beliefs undergirding science

In another interesting article over at Thinking Faith, Guy Consolmagno posits three things all scientists must ‘believe’. He calls them “three axioms of science that must be taken on faith before you can do science.”

  1. “You have to believe that the physical world actually exists – I am not just a butterfly, dreaming that I am a scientist, in an imaginary universe.”
  2. “You have to believe, ahead of time, that the physical world actually does have rules and regularities – well hidden ones perhaps, but something that eventually you’ll be able to figure out.”
  3. “…you have to believe that the physical universe is worth studying. Think of it… if your religion says that the goal of life is to meditate yourself out of this corrupting universe onto a higher plane, you’re not going to be a physical scientist.”

The article can be found here, (PDF version) or by clicking the link in my RSS for Thinking Faith in the sidebar…

Thoughts?

21 thoughts on “beliefs undergirding science”

  1. Interesting paper, although pretty weak in my opinion given its source. For starters while most universities were begun by churches, most of the world was religious anyway and churches were the seat of power and money. If anything like a university was going to exist it almost had to come from a religious source. And of course this conveniently ignores all the damages done to science by the exact same churches over the dark ages. It is worth noting the universities would have happened with or without the church; the damage wouldn’t have.

    As for the axioms, the first is required of anyone who wants to believe anything, including god – it basically says “don’t be a solipsist”. The second is poorly framed. Rules and regularities really mean order. There are no rules, just that things are not random in the sense they are, in some manner, predictable. We couldn’t operate as thinking beings were this not the case. So it isn’t an axiom of faith for science so much as a necessary condition to be able to think at all, and as such is a necessary condition not just for science but for religious belief as well. It is not an axiom.

    The third one is nonsense. Understanding the world has tangible benefits beyond simply the joy of understanding and has almost always been driven by technology and economics as much as anything else. The notion that only a culture that believes in god would support those who pursue its understanding is self-evidently false.

    I do however agree with this statement:

    Only such a religion could possibly believe that you could find God in the book of nature.

    To paraphrase this in a way not intended by the author although implied, what this says is if you don’t believe in god, you wont find god in the book of nature. I agree entirely :)

    The rest of the paper seems to be a thinly veiled attempt to link science and religion historically within astronomy but again misses the point that this is entirely a function of social circumstances – this didn’t happen because of religion, it happened at a time religion was dominant and may well have happened faster without it.

    Thats my thoughts :)

    Cheers
    Ian

  2. I actually find these articles by Consolmagno somewhat refreshing as they do counter a very vocal trend in Christianity which I see as anti-science – typified by the creationists – the religious right.

    Granted science is some ways came out of religion – after all we started with superstition and things developed from there. I believe that a rudimentary scientific approach did precede the religious immediately pre-scientific approach. After all, we did have the start of science with the development of agriculture and navigation many thousands of years ago – even though it was probably expressed in a superstitious way.

    I disagree with the statement that “Only a culture based on a religion … is going to support etc.”; Modern society is not based on a religion although many people are religious.

    However, I think Consolmagno’s pro-science message should be supported and promulgated as more authentically Christian that some current trends.

    The fact is that one can accept this approach as a Christian or as an atheist – religion becomes irrelevant to the method of doing science and its findings. However, the Christian Right who reject this approach are clearly cutting themselves off from this important Christian belief, as well as from modern science. They resort to a magical interpretation of the universe, instead of the rational ordered interpretation of Consolmagno.

    That’s why I see that the important debate about the rationality of the universe and scientific knowledge should be carried out within Christianity. It’s misleading to see it as a conflict between religion and science, or Chrsitianity and atheism.

  3. …pretty weak in my opinion given its source…

    What do you mean by ‘source’, Ian? Is Consolmagno not a proper cosmologist? or are you implying that because he is associated with the Vatican his opinions are poor? Or Thinking Faith? I’m curious…
    Re those three ‘axioms’, I still think they stand. They’re quite simple points, really. Only inflated/distorted appreciations of them are problematic.

    Ken,
    Thanks. [I fixed your tag. :) ] On ‘culture based on religion’, I would want to slightly adjust that wording and argue that culture is infused with (and can never truly be un-influenced by) various ideology from religion (of various kinds)…

  4. I still think ‘science’ is being elevated (or reduced – depending on your viewpoint ; ) ) to something comparable to religion. The idea that you have to have certain beliefs before you can ‘do science’ makes no sense to me. Science is just a systematic method of observing and testing, that aims to remove subjectivity. I don’t see why a robot couldn’t do science, in fact a robot would be ideal. It could collect data and use stats to analyse it. I know, I know, a person has to set it up – but the robot would still be ‘doing science’ would it not?

  5. Thanks Jack,
    Analogies are always hard. They can be brilliant in some cases, but eventually they can only go so far. The robot analogy, doesn’t really get started…
    Hopefully I can help with these comments:
    (I’m thinking of another post as I write this… frustrating!) :)
    Words matter, aye. So I’ll try to clear up what I think is being said (or what I think should be said!)…
    You have to ‘assume’ or ‘believe’ or ‘deduce’ or otherwise ‘pre-judge’, ‘anticipate’ or just take it ‘on faith’ that the order in the universe (or at least on earth!) is constant right throughout. That’s not a ‘religious’ belief, per se, but rather a philosophical one. (A philosophical belief that happens to support a ‘religious’ belief in some kind of ‘orderer’, yes, but certainly not an explicitly ‘religious’ belief in and of itself…) Does this make sense?
    When Consolmagno suggests that scientists must ‘believe’ those things (and admittedly talks of them as the ‘religious roots of science’), I think that can be best understood in the philosophical sense, rather than the explicitly religious sense… What I mean here is that you don’t have to subscribe to a ‘religion’ (if that is the best way to define the word ‘religious’ – which continually proves to be a very unhelpful word) in order to assume order in the universe. That assumption reveals, not religiosity –of any kind– but rather philosophical reflection (pre-reflection?).
    Hope that rambling helps?
    -d-

  6. What do you mean by ’source’, Ian? Is Consolmagno not a proper cosmologist? or are you implying that because he is associated with the Vatican his opinions are poor? Or Thinking Faith? I’m curious…

    Actually my point was that I was expecting better from the Vatican astronomer.

    Re those three ‘axioms’, I still think they stand. They’re quite simple points, really. Only inflated/distorted appreciations of them are problematic.

    They stand but they don’t specifically apply to science. 1 and 3 apply equally to religion, or anything else you might like to think about. To call them axioms of science is misleading – they are axioms of thought.

    Number 2 I totally disagree with. Science has come to realise there is order, and is always looking for exceptions to the order as part of the scientific method. Theories such as Newton’s Laws of Motion have given rise to the notion that things are ordered and regular, while relativistic and quantum discoveries have very much cast that into doubt and have shown these “laws” are not universal at all scales.

    We look back on 500 years of science and see lots of laws and theories – but these arose not from the assumption there was order, but from the observation that apparently things aren’t random. Number two is not an axiom, it is an observed fact. It was discovered by science, not assumed by it.

  7. Hi Ian,
    Yep. I (nor Consolmagno) never said they only applied to science.
    I totally agree about the seeming ‘randomness’ that has been recently appreciated in such things as quantum theory, though I would say that this hasn’t (yet!) negated the ‘order’ at other levels. There is randomness within the order (and maybe order within the randomness!?).
    I’m curious (honestly) what effect do you think the ‘randomness’ of QM might have on the scientific ability to ‘test’ such sub-atomic phenomena – especially when science seems to need a thing to be ‘stable’ or ‘constant’ to test it? For example, some of the observations (as I understand them – for example, the famous ‘double slit’ experiment with light) at the QM level, are very much causing us to scratch our heads; meaning, they are raising infinitely more questions than providing answers… about the nature of matter itself.
    Instead of demonstrating that science is not undergirded by such ideas, this kind of uncertainty and questioning simply shows that this is not some ‘only-in-the-past’ urdergirding, but rather that these kinds of ideas (current assumptions) will always undergird our science.

  8. Jack, I disagree with your comment “I don’t see why a robot couldn’t do science, in fact a robot would be ideal. It could collect data and use stats to analyse it. I know, I know, a person has to set it up – but the robot would still be ‘doing science’ would it not?”

    Scientific research is an extremely creative activity. For this reason I reject arguments which attempt to convert science into algorithmic type activities (e.g. “falsifiability” “paradigm shifts,” “limiting to the natural world,” “limits to science,” etc.). In practice a researcher (or at least one worth her salt) does not stick to those concepts and limitations.

    Today’s robots are not yet properly creative. (However, robotic machines are used to collect and analyse data but science is much more than that).

    That’s not to say that in the future artificial intelligence won’t be able to be creative – I’m sure it will. But that has consequences for all human activity – not just scientific research.

  9. Ken,
    I’m intrigued by your comments.
    I’ve not heard science described as ‘creative’, still less ‘extremely creative’… I’m curious as to what you mean.
    I can imagine that some might object to this; suggesting that ‘creativity’ is too ‘subjective’ an activity for science?
    I am going to reserve judgment until I more fully understand what you’re saying…

    And, indeed, the whole robot-human thing is very interesting. But that’s a whole other post…
    :)
    -d-

  10. I’m curious (honestly) what effect do you think the ‘randomness’ of QM might have on the scientific ability to ‘test’ such sub-atomic phenomena – especially when science seems to need a thing to be ’stable’ or ‘constant’ to test it?

    I don’t think it has any effect on scientific ability to test it. It may have a bigger influence on our ability to explain it but that is a matter of time I suspect.

    Science doesn’t really need things to be stable or constant to measure them – ecology is a classic example of this. The order within complex ecologies is so far buried beneath our ability to figure it out that we are facing what effectively is a chaotic system. We can still predict behaviour and test theories by controlling parts of complex systems to understand them.

    Also it seems to me absence of predictable behaviour is in itself predictable if that makes sense – i.e. it is useful to discover that something is demonstrably random. (although I don’t think QM is random in this way at all).

    Scientific research is an extremely creative activity. For this reason I reject arguments which attempt to convert science into algorithmic type activities

    I agree with this although for me there are two different sides to science. There is the idea generation process – i.e. the fuel of the whole process – which requires remarkable levels of creativity thinking of areas to look at, thinking of theories, and linking results to theories. The actual process of controlled testing I think is fairly mechanistic and I suspect potentially able to be done by robots.

  11. Ian,
    The main point of point 2 was that when we perform whatever experiments we perform in labs (not to mention thought experiements) or elsewhere, we expect or assume that reality is not going to contradict itself – meaning we don’t expect to observe contradictory events under the same time/space conditions.
    And yes, I agree regarding QM – it is “predictively random”…?
    :)
    And re: creative science and robots
    Indeed, science is more than just the actual actions of collecting, observing and recording phenomena, for you have to make many judgments (the creative bit) about what to collect, observe, record, etc., as well as what it means…

  12. Ian makes a fair comment about the fact that the origin of universities within the church was a fact of wealth and power. That aside, it has always fascinated me that with the Galileo controversy and the Reformation later, how even within the church organisation there were somewhat subversive levels of learning going on. This subversion in fact helped to breakdown barriers between many Protestants and Roman Catholics, and to some extent illustrates the looseness of medieval society, to which we moderns tend to attribute the tight band of religious authority. Protestants were only too willing to finance the publishing of texts of scholarly priests and lay people, that the Roman Catholic Church tried to ban.
    However, Ian’s point about the historical significance of the role of the Roman Catholic Church in European culture, needs a little more historical reference. Firstly, the so-called Dark Ages were times when many ancient texts of Greek and Roman learning and history, having been preserved by Muslim scholars, were traded and continued to be preserved and distributed by Church scholars. Many of the ideas contained therein sparked periods of controversy and reform within the Church. This period was one where the umbrella of Christendom that helped unite Europe in times of crisis and invasion, provided a certain amount of security for centres of learning.
    Secondly, much later in the 18th century, in the prelude to and in the early years of the Enlightenment, monarchs of Europe, who battled to free themselves from the power of the Nobility and corrupt Clergy, adopted progressive and enlightened movements. This patronage of change also brought an adoption of mixed occultism and Christian spirituality that in fact hindered much of the impetus for scientific understanding throughout European culture. With the rise in Natural Theology and Deism, together with religious corruption, the dislocation of religion continued, not only from science, but also from public life in general. Those monarchs who fell victims to the bloody revolutions of the late 18th century, were victims of bad economics as much as to new ideas, and were replaced by ‘modern’ tyrants. Scientific learning seemed to progress in spite of religion or secularism. Interestingly, even in our day, despite much lauding of science and technology, procuring finance to support R&D and science is an ongoing struggle. This situation will continue as the international community come to grips with the fruits of science and technology misapplied over the last 200 years.
    Ian also makes an interesting point about rational thought being separate from being any axiom of science. That the conditions for rational thinking have brought about structures of thought that apply both to science and religion. This brings to the fore that creative thought structures enable us to assimilate facts derived from any research. The facts can’t order themselves or as some would say ‘speak for themselves’. They have to be presented having been ordered by rational thought processes. Creativeness, innate to human behaviour, plays a large role in this, as many a break through in understanding have been ‘visioned’ before becoming a model from which to ‘hang’ the facts. Watson and Crick’s DNA double helix is one such example.
    Scientists are human, and also carry the same psychological and sociological baggage as we mere mortals, and have gaps in understanding in areas that do not interest them or appear irrelevant. Listening to Richard Dawkins, for instance, speak with great authority can be stimulating, but underneath one detects an impatience and mixed understandings of what, where and who we are as human beings. His self confessed ignorance of philosophy I found intriguing but unsurprising. Although this hasn’t lessened his scientific competence, the influence of this ignorance shows to a degree in how he expresses his ideas in the public forum. His strong emotion expressed while visiting CERN’s LHC in Europe, revealed the indefinable something of what this scientific instrument may achieve in greatly extending our knowledge of the physical reality we all share. It was the meaning of the possibilities of reality, not the means of science, that got Dawkins going. Unknowingly he is doing philosophy.

  13. “I’ve not heard science described as ‘creative’, still less ‘extremely creative’… I’m curious as to what you mean.
    I can imagine that some might object to this; suggesting that ‘creativity’ is too ’subjective’ an activity for science?
    I am going to reserve judgment until I more fully understand what you’re saying…”

    This is the problem, isn’t it. If some people object because they just don’t understand the science process. And that is because our culture devalues it, and gives support to non-rational approaches.

    The ‘subjective’ is a vital element in any human process. It’s vital in science. The dreams, the wild speculations, the appeal of beauty, the trial and error, the things that come unasked out of our subconscious, the emotional response to ideas and to the process itself, the satisfaction with discoveries and proposals, etc. These are all things I felt in my research career – and also in the few years I have been doing “artistic” stuff (painting mainly) but, so far, at a much lower level.

    Non of this is algorithmic. None of this fits into the tight limits that some people wish to place on science. The fact is that no active researcher stops to ask the question – “Is this natural or supernatural?”; “Is this permitted by science?”; “Can science investigate this? They get on and do the thinking, etc.

    Now, of course there is the more reasoned side that has to go along with this. Without the testing against reality and submission to the critical review of colleagues knowledge wouldn’t progress. After all – most ideas in science are wrong and we have to be able to know which are.

    Unfortunately most people are probably only aware of that more logical, practical side of science. In fact, though, both sides are well integrated in individuals, or at least research groups. Without the reason, testing and peer review science would not be as successful as it so obviously is. Without the creativity there would be not ideas to perform reason and logic on, or to test against reality.

  14. BC: Absolutely wonderful post :) thanks!

    Ken: Well said. I would also add that the notion of science as a toolkit is perhaps the most useful way to see it. Our thoughts, creativity and subjectivity are both strengths and weaknesses and science is a set of tools that let us mitigate those weaknesses. Like a spanner, it doesn’t make a lot of sense without the context of the user and its applications, but in that context its benefit is enormous.

  15. There’s a line in one of my band’s songs that pretty much sums up this whole issue.

    “Well if it’s still pretty, what with all these leaks, we’ll be fine and supervised”.

    Think about it.
    Can’t be bothered?
    Okay I’ll explain it to you(or show you the “dirt pile” as i sometimes like to say), Yeh Yeah.

    Basicaly what I’m saying here is if universe and everything in it is still pretty, even with the occasional fault or ‘leak’, we’ll still be fine and supervised.
    Hmmm, I’m not actualy sure I agree with this now. I might go change the lyrics.

  16. Hi Ken,
    Judging from the email left in comment #15, I’m skeptical that it is really Paul Banks (lead singer / song-writer of Interpol)… It appears to be a clever/humorous ‘interpolation’ (pun intended) of some of the lyrics from one of their songs called ‘Pioneer to the Falls’… Interesting, because I don’t think they are a ‘christian’ band or anything…
    -d-

  17. Ken,
    Well I’ll let dictionary.com answer that question.

    “su·per·vise
    –verb (used with object), -vised, -vis·ing. to oversee (a process, work, workers, etc.) during execution or performance; superintend; have the oversight and direction of.”

    I don’t fully agree with dictionary.com though.
    The writers seem to be approaching the issue from a sort of biased perspective. Firstly, I’d like to argue that it’s not ‘Su-per-vise’, but rather ‘Sup-erv-ise’. A small but significant mistake when taking into account the historical context of the word.

    Secondly, in the last line of the word description they seem to have misspelled the word ‘hand’, Leaving out the letter ‘h’, so now the sentance reads “have the oversight AND direction of.” This subsequently leads me to believe that not only does ‘supervision’ mean to have oversight but now!(according to dictionary.com)it also means to have ‘direction’ of. Which is obviosuly preposterous.

    Now, here’s my take on the issue(your question)…

    SUPERVISION ROCKS!

    Seriosuly, if there is no supervision we should just go and kill everyone and eat all the cakes.
    So I think it’s time we all gave something new a try. Cause there’s no I in supervse.

  18. Hi ‘Paul Banks’…

    I laughed nearly uncontrollably at this!

    I’m going to leave these comments sheerly because of their random humour…

    Cheers,

    -d-

  19. I don’t understand the comments (and I have no idea who Paul Banks is, or was).

    But, isn’t this a problem: “Seriosuly, if there is no supervision we should just go and kill everyone and eat all the cakes.”

    Seriously, an anyone believe that these days?

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