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”.

About Bradley Bowen
  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09925591703967774000 Dianelos Georgoudis

    Bradley,

    You write: “ 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.

    This strikes me as clearly wrong. Questions such a whether God exists (or, more simply, if there is an intelligent and purposeful reason for the existence of the physical universe), whether free will exists, whether justice exists, whether life after death exists – are all paradigmatic religious questions and are questions which refer to facts and not to values.

    Gould wrote: “Science tries to document the factual *character of the natural world*, and to develop theories that coordinate and explain these facts.

    This is ambiguous, for it is not clear if by “natural world” Gould means the phenomenal reality or objective (noumenal) reality. How things *seem* is very different from how things *are*, and, contrary to what many people including many scientists believe, science studies how things seem and not how they are. Proof of that is the fact that science with enormous success models quantum phenomena without saying how quantum reality is. Science models phenomena, and those who think that science also models reality are reifying what science actually does. To reify science may or may not be reasonable, but does not belong to science per se. To reify science (i.e. scientific realism) is a metaphysical assumption.

    Gould further wrote: “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.

    This makes much more sense to me. Science is strictly descriptive, and it’s not up to science to make claims about whether some scientific fact carries a deeper meaning or not.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02487990587362445908 Ash

    What Gould missed here is that our capability and drive to form purpose, meaning, and value are facts that can be studied and understood scientifically. They can be studied at the neurological level (i.e. how they might be neurally encoded in the brain) to the sociological (i.e. the broad consequences of particular worldviews).

    While science probably cannot say what specific purposes, meanings, or values any given person should have (whatever that really means), science should be able to study their real-world effects and to determine which kinds of these either detracts from or promotes human flourishing. Not only is science perfectly suited to this task, religion has been abysmal at it. It is strange that Gould was not able or willing to admit that religion not only has no reliable tools for determining human "shoulds" but has continually offered answers that are frequently contradictory, unjust, and even cruel. Were he still alive, I wonder if Gould would make the same illogical claim today…


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