Monday, July 13, 2015

The Impoverishment of Believing Only in Science

University of Michigan Law School Library

A philosophy student of mine - let's call her X - confessed this to me. She said, "I don't believe in religion. I only believe in science."

How sad, I thought. How impoverished. How limited.

Do I "believe in science?" One must be cautious here. The history of science is, among other things, the history of error. (See, e.g., Thomas Kuhn's classic The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.) 

I am interested in science, and have been since I was a child. I was going to be a scientist. I was a math-science student in high school. I went to college as an engineeering major. I like math and science. To this very day I read as much science on the side as I am able. I'm currently immersed in physicist Frank Close's book Particle Physics. And I just finished particle physicist Brian Cox's The Quantum Universe. I find all this fascinating and interesting!

And limited. Because, as Harvard evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould knew, you cannot derive 'ought' from 'is." From sheer physical reality (matter, the subject of science) you cannot arrive at value. Science qua awesome science says nothing about good, evil, right, wrong, beautiful, and true. Yes, as philosophers of science know, "truth" is not some material property that can be weighed, measured, and quantified. (Note: Sam Harris, in his failed attempt to derive value from science, commits "the naturalistic fallacy," which is: attempting to draw conclusions concerning what we ought to do (normative conclusions) directly from premises that are purely factual, or scientific, or value-free (purely descriptive premises). See here, e.g.)  

(Note: An empirical statement often serves as a premise in a moral argument, but from an empirical statement one cannot derive a moral conclusion. There must be, in a moral argument, a moral claim, which is, precisely, a non-empirical judgment. On this see Lewis Vaughn's chapter on applying logic to moral reasoning in The Power of Critical Thinking.)

X had never thought of this. She wants to talk about value. To do so meaningfully she will have to leave her naive material realism. X will have to understand the limits of science and that, as amazing its discoveries are, there is an entire majisterium of value and meaning about which science essentially remains silent.