Science as a Human Endeavor

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We probably won't have time to analyze fully the evidence for every claim made in this course but keep in mind that this critical attitude lies behind all the explanations presented. Science does not claim to know all the answers. It does, however, claim to provide us with a method of test and interaction by which we can become more and more intimate with the physical universe.

Because science is done by human beings, many aspects of our humanity also play a role in scientific discovery: artistic creation and imagination, political manipulation and personal exploitation, wishful thinking, bias, egocentricity, critical review, and premature skeptical rejection. At its best, however, there is only one absolute truth: that there are no absolute truths. Every solution to a mystery creates new mysteries. Science is a game that never ends, a game whose completion would render life boring. Science then involves a logical process that is fallible, and it involves much more than just a logical process. Every scientist and the science of a time are subject to the forces of human nature and culture. Scientists are forced to make many assumptions; some are conscious and some are not.

Assumptions of Scientists

Let's take a brief look at some these assumptions or philosophical backdrop. Many scientists today will claim they are interested in how things work, not why they work as they do, because a scientist's task is to conduct experiments, make observations, and find mathematical connections. Influenced by a philosophical tradition known as positivism, these scientists will want to know what atoms will do, for instance, not what they are. Or, rather than trying to understand why gravity is attractive and not repulsive, these scientists figure out how the gravitational attraction affects the interaction of objects.

Another position held by many (but not all) scientists consciously or unconsciously is known as materialism. Metaphysical materialism states that there is no evidence that anything called ``mind'' exists and that all that exists are concrete material things, forces, and empty space. However, the scientific method does not depend necessarily upon making this assumption. Some have argued that recent developments in physics and neurophysiology warrant a reexamination of this question.

Some scientists have even held a position that is a form of classical idealism, believing that the universe can be best understood by assuming that ``thought'' or ``consciousness'' is the most fundamental reality. Certain mathematical concepts are ideas in the mind of God and that any physical reality, such as the motion of a planet, must conform to these ideas.

Materialism: Methodology vs. Philosophy

Let's look at the materialism assumption a bit more closely since it is a source of major conflict (in the United States at least). For this section, I use material from Eugenie C Scott's book Evolution vs. Creationism: An Introduction.

Modern day scientists purposefully limit themselves to explaining natural phenomena using only natural causes. We have learned a lot about our world, our universe, by adopting a methodology of materialism, limiting ourselves to just matter, energy and their interactions. Adopting a materialistic methodology when doing science does not necessarily lead to metaphysical or philosophical materialism. There have been many theist (not atheist!) scientists who practiced a materialistic methodology and this continues even today.

Why do scientists limit themselves to materialistic explanations? Several reasons: The empiricism of modern science, the testing of explanations, relies on the regularity of nature, that nature does follow rules or laws. Otherwise, we could not trust observations as evidence. How would we know if the observation was not the result of some supernatural whim? Controlled, repeatable experimentation would not be possible and any conclusions from them would not be reliable without assuming that supernatural entities are not intervening to violate natural regularities or laws. (Pennock quoted in Scott p. 249) Secondly, relying on supernatural explanations is a cop-out or a dead-end to deepening our understanding of the natural world. There would be no reason to continue looking for a natural explanation. When confronted with a very hard puzzle due to an inadequate theory or technology, we do not throw up our hands and say, "God did it" and leave it at that—end of inquiry. No, if a natural cause for something is not known, the scientific approach is to say, "I don't know yet" and keep on looking. Finally, the "methods of science are inadequate to test explanations involving supernatural forces" (Scott p. 50). It is hard to do controlled experiments if one of the control variables is an omnipotent force. The scientist usually learns about nature by using controlled experiments in which only one thing at a time is varied to determine whether or not a particular situation, feature, or circumstance can be determined to be the cause of an observed effect. Well, as any theologian will tell you, you can't control God, "the More". You can't put God in a box (or test tube).


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last updated: June 12, 2010

Is this page a copy of Strobel's Astronomy Notes?

Author of original content: Nick Strobel