What is a Science?

I did an ill-advised thing yesterday, a thing I try not to do. I released some of my frustration at an ongoing dilemma, on people. Friends, never burn down any structure, because people, many of whom you cannot see and do not know, live in and around it. In religion and science, as frequently hotter than some areas of dialogue, this is an especially necessary caution.

But among the corrections is a legitimate requirement that I do define science more clearly. (And in a manner more measured and less rash, to be sure.) Because what ought to be self-evident is that there are things that participate in scientific pursuits of knowledge which will never, in the university, deserve a science budget. This is, after all, modernity. We call many things "Liberal Arts" and "Humanities" which are in fact social sciences, but which were not such things classically. At the brass-tack level, no theologian or Biblical scholar will manage to get themselves appointed as a teacher or researcher in the sciences unless they have credentials in some other, genuine scientific field of the academy. We are Humanities and Liberal Arts, and not Sciences—in spite of the fact that we must also don the lab coat to legitimate our pursuits of knowledge. And, in fact, we do so—and I mean to say that we have every right to do so, without deserving the claim of pretense, or the objection that scientific pursuit in some way contaminates our natures as disciplines.

So: what is a science, even if it will never be billed as one?

The first and most basic thing that must be said of any science is that it is data-driven. That it is based on observation first and foremost. In other words, that it is a logically posterior effort, or it is not science. Scientific thought is always Nachdenken, and in its pursuit of the real, it posits its own unreality. The first and ultimate condition of the validity of any scientific claim is its coherence as (or within) a functional model of the reality being considered. Reality itself is always the most important defeater.

Because of this, logical incoherence and discontinuity among scientific claims simply drive us back to the real in order to discover what parts of our thought are wrong. They are not barriers to truth; the whole existing model may be wrong in its grounding in an insufficient perspective on reality. Which is not to say that science goes about striving for novelty and knocking down old things—but it is to say that science is always open to the disproof of its existing thought in favor of something that better describes its reality. The possibility of disproof is therefore a second major hallmark.

At the same time, it must be said of any science that it seeks the best possible model, the most reliable model, of the real under consideration. The goal is to develop such a coherent, inclusive, and extensible system of knowledge that most of the time it works without having to be knocked over and redone. Kuhn calls these paradigms. What they are, are force multipliers that keep us from having to reinvent the wheel every time we want to go to the store. Most of the practical work in a science is done on edge and corner cases revealed by gaps and conflicts in the observationally-obtained information within the system.

But system is a predicate of science, and not a goal. It is a conceptual tool for structuring methodically obtained knowledge and information. It is how we build the model, and how we compare the model to the real. System will not have one form. System belongs to the nature of the information derived from the real under observation, and changes with the state of that information. System is therefore frequently a hallmark, but not a sine qua non. It is hard to be a science without producing systemata, ideas of coherency, at some point along the way (and preferably many points along the way, or perhaps you aren't observing enough!). But system is not a mark the absence of which can be used definitively one way or another.

What is such a mark, and the mark from which any potential systematic nature derives, is method—and methodology also, to be sure, if the pursuit lasts long enough. If a science is to live up to the name, it will in practice be a modeling language. And one can only go so far in modeling a reality before one is forced to stop and think about the ways it is appropriate to model this reality. Not what it is appropriate to say about it—that's content, and is determined already by the demand that we speak the real in the closest possible relation to its reality. No; method is how it is appropriate to approach this reality in order to understand it in terms which will produce a usable model. It is essential to a science that its methods conform to its objects. It is also practically necessary that there be a range of methods at play, in competition and cooperation with one another over the truth of the same real. Epistemological humility demands it!

And humility, too, is a mark of the sciences. It has not always been a mark of the arts. And this is a mark frequently denied of the sciences by popular stereotype. The egotistical objectivity that asserts its own understanding of reality as though it were in fact reality, the hubris that brings down catastrophe by pursuing knowledge into dangerous places, the ignorant and selective expertise that looks at a part as though it were the whole, and disregards the rest. Frankly, that's a description of the failings of the stereotypical philosopher, first and last, and something of a Hollywood cliché. I won't claim we don't fall into it, now and then, but it is a failure mode rather than nature.

Ah, but the middle one, the danger of knowledge because of its potential for use, is something you will find scattered throughout the writings of scientists engaged in government programs like the ones that produced bigger and better nuclear weapons. Einstein, Feynman, and Oppenheimer (I'll stop with the holy trinity) knew and faced the double-edged nature of their work in the ways that its results might be used. And that's among the necessities of ethics, in any science, along with the primary concern that the pursuit of knowledge itself involve only the absolute minimum possible amount of harm to living things.

But the use of knowledge is always a secondary concern to its truth. Ethical humility is demanded of every science, but the primary humility of any science is in its awareness of its relative situation with respect to its objects. It is epistemological humility. We know very well that, and we continue to learn how, we are not outside of any of the systems we study, whether in the natural or the social sciences. There are always limitations to our knowledge of the reality under consideration in any science, and these are also constantly changing as our methods change. But what makes a science is that its object is epistemologically available. It may be known, and the knowledge of it may be systematized without necessary contradiction.

No science can be one for long if it becomes clear that its object is manifestly irrational—unless it can move on to descriptive study of the irrationality itself. Which is how we come to have sciences of pathology, as long as the pathology is itself rationally comprehensible. But this is among the reasons for the Platonic use of Socrates to reject the rationality of deities as proper objects, once upon a time when philosophy was science. Pagan deities are no more rational than pagan humans, and the irrationality is not itself rational. Ethics required a more objectively rational basis if it was going to be a methodical pursuit of real knowledge.

If I may engage in an unfair generalization, because it is manifestly overbroad, the difference between a science and an art is the difference between study and contemplation. I have every respect for the arts, just as I have for the sciences. I didn't study music and literature for nothing! One studies an art, to be sure, and the arts manifestly employ techne. One is not truly an artist, or not a good one at any rate, without the sciences of the field "under one's fingers," to a greater or lesser degree. Which is not to say that the science of composition makes a Mozart or a Bach, but it is to say that the genius of an artist is always a combination of nature and nurture, with nature expressing itself through nurtured paths and not well without them. Sciences, by their humble, methodical, studied posterior pursuit of the real through systematic modeling, are the exemplary means by which we provide that nurture.

And it is the sciences of a religion, both theoretical and practical, that support and maintain the ground underlying the arts of its religious communities. We certainly do not create it, but we work upon it. For which reason I am obliged to think of both theological and Biblical studies as sciences of the church, along with the historical and social sciences of the church, and her study of practical ministry and pastoral care. And I hold these things to the standard of sciences. Calling them the sciences of the church is no analogy, as though if the church had real sciences, these would be them, and we may think of them beneficially through such an analogy. No; these are in fact, whether or not their practitioners will live up to it, sciences of religion, and we do well to practice them as such.

One objection I can see remains, which is the idea that sciences are experimental. Which is only a sustainable objection if you hold that this means that we perform experiments upon the realities of our study, as conjured up especially by the popular idea of "medical experimentation," so familiar as a staple of horror movies. Do we experiment upon God, or the Bible, or the church, or the people entrusted to our care? This is a question that cannot be answered without being unasked. Do we study God? Certainly. Do we study the Bible? Certainly. Do we study the church? Certainly. Do we study the people entrusted to our care as the church? Likewise, certainly we do. By what methods? Under what standards of knowledge? With the consideration of what ethical concerns in the process? To what practical ends? Family systems theory, narrative criticism, and modeling images of the church are all quite different answers, as befits the nature of their sciences. And yet they are all held to the same standards: do they adequately and ethically reflect the realities under study in ways which may be reliably used? Do they do so disputably, in ways that are testable? Do they do so in ways that are measurably, whether qual or quant, better than others? This is because, put simply, they are the fruits of sciences. And when we advance past them, or subordinate them into larger frameworks, or qualify and extend them to include other information and knowledge, we will be able to have rationally justifiable reasons for doing so.

For all of these reasons, I will not relinquish the claim—because I see no evidence that it is not the case, and none that it should not be the case, or that we lose something by having it be the case. I see, therefore, no reason why these pursuits should not rightfully take place in the university, why they cannot participate in the give and take of human knowledge as fruitful rational disciplines in their own right. I will not insist that we must be sciences, or that we must only be sciences—only that we are, because this is manifestly what we do, and it is how we grow, and it is also manifestly where we fail when we fail. I will also insist that we are no other sciences than we should be, by no other methods than are appropriate to the posterior intellectual pursuit of our real objects. If we are Liberal Arts and Humanities, yet we remain also sciences by nature, having made our homes in this world and no other.

And if we do not conform to the results of other sciences, let the reason be this as well: we are different sciences, with different objects. This is no obstacle to our mutual enlightenment, as long as none of us is willing to compromise our integrity in the pursuit of our proper sciences. As I have said many times, if physics tells theology that God is not an object of the world, I will admit this. It cannot tell us that God is not, only that God is not within its purview, and that the use of God as a cipher for world events is not a sufficient or useful explanation for the natural scientist. If, on the other hand, the chemist should find a result which conflicts with physics, the two have some work to do on what precisely is really true. The same is certainly true of the theologian and the Biblical scholar, when we find ourselves in conflict. Related objects make for cognate sciences; the degree and nature of relation makes for the degree and nature of possible conflicts, as well as for the degree and nature of dependencies between two disciplines, if we look at it another way.

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