(Please note: This long post represents my initial thoughts, and not any kind of carefully worded thesis, on this issue. I hope to develop these thoughts further and in more detail at a later date.)

SpaceSam Harris, famous propagator of straw-man fallacies (at least, IMHO) regarding the nature of faith, has this to say about science in his article "Science Must Destroy Religion":

Science, in the broadest sense, includes all reasonable claims to knowledge about ourselves and the world. … The difference between science and religion is the difference between a willingness to dispassionately consider new evidence and new arguments, and a passionate unwillingness to do so.

To be clear from the outset, I have nothing against science; certainly, it would seem ironic at best to bemoan the wonders of science while posting on an Internet blog as I type on my laptop which is connected wirelessly through the wireless router. But as I thought about Scientism (aka Positivism, though the terms are not exactly synonymous, they are similar), ie the belief that scientific study is the only way to "real" knowledge, I was led to consider the way in which we know scientific knowledge.

The process of scientific discovery and dissemination, as I understand it, goes something like this:

Scientific Experiment

  1. A scientist (or team), knowledgeable and accredited in his/her/their chosen field of inquery, performs a scientific experiment according to the scientific method.
  2. The experiment is repeated to verify the results are reliable.
  3. Once duly confirmed, results are scrutinized by other scientists, and published in peer reviewed journals.
  4. The reports published in the journals are then condensed and distilled to their essential details to be published in the common press.
  5. We read the reports about the studies, accept the results, and modify our lives/behavior accordingly.

But wait a minute … this is the process by which scientists ascertain scientific truth. As laypeople, we are active only in step #5 of the above process. When we talk about how we "know" science, the process might look something more like this:

Everyday Science

  1. We read about scientific discoveries in the popular press, or hear about them secondhand from other people.
  2. Not willing to believe everything we read (or hear about), we perform an evaluation of the proposed scientific discovery:
    • Is the source describing the claim credible? (ie. The BBC has more credibility than, say, someone's anonymous MySpace site)
    • Are the credentials of the person/people making the claim appropriate to the type of claims being made?
    • Do they have a potential bias that may have tainted the results?
    • Do those conducting the study have a potential reason for lying, overgeneralizing or selectively interpreting the results?
    • Are there other plausible explanations or interpretations of the results?
    • Correlation does not necessarily imply causation, so does the experiment really show a causal relationship?
  3. By analyzing the evidence available to us, we make a judgment based on whether it is most reasonable to believe the claim or not.

The reasons that we have to engage in a process of personal discernment regarding scientific claims are numerous. First of all, many scientific claims are highly disputed. No, I'm not talking about evolution. 😉 But what about global warming? Is it caused by humankind? Are you sure? Some people aren't. Secondly, sometimes the claims we read in the press later turn out to be fraudulent. Numerous recent examples include Hwang Woo-suk's false cloning "research" (which was intentionally fabricated) and the Bogdanov Affair in theoretical physics where for quite some time the Bogdanov brothers' scientific peers couldn't agree whether their research (published in respected scientific journals) was legitimate or pure nonsense. Thirdly, and more practically, we know that honest mistakes are sometimes made, and it's usually best to check things out for ourselves rather than trusting authority, even though we will of course hold the opinions of those with legitimate authority highly.

It should be clear that, while the method above ("Practical Science") does seem sensible and rational, that it is not much at all like the scientific method. Even those who are scientists themselves are experts in at most one or two fields of inquiry, so for example an physicist would need to use much the same process to evaluate the claims of an archaeologist. So, from a dogmatically scientifist point of view, only the scientists who actually conduct the study really "know" anything; most, however, even those claiming a scientism point of view, would agree that the "Practical Science" method outlined above is still valid.

Studying     Do you have a point or are you just rambling?

Okay, okay. Lest I be accused of engaging in straw-man arguments of my own, let's say that this process of laypeople "knowing" science could indeed fall under the definition of scientism because the process we engage in is still rational and based on evidence. In that case, the types of evidence we consider in the process outlined above (bias? credibility? other interpretations?) must be considered valid evidence when making our judgments whether we believe something or not. If this type of evidence were not considered to be valid, then the layperson would have no means by which to evaluate scientific claims made by other people.

It's worthy of note, then, that these same sorts of evidence are some of the types of evidence that are routinely presented as arguing for the authenticity of the Christian faith. Arguing that Christian evidence is based on "authority" is not a problem per se, because we receive our scientific knowledge the same way: from established experts (authorities) in their fields. By examining historical, philosophical, theological, and yes, even scientific evidences, we can come to reasonable conclusions regarding the possibility of truthfulness of the Christian faith. Making the claim that there is "no evidence" to support the Christian faith is simply incorrect. Someone making that claim that there is no evidence has either never considered the evidence available or has dismissed it out of hand from the outset as evidence of an invalid type, although we have seen that there is no reason to dismiss this type of evidence. Saying that "the evidence is not convincing enough to me" is one thing, but claiming that "there is no evidence" is quite another.

Hopefully this all makes sense. Perhaps later, after further reflection, I'll try to rework this into a proper essay.

Related links:

  • The Evidence for Jesus – by Dr William Lane Craig: "In summary, the gospels are not only trustworthy documents … their historical veracity shines through."
  • Five Possible Theories regarding Jesus' Resurrection – "Which theory about what really happened in Jerusalem on that first Easter Sunday can account for the data?"
  • Videos: Investigating Christianity – Lee Strobel interviews scholars in many fields to answer questions about the Christian faith. (63 different short streaming video clips)