So science is supposed to yield more true beliefs and fewer false ones… but how does it work and why should I trust it?
I studied science some in school, but I only recently began to understand it. My faith caused me to be suspicious of science and not to trust it. I learned how to conduct experiments, but my formal education didn’t teach me much (that I remember) about the overall process of science – how those individual experiments fit into the larger body of science, what the goals and methods are of a community of scientists, and how it works at a high level. Just in case anyone hasn’t had these insights, I’d like to share what science actually is and is not.
Science is a disciplined process of evaluating our experiences (those consistent ones that can be evaluated) in order to make extrapolations and generalizations (a process of induction) to come up with a description of our experiences that is more correct than incorrect. The goal of science is not absolute Truth. The goal of science is a successful theory that provides explanation, prediction, and control over nature. The supernatural is, by definition, not a scientific endeavor because from the outset science seeks explicitly to explain natural experiences with natural causes. Only natural causes. That does not mean it cannot disprove supernatural claims that do interfere with nature. Disproving claims is what science does best.
If an experience, or group of experiences, seems to conflict with a current theory (i.e. an anomaly is found that isn’t explained by the theory) then a new theory may be needed to better explain the experiences. Science works from the ground up by looking at multiple observations, making some assumptions, and forming generalizations in order to explain the consistency within the observations.
Science works by following a simple set of rules. Examine the data, make a prediction (called a hypothesis), test that prediction (often through mathematical modeling, experimentation, observation, simulation, etc.), analyze the results, see if your prediction is disproved by the tests, make some conclusions, repeat. Make sure the tests account for falsifiability (the hypothesis must be able to be shown to be false if it is false). After a sufficient amount of tests if the hypothesis still hasn’t been disproved, it escalates to become a more viable candidate for an accepted explanation of reality. Other scientists will then look for flaws in the research, testing, controls, approach, materials, conclusions, etc. If no mistakes are found, more scientists will test the implications of the hypothesis against existing theories, and the hypothesis will be tested by still more scientists in different labs with different techniques and tools. At some point in all this testing one or more of these studies may make it into a peer-reviewed journal where many other experienced scientists will pick it apart for holes. If they can’t find any, other experiments will be conducted. Eventually, if it has passed enough tests and can provide enough explanation, prediction, and control, the scientific community at large will accept it as a theory (or possibly a law if it just describes observations).
An accepted theory is not seen as representing what IS. It is seen as the best explanation we have at the time… the best candidate for what IS. The moment the theory fails to explain (or at least allow for) certain significant data in it’s scope, or the moment a better theory comes along that explains the data better (or with fewer underlying assumptions) it will be replaced.
Theories include the theory of relativity, or of plate tectonics. They are not theories like we use the word in everyday speech. When you have an idea or a theory, that’s a scientific hypothesis. A scientific theory is an objectively justified explanation for some phenomena about the natural world. It would be the equivalent of a fact in common speech, but the caveat is that theories and laws are all open to new data which may lead to their revision. Theories may be revised more often than laws, in general, because they often explain phenomena that are subject to new evidence. Theories are not less factual or certain than laws and will not graduate to become laws. Theories are just different than laws because they offer explanations and often include other theories or laws as part of those explanations.
Theories, like the theory of evolution, are as scientifically rigorous, and as close to scientific knowledge as it gets. Practicing scientists in overwhelming numbers accept evolution as a fact. It has graduated to be an accepted theory in the scientific community. This doesn’t mean that we know all the mechanisms at work that account for every step of every species transformation, but the basic idea that species evolve over time is accepted as fact. A fact is something that logically fits the data. It’s only as good as its assumptions, however, which means a theory does not necessarily accurately represent the Truth (with a capital T – representing what IS). More on this in a moment.
Laws are not more accepted than theories. Laws are descriptions of reality that we don’t have an accepted explanation for. Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity is a theory because it explains why things fall. Newton’s Law of Universal Gravitation is a law and not a theory because we can model it mathematically and describe it, but we don’t have an explanation for how it works – that’s where General Relativity comes in. So Universal Gravitation is a law, but like a theory, it is subject to new data and is not necessarily True (we could potentially find an exception, though that is very unlikely). All science works off of some assumptions (even deductive logic has some initial axioms which have built-in assumptions), which is why justifiable beliefs are measured in probabilities, not in absolutes.
If something has made it to the level of a theory or law, I know of no justification for not treating it as a fact. It is the best mankind has been able to glean from nature, and if you aren’t going to believe it, what will you believe – and how can you justify such a belief?
The point here, is that there is great motivation and ambition in science to disprove a hypothesis, and even more to disprove a theory or a law. If you’re a scientist proposing a hypothesis, you want to disprove it yourself early so your work isn’t shot down later. The goal of science is to increase our understanding of nature, and that means keeping us from going down the wrong path. If you can disprove the law of gravity, the second law of thermodynamics, or the theory of evolution, you’ll be responsible for a major breakthrough in science.
Science is self-corrective and scientists work together to help humanity. It’s a collaborative effort. Einstein proved Newton was wrong about his view of separate eternal states of space and time. Maybe Einsteins theories are wrong and someone will disprove them someday. There is great incentive for that.
What does science not do? Every scientific theory is based on some assumptions which is why science does not provide absolute Truth, or certainty. We are not lifting the veil of the curtain of reality. We are offering explanations of our experiences inside reality. We’re trying to get to what IS, but we have no guarantee that we will get it right using the methods of science.
Science also is not an organization of God-haters out to remove God from our society. It’s not a conspiracy theory, either. It’s not a thing at all. It’s a process.
Please don’t see science as something with an agenda against religion. Religious claims are a part of science. They are hypotheses. A few of them aren’t capable of being scientific theories because they aren’t falsifiable. Most of them, like the God of the Bible, are capable of being scientific theories to some extent. My view, which I will attempt to demonstrate in later posts, is that they fail to make it passed the hypothesis stage because the results of the tests don’t support the hypothesis and/or the null hypothesis cannot be successfully rejected (I won’t get into null hypothesis testing here).
As I mentioned, the goal of science is to explain what we experience in nature with natural causes (not supernatural ones). This one idea literally brought us out of the dark ages. A scientific belief is always probabilistic and never completely certain. It is based on evidence alone, and relies on as few assumptions as possible. It is also the best method we have of determining what is more likely to reflect Truth (absolute, necessary and certain truth of the objective reality that IS).
So science is great, and we should trust it because it is the best mechanism we have to ascertain reality and avoid false beliefs. But how does that impact faith? How does one put this into practice by applying science to personal faith-based beliefs about scripture? That topic is coming soon. And yes, I will finally get around to supplying some specific examples of problems in the Bible.
Gentleness and respect
P.S. I’d like to add that I am not a practicing scientist and the last three posts have all come rushed from my head on little sleep. If you spot any obvious errors, please let me know so I can explain them better or learn from my mistakes. I’m also without the aid of my beautiful editor, so please forgive my typos and grammatical errors. 🙂