Philosophy of Science: A Bridge for fruitful dialogue

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been showing how I don’t find Ian Barbour’s scheme entirely helpful, and why I’ve abandoned NOMA as in any way adequate. Yet, I’d like to suggest something that sounds like I am endorsing a form of NOMA (that is, the view that science and religion don’t interact).

I’d like to suggest that the best source for a fruitful dialogue between religion and science is likely to be found by turning to the often maligned, much misunderstood discipline of philosophy of science.

On the surface it might seem like this is giving into NOMA, and saying that really religion only engages with philosophy of science and never with what scientists are actually doing. Instead, I’d like to suggest that any time a scientist moves beyond a description of the methodology and occurrences of an experiment, and moves to interpretation, she or he is, aware or not, engaging in the philosophy of science. The philosophy of science, then, rather than something external to the work of science is something integral to it. For a long time people engaged in it without really acknowledging it, but in for long time people engaged in metaphysics (which is related), without calling it that either.

Karl Popper

Some of the early pioneers in the philosophy of science as a discipline distinct from science and metaphysics were, among others, Thomas Kuhn and Karl Popper, who included significant discussions of epistemology (how we know anything) into their dialogues. Thomas Kuhn is perhaps best known for popularizing the term “paradigm shift,” while Karl Popper has been, perhaps, a bit more influential in actual scientific investigation (many disciplines now accept Popper’s suggested “null hypothesis” and falsification as their method). Despite this, the philosophy of science has been largely ridiculed.

Perhaps the most famous derision of the Philosophy of Science comes from Richard Feynman who said “Philosophy of science is about as useful to scientists as ornithology is to birds.” While Feynman was certainly brilliant, his lack of self-awareness in this quote is striking. First let’s take the statement as true.

Richard Feynman

The fact is that ornithology is actually incredibly useful to birds, the birds just aren’t generally aware of it. Ornithology can help others know how to protect or regrow habitats. The study of migration patterns of one species can help others to problem solve population control issues in another species. Ornithology is actually quite helpful to birds, the birds just aren’t aware of it (so maybe Feynman was more right than he realized).

Here’s the other problem. Any time scientific investigation moves from what is to what was or what will be (i.e. anytime it tries to say something useful), the one making the claims is engaging in philosophy of science because, as has been demonstrated by numerous people at numerous times, such claims are non-empirical. They rely on some interpretive power beyond sensory observation. They are making existential claims about the universe that go beyond the realm of science. This is not to say they shouldn’t make such claims, but only to say that when they make those claims they are engaging in non-empirical philosophy (even if it is informed by empiricism).

Likewise, religions (and particularly Christianity) make existential claims about the universe, including what has happened and what will happen. This, it seems, means they have a common overlap with the philosophy of science.

It is my contention that a fruitful dialogue may occur via the philosophy of science. In other words, the interpretation of scientific claims and the claims of, in my case, Christianity (which is really just an interpretation of historical events), are talking about the same subject matter, and therefore are de facto in dialogue. Thus Ian Barbour’s scheme may be descriptive for how people think science and religion interact, but in actual fact, the two are in a dialogue which they cannot escape. Science and Religion are in dialogue because, by the very nature of both of them, they cannot not be in dialogue.

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