"Religion is a hypothesis about the world: the hypothesis that things are the way they are, at least in part, because of supernatural entities or forces acting on the natural world. And there's no good reason to treat it any differently from any other hypothesis. Which includes pointing out its flaws and inconsistencies, asking its adherents to back it up with solid evidence, making jokes about it when it's just being silly, offering arguments and evidence for our own competing hypotheses...and trying to persuade people out of it if we think it's mistaken. It's persuasion. It's the marketplace of ideas. Why should religion get a free ride"

Greta Christina

Monday, 17 October 2011

"There's no science without metaphysics", or is there?

Have you ever had one of those conversations where, having admitted you are an atheist in Christian company you find yourself, yet again defending the scientific method as the only objective way of knowing things?
If you are unlucky, you’ll be subjected to a lot of metaphorical arm waving and claims that you are just blind to the evidence of God around you and stuttering badly informed appeals to the cosmological argument.
If you are luckier, as I was recently, you may get the argument that while the scientific method works up to a point, modern hypotheses for the nature of reality are more metaphysics than science.
There is some validity in this and so at least exercises the mind to explain. Take for example the standard model of particle physics with its exotic array of sub-atomic particles, endowed with flavours and spins to account for the diverse forces observed in nature.
A reasonable person could easily conclude that the existence of these particles is pure fantasy, that they have never been observed directly and any pretence that we really understand what they “look” like, is simply that.
However, said reasonable person is perhaps overlooking the fact that all of science is about constructing models. Newton had a model of gravity, as did Einstein, both of which work up to a point depending on circumstances but what is certain is that neither of them were absolutely correct. This inconvenient truth however does not prevent dropped objects from falling, or satellites staying in orbit.
This is really the point. Modern science can look like metaphysics but despite its esoteric appearance, it works. Without theoretical effects like quantum tunnelling your mobile 'phone wouldn’t function and the lack of direct observation of the phenomena is irrelevant to its efficacy.
This is why it is wrong to point to, say, string theory and insist that just because it is empirically un-falsifiable at the moment all sorts of epistemological relativism is justified. The statement “No-one has ever seen an electron ergo God”, is false and models of the world that require the existence of gods singularly fail to work as anyone who has prayed for a signal on a broken mobile could testify.

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