Philosophy of Science

[The following essay was presented orally at the University of Oregon on May 3, 2006. – ed.]

May 3, 2006 © 2006 Thomas O. Alderman



University of Oregon

Defining “Science”:

How Philosophy Reconciles

Science and Religion

Introduction: Science and the Philosophy of Science.

There are two ways to approach the question of human origins: either by discussing the evidence, or by discussing the quality of our reasoning about the evidence.

This is the distinction between science and the philosophy of science.

I think it would be fair to say that many people do not appreciate the importance of philosophy, and this may be especially true of the philosophy of science.  Indeed, I submit that the controversy over human origins is intractable not so much because evolutionary biologists are bad scientists as that most of them are atrocious philosophers.

Evidence of design in nature is absolutely astounding.  However, I want to emphasize that I do not intend to discuss that evidence in any detail this evening.  I have done that on many occasions in the past,1 and hope to do so many times again; but this evening, for once, I want to focus instead on the false assumptions which prevent many of us from correctly interpreting the evidence; and as we will soon see, this is a huge subject in itself and more than deserving of our attention.  Since I have only thirty minutes, I have no intention of proving here the theory of intelligent design to be true – although I can – but only to challenge you, whenever you do consider the evidence, to consider it intelligently.

II. The Philosophy of Science.

What do I mean when I refer to “the philosophy of science?”  Webster’s dictionary states that the term philosophy comes from the Greek for “loving wisdom,” and it provides eleven definitions.  Two of those definitions are of greatest interest to us in understanding science.

One definition of philosophy is this: philosophy is “the [field of study] comprising logic, ethics, aesthetics, metaphysics and epistemology.”  Of those five branches of philosophy, most people assume that science only concerns itself with the last – epistemology, which is the theory of knowledge.  In this sense, science is understood as those methods which are regarded as reliable for gaining knowledge of the natural world, and we have no quarrel with this understanding of science, except that it is incomplete.  It is important to remember that science is also concerned with at least two other branches of philosophy, namely, logic and metaphysics.  Thus, scientists employ both inductive reasoning (generalizing from particular observations) and deductive reasoning (drawing inferences, making predictions based on general principles), and they concern themselves with the ultimate nature of physical reality.

The other definition of philosophy which concerns us this evening is that philosophy is the conceptual framework for a particular subject.  Philosophy can thus be understood as the project of offering intelligible reasons for the priorities and methods of a particular discipline, in order to enable us to form judgments as to whether those priorities and methods are appropriate and useful.  Thus, for example, we have political philosophy and legal philosophy, we have the philosophy of religion . . . and we have the philosophy of science.  When used in this sense, then, the philosophy of science is the conversation which the scientific community has with itself and with the human community as a whole as to the values, goals, rules and methods that are proper to science so that they can be understood, compared, criticized, shown to be valid and useful or not, and if not, improved.

One important task of philosophy is to enable us to think well – to think intelligently and rationally.  In fulfilling this task, one of the most useful things philosophy asks us to do is to define our terms carefully.  Often we find – and this is nowhere more true than in the controversy over human origins – that much confusion can be traced to the fact that the parties to the conversation never stop to define their terms; consequently, they  use the same words to mean very different things, and when that happens, there is no communication.

At the very heart of the philosophical or theoretical framework for science is the question, What is science?  How can we distinguish science from non-science, or science from religion, or science from philosophy, if we do not have a common understanding of what science is?  And it is here, at the heart of the philosophy of science, that evolutionary theorists fail us, for they cannot give us a defensible definition of science.  They either refuse to give us a definition at all, or they give us one which is obviously fallacious.  I want to encourage you to consider the possibility that resolving the confusion on this point may be the key to the entire controversy concerning human origins.

III. It is Philosophers, not Scientists, who Define Science.

To begin, we must first realize that the task of defining the term, science, is not a task for scientists as such, but for philosophers.  There are at least three important reasons for this.

A.The Question is not one of Science.

One obvious reason is that we cannot answer this question by employing scientific methodology.  This is simply because the definition of science is not a question about the natural world, but about science.  There is no experiment, there are no empirical observations, which have been made or which could be made, which would help us to decide what we ought to mean when we employ the term, “science.”  There are no peer-reviewed articles in the journals proclaiming the discovery of scientific methodology in a test tube, or in a super-collider, or on some distant planet!  No, we do not discover the meaning of science as scientists making observations; we discover the meaning of science as philosophers, on the basis of reason.

B.Who is a Scientist?

Another reason why it is clearly fallacious to claim that it is scientists who must define science is that it begs the question. To say that scientists define science is circular.  Who is a scientist?  We cannot answer that question without first knowing what science is.  If only scientists define science, then no one can, because until we define it, no one knows who the scientists are!

Now obviously, in practice scientists do define science; but what we must understand is that when they do so, they do not do it in their capacity as scientists, but in their capacity as philosophers.  Now, they may or may not be professional philosophers, but that is not what matters.  Everyone is a philosopher, whether they know it or not.  You don’t need a degree to be a philosopher, any more than you need a degree to be a scientist or a theologian;2 what matters is not that a person be a professional philosopher, but that he or she be a good philosopher.

C. Our Appeal Must be to Reason.

Many who insist that scientists must define science, do so honestly – they are making an innocent mistake.  Others, however, know better, but they make the claim anyway because they know that modern science enjoys enormous authority and prestige within society, and they hope that this will result in their audience accepting their pronouncements uncritically.  This is an appeal to authority.

At other times, the insistence that it is scientists who must define science merely betrays an awareness that the scientific establishment has power over the terms of the discussion – i.e., they control the science departments and the leading journals – and they are hoping that dissenting voices will simply not be heard. Indeed, some scientists will frankly acknowledge this in private.  This is an appeal to power.

Such appeals are not entitled to our respect.  When we seek to justify what we are doing, we must not make a naked appeal to convention, or authority, or to power.  We must appeal to reason.  That is the whole point of philosophy, and this is why philosophy is too important to be left to scientists!

IV. Toward a Definition of “Science.”

Since, then, we are all philosophers, and since it is the business of philosophy to define science, how shall we define it?  Simple!  We again look in the dictionary!  According to Webster’s, the term science comes from sciere, which is Latin for “to know.”  Thus, science is just another word for knowledge.  Therefore, we should define science as follows:

Science is the collective human effort to gain knowledge about reality.

That’s how I would define it.

Let us contrast the foregoing definition with one which differs from it in one small but significant way:

Science is the collective human effort to gain knowledge of the causes of natural phenomena.

The reason the second definition is inferior to the first one is that the second contains a questionable presupposition – namely, that science is or should be concerned only with natural phenomena – or conversely, that science is not or should not be concerned with non-natural phenomena.

What is wrong with that presupposition?

It is wrong because it limits the scope of science and offers no justification for doing so. It declares that there is or may be an aspect of reality concerning which we do not or should not wish to know, and it is therefore antithetical to science.

What is the orthodox definition of science?

Science is the collective human effort to gain knowledge of the physical causes of natural phenomena.3

Notice the difference: according to the orthodox, science is not the search for the causes of natural phenomena, but for the physical causes of natural phenomena.  What does this mean?

It means that modern science assumes that all natural phenomena result from physical causation.

What do we mean by physical causation?

Physical causation is what happens when one physical object collides with another.

Physical causation is to be contrasted with . . . what?  What other kinds of causation are there?  There are only two kinds of causation: physical causation and personal causation.  Thus, the orthodox definition of science comes down to this: science is the search for impersonal explanations for natural phenomena.

And this is the distinction we must focus on – not the distinction between the physical and the spiritual; not between the natural and the supernatural; but the distinction between the personal and the impersonal.

Take the case of the billiard ball.  When a pool player strikes the cue ball with her stick, the cue ball (if she has any skill) strikes the object ball, causing it to move.  In reverse order, the motion of the object ball results from a physical cause, namely, a collision with the cue ball.  In turn, the motion of the cue ball is caused by a collision with the cue, and the motion of the cue results from the motion of the body of the player, and the motion of the body of the player is caused – by what?  By the player!  But what is the player?

Naturalistic scientists – those who are willing to follow their premises to their conclusions – will tell you frankly that the player does not exist.  The action of her body is not caused by her, but by prior physical events.  Her consciousness and volitions are viewed as some kind of emanation resulting from complex neurochemical events.  Our thoughts are supposed to be the results of the motions of the particles in our brains, which, in turn, are caused by the motions of other particles, many of them in the form of electrons reaching our brains through our sensory apparatuses.

Thus we see that orthodoxy commits not one, but two crucial errors. First, it prohibits inquiry into part of reality. Second, even where it permits inquiry, it prohibits inferences to personal causation.  And it accomplishes both of these moves by its fallacious definition of science.

Why do evolutionary theorists define science so as to exclude the personal?  Because it is congenial to their metaphysics.  They have bought into a religious world view known as naturalism.

In this view, nature is considered to be a unitary system of continuous physical (i.e., impersonal) causation.  There are two forms of naturalism – strong naturalism, and weak naturalism:

Strong (atheistic) naturalism: Only matter and energy exist.  (This view is roughly equivalent to materialism, and the two terms are often used interchangeably.)

Weak (deistic) naturalism: An immaterial reality may or may not exist, but if it does, it is undetectable and hence, not amenable to scientific inquiry.

There are three things that we must understand about naturalism.  First, it is not science, because it is not based on any observations.  Science has not gone looking for God and found him missing!  No, science has not gone looking for God, spirits, persons, or anything immaterial, because science considers it unscientific to do so.  Scientists are not likely to do the very thing which they believe their own discipline prohibits.

Another reason naturalism is not science is that it prohibits inquiry into a certain area of knowledge – namely, knowledge of the personal.  Therefore, if science is knowledge, then naturalism cannot be science because it is the very antithesis of knowledge!

No, far from being scientific, naturalism is a religious point of view, because in both of its forms it is a statement about God: either that He does not exist at all, or that His activity in nature is unverifiable.

Second, we must also see that naturalism’s denial of the existence of the personal is not limited to God: it also extends to human persons.  Remember the pool player?  Just as naturalistic science is blind to the evidence for design in nature, it is also blind to the ontological authenticity of the human person.

This is why William Provine of Cornell University, a leading historian of science, can say:

Modern science directly implies that the world is organized strictly in accordance with mechanistic principles.  There are no purposive principles whatsoever in nature.  There are no gods and no designing forces that are rationally detectable. . . .

. . . [M]odern science directly implies that . . . human beings are marvelously complex machines.  The individual human becomes an ethical person by means of two . . . mechanisms: heredity and environmental influences.  That is all there is.

Finally, free will . . . simply does not exist. . . .  There is no way that the evolutionary process as currently conceived can produce a being that is truly free to make choices.

Thus, according to naturalism, you as a person do not exist.

How does the naturalistic scientist know this?  What experiment has shown this?  No experiment.

Brain science is showing in greater and greater detail that mind and body are closely related, but it has not solved the problem of consciousness.  The naturalistic scientist knows that personal causation does not occur not because he has gone looking for it and found it to be absent, but because he has deliberately defined science in such a way as to guarantee that no evidence will be considered contrary to his prior metaphysical commitment to the proposition that personal causation does not occur.  As a result, to the orthodox, no evidence is necessary to justify naturalistic explanations; and to the orthodox, no evidence can ever be sufficient to warrant a finding of personal causation.

V. The Divided Field of Knowledge.

Even human personal causation is a problem for naturalistic science, but what about physical phenomena that are not “man-made”?  That is to say, what is the cause of, say, the information content of DNA?  No naturalistic answer has been provided.  Again, physical causation is simply assumed, on the basis that the notion of personal causation of natural systems is not science, but religion.  This is another form of the same error.

The term religion comes from the Latin, religare, “to bind.”  It does not come from the Latin for ignorance.  Thus, science and religion are certainly different things, but they are not opposites, and there is no reason for regarding them as mutually exclusive or even incompatible.

So why, then, do many scientists subscribe to this viewpoint?  The truth is that very few of them know why.  It is just what they have always been taught, and so have most of us – this is not just the view of the scientific establishment; it is part of the furniture of the western mind.  Most of us think this way.

The reason most of us don’t know why we think this way is that we don’t know when or why science and religion parted company in the first place.  To many of us, the 17th century may seem like a long time ago, but it’s really not; and until then, both science and religion were almost universally seen as valid and mutually compatible.  But over the course of the next 300 years, they parted company.  There were many reasons for this, but in my opinion the most important single reason is that the church made the colossal blunder of sacralizing a nonbiblical view of the cosmos and clinging to it when it became discredited.  This practice occurred across centuries,4 but no doubt its most stunning example occurred in the year 1616, when the church continued to teach that the sun revolves around the earth when science had shown that the earth revolves around the sun, and forced Galileo to disavow what he had plainly seen.

This was followed quickly by the wars of religion 1618-1648, the discoveries of Isaac Newton, and in the 18th Century, the failed attempt of the Enlightenment to contrive a nonbiblical basis for morality.  And that brings us to Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), who tried to rescue morality in the following way.  He said:

the doctrine of morality and the doctrine of science may each be true in its own sphere.  I have, therefore, found it necessary to deny knowledge of God, freedom, and immortality, in order to find a place for faith.

In other words, there is, according to Kant, a divided field of knowledge.  He justifies our beliefs in God and morality, but he denies that they are verifiable: he declares faith and fact to be mutually exclusive!

It is this divided field of knowledge which is responsible for the modern proclivity for thinking of science as an exclusively secular pursuit of mechanistic, naturalistic explanations for natural phenomena, and not as an integral part of man’s unitary quest for knowledge.  And thus has it been ever since.

This way of thinking is so deeply embedded in the western mind that we are not even aware of it.  Of course, evolutionary theorists do everything they can to perpetuate it, but it was and remains a catastrophic blunder.  There is only one field of knowledge.  Whatever is, is, and whatever is not, is not.  But by the turn of the 20th century, for many reasons, naturalism and science had become synonymous, and naturalism has ruled science ever since.

Thus Stephen Jay Gould, who until his death in 2005 was the world’s best-known popularizer of evolutionary theory, stated that “science treats factual reality, while religion struggles with human morality.”  As Phillip Johnson says, this is naturalistic metaphysics in a nutshell, and it is transparently fallacious, because God’s commandments cannot provide a basis for morality unless He actually exists.  But if God actually exists, then we are not entitled to assume that all natural phenomena have resulted from physical causation.

Furthermore, mountains of scientific evidence, including Big Bang theory and the Fine Tuning of the Universe, which I will discuss in a moment, strongly suggest not only that God does in fact exist, but also that He made the universe and everything in it.

VI. Design Theory.

What, then, is design theory, after all?

First, let us be clear about what design theory is not.  Design theory is NOT the theory that God created living things.  That is what the opponents of design want you to think design theory is, because it is easier for them to argue against that than it is for them to argue against design theory.  But that is not design theory.

Design theory is many things, but for the sake of brevity, let me discuss just one aspect of design theory, which is that it is simply a formal test for design.  It applies three simple criteria to physical phenomena which enable us to reliably detect design when it is present and to exclude design when it is not present.  Here are the three criteria:

1. If an object or event is relatively complex;

2. If the object or event corresponds to some meaningful extrinsic standard – that is, if it matches something else, the purpose of which is already known; and

3. If there is no known, plausible, physical explanation for the object, such as erosion, or seismic activity, or gamma rays, etc. . .

then we infer design.

Now, the more complex the object, and the more exactly it matches an extrinsic standard, and the more unlikely physical causation happens to be, the greater our confidence that the object was designed.  So it is always a matter of probability.

For example: If we find a styrofoam cup in the wilderness, we will never mistake it for an accident of nature.

Please note carefully that unlike scientific naturalism, design theory is metaphysically neutral.  It does not presuppose that anything was designed, and it does not presuppose who a designer may be.  It certainly does not presuppose that there is a God or that anything was designed by God.  It is merely a metaphysically neutral test for deciding whether a particular item was or was not designed.

The scientific status of this aspect of design theory is already recognized by the scientific establishment in fields other than biology.

For instance, it is employed every day in archeology to distinguish human artifacts from natural objects.  If an archeologist finds a hieroglyph, he knows immediately that it was designed by an intelligent agent.

The reason design theory works is that design is a mental activity and therefore necessarily implies personal causation.  It is meaningless to say that an object was “designed” by an impersonal process.

Now, it may come as a surprise to many of you that design theory is also commonly employed in the field of physics – that is, in the study of non-living physical phenomena.

There is a mountain of evidence that the physical universe was designed.  Here I am referring to what has become known as “the fine-tuning of the universe.”

There is a wealth of recent discoveries in the fields of physics and astrophysics which strongly suggests that the cosmos was designed, from the smallest structures to the largest.  Physical matter appears to be specific to the fostering of complex life. The physical specifications necessary for complex life to exist are so numerous and exacting that the inference to design is quite strong – strong enough, at least, for many leading physicists to acknowledge openly the apparent necessity of the design inference.

Most Americans, I suppose, would be surprised to learn this, and I am sure we can thank our ever-vigilant mainstream media for this.  But it’s not a secret to leading scientists.  For instance, Stephen J. Hawking, acknowledged as one of the greatest theoretical physicists since Einstein (and not a traditional theist), describes the evidence in the following way:

The laws of science . . . contain many fundamental numbers, like the size of the electric charge of the electron and the ratio of the masses of the proton and the electron. . . . The remarkable fact is that the values of these numbers seem to have been very finely adjusted to make possible the development of life. For example, if the electric charge of the electron had been only slightly different, stars either would have been unable to burn hydrogen and helium, or else they would not have exploded. . . . [There have been several generations of stars, and it was the first generation of stars which produced the heavy elements, and the explosion of those stars was necessary in order for those heavy elements to be dispersed for the formation both of the rocky planets and of our bodies of flesh and bone.]  [I]t seems clear that there are relatively few ranges of values for the numbers that would allow the development of any form of intelligent life. . . .

. . . .

. . . It would be very difficult to explain why the universe should have begun in just this way, except as the act of a God who intended to create beings like us.5

So is design theory science when it is employed in the fields of archeology and physics, but not science when it is employed in biology?

As we have seen, the orthodox justify their refusal to permit inquiry about personal causation in biology by excluding the personal from science not on the basis of experiment or observation, but by definition.

And this is why evolutionary theorists can look at evidence for design in nature, call it design, and still not see it.  For example, A. G. Cairns-Smith is a prominent evolutionist who, in Seven Clues to the Origin of Life, states:

[W]hat impresses us about a living thing is its in-built ingenuity, its appearance of having been designed, thought out – of having been put together with a purpose. . . .

Similarly, Richard Dawkins, one of today’s most active anti-design polemicists, writes,

Biology is the study of complicated things that give the appearance of having been designed for a purpose.

This is why famed British historian Paul Johnson refers to evolutionary orthodoxy as a form of “intellectual totalitarianism.”  According to Johnson, fervent Darwinists are inadvertently undoing the very cause they champion.  He states:

[T]o anyone who has studied the history of science . . . it is inevitable that Darwinism, at least in its fundamentalist form, will come crashing down.  The only question is: when?  The likelihood that Darwin’s eventual debacle will be sensational and brutal is increased by the arrogance of his acolytes, by their insistence on the unchallengeable truth of the theory of natural selection – which to them is not a hypothesis but a demonstrated fact, and its critics mere flat-earthers – and by their success in occupying the commanding heights in the university science departments and the scientific journals, denying a hearing to anyone who disagrees with them. [Johnson says] I detect a groundswell of discontent at this intellectual totalitarianism, so unscientific by its very nature.  It is wrong that any debate, especially one on so momentous a subject as the origin of species, and the human race above all, should be arbitrarily declared to be closed, and the current orthodoxy set in granite for all time.  Such a position is not tenable, and the evidence that it is crumbling is growing.

Antony Flew, professor emeritus at Oxford University, until 2004 was one of the planet’s leading proponents of atheism.  But after reading Michael Behe’s bombshell, Darwin’s Black Box: the Biochemical Challenge to Evolution, Flew became a theist.  He said:

My whole life has been guided by the principle of . . . Socrates: follow the evidence, wherever it leads.

And the evidence leads to design.


1Joshualetter 2002.  Click Articles and Essays/Science/Darwinism.  [This link is no longer active.]

2Michael Faraday (1791-1867) had no formal scientific training, but became famous for his discoveries in the fields of electromagnetism and electrochemistry. There have been many other important amateur scientists.

3“The most basic characteristic of science [is] reliance upon naturalistic explanations.” Brief of amicus curiae National Academy of Sciences, Aguillard v. Edwards, 482 US 578 (1987).

4Beginning at least as early as Averroes, b. 1126.

5Stephen Hawking, A Brief History of Time (New York: Bantam Books, 1998, 1996), pp. 129-131.  More than 200 physical constants have been discovered which must be exactly what they are in order for the universe to have developed in such a way as to produce habitat suitable for humanity.  See, for instance, The Creation Hypothesis: Scientific Evidence for an Intelligent Designer, J. P. Moreland, ed. (Downer’s Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1996);; (click links to Articles and Essays, Science, Darwinism, Chapter 5).[Website not currently available.]  The resulting probability of even one earth-like planet occurring anywhere in the cosmos by chance is infinitesimal.

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