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.