This is an excellent scientific answer from Jeff McLeod, Ph.D. to an excellent scientific question from a commenter named Michelle. Jeff is Catholic, and is a research statistician who specializes in building high stakes exams like board certifications and graduate degrees. Michelle is an atheist, and is a graduate student researching cures for cancer.
What’s the difference in how a Catholic and an atheist design experiments?
Unfortunately, you and I might disagree on the definition of an experiment, but I have to start somewhere. Mine is pretty mainstream philosophy of science:
A theory implies an experiment which can falsify it:
T -> E
But not really, it’s the theory plus Auxiliary Assumptions that imply an experiment which can falsify it:
T(A1, A2, A3…) -> E
A1, A2, or A3 could be a mathematical theorem, a scientific law, any mechanical calculation rule, etc. For example, A1 = “water freezes at 32 degrees F”. Right? They are the links in the derivation chain from the theory to the empirical realization, or experiment.
Wait, but there are also metaphysical givens, like “A = A” and “the universe is intelligible” and “there are numbers” etc.
T(A1, A2, A3…) -> E
When an experiment fails to attain the expected result, a scientist either rejects theory T, or else retains it but rejects one or more of the auxiliary assumptions. But the experimenter doesn’t reject the Givens, which are small in number. A warning here: pure empiricists are loathe to allow ANY such givens. Even silly truisms like A = A.
If you’re with me so far in that definition of an experiment, then here’s what I mean by Catholic looking at an experiment differently.
The Catholic will explicitly take “the universe is orderly rather than disorderly” as a Given which means it will not be implicated in experimental falsification.
A self-reflective atheist must include “the universe is orderly rather than disorderly” as an auxiliary assumption because they can’t prove the universe is orderly rather than disorderly. So the atheist has to mistrust fundamental givens in doing experiments. So, for example the logical positivists could not admit that the number 3 had any reality at all. All they would accept is that it appears that the category of “3 cows is similar in the aspect of number to 3 chickens” was so well established as true by experience that it was almost as good as a given.
The Catholic has proof that the universe is orderly, or that the number 3 is a real entity by revelation. God created the universe. He created all things with weight and measure. Statements like these are givens, and will not be implicated by a falsification.
Consequently, if an experiment were performed, and the experiment failed to attain, the atheist could logically question whether it might be false that the universe is orderly. The Catholic trusts the metaphysical axioms and therefore sees the result of an experiment differently.
One practical consequence: according to Fr. Stanley Jaki, the scientific revolution could only occur logically in a Christian context precisely because Christians asserted as axiomatic that Christ is the logos, the creative reason, that holds the universe together as a coherent, rational thing. Thus, Christians had the epistemological confidence to continue in the face of failure, whereas the Humean and Cartesian doubters would have spent their lifetimes wringing their hands, “Oooh but how do we really know that there are universal laws at all? Couldn’t it just be coincidence?” Blah.
Christians are courageous. But I’m glad atheist scientists have sort of caught up to us and our optimism!
In short, Catholic scientists, it would seem, would proceed far more efficiently, and would be far less likely to dally over spurious questions when interpreting experiments.
Thank you Jeff!
[author] Jeff McLeod has a PhD in quantitative psychology from the University of Minnesota, where he studied under some of the brightest philosophical minds from the Minnesota Center for the Philosophy of Science. He is an adjunct professor of psychology in the graduate school at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota. His full time job is that of a psychometrician and research statistician in the standardized testing industry. He comes from a very large Catholic family. He and his wife of 20 years are grateful for their two extremely talented boys.[/author]