Science and Reason Yes, Science-and-Reason No
by Tom Gilson
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…
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