How do we really know what is real and true? Increasingly, people are of the belief that science is the only sure way of knowing what’s what. “Follow the science…” and “You can’t argue with science…” we are told, as if it is the one fool-proof guide toward certain knowledge. But is this necessarily so?
First of all, contrary to those clever, colorful yard signs peppering progressives’ homes, no one really doubts that science is real. No one. We all drive cars, refrigerate our food, visit the doctor when sick, are big fans of hospitals, and understand that planes and computers are not magic. We all admit we rely on science.
But this certainly does not mean that science is the only way of knowing what is true. This belief is actually a faith called “scientism” and interestingly, leading science writers are admitting that some of their peers are going a bit too far with it.
One such writer is Dr. Adam Frank, a professor of astrophysics at the University of Rochester and a self-avowed “evangelist of science.” Writing recently at Big Think, a leading online journal where scientists explore the wonder of the scientific method, Frank wants his readers to know that “vigorously defending science does not mean defending scientism.” These are two very different things. Good science embraces one and rejects the other. In fact, Professor Frank holds “scientism is a huge mistake.” He explains its biggest mistake is being “confused about what it’s defending” adding, “Scientism claims to be the only philosophy that can speak for science, but that is simply not the case. There are lots of philosophies of science out there.”
This does not call us to be doubtful about science. Not at all. But it does, in a healthy way, call us to recognize the limits of science, even as we celebrate its tremendous successes. An article in Big Think earlier this year humbly admitted that given all of its tremendous advances, “science still can’t answer the biggest – and arguably, most important – questions of life.” They point out that science is largely useless in answering questions such as…
- Does your family really love you?
- Why is love preferrable over hate?
- Is the Mona Lisa beautiful?
- Why do we enjoy laughing?
- What is the purpose of life?
- Are you having a good day?
They are correct, admitting “Love, beauty, purpose — science has nothing substantive to say about any of these. Yet, they are the driving forces behind most human behavior.”
They add that other forms of knowledge are indeed wholly legit and do things that science cannot, “While science is largely silent on topics like love, beauty, and purpose, philosophy (as well as religion) has plenty to say. The most meaningful understanding of reality — and therefore, our best attempt to grasp the truth — will happen only when science and philosophy unite.” And religion certainly has something to say about these big questions as well. Religion, philosophy and science all work in tandem to help humans explore and understand what is really real.
Michael Strevens, a leading philosopher of science holds in his recent book, The Knowledge Machine: How Irrationality Created Modern Science, that “The heart of scientific logic is a human heart.” This is unavoidable because science is a human pursuit. And thus, it too, is vulnerable and gets things both right and wrong. Just like religion and philosophy.
It is good that scientists are developing some important humility about the limitations of their own discipline, even as they celebrate its wonders. The pursuit of truth requires many tools.
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