Monday, February 12, 2007

Scientific Method as an Article of Faith

The Truthdig debate over "Evangelicals Make War on Evolution" continues to rage; and "rage" certainly seems to be the operative verb among most of the contributors. My reaction to all of this is to try to build on my previous line of reasoning and focus more on how the adoption of scientific method is, itself, an article of faith. This argument has less to do with teasing apart the texts and more to do with the nature of practice.

The “rigor” of science is nothing more than a commitment to play by its own rules; and, from a purely dispassionate behavioral perspective, that commitment is not that different from a commitment to play by the rules of Catholic dogma, a system that is as much a product of strenuous logical thought as scientific method is. Where faith comes in is in the belief that either commitment (or any similar commitment) will lead to truth about the natural world. However, as Isaiah Berlin points out in a variety of different ways in the essays in The Crooked Timber of Humanity, the very idea that there should be a truth about the natural world is a product of a cultural world-view that can be traced back (at least) as far as Plato, which is a far cry from a formal logical proposition whose truth-value may be assessed.

The credibility of scientific method has always been strained, just as has been the credibility of any religious conviction. Even when scientific method enjoyed the prestige of a lingua franca, the solipsists were applying their own rigor to the hypothesis that, for any practical purposes, the natural world was a construction of our own subjective processes. The twentieth century saw this perspective expand from the subjectively constructed reality to the socially constructed reality. At roughly the same time mathematics, always regarded as the ne plus ultra model of scientific rigor, discovered that, for all that rigor, all but the most trivial logical systems harbored undecidable propositions, revealing that the very concept of “truth” could be questioned, even in the objective world.

Berlin believed that, if we all recognized that all of our belief systems were guided by faith at some fundamental level, we might be more tolerant of each other’s faiths. I would like to cast my lot with Berlin. Unfortunately, to use “scientific language” that Karl Popper brought into fashion, the evidence of falsifiability (which I prefer to call “internal inconsistency") has been spread across all of the inflammatory discourse of the comments that have accumulated in the Truthdig debate. All we seemed to have learned is that the conviction of many faiths seems to beget intolerance, which does not speak well for our future.

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