Heavily overlapping magisteria

When I wrote a recent piece on the limitations of science, compared to the sum total of truth (and even of knowledge), I was building on discussions with Joshua Swamidass, who liked the article, I’m pleased to say. He might be less in agreement, perhaps, with another thought about science, and that is the dependence on all kinds of “soft” human qualities that make science impossible to define, except by rather ad hoc conventions which, in any case, are full of exceptions.

This returns us, I guess, to the old question of just why science can’t “do God,” though I’m more interested here in simply showing that no field of human activity can actually be purely empirical. One may not be able to demonstrate God “by science”, but that is also true of a number of things that are by custom either demonstrated, or assumed, by science.

The most straightforward matter, perhaps, is the inevitable metaphysical foundations of science, about which I’ve written often before so won’t cover more than briefly here. There is a strand of scientific thinking that despises metaphysics, failing to realise that there can be no science at all without metaphysical presuppositions, which are actually choices. The fact that one may choose without considering alternatives doesn’t change that. Ours are as culturally conditioned as those of the Mesopotamians who invented a quite different science that didn’t even have a concept of “nature.”

Some of these foundations are shared by most human endeavours, such as the laws of logic or the assumption of causation. Some, though, form real blindspots for many scientists, such as the failure to think in any serious way about the meaning of “natural,” leading to causes being termed “supernatural” or “natural” more or less on a whim. As C S Lewis pointed out, writing as a philologist, the usually unexamined meaning of “supernatural” is based on an emotional response to the odd, rather than anything more scientific:

…the beings which popular speech calls supernatural, long before that adjective was applied to them, were already bound together in popular thought by a common emotion. Some of them are holy, some numinous, some eerie, some horrible; all, one way or another, uncanny, mysterious, odd, “rum”…

…I think the learned word, on the strength of a very superficial relation of meaning to the thing the plain man had in mind, was simply snatched at and pummelled into the required semantic shape, like an old hat.

In similar vein, the all too common scientists’ disdain for philosophy, and especially for the philosophy of science, hides a plethora of unexamined philosophical assumptions. It’s very much like the Fundamentalist who insists on the “plain meaning of Scripture” without realising he himself is not plain, but white, American, English-speaking, badly educated and so on.

But there are other, more subtle, examples of non-empiricism in science, such as the importance of mathematical beauty. A nice piece on that here. Paul Dirac may have been at the extreme when he said “It is more important to have beauty in one’s equation than to have them fit experiment”. But given that any set of data may be explained in multiple ways, the importance attached to mathematical beauty (according to the article largely consisting of simplicity, symmetry, and elegance) in theory selection by many others, including Einstein on the maths of relativity, is significant.

If it is considered rationally, the belief that mathematical beauty corresponds to the truth of nature is a philosophical assumption. But in practice, settling on a particular “beautiful” theory, rather than pursuing the quest for another explanation, is based on an aesthetic judgement, not a fully logical one. Sure, the maths itself is logical and (except in Dirac’s case or string theory!) has to fit the evidence. But an ugly equation might fit just as well, so why should not reality be clunky? This aesthetic judgement in favour of mathematical beauty is, for some reason, considered to be within science, and not “aesthetic reflection upon science.”

Now, compare a recent article by Ann Gauger, about how the beauty she found in nature in her childhood not only persuaded her that there was a God who created it, but prompted her to pursue science in order to find more of the same. One might (although she does not) put this in terms of  an aesthetic judgement between the two major competing hypotheses for the fundamental reality behind scientific theories (aka “theory of everything”), that is divine creation or Epicurean chance. There may be those who find order arising from pure randomness an aethetically pleasing conceit, but they must be few. More often, “pitiless and indifferent nature” is presented even by its supporters as the acceptance of a tough reality over the aesthetically more pleasing idea of divine design by a single mind. So why is aesthetics allowed to decide which of two equally explanatory theories is preferred, but not which of two ultimate realities is behind the mathematical beauty so recognised?

One of the qualities of beautiful equations is simplicity, leading us to consider the universal asumption that a simple explanation is, usually, to be preferred to a complicated one in science. Occam’s razor is more specific than that – it specifies multiplying entities unnecessarily. But that’s the sort of choice that is supposed to reflect nature’s own ultimate simplicity. What optimists would really like is an elegant one line equation to account for everything.

Is that an aesthetic judgement too, or what? It certainly seems to have no firm basis in reason or evidence once divorced from the old idea of divine simplicity that probably inspired it, a divine attribute which one might assume to be reflected to some extent in God’s creation. Whatever kind of choice it is, in itself it appears a simplifying assumption within science, because real experiments are full of inaccuracies, exceptions, approximations, anomalies and errors. Why should we believe that, with these universal presences eliminated, the reality that remains would be simple rather than unfathomably complicated?

Once again, at least to a degree, the non-scientific choice, within science, of simpler explanations over complicated ones would seem just as legitimate for making a choice between contingency due to God’s choices and contingencies due to “chance.” The atheists will sometimes cite Occam’s razor as excluding an “unnecessary” extra entity, God. But in truth, the single will of the Creator is a simpler, if no more tractable, explanation than an infinitude of random, and therefore definitionally inexplicable and irrational, events.

But as I stated upfront, my aim here isn’t to make room in science for God discourse, but to point out that the same kind of human sensibilities that make talk of God possible in other realms are already used within science. Those I’ve mentioned (metaphysics, philosophy, mathematical beauty and simplicity) are some of those that are incontestibly legitimate, and no doubt there are more some might be able to suggest. There are, of course, others that are universally present in science, as in all human affairs, but which shouldn’t be. I refer to personal prejudice and ambition, political expediency, financial temptation, the desire to control people or institutions, and so on.

It might seem unfair to mention those, given the aim of my discussion. But I would suggest that the attempt to see science as a uniquely pure pursuit separated from the messy human world of philosophy, metaphysics, aesthetics – and faith – also makes it more difficult to recognise, and so to correct, its less innocent human aberrations.

Jon Garvey

About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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One Response to Heavily overlapping magisteria

  1. Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

    …And here’s a thought, combining these ideas with my more recent post on “form.”

    Science is, in fact, a particular realm of ideas formed in the holistic entity of the human mind (or the plural “minds”, if you want to be pedantic). We know from experience that there are no actual boundaries in the mind. You’re playing in the Wimbledon final, and a bright hat reminds you of your mother. You’re praying, and the shopping list impinges. Your friend Harry turns every conversation round to politics.

    So any demarcations we make in our mental activities are ideals, not realities. A comparison – we have a good idea of what our legs are, as opposed to arms or teeth. But as I discussed in the “form” essay, the leg is actually not a machine part, but a distinguishable element in a holistic being.

    If you were asked to remove a leg from a body in a dissecting room, given full anatomical knowledge – and to remove it entirely, but without removing any part of any other organ, it would be impossible. Where does the leg finish and the buttock begin? Are the nerve fibres from the spine, or the relevant motor and sensory areas of the cortex, to be removed or not? And what about the muscles of the trunk that form part of every footstep, and still do their best in an amputee with a prosthesis, even though it no longer serves a function?

    Likewise, distinguishing “scientific ” thought from “worldview”, “religion”, and so on, isn’t something that will ever actually occur in the real world.

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