An Act of Faith

The task of the descriptive sciences is to describe.

The practitioners of these sciences know that the world is full of marvels which make all of man’s designs, theories or other productions appear as a child’s fumblings. This tends to induce in many of them an attitude of scientific humility. They are not attracted to their disciplines by the Cartesian idea of making themselves 'masters and possessors of nature.’

A faithful description, however, must be not only accurate but also graspable by the human mind, and endless accumulations of facts cannot be grasped; so there is an inescapable need for classifications, generalisations, explanations - in other words, for theories that offer some suggestion as to how the facts may 'hang together'.

Such theories can never be 'scientifically proved’ to be true. The more comprehensive a theory is in the descriptive sciences, the more is its acceptance an act of faith.

Comprehensive theories in the descriptive sciences can be divided into two groups: those that see intelligence or meaning at work in what they describe, and those that see nothing but chance and necessity.

It is obvious that neither the former nor the latter can be 'seen', i.e. sensually experienced by man. In the fourth field of knowledge there is only observation of movement and other kinds of material change; meaning or purpose, intelligence or chance, freedom or necessity, as well as life, consciousness, and self-awareness cannot be sensually observed.

Only 'signs' can be found and observed; the observer has to choose the grade of significance he is willing to attribute to them. To interpret them as signs of chance and necessity is as ‘unscientific' as to interpret them as signs of supra-human intelligence; the one is as much an act of faith as the other.

This does not mean that all interpretations on the vertical scale, signifying grades of significance or Levels of Being, are equally true or untrue; it means simply that their truth or untruth does not rest on scientific proof but on right judgment, a power of the human mind that transcends mere logic just as the computer programmer's mind transcends that of the computer.

[E. F. Schumacher]
A Guide for the Perplexed, p.127-8

[…] “the religious man, unless he happens to be a scientist, is unable to make a bridge between himself and them by producing the right initial argument, which must always be on the scientific plane.”

If it is not on the 'scientific plane', he will be shouted down ‘and reduced to silence by all sorts of scientific jargon'.

The truth of the matter, however, is that the initial argument must not be on the scientific plane; it must be philosophical. It amounts simply to this: descriptive science becomes unscientific and illegitimate when it indulges in comprehensive explanatory theories which can be neither verified nor falsified by experiment.

Such theories are not 'science' but ‘faith'.

[E. F. Schumacher]
A Guide for the Perplexed, p.134

Related posts: