Our hosts have just finished enjoying a small helping of raspberry sorbet in a luxurious dining room decked with the most exquisite furnishings. The two gentleman toss their crumpled linen napkins on the table and lean to continue conversation while enjoying glasses of fine wine.
David: Our previous encounter was a very enlightening course of conversation which I’m sure could be given much more attention. However, I would like to go back to the issue of group consensus in scientific certainty. How much of the acceptance of a scientific theory is dependent on popular consensus?
Brett: Popular consensus is huge in the scientific community. Einstein’s theory of relativity (perhaps the most successful, most beautiful, and most disruptive physical theory ever) was so unpopular for the decades following its publication that he actually never won the Nobel prize for it. He got it for some other work which had to do with the development of quantum mechanics. His theory was unpopular both because it was extremely subtle (Sir Arthur Eddington was once at a loss, 4 years after the theory’s publication, to name to a reporter another physicist besides himself and Einstein who understood it), and because Einstein was Jewish.
Science is a human enterprise. It’s not an abstract set of principles or an algorithm. It’s like theology, medicine, philosophy, history in this way. It comes with its own traditions and culture. I guess that’s why I feel like a lowly apprentice to my advisor. He’s doing more than teaching me rules. He’s inducting me into a community. The community’s got flaws and virtues.
David: As I have said before, I believe absolute truth by popular consensus to be problematic at best, even if there is long-standing historical support. But I like how you compare science to theology, philosophy, history, etc. I think that’s appropriate. However, comparing science to those things almost seems belittling, as if science is not really as absolutely objective as some claim.
Brett: Yes, I think you read me spot on, although perhaps I’m saying it too strongly. But of course as I said before, I precisely want to bring science down a notch. Not out of some feeling of humility, but out of a desire for aesthetic knowledge, traditional knowledge, and ‘relating’ knowledge to flourish over positivism (or Religious Science). One of the burning errors that you and I have both pointed out in modern discussions of science and religion is the assumption that scientific knowledge is somehow neutral and above.
David: That is indeed the main issue that I take with science. I will still maintain that science is a very important endeavor and it is certainly the most objective field of human society. It is vital for many practical parts of our lives and it can also tell us things about God. Your Fundamental Assumption provides a mandate for us to freely explore the limits and functions of the creation in which we live. The scientific community is the group tasked with fulfilling that mandate. That would make me excited to be a scientist.
Allow me to ask one additional question about certainty in science. How will you and your colleagues ultimately be able to be certain that what you have found is actually happening? I want to qualify this question by stating that I’m not trying to use doubt to completely crush science or your line of work. I think it’s fascinating what you do even if I don’t fully understand it.
Brett: Considering everything I’ve said, do I think my colleagues and I can ever know what is actually happening during a gamma ray burst? Well, now you’ve walked me into a corner. But I think the answer is no, we won’t. No matter what precision of measurements, or what agreement our observations make with our models, we can’t be certain that some new events won’t arise which invalidate the model. Nor can we be certain that some alternative theory won’t come along that fits the events better. Scientific knowledge is just always shaky ground.
So that makes me ask- what’s the use of scientific knowledge? Can we really even call it knowledge? Actually, I think that all knowledge can be described that way. It’s shaky. What I know about God, myself, my deepest beliefs, are all tinted with a hint of doubt. That’s what has led me to appreciate virtue epistemology, something Joey and I studied in Fred Aquino’s class after he ground our sweet beliefs down into powder.
David: I think that doubt can be very healthy. I see doubt as a negative space, a vacuum of sorts. Where we find doubt we are pulled towards it’s source, like a black hole. As we’re pulled along we learn more and confirm what we already know. I think the same applies to knowing God.
As for virtue epistemology, I am not familiar with such an idea. What is it and what does it mean to you?
Brett: Okay, I might warp this badly. But I think the classic approach to the question “how do we know what we know is true?” is to formulate a rational system of tests and standards. Virtue epistemology answers the question in a more ambiguous way, rooted in various traditions of virtue. It says we can trust that what someone knows is likely to be true if the knower is a virtuous person. The *virtuous* part sounds awfully hoity-toity, but a virtuous person in this sense is one who practices things that encourage virtues related to truth: love of truth, willingness to face doubt (or intellectual courage), rational discourse, perseverance through intellectual tedium and fatigue. My friend Dan married Michaelanne who runs a Philly art outreach for kids from rough homes called Orange Korner Arts. A lot of the kids find it easier to lie than tell the truth, it’s what they’ve practiced growing up to stay safe. This is a problem when trying to paint pictures about their lives or when telling stories about their neighborhood. So Michaelanne is trying to teach them the virtue of honesty, for their arts’ sake (and their lives’). When she talks about their approach at the OKA she says, “What we’re doing here is practicing. We practice. We come here every day and practice telling the truth. Tomorrow we’ll do a little better.” To me that’s an example of virtue epistemology. These kids are becoming better knowers. We can trust scientific knowledge when it comes from communities of scientists that display the intellectual virtues in all of life.
David: My inner Calvinist reminds me of human depravity and our tendency to muck things up, but I must agree that there is a baseline of honest human curiosity that we can rely on to learn more about the most basic aspects of how our world works, as described by virtue epistemology.
In our next installment we will look more closely at the religious response to the claims of science and how we can conceptualize some of those discrepancies. Do let us know your thoughts and we very much hope to see you next time.