Wednesday, November 25, 2009


NOS was the shorthand we used to refer to "Nature of Science" in science education discussions. (The link will take you to posts that I have labeled with that phrase.) I have discussed small aspects of the idea in various posts; I'm not an expert on the topic, but I have a better background than most non-experts. And it's a subject that I do wish was more familiar to most people. I particularly wish that more scientists understood the philosophical underpinnings of their work, and could discuss the basis, assumptions, and cultural conventions of science with their students.

Because science is just one of many ways of knowing. It's no "better" or "worse" than any other until you make a decision about what you want to know and why. If you want to know how a creator intends for you to lead your life, or achieve eternal salvation, religion is the approach to knowing that will be most productive to those ends. If you want to show what is logically and demonstrably true in a universe predicated on a limited number of basic relationships and properties, you want to talk to or become a mathematician. If you want to predict and understand the nature of the physical world in which we find ourselves, and you're OK with the idea that you can't really, truly claim to absolutely know anything for a fact, you want to learn science.

My own position is that I wouldn't want to live in a world that didn't have a variety of ways of knowing. The above, along with others, all address different problems, important problems. As I've mentioned before, my half-joking goal in life is to understand everything. Science can't address many kinds of problems. Why is it wrong to harm others? What happens after death? My personal answer to those questions are "It just is," and "Nothing." Which is basically a pair of statements of faith, though not necessarily of religion. I do not believe that moral and ethical decisions and choices can only come from religion.

Long story short, I just came across a very interesting discussion at The Guardian on the intersection of science and Islam. The author does a great job of laying out NOS, as well as premises of different factions of Islam, showing how some of those factions are bound to be hostile to science, and others more likely to be accepting. He also points out the chilling parallels between the more fundamentalist aspects of both Islam and Christianity. If you would like to better understand science and religion as different ways of knowing, I can't recommend this piece enough. The broader discussion which at this point has only one additional linked article, is here.

1 comment:

Tucker said...

I don't know if it is proper, or if I really need to worry about whether it is proper or not, but I make a distinction in my head between "science" and "technology" that I rarely see other people make. The author of this article makes the same distinction. I feel marginally vindicated.

A fantastic book about Islam's role in protecting ancient Greek scientific tradition (the basis, some might argue, of Western culture) during the dark ages is Ornament of the World by Maria Rosa Menocal. I recommend it to anyone interested in the history of science, the history of religion, and/or the history of anti-semitism in the west.