Many people think that scientists, and science itself, operate independently from underlying beliefs. However, this is quite untrue, and we shall examine why in this short essay.
For one, it is naive to believe that the practicing scientist is wholly objective in that he or she doesn’t bring personal values to work. Scientists, as people are also influenced by their cultures, imaginations, thinking, and biases (1). This is not to mention that even after the scientific work has been completed, scientists interpret their findings through a filter that includes their cultures, and personal beliefs, hence the importance of peer review within the scientific faculty. In this way the professional scientist is no different to anyone else, including the philosopher, historian, or you and me.
Nonetheless, where the actual scientific enterprise itself is concerned, many scientists and philosophers of science have identified numerous philosophical assumptions that scientists have to accept before doing their work. The real rub here is that none of these assumptions can be validated by the scientific method itself. These are namely (2):
–That the external world exists (the objective reality of the universe) – Science obviously assumes that the external world exists. It would be a bit of a problem for science if it didn’t. However, as philosophers have long argued, we can’t get outside of our five senses (or minds) to prove that this is so. So, if we try to prove the external world (the world that the scientific method investigates) using our own minds we essentially argue in a circle. Thus, the scientist, like anyone else, has to make a faith based commitment before even doing his work.
–The order, uniformity, and regularity of nature – This is the assumption that we can investigate and learn about the universe through observing it. When we examine the cosmos, for example, it is not difficult to identify the regularity and patterns that the planets obey as they orbit the sun, for instance. Or take the speed of light which is at an incredible 299 792 458 meters per second. Every time we observe it, it always appears to be that speed. However, we only know this from our own very limited vantage point within the universe. No-one, for instance, measured it one billion years ago, and no-one has yet measured what it will be in five million years time. However, given that in all the places we have examined, the speed of light stays at a constant 299 792 458 m/s, we believe that we are warranted in assuming that that will be the case even in places we haven’t yet explored. However, that is an assumption. According to research specialist Hugh Gauch, “Expressed as a single grand statement, science presupposes that the physical world is orderly and comprehensible. The most obvious components of this comprehensive presupposition are that the physical world exists and that our sense perceptions are generally reliable” (3).
-The basic reliability of human cognitive faculties and sensory organs – To do science the scientist has to assume the reliability of his or her sensory organs. In fact, some thinkers have actually undermined this. For example, biologist Steven Pinker says that “We are organisms, not angels, and our minds are organs, not pipelines to the truth. Our minds evolved by natural selection to solve problems that were life-and-death matters to our ancestors, not to commune with correctness or to answer any question we are capable of asking” (4). Pinker would probably have us believe that he and his own mind is the exception to the rule, or why should we believe him and the views he presents in his book? However, without the belief that the human mind can understand reality, there is no reason to study reality in the first place. However, scientists, and you and me, all operate according to the assumption that our sensory organs are reliable. We can’t prove it, we just assume it.
Moreover, philosophers William Lane Craig and J.P. Moreland outline 10 philosophical assumptions that the scientists makes prior to engaging his work, some of which we’ve named, the (i) the existence of a theory-independent, external world; (ii) the orderly nature of the external world; (iii) the knowability of the external world; (iv) the existence of truth; (v) the laws of logic; (vi) the reliability of our cognitive and sensory faculties to serve as truth gatherers and as a source of justified true beliefs in our intellectual environment; (vii) the adequacy of language to describe the world; (viii) the existence of values used in science (e.g., “test theories fairly and report test results honestly”); (ix) the uniformity of nature and induction; (x) the existence of numbers (5).
Now, given that these foundational philosophical assumptions cannot be scientifically validated, then science itself demands that certain non-empirical assumptions about the world are true. Without these non-empirical assumptions science itself cannot work. Being a scientific realist myself, I’d be the first to admit that this does nothing to devalue the scientific enterprise itself; in fact, that is quite far from what we are saying. The scientific method, namely the methodological components of measurement, observation, experimentation, and modification of hypotheses clearly have a successful track record. It is quite apparent that science, by in large, has not only greatly assisted our quality of life but it also continues to help us to make sense of our world.
However, many sadly jump from the successes of science into the worldview that deifies science. This is most prevalent within communities that embrace philosophical naturalism as their worldview. These people don’t embrace science but rather “scientism,” the worldview that says we should only believe what can be scientifically proven. There are a number of issues with this, as I’ve argued here, though this very statement (“only believe what can only be scientifically prove”) is a philosophical statement about science, hence scientism refutes itself at the get go. It is also the case that other people go in the opposite direction. Rather than deify science, many religious people reject good science because they perceive it to conflict with their theological beliefs. Thus, on one hand we find those who deify science, and on the other hand there are those that verge on denialism.
Though science is by far the best tool for examining the physical universe, it still has it limitations given that its foundational philosophical assumptions cannot be proven scientifically. No-one needs to be afraid to admit that, especially the scientist.
1. One Scientist’s Perspective on “Intelligent Design.” Available.
2. Heilbron, J. 2003. The Oxford Companion to the History of Modern Science. p. vii
3. Gauch, H. 2002. Scientific Method in Practice. p. 154.
4. Quoted by Martin Benjamin in Philosophy & the Actual World (2003). p. 95.
5. Craig, W. & Moreland, J. Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview. p. 349.