The Unempirical Philosophical Assumptions of Science

The impresison that many have is that scientists and science itself operate independently of underlying metaphysical beliefs. But I want to briefly illustrate why this is not an accurate impression because underlying science one discovers several unempirical, philosophical assumptions that the scientist must accept to do his work.

Are Scientists Purely Objective?

Are scientists like unbiased machines in the way they go about their work? Not at all. It is naive to think that the practicing scientist is wholly objective in that he does not bring personal values to his work. Rather than machines, scientists are individuals also influenced by their cultures, imaginations, thinking, and biases (1). After his work has been completed, the scientist interprets his findings through a filter that includes his culture and personal beliefs. This stresses the importance of peer review within the scientific enterprise where scientists hold each other accountable in an attempt for them to be as objective as possible. But even the peer review process maintains a very specific interpretation of objectivity constructed upon certain values. The best the scientist can do is to be as “objective” as possible within the confines of accepted conventions of what is considered objective.

Unempirical Philosophical Assumptions

Where the scientific enterprise is concerned, many scientists and philosophers have identified several philosophical assumptions that the scientist has to accept before he can conduct his work. Interesting is that none of these assumptions can be validated by the scientific method itself. These assumptions are as follows (2):

  1. That the external world exists (the objective reality of the universe) – Science and the scientist assume that the external world beyond the human mind exists. It would indeed constitute a problem for science if it did not. If it did not, then what is the scientist investigating, perhaps an illusion? Yet not even the existence of a mind-independent external world is a given. Philosophers have rightly argued that we cannot get outside of our five senses and mind to prove that this is the case. In other words, it is entirely conceivable that what I consider to be the world I perceive is the product of my subjective imagination. The problem becomes apparent in that if I attempt to prove the external world using my mind, I essentially argue in a circle: I am using my mind to argue for a conclusion that the world is independent of my mind. Thus, the existence of the world that the scientist investigates is not beyond skepticism. The scientist has to affirm by faith that a mind-independent world exists before he can do his work. 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).
  2. The order, uniformity, and regularity of nature – When the scientist examines the universe, he can identify regularity. He notices the patterns the planets obey as they orbit the sun, for instance. Or take the speed of light which is 299 792 458 meters per second. Every time the scientist observes the speed of light, it always appears to be that exact speed. However, the scientist only knows this from his very limited vantage point within the universe. No one measured the speed of light one billion years ago and no one has yet measured what it will be in five million years’ time. But because the speed of light stays at a constant 299 792 458 m/s, the scientist believes that he is warranted to assume that this will always be the case, even in places he has not yet explored. But this is an assumption that cannot be proven by science.
  3. The basic reliability of human cognitive faculties and sensory organs – The scientist has to assume the reliability of his sensory organs to conduct his work. But this is also not a given as some thinkers have undermined the reliability of the sensory organs. Consider the words of Steven Pinker who states 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). If Pinker is correct, then it would constitute the death knell of science itself and any view that humans can apprehend the truth of anything. Or, alternatively, the scientist can disagree with Pinker and place his faith in the view that his sensory organs can apprehend truth. After all, if the human mind cannot apprehend reality, then there is no reason to study reality in the first place. But all scientists operate on the assumption that their sensory organs are reliable. Scientists cannot prove this, they just assume it.

Philosophers William Lane Craig and J.P. Moreland outline ten philosophical assumptions that the scientist makes before engaging his work. We have just noted some of these but I will stipulate all of Craig’s and Moreland’s points:

  1. The existence of a theory-independent, external world;
  2. The orderly nature of the external world;
  3. The knowability of the external world;
  4. The existence of truth;
  5. The laws of logic;
  6. 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;
  7. The adequacy of language to describe the world;
  8. The existence of values used in science (e.g., “test theories fairly and report test results honestly”);
  9. The uniformity of nature and induction;
  10. The existence of numbers.

Craig and Moreland have unpacked each of these points elsewhere (5), but for our purposes we can notice that none of these philosophical assumptions can be scientifically validated using the scientific method. This demonstrates that science demands that several unempirical assumptions about the world are true. Without these assumptions, science itself cannot work.

None of what we have observed here operates to undermine science. Science has been a remarkably successful enterprise, a fact that cannot be denied.

But we have argued against common misconceptions of science. Many people view science with such high regard that they have not considered some of its more limiting features. As noted, the entire enterprise of science is constructed upon accepted values of what constitutes objectivity and the best the scientist can do is to operate within these confines. Scientists are also human beings which comes with all the limitations this entails such as personal biases and worldview influences. Further, science itself cannot function without placing its faith in several unempirical assumptions. Several of these assumptions exert significant skepticism that could be argued to undermine all human knowledge, science included.

The best the scientist and all of us can do is to place our faith in such things as the reliability of our sensory organs and the objective existence of a mind-independent world. This certainly seems the most commonsensical view of reality, but even the commonsensical is not immune to the claws of skepticism.

References

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.

14 comments

  1. The scientist, until he is able to create universes for himself will either consciously or subconsciously be in awe of the being that has created the universe he is trying to understand. I totally agree that we are limited by our consciousness. When the scientist discovers something, what he is actually discovering is god. Though it is very unfashionable for scientists to use such a term, with the exception of the god particle.

    While religion is in place we are held in aspic and god watches us the way I used to play with those ornaments of trees and see saws in a glass ball that if you tipped upside down, white or silver speckles cascaded like snow.

    ‘Religion Separates Man From God,’ an ebook

  2. Fear of God

    Galileo was chided by the God-fearing for observing that the solar system is Copernican, not Ptolemaic. And yet… the wanderers did and do move about the sun.

    Newton was chided by the God-fearing for describing all motions with mathematics, not with divine will. And yet…measurements in mechanics could and can be predicted with precision through calculation.

    Lavoisier was chided by the God-fearing for explaining chemistry as quantative reactions, not as miracles or magic. And yet…substances did and do appear and disappear with predictable regularity in labs everywhere.

    Darwin was chided by the God-fearing for showing the diversity of life resulting from ecological factors and adaption to them, not from theistic interventions. And yet…life had and has a single structure and has changed and does change forms in time.

    Einstein was chided by the God-fearing for demonstrating the democracy of observers, not the absolute Godʼs-eye view. And yet…space and time have changed and do change from frame of reference to frame of reference, and the laws of nature have been and are the same for all frames.

    Perhaps the God-fearing are right to fear God. If God is the source of reality, they have been fighting or ignoring Godʼs facts for four hundred years!

    Ronnie J. Hastings, Ph.D. (1983)

  3. Religious beliefs like denominations, sects and churches, seem to branch out opinion-wise, leaving one with quite a mixed bag of claims, while science appears to continue to slowly acquire and concentrate more knowledge about the cosmos, broadening our sight and knowledge of the very small, very big, even of cognitive function (including cognitive biases) things we had not seen nor known as clearly in the past. Science has found ways to grow and preserve more food, fight disease, provide energy, warn against coming storms and earthquakes, transmit its knowledge across continents and through space via electrical and radio waves, and ignited tremendous interest in continuing to study (and aid) the world scientifically rather than via prayers, crystals, personal and written holy revelations.

    That doesn’t mean science should become a new religion, but it does help explain the attraction of science to people interested in the world and how it works, including how the internal mental world of human beings functions, i.e., compared with the continuing schisms and disagreements that have branched and spread out over time after the founding of each religion.

    And what about Christianity having to accommodate some of its revelation to things that science has revealed? The vast ages of the earth and of humanity, the shared ancestry of humans with the animal kingdom, and the debate still in progress among Christians concerning whether there ever was a “first couple,” a literal “Adam and Eve?” Catholic doctrine still posits that one must believe in a first couple, as do many Evangelicals, but the science of genomics has increasingly challenged the idea that a literal first couple existed and instead argues that a population of humans evolved together. Moreover, what about the idea of a “fall?”

  4. https://www.amazon.com/dp/0761855661/ref=wl_it_dp_o_pd_nS_ttl
    In this book, Richard H. Jones presents arguments concerning the positive and negative roles Christian doctrines have played in the rise and development of modern science. Philosophers and scientists have written numerous books about how Creationism and Intelligent Design are not part of science, but they have ignored two more encompassing historical and philosophical issues underlying the conservative theists’ attack on science.

    First, conservative Christian scholars commonly claim that Christian theological doctrines are the source of modern science. To them, modern science is the step child of medieval Christian theology or early Protestant doctrines. That is, without those theological beliefs as presuppositions, modern science could never have arisen, and Christianity or at least theism is the only possible source of these beliefs. Moreover, they argue that even today to practice science all scientists must be committed to these theistic or specially Christian ideas, whether they realize it or not. This “dependency” thesis has become widely accepted, even outside conservative circles. Such scientists as Edward O. Wilson and Paul Davies in their writings for the general public accept the historical part of this thesis as a given.

    Second, some conservative Christians argue that theology has the epistemic right to control the content of all scientific theories and indeed the very nature of science. To them, science unfettered from theological control cannot reveal all of the true nature of the universe, and so theology must control the content and methods of all science. In the words of the philosopher Alvin Plantinga, “Scripture can correct science.” These Christians in fact advocate religious “control beliefs,” not only over science, but over all thought.

    Both the “dependency” thesis and the “control belief” thesis are challenged here. First, the Dependency Thesis is presented, and the historical and philosophical case against it is laid out. Next, an argument for why modern science arose in the West and not in some other culture is presented. The negative effect of “control beliefs” on science is then presented, followed by a more general discussion “science and religion.”

    • Every day the scientist gets up, the unknown exists. The scientist cannot travel to another habitable planet the way you would commute to work. Maybe this is intimidating, so the unknown is sort of conveniently pushed to one side, as not overly important. The scientist will be uncomfortable thinking he is studying god. Until it saves his life, then like men before him, his quest for knowledge will not come before he considers and is humbled by science being developed in the presence of god,..

  5. Just why do you feel the need to clog up James’ blog with your irrelevant ramblings? You have your own site – is that not enough?

  6. […] Most contemporary philosophers are hesitant to pronounce the death of metaphysics; William Lane Craig explains that “Since the demise of Verificationism in the mid-twentieth century, metaphysics, despite Kant’s strictures, has been booming once again” (5). Logical positivism lost its potency when philosophers increasingly agreed that its verification principle would not only render theological statements meaningless but also “a great many scientific statements—along with ethical, aesthetic, and metaphysical statements as well— so that the Principle was wholly unreasonable” (6). Many philosophers find that ethical, aesthetic, and metaphysical statements are in fact meaningful and that within them lies objective truth. For example, many philosophers hold to the existence of moral facts, the view that human acts are evil or good and that this corresponds (see correspondence theory of truth) to the world factually. Moreover, most philosophers agree that the scientific enterprise is itself permeated with underlying non-empirical, metaphysical assumptions. […]

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