The Presuppositions of Science

A few days ago I went into the crawl space for the first time.

Our kitchen sink seemed to be pouring water at a lower pressure than normal, so I needed to go down into the crawl space to make sure there wasn’t a leak in the water piping. Donning boots, pants, a hoodie, and a particulate mask, I lowered myself into the crawl space. My two-year-old daughter, Anastasia, stood by nervously, unsure why I had to go into such a small, scary, dark, and unsavory space all by myself. “Dada? Dada?” she inquired with uncertainty.

Crouching, army-crawling, ducking underneath and over piping, fighting the feeling of claustrophobia, past support pillars to the rear of the house, I made it to the back of the foundation and the kitchen water piping. No leaks. I made my way back to the crawl space entrance, glad I didn’t run into any spiders the whole time. I popped my head out of the crawl space looking like a bespectacled prairie dog, and Anastasia shouted a relieved, “Dada!”

As it turns out, a piece of debris had clogged the diverter valve in the kitchen faucet. Removing the debris fixed the sink. Though I didn’t find the problem in the crawl space, going into it was a valuable experience. Before entering the crawl space, I would walk around on top of the floor taking for granted it was not going to cave in underneath my feet. I didn’t know there was so much going on underneath the surface of the house to keep the floor stable. If I go into the crawl space and discover one of the support beams is rotting or broken, or the foundation is broken, I shouldn’t trust the floor or the house until I fix the problem.

Science is like a house. Many people naively use science or trust science without knowing that there are philosophical support pillars, presuppositions, in the crawl space under the house. This list is not exhaustive, but here a few of the presuppositions of science:

  1. The external world exists.
  2. The universe is orderly.
  3. The universe is knowable.
  4. Nature is uniform.
  5. Induction is possible.
  6. Logic, epistemology, and truth exist.
  7. The senses are reliable.
  8. The mind is reliable.
  9. Mathematics and numbers exist.
  10. Ontology exists and classification is possible.
  11. Certain moral values are necessary to science (honest reporting of data).
  12. Singularities, ultimate boundary conditions, and brute givens exist.

You can run thought experiments on each of these to see how, if the philosophical presupposition fails, science fails. I will give a few examples: 6) Truth exists. Postmodernism denies the existence of truth. If postmodernism is true, science fails. 8) The mind is reliable. Charles Darwin and C.S. Lewis were both haunted by a thought: if my mind is just a deterministic chain of chemical reactions, how can I trust my thoughts? (I have not read it yet, but I have heard Nagel’s book deals with the problem of mind when approached from a materialist perspective.) If the human mind doesn’t work, science fails. 11) Certain moral values are necessary to science, including honest reporting. Not every scientist is committed to accurately presenting data. John Grant wrote a whole book about this. The film “Interstellar” (spoiler alert) reveals the disaster that occurs when scientists lie. If scientists do not honestly report data, science fails.

When the wolf huffs, and he puffs, will he blow the house down?
When the wolf huffs, and he puffs, will he blow the house down?

Charles Taylor, in his masterful book on secularism, explains that every belief in Western Culture has become open to doubt, questioning, attack, and criticism; every belief has become fragilized. The philosophical presuppositions of science are no exception. When you delve into the crawlspace of Western Civilization, you will see that the philosophical pillars holding up the house of science can no longer be taken for granted. They are under attack from postmodernism, nihilism, reductive materialism, the Enlightenment thinkers like Immanuel Kant, and some counter-Enlightenment thinkers who deny the presuppositions necessary for science.

In this confused world, Christians need to walk a narrow path:  a path where we avoid the futility of scientific idolatry, but also unashamedly show that Christianity provides a firm philosophical/metaphysical foundation for science.

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