Since religious believers often put down science as an inadequate means of knowing reality, it's interesting that science pops up so often in the names of metaphysical belief systems.
How, then, can we tell the difference between genuine science and pseudoscience? Last night I read a review in New Scientist of "Nonsense on Stilts: How to tell science from bunk," by Massimo Pigliucci.
Naturally I had to fire up Amazon and order the book. It sounds right up my churchless alley. The review by Amanda Gefter says:
Pigliucci, a philosopher of science at City University of New York, begins by arguing that science is not one thing - it is a mixed bag of practices ranging from physics and chemistry in the "hard sciences" to sociology and anthropology in the "soft". What they all have in common, he says, is the construction and testing of hypotheses with systematic observations or experiments.
It quickly becomes apparent, however, that this definition isn't enough. For something to count as science, it also needs some kind of explanatory framework. General relativity is science not only because it makes predictions that have been confirmed by observations, but also because it has a beautiful internal consistency: it explains not only how gravity should behave but what it is.
Without an explanatory framework we're left with disconnected facts (or pseudo facts) floating around aimlessly in a cosmos that is demonstrably highly interrelated.
Fairly frequently on this blog someone will accuse me of being closed-minded because I won't take seriously some metaphysical claim -- such as a vision of a divine being, or a miraculous event that can't be explained by currently accepted laws of nature.
Well, as Pigliucci says (according to the reviewer), science demands testing of hypotheses with systematic observations or experiments. A claim isn't valid by virtue of "just have faith" or "believe in what I say." You've got to back up a claim with more than that.
Part of that more is putting a purported fact in a broader explanatory framework. After all, any metaphysical claim is pretty darn significant -- to put it mildly. For an isolated divine vision or miraculous event to be true, almost certainly a whole otherworldly realm must exist.
Where? What is it made of? What connects it with material existence? How is human consciousness aware of it? These are just a few of the questions that need to be answered convincingly to provide an explanatory framework.
Admittedly, science doesn't know how everything in the physical universe fits together. Quantum mechanics and relativity theory still are disconnected aspects of a broader "theory of everything." But theorists are coming closer to reconciling these fundamental laws of nature.
Many religious believers fall back on it's a mystery when asked to explain some metaphysical phenomenon. OK, that's a valid response. But this is the same as saying "I don't know."
How is not-knowing a metaphysical proof? Many mysteries have turned out to have physical explanations as science has made progress in revealing the laws of the universe.
So the next time someone asks you to believe in something unbelievable, follow Amanda Gefter's lead: ask them how this something works. She uses Intelligent Design (ID) as an example.
A contrived dualism is a false dichotomy - if evolution is wrong then ID must be right - and it highlights ID's lack of explanatory power. ID is nothing more than an attack on evolution; in and of itself it is nothing more than a belief in God.
To see what I mean, try this experiment if you ever find yourself talking to a proponent of ID. Say, "OK, for the sake of argument let's say evolution is wrong and let's forget about it. Now tell me how intelligent design works."
Having tried this a few times myself, I am confident that you will be met with nothing but an awkward silence.