SamWhited|blog

Follow-up letter to a young scientist

In your recent letter from Mr. Wilson titled, “What is Science?“ he states, “All [reports of evidence of the supernatural] have been based on attempts to prove a negative proposition.” While this is true, and “we haven’t been able to find an explanation for such-and-such a phenomenon; therefore it must have been created by God” is a foolish argument, Wilson himself makes a similar mistake a few paragraphs later. As Wilson says, it is important as a scientist that you enter your study with no “preconceptions or idols of the mind”. I argue that a staunch disbelief in the supernatural (though I personally find this view as appealing as Mr. Wilson) should be set aside every bit as much as a belief in the supernatural (eg. in a god or gods).

You may recall his statement at the end of his otherwise most excellent letter:

"Yielding to naturalistic, real-world understanding, the divine hand has withdrawn bit by bit from almost all of space and time."

E.O. Wilson Letters to a Young Scientist

Essentially stating (my words now, not his), “We have been able to find a scientific explanation for such-and-such a phenomenon; therefore it must not have been created by a god or gods.” Instead of inserting an arbitrary explanation where none exists, he is asserting that there can only be one explanation for any given phenomenon. That the proof of one explanation necessarily rules out all others. This to me also seems foolish. I don’t say this to sway you to belief in some divine being (quite the contrary, I hope you never feel the need to believe in the untested, possibly, untestable, mythology of your culture), but to draw your attention more-fully to Wilson’s last point: “As a scientist, keep your mind open to every possible phenomenon remaining in the great unknown”. Also, to ensure that you always remember that proving one thing does not necessarily disprove another (and visa versa). A good example of this is General Relativity and Quantum Field Theory. Our current formulations of these two theories are mutually incompatible, and yet each theory bears up completely under mountains of experimental evidence. Finding a Theory of Everything which would resolve this incompatibility is one of the great unsolved problems in physics, and the person or persons who solves it will more likely than naught be hailed as one of the greatest scientists of their age.

The supernatural may one day be ruled out by Science, but until it is done so with direct scientific inquiry there will always be “opportunities to find evidence of the supernatural” — as many of them as there are questions remaining for science to answer. I think it more likely, however, that the supernatural is (by definition) beyond scientific inquiry (if this could be proven conclusively then and only then could we rule it out entirely as a possible alternative hypothesis). This does not diminish the importance of scientific inquiry in any way; science is still “the most efficient way ever conceived of acquiring factual knowledge”, however, it may not be the only method, and there are certainly those things which it cannot prove or disprove. We scientists should always keep in mind that our discipline is not a path to universal knowledge — though it may very well get us as close as it is possible to come.

P.S. I should follow up with a disclaimer: Though I was raised in a religious family, I do not share their penchant for the supernatural myself. I write this not in defense of religion, but because I feel it is necessary to be as unbiased as possible to be a good scientist.