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slightly edited "letter to the
editor" of First Things, a superb ecumenical Christian magazine,
The Metaphysical Presuppositions of Science.
I do not recall whether the letter was published .
January 29, 1998
To the Editor:
Edmund Weinmann (Feb. 1998) makes a common error in supposing that we can "do science", or anything at all, for that matter, and not presuppose some ontology or metaphysic. That is not the case, as Phillip Johnson labors [in Darwin on Trial and elsewhere] to point out.
For example: the very foundation of empirical science is inductive reasoning, i.e., generalizing from a small number of observed examples of a class of incidents to a conclusion about the whole of the class. We may observe of any number of instances of water freezing that they consistently freeze at 32 degrees, given standard conditions. But the number we observe is absurdly small when compared to all the instances of water freezing, no matter how narrowly we define the conditions.
The question is, as David Hume and others have pointed out: By what right do we conclude from our observed samples that we have any knowledge at all about those examples we have not and cannot ever observe, but which might affect our lives at any fortuitous point? How do I know that, when I go skating on this pond below 32 degrees, that the water will stay frozen?
The answer is that we have none at all apart from some far reaching metaphysical assumptions. We have to assume, for example, a regularity to nature, that the laws of nature are "the same" throughout time and space. "Regularity in nature" is not an observable quality. We observe only past regularities -- and precious few of them out of the total number of events. The jump from past observed regularities to unobservable future regularities is precisely the point at issue -- the leap of inductive reasoning. It takes a metaphysical commitment to make that leap.
Science is nothing very exotic. It is simply common sense honed to a fine edge. It is common sense paying very careful attention to observations and to one's reasoning from those observations to a conclusion. We all "do science" every day of our lives. It is never a question of whether we do it, but only of whether we do it well or poorly, whether our science is rough and ready or academically sophisticated. When I conclude, as I get out of bed, that the floor will hold me up, I am "doing science". I am drawing rough conclusions from past experience and from the authorities around me who have learned before me. What we call "science" is simply a tightening up of those procedures.
But the principles of inductive reasoning apply at every level, no matter how sophisticated or unsophisticated. I can draw no conclusions about the reliability of floors or ice on ponds without presupposing some connection between my previous experiences of floors and ice on ponds and the next one I am about to have. And that is a metaphysical assumption, an assumption which cannot be verified by further empirical observations and conclusions without only begging the question further.
Metaphysics is the science (yes, indeed) of those presuppositions which are necessary to make sense of our empirical world. Metaphysics (at least in a meaningful sense of that word) is the answer to the question: What is presupposed, what must be pre-empirically true, in order to form a coherent and rational order out of our empirical experiences?
A part of the answer to that question is that there must be some non-empirical connecting link between all those experiences of water freezing or stepping on floors, some ontological, causal link. For without such a link, there is no rational connection between the incidents I have observed and those I have not yet observed. And then there is no rational way to conclude from my observations that I have any information concerning those unobserved events about which I wish to generalize and therefore predict. Such as this pond or this floor. That is to say, inductive reasoning becomes logically impossible. And then natural science (either rough or finely honed) is also logically impossible, and life is reduced to utter chaos.
The secular materialist way of doing that connecting has been (more or less) through the Newtonian idea of hard, massey atoms coasting through space, bumping into each other, etc., with the corollary that atoms of a given sort all behaved the same under the same circumstances. Most people who are not theoretical physicists still believe something like that. Bishop George Berkeley in the 18th century pointed out that Newton's notion of atoms and inertia would become a secular buffer and block between us and God. That is precisely what has happened.
George Berkeley, David Hume, Emmanuel Kant, and more recently Werner Heisenberg, et al, have shown serious reasons for doubting the adequacy of that model. But nobody, I would suggest, has been able to replace the materialist model with anything substantial other than the answer many of them would rather die a thousand deaths than admit -- the Biblical worldview. The inadequacies of the Newtonian worldview unfortunately did not prevent it from capturing the public imagination, leading to the collapse of a once powerful Biblical civilization, and to the secularization and now neo-paganization of the 20th century with unparalleled butchery and debauchery.
The truth is that when the dust clears, it becomes evident that no one has been able to avoid the Biblical answer, namely that ultimately God, a personal, conscious, rational, and purposive "Someone", is responsible for the way things are, and that it is He who is the adequate explanation (because the ultimate Cause) for the interconnectedness (and therefore rationality and predictability) of the cosmos.
Louis Beck can ridicule the Biblical answer ("anyone who believes in God could believe in anything..."), but, as per Phillip Johnson, neither he nor Weinmann can avoid making serious metaphysical commitments. That is a logical fact from which no one can escape. And when it comes to metaphysics, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob ("How long with you go limping on two opinions...." I Kings 18. "Come, let us reason together...." Is. 1: 18; Is. 40-50; John 8:31 ff..) does quite well holding His own in reasonable public debate.
There are neither logical nor empirical reasons for rejecting the Biblical notion of God as creator, and therefore Ultimate Explanation of all else. Biblical believers can do the same science, perform the same experiments, and participate in the same peer review journals as secular materialists. And they can do it more reasonably because they have a consistent and wholly adequate ontology behind them.
The reason (one is led to assume) for the secular rejection of the Biblical ontology is not a desire for understanding so much as, quite differently, a compulsion to be intellectually in control. Freewill-creating on the part of God makes all of our understanding dependent on His faithfulness -- which puts us out of control. One cannot pre-dict what God freely does. So we live by the grace and reasonableness of the Self-revelation of God. And for reasons that secularists themselves will have to explain, that is an offense to the typical secular materialist. Being an offense, however, does nothing to make it less than a fact.
Secular materialists are scrambling because what they thought was their ontology (Newtonian atoms, etc.) has collapsed into a Heisenbergian welter of determinacies vs. indeterminacies, randomness, immaterial mathematical formulae, and now more recently, "chaos" itself. If some mix of indeterminacy, randomness, abstract formulae, and chaos is going to be called "the rational explanation" of the empirical world of real personal relationships, well, perhaps the materialists will excuse us if we stick with God. There does seem to be more grace, faithfulness, and, yes, reasonableness possible there, as suggested by the "Common Sense Science" folks.
Faithfully in Christ,
[NOTE: More and more Christians are emerging from under the rocks to take
on the secular domination of academics and science. See the "Christian
Resources" page for information.
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