CNN reported on the so-called “March for Science” on April 22nd, 2017 in an article titled “March for Science: Protesters gather worldwide to support ‘evidence.'” The article states, “At the main March for Science, demonstrators gathered at Washington’s National Mall to hear speakers laud science as the force moving humanity forward, and rail against policymakers they say are ignoring fact and research in areas including climate change.”
In the photo caption, a protest sign reads, “Trust scientific facts, not alternative facts.” In one section of the article, it reads, “New Zealand Green Party co-leader James Shaw tweeted a popular chant from the marchers: ‘What do we want? Evidence-based science! When do we want it? After peer review!’”
Science is often touted as a neutral endeavor, or, in the words of a woman quoted in the article, “nonpartisan.” But is this true? Is science justifiable regardless of what worldview you adopt?
When anyone claims to have a fact or evidence for a fact, we should always take a step back and ask a simple question: how do you know that? The classical definition of knowledge is justified, true belief. I want to simply ask what the justification for the claim is. The cornerstone for science is, of course, the inductive principle: the belief that the future resembles the past. Can this belief be justified? Is there evidence for it? Unless we can justify this belief in the uniformity of nature, it is senseless to try to observe the world and make theories from those observations.
There are no brute facts; facts are always interpreted within a wider worldview context. For Bertrand Russell, for example, that context was empiricism, the belief that the only fixed starting point for truth is empirical evidence. He reflects on looking upon a table and says, “Before we embark upon doubtful matters, let us try to find some more or less fixed point from which to start. Although we are doubting the physical existence of the table, we are not doubting the existence of the sense-data which made us think there was a table.” (Problems of Philosophy. Philosopher’s Stone, 2010. p. 15)
But Russell had quite an interesting take on the issue of science and its justification. In his chapter “On Induction,” he says:
“The inductive principle is equally incapable of being proved by an appeal to experience [he had just gotten done discussing that the inductive principle cannot be disproven in such a way – S. B.]. Experience might conceivably confirm the inductive principle as regards the cases that have been already examined; but as regards unexamined cases, it is the inductive principle alone that can justify any inference from what has been examined to what has not been examined. All arguments which, on the basis of experience, argue as to the future or the unexperienced parts of the past or present, assume the inductive principle; hence we can never use experience to prove the inductive principle without begging the question. Thus we must either accept the inductive principle on the ground of its intrinsic evidence, or forgo all justification of our expectations about the future” (pp. 55-56).
Notice that Bertrand Russell freely admits that, for an empiricist, whose only source of knowledge is the evidence, there is no justification for any scientific law whatsoever, because there is no justification for the inductive principle. Any argument which relies only on empirical experience can only use the inductive principle to justify a claim that a future, unexamined case will be like a past one. Thus if you try to prove the inductive principle by an appeal to experience, you are assuming what you are trying to prove: the inductive principle itself. Does this mean, however, that science has no philosophical justification?
Not for Christians, of course. We don’t base our knowledge only in empirical experience, but in the Word of God. In terms of a Christian worldview, science is justifiable. How do we know the principle of induction to be true? Let’s read what the Bible has to say about the orderliness of the universe. “Thus says the Lord, who gives the sun for light by day and the fixed order of the moon and the stars for light by night, who stirs up the sea so that its waves roar— the Lord of hosts is his name” (Jer. 31:35). The Bible teaches that God Himself controls the fixed order of creation. But Yahweh is no “god of the gaps.” In the words of the Westminster Confession of Faith 3.1: “God, from all eternity, did, by the most wise and holy counsel of his own will, freely, and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass: yet so, as thereby neither is God the author of sin, nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures; nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established.” God is the Creator and Sustainer of all things, including all the kinds of causality that go on within Creation itself. It is for this reason that we can trust that the future resembles the past: because a rational God has ordered all things. By investigating science, we are simply finding the patterns that He has used to order creation.
Truly, it is only Christians who have any reason to march for science. As C. S. Lewis put it concisely in his book Miracles, “Experience therefore cannot prove uniformity, because uniformity has to be assumed before experience proves anything.” Only we can provide a justification for it in our worldview. Atheistic empiricism cannot provide an epistemological justification for science, and intelligent atheists, such as Bertrand Russell, admit it.