Saturday, October 27, 2012

The limits of science

From an email exchange I had with a friend:

i) I think scientific realism is paradoxical. Here’s one reason. Scientific realism aims at providing an objective, third-person description of the world. Not only is that the aim, but that’s a presupposition.

However, science ultimately depends on observation. On the human observer. So underlying the third-person perspective is a first-person perspective. And it’s hard to see how science can bootstrap a third-person perspective from a first-person perspective.

ii) But the paradox runs even deeper. According to a scientific analysis of sensory perception, we don’t perceive the world directly. Rather, our perception of the world is mediated by various intervening processes. Physical objects generate sound waves, light waves, &c. That’s a form of coded energy or coded information. When that reaches our eyes, ears, and other sensory relays, that’s translated into different coded energy. Say, from electromagnetic signals to electrochemical signals.

The upshot is that my internal representation of the external world is coded information. I have a mental image of a tree. But if the scientific analysis of sensory perception is correct, then my mental representation isn’t a miniature image of the tree, but a coded analogue.

Yet if that’s the case, then there’s no reason to assume the mental representation resembles the external object, any more than musical notation resembles sound.

We tend to think of the eyes as cameras which take photographs of the outside world. The difference between the tree “out there” and my mental image is basically a difference in scale and dimensionality (i.e. a 2D image of a 3D object).

But it’s hard to see (pardon the pun) how a process of coding energy is likely to yield a readout that resembles the distal stimulus.

iii) And that’s not the end of the paradox. For we’re having to use sensory perception to analyze sensory perception. A circular procedure. So we can’t get behind the process to study the process apart from the process, for we are part of the very process we study! The percipient perceiving himself.

In a scientific analysis of sensory perception, we’re tacitly assuming a viewpoint independent of the observer. A viewpoint over and above the process. We imagine the tree “out there.” We imagine the tree generating light waves. We track the light waves as they impinge on the retina. We continue to trace the process from the outside into the brain.

But that’s an illusion. For the scientific analysis is ultimately on the receiving end of the process. Hence, we’re never in a position to retrace the process.

But in that event, the deceptively objective scientific description is even further removed from reality than appears to be the case.

So the conclusion circles back and falsifies the premise. That leaves us totally in the dark.

iv) And it’s truly insoluble given naturalism. Contrast that to Christian theism. If God made us, if God made the world, then I can understand how God could coordinate what the tree is really like, outside the observer, with the observer’s mental picture of the tree. God could design a process in which the output resembles the input.

But how would an unguided evolutionary process be able to compare what the tree is really like with our mental representation of the tree? There’s no overarching intelligence to compare the two in advance and create a chain-of-custody in which appearance and reality eventually match up.

v) Unbelievers argue for methodological naturalism on the grounds that leaving divine intervention out of the picture contributed to the tremendous progress and success of modern science and technology. Science continues to explain things that ignorant, superstitious folk used to explain by recourse to gods and demons.

From a historical standpoint, there may be a grain of truth to that portrayal, but I think it’s largely true of pagan polytheism. In polytheism, there is no unifying principle, no centralized command-and-control. Rather, you have a turf war between competing gods, who vary in their knowledge and power. Indeed, the gods themselves are the product of a cosmic process.

But in OT monotheism, there’s a single sovereign Creator God behind everything that happens. So everything is coordinated. God creates an order of second causes.

vi) Scientific realism also assumes or stipulates the uniformity of nature. And there’s a measure of truth to that. That’s somewhat analogous to divine providence. But according to providence, natural events are guided by a higher intelligence, unlike the uniformity of nature­–which is driven by mindless forces.

vii) In addition, from a Christian standpoint, historical causation includes factors like answered prayer and coincidence miracles.

These involve divine “intervention.” This type of “intervention” doesn’t necessarily “interrupt” the “natural” course of events. Not like jumping into the middle of things to change course. Rather, it’s more like a stacked deck where the cards were shuffled ahead of time to yield a specific, predetermined sequence of events. Viewed from the outside, it all looks perfectly “natural.” But there’s a higher intelligence directing the process behind-the-scenes to yield a particular conjunction of seemingly fortuitous events.

This is generally imperceptible, because the significance of the outcome is only meaningful to a particular individual in need. He recognizes how this outwardly ordinary event is extraordinarily opportune for him.

There’s no telling how often answered prayer or coincidence miracles are a driving force in history, for you have to be an insider to appreciate the answer or the “coincidence.” But these are “causes” no less than “natural” causes.

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