What is Science?

September 03, 2019

by Iain Duguid

The discussion of the relationship between science and faith rests, among other things, on proper definitions of “science” and “faith”. Is “science” simply a term that explains what scientists actually do (descriptive)? Or is the definition of science a statement about what scientists ought to do (prescriptive)? If the definition of science is merely descriptive, then it cannot have fixed boundaries. Over the course of time, as scientists change their view of what they find interesting and plausible, the definition of science will change and evolve along with their interests. But how do you know when scientists are acting as scientists, and when they are merely acting as regular human beings? Are scientists doing science when they eat breakfast and kiss their wives or husbands? If not, then just because a scientist is doing it, that doesn’t necessarily make it science. There has to be some other criteria for science. On the other hand, if the definition of science is prescriptive, who gets to decide what counts as science? Scientists? Philosophers? God? Moreover, is science a field of study (“the natural world”)? Or is it a method of study (“the scientific method”)? Our apparently simple question has a complex set of answers.

Most of the initial growth in scientific knowledge was based on Christian presuppositions

Here is one definition of science:

Science is a method of explaining the natural world. It assumes the universe operates according to regularities and that through systematic investigation we can understand these regularities. Because the methodology of science is based on explanations that use empirical data, it cannot use supernatural causation in its explanations. Science has increased our knowledge because of this insistence on the search for natural causes.

This definition sees science as both method and field of study. But as a definition of science, it is problematic. To begin at the end, the last statement is clearly historically false. Most of the initial growth in scientific knowledge was based on Christian presuppositions, and between 1500-1800, the typical scientist would likely have been a Christian believer, even a churchman. There is no evidence that belief in supernatural creation in any way impeded or hindered the search for scientific knowledge during that period. On the contrary, the great astronomer Johannes Kepler wrote, “God, who founded everything in the world according to the norm of quantity, also has endowed man with a mind that can comprehend those norms”. In other words, far from being a bar to scientific discovery, for Kepler his faith was the foundation for scientific discovery.

There are other problems with this definition of science, though. Is science really only interested in the regularities of nature that are open to empirical testing? That would seem to rule out any discussion of origins under the rubric of science since, by definition, the history of the universe is a unique series of events that is not readily open to either empirical observation or testing. It’s not clear how you empirically test universe construction techniques. You may be able to observe features that seem to be best explained by a particular story of origins, but that is not the same as a repeatable laboratory experiment.

not all scientists are nearly as empirically-driven as this definition of science suggests.

Astronomy is far more observation than it is experimentation, since it is obviously hard to construct a galaxy in a laboratory. Geology is often an attempt to reconstruct historical events and processes from data collected thousands or perhaps millions of years after the events themselves, which requires significant assumptions about the relationship of past and present. What is more, even in the so-called hard sciences, not all scientists are nearly as empirically-driven as this definition of science suggests. Albert Einstein formulated his theory of relativity as an abstract thought experiment, isolated from real world proof. He argued that energy has mass and mass represents energy not because the data told him so but because it provided a more elegant solution to some difficult mathematical problems. In 1919, his theory of relativity was finally confirmed by a solar eclipse, when one of the fixed stars that is aligned with the edge of the sun appeared slightly displaced, meaning that the starlight bent under the influence of the sun’s gravitational field. This demonstrated that light energy behaves as if it has mass, which is affected by gravity. Yet Einstein himself was not at all interested in the empirical confirmation of his theory. When asked what he would have done had the eclipse experiment disproved his theory, “Then I would have been sorry for the dear Lord. The theory is correct.” In other words, for a scientist like Einstein, his theory came long before and had priority over empirical evidence.

Einstein is far from alone in this regard. When Nicolaus Copernicus suggested in the early 16th century that the earth rotated on its axis, and that both the earth and the planets revolved around the sun, there were no telescopes available with the power to confirm his hypothesis. The main argument in favor of his hypothesis was the fact that it dramatically simplified mathematical calculations. Indeed, some of the early scientific attempts to confirm Copernicus’ theory failed. Tycho Brahe tried and failed to observe any parallax in the position of the stars at different times of the year, which ought to exist if the earth is really moving with respect to them. And if the earth is really rotating rapidly on its axis, shouldn’t a ball thrown straight up in the air come down in a different place? In both cases, the effects were there but they were far too small to be observed with the technology of the time, so heliocentrism was hardly adopted because it was an empirically proven hypothesis. Indeed, with the rise of twentieth century astronomy, we might say that heliocentrism has been disproved. The sun is not the motionless center of the universe, but itself travels through space around the center of the Milky Way galaxy, which is itself merely one among many galaxies. All of this to say that the whole process of even defining what science is, let alone how it relates to our faith, is more complicated than we tend to think.


Excerpted from Thinking about Science, Faith and Origins: A (Very) Short Introduction (St Colme’s Press, 2019). Used with permission of the publisher.

Read More On Apologetics, faith, History, science

Iain Duguid

Dr. Duguid (PhD, Cambridge) is professor of Old Testament at WTS.

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