phenomena when major causes are ancestral spirits and witch doctors conjuring evil spirits. The spirits are local - what happens here may be completely different to what happens in the next village, where there are different ancestors and a different witch doctor.
The expectation that science will achieve the discovery of laws of Nature makes sense only in the context of the Creator that Roger Bacon referred to; a reasonable Creator who prescribes laws. The Judeo-Christian world-view provides this setting. The belief that the universe was created in an ordered way by a reasonable, law-giving God provides the basis for believing that the creation will behave in a reasonable way following fixed laws.
At the time of the reformation a large section of the population of Western Europe gained access to the Bible - made available by the recent invention of the printing press. Large numbers studied it free from the restraints and restrictions of the Church. Many earnestly desired to know more of the Creator they learned of in its pages, and sought to know more of Him by learning more of His creation. Since He prescribed laws for His creatures, since He invites his people to "reason together" with Him, and since He declared that His power is to be seen in His creation it was logical to assume that diligent study of the creation would not be in vain. Kepler’s famous declaration that the privilege of a scientist is "to think God’s thoughts after Him" explains why he was prepared to spend years of painstaking labour searching for orbits which would fit Brahe’s planetary observations. He was confident that there would be a solution of elegance and beauty because he was confident that his God worked that way. It has been said of Newton, the greatest scientist of all time, "were it not for Newton’s God, he would never have gone looking for His laws."
Searching for the Creator’s laws in Bacon’s prescribed way proved successful to an astounding degree. The scientific method, with its painstaking experimentation and hypothesis testing, led to rapid discovery and drastic consequences for society. The existence of consistent natural laws and the power of the scientific method to yield results came to be taken for granted. Many who were not fired by the desire to learn more of their God and His modus operandi entered the field. Humanists and other atheists closed their eyes to the fact that without a single law-giving God there is no basis for expecting science to work at all. Swelling pride in the abilities of scientists soon led to a turning away from the very foundation on which science had been built. The famous mathematician Laplace’s statement that he had no need of the "hypothesis" of God has been taken up by ever increasing numbers, many of whom became fervent evangelists of atheism, specifically anti-Christian evangelists. Thomas Huxley stands out from the nineteenth century, Richard Dawkins is an example from our own time.
Science gradually came under the domination of humanists, and today such men are attempting to change the very definition of science to reflect their religion of secular humanism. Not surprisingly science is now, as the great Professor Sir Fred Hoyle noted, in a state of crisis. Most secular humanists will hotly deny this fact, and will point to ongoing advances in engineering and technology to support the claim that science is going from strength to strength. But it is not true.
Secular humanists not only have no basis for expecting science to yield results, they have no reason even for expecting or delivering uprightness and honesty. Only a command for honesty from God, to whom one will at some stage have to give an account, provides a logical basis for honesty. Dishonesty for personal gain is perfectly logical in the humanist world-view and science is now beset by fraud and deceit. In fact a congressional commission of enquiry concluded that dishonesty in science is extremely common. A report on the work of this commission, "Betrayers of the Truth" by William Broad and Nicholas Wade makes horrifying reading. Since any one scientist can examine only a tiny field, and must rely on hearsay or the work of others for a broader picture, science can only advance by building on the work of many scientists. This building can be sound only if the scientists are reporting their work honestly. Today’s science, which is ruled by the dictum "publish or perish", not by a search for insights into the workings of God, is on a very shaky foundation..
Under the influence of secular humanism the entire character of "science" has changed. This can be seen very clearly by comparing two statements touching on the nature of science by two famous scientists. The first, Sir Henry Dale, writes under the influence of the Christian world-view which dominated science until about a century ago. The second, Professor Richard Lewontin is a typical supporter of the secular humanist world view which rules today.
"And science, we should insist, better than any other discipline, can hold up to its students and followers an ideal of patient devotion to the search for objective truth, with vision unclouded by personal or political motive, not tolerating any lapse from precision or neglect of any anomaly, fearing only prejudice and preconception, accepting nature's answers humbly and with courage, and giving them to the world with an unflinching fidelity. The world cannot afford to lose such a contribution to the moral framework of its civilisation."
"We take the side of science in spite of the patent absurdity of some of its constructs, in spite of its failure to fulfill many of its extravagant promises of health and life, in spite of the tolerance of the scientific community for unsubstantiated just-so stories, because we have a prior commitment, a commitment to materialism. It is not that the methods and institutions of science somehow compel us to accept a material explanation of the phenomenal world, but, on the contrary, that we are forced by our a-priori adherence to material causes to create an apparatus of investigation and a set of concepts that produce material explanations, no matter how counterintuitive, no matter how mystifying to the uninitiated. Moreover, that materialism is an absolute, for we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door."
I would suggest that science performed in the spirit of Dale’s description deserves our respect - it may stand a chance of giving insights into the truth. On the other hand I suggest that the "science" performed under Lewontin’s more modern prescription should be regarded with the utmost skepticism - it is hard to see how it can even be considered "science" at all.