Science strives to collect the best tools for collecting and evaluating evidence and making inferences. During this process, some tools are found to be broken and are discarded: Intuition, personal experience, authoritative dogma, eyewitness accounts, magical reasoning. None of these ways of knowing form an acceptable basis for argument in science because they are known to be unreliable. Unfortunately, people wandering by the tool shed of science are rummaging through the pile of discarded tools, hoping to find something useful.
Science is not the only way that us humans try to understand our world. There are other domains of inquiry which hope to comprehend spirituality, the purpose of the universe, ethics, the meaning of life, and the role of government, to name a few. Perhaps these tools which were turned away by science still have a place as we try to understand the unscientific realm.
There are many issues which are not easily dealt with by science. It is not clear how to define the terms, and it’s not clear how to make measurements. It’s not clear that some issues are even approachable to science. In this unscientific realm where notions are vague and evidence is lacking, it is very difficult to know what things are true and what things are false. From a scientific perspective, it seems that we have to throw up our hands and say that no conclusions can be reached.
But, does this mean that topics such as ethics, or spirituality are the domain of personal experiences, intuitions, and feelings? After all, personal experiences are anecdotal, intuitions are unreliable, and feelings are subjective, according to science. These ways of knowing are ancient tools which have been banned from the realm of scientific inquiry. Is it possible that these tools, which fail on scientific topics, are still relevant and useful when discussing nonscientific topics?
If this were true, it would imply that there is something special about scientific topics. For example, perhaps scientific topics are more difficult for our brains to comprehend than spiritual topics. If this were true, it would make sense that we need to protect ourselves from getting fooled with elaborate tools while we were doing science, even though we could let our guard down while doing theology.
But, there is nothing special about scientific topics. Our non-scientific tools are not failing because we are applying them to solve problems which are too hard. Our tools are failing because they never worked in the first place. The real problem is not with the nature of the problems we try to solve, scientific, or nonscientific. The problem is with the human mind. A small computer made of firm, pink tofu is simply not as good at comprehending the complexities of the universe as it perceives itself to be.
The result is a perception of reality which is plagued by biases, fallacies, and illusions. We see patterns where none exist. We see magic where there is only misunderstanding.
Science is not just one idea, and it is not just one way of knowing. It is a collection of ideas and tools that humans have found useful for understanding. They are not just appropriate for understanding forces, or cells, or chemicals, they are our tools for understanding every aspect of our world. In fact, the word science encompasses the full set of tools that are believed to be reliable; if there is a tool which can demonstrate its reliability, that tool is adopted into the set, and when a tool is found to be unreliable, it is removed from the set. So, the only tools for understanding which are not scientific are the broken, discarded ones, or new ones which have not yet proven themselves.
So, what does this mean for the topics of human inquiry which are not accessible to our scientific tools? How do we understand things when we can’t perform controlled experiments, make careful observations, and collect systematic evidence?
When a question comes up and the scientific toolbox isn’t equipped to answer it, we shouldn’t disgrace ourselves by rummaging through the pre-scientific tools that have been rightly banished from the realm of scholarly inquiry. We don’t get to manufacture truth from our gut, or our intuition. We don’t get to choose our favourite authority figure to tell us what reality is like. What we need are *new*, *scientific* tools for dealing with these questions. Ones that aren’t already known to be broken.
The reality is that there is no unscientific realm of inquiry. Humanity has always been trying to figure out what is true and false about reality. And, we have always done it by looking at various kinds of evidence and trying our best to make sense of it. We must do this in all of our inquiry, whether we are asking about science topics, or about non-science topics. It is true that our tools don’t probe into every dark corner of our understanding, but don’t be fooled into thinking there are other tools that do.
Whatever you base your understandings on, the only respectable position to take is to be honest about the limits of your understanding. None of us understands anything beyond the evidence
which is made available to us, and the models we formulate to account for that evidence. Oh, you’ll tell yourself you understand things better than that, but never believe yourself; you’d be placing your trust in firm, pink tofu.