Notes From Babel

Science doesn’t have all the answers…

with 3 comments

At the Daily Dish, Zoe Pollock jumps all over Bill O’Reilly for using the teleological (design) argument to explain order in the universe as proof of God’s existence.  In so doing, however, she conjures up the presuppositional argument, which promptly forces her into a severe bout of question-begging:

Now it’s possible that Bill is being metaphoric; he doesn’t literally mean the Moon, or tides, or anything like that: he means rules and order in general. We have the laws of physics, and we don’t know why those exist the way they do.

That’s true enough, and an interesting field of exploration. But to jump to say, “God did it” is a losing bet. They used to say that about thunder. They used to say that about people getting sick. They used to say that about, oh, why the Moon and Sun are in the sky, and why we have tides. Say.

But now we understand those things. We understand them because we’re curious, we humans, and we developed a method of understanding the Universe. It’s called science.

No, we do not “understand those things” because of “science.”  In suggesting as much, Pollock commits a serious category error.  If it’s true, as Pollock supposes, that the problem O’Reilly identifies is that we cannot explain “rules and order” in an atheistic universe, science has precisely nothing to aid us, because science itself depends on the legitimacy of rules and order in the universe.  To use science to justify the rules and order on which it depends is to beg the very question.  No one is doubting that the universe is governed by rules and order, of course.  But the question is, what sort of explanation can be given to account for rules and order?

Consider instead whether Congress, by its own enactment, may decree that another of its enactments—say, the individual mandate—is lawful.  Something like:

“Be it hereby enacted and resolved that the Constitution empowers the Congress to require every United States citizen to purchase health insurance.”

It should be plain that such a thing cannot be done.  The lawfulness of an act of Congress cannot be made to depend on Congress’s opinion of its own authority.  No, its lawfulness is determined by examining whether it comports with the rules and order on which it depends for its authority in the first place.  In the case of the American political system, those presuppositional rules and order are articulated in the Constitution.  Because Congress must presuppose the legitimacy of the Constitution, it cannot itself make something constitutional that the Constitution prohibits, or vice versa.  (This is not to delve into whether and to what extent Congress may interpret the Constitution; this is another matter entirely.)  An act of Congress, deriving its authority from the Constitution, thus cannot purport to add to or subtract from the authority of the Constitution itself.  Such a thing could only be accomplished by something beyond and transcendent to the narrower sort of institution that Congress is.  Such a thing could be only be done, for example, by something like a declaration founded upon an appeal to natural law.

In similar fashion, Pollock is seriously wrong to suggest that we can “understand” rules and order through science.  Such understanding is simply not within the purview of science.  Science presupposes and applies rules and order.  But to account for them in the first place—to prove rather than simply assume the existence of rules and order—we must resort to a different kinds of evidence and proof.  We know how we might prove whether there is a box of crackers in the pantry, but we would not expect to prove in the same way questions about natural laws, future contingencies, political obligations, names, grammar, numbers, categories, causation, induction, or even love or beauty.  To saddle the narrow domain of science with the impossible burden of providing satisfying explanations of all the types of questions presented in human experience is to either misunderstand the types of factual questions in the world, or to misunderstand the limits of science.


Written by Tim Kowal

February 6, 2011 at 11:26 am

3 Responses

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  1. “To saddle the narrow domain of science with the impossible burden of providing satisfying explanations of all the types of questions presented in human experience is to either misunderstand the types of factual questions in the world, or to misunderstand the limits of science.”

    This is an excellent point. I would just add that the limits of science are what make it such a powerful tool in the first place. I get annoyed with atheists (or the religious for that matter) when they try to dress up their religious beliefs as “science”, which just misses the whole reason science works as well as it does.

    Aaron W

    February 7, 2011 at 7:58 pm

  2. I would begin with one, very simple question. How do you KNOW? And secondly, what “different kinds of evidence and proof” specifically, because I don’t see you clarify that, you just assert it.

    Any given Scientific methodology is the simply the process we have found to help remove biases and errors from our often biased Human processing. It’s not some form of magic. If you can see, feel, smell, hear, taste, or know it, it’s subject to “science” in some form or another. The logical inverse would essentially be to say: “For some questions I can better determine Truth by leaving in biases and errors and doing nothing to verify my conclusions”.

    The Red Pill

    June 22, 2011 at 3:01 pm

    • Can you be more specific? How do I know what? That not all questions can be answered by science? I assert this without further clarification because I take it to be widely accepted. Do you dispute it?

      Tim Kowal

      June 25, 2011 at 11:46 am

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