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Science And Its Reality: Take 2

Will it always rise?
ISS/Expedition 7
Will it always rise?

I agree with commenters on my post last week who challenged the idea that religion and science are competing theories. They are not.

For one thing, religions are not theories; they are not in the explanation and prediction business; and the value that attaches to religious ideas, cultures, texts, practices, attitudes — let's take for granted that there is value — doesn't stem from the fact that these have been tested, confirmed, verified or put to theoretical work using the methods of natural science developed over the last three centuries or so. One way to sum this up: God is not a hypothesis.

It's worth noticing that common sense is not a theory either.

That is, our conviction that the sun will rise tomorrow, that the ground beneath our feet is stable, that the world continues to exist even when we sleep, that we are not living in a Truman Show world or a Matrix world, these are not hypotheses either. Indeed, it is strange even to say that we believe them.

It would be better to say that we take them for granted, that we can't imagine that they could be untrue, that they are constants against the background of which we can come to believe anything at all.

Actually, there is something odd in the claim that science itself is a theory.

Science is made up of many theories. Science is the activity of making theories. A theory, we might say, is a model or picture or story that has testable consequences. We test the theory by seeing whether its consequences match observed events. We devise experiments to let us put highly nuanced and detailed stories or pictures to the test.

But let's not be coy. Science has an ideology. And the ideology is at tension not only with religion, but also common sense, even though these are not rivals in the theory making business.

It isn't for nothing that we speak of a scientific revolution that occurred in the 16th and 17th centuries, and that we see Galileo, Newton, Descartes and others as revolutionaries. I don't want to try to put the ideology of science in a nutshell, but it seems clear that one basic commitment is the downgrading of sensory experience as a guide to the nature of things.

In Descartes' famous example: to the senses the wax is transformed completely when it melts; but to reason it is comprehensible that the wax is still present, only in a different form. Appearance is one thing, reality another and the gulf between them is very large.

Science is in the reality business. Another crucial doctrine of the ideology, at least in its traditional form, is that good models are mechanistic; that is, it's like billiard balls hitting billiard balls, all the way down. This has the upshot that there is no work for a divine intelligence to do.

To say that science has an ideology is not to say that all scientists adhere to its dogmas. Many scientists, when the leave the lab, are saddled not only with common sense, but also religion.

This much is clear: the tension between science and other modes of conscious life is real. Maybe the tension can be resolved or dissolved. For example, maybe the fact the table is brown and solid is actually compatible with the (putative) fact that colors are in our head and that the table is a cloud of particles.

Or maybe our common-sense conception of tables and everything else is misguided and needs to be given up like so much superstition.

It is hard work, important work, valuable work, the work of philosophy, to face this head on.

You can keep up with more of what Alva Noë is thinking on Facebook and on Twitter: @alvanoe

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Alva Noë is a contributor to the NPR blog 13.7: Cosmos and Culture. He is writer and a philosopher who works on the nature of mind and human experience.