Tuesday, December 27, 2005

A very limited form of inquiry

Real Clear Politics is carrying commentary on James Q. Wilson's WSJ article on ID (got that?). Wilson, the respected social scientist, gets it mostly right when he says that ID is not science because it can't be tested:
So ID is not science. Does this mean that science, in any way, implies the non-existence of God? No. Does this mean that belief in God is irrational and that we should all be "free thinkers"? No. Does this mean that it is impossible to arbitrate between various theories of the existence/non-existence of God and come to some reasonable conclusions? No. Does this mean that we cannot say that humanity is meant to exist? No. In other words, rationality outside of science is quite possible, and has been around for a long time. How do you think humanity invented science in the first place? We surely did not do it scientifically. Science as we know it is the product of millennia of philosophical debate -- from Aristotle to Lakatos. Science depends upon philosophy, which itself is unfalsifiable and unscientific. The debate about ID has been blown way out of proportion because of the social status that science has acquired in 21st century Western society. For better or for worse, deserved or undeserved, science is a very powerful concept. It is quite coercive. If somebody tells you that you are not being scientific, you will probably take that as a criticism. You should not necessarily, though. The fact of the matter is that, despite the message of our culture about the authority of science, it is not the end-all-be-all of rational thought. Science is a very limited form of inquiry that produces results that are, from a certain perspective and with certain assumptions, reliable. But they also do not tell us all of the things we need, or want, to know about life. Man cannot live by science alone. Neither, for that matter, can science. Do you have a snarky friend who thinks that science is the only legitimate type of inquiry? Tell him to prove that one scientifically!
When I write on this subject (and I probably do it too much) I sometimes get comments to the effect that I'm bashing science because I'm trying to prop up a religious agenda. This is wrong on two counts. I love science and always have, ever since the elementary grades when I was fascinated with dinosaurs and the solar system. As a teen I read a lot of science fiction, always preferring 'hard' SF to fantasy SF, A.C. Clark and Greg Egan to George Lucas and Gene Rodenberry. It was that respect and affection that lead lead me to the philosophy of science after leaving the university, because I wanted to know the thing better, even if I was a 'mere' Arts grad. In this field you can call me a reformer, a scientific Protestant, trying to keep the thing honest and true.
The same can't be said for theology, where I'm thoroughly orthodox, and orthodox for the same reasons I quoted above. Faith comes before thought, and allows it to stand before reasonable criticism. I've been working my way into Diarmaid MacCulloch's history of The Reformation, and it's a really excellent book, one that's hard to put down. I'm trying to better understand the period, the characters and ideas that shaped it. I want to better understand what the reformers were saying, and are saying today. Thus far I've gotten through the description of the old order, of Luther, and now of Zwingli. I must confess that I find it difficult to be sympathetic. The old order had problems, sure. It had always had problems and had always contained waves of reform, as it still does. I plan to except parts of the book here for the next little while (it's a 700 page book) and discuss the ideas presented. I'll be as fair as I can but I will try and show why it is that I think Luther and Zwingli are second rate theologians who were taken advantage of by lay authorities seeking to expand their powers, and by even more radical followers who were even worse thinkers. I can't yet speak to Calvin or later thinkers because I haven't covered that ground yet. I hope my Protestant readers will enjoy the posts and correct me if I misrepresent them. I intend a lively but fair series, not too different from the way I've covered ID except for being more systematic. MacCulloch, in case anyone is wondering, is no Hillaire Belloc. He's an Anglican, of Scottish Episcopalian heritage, and can trace family ties to the clergy back to the 1890's. He does not appear claim to be a firm follower of any branch of the faith. He is a professor of history at Oxford and this book won both the Wolfson prize for history in 2004 and the British Academy Book Prize for the same year.

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