Science and Immateriality

The following is my response to UnBeguiled’s latest comment on this thread.  It is too long to fit in his comment box.

UB writes, “Your immaterial/material distinction is irrelevant, as are natural/supernatural distinctions.”

I disagree.  Again going back to the article you linked to:  The National Academy of Science says this:  “Science is a way of knowing about the natural world. It is limited to explaining the natural world through natural causes. Science can say nothing about the supernatural.”  And the National Science Teachers Association says this:  “Similarly, science is precluded from making statements about supernatural forces because these are outside its provenance. Science has increased our knowledge because of this insistence on the search for natural causes.”

The author himself says, “God, traditionally conceived of as a non-physical, spiritual being set apart or above nature in some respect, is logically barred from being incorporated into a scientific understanding of the world.” 

And this:  “Put another way, if science as it’s currently practiced were successful in proving the existence of God, that god could no longer have the supernatural characteristics traditionally attributed to it.”

And this:  “You are free to justify what you believe is true by any and all means that suit you, e.g., appeals to faith, tradition, commonsense, intuition, revelation – whatever it may be.  But equally, you can’t compel science to lead where, by it’s very nature, it **cannot**.   Such an effort can only end in the manifest contradiction of using methods which generate ontological unity while trying to safeguard the categorically different nature of a deity, designer, or supreme intelligence. It can’t be done anymore than you can draw a round square.”  Thus trying to prove God by science is like trying to draw a round square.

Further, the “scientific method” is defined in terms of empiricism:  “To be termed scientific, a method of inquiry must be based on gathering observable, empirical and measurable evidence subject to specific principles of reasoning.” 

Empiricism is explained as follows:  “In the philosophy of science, empiricism emphasizes those aspects of scientific knowledge that are closely related to evidence, especially as discovered in experiments. It is a fundamental part of the scientific method that all hypotheses and theories must be tested against observations of the *natural* world, rather than resting solely on a priori reasoning, intuition, or revelation. Hence, science is considered to be methodologically empirical in nature.” 

An immaterial thing is by nature unobservable and thus unmeasurable.

And how would you conduct experiments on God?  When experiments are conducted on people, a control group is needed, because when people know they are being experimented upon that very knowledge can skew the results of the experiment.  Thus in a control group, “neither the doctor nor the patient know if they are receiving the drug under test or a placebo, and don’t find out which substance was administered until after the experiment is concluded”.  But God, as traditionally defined, is all-knowing — how could you possibly control for his knowing that he is being experimented upon?

Thus his immaterial and supernatural nature is absolutely relevant. 

UB writes, “I never said it was ‘the only way [of acquiring knowledge]’. I said it was the most reliable way so far.”

An equally reliable way of acquiring knowledge is simply being told it by reliable people.  No doubt you will say that this is much less reliable than science.  But consider:  Even in the field of science, most of what you know was told you by other people whom you trusted to provide reliable information, whether your parents, teachers, scientists, or what have you; or you have read it in textbooks, on websites, etc. 

If you are a scientist, possibly you have acquired some knowledge via your own experiments.  But that would only be in one small area of one field of science.  And even then, according to scientific standards, you would not be justified in considering that information reliable since science requires experiments to be repeated by different people at different times before their results may be judged reliable.  Thus virtually all your “reliable” knowledge about science has been passed on to you by other people.

When you say that science is the “most reliable means of acquiring knowledge”, you are saying that it is more reliable than any other way.  But your scientific knowledge cannot be more reliable than the method which is used to pass it on to you.  If that method is unreliable then so is the information received via that method. 

Thus science can only be equally reliable to observation, logic, and “tradition” (which I define as the passing on of information from person to person).  To the extent that any of those other methods is considered less reliable, science itself becomes less reliable, since it is utterly reliant on those methods.

Furthermore, science can be no more reliable than the philosophy which undergirds it.  Which philosophy is basically “realism”, the belief that what we see around us is what actually exists.  (Coincidentally, this is the same philosophy which undergirds the Catholic faith:  Popes have actually issued pronouncements saying that non-realist philosophies (such as Kantianism) are incompatible with the Catholic faith.  Which is why St. Thomas Aquinas is required to be taught in Catholic seminaries.)

Science didn’t develop in a vacuum.  It had to grow out of a culture which was permeated by realist philosophy.  Before scientists could think of conducting experiments to find out things concerning the real world, they had to have a firm belief that the world was intelligible and subject to experiments which would provide knowledge about actual reality.  Thus science can’t be more reliable than realist philosophy, the underlying belief that we can know the world as it really is.  If that belief is unreliable, then so is scientific knowledge. 

Science and philosophy have in common the fact that both use observation and logic.  Science uses in addition to these experimentation, which makes it particularly well suited to investigating material phenomena, which is really all it can investigate.  Whereas philosophy, being subject to no such limitation, is capable of investigating non-material things as well.


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