According to "Positivism," the only things that humans can be "positively" certain about are things they discover through their five senses and through the scientific method.
However, that assertion itself was derived neither through the five senses or through the scientific method. It is an axiom, an a priori claim that is made in order to make other claims. Thus, even a positivist, in order to be a positivist, has to make certain claims that can't be supported by his philosophical worldview.
There is a set of at least five assumptions that a society needs to hold in order to produce good scientists, namely:
- Nature is real
- Nature has rules
- Nature is not divine
- Humans can "know" things, and that our five senses are reliable
- Humans ought to understand how things work.
These claims do not fall out of mere natural thought, but require a certain metaphysics or philosophy, which often are established by means of religion. Furthermore, not all religions readily avail themselves to the assumptions listed above. The Christian Bible, in particular, provides a basis for each of these claims, and this is one of the reasons that modern science started and flourished in Christian Europe.
While there exist many lists of famous Christian scientists, I think it's remarkable that many of the units that modern science uses to quantify measurements are named after Christians. Here is an incomplete list of Christians who had scientific units named after them:
- Newton (Force)
- Joule (Energy)
- Farad (Capacitance)
- Gauss (Magnetic Field)
- Volt (Electric Potential)
- Hertz (Frequency)
- Ampere (Current)
- Pascal (Pressure)
- Kelvin (Temperature)
Here, I describe how it was no coincidence that these Christians did good science. Their Biblical worldview provided them all the assumptions they needed to have the beliefs and the motivation to advance science.
Nature is Real
Given your observations of the world around you, there are basically two assumptions you can make:
- The universe is really there, and is roughly 93 billion light years across with 10^80 particles in it.
- The universe is only big enough to house a single brain—yours. Everything in it is a figment of your consciousness.
It is somewhat difficult to nail down exact probabilities for each of these possibilities, as doing so would require a scientific model of how a "universe generator" works. Unfortunately, science can't adjudicate on things outside of the universe, so no such model can be created.
However, we can wave our hands a little bit and make the following assumptions. At least in this universe, the laws of statistics and thermodynamics say that randomly generating a highly ordered small-thing, is a lot easier than randomly generating a highly-ordered large thing. For example, you are much more likely to roll 100 sixes in a row than you are to roll 1,000,000 sixes in a row. The chances of a Big Bang randomly generating 10^20 atoms configured into an intel computer processor 1 centimeter wide is pretty small. It's a little smaller for randomly generating 10^21 atoms configured into a human brain that is 15 cm wide. But both of these probabilities are profoundly more likely than a Big Bang randomly exploding into a 10^80-atom universe that is 93 billion light years across (that contains not one CPU, nor one brain, but billions of brains, and tens of billions of CPUs, on just one of the planets in that universe).
To reiterate, given that we observe a universe around us, its is statistically much more likely that none of it is real and we are imagining everything.
Of course, very few of us actually believe that we are imagining the universe. But in order to believe that the universe is actually real in the face of these statistics, you have to make some religious/metaphysical claims, such as the existence of a God who created a universe to have billions of observers in it, who were created in His own image to love each other and to see God's wonders displayed in the universe.
Nature Has Rules
There is no rule in the universe that says that the universe has to have rules. The reason why we believe that the universe obeys science has more to do with religion than with pure science.
The most incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it is comprehensible.
For example, in China, "There was no confidence that the code of Nature's laws could be unveiled and read, because there was no assurance that a divine being, even more rational than ourselves, had ever formulated such a code capable of being read."2. According to ancient Chinese philosophers, "The universe simply is and always was. There is no need to suppose that it functions according to rational laws or that it could be comprehended in physical rather than mystical terms. Consequently, through the millenia, Chinese individuals pursued 'enlightenment,' not explanations."1
If a society does not believe that nature has laws or reasons, or a pattern to follow, it is not likely to produce individuals who will seek for these laws or reasons. The thing is that many ancient people never imagined that nature could have rules that governed everything in it. However, the Judeo-Christian heritage asserted that there was a divine Being who gave not only a moral law to humanity, but also set up laws for nature to follow (Jeremiah 33:25, Colossians 1:17). Christian scientists have seen it as their great privilege to investigate God's law, both His moral law as revealed through scripture, and His natural law as revealed through nature.
Every formula which expresses a law of nature is a hymn of praise to God.
—Maria Mitchell, American Astronomer (1818-1889)
The significance and joy in my science comes in those occasional moments of discovering something new and saying to myself, "So that's how God did it." My goal is to understand a little corner of God's plan. —Henry F. Schafer
Nature is Not Divine
God told the ancient Israelites many times to avoid worshipping nature (Jeremiah 2:27-28, Deuteronomy 4:19, Exodus 23:13, Exodus 20:3-4). This abstinence from the worship of nature stood against the common practice of the neighboring nations of Israel, who frequently would worship gods of metals (Daniel 5:23), animal deities (Exodus 32:4 mentions a calf, 1 Samuel 5:1-5 mentions Dagon, the fish god), and gods of the celestial bodies, such as Baal.
In their book, The Soul of Science, Nancy Pearcey and Charles Thaxton explain "The monotheism of the Bible exorcised the gods of nature, freeing humanity to enjoy and investigate it without fear. When the world was no longer an object of worship, then—and only then—could it become an object of study."
A culture may have capable individuals, but they don't look for "laws of nature" if they believe that nature is enchanted and ruled by millions of little deities like a rain god, a river goddess, or a rat deva. If the planets themselves are gods, then why should they follow established laws? Cultures that worship nature often use magic to manipulate the unseen powers governing nature. They don't develop science and technology to establish "dominion" over nature. Some "magic" may seem to "work," but magicians don't seek a systematic, coherent understanding of nature.
—Vishal Mangalwadi, The Book that Made Your World: How the Bible Created the Soul of Western Civilization.
Christianity, rather than worshipping nature, sees nature as the signature of a master designer or an intelligent designer.
Jesus has been found worthy of greater honor than Moses, just as the builder of a house has greater honor than the house itself. For every house is built by someone, but God is the builder of everything.
Humans Can Know Things
History's greatest thinkers have often pondered what it means for humans to be able to "think" at all. What distinguishes the thoughts that pass through a human's brains from the thoughts that pass through a dog's brain, or the signals that propagate through a computer?
One Christian thinker put it this way:
If minds are wholly dependent on brains, and brains on biochemistry, and biochemistry (in the long run) on the meaningless flux of the atoms, I cannot understand how the thought of those minds should have any more significance than the sound of the wind in the trees."
—C. S. Lewis, Weight of Glory, p. 139.
The world's most famous evolutionist, Charles Darwin, also was perplexed by man's ability to have rational thought:
But then with me the horrid doubt always arises whether the convictions of man's mind, which has been developed from the mind of the lower animals, are any value or at all trustworthy. Would any one trust in the convictions of a monkey's mind, if there are any convictions in such a mind?
—Charles Darwin, to William Graham, 3 July 1881
In short, there's no reason why man's thoughts should be reliable. If, at it's base, man's thoughts are merely electronic signals propagating through neurons in the brain, why is it that these thoughts are reliable? Here, one might make the argument that a human's neural network is larger and more robust than that of a rat, but we modern science has created artificial neural networks in computer that are deeper, larger, and more mathematically accurate than the human brain is. Despite the robustness of these neural networks, we would hardly call whatever "rational" thought occurs in these networks corresponds to the patterns of thought that occur in a human brain.
In the first chapter of the Christian Bible, God proclaimed His intention to create beings that were capable of rational thought, for the purpose of studying and ruling over the rest of God's creation on earth:
And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth. So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.
It is in this text that Christian scientists have traditionally established the basis for their reliance on human reason. Apart from a religious claim such as is given in Genesis 1:26-27, all that man can supply to justify his reliance on his own reason is to appeal to a sort of empirical falsification theory set forth by Karl Popper: trusting in human reason has worked better than any other approach, and we'll keep doing it until we find something better.
Humans Ought to Study Nature
Just as I believe that the Book of Scripture illumines the pathway to God, so believe that the Book of Nature, with its astonishing details [...] also suggests a God of purpose and a God of design And I think my belief makes me no less a scientist. —Owen Gingerich
We must pay God the compliment of studying His work of art and this should apply to all realms of human thought. A refusal to use our intelligence honestly is an act of contempt for Him who gave us that intelligence.
Why didn't science arise in Buddhist and Hindu Monastaries? The principle of Transcendental Meditation, for example, "is not to know truth, but to empty one's mind of all rational thought — to 'transcend' thinking. To think is to remain in ignorance, in bondage to rational thought. Much before the birth of the modern age, the medieval Augustinian monasteries began doing something that became unique to Christianity. When a young man devoted his life to seek and to serve God, the monastery required him to spend years studying the Bible, languages, literature, logic, rhetoric, mathematics, music, theology, philosophy, and practical arts such as agriculture, animal husbandry, medicine, metallurgy, and technology. Thus, the monastery, which was an institution for cultivating the religious life, began producing a peculiarly rational person, capable of researching; writing books; developing technology and science; developing capitalism; and developing complex, rational legal and political systems. The Bible became the ladder on which the West climbed the heights of educational, technical, economic, political, and scientific excellence.
—Vishal Mangalwadi, Truth and Transformation: A Manifesto for Ailing Nations p119
Christians have traditionally seen nature as one of the ways to understand God's character. They believe that the same God who created mankind, also gave Him reason to govern over creation. As such, one of man's responsibilities is to study how nature works to better understand how to have "dominion" over it (Genesis 1:26-27).
During Jesus' time on earth, He faulted the Jews in that although they had an understanding of God's natural law, they did not grasp His moral law (Matthew 16:2-4, Luke 12:56). According to Paul, God provided His natural creation as a means of revealing to mankind God's character (Romans 1:19-20). This is a sentiment that was well established in Old-Testament writings as well (Job 12:7-10, Psalms 19:1, Psalms 8:3-4, Matthew 6:28-30, Psalm 145:5). For this cause, Christ often would explain the things of the Kingdom of Heaven through parables about things on earth (John 3:12 Matthew 13:13, Matthew 13:34, Mark 4:34)
It has been suggested by historians that one reason why the Greeks did not develop an empirical science is that they didn't want to get their hands dirty. The experimentation and empirical study inherent in science require the type of work that the Greeks thought only slaves should do. In many cultures the material world is equated with evil and chaos. In others, it's a deadly trap from which we should try to escape. As such, manual labor is denigrated and relegated to the lower castes of society. The global spread of Western education made this scientific way of seeing nature so common that most educated people do not realize that the scientific outlook is a peculiar way of observing the world— an objective (“secular”) method molded by a biblical worldview. Science uses objective methods to observe, organize, and understand the natural world. But this perspective is neither “natural,” “universal,” nor “common sense.” It is a peculiar way of viewing things. Europe did not stumble upon the scientific method through random trial, error, and chance. Some individuals in the ancient world may have looked at nature with a scientific outlook, but their perspective did not become a part of their intellectual culture. The scientific perspective flowered in Europe as an outworking of medieval biblical theology nurtured by the Church. Theologians pursued science for biblical reasons. Their scientific spirit germinated during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries and blossomed after the sixteenth-century Reformation—after Europe became a more literate place, where people could read the Bible themselves and become consciously biblical.
—Vishal Mangalwadi, The Book that Made Your World: How the Bible Created the Soul of Western Civilization, p223
In conclusion, I have sought to show here that science does not do a very good job of justifying itself. There are at least five assumptions that one needs to make in order to perform science, and science itself is inadequate to make these five assumptions. However, the Christian Bible sets forth these assumptions, and it is no coincidence that many of history's great scientists have been very religious. Science and faith do not need to be in tension. In fact, if we believe what Christ said, we can rest assured that a belief in Christ should enable us to excel in all parts of our human experience:
I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.