A Scientific Question? Part 6

In Rocks of Ages, Stephen Gould places a heavy emphasis on the fact vs. value distinction. According to Gould, science is concerned with facts, and religion is concerned with values. Values don’t imply facts, and facts don’t imply values, so there can be no conflict between a given set of facts (scientific teachings at a given point in time) and a given set of values (religious teachings at a given point in time). This is how Gould reasons about the relationship of science and religion.

Given the emphasis on the fact-value distinction, it is tempting to take Gould to be using the word “science” in the very broad sense in which a “scientific question” means nothing more than a “factual question”. In this case Gould would be using the word “science” in a broad and loose way that would encompass ordinary historical investigation.

However, when Gould defines or characterizes “science” he uses words and phrases that appear to narrow the scope of this word to something more restricted than just the careful or scholarly investigation of factual questions.

Gould characterizes science as being concerned with the “character of the natural world” which does not seem to aptly describe historical investigations.

Science tries to document the factual character of the natural world, and to develop theories that coordinate and explain these facts. Religion, on the other hand, operates in the equally important, but utterly different, realm of human purposes, meanings, and values –- subjects that the factual domain of science might illuminate, but can never resolve. Similarly, while scientists must operate with ethical principles, some specific to their practice, the validity of these principles can never be inferred from the factual discoveries of science.
(ROA, p.4-5, emphasis added)

Human beings are part of nature, and historians study the actions, events, and experiences of human beings, so strictly speaking, historians do study the character of a portion of “the natural world”.

But the word “natural” has often been contrasted with the word “artificial”, and “nature” is associated with “wilderness” as opposed to “civilization”. In studying human actions, events, and experiences, historians focus on what is artificial and civilized, as opposed to what is natural and wild.

In another characterization of science, Gould focuses in on the question, What is the universe made of?
..the net, or magisterium, of science covers the empirical realm: what is the universe made of (fact) and why does it work this way (theory). The magisterium of religion extends over questions of ultimate meaning and moral value. These two magisteria do not overlap, nor do they encompass all inquiry (consider, for example, the magisterium of art and the meaning of beauty). (ROA, p.6, emphasis added)

This question is a good example of a scientific question in the narrower sense, but it does not reflect, for example, the sort of question that historians deal with. Physicists, chemists, and biologists commonly ask the question “What is this thing made of?” but historians don’t generally ask this sort of question.

Careful observation and experiments are key concepts used to define science in the narrower sense of the word. Thus, the use of the phrase “observational techniques” to characterize science suggests that Gould has in mind something more specific than just any old “factual” investigation:

…an institution that we have named “science”—a teaching authority dedicated to using the mental methods and observational techniques validated by success and experience as particularly well suited for describing, and attempting to explain, the factual construction of nature. (ROA, p.54, emphasis added)

Historians need to read historical documents carefully, and they do so using their eyes, but this is not a matter of employing “observational techniques”, such as the use of a microscope by a biologist to study cells or tiny organisms.

Gould also refers to “scientific methods” and “natural law” in characterizing science, which again, suggests a narrower concept of science than just careful investigation of factual issues:

scientific methods, based on the spatiotemporal invariance of natural law, apply to all potentially resolvable questions about facts of nature…(ROA, p.84, emphasis added)

If Gould was using the word “science” in the more standard narrower sense, which would, for example, exclude ordinary historical investigation, then this is a reason for thinking that Dawkins, who was in large part reacting to Gould’s form of agnosticism (i.e. NOMA) in the early chapters of The God Delusion, was also using the word “science” and the phrase “scientific question” in the more standard, narrower sense, which would, for example, exclude ordinary historical investigation.

On the other hand, it is clear that Huxley, the man who coined the word “agnostic” did use the word “science” in a loose and broad way, meaning something like “the careful and scholarly investigation of factual questions”. Dawkins also criticizes Huxley’s version of agnosticism, so it is possible that Dawkins was following Huxley, rather than Gould, on the use of the word “science”.

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About Bradley Bowen

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