Prior Committments in Science

Everyone, scientists included, is influenced by the”bias” of their world view. Some of what is taught as “pure science” is actually based more on philosophical presuppositions than experimental science. This is sometimes called a “prior commitment.”

I came across a very interesting quote by Harvard evolutionary biologist Richard Lewontin:

“Our willingness to accept scientific claims that are against common sense is the key to an understanding of the real struggle between science and the supernatural. We take the side of science in spite of the patent absurdity of some of its constructs, in spite of its failure to fulfill many of its extravagant promises of health and life, in spite of the tolerance of the scientific community for unsubstantiated just-so stories, because we have a prior commitment, a commitment to materialism. It is not that the methods and institutions of science somehow compel us to accept a material explanation of the phenomenal world, but, on the contrary, that we are forced by our a priori adherence to material causes to create an apparatus of investigation and a set of concepts that produce material explanations, no matter how counter-intuitive, no matter how mystifying to the uninitiated. Moreover, that materialism is absolute, for we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door.” (read the entire article here and Phillip Johnson’s commentary [no longer available])

He is much more honest than many of his colleagues in acknowledging the way in which his world view determines the outcome of his practice of science. I respect him for his honesty. His commitment to a materialistic world view sounds very much like a religious faith. And I for one do not have enough “faith” to believe in an absolute materialism. The real issue is not competing views of science, but competing faiths. What do we choose as our absolute commitment, and why? This is a religious/philosophical question, not a scientific one.

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