The Nature and Limitations of Science

I wanted to write this post in regards to the nature/limitations of scientific methodology and discourse, since it is a highly misunderstood enterprise among the predominately modern skeptical community. Usually we encounter this “scientistic” attitude when it comes the authorities of knowledge.

One strict example of this notion can be found in Stephen Hawking’s recent book ‘The Grand Design’ (2010) where he writes:

“Philosophy is dead… Scientists have become the bearers of the torch of discovery in our quest for knowledge” (pg. 5).

Of course, Hawking doesn’t stand alone and hasn’t ever since the latter half of the 19th century during the Victorian era when science and religion started becoming a contrasted and [supposedly] dichotomous matter. Charles Bradlaugh, the early and great British freethinker, has also written in regards to the glory of science and vice of religion:

“Science has razed altar after altar heretofore erected to the unknown Gods, and has pulled down Deity after Deity from the pedestals on which ignorance and superstition had erected them. The priest, who had formerly spoken as the oracle of God, lost his sway just in proportion as the scientific teacher succeeded in impressing mankind with a knowledge of the facts around them.” (quoted from Gordon Stein, ‘An Anthology of Atheism and Rationalism’; cp. 1980, p. 13).

And the examples throughout the last century and a half abound the more abundantly. So then, I have written this post for those who see science as an “all-knowing” enterprise which places its foot in the door as the final word for some given proposition that claims to hold knowledge.

I.

Science hinges off of a method known as Induction. Induction (as Francis Bacon came to understand the term) is a method of taking a limited number of data, or examples, and making a general inference/rule that best explains the entire set of data. For instance, things tend to fall where dropped. Other things are likewise influenced by forces which are immensely larger than what we can drop (like planets, stars, etc.). Thus, we can infer gravity.

However, not all future examples will conform to the general rule. To suggest that it does, commits what is known as the induction fallacy. This says that we that can’t assume the future based off of events from the past (no matter how frequent they’ve occurred). Scottish philosopher David Hume (1711-1776) recognized this in his ‘Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding’ (1748). One interesting aspect of Hume however, was that as a result of experience (according to Hume) man comes to believe that “like objects placed in like circumstances will always produce like effects” (Hume; ‘Treatise on Human Nature’; 1738, 1:107).

Unfortunately, he would later become committed to the view that we can’t exclude the logical possibility of nature changing, and that we were not justified in believing that an object “seen today would produce the same effects as on a previous occasion” (Himsworth, 1986). Interestingly enough as Himsworth suggests, “man can formulate descriptive generalizations that are valid within the limits of his experience, he cannot assert that they are universally so, for further experience may reveal them to be defective in some respect” (Ibid. 36).

Therefore, the degree of certainty to ‘descriptive’ generalizations “depends upon the completeness of the factual observations on which it is founded” (p. 37). To claim absolute certainty, it would need to be based on all past, present, and future objects of the kind in question! So in a strict sense, science can’t necessarily come to absolute facts regarding anything because of our limited experiences and inability to assess all past, present, and future data.

II.

Francis Bacon’s understanding of how scientific knowledge advances can be understood more explicitly as such: man acquires knowledge of individual facts from his observations of things and happenings in the world around him. “By bringing together the presently available facts that bear on a particular problem he may – hopefully – see their general implications and, on this basis, formulate a hypothesis regarding its explanation” (p. 17).

After this has taken place, he (the scientist) is then able to deduce what will logically follow given his hypothesis were sound. Now, Bacon’s method of induction by enumeration was a modification of the common idea of arriving at general ideas about things on the basis of observing many particular instances. Bacon for example would have examined the relationship between cold, hot, and perhaps slightly less warmer bodies in order to come to a general concept on the nature of heat (see B. Russell, History of Western Philosophy; cp. 1946, p. 565).

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4 responses to “The Nature and Limitations of Science

  1. Funny how science claim the ‘rational’ high ground just like Christians claim the high ground ‘goodness’. In the former they don[t understand the limits of scientism (as pointed out in your article) and in the later they don’t understand the principles of philosophy.

  2. “So in a strict sense, science can’t necessarily come to absolute facts”.

    Once again, science doesn’t claim to come to absolute facts in the sense of mathematical certainty. We know that the sun could fail to rise tomorrow… but the chance of that happening is so small that it would be ridiculous to consider it.

    Interestingly, I only hear the claim that “science claims to know everything” coming from non-scientists who clearly have not studied science, because this is one of the first principles learned.

    I think many Christians misunderstand the 99.99999999% likelihood to be 100% and will then try to attack science on the .00000001% uncertainty remaining, causing scientists around the world laugh and face-palm at the same time. Isn’t it time to move on from this red-herring? It’s not the scientists who need to be educated here…

    • You have not understood responsibly what is what by that statement. When I say, “in a strict sense, science can’t necessarily come to absolute facts”, it is in complete consistency with your example of the sun failing to rise tomorrow (though it is highly unlikely) – and it is all I mean by it. This post was by no means an attack.

      Nothing I’ve said suggests that science doesn’t know anything, or is meaningless (see Gordon Clark), or even that there are some undisputed facts in science which are supposedly “too ambiguous” to hold as true. Surely this doesn’t appear to be a matter of a red-herring but rather a straw man.

  3. Pingback: Why Philosophy is Superior to Science | Hellenistic Christendom·

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