The Spectacle Blog

Science is Not Philosophy

By on 2.19.14 | 11:18AM

Rod Dreher calls attention to a physicist, Vlatko Vedral, who claims that the origin of the laws of nature can be explained scientifically:

We believe in one method of understanding the ultimate, secure truth: the scientific method.

Vedral rejects the philosophical objection that scientific explanations for the laws of nature end in infinite regress—whatever causes the laws of nature needs a cause, which needs a cause, ad infinitum. Vedral hands the accusation back to religious philosophers: who created the Creator? God is apparently stuck in the same infinite regress that philosophers accuse scientists of entertaining.

Vedral’s rebuttal misses the point. Although infinite regress can be a problem for some philosophers, it is always a problem for a purely scientific account of the laws of nature. Science is not a source of “ultimate, secure truth.” The scientific method runs on principles it assumes to be true: that the universe is governed by laws and that reason is a reliable tool. Neither tenet can be proven by science.

Science doesn’t show that laws of nature exist; it instead provides detail to the laws. A natural law is a necessary connection between some event x and some event y: what it means for nature to be uniform. As Hume rightly notes, nothing in sense data alone demonstrates that nature is governed by causes. Even repeatedly observing regularities in nature doesn't prove the idea of uniformity, since regularity first assumes uniformity. Without first accepting that nature is uniform, no scientific inference could be drawn from observing nature.

Reason, if proven by science, suffers from the same shortcomings. Try to find a testable way, or even a logical way, to demonstrate the law of non-contradiction without first assuming the law. Testability itself surely can’t stand the test of testability without diving into a vicious circle. Science is not the whole picture of knowledge; there are certain principles operating within it that ground all of its empirical endeavors.

Nevertheless, the limited scope of science is not a concern for scientists doing science. Likewise, mathematicians, in order to do math, never need to wonder about the ontology of numbers; nor does a logician need to know anything about the world in order to see if an argument is valid. Yet as soon as either provides a defense for the principle of sufficient reason or the law of bivalence, he heads to the Academy.

And expectedly, scientists do just that. Vedral conflates science with philosophy:

The common answer is that there was some kind of original creator of this information. The trouble is that this answer doesn’t really solve anything because as a physicist I’d also like to understand this being itself. I’d like to explain the origin of God.

Vedral is using the wrong method. The ordinary experimental procedures don’t work here. God, by definition, doesn’t have an origin. He belongs in the same realm as first principles, reason, and the laws of nature, all of which science assumes to be true, but can neither prove nor deny.

Philosophy, on the other hand, is concerned with verifying and studying those assumptions. Classical theism views God not as the first being in a long chain of events, but as Being itself, the condition of there being any sort of natural chain at all. Just as the laws of nature set to ground scientific inquiry, God grounds all that exists. Not the first point in the long timeline of nature, God is not susceptible to infinite regress nor is He a scientific issue.

Agree or disagree with what theistic philosophers have argued, philosophy ought at least to be called philosophy.

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