Science and Religion

Philosophy of Science and Limitations of Scientific Method

Excerpts from a Talk by Subboor Ahmad for IERA

Science is one of the most useful body of knowledge as well as a source of empirical knowledge. Scientific knowledge has helped us in advancements in technology.

Such technological advancements have brought tremendous comforts in life in terms of expediting and widening mobility and communication, improving healthcare to ensure longevity, enhancing the quantity and variety of production of goods and services, which has resulted in boosting growth and living standards.

However, such advancements have come with some challenges. There is increased inequality in terms of income, wealth, access to finance and even food. There is rapid deforestation, sea contamination, pollution and which is resulting in enormous loss of bio-diversity and irreparable damage to the ecology and environment.   

Another challenge is coming in terms of lack of depth and multitude of perspectives in our outlook to the world, knowledge and future of society. Scientism regards science as the only source of true and valid knowledge. This view undermines the knowledge of values, ethics and norms. It replaces objective morality with subjective morals which can be tweaked by a minority of individuals in a human society with no accountability to any objective code of ethics. 

Karl Popper has written extensively on the topic. In contemporary public discourses, Subboor Ahmad of IERA has also talked a lot on these themes. Here is an excerpt from one of his talks where he explains the pitfalls in philosophy of science. Hence, when viewing, analysing and applying scientific knowledge, we have to be careful about the limitations of science and the scientific method.

Methodological Naturalism Vs Philosophical Naturalism

Methodological naturalism uses naturalism as a methodology to come up with workable models for explaining reality. It does not necessitate rejecting God or religion or having even a position about God or religion.

For instance, in seeking cure through a vaccine, medical knowledge can be utilized to develop the right vaccine.

It is a completely different matter to use methodological naturalism under philosophical naturalism. Philosophical naturalism ascribes to Godless philosophy to assume away any agency other than naturalistic explanation. However, it is neither necessary nor assuming away the will and agency a scientifically provable judgement.

Problem of Induction

We have limited data. We have just scratched the surface in terms of analysing the data in the universe and even in the vastness of oceans. About 18,000 new species are discovered every year.

All conclusions using limited data are probabilistic. Looking at 500 black swans, we may conclude that all swans are black. But, we cannot say that this is an absolute truth as we cannot rule out the possibility that among the swans we have not studied and seen, there can be a swan(s) with a different colour.

Under-determination of Theory

Since we have limited data, we cannot rule out the possibility that competing theories can explain the same data differently. We often have incomplete information for unique explanation. Our results are plausible explanations for the limited data at our disposal about the real world phenomenon.

Effect of Apriori Knowledge and Motives

Our apriori knowledge, preconceived information or motive affects what questions to ask, what to observe, what proofs to entertain and which of the plausible explanations to prefer from a multitude of explanations.

Scientists with a bend towards Scientism might deem all questions unimportant which cannot be studied through science. However, this limitation of science does not bury the questions with solutions if left ignored.

Incompleteness in Conceivable Explanations

Existing knowledge limits what plausible explanations, justifications and reconciliation can be used to analyse data. Eternal universe was the best conceivable explanation before the Big Bang. There was no scientific knowledge about sub-atomic world until we discovered the sub-atomic world. Hence, our conclusions are as good as the data, observations and methods of investigation.

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