Who Makes the Rules? Print
Written by Mitch Stokes   
Monday, 06 September 2010 12:41

Historians and philosophers of science (but few scientists) have noticed that the rules of science change.   This change can occur over time, as during the scientific revolution of the 1600s.  But more interestingly—at least I think it’s more interesting—even current scientists can play by different rules.  Of course, there are limitations to this variation.  But the rules can differ significantly nonetheless.

And because science is often defined by its rules—which defines its methods—the definition of science is difficult to pin down.  There’s no consensus among those who should know.  This difficulty is called the ‘demarcation problem’: where’s the dividing line between science and “pseudo-science”?

But the rules of science include more than its methods.  They include a web of directives:  the goal of science, what counts as a scientific result, and what sorts of things science can and cannot investigate.  Issues like these aren’t scientific issues at all; they can’t be settled by science itself.  They’re theological, philosophical, and pragmatic.

So who makes the rules?

In the seventeenth century, Galileo argued against the Aristotelian establishment that the earth moved around the sun.  What made it doubly controversial was that he supported his claim with a method just as contentious.  When the rules themselves aren’t agreed upon, everything else becomes secondary.  If the foundations be destroyed, what shall the righteous do?  In any case, the rules changed.

Today, when Christians oppose some scientific claim or another—sometimes a fine thing to do—we often direct our criticism at the wrong place.  We attack the results of accepted science rather than the rules by which its results were obtained.

To take one example, creationists should admit that—according to the accepted scientific rules—there is good evidence for a really old universe.  Secularists who believe in an old universe aren’t—in virtue of that fact—Satan worshipers, incompetent idiots, or both.  And Christians who believe in an old universe aren’t necessarily—in virtue of that fact alone—compromisers or backsliders.  More probably, they’re just playing by the rules.  To be sure, not all the evidence points in the direction of an old universe (every theory, no matter how impressive, has recalcitrant data).  But Christians who oppose an old universe and who try to get a different conclusion via the same method are often—but not always—just begging for a beating.  The charge of incompetence is often justified.  We’re claiming to play by the rules we flout.

Another example.  Many intelligent design proponents get bogged down in debates over whether their position should be counted as genuine science.  But we’ve seen—or at least I’ve asserted—that there is no consensus regarding the rules or methods of science.  Which of the definitions is the ID proponent trying to meet?  There are many to choose from.

But suppose there weren’t.  Suppose there was an official rulebook that listed the twenty-three necessary and sufficient characteristics of science.  Would that show that ID and creationism aren’t legitimate scientific views?  It would—according to those rules.

But so what?

Christians have a responsibility to their own community.  The goals, methods, and questions of science will often be—and should be—different from those of secularists.  Different groups will naturally play by different rules.  They’re playing different games.  This shouldn’t be surprising because the rules are determined by more fundamental considerations—considerations that come from outside the game.  Some of the rules—the most basic rules (e.g., the goals of the game)—are dictated upfront by the community’s theology.  Now, perhaps there are good reasons for Christians to play by most of the accepted scientific rules.  But then perhaps not.  In any case, we should—at the very least—know what the rules are before we decide to play the game.  We may want to play a different one.

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