Science? Faith? Positivism Discussed

[I’ve been an absentee for quite some time. In case anyone who reads this post happens to be anyone but the one for whom it is directly intended, this is a response in a dialogue with Kenneth Callahan, my soon-to-be brother-in-law. The earlier part is viewable on his blog here: ]

This was going to be a quick answer to some of your objections…. I will hopefully produce something more thorough later, if I can ever finish it.

I think you have missed the major thrust of my critique. I don’t question the reliability of science in general. In fact, as a realist, I embrace it. I am highly skeptical of attempts in the Evangelical community to place the Bible and scientific evidence (or theory) next to each other and make it all square up, as if one were meant to be read in the same sense as the other. I am in no way attacking evolution or any other scientific dogma in arguing my main point, which is that science falls short as the key to all reality. I believe there are some kinds of knowledge which science cannot speak to, knowledge which cannot be subjected to empirical proofs. This response of yours clarified some facets of your position by stating that you do not consider a priori knowledge of any kind true knowledge. I’m not sure how to respond to that, simply because we cannot live without that kind of pattern recognition of which you speak, and thus while a level of discernment and skepticism is necessary, it does seem to function as “knowledge” for all practical purposes. And doesn’t the inductive reasoning employed by the scientific method (including testing) function by, essentially, pattern recognition? “If every time I release this ball it drops, that means the ball will always drop when I release it”? If you consider other types of knowledge inferior to those of empirical proofing, do you not risk breaking down the majority of useful knowledge? Or have I misunderstood your point? My thinking is that those other types of knowledge are not necessarily inferior, or poor guides to reality, but while fallible (like science is in practice) they in fact are indispensable.

Moreover, you also seem to have misunderstood my statement on the difficulties with positivism, which adheres to a version of epistemology known as “naïve realism,” one with severe philosophical problems, based on the fact that no knowledge is ultimately unmediated or exempt from human organization. I am emphatically not arguing that we are all insane and our perception of the universe is entirely skewed; like I said, I am a (critical) realist, not a postmodern or a phenomenalist; what I disagree with is the idea that science is as uniquely “clear-visioned” as scientism optimistically claims. This transcends the mere factually right-wrong distinction; of course science will (ideally) get “righter” over time, in the sense that it will possess more information and produce better solutions to material problems. But it can never escape the fact that the data will always be interpreted within the larger context of a worldview—hence I spoke of the fields of philosophy and sociology of science, which speak to the idea that science as a field is inextricable from wider cultural conceptions and principles such as ethics and ranking of data importance. This in no way negates its value. Finding truth—all truth—is a process of careful negotiation of evidences and constructs, leading to the constant refining or reformation of the latter. Is science our only key and positivism the only rational guide?

Let me reemphasize that I am not in fact questioning the general reliability of science. Science involves information passing through multiple media of organization and translation between raw reality and the receiver, such as sense perception, author, text, and the limiting conditions under which it is received. Sometimes this leads to horrible distortions, misinterpretations, and ethical transgressions, but nevertheless I believe that in general we can trust what we receive from science as accurate, even if we never attain to the “full picture of reality.” Similarly, while I remain aware of the fact that I will never get truly raw, objective information, or the “full picture,” I believe we can trust what we receive other intuitive ways as accurate, at least in the absence of reasonable contradiction. I choose to embrace other forms of knowledge than scientific as also reliable when, like science, they are subjected to a critical awareness of the pitfalls of all searches for truth. A worldview with a place for God makes the most sense of the sum of the information I receive, just as a worldview with a place for New York does (though on a different scale). We are both realists; we both believe in an objective reality beyond ourselves that is reliably communicated to us by our senses; the difference is that I am not inclined to trust science as the single authority on everything, but rather as an inherently limited means of grasping reality. I also, therefore, choose to accept other categories of information as reasonably reliable which point to a divine (and revealed) personal being. I will write more of the positive “why” of my belief in God in the essay I am working on, if it ever gets done.

Thus, when you interpret me as obliquely admitting validity to the critique that “science” requires “faith,” I am actually referring not to science itself, but to a reductionist epistemology (scientism) such as was exhibited in the Dawkins Foundation quote, one that exalts science and the scientific method as sole arbiter of truth. I don’t believe that is remotely true. We receive a lot of information that we find reliable through other means, and I believe that some kinds of knowledge—including that of the Divine—exist outside of the scientific method; I don’t believe God is a being among other beings to be tested and proven (or disproven). Epistemology necessarily precedes knowledge. Science is not somehow above this basic fact of existence. All information passes through a filter of organization and discernment, and we are able to exercise some cognitive control over what we accept or reject as reliable. I am not challenging science and lauding “faith” in the abstract, but I do find positivism or scientism an excessively narrow way of looking at the world, one that fails to satisfy me in accounting for my experience of reality. My epistemology allows for a metaphysics, and by that I mean something a good deal more than random “good feelings” some attribute to God.

On the prior appeals to authority, they were lazily made, but it is true that philosophy (a complex field I cannot at present, as a non-expert, represent with any sureness of accuracy) has mostly moved beyond logical positivism—per the influence of thinkers like Thomas Kuhn, Karl Popper, and Hilary Putnam—and I have no reason to believe that in so doing it has compromised its intellectual integrity. I dislike the implication that all intellectuals ought to think in the same black-and-white way about truth as the Dawkins Foundation, because frankly, most don’t, and that alone raises serious questions about whether their key to interpreting reality is so straightforward and commonsensical as the positivist believes. On Dawkins, I have simply heard enough criticism from both sides of the fence that I don’t trust him to inform my thinking. There are better-established proponents of atheism out there (such as Bertrand Russell or Jean-Paul Sartre or one of a number of modern philosophers) to whom I would go first when doing research.

I hope this clarifies my position on the quote and the kinds of questions it invokes. I was actually saying nothing of faith (a category which you place in opposition to science), and may address that point later. I do not know what you have studied and what you haven’t—just six months ago I would have been only weakly familiar with the terminology involved in some of the stuff I’ve discussed here—so feel free to ask questions or poke holes as you see need and/or opportunity. And forgive my Byzantine paragraphs; I must learn to prioritize conciseness and clarity over elaborate expressions meant to leave little room for misunderstanding, but that often merely confuse. Thanks for reading and tolerating my own intellectual explorations in search of true Reality.


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