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Sunday, August 21, 2011

The Magisterium of Science

To recap, last time I discussed a potential epistemological system in which faith-based beleif was included to "fill the gaps" left by other inquiries.  The first objection I level against this system is that these gaps keep closing.  Historically, the gaps that were previously filled by strong religious convictions have provided significant resistance to anything coming from a more desirable epistemological method (one that is convergent and self-analysing and generates predictive power).  This is a decidedly negative consequence of including faith into our epistemology.

The religious may respond by this by saying that the drawback is only due to errors.  It is only when we accidentally fill a gap that a higher-priority method can tackle that we run into problems.  It seems that if we could keep faith isolated to areas that science, math, and philosophy cannot address - not just haven't addressed but absolutely cannot ever address - then the problem should go away.  Couldn't we then find a place for faith in our epistemology without causing any problems?

The first thing to say here is that it's not necessarily just science and math and philosophy that we have to avoid.  It is important to understand that the reason for this avoidance is because these methods have more desireable epistemological qualities than a faith-based method.  But we should not assume that these methods are the only methods that will ever demostrate such qualities.  While an assured avoidence of conflict with the "big three" will certainly help, it is not quite a guarantee the problem won't crop up in the future.  The only way to make sure we remove all problems is to avoid using faith wherever any of the desireable properties it lacks could be achieved through other means.

The second thing to say here is that this is precisely not what religious people are doing.  There are some religious people who emphasizing stepping back and letting the big three do their thing, fitting religion in the gaps.  (Or at least, they emphasize letting science do its thing.  Most of these people seem to ignore and/or forget math and philosophy in these types of conversations.)  But I've yet to see any religious leaders calling on people to relinquish intellectual territory in advance of scientific endeavors.  You don't hear preachers pushing to reduce the scope of religion so as to minimize the chance of conflict.  They always wait at least until science is knocking on their door before they move camp, and sometimes they wait much longer.  So whether or not such a hypothetical system avoides the pitfalls highlighted in my last article has little to do with the actual effects of religion in our world.

But let's probe further just in case someone does want to try to develop a system where faith comes in when all else fails.  We have to ask ourselves just how much we need to restrict faith to avoid this sort of thing.  I'll let the mathematicians and philosophers handle their fields.  I'm a scientist, so I'm going to explain what it would cost religion to genuinely avoid conflicts with science.  In order to investigate this, I must first explain what it is that science does.

The first thing you need to know is that science is not a field.  biology, sociology, geology, astronomy, and so on; these are all fields.  They study particular groups of phenomena.  This means that it's pretty easy to tell when something lies beyond their purview.  It's quite obvious that particle physics isn't something you study in sociology, or that courting rituals have no place in astronomy.  But science is a method.  Science is all about studying things in a particular way.  The method is prescribed, but the scope is not explicitly confined.  This makes it much more difficult to figure out where the boundaries lie.  So without any further ado (I've used too much ado already), here is a basic outline of the scientific method.

  1. Ask a question or identify a problem.  Figure out what unknown you want to address.
  2. Do some preliminary research.  Find out what others have done before you.  Learn answers to similar questions and try to apply them here.  Use mathematics or philosophy if it helps you gain some insight.
  3. Make an educated guess or hypothesis about some observable phenomenon. Using your research, determine what you think the answer is.  This is a GUESS.  Do not get too attached to it.  And remember to make it relate to an observable.
  4. Devise an experiment to test your hypothesis.  To do this, you need to identify a situation where your hypothesis leads to a prediction.  If my hypothesis is right, then I expect to observe X.  If my hypothesis is wrong, then I expect to observe Y.  X and Y must be different enough that we can distinguish between them (otherwise you're not actually testing anything).  It is also very important to determine the precise criteria under which the experiment supports or refutes your hypothesis before doing the experiment.  This will help to eliminate cognitive biases.
  5. Execute the experiment
  6. 6. If the results support your hypothesis, proceed to step seven.  If the results refute your hyupothesis, return to step 2.  If the experiment was inconclusive (you could not distinguish X and Y) either repeat step 5 with more sensitive measurements (or a better sample pool for highly statistical fields) or return to step 4.
  7. Share your results so that others may verify them independently.  This is how we ensure convergence and thus objectivity.  If others obtain different results, compare experimental methods to try and determine why the results differed.  Otherwise proceed to step 8.
  8. In conjunction with others, repeat steps 4 through 7 to continue testing and building your hypothesis.  After many successful tests you will have developed a very detailed and reasonably far-reaching schematic we call a theory.  THIS IS NOT JUST A GUESS.  A scientific theory is not "just a theory."  It is a group of interrelated hypotheses that have passed extensive testing and demonstrate substantial predictive power.  Theory means something very different in science than in the vernacular.
  9. Congratulationss, you are now ready to tackle another problem.  Go back to step 1
So what is the scope of science?  Which questions are scientific and which aren't?  This is the same as asking where we can and cannot apply the above methods.  The only fundamental limiting factor in the method is observation.  As long as you can get through step 4 and determine some observation that differentiates your hypothesis from the other possibilities, you can apply the scientific method.  That's all we need.
For instance, if I claimed that there was a supermassive black hole floating halfway between here and Pluto, the truth of my claim would be a scientific question.  Such a black hole would produce easily observable effects, such as ripping several or perhaps all of the planets out of their current orbits.  Since we do not observe these effects, we scientifically conclude that there is no supermassive black hole floating halfway between here and Pluto.

It is important to realize that the object inquestion need not be observed directly.  We just need to have some observable effect that differs for our hypothesis.  The fact that observing atoms directly was impractical at the time did not prevent physicists from developing the atomic bomb.  Scientists could observe the effects of atoms.  They were able to determine that if matter were build from atoms, certain things would behave differently than if matter were not built from atoms.  Atoms didn't need to be observable to be scientific, they just needed to make an observable difference in our universe.
To say "it's not a question of science" is to claim that the scientific method cannot be applied to the question at hand.  But this just means that the question doesn't make any observable difference.  The supernatural, which many people take to mean "that which is beyond science," is therefore incapable of producing observable effects.  Yet many people claim that supernatural entities such as ghosts, spirits, and gods cause observable effects.  If this is true, then these "supernatural" entities are not supernatural at all.  Causing observable effects places these entities squarely within the purview of science.
Since anything that causes observable effects can be science, anything that causes observable effects is natural.  Thus, only natural things can cause observable effects.  If it is to meaningfully impact our lives, the paranormal must actually be normal; the supernatural actually natural.  If something is indeed supernatural, then it is incredibly insignificant because it makes no observable difference in our lives.
So for most people, God's existence really is a scientific question.  The same thing happens with many other religious claims.  Many religions claim that intercessory prayer does somthing to at least increase the chances of the desired event occuring.  So let's test this.  Many religions claim that having a loving relationship with God (or at least believing that you do) has significant health benefits.  So let's test this.  We have a convergent, self-analyzing method that generates predictive power that we can use to address these questions.  So let's stop using faith and start resolving our questions in a defensible manner; in a manner that allows us to argue not only that we are right, but why we are right and why the opposition is wrong.  Let's stop saying "I believe this" and "I don't believe that" and start saying "I observe this" and "I don't observe that."  Let's stop talking about opinions and start talking about facts.  

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