Written by Jason Petersen
Note: This is an older article from 2014 that was transferred over to this website.
This article will go over some of the issues concerning science, Christianity, and the philosophy of science known as Operationalism. This article is not meant to be comprehensive, rather, it is to give an overview of the relationship between science, Christianity, and operationalism. Other articles will be published in the future that will go into the issues discussed in more detail.
The Secularist View of Science
Today, it is often insinuated by humanists, the media, atheists, and even some Christians, that science is the ultimate arbiter of truth. There is a meme that is often passed around by atheists and other advocates of this view of science:
This view of science that Tyson advocates is an ignorant but common attitude that has resonated in European and Western culture. Many of the proponents of this view might say, “Well, science has given us a myriad of things. Because of science, we have computers, the internet, cars, easy access to food, etc.” This is, of course, true. Science has certainly proven to be a useful and fruitful enterprise. Of course, usefulness does not equate to truth. There have been a myriad of useful models in science that turned out to be false. This will be discussed later in the article. Suffice it to say, however, that the public’s view of science is one of ignorance. The new atheists, humanists, and secularists have been arguing and loudly proclaiming that science is the standard by which all truth is weighed against. Some may not go as far to say that science is the only way to achieve knowledge of the truth, but many will adamantly and confidently state that all things should be weighed against science:
The Consensus-Academic View of Science:
Anyone who has taken a philosophy of science class has hopefully been taught the limitations of science. The Indiana University has a web lesson online that talks about some of the limitations of science. A few of the relevant points will be listed here[acp footnote]1[/acp]:
1. Science is not a process that can solve all kinds of problems and questions.
The realm of science is limited strictly to solving problems about the natural world. Science is not properly equipped to handle the supernatural realm (as such), nor the realm of values and ethics.
3. It’s not a process that seeks the truth or facts.
The goal of science is to come as close as we can to understanding the cause-effect realities of the natural world. It’s never “truth” or “facts”. “Truth” and “facts” can mean different things to different people.
5. It’s not a process that can produce any kind of explanation.
Scientific explanations must be potentially disprovable. Therefore, supernatural explanations cannot be used, since they can never be disproved (supernatural forces, by definition, do not predictably follow the laws of nature). Whatever results occur in any test can be attributed to those nebulous forces, effectively ending any further efforts to explain.
6. It’s not a process that produces certainties, or absolute facts.
Science is a process which can only produce “possible” to “highly probable” explanations for natural phenomena; these are never certainties. With new information, tools, or approaches, earlier findings (theories, or even facts) can be replaced by new findings.
7. It’s not a process that can always be relied upon due to its total objectivity and internal self-correction.
Science can be done poorly, just like any other human endeavor. We are all fallible, some of us make fewer mistakes than others, some observe better than others, but we are still subjective in the end. Internal self-correction mechanisms in science merely increase the reliability of its product.
The author does not fully agree with every point made on the website, however, it does speak to the ignorance of some individuals, such as Tyson, on the scope of science. There are other papers and university websites that say the same sort of things that the University of Indiana does. In short, anyone that understands science will understand that science is not truth, and that it cannot produce certainty.
Implications of the Consensus-Academic View of Science
Let us go point by point at the implications of the philosophy of science, as given by Indiana University’s website:
1. Not all claims can be resolved by science. Thus, people like Hitchens and Tyson are incorrect when they say that everything must be weighed against science.
3. Science is the study of the cause-effect realities of the natural world. It’s not “truth” or “facts” in the absolute sense. The goal of science is to have as accurate of an explanation of these facts as possible. Thus, science is not truth, rather, it’s an approximation of the truth.
5. Scientific explanations must be falsifiable. Super natural explanations may not be used because they are not empirically falsifiable. Thus, when an atheist says that science shows The Bible is wrong in some area, they are committing a category error. Because of the nature of science, science by definition cannot disprove Christianity or any of the claims of scripture.
6. Science does not produce certainties or absolute facts. Even what some may think to be the most established theories in science are subject to question. This, despite the athiest’s contrary proclamations, includes evolution.
7. The scientific process is corruptible. There can be mistakes, and there are biases. In fact, there was a study that demonstrated that the peer-review process is not quite as rigorous as secularists and atheists would readily admit. In early 2014, nature.com released an article that stated that at least 120 peer-reviewed papers were removed from some prominent journals.[acp footnote]2[/acp] The papers were removed because the papers were computer generated. The computer generated papers were nonsensical banter that was constructed using very complex terminology.
Thus, we can see from these points that advocates of the “science is truth” movement such as Tyson and the late Hitchens have philosophies that do not square well with even the secular-academic views of science.
Implications on Truth and Epistemology
Given that science isn’t truth, one might ask, how can science lead to truth? And if science is not truth, then how can any conclusion reached by the scientific method be considered justified-true belief? Surely, something cannot be justified-true belief if the method in which that truth was founded upon cannot produce truth in the first place. What good is an approximation of truth if the truth that is being approximated is unknown? Surely, an approximation of the truth cannot be truth. After all, something that is not completely true cannot be considered to be truth. According to the law of contradiction, two contrary propositions cannot be true at the same time. Therefore, that which is false cannot be true. Thus, it is obvious that science can lead to no truth whatsoever.
The definition of knowledge is hotly debated in philosophy. There are a host of disagreements about the definition of knowledge and the nature of it. In this article, let knowledge be defined as facts or information that are justifiably known to be true. Following from this definition, science cannot produce knowledge because science must by necessity be skeptical of every claim. Thus, since science is not truth and cannot lead to truth, then science cannot lead to knowledge either. Thus, science must always be false.
Implications of Science Concerning Christianity and the Supernatural
If science cannot lead to truth or knowledge, then what threat is it to Christianity? Logically speaking, science, by definition, cannot be a threat to Christianity. If science cannot lead to truth or knowledge, then science cannot logically poise a challenge to Christianity. Science is also unable to empirically investigate the supernatural, because the supernatural does not abide by the limitations of nature. Thus, science can’t challenge the supernatural. If anyone proposes that science is truth, can lead to knowledge, and is able to investigate the super natural, then they are not advocating science, rather, they are advocating pseudo-science. Indeed, any individual that tries to amend the skeptical tendencies of science is a great danger to the usefulness of the scientific method.
An atheist named James Randi has a website that lists a one million dollar challenge to prove the supernatural[acp footnote]3[/acp]:
The Foundation is committed to providing reliable information about paranormal claims. It both supports and conducts original research into such claims.
At JREF, we offer a one-million-dollar prize to anyone who can show, under proper observing conditions, evidence of any paranormal, supernatural, or occult power or event. The JREF does not involve itself in the testing procedure, other than helping to design the protocol and approving the conditions under which a test will take place. All tests are designed with the participation and approval of the applicant. In most cases, the applicant will be asked to perform a relatively simple preliminary test of the claim, which if successful, will be followed by the formal test. Preliminary tests are usually conducted by associates of the JREF at the site where the applicant lives. Upon success in the preliminary testing process, the “applicant” becomes a “claimant.”
To date, no one has passed the preliminary tests.
The method that is used by Randi is the scientific method. However, as we covered before, science, by definition, cannot speak on the supernatural. Also, science is unable to produce truth or knowledge. Since Randi is a proponent of this kind of testing on the supernatural, then that certainly makes Randi an advocate of pseudoscience. Such an implication would be quite damaging to any atheist that brings up James Randi’s challenge to a Christian. Instead of arguing about whether or not the supernatural exists, all the Christian must do is show that science is not in a place to challenge the supernatural or Christianity. If the atheist objects to such a statement, the Christian need only explain the nature and limitations of science, and the Christian can also explain that trying to take science outside of its scope is an exercise in pseudoscience. If the atheist continues to object, repeatedly point out the mistake every time the atheist uses science outside of its scope.
Science is Not Logical
Science is an enterprise that is, while useful, not logical. This is the case for two primary reasons:
1. Science commits the fallacy of asserting/affirming the consequent.
Asserting the consequent is considered a logical fallacy because the hypothetical consequence occurring does not necessarily validate the hypothesis. Asserting the consequent is a logical fallacy that follows this formula:
A. If P, then Q.
C. Therefore, P
Take this example for instance:
A. If the cookie is made of sugar(P), the cookie is sweet.(Q)
B. The cookie is sweet.(Q)
C. Therefore, the cookie is made of sugar.(P)
What about another empirical observation? Surely science can logically prove the most obvious facts, such as rain making the road wet:
A. If it is raining(P), then the road is wet.(Q)
B. The road is wet.(Q)
C. Therefore, it is raining.(P)
Thus, empirical observations and the scientific method commits the fallacy of asserting the consequent. Logical fallacies are called fallacies because they are mistakes in reasoning. Since all scientific observations and experiments commit this fallacy, science cannot be logical. The proclamation that atheists regularly make, “science and reason” is a self contradiction. Science cannot be a reasonable means of obtaining truth if science is logically fallacious.
2. Science uses induction.
Induction is the process of reasoning from specific propositions to more generalized propositions. Inductive arguments allow for the conclusion to be false even if the premises lead up to the conclusion are true. For example:
1. All of the ducks we have seen are yellow.
2. Therefore, all ducks are yellow.
I have no doubt that all readers are aware that not all ducks are yellow. While it is true that the observer only saw yellow ducks, the conclusion is still false. Typically, inductive arguments are referred to as “strong” or “weak” inductive arguments. The same can be said for the process of induction itself. The strength of the inductive inference is measured by how probable the inference is. Thus, induction is probabilistic in nature, not absolute. From this fact, it is also can be, by good consequence, deduced that induction is an approximation of truth.
The reader might recall some of the observations made concerning science and the nature of truth earlier in this article. Earlier, it was demonstrated that an approximation of the truth cannot be truth. An approximation of the truth can only be false. Thus, induction is always false.
Another issue that is a fallacy known as begging the question. This is where a proposition(that is not axiomatic) can only be justified by appealing to the proposition. Any argument given to justify induction leading to knowledge will be an inductive argument. Of course, inductive arguments use induction. Therefore, induction is logically fallacious. If induction is fallacious, then induction is not logical.
Thus, we can conclude based on the two points given that science and reason do not go hand in hand as the atheists claim. Rather, obtaining knowledge from science is irrational.
A Christian might feel concerned after reading up to this portion of the article. After all, Christians use induction and science every day. Do we not expect the sun to rise every morning? Do we not use our cars to go to and fro? Are we irrational for using science and induction? The Christian need not be concerned, because scripture gives us justification for using these processes.
Operationalism is a view of science that acknowledges that science, by its own merits, cannot produce truth or knowledge; however, operationalism does recognize that science is useful. After all, science has helped produce ideas that have lead to inventions such a cars, computers, phones, planes, etc. Science’s success involves the manipulation of nature for our benefit. The operationalist view is that science should be used for pragmatic purposes despite the fact that it doesn’t ultimately lead to knowledge.
Operationalism and Implications on Christianity
Christians are able to hold to a view such as operationalism because The Bible teaches us about nature being uniform.(Genesis 8:22, Jeremiah 31:35-37) This gives us justification for using induction and the scientific method for pragmatic purposes. Since The Bible teaches that nature is uniform, we have logical justification for believing that the ideas behind devices such as computers, phones, cars, etc. will remain useful and produce beneficial results. Thus, justification for science and induction are deducible from scripture. This means that Christians are able to avoid the problem of induction and asserting the consequent by appealing to a top-down epistemological, deductive, justification from scripture.
Certainly, if scripture is true, science will inevitably reach some conclusions that are true; however, the truth that science does reach will not be able to be validated by the scientific method, because science is naturally skeptical of every conclusion that is reached. Thus, the Christian’s knowledge concerning nature should not come from science itself, but rather, from scripture and what is deducible from scripture.
Operationalism and Implications on Atheism
Unfortunately for atheists, the only justification they would have for being an operationalist would come from the very same processes that they have deemed to be fallacious. If induction and asserting the consequent is fallacious and can’t lead to knowledge, then how could the atheist then turn around and say, “We can be justified in knowing that the principles of science that are useful will remain useful in the future”? Is that not utilizing the same process of induction that operationalists have repudiated in the first place? Thus, atheists have no justification for being operationalists.
Are Operationalists Anti Science?
One objection to operationalism can be easily anticipated. A number of people that are entrenched in their view of science leading to truth may call someone who says that science cannot lead to truth “anti science.” Well, there are numerous approaches one could take to addressing such an objection. On one hand, someone can repeatedly point out how science, by it’s nature, cannot lead to truth or knowledge. Such an approach would certainly make the objector look to be a fool. It may be worth pointing out, however, that while some objectors are against operationalism, they are actually operationalists in principle. One need only to look to the history of science to point this out.
In the days of ancient philosophy, numerous issues were being dealt with by philosophers. The problem of motion, the problem of causation, the problem of induction, asserting the consequent, etc. were issues that philosophers were trying to tackle in order to justify science. Many of these issues, in the author’s opinion, are still unsolved today. The reasons why will not be elaborated on here. However, anyone who acknowledges that these problems are unsolved(or perhaps anyone that doesn’t care about the problems) is an operationalist in practice when they press on with the scientific method. What he have found is that scientists today are not concerned with these issues at all. In fact, some scientists, such as Lawrence Krauss, argues that philosophy is dead. Nevermind that Krauss is making a philosophical statement when he declares that philosophy is dead.
Those who are not familiar with some of the intricacies concerning philosophical problems and their relationship to the history of philosophical inquiry may not be so comfortable with explaining the different views on the aforementioned problems. Fortunately, there is an easier way to prove that scientists are operationalists in practice. There have been numerous questions of whether light is a particle or a wave. Of course, according to the law of contradiction, light cannot be both a particle and a wave. However, some conventional and widely-used models in science assume that light is a particle, whereas other conventional models assume that light is a wave. What other justification would there be to hold such a self-contradictory position? One option is to accept that light is both a particle and a wave while still maintaining that science leads to knowledge. This position, of course, would violate the law of contradiction. If a person chooses to reject the law of contradiction, then experience, thought, and reality becomes unintelligible. How could one distinguish between different objects or concepts if there were no opposing propositions? A rejection of the law of contradiction would make science impossible, for science assumes the laws of logic to operate. Not only would a rejection of the law of contradiction destroy logic, but it would kill science as well; science cannot live without logic.
There is another position that one could hold, after all, there are many models in science that are widely used, but contradict each other. One could use light as a particle in one instance, while considering light a wave in another instance if they accept that light cannot be both a wave and particle at the same time. How could this be accomplished? It can only be accomplished by adopting operationalism. If one views science as a pragmatic enterprise while realizing that science isn’t ultimately knowledge or truth, then the individual is justified in accepting contradictions in science for the sake of manipulating nature for his benefit. In fact, this is what scientists do. Even though some issues are unsolved, those models are still used to make predictions. If they are doing so in the pursuit of truth, then they are irrationalistic, because using contradictory models would be a rejection of logic. There have been notable operationalists that are often cited as experts, Karl Popper, Bertrand Russell, and Albert Einstein among others. Would any atheist in their right mind consider Albert Einstein to be anti science? Albert Einstein once said that there is no chance that his theory of general relativity is correct, yet he promoted it anyway for pragmatic purposes in hopes that it might lead to more accurate and useful models in the future. Einstein said that science will never know that it has the truth, even if it happens to obtain the truth.[acp footnote]4[/acp]
Even when the models don’t quite fit together, the models are still used to manipulate nature and further investigate predictions and results. One modern example of this is the apparent contradiction between quantum mechanics and general relativity. A new, workable, theory of quantum gravity must conceived in order for the two models to be able to work in synergy. Until that theory is conceived, scientists continue to use both quantum mechanics and general relativity, despite their contradictions to each other. Thus, we can see that in practice, scientists are pragmatists. If scientists did not take a practical-operationalist approach and instead focused on philosophical problems concerning science, we would still have technology equivalent to what we have seen in ancient Greece. Thus, we can see that in practice, scientists are operationalist. We can also see that all those that object to the operationalist approach have the operationalist approach to thank for cell phones, TVs, computers, cars, etc.
What About Creation Science?
Creation science utilizes the scientific method. As such, it commits some of the same fallacies; however, The Bible does say that we will find evidence of God in nature.(Romans 1:19-21; Psalms 19:1-4) God’s revelation through nature is known as general revelation. Since we know through scripture that we will find evidence of God through nature, and perhaps, evidence that the Earth is young and that God created the heavens and the Earth. (2 Peter 3:5-7) Thus, there is certainly merit in the investigation of nature for the purpose of bolstering our faith, but we must recognize that because the scientific method utilizes induction and commits the fallacy of asserting the consequent, we cannot give Creation science as much weight as we give God’s Word. The scientific method is unable to provide epistemic justification for any of its claims, and as a result, The Bible should be the foundation for our beliefs concerning the origins of the universe.
Answers Objections in Defense of the “Science is Truth” Mantra
Objection: Science has brought us a host of technology, and we are able to make predictions that are accurate, thus, science can lead to truth.
Answer: Usefulness is not a measure of truth. Newtonian physics and caloric chemistry was useful for a time, but both have turned out to be false. Thus, usefulness cannot be considered an indicator of truth. This is because false models and theories have been shown to be useful, but false.
Objection: Light is both a particle and a wave, so there is no contradiction in holding light to be a particle in one instance and a wave in another.
Answer: This objection refers to particle-wave duality in quantum mechanics. This model does not say that light is both a wave and a particle at the same time, rather, it says that light is a particle that also has wave-like properties. To say that light is both a wave and a particle is a misunderstanding of quantum mechanics, and it would violate the law of contradiction. Nevertheless, it seems that any objection concerning quantum mechanics is meaningless without a model for quantum gravity. Let us not forget that general relativity and quantum mechanics have not been reconciled. The introduction of the “wavicle” is yet another example of science changing, as it has changed in the past. In essence, physicists still aren’t sure about what light actually is. While the model is useful in some instances(among alternative models), physicists still hold the nature of light as a mystery. The key principle to keep in mind is that a “wavicle” is a particle that also has wave-like properties, contrary to what the name insinuates, it does not mean that light is both a wave and a particle in the context of quantum mechanics.
Objection: You are saying that science isn’t truth, yet you have used the internet and a computer to post your article.
Answer: As I covered in this article, I have operationalist philosophy to thank. If we focused on the solving epistemological-philosophical issues rather than pressing on to manipulate nature for our benefit, we would not have the technology that we have today because the problem of induction would still be unsolved.
Objection: Science does not assert the consequent. Someone can rearrange a syllogism in the form of modus ponens in order to avoid the fallacy. For instance:
P1: If P, then Q
Conclusion: Therefore, Q.
Answer: One could attempt to rearrange the syllogism to avoid asserting the consequent; however, the syllogism you laid out is not how the scientific method works. Here are the steps for the scientific method:
2. Develop a Hypothesis
4. Draw a conclusion
5. Communicate your results to others
The part of the scientific method where the fallacy of asserting the consequence takes place is in number three. Notice that in by the time you reach the experimental phase, a hypothesis has already been created prior to experimentation. If the prediction that your hypothesis has made occurs, then the hypothesis might be considered a success. That being said, let us look at the syllogism:
P1: If my hypothesis is correct/successful(P), I should see the results that I predicted.(Q)
P2: I see the results that I predicted.(Q)
Conclusion: Therefore, my hypothesis is correct/successful.(P)
The syllogism above would be a classic example of asserting the consequent.
What happens if we try to change the syllogism to a form of modus ponens? Let us find out:
P1: I should see the results that I predicted(P) if my hypothesis is correct.(Q)
P2: I see the results that I predicted.(P)
Conclusion: Therefore, my hypothesis is correct.(Q)
To someone that is not familiar with the scientific method, reconstructing the syllogism into a form of modus ponens would seem to be resolve the problem. The issue is, however, is that the syllogism is not consistent with the way the scientific method works. In the scientific method you start with the hypothesis, not the results. In other words, you do not know the results until after the experiment is completed. Thus, by definition, one cannot start with the results and then conclude the hypothesis because you need a hypothesis in order to make the predictions for the experiment in the first place.
The author hopes that by the end of this article, that five distinct points are understood:
1. Science is not truth and cannot, by definition, lead to justified-true belief.
2. To say that science is truth and can lead to justified-true belief is to repudiate logic.
3. Science relies on induction, but the problem of induction remains unsolved.
4. Science should be considered a pragmatic enterprise for the purpose of manipulating nature for our benefit.(Operationalism)
5. Only Christians have a justification for adhering to the operationalist view.
4. The Expanded Quotable Einstein, Princeton University Press, Page 208