Scientific Tenets of Faith
On January 10th, 1985, Louisiana District Court Judge Adrian Duplantier entered a summary judgement against the Creation Science Legal Defense Fund. Judge Duplantier forbade instruction of creation-science under the United States Constitution. He ruled the concepts of creation and a Creator originate in religious conviction and are, thus, implicitly unconstitutional-and unscientific. This decision echoed the highly publicized result rendered in the Arkansas trial of 1982. There, Judge William Overton ruled that creationism’s reliance upon “tenets of faith” precludes its acceptance as scientific theory and, in turn, its use as proper public school curriculum.
While this highly visible legal debate has raged over creationism’s qualifications as true science, another more fundamental question about the true nature of science has escaped public discussion almost entirely. Courtroom creationism has proved instructive primarily by exposing philosophical naiveté about science’s ability to maintain continuity without its own “tenets of faith.” As faith in the foundational propositions of modern science seems increasingly inexplicable to agnostic points of view, one may wonder if science itself does not originate, philosophically, in Christian conviction.
Questions of origin require prodigious doses of humility. While advancing a particular Biblical view of origins, scientific creationists have again learned the meaning of humility in the courtroom of a Louisiana judge. Since their first defeat in Arkansas three years ago, much has been written about the folly of legislating curriculum that alters accepted scientific theory to fit particular religious belief. Few, however, have commented critically on what now constitutes accepted scientific theory, despite the threat of a protracted appeals process that will again require addressing precisely this question.
Certainly, to date, courtroom creationism has not limited expressions of folly to zealots of a religious variety only. Defenders of science, either because of impatience with creationist fervor or because of their own philosophic ignorance, have played a much stronger hand than they possess in describing the methods and supposed autonomy of the scientific discipline.
We scientists are not immune to the need for intellectual humility when discussing origins. Clearly, theorists might consider huimiliy an asset when attempting to reconstruct the origin of the universe and its life. But more importantly, humility is essential to discussions about the methodological and presuppositional roots of science itself.
Sadly, a scientific education often neglects such discussions. Questions of method and meaning comprise the stuff of philosophy, and disciplines like epistemology seem far too esoteric for those trained to view the world as a collection of physical, chemical and biological causes.
This is not to say scientists are narrow-minded technocrats with no appreciation of ethical considerations or artistic sentiment. Rather only, that we in this century have learned our science in a context of philosophic naturalism and positivism that ignores the entire conceptual framework necessary to modern science.
These philosophies attempted to objectify scientific inquiry by rejecting any belief that could not commend itself to the strict scrutiny of observation. The attempt failed. Instead, these philosophies have introduced a serious internal contradiction into the structure of natural science, quite the reverse of their expressed intentions.
Naturalism assumed all events to be exclusively the result of physical or natural causes. It was, thus, forced to view the human mind as a composite of evolutionary adjustments responding to chemical and biological stimuli. An intellect, however, that responds solely to stimuli can think only that which stimuli cause or determine it to think. In this scheme, with the human mind viewed as a machine, the validity of human reason and natural science is destroyed. The mind cannot know truth; it can only produce response. As Professor Haldane has said, “If mental processes are determined wholly by the motions of atoms in my brain, I have no reason to suppose my beliefs are true … and hence no reason for supposing my brain to be made of atoms.”
Another school of thought, known as logical positivism, also wrought internal contradiction. In presuming all knowledge must come through the senses, the positivist assumed knowledge of something that, quite ironically, could not be verified through the senses. The premise that no truth exists independent of experimental verification crumbled beneath the realization that the positivist premise was itself quite impossible to observe in the laboratory. Even many philosophy texts, typically judicial in approach, now record without hesitation the dissolution of positivism as a credible philosophy of science.
Far from accomplishing their purpose, these viewpoints have begun to undermine a belief in the validity and objectivity of scientific theorizing. Many philosophers of science, long aware of the extent to which scientists creatively contribute to the result of experiment–through personal judgment, intuitive guesswork, and a whole network of conceptual beliefs–now regard knowledge as essentially subjective. The scientist’s final justification for his theory, in their view, rests wholly within. Some suggest that causal links and the order men perceive in the universe are impositions of the human intellect, rather than real features of our world. In this vein, in 1980, a prominent French physicist wrote to Scientific American arguing that the idea of an objective reality independent of human consciousness is untenable in light of the new physics.
This is heady stuff, to be sure. And such overt skepticism rarely circulates even in the academic world far beyond those in quantum physics or philosophy departments. Yet, it often conveys a kind of cynicism that easily permeates culture and can only serve to enhance an already pervasive relativism and personal alienation. Modern poetry abounds with the themes of poets languishing in cosmic loneliness–a loneliness that is underscored, fundamentally, by a curious inability to give meaning to perceptions, or to know anything truly outside one’s own mind.
Many of us, who do not take such a grim view and who realize the absurd consequence of attempting to live, let alone conduct science, by skepticism regarding our own logical faculties, believe there is another alternative. The failure of the positivist’s view to validate scientific method only serves to illustrate the role and necessity of making intelligent foundational assumptions. These foundational premises, by nature, do not avail themselves either to proof or disproof. Scientists may, however, choose assumptions that lend explanation and meaning to the necessary functions of Inquiry. Certainly those who choose to live with skepticism, however, cannot be disproved.
Ironically, these foundational assumptions are not unlike the much scorned “tenets of faith” whose detected presence in creation theory first disqualified it as legitimate science in an Arkansas federal court three years ago. This observation neither suggests nor repudiates a defense of creation theory as legitimate science. It does, however, assert that from the definition offered by the American Civil Liberties Union, and the press’s coverage of the scientific community at the time of the trial, science itself does not qualify as legitimate science.
In an excellent article capturing the pre-trial mood of many in the scientific community, Wall Street Journal science editor Mr. Jerry Bishop identified an interesting philosophical shift in the creation science court debate. The precedent-setting Arkansas debate hinged, he asserted, on whether or not creation science could demonstrate “the properties of a scientific theory.”
Mr. Bishop’s Wall Street Journal report of the scientific consensus, “Creation Theory Doesn’t Predict-or Postdict,” cited two accepted elements of scientific theorizing. Ironically, though both of Mr. Bishop’s criteria were accurate, neither could be sustained or validated by the strict empiricism of the positivist outlook. Yet many scientific voices held up the positivist position to the press throughout the trial proceedings as the basis for dismissing creationism.
Mr. Bishop reported that a scientific theory first must have the properties of prediction and postdiction. Scientists recognize that these terms refer to the process of inductive reasoning applied to the past and to the future. Induction, the inference of universal rules describing nature from observed facts, has often provoked skepticism by those who reflect on scientific method. Since the time of David Hume, philosophers have recognized that the validity of inference rests on the truth of an assumption that is a tenet of faith–namely, that nature remains uniformly ordered throughout space and time.
Mr. Bishop’s second criterion, falsification, also rests on the acceptance of an assumption. The doctrine of falsification states that a theory is scientific only if the possibility exists to disprove (or falsify) it by observation. Though falsification clearly cannot provide a valid rule for theory verification, it can not, of its own, supply a valid rule for theory rejection either. Theories are rarely disqualified on the basis of raw data alone and certainly never on the basis of just one perturbation. In every experiment, scientists exercise judgment about what ought to be regarded as data.
Scientists make these judgments in accord with a whole network of foundational beliefs. Many of these beliefs are inferred from other observations. Others are concepts and intuitions that are the contribution of the observer. These concepts (for examples, space, time or matter for the physicist) act as a kind of gridwork through which the scientist passes and orders his observation. Such creative mental contributions must be presupposed to correlate meaningfully to the world outside the observer, for falsification to be considered a valid guide to inquiry.
Clearly, for man, the commodity of truth (even the truth of falsifiability) requires an expenditure of faith. In natural science, truth rests on expenditures of faith in propositions that necessarily fall out of the realm of empirical study and into the realm of epistemology, metaphysics and theology. Given the current and historical difficulty human philosophic systems have faced in accounting for truth as autonomous from revelation, scientists and philosophers might be most receptive to systems of thought that find their roots in Biblical theology.
The Judeo-Christian scriptures have much to say about the ultimate source of human reason, the existence of a real and uniformly ordered universe, and the ability present in a creative and ordered human intellect to know that universe. Both the Old and New Testaments define these relationships such that the presuppositional base necessary to modern science is not only explicable but also meaningful. Moreover all of us would do well to reflect on the scriptural axiom that “in Him all things hold together,” and further reflect on the serious consequences to a society and culture that divorce spiritual thought not only from moral considerations but scientific ones as well.
1.The lawyers representing creationism have already submitted an appeal in the U.S. Court of Appeals. The creationist strategy, in general, remains the waging of a war of attrition. They plan to keep creation-science alive in appeal until conservative Reagan appointees begin to stock the courts in greater numbers.
2.Haldane, J.B.S., Possible Worlds and Other Essays, Philadelphia, Penn.: Richard West, 1972, p.209.
3.d’Espagnat, Bernard, “Quantum Theory and Reality,” Scientific American, p. 128, November 1979; and Letters Section, May 1980.
4.Bishop, Jerry, “Creation Theory Doesn’t Predict-or Postdict,” The Wall Street Journal, New York, New York, December 27,1981.
8.These beliefs are, thus, subject to the same assumption-constraining inference discussed above.
9.Colossians 1:17, (NIV).
Polanyi, Michael, Science, Faith and Society, London, England: Oxford University Press, 1946.
Wolterstorf, Nicholas, Reason Within the Bounds of Religion, Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1976.
Schaeffer, Francis, He is There and Not Silent, Wheaton, Illinois, Tyndale House Publishers, 1972.