Oh, those pesky presuppositions…

I have often mentioned that science is based on presuppositions, and that these presuppositions are, if not issues of faith, at least rooted in a certain philosophy or worldview. To me, this is rather obvious – and it’s not a bad thing, it just is. I have my own presuppositions, and freely admit to them. However, those of a materialist point of view tend to bristle at this; science, after all, is based on reason.

Paul Davies writes in the NY Times,

Over the years I have often asked my physicist colleagues why the laws of physics are what they are. The answers vary from “that’s not a scientific question” to “nobody knows.” The favorite reply is, “There is no reason they are what they are — they just are.” The idea that the laws exist reasonlessly is deeply anti-rational.

Davies makes an interesting point, although, as Lawrence Selden has pointed out, his logic could be a bit better. However, his was an opinion piece for the Times, not something in a scientific or philosophical journal. Selden puts it this way:

I think he is on the right track, but his arguments could be improved. One of the things he is getting at is that to do science, you have to have a philosophy of science and an epistemology. The scientific method is not provable by the scientific method. It comes out of a philosophy of science and is part of a person’s epistemology.

Again, “The scientific method is not provable by the scientific method.” The scientific method, its nature, its applicability and its effectiveness, are philosophical positions. I think it is fair to use the word faith here, but it’s ok if you don’t. “Philosophy” works just as well for me. This doesn’t diminish science at all; to borrow a Gumpism, “science is as science does.” It can explain some things (as far as we know), but it can’t explain everything. It shouldn’t have to. Unless, of course, it really is an issue of faith…

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3 Responses to Oh, those pesky presuppositions…

  1. Quixote says:

    Does not science, by definition, preclude the non material? This should pose no problems even for the religious person. As Mike notes, science is about the materially testable Forget the elusive Grail of scientific objectivity. There is no such thing as most scientists now recognize. Thomas Kuhn, one of most influential philosophers of science of the twentieth century—if not the most influential, identified the central role of “paradigm” in scientific progress. In normal science this paradigm consists of the key theories, instruments, values and, yes, metaphysical assumptions that comprise the disciplinary matrix.

    Competing schools of thought possess differing procedures, theories, even metaphysical presuppositions. However, Kuhn asserts that the success of a particular school to address puzzle-solutions will draw adherents into a broad agreement. According to Kuhn, this widespread consensus now permits agreement on fundamentals. For a problem-solution will embody particular theories, procedures and instrumentation, scientific language, and metaphysics among other things.

    My point (or Kuhn’s anyway) is that there is no such thing as scientific objectivity. There is only a world view which, counter to Mike’s insistence, necessarily includes a metaphysic. Here is where the religious person has a legitimate foot in the scientific door, or, as Mike might characterize it, a thorn in the scientific flesh. Materialists (like Mike?) necessarily have their metaphysic but scorn any other, especially definitively religious ones, as unscientific and dismissible. Their grave mistake is not that they insist on testability (that’s what science is), but that they believe their experiments say anything definitive about the metaphysical or non-material world at all.

    Science, by definition, has nothing authoritative to say about the non-material world. So why then do preachers like Dawkins insist that it does? Because, though guys like Dawkins preach otherwise, the issue has ceased to be about real science. It is no longer a question of testability; it is a fierce battle over metaphysics wielding scientific “method” as blunt instrument. Scientist may make adequate laboratory geeks, but they sure can make crappy philosophers.

  2. me says:

    Actually, I don’t believe that science has been honed to eliminate biases. It certainly can eliminate some, but it can’t eliminate science’s own presuppositional biases.

    Everything comes down to faith, in some respects. For example, I could show through the scientific method and by all known laws of physics that the chair I am sitting on will support me. However, even with that, I have to choose to believe that these laws will still be in effect the next time I sit down. To even do science, you have to have faith in the method. This of course is where people like Dawkins fail, in having too much faith in science, or believing that science can prove more than it can. We can assert whatever we want, but the reality is that we have to go outside of the scientific method in order to test the method itself.

  3. The scientific method isn’t really a “thing” as an abstract, but it has been honed and tested to eliminate biases, including the bias of an extraneous variable such as faith.

    It is a means of attaining objectivity, which, yes, is a philosophical concept. But science is impossible without philosophy, isn’t it? However, I don’t think that in this sense philosophy means what many people think it means.

    The problem with using faith as an explanation is that your faith doesn’t provide a testable, objective explanation, even for the origin of the laws of the universe any more than the Hindu’s faith does.

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