On the Demarcation Problem

Posted April 27, 2012 @ 7:01 pm | Filed under: Floor It To The Next Stop Light

The Demarcation Problem is a formalized name for the problem of how to draw a line around science. That is, what separates science from studies of philosophy, history, economics, mathematics, religion, and from pseudoscience/folk science. As a Christian, this problem is important to understand because there is a whole lot of hand-waving out there going on that says science disproves and/or has nothing to do with religious beliefs. I tend to take the position that the Demarcation Problem is, itself, a problem: That it asks a question that we don’t need to ask. Instead of demarcation, I’d like to propose a continuum approach.

“What is truth?” – Pontius Pilate

Science, philosophy, historical studies, economics, math, religion, and even pseudoscience are all after the same thing*: figuring out what’s true and what’s false; what does and does not happen, and what has and has not happened. They all make an underlying assumption: that truth exists. All studies of reality have to embrace the axiom that the universe is real and that the things we study actually happened and are actually happening, and there is a whole realm of events and objects that don’t exist. In fact it’s so axiomatic it’s hard to define; I like to say that an axiom is something that had better be true or we’re all completely insane. :) This goes to show that the new-agers and existentialists who say that “what’s true for you might not be true for me” are just using the word “true” incorrectly because what’s true for one person must necessarily be true for another (or else it wouldn’t be true at all). That said, I will eventually write another post on the importance of subjectivity as part of the human experience.

*excluding, of course, those who misuse the above fields of study for personal gain

So how do we figure out what’s true? Science’s answer is: via experiment. Over the last two centuries a method of verifying the truth of a proposition (or theory) has developed, the scientific method. However it’s important to realize that the scientific method can’t test everything, especially aspects of these other fields of study; otherwise they’d all fit under the umbrella of natural science! Experimentation can’t, for example, tell us what year Augustus Caesar came into power. Archaeological science can, however, verify the validity of ancient historical sources by corroborating the details contained therein (for example, by giving us an estimate of when coins bearing Augustus’s image started appearing). In this way, studying history is a bit like studying the scene of a crime: There’s no way to know exactly what happened, but key facts can almost always be established, and often enough key facts come together to establish the truth of certain propositions (propositions like “not guilty”).

So in these other areas, other methods of verifying truth have arisen. For example, in the realm of history, there is the historical method, which aims to rate or rank the credibility of a historical document by evaluating a set of criteria. And though philosophy is often dismissed as irrelevant by the scientistic (i.e. logical positivist) skeptic, it is very closely tied to reason and logic, without which science can’t function. In fact I’d go as far as to say that all of these fields of study rely on philosophy in one way or another. Take the common example many people first think of when they hear the word philosophy: “Cogito ergo sum” (Descartes) — or, “I think, therefore I am.” This might seem trivial but it’s certainly not tautological: Without knowing that I truly exist, and that beyond my consciousness lies actual reality, what’s the point of any of these other studies? If I don’t exist, or if I’m perhaps just a brain in a vat hooked up to a computer being fed artificial stimuli, then I’m really just “studying” lies or illusions. In the absence of “cogito ergo sum,” science melts away into utter falsehoods, and the truth simply can’t be known to any degree.

Interdependence and The Trouble with Labels

The reality is, that all these fields of study rely on each other and as such must evolve together. Probably the most obvious example is mathematics: our understanding of science, especially physics, feeds our understanding of math and vice versa. Less obvious is the dialogue between science and religion, but it surely happens. Let’s explore this interaction a bit. First, observe the current Dictionary.com definition of religion:

religion: –noun

  1. a set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe, especially when considered as the creation of a superhuman agency or agencies, usually involving devotional and ritual observances, and often containing a moral code governing the conduct of human affairs.
  2. a specific fundamental set of beliefs and practices generally agreed upon by a number of persons or sects: the Christian religion; the Buddhist religion.
  3. the body of persons adhering to a particular set of beliefs and practices: a world council of religions.

Given these definitions, it’s easy to see that a person’s religious beliefs will color their perception of the universe. For example, if one believes that the universe exists for a purpose, then one will see the Laws of Nature as an extension of, or implementation detail en route to, that purpose. However, what’s not so obvious is that the beliefs of an irreligious person will also color their perception in an analogous manner: If one believes that the universe has no purpose, they will see the Laws of Nature as either accidents or logical necessities. Additionally, there is no mention of evidence or lack thereof: religion is only defined as a belief system held by a group of people. In this way it is indistinguishable from a worldview, which is a more generalized way of understanding the concept of religion. In fact, if one goes by the second or third definition, then irreligion itself should be considered a religion… but the anti-religious sometimes get offended when their beliefs are dubbed religious, so worldview is preferred (and as such I’ll try to stay away from the term “religion” in the remainder of this post).

So Then How Do We Know?

The most honest worldview is probably that of an agnostic. That is, the most sure thing is that we just don’t know for sure. If we look honestly at our beliefs, each individual has figured out very little on their own and they’re instead relying on information from sources they consider trustworthy. As such, we should all hold our beliefs tentatively, while being willing to humbly assess the other possibilities. Unfortunately this is next-to-impossible to do in practice, but I think it’s still a worthy goal. For example, after a brief flirtation with atheism a few years ago, I returned to my Christian roots after I looked at the evidence honestly and with an open mind. But my beliefs will always be tentative; Truth, ultimately, is more important than a particular belief system… and I’m probably still wrong about quite a lot of stuff. Proof is an unattainable ideal — I can’t prove that Jesus Christ existed, because I haven’t met the man — but there’s plenty about him we can be fairly certain of. Similarly, an atheist can’t be certain that God doesn’t exist, but their reasoning can be honestly and fairly analyzed using logic and axioms that we all accept (consciously or subconsciously).

A Multi-Disciplinary Approach

So that takes me back to my suggestion from above: a continuum approach. Essentially, to reflect the understanding that these disciplines inform each other, I think that the verification of truth should be multidisciplinary and interdependent. In other words, how much we can trust a belief should directly correlate with how strong its ties are to other disciplines. We’ll place those beliefs that are not very well connected at the lower end of the continuum, and those that are at the upper end, approaching an ideal called “knowledge” (“proof” would probably have to be off the end of the scale, for most purposes). For example, in a previous post I mentioned that Euler’s Identity (that -e^[pi*i]=1 ) can’t be empirically verified but of course it is nonetheless absolutely vital for any physicist to embrace. So belief in Euler’s Identity rises to the top by its ties to physics and the fact that physicists use it to glean meaningful results. The Identity then gains further traction because physics affects a multitude of other disciplines like biology and even computer science. Interestingly, it’s certainly possible that Euler’s Identity could be false, and a deeper/more general formula could come along to explain the results found using the identity (though that seems pretty doubtful at this point).

So in this approach, there is a sort of reflexive relationship between various areas of study. Logic upholds science, and when science works we know our logic is sound. Likewise, historical studies, exegesis, logic and the appropriate sciences hold up certain religious perspectives more than others, and the right religious framework helps us make sense of what other disciplines discover. Many things which science currently tells us are true may end up conflicting with the findings of other disciplines, thus causing us to reevaluate the science. And that’s ok. I.e., science is not some sort of superior source of knowledge that all disciplines are subject to; although it is certainly the best way to discover the inner workings of the natural world. And when those discoveries prove fruitful to other disiplines, they approach what we call knowledge.

I think this is pretty intuitive. We sort of naturally do it already… the more there are people we trust who believe something, the more we tend to also believe it, unless we’ve got good reason to believe otherwise. We don’t have to do scientific experiments ourselves to be able to hold a belief as true. And just as we shouldn’t be blindly faithful, we shouldn’t be blindly skeptical either.