Read Part 1 of this series first before moving on. Click here.
The Scientific Method
To try and understand the relationship between science and religion we have to address the demarcation problem. The demarcation problem is concerned with how we distinguish between what is science and what is not science or pseudoscience. I think it’s important to start here because one of the common criticisms of religion is that we no longer need it to answer our questions about reality since we now have Science. However, this leads us to a number of other questions such as: What is Science? What is Religion? What is not science? Are non-scientific approaches valuable ways of understanding reality? What are the objectives of science and religion, and do these objectives overlap or are they separate? Let’s start at the beginning.
What is Science?
Well, I was getting ready to answer this question when I realized that it’s already been done by my favourite science communicator, Hank Green. Watch this video while I go make myself a sandwich:
Still there? Just give me a second; I’m licking my fingers (good sandwich).
Okay, so that’s science in a nutshell and any other explanation will either be a more or less exhaustive version of that. What I want to draw your attention to, however, is Hank’s comments about refutation. If nothing else, most scientists would agree that what makes a theory “scientific” is that it can be proven wrong. This idea is a very old one (I think Mr. Green mentions Francis Bacon as one of its early proponents), but it was Karl Popper, a 20th century philosopher, who used it to resolve the demarcation problem:
I shall certainly admit a system as empirical or scientific only if it is capable of being tested by experience. These considerations suggest that not the verifiability but the falsifiability of a system is to be taken as a criterion of demarcation. In other words: I shall not require of a scientific system that it shall be capable of being singled out, once and for all, in a positive sense; but I shall require that its logical form shall be such that it can be singled out, by means of empirical tests, in a negative sense: it must be possible for an empirical scientific system to be refuted by experience. (Thus the statement, ‘It will rain or not rain here tomorrow’ will not be regarded as empirical, simply because it cannot be refuted; whereas the statement, ‘It will rain here tomorrow’ will be regarded as empirical. ~ The Logic of Scientific Discovery.
Popper argued that scientific theories are all conjecture: Uncertain guesses at truth. What makes something scientific, Popper posits, is the degree to which it is falsifiable. Think about it. We know something is true if it’s really easy to prove that it’s not true, but no one has been able to do so. For example, up to the 1600s, most of the world believed in a geocentric model, which places the Earth at the center of the universe. This was, of course (and perhaps, unintentionally), a very scientific theory because it could be proven wrong through observation and experimentation – and proven wrong it was! An opposing theory was put forward, which proposed that planets revolved around the Sun (the heliocentric theory). This theory was then, in the words of Hank Green, “shot with a machine gun of facts and questions” until it was decided that this theory was indestructible. In the absence of any contradictory evidence, the heliocentric theory was accepted and is now considered a working model for our Solar System. More importantly, what makes the heliocentric model a strong scientific theory is that it would be really easy to disprove it with observations and experimentation. The fact that it’s still a working model means that it has withstood this process.
Which brings us to an important point about Science: It’s a humble process of curiosity, learning, exploration, and discovery. There is no room for arrogance in Science. Furthermore, although the scientific process assumes that there is an absolute reality out there (otherwise why would we bother observing and testing it?), it’s theories about that reality are always tentative. Therefore, a true scientist is completely comfortable with living in a state of constant ambiguity and uncertainty about the universe. Again, no room for arrogance and ego – it’s pure and humble curiosity.
Stephen Hawking summarizes these points well when he says:
A theory is a good theory if it satisfies two requirements: It must accurately describe a large class of observations on the basis of a model that contains only a few arbitrary elements, and it must make definite predictions about the results of future observations…Any physical theory is always provisional, in the sense that it is only a hypothesis; you can never prove it. No matter how many times the results of experiments agree with some theory, you can never be sure that the next time the result will not contradict the theory. On the other hand, you can disprove a theory by finding even a single observation that disagrees with the predictions of the theory.
Some of you may be wondering, “What the heck? Why should we trust in a method that is never certain of its conclusions?” Well, this is, in fact, the very reason we should trust in the Scientific method. The more we question and test our certainties the closer we get to reality. There is a poem by Piet Hein that should be hailed as the mantra of the Scientific method, and I will end with this:
The road to wisdom? Well, it’s plain
And simple to express:
and err again,
To be continued…