Science trying to do Philosophy

It’s been awhile since I posted, but I couldn’t let this one go.

I spent the afternoon at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. While there in the exhibit on the dinosaurs and the displays on the origins of humanity, I noticed 2 questions. One of which is pictured here.  The other, in reference to the history of life was, “How do we know?”Following that, they listed the evidence for the “knowledge” they claimed.  I was immediately struck by the fact that these two questions, while on the surface looked innocuous, did not exactly belong where the scientists had placed them.  They were both not scientific questions at all, but philosophical ones, more appropriately answered by religion or philosophy.

Now, before your eyes glaze over because I used the word “philosophical,” let me explain.  While science can offer us immense details about the characteristics of humanity’s physical biological makeup with regard to comparisons to other primates, they cannot offer any explanation for the characteristics humanity carries that are intrinsic in nature.  Why do humans have an imagination that expresses itself in art, music, literature etc.?  Why do humans have the ability to create tools or the desire to use them to construct useless things?  Why do humans have a consciousness that carries them above and creates the virtues and vices we have?  I’m afraid that science has less to offer here than our faith would, and scientists should be extra careful when asking this question.

Did not the Psalmist have these questions, “What is man, that thou art mindful of him? and the son of man, that thou visitest him?  For thou hast made him a little lower than the angels, and hast crowned him with glory and honor” (Ps. 8:4-5, KJV).

Now, what about the second question, “How do we know?”  When it’s referenced to something that no one has ever witnessed, such as the origins of life, does the questioner even have a right to offer an answer?  Sure, evidence might be brought to substantiate a claim, but in the end do we really know?  Unfortunately, again the scientist has traipsed into a discipline where he or she doesn’t belong: philosophy, and specifically epistemology.  Should not the question rather have been, “Why do we think so?”

Scientists study repeatable phenomena.  These are things they can recreate in a lab and then do over and over again to draw conclusions based upon actual observation.  If, after careful study of a repeatable happening, the scientist makes a pronouncement, then  sure we could call that “knowledge.”  However, when the scientist moves into the realm of history, be careful.  History is the study of non-repeatable events.  Until such time as we have a time machine, we cannot “know” anything about the past.  We can only make inferences based on the best available evidence.  Perhaps the scientists should leave the epistemological questions to the philosophers and state their theories as just that, theories.

After all, maybe we should remember our own places in the universe, at least that’s what the Lord told Job:

Who is this that obscures my plans
    with words without knowledge?
Brace yourself like a man;
    I will question you,
    and you shall answer me.

“Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation?
    Tell me, if you understand.
Who marked off its dimensions? Surely you know!
    Who stretched a measuring line across it?
On what were its footings set,
    or who laid its cornerstone—
while the morning stars sang together
    and all the angels shouted for joy?” (38:2-7, NIV)

In the end, science should stick to science and leave the philosophy to the philosophers, or at least issue a disclaimer.

 

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5 Replies to “Science trying to do Philosophy”

  1. I don’t disagree.

    Although the Smithsonian web site is actually pretty good addressing this.

    At: (although committees are usually good for only one thing, consuming donuts 🙂

    http://humanorigins.si.edu/about/broader-social-impacts-committee

    “There are a number of different approaches to the science-religion relationship. One approach is to see science and religion as separate domains that ask different questions focusing on separate interests in human life – for example, about the natural world in science and about God in religion. This approach depends on respecting and maintaining the distinctions but can sometimes overlook the ways in which scientific interpretations may have an effect on religious beliefs. Conflict is seen to arise when efforts are made to eliminate the separation that the first approach assumes. The strongest conflicts develop when either science or religion asserts a standard of truth to which the other must adhere or otherwise be dismissed. An alternative approach sees interaction or engagement as positive. Engagement takes many forms, including personal efforts by individuals to integrate scientific and religious understandings, statements by religious organizations that affirm and even celebrate the scientific findings, and constructive interactions between theologians and scientists seeking common ground, respect, and shared insight into how the science of human evolution contributes to an awareness of what it means to be human.”

    A large source for their data, including many videos, are here:

    http://humanorigins.si.edu/human-characteristics

    1. Gary,

      Yes, their website disclaimer does help. They begin to walk down the correct pathway, but they do not acknowledge that they themselves have breached this wall that they say exists. Science cannot tell you why, it can only tell you what. It makes inferences into the why, but doesn’t have the right to answer all the why’s. I’m not going to dismiss the work that the scientists have done. They have done an excellent job at the science part. They talk about “standards of truth.” Fine, however, it’s not a “standard of truth” issue, but an issue of practicing outside of discipline.

      For example, licensed Engineers are licensed to practice all kinds of engineering. That means that a Civil Engineer carries the same license as a Chemical Engineer and could presumably sign Chemical Engineering designs. However, the Civil Engineer is bound by ethical restraints from practicing outside of discipline and should refuse to approve a design outside of the realm of understanding he/she has. While the Civil Engineer might have *some* knowledge of the Chemical Engineering design, and could offer some partial comment, he/she could not move beyond that.

      The scientist and the philosopher are in the same boat. While each could offer some comment, he/she should avoid arenas of comment outside of discipline. Therefore, the Smithsonian should more carefully word it’s literature. I am both a scientist and a philosopher, so I have more latitude to offer correctives to both disciplines. In this case, I’m correcting my scientific brethren for their over-reach, even with their partial disclaimer.

    2. I disagree with you. The science you refer to is from an atheist foundation. That is a fact. Gould,Dawkins,Flew(mainly philosophical),Hitchens..strickly atheist philosophy,etc..the list is almost endless of Marxist /Leninist ideological spins as well as self-righteous purveyors of evolution seeking fame for”what they know”.example: Dawkins, Sagan, Gould and Hawkins. The arrogance of those characters woke me up. The answers they gave became non-sense to a rational mind! Read ‘Punctuated Equilibrium’ and tell me that’s science! It is a pathetic attempt to justify an already foolish notion about ”facts” surrounding claims about evolution. I was provoked by Sagan when he made claims about the greenhouse effect in Kuwait to launch a ban on his rantings at Cornell when he proved beyond the shadow of a doubt he was nothing more than a wordsmith without KNOWLEDGE! Just like Hitchens. A defender of Trotsky, a man with a murderous intent, to do away with the enemy! Yet he preached the Leninist/Trotsky gospel till he died. Now, I am a Believer, and I am sick and tired of using ”science” as the determiner of truth. It is broad term that is way OVER used when you have to PROVE anything, to be a fact. So it must be falsifiable. You look at the history of scientist, not science and the false statements they make to justify their thinking. Only a fool would cling to the words of a scientist as FACT! Sagan proved it..Hitchens lived it..Hawkins..pathetic for attention….Dawkins..do I really have say?,,,Gould..his own words convicted him…..Thank you..James

  2. And yet Aquinas left us with a huge body of theology, philosophy, and rules for living based on what he believed to be science. Was he out-of-bounds? Should we discard his thinking because he dared to mix the two disciplines?

    1. Different time, different context.
      Aquinas was pre-Enlightenment. He did not have the issues of separating the noumenal and the phenomenal at all.

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