Faith-based science

Take this as faith:

Our trust in the word of someone we esteem in a position to know, which we justify by pointing to the good we get from trusting.

So defined, one of the ironies of “science vs. faith” is that science only separates itself from philosophy, and from earlier (more rigorous) accounts of science by being faith-based.

I take my evidence for this as decisive: science is uncontroversially taught from nationwide standardized textbooks (NST). The evidence for what happens when you try to teach philosophy this way should be well known to most who comes to this site: remember what happened when the Church tried to make NST’s for  Thomistic philosophy after the Leonine revival. Philosophers are still howling in protest fifty years after it ended, and not only Anti-Thomists: the Laval school insists they reject NST’s out of love of St. Thomas, as does – in a very different way – David Bentley Hart.

There is (a) a general way that NST’s are faith-based (b) a particular, largely American historical way in which they are and (c) a way in which science as such is.

(a) Being N and S, NST’s present their subject as having a broad and far-reaching consensus. To achieve this they skip over or play down controversies, leave off important but too-technical complications, and promote a classroom defined not by inquiry but by drills and shop-talk vocabularies. We demand the student trust a consensus that is very frequently either absent, more complicated, or more hesitant and tentative than it is presented. If we demanded that the student actually know the subject the class would take ten times as long to teach and could be learned only by relatively few students. Rather, we ask students to trust the consensus in order to get some participation in a discourse while still having enough time to learn other things. Faith.

(b) The Back to the Basics movement in math education in the 70’s was predicated on the claim that abstract concepts and extended, proof-based discourse was too hard to teach and so we had to shift away from teaching an actual science to teaching topics in a science, often with an eye to practical applications and Engineering. All American science NST’s assume the same thing. Building up a science requires a lot more than just teaching more of its topics: it requires a systematic explication of the subject in the logical order appropriate to the subject itself. But if this is what we meant by science, we neither know what an actual science education would look like nor do we have any desire to write one. For those who actually know what a science looks like (say, those who have read Euclid or Thomas Aquinas or Newton or Galileo) an NST looks like an arbitrary and unscientific presentation of a subject. And so it is. Those who study it aren’t getting scientific knowledge but a series of topics that are useful to do practical things and might be used to construct a science some day. Faith again.

(c) More broadly, all science is an agreement to settle for something less than science in order to attain  various goods like

i.) to gather more data that might someday lead to solving the fundamental controversies that we first table, then forget, then treat as pointless to dispute. Knowledge advances only because we’ve agreed to lower the standard of what will count as proven, and then dismiss all higher standards as unscientific.

ii.) to get a sort of knowledge which, while not speculatively adequate, at least allows us to solve various pressing practical and engineering problems.

iii.) to see how far we can get if we act as if certain fundamental problems are solved, when in fact they’re just ignored.

Given this, the NST is a sort of recruiting tool and instruction manual for the sort of student that likes understanding topics in this way. Philosophical minds are ignored, selected against, allowed to drop out, or escorted behind the high walls of the Philosophy of Science camp. Everyone who is left treats consensus opinion as what is known, and lives off the practical benefits of the science and/or the hope of a oneday, rational TOE. More faith – and this time with an eschatology too.



1 Comment

  1. GeoffSmith said,

    December 26, 2015 at 2:50 pm

    I’ve often told my students that science is literally nothing other than measured personal experience followed by inferences for the experimenter and testimonial evidence for everybody else.

    People often forget this when they incredulously ask, “Why do you simply believe what people tell you instead of science?”

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