Methods of Science and Religion
IMPOSSIBILITY OF ABSOLUTE CERTAINTY
The Latin name for our species is “homo sapiens” meaning wise or knowing and reflects our unique position in creation. We can see we are more than dusty rocks or salty oceans or the lesser animate forms from which we are derived. We have a consciousness and reason that lets us reflexively know ourselves. But while we are qualitatively different from everything else, our very nature channels us into common methodologies. Every endeavor mankind undertakes to make sense of things, proceeds in a similar fashion.
In logic and geometry and mathematics, we have to start by making a few assumptions. We try very hard to keep these as simple as possible so that everyone will agree they are true without our having to prove them. We then use these hopefully self-evident axioms to derive ever more complicated results. For instance, we might assume the rules of arithmetic and use these to derive the theorems of algebra and then of calculus and so forth. We might even try to solve the “Millennial Challenges” which are some of the hardest problems mankind has yet encountered. And we can only verify our findings by asking friends to check our chain of reasoning, trusting an inbred human logic common to all.
Nor do we do any better in science where we likewise start by guessing the existence of some Natural Law and then calculate the consequences. The language of nature, as Galileo first opined, is mathematical. And this is more than born out as our improving mathematics continues to be, almost unreasonably, effective. In any event, to the extent our observations match our predictions, we have confidence in our initial assumptions. Unfortunately we cannot observe every occurrence in the natural world nor to unbounded precision. But as our data bases improve, we discard old assumptions and invent new ones that better agree with experiment in a never ending parade of progress. That is to say, the wondrous achievements of modern technology demonstrate an insightful modeling and effective mastery of nature but also rest on a huge dung heap of discarded scientific conjecture. Nevertheless in their defense, our discarded theories have never been without merit and were invariably an improvement over the suppositions they replaced in their own times.
Nor do the fields of moral philosophy and religion differ in their methodology. Of course, unlike the physical sciences and more akin to the intellectual efforts of formal logic, their study is mostly concerned with the proper exercise of man’s free will. They only remotely overlap with science on the attendant issues of origins and purpose. In this latter regard, they take note of the unavoidable inadequacy of physical explanations for creation and consciousness as well as noting the crucial importance of absolute standards not possible in nature. But again by making simple and obvious assumptions, they derive logical consequences. And these constructs are no less testable than abstract mathematics except perhaps that they appeal not just to reason but also to man’s innate sense of right and wrong. And so they are verified by their resonance in both hearts and minds. Moral choices are among the hardest questions in the human lexicon but are no less susceptible to logical analysis and resolution than any other. And their importance, to include forming the basis of our justice system and juries of one’s peers, is they are the glue that holds society together so we can all live in relative and civilized harmony.
An obvious, but profound, consequence of all this is the impossibility of absolute certainty anywhere. Every human intellectual adventure starts with a leap of faith in simple assumptions and then demands an unquestioning confidence in the inerrancy of human logic. For religious studies this later caveat correlates to also assuming a moral sense able to distinguish between what everyone would agree are praiseworthy and criminal choices.
The problem is that because, by definition we can never prove our original assumptions, we can never be certain of not introducing some subtle error that is only manifested far down our line of thinking. And circular reasoning to prove axioms is also a logical impossibility leading to many contradictions. In effect, every human attempt to understand is necessarily built on shifting sand.
SOURCES OF KNOWLEDGE
At the root of everything is the question of how we can know anything. And after we have amassed enough information we can sort it into categories by asking the epistemological question of “What is truth?” But at the start the means by which we accumulate knowledge are few and they are distinct.
1. Interior World of Our Thoughts
2. Evidence of Our Senses
3. Access to the Thoughts of Others
4. Appeal to Authority
IDOLS OF THE MIND