Science and reason belong together, right?
Yes. Obviously so, in fact. Science and reason are both means for determining truth. Science depends on reason: every valid scientific conclusion is also a valid logical conclusion, the endpoint of a rationally conceived and rationally conducted process, and usually also a midpoint in a much larger rational process. So yes, obviously they go together.
There’s a problem with that relationship, though. In some circles, reason is spoken of almost as if it depends on science. More specifically (for few would actually make the mistake I expressed there), it seems as if, for those in those circles, reasoning isn’t really reasoning unless it’s scientifically-approved reasoning; reasoning that leads to non-scientific conclusions is hardly reasoning at all. For
Thus we have the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science, Victor Stenger telling us about The New Atheism: Taking a Stand for Science and Reason, The Center for Inquiry pronouncing it’s time for science and reason, and on and on I could go.
For purposes of this post I’m calling this the science-and-reason crowd. This group seems virtually to think that the two are inseparably joined at the hip, with science in charge. It’s not science and reason, but science-and-reason. (Say it fast to get the point I’m trying to make. It loses about one-and-a-half syllables when I speak it the way I mean it.)
Why would they say that? Why should science have a special lock on reason? Do scientists apply reasoning processes any more stringently than, say, specialists in music theory, or history, or the law?
Some would say yes; that science can check its errors more reliably than history or music theory could ever hope to, and therefore it’s more rational to trust in its results. I agree: science can do this. (It doesn’t always do it, but it can.) Even at its best, though, the difference between science and other disciplines is a difference of degree: science’s error-checking is far from perfect in its processes and in its results; and just because it’s hard to be certain one has reasoned to the right conclusion, that doesn’t mean one hasn’t reasoned to one’s conclusion.
Or take the case of theology. Every systematic and biblical theology work I’ve studied has been closely reasoned; philosophical theology even more so. If there’s one chief cause of division among theologians, it’s not in their reasoning processes, it’s in the sources they choose and the premises they rely on.
And that, rather obviously, is at the heart of the problem, as far as the science-and-reason crowd is concerned. Theology leads to a dizzying array of answers because it starts from a dizzying array of sources and premises—and where is the reasoning that leads one to choose his preferred starting point? What reasoning leads me to choose the Bible and historically orthodox Christianity, while someone else chooses the Bible and liberal Christianity, someone else chooses the Qur’an, and someone else the Book of Mormon?
Someone has got to be coming to the wrong conclusion. Probably we all are, according to the science-and-reason crowd. Not them, though. They’ve got nature as their sure starting point, and error-correction built in to their methods. They won’t be fooled. They won’t be taken in. You won’t find them drawing any conclusions they can’t be sure of.
It’s as if they’ve taken on a quasi-Kantian moral maxim for reasoning: it is the duty of the reasoning person not to draw false conclusions. It’s better to believe too few things than to believe what might not be true. W. K. Clifford said it this way: “It is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.”
I call it defensive reasoning: always on guard against believing what shouldn’t be believed.
But do you remember what this crowd objects to in theology—the uncertainty of its starting points? The science-and-reason crowd chooses defensive reasoning as its starting point. How do they know that’s the right one? By what revelation from the four fundamental forces did that reach their ears? Did nature tell them nature knows everything? I don’t recall it having that much to say.
Defensive reasoning is contained reasoning: if there is some truth that cannot be found inside the bounds of Clifford’s neo-Kantian maxim, then the science-and-reason crowd will never find it. It seems to me that this ought to bother them more than it does; for if God is real, then it’s reasonable on first principles to think that he could not be contained in this way. Even apart from any religion’s claims of revelation, it’s at least possible that God (if there is a God) would not allow himself to be the subject simply of scientific methodology, but would find a more personal way, taking his own initiative, to make himself known.
What this means, then, is that there is no such thing as Clifford’s contained reasoning; for the choice to believe only what can be demonstrated through naturally-found evidences is a choice to believe, without evidence, that there is nothing else important to know, or that there are no other truths that matter. It is a theological decision: the commitment to believe that whether God exists or not, one thing we know for sure is that he has not made himself known, for he has not done so in the preferred, contained manner. And therefore also, for many, God doesn’t matter.
This is an unreasoning approach. There are better ways to discover True Reason.
But I want to make sure I have communicated the right thing about science and reason. I’ll do it with a bit of family biography. My dad is 91 years old, and for many reasons he is the one man I respect more than any other in the world. I won’t go into the most important reasons, which have to do with his leadership in the family. What’s relevant here is that he was a chemical engineer, and was, for many years, a top international expert in the manufacture of hyperpure, electronics-grade silicon.
He brought home a scrap cylinder of silicon from the part of the rod that gets cut off because the last of the impurities has flowed into it. I used it as a paperweight. I asked him, “How impure is it, really?) He said, “It’s probably seven nines pure.” That was the scrap.
Dad’s top international specialty was in plant start-up, but he spent most of his professional time as production superintendent of a silicon plant, in a location I can (barely) remember being a plot of land with nothing but a farmhouse on it. Now it covers most of a square mile. For a time under his leadership, it supplied more than 85 percent of the silicon used for electronics worldwide.
He has a picture of himself and a half dozen other men in that farmhouse, the planters (you might say) of that chemical plant. He’s the last of them still living.
Dad was more engineer than pure scientist, but as an engineer he was all about science regardless. He was and still is very much a reasoning person, and in fact reasonable enough to know there’s more for us to reason about than just science. He’s a science and reason person without being what I’ve called, in this post, a science-and-reason person.
Science and reason make all the sense in the world together; science-and-reason is confined, contained, and ultimately not very reasonable.