Tuesday 19 June 2007

Alister McGrath's scientific theology: is it scientific?

The latest issue of Theologische Zeitschrift 63:1 (2007) includes a fascinating exchange between Alister McGrath and Heiner Schwenke.

In his article, “Theologie als Mathesis Universalis? Heinrich Scholz, Karl Barth und der wissenschaftliche Status der christlichen Theologie” (pp. 44-57), McGrath introduces his project of Scientific Theology to German-language readers by exploring the debate between Karl Barth and Heinrich Scholz over the “scientific” status of Christian theology. He emphasises the priority of ontology over epistemology, and the fact that theological science is responsible: that is, it seeks to respond to reality itself; and its findings are accountable both to the Christian community and, ultimately, to God himself. The crucial thing in this article, however, is McGrath’s translation of “scientific theology” as “naturwissenschaftliche Theologie” – it is this choice of terminology that draws such sharp criticism from Heiner Schwenke in the following article.

Schwenke’s article (pp. 58-78) is entitled “Epistemischer Partikularismus als Weg der Theologie? Warum Alister McGraths ‘naturwissenschaftliche Theologie’ nicht naturwissenschaftlich ist” (“Why Alister McGrath’s ‘Scientific Theology’ Is Not Scientific”). Schwenke’s basic argument is that McGrath “abuses” the term “scientific,” i.e. naturwissenschaftlich (p. 77).

Schwenke argues that the essence of the scientific method is “epitemic universality” – and he criticises McGrath’s attempt to turn scientific method simply into one “epistemic particularity” alongside other methods. The mark of any authentic science is that its findings are “intersubjectively reproducible,” and thus universally available. Theology can be scientific, then, only when its statements are formulated as hypotheses which can be verified through repeatable tests.

For Schwenke, the problem with McGrath’s project is that it does not include this dimension of reproducibility – and thus instead of developing a universal method of knowing, it relies merely on a particular form of knowing which is accessible only to believers. For instance, McGrath claims that theology should presuppose a basic commitment to scripture – whereas such commitment to authority, in Schwenke’s view, undermines the very possibility of theology’s scientific status. McGrath “again introduces absolute epistemic authority into scientific methodology – after we had successfully rid ourselves of such authority at the dawn of modernity!” (p. 75).

One of the central arguments of McGrath’s Scientific Theology is that each science has its own distinct object and thus its own distinct methods of knowing. But Schwenke sees this simply as special pleading for theology: “If each science has its own method according to its own object, and if there are no general methodological specifications, then it would be impossible to deny the ‘scientific’ character of McGrath’s own methodology” (p. 74). What McGrath is really seeking, then, is “to use the term ‘scientific’ for his theology but nevertheless to be free to select his own theological method – a method which has little chance of being recognised as ‘scientific’ by natural scientists” (p. 74).

Further, Schwenke argues that McGrath’s view leads to dire ethical consequences. Heisenberg has described the scientific endeavour as a bridge that can connect different people-groups. But this can occur only where the universality of the scientific method is affirmed. In our current environment, where global peace is threatened by religious conflict, such scientific “bridging” is especially urgent. But it is undermined by McGrath’s pursuit of “epistemic particularity” – effectively, such a move seals off theology from public dialogue with other religions. While McGrath labels his theology “scientific,” he really ends up with a “religionistic theology” (religionistische Theologie) which cannot be tested or questioned by people outside the confines of the Christian community (p. 77).

In short, therefore, Schwenke insists that McGrath’s methodology represents a “fatal escape into the dead end of epistemic particularity” (p. 77). It fails to meet the requirements of authentic “scientific” method, and it undermines the ethical demands of inter-religious dialogue.

This is certainly the most vigorous methodological critique of McGrath’s project yet published. I sympathise with Schwenke’s general perspective – especially his commitment to the public accessibility of theological discourse – but I think his interpretation of McGrath (and, more broadly, of the theological task itself) has some deep flaws. I’ll try to address these problems soon in another post.


Richard Beck said...

Hi Ben,
As a social scientist (which means "barely a scientist") I have a few quick comments.

I don't know McGrath's work, but Schwenke's analysis (if accurate) is cogent. Beyond epistemic universality (i.e., empiricism) a few other observations contrasting science and religion:

"Science" is generally governed by the Popperian notion of falsifability, or what some scientists call "strong inference": The progress of science due to NEGATIVE results. I don't know if theology can ever meet this criterion to earn the label "scientific."

BTW, this aspect of science is largely ignored when theologians (of my acquaintance) appeal to Kuhn's model. That is, they fail to note that anomalies fuel the Kuhnian paradigm shifts. The issue for theology is, what would be considered universally anomalous? Is Islam an anomaly for the Christian paradigm? Is Christianity anomalous for Judaism? The point I think Schwenke is making is that one needs a universal perspective for a Kuhnian anomaly to function as an engine of progress. If epistemic particularly is in play anomalies can be seen as "outside" the system, creating no true threat to the paradigm (i.e., faith system) in question and, thus, generating no "scientific progress," even in the Kuhnian sense.

Fred said...

I wonder if McGrath has any comments on Pope Benedict's call to "broaden reason."

Anonymous said...

I think there are problems with this statement:

'The mark of any authentic science is that its findings are "intersubjectively reproducible,” and thus universally available.'

Firstly, there is the problem that observation is theory-laden. In order for an observation to be reproduced, the scientist repeating the observation must be able to understand the report of the original observer, and this can only be done on the basis of sufficient shared theory. A second problem is that the above statement fails to make a distinction between an observation and a 'finding'. The 'findings' of science typically involve claims about things that have not been observed, and sometimes things that cannot be observed. As such they involve a process of reasoning, and since reasoning involves personal judgment, they are not 'universally available'.

Consensus often does occur among scientists, but it is achieved on the basis of shared theoretical frameworks and shared judgments, not on the basis of universally available findings. What counts as scientific or unscientific is in this sense socially constructed.

Macht said...

I can't speak for McGrath, since I haven't read his work on "Scientific Theology" but I see huge problems with Schwenke's critique.

It is pretty much a consensus that in philosophy of science that there is no "universal" method of science and there is no "epistemic universality." Particle physicists use different methods than biologists and they use different methods than astrophysicists and so on (McGrath is absolutely correct on this point). If repeatability ever was a requirement for science (and I don't think it was) then it has long been dropped by now ever since the rise of multi-million dollar, multi-year experiments where repeatability just isn't an option due to time and money constraints.

Schwenke's comments about ethics are interesting, but also wrong, IMO. I just don't see why "universality" is necessary for bridge building. The idea that we need to find something similar with the other in order to act ethically is totally unchristian. Love, rather than "universality" (even if it did exist in science) is what is needed to "bridge" with others. And if he thinks that science hasn't been a "bridge burner" as well as a "bridge burner" he is mistaken. Science can be very competitive in the rush to publish papers or make discoveries and ethical behavior is not always the primary concern.

Also, with regard to one of the comments above, while falsifiability is a part of science, it isn't a universal one and I would generally disagree that it is even a primary one. So I disagree with Richard Beck on that one. There are just too many examples where the principle of falsifiability would be bad for science for me to think that science is "generally governed" by it. See what I wrote here about Frank Wilczek and what I wrote here about Einstein.

So if Schwenke's critique is based on the idea that science has some universal method and that part of that method involves reproducibility, he is wrong on both accounts. He's also wrong in his conclusion about ethics.

joel hunter said...

Naturwissenschaften? Really? Goodness, I see that I'm already predisposed to disagree with both the author and the reviewer, because both appear to be positivists!

Just to supplement Mr. Keith's and Macht's remarks:
(a) For his part, Schwenke appears to uncritically deploy the mathesis universalis of the Cartesian-Galilean methodology to (as far as it goes, rightly) cry "Foul!" on McGrath.
(b) However, this ignores the crises of the methodology when it is set in its milieu of human practices, products and institutions. When one looks at how science has worked (as opposed to the typical normative analyses of how it should work), one does indeed get a different set of validity criteria in play. Scientific disclosure is a product not only of what scientists think (theoria), but what they do (praxis).
(c) But McGrath gives Schwenke no occasion to think critically about the mathesis, for he appears to own modernism, too, together with its emphasis upon theoria.
(d) If I've got a bead on what McGrath is up to (sorry, haven't read ST), then when it comes to the phenomena beyond the cleavage of the "natural" from the "supernatural," he's up against it. Modern science must vigorously insist upon the empeiria, the experiential givenness of something actually there taken as real in no other way than in the register of the sensible (i.e., as sensuously manifest). But by definition, theo-phenomena are not there like scientific entities are. Scientific phenomena are of necessity set within the horizons of spatiality and temporality; theo-phenomena are not.
(e) This is like the problem of the historicity of history and the historicist's problem of method. Rationality is not reducible to epistemology.

I guess I'm not very sympathetic with McGrath's project insofar as I understand it to be a consolidation of science and theology under one rubric of rationality. If that is the substance of Schwenke's critique, then I tend to agree with him. However, theo-phenomena should imply a radical critique of the scope and meaning of the mathesis universalis (not least as a socio-political problem), and so in favor of McGrath, I'm sympathetic to attempts to integrate them (non-reductively) with scientific empeiria and ordinary human life.

Sean said...

Hey Ben, have you seen the Faraday Institute of Science and Religion?

It has a host of audio/visual/written lectures by various scholars on the interface between Science and Religion. Great stuff there. Be sure to check it out...

Anonymous said...

Hi Joel,

May I criticise one of your statements now? You state that theo-phenomena are not set within the horizons of spatiality and temporality. Well, but the story of Jesus certainly is set within space and time, and the testimony of the witnesses is surely in the register of the sensible.

Ben Myers said...

Thanks for that link, Sean -- those are excellent resources. I'll add that link to the sidebar as well.

joel hunter said...

Ah, yes, Jonathan, that wasn't clear of me. What I had in mind is that a theo-phenomenon, say Grace, isn't "there" in the same way that something that can be characterized as sheerly physical (quantifiable, subject to mechanical laws, etc.) is there. But you're also right because Grace isn't very graceful if it isn't concrete, extended to very real, broken, flesh-and-blood people. To pivot from natural science for a moment, consider the Incarnation. One might consider this as a purely historical event, but if it is a theo-phenomenon, it is much more than that, and to be understood requires different validity criteria to judge whether we've got a grip on it or not. Just thinking here of a spatial metaphor: the mathesis requires that all things be, in principle, comprehensible by a universal rationality; therefore, all the different phenomena (physical, social, ethical, historical, theological, etc.) are all more or less contiguous regions on one big map, with occasional hostilities over this or that border between them. This is my abstract criticism of what seems to be at play in both McGrath and Schwenke. I hope that will do, and I retract any positive alternatives I was suggesting if they're confusing.

Richard Beck said...

Jonathan and Macht,
Not to quibble overmuch, but to push back on some of your statements.

First, the statement that observation is theory-laden tends to confuse matters. Yes, when we look at particle accelerators to "see" the "observations" you need extensive training. But let's look at Galileo timing the movements of the pendulum, or rolling objects down inclined planes, or observing the motions of the planets. Those observations are universal and repeatable. And, despite the complexity of modern science, this epistemic universality is still the crux of science's progress.

Second, even if modern particle physics is heavy with theory what does that mean? My sense is that you are deploying that idea in a deflationary way. But why would that be? Just because something is theory-rich does not imply that it has no empirical leverage. Theory rich particle physics built the computer you type on, my iPod, and my microwave oven. You can't do all those things if science is simply an insular and parochial language-game. Thus, the issue of theory is not that it exists or if it is rich, the issue is empirical leverage.

The question, then, for any claim for a "scientific theology" is what does it leverage? And is that leverage universality accessible? For example, would Islamic theologians concur about the progress made in Christian theology? Because even atheists and post-moderns can enjoy an iPod. That is universal epistemic accessibility.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007 11:46:00 PM

Macht said...


First, the argument isn't that nothing is repeatable in science. The argument is that repeatability is not a universal feature of experimentation in science. So giving a few examples is not enough to show that it is, especially when we have more than a few examples where repeatability isn't an part of science.

Second, you can indeed time movements of pendulums, roll things down inclined planes and observe the planets without thinking about theory. One might ask "Why do you want to time that pendulum?" or "Why do you care about motion of planets?" or any number of questions in order to get the experimenter to realize that he or she is already making theory-laden assumptions about the object of study. The mere fact that we would want to time something indicates that our actions are theory-laden (granted, the theory behind our wanting to "time" things seems so obvious to most of us that it is quite easy to ignore). Also, don't make the mistake of thinking that if somebody points out that observation is theory-laden, that they are implying that science is simply a language-game. Jonathan didn't suggest that and there is no reason to think that he believes that.

Third, the proper comparison is not between iPod's and Christian theological progress. The proper comparison is between iPod's and, say, Christian food pantries. I would imagine that even atheists and post-moderns can enjoy Christian food pantries, as well.

Bruce Yabsley said...

The argument is that repeatability is not a universal feature of experimentation in science. So giving a few examples is not enough to show that it is

That's fine as it stands, macht, but I do have to call you on the specific example that you quoted earlier: If repeatability ever was a requirement for science (and I don't think it was) then it has long been dropped by now ever since the rise of multi-million dollar, multi-year experiments where repeatability just isn't an option due to time and money constraints.

This is mere rhetoric. As a particle physicist let me assure you that when observations are claimed by a group of particle physicists, and other groups cannot reproduce them, the results are bracketed. When no other group has gotten around to testing them, they are often bracketed too.

I am in little sympathy with either McGrath's project or Schwenke's critique (according to the description of them from Ben's post) but let's put that to one side. In discussing these matters please be more careful in what is asserted about specific scientific disciplines and their practice.

Richard Beck said...

Thanks for the thoughtful response.

First, I like the comparison of iPods to food pantries. That is, indeed, a nicer comparison.

And apologies to Jonathan if I misconstrued his statements.

However, I'll stand by my comments that calling science "theory-rich" is a nonstarter for this conversation. It's off topic. The issue is empirical leverage (hence my iPod comment). The proper question is not if science HAS theory but if that theory has LEVERAGE on reality. If so, how could we tell? Well, we can manipulate reality in more powerful ways. This doesn't dismiss critiques of "correspondence theories" of knowledge, but it does provide evidence that the theory is touching reality at critical junctures. The theory has some traction. And this traction is universally demonstrable. A simple examination of our workaday lives (i.e., the existence of an iPod)indicates that this claim is trivially true.

Let's imagine if something similar could happen in theology. Gather a Christian theologian, a witch, an atheist (like Richard Dawkins), a Muslim, and a Buddhist into a room and pitch them any theological hypothesis of your choosing. How could they proceed to adjudicate? How would they proceed?

Now gather all these people and let them figure out why my bike is broken. In time, given that empiricism allows for epistemic accessibility and consensus, I bet they can agree on how to fix the bike.

You may reject the humble nature of the empirical question I pose, wanting to select a hard problem like the properties of gluons. But to do so misses the point. True, the most complex science questions are inaccessible. But so are the most complex theological questions. So, to make the comparison more fair, select an equally rudimentary and humble theological issue where this group could make quick progress.

My feeling is that there is no such humble or rudimentary theological questions as there are with empirical questions. And it is this epistemological disjoint that spells the end for any claim for a scientific theology. This is, I think, just the argument Schwenke is making.

Macht said...


I was being careful. I wasn't making a universal claim about science. That is, I wasn't saying "Science never involves repeatability." What I was claiming was that repeatability isn't something that is common to all science. I would also like to point out the difference between "repeatability" and "testing." I was talking about the former and not the later. Repeating the same experiment is just not done in some instances (and in some cases - e.g., an astronomy experiment relying on some astronomical event - it just isn't possible). I'm curious though - apart from repeating due to some sort of equipment problems - how often would you say that you repeat some (your own or somebody else's) experiment exactly, with no changes to the experimental setup?


I largely agree with you that the theory-ladenness of observation isn't needed for this conversation.

I disagree with you that the ability to "manipulate reality in more powerful ways" is the rubric we should be using to guide us in what "science" is. For example, based on that rubric, you seem to be suggesting that figuring out how to fix a bike is science. I disagree.

Let me also say something that I meant to put in my original reply. I generally feel that the question of whether or not something is "scientific" is besides the point. The posing of the question is generally motivated by political or other social factors rather than anything inherent about the theory or discipline. This usually involves somebody trying to find "essential" nature to science and then using that to show that the thing in question is or isn't "scientific." What we should be asking McGrath is not "Why do you call it 'scientific'?" Rather, we should be looking at the actual content of what he is proposing (not the label he attaches to it) and asking questions about that content. As I said, I haven't read McGrath on this subject, so I don't know his motives for calling it theology "scientific." If he is just trying to give theology some sort of rhetorical "boost" by attaching the word "scientific" to it, then I would largely disagree with him. If he is just using the word "science" in a wider sense than many of us are used to, than I would largely agree with him (and, in fact, I've argued pretty much the same thing elsewhere).

Anonymous said...

Science works, no doubt. In claiming that reasoning involves an element that is personal and heuristic, rather than universal or procedural, I don't mean to suggest that our judgements are arbitrary. Likewise, in claiming that observation relies on theory, I don't mean to suggest that our theories are inappropriate lenses through which to view reality.

I think there are some 'universals' to which all scientists have access. One such is the Universe itself; we share the same reality, even if we observe it from different perspectives. That fact has a lot to do with making consensus possible in the scientific community. But importantly, this fact is true in theology as well.

I am sympathetic towards attempts to understand theology as a rational process. Whether we call it science or not, theology is, or ought to be, an application of our substantial human capacity for reasoning to better understand reality.

Ben Myers said...

This is a really interesting discussion -- thanks for all these comments.

Macht, you ask whether McGrath is "just trying to give theology some sort of rhetorical boost by attaching the word 'scientific' to it," or whether he is "using the word 'science' in a wider sense than many of us are used to" -- it's definitely the latter. One of the foundational points of his Scientific Theology is that there is a plurality of natural and human "sciences", and that each one is properly "scientific" to the extent that it has a distinct object with correspondingly distinct methods of inquiry. On the basis of this conception of "science", he argues that theology and the natural sciences can engage in methodological dialogue precisely because they employ (albeit very different) "scientific" methods.

Since this understanding of the plurality of "sciences" really underpins McGrath's whole project, I think it was probably a momentary oversight when (for this German-language article) he translated "scientific theology" as "naturwissenschaftliche Theologie". Really, the underlying point of his project is not that theology is a "Naturwissenschaft", but that it is a "Wissenschaft" -- i.e., one particular and unique science alongside others, which therefore has something in common (its Wissenschaftlichkeit!) with all other sciences.

Or to put it differently: the fact that theology is a "science" means that it belongs in the university, not that it belongs in the science faculty!

Anonymous said...

What a great conversation. I'm currently working my way through McGrath's smaller book, The Science of God, so this is very helpful.

Anonymous said...

Maybe I should respond more specificaly to some of Richard's comments. Richard, you mention as examples of universal observations things like timing the movements of a pendulum or observing the motions of the planets. I contend that in order to understand an observation such as "the pendulum took 1.5 seconds to swing from left to right" the listener needs to share substantial theory with the observer. Quite apart from a shared understanding of what specific terms such as 'second' mean, there must be substantial shared theory about the nature of time. The example regarding observation of planets is particularly interesting, because Galileo did in fact have considerable difficulty persuading his contempories of the legitimacy of observations made through a lens, precisely because they lacked a shared theory of optics. For this reason, I regard the lens as a particularly appropriate metaphor for scientific theory and its relation to observation.

Why is this relevant? I'm disputing the claim that universally available observations are a distinguishing mark of Science, as opposed to theology.

As for reproducibility, some of the observables of theology are as 'reproducible' as the observables of science. For example, the testimony of the witnesses is reproducible in the same sense that, say, a fossil is reproducible. The relevant feature they share is not so much that one can look at them again, as that everyone can look at them.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the great discussion, everyone. It's been very helpful.

But while I don't want to rain on anyone's parade, part of me wonders why all the fuss. I mean the idea that theologians should be over-anxious about their project being seen to be "scientific", or about being accepted by the scientists' union as sharing its form, or indeed forms, of rationality, strikes me as potentially comical, a kind of social climbing for the intellectually insecure (I'm reminded of Groucho's remark about not wanting to be in any club that would accept him as a member). I would certainly warn theologians against what James Alison calls "physics envy". And, of course, the same kind of positioning occurs around theology and its respectability before the panel of historians (cf. Troeltsch, Pannenberg, et. al.).

Surely the essential question is not whether theology is a science but whether it is a truth-telling activity, and truth-telling cannot be racked on any -ological bed of Procrustes. I mean, can you imagine Mozart, Rembrandt, or Shakespeare being bothered that their work is not science? Which, of course, raises the question as to whether theology - or indeed science itself - might be considered an "art" (it is certainly saturated with metaphors). Or consider Paradise Lost - a poem for sure, but is it not a work of theology as well? And not really off topic, I am reminded how Wittgenstein once suggested that an entire philosophy might be written as a compendium of jokes.

Anyway, I'll tell you one thing scientists and theologians have in common: they are both machines exquisitely designed for transforming caffeine into theories/doctrines.

Bruce Yabsley said...

Kim: I am happy to discourage physics envy: physicists neither need nor deserve this odd kind of praise, nor do they respect it.

Ben: The point you make is reasonable as it stands. But in this context, if changing Wissenschaft to Naturwissenschaft is a momentary oversight, it's a pretty big one. I know the nature of this distinction and my German competence has been decaying since the second Hawke Government. And it rather goes to the heart of the question. There's an important point to be made in stating that theology is properly a science, in the broader sense preserved in the German and (unhappily) almost lost in English. But to call theology a natural science is absurd. (I know from your statements that you know this: my point is about McGrath.)

macht: Your reply is extraordinary. I challenged you on the specific statement that repeatability had long been dropped as a requirement due to the constraints of mega-experiments: a statement which by its content, and the proximity of the specific reference, was apparently meant to refer to particle physics. As a statement about particle physics, it is simply incorrect. Your lack of embarrassment about this is alarming.

I would also like to point out the difference between "repeatability" and "testing." I was talking about the former and not the later.

In particle physics, this is a distinction without a difference. In most cases the actual outcome of an interaction, and in all cases the experimental measurements made of it, have a probabilistic aspect. Even a completely ideal repetition of an experiment does not give exactly the same result, by the nature of the thing.

Repeating the same experiment is just not done in some instances (and in some cases - e.g., an astronomy experiment relying on some astronomical event - it just isn't possible).

Neither it is, but astronomy is an observational and not an experimental discipline. (Actually this goes to the point of the discussion.) Since even in perfection one cannot repeat some kinds of observation, it is no criticism to state that someone has not done so. Fine. But when repetition is possible it is always important as an ideal, and often a routine matter of practice.

I'm curious though - apart from repeating due to some sort of equipment problems - how often would you say that you repeat some (your own or somebody else's) experiment exactly, with no changes to the experimental setup?

The question is naively posed. But in the terms of the question, the answer is: all the time.

I can unpack that further with detail on request. I understand that this gripe is peripheral to the discussion here and not necessarily of interest to everyone. But misleading statements were being made and they needed to be pointed out.

Richard Beck said...

Just to provide some backstory on why I'm grinding this axe.

On my campus I have some colleagues in the humanities of the post-modern ilk that routinely trot out the standard critique of science: No observation is theory-free, "correspondence theories" of truth are dead, science is socially constructed and no more true than any alternative cultural/linguistic lens, etc.

Now, I think they do this because science is a bully in the Academy. Big science is big $$ with big prizes like the Nobel. This pride causes some scientists to be assholes in the Academy. Further, many scientists, all puffed up, venture out into areas where they have little training (think of "The God Delusion"), believing that their scientific acumen entitles them to authoritatively speak on all sort of issues.

So I understand the need and the desire to slap down the hubris of science. The trouble is that the post-modern slaps only exacerbate the problem. It portrays those making the slaps look insecure and jealous. Worse, due to the vacuousness of the post-modern critique of science, science's dim view of the humanities increases. Events like the Sokal Hoax don't help matters.

In my humble estimation, I think my post-modern friends have lost their way. I think they thought that if they could radically decouple discourse from "reality," to displace objectivity and empiricism with subjectivity and perspectivism, that at the end of the day they could dislodge science as the Big Epistemic Bully. The hope was to create an epistemological egalitarianism in the Academy. No one has objective Truth, we just have pockets of discourse. Everyone is on the same epistemic playing field.

The trouble is, this decoupling just creates, to borrow Frankfurt's analysis, bullshit. Why? Because the correspondence theory of truth is alive and well and kicking. And to discard it is a fatal mistep. Language wouldn't exist or work if it didn't correspond in some way to reality. If my wife wants to know where I but the keys I say "I put them on the shelf in the living room." Further, if language didn't correspond with reality we would have no notion of lies or deception. Lastly, the fact that translation exists at all indicates that language meaning is, on the whole, more universal than particular (although something is always lost in translation).

True, the exact nature and scope of the correspondence of reality with language is fraught with philosophical difficulties. It is not so simple as I present it here. But simple correspondence captures 99% of workaday language. And science is simply the careful and systematic exploitation of this correspondence between the mental model (theory) and reality. That it corresponds in some objective universal manner must be granted, to deny this outright is to err egregiously.

To conclude by coming back to Kim's point. Science and theology are just different things. Thus, it makes little sense to make theology like science. But it is also a mistake to try post-modern judo on science, to insist that science is epistemologically "the same as" humanities.

Macht said...


The fact that you feel my question is "naively posed" has more to do with you not making a distinction between repeatability and testing than anything on my part.


You wrote, "That it corresponds in some objective universal manner must be granted, to deny this outright is to err egregiously."

I want to suggest to you that the doing of science is a lot like reading a text, in that it requires interpretation on the part of the scientist/reader. When I deny that there is no "universal manner" in which scientists go about their business, I am basically claiming that there are no hard and fast rules for interpreting nature. This doesn't mean that scientists can interpret things in any manner they choose, but it does mean that they can't just follow some simple (or complex) rules in order to do science.

Anonymous said...

Kim, I'm sure theologians don't need to have their work described as science. Who cares? But it is interesting to compare and contrast science and theology. I think there is also value in contesting the popular belief that science and theology involve profoundly different ways of thinking, with science being wholly based on facts and reason, and theology wholly based on faith. This belief has a political dimension, and might have undesirable consequences if allowed to go unchallenged.

Richard, I think that as scientists we need to take on board realisations that philosophers came to some decades ago, that there can be no observation without interpretation and that reason cannot be reduced to a universal procedure. But I think we can still argue that the technological successes of science justify a strong faith in scientific theory as a powerful lens through which to view reality.

Bruce Yabsley said...

For the record, I called macht's question naive because it seemed to proceed from an uninformed view of how experimental work is done in my discipline. The phenomena in particle physics are extremely distant from day-to-day experience and rather different in kind. It's almost pointless to try to make philosphical headway on the topic without familiarity with certain basics, since there are pitfalls everywhere.

In case anyone is actually interested, the question was how often would you say that you repeat some (your own or somebody else's) experiment exactly, with no changes to the experimental setup?

In PP we do not perform individual "experiments" in the commonly understood sense. Most of our "experiments" are performed in a kind of factory mode where a beam of fundamental particles is brought into collision either with another beam or a fixed target. My current experiment collides two beams and runs 24 hours a day; it's been operating since 1999 with the occasional month of shut-down here or there. There have been one billion interactions of the kind that concern my own research group, and many more of other kinds. Such interactions, as I say, are probabilistic in their outcome and even in the case of identical preparation, the results of two interactions will be different. The regularity --- in many cases a radically simple regularity governed by mathematical formulae and a handful of numbers --- is in the pattern of outcomes.

In one kind of publication we would look at (say) one ten-thousandth of the dataset at any given time: the subset with bearing on a certain phenomenon. There may have been successive publications on this when the relevant subset stood at 5000 events, and at 20000, and at the full 100000. Generally the techniques of analysis become more refined, or are optimised differently, as ther sample becomes larger. But it is in general asked, "if exactly the same analysis method is used this time, what is the result, and how does it compare to the previous one?". This case approaches an ideal "repetition of an experiment" extremely closely. It occurs as a matter of routine.

As to "somebody else's" experiment: the experiment I work on is based in Japan, and there is a rival experiment in California; the detection equipment used by the two groups are alike, in the way that two brothers are alike. The American group often analyse the same phenomena that we do, and vice versa. It is always asked whether we can reproduce each others' measurements of various parameters. The simplicity and mathematical nature of the measurements is such that our results can in general be averaged. Testing the consistency of such measurements is the bread and butter of the discipline. Results from one group that cannot be reproduced by others are (as I say) bracketed.

I could go on, but I won't. (Obviously I have skated over lots of things here.) The point is that the nature of the phenomena permits an extreme kind of reproducibility, and we make strict demands in this matter --- because we can. Other sciences or areas of study (even other disciplines within physics) work differently, because the phenomena are different: method is a function of field. But when reproducibility is possible, it is generally required. Why would it not be? It is a most powerful check against error.

robbie said...

When considering McGrath's project and its claim to "scientific" status, one should remember his appreciation for Torrance and, similarly, Polanyi. As Ben notes, he is not using the word "science" or "scientific" as most in the sciences understand these words. See McGrath's biography of Torrance.

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