I posted this over at Vox Day's site and decided it was worth repeating here, as well, because I find that much of the problems in discussing evolution have to do with the failure of my critics to understand the nature of science.   This is not a post about God's existence per se, just a discussion of why science can't say much about such claims. . . .

Evidence is not the truth, with a capital 'T', but simply observations reported by (we hope) competent observers.  The more rigorous the observation, the more times said observation is replicated, the more confidence we have in that observation and so we tend to refer to such-and-such an observation as 'true.'

Do people sincerely report religious experiences?   Indeed they appear to do so, so the fact that people report religious experiences is a phenomena that requires explanation, a phenomena that can be reasonably described as 'true.'

We reserve the right, however, to revise or reject such claims based on improved data, so these kinds of claims are never Truth with a capital 'T', the sort of eternal truths sought through philosophy or religion.

Because of this, scientists are not in the 'truth business.'  We are in the model-building and model-testing business.  When a model seems to do an especially good job of describing, explaining and predicting many phenomena we have the tendency to call such a model a 'theory', as opposed to a mere 'hypothesis.'  But we never claim that theories are Truths.

Now, the problem from this standpoint with claims such as the existence of God is not that they may or may not be true, or that the existence of God is an eternal Truth, etc.  The problem is that we can't ever move that hypothesis to the 'theory' stage because we can' test its ability to describe, explain or predict phenomena.  The God Hypothesis that fails a particular test can always be 'resurrected' by amending it with claims about God's intent, God's nature or the invocation of the supernatural.  It is not the possibility of the supernatural's  existence that scandalizes the naturalist, but the fact that within science we have no procedure to test the evidential basis of supernatural claims.

We therefore exclude them without attempting to rule one way or the other on the claim.  The best we can do is check out the testable consequences of such claims, whether or not the hypothesis produces the (natural) phenomena that is expected.


Anonymous said...

I am not clear on the status of truth in this framework. Are you saying that (a) there are no truths, (b) there are truths, but scientific theories are not among them, (c) there are truths, and we shall use a non-scientific method to discover them, or (d) we don't know and it isn't really worth asking.

I am certain that you have many readers who would assert that any conclusion supported by scientific consensus is true, regardless of how you wish to manipulate the definition of "truth."


Scott Hatfield . . . . said...

None of the above, but (b) and (c) are close.

I'm not saying you're doing this, but it's a category mistake to confuse statements that are held to be true ('facts') with statements that are held to contain or embody Truths, which typically have to do with meaning, rather than facts.

Science can use consistent reports from competent observers to establish that certain claims are, as far as we can say, are true and we treat such claims as 'facts' but the history of science shows that even trivial-seeming claims that everyone agrees to can turn out to be false. So, like every other statement in science, 'facts' are held to be true provisionally.

Thus, while I agree that I probably "have many readers who would assert that any conclusion supported by scientific consensus is true", I don't share that point of view, and I think that as such claims tend toward the dogmatic they become unscientific. If a scientific consensus exists on a given topic, I think we should treat conclusions drawn from that consensus as provisionally true and act on them, but we should be sufficiently open-minded to revise or even reject our model if significant new data emerges to the contrary.

Now, in the political realm the provisional nature of scientific claims, the absence of complete certainty etc. is seen as a weakness and it makes those of us who care about science and science education vulnerable to rhetoric that appeals to the man on the street's desire for absolute certainty. It's depressing to see good science not given the time of day by public figures because it doesn't work that way, but in the long run more damage is done to the practice of science when we fail to qualify the sort of claims that science can actually make.

Now, as a Christian, I do think there are truths that give meaning, and I don't think that science is terribly well-positioned to speak to those claims. We may not know, and we may never know how to look at such claims from the standpoint of science (or any other standpoint), but that doesn't mean the questions aren't worth asking, or that we can absolutely rule out this or that method as a means of discovering truths.