Science is not the only way

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The study of the natural sciences has led to some fascinating and, quite frankly, amazing discoveries over the centuries. Without the developments of science, we would not be able to heal people anywhere near as effectively as we can today, and we would not have access to the wonders of the universe in the way that we do if we simple type www.hubblesite.org into the bar at the top of our web browser. I want to make it clear before I go any further that I do not have anything against the study of natural sciences. What I also want to make clear is that I do have an issue with the belief that science is the only way we can understand the world around us.

The media loves science. Look at the prominence of people like Richard Dawkins, Brian Cox, Dara O’Briain and Stephen Hawking. They are all scientists, all widely known and all given a lot of space by the media to teach us things. This is all well and good, but daily we are fed the idea that the type of knowledge they teach is the only way we can get to grips with the world around us.

What is the knowledge? I’m no scientist, but I’ve seen and read enough to be reasonably confident in asserting that scientific knowledge is based on (or should be based on) empirical research as far as possible. I’ll let the words of someone who is qualified explain further: according to the scientific historian, Karl Popper, scientific research is carried out largely by the principle of falsification. For example, a scientist will propose a hypothesis, say, ‘nitrogen gas becomes a liquid at -196°C’. The scientific community then tests this and, if the tests confirm the hypothesis, the hypothesis becomes a theory and is accepted as the way things happen. However, should it ever transpire that nitrogen can liquefy at any other temperature, a new hypothesis would have to be thought up and tested. Does this make sense?

All well and good, you may be thinking. But this is not the only way. Postmodernists argue that scientific knowledge is just one form of knowledge and that there are other ways of knowing things. Groups such as interpretivistic sociologists (people who find out things about society by asking for people’s opinions) and social psychologists (people who examine other people’s behaviour in order to look at how society works for individuals) would not always use empirical methods. Interpretivists would reject their use altogether. Does this make their research rubbish? Actually, some people think so. Within sociology as a field, there is one group (positivists – derived from the French word for ‘empirical’) who want sociology to be conducted in a strictly objective, empirical way, so as to be accepted into the larger scientific community. To the positivist, the interpretivists’ methods are useless.

In fact, another scientific historian, Thomas Kuhn, argues that science as a discipline is not as open a system as some people would like to think. Karl Popper (the falsification guy) believes that science is an open system, able to take on board and test any new evidence in order to remain correct. Kuhn, on the other hand, argues that scientists operate in paradigms – accepted ways of doing things that are only ever changed in major scientific revolutions, such as the discovery of quantum physics. According to Kuhn, science is actually very resistant to change and people who challenge the paradigm are often discredited and cut off from the scientific community. I’ve noticed first hand that people who put their faith in science tend to look down on disciplines like sociology. I believe that this is because some forms of sociology challenge the way that the sciences look at the world and that doesn’t work with the existing scientific paradigms.

As an example of science as a closed system, have a read of this, from my Sociology textbook: In 1950, Immanuel Velikovsky published Worlds in Collision, in which he put forward a new theory for the origins of the earth. Velikovsky’s theory challenged some of the most fundamental assumptions of geology, astrology and evolutionary biology. The response from the scientific community was far from the ‘open’ one advocated by Popper. Instead of putting the new theory to the test to see if it explained the observed facts, scientists rushed to reject it out of hand – without even having read the book. A boycott of Velikovsky’s publisher was organised. Scientists who called for a fair hearing and for the theory to be put to the test were victimised and some even lost their jobs.

I’ll be frank; the title of this post shows you where I stand on this matter. As a Christian, I find it easy to accept that science is not the only way. This is mostly because I believe that God exists, and God cannot be tested empirically or be proven in any sort of scientific way. Some people will think I’m stupid for thinking like this, and to those people I ask this: what makes you so sure that you’re right? The belief that empirical rationalism is the best (or only) way to think is a product of the Enlightenment. Am I so stupid for putting my faith in the words of a God (a God that I am fully convinced exists) as opposed to trusting solely in what a group of scholars thought at the turn of the 20th century? You can decide that for yourself.

By writing this, I’m trying to demonstrate that science does not have to be the only way we look at the world, that there are other ways of seeing things. To any Christians out there, I’m afraid that by believing in a meta-physical God, you’re putting your faith outside the realm of science, and to anyone who believes that science is the only way, I respectfully ask you to consider why you believe that, because it’s not the only option out there.

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