It is not uncommon to hear that one must choose between science and faith. However, for those of us who love science and also love Christ, we wonder if there is not a third way. There is. Science and faith. Once we uncover the underlying assumptions of the “science or faith” narrative, it is easy to see why these assumptions are wrong. That’s my goal in this series.
Last week I noted the first wrong assumption behind this “conflict” narrative is the assumption that “Science is about facts and Christianity is about faith, and facts win.” This week I will discuss one of three reasons this assumption is wrong.
Response 1: Science Doesn’t Necessarily Involve Facts
The first way to challenge this assumption is to get clear on the nature of science itself. When one asks about the nature of something, the goal is to define its essential features. This assumption states that seeking facts is an essential (necessary) feature of science. If so, then all scientists must be seeking facts to be truly doing science. If they are not, they are not scientists, and they are not doing science.
However, in truth, there are many scientists (believers and non-believers) who do not believe the goal of science is to obtain facts. They say the goal of science is to obtain “useful fictions” in order to develop technologies. Those who take this position do not denigrate science. They simply have an alternative view of what science is all about (about what it is essentially or necessarily).
The important thing to see is that they are still scientists and are still doing science, even though they don’t believe the aim or goal of science is to find facts. Therefore science cannot essentially be about finding facts, since there are some scientists who do science but facts are not their goal. This is one reason the assumption that “Science is (necessarily) about facts.” is wrong.
"What is science?" is not itself a scientific question
To delve more deeply into this issue concerning the nature of science, we first notice that this is not itself a scientific question. We cannot study the question under a microscope or telescope, put it in a beaker, or measure it with any instrument.
The question “What is science?” is a “second-order” question—a question about science, rather than a question about the objects studied by science. Thus, this question is not within the domain of science but is a question of philosophy.
In particular, it is a question addressed in the philosophy of science. Those trained in this field ask and answer questions about what science is all about, the aims of science, what makes for “good” or “bad” science, and so on. Asking and answering these second-order questions requires the training, procedures, and apparatus of philosophy of science. Therefore, only philosophers of science are qualified to ask and answer questions about the nature of science.
Many miss this distinction, including many practicing scientists. As a result, often scientists make statements about the nature of science that is outside their training and expertise. Perhaps the most well-known, and egregious example of a scientist overstepping his bounds (science) and speaking outside his area of expertise (discussing issues in the philosophy of science) is Richard Dawkins.
A scientist overstepping his bounds is much like me, someone who is not trained medically, to be giving medical advice, just because I have a doctorate in another field. The fact that I have expertise in one field does not make me an expert in all fields. So anyone I offer medical advice to should reject it, and someone should warn me that it is dangerous to assume that because I have a doctorate, I can speak authoritatively to any issue. I could cause someone’s death due to my ignorance!
Similarly, when scientists authoritatively answer questions about the nature of science, simply because they have a doctorate in a specific field of science, they too are to speaking outside their area of training and expertise. For the same reasons, they should not be listened to. Instead, we must listen to philosophers of science who have expertise in answering questions about the nature and ends of science.
Some philosophers of science Argue facts are not the goal of Science
When we ask philosophers of science what science is and what its goals are, we get a variety of intriguing answers. For instance, many philosophers of science have noticed that throughout the history of science, people of any given period always believed their scientific theories were giving them the truth about the world. However, before long many of these theories were given up and new theories were adopted. Moreover, these new theories were also eventually replaced.
Thomas Kuhn, a philosopher of science, coined a phrase for this: “paradigm shift” in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. He and others argue that we expect too much out of science when we ask it to give us truth about the world, as the history of science has shown. Therefore we should settle for more limited goals for science. We should look to science to give us “useful fictions” which help us develop technology and have mastery over the physical realm. Their view is known as “scientific anti-realism.” (I also touched on this in point 4 of an earlier blog here.)
Scientific anti-realists go on to offer additional arguments in favor of their view. They argue that both their and the realist’s views are empirically equivalent—both explain why a theory works. They also argue that truth is not necessarily related to the predictive success of theories. For more on these arguments see the suggestions for further reading at the end of this post.
Note that these are not people who dislike science. Nor are they “people of faith” trying to save faith from science. They are simply scholars trained in studying the nature of science who have asked the hard questions about what the goal of science should be. They have concluded the goal of science is not facts, but useful fictions. (This view is known as “scientific anti-realism” and the alternative view—that the goal of science is fact about the world—is known as “scientific realism.”)
For instance, a scientific anti-realist may deny the existence of electrons—no such thing exists “out there in the world.” She would say the idea of an electron is like the idea of “the average family”: something that doesn’t exist but is a useful fiction that helps us develop population growth projections. Similarly, the concept of an electron doesn’t refer to anything “out there” but is still a useful fiction that allows us to develop technologies to light and heat our homes.
As a result of the work of these philosophers of science (perhaps most influentially Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions), there are now quite a few philosophers of science (as well as practicing scientists) who have embraced scientific anti-realism. For them, science is still a good thing to pursue. However, it is to be pursued for other reasons—to develop useful fictions that have practical value. A scientist who is an anti-realist is still doing science. Therefore science is not necessarily about “facts.”
My aim in this post is not to defend scientific anti-realism. In fact, I subscribe to scientific realism in the more established fields of science due to my belief in God, which I'll say more about next week. My point is simply that one can practice science without assuming the goal is to find "facts." Therefore “fact-finding” is not an essential feature of science. The one who says science is only about “facts” is simply uninformed of this larger and important discussion of various views of the ends and aims of science.
So, the fact that science isn’t necessarily about facts is one reason to reject the assumption that “Science is about facts and Christianity is about faith, and facts win.” Next week I’ll discuss two other reasons to reject this assumption.
Until then, grace and peace.
For additional reading see Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview by J.P. Moreland and William Lane Craig, Chapter 16: The Realism-Antirealism Debate.
For more advanced treatments see Tomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Larry Laudan, Progress and Its Problems: Toward a Theory of Scientific Growth, and Bass C. van Fraassen, The Scientific Image.