Thoughts on Nature’s essay: "We cannot live by scepticism alone"

In this week’s issue of Nature, Professor Harry Collins, Director of the of Centre for the Study of Knowledge Expertise Science at Cardiff University publishes an essay entitled: “We cannot live by scepticism alone”.

In a refreshing way, Prof Collins gives a background to the way that social sciences have perceived the scientific world: First by regarding Science as the ultimate form of knowledge, and secondly with skepticism. He then moves on to propose a new model of understanding the impact of Science on today’s societies – a model which he calls “elective modernism”, as opposed to the current trend of POST-modernism that influences much of Western thinking today.

He writes: We must choose, or ‘elect’, to put the values that underpin scientific thinking back in the centre of our world; we must replace post-modernism with ‘elective modernism’. To support this, social scientists must work out what is right about science, not just what is wrong — we cannot live by scepticism alone. Natural scientists, too, have a part to play: they must reflect on and recognize the limits of their practice and their understanding. Together, we must choose to live in a society that recognizes the value of experience and expertise.

The primary drive of this proposal seems to be a growing misunderstanding of the limitations of Science, especially by scientists who virtually deny that those limitations actually exist because of their a priori postulation that the natural world is all that there is.

Writing about the Big War between scientists and social constructivists in the 1990’s, Collins writes: The conclusions of most of us were moderate: science could not deliver the absolute certainties of religion or morality, and scientists were not priests but rather skilful artisans, reaching towards universal truths but inevitably falling short. Far from being anti-science, we were trying to safeguard science against the danger of claiming more than it could deliver. If science presents itself as revealed truth it will inevitably disappoint, inviting a dangerous reaction; even the most talented craftsmen have their off-days, whereas a god must never fail. (my emphasis).

Prof Collins’ point is to encourage scientists to take and promote the fact the science is, by definition, limited. He wants scientists to be realistic and “teach fallibility” to a society that increasingly bestows upon them the role of moral leadership because it is also increasingly discarding and relativising its own ethical and moral standards.

Another quote: “If we are to choose the values that underpin scientific thinking to underpin society, scientists must think of themselves as moral leaders. But they must teach fallibility, not absolute truth. Whenever a scientist, acting in the name of science, cheats, cynically manipulates, claims to speak with the voice of capitalism, the voice of a god, or even the voice of a doctrinaire atheist, it diminishes not only science but the whole of our society.”

But, sadly, that’s as far as Prof Collins will go: Science is uncertain, but it might be all we have. We can’t be skeptical about it every time it doesn’t flow with Popper’s falsifiability standard (e.g.Joseph Weber’s gravitational waves in the 1960’s) but in the same time, we can’t grant it powers of divine and absolute revelation. Still, we must encourage it to take the reins of modern society – but always under the shield of open debate.

Towards the end, Prof Collins praises scientific discovery over “religion’s revealed truths” and claims that it is better grounding for the structural basis of society – so long as Science does not propagate delusions of certainty.

Reading this essay, I think it’s obvious that Prof Collins is not religious in any way. I would also dare to disagree with his proposition of a purely scientific society on the grounds that a) given his admitted uncertainty of science, it would ultimately produce a narrow and jelly-like foundation that, in the possibility of overturn would leave only destructive anarchy behind it with nothing to fall back on; b) it would illogically and unnecessarily close off the exploration of non-scientific dimensions, and c) it would turn scientific expertise from a noble goal into an unprecedented and unchallenged global political power-play with far-reaching repercussions.

Having said that, I do applaud Prof Collins for bringing the issue of scientific uncertainty into such sharp relief. And those of us who are Christians should take note, especially in an increasingly secularised world that wants the Christian worldview out of the public forum ASAP on the grounds that it has no validity in light of contemporary scientific progress. Strange, considering that it was that Christian worldview in the first place that, at least in the West, gave birth and sustenance to the scientific process.

"A priori": a little philosophy of big things

These days, while delving in the world of logic and apologetics with the inimitable Ronald Nash, I’ve suddenly become aware of a principle that we’d all do well to pay attention to.

Actually, it’s been sitting at the back of my mind for a while, but a recent series of unconnected experiences have yanked it out of there and dangled it before my eyes:

A priori.

What?

It’s Latin. Some might have come across it, some might have come across it by some other name (think Marcus Aurelius), and some others are already yawning and about to click back to Facebook. But the reality is that we all use “a priori” – virtually every day of our waking lives.

A priori literally means “before the fact”. In terms of thinking (aka “philosophy”) it is defined along the lines of “knowledge apart from sense experience” or “a presupposition”. In human words, “something we know without needing to prove or justify”.

But I won’t bore you with philosophical structures and terms, even though they have a tremendous impact in how we see the world, whether we acknowledge it or not. What I want to point out, briefly, is how often we embark upon a journey of thinking, debating and even outright fanaticism on the basis of something we have assumed, without asking first whether or not that assumption is logical, true, correct, right or even helpful.

Don’t get me wrong; I haven’t become a postmodern suddenly. I’m not saying that there is no a priori knowledge; 1+1 equals 2 and that’s the end of that. But even for us common mortals who don’t get paid to spend our working life theorizing under a tree (but respect those who do), there is a huge implication.

Example: Here is a nice fella who today is celebrating C.R. Darwin’s 200th birthday (and you thought I wasn’t going to say anything about it). He accepts the Theory without quibbles and is dutifully suspicious of all those religious nuts who dare to cast Dark-Ages skepticism on it. To him, evolution makes sense; it nicely fits those weird things we dig up every now and again; it explains the variety of life forms that abound on the planet today, how species adapt, why there is apparent imperfection and even uselessness in many organisms and finally, the time-scale matches star distances, geological formations and development and the data from dating studies.

So, on his way to the Evolution Dinner, someone stops our friend and asks him: “Do you believe that there is a God?” And even though his stomach’s grumbling, he takes time to think about it. “Well”, he says finally, “no, I don’t.”

“Why not?” asks the other guy.

“Because we don’t need God.”

“Come again?”

“Well”, says our friend, warming up to the subject, “natural laws are enough to explain everything in the world. There’s no need for miracles, for divine intervention – even for a Creator sustaining the world. The universe is all that there is, has been, and ever will be.”

“Are you – are you trying to do a Carl Sagan impression?”

“Heh. But the point is this: Since everything in the world can be explained by natural processes, why do we need to pile on the logically unnecessary burden of a Divine Creator? Now, if you’ll excuse me, I just have to try that protozoa dish.”

What do we have here? A fictional, albeit surprisingly common conversation that reflects a popular line of reasoning, which in turn is based on a priori naturalism. Translation: our hungry friend begins with the assumption (aka ‘presupposition’) that the world is confined within the natural box, that nothing super-natural exists outside that box, and therefore everything must be explained only by naturalistic processes; and evolution is the best fitting model.

Question: How does he prove that first assumption? Through a scientific experiment? No, because that would be limited to the natural world. How then?

Answer: He can’t. Seriously. But that doesn’t stop him from effortlessly making the leap from “evolution” to “atheism”, even though his reasons are not philosophically adequate.

Now, I know I have oversimplified this particular issue and I’ll get lots of the usual hate mail from angry readers who will accuse me of making straw-men arguments. That’s not my intention. My intention is to encourage us to examine our beliefs on ANYTHING and ask whether or not they are based on assumptions and presuppositions that we might personally like but that do not necessarily qualify as a priori. We might find that while we accuse others of close-mindedness and fanaticism, we are unintentionally guilty of the same.

And yes, I am still a Christian:

God, who at various times and in various ways spoke in time past to the fathers by the prophets, has in these last days spoken to us by His Son, whom He has appointed heir of all things, through whom also He made the worlds – Heb. 1:1-2

Box of soap/lifeline

Well, believe it or not, I’m still sick. At least now the flu has moved from my head and nose to my lungs. So, all that’s left is a nasty but irregular cough. Doesn’t help that I’ve been working every day of course…

What a week this has been. A lot has happened, and it has given me plenty of food for thought. Which is good, because I was getting sick of chicken soup every day.

Mostly, a series of events have reminded me how important it is to set priorities in life. The world today has become so demanding that –

– wait. We know all that. Don’t you have anything better to write about than another Carpe Diem tripe? After all, the Dead Poets are dead.

Okay, I do. About a million years ago I found myself at my first University’s cafeteria, philosophising with someone who fancied himself a nihilist/antireligious/open thinker/cynic/atheist. And I love people like that because I was once one of them. And I remember saying that, for so many people, life is no more than mere survival: Work to make money to buy things to live to work to make money to live to work to…

“Must be depressing”, I said.

That’s when he got up and stormed away.

I love people like that.

But then I look around me and see it everywhere: Boredom. According to Baudelaire and his “Flowers of Evil”, it’s mankind’s worse monster. We live dull, grey, listless and comatose lives and we will try anything to resuscitate them, to bring back that little blip of a heartbeat. And when we do, when that line blips a little, we ‘ll do anything to keep it going.

And how many substitutes we find…

You don’t believe me? Look around you: Christmas is the best time to see it. Everyone complains about how expensive it has become, about how it has lost its meaning, about how stressful it is. And you know? They’re right. Then why do it?

It’s The Blip. It’s that substitute for life.

What’s yours?

People complain about their jobs, their parents, their kids, their spouses, their finances, their lovelives, their relationships, their holidays, their taxes, their education, their rights, their socialising, their cars, their houses, their friends, their colleagues, their bosses, their employees, their government, their LIFE. We’ve all been there.

But would we rather be dead?

Yes – you read that right.

It’s The Blip.

When I was about ten, I nearly lost my life. Then it happened again. And then again. The fourth time, I knew I had to learn something before it was too late. And I learned – I learned that we’ve got it all wrong. We think that happiness is something that the World owes us, when in reality, real happiness has nothing to do with this broken world.

Life, friends, is a gift. A gift from God. And if you don’t believe me, ask yourself why you find suicide wrong. Ask yourself why you’ve clawed and fought and crawled and bit your way here. Ask yourself why you hold it so dear, so close, so tight. Because it’s a gift, and if we learn anything this season, it’s that gifts are given for a purpose. And if life is a gift from God, then a life that has nothing to do with Him is as empty as a teen popstar’s head.

Seize the Day? Forget that. Seize your Life, and not in the cheesy self-help way. Burn that clutter that keeps you from breathing, the rubbish that this world is filled with. Am I preaching? Yeah, I am. Because in the end, when all the lights go off, you and I will have to weigh it all on the only scale that doesn’t lie. And I don’t know about you, but I want it to tip over my side. I want what I’ve done, thought, said, willed and achieved to mean something – if not to this blind world, then to God who put me and you and every single one of our moments here. As a gift, with a purpose and a reason.

Yeah, ok – burn me at the stake. That’s what it’s there for.

Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter:
Fear God and keep His commandments,
For this is man’s all.
For God will bring every work into judgment,
Including every secret thing,
Whether good or evil. – Ecclesiastes 12:13-14