Wednesday, February 11, 2015

The definition and limitations of science

[Statement for discussion: -DHC] Something is scientific if and only if it focuses on the natural world, is guided by natural law, and/or explains by reference to natural law ...

What about the phrase explains by reference to natural law? Is this a necessary or sufficient condition for something to count as science? No. Mathematics often explain things by referring to natural (non-supernatural) laws of mathematics or logic. ...

... the third part of the essential characteristic of science we are considering — something is scientific if and only if it focuses on the natural world. There are two different ways we could take the term natural. First, it may be a contrast term that means nonsupernatural. Here, "natural" means everything that is real apart from God and his direct, primary causal interventions into the world. Naturalism would be the view that God does not exist and everything that does exist is a natural entity. Or a theist could adopt an attitude of naturalism by simple focusing on items insofar as they exist in the world, even though she believes that God created them, that is, she could focus on them from a natural point of view. ...

If that is how we should take natural, then science is not the only discipline that "focuses on the natural world." The entities listed are studied by philosophers, logicians, mathematicians, and linguists, to name a few. Even theologians study and make claims about natural entities, for example, by saying that God reated various forms of life, endowed them with certain abilities, and so forth. So if natural is understood in this way, it is clear that science cannot be defined as the discipline that "focuses on the natural world." [J.P. Moreland, Christianity and the Nature of Science: A Philosophical Investigation (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1989), 23-6]

Does this mean that we can never recognize a case of science or nonscience when we see it? No it doesn't. But one does not need a definition of science to do this. ... suffice it is to say that, in a general way, science is a discipline that in some sense and usually appeals to natural explanation, empirical tests, and so forth. (Ibid., 42)

Philosopher J.P. Moreland, in this foray into the philosophy of science, attempts a definition of science, and concludes that there is no one definition of science, or for that matter, of the scientific method. As a scientific anti-realist, I most certainly agree. There are certain principles that proscribe the parameters of science and the scientific method, but to define science is rather impossible, as Moreland has demonstrated. I would not go as far as Paul Feyerabend who basically threw in the towel and erase all distinction between science and nonscience, but the fact that we cannot actually find anything that defines science and the scientific method, in contrast to nonscience (besides the useless tautology "what scientists do") should give us pause in being dogmatic about what is or isn't science.

Moreland's analysis of this one criteria of naturalism is interesting, yet if we were to separate the hard ("natural") sciences from the soft ("social") sciences, it seems that some form of naturalism is definitive of the natural sciences. In other words, while there may not be a definition of "science," there might be a definition of the various sciences. With regards to the "hard" sciences, it seems true that it "focuses on the natural world, is guided by natural law, and/or explains by reference to natural law." But what it does prove is that the natural sciences focuses on natural laws in the natural world, but we have already limit it to the natural sciences so of course that naturally follows. But if we so limit the field of study, then surely the questions and answers should be likewise limited to the domain being studied.

If the field of inquiry relates only to the natural, then conclusions are limited to the natural as well. It is therefore somewhat ridiculous to claim that "science" disproves miracles, for miracles or the supernatural is not within the field of study of the natural sciences. Likewise, in the adoption of methodological naturalism, all supernatural events lie outside the purview of science. If anyone was to try to investigate such events "scientifically" (i.e. naturalistically), then they will always be in error as to their conclusions since they assume natural processes are the only ones at work here.

From a definitional inquiry, we can see that miraculous events are excluded from scientific considerations from the start. Unless one assumes scientism (which is self-refuting), science can never disprove the supernatural and the miraculous.

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