Paul Copan on Philosophical Starting Points for Science

In Alex Rosenberg’s The Atheist’s Guide to Reality, he attempts to demonstrate why science is “our exclusive guide to reality.” Here, Rosenberg attempts to provide a neat synopsis of life’s big questions, along with what he considers to be scientifically reliable answers. Here are some of life’s big questions that he thinks science can answer:

Is there a God? No. What is the nature of reality? What physics says it is. What is the purpose of the universe? There is none. What is the meaning of life? Ditto. Why am I here? Just dumb luck . . . Is there free will? Not a chance. What is the difference between right and wrong, good and bad? There is no moral difference between them. Why should I be moral? Because it makes you feel better than being immoral. Is abortion, euthanasia, suicide, paying taxes, foreign aid, or anything else you don’t like forbidden, permissible, or something obligatory? Anything goes.[1]

Here, Rosenberg makes the assumption that what science reveals to us is all that is real. But as Paul Copan points out:

“ Those who consider science authoritative still assume and appropriate a lot of other philosophical ideas and assumptions—ones that can’t be scientifically proven. Though they don’t always recognize it, scientists will load themselves up philosophically before they engage in their scientific endeavors. So what kinds of philosophical ideas do they take for granted?

Here’s a start:

Realism: The physical, mind-independent world exists and isn’t an illusion, though admittedly some scientists would qualify this.

 Logic: Logical laws should be used to guide scientific work and theorizing. As Dallas Willard noted: “Logical results have a universality and necessity to them

 Math: Mathematics is important for making sense of the natural world and its processes.

 Beauty: Beauty or elegance is a criterion scientists take for granted when assessing scientific theories.

 Mental: The mental is required to understand the physical; without the existence of minds, we wouldn’t be able to understand our world.

Other minds: We can’t prove other minds exist, but we take their existence for granted. Those minds can critically examine and assess the outcomes of scientific studies.

Personal trust: Scientists trust the work of others in the scientific community and build on that research. Reliable reason: The workings of our minds are generally trustworthy and aren’t systematically deceiving us.

Reliable senses: We assume our senses are reliable and not systematically deceiving us.

 Natural laws: We count on the consistent natural laws and uniform workings of natural processes.

Mind-world correspondence: The natural world and its workings are capable of being studied and understood by human minds.

 Inferential knowledge: What we observe in nature can provide clues and indicators of unobservable processes and patterns (e.g., subatomic particles).

 Materialism (for some scientists): Scientism takes for granted the sole reality of the physical realm. But how can one scientifically prove this? This is an unverified philosophical assumption.

Source: Paul Copan, Loving Wisdom: A Guide to Philosophy and Christian Faith, Kindle Version, 3852 to 3873.

[1]. Alexander Rosenberg, The Atheist’s Guide to Reality: Enjoying Life without Illusions (New York: W.W. Norton. 2012), 2-3.

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