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):
- 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).
- 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.
- 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:
- The existence of a theory-independent, external world;
- The orderly nature of the external world;
- The knowability of the external world;
- The existence of truth;
- The laws of logic;
- 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;
- The adequacy of language to describe the world;
- The existence of values used in science (e.g., “test theories fairly and report test results honestly”);
- The uniformity of nature and induction;
- 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.
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.