What is science, anyway?

Often discussions of “science and religion” have focused more on the philosophy of science than on the content of science. That is due in part to the fact that until recently theologians were more likely to have a background in philosophy than in the natural sciences. In any case, questions about what constitutes legitimate scientific work and “the scientific method” do need to be examined as part of science-theology dialogue.

I would begin by saying that it is not philosophers but scientists themselves who should be consulted first about what constitutes good science.

Many scientists would endorse a statement made a century and a half ago by Claude Bernard in An Introduction to the Study of Experimental Medicine (Dover, 1957). Speaking of those who try to set out systematized rules for scientific research, Bernard said,“…works like theirs are of no use to experienced scientists; and by false simplification of things, they mislead men who wish to devote themselves to cultivating science.”

This is not to say that philosophers of science have nothing to contribute, but, as in theology, philosophy must have a ministerial and not a magisterial role in science. It certainly can help us to understand what theoretical and experimental scientists are doing and try to guard us against faulty reasoning. If we want to know what science is, however, we must first look at how science operates in order to gain its knowledge of the world.

Scientific Method
You can Google “scientific method” and find a number of descriptions of what this method is supposed to be. Many are good, but we should not make the mistake of thinking that there is an official “scientific method” in the sense of a precise recipe that a person must follow in order to be a good scientist. Science involves the continued honest use of observation and reason — not necessarily in that order! (Albert Einstein’s “On the Method of Theoretical Physics” in Essays in Science [Philosophical Library, 1934] is a good presentation of this view and introduction to his thought.) Some scientists are pure theorists, but their theories must hold up when confronted with observation. Other scientists focus on the observational aspect, but theory is needed to make sense of the data that they obtain.

Reason and observation should be understood in quite general ways. Reason may involve very rigorous logic and/or advanced mathematics, but it also includes intuitive leaps. The famous story of the German organic chemist Friedrich August Kekulé von Stradonitz (1829–1896) dreaming about the structure of the benzene ring is an example. (But he had been thinking about the problem for awhile, and he later reminded his fellow scientists not to publish their dreams until they’d been tested by their waking minds.) Observation means the use of all our senses, often enhanced with scientific instruments (which require theoretical understanding). In particular, it includes the type of controlled observation that we call experiment.

To this point I may have given the impression that I envision scientists as purely objective entities who investigate an external world in an entirely neutral way in order to discover how that world really is. That sort of naive realism is hard to maintain today for several reasons. At the quantum level, what the observer chooses to observe has some influence on what takes place. And on all scales, gender, race, economic status, religion, and other cultural factors influence the processes of observation and theory construction. This has led some postmodernists to argue that science has no better claim to find truth about the world than any other cultural enterprise does.

Public Character of Science
Popular as such views may be among some nonscientific academics (who write their essays on word processors that are products of science-based technology), they are greatly overstated. The factors I’ve mentioned do influence science, but science has, at least in principle, features that can correct for cultural bias. Prominent among them is the public character of science. We should not be naive about our supposed objectivity or the truths that we seek to discover, but a critical realism is — well, realistic. As physicist John Barrow put it in The World within the World (Oxford, 1988), “Almost every working scientist is a realist — at least during working hours.”

Just saying “observation and reason” is pretty general. A more detailed description (not prescription) of the way science works has been given by Imre Lakatos. A basic concept here is that of a research program in science. Such a program has a fundamental theory, a “hard core,” which practitioners attempt to apply and which they try to defend against challenges. Certain auxiliary theories constitute a “protective belt.” If observations require it, the theories of the protective belt can be modified in order to keep the hard core intact.

The goal of a research program is not just to maintain its hard core but to extend the range of the program’s explanations by predicting novel facts, which are then confirmed by observations. A program that can do this while retaining its previous successes is progressive. A program that produces no successful predictions but can only accommodate new data by modifying its protective belt is regressive. Programs that are progressive at any given time will be those we consider good current science.

Naturalism — Two Kinds
What is the role of religion in science? Some would answer that it has none, but that is too drastic. Religious beliefs can motivate people to engage in science (and, unfortunately, sometimes to avoid it). They may suggest to some scientists lines of investigation that might be fruitful. And certainly a person’s beliefs will have an influence on what she or he considers ethical means of research and applications of science.

But since the seventeenth century it has been a working rule among scientists that natural phenomena are to be explained in terms of natural agents and causes. No scientist, whatever his or her religious beliefs, will explain a puzzling result of an experiment by saying “God did it.” A Christian who holds a traditional view of creation will believe that God did do it. The scientific question, however, is “How?”

This working rule is what is often called methodological naturalism. It is not a claim that science can explain everything but rather a limitation of science to the study of the natural world. This should not be (though it often is) confused with metaphysical naturalism, the belief that there is nothing other than the natural world.

Methodological naturalism is central to current debates about Intelligent Design (ID). While ID proponents sometimes say that they are opposed simply to “naturalism,” what the ID movement is arguing for is the inclusion of a nonnatural agency (the “designer”) in scientific theories of the development of life. Whether or not ID is to be called science depends on whether the traditional restriction of science to natural causes is to be maintained. But even if, for the sake of argument, we call it science, ID has not yet shown itself to be a progressive research program.

Nancey Murphy, in Theology in an Age of Scientific Reasoning (Cornell, 1990), describes Lakatos’s approach and applies it to theological method. Del Ratzsch, in Philosophy of Science: The Natural Sciences in Christian Perspective (InterVarsity, 1986), gives an introductory overview.


Human promise and peril: ELCA draft social statement on genetics up for discussion

Genetic research’s impact on society is in the early stages of being felt globally, but the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) is thinking seriously how to respond to the great advances that may help cure society’s ills and whether some of those same technologies could threaten human life and life on earth.

The ELCA Task Force on Genetics has written a draft social statement on genetics that will be considered by the 2011 Churchwide Assembly. Currently the group, composed of scientists, clergy and theologians, is looking for comments on the statement, which may be found in its entirety at www.elca.org/genetics.

The document was mandated by the 2005 Churchwide Assembly and sets a policy for the church to guide its advocacy and work as a public church. Comments are welcome via a response form on the website, and the deadline for feedback is October 15. Synod hearings are also slated to take place to discuss the task force’s findings. Social statements are adopted by a two-thirds vote of an ELCA Churchwide assembly.

This fifty-page social statement dives into the issues surrounding genetic research and technology in the public domain and specifically looks at the social and ethical framework surrounding changing the genetic makeup of creation. More importantly, the document discusses the role of church leaders and scientists in leading the public to make informed choices when it comes to genetic innovation.

“This church trusts that this gracious God who creates, redeems and will fulfill creation has also granted human beings access to discernment and insight and entrusted us with the vocation to respect and promote the good of creation with justice and wisdom,” the statement reads.

The genetic sciences insofar as they do not make false claims about God and do serve the common good are embraced by the church that also supports technological progress in the area of genetics. The statement says that the church believes that the “greatest danger in genetic developments lies in the sinful exercise of radically extended human power and not in any specific scientific or technological development.”

At the same time, the ELCA rejects the “technological imperative” that humanity is free to use any knowledge that becomes available to create any technological application if the market will support it. Under this line of thinking, the reproductive cloning of human individuals is rejected as no individual should be brought into life for the sake of repeating another individual’s genotype. But if reproductive cloning should progress, the church would honor the God-given dignity of cloned individuals and would welcome them to the baptismal font like any other child of God.

The ELCA is encouraging the use of human imagination and innovation through genetic knowledge and its application to heal afflictions, relieve human suffering and improve the human condition.

Another point in the statement is that the church is encouraging the evaluation of the public good in terms of sufficiency that genetic research, medicine, commerce and biotechnology should advance rather than simply considering the economic gain such advances offer. Regulation of genetic technology at the same time must be justified by specific concerns for the potential harm of the application and its delivery, or by the necessity to regulate toward equal access and use.

Int the area of stem cell research, the ELCA has maintained respect for the “value, worth and dignity” of human embryonic life precludes the creation of embryos expressly for research purposes. Commercial development or embryo farming is incompatible with the church’s understanding of the value of life.

The ELCA says it welcomes scientific research aimed at finding alternative sources of pluripotent stem cells that do not involve the use of human embryos. The use of surplus frozen embryos that were created for infertility treatment but are no longer needed is acceptable to the ELCA.

Another area of genetic research is in agriculture, and here the ELCA is supporting the call for increased education about, and the labeling of, genetically engineered food.

Areas and situations where the ELCA will reject goals and policies are times when use of any form of genetic knowledge or technology creates supposed states of near perfection or near immortality. Also when research endangers human bodies in the service of economic or social power arrangements.

Vigorous questions will be raised about goals and policies that expand research that knowingly and unduly endangers plant and animal species or the existence of biodiversity. Also investigated are cases where there is a negative impact on individual livelihoods, especially those related to agriculture. And lastly, when direct genetic knowledge and technology benefits the interests of a few at the expense of many, the ELCA will take a stand.

“This document tries to formulate a moral framework that can encompass questions about human genetics, and plant and animal genetics,” said Dr. Per Anderson, professor at Concordia College, Moorehead, Minnesota and task force co-chair. He added that the church needs to think hard about these matters and get a consensus about how to things about the topics in a way that is truly Lutheran and truly Christian in the 21st century.

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