Eric Holloway, an electrical and computer engineer, offers some thoughts on how to prevent science from devolving into “scientism.” For an example of scientism, see Peter Atkins’s claim that science can answer all the Big Questions. Here’s John Mark Reynolds’s outline of the general problem:
Sometimes a culture takes a right road, sometimes it passes the right way and ends up a bit lost. Western Europe had a chance at the start of seventeenth century to get a few things right, but by the eighteenth century most had taken a worse way: Enlightenment or reaction. Enlightenment lost the wisdom of the Middle Ages, creating the myth of a dark age, and the main enlightened nation, France, ended the seventeenth century in butchery and dictatorship. Instead of the development of an urbane Spain Cervantes might have prefigured, there was a mere reaction away from the new ideas, including the good ones. More.
Intelligent Design: The Bridge Between Baconian Science and Thomistic Philosophy
Imagine giving your friend a good book filled with beautiful pictures and stories. Instead of reading it, the friend begins to count the letters, and make theories about which letters predict which pictures will come next, and analyze the types of ink used to print the pages. This does not make sense. Why doesn’t he just read the book? The reason, he claims, is because we do not want to bias ourselves by assuming the ink was arranged purposefully.
This story illustrates difference in perspective of the medieval ages and our modern scientific age. The medieval worldview was marked by the voluminous philosophy of Thomas Aquinas (1224/6—1274). The worldview of that time was that God is ultimate existence, and creation is ordered towards maximizing its existence in God. As such, there is a natural law that must be followed for humankind to flourish. Deviation from the natural law results in cessation of existence and death. Due to the ability of the human mind to rationally grasp changeless principles, the medievals thought there was something changeless and immortal about the human soul. Since all other physical creatures do not have this rational ability, they exist to a less perfect degree than human beings. This means that all humans inherently have a higher worth than all the rest of physical creation, and at the same time all humans are equal since it is of the nature of humankind to be rational, even if particular humans are incapable of rational thought
But, the intricate medieval tapestry begins to unravel. An expanding view of the globe, major diseases and wars, and internal criticisms leads to a breakdown of the Thomistic system. Francis Bacon (1561–1626), a leading popularizer of what we consider modern science, grows impatient with the monks’ philosophizing and debating. Demanding results, Bacon recommends carefully dissecting nature’s mysteries to heal the world’s suffering, instead of wondering about the meaning of it all. And thus was born the modern scientific age, where the perception of meaning is only a biased illusion and truth must be empirically measurable.
Today, Bacon’s view is the dominant view, so much so that we take it for granted. Science and technology have led to a revolution in health, wealth and material happiness throughout the world. In the space of a few centuries it has lifted the majority of the earth’s booming population out of poverty. The rigorous vision of Bacon, spoken with the precision of math, has given us the gift of the gods, but has also resulted in unprecedented death and destruction, horrific human experimentation, mass enslavement, cultural disintegration, and in general left us with a sense that we have lost something of great value that we cannot find again. The core reason for the aimlessness is because the building blocks of science are inert. They are like Legos in a box. You cannot shake the box of Legos and expect a spaceship to fall out. In the same way, mathematical proof and physical evidence cannot explain their own reason for being. Science cannot explain meaning. At the same time, the very inability of science to speak for itself says something of interest.
In medieval language this missing meaning is called function. Function cannot emerge from atoms in motion. It cannot emerge from shaking the Lego box. This claim can be proven mathematically. In information theory, function is a kind of mutual information. Mutual information is subject to the law of information non-increase, which means mutual information and thus function cannot be created by natural processes. Thus, without an organizing force, matter is functionless and void, and there is no meaning.
The fundamental insight of the intelligent design movement is that we can empirically differentiate function from accidental patterns created by natural processes. This means we can describe the Thomistic system with Baconian empirical precision if we really wanted to. Fortunately, humans seem to be pretty good at identifying function without huge amounts of empirical justification, unless they are university trained. The empirical detection of function is a new pair of glasses that corrects Bacon’s vision, and helps us again follow along the path that winds back through the medieval monasteries of Thomas Aquinas, with the mathematical and empirical rigor of science.
But, after hearing this Bacon will say, “it all sounds quite nice, but how is it useful? Function doesn’t feed children or cure cancer.” The answer to Bacon’s question is illustrated with the story of the book at the beginning. If we approach the natural world as if it were arbitrarily put together, then we miss many clues that can help us to understand and use it better.
We are seeing the scientific importance of empirically detecting function now with the ENCODE project. Previously, scientists believed that since the human genome was produced by evolution, most of it would be random and functionless. However, the ENCODE project has shown the majority of the human genome is functional. Now that we understand the genome is mostly functional, we will be better able to decode how it works and programs our body. So, contrary to Bacon, being able to detect function in the human genome can help us improve our lives.
This raises the further question: how would science change if we broaden our detection of function to the rest of the world? Since things work better if they follow their function, does this mean there is a proper order for human flourishing, as the medievals believed? Furthermore, what does science have to say about the creators of function, such as humans? Since matter cannot create function, function creators cannot be reduced to matter. And being more than matter, human beings must be more valuable than any material good. While it is true we cannot go from is to ought, intelligent design does provide a scientific basis for human ontological and pragmatic worth, as well as justify a natural law that must be followed in order for humanity to prosper. So, through the lens of intelligent design, science can indeed talk about the metaphysical realm of value and morals and explain the medieval worldview of function in the empirical language of modern science.
Note: This post also appeared at Patheos (August 30, 2018)
See also: Could one single machine invent everything? (Eric Holloway)
Renowned chemist on why only science can answer the Big Questions (Of course, he define th Big Questions as precisely the ones science can answer, dismissing the others a not worth bothering with.)