Science

Part 2: The Nature of Scientific Knowledge

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Paul Arnold

This article is the second in a series by Paul Arnold on the relationship between Science and Christianity. Paul received his Masters of Science in Physiology before recently completing his Masters of Christian Studies at Regent College where he focused on Christianity & Culture. Paul’s final comprehensive paper was on modern science and divine providence, which forms the basis for this series. He is currently living with his wife, Krista, in rural Uganda where they are working with a community development organization. Paul also works as a writer and editor for Converge Magazine.

In Part 1 of this series, I argued that divine action cannot be excluded from creation because science alone cannot demonstrate the invalidity of believing that God acts in the world. In the same way that individuals need to rely on more than empirical observation to affirm a supernatural God in the natural world, science must also rely on more than empirical observation to exclude a supernatural God from the natural world. In other words, science, like religion, must rely on more than empirical observation to speak about God.

However, even though scientific knowledge is limited to things that can only be demonstrated by the scientific method, in our modern age, science has become the dominant lens through which humanity sees itself, creation, and—most importantly—God. This is, perhaps, not surprising given science has provided humanity with explanations for natural phenomena and, as a result,apparent power over nature. The result of this power is that many appeal to science as an “objective” framework through which we are able to understand, or at least potentially understand, all of the relationships inherent in creation—including God’s relationship to creation.

From a religious perspective, the problem with this supposed objective scientific framework is that it depends on what Alvin Plantinga calls “methodological naturalism,” where there is no room for an explanation that goes beyond the natural.[1] Of course, as I noted in the first article in this series, there is nothing wrong with science working under naturalistic assumptions. The modern scientific method functions with a methodological naturalism because modern science seeks to understand empirical truths about the world. This means that the empirical truths must be measurable, repeatable, and falsifiable. Since any “super” natural reality cannot be measured repeatedly in a consistent fashion, it also cannot be proven to be false. Therefore, modern science necessarily excludes any supernatural explanation for empirical observations.

The problem arises when modern science is positioned as the only method by which we can understand or have possession of “objective” truth. In response to this popular understanding of scientific knowledge, I contend that it is not necessary, let alone possible, to achieve an objective view of reality that can give us definitive knowledge of how God relates to and acts in his creation. Science does not necessarily lead to a naturalistic framework that excludes the possibility of God acting in creation because science cannot objectively close creation to the supernatural. As God is open to creation, so too is creation open to God.

The Need for a Broader Framework

It follows that instead of relying solely on science, our frameworks for understanding the world must use knowledge that reaches beyond the sciences to provide coherence or resonance for all of reality. As Alister McGrath says, these frameworks will be “judged both by [their] internal consistency and coherence, and [their] external correspondence with reality.”[2] Thus, a naturalistic framework will ultimately fail to correspond adequately with all of reality because it can only account for scientific or empirical knowledge.

We must search for a theological framework that will provide an adequate perspective through which we can properly understand God’s relation to his creation. A proper theological framework however is not objective in and of itself. Any framework is a belief that we must commit to in order to affirm the objective reality that the framework proposes. According to Michael Polanyi, unless we recognize that all knowledge requires a personal commitment that is limited in its perspective and demonstrability, we will tend toward objective systems of belief or interpretive frameworks for making sense of the world. However, as Polanyi points out, a personal dimension of knowledge does not make our understanding or comprehension subjective:

Comprehension is neither an arbitrary act nor a passive experience, but a responsible act claiming universal validity. Such knowledge is indeed objective in the sense of establishing contact with a hidden reality, contact that is defined as the condition for anticipating an indeterminate range of as yet unknown (and perhaps yet inconceivable) true implications. It seems reasonable to describe this fusion of the personal and the objective as personal knowledge.[3]

The task of the Christian, it seems to me, is to affirm the objectivity of this hidden reality—or what John Polkinghorne also refers to as a “deeper rationality”[4]—in creation without sacrificing God’s relationship to it. Such a task requires that we take scientific knowledge seriously, but not exclusively.

One reason that we cannot hold science as the exclusive arbiter of truth is because science will always have a limited perspective. Or to put it differently, science cannot approach an objective framework because, as Newbigin observes, “Only statements that can be doubted make contact with reality.”[5] We see this idea worked out in two ways. The first way, which I will deal with here, is that objective knowledge, whether scientific or not, always contains a personal or subjective element that restricts any assent to an objective framework. The second way, which I will return to later in this series, is that quantum physics helps to expose the limits of science in a naturally open world.

All Knowledge is Personal

On the first note, Polanyi shows us that all human knowledge is inescapably personal. As he describes it, “into every act of knowing there enters a passionate contribution of the person knowing what is being known, and that this coefficient is no mere imperfection but a vital component of his knowledge.”[6] The contribution of the person knowing what is being known shows up in various ways. It shows up in the “tacit coefficients” or conventions of any tradition or community in which a person is a part. As a result, every act of knowing is shaped by a “tacit sharing” of assumed knowledge. As Polanyi explains,

Since the advancement and dissemination of knowledge by the pursuit of science, or technology and mathematics forms part of cultural life, the tacit coefficients by which these articulate systems are understood and accredited, and which uphold quite generally our shaping and affirmation of factual truth, are also coefficients of a cultural life shared by a community.[7]

The personal contribution to knowledge also shows up in response to the indeterminate nature of knowledge. Since Polanyi affirms that all knowledge is in some dimension indeterminate, a personal commitment on behalf of the knower is required in order to make contact with a hidden reality that may remain beyond demonstration. As a result, Polanyi argues for “the deliberate holding of unproven beliefs.”[8] He elaborates further:

We should be able to profess now knowingly and openly those beliefs which could be tacitly taken for granted in the days before modern philosophic criticism reached its present incisiveness. Such powers may appear dangerous. But a dogmatic orthodoxy can be kept in check both internally and externally, while a creed inverted into a science is both blind and deceptive.[9]

It is necessary to note here Polanyi’s distinction between objective knowledge and objective frameworks. Polanyi does not deny the existence of objective knowledge, or what he calls “contact with a hidden reality,” for he says that “such knowledge is indeed objective in the sense of establishing contact with a hidden reality, contact that is defined as the condition for anticipating an indeterminate range of as yet unknown (and perhaps yet inconceivable) true implications.”[10] From this, Polanyi goes on to say there is an inevitable fusion of the subjective and the objective that can be best described as “personal knowledge.”

The Limits of Scientific Knowledge

The outworking of Polanyi’s understanding of personal knowledge is that scientific knowledge has inescapable limits. Our inability to remove the personal or subjective element from scientific knowledge means that science can never produce objectively certain knowledge. Scientific knowledge will always remain, to a relative degree, approximate knowledge. Wolfhart Pannenberg similarly reflects on the approximate nature of science: “The scientific affirmations of law cannot be considered as complete and exhaustive descriptions of the natural processes. They are only approximations although they may be more than sufficiently precise for most practical purposes.”[11]

Plantinga also provides a good example of how scientific knowledge is only approximate knowledge. In his most recent book Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism, Plantinga argues that the process of evolution through natural selection does not lead to true beliefs, but only to beliefs that lead to behaviour that promotes survival. Evolution through natural selection may indeed provide us with mostly true beliefs, but the purpose of our cognitive faculties is not necessarily to serve us with true beliefs and we are thus not guaranteed true beliefs. As Plantinga says, “What evolution underwrites is only (at most) that our behaviour is reasonably adaptive to the circumstances in which our ancestors found themselves; hence it does not guarantee mostly true or verisimilitudinous beliefs.”[12]

Ultimately, the observations from Polanyi and Plantinga help to show us that scientific knowledge has inescapable limits and should not serve as the sole foundation for an appropriate framework through which we are able to understand the world. This conversation will continue in Part 3 of this series, in which I will look further into how science has become the dominant framework through which we understand the world and how science has been used, unhelpfully, to “remove” God from creation.

Footnotes:

  1. See Alvin Plantinga, Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2011), 168-174.
  2. Alister E. McGrath, Darwinism and the Divine: Evolutionary Thought and Natural Theology (Chichester, UK: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011), 283.
  3. Michael Polanyi, Personal Knowledge: Towards a Post-Critical Philosophy (Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 1962), vii-viii.
  4. John Polkinghorne, Science and Providence: God's Interaction with the World (Boston, MA: Shambhala Publications, Inc., 1989), 51.
  5. Lesslie Newbigin, Proper Confidence: Faith, Doubt, and Certainty in Christian Discipleship (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1995)51-52.
  6. Polanyi,  viii.
  7. Ibid., 203.
  8. Ibid., 268.
  9. Ibid., 268.
  10. Ibid. vii-viii.
  11. Wolfhart Pannenberg, "The Doctrine of Creation and Modern Science," Zygon 23, no. 1 (1988)10.
  12. Plantinga,  316.

Works Cited

  • McGrath, Alister E. Darwinism and the Divine: Evolutionary Thought and Natural Theology. Chichester, UK: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011
  • Newbigin, Lesslie. Proper Confidence: Faith, Doubt, and Certainty in Christian Discipleship. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1995
  • Pannenberg, Wolfhart. "The Doctrine of Creation and Modern Science," Zygon 23, no. 1 (1988):3-21
  • Plantinga, Alvin. Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2011
  • Polanyi, Michael. Personal Knowledge: Towards a Post-Critical Philosophy. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 1962
  • Polkinghorne, John. Science and Providence: God's Interaction with the World. Boston, MA: Shambhala Publications, Inc., 1989

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