Sunday, September 24, 2006

Does Science Work?

In a recent discussion, JL posted some interesting thoughts on the nature of knowledge in science. He's also done them as a post on his blog. I think there are some very interesting points here, that it's well thought through and well written, and while I agree with most of them, there are a few things that need a bit of clarification.

I give you this analogy: Before you walk into a building, you don't know how structurally safe it might be, and whether or not it might collapse on top of you. You might be 50% certain - either it will collapse, or it won't. You decide that your accumulated experience with buildings is a good guide, and enter the building. If you repeatedly return to the same building, and it doesn't collapse on top of you, your previous experience leads you to the conclusion that this building is structurally sound, and is unlikely to fall down while you are inside. You go further into the building each time you visit, increasing the risk of being trapped or hurt if it does start to collapse. You might be 80% sure, or 90%, or given long enough, 99.999999% sure. You can never be 100% sure, but you conclude that given the evidence and experience, the likelihood of this particular building collapsing with you inside is remote in the extreme.

I agree with the majority of what you say about science here (well, I would, I was a physics teacher until last month).

I think the analogy could be improved a little, however.

We don't have experience of anything else "like" science. We don't have a (naturalistic) understanding of why it works. We don't have any explanation of why or how electrons and photons should interact in the way they do in QED - we just observe that they do. In fact, that has to be true of any theory we see as fundamental.

So science is more like seeing a building with no visible means of support. We can't see a priori why it should stay up. We can't go away and test other things like it to see that they stay up, because there isn't anything else like it. We can't use our pre-existing understanding of engineering to say that it looks as if it should stay up, because we don't have any pre-existing understanding of the universe.

But yes, the reason most people believe that science will continue to work is that it has worked so far. That's not the reason I believe science continues to work - I believe it continues to work because God is reliable, and he continues to work it.

Actually, I think what you describe is a very good analogy for faith. Not in the post-existential sense of "a leap in the dark", but a process of putting your trust in something based on a growing understanding (which is how the Bible uses the word). So I observe that God is trustworthy and doesn't let me down, so I trust him a bit more, and so on.

Taking the analogy further, if the building has been carefully planned and thoroughly tested, well designed and constructed, it will survive all manner of adversity unscathed: fires, floods, earthquakes, strong winds. By the same token, small defects might be uncovered after such events, and these deserve much scrutiny and enquiry, and ultimately some resolution.

I agree. This is also largely the point I was making with miracles and people not believing - even the (hypothetical) absolute rationalist could say it was simply an example of some science or technology they had not yet fully understood. I'm pretty certain that miracles have happened. I have good reason to believe that they still happen.

When people don't believe, in my limited experience (others who read this blog have far more), it is usually either because they have not yet realised how trustworthy God is, how amazing Christ is and how wonderful it is to have a relationship with him, or it is because they have decided not to believe.

I very much doubt that it is possible to prove anything to someone who has decided not to believe, unless God first weakens that resolution. I think that's what is meant in the Bible by the phrase "a hard heart".

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