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Some Thoughts on Science and Logic

Posted by thethousandmarch on March 22, 2010 at 12:43 PM

Many scientific theories are no different than religious theories. Scientists look at the world around them, they gather empirical evidence – evidence gathered and verified through experience and observation – and they try to come up with a relatively coherent explanation of the evidence, theories which explain the past and predict the future. That is why this thing happened and what will happen if you do this. Two examples of just such scientific theories are black holes and dark matter. We cannot see either; we cannot empirically prove either. However, many scientists agree that the current theories concerning black holes and dark matter are reasonable explanations of the empirical evidence. Religious belief is the same – though it is sometimes concerned with a different subject matter.

Some may argue that science is rational and religion is irrational. Some religious thought is irrational, as are many religious people. However, this is not the nature of religion. It is the unfortunate reality of the times we live in. It is also evidence of the fact that there are many incompetent theologians, just as there are many incompetent scientists. Each religion is an explanation of reality. It attempts to explain the unseen by making sense of what can be seen. Note, I am not saying that science and religion require blind irrational faith. I’m saying they both require belief in the unseen, and the unverifiable. Such belief is not irrational, it is based upon empirical evidence. I believe in Christianity because I believe in the teachings of Jesus (and not just the moral ones). I believe his teachings are verified by his actions, specifically his resurrection from the dead, of which there is ample historical evidence. Proof? No – but evidence, just as there is evidence for the existence of black holes. I believe in Christianity because I believe it offers the best interpretation of reality.

Now, I have a couple of thoughts about rationality and the interpretation of empirical evidence. First, just because a theory makes coherent sense of all known facts, doesn’t mean it’s true. Children exercise sound logic every day and come to what we know are ridiculously wrong conclusions, because they do not have all the facts. We must always be aware, in science and religion, that we do not possess all the facts. Therefore, our theories, though rational, may be completely wrong. Second, the simplest answer is not always correct. The philosophical principal known as Occam’s razor states: “Entities must not be multiplied beyond necessity”. In other words: “When competing hypotheses are equal in other respects, the principle recommends selection of the hypothesis that introduces the fewest assumptions and postulates the fewest entities while still sufficiently answering the question.” (Wikipedia) Occam’s razor is a helpful principle, but it is itself an assumption about reality. And, this assumption applied blindly can lead to erroneous conclusions.

A rational human using rational thought will always be aware of the limits of rationality. They will understand the difference between the empirical evidence they gather and the interpretations they make about said evidence. A rational human has no reason to fear questions, or new evidence. A rational human should be humble – unfortunately none of us is really all that rational.

Some further reading I recommend

Accept Defeat: The Neuroscience of Screwing up 

This is an article from Wired magazine about how science is actually done, and how scientific theories are developed.

Father Brown Mysteries, by G.K. Chesterton. You can never go wrong with Chesterton. His Father Brown mysteries are short stories about a Catholic priest who solves crimes. What is particularly interesting about them is that they are very un-Sherlock Holmes. They demonstrate how the truth is often quite complex and cannot be determined through mere logical deduction.

Categories: Science, Miscellanea