What Science Is and Isn't |  Peter J. Leithart


MModern science and technology are among the most amazing achievements of mankind. We understand the complex inner workings of creation much better than in any other era, and we have much more control over it. I flick a switch and night turns to day. I run my finger over a glass screen and I can talk face to face with my son in Albania. I go up in a long winged tube and come out a few hours later on another continent. Anyone who thinks modern technology is disenchanting must be jaded; we live in a world of magic, the fruit of a project that began with the Creator’s “Be Fruitful, Multiply, Reign” and Adam’s naming of animals.

Yet science’s reputation is inflated, since it has become, in Paul Tyson’s words, modern civilization’s “first discourse of truth,” the worldview that determines, judges, and corrects all others. Only scientific fact counts as real truth, and other forms of inquiry approach real truth by remaking themselves in the image of science. This exaggerated view of science feeds on the popular myth that science is a purely empirical and purely objective endeavor that produces fixed, complete, and undisputed results. None of this is true. To deflate science, we have to be realistic about what science is and what it isn’t.

First: science is not simply an accumulation of observed facts. Scientific observation is enhanced by instruments. Our knowledge of microorganisms and deep space is mediated entirely by technical artifacts. Scientists must be trained in the use of the instruments, and the instruments themselves are always open to questions: what does the instrument capture and what does it leave out? Does the device itself affect what we observe? Is it well calibrated?

Moreover, scientists don’t just collect and organize facts. This is for amateurs, and even amateurs have to interpret what they learn: which butterfly should be pinned where? Real scientists theorize and, as Wilfrid Sellars points out, theories often explain perceptible phenomena by reference to imperceptible entities and forces: apples fall (perceivable) because of gravity (imperceptible). Theories aim to provide simple and elegant explanations that “save appearances”. Theorizing is always a speculative scope beyond data. And then the theories bounce back and affect what we see and how we interpret it. None of this is a problem; this is how modern science works. But that means there’s always room for interpretation and guesswork. Even in its most empirical form, science is not “just facts”.

Second: science is, in the words of Steven Shapin, “never pure”. Scientists are human, driven by all the normal human drives: ambition, rivalry, love, hate, the desire to know. Like everyone else, scientists have fundamental beliefs about how the world works. A materialistic scientist may come up with a materialistic theory because it fits their assumptions, not because it makes the best sense of the data. Scientists come to their work with an implicit image of the world – nature “red in teeth and claws”, or nature as a divinely ordained hierarchy that mirrors the hierarchy of the virtuous soul, or nature as a nurturing mother though sometimes tumultuous, or nature as a machine. The scientist assumes an implicit relationship to the object of study: does nature generously reveal its secrets, or does it need to be questioned, even tortured, to remove its veil? Is the scientist Orpheus, enchanting nature, or Prometheus, dominating it, or Oedipus, deceiving it?

Even scientific methods rely on substantive commitments. As Alvin Plantinga and others have argued, “methodological naturalism” excludes certain categories of truth from the realm of “science.” Plantinga asks the obvious question: in trying to understand reality, shouldn’t scientists use everything they know, including truths like “The Word became flesh”? Scientific methods make theological assumptions. Insofar as it depends on the concept of “natural law”, science implicitly admits the existence of a legislator. Sometimes a method is theological by being anti-theological. “God has nothing to do with this phenomenon” and “all things are not consistent in the Son” are theological statements.

Third: science is contested. Rarely is there such a thing as science. Even when there is consensus, it is not permanent. Thomas Kuhn has been criticized, but his description of scientific change still rings true: “normal science” is conducted under a reigning “paradigm” and is often very productive. Yet no paradigm encompasses all data, and over time normal science generates anomalies that cannot be explained by current theory. Along comes a genius who comes up with a new paradigm that understands the old paradigm, makes sense of the anomalies, and produces a new normal. Science is mutable by design.

Fourth: science is political. Matthew B. Crawford has pointed out the disconnect between the source of public authority for science and its actual practice. Scientific opinion is trustworthy because scientists are seen as disinterested, apolitical, and heroic seekers of truth. In fact, Big Science is big business, often dependent on large government grants. You cannot build a supercollider in the rear hangar. Grantmakers know who holds the purse strings.


Fifth: Science is limited. It is not – and in its current materialistic and anti-theological form, can’t—answer basic questions about reality. How did life begin? Where does consciousness come from? Materialistic science is ultimately inconsistent. He cannot explain how a mechanistic world of matter + movement, without purpose or intention, produces a being like the scientist, a material being with intention and purpose. Why is there something rather than nothing? Evolutionary cosmologists say that the world emerges from “nothing”. Upon closer inspection, “nothing” turns out to be something after all, a combination of empty space and natural laws. This only pushes the question one step further: where do empty space and laws come from?

Finally: science is not the opposite of religion. There is no eternal and titanic conflict between Science and Religion because the very distinction between science and religion is of fairly recent origin. As Peter Harrison has pointed out in several studies, science and religion were closely linked in the Western Middle Ages; the order of signifying signs and the order of physical causes entirely overlap. During the Scientific Revolution, scientists, to shield themselves from church scrutiny, formed boundaries to divide medieval science-religion into separate territories. The perplexing secret is that the idea that the natural sciences should be freed from religious oversight was the product of late medieval changes in natural theology. If scientists now claim their own territory, it is because Christian theology has bequeathed it.

Science does not provide a complete and indisputable account of reality. That doesn’t make it useless, but it does mean that we will misuse science as long as we misinterpret what it is and what it isn’t.

Peter J. Leithart is president of the Theopolis Institute.

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