Science, Faith and First Principles: A Response

Opinion article on people’s attitute towards science by Michael P. Lynch, professor of philosophy at the University of Connecticut, and Associate Fellow of the Northern Institute of Philosophy, University of Aberdeen.

Does everything — even science — come down to faith?

This is a common, recurring thought in our culture. But its very persistence can seem a bit mysterious. After all, taken one way, it is easy to answer. “Science” isn’t a name for a collection of beliefs. It names a collection of methods for acquiring beliefs — methods that involve logic, observation and experiment. It is these methods that distinguish science, not doctrine. So in that sense, science is clearly not a faith — it isn’t a religion.

Nonetheless, the thought that science may still be based on something like faith remains. And there is a reason it hangs around. Like so many nagging questions, the idea that science is not free from faith contains a grain of truth.

In an earlier post, “Reasons for Reasons,” I noted that even science has its first principles. These principles — call them epistemic principles — tell us what methods and sources to trust. They are fundamental (“first”) precisely because you can’t defend them without relying on them. (Try giving a good argument for why logic is reliable that doesn’t use logic.) As some of the comments on that post reveal, the fact that it is difficult to defend first epistemic principles is what causes many people to think that even science is based on faith. Defending the principles of science by relying on them seems like no defense at all. So, some conclude, reasons run out and faith takes over.

This reaction is understandable. But it rests on a mistake. It is right that we can’t give epistemic reasons — evidence — for those fundamental principles that tell us what evidence to trust. But that doesn’t mean we can’t give reasons for those principles at all. Indeed, we had better. As I argued in the first post, dogmatism, or conviction without reason, is the enemy of the democratic enterprise.  But the reasons we give can’t involve further appeals to methods for belief. We can’t give epistemic reasons for epistemic first principles. We have to give reasons of a different sort.

But what sort of reasons? A number of readers of that post suggested that the methods and principles of science are superior simply because they are more useful. It is only by relying on them that we can build bridges, cure diseases and so on. And of course that is correct. But this point alone won’t answer the skeptics about reason. First, skeptics about scientific reason are rarely if ever skeptical about it across the board. Their quarrel is with its use in certain domains. They aren’t going to say that we should never use observation, logic and experiment to figure things out. What they will argue is that these methods have a lower priority in some subjects than others. In some domains, other methods — such as consultation of sacred texts — trump.

Nonetheless, appealing to the utility of science is a good start: it is the right sort of reason, even if it is, by itself, insufficient. Even if we can’t give epistemic reasons for epistemic first principles, we can give what philosophers sometimes call practical reasons for employing the methods of science, and therefore for committing to the principles that give them more weight than others.

Here’s one example of what I have in mind. Scientific principles of rationality have certain democratic virtues that many of their rivals lack. One of the virtues of scientific rationality is that it privileges principles that — as we in fact just noted — everyone appeals to most of the time — just because we are built that way. Of course the fact that people can’t help but use methods like observation and logic doesn’t prove that those methods are always more reliable than others, or even reliable at all. (Just as the fact that people thought the earth was flat doesn’t mean it was). But it does mean that principles which privilege these methods — which give them more weight than others, no matter what the question — have an obvious virtue: they recommend methods that aren’t secret or the province of a few. They recommend methods that everyone can and does use. Indeed, it is this very virtue of scientific methods that was so celebrated in the Enlightenment. Prioritizing scientific methods is liberating precisely because it frees one from appeals to authority, from the thought that something is true because some person, religious tradition, or political party, says so.

But isn’t it just a matter of opinion that scientific methods are open and democratic in this way? Do we have any real reasons — other than personal preference — for thinking this is the case? I think we do. Here’s a brief thought experiment that makes the point. Imagine playing a game the point of which is to figure out, together with other players, what epistemic principles and methods to privilege on another world (call it Parallel Earth). Principles are privileged on Parallel Earth, let’s imagine, when they are taught in the schools, used to make decisions about grants and the like. In playing the game, you know that Parallel Earth will appear to be just like our planet. And you also know you will live on Parallel Earth after the game ends. But you don’t know two important facts: when playing the game, you don’t know what social and educational position you’ll occupy on Parallel Earth. And you don’t know what methods are going to be reliable on Parallel Earth. But you have to decide which methods to privilege on Parallel Earth anyway.

So how are you going to decide? Since, in playing the game, you don’t know which methods are actually going to be reliable (or if any will be), you can’t base your decisions on which methods we think will produce the truth. That’s out of bounds as far as the game is concerned. And yet since you also don’t know your future social position, it is unlikely you’ll decide on methods that would only be available to a few, or which would allow some people to have secret knowledge that no one else could ever obtain.  After all, you might not turn out to be a member of the inner circle.  Given the rules, it will make sense to endorse methods that build on abilities that everyone — just by being human — can appeal to. Methods that build on common experience are by nature non-secret, open to public revision and capable of being used repeatedly. That alone gives us a practical reason to privilege them, to give them more weight — independently of the question of whether they are reliable.

Of course, it would take more work to show in detail that scientific principles and methods would turn out to have more of these democratic virtues than other, competing principles. But it seems very likely that they do. And if so, we have an objective reason for favoring scientific principles of rationality over others — a reason that could be accepted no matter what your prior epistemic commitments. The first principles of science give weight to methods like observation and experiment. Because of their open public nature, they are the sorts of principles we would commit to even were we to abstract from their truth. These are the principles we would favor in an ideal state of social and epistemic equality.  As such, our faith in them — our faith in reason, as it were — is not blind. It is an expression of our commitment to democracy itself.

Source: New York Times, November 2011

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