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Discussion 11 to Talk Back 86
ID and Empiricism

by: Will Petillo

Editor's Note: This response was written by Will Petillo before Rob Lockett made a major revision to Discussion 10. However, I think Will's response remains appropriate. Will has added some points in the next post to address some of Rob's changes.

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First of all, I would like to thank Rob Lockett for taking the time to write his views to people who disagree. I believe it is much better to put one’s ideas out in the open where others may patiently and politely correct them. Since John Tyrrell seems to have run out of patience before managing to satisfactorily address Mr. Lockett’s argument, I will try to give it a shot…though I may not be able to make this a running correspondence since I will be rather swamped with work for the next several months. I probably won’t change anyone’s mind, but I welcome the chance to seek to understand other ways of thinking and organize my own ideas on this important and controversial subject. This post may seem off-topic at first, but don’t worry, you can be sure that I will eventually bring it around to something relevant…I hope. Also, I am not a scientist, so many of my claims about science may be subtly or completely wrong. If this is the case, I would appreciate it if someone would correct me in my errors.

In my understanding, knowledge comes from four basic sources, each of which has its own strengths and limitations:

1. Observation (a.k.a. experience). The nice thing about observation is that we humans are all capable of it and it does not require reference to anything else. The problem with observation is that any experience can be interpreted in multiple ways (with the possible exception of Descartes’ “cogito”). For example, I could be looking at a computer screen right now, but it is also possible that I am hallucinating, that I am in the Matrix, that a malevolent deity is playing tricks on me, etc. I include direct revelations from God—if such experiences actually occur—in the category of observation.

2. Logic. Logic is very useful because it allows one to figure things out without having to bother observing them directly. The problems with logic are that it is mistaken sometimes and that it requires reference to something else.

3. Authority. Authority is a huge timesaver. Without it, we would constantly have to reinvent the world, both literally and figuratively. The problem with authority is that it comes from humans—what they tell us, write down in a book, etc. Therefore, authority comes with all the flaws of both observation and logic and magnifies them with potential problems of transmission (misunderstanding, deception, etc.).

4. Assumptions. These are statements taken on faith. They do not come out of a vacuum, but result from the influence of observation, logic, and authority. Assumptions are useful in that they give logic something to build on, but problematic because they could be wrong.

All four sources of knowledge are necessary for all people. What is unique about empirical science is not that it relies entirely on observation (the idea which Mr. Lockett seems to take issue with), but that it holds observation up as an ideal—wherever the results of experimentation conflict with logic, authority, or assumptions, the former should take precedence. In previous ages, people used observation all the time to obtain information about the world, but would sometimes deny their own experiences as flawed in some way if those experiences conflicted with the authority of the Bible or the logic of Aristotle. In modern times, good scientists (not all scientists) have shifted the emphasis and the results have been fairly positive, though sometimes overestimated by people who have not studied the past seriously or objectively.

Again, it is impossible to rely entirely on observation for anything useful. Some assumptions are necessary to create any coherent picture of the world. Empirical science does not deny this, but it tries to minimize the number of assumptions it uses as much as possible. This is not a new development; scholastic theologians did the same thing, on some occasions trying to eliminate all assumptions. Some logic is necessary to draw useful conclusions from observations. Empirical science does not deny this, but it is humble enough to be as careful as possible in its use of logic so as not to claim to be more certain of things than it actually is. Some appeal to authority is necessary to save time. Empirical science does not deny this, but it always leaves its authorities open to future questioning. This is one reason why experiments should be repeatable, if one scientist makes a mistake, peer-reviewers can try the experiment again. The more a theory has been tested, the more authority it has, the more testing it further seems like a waste of time and resources—but the option is always open. One could say that this method, the scientific method that relies as much as possible on observation is a philosophy among many other philosophies, but the thing is: it works. It works very, very well and its adoption has led to all kinds of advancements in technology and our general understanding of the world.

But why does empirical science only deal with the material world? The historical answer goes back at least to William of Ockham (I have no citation because I am too lazy to look this up, someone correct me if I am wrong), a theologian who argued that God can only be understood through faith and known through revelation. This idea took hold in western thought and led to a division between the natural and the supernatural, paving the way for the empirical science that Mr. Lockett seems to regard as unnecessarily limited. For if the divine cannot be understood through human reason, then why bother using human reason to understand it? But, as Mr. Lockett has observed, all of this is in the past and need not dictate modern notions of what science should be.

So the question remains: why does empirical science only deal with the material world? I respond, what else could there be and how can we observe it? What, indeed, is the “supernatural” anyway? In my understanding—and I am really going out on a limb here so someone please correct me if I am wrong—the supernatural is pure intention. This may sound like a surprising definition because humans have intention—does this mean we contain supernatural forces within us? Well, anyone who believes in a “soul,” an aspect of a person that is distinct from any physical part of the body, including the brain, would say yes. Current research in neurobiology is steadily showing how physical processes in our brains can explain our experience and thus making any reference to the supernatural already, but as the epic discussion of consciousness on this website seems to illustrate, not all are convinced that the debate has been entirely settled. But I digress. The key question behind the debate about Intelligent Design (yes, it is a debate, albeit a disingenuous and largely unnecessary one) is this: whatever physical processes occurred in the creation of the world, were those processes directed by intention or were they blindly driven by unthinking forces like genetic mutation and natural selection?

Now, after many false but necessary starts, I can finally start to answer the question: why does empirical science only deal with the material world? Studying the supernatural, the intention (or the “why”) working within the universe is a very different enterprise than studying the natural, the physical processes of the universe (the “how”). Now, it seems to me that different disciplines should be given different names, so let us call the latter “science” and the former “theology.” This division does not imply that only science can bring us to a better understanding of the universe, only that it is focused on bringing us to an understanding of the natural processes in the universe. This division does not imply that the two disciplines cannot be interrelated, only that research is “scientific” insofar as it studies the natural and “theological” insofar as it studies the supernatural. These terms exist entirely for the sake of convenience for what, after all, is in a name?

Which discipline—science, theology, or both—leads to truth? Well, given the incredible advances in technology made possible by science, only a fool would say that the study of the natural is fruitless. But what about theology? Is it a waste of time to supplement our understanding of the physical world and look for intention in the universe? I don’t know, I’m asking.

-Cheers, Will Petillo