The Nature and Limitations of Science

by Steven Dunn

I wanted to write this post in regards to the nature/limitations of scientific methodology and discourse, since it is a highly misunderstood enterprise among the predominately modern skeptical community. Usually we encounter this “scientistic” attitude when it comes the authorities of knowledge.

One strict example of this notion can be found in Stephen Hawking’s recent book ‘The Grand Design’ (2010) where he writes:

“Philosophy is dead… Scientists have become the bearers of the torch of discovery in our quest for knowledge” (pg. 5).

Of course, Hawking doesn’t stand alone and hasn’t ever since the latter half of the 19th century during the Victorian era when science and religion started becoming a contrasted and [supposedly] dichotomous matter. Charles Bradlaugh, the early and great British freethinker, has also written in regards to the glory of science and vice of religion:

“Science has razed altar after altar heretofore erected to the unknown Gods, and has pulled down Deity after Deity from the pedestals on which ignorance and superstition had erected them. The priest, who had formerly spoken as the oracle of God, lost his sway just in proportion as the scientific teacher succeeded in impressing mankind with a knowledge of the facts around them.” (quoted from Gordon Stein, ‘An Anthology of Atheism and Rationalism’; cp. 1980, p. 13).

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And the examples throughout the last century and a half abound the more abundantly. So then, I have written this post for those who see science as an “all-knowing” enterprise which places its foot in the door as the final word for some given proposition that claims to hold knowledge.

I. Science hinges off of a method known as Induction. Induction (as Francis Bacon came to understand the term) is a method of taking a limited number of data, or examples, and making a general inference/rule that best explains the entire set of data. For instance, things tend to fall where dropped. Other things are likewise influenced by forces which are immensely larger than what we can drop (like planets, stars, etc.). Thus, we can infer gravity.

However, not all future examples will conform to the general rule. To suggest that it does, commits what is known as the induction fallacy. This says that we that can’t assume the future based off of events from the past…

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