Wednesday, February 04, 2015

Poythress and the philosophy of science (Part 1)

The realist says that science describes real properties of the world "out there." Scientific knowledge objectively matches realities in the character of an objective world. The "critical" realist, in distinction from the naive realist, acknowledges that appearances can be deceptive, and in practice science is always tentative and subject to revision. But science aims at true description and explanation. Though we cannot have perfect certainty about its description in any particular case, we are traveling toward truth, and some of the descriptions are true to facts out there. ...

By contrast, the idealist says that science describes the appearance of things according to the way in which the human mind naturally organizes them. We never grasp "the thing in itself," what is out there, but only the thing as already organized by our perception and our ways of thinking. ... A description in science may be true as a description of this already-organized perception. ...

The empiricist says that science studies the events and phenomena of immediate perception, and that the theoretical constructions of science do not directly describe real entities but are a convenient way of summarizing the patterns in empirical date.


The pragmatist says that science does no offer direct knowledge of the world as it is, but only a practical tool or means for achieving technical mastery of the world. The value of science lies wholly in its practical success.

The postmodern relativist says that science is a social product of groups with a certain social unity of purpose and knowledge-base. "Knowledge" is relative to one's group, and groups based on different kinds of assumptions would come up with different "knowledge." There is no way to adjudicate between incommensurable groups. [Vern S. Poythress, Redeeming Science: A God-centered Approach (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2006), 197-8]

At first glance, critical realism might seem to offer the most compatibility with a Christian worldview. We believe that God created a world, not just human beings. The world is real. And God has so constructed us that we can know him and known about his world (creation in the image of God). This reality of the world and of God excludes the other positions. ... Idealism and empiricism and pragmatism would seem to be unduly restrictive in not allowing us to say that we know the real world out there. ...(Ibid., 198-9)

Before dealing with scientific issues, one should think about the philosophy and nature of science. Poythress in his book however places discussion of theories of science near the middle of his book, as if the topic is just not that important for scientific issues. In fact, the title of the chapter in which the discussion on the philosophy of science takes place is "Debates About What is Real." Poythress thus see the various theories of science as being a reflection of one's perception of the world, of General Revelation. Taking the critical realist position in Poythress' opinion is the only way to preserve the reality and perspicuity of General Revelation, while all others deny the reality and perspicuity of General Revelation.

It must be re-stated that Poythress is in error concerning the relationship of science to General Revelation. Thus, while there are (hopefully) no informed orthodox Christians that will dispute the reality of the external world or the perspicuity of General Revelation, it is not the same as predicating that of scientific laws and the scientific enterprise. The issue I have concerning the nature and philosophy of science is not about the ontological statuses of the objects and subjects investigated by science, but rather it concerns the human capacity concerning science and the contributions we make in the very scientific enterprise itself, which influence the way we understand science. In other words, it is epistemic rather than ontological.

Thomas S. Kuhn's theory of science asserts that science is done within various paradigms throughout human history. The paradigm informs scientists the manner to ask questions and what the goal of such questioning is. Far from science being this impersonal enterprise, scientists contribute to the scientific endeavor. First, in framing the questions in a particular manner, certain answers are ruled out of order immediately. Second, the manner of inquiry will predispose one towards certain type of answers and not others. Thirdly, expecting a certain kind of regularity that makes sense in the paradigm, there is a tendency to rule data sets that do not conform to the expected variation as "outliers" and thus the tendency is towards maintenance of the reigning paradigm. Unless there are too many "outliers" and that consistently, the tendency is to reject them as due to experimental errors. Such scientific paradigms enable "normal science" to flourish within it, until a crisis point arrive where there are too many anomalies, or when a superior alternate theory emerges that works better than the current one. Paradigm shifts then occur as the scientific community shifts from one paradigm to the other, during which the terms of discussion and manners of discussion will shift, either slightly or greatly.

We note here that Kuhn's philosophy of science does not necessarily lead one to relativism, as some might think. The most one can say is that Kuhn is an epistemic anti-realist, which is not the same as being a relativist.

Scientific epistemic anti-realism just state that one does not actually know truth in science. Rather, because of the paradigmatic dependence of science, science is always seeking but never coming to actual truth, merely at best getting a working approximation of the truth. As Gordon Clark has shown in the book The Philosophy of Science and Belief in God, science because of its inductive reasoning can never attain truth. That is why pragmatism in some form is the better option when it comes to having a philosophy of science.

Contrary to Poythress therefore, the issue is not ontological but epistemological. We agree that one actually deals with the real world, the "things in themselves" as it were. But can we actually know, actually formulate laws that are absolutely and transcendentally true? I suggest not. Our paradigmatic dependence means all scientific laws and understanding is partial, is an approximation of what is actually true, and covers only what the paradigm includes in its parameters of subject matter. So yes, we believe that God created a real world that can be known, but we dispute that science is that sole vehicle that can know the world, and also the type of knowledge God intends us to have about the world.

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