The Enlightenment Vision of Science: what is at stake?

If one piece breaks, the whole structure crumbles.

Re-Assembling Reality #5. by Mike Brownnutt and David A. Palmer

Title page of Galileo Galilei’s “Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems,” (Source: Wikimedia.)

There is something special about science. People get really passionate about it. When people have strong political views, they might get passionate about some particular political position; small government, or social justice, or whatever. But passionate support of a political position is not the same as support of politics as a concept. No one spends big money on legal battles to safeguard the teaching of politics in public schools. No one says “We could solve third-world hunger, if only we funded more politics.” But people will fight over the teaching of science. And they hold out hope that a bigger science budget will feed the world.

In this essay, we will consider what is so special about science. We will look at what it is that people get passionate about, why such a vision could save the world, and why people would defend it against encroaching religion.

Caveats and spoilers

Discussions of science and religion are fraught with disagreements. That claim, at least, should be uncontentious. What we present in this essay is something which might be called “the Enlightenment vision of science.” Sometimes when we present this vision, people (usually natural scientists) complain we are wasting their time by saying something so obviously and trivially true. Other people (usually social scientists) complain that we are wasting their time by saying something which is so obviously and trivially false. To avoid interrupting myself every few sentences to point out that some people think differently, here I shall simply give a full-throated, unapologetic expression of the Enlightenment vision of science.

As we shall see in subsequent essays, this vision of science is (to put it politely) not without problems. If you spot some of those problems as you read through, fine; save them up and we can discuss them later. If you do not see any problems at all as you read through, fine; the subsequent essays will be all the more exciting for you.

At this point we will simply mention that some people genuinely hold to the vision presented here. Some people think they hold to it in principle, but fail to hold to it in practice. Some people are aware that they fail to hold to it in practice, while others have not noticed. Some people believe this vision to be an ideal of what science should be like, even if science in the real world falls short. Some people believe it is a template for what science usually looks like, with only occasional or temporary deviations. Some people hold on to parts of the vision, while rejecting other parts in elegantly inconsistent ways. Some people believe that the entire vision presented here is utter balderdash, bearing no resemblance to any thing that science ever was, is, could be, or should be.

With that much being said, this vision is worth understanding because it helps us understand the situation in which we find ourselves. It helps us understand, for example, why entirely reasonable people would cling dogmatically to the conflict hypothesis, and remain utterly unswayed by any and all evidence against it. It helps us understand why arguments about teaching Intelligent Design reached the US Supreme Court, or why two-list-ism seems so attractive despite being demonstrably flawed.

A mind-map illustrating key themes in how science is often perceived, and how they are connected. (Source: Authors.)

With such caveats out of the way, let us take a walk around a mind-map, drawn from the perspective of this Enlightenment Vision of science, understanding the significance of each point for the scientific endeavour. While we shall take it point by point, no point stands alone. Each one feeds into, and is fed by, those around it. The whole only stands when every part stands, and undermining any part unravels the whole.

Truth

One key aspect of science in this conception is that science tells us the truth. If you want to know the truth about something, science is the way to go. Fairy stories and myths and delusions may be comforting, but science does not care for your comfort. It gives always and only the cold hard truth. When science falls short of telling us the truth, it falls short of being science.

Scientists are truth seekers. With the tools of science, they have the ability to find the truth they seek. And once they have found truth, they know the truth. It is as simple as that. But what kind of truth do scientists seek? And what kind of truth does science provide?

Universal truth

First and foremost, scientific truth is universal. Science does not do pluralism. This is one of its most attractive qualities. Science does not care about your politics, or your nationality, or your age. It holds at all times, in all places, for all people. Take, as an example, the first law of thermodynamics: energy is conserved. If you think that free-market capitalism is a good idea, energy is conserved. If you think that government regulation and high taxes provide the only way forward, energy is conserved. If you are an illiterate peasant working the fields of the Indus valley, energy is conserved. If you are the first human ever to fly beyond the Milky Way, energy is conserved. At all times, in all places, for all people.

Because science is universal, it can answer all questions. If there were any questions outside the remit of science, science would not be universal. We can flip this logic around and say that there are no questions outside the remit of science. If you think you have a question that is outside the remit of science, you are wrong.

Maybe someone says, “Here is a question outside the remit of science: what is the nature of happiness?” They are wrong. It is not a question outside the remit of science. Admittedly, it took a while for our scientific abilities to be able to answer the question. We needed to develop an understanding of endocrinology, neurology, genetics, and psychology. But now we know exactly what happiness is all about. And it is entirely within the remit of science.

Maybe someone says, “Here is a question outside the remit of science: What colour is the moonlight sonata?” They are wrong. It is not a question outside the remit of science. Yes, it is outside the remit of science, but it is not a question; not a meaningful one anyway. It takes more than a question mark at the end of a sentence to make something a real question.

Occasionally, there are things about which science cannot currently give an answer, and we do not yet know which of the above two situations we face: is science insufficiently advanced, or is the putative question actually meaningless. Consider issues like, “What are we here for?” and “What is justice?” If such things are susceptible to answers, then science will be able to find those answers. This is because science — being universal — can answer all meaningful questions. If science cannot find the answer, then there is no answer to be found. If there is no answer, they cannot be properly called a question.

The universality of scientific truth helps us to understand the unity of science. Two contradictory claims cannot both be true. If science tells the truth, and if scientific truth is universal, then there is only space for one science. If two ‘sciences’ gave two different answers, then either the answers would not both be true, or the answers would not be universal. Any enterprise which gives an answer that is either not true or not universal cannot be science.

The universal nature of science — able to answer all questions, for all people, in all times and all places — also fixes where religion stands in relation to science. If religion comes up with the same answers as science, then religion is right. If religion comes up with different answers to science, then religion is wrong. If religion comes up with different questions to science, then religion is misguided. Religion cannot add anything to science. The universal nature of science means that all religious truth — if it is true at all — is a subset of scientific truth.

This also explains the Conflict between science and religion. Religion cannot carve out a separate, valid niche for itself (as the Compartmentalisation view of non-overlapping magisteria would suggest, or as meaningful Conversation would require). No; religion must either talk nonsense, or it must talk science. Any religionist who believes there is something meaningful to say other than what science says already stands in conflict with science; not just in conflict with the specific claims of science, but in conflict with the basic notion of science itself.

Objective truth

If science is universal, if it is true for all people, then it must be objective. If an individual’s own personal qualities — qualities not shared by all humanity — had any impact on the truth of science, then the ‘truth’ thereby attained would not be shared by all humanity. It would therefore not be universal. It would therefore not be scientific. Consequently, it is not possible that any particular characteristics of any individual person can have any influence on science.

If a person’s own subjectively held opinion influences their result, that result can be no part of science. If their personality or character influences their result, that result can be no part of science. Two plus two equals four for kind people and for unkind people. Energy is conserved whether you are generous or miserly. The power of science rests exactly in the fact that it is no respecter of persons: it is not only revealed to the pious, but to all.

The objectivity of science again fixes the place of religion with respect to science. If, for any reason, a Muslim scientist would obtain a different result from a Jewish scientist, then the consideration of religious perspectives demonstrably undermines science’s objectivity and universality. Such religious considerations must be excluded from science. If, however, a Muslim scientist would not get a different result from a Jewish scientist, then the consideration of religion is demonstrably irrelevant. These are the only two possibilities: if religious considerations change scientific thinking, they cannot be included. If religious considerations do not change scientific thinking, they need not be included. Religion can add nothing to science.

Microscope
Putting things under a microscope (Source: Chokniti Khongchum via Pixabay.)

In order for scientific truth to be objective, it must be demonstrable. The scientist must be able to ‘show their working’. If it is just their own idea in their own head, but they cannot demonstrate how they arrived at that conclusion, then it is not science. A flash of inspiration is all very well, but unless everyone experiences the same flash of inspiration, it cannot form the basis of universal knowledge. The answer may feel right, but not all people feel the same. If it cannot be rationally, logically demonstrated that the answer is right, the answer has no place in science.

Once again, this fixes where religion fits with respect to science. If religious knowledge comes from some hidden source that is not available to everyone — maybe imparted by angels, or revealed only to those who believe — then it has no place in science. If religious knowledge is from some ineffable source that is not demonstrable to everyone — maybe from intuition or feelings — then it has no place in science. If, however, religious knowledge can be demonstrated rationally, step by step, and understood by all, then it has a place in science. That said, if it can be demonstrated rationally, then it basically is science; what has religion added?

Should we be feeling gracious we can, at this point, permit a little wiggle room for religion. Let us demarcate a separate realm of subjectivity, even if that realm has no part of science. We can then say that science’s universality is a universal claim over objective truth. Objective truth claims must be demonstrable; these objective truth claims hold for all people, at all times, in all places. And they must, by definition, be independent of a person’s opinion, or character, or religion. But we now accept a separate realm of subjective claims: claims which depend on your opinion or your religion; claims which therefore cannot be universal, and which should not be expected to be coherent or consistent. Science cannot touch this subjective realm without ceasing to be science, and it is here that religion can find its place. Religion is compartmentalised in the subjective; safe from science’s objective, rational attacks. Science is compartmentalised in the objective; safe from religion’s subjective, irrational taint.

The two-list-ism we discussed in our earlier essay, the significance of it and the need for it, starts to come into sharper focus.

Systematic search for truth

The final thing to note about how people often view science’s search for truth is that the search is systematic. Science has a method. The thing that separated the dogmatic scholasticism of Thomas Aquinas from the Enlightened science of Isaac Newton was the introduction by Francis Bacon of the scientific method.

We know what the method is. We can write it down. If you want to know whether something is scientific or not, you take whatever practice you have in front of you, compare it to the scientific method, and you have your answer: If it follows the scientific method, it is scientific. If it does not follow the scientific method, it is not scientific.

The scientific method is important because it is that which stands as the guarantor of all that has been said above. Following the Method is the means by which scientists demonstrate the truth. The requirement for scientists to ‘show their working’ is nothing more and nothing less than them demonstrating that they followed the scientific method. The scientific method is plain for all to see. There is no need to debate arcane caveats or secret aspects of the method known only to a few. In its basic form, we can teach the scientific method to school children. The method does not vary depending on a person’s religious views or personal opinions or individual traits. It does not have opt-out clauses for people who don’t like the answers it gives.

The scientific method is binding on all people, at all times, and in all places. A peasant in the Indus valley and the first person to fly beyond the Milky Way can both do science if and only if they follow the scientific method. Moreover — as they use the same method — they would get the same answer. Thus the coherence and consistency of science is guaranteed.

Once again, the scientific method constrains where religion fits with science. The scientific method is binding on all. There is no exception made for statements which begin “Thus says the LORD, …” If the claims of religion can be corroborated using the scientific method, they can stand. If they cannot be corroborated by the scientific method, they fall, or else are relegated to a realm of subjective opinion. Any deity who wishes to reveal Himself or Herself to humanity must submit to that simple truism.

The scientific method also helps us to understand why there is not — and cannot be — a plurality of sciences. There is not a selection of methods from which one chooses their preferred option. There is, instead, the (singular) scientific method. It cannot be any other way without undermining the totality of all that has been said so far in this section.

Interrelated

Each part of this vision of science interlocks with each other part. This is not something we impose on science, but rather something that emerges from the Enlightened vision of science itself. There are no bits that you can remove without changing the entire thing.

Pick at one piece, and watch things unravel: If science is not competent to answer all questions, then science is not universal; if it is not universal it may not hold for all people; therefore, it is not objective; therefore, it is opinion and not fact; therefore all claims to truth are lost. If truth is lost, all is lost.

Pick at another piece: If you undermine the scientific method, you undermine the systematic guarantee of the answers we obtain; if the answers we obtain are no longer rational, no longer demonstrable, no longer certain, all is lost. There is no way to change part of the picture without changing everything.

Understanding this interlocking nature helps us see what people hold to be at stake in the discussion. Consider a person who passionately defends the view that religion cannot be invoked in school science lessons. Is the separation really that important? How bad can it be?

From the Enlightenment perspective, subjective religious opinions can only be relevant to science if science does not hold for all people; if science does not hold for all people, then its universality falls; if its universality falls, truth falls. If truth falls, all is lost. Science brought us life-saving medicine, and increased crop yields, and renewable energy. Science brought us things without which modern civilization would collapse, and science guarantees their continued operation. This logic drives us to one simple conclusion: if you mention religion in science classes, you destroy civilization. This is what is at stake.

The problem is not limited to inclusion of religion in the science curriculum. The view of science presented here forms an interlocking whole. To undermine one part — any part — is to undermine the whole. Is there a call to ‘decolonise the curriculum’? Let them decolonise the history curriculum, or geography, or politics, or theology. The science curriculum cannot be decolonised. There may be Asian theology, or African politics, but there is no ‘Asian science’ or ‘African science’. Science is science: true and universal. Undermine that, and you undermine all that science stands for, all that it is good for.

Would you go without vaccines? Or computers? Or satellites? Or planes? Would you abandon all that science underpins? Would you watch the entire world crumble? No? Then do not tinker with science.

This essay has outlined the context of people’s passionate defence of science. Passionate defence of science is a very sensible response in light of the vision of science we have outlined here. In that regard, we tip our hat to people like Richard Dawkins and Lawrence Krauss, for following through the logic of their position. Such logic ultimately leads one to pursue conflict and the other to pursue compartmentalization.

That being said, it also behoves us to mention that the vision of science outlined here bears no resemblance to science as it is actually practiced. Indeed, it bears no resemblance to science as it has ever been practiced, as it ever could be practiced, or as we would ever want it to be practiced. We will unpack what science is really like in the essays that follow.

This essay and the Re-Assembling Reality Medium series are brought to you by the University of Hong Kong’s Common Core Curriculum Course CCHU9061 Science and Religion: Questioning Truth, Knowledge and Life, with the support of the Faith and Science Collaborative Research Forum and the Asian Religious Connections research cluster of the Hong Kong Institute for the Humanities and Social Sciences.

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