Monday, April 26, 2010

The Dirty Little Secret of Scientism - The Problem of Induction

How confident are you that science has the overall best handle on reality? Truly today’s technologically advanced world is a testament to the astounding success of the scientific method. Would it surprise you to know that the scientific method cannot logically account for its success? Would it be even more surprising that in all its abilities to formulate the Laws of Nature, faith is involved at every step?

“Proof” is for mathematical theorems and alcoholic beverages, not for science. Michael Mann

The scientist Michael Mann was severely criticized by a disillusioned scientist who was led to believe: 

"When I was going to school to earn my degree in chemistry, we were taught that science was indeed all about absolute truth and proofs at the end of the day.” If they really taught him that then he should ask for his money back, because this is an appalling misrepresentation of science. In fact it’s one of the horrible, but commonplace, misconceptions that real scientists have to work hard to correct. (quoted from Open Mind: Science, Politics, Life, the Universe, and Everything)

In the ongoing ideological battle to win minds the strident new atheists (or perhaps more properly the new anti-theists) continually push the supposed divide between faith and science. Science is reality, faith is the fairy tale, so we are told. Science deals with facts and logic, faith deals with fancy and feeling at best and is irrational at worst or unscientific. People of faith do not justify their beliefs they just blindly believe the script. This is how faith is caricatured. Science is the salvation of our time so we are asked to believe, religion is what holds us back, and religion is a disease. Science is the way to find truth and reality and whatever science doesn’t prove, isn’t real. Faith is a leap in the dark. Religion argues in circles and science takes one logical step at a time to build a watertight case- apparently!

But is that the reality?

The influential atheist philosopher Bertrand Russell went as far as to say: 'what science cannot discover, mankind cannot know.'  But the problem with that is- it is not a scientific statement!  It is in fact a bald statement of faith in favour of science as the only authoritative source of knowledge.

Speaking on this public perception of the cultural divide between faith and science Oxford Professor of Mathematics, John Lennox asks the question:

'What about science? [Does faith have any part in science? ] Well science proceeds on the basis of the belief [faith] that the Universe is rationally intelligible....Paul Davis, a brilliant physicist at ASU says "that the right scientific attitude" now listen to this, Paul Davis is not a theist- "the right scientific attitude is essentially theological, science can only proceed if the scientist adopts an essentially theological worldview, even the most atheistic scientist accepts as an act of faith the existence of a law-like order in nature that is, at least in part, comprehensible to us." Einstein, no less, said: "I cannot imagine a scientist without that profound faith" note the word ' Professor John Lennox. For further exploration of this subject watch the video John Lennox at University of California, Berkeley.
What follows is an explanation that moves from a generality (that science involves faith) to a particular instance of it- The famous problem of Induction. In short that science everywhere proceeds on the basis of faith in the uniformity of nature.

In a more recent lecture on the implications of worldview on such questions of God, Medicine, Ebola and Islam, Dr Nabeel Qureshi quotes Samir Okasha lecturer of philosophy at the University of York in England on the issue of induction with regard to the idea of proof in the scientific method:

“The word “proof” should strictly only be used when we’re dealing with deductive inferences, in this strict sense of the word, scientific hypotheses can rarely- if ever- be proven true by the data.’Samir Okasha

We see then that this so-called huge gap between the claims of science and the claims of Christianity are immediately diminished at the realization that essentially the claims that science represents reality in absolute terms whereas the truths of Christianity are subjective leaps in the dark are unfounded at least, and downright deceptive at worst.  This perception is in fact the result of a lot of public relations on behalf of science to keep the scientific community in the pole position, to keep them as the Big Apple in the public eye. This also serves the purpose of the bulk of scientists whose prior commitment is invested in the faith of philosophical naturalism, and have an axe to grind. Namely to keep religion out of the public square and relegated to popular urban mythology rather than a real voice for truth. The reality is that science itself, (or rather scientists, since science makes no such claims) ought not to claim the "proof" word as its exclusive proprietary right. But rather should humbly acknowledge that scientists too are compelled to stand in awe of the verity that all human endeavours to know reality are (by design) limited to statements of faith to some degree. No one has ever claimed to have "proof" of the non existence of God and yet the bulk of scientists believe that the material Universe is all there is. That is a faith based philosophical position.

 Laurence Carlin, Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh, USA, writes the following work. He has written a book tracing the history and philosophies of the leading early empiricists, from which our scientific method has derived.

But first: What is epiricism? Why do we need to understand this in relation to the so called science/faith conflict?

Empiricism is the theory that the origin of all knowledge is sense experience. It emphasizes the role of experience and evidence, especially sensory perception, in the formation of ideas, and argues that the only knowledge humans can have is a posteriori (i.e. based on experience).
Right off- notice that the word theory is used. This means that- to at least some extent- faith is involved. It means that at least to some degree the actual evidence for belief in empiricism has been extrapolated, and interpreted in a certain way. Faith is involved. No matter what the raw factual data gives- it always involves an interpretation- a reading into the data.

It is from the work of the early empiricists philosophers that the modern scientific method has been distilled. But what follows is a summary of the critique that people like atheists Bertrand Russell and David Hume (neither of whom were sympathetic to the religious world view) recognized very early on  which were inherent weaknesses in the empiricists faith.

In this particular place Carlin documents the circular reasoning in the famous “Problem of Induction” that David Hume discovered in the development of a philosophy of science some two hundred or so years ago.


DAVID HUME (1711-1776)

When we draw conclusions about the future on the basis of the past, we do so, Hume argued, on the basis of the causal relations we have experienced in the past. We believe that fire will continue to cause heat in the future, and billiard balls in motion will continue to be causally effective in the future, because such causal connections have been found to obtain in the past. That is, we reason using induction, the very sort of reasoning recommended by Bacon (cf. Chapter 2, Section 2.2.2) and adopted by subsequent natural philosophers. Recall that in an inductive argument one draws a conclusion about something unobserved on the basis of things observed in the past. So, according to Hume, when we reason that future causal regularities will be like past causal regularities, we reason thus:

(1) I have found that such an object (e.g. impact of billiard ball in motion; fire) has always been attended with such an effect (e.g. impacted billiard ball in motion; heat).

(2) Hence, similar objects (e.g. future impacts of billiard in motion; future fires) will be attended with similar effects (e.g. impacted billiard ball in motion; heat).

But clearly the argument is not logically valid. That is, the conclusion (2) does not follow from the premise (1); it does not logically follow that just because these things occurred in the past that they will occur in the future. Premise (1) does not provide support for conclusion (2).

To see this, note that the conclusion follows only if we add another premise (1.5):

(1) I have found that such an object (e.g. impact of billiard in motion; fire) has always been attended with such an effect (e.g. impacted billiard ball in motion; heat).

(1.5) The future will be like the past.

(2) Hence similar objects (e.g. future impacts of billiard ball in motion; future fires) will be attended with similar effects.

If we add (1.5) to our argument, then the argument is sound, and we get the conclusion (2). that these things will occur in the future. Indeed, the person who reasons about the future on the basis of the past must be tacitly assuming the future will be like the past. Let us call the proposition that the future will be like the past (expressed in (1.5)) the Principle of the Uniformity of Nature, or PUN.

But the problem is that adding PUN to our reasoning is no solution at all, for the only argument available for PUN is of the same form as the argument above; it too is an inductive argument. In other words, the only argument available for PUN is the following inductive argument:

(1)I have experienced many pairs of events (causes and effect) that have been constantly conjoined in the past.

(2)Each time I found that similar pairs of events (causes and effects) were constantly conjoined in the future.

(3) Therefore, the future will be like the past. (i.e. PUN is true.)

This argument also is an inductive argument, for it too draws a conclusion about the future on the basis of past experience. But any argument that proceeds inductively suffers from the same problem: it tacitly assumes PUN. Indeed, it is unsound unless we add PUN as a premise. In this case, adding PUN as a premise yields the following:

(1)I have experienced many pairs of events (causes and effect) that have been constantly conjoined in the past.

(2) Each time I found that similar pairs of events (cause effect) were constantly conjoined in the future.

(2.5) The future will be like the past.

(3) Therefore, the future will be like the past. (i.e. PUN is true.)

Clearly, this is a viciously circular argument, for the conclusion appears as one of the premises, and it violates logic for the conclusion to be identical to one of the premises. But only if we add the stipulation that the future will be like the past can we ever justify a belief about the future on the basis of past experience. Thus, we are caught in a circle, and Hume was the first to see it:

'We have said, that all arguments concerning existence [i.e. matters of fact] are founded on the relation of cause and effect; that our knowledge of that relation is derived entirely from experience; and that all our experimental conclusions proceed upon the supposition, that the future will be conformable to the past [i.e.PUN]. To endeavour, therefore, the proof of this last supposition… must be evidently going in a circle, and taking that for granted, which is the very point in question.' (Enquiryc §4,part 2)

This is the famous problem of induction.

Two points must be emphasized before moving on. First, one might think that as long as we believe the laws of nature are fixed for the future, we are justified in believing that future causal relations will be like past ones. But this will not work, because we can simply ask the question: what is the justification for believing that the laws of nature will obtain in the future? The only answer is to appeal to past experience. But if we do that, we are again caught up in the problem of induction since we are drawing a conclusion about the future on the basis of past experience. In short, the problem of induction applies to the laws of nature as well.

Hume’s analysis of induction has shown that induction is not rational, that our knowledge and expectations about the future are not based on the use of reason or logical argument.

It is astounding when one considers that the entire legacy of science, including all of its interpretations of the laws of nature upon which it hinges and is built- and upon which it relies trusting implicitly in the relations of cause and effect, the uniformity of nature- has at its basic premise an assumption more wedded to faith than it is divorced from logic and reason.

"Einstein once said, 'The scientist is possessed of a sense of infinite causation.' If there is a religion in science, this statement can be regarded as its principal article of faith." Robert Jastrow, NASA scientist.

Professor Carlin finishes his book with these comments: Hume's empiricism is at once revolutionary and a natural result of what came before him. Newton struggled to give an explanation of gravity... and Berkeley pointed out that our perceptions give us no idea of power or force...While Newton seems to have remained agnostic to the status of force, Berkeley was committed to God being the only causally active agent in the world.

Hume's work naturally follows this development. His commitment to empiricism led him to refrain from all discussion of whether there was an external world of bodies as Newton believed, and it also led him to agree with Berkeley that the contents of our perceptions reveal no impression of power, force, or necessary connection. But Hume was also a religious sceptic, and so was not prepared to posit God as the source of worldly power.

But even though Hume's work is in some ways a natural development of the empiricist movement, it is also revolutionary. His analysis of the notions of causation and necessary connection and their relation to the problem of induction was an unprecedented insight of perennial importance and a testimony to his genius. It had a tremendous impact on subsequent philosophy and discussions of causation and the rational grounds of induction continue to this day. Strict classical empiricism is usually seen as ending with Hume precisely because he took classical empiricism to its logical conclusion, a conclusion that forced subsequent thinkers to reconsider some of their most basic beliefs about the natural world.

In concert with Hume, the renowned atheist Bertrand Russell's work in logic (upon which science prides itself), led to this remark- 
“Past observation cannot lay a rational foundation for future expectation” 
Bertrand Russell on the uniformity of nature.

There is no doubt these thinkers paved the way for modern science, removing the stagnation that was the cumulative result of the stranglehold Aristotelianism had held on the world till then. The positive results are all around us, and yet...The problem of induction has not gone away. On the one hand there is all the success of science, but on the other is its inability to overcome the problem of induction and therefore account for its success in an unbroken chain of logic. It is patently clear that the empirical scientific method- relying as it does on rigorous observation, measurement and record-keeping- cannot come up with an explanation of the laws of logic which are tacitly assumed by it. 

In a recent popular documentary entitled Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed, narrator Ben Stein exposes a very unscientific bias against intelligent design proponents. In a lead-up to the post above I have gone to the trouble of bringing another perspective in Part One- Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed where we can listen to Christian philosopher Willard Price challenge students about the danger of an authoritarian grip on academia which refuses to even allow free inquiry and discourages a healthy skepticism of the status quo, for example unguided evolution. Why is this? What are they afraid of?

In the documentary Ben Stein, among many others, interviewed Dr. Eugenie Scott of the National Center for Science Education and asked:
"...what was so bad about intelligent design?"
She issued this challenge:
"If they have a way of understanding nature that's superior to the one that we all are making lots of discoveries using- Great, bring it on."  

We appear then to have world views which are indubitably engaged in circular reasoning, both Christianity (which assumes the existence of God from the Bible which is not only His Word but also is a collection of documents from history)- and Scientism (the view that science alone is the only valid ground for reality) or Philosophical Naturalism ( the view which says nature is all there is) are suffering from a lapse in logical argument. While at first glance this may seem to be a mutual standoff this is not the case. For the naturalist exemplified today in Richard Dawkins there is no way out of this dilemma. No way out, that is, unless he concedes the Christian position.

For a fascinating interview of David Berlinski that I have included in a review of his book- The Devil's Delusion: Atheism and its Scientific Pretensions follow this link. The secret is out, this world, under the scrutiny of different disciplines- is more and more looking like it's a setup!

For the Christian theist his world-view answers the circular dilemma because his world-view encompasses and can account for the circular argument of both views in a reasonable way. Science (from the perspective of one who holds the view of philosophical naturalism) does not only fail to provide a rational account for the laws of nature but is unable even to give a cogent reason for its singular success in the material world in its inability to explain logically why the laws of non-contradiction exist. On the contrary the Christian world-view provides cogent answers for both the origin of the material universe and the abstract principles and concepts of natural laws, laws of reason and  mathematics along with ethical precepts.

Hume's theistic scepticism is well known, what is perhaps surprising is that his elucidation of the problem of induction would become something of an ally to the cause of theism!

The following video is a precis of the Induction Problem as outlined by Jerry Johnson of Against the World.

In the following discussion Stephen Meyer speaks with R. C. Sproul about the mistaken notion of Christianity being at odds with science.

1 comment:

Kerry said...

Kris Lounsbury July 13, 2012 at 9:16 pm - Reply
This is why it’s futile to argue with a non theist by presenting ‘evidence’ for the existence of God. The transcendental argument for God’s existence is both certain and irrefutable. It is certain because it is based on laws of logic which when denied actually prove the validity of the argument for God. In other words when the atheist tries to argue against God’s existence he is assuming a number of things which can only be assumed when one starts with the existence of the biblical God. As Dr. Bahnsen so eloquently said, “By coming to the debate the atheist has already lost the debate.” There is nothing ‘wrong’ with the cosmological, teleological, etc. arguments for God’s existence but they suffer from the same fate as induction when they are used to try to produce a certainty. When the transcendental argument is properly used it is both certain and irrefutable. The best proof for the existence of God is that it is impossible for the biblical God NOT to exist. When this argument is formulated correctly I have never found an atheist who can come against it. They usually end up name calling or with other ad hominem attacks. Very good video. Very good ammo for the next guy that says, “I just believe in science”. “The fool has said in his heart, ‘There is no God.’”