The Language of Science

Blog post by Jeffrey Thayne on November 3, 2008
19Comments

Jeffrey Thayne

Hammer and screw. A tool is much more effective when you know how to use it right, including its limitations.

In my previous two posts, I explained how experimentation can never verify or falsify scientific theories. Does this mean that science is useless? Far from it. Scientific methods and experimentation can certainly be a very persuasive tool, and a useful way of making sense of the world. As I explained in the first post of this series, experimentation is a kind of logical argument. Why is logic persuasive? Some philosophers have believed that logic is persuasive because it is a manifestation of reason, and reason is our conduit to divine knowledge. Logic, in this sense, is our eye into the abstract structure of reality. Brent Slife and Richard Williams explain a different way of understanding logic (and science); in this post, I will draw heavily upon their writings (with our readers’ forgiveness):

There is another explanation for the persuasiveness of logical arguments. This explanation holds that logical arguments are based on rules of language that people who use the language understand and agree to abide by. This agreement is rarely something we, as language users, are explicitly aware of. The rules of language are most often understood without explicit awareness. They are just a part of knowing how to use language to make sense of things.

… Science might best be understood as a language with which or through which people try to understand the world. All languages have rules that determine what are acceptable sentences and how utterances are to be understood. Similarly, scientific rules tell us which experiments are acceptable and how one interprets the results. It is also the case, however, that like any language, the language of science is full of ambiguity. Scientists’ procedures and explanations are influenced by their culture, history, and subjective factors. Just as no one would claim that English is the only, or even the best, language through which to understand the world, no such claim need be made for science.

This view suggests that every language opens the world to us and helps us understand it in a particular way, from a particular perspective. That same is true of science. However, as every language opens the world to us in some ways, it also closes it down in other ways. Just as everything cannot be said in a single language, everything cannot be understood and explained through a single method—science.1

Unique ways of understanding the world may open to us new possibilities for action. Thus, science and experimentation may open new possibilities for us as we engage in the world. Slife’s and Williams’s point of view certainly dissolves a perceived dichotomy between science and philosophy; many people see philosophy as a speculative enterprise, largely grounded in rational analysis, and then contrast it with science, which they see as an empirical enterprise, grounded in observation and experimentation. Science, they believe, has a superior claim to knowledge. However, when we understand science as a language through which we make sense of the world—as a kind of rational, persuasive endeavor—we see no essential difference between the two.

This point of view also lends support for the idea that reason and logic are not ways of obtaining truth, but instead are ways of organizing our experiences—ways of making sense of what we do and see in the world, and communicating our understanding to our fellow human beings. As I explained in my previous posts, I think it is fallacious for us to believe that science leads us to indubitable knowledge. I believe that indubitable knowledge can only come from communication with God through the Holy Spirit. This kind of lived experience is the best basis of sure knowledge. No systematic, rational method can ever approach this in terms of certainty.



Notes
1. Brent Slife and Richard Williams, “Science and Human Behavior”, in What’s Behind the Research? Discovering Hidden Assumptions in the Behavioral Sciences (Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, 1995), pp. 167–204.

19
comments so far
  1. “As I explained in my previous posts, I think it is fallacious for us to believe that science leads us to indubitable knowledge. I believe that indubitable knowledge can only come from communication with God through the Holy Spirit.”

    While science may not be able to provide us with indubitable knowledge, do you agree that the goal of science should be to acquire such knowledge, or at least to move closer to the absolute truth of the natural world? Until such knowledge is obtained we may talk about the verisimilitude or truthlikeness of our scientific theories.

    As I point out in Truth & Science, sometimes the Spirit provides certain secular knowledge and truth by inspiring scientists (e.g., cause of malaria, periodic table, organic chemistry, the structure of the neuron). In this way science can provide us with indubitable knowledge, if, as you say, it comes from the Spirit.

  2. While science may not be able to provide us with indubitable knowledge, do you agree that the goal of science should be to acquire such knowledge … ?

    I think that science ought to try to “get things right,” of course. However, if it is logically impossible to prove a theory true or prove a theory false, and thus impossible to know indubitably wether or not a theory is true, isn’t it a little disingenuous to try to claim indubitable knowledge as a goal of science?

    sometimes the Spirit provides certain secular knowledge and truth by inspiring scientists … In this way science can provide us with indubitable knowledge, if, as you say, it comes from the Spirit.

    I absolutely agree that the Spirit can inform the process. Actually, I think all major and important scientific advances have been at least influenced by the Spirit. And this is exactly my point: true knowledge that we obtain from science is not the result of a rational method (since certain knowledge scientific theories is logically unattainable), but of divine inspiration. Rational methods can provide us with persuasive arguments, but any knowledge comes from God.

    If, when we think of science, we think of the rational methods scientists claim to employ, no I don’t think a whole lot of knowledge comes from that. But if we think of science more generally as the collective body of knowledge embrace by scientists, regardless of the source of that knowledge (could be divine inspiration), then of course there is knowledge to be found. However, if you look at the logical analysis of these three posts, you’ll see that I restrict myself to the rational method scientists claim to employ.

  3. What exactly would be an example of induibtable knowledge? It seems like an odd thing.

    It seems like what is being contrasted is the idea that science can give deductive or necessary knowledge. I think everyone recognizes that it can’t. But then I’m not even sure mathematical knowledge fits this odd absolutist standard of knowledge.

  4. It seems like what is being contrasted is the idea that science can give deductive or necessary knowledge. I think everyone recognizes that it can’t.

    Pretty much sums it up… and yet not everyone recognizes that. I guess what I am reacting to is what I see as a “worship” of the scientific method in public discourse, an unwavering trust in “scientific studies” as reliable knowledge, and a belief that the scientific method will one day yield all the answers to life’s questions, or, that is, be able to explain everything we see.

  5. Jeff,
    I appreciate the opportunity to explore these issues with you.

    “isn’t it a little disingenuous to try to claim indubitable knowledge as a goal of science?”

    I don’t think so. I see nothing wrong with stating that certain knowledge is the goal of science, and yet I see lots wrong with saying certain knowledge is not the main goal of science. If we remove the goal of certain and necessary knowledge we are putting ourselves on the slippery slope of relativism. Indeed there is a movement afoot to replace the goal of revealing absolute truth with that of revealing relative truth. IMO, relativism leads to wishy washy skepticism, nihilism, and moral relativism. We see the effects of moral relativism in science in recent 2001 APA resolutions supporting gay marriage, all in the name of science.

    Moreover, without certain truth as our goal we fall prey to pragmatics which serves the interests of the larger culture or ruling class, and when that ruling class is bent on suppressing opposing viewpoints, science often becomes a tool of oppression and destruction (e.g., Nazi death doctors).

    The idea of aiming for a lofty goal that can perhaps never be attained is not foreign. The Savior told us to become perfect like He is. It is not going to happen in this lifetime, but it is something we are to strive for.

  6. Perhaps we’re talking past each other.

    I think striving to become perfect is something that is, indeed, possible, but not in this lifetime. Let’s consider an example, though. I believe it is impossible to become perfect by reading self-help books. Thus, it would be disingenuous to claim that the goal of reading self-help books is to become perfect, since that is not a means to perfection. If we claim that it is, we ought to be a little more modest about our self-help book reading goals. The basic principles of the gospel, on the other hand, can bring us to perfection, so perfection can be a purpose or goal of the transformative process of the basic principles of the gospel.

    The same way, the scientific method cannot bring us certain knowledge, so it would be disingenuous to claim that as the goal of the scientific method. Now, I agree completely with the dangers of relativism; that is why we must root ourselves and our quest for certainty in something other that the scientific method.

    Simply put, relativism isn’t mitigated by placing the scientific method as our means for obtaining certainty; I believe relativism is perpetuated by our strict adherence to the scientific method, since it can’t provide the product it claims to offer.

    In order to avoid relativism, we can’t root our claims to certainty in a rational method invented by men; we’ve got to turn to a different source for truth.

    What I’m trying to show here is that the scientific method, even though it can’t bring us to certainty (and we should therefore be much more modest about its claims to truth), is still a useful way of making sense of the world.

  7. “Thus, it would be disingenuous to claim that the goal of reading self-help books is to become perfect, since that is not a means to perfection.”

    But it possible for us to assert that the goal of science is acquire certain truth while at the same time acknowledging that science alone will never bring us to that truth. Of course there are some secular humanists who think otherwise, asserting that science is the only pathway to certain truth; a movement called scientism.

    Likewise, it would be arrogant to claim that a self-help book is the only pathway to perfection while at the same time claiming that people can reach perfection by reading it. We might call that self-helpism ;) To make such a claim is ludicrous, yet I see no problem in claiming that the goal of self-help is to move people forward to perfection. In a similar manner, the goal of science should be to move mankind closer towards certain knowledge.
    - my 2 cents

  8. Pretty much sums it up… and yet not everyone recognizes that. I guess what I am reacting to is what I see as a “worship” of the scientific method in public discourse, an unwavering trust in “scientific studies” as reliable knowledge, and a belief that the scientific method will one day yield all the answers to life’s questions, or, that is, be able to explain everything we see.

    I wish that were the case (the public worship of scientific method). I think the world would be much better off if that were our sin. Rather I think the bigger problem is the disparaging and distrust of science not its worship.

    In any case it’s one thing to acknowledge fallibilism. It’s quite an other to move from fallibilism to the question of whether science produces the strongest knowledge we have access to. Clearly there are topics science really can’t address. However I can’t tell if you are merely attacking science as entailing certainty or moving beyond to attacking it as providing our strongest knowledge.

    I’m all for rejecting foundationalism and the very idea of certain knowledge. My sense is that you are asserting far more than that though.

  9. Clark,
    I think scientism has become a sin of the 21st century. It’s roots go all the way back to the secularization of science during the 17-18th century Enlightenment. Now believing scientists must cope with rampant agnosticism and atheism that is endemic in their disciplines.

    I don’t see how our current problem is a disparaging distrust of science. Science is king today and I don’t see religious folks trying to remove it from its position of prominence. Sure, they are attacking certain theories like evolution, but those attacks are directed at the theory itself, and perhaps to the more dogmatic types such as Richard Dawkins. Overall, the larger scientific community and its work are not in danger. To claim otherwise is, I think, hyperbole.

  10. While I don’t care for scientism I think ignorance is the sin of the 21st century and not scientism.

    The reason I say that is that there’s all sorts of stuff established by science that people seem to not believe. Just look at how few people believe in evolution!

    While scientific investigation isn’t in danger it seems undeniable that the number of non-scientists making use of that knowledge is not where it should be.

  11. Clark, this is exactly my point. I don’t believe that evolution is an adequate way to account for the world around us. You can probably count me as an unbeliever. Science has never proven evolution, nor established it as fact, and yet people seem to think it is.

    Some may argue that evolution is a useful way of explaining the world, but they can’t argue it as established fact. The fact of the matter is, empirical observations can never prove or disprove a theoretical framework used for explaining or interpreting those observations — and that is the main point of my last the three posts. To marshall empirical evidence as proof of a theoretical framework is to commit the logical fallacy of affirming the consequent.

    I think it is healthy and important to have a skepticism of theories that try to explain how the world evolved autonomously and independently of divine intervention.

  12. Umm.

    Wow.

    OK, I’ll drop the subject.

    Wow.

  13. Actually one quick question in the off chance I’m not just misreading you.

    You aren’t saying that you think the claim evolution is something we know to be true is scientism, are you?

  14. Believing (in moderation) that science cannot absolutely prove anything is a healthy dose of caution, but carried too far is can lead to unhealthy skepticism. It would be better to just accept gravity than to continually assert that we cannot know for sure if it is true. For science to progress, the scientific community needs to agree on certain fundamentals such as that things fall because of gravity and that the sun will come up tomorrow, notwithstanding that these ideas may be turned upside down one day.

    Caution is also needed when saying that evolution has not been proven by science. As far as I am concerned, it has been proven in a microevolutionary sense. Now I know that evolutionists say that there is no real distinction between micro and macroevolutionary processes because the former just leads to the latter given sufficient time. I disagree, but the point I am trying to make is that evolution can be proven beyond a reasonable doubt with empirical facts, and to a certain extent it has.

  15. I hope this doesn’t get into a debate about evolution per se; my point here is that the verification paradigm was dismissed by philosophers of science long ago. Theories as to why the world does the things it does can not be proven true. Predictions may be matched by experience, but that will never prove the theory that made or explains those predictions to be true. Read this post again for clarification:

    http://www.ldsphilosopher.com/2008/10/14/the-logic-of-verificationism/

    Simply put, we can observe genetic mutations, we can observe changes in species, but any theoretical framework for interpreting or explaining those observations (e.g. random variation and natural selection) will always be that: an interpretative framework, not a proven fact.

    You may claim that evolution is very adept at explaining our observations, and predicting future observations, but to claim that those observations prove evolutionary theory to be true is a logical fallacy. The observations may certainly give us good reason to believe evolutionary theory, but will never bring the theory from the realm of an interpretive framework into the realm of fact. I personally believe that the interpretive framework of evolutionary theory leads to serious philosophical problems and implications, but that is a different matter.

    The same goes for gravity: it is an established fact that things usually fall, but an theory or explanation as to why they fall is up for grabs right now. People have developed some pretty good explanatory frameworks, but any theoretical explanation is merely a way of interpreting experience. We can make predictions based upon our theory, but matching those predictions to experience does not prove our theory true.

  16. My point is that “proof” in the sense of deduction certainly doesn’t happen. But so what? (And I’m definitely not interested in debating whether evolution is a fact) I do think however that scientists use the term “proof” loosely in terms of what we know scientifically. That is do we have enough evidence so as to constitute knowledge.

    The problem is that when you talk about logical fallacies in this manner it only applies if you are doing deductive logic. But since no one is doing deductive logic it’s kind of pointless. Sort of like debating who has the trump card in a game of checkers.

    Arguing about deductive logic is really just pointless.

  17. I think D&C 88:118 (…seek learning, even by study and also by faith.) may be of relevance here.

  18. Jeff, do you contest specifically the links between genetic theory (with all of the associated experiments) and evolution itself? We can prove natural selection on some small levels (i.e., a propagation of certain useful genes over just a few generations in quick-breeding animals and microscopic organisms). That said, I’m unaware of anything but circumstantial evidence that widespread evolution is in place that has carried our planet’s current life structure from amino acids to large mammals.

    I’ve always thought that the concepts of evolution and natural selection were fantastic thought experiments and examples of human ingenuity, but I have a firm, pressing feeling that something very significant is missing from the theory – something that will throw most of it on its head when discovered or forever cause us to jump to conclusions if not discovered. Of course, this gut feeling isn’t a good argument but neither is the fact that evolution would “explain a lot”.

    Still, it troubles me that the argument I’ve heard here can be carried over to so many things. We don’t claim that magnetism, for example, always works in all cases, but it’s such a reliable phenomenon for everyday life that it would be stupid to discount it. We even understand the atomic principles at work. As long as this attitude toward science isn’t applied relativistically (i.e. we don’t just employ it when there’s a theory that threatens our personal worldview), it’s healthy, but science usually merely says what happens in a given situation rather than trying to explain why it happens (the “why” not being hard-coded into the universe), so as long as it doesn’t cross over into unprovable philosophy it’s probably safe.

    I just woke up with my face on my keyboard. Did I just say something?

  19. One more thing: I’m not comfortable with the idea that most of our scientific advances have come straight from God, because most of the world is still very underdeveloped and still has most of the problems these advances are supposed to solve. Only a tiny fraction of the human population has access to the advances of even the 20th century, and I believe that God would take into account the full effects of his revelations rather than just giving stuff that only ends up with selective populations of the world. I don’t think He cares that much about our temporal salvation, but as a Mormon I absolutely believe that He’s pushed us from time to time in the right direction for the propagation of information about the Restoration throughout the world. At any rate, I don’t believe that everything good and useful was invented by God and evil applications of technology come straight from man.

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