Chapter 2 of Breaking the Spell by Daniel Dennett (see previous post, Sept. 2013), “Some Questions About Science,” basically continues the argument that science should study religion, something that most readers of the book probably don’t need to be persuaded of, including me.
I was struck, though, that, having defined the object of his study, religion, in chapter 1, Dennett never defines his methodology, science. Considering that the act of definition necessarily restricts the meaning of a term and that Dennett’s definition of religion is so narrow (see Sept. 2013 post), his scientific methodology is given rather free range. The underlying assumption is that, science is the only reliable means to truth and understanding. It is not subjected to the critical questioning that Dennett applies to religion.
As stated in the previous post (Sept. 2013), I welcome a scientific study of religion as a natural phenomenon. However, I would also welcome a critical study of science. Does it have any limitations when it comes to the pursuit of truth?
Merriam-Webster defines “science” as “knowledge about or study of the natural world based on facts learned through observation and experimentation (http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/science). In human history this method has, indeed, proved to be very reliable, enabling us to make predictions about the natural world, the truth of which can then be tested. It’s a fascinating field of study with many areas of specialization, and I am personally grateful to be living in a world in which science enjoys such broad acceptance and support. Not only has it made our world more comfortable and convenient, not to mention extending our life spans, it has opened our eyes to ever more wondrous aspects of the natural world.
One could argue that science has also given us a lot of headaches in, for example, the proliferation of powerful weapons of mass destruction and ever more environmentally destructive machinery, technology, and chemicals. However, it also offers the means by which we can understand, anticipate, and mitigate the destructive effects of its own application.
I deplore the ignorance of and rejection of science popular among Creationists, global warming deniers, and Bible thumpers. I do question, however, whether science is the only reliable source of human knowledge. Is there a distinction between the “natural world” and the human world, that is, between the natural sciences and the human sciences? Is one more “exact” and reliable than the other? Is it just “facts” that constitute knowledge or do facts require interpretation in order to be meaningful? What are the rules of interpretation? What interpretive methods are used to make sense of the facts, and how reliable are they? Are all scientific hypotheses testable? If, by definition, science restricts itself to observable phenomena in the natural, material world, how much can it tell us about non-material phenomena, for example, love, virtue, courage, or, let’s say, consciousness?
When it comes to non-material phenomena, science can only theorize about it as an epiphenomenon having a material basis and cause. The origin and function of consciousness in the human brain, for example, may well be true, but science has no way to investigate other non-scientific theories on their own terms. In other words, science, by definition, rests on the assumption that ultimate reality is material and has no way to evaluate theories that assume a non-material reality is possible. Though it can answer many practical questions and solve many practical problems, it cannot answer the “big” questions of purpose and meaning in human existence or, for that matter, in the universe. All it can do in that realm is either deny the existence of meaning and purpose (without being able to prove such non-existence) or say “We don’t know.” We don’t know because we cannot observe it, measure it, quantify, or test it. If independently existing non-material reality exists, science can tell us nothing about it.
If the human sciences are less exact and reliable than the so-called “hard” natural sciences, it would seem there is a huge dimension of human experience that is well beyond the scientific method, for example, the mysteries of identity and consciousness, meaning, purpose, values, how we should live, morals and ethics.
In addition, science itself has undermines its own certainty. Quantum physics has shown how the observer alters the reality being observed, raising the question if we can know reality as it exists independent of our own observation. Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle suggests that what we observe is the result of the conditions of the experiment we set up, again raising the question of whether we can know reality as it exists independent of our own method of study.
One would think these demonstrable limitations of science would instill some measure of humility in the scientifically minded when it comes to making claims about non-material reality, but they are often as dogmatic and self-righteous as religious fundamentalists when it comes to insisting on the ultimate truth of their own world view.
Chapter 3 of Breaking the Spell, "Why Good Things Happen," begins the study of religion as a natural phenomenon, as we might expect, by making the case that everything humans value can be explained by evolutionary theory and evidence. Presumably our yearning for meaning, purpose, and validation as creatures of worth in ultimate terms is the result of our evolutionary history.
Keep in mind that I believe in evolutionary theory. It has a great deal more evidence to support it than does Creationism. However, the step from biological evolution to cultural evolution is a step into greater uncertainty. As Dennett goes on to “explain” religion in evolutionary terms, it remains to be seen whether he can do so without running up against the limits of his own methodology. For example, even if he persuasively explains the evolutionary origins of our values, will he be able to explain how we determine the relative “worth” of those values? Can science help us decide what we “ought” to do as well as help us understand “why” we act in certain ways.