Science: Philosophy’s Handmaiden

Author Greg Koukl Published on 04/22/2013

Philosophy and math must come before you can do any science. Science depends on the tools of other disciplines, ways of knowing.

I mentioned yesterday about a letter that I got. It was a letter in response to a commentary I had written (Sagan & Scientism) which was in response to something Carl Sagan had written. Scientism is the belief that science is the queen of all sources of knowledge, the source of reliable information about the world. On the other hand, religion and philosophy are just mere beliefs and you can’t really pit one against the other. In the commentary, I explained why I thought this was faulty. I quoted Dr. Francis Shaeffer and Dr. J.P. Moreland among other people who have made a tremendous contribution in this area. Apparently, somebody passed on this commentary to a gentleman in Hawaii, and he wrote back four pages, single-spaced; quite an exercised response to my thoughts. He didn’t think that I was very clear thinking at all, apparently. He doesn’t think that I understand science. He’s an atheist. He describes himself as an inquisitive doubter, someone who takes nothing on faith. Yesterday, I talked a little bit about the problems with someone even characterizing themselves like that.

I want to address something else, though. Part of my concern in this discussion of science vs. faith, religion or philosophy—those are all in that category—is that there is a bias. The bias is that science gives you objective truth that is based on facts, and all religion or philosophy can give you is absolute truth. This phrase “absolute truth” is put in quotations in the letter, meaning that all philosophy and religion give you is dogma—wishful thinking that people hold to be absolute while they ignore the facts. That seems to be the sense of things in this letter.

One statement that gets to the point of my objection goes like this: “Mr. Koukl does not step up to the challenge that science is able to meet in giving objective information, as he is using subjective opinions rather than objective facts to argue his case.” There you go. My opinions are subjective because they don’t have to do with science and you can’t put them in a test tube. On the other hand, anything that can be put in a test tube is objective fact. He does talk about the liabilities of science, but it doesn’t seem like he really takes his own words seriously. Because objective facts are assessed through subjective analysis. I’m not saying that you can’t reach objectivity, but everything must be subjectively assessed in some fashion. So, just the fact that I have my personal opinions doesn’t mean they’re wrong. You can’t just dismiss them as being mere subjective assessment.

He goes on to say: “Citing the unreferenced and unsubstantiated opinions of Dr. Moreland, Dr. Francis Shaeffer, and unnamed philosophers hardly qualifies as using objective facts accepted by all observers.” This really gets to the heart of my objection, folks. In this response, what we have, essentially, is a statement that unless you can give objective facts accepted by all observers—these would be empirical facts—then your opinions are unsubstantiated and merely subjective. Therefore, by suggestion in the letter, they aren’t worthy of being believed. Do you see the bias to emphasize empirical data as a source for true information about the world and to de-emphasize philosophy and religion as a source of pure information about the world? Now, my point is this and I will substantiate it in just a moment. Science can’t even operate unless you have philosophy in place. Science is dependent on philosophy and this is something that my respondent did not agree with me on. But, I will give you his illustration and refute it.

I don’t think it’s unreasonable for science to use empirical evidence. I don’t think it’s unreasonable for it to operate within the framework of scientific law. What I think is unreasonable, is the claim that you can’t trust knowledge unless it is demonstrated to be true by empirical fact. That is an underlying supposition that’s throughout the entire letter. My point is that certain things must be in place that are not scientific and they must be true before you can even begin to practice science. In the piece Sagan and Scientism, I mentioned that you can’t even prove math by science. Math must be in place for science to work. You don’t discover math through scientific experimentation. The gentleman’s response to that was this: “The assertion that math cannot be proven scientifically is an absolute lie.” I think it is interesting the choice of words here. He doesn’t say it is false. He says it is a lie. There is a difference between a falsehood and a lie. A falsehood is something that is not true. A lie is something that is not true, spoken by someone who has an intent to deceive. And so he is saying that I’m not just simply mistaken, but that I know that I’m wrong and I’m absolutely trying to deceive other people.

What about the statement that math cannot be proven scientifically? He gives an example of how it can be and here is what he writes: “Anybody can do the following scientific experiment. Put two apples in a pile and add two apples to the pile then test the mathematically predicted result of four apples total. Is there a human on this planet that will get a different result? Math is scientifically provable objective truth.”

Now, I agree that math is objective truth. But I don’t think he has given us an illustration of science proving math. He gives a counter example to my statement that math is prior to science. What he does is clusters two apples with two other apples and points to the total as four and thinks he has tested math and proven it true. However, he did not test math. He exemplified math, and there is a big difference. He gave us an example of math at work. Here’s how I know for sure. First, you need no apples or anything physical whatsoever to know that two plus two equals four. You don’t need to do an experiment to know that truth. Not only that, but secondly, the gentleman had math in place before he even started his example. He thinks he proved addition with his example. But he didn’t, because math was necessary for him to do what he did. He says, put two apples in a pile and add two apples to the pile. Now, where did he get the notion of “two”? Where did he get the notion of “add”? Where did he get the notion of “equals”? Do you see that these are mathematical notions which must be in place before you can even do this illustration? They are logically prior to the problem. Again, I agree that math is objective truth, but not because it has been proven by science.

I might ask this question of the gentleman: Sticking with more of the scientific method, which requires repeatability, how do you know your two apples plus two apples will equal four apples in your next experiment? His answer would be, “It’s obvious.” In fact he says in the letter, “Is there a human on this planet that will get a different result?” Notice that he knows his solution is universal just by doing one single experiment! What scientist does one single experiment, gets the result of that experiment and then declares a universal truth? Nobody does that. Science doesn’t work that way. You have to do dozens and dozens of experiments, and many other people have to do their experiments to prove a universally true scientific principle. But he says, who could possibly get another result to this? It is obvious that it’s always going to be the same. My response is, “You are absolutely right, it is absolutely obvious, they will always be the same which means you don’t have to do a bunch of experiments to prove such a thing. You know this to be true before you do your experiment. That’s why your experiment works. It is merely an exemplification of math. It is not a proof of math. It is an example of math in operation. It isn’t something we do to discover how addition works.” We know that all cases will be just like this, and so does he, because math is a notion that is prior to science. It’s a rational intuition. It’s something we know to be true as soon as we understand the relationship of numbers to one another and what equals means, what plus signs mean, what minus signs mean, what sums mean and what numbers mean. I don’t need a footnote to prove that. I don’t need a test tube to prove that. It’s obvious, not only to me and to you listening, but it is also obvious to this man and to every scientist, because he must use those things and depend upon those things as true before he can even start at science.

You see, what I’m trying to do is to poke a hole into this mentality that science is where information and knowledge starts. Science isn’t where it starts. It really starts with philosophy. Philosophy is the discipline that teaches us how we know certain things and how we justify our beliefs. When we have a good epistemology, which is what that field is called, then we can take that epistemology and apply it to the issue of the physical realm. Then what do we come up with? We come up with a method. The method is called the scientific method. Why? Because science is the queen of all knowledge? No. But, because if the scientific method is good at all, it’s because it’s been justified by the philosophy of epistemology. We have a method that produces information about the world. The method, though, comes not from science, but from somewhere else. The math example was a perfect example to show that certain things must be in place before we can even practice science. Where do those things come from? How do we know they are true? We know because we have access to truth about the world in a different way than just five senses and test tubes. That’s the whole point.

Another reason I know that math is prior to science and not a result of science, is that math is not dependent on induction, but science is. What is induction? Induction is a method of drawing conclusions that gives you probable-istic results. You go out and you observe crows and you observe a million of them. By looking at a million crows, you draw the conclusion inductively that crows are black, because you have seen all of these black crows. Now, it doesn’t mean that there can’t possibly be a white crow, but it seems to be the case that crows are black, because every time you’ve seen a crow, it’s been black. That’s induction. You know a thing is true inductively because you go out in the world and you search around and find a lot of examples of it. Math is not like that. We don’t know that 2 plus 2 equals 4 because we’ve put 2 apples and 2 apples together in a pile many different times all over the world. We don’t learn math inductively. We know math intuitively. We discover math, we don’t learn it in an inductive fashion. Since science is inductive and math is not inductive, then math and science aren’t the same thing. You don’t learn math scientifically. You must have math prior to science. That’s my point.