The Doctrines and Dogmas of Science

The Doctrines and Dogmas of Science

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

When a hypothesis is introduced, and it is accepted without any consideration of or regard to its consequences, it becomes a dogma. In its original Greek meaning, dogma signified something that seems to be good. In Christian theology the word has taken on special technical connotations, referring primarily to revealed truths, as enunciated in the Scriptures or by a recognized authority of the church. The validity of a dogma is based on its intrinsic, a priori truth-value, based on its source, and not on the consequences it may lead to; whereas in the case of a hypothesis, quite the opposite is the case.

The tenth century Jewish scholar Saadia Gaon stated in his Principlaes of faith and knowledge that though the rationality is at the basis of the Jewish framework, if and when it comes in conflict with a dogma of the religion, dogma is to be accepted as the truth. Aristotle may see more reasonable when he says that the world had no beginning, but the Book of Genesis says otherwise, and therefore must be regarded as the truth. Though this was said in the context of Judaism, it is applicable to practically all traditional religions.

It is sometimes said that science has its own dogmas. In a long foot-noted article, one author lists the three dogmas of science as: nature is law, reality is exhausted when known scientifically, and knowledge is univocal. None of these is really what science claims. First, science does not regard nature as law, but as orderly, i.e. is governed by laws. This is not a dogma, but an assumption which makes science possible. Yes, science takes it for granted that it is possible to comprehend the world by human faculties like intelligence, rationality, observa­tions, etc. The scientific quest implies that there is something to be known, and that it can be known by us. Reality is not exhausted, but explained by science. Reality can be experienced in other ways too: through art, music, poetry, sports, and such. Science does not decry or deny any of these. As to the univocal nature of knowledge, this is related to the definition of what constitutes knowledge. Science does claim that its methodology leads to coherent, consistent, and rationally acceptable knowledge. If other systems can derive other kinds of knowledge by a different methodology, that is fine too. But that would not, by definition, constitute scientific knowledge. Science does not seek recognition from itself. It is others who seek recognition from science.

There are also the beliefs that every occurrence must have a cause, that nothing comes out of nothing, and that nature is governed by immutable laws. There is also the attitude, though not always explicitly stated, that there is no ultimate purpose to the universe at large.

These and similar fundamental beliefs on which the scientific enter­prise functions are sometimes called science’s dogmas or doctrines. Yet, it must also be noted that the scientific community accepts its so-called dogmas only because they have led to valuable insights and results. Some of these have also been modified or abandoned when circumstances compellingly called for that. Consider, for example, the principle of conservation of matter and of energy, which nineteenth century took to be inviolable truths. These were abandoned with the formulation of the special theory of relativity which modified them into a matter-energy conservation principle. In the 1920’s, when faced with cer­tain problems in atomic physics, some scientists toyed with the idea of abandoning this principle too. A similar situation developed in cosmology when the so-called steady-state theory was proposed. With the recognition of the Uncertainty Principle in microphysics, the notion of cause had been modified. The theory of rela­tivity threw out the doctrines of absolute space and absolute time, a long-held dogma of science.

There is the conviction on the part of many scientists that ultimately every aspect of the world, every human trait and passion, like love, hate, and compassion, can be explained by the modes and methods of science. Describing such excessive optimism in science’s capability as science chauvinism, Victor Weisskopf said this about them: “They maintain that progress in neurophysiology and brain science will lead finally to an adequate understanding of what is going on in our brain when we create or enjoy a work of art and when we are so spiritually elevated by art or religion that we sense a deeper meaning in it. Going one step further … they maintain that we then may be able to create art or replace it scientifically by certain nerve stimulations, because we then would know its neurological function.”

The world of science has also been condemned for dogmatically re­fusing to incorporate supra-physical, psychic, spiritual, and similar factors as possible components of the universe because the most pervasive tenet of science is that ultimately everything has, and can be, explained on a materialist basis. This prompts a person of faith to say: “One sees this materialist dogmatism displayed in every field of inquiry from the philosophy of mind, to artificial intelligence, to psychology, to biology.” There is certainly an element of truth in this observation. However, for over two thousand years thinkers in all civilizations did try to explain natural phenomena in terms of non-materialist underpinnings. Unfortunately, hardly any tangible knowledge seems to have arisen from such endeavors. Even after the rise of modern science, a number of serious and competent scientists have accepted such entities in the universe, and have spent years striving to establish scientifically their existence; but thus far, with little success.

The upholders of the supernatural, astrology, numerology and the like – fields which science dogmatically refuses to acknowledge – have more followers than scientists do, so one really doesn’t need to complain. However, what makes the situation uncomfortable for anti-science thinkers is that most of the willing subscribers to these worldviews are not of the caliber to which the intellectual advocates of such views would themselves attach much weight. Also, many of the thinkers who argue that science is too narrow-minded in rejecting the possibility of supernatural phenomena have not furnished by their own endeavors any concrete evidence to their contentions. They are urging the world of science to ac­cept these matters, often on the basis that anything and everything is possible in this universe.

This last contention cannot be denied. There is no logically valid reason for re­jecting as untrue even the most fantastic speculations about what may be happening beyond our ranges of perceptions. But until there is some justification for accepting them as such, it would be unreasonable – and futile, barring an ideological dictatorship – to condemn the scientific community as being dogmatic on this score. In the world of science, to have an open mind does not mean that one will permit anything and everything into it, but rather that the mind will not be closed to the careful consideration of any new idea. In the practical world, however, it is never easy to discriminate the truly original mark of genius from the ridiculous fantasies of crackpots which are sometimes presented as revolutionary insights or discoveries. This does make matters difficult for the scientific community.

What must be emphasized in all this is that people who reject the so-called dogmas of science are not declared heretics who are pursued or persecuted, but simply ignored.