What is science (or how do you define it?)

I’ve been getting interested in the demarcation problem in science, and have been talking with Philosopher of Science Michael Ruse about it (he currently has pneumonia; pray for him), among others.

While I don’t know if it’s easy to get a one line definition of what science is, perhaps we can get a general/“fuzzy” idea by studying what different people believe (especially scientists and philosophers).

I tend to favor Karl Popper’s view on falsifiability, however the problem is I don’t think this is what is always taught or communicated (even by scientists). I have the luxury of doing research in a field where I can run experiments and test for falsification very easily, but other fields do not. Fields/ideas like ID, evolutionary psychology, theoretical cosmology, etc seem to occupy an interesting space where ideas cannot be falsified easily (or even at all in some cases).

The problem here is in the whole evolution/ID debate, I see a lot of contradictions, special pleading, and motivated reasoning. Are there guidelines that you use to decide what constitutes science? Is methodological naturalism a necessary part of science?

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Looking forward to following the discussion. I met Michael Ruse when he debated an ID person at the University of Miami around 2005. My philosophy of religion professor Paul Draper had invited our class. I remember Ruse fondly as we had a lovely little chat after the debate, and will pray for him.

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And by the way, I doubt he remembers our conversation, or how friendly and often you speak with him, but he might be interested to know someone he spoke to in 2005 is on the internet making the case, among other things, that an uncaused cause would be unobservable by nature, and that it may be aware, unaware, or not yet aware of its action.

… and that this former student of Draper’s is advocating a strict (philosophical) agnosticism between theism and solipsism.

As I see it, science is really an umbrella term for a variety of different practices and methods that allow us to figure out how things work. These are quite varied and diverse, but they all have a number of features in common.

  1. Evidence. Observation and measurement of evidence is what differentiates science from philosophy or speculation.
  2. Testability. This is essentially the same thing as falsifiability, and it boils down to asking “What would we expect to see if this hypothesis were true/false, and do we actually see it? If not, why not?”
  3. Reproducibility. This doesn’t necessarily mean being there to observe a process right the way through in order to confirm or challenge it, but that when it is tested or measured in multiple different ways, you should expect to get the same results every time.
  4. Consistent rigorous standards. You’ll often hear talk about “scientific scepticism,” which causes a lot of confusion in discussions about science and faith because it is often confused with an absence of religious faith, but what it really means is that you expect the highest realistic standards of rigour and quality control to be met. It also means being consistent about it: challenges to a scientific theory need to meet the same standards as arguments in support of it.
  5. Mathematics and measurement. While qualitative studies do exist, especially in the “softer” sciences, if studies can be based on measurement and rigorous mathematical analysis, then they should be.

I would draw the line between “can’t be falsified at present, but makes predictions which could be falsified by observations we haven’t made” as science and things which make no potentially falsifiable predictions as non-scientific.

I see science in a somewhat simple way…for me it is simply a tool i use to form an interpretation of things i can physically see and interact with in some way.

Life is both physical and spiritual…for me at least, so my complete understanding of what is around me requires adherence to those things.

Therefore my belief/world view says, Science cannot explain spiritual things. For Christians like me, only the bible can do this.

My basic opinion is that Science is not a philosophical tool.

I suppose we can play on words and use a term the “science of philosophy”, however, i really don’t think that is a sensible approach…particularly as there is already the complete opposite of this “philosophy of science” However my understanding is that there is no real agreement on whether or not science can explain unobservable things, so how the reverse could be said…Science of philosophy?

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“Methodological naturalism” is a subject that causes a lot of confusion in discussions about science and faith. It is particularly difficult to address it as a Christian because it is all too easy to end up giving people the impression that you are advocating a position that you are not.

The question is, should miracles be considered a legitimate explanation for scientific observations? If, as a Christian, I answer the question “no,” then many of my fellow believers will think that I am advocating deism at best, and at worst outright atheism.

However, if I answer the question “yes,” then I am faced with other problems. For starters, miracles are not reproducible, being one-off events initiated by God, and this being the case, it is difficult if not impossible to apply consistent rigorous standards of quality control to how we study them. Secondly, there may be a perfectly adequate natural explanation for them. It is always possible that God was using that natural mechanism of course, but if, in appealing to miracles, I gave the impression that a natural explanation did not exist when in actual fact one did, I would be communicating inaccurate information. Thirdly, there is a danger of miracles becoming a get-out-of-jail-free card allowing people to dismiss any scientific finding that they don’t like. Young earthists do this, for example, by inventing accelerated nuclear decay to explain radiometric dating results, and besides the fact that that would require a miracle because nuclear decay rates simply don’t change naturally, certainly not to the extent that they need, they then need to invoke a second miracle on top of that to explain where all the resulting heat could have gone. Basically, at that point it’s degenerated deep into the territory of making things up and inventing your own alternative reality.

So in a nutshell, I personally don’t explicitly advocate for methodological naturalism in science myself. But I do advocate for reproducibility, satisfactory standards of rigour and quality control, factual accuracy, and not making things up.


I see science as seeking natural explanations for natural phenomena. We don’t find natural explanations unless we look for them. And God has blessed the scientific enterprise: we have vaccines, antibiotics, and the like.

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Craig Keener’s book Miracles Today is a textbook example for how this can partially be done. One example of a woman who was healed with impeccable documentation, had skeptics proposing she faked being a paralytic for 20 years.

Metrology. Beyond it is rationality alone. ID is not in the same category as the multiverse. What demarcation problem? As Popper said. And yes, of course, methodological naturalism is a given because of philosophical naturalism. As the empirical is a subset of the metaphysical and shapes it.

What’s God got to do with it?

I’m pretty sure that I’m not the only one who believes that “the spiritual” is “physical.”


Science is defined by two methodological ideals.

  1. Honesty - it seeks to test hypotheses rather than prove them.
  2. Objectivity - it gives results as written procedures anyone can follow to get the same result no matter what they want or believe.

The only restriction on subject is the applicability of these methodological ideals. They are not, for example, applicable to claims which are not falsifiable. This restricts it to the mathematical space-time structure of the universe because this is where there are things capable of measurement.

Yes, according to the above explanation the “natural” is measurable because of its mathematical space-time structure.

And the methodological restriction is necessary to science because as @beaglelady said, “We don’t find natural explanations unless we look for them.”

I think my two methodological ideas covers these 5 things described.

No. Metaphysics is the philosophical study of the nature of reality.

I am not such a one. I only believe in the spiritual because I find it impossible to believe that the mathematical description (which as a physicist I identify with physical reality) is the limit of reality itself. At least… that is the first of my reasons for belief.

I found this searching the internet, which was what I had in mind:

“Kant thinks ‘dogmatic’ metaphysics is not a science but that his critical metaphysics is.”

Objectivity from a philosophically opposing world view is problematic given what Stephen Hawking and a number of other highly respected proponents of the nonchristian interpretation have very clearly outlined…“there is no room for God in Science”. They have decided this and are not interested in the alternative…they only seek to maintain allegiance to that principle.

I have had an atheist make the statement, if there is a God and you find out in the afterlife, come back and let me know and ill change my mind. They seek that which they cannot have…magic. Jesus very specifically addressed this claim.

Consequently your claim of objectivity is in trouble. You are following individuals who openly and very publicly deny God. You then use their interpretation to create a Christian model. Unfortunately, that has significant theological implications, particularly given that salvation does not come via any mechanism related to science. The Bible very specifically identifies we are saved by grace through faith…not science or men’s interpretations. The bible interprets itself…it is easy to make sense of and yet it is manipulated by proponents of Darwinian views that are openly in denial of God.

Even Graham Oppy makes the claim that Christians only come to the table with words and sentences…their preconceived ideas make it difficult, if not impossible for Christians to think objectively. Trouble is, has this man taken a look in the mirror lately…“pot calling the kettle black” comes to mind!

The failure in Oppy’s view is that he makes no mention of the ability of individuals to make fundamental change in their worldview. Preconceived ideas cannot be attributed to that shift in position. I am supposing he simply makes the argument such individuals, in the event they make the change for God, are being brainwashed!

oh by the way…if science focuses one’s attention to the physical earth and universe around us…observable things, how then do TEists manage to align their theological beliefs with only spiritual interpretations of Biblical narratives? To me that would seem to be very problematic.

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metaphysics is philosophical. I really appreciate the intentional misquote of my post in which this was originally claimed btw. Great effort in honesty and objectivity. I just love the way words and phrases are taken out of context in order to apparently discredit the author.

I like the idea you put forward of science being an umbrella term that often encapsulates different ideas but doesn’t necessarily need all of them or a 1-line definition.

The challenge is edge cases, and what frustrates me is the fact that definitions of science are often done with an agenda (like trying to exclude ID), without realizing that this can undermine the relationship of science with truth and thus trust in science.

Unfortunately what can happen is scientists, who often make poor philosophers [Einstein’s quote], start making philosophical claims about science, and don’t realize their venturing into a territory where they aren’t an expert.

One of the challenges to Oppy’s point (that you quoted, I’m surprised he’s say something like that because I’d considered him a very good philosopher and that quote made him sound sloppy) is Plantinga’s EAAN, which Thomas Nagal talked a bit about. If Naturalism is true, we can’t trust that the thoughts that bring us to believe in naturalism because the mind’s belief in things like induction, the past, would be epistemically flawed.

If naturalism is true, all “thoughts” are explainable in terms of physical matter/natural laws which are not selected for whether they are true (at least true about metaphysical propositions like that one). I used to dismiss the EAAN at first but it was because I didn’t understand the technicalities of it. It’s not saying we can’t be confident in the laws of nature or observation under naturalism. Instead I find it most compelling in terms of a Bayesian MLE argument referring to our trust it metaphysical (and I’d argue moral) propositions.

Regardless, as you said, it cuts both ways. The naturalist comes to the table with naturalistic assumptions and blinders. The ability to “change” one’s mind isn’t really much of an option under naturalism either in my view.

Very good points. I liked your question should miracles be considered a legitimate explanation for scientific observations

I’d argue absolutely. NDEs, prayer studies, etc are all examples of possible experiments one could use to challenge (and perhaps even falsify) one’s belief in metaphysical naturalism. These are experiments that do not need to assume methodological naturalism either (in fact, I’d argue they cannot in order to be worthwhile).

The issue is even if NDE experiments or prayer studies came up inconclusive (as they can), this doesn’t necessarily falsify theism or Christianity. God could have a (very) good reason to not answer prayers or other things subjected to try and prove/disprove his existence (see Matthew 4:7).

Part of the issue is we don’t have a perfect definition of Miracle, Natural vs Supernatural, etc. Hume once tried to argue that a miracle was (by his own definition) the least likely event. Funny how some naturalistic explanations for observed data can fall more in line with a “miracle” than supernatural ones. I’m of the opinion that Hume’s overall argument against miracles is not that great, though I do like Hume a lot and this particular argument did lead to Bayesian statistics thanks to Rev Bayes and Hume being friends.

A legitimate explanation can take any form, and science (scientists) has no reason to ignore arguments that maximize the conditional probability of observed data. Sure it may not be repeatable, but naturalistic explanations for the past are not either so we are kind of stuck.

I have a bit of controversial belief that New Atheist types and ID people both undermine public trust in science. Then again, if ID is considered unscientific, yet it turned out to be true, the naturalism presupposed by science would mean a “true” explanation would not be the scientific one. Indeed many philosophers of science don’t think science can claim to have any special access to truth because it is difficult to justify its premises in a non-circular manner.