Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Supposing science ever became complete ...

"Supposing science ever became complete so that it knew every single thing in the whole universe. Is it not plain that the questions, 'Why is there a universe?' 'Why does it go on as it does?' 'Has it any meaning?' would remain just as they were?" -C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, Book I, Chapter 4


Thomas said...

Yet those questions all exist within our universe!

This is because they are composed of words, which in turn are composed of symbols.

Symbols are physical objects.

That they are encoded in electrons in silicon chips and appear as patterns of light emanating from computer monitors does not make them less real.

Adam D said...

... umm ... what? Thomas, are you trying to argue that philosophical questions are actually scientific questions because you can claim that to express a philosophical question one needs to use material things?

please elaborate because if that's your gist, it's utter nonsense.

Thomas said...

Thanks, Adam.

I think Professor Lewis misspoke. If he'd said that if all questions *about* the physical universe were one day answered, then further legitimate questions would remain, then I'd have no quibble.

As you say, philosophical questions cannot be settled by science.

I suspect that because that we cannot deduce moral theories from facts, theists believe that an independent God must exist to supply the missing justification for moral theories.

However, in reality, all theories are conjectured afresh. They do not require a legitimate source (such as a religious authority) or a basis of justification (such as a set of uncontroversial theories from which we may safely infer everything else).

Adam D said...

hmmm ... that doesn't seem to be what you were clumsily saying in your first post.

And really, it's about as enigmatic to me. Are you trying to be indirect? "All theories are conjectured afresh" what the heck does that mean? And why don't freshly conjectured theories require sources? Isn't it an important aspect of scientific method (which I take it you are espousing [but, again, you're not being terribly straight-forward in how you express yourself so it's hard to tell]) to work from data in order to formulate theories? i.e., sources are required before freshly conjecturing a theory?

Please, elaborate, again.

Thomas said...

OK, I'll try. Please bear in mind that it's difficult not to appear clumsy to another whose worldview may be very different from one's own. The truth is not obvious!

My point was that the questions C.S.Lewis listed *do exist* as things within our universe. He thought of them, typed them on a sheet of paper, and later they reappear in this blog. Yet science has not answered them, and nor can it in principle. So presumably science cannot know "every single thing in the whole universe".

This is not altogether a minor objection, because C.S. Lewis, as a theist, may wish to persuade the reader that *another* Entity or Being exists outside the universe who can supply the answer to those questions.

That all theories are conjectured afresh means that theories begin as guesses which originate in the minds of human beings.

The characteristic feature of science is that it often uses facts (the results of experiments) to select between competing theories. Theories are not induced or inferred from data.

Also, I wanted to say that the truth of a theory depends upon its content, not upon its source, as has been widely believed throughout history. Nor does a theory require positive justification or logical foundation.

All it requires is an explanation of how it solves some problem, and an attempt to address any criticisms that people raise.

Adam D said...

okay, Thomas. You've got an interesting position, to be sure. But first of all, you can drop comments like "Please bear in mind that it's difficult not to appear clumsy to another whose worldview may be very different from one's own. The truth is not obvious!" There's no need for such patronizing. Believe it or not, many theists (myself and our bloghost included) were probably atheists or agnostics at one point or another. We're certainly able to sympathize with your worldview.

As to your actual point of view, let me just say I think what you hold is outside the mainstream among materialists. Though materialists don't believe in God, they still work under the assumption (an inheritance from Christian cultures, btw) that the universe is consistent and understandable through laws which represent the way in which things behave. As such, theories do indeed need justification and sources. That is, theories are inferred from observable data and need to correlate (their justification) to reality.

Wikipedia has a fine article on the scientific method which is quite how I remember being taught in school, and which sounds like it contradicts your ideas about how it should work.

As for this idea being a rebuttal of what Lewis expressed in his first, it just ain't. You simply misunderstand his point. Lewis has plenty of ways for arguing that there is a God and that this God became man in Jesus, but this particular quote is simply a setup to those arguments (not such an argument in itself) by leading the reader to reject the common assumption among materialists that the scientific method can answer all questions. In fact it can't answer questions of meaning and metaphysics and such.

You are getting into all these odd expressions just because you are stretching the quote to cover what it isn't meant to. It's enough to leave this matter at "yes, science cannot answer philosophical questions" and be glad we have a point of agreement in our differing worldviews.

Robert Velarde said...

In context, the quote cited is part of a case that Lewis is building towards theism. At this stage in his line of reasoning in Mere Christianity, he is contrasting the materialistic worldview with religious worldviews.

Lewis then goes on in the chapter wherein the quote appears to describe the scientific method in brief. He adds, "Do not think I am saying anything against science: I am only saying what its job is."

Lewis did not see science as the enemy of Christianity, but was cautious about incorporating particular scientific evidences into an apologetic case, lest Christianity end up looking foolish for incorporating a line of reasoning that might later be proven false.

But in relation to philosophical/religious/metaphysical questions, Lewis believed science had definite limits. As such, he opposed not science but scientism -- belief that science is the ultimate if not only viable means of assessing reality or gaining knowledge, making the quote at bottom a matter of epistemology.

Lewis then goes on to make a case for something that is "more like a mind than it is like anything else we know" or for a "power" beyond the universe by addressing human beings and human nature in reference to natural law (inherent moral tendencies).

It is a variation, of course, of a moral argument for theism, but Lewis is careful in the progression and in the argument. He admits, for instance, that he is only making an incremental step in the direction of the God of Christian theism.

In context, then, the quotation is about the function and limits of science, which builds to Lewis's case for something leading to theism via a moral argument.

Your statement, Thomas, "Nor does a theory require positive justification or logical foundation," is at odds with the majority view of what science and scientists consider a theory. They do indeed require positive justification and logical foundations.

Thomas said...

Please believe me, Adam, when I say that I think both our intentions are honourable. I sincerely believe that the truth isn't obvious, or else why would we bother to read, think and debate?

I began by pointing out what struck me as a factual error in the C.S.Lewis quote. I also thought it was interesting that, independent of their possible interpretations, symbols are physical objects.

This isn't meant as a defence of materialism, which is false. There are many real entities which aren't made of matter (e.g. words, numbers). Where they are referred to by symbols, their properties are independent of the media in which those symbols appear.

I think C.S. Lewis might have found this interesting. If it helps to raise the tone, allow me to add that I have been an admirer of his since childhood.

I'll try to explain why scientific theories aren't inferred from data.

This is because it's impossible to extrapolate from observations unless one has already placed them within an explanatory framework.

Any set of observations is logically consistent with an infinity of theories. Imagine you have a graph of experimental data points. There are an infinite number of curves which you could draw through those points. If you consider one curve to be more valid than another, it could only be because you have a theory which allows you to interpret the data in a particular way.

The role of observation is to select between competing explanations, where other forms of criticism have failed. This is what experiments are designed to do.

Thomas said...


Thanks for supplying the context. I agree with all except the final paragraph.

It's not enough to reassert that theories must rest on foundations, you have to explain it.

Or perhaps you could try, by your own terms, to supply the missing foundations.

(That task might make the following criticism more obvious.)

If we try to make the truth of theories depend upon the truth of other, less controversial theories, such as facts, then we create an infinite regress.

For no theory is self-evident. However sure we are that a given theory is true, we could be wrong.

Thus any purportedly foundational theory would itself require positive justification, ad infinitum.

Robert Velarde said...

Thomas, I'm glad we agree on some common ground, at least in reference to everything in my previous comment except, as you note, the final paragraph.

Our area of disagreement is in reference to epistemology. As you probably know, but what I will state for some readers who may not know, epistemology has to do with knowledge, as well as related issues such as truth and justification.

Skepticism of varying forms might approach epistemology in one or more ways. Foundationalists and coherentists, moreover, have differing approaches to knowledge, with the former arguing that some beliefs are "properly basic," while the latter favor more of an interconnected web of knowledge without such properly basic foundations.

There is, naturally, much more that could be said on epistemology, but I doubt we could tackle more than the rudiments via a blog dialogue.

I suppose my basic point, then, is that based on my approach to epistemology the final sentence in my previous comment is indeed accurate, meaning that within such an epistemological framework of foundationalism, theories do require positive justification and logical foundations.

Moreover, I would reiterate that the majority view among scientists would concur with such an epistemological perspective.

Thomas said...


Fair enough. If you do find a response to my criticisms, I'd be interested to hear it.

It's fitting that we disagree about epistemology, since mine, which is due to Karl Popper, is an *evolutionary* theory of knowledge.

I don't know what proportion of professional scientists follows Popper. Perhaps they don't think much about philosophy at all.

However, I am confident that neither of us care very much what any majority thinks: it's the truth that matters.

Robert Velarde said...

Your first paragraph in your most recent post suggests that I have offered no response to your criticisms, suggesting that your position stands, while mine does not. I don't know if this was your intent or not, but that is how it comes across.

What I've been making an effort to do in this thread is understand your position and respond and assess as the dialogue progresses. This is hardly dodging, ignoring, or failing to respond to your criticisms.

Let us return to the post that sparked this discussion. I quoted a passage of Mere Christianity wherein Lewis briefly argues against the position that science can know everything. In short, he makes a case against what might be termed hard scientism, which I explained in a later post. You replied by stating, in part, "I agree with all except the final paragraph." This, then, means that you agree with the original Lewis quotation I cited.

Your most recent post grants your epistemological reliance on Popper, which makes sense given your previous posts. I disagree with Popper, as my previous posts indicate. Rather, I agree with the maxim that knowledge is justified true belief, with truth being that which corresponds to reality.

For responses to your epistemological criticisms, see, for instance, Alvin Plantinga and Nicholas Wolterstorff, though my concern here is that this discussion will just become a matter of tossing reading recommendations back and forth to one another. Nevertheless, given your apparent position that I have not responded to your criticisms, I thought it beneficial to suggest some sources of responses.

Lastly, I find it curious that although you do not believe that a theory requires "positive justification" or "logical foundations," throughout this thread you nevertheless show clear indications of offering positive justification and logical foundations for your theory of epistemology. It looks self-refuting.

Thomas said...


Rather than attempting to positively justify Popper's epistemology (Critical Rationalism), which couldn't work, I want to show that its rivals are false.

Then any reasonable person would want to adopt CR, and adjust his worldview accordingly.

I gave a criticism of foundationalism earlier in this thread, explaining how it leads to an infinite regress.

I guess I am hoping you'll explain how the criticism fails, or indicate how I have misrepresented foundationalism, or supply some other arguments that go to the substance of our disagreement.

I suppose I could go away and read the books you recommend, but I'd prefer not to, unless you insist (and if I can find the time!)

* * *

> This, then, means that you agree with the original Lewis quotation I cited.

No. I merely agreed with your description of Lewis's case against scientism.

I'm with you and Lewis on scientific chauvinism: scientism is false and a plague in our culture at present :-(

I began by pointing out an apparent flaw in what Lewis claimed in the text you quoted. I didn't want to address Lewis's whole subsequent case, although it was kind of you to describe it.

In order to "know every single thing in the whole universe", one would have to *explain* every single thing in it. This would include taking positions on why the physical symbols that make up the questions Lewis listed are arranged in the ways they are, and not in other ways. And one cannot do that without reference to philosophical theories, nor indeed without taking philosophical positions.

Perhaps it was a trivial objection, but I find it surprising and beautiful that the reality is unified in this way.

Adam D said...

I feel I'm gonna have to read up on Popper and Critical Rationalism a bit ... not a philosophy I'm familiar with, but it's a relief to be given a source for understanding what you're arguing for, Thomas. I'll let Robert continue to address Critical Rationalism, if he decides to take the time to do so (he is the proper philosopher here, I'm just an artist who likes to get my feet wet in philosophy).

But I would like to take umbrage with the concept that, in undertaking a scientific explanation of everything, one needs to explain even the symbols used in expressing oneself. On the contrary, science works from several assumptions, one of which, as I said earlier, is the assumption that the universe is intelligible and consistent and describable by laws. Similarly, it works under simple, nearly universal assumptions of the intelligibility of our normal means of communication (like speaking, writing, mathematical equations). It is the nature of science to work from these assumptions. When's the last time a scientist described his preference for German over English because the science was clearer in one language vs the other? It doesn't happen because the message is not intimately tied to its medium and isn't assumed to be.

Now you might, in your philosophy, believe that an explanation of everything necessarily entails explaining even one's chosen symbols, but that's not doing science. Science works just fine by skipping over such considerations and proceeding (correctly, I think) that such questions are moot.

Adam D said...

I meant "presuming" not "proceeding" in my last line. sorry.

Robert Velarde said...

Thanks, Thomas, for the stimulating discussion. I've appreciated your willingness to interact with the ideas presented here, as well as your efforts to engage in civil discussion.

Regarding the infinite regress criticism of foundationalism, this is something foundationalists are aware of, but Plantinga could offer a far better response to the criticism than I could. As a moral philosopher I have some affinity for epistemology but it is not my primary area of expertise (there are, of course, varieties of foundationalists as well).

In short, some beliefs are "properly basic," thus providing a foundation to foundationalism rather than resulting in an infinite regress. Thus, according to Reformed epistemology, some beliefs such as belief in God may be properly basic. This, however, need not (and in my case does not) do away with the need for rational evidences and lines of reasoning in support of a position.

You will have a hard time convincing me of your epistemic position if the extent of your argument for your case is "to show that its rivals are false." This strikes me as essentially claiming that if you could put enough holes in other positions, then your position must be true by default. But this is not logically the case, as the views you are criticizing could be false as well as your own view.

For example, if I were to try and demonstrate that Christianity has a high probability of being true by merely criticizing competing worldviews to show they are deficient, this would not necessarily make my position true by default.

One of the things I appreciate about the Christian worldview is that I can not only make efforts to argue for its truth on the basis of criticizing other worldviews (with gentleness and respect, 1 Peter 3:15), but also because I can offer positive justification on behalf of Christianity via reason, historical evidences, etc.

Regarding Popper, would The Logic of Scientific Discovery be a good resource to review to better understand his epistemology or might you have some other resources in mind?

At any rate, while I am game, so to speak, for continuing this dialogue, I don't know that I could do so without writing extensive exchanges back and forth -- something I find tedious on a blog. I will, however, continue to give it a shot as my schedule permits.

Thomas said...


I'll check out Plantinga and "properly basic" beliefs, and I'm looking forward to "Conversations with C.S. Lewis", too :-)

I learnt CR mostly from reading Chapter 3 of "The Fabric of Reality" by David Deutsch. (The book has a slightly different title in the U.S.)

Thomas said...


A diehard fallibilist will rationally hold assumptions but he'll never believe that they are *certainly* true.

Even if he *felt* certain that one was true, how could he be sure about *that* (his feeling)?

One of the cool things about CR is that it has fallibility built into it.

Mathematicians assumed for a long time that two parallel lines will never meet. It seemed like common sense. Eventually someone questioned and relaxed this assumption, giving birth to a new field of geometry.

Physicists later discovered that our spacetime is described by this new geometry and not by Euclid's (which is merely a special case).

I wouldn't be surprised if one or two scientists and philosophers are taking seriously the idea that reality is *un*intelligible.

Sorry: I think I've led everyone up the garden path with this symbols business i.e. caused confusion

Suffice it to say that although moral assertions cannot be derived from physical assertions (nor vice versa), moral explanations and physical explanations are intertwined.

Martin LaBar said...

I agree with Lewis. Thanks.